America's special relationship with the United Kingdom began at conception. We were born as a nation of British stock and despite periodic tensions and the occasional war, we have built and deepened the relationship until it has become one of the closest on the planet. But being a special relationship and being especially important are two different things and it may be that another special relationship is brewing that in the 21st century could transcend that with Britain.
That said, Brits can take comfort. This newly ascendant relationship remains within the extended family of their former colonies.
Currently, President Obama is on his first official visit to Australia. So far, during his stay, he has sent several clear messages that America's almost always warm relationship with our cousins down under is getting warmer and is being seen by this White House as strategically more important than ever. His interactions with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard have been characterized as especially warm. He has described America's shifting focus to the Asia-Pacific region that is increasingly be presented as the centerpiece of this administration's foreign policy. And, backing up his assertion that the region is "of huge strategic importance to us", the President and Gillard have announced a new defense deal that will establish a U.S. military presence in Darwin and will deepen and enhance cooperation between the two nations' air forces.
There is no coyness about why a United States that is pulling back from other deployments around the world is establishing this new relationship. While Obama has said that the presence is not intended to contain China, there is no question that it is intended to both counterbalance what is seen as China's growing military clout and in particular to assure the ability to control key regional sea lanes. One of Obama's security deputies asserted that the deal was struck in direct "response to demand" from China's neighbors.
Britain's importance to the United States through most of the last century was due in large part to her strategic location off the coast of Europe, the area of America's principal economic and political interests. That Britain, though a fading empire, was still one of the world's most powerful nations and one that was deeply tied to America in almost every conceivable way, added to the "specialness" of the relationship.
While Australia is not as closely integrated with the U.S. economy as Britain nor is it as militarily powerful -- spending less than half of what Britain does on defense -- it does have a few things going for it. Much as Britain was the most natural ally in the European region, so too is Australia the most natural in the Asia-Pacific region. Its location -- near to Asia but separated by the sea -- offers a similar set of strategic advantages. It has cultivated close regional relationships and can be an effective interlocutor -- in some ways more effective than outlier Britain can be in the context of modern Europe (whatever that is). Moreover, with China and the rest of Asia on the rise, Australia is only likely to grow in significance and potential value as an ally.
What Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are doing in Asia is as clear as it is deft. They are making China the centerpiece of their efforts, engaging deeply across a wide range of issues. They challenge where they feel they should. They cooperate wherever they can. And thus they are managing to deepen what is clearly the most important bilateral relationship on the planet. Meanwhile, through efforts like that in Australia, they are strengthening the U.S. position throughout Asia -- from the Koreas to Japan, across ASEAN, and on to India and the sub-continent. In all this, the old ties of empire give special place and ease of dealing to relations with the Australians, the Indians, and the Singaporeans. It is hard to see how these relationships will not continue to grow in significance during the decades ahead -- perhaps to a time when the relationship between two or more of England's stroppier colonies end up being more important than those any of them share with the "mother country."
(By the way, as a closing footnote, it should be noted that Secretary Clinton, who has played a central and effective role in these efforts working closely with the NSC team and a Department of Defense for whom this shift in focus has long been a top priority, is currently enjoying yet another affirmation of her special role in the cabinet having just won the top ranking among all senior members of the Obama team in the Partnership for Public Service's rating of leadership performance.)
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The world is ending! We're back! The end is nigh! Hallelujah, we're saved! Pawlenty! Bachman! Perry! Oh my God, maybe the end really is nigh! No, Ryan Mallett and Tim Tebow looked good and the heat wave in DC has broken, maybe a better autumn is ahead.
Suffice it to say, it's been a rough week. And amid the wreckage and rivers of bile, adrenaline, and tears that have flowed this week, a few stories have slipped through the cracks, a few perfectly bloggable topics have gone uncommented upon. And it's Friday and we can't let the week go by without offering a few quick takes on at least four of those bits and pieces:
Wendi Murdoch slugged the wrong guy. While she has won worldwide admiration in the press for leaping to her feet without hesitation to defend her husband from a humiliating shaving cream pie attack, clearly the attacker was not the one doing the most to humiliate Murdoch. That, of course, would be Murdoch himself, who, in the course of his halting, uneven performance before a British parliamentary committee yesterday, only succeeded in demonstrating that a management change is long overdue at News International, possibly the most influential media company in the world.
Sure, it's tempting to say it was more humiliating for the anointed heir to the kingmaking top spot at News Corp., Murdoch's son, James, to be caught on camera leaning away from the attack while his flyweight stepmom connected with her roundhouse. And it would be even more correct to say that James's convoluted answers to questions about how the company handled the phone hacking scandal as it became revealed almost certainly disqualify him from further nepotism-assisted ascendancy within the company his father built.
But the hearing succeeded in clearly revealing that the company's deep cultural flaws flowed directly from Rupert himself. His response that he was not ultimately responsible for the apparently widespread criminality and absence of ethics within the company said it all. What happened to the old notion that the buck stopped with the man at the top? Murdoch was willing to mouth words of apology and feigned humility but then moments later reveal his view that the public reaction to the phone hacking scandal was overwrought, a media feeding frenzy of the type he made a career both fostering and profiting from.
Son James's responses to questions about who approved pay-offs to injured parties were also telling, of course. He noted that, because the amounts were comparatively low given the great size of the media conglomerate, they would never have come to the attention of top management like himself or his father. The fact that settlements concerning clear evidence of the worst kind of breaches of journalistic ethics wouldn't have come to the attention of people at the top is evidence of either a tacit or explicit acceptance of bad behavior, a failure of checks, or gross incompetence. (Not that all of the above is not also possible.)
After the big show of the hearings a more damning development emerged Wednesday morning with the release of the findings of the Parliament's all-party Home Affairs Committee which concluded -- in one of the least shocking findings in recent memory -- that News International "deliberately" tried to impede British police investigations into the phone hacking scandal. And that in turn was soon over-taken by the spectacle of British Prime Minister David Cameron defending himself in front of a special session of Parliament for having hired as his principal spokesperson one of the central actors in this sleazy affair while hobnobbing with others from the News Corp. hierarchy.
Cameron will likely survive this embarrassment. He is guilty only of seeking to advance his career by the same means of his predecessors, hitching his wagon to one of the most powerful media empires in the world. Murdoch should not be as fortunate. During yesterday's testimony he made it even clearer that he had failed to protect the interests of the shareholders (not to mention the customers) of his company through some failing of either his character or that of his management approach or of his company writ large.
It is time for the old man to go -- and that is a reality that even the nimble and courageous Wendi will not be able to swat away.
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When the United Kingdom's prime minister stands up in front of an elite audience and slams an old friend alongside of whom Britain is fighting the war on terror for its government waste and because too many of that country's richest are getting away without paying much tax at all, it's got to sting. But fortunately for Jeff Immelt and the rest of us here in the United States, David Cameron was in Islamabad and the broken, favoritism-ridden, inefficient system he was excoriating was not the one in Washington but the one that, at least nominally, is responsible for Pakistan.
That said, Cameron is among a rapidly shrinking number of folks who have yet to pile on to the revelations of GE's protracted tax holiday and, by extension, President Obama's appointment of Immelt to be his competitiveness advisor. In fact, my guess is Immelt will not be able to survive indefinitely in his capacity as an informal consultant to the president. When I spoke to two different senior economic officials in the administration about him this morning, they both rolled their eyes and wondered aloud what the White House was thinking when he was picked.
America has produced few better respected senior executives than Immelt. And for an administration that needed better ties with the business community in a hurry, he seemed like an excellent choice. But as one of the officials observed to me, he was a disaster waiting to happen even before the tax hubbub and GE's ties to the Fukushima nuclear calamity became hot topics. Why? Because with so much of GE's revenue coming from outside the United States, it was only a matter of time before the company made a decision to invest in an overseas project that would be seen as sapping American jobs or at least failing to create them.
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I am moderating a conference today here in Chicago for a group of large institutional investors. Needless to say, I will report back on what I learn unless it is really valuable information, in which case I will keep the information to myself, move my chips to the right number on the roulette table and cash out.
That said, I wanted to leave you with the answer to a burning question on your minds: Who emerged from Tuesday's elections as the most important political voice in the United States?
No, it's clearly not President Shellacking. He may re-emerge, but that will take new ideas. Speaker-to-be John Boehner (R-OH)? Nope, same reason. First of all, he is a workhorse and not a show horse. That's not a bad thing. But he's no limelight-hogging Newt, nor is he a creativity engine. Mama Grizzly? Ha -- although she will probably remain an energizing force for a large cross-section of Republican voters…
Might it be Mitt Romney, who just by happenstance had an op-ed in the Washington Post Wednesday almost as if to say, "Gentlemen, start your engines…"? Could be -- Republicans tend to pick the runner-up from the last election cycle, and he has many attributes that could make him a front runner in the current environment. Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI)? One could only hope. New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg? I light a candle every night.
No, the most important political voice in U.S. politics today is … British Prime Minister David Cameron. Listen to the new Republican agenda or at least the new Republican rhetoric -- cut entitlements, be courageous, battle the deficit, and make the hard choices. While this language has been batted around before by the party of big deficits that the GOP became as far back as the Reagan era, you see a glint in the eyes of the new leadership when they speak these words (viz. Tim Pawlenty today on "Morning Joe"… in a pretty impressive performance).
Why the glint? They have seen the blueprint and they have seen it can work. At least that's the sense that's in the air. Cameron … and to some extent French President Nicolas Sarkozy … are the new heroes of courage, and of speaking truth to special interests. This is not to deny their flaws … it is to recognize their accomplishments to date and the resonance they have.
Having said that, I must acknowledge again, misreading Cameron ranks high atop the long list of blown calls I have made here in this space … and who knows, I could be wrong about him twice. I underestimated him. And every day I must live with that -- most recently watching with admiration the one-two punch of his bravely cutting defense budgets and then, just as bravely, compensating for it in a historic way through diplomacy with an ancient enemy via the recent and innovative defense cooperation agreement with France. But it would also be a serious mistake for Democrats in the United States to underestimate the power or appeal his budget-cutting, fiscally responsible, courageous approaches might have here in this country.
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One of the greatest challenges America faces at the moment is our inability to tell the difference between what makes news and what really matters.
Not only is this week's "big story" in Washington -- the Rolling Stone-assisted career suicide of General Stanley McChrystal -- not actually an important story, it's not even the most important national security story of the week. It's not even the most important story about a key general quitting this administration at a vital moment in a badly bungled struggle.
In fact, in the botched coverage of the McChrystal hullaballoo I see not just one but six degrees of wrong.
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You've got to love the 21st Century. So many interesting and unexpected twists and turns ...
Here are just a few from the past few days:
1.) From the Mother of Parliaments, Labour Pains and Something Newish
From the country that gave us Marmite and the Austin Healy comes further proof of British innovation via a watershed election that produces the ultimate in 21st Century outcomes. After much chatter about the parts of the election that were copied from the broken U.S. political system, comes the unexpected twist of a result that American voters could only dream of: an election in which all the candidates lose. What better way to express public discontent with politicians? And really, isn't it much better than the Lib Dem victory so many people hoped for? That would have just been splitting the difference between two parties that weren't very different in the first place. The hung parliament expresses and institutionalize public disgust in ways only possible in the United States by voting professional wrestlers and stand up comics into office.
2.) And Yet, The British Vote Is the Second Most Important Election in Europe This Week
Gordon Brown squanders 13 years of Labour rule, the Lib Dems challenge the status quo and the Tories get by some measures their best result in almost 80 years and the whole thing is trumped by regional elections in Germany. Why? Because if those elections are seen suggesting a growing sentiment among Germans to further distance themselves from their EU obligations then they raise the likelihood of further unraveling in the Eurozone. Indeed, it may be seen by some as the latest evidence that the EU experiment is failing. And who can blame the Germans for not wanting to pay for extended vacations for Greek government officials with plush compensation packages after all those years the Greeks have soaked the Germans when they came to visit on their own vacations?
3.) Which Would Mean...
There is a wonderful irony hidden in Germany's reluctance to bail out its EU cousins. Could it be that the biggest problem Europe faces in the 21st Century is Germany's inclination to mind its own business? That the greatest German threat is that they actually focus their attentions within their own borders? All of a sudden the 20th Century seems so much longer than just 10 years ago. And although the German parliament voted for the bailout, German politicians will spend weeks interpreting the results of the local elections to see whether they indicate a growing resistance to such initiatives in the future.
4.) But One Continent's Crisis is Another's Boon, Part I
Of course, if we were to play out the current European crisis, we see not just problems for Europe but potential benefits for others -- benefits that is if you overlook the giant threats to the entire world economy. For example, if Greece is just Bear Sterns and Spain is Lehman Brothers and the U.K. is A.I.G...well, you get my point. Greece is floored by the Ouzo Crisis and the rest of Europe wakes up with a hang-over ... or much worse. Markets are jittery. The Eurozone is unwilling or unable to defend itself against those doubts. And the Euro itself continues to weaken for months and months to come. That's a passel of bad news in the increasingly irrelevant coulda-been capital of Europe, Brussels, and its resident bureaucrats and its lousy for European markets and economic performance but, come on, Europe, don't just think about yourselves. For example, think about the happy Chinese. The Euro going down means the RMB goes up ... and all of a sudden the Chinese currency is automatically "adjusted" for a big chunk of the world economy and the United States loses an ally in its pressuring Beijing. After all, why pressure the Chinese now when they will need their investment flows more than ever.
5.) But One Continent's Crisis Is Another's Boon, Part II
While the United States may not like that particular benefit for the Chinese, don't despair, America. There's plenty of good news here for everyone. Oh sure, a falling Euro means a rising dollar and that may be bad for our trade balances ... but we've learned to live quite happily with trade deficits for decades now. Let's keep our eye on the silver linings. The Euro falls and the dollar rises. Investors, like the Chinese, can no longer so easily make rumblings about a new reserve currency. When it comes to the dollar, the old Thatcher-era Acronym get's dusted off. TINA: There Is No Alternative. As Europe struggles...even if the U.S. does somewhat as well ... the dollar will be seen as the only true safe haven (other than Gold which continues to rise). Investor interest in U.S. securities markets ... even U.S. Treasuries ... and U.S. real estate markets goes up. And given the correlation between the price of the dollar and the price of oil ... and faltering demand in Europe ... the price of oil goes down, thus partially blunting the upside pressure on our trade deficit while also taking the air out of inflation's tires.
Imagine just 12 months ago if someone had told you that the dollar might be heading up right now ... and that it might be doing so for quite some time? Imagine if someone had told you that the United States could do everything "wrong" -- build huge fiscal deficits, build huge health care related deficits, spend fecklessly, endure a massive financial crisis to corruption, greed and regulatory incompetence, respond with massive deficit-building stimuli, bailout companies left and right-and that at the end of it all markets would "reward" them.
You don't get to be the head of a country without a little luck being thrown in the mix. (Except in the U.K. where the "winner" of the current "none of the above" referendum is almost certain to face horrific choice, be put in the position of taking much away from his "supporters" and go down in history as a victim of circumstance.) But, Barack Obama clearly has a guardian angel somewhere. He might well someday be seen as having faced a series of crises that actually end up leaving the United States --at least temporarily -- strengthened. Actually, it'll only be temporary...but it could leave us with a little breathing room to get our own house in order.
Unless it ushers in a global depression.
But why think about that? It's such a last century sort of a downer. This is The Silver Lining Century. So kick back, relax, go long the dollar, don't worry about your credit cards America and, while you're at it, keep buying up that vacationland in Siberia. Because as we have discovered, all it takes to make other brewing disasters -- like global warming -- our friends, is that perfect combination of a good attitude and a willingness to overlook the misfortunes of others.
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Admittedly, it's only March and early March at that. Still the year has been full of surprises so far on the Washington politics and international policy beats. So, it's only fair that the surprise winners get the credit they so richly deserve. Here are ten of them, in no special order:
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Hope is the life's blood of American politics. This is a country built on the premise of boundless promise. The president certainly understood this when he entitled his autobiography The Audacity of Hope and his handlers understood it as they openly sought to emulate Ronald Reagan, the modern American political figure who understood this truth best.
It is ironic then that in just a matter of months, Obama is more commonly associated with Jimmy Carter than Ronald Reagan. For Democrats, understanding why this is the case is the first step toward fixing a rapidly growing problem that may do what months ago seemed unthinkable: restoring the influence and competitiveness of the Republican Party. For Republicans, understanding why Obama is evoking the grim little man from Plains is key toward fulfilling their most critical goal: finding the next Ronald Reagan.
Clearly, by many measures Obama is nothing like Carter. He is not a micro-manager. He is vastly more charismatic. He is many times more gifted as a politician. His administration is yet to be riven by rivalries (although cracks in the façade of all-for-one discipline are beginning to be visible ... there is no more tell tale sign of cracks than leaks.)
What is it then?
I think it has more to do with circumstances than personalities. Jimmy Carter was elected as a reaction to America's first major modern bout with national self-doubt. He came in the wake of a series of blows to the national psyche: Vietnam, Watergate, and oil shortages. During his presidency he was further associated with our seemingly aimless wandering through the swamps of stagflation and our impotence in the face of the Iran hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The old policy foundations of the Democratic Party dated back to the new deal and in the United States as in the U.K. at the time there were real questions about whether the welfare state could actually produce growth.
Carter, like Obama, entered offering hope primarily through distinguishing himself as a person from the man who had come to be reviled as a symbol of what was wrong with America, Richard Nixon. (Even though Nixon was not his opponent in the 1976 election.) In a way, he was selling a similar message to Obama: because I am a good man, we will return to good times. But Carter was unable to reverse the national mood -- breakthroughs in the Middle East and China were not enough. And he became a symbol of the "malaise" he sought to combat.
Now, America is facing the second such crisis of confidence of the Post World War II era. Failed policies in Iraq, seemingly intractable problems in Afghanistan, an economic crisis that looks like to drag on indefinitely, staggering deficits that stretch as far as the eye can see, a system that seems rigged to favor the rich while sapping hope from middle America and endless petty, partisan bickering in Washington have contributed to this.
This particular downturn in the national mood is accompanied by something else though, with which Carter really didn't have to contend: the ascent of new rivals and alternative models. Last week's trip to China sent the message to many that the balance of power was shifting: they grow, they have cash reserves, they lend ... we borrow, we lose jobs to them, we fade. This was not the president's intent surely when he made the trip. He knows America remains vastly more economically and militarily powerful than China. He wanted to frame a new partnership. But it looked like he was, in the words of more than one analyst, going to see his banker.
This week the president turns his attention to India, showcasing another rapidly rising Asian power. Meanwhile, our closest traditional allies also seem to be floundering, underscoring the sense of the decline of the power structure that had emerged victorious from the Cold War. Japan has been on the canvas for over a decade. Europe last week cast a vote for irrelevance by picking a new president based on the criteria that he was the least objectionable man in the room. Virtually none of the European experts I know think the EU is currently on a trajectory that is strengthening its effectiveness or international role. Even our most dependable friendship, that with the U.K., is likely to weaken with the expect ascent to the PM's role of David Cameron, a conservative leader who is hardly a natural partner for Barack Obama.
Every day I sit with friends here in Washington or in New York, many highly successful, many with years of U.S. government experience, who say to me they are no longer investing in the United States or they feel that we are entering a period of irreversible decline -- persistent high unemployment, a chronically weakened dollar, limited resources forcing us to be much less active internationally.
There is a sense that no matter what Obama does, he will not be able to reverse these trends. In this respect we see his greatest similarity to Carter: both have demonstrated really bad timing, both seem to be victims of circumstance.
Of course, it is not over for Obama by any means. He might make progress. The economy may creep forward and unemployment may wind down a bit before 2012. Certainly, the president will focus, as he must, on doing everything he can to produce job growth next year. Paul Krugman has it exactly wrong in today's New York Times when he writes about "The Phantom Menace." He believes Obama's team mistaken feared the consequence of too big a stimulus ... thus not providing the big, manly stimulus we ultimately will need. He's wrong because there will undoubtedly be more stimulus next year. It won't be called a stimulus. It will be called a jobs bill or will come in the form of multiple initiatives to invest in infrastructure and jobs. There is zero chance any American president facing double digit unemployment and a mid-term election will fail to get out the checkbook to address the jobs issue. And that might help.
Unlike a growing number of friends and people I respect a lot, I still believe that there is a way that America can lead in the 21st Century ... but it will require a new vision, major new investments in infrastructure and education, courage to tackle the big fiscal burdens we face, a collaboration to reinvent the economy to lead in the industries of tomorrow from green energy to biotech, an openness to new global partnerships.
That said, for the first time in my life, the arguments of the doubters are actually gaining credence with me. I can see how America could be entering a period of irreversible decline in terms of its relative influence in the world. The deficits are too great. Demographics are creating a headwind. The economics of the global era are different from those of the industrial era and they don't favor us. It is certainly not promising when half of our economy is health care, financial services or government service. We may want a manufacturing base but it is hard to see how we will develop it.
Which is precisely where the next "Ronald Reagan" comes in. Whomever he or she is, they will offer a credible case that it can once again be morning in America. They will, like Reagan, have the advantage of their predecessor having taken the heat for many of the measures required to get out of the crisis. But they will also, like Reagan, have to offer an ideology suited to the times and to the American spirit.
While I don't know who this person is, I know two things. First, he or she won't be offering the stale, failed approaches of Ronald Reagan who restored hope in America by virtue of his personality but set in motion the forces that have led to the calamities with which we are dealing today. Next, they, like Reagan, will offer a formula that is not built around the novelty of the new man or woman in the White House, but rather is built around the energy and capabilities of the American people. (Neither, of which, excludes the possibility that Obama can be his own successor if he can go from talking about hope to actually restoring it.)
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In a thoughtful piece in today's Financial Times about how the anti-European impulses of David Cameron's Tories may lead to a chill with Washington, Philip Stephens writes that "[President] Obama is unsentimental about alliances." I think it goes further. I think that Obama is just plain unsentimental about most aspects of his professional life. (One senior administration who compared Obama's "synthetic intelligence" favorably with that of Bill Clinton, said Obama was one of the "coolest characters I have ever seen in that kind of job. He places an exceptional emphasis on rationality and calm analysis.")
Among those things impacted by Obama's cool rationality are all of America's international relationships ... and in particular the role of history in those relationships. While cognizant of historical context in an academic sense, Obama seems not to place much stock in old traditions be they of friendship or of enmity. The stirring shoulder to shoulder images of the Second World War, while rhetorically rolled out for suitable occasions, are not part of his life experience. This is a guy, after all, who entered high school after the Vietnam War was over and who did not begin his professional, post-law school life until after the Cold War was over. George W. Bush, by contrast, is fully 15 years older than Obama, son of a World War II veteran who was a traditional Atlanticist and cold warrior. Obama is a very different breed of cat from what we have seen before.
That's not to say he's indifferent to alliances. It's not to say he doesn't appreciate the importance of NATO or old friendships. But the impulse to engage former and current enemies, to sign on to the G20 as a replacement for the G8, to seek a different kind of relationship with Israel, to give the Cairo speech, to travel early to Africa-all these steps suggest a willingness not to be captive of the mold of his predecessors. Imagine ... right now the United States arguably has a better relationship with French leaders than with the leaders of the U.K. or Germany.
As Stephens rightly points out in the FT, as far as the U.K. goes, this trend is only likely to grow more pronounced once David Cameron takes office as he presumably will. Cameron and Obama got off to a bad start, they are from opposite sides of the ideological spectrum, and to the degree Cameron and his colleagues undercut the Lisbon Treaty and push back from the table of Europe, they will be both making life more complicated for the United States and all their allies and pursuing a very different world view from the U.S. president.
When asked by other colleagues in the diplomatic community who has the U.K. brief in the U.S. government, the current U.K. ambassador to the United States, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, has jokingly replied that he hardly knows because it doesn't seem to be a top priority for anyone. This is no doubt due to the fact that the relationship works pretty well and there are few sore spots crying out for immediate attention. But should Cameron come to power and behave as he implies he will, Sheinwald's successor could feel even more neglected and the Cameron administration is likely to get a cold shoulder that makes Gordon Brown's need for five pleas for a meeting with Obama at the U.N. General Assembly before he got one seem positively warm and inviting.
U.S.-U.K. history and cultures are such that the relationship will always be different from that we have other countries. But it seems quite possible that with an unsentimental post-modern president in the White House who seems destined to have a chilly partnership with the odds-on favorite to be the next Prime Minister of the U.K. the special relationship will be considerably less special in the future than it has been at any time in recent memory.
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I think for a lot of Americans, particularly those of a more liberal inclination, like Michael Moore or my mother, there was a kind of flickering hope earlier in the week that America might be on the verge of exiting the Middle East once and for all.
The loud tick tick tick of the withdrawal timeline has been audible throughout Iraq for months. And with the debate triggered by the McChrystal Report and the pushback calls for more troops seemed to be generating from Vice President Biden and others within the administration, it seemed we might be moving toward a decision by the President that would have us narrowing the mission in Afghanistan. This argued many ... including conservatives like George Will, for that matter ... could only reasonably lead to our withdrawal from that misbegotten place.
And they may even hoped, the United States might finally be ready to pressure the Israelis into backing down on settlements as a way of getting to serious talks about a peace agreement with the Palestinians. No Jewish settlements equals lasting peace settlement, seems to be the calculus there.
Then, reality crept back into the picture. First, it was hinted at when Obama ... at least temporarily ... backed down on pressuring the Israelis on the settlements. But then it came roaring back into focus with a vengeance thanks to the "news" of Iran's second nuclear enrichment facility. Never mind that Obama was briefed on this facility before he became president, that allied intelligence services had known about it for years and that everyone knew Iran was lying about its existence all along. There comes a moment in these things when their lying and our willingness to lie to ourselves or at least to our publics slip out of whack. And that's when the truth creeps out and spoils the party.
And so as the week draws to a close, the picture now looks somewhat different. Iran is revealed again to be a liar and immediately responds by saying "we won't back down." America, Britain, and France make statements condemning Iran, but they range from bland and process oriented (Obama) to bold but toothless (Sarkozy and Brown). Meanwhile, Angela Merkel (who my sources tell me is not one of Obama's faves in Europe to begin with) and the Russians and the Chinese can't or won't make it to the "shocked, shocked" photo op.
Russia and China are the "or" and the "else" of any international threat to Iran. Absent them, countries like the United States and our European allies can only stomp their feet or introduce sanctions that will be largely ineffective. So this problem festers on and looks very likely to get much worse before it gets better.
Meanwhile, days after the Untied States votes to triple aid to Pakistan, the Washington Post runs a story today about the growing anti-Americanism in that country and how it threatens our goals there. Given that Pakistan is where our real enemies are, this reminds us that this is the AfPak War and regardless of what we want to do in Afghanistan, we will for many years be grappling with the much, much bigger problems associated with nuclear Pakistan.
And on top of it all, the Iran revelation makes Bibi Netanyahu (see today's other post) one of the big winners of this week, proving that while Ahmadinejad lies about the Holocaust and nukes, Netanyahu has been accurately characterizing the Iranian threat. Further, it is becoming clearer and clearer to the Obama team that however difficult the Israelis may be, they are matched step for step by the Palestinians.
In short, for those of you who thought we might have been on the verge of getting the heck out of Dodge, reconsider. We can draw down troops in Iraq, but there will be 50,000 there when Obama's successor arrives in office. We can narrow the focus in Afghanistan, but there will be U.S. military dealing with threats in AfPak when Obama's successor arrives in office. We can extend the "unclenched fist" to Iran, but they will spit in it and represent a deep and lasting threat to regional security for many years, certain well past whenever Obama's successor arrives in office. And Israel and Palestine may make peace ... although that seems a long way off...but the volatility in the region will ensure that sooner or later everyone will be clear that they are not the lynchpin of the region's stability issues. (Although they are certainly an important one.)
The decisions Obama makes about Afghanistan, about dealing with a difficult ally in Pakistan, about how to forge an effective international coalition to contain Iran (which will involve coming up with credible, meaningful consequences if they fail to fall into line), and about just how to get two difficult parties to accept the peace they both need and want, will play a large role in determining whether Obama is around for another 3 or another 7 years. But it seems clear that almost regardless of which path he chooses, his successor will face many of the same problems.
A week that began with murmurs of hope among those who would like to see America disengaged from the region -- a group with which I am very sympathetic not to mention one that includes plenty of my relatives -- is distressingly ending with a slightly different tone, better characterized by the shrieks of noted foreign policy observer Mathew Broderick at the climactic moment of "The Producers." "No way out!" he cries, "No way out!"
I'm not always a pessimist. But I am right now.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Earlier this year, a veteran member of the European Parliament from Britain's Conservative Party, made news when he stood up to British Prime Minister-in-waiting David Cameron's alliance with right wing Polish politician Michal Kaminski. That MEP, Edward McMillan-Scott, accused Kaminski of being a "fascist" with "anti-Semitic, homophobic, and racist links."
As it happens, there seems to be evidence that lends considerable support to all of those assertions. And how has the likely next leader of the United Kingdom rewarded the courage of this stalwart of his party who has served for a quarter century? A gold watch perhaps? No, he has given him his walking papers, kicking him out of the Conservative Party.
Such is the character of the man who, according to this week's polls, is the heavy favorite to move to 10 Downing Street after the next general election. It reveals much about him as a man and about the kind of party he wants to run. So much for a system that thrives on debate and cherishes honesty.
Of course if the only way to cover up the flaws in your record are with lies or enforced silence, I suppose silence is a better choice, even if it is not necessarily the one you would expect from a former flack like Cameron. In this case however, the silence speaks volumes ... not only about Cameron but about the flock of sheep who now run his party ... and one can only hope this public political execution has the same effect on the British electorate that ill-considered beheadings have done in times past.
Whatever happened to perspectives like that of an on-again, off-again Tory from the last century who said: "The truth is incontrovertible, malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end; there it is." (And do you think Cameron would have made it above the rank of State Secretary for Snooker and Other Silly Games in a Churchill government?)
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As a general rule, I'm not so keen on the way Americans go about elections. My two biggest problems are that election campaigns go on for ever-longer periods and that our campaign finance rules are simply a way to dress up rampant corruption in volumes of complex code. I'm also not so keen on the electoral college, which ought to show up on Antiques Roadshow any day now were it not for the fact that I suspect it wouldn't fetch much of a valuation.
That said, one thing America does pretty well is debate. I say this despite the tenor of recent debates and the debating skills of recent candidates. Airing differences between candidates in a televised forum is an important innovation in democracy. And it is one that has yet to come to the United Kingdom.
That seems to be changing though with reports that Tory Leader David Cameron and the LDP's Nick Clegg have now agreed to take part in a televised debate in the run up to the next election. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has thus far declined to join the fray and frankly, I don't blame him. First of all, while television is good for those with "cool" personalities, it is not so good for people with none whatsoever. Secondly, as it becomes increasingly clear that Brown's government gave a well-thought out wink and a nod to the Scottish Authorities release of Libyan bomber Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, it is clear his team has manufactured yet another issue that can't work to their boss's advantage no matter how he addresses it.
That said, yesterday's statement that Brown "respected" the Scot decision to release the ailing terrorist certainly wasn't the way to calm the uproar over a mishandled mess that combines elements of placing compassion for a murderer over justice for his victims, alienating the U.K.'s principal ally and, no matter how many denials are made, currying favor with Libya's crackpot leader in exchange for better relations. On some level, for all the mouthwash about Megraghi's family's needs to see their dying relative (despite the unspeakable way he deprived hundreds of others of the same privilege), this is a situation in which it is clear that the Brown government has chosen to dance to the ka-ching of the cash register.
Given Brown's other bumbles (screwing up the British economy comes to mind) and the fact that David Cameron is a twit who will be an international embarrassment to the U.K. should he win the premiership, if you had to be someone on that stage you'd definitely want to be Clegg. But whatever the outcome of the exchange, it is a necessary exercise that ought to be part of the British electoral process ... and one which Brown should not be permitted to hide from.
Brown's associates argue he goes through the process of debate on the floor of the parliament every week. But for all its value "Question Time" has its own rules and its own ritual theater that invalidate it as the kind of debate to which British voters are entitled. And as the list of questions the average citizen or thinking journalist would want to ask these characters grows, the need for the debate grows more urgent and the prospect for a valuable exchange grows more compelling.
Let's see Brown defend playing footsie at a distance with Qaddafi. Let's see Cameron defend backing a racist right wing leader of the right in European parliament. This is one of those occasions where television is the best medium for providing both heat and light.
Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images
I used to think David Cameron was just an empty suit. But it is increasingly clear that the former PR guy, is a spin-ster who ought to be ditched at the altar both by the British people and by the Obama administration.
My first impression of his vacuousness came when I chaired a panel on which he spoke. It was substantiated over the past several years when, as Gordon Brown's popularity spiraled downward, Cameron gradually rose to become PM-presumptive. But a recent piece in the Guardian by distinguished British political scholar and commentator Timothy Garton Ash has cast Cameron in a new light revealing him to be, in the most charitable interpretation, a man of questionable judgment even for a politician.
At issue in Garton Ash's piece was Cameron's decision to move his Tory members of the European Parliament into a new political alliance called the European Conservatives and Reformists. Garton Ash casts this as a misguided move out of the mainstream but then gets into how Cameron helped to engineer the election of Poland's Michal Kaminski as the new group's leader. It's a complicated story which the Guardian column outlines well, but the bottom line is that after having failed to keep British conservatives in line behind Kaminki's candidacy to become the VP of the European Parliament, Cameron then threw his support behind Kaminski to lead the new right wing bloc.
So who is this Kaminski? Garton Ash writes:
In 1999, he visited Britain to present what is described as a gorget embossed with an image of the Virgin Mary to General Augusto Pinochet. "This was the most important meeting of my whole life. Gen Pinochet was clearly moved and extremely happy with our visit," Kaminski told the BBC's Polish service. In a short video clip from July 2000, he describes homosexuals as pedaly, a slang term roughly translatable as "queers" or "poofters".
In 2001, he became involved in one of Poland's greatest post-1989 historical controversies, about the murder in July 1941 of almost all the Jewish inhabitants of the Polish village of Jedwabne -- a murder committed by Polish villagers. As the local MP, he denounced the post-communist president Aleksander Kwasniewski for his readiness to apologise in Poland's name for this crime.
An interview with Kaminski appeared in a nasty rightwing weekly, Our Poland. In it, while acknowledging "the tragedy of the Holocaust", he is reported as saying the murder was committed by a handful of outcasts ("no decent person would be involved in burning Jews"), and that he will apologise if someone "from the Jewish side" apologises for what "the Jews" did during the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland from 1939 to 1941. (According to the Observer, Kaminski denies having given the interview, but the editor of Our Poland says he did.)
Very nice. Garton Ash goes on to say that while he does not "allege that Kaminski himself is anti-Semitic" he does believe he was involved in some "bad stuff." Got to love that British restraint. Personally, I have no hesitation suggesting that Kaminski is either anti-Semitic, pandering to anti-Semites or an insensitive jerk...and a more suitable choice for support by the British National Party than by the Conservatives. And what does all that make Cameron for supporting him?
Well, in my book it makes him an even more dubious choice to be Britain's next prime minister than he was before and, should he attain that post, someone about whom the Obama administration ought to be very cautious. A pillar of leadership acumen he ain't.
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Washington is a city of oxymorons. It is a city of garden variety morons, as well. On the oxymoron side we have old favorites like "military intelligence," "compassionate conservative," and "government organization." On the moron side...well, in U.S. politics we have morons on both sides.
Now we have something new however, as in Washington the oxymorons and the morons are coming together in the form of America's latest reality television extravaganza (we really needed another): "Real World Washington." This is a unique double oxymoron in that it calls itself real but, like most reality TV, it is not...and because it is suggesting, fancifully, that there is somehow a connection between Washington and the real world. As for the morons, well you need only visit the bars around the DuPont Circle neighborhood location of the Real World set and you can view for yourself the cast in all their beer-soaked glory.
At first I wondered to myself how it was that a show like "The Real World" could have become MTV's longest-running hit, now in its 17th year. After all, it's pretty formulaic. Semi-attractive young adults including at least one or two with deep psychological problems are put together in a house in which they: drink, puke, appear to grope one another in grainy night-vision camera shots, and then fight about who groped whom.
Of course, thinking of it that way, I naturally started to wonder why it took so long for the show to come to the home of American politics which have been featuring all these activities for years. (For those of you who are more insensitive than I, insert Teddy Kennedy joke here. And for those of you who don't have the stomach for such humor but still want a laugh at the expense of all that Kennedy family groping, see this link about a new book on America's zany royal family.)
Once I started thinking about politicians and groping and the real world, however, my thoughts immediately drifted eastward, out over the Atlantic, and in the direction of the world's most famous aging libido, that of the host of this week's G8 Meeting, Silvio Berlusconi. This in turn led to a thunderbolt of inspiration akin to that which struck another famous Italian in the Berlusconi mold, Michael Corleone, when he first saw the ill-fated Apollonia Vitelli. What about the Real World Berlusconi-style? What about Real World L'Aquila? Once we get the G8 leaders to Italy, why don't we lock them in a room until they actually produce something productive? And let's put it all on video! Big Brother for Big Brother!
And to keep it interesting we can add elements of other reality shows. For example, how about a taste of Real Housewives Berlusconi-style, while we're at it. Just locking Silvio and his really (justifiably) angry, estranged wife Veronica Lario in a house for the enjoyment of tv audiences everywhere would be irresistible.But throw her in with a bunch of other world leaders? See what happens when Silvio shoots an ill-considered glance in the direction of Michelle Obama? Who's wailing on him first? Veronica, Barack or Michelle? (My money is on Michelle.) Sadly, of course, Veronica is passing on the G8 Summit, forcing the Italians to turn the wife of their president to be the hostess for the affair.
We still have plenty of fun cast to choose from, however, given that the meetings in Italy will actually be attended by more than 25 countries, including all the G20. Just think of the potential gang we could feature in the house that meet the Real World formula for diversity and mayhem.
Given the fact that Berlusconi will be joined in Italy by members of the G20, the cast can be expanded to included a diverse enough group of lively characters to make this one version of Real World actually look a lot more like the real world than its many predecessors. South Africa's Jacob Zuma is, for example, a party all by himself with four wives, three other fiancés, perhaps as many as 18 children, and a list of run-ins with the law that would allow him to play the bad boy role. China's Hu Jintao was reportedly fond of singing and dancing in his teen years and therefore might add a little lift to those party nights out. And although Brazil's President Lula and Zuma may only have achieved the fourth and fifth grade in school, respectively, this actually makes them educationally over-qualified by Real World standards.
Sadly for the Real World premise...and for the real world...not many of the visiting leaders are women so we will have to rely on host Berlusconi to add a few of his close personal friends to add a little sexual tension to the show. But what with party credentials of the crowd gathering in L'Aquila and the help of Il Cavaliere it's clear this could make for fine viewing. If we wanted to make it something more than that...and something more than the bland communiqué machine G8 meetings typically are...we could add a different reality show twist, à la say "Big Brother" or "Survivor," in which participants are voted out after each week. Except in this instance, what we could do is rely on the general odiousness of hanging out with pols around the clock to motivate the cast to want to leave the house, but then not let them out unless they actually get something done in their negotiations. Think how that system would change the nature of summits. Although my fear is that rather than producing more productive meetings of government leaders, the requirement that they get something done would actually lead to the end of summits altogether.
MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images
Developing further my Airport Theory of Foreign Relations, it is impossible not to marvel at the creativity and industry of the Indians. Arriving after an eight-and-one half-hour-long flight from that shopping mall from Hell also known as Heathrow Terminal Five, we raced into Mumbai for a meeting. Naturally, we were seething with hostility after bad treatment and flying here on what seemed to be the original Boeing 777. In fact, parts seemed to be made from balsa wood suggesting they had been salvaged from earlier aircraft... a de Havilland Jenny for example.
At any rate, this is the kind of subtle undermining of international relations that our painfully inefficient and unpleasant system of connecting the globe produces. We were ready to be ugly Americans, well-prepared for the job both by circumstances and genetics.
So, what is rapidly expanding India -- today's papers announced that the country expects to grow in this global economic annus horibilis at the breathtaking rate of 7 percent -- to do with visitors like us? Answer: build in a cool-down period (no mean feat when the temperature is over 90 and everyone is nervously awaiting the arrival of the monsoon season). Where? The highway from the airport. A trip that should take 40 minutes took almost two hours. It was an exceptionally effective buffer. By the time we got to the hotel I could barely muster a sneer at the reception lady when she told me my room wasn't ready. Of course, I'll admit I was subdued somewhat by the sight of the gutted remnants of the terrorist gutted Oberoi which we passed on the way in. (And also by the security we had to pass through just to enter the lobby of this hotel.)
Admittedly, thanks to a tube strike, the city from which we came, London, is also offering massive traffic jams from the airport. The problem is they are also offering massive traffic jams to the airport. And they don't have anything like 7 percent growth to explain the rapidly growing number of cars on the motorways. Nor, of course, do they have anything like the slums that line the route into downtown Mumbai...but I'll admit it, despite the gut-wrenching deprivation in which the slum-dwellers live, it is hard to not to look around at cranes on the horizon or the ubiquity of cell phones (a phone line for life costs $2) or to think of the recent successful elections in this complex country of a billion and not think that India has the wind at its back at the moment. That doesn't minimize the social challenges but it clearly gives a feeling of vitality and hope.
What a relief to be seeing the stories of Manmohan Singh's new government on the front page of the paper and not the stories from the front pages in my last stop noting the electoral success of the BNP, the racist, troglodyte British National Party. America elects an African American. Britain sends haters to the European Parliament. (What a relief that it is a useless organization.) Worse, the papers also noted similar recent right wing successes across Europe. For example the triumph of anti-gypsy nationalists in Hungary. Great to see Europe stepping up to meet the great challenges of our times with these creatures who have crawled out of the shallow end of the political cesspool.
That said, I can't say that I am that heartened by the news my blackberry keeps sending me from home, either. Can it really be that America is either surprised or interested that Adam Lambert is gay? (Really? Really?!) Can a Washington Post columnist actually be praising Obama for boldly taking a stance against Holocaust deniers (what next, a bold defense of Copernicus?), even as he seems to be allowing the country of those deniers to creep its way into the nuclear club? (If you don't see the irony here, write in and I will draw you a picture.)Can the Obama administration really believe that merging Chrysler into Fiat
is actually going to help either? Chrysler's best minds left after their last merger with Daimler Benz. Fiat doesn't have one single leading international brand. Is it really credible that if one of the world's most successful auto companies (Daimler Benz) couldn't save Chrysler that a combination of one of the world's most mediocre (Fiat) and a bunch of government guys who don't know anything about cars plus some union members who helped screw things up in the first place are going to do it?
Here in India, taxi drivers talk with palpable pride at the advent of the Tata Nano, a tiny car that is a source of great national pride. Business executives cite the ease with which they meet much higher average gasoline mileage targets than posed in the United States. I mean, I get it, this is a very poor country with a wide range of desperate needs (over 40 percent of Indians don't have access to electricity yet). But you've got to ask which way the trends are pushing us...and you also have to ask why the United States has not made a more urgent priority of dramatically strengthening relations with this country. Such a relationship could not be more central to containing the threat in Pakistan, counter-balancing China, promoting democracy and managing a whole host of global threats from climate to proliferation. To be perfectly honest, I think a lot more real and lasting (rather than symbolic and likely to be fleeting) good would be likely to come from President Obama making a trip to the land of Gandhi than his recent trip to the land of Mubarak and Nasser.
PAL PILLAI/AFP/Getty Images
I am sitting in the lounge at Heathrow's Terminal Five, a monument to the idea that one of the few acceptable occupations for sadists that doesn't involve wearing black leather or working in TV programming is designing airline terminals. It is absurdly complex, gigantic, uninviting, cold and just the perfect atmosphere for turning weary travelers into snarling, drooling knots of hostility.
In fact, I have a theory that one of the central problems in international relations is created by the brutal, dehumanizing nature of world travel. Well intentioned souls who want to build international understanding and good will get on airplanes and by the time they get to their destination, they want to kill, subjugate native cultures and exploit their natural resources. If people on airlines were actually nice and airports were not the meat-grinders of the soul they are, perhaps people would arrive in new countries with a positive outlook, a smile and less of an impulse to steal valuable intellectual property.
Of course, it all depends on the country into which you arrive. My 24 hours in the United Kingdom have exposed me to a kind of giddiness that one seldom sees outside the slumber parties of 11-year-old girls. There is only one thing that can cause the British to drop the reserved mortician act and reveal their inner Spice Girl (or for the more sophisticated among you, their inner Alan Ayckbourn). And that of course is the misfortune of prominent Brits, in this case, Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
It is ironic that Brown, who probably couldn't inspire a reflection out of his mirror, is triggering such hilarity. But following what newspapers are heralding as the worst national election defeat for his party since King Arthur (ok, since the first World War), the prime minister has people marveling at the surpassing awfulness of his situation. In the wake of scandal, financial crisis, fiscal catastrophe and Manchester United's crushing defeat at the hands of Barcelona, Brown is hanging on only by what the Guardian calls "the brute business of internal politics, especially the crushing of internal dissent." Key cabinet members have resigned. Others are openly plotting against him. And yet, Rasputin-like, he survives the poisoning, the gun-shots, and the stabbings.
Of course, ultimately Rasputin got tossed in the river and drowned and sooner or later Brown will probably go the way of the dodo. And the Labour Party will probably go with him. Probably. But talking to a senior British business leader today, it was explained that if only Labour could forestall an election until next year and if the economy were to start to turn around, "they might just win because no one believes that the Conservatives, once in office, actually will have any idea what to do."
You see, the problem with the conservatives is that what they are right now is The Party That is Not Labour. And appropriately, their leader, David Cameron, is The Political Leader Who Is Not Gordon Brown. Literally, that is virtually Cameron's only distinction. He is, in the words of one member of the House of Lords with whom I spoke (Ooo La La. The House of Lords. They would be so impressed back in New Jersey.), "a former PR guy, that says it all." I've actually met Cameron. I chaired a panel he was on in Davos once. And I have to say, he's such an empty suit he wouldn't feel out of place on a hanger at Brooks Brothers.
So that is the choice here in the United Kingdom: the guys who screwed it up versus the guys who are going to screw it up...at a moment when the country and all Europe face problems of a scale unseen in decades. Which is why the giddiness at the horrendousness of the past few days for Brown seems an appropriate reaction. Much like the laughter you see coming from the shell-shocked in old British war movies. It's also why every one I spoke to here, regardless of political persuasion got all doe-eyed and misty whenever Barack Obama's name came up. They're not sure he will be a big success either. But at least he might be. At least he looks like a leader. At least he sounds like one.
Meanwhile Britain is as rudderless as it has been at any time since the 1970s when they were teaching the world a thing or two about collapsing empires and bungled bail-outs of auto companies. (Which reminds me. Speaking of botched leadership, Steve Rattner, please go read about British Leyland.)
And this damn airport is not helping to dispel the impression of a nation in disarray. So I'm leaving. And going someplace that is prospering: Mumbai.
Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images
Maybe it's not surprising that when George Bush embraced the "I'm King of the World" model of foreign policy the results were much the same as those experienced by Leonardo di Caprio and most of his fellow travelers in the movie in which he made the line famous, Titanic. Now, Barack Obama seems to be trying a different model for a U.S. president in international affairs. He doesn't act like a king so much as he does a prime minister. He's clearly still the first among equals, but he realizes it seems that to get anything done, he has to engineer and maintain coalitions and contain the opposition. The metaphor is enhanced by the fact that he is the American president who likely would do best with prime ministerial tests like the U.K.'s wonderful "Question Time" in which you see politicians think on their feet in a way that would produce an aneurism in seconds in most American officials. To this day, I savor the thought of George W. Bush trying it just once...he would make a deer in the headlights look like Disraeli.
Speaking of metaphors, it is obligatory today to offer at least one dog metaphor. (Admittedly, I won't even be re-reading this paragraph since if I hear or see one more reference to the First Dog I will drown myself in a vat of kibble. But perhaps you will be more tolerant...and in any case, most people don't have access to fatal doses of kibble.) So here goes: When Hillary Clinton arrived in town, most people felt her biggest foreign policy rivals might be National Security Advisor Jim Jones or Defense Secretary Gates. But as it turns out, her biggest rival may end up being Bo the Portuguese Water Dog since he seems to intuitively understand better than anyone the Obama Administration's main foreign policy precept of rolling over on its back and letting the world scratch its belly.
And if you think I'm being too tough on Obama's foreign policy, don't kid yourself. All this focus on trivia like the global economic crisis and a couple of minor wars in the back lot of the Third World is grotesquely misguided. What about the really big issues? What has he done about things like this? He's posing with a puppy and a freight train named The Doom Express is chugging our way!
On the other hand, let's give credit where it is due. (Note to those impaired by too much cold medicine: I'm being serious again now.) Sometimes the best things we can do in foreign policy are what we choose not to do. Citing China for currency manipulation would have achieved absolutely nothing except making a constructive dialogue with the Chinese more difficult at precisely the moment it has become essential to the future of both nations. That kind of common interest is a more powerful tool than any formal government filing of the sort sought by the reflexive China bashers could ever be.
When will supposedly objective commentators stop apologizing for their perfectly valid criticisms of the President? It's not disloyal to offer criticism. It's a sign of love. At least that's what my family keeps telling me. And oh boy, if that's true, do they ever love me.
North Korea is planning on restarting their nuclear reactor. Our tough talk around last week's missile launch sure has shown them. As a matter of fact, now that you mention it, whatever happened to all that tough talk? One day we had a raft of press conferences from the UN about how immediate action was required and the next thing you know all the proposals and rhetoric seemed to disappear off the radar like the payload in a North Korean missile.
Much buzz about the Summit of the Americas because...well, Obama is going. If Obama stayed home, the Summit would be overshadowed by the simultaneous Kitacon anime convention in Northampton, England. (I was going for obscure there. I have no weird anime fetishes. In fact, I think anime fans should probably all be medicated and locked away before they do damage to children or small animals.) Of course, I'm not sure Obama is going to have such a great time there. Whereas many of the leaders at the G20 meeting would have taken political heat if they'd have had rough meetings with Obama in London, many of the Latin leaders will actually get brownie points for not fawning on the Yanqui-in-Chief. Further, there are a bunch of secondary issues like Cuba or The Hugo Show or America's one-step-forward-two-steps-back trade policies that are likely to get more exposure than optimal because the substantive core of the meeting is going to be so disappointing. Translation: if you are hoping for an M&M of a meeting in T&T, I'm sorry to report you will only be getting a Skittle.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Today, President Obama is following in the footsteps of great American diplomats like Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, and Romany Malco. Our 47-year-old foreign policy virgin, like those who went before him cinematically, is experiencing the exhilaration, high highs, low lows and comedy (intentional and otherwise) of speed dating. In Obama's case, this first full day in London for the G20 Summit has produced a round of diplomatic hooking up with...
With whom Obama had a very public, rather hard-to-watch quickie in Washington not too long ago. While perhaps not quite as awkward as movie speed-dater Paul Rudd's desperate attempt to fix his battered relationship with old flame Amy (the incomparable Mindy Kaling), like Rudd, Brown had a lot riding on this meeting turning out better than the last one between the two. According to reports, it did, with the two of them providing the media highlight of the morning with a question and answer session with the press. During the session, the two said that they were highly compatible, enjoyed long-walks on the beach and wanted to turn what Obama called "a sense of urgency" into "working alongside the United Kingdom in doing whatever it takes to stimulate growth."
Dmitry "Call me Gina" Medvedev
This meeting was probably the diplomatic high point of the day. With an outcome that involved an invitation to go back to Dmitry's place this coming July, they also agreed to see whether they could reach an agreement on missile defense and trimming back their nuclear weapons to mutually acceptable levels. It is easy to imagine the exchange:
"You're a good lookin' man."
Barack: "Thank you."
Dmitry: "Very pretty. Real soft, delicate features. They're real feminine, you know, which is good for me, because that would be a simple sort of transition. You know what I'm saying? Maybe throw a little rouge on you... maybe tuck back your SAC (Strategic Air Command)?
O.K. Maybe it wasn't exactly like it was in The 40 Year Old Virgin but I'm working a metaphor here and you have to bear with me. And it does capture some of the hopeful innocence and yet manipulative desire that no doubt infused the scene as Medvedev sought a brand new type of relationship with the United States -- one in which he felt he might be able to take advantage of the man across the table's eagerness to strike a deal, an eagerness that might lead this president, given our circumstances, to consider the kind of partnership between the two countries his predecessors might have ruled out.
By this point, Obama's charm offensive was producing impressive results, with the two leaders exchanging digits to ensure an on-going Strategic Economic Dialogue and cooperation on North Korea and Iran. And because Obama neatly sidestepped a discussion about human rights (which is just never appropriate for a couple's first meeting), tabling it for a future date, he got another invitation: the chance to visit Hu's Forbidden City sometime later this year.
This was a threesome, joined by wife Michelle, who has spent the day dazzling London. Obama indicated how enthusiastic he was about the meeting earlier in the day at the press conference with Brown when he said, "There's one last thing that I should mention that I love about Great Britain, and that is the Queen." And who doesn't really? Although Obama did add an element of decorum to his public statement of love for the monarch when he added, "I think in the imagination of people throughout America, I think what the Queen stands for and her decency and her civility, what she represents, that's very important." He showed her what she meant to him by giving her an iPod that had on it video and pictures from her last visit to the U.S. and one can only imagine what else. A special playlist is always a nice gift. Anyway, it's a technological cut above the DVDs Obama left Brown with on the PM's walk of shame away from their DC meeting a couple weeks ago.
Then, tonight, a romantic dinner catered by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. All in all a perfect, love filled "Date-a-Palooza" for Obama, aside from the screaming mobs in the streets outside.
VLADIMIR RODIONOV/AFP/Getty Images
If you believe the American
press, this is going to be the best week of Barack Obama's life. Not
because his G20 and NATO meetings are predicted to be easy but because he is
going to be in the land of his intellectual and spiritual roots, Europe. Here,
among like-minded brie-loving, chardonnay-sipping, socialist fellow-travelers,
he will be able to laugh at American gun-owners and Glenn Beck watchers with
impunity. Perhaps, if the worst stories are to be believed, he will
secretly fall into French during conversations, showing other leaders how he is
more like them than he is like Sarah Palin by sharing a Gitane out in the alley
behind his hotel (so Michelle doesn't see) or by giving them a glimpse of his
certificate or reminding the Brits that his father and other ancestors were
born (and beaten) in the Commonwealth.
Of course, not only is all this the province of snarky rumors being produced in the basement of the summer house Roger Ailes shares with his long-time secret lover Karl Rove, but also virtually all of it is untrue. (I can't speak to what types of cheese the President likes or whether he, in a tip of the hat to European depravity, prefers his cheeses warm and crawling with bacteria.) But, there are plenty of ways the Europeans will be able to tell Barack Obama is not one of them.
Here are 10:
Oh yes, and also, as we have mentioned before, he is a member of a racial minority group who has actually had the opportunity to reach the top in our society. Which would never ever happen in Europe.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
The London press was abuzz this weekend with stories of President Obama's 500-person entourage. No detail was too small to cover, but the thrust of the story was that most of the details were really big, such as his 200-man secret service detail. There also seemed to be real fascination with all the First Toys, the helicopter and the new presidential limo that comes with a name -- "The Beast" -- that suggests it will soon have its own series or feature in the next Michael Bay movie.
But what the coverage missed was the fact that at the head of this delegation would be not one, but three Barack Obamas. No other country can boast the same kind of high-level representation. Because while each of the 26 delegations at the G20 meeting will be lead by a head of government or state, the U.S. delegation will be led by Barack Obama, media superstar, Barack Obama, president of the United States and Barack Obama, leader of the free world. And for all their similarities, each of these Barack Obamas is likely to have a very different meeting.
Barack Obama, media superstar, is likely to be in his element, flashbulbs popping, and throngs of spectators lining the streets to catch a glimpse of him. He is the most famous man in the world, telegenic, charming and, oh yes, an African American. For most of the countries in attendance at the G20 meeting, the thought of an ethnic minority rising to the level of political success Obama has achieved is unthinkable and the world is titillated by that, the boldness of his story and his charisma (and with some luck, they are learning something). Who knows, perhaps even Brazil's President Lula, who this weekend blamed the crisis on white people with blue eyes, will ask Obama if he knows any African American bankers. Or perhaps Silvio Berlusconi, doing everything in his power to remind the world that Italy truly no longer belongs at these meetings of the world's most powerful countries, will offer one of his racist bon mots like last week's comments that he was "paler" than Obama. In any event, almost anything anyone does with or near Obama will be caught on a camera and disseminated worldwide within moments. And since there is no such thing as bad publicity for media superstars, even lousy policy outcomes are not likely to dim the brightest shining star in the political galaxy.
Barack Obama, president of the United States, has a tougher job on his hands. He has to balance domestic political realities with international imperatives. This trip is really his diplomatic coming out party, a chance to determine whether he is not only a star but a genuine world leader. In a few short days he will meet with top representatives of almost every really important country in the world and each of those meetings will raise complex issues. Obama has to master those complexities and produce real advances on both the economic and international security fronts. As the FT detailed well in Monday's lead editorial, he needs to get the IMF recapitalized (likely), make progress on getting sufficiently robust stimulus packages underway internationally (considerably less likely), make progress on restoring order and confidence to financial markets (we will do less than we should), and stemming the tide of protectionism (the leaders will swear to do this on stacks of bibles all manufactured exclusively in their home countries.)
On all these points, it's tough to be president of the United States: We need the IMF to have the cash needed to stem the downward spiral, but the Congress is going to balk at paying. We would like other countries to pull their weight on solving this global problem but they think and will say that we started it. We have huge stakes in good global regulation but choke on ceding authority to international organizations. And we benefit hugely from free trade and would suffer hugely from protectionism, but reason doesn't drive trade debates in the United States and the president owes a lot to the unions.
Finally, while the title "leader of the free world" seems a little antiquated given the end of the Cold War, it is still the moniker that most closely captures the special role the U.S. president assumes when it comes to international leadership. This, in many respects, is the most important of the three Obamas and the one who faces the most changed reality. America, reeling from the disrepute and anger of the Bush years, had hoped to recover, but instead is seen as the cause of the current global economic crisis. So, Obama will be on the defensive and, given our financial state, the country that is the source of his power will legitimately be seen as somewhat diminished. Further, the trends of the past several years have pushed to the fore a new set of major powers all of which are now demanding enhanced roles. That's the reason the G20 and not the G8 is meeting in the first place...and it's the reason that when Obama decided to take the lead on shaping a leader of major economies on climate issues, 17 countries were selected. (Excellent initiative.) All critical discussions of a global nature must now include China, India, and Russia and each country poses serious challenges for Obama if he is to continue to be the de facto chairman of the world. Further, when Obama heads to NATO meetings it will be clear that whether the United States is becoming more multilateral in its orientation out of necessity or desire, leading is hard when your primary ally -- Europe -- is fractured and has grown accustomed to having the United States pay more and take more risk than Obama would like.
Obviously, all three Obamas would like to have a good trip. But frankly, they should be happy if two out of three feel it's a win. That'll be a good outcome for a young presidency. But if it's only the sizzle of Obama Superstar and the other two can't deliver on the big issues at stake, he'll be happy to get back home and resume dealing with the easy problems like Congress, health care, reinventing U.S. energy markets, and saving Detroit.
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It's only Wednesday and it has been a fraught week. In fact, I am totally ready for the weekend. In just the past three days, we have watched as:
Obama conducted an entire televised press conference without once accepting a question from a reporter from a major newspaper. Personally I think this reveals more about Obama's weaknesses than those associated with the newspaper industry. (Meanwhile, based on his performance Tuesday night, our President simultaneously started a rumor that there are actually two Obamas, one an inspirational leader who Michelle sometimes takes out for big public occasions, and the other who is a tax accountant with the charisma of a tube sock.) Meanwhile, Obama's economic crash test dummy Tim Geithner testified on the Hill winning kudos from the market but gradually grimmer and grimmer assessments from economists and thoughtful writers like the FT's Martin Wolf.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed to Mexico even as Obama framed that country's drug violence as a top concern of the U.S. and hearings on the subject were a highlight on Capitol Hill. Personally I am worried about Secretary Clinton and it's not all that Mexican violence that I feel puts her at risk. Rather, if history is any indicator, the real danger she faces is associated with the fact that she currently has a higher approval rating than the President. (If she doubts me on this, she should call Colin Powell and see how that worked out for him.)
Housing starts were up, markets were up and yet somehow it did nothing to tame the throbbing headache and sinking sensation in the pit of the stomach that has been reported by well, everyone everywhere. It's gotten to the point that I'm comforted by those reports of a killer asteroid hurtling toward the planet because it looks the giant Advil we all need. (Just kidding. There is no asteroid. You are still going to have to figure out how to survive during retirement on the $11.26 left in your 401-K.)
In other developments in astro-physics, black hole of charisma Gordon Brown went to the European Parliament and was gutted and filleted like a trout by a British MEP named Daniel Hannan (which you can view yourself thanks to the wonders of YouTube). And speaking of YouTube, the Chinese government once again made the world's most populous country seem very small indeed by blocking the site after a video the Chinese assert was a fake seemed to show a Chinese policeman beating a Tibetan demonstrator to death. Finally on the foreign policy front, the seductive Bibi Netanyahu managed to get Ehud Barak (who once infiltrated Syria in a drag...draw your own conclusions) and the Labor Party to clamber aboard his coalition's bandwagon, thus giving it more diversity and political credibility. (It has been hinted that should Barak ever again appear in a dress he could face prosecution and perhaps physical danger from UN High Commissioner for Crimes Against Fashion Tim Gunn.)
Yet for all these things, or perhaps in spite of them, we may well look back on this week and determine that the most important thing that happened was that Ratan Tata, Indian mega-mogul, fulfilled what many thought was an impossible personal ambition when he launched his new $2,200 Nano microcar. It is, as far as an "everyman's car" precisely what the Ford Model T hoped to be, but of course, for most of the planet, was not. It truly opens the door to car ownership for hundreds of millions of people. If it is as successful as predicted, and cars, being produced at a rate of 1,000,000 per year according to Tata, are back-ordered into 2010, it will undoubtedly signal a boom in an entirely new category of vehicles. Chevrolet plans to launch a micro car next year...if there is a Chevrolet next year. And while the prospect of the proliferation of cars like the Nano creates new challenges regarding pollution (although Tata says it has lower emissions than a motorcycle), because of their light weight and the limited speed or horsepower seen as necessary for such vehicles, the category could become an area in which alternative energy options are particularly effective. Even without this though, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change executive secretary Yvo de Boer said, "I am not concerned about it (the Tata Nano) because people in India have the same aspirational rights to own cars as people elsewhere in the world."
The world being what it is, of course, today, two days after the Nano launch, Standard and Poors downgraded Tata Motors due to the fact that they didn't feel even high demand for the vehicle could offset the company's other problems. This is a good news bad news story. Because if the global economy continues to circle the drain, there may be increased demand for the Nano in many formerly developed countries. Like ours. In fact, Tata plans a U.S. launch of the vehicle in three years. Tata is clearly a visionary. I wonder what he knows that we don't know.Ritam Banerjee/Getty Images
David Rothkopf is the CEO and Editor-at-Large of Foreign Policy. His new book, "Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government and the Reckoning that Lies Ahead" is due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on March 1.