When my mother turned 27, my father awakened her with the words, "By the time Albert Einstein was 27, he had already developed the theory of relativity. By the time T.S. Eliot was 27, he had already written ‘The Wasteland.' And by the time Joan of Arc was 27, she had already been dead 8 years." He probably also said "Happy birthday." At least, I have to assume he said something nice because they're still married 55 years and two more children later. I say more children because I was already nine months old at the time, a not inconsiderable achievement on the part of my mother that I think my father was short-sighted to overlook. After all, none of the three people he had mentioned had ever given birth, much less to me.
That said, my father's litany of over-achievers (if you can consider being burned alive for heresy an achievement...which, by the way, in my family, we would...) would have to be seriously revamped thanks to the arrival on the scene of the pleasingly plump young leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un. Kim is also 27 (or 28, depending on which government-propaganda, ministry-generated hagiography you choose to believe). But why quibble?
At whatever age he is, Kim was just named the Supreme Leader of North Korea, which is quite an accomplishment for an under-30. I mean this is a guy who looks up to Britney Spears as an older woman -- and he is already the youngest-ever human being to control his own nuclear arsenal. I hadn't even bought my first new car by that age. Can you imagine what most twenty-somethings guys would do if they had their own nuclear weapons? Certainly, they would use them to get laid (but of course, that's what most twenty-something guys would try to do if they had a new bowling ball to brag about). But Kim has turned his mind to more serious pursuits (as far as we know). For example, he has already been Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army for almost a whole week. And he seems a shoe-in to become General Secretary of the Worker's Party of Korea and chairman of the Central Military Commission. And he has been characterized as "a great person born of heaven." If that can't get him a little action, I'm not sure what can. (Of course, being the dictatorial head of a police state pretty much ensures his social calendar is as filled as he wants it to be. This is a guy who has never heard the words, "Sorry, Jong-un, but I'm washing my hair this Saturday night.")
Big things clearly await. In just over a week, he will celebrate another birthday. And with some luck (and the approval of the various clucking aunts and generals who are his would-be puppet masters), in no time at all he will be blackmailing superpowers with threats of invasion, missile launches, and deranged behavior just as his dear old Dad used to do. Of course, it does raise the question of where he is going to find one, not to mention a suitable handful, of wives who understand him both in terms of their age and their accomplishments. So far, only Lady Gaga comes to mind. But what a couple that would be. And as the head of the world's third largest army, its most repressive society, and a place known for such bad malnutrition that a generation has been raised that is inches shorter than its contemporaries in the South, he is one of the few people in the world who could rival Gaga in terms of his own following of "little monsters."
JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images
For the first time since records have been kept, Washington's heat index today rose above its bullshit index. Which is saying something given the levels of swirling crap that have that have been emitted during the debt-ceiling debate. It's piling up like snow banks on the street corners. And none of it is made any easier to bear by a heat index that is supposed to hit 116 degrees today. In a city full of gas bags and hot heads, that's just plain dangerous.
Both the heat and the headlines have the same effect on average citizens. They make us cranky. Personally, I feel the strong urge to punch someone right in the snout right now. I'd prefer it were one of the goons who has seen fit to criticize President Obama and Speaker Boehner for actually trying to break the irrational debt debate impasse and get something done. But frankly, it could be anyone. I'd pop the slender loris featured on the Washington Post's iPad app yesterday if it crawled over to me right now … and frankly, I have a kind of soft spot in my heart for lorises, slender and otherwise.
So, instead, I will vent my blogger's spleen. I will do this by answering for each of you the following question: Who were the world's biggest assholes this week? Surely this will prove a healthy distraction from the muffled sounds of passersby being swallowed up by the bubbling pavement beneath my window.
Such a big world, so many choices, where to begin? Well, let's start with a definition. Asshole may be an intemperate term but it is not an imprecise one (and if it is one that offends you I strongly suggest that you stop reading three sentences ago … and please don't bother to write that FP should not use such language. I agree. The editors agree. But it's hot. So go jump in a lake. And I'm perfectly happy to spend my whole evening deleting your prissy criticisms from the comments below.) Anyway, the point is that the word refers not to purely evil people but to jerks, irritating people who combine their bad behavior with a certain offensive ridiculousness.
So who are the world's top ten this week? (And please note we are not including lifetime achievers who already have had their jerseys retired such as Hamid Karzai, Eric Cantor, or those wonderful folks at Focus on the Family.)
10. Prince Andrew
Blue bloods always have an edge in competitions like this, pampered, in-bred fossils of obsolescent and offensive social systems that they are. And few royal families have produced so many memorable jerks as the House of Windsor, including first-ballot member of the first class of the Asshole Hall of Fame, Prince Philip. But the upper-class twit never falls far from the royal family tree and Andrew wins mention this week for having to resign his post as ambassador for British trade because of his long string of bad judgments, questionable actions and bone-headed misdeeds including, notably and unsurprisingly, his befriending of convicted sex offender.
9. Chris Brown
Beating up women was not enough for this narcissistic so-called musician. This week, reliable sources like TMZ reported that Brown was that special kind of over-achiever who is able to irritate and infuriate on many levels at once. He did so by revealing himself to his neighbors in LA as That Guy in the apartment building who reportedly has blaringly loud parties at all hours, carves his initials in the elevator, runs his racing dogs up and down the hallways and leaves his ridiculous male-enhancement-mobiles in handicapped parking spaces. And then, after the stories broke, he complained he was being picked on. Poor Chris. Guy may pack a punch (on a date) but can't stand being the punch line he has become. Being bitch-slapped by karma's no fun, is it?
8. Tim Pawlenty
Bland, nice guy Tim would seem like the last fellow to end up on a list like this but when he was the first to take the bait and question whether Michele Bachmann's migraines would make her unfit for the presidency, he jumped way up toward the front of the line. Sexist much? Seriously, whoever leaked the story to the right-wing rag that first ran it deserves the spot even more than Pawlenty, but frankly, the former Minnesota governor needs the break. This is the highest he has placed on any list or poll in months.
7. Employees of the Korean Central News Agency
After threatening that North Korea would launch a "merciless retaliatory sacred war" against the United States, the spin doctors of the hermit kingdom continued their tradition of hyperbolic overstatement that has made depictions of the country like that in Team America: World Police seem like a Frontline documentary. In its priceless article "Reading Between North Korea's Lines," the New York Times details how the robot-trolls of this small apparatus of Kim Jong-Il's state machine regularly pump out the greatest howlers of the world's almost always howling diplomatic communiqués. From attacks on their neighbors to the south as "half-baked, extra-large Philistines" to referring to Hillary Clinton as "the little schoolgirl" these folks at least deserve credit for making propaganda laughable again.
6. Allen West
Speaking of half-baked name-callers, Florida Republican Congressman Allen West rocketed into the news this week the only way he could: By lashing out against fellow Congressperson and DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz with a slimy viciousness that set a new low even for the United States Congress. Calling her "the most vile, unprofessional and despicable member" of the House, West not only won a few more seconds of fame than his otherwise completely undistinguished career warranted but no doubt shall also receive sanctions from the Congress for his behavior. Way to go after a colleague, Allen. Who's your campaign manager, Chris Brown?
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Bill Clinton once noted that nuclear weapons were North Korea's only cash crop. It was a wry and on-target observation that underscores a critical point. There is clearly a method to the madness of Kim Jong Il and the regime he leads.
After this week's revelations about North Korea's latest nuclear initiative followed by today's exchange of fire between North Korean and ROK troops, it would be easy to suggest that the country is once again going through one of its periodic bouts of irrationality. And by any traditional calculus of behavior, it is hard to deny that a small, impoverished nation frittering away scarce resources on a giant military despite the fact that there is zero chance they could ever defeat their principal adversary seems nuts.
But that would only be the case if the value of that military were measured in traditional, abstract terms. If this measurement is balanced in the context of the North Korean leadership's political needs, it makes more sense. Maintaining a confrontational stance with the South provides a rationale for an authoritarian state and a reason to have the forces in place to maintain that state. It also provides a useful distraction from the utter failure to create a healthy economy within the country.
Furthermore, every time North Korea flexes its muscles, threatens its neighbor, or violates international law it gains stature unavailable to it via any other means. Think about it: North Korea has a GDP smaller than Costa Rica, roughly the half the size of that of say, the Sudan.
Finally, every time the North does one of these things, the response of the rest of the world actually, brings about benefits. After the "official condemnations" die down and the sanctions are proved to be ineffective -- as they inevitably are when pitched against a country in which the will or discomfort of the people does not exactly drive the political system -- North Korea gets a reward of some sort, a deal, an aid package, energy supplies, food. Best of all, the rest of the world accepts its word on vital matters even though North Korea has never ever kept its promises.
As they say in my part of Pyongyang, "such a deal." Is it any wonder that Kim Jong Il continues to turn to his nuclear program to be his main cash crop, to make "lunacy" his country's principal export?
This is not to minimize the risk from the North. Actually, it underscores that it is likely to remain and fester for the foreseeable future. In fact, some observers see this week's events as an effort by Kim Jong Il to provide "victories" for his son and heir apparent, Kim Jong-Eun. The fact that the unveiling of the sophisticated "astonishingly modern" (see today's FT story "Kim Jong Il Plays His Aces") uranium enrichment facilities are seen as yet both a coup for the North and a shocking intelligence failure for the United States and our allies already puts it in the win column. The fact that the exchange of gunfire today was met with communiqués and deep restraint (thus far) suggests it too may end up in the plus column for the dear leader and his clique.
These events may also ultimately be seen as wins for Kim on two other levels. First, the nuclear facility almost certainly required international collaboration. If it turns out that support came in part from, say, Pakistan, already suspected of helping the Koreans develop a nuclear ballistic missile capability, it would be deeply embarrassing and awkward for the United States. Next, the fact that the United States and South Korea are really hamstrung on this issue, almost entirely dependent on the Chinese to put real pressure on the Koreans, makes this issue yet another that underscores how the balance of power has shifted away from Washington -- even with almost 40,000 troops on the ground in South Korea and North Korea a top diplomatic priority for the administration.
In short, call Kim strange, joke about his quirks and collection of VHS tapes. I can't help doing so sometimes. But we ought to stop suggesting he is irrational or unpredictable. What he is doing, it's completely in character, following a clear pattern and may very well ... and yet again ... pay off, precisely as he intended it to.
This weekend the Obama Administration will send a team to China headed by the somewhat unlikely duo of Larry Summers, head of the National Economic Council, and Tom Donilon, deputy national security advisor. The purpose is to send a clear message that the U.S. is approaching its relations with China strategically, with a view that integrates the full range of economic and security concerns.
While such trips are old hat for Summers, the journey represents a bit of a change of pace for Donilon, the inside guy who is credited with having done a great job making sure the policy process trains have been running on time within the National Security Council. Some in Washington are buzzing that this is a profile- and skill-raising trip intended to make Donilon a better candidate to replace National Security Advisor James L. Jones should Jones decide to depart, as many expect he will. Others grumble that the trip represents precisely the kind of "operational" role for the NSC and NEC that many cabinet departments have long thought should be out of bounds for White House policy coordinators.
But beyond the Washington gossip the trip has caused, the juxtaposition of economic and security concerns offers an illustration of an often over-looked fact -- the centrality of economic issues to current U.S. national security concerns. In China, the tricky calculus is fostering collaboration on security issues from North Korea to Iran in the face of political pressure back home to press Beijing harder on issues like currency valuation and unfair competitive practices (especially those associated with pressuring foreign firms to transfer proprietary technologies).
The U.S. has never been especially effective at coordinating its multiple interests in China so that pressure in one policy area produces progress in another -- or even simply avoids causing setbacks. So this trip, in concept at least, represents a step in the right direction -- at least if Congress doesn't undercut the administration's efforts by, for example, drafting its own legislation on currency issues.
But China is just one of a host of current hotspots where Summers, Geithner, and the international economic team are playing a central role on national security issues.
For example, in Afghanistan, the story of the week turns on the amazingly brazen behavior of the Karzai gang in trying to pressure the United States into bailing out a clearly corrupt and mismanaged bank in which President Hamid Karzai's brother, Mahmood Karzai, is the third largest shareholder. Mahmood has publicly called for a bailout even though his affiliation with a bank through which U.S. funds flow to Afghan security forces compromises both him and the president. Both remain unabashed, however, behaving like the proverbial kids who murder their parents and seek the mercy of the court on the grounds that they are now orphans. So the United States is in a pickle: Step in and support the Afghan kleptocracy and its culture of corruption or stand on principle (and law), and run the risk that the bank falters. It's not a situation that General David Petraeus can handle, but how the economic team manages it will have direct ramifications for him.
In the same way, some of the most sensitive concerns regarding Pakistan turn on economic policy. Will the Zardari government pump too much cash into the economy to deal with the aftereffects of the devastating flooding, and risk a major inflationary episode? Or will it introduce price controls and a set of micro economic measures that, if mismanaged, could produce social tensions or even rioting? The wrong mix of policies could plunge the already fractured and battered country into political turmoil and perhaps the reintroduction of military rule.
In talks with the Israelis and the Palestinians, many of the core concerns will turn on how to improve the economic conditions for the Palestinian people. If they can get past initial hurdles, they will, of course, ultimately have to move to a state structure that will enable organic economic growth in a Palestinian state, actually fostering job and wealth creation for people who have lived in an economic no man's land for too long.
In North Korea, it is reported that the administration, conducting high level meetings on the subject this week, is seeking to explore "engagement." In the case of the economically isolated and struggling North, that inevitably will mean economic packages in exchange for gradual normalization of relations or reductions of threats. At the same time, this week, the administration widened sanctions intended to force Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.
In Iran, the core initiative at the moment is making targeted economic sanctions work. In Iraq, the issue is fostering economic growth to help "purchase" social stability. The list goes on. It is clear that wherever the stakes are highest for the United States in the world, even as military and diplomatic initiatives garner most of the attention, behind the scenes much of the most critical work is being undertaken by international economic officials.
It is interesting to note in this respect that the responsibility for conceiving and coordinating most of these activities lies in the White House to a much greater degree than it does with military or diplomatic initiatives. The White House team on these issues is excellent. But in the end, these functions are so fundamental that the real leadership capabilities need to be cultivated elsewhere.
The economic team at the State Department could and should play a greater role in this respect; Undersecretary for Economic Affairs Robert Hormats is a talented and experienced official. As I have written before, State also could and should develop a dramatically enhanced capability when it comes to emergency economic intervention -- pre- or post-crisis. And all the other economic agencies need to be prepared to collaborate on this, not on an ad hoc basis but through a permanent program promoting cross-training and what the military might call inter-operability. Call it an economic rapid response capability -- or call them economic green berets.
We need people we can drop into critical situations and help manage them with an eye to our security and political needs rather than traditional purely economic metrics. That's a critical role for which development officials are ill-suited, and we still don't really have the fully developed institutional structure we need to support it.
Looking at the issues faced by the United States today, while one can't help but admire much of what is being done, the strategic side of the international economic agenda is such that it warrants some real thought about how and with whom we should be meeting such challenges in the future.
Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images
It was one thing for Brazil to appease one nuclear rogue state. But two in one month? That qualifies as a national policy. The last time anyone appeased that many nuclear scofflaws in such a rapid time frame was ... well, the reality is we do it all the time. North Korea. Pakistan. India. Iran. It's now standard operating procedure to let countries build their own A-bombs.
That's why, as shocking as Brasilia's moves with Turkey to reach out to Iran may have been, Brazil beating North Korea by only one goal is perhaps even more stunning -- a veritable victory for Pyongyang. In a soccer universe in which Brazil is the superpower, North Korea is a pipsqueak, much less of a factor even than it is geopolitically. (Which is saying something given the country's class-by-itself isolation and the economic incompetence of the lunatic regime that runs the country.)
Brazil is ranked number 1 in the world. North Korea is ranked number 105. The reality is that at many times during today's match, North Korea looked more disciplined than the Brazilians ... and on several stunning occasions, they looked both better and more creative.
While the game is unlikely to be seen as a strong argument that robot automatons make the best soccer players or that a diet of grass and warm water are the cornerstones of the care and feeding of future World Cup stars, it will almost certainly raise a question about the Brazil team.
That question is why? And my only conclusion can be that since the outcome can't be explained on the basis of relative talent, skill or soccer history, something else must be in play. And given the importance of soccer in Brazil, then I say it has to be an initiative taken at the highest levels.
I'm just saying... Look for this to be an issue in the upcoming Brazilian presidential elections. And look for the North Korean team to be rewarded with extra-loose shackles and a double order of gruel on their arrival home.
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images
In yesterday's post, I noted some of the most relevant developments in the political world that've occurred recently. But we're hardly out of the neck of the woods. The summer of 2010 promises to be an ... interesting time.
As promised, here's an idea of the potential Black Swans to come:
1. Wars of Summer, Part I: The Koreas
As we've seen just in the past couple of days, "engagement" doesn't seem to be doing the trick with North Korea. When you have two countries that have been pointing guns at each other for half a century and one of them is run by the kind of guy who makes Mahmoud Ahmadinejad look like Albert Schweitzer trouble is always just a Dear Leader moodswing away. When one of those countries starts firing torpedoes at the other, that raises the temperature a bit ... and when that same country has a diplomatic tantrum because its neighbor actually doesn't like having its ships sunk, you get a sense of how off-balance and dangerous the whole thing is. (You also get dictionary editors everywhere rushing to insert North Korea's reaction into the official definition of chutzpah right where "burying your husband in a rented suit" used to be.) While most people assume this is just one of those periodic Korean peninsula hiccups, you never know.
2. Wars of Summer, Part II: Somalia, Yemen, etc.
These places are just two examples of plenty where conditions are chronically horrible and getting worse. If you're going to worry about the Koreas where the stakes are high and both sides would pay an unimaginable price for a conflict, don't rule out conflicts in places where everyone has a gun and life is cheap.
3. Wars of Summer, Part III: Israel, Syria, Lebanon
Speaking of places not to rule out, over the years few places have proven themselves more reliable breeding grounds for warfare than the borders of the state of Israel. And tensions are rising along the most northern of these as we speak. The Israelis are worried about growing stockpiles of missiles being deployed in Lebanon, new missile capabilities in Syria and Iranian mischief in both places. Of all the possibilities for tensions turning to a shooting war this summer, this one may top the list. And, what a great distraction it would make from Iran's nuclear issues (or what great cover for an Israeli strike against the Iranians who are paying for the missiles and underwriting Hezbollah trouble-makers in Lebanon and elsewhere).
4. The Other "Big Spill"
While Washington works itself up into a lather over the spill in the Gulf, it effectively ignores a much bigger catastrophe. A recent NPR report indicated that the amount of man made pollutants that have flowed into the Gulf during the current crisis flow into the air every 2 minutes or so. That's 30 crises like this an hour. 360 a day. Over 1,000 a month. That means this summer there will be 3000 crises like this offshore drilling calamity ... and throughout this period the likelihood that the U.S. government or the world move any closer to addressing this much larger, much less photogenic disaster is pretty close to zero.
5. The Financial Crisis They Call "The Big One"
Remember the financial crisis that took down Bear Sterns? Now we look at that as only prelude. Remember the one that took down Lehman, Merrill and AIG? Perhaps we'll look at that as just the appetizer. Because with the world economy now trembling at the thought of further deterioration in the Eurozone, it wouldn't take much to send us into territory that was unimaginable even two years ago. Likely? No. But possible? Well, let's see, Japan has a debt to GDP ratio that is worse than most of Europe's. What if the markets sour on lending them any more money? What if that takes down some of their banks and they start calling in IOUs and cut lending in places like China? Tim Geithner said this week that overall China's economy is not a bubble. Maybe so. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have some pretty big bubbles in it (see: real estate).
6. The Dem Rebound
The big political story in the United States is supposed to be the losses Dems will suffer in mid-term elections in November. Big time members of the punditocracy are calling for a big swing to the right, a likely Republican take-over in the House and even the possibility of one in the Senate. But by the end of the summer, once campaigns have started in earnest, the loony, fringy, dysfunctionality of the "just say no" party will be revealed and the big surprise U.S. political story of the year will start to take shape. The Dems may have modest losses in November, but it won't be anything like the washout the chattering classes expect.
7. Argentina's Surprise Victory
Despite Lionel Messi's dominance on the soccer field, Argentina won't win the World Cup this year. That'll be Spain. But maybe as the summer ticks on a few more people will start to realize that having done everything wrong and utterly alienated the financial system by telling the big banks to take a hike a few years ago, Argentina is actually having something like a recovery worthy of a tango. Oh, all is not rosy to be sure, but take a look at its per capita GDP in purchasing power parity terms. It just passed Chile to be number one in Latin America (according to Latin Business Chronicle). Between this and the U.S. dollar strengthening despite the fact that the U.S. has also done practically everything wrong (and China's flourishing for years despite its penchant for, how shall we put it, well, communism) who knows... this could be the summer that moral hazard makes its long awaited big comeback.
8. Someone Writes the Truth About Financial Reform
This is the least likely black swan on this list. But it is possible that once financial reform passes later this summer and is signed into law that someone will note that "the most sweeping financial reforms since the Great Depression" actually don't amount to much when it comes to fixing the problems we face. Mortgage defaults, unregulated global derivatives markets, unintended consequences of interconnectivity of markets, lack of global regulatory mechanisms, failure to address the trading culture's perversion of finance, etc... this is like the health care bill and Beatlemania: not the real thing, just an incredible simulation.
9. The White House Gets Humble
Ok, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe this is the most improbable of the Black Swans. But the folks in the White House are good people at heart and smart ones. Sooner or later they will realize that their mixed, incomplete record in office trumps the historic nature of their victory and that a little humility is in order ... if not because they feel that way then because by alienating even their most enthusiastic supporters they are doing themselves great political damage. As for the American people, they would do better with more realistic expectations. We all want Washington, Lincoln or Roosevelt whenever we elect a president. But the vast majority of the time we get Chester A. Arthur. Bush was Chester A. Arthur. Clinton was Chester A. Arthur. And in all likelihood Obama will end up being Chester A. Arthur.
10. Iran Cooperates
Ok, never mind. This one is most likely. But the dangerous twist here is that cooperation from Iran is actually just them buying time to move toward their goal of possessing nuclear weapons technology. The only thing that will stop them from such a stalling course is if they are much further ahead of schedule than we think and that the big black swan of this summer will be the announcement that the world's largest state sponsor of terror will actually have gone nuclear.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
Foreign policy is a fast-paced business. Despite the fact that at least someone in the Obama Administration is actually celebrating the art of indecision, you can save the world with snap judgments if you know what you're doing. I know what I'm doing.
To demonstrate I will now solve some of the biggest foreign policy problems confronting some of the world's most important newsmakers in a matter of just a few seconds each. (I will also solve a few lower-grade domestic problems as well.) If you are an important figure on the international stage, just look for your name below. Next to it will be the advice you need in a couple of quick sentences. If you are not a world leader but know one, please feel free to forward this to them.
To Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan of the Pakistani Muslim League: If you don't like the provisions of the U.S. aid package, keep it to yourself. Your complaints are precisely how we know the deal has been constructed properly. (Hint: Turn back the Americans who are offering aid and you'll end up with those who want to make all future deliveries by drone.)
To President Barack Obama: If you think that George's war (that'd be Iraq) is likely to look better than yours (Afghanistan) in five years -- and that'd be my bet right now -- then you really do need to listen to the people calling for a change in strategy.
To Manuel Zelaya: Fair or not, your five minutes are just about up...unless you choose to start dating Kate Gosselin. (And if that is Plan B, I have to say, I'd stay locked in the basement of the Brazilian Embassy, too.)
To Kim Jong-Il: You tell Wen Jiabao you want one-on-one talks with the United States to establish peaceful ties as a prelude to returning to the nuclear arms negotiating table? No problem. Two steps: First, ask for them. Second, realize Michael Jackson wrote "The Man(iac) in the Mirror" for you. As in the "how many shrinks does it take to change a lightbulb?" joke, the punchline is that it's you who've really got to want to change.
To Silvio Berlusconi: Are you the one that's tanned now or is that just a red face? The ruling by the Italian Supreme Court stripping you of immunity from prosecution just because you are Prime Minister certainly seems likely to put a hitch in your mambo Italiano. With three trials going on that involve you or your holdings, you might want to start planning your post government career. (I know your wife has some interesting ideas for what to do with you ... or parts of you.)
To Donald Tusk: As Poland's Prime Minister dealing with a corruption scandal, you have learned some important truths: gambling always produces losers (in your case, the three ministers who have been forced out of your government for corruption) and you can't beat the house (even if you try by suggesting you'll fire the anti-corruption official who blew the whistle on your cabinet) ... especially if the house is run by the two who stole that stole the moon and you don't fit in with their plans.
To Robert Mugabe: You say you want better ties with the U.S.? Well, you're going to need a long rope... Kim Jong-Il has a better shot at restored relations with the United States ... by a lot. Frankly, so does Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Frankly, so too does Rufus T. Firefly. Dictator, purge thyself.
To David Letterman: Ok, so far there's no rumors of foreign affairs in this story. But my advice to you is: continue doing just what you're doing. The openness is working...on the ratings...and on what's left of your image. Silvio, you randy slimebag you, pay attention. Old men apparently can screw around with younger women if they are charmingly self-deprecating about it, not political leaders and not you.
To Mazen Abdul Jawad: You may have been condemned to 1,000 lashes in Saudi Arabia for discussing your (kinda gross) sex life on a tv talk show. Here in America (see above), the same thing would actually get you your own talk show. Time to consider relocating...almost anyplace else. And speaking of Saudi outrages...
To Mohammed S. Al Sabban: If, as head of the Saudi delegation to the global climate talks, you are actually as reported going around saying if measures are taken to reduce world dependency on oil that the planet should offer aid to Saudi Arabia ... then get used to the idea that you are going to replace the woman who buried her husband in a rented suit as the living embodiment of laughable chutzpah.
To David Axelrod: Stay out of camera shot in photos about major foreign policy decisions. You're the president's right hand guy. He needs you: You have the "mind-meld" thing going, offer invaluable advice and by all reports are actually a good guy. Which is why what neither the president nor you need are the uncharitable whispers that you are out-Roving Rove in terms of day-to-day influence over administration operations. (Oh and to Karl Rove, re: your WSJ article that the GOP is winning the health care debate: There's a reason you guys are out. Wrong again. See the CBO report. The Obama-Baucus bill is getting closer and closer to being a done deal.)
One message that seems to have been sent by the Obama administration thus far: If you challenge us, we will reward you. If you abuse us, we will reward you a lot. But don't think we're going soft. Beware: If you are a friend or a needed ally, we will punish you. (Or is that three messages?)
It is of course, my hope that this is all inadvertent or better yet, part of some grand plan that can't be understood without the proper security clearances. Or maybe it is just "learning curve behavior." But in any case, the facts to date are unsettling.
Russia undercuts our efforts to rein in Iran's nuclear program. Our response: dismantle the missile shield we had contemplated for Eastern Europe.
Hamid Karzai diddles the elections, abuses his people, and is openly corrupt. Our response: let's discuss how many more troops we want to send in to Afghanistan to help strengthen his power base and while we're at it, let's spend billions on doing work building his nation.
Pakistan limits our ability to go after the Taliban and al Qaeda within their borders, limits our ability to gain credit for aid flows to the country while promoting the interests of radical muslim donors and we open the spigots wider.
North Korea pushes forward with weapons programs and rattles its saber regularly and we seek new channels to discuss ways we can deepen our relationship after each calculated taunt.
Myanmar extends the prison term of Aung San Suu Kyi on trumped up charges and we send a high level emissary.
Iran crushes legitimate opposition, the regime steals and election, it lies for decades about its nuclear program, it strengthens its military capability and calls for destruction of Israel and we announce further talks despite their insistence none of the issues most important for us to discuss are open to discussion. Push us harder through arms collaboration with Russia and we remove the threat of that missile defense.
Meanwhile, our one dependable ally in the Middle East, Israel, faces an unprecedented squeeze, our most dependable ally on Venezuela's border, Colombia, can't get even a modest trade deal finalized, the Poles and the Czechs get the rug pulled out from under them, and so on. We need China more than ever to help with Iran after Russia has gone on the record as seeking a divergent outcome ... not to mention needing movement from them on issues like climate and global economic cooperation ... and what do we do? Slap them with unnecessary, hard-to-defend duties on imported tires.
It's the same here at home. No one fears crossing the Obama administration because the two most likely outcomes are either no retaliation or rewards. (Ask Senator Grassley, who gets concessions by the boatload but still refuses to play along, to name just one.)
I'm just sayin'...
Engagement is a worthy goal. The missile shield was probably of dubious value at best (especially when we started to define it in terms of our own sham cover story that it was all about Iran and not about the real longer term threat, Russia). Defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda and seeking greater stability in Pakistan or Afghanistan ... or Israel and neighboring regions. Indeed, I am a pretty enthusiastic supporter of what I understand the outlines and objectives of the Obama administration's foreign policy to be.
But after a while, independent or uncoordinated actions become patterns and patterns send messages. Are we so isolated from Russia today that we have pushed from memory Pavlov and all that smart stuff he and his dog taught us about conditioned response? Even if that's the case, I thought this team was close to Oprah. Couldn't she or her house shrink Dr. Phil point out what happens when abusive behavior is rewarded?
I know it's still early in the administration. And I remain resolutely hopeful. But as a general rule, I take it as a warning sign when Dr. Phil is in any position to offer useful insights regarding U.S. foreign policy. Worse still, we know what happens to people who fail to heed his advice. They end up on the Maury show. That's no place for a U.S. foreign policy ... all toothless and disoriented, throwing chairs and being accused of fathering outcomes we don't want any part of.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Despite a growing desire on my part to avoid the cage-match side of blogging, it is hard not to respond to Christian Brose's post "What is David Rothkopf smoking?" Brose seems to have, in President Obama's words, become all "wee-wee'd up" over my article in Sunday's Washington Post. I respond, of course, as a public service because so much of what he said provides a useful insight into how far we have come since the days of the Bush administration and how desperate Bush apologists are to find a way to suggest that their man and the policies they promoted were not actually the nadir of American foreign policy.
I should note however, that I also do this reluctantly because I think Brose is a pretty good writer and a fairly thoughtful guy. Still, when someone suggests that I have been a member of "the foreign policy hoi-polloi that went into intellectual hibernation in 2004 and only awoke this January" I figure, it's probably OK to offer a few words on behalf of my views. (Although it does explain the acorn residue I found in my cheeks.)
I will ignore for a moment the fact that Brose clearly is willing to spot the world the first term of the Bush administration as indefensible and focus on his core notion that somehow the years Condi was at State were almost indistinguishable in intent, concept and execution from what we have seen to date from the Obama team. It should be noted that coincidentally Brose was a speech-writer at State during the Bush administration.
Let's take his points one at a time:
That's the key point about these early days of this new foreign policy team. All administrations talk about partnerships and new relationships. To my mind, this one seems to believe what it is saying and is doing something about ... and at the very least is not as transparently hypocritical about such matters as was its predecessor. That in and of itself is perhaps the transformation most of the world was most hoping for.
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
As indicated late last week by the first half of my foreign policy report card, President Obama has put a first class team in place to manage his international agenda and so far they are working well together. But what about the policies themselves? It's early yet, of course, but it's worth asking-where have they made their mark and what kind of marks is that likely to get them.
Remaking the American Brand, Grade: A
Job one was slamming the door on the George Bush Era then locking it, boarding it up, doing a "Cask of Amontillado" brick wall on top of that, and then depositing the whole thing in Yucca Mountain for safe keeping. Related to this was getting out there, introducing Michelle, and letting intelligence, charm and competence tell the story. My belief is most of the world wants to like America so this task was not quite as hard as some had made out (which makes Bush's alienation of the planet all that much more of an accomplishment), but Obama has shined as the new front man for the "new, improved" good old USA.
North Korea, Grade: B
Oh, right. As if I am stupid enough to evaluate the North Korea policy in the wake of Bill Clinton's historic visit... Well, actually the outcome was easy enough to predict; Clinton wouldn't have gone if the release of the two journalists weren't a pretty sure thing. The North Koreans wouldn't have accepted him if they didn't think it was time to take a little breather (as we periodically do) from all the heavy breathing. But the long-term issues will remain. Clinton himself once said nuclear weapons were North Korea's only cash crop and so they will likely keep playing the game we're used to. Frankly, if Clinton hadn't gone, I think I would have given a D on this front because they have been toying with us on the nuclear issue and our multilateral efforts have been ineffective. Also our policy has been virtually identical to Bush's. Or maybe I would have given the administration a "C" because I enjoyed Hillary's mudslinging with the Dear Leader a few weeks ago. It was lousy diplomacy but had a higher truth content and more comic content than such exchanges usually do. (Come to think of it, I wonder how our former president and Kim Jong Il handled the "funny lady" who looks like a "pensioner going shopping" comments at dinner tonight? And however they handled it, if only we could have gotten a glimpse of the "Annie Hall" subtitles that would have revealed what they were really thinking.")
Iran, Grade: C+
The big plus in the current team's policy re: Iran is clearly the move toward engagement. The big negative is clearly the move toward engagement. They cancel each other out which is why I give them a "C." Engaging with Iran is the right thing to do. This is a country with the greatest possibility of leading the Middle East toward democracy and integration with the west. It is sophisticated, cosmopolitan and too diverse to pigeonhole just because the views of a few leaders are crazed. (We in the United States should have learned this lesson from how we wanted to be treated when W was at the helm.) But as has been said here before, engagement is a tactic -- not a policy objective. We were so eager to achieve it that we were late in condemning the unrest in the streets in Tehran. And I fear that the success or failure of engagement in Iran will be seen as so central to the President's ultimate foreign policy grade that we may be too accepting of the promises of a regime with almost two decades of history of breaking promises. I give the plus because I think Hillary Clinton leads a group of tough-minded policymakers in the administration on this issue and I think there is still a decent chance we may get the best of both worlds: engagement and the ability to respect ourselves the next morning.
Israel and Palestinian Territories, Grade: B
As discussed here earlier, we may be on the verge of a historically bad patch in the U.S.-Israel relationship. The United States feels the need to get tough just as an Israeli administration comes in that is inclined to defend the indefensible (which is the expansion of settlements). But frankly, only through such toughness will the United States be able to be an effective intermediary in defusing this chronic crisis.
Also: the administration has been hugely more engaged on this front than their predecessors... which is a big plus. But we have to ask: when push comes to shove, will the administration be as tough with the Palestinians as will be necessary? Will a perhaps too soft stance on Iran create a deeper rift with an Israel with legitimate security concerns regarding a nuclear Iran? My guess is we will make some progress on this front in the next three years...more than at any time since the Clinton days. But now that we have established that we recognized what needed to be changed...we need to prove that we recognize what also needs to be preserved in our relationship with Israel.
Afghanistan and Pakistan, Grade: D
This is the "Be Careful What You Wish For, War." The administration framed this as the good war during the campaign and now it has become theirs. This is where their military management skills will be tested. This is where their geopolitical mastery will be tested. And, I believe, this is where they will start to fail those tests ... not because they won't be working the issues as hard as possible or putting their best people on the problem. Rather it is because ancient ethnic divisions, geography, religious politics and history make victory ... victory of any sort ... almost impossible. The best we can hope for is to get some bad guys and get out, hand the problems over to locals and forge a partnership with the other great powers in the region, notably India and China to contain the spillage from a place that is likely to be an open wound on the world for decades to come.
Iraq, Grade: B-
Look, Obama was elected to get us out of here and that's what he's doing. Having said that, watch closely as to what happens as we leave. My sense is a combination of government incompetence and corruption and the intractability of local problems is likely to produce festering unrest that keeps 50,000 or so U.S. troops in this country for...well, maybe not John McCain's 100 years...but a long time. (Which was the point McCain was inartfully trying to make, I think.) And if you want to start a betting pool, I say the over-under on an independent Kurdistan is 2020 and I'll take the under.
BRICs-Russia: C, China: A-, India: A-, Brazil: B-
The Obama team has made a great contribution by recognizing the rightful place of these emerging powers within whatever organization ultimately succeeds the G8. But the policies with each country have been a mixed bag. The most important of the relationships by far is with China...it's the most important bilateral relationship in the world by far. Obama has put in place a terrific ambassador, early meetings have gone pretty well and most importantly, the clear message has been sent about the centrality of the relationship. If the Chinese are beating us up a bit on economics well, turn about is fair play...and an important dimension of a relationship among equals. While the Indians gave Hillary a hard time on climate, her trip and the up-coming meeting in Washington with PM Singh suggest this relationship too is entering a new era. The U.S.-India relationship has never been more vital to us or to them ... that's a good thing. So far the relationship with the Russians has left everyone a little uneasy. I happen to think that's roughly how we should feel about the Russians, but it is hard to say the relationship is in especially good shape and we are cutting them a little too much slack. (Did you notice the Russian-Iranian naval exercises a few days ago?) Lula and Obama have a natural affinity and we are also sending a great ambassador to Brazil but the cave to Sen. Grassley on the ethanol tariff takes away something the Brazilians wanted a lot. So, the future of that relationship will really depend on what the U.S. does to help Brazil claim a larger role on the international stage.
Europe, Grade: B
The Euros started out loving Barack. But the administration dragged its feet on European proposals for major global regulatory reform in finance and the Euros dragged their feet on upgrading their help for the United States in AfPak. It's going to get worse if the "special relationship" we have with the U.K. ... which has been crucial in managing our other relationships in the region ... is damaged because, as seems likely, the next British PM is a guy, David Cameron, who the Obama team is going to have a tough time getting along with. It's going to get worse still if our budget constraints start having us cut back further on our international military activities and more pressure will be applied to Europe to step up. But so far so good on this front and it seems likely that given strong working relationships at the highest level with France and Germany, things should be fine. (Although it's quite a thought: the U.S. could be closer to Sarkozy's France than to Cameron's U.K.)
Latin America, Grade: C
Face it, the U.S. only cares about Latin America when it has to. So far, Obama and company have given Mexico good attention and although the security situation in that country remains unsettled and that could lead to a likely resurgence of a PRI that may be harder for Obama to deal with, it is hard to imagine any U.S. administration handling the relationship better. There has been slight movement on Cuba. I mark the administration down a whole grade on this point since there should have been major movement on Cuba-the removal of a policy that is so bad I really hate to speak its name. Sin embargo, even worse are likely to be the consequences of our hesitant policy toward Hugo Chavez. Read the recent NY Times article on what Venezuela has been doing with the FARC in Colombia. Chavez may be a tinpot crackpot but he is working to undermine democracies in the region like Colombia ... and of course, Venezuela ... even as he continues to proclaim his democratic legitimacy. This is a place where the clown show in Trinidad is going to look worse and worse as engagement with this truly bad actor is quickly ruled out.
Africa, Grade: B
So far the administration has made the case that it wants to do more for this relationship. Now, of course, it actually has to do more. Thus far, the issues of the region have gotten precious little bandwidth and the failure to put in place someone to run U.S. A.I.D. hasn't help. So...good message but the proof is in the pudding. (Also, the over-under on the next time we send U.S. troops to Africa is 2015. I'll take the under. In other words: a dangerous policy mistake to watch is under-estimating the geopolitical importance of Africa going forward.)
Multilateralism, Grade: C
High marks are earned for starting to mothball the G8 in favor of the G20. Low marks for sluggish and limited trade policy, likelihood of a punt in Copenhagen, very limited results at most summits, failing NPT and no good successor in sight, and not very effective use of the UN to date. (Though that could change I do have a lot of faith in Susan Rice to change it.)
So, there you are. Ruminate. Admire. Cast aspersions. I can take it. Where I am right now Washington seems far far away and I am finding new clarity. (Or possibly suffering from oxygen deprivation.)
Middle: Joe Raedle/Getty Images; Top Right, clockwise: Joe Raedle/Getty Images, Mark Wilson/Getty Images, JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images, KNS/AFP/Getty Images, David Silverman/Getty Images, ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images
Kudos to Secretary Clinton who, having returned to the spotlight with a vengeance (she is finally getting an hour on "Meet the Press" this Sunday all to herself), has also restored some life to the war of words between the United States and North Korea. After all, if one is going to have a war of words, by all means use sharp, colorful words and, if possible, demeaning imagery. Muss up the other guy's hair (although admittedly when dealing with Kim Jong Il that's almost impossible to do). Make him feel small (which, in contrast, is fairly easy to do with Kim). Make it interesting to read about in the press. Avoid the constant quest for convoluted blandness that makes U.N. broadsides at North Korea so much more effective than serotonin as a sleep aid.
America's feisty secretary of state launched the current battle when she suggested that her experience as a mother had prepared her to deal with the likes of the North Koreans, recommending that they be ignored like "small children or unruly teenagers." While you've got to wonder how Chelsea felt, being compared to the deranged nuke-wielding ruler of a nation of zombie-slaves, her comments obviously struck a nerve with the Dear Leader.
No doubt drawing on his extensive training in rhetoric and stand-up comedy at the University of Malta (training ground for all of Malta's best comics), Kim fired back with the tell-tale wit that once had him referred to as "the anti-factionalist Oscar Wilde of Baekdu Mountain" until someone discovered who Oscar Wilde was and the guy who invented the nickname was dropped out of a Russian helicopter into the Amnok River. (Wilde, meanwhile, might have called North Korean official efforts at humor "the unspeakable in pursuit of the unattainable.")
The North Korean riposte to Clinton's barb was "We cannot but regard Mrs. Clinton as a funny lady as she likes to utter such rhetoric, unaware of the elementary etiquette in the international community. Sometimes she looks like a primary schoolgirl and sometimes a pensioner going shopping." This is certainly one of the best nasty communiqués in recent history and may, quite possibly be the apotheosis of North Korean literature. The "funny lady" insult shows boldness and a real understanding of what ultimately ruined Barbra Streisand's career. (Funny Girl good, Funny Lady not so much.) But the "primary schoolgirl"--"pensioner going shopping" thing was so evocative. Yikes. "Primary schoolgirl" is practically a compliment (at least it probably is in the mind of yet another Clinton) but "pensioner going shopping?!" It's so catty that Kim Jong Il should immediately be made the star of "The Real Housewives of Pyongyang" or at least be forced to add the full archive of past episodes of "The View" to his extensive video collection.
From what deep void within does such vitriol flow? Well, it is hinted at in the only major movie to effectively depict the real Kim Jong Il, a movie so accurate when it comes to his character that it would easily have won the Academy Award for Best Documentary were it not for the fact that all the major characters in the movie were, in fact, played by puppets. That movie, now shown as a training film at the East Asian Bureau in the State Department, is of course, Team America: World Police. In it, this is how Kim unburdens himself, describing the emptiness that ultimately had him lashing out at Hillary as though he were Maureen Dowd back in the days when the mere mention of a Clinton would have her howling at the moon.
I'm so Ronery / So ronery / So ronery and sadry arone / There's no one / Just me onry / Sitting on my rittle throne / I work rearry hard and make up get prans / but, nobody listens, no one understands / Seems rike no one takes me serirousry / And so, I'm ronery / A rittle ronery / Poor rittle me / There's no one I can rerate to / Feewr rike a biwd in a cage / It's kinda siwry / but, not reawry / because, it's fiwring my body with rage / I'm the smartest, most crever, most physicawry fit / but, nobody erse seems to rearrize it / When I can the worrd maybe they'rr notice me / And untiwr then, I'wr be ronery / Yeaaaaah, a rittle ronery / Poor rittle me...
And then, of course, at a different point in a movie full of high points, he reveals the source of his frustration, in words that speak to everyone, especially most of the bloggers I know...
Kim Jong Ill:
Why is everyone so fucking stupid? Why can't more people be interrigent, like me?
INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images
Yesterday at lunch I ran into a very senior official who is deeply involved in the negotiations with Honduras. He said, "It is a very strange situation. Here you have on one side officials from Honduras and on the other side you have the United States, Hillary Clinton, Brazil, Michelle Bachelet, the rest of the world. They seem to be enjoying it ... they have never had so much attention."
And so the government of Honduras learns the first lesson of weak-state diplomacy as taught by the Sun Tzu of diplomatic tantrums, Kim Jong-Il: the more big powers you can irritate, the better off you are. They almost never manage to apply real pressure and more importantly, wherever they go, the cameras go. If North Korea were a poor Stalinist agricultural enclave on the northern bit of the Korean peninsula that didn't have nuclear weapons they would be getting roughly the publicity of...well, Cameroon, which is a near neighbor on the CIA GDP chart. (Some other neighbors on that chart like Cyprus and Yemen have also managed to ratchet up the attention they get by being festering sores on the political map.)
Whatever the case, the diplomat advised the Hondurans not get too used to the limelight, that their 15 minutes were almost up. What's the matter with these guys? A call to Pyongyang or A.Q. Khan and they could become a first tier nuisance to the world and enjoy all the rights and privileges thereto appertaining.
MAYELA LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images
My mother would not approve. The bane of my childhood...which was essentially the story of Alexander Portnoy playing softball with Beaver Cleaver and Richie Cunningham in the land of "The Ice Storm"...was her insistence on a thank you note for every occasion. Get an embarrassing set of pajamas from Grandma? Immediately drop everything and send a thank you note. Get $10 from Uncle Max that could have been used to purchase a perfectly wonderful Revell model P-51 Mustang but which your parents hijack and use to buy a new pair of shoes from Tom McCann? Too bad, there will be no staying up late to watch "My Mother the Car" if you don't write a thank you note. Orthodontist slit your gums while installing a torture contraption in your mouth? Probably ought to send a thank you note, just in case.
There was a valuable lesson in this (for which, ironically, I have yet to send my mother a thank you note.) Gratitude makes a difference. Without it, the beneficence dries up and the giver no longer feels so good about giving and your brother and sister end up getting the better presents. (Or the orthodontist develops a grudge against you which is a very bad thing.)
I think it's time to send my mother to Pakistan. And then to Afghanistan. And then to Baghdad. And then perhaps on to a few other choice spots from Honduras to North Korea. This hardly seems like a reward for an exemplary life, but she could teach these folks a lesson or two about gratitude. And then, when she is done with the tour ... and she develops her own perspectives on just how little our efforts at generating gratitude in these places are actually benefitting the United States ... perhaps she ought to come back here and provide a lesson or two for the administration and for some folks on the Hill, perhaps starting with Senator Kerry. Because not only is the United States suffering from something that appears to be much like a global gratitude deficit...it may well be that the problem is with our expectations and our mechanisms for manifesting our (not so selfless) generosity to the less fortunate (or strategically significant) worldwide.
A prime illustration of the problems we face comes in the form of today's New York Times story "In Refugee Aid, Pakistan's War Has a New Front" by Jane Perlex and Pir Zubair Shah. The article describes how the United States is losing the bidding war for the hearts and minds of Pakistanis and how Islamists are edging us out. The authors observe:
Although the United States is the largest contributor to a United Nations relief effort, Pakistani authorities have refused to allow American officials or planes to deliver the aid in camps for displaced people. The Pakistanis do not want to be associated with their unpopular ally.
At the same time, the article goes on to describe how hard-line givers from the Muslim world are using their donations to effectively promote anti-U.S. and anti-Western views. Meanwhile it notes, even American NGOs are saying we shouldn't advertise the U.S. origins of aid shipments because it is likely to inflame hostility. Seems to me like a lose-lose proposition for us there. I mean, I understand the humanitarian rationale behind giving for the sake of giving but really, isn't the purpose of government aid to advance a government objective? Isn't it clear that's precisely what we are not successfully doing in Pakistan?
But the Pakistani government and the Pakistani people are not the only ones who don't seem to appreciate our aid (or who are happy to take it but would like to continue hating us just the same). In Afghanistan, the Karzai administration would not exist without the United States. Is it showing its gratitude by combating the corruption via which our aid is wasted? Is it showing it by making even the slightest effort to embrace the most fundamental universal values of respect for groups like women or journalists? Read the reports out of Kabul. They just don't seem to appreciate all we have done for them.
Neither, it seems does the al-Maliki government in Baghdad. Now, I can see plenty of reasons why the Iraqi people would be pissed off at America. The illegal invasion of their country, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of their people and the devastation of their economy come to mind. But I'm not talking about the Iraqi people here. I'm talking about a government that knows full well that even after the pullback of U.S. troops from the cities, it depends on the continuing presence of U.S. forces in the country to ensure national stability and its grip on power. Couldn't they have toned down the celebrations of "liberation" from the Americans just a trifle to reflect the fact that the United States is continuing to invest so much in their ability to hold on to power?
We spent much training the Honduran military that conducted that country's coup earlier this week. We have pumped serious aid money into North Korea to combat famine. We give the Egyptians, the Palestinians, and the Israelis plenty of cash and there seems to be a competition among them to see who can stall our objectives in the region most effectively or creatively.
Now, I realize we don't need to give aid money to people whose situations are stable. Aid tends to go to places where there are myriad challenges. But something is clearly not working here. The reflexive notion that we should write checks because it will generate goodwill seems not to be working. Clearly part of the problem here is with our expectations. And part of the problem here is with our history and perhaps we need to reconcile ourselves to unappreciated generosity for a while as a way of offsetting years of alienating people worldwide. But clearly another part of it is that we are a little ginger in our communications with our allies on these points...at the very least the governments who depend on us for survival ought to be nudged into a more constructive message with all due care to nuance the message to take into account local political realities.
Finally, the U.S. government aid apparatus remains one of its most dysfunctional. Early in the Obama transition there was talk of spinning out U.S. AID and related agencies into a Department of Development and Aid. I am generally anti-adding new departments to the government. But this was a pretty good idea. Economic peace-keeping and nation-building have been among our prime missions internationally over the past several decades whether we like it or not. But because we don't like it we have resisted building the kind of inter-disciplinary capacity to do it right...to recognize that provision of aid in post-conflict or conflict situations has completely different requirements (mostly political) than it does in development situations and that we need to more effectively blend pacification and economic missions. We need a civilian side Goldwater-Nichols to promote better collaboration and coordination among economic and political agencies in the fulfillment of this mission and better coordination with the military which still reluctantly does much of the heavy lifting in this area.
And beyond what we need, the world needs my mother. This is true on many levels. But in this instance it is because those who depend on our aid need to realize that regardless of who is president in Washington, all politics and history aside, the financial reality is that it is going to become harder and harder for the United States to continue providing aid as we have in the past and that average Americans (and even above-average Americans) are going to be soon looking even more energetically than in the past for excuses to shut the spigots. And that's saying something because aid has always been really unpopular in the United States, it's one of the reasons we give less as a percentage of GDP than most developed countries. Absent the thank you notes (which could be a nice card or possibly just making an effort to help the United States achieve our goals) the gratitude deficit could quickly translate into an aid deficit for those who are accustomed to receiving.
FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images
I'm one of those guys that the conspiracy theorists love to hate.
I not only believe that we need stronger global governance mechanisms, I believe that the reinvention of our global governance system is one of the great shared missions of the world for the century ahead. Whether it is strengthening institutions that regulate trade or climate, finance or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, or whether it is creating multilateral enforcement mechanisms with real teeth, the international system of nation states and very weak multilateral mechanisms we currently have is showing its age and is simply not up to satisfying the obligations of the social contract in the global era. In the eyes of the conspiracy maniacs ... weakened by too much time staring at anti-Bilderberg, anti-Davos, anti-World Jewish Conspiracy Web sites ... this makes me a world government guy and a threat to the natural order. (Which apparently is manifested in a libertarian fantasy land of white guys living in shacks and RVs far from the influence of any cultural tradition but their own. The notion of one nation under Toby Keith seems a little dubious to me, but then again, most of these guys think people like me would best serve as hood ornaments.)
Having said that, watching the UN continue its kabuki theater concerning North Korea makes me want to shut the place down, convert it to condos and remit the funds to the former member states. Even in a down New York real estate market it is almost certain to be a better return on investment for the dollars poured into that white elephant on the East River than "outcomes" like the proposed sanctions on Pyongyang. This is particularly tragic since containing and ultimately eliminating the threats posed by states like North Korea and other proliferators seems to me a vital role for the UN or at least for some international mechanism. But you can't stand up to the bad guy without a spine and the UN has been an invertebrate by design since it first crawled out of San Francisco Bay in April 1945. No one wanted anything like a strong world governance structure back then and so they built a talking shop that makes most freshman philosophy seminars look like decisive drivers of global change. Basically the organization was designed along the lines of the conflict resolution sessions my daughters' elementary school used to use when students got into a fight. The combatants would be sat down in a room, asked to explain the problem, and then told to apologize and make up or else. Of course the "or else" was the equivalent of the great parental technique of counting to three, you didn't know what might happen once you got to the point of no return but you were sure it was bad.
To my eldest daughter's credit at one point she got into a fight with a budding bitchlet from the grade ahead of her and when asked to say they were friends, she refused. She sensed that there would be no repercussions. Who knew that my adorable little cupcake and Kim Jong-Il would have that much in common.
He must be sitting there with his 26 year-old son, Kim Jong-Un, his recently anointed successor, in their badly paneled rumpus room full of tapes of old American movies playing their favorite video game (Grand Theft Plutonium) and cackling at the wimps on Manhattan Upper East Side. Seriously, I can hardly understand how in a city in which every cab driver is prepared to get all up in your grille about the most casual comment, these UN folks can manage to negotiate the basics of daily life. It takes more gumption than they have ever displayed to get a waiter to bring you a menu at most Manhattan coffee shops. (I've seen "Gossip Girl." I know how that part of town works. Blair Waldorf would have Ban Ki Moon braiding her hair and carrying her books to school within seconds of their first meeting.)
In essence, the new tough stand of the UN, orchestrated by the United States, has two parts. In the first, we essentially reiterate what we've said in the past about interdicting shipments of weapons materials. But this time, folks, we say it with feeling. There is no commitment by anyone to actually stop or inspect North Korean ships and there is no UN mechanism obligating or even sanctioning the use of force. We also plan to cut off financing options for the starving country ... except those that pertain to humanitarian or development needs. Of course, money is fungible and the government has shown a real willingness to spend on arms in the past while letting its people eat grass, so why we think this tactic won't just produce more humanitarian and development needs ... which in turn will be met ... is beyond me.
In all the articles on these developments, the usual suspects at think tanks and in the diplomatic community say all this matters because this time the Russians and the Chinese are really pissed off. Yes, maybe. But apparently not pissed off enough to actually collaborate in the production of anything that might actually change North Korean behavior. (Their approach, written on the package every North Korean bomb comes seems to have been lifted from a shampoo bottle: Threaten...negotiate/buy time for program development...win aid packages...repeat as necessary.) How was it all described by that UN expert from Stratford-on-Avon? "A lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing." (They didn't call it the Globe Theater for nothing.)
Oh yeah, by the way, I'm still in India. I'm writing this while periodically looking up to watch the small fishing boats come into the Back Bay from the Arabian Sea. Great people, great meetings, great food and yes, if you must ask, I do keep my mouth closed in the shower to avoid becoming the host to any local bacteria (with whom I have had bad experiences in the past.)
Also, for the record, on the broader point of this blog, despite my being a very big fan of this wonderful country and a big supporter of it having a much bigger role on the international stage and in America's foreign policy priorities, I don't like the nuke deal we cut with them either. I've said it before and I will say it again, the world's complacency on proliferation will produce one or more of the great tragedies of the century ahead. (As in the North Korea case, the international community has developed and seems to be sticking to a three-speed plan on proliferation these days: cooperate with proliferators, cut them a lot slack or cut them a little slack. Just in case you wanted to know what was responsible for that ticking sound you hear...)
PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images
By David Rothkopf
On Monday, North Korea's rogue regime detonated a nuclear weapon that they asserted packed the punch of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Immediately afterward the United Nations Security Council leapt into action, convening to determine whether or not the world should either a.) Send the country to bed without its supper or b.) Give it a time out. Analysts consider this a major escalation in UN efforts to get North Korea to quit its nukes. Earlier this year, for example, following North Korea's test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, the Security Council only just dared to assert that they were "disappointed" in Kim Jong Il, following up the statement with a long withering glance in the direction of the Korean Peninsula.
While it must be acknowledged that due to North Korea's history of famine, isolation, and decades of suffering that even these stern measures from the Security Council are unlikely to be very effective, they themselves represent a major step forward from other recent responses by the international community to the threat posed by the rapid proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. (Based on the tough tactics involved, not unlike those involved in disciplining an unruly child, reality television watchers have come to the conclusion that the UN's non-proliferation efforts are now being overseen by none other than Jo Frost, better known as television's Super Nanny. Although others speculate that given the UN's purposeful but comparatively gentle approach, their approach owes more to certain prominent animal discipline experts than to Nanny Frost. This in turn has led to calling the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon "the Nuke Whisperer.")
Still, the world is getting tougher. For example, prior to this new steely-spined initiative from the UN, the response of the world's leading powers to proliferation threats have been even less confrontational -- hard as that may be to imagine. Pakistan's development of nuclear capabilities was, in fact, followed by the embrace of the United States, more Chinese missile technology, and billions in international aid. India got its own special nuclear deal from the United States and the response to Iran's nuclear aspirations has been a global effort to make their efforts as stress-free as possible. Most recently, this has meant responding to every belligerent Iranian step with new efforts to give them more time for the developing their weapons (while cautioning Israel not to bother them.) Indeed, the primary United States response to recent, escalating Iranian threats has actually been to seek a thaw in the relationship.
In fact, a cynical observer (or anyone with a brain) might conclude that nothing enhances a country's international standing like the acquisition or threatened acquisition of nuclear weapons. At least, that is, until the stirring actions of the past day at the UN. In fact, U.S. UN Ambassador Susan Rice and her colleagues at the Security Council have vowed to follow up their expressions of disappointment on Monday with the drafting a new resolution to replace the one violated by North Korea Monday. (Silly me. When I was a boy, I thought you needed a deeply buried concreted bunker lined with lead to protect against a nuclear attack. Who knew press releases were enough?)
President Obama himself stepped to the microphones Monday to lend the force of his words to the onslaught of wind being directed at North Korea. This was particularly timely given that only two weeks ago, the U.S. special envoy for disarmament talks with North Korea was quoted as saying "everyone is feeling relatively relaxed about where we are at this point in the process." Obama condemned North Korea's actions, saying that they were not the way for the country to achieve either "security or respect." (Sounds like Jo Frost wrote his remarks, too.)
Even as North Korea was dominating the headlines Monday, the Associated Press reported that a secret Israeli analysis asserts that Iran is being supplied with uranium for its nuclear program by Venezuela and Bolivia. While it might be supposed that Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Bolivia's Evo Morales are cannily trying to ride Iran's coat-tails to international political relevance, this story does suggest that perhaps...just maybe...the current outbreak of indignation among the world's great powers might have to be prelude to something all of them have been reluctant to consider thus far: meaningful action.
If the Israeli report is substantiated, can the United States continue to trade with Venezuela and Bolivia? Can we let their companies have access to our markets? Shouldn't they be penalized in a meaningful way...in fact, in every way that the Iranians or other proliferators are...or ought to be?
Rueful joking aside... and truly, nothing is less funny than this failure of the international community to confront and contain the greatest threat the world faces...when you look at what is happening in North Korea, Pakistan, Iran and the other countries involved in the rapid expansion of the world's trade in nuclear technologies, components and fuel, it may just be that the single greatest test the Obama administration faces is finding a successor policy to the current and recent posture on WMD proliferation...which can only be described as supine. Thus far, all that has been produced is a thin gruel of empty words. But gradually and unmistakably, the president is being tested...prodded...poked at...by enemies who would like to see what it will take to provoke action and whether the United States can manage to lead other countries in a unified effort or whether multilateralism under Obama will continue to be a euphemism for impotent posturing.
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I don't know about you, but I find it a little peculiar that after an election campaign during which it was regularly argued that Pakistan was one of the most dangerous places in the world -- and after the new administration's very appropriate decision to devote significant new resources to the challenges we face in that country...and after top officials working the issue since almost day one...and despite the fact that throughout this period the country was primarily described as the unstable haven of our terrorist enemies -- it now turns out, rather surprisingly, that there seems to be an organized civil war going on there in which those same enemies were making substantial progress marching on the capital. They are functioning more as a coordinated guerrilla force and the prospect of them picking off multiple provinces of the country (much as the FARC did in Colombia creating pockets of failed or radicalized provinces in the wrapper of a weak state...what you might call a hybrid state) is looming as a real one.
Even given the fact that Pakistan was the site of one of our greatest intelligence failures of modern history (failing to catch their development of nuclear weapons...a failure that may, in future, look even worse than it does today) it is still surprising to think that we have been viewing this situation so incorrectly for so long. Yet, as evidenced by Admiral Mullen's reactions following his recent trips, the situation has deteriorated dramatically and we seem to have been caught flat-footed. Sure, the Zardari government has now started to make a show of going after the Taliban. And yes, their ambassador Husain Haqqani, an old friend and a good, smart guy with a tough job, had a piece in the Wall Street Journal saying "everything's fine, please send helicopters" yesterday as an attempt to soothe fraying American nerves. But behind the scenes, policy types and military leaders are concerned this country, which is ground zero in many of the worst-case scenario exercises gamed out by national security officials, may be on the verge of spiraling out of control.
That would be a very, very bad thing. What with the nukes and all. Made worse by the fact that the options available to us are slim. The Pakistanis don't want us on the ground. (So instead they get Predator attacks which they don't much like either. And, utterly appropriately, Holbrooke attacks which, as Slobodan Milosevic would tell you...if he weren't deservingly dead...can be worse.) We can't work too closely with our best potential ally in the region, India, because it would only inflame the Pakistanis. And the situation in Afghanistan is also not so great.
One specter that is raised in my mind is that Pakistan becomes a bit like Cambodia. Everyone has accepted our troops should be on the ground in a neighboring country but the war has shifted across a border and we are now faced with the dilemma of whether or how we should cross that border. The Cambodia thing, by the way, did not turn out so well. (The main difference of course, is that back then the primary war was in Vietnam. Today, it is in Pakistan.)
So what are we left with? Comforted by? Well, by Plan B of course. And to understand that, you have to meet General Plan B: Pakistan's top soldier, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. Kayani, who replaced former President Musharraf as head of the army, is the first Pakistani chief of staff who also headed up their notoriously unreliable (which is to say divided in terms of loyalties) intelligence services, the ISI. He's the default option for DC policy hounds, the guy who steps in when the bell finally tolls for Zardari as it inevitably will. He is the man whose leadership stands between us and 60 or more Pakistani nukes going unsecured, between us and a radicalized Pakistan.
And the American people will gladly go along with it. It won't be much comfort to Musharraf...in fact, he may find the irony rather galling, but if we could be sure that a strong military government could keep a lid on Pakistan for the foreseeable future we would jump at it. Jump back at it. Take it again. Democracy schemocracy. Let's have stability and worry about the details later. Heck, we're taking a stand against torture that ought to buy us at least this pragmatic diversion from our alleged national ideals, right? At least that is pretty much the conventional wisdom in Washington. (Which, oddly enough, in this case actually makes pretty good sense.)
In fact, looking at the region and the instability in Afghanistan and Iraq, it does not seem farfetched at all to imagine a successful Obama presidency ending with strongmen or juntas in charge of each of these countries. Because the alternatives are messy and unstable at best, requiring more military resources than we can muster or military options we'd rather not consider at worst.
Ironically, the one country in the region we have not invaded, Iran, may be the one with history and the public discourse most likely to actually produce something like sustainable democracy. (Which as one noted expert in the region suggested to me...somewhat optimistically...could spill over into the political approaches of Hezbollah and Hamas.) It's not on the imminent horizon to be sure, but it is fair to say that Iran has always been a better candidate for stable, functioning democracy than the other three places.
So, could that be the Obama legacy? Three juntas and a democracy? In these four places? It wouldn't be according to the game plan and we'd have to hold our noses from time to time, but it's worth considering just how welcome such an outcome would be if it produced greater stability and the time we needed to reduce our dependence on the region's oil and contain the region's nuclear and terrorist threats. Come on, admit it, you'd take that deal in a heartbeat.
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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.
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Last week I spoke on a panel at NYU's Center for Law and Security as part of the roll-out for a report they prepared entitled "Reforming the Culture of National Security: Vision, Clarity and Accountability." Wait, don't go. As bland and academic as the title sounds, the report itself, prepared in conjunction with the Markel Foundation and spearheaded by Jamie Rubin, formerly one of Madeleine Albright's right-hand associates at the State Department and Mike Sheehan, one of America's leading counter-terrorism experts, is one of the most common-sensical and sound appraisals of what needs to be fixed in the national security apparatus of the U.S. government that has been conducted in recent memory. It's short, too. Pithy, devoid of jargon and doesn't dwell on remaking the government's org chart. It cuts to what ought to be done to make the system we've got work as we need it to and in so doing, makes a sizable contribution.
Better still for those of us on the panel last week was that the crowd in attendance for the roll-out was smart and none of them lived inside the Beltway. One audience member, after listening to our summary of some of the current big issues we face in national security, stood up and pointed out that America planted the seeds for some of the most prominent problems we face today with past policies that seemed like a pretty good idea at the time but which then produced unintended consequences. He listed a few such as support for the mujahedeen in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion, support for Saddam to help contain Iraq, etc. He noted the merits these policies seemed to offer when initiated and then asked: What policies are we pursuing that might make sense today but that are likely to produce unintended consequences in the future?
It's a thought-provoking and worthwhile exercise. The history of modern American foreign policy is a parade of unintended consequences, responses and more unintended consequences. From blundering into the Bay of Pigs to backing Somoza, the Shah, the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, Pinochet or Saddam, the list is long. And while one can make the argument that many of these actions were justified -- and some certainly were -- there have been a number in which the consequences produced were likely worse than the benefit gained. Many of these came as a consequence of realpolitik, which all good FP readers know means policies based on practical rather than ideological (or ethical) considerations. Most often -- perhaps given this term's initial association in the United States with Henry Kissinger -- this was what might be characterized as right-handed realpolitik where our partners were often on the right end of the political spectrum and our goals were most often aligned with the American right's vision of the United States as a great power. (This was certainly not always the case, of course, since one of the most famous examples of Kissinger's balance of power oriented realpolitik was his opening to China.)
That in mind, I wonder if we are not entering a period in which the greatest risks of unintended consequences will be raised as by our adherence to what is emerging as a kind of left-handed realpolitik. In this iteration of the old foreign policy favorite, we coolly assess what we perceive is possible and in the interests of keeping the peace and minimizing perceived (near-term) risks shrug off the concerns of ideologues or "idealists" (often on the right in this instance) that more could or should be done. (This by the way is closer to the meaning of the term as it has evolved in say, the country of its origin, Germany.) As it happens in left-handed realpolitik, we often seek rapprochement with rivals or potential adversaries many of whom are perceived to be of the left. The tactics of choice of right-handed realpolitik have included back-channels, covert aid and hoping it doesn't blow up in our face in the future. The tactics of choice of left-handed realpolitik are engagement, offering more carrots to bad guys than in the past, and hoping that it doesn't blow up in our face in the future. (Point of emphasis: engagement is not a strategy...it's a tactic. It's only as good as what it gets us.) To the extent either set of approaches is actually realistic and seeks the peace through sound management of the balance of global power, what's not to like? I'm all for any brand of realpolitik that is both advances our interests and is truly realistic. But it is worth noting that either approach is undone when "partners" are misjudged and the potency of our appeal or our tools -- be they of force or diplomacy -- is over-estimated.
Instances in which the Obama administration appears to pursuing left-handed realpolitik (walk softly and who needs a stick when everyone knows you aren't going to use it?) are Iran, North Korea, Russia, Pakistan, and perhaps, based on what Hillary Clinton said the other day, Burma, and maybe soon Venezuela and Cuba. And in some instances, where such approaches would eliminate unnecessary tensions or distractions (Cuba being the best example), it seems like a wise approach. Nonetheless, my answer to the question from the audience at the NYU event regarding which of our emerging new policies are likely to get us in trouble is any that seem to use this approach to resolve proliferation problems today but which end up punting the toughest issues associated with them into tomorrow.
There is, to choose an example we have discussed here before, an emerging consensus among foreign policy makers in the administration that since all the options for stopping Iran from advancing their nuclear program are so difficult and offer such a low assurance for success that it is only realistic to accept that they will soon have weapons or weapons capability. The goal is therefore is to figure out how to live with that. This seems sound on many levels. See Roger Cohen's argument to this effect in his piece "Realpolitik for Iran" in today's NY Times. But the unanswered question for all who propose this approach is what will happen as the arms race it is already triggering in the region produces nuclear programs with an overt or covert weapons dimension in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, Turkey, Jordan, the Stans, etc. At what point are there so many programs that an accident or an incident becomes inevitable? What responses will that require?
This is the paradox of many instances of American realpolitik in practice: they turn out only to be realistic about the near term but not about the longer term. Whether embracing a bad guy (who we might call an ally) that produces victory today and blowback tomorrow or whether engaging with a bad guy (who we might hopes will stop being an enemy) that avoids conflict today and raises the risk of it tomorrow, both approaches can suffer from a lack of foresight. Clearly the great flaw in the current proliferation scheme and options being discussed is that no such regime is meaningful without an enforcement mechanism that includes among its options the use of force (ideally multilateral...but what a challenge that will be) against a violator. And until we end up with such a mechanism no approach to containing nukes will be realistic by any definition.
An interesting sidebar: after the NYU event, a very heated discussion ensued between a respected Arab journalist and a former senior, also well-respected American journalist in which the Arab journalist was arguing that the United States must stop Iran or the consequences in the region will be a grave. The American said we probably could deal with Iran but would have to stop it before nukes spread to Saudi, etc...and the Arab argued this was racist, that we will accept a Persian bomb but not an Arab bomb. The discussion then went on to the cautionary and I believe accurate observation that while it was all well and good and even important for Obama to embrace Islam, that the biggest threats to global security were not between Islam and the United States but within Islam-between Sunni and Shiite (which the journalist felt was the real hair-trigger fault-line that would soon worry us in a nuclear Middle East) or Kurd and Turk or Hamas and Fatah or Moderate and Extremist.
In every respect, the event offered useful reminders that the really hard part of dealing with national security threats has just begun to surface for the Obama administration and that it has little to do with summits or pirates.
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It is easy to carp at aspects of President Obama's European trip. The G20 meeting and the NATO Summit offered predictable outcomes, solid but underwhelming. If the president bowed to the Saudi king, and it appears as though he did, it was a gaffe and a pretty nauseating one at that. Debating about whether Michelle should have worn a sweater to see the Queen or whether Obama should have gotten a bigger kiss from Carla Bruni Sarkozy has also spun up bloggers around the world. (Who cares whether she wears a sweater? And of course, he should get as big a kiss from Carla as he possibly can.) The failed North Korean missile test was an unsettling distraction but wiser men than I have long said the safest place to be when the North Koreans are launching a missile is wherever they are targeting.
But, these bits and pieces are not what people will or should remember from the trip. Obama has had a successful journey because he has stepped more or less seamlessly into the role of world leader and done so with both substance and style that have in some important ways altered for the better America's relationship with the world. We may someday look back and lament that the G20 did not do more to address the need for more global stimulus or greater regulation of global securities markets. We almost certainly will look back and note that NATO did not yet realize that we are entering a new era in which they may be surprised to find they are getting the America they wanted...more inclined toward multilateralism by virtue of both belief and necessity -- but that this will obligate the alliance to the discomfort of many within it to share burdens more equitably or fail.
Yet, here is a President who listens, who has mastered multiple briefs quickly, and who is willing to be bold where it counts. Nowhere is that more clear than in the important speech he delivered over the weekend in Prague in which he announced a new U.S. policy on nuclear weapons, one that recognizes the strategic urgency as well as the moral resonance of our leading a global drawdown of atomic arsenals. Only through such an approach can we address what he called "a strange turn of history" in which "the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up." He agreed with the Russians to begin negotiations to reduce the world's two largest nuclear arsenals and he announced an intent to lead efforts to create a safe path to nuclear power in the emerging world including the creation of a nuclear fuel bank, a potential new international organization overseeing the weapons reductions and a round of diplomacy to advance these goals.
The Wall Street Journal rather predictably juxtaposed Obama's speech on this most important of all national security issues with the story of North Korea's missile test. The not exactly subtle message was "look, the world is dangerous, what is this guy doing?" But the answer is that he clearly understands better than they do that the only way to stop what is currently an out of control global nuclear arms race that is currently threatening not only northeast Asia but which is threatening to spread across the world's most dangerous region, the Middle East, is by having the great nuclear powers start leading by example. Only if all are collectively committed to eliminating nuclear weapons can it be fairly argued that no one should have them. Only if real progress is made can such a case be compelling reiterated and enforced. Obama's Prague speech hinted at the courage and vision of a great leader. That he saw that such a statement should also come with tough messages about the need to maintain missile defense programs and a forward-leaning stance against proliferators also showed this was a strong rather than a weak approach to disarmament. Translating it into action will be the true test as to whether he is the transformational 21st century leader so many in Europe have started to believe...this week...he might be.
Just a week ago I had a piece in the Washington Post asking where the leaders are and urging critics of Obama to be more patient, to give him the chance to be the president we want. A week later, particularly with this Prague speech, Obama has offered the best rationale for such patience. There is a considerable often impassable distance between promising rhetoric and meaningful action, but at least the first steps are being taken. While missteps are guaranteed...I think we all should be more hopeful as the trip draws to a conclusion than we were at its outset.
Glad to see the North Koreans got the memo from Joe Biden that sooner or later someone was going to have to test Obama.
So, according to CNN, they dusted off one of their missiles with the unique, patented, squirrel in a hamster-wheel gyroscopic guidance system, to make like they were considering a launch (thus immediately putting almost everyone at the launch site in danger). How far they go is uncertain. But as Bill Clinton once wisely observed, nuclear weapons are North Korea's only cash crop.
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.