First day back at work in the New Year. Blearily open eyes on computer screen. First story I see: Muslim Brotherhood says they won't recognize Israel. Second story: Muslim Brotherhood closer to running lower house in Egyptian parliament. Third story: Islamists form government in Morocco. Next story: Israelis, prepare for peace talks by announcing new construction beyond Green Line in Jerusalem. Next story: Iranian rattling sabers in the Gulf. Next story: Taliban setting up shop in Qatar thanks to rapprochement with government. Next story: Arab League sham intervention in Syria going nowhere fast.
Seriously. That's how 2012 started for me. So, the question is: what's a guy supposed to think? Is it that 2011 was the year of giddy -- and utterly unfounded -- optimism about the Middle East?
The only person who could possibly read all those stories and be happy is Bibi Netanyahu. With elections expected in Israel this year, nothing could do more for his election chances than to have all his worst predictions about the aftermath of Arab Spring and the increasing Iranian threat appear to be coming true. All the intolerance, abuse, violence, and exacerbation of the country's problems associated with the Israeli far right and all the missteps of the Israeli Prime Minister himself may seem small price to pay if the country feels a vice grip of insecurity tightening around it throughout the year.
That's not to say I actually think that Netanyahu's combativeness and pedantry actually helps anything. I don't. It's actually more a way of saying that as bad as I think this morning's first news dump was for me, I can't help but feel worse is in store.
Beyond the problems that seem certain to deepen between Israel and the Palestinians, within Syria, with the rise of intransigent Islamic political parties, and with Iran, we also have Iraq seemingly heading straight back to the emergency room of geopolitics and, if anything, the deal the U.S. seems likely to cut with the devils we know in Afghanistan promises even less satisfactory outcomes.
Furthermore, none of these pessimistic analyzes actually have to pan out in the long run to actually have really negative consequences. For example, one of the more positive stories of the morning was the announcement that U.S. Defense Secretary Panetta was preparing a plan to cut $450 billion in U.S. defense spending over the next decade. This is in line with the very modest 8 percent cuts the administration had planned. And it's an important step in the right direction.
Almost certainly the greatest, most damaging strategic error the U.S. has made during the past couple decades is continuing our over-the-top defense spending. We have spent at many times the level we need to protect ourselves -- indeed, we have spent at a level at which the economic damage we have done the country (both in terms of deficits created and in terms of the opportunity cost of investing in our military rather than in more productive segments of the economy) vastly outstrips any potential security benefits that may have been derived. Certainly, that's been true since the fall of the USSR. In all likelihood it was true long before that.
We could cut the budget five times the level proposed and still be outspending our nearest rival many times over. But, if the Middle East -- which I would argue is not and should not be our primary security focus -- festers and boils this year as today's headlines suggest it might, then it is easy to imagine a central debate of this year's elections in the U.S. being about whether or not we should cut defense spending at all. A President with an exemplary record in terms of combating terror and getting the U.S. out of costly conflicts will suddenly find that Republicans will be able to open a different front on the national security debate where he may appear vulnerable. They will say the world is more dangerous and this is no time to be cutting defense.
And my guess is that means that when the time comes to really cut the budget nothing like these cuts will be made...and the U.S. will continue to pose the greatest danger to itself by over-spending on wasteful, bloated, duplicative defense systems it can't and shouldn't attempt to afford. The Panetta $450 billion plan will be seen as the high bid in terms of cuts and we will negotiate downward from there. The changes will be incremental and we will continue down the path to great power decline long ago limned by Paul Kennedy.
Take that and the real threats posed by the ever changing landscape in the Middle East -- uncertainty in North Korea, the rise of ever more important security challenges in Asia, the problems in the Eurozone, and bird flu (I saw "Contagion"...I know what we're up against! I saw Gwyneth Paltrow's brain!) -- and my newest New Year's resolution is to go back to bed, pull the covers over my head and wait for 2013.
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The bad news about the U.S. Congress is that nothing is what they do best. The good is that most important thing they can do in the year ahead is nothing.
Now, this is not me channeling my inner Rick Perry. I don't think that government ought to be irrelevant. Rather, this is a simple statement of fact. While this Congress has demonstrated itself to be grid-locked, brain-locked, inept, and hopelessly corrupt, it may be more than just the Congress that an ill-informed, apathetic, impulse-driven American electorate deserves. It may actually be the Congress we need.
Because right now the single best way for the U.S. Congress to fix the deficit debacle that it created is to continue to behave in the partisan, ideological, childish, and irresponsible fashion that has become their hallmark. If they do, they will do more to cut the deficit than any number of over-hyped, under-performing committees could even dream of.
By remaining frozen as they have been in the headlights of the oncoming 18-wheeler of euro-style economic calamity that is bearing down on America, this group of empty suits may actually not only miraculously avoid becoming historical road-kill, they may actually end up in the Do Nothing Hall of Fame.
How? It's simple. By failing to address the deficit in the supercommittee, our current Congressional "leadership" has effectively ensured that the single most important item on the legislative and national agenda for 2012 is the expiration of the Bush tax cuts at the end of this year. And the very best way for America to cut its deficit and bring its house back in order after the wanton profligacy of the past decade is to simply let those cuts expire. Which will happen if this Congress plays to type and does the nada it does so well.
There is no single budget factor that can make as big a difference as simply letting these ill-conceived cuts lapse. Projections by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget show that over the next forty years, no single factor will contribute more to our growing deficit. According to the Congressional Budget Office, letting the tax cuts lapse would immediately restore $380 billion dollars a year in revenue and would, therefore, cut the deficit by $3.8 trillion dollars over the next decade, fully 50 percent more than the $2.4 trillion in total deficit reduction that was the goal of the debt limit deal.
Letting them lapse would also not have an unduly burdensome impact on American voters, simply restoring tax rates to where they were a decade ago. Further, as the dismal economic performance of the decade since the cuts were introduced shows, they actually have not had the stimulative effects they were touted as offering.
In fact, if you look at the huge and ever-growing cost to the United States of the cuts, it is very clear that they and not the 9/11 attacks were the most destructive event to hit the country in 2001. Compound them with the costs of our two misguided wars in the Middle East and you have destruction to America's financial condition, economic prospects, role in the world and national strength that no terror group or competing national power has been able to achieve in America's modern history.
The question of course, is this Congress up to the task at hand. Will they fight and bicker and then ultimately end up so divided that they do not pass an extension. As that great Washington oracle the Magic 8 Ball used to say, "Signs point to yes."
After all, this Congress -- in the midst of a great economic crisis -- has not managed to meet its fundamental obligations to pass a budget in 19 months. The Senate has not actually passed a budget in regular order in over 90 months. (The last time a Congress submitting all its spending bills by the mandated October 1 deadline was 1998.) A big job creation bill? No. An up or down vote on Simpson-Bowles? Nope. A major infrastructure initiative? Not. Something to deal with the mortgage crisis that started all this in some meaningful way? Get real. Something minor but promising? Wishful thinking.
That's why this year could be this Congress' most productive ever. Because not only could they undo one of the greatest mistakes of America's recent past by continuing their game of statues, they could add to the victory by letting the automatic cuts that should be triggered by the supercommittee's failure stand. Of course, these fraudsters have learned well from their sponsors on Wall Street and they never actually believed in that "fail-safe" mechanism anyway, figuring they would undo it later. But what if they can't even do that. More savings. And for those who argue the U.S. defense department can't afford $600 billion in cuts...and with all due respect to Leon Panetta who is a great public servant and will be a terrific Secretary of Defense...nonsense. That's a 10 percent cut which would still leave us spending more on defense than virtually every other country in the world added up...and something like 10 times more than any of our nearest rivals. Somehow I think we can handle it. Somehow I think we must.
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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.