As was explained in part one of this post, following what is said or written about American politics is often difficult for Americans who are actually used to all the dissembling, spinning, deliberate misconstruing, hyperbole and other nonsense that is to spin facts and lies into glittering campaign finery.
But if you are not from the U.S., it's next two impossible to know what's important or what's not. Given the central role America still plays in the world -- G-zeroists notwithstanding -- cutting through the headlines and the soundbites to get to the core truths about what's happening in the world's highest-priced democracy is essential.
That's why I've tried to pick out a few terms and explain what each party means by them. Earlier this week, I visited the Republican lexicon. Today, we'll take a look at a handful of key illustrations of the quirks and curiosities that comprise the Dem dialect, with a special focus on a few that pertain to foreign policy.
The 1 Percent -- This is a perjorative term of art for every rich, spoiled, corrupt, indolent, exploitative millionaire in America who is not a donor to the Obama reelection effort or the Democratic National Committee. Donors are referred to as hard-working, job-creating illustrations of the enduring power of the American dream. (Also understood to refer to those who should be shouldering burden for balancing U.S. budget by paying "their fair share" of taxes.)
The 99 Percent -- This refers to the disenfranchised, struggling victims of Wall Street and corporatist exploitation. All these people deserve tax cuts, to be funded by the 1 percent. The fact that there is no way to address the deficit without a bigger burden falling on most of the members of the 99 percent, too, is just not something that should be discussed in public until we are in the midst of robust recovery lest the truth and arithmetic derail everything.
Bush Tax Cuts -- Source of all problems in the U.S. economy, even though President Obama celebrated extending them as a canny political victory in the middle of his first term. (Also known as the biggest political issue of December 2012.)
Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security -- The Holy Trinity of American politics. They are sacrosanct and must never be touched -- even if major surgery is the only way to actually save their lives.
Financial Services Reform -- A political mirage allowing the president to seemingly take a tough stand against the 1 percent while not alienating too much the fat cats who are needed to pump money into Dem coffers. Advocate it, sign it, but don't really overdo the enforcement side of it.
Campaign Finance Reform -- Something that is absolutely essential for restoring democracy in America, and which should be implemented just as soon as every currently serving Dem leaves office.
The President's Healthcare Victory -- Shhhh. Please don't mention this. Despite the fact that it actually benefitted millions, it is the Voldemort of Dem politics, "the policy whose name must not be spoken."
Romneycare -- Shhh. Please don't mention this either. Because as Dems, we'll be forced to admit we kinda like it.
The Unemployment Rate -- The president's true running mate (sorry, Joe.) If it dips to around 8 percent or below, the president wins re-election. Interesting fact: the president has almost no ability to impact this outcome and bares only a very limited responsibility for fluctuations in U.S. employment one way or another.
Europe -- Dem heaven. An ability to balance the love of good cuisine with the love for a well-constructed government bureaucracy. Topless beaches. The fact that the eurocrisis probably will have more to do with whether Obama wins reelection than anything he or anyone in the U.S. might do compromises this love affair somewhat.
China -- Growing up, most Dem policy wonks wanted to be European, today they want to be Chinese. And we hate them for that.
India -- China with democracy … really fractious democracy at that, and crazy, over-the-top, outspoken media chaos. A fast growing developing country with an important strategic role and a historical past that gave us Ben Kingsley. In other words, for visionary Dem foreign policy types, even better than Europe or China. The ultimate destination/partner for the Dem wonkocracy.
The Middle East -- Er, nice to know ya, time to go, "yay, democracy," "boo, Iran," "love ya, Israel" ... we're out of here.
"Barack Obama has a good working relationship with Bibi Netanyahu" -- Ha.
"It would be wrong to politicize the successful results of the Bin Laden raid" -- Let's play up this big success at every opportunity that arises. Wanna bet the story of the Navy SEAL who pulled the trigger leaks closer to election day? Best illustration of Dem cojones since Madeleine Albright first raised the possibility they might exist.
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Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, flip a coin. There are differences between the two to be sure. But in the end, the net dissimilarity between these two establishment politicians is going to end up being considerably less than campaign rhetoric will suggest -- or than you might hope for.
Neither is anything like a transformational figure. Both are responsible, cautious men. Both, like most presidential candidates, are flawed by their ambition. There may be differences in emphasis, of course. One is too cool, a bit of a weathervane, beholden to Wall Street, not well loved within his own party establishment, not trusted by his party's base and the other is ... well, I guess that proves my point. From foreign policy to domestic programs, you can be pretty sure the efforts they lead will look surprisingly similar.
Presidential candidates run to the middle (and winners hail from the mainstream) because the deciding votes are cast in the middle. Usually -- and there are periodic exceptions -- that is what accounts for the fact that most presidents have more in common with the men who preceded or followed them in office than they would care to acknowledge.
This is one of the reasons that there is regular refrain for third party presidential candidates. It is also one of the reasons that such undertakings are typically doomed to failure and counterproductive.
If you want to produce real change in the way the government of the United States functions, the way to do it is to focus on the Congress. And boy, does the Congress ever need changing.
The failure of the stuporcommittee (which as of this writing seems all but certain) to even seriously grapple with the issue of the deficit is one of the grossest examples of dereliction of duty in the U.S. government since, well, since the Congress approved the Bush tax cuts. As Senator Tom Coburn said when presented with the idea that the Congress had an approval rating of only 13 percent, "I want to know who those 13 percent are." The Congressional approval rating has now fallen to just 9 percent. This Congress doesn't deserve an approval rating. They don't deserve another day on the job. They could all go home tomorrow and I bet it would be six months before anyone even noticed. (That is after the celebrations had died down.)
Yet, it is in the Congress that an effective, instantly relevant third party initiative could be undertaken. What this country -- divided as it is -- needs, is a legislative third party. It needs a group of swing votes that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans could pass anything without. And given the current state of things, that means it could be a fairly small group -- a handful of senators, 10 or 20 or 30 congresspeople. And it would be possible to identify districts and states where electing a third party or sworn swing vote candidate would be possible. And it would not cost a fraction of what it would cost to win a presidential election. And the group would immediately hold the balance of power on the Hill.
Presidential campaigns capture the glamour. It's easier to connect change with a single face, a single name, a single personality. But, look at where Washington is dysfunctional today and you have to acknowledge, the problem lies at the far end of Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. Capitol Hill has become the Boot Hill of ideas, the place initiatives go to die.
Having a third party on a hill that both sides had to work with to get anything done would change the dynamics dramatically. It would force compromise because there literally would be no way to proceed without it. You would think that was true today but the problem with the two political parties is both see compromise as capitulation to the other, it's a zero sum game. With a third party, that was open to reasonable ideas from both sides ... and couldn't succeed without one or the other...that would change things. It would also create a movement that could grow giving people an alternative to the binary choices they face today.
Clearly, something must be done. If the failure of the supercommittee does not convince you of that then you are already resigned to the irreversible decline of the United States. Because that is precisely where this kind of leadership failure will take us. That is why as important as the presidential sweepstakes are, the really important election news story of 2012 will be whether the American people vote for change in a Congress that has sold them out in every way possible. Certainly every member of the supercommittee and the leadership of both parties should be challenged on their record of failure. They should not be allowed to simply blame it on the other side. Just as the president should not be allowed to merely blame this on the Congress. This was important ... and he chose not to engage, not to take the political risk of rolling up his sleeves and working toward a solution, not to threaten and cajole and do what past presidents have done. It -- like his decision to agree to the extension of the Bush tax cuts -- are among the low points of his otherwise quite accomplished presidency. But neither he nor his potential successor will be able to fix Washington from the Oval Office (which is why whomever wins should get out of it and invite more people into it than the president has done this term). The real responsibility for change we can believe in actually resides with the American people ... and the surest sign whether or not they have accepted that challenge will come when the votes are tallied after next year's congressional balloting.
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Folks, I think we've been had. Worse we've been snookered by a group of guys in the U.S. Congress who are not exactly known for their cleverness. Think about it: we have this oxymoronic supercommittee that has been set up so that if the members fail to do what we ask of them, we are actually the ones who are penalized (through automatic wholesale cuts to government programs, some loved by Dems, some loved the GOP). Shouldn't the members have been forced to sign a deal that said that if they didn't reach a deal by the deadline that they would resign? Shouldn't they actually have some skin in the game?
Trust me, if these dithering poseurs were actually accountable for their own failure to do what they have been hired to do, perhaps they might take the job at hand more seriously. Maybe they are too busy with their insider trading to be bothered with little stuff like the future of the republic.
It's not like the job is actually that tough. They are only being asked to cut the deficit by the equivalent of $120 or so billion a year for a decade. That may sound like a lot but it's out of a $3.7 trillion budget. So it's about 3 percent of the total. And that's including the radical possibility that we actually consider solving the problem by raising revenues a weensy bit. After all, the amount in question is less than we are spending each year on the two wars we don't want to be fighting any more in the Mideast.
Can you imagine what would happen to, say, a mid-level corporate drone who when asked to cut three percent from his budget said he couldn't do it? He'd be canned before he was able to simper his first excuse. And that's just what should happen to these guys.
To put their bungling in perspective, consider for a moment that in today's news alone we have reports that historical enemies India and Pakistan have managed to hammer out an agreement normalizing trade relations, that Syria's neighbors have reversed their behavior of decades and started to pressure the Assad regime to pack it up, that even the Greek and Italian governments are making progress dealing with crises that they have let fester for years. In other words, government officials in other countries are at least showing signs of trying to grapple with tough issues albeit with varying degrees of success.
But here in Washington, the supercommittee and the Congressional leaders to whom they feel they report (they actually report to us, but that's seemingly beside the point to them) haven't thought saving the U.S. economy from yet another crisis of confidence in the markets not to mention the other grave consequences of continued fecklessness was important enough to get around to with only a week left to go on the clock. Insiders in both parties are giving up hope for a deal (although my money is still on a last minute faux-deal that is both small and meaningless when scrutinized). And for everyone involved, the expectation is that they can blame it on the other side and go on with business as usual.
If we, the American people, had any sense of urgency ourselves, we would put an end to that complacency in the one way we can. Should this process fail, we should start a significant public movement to vote out the current Congressional leadership and every single member of the supercommittee ... and to send a strong message that the next Congress needs a change of management regardless of who wins. These guys have disqualified themselves from further consideration as "leaders." They can't do it. They won't. They will have had their shot and failed. And should they not rise to this particularly important moment, we need to recognize that unless we fire them for their incompetence that future generations of congresspeople will feel that they too can pose and pontificate and fail with impunity ... thus producing the kind of institutional breakdown that unchecked will do more to undercut American power than two centuries of international adversaries could muster.
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This week's reports that 20 percent of the U.S. Congress will be visiting Israel this month are stunning. Eighty-one members of Congress -- two thirds of them Republicans, 47 of them freshmen -- apparently think it is more important to be visiting Israel than it is to be at home dealing with the worst economic crisis in modern memory. America's economy is in flames and these guys are taking lobbyist-funded trips to what, watch Israelis take to the streets to protest the high-cost of living in that country?
This Jewish, Israel-supporting, foreign policy specialist says, "It's time to come home, ladies and gentlemen." While such visits are important and there is certainly a place for them in the lives of American legislators, now is not the time.
Indeed, I continue to be stupefied that in the midst of market turmoil that is directly associated with political dysfunction in Washington that no one who works in a leadership role in this city has the conscience or the awareness to recognize that this is not an August in which a recess should be taken. These folks should be back at their desks and hard at work. The president ought to take to his podium and demand they return. He ought to say he is going to provide one big new idea a day for helping to get the economy back on its feet until the Congress finally starts to take yes for an answer.
The political objectives behind these Israel trips are clear and they reveal the opportunity costs to the American people associated with campaign season. Every moment spent jumping through a hoop for a potential group of supporters is a moment spent failing to address one of the many urgent issues confronting the United States.
When will these pretenders grow up or make way for serious, committed adults who have the appetite and the spine to grapple with our current challenges? When will American voters demand better, or at least start paying attention?
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Earlier today I received the following email from an admirer:
You are a disgusting pig. I pray to God that you get brain cancer."
This was noteworthy on several levels. First, I don't even know the person who sent this. Typically, I need to know someone for a while before they reach that kind of conclusion. Second, the recent economic shocks have not, as one might have hoped, sent a message to America that we are all in this together and it is time for a new civility in public discourse. Third, for sure I will never use my cell phone again without a hands free device.
My fan was responding to a quotation attributed to me that appeared in the New York Times. The article, by the dependably insightful Helene Cooper, was entitled "A Test for Obama's View of a One-Term Presidency." It was an otherwise excellent piece which addressed Obama's stated desire to be a good one-term president rather than a mediocre two-term president. Its point was that the current challenges faced by the United States may force him to choose between these two options because of the fearsome demands running for re-election is likely to make on his time and thus his ability to effectively lead the country through and out of the current, enduring, complex economic crisis.
Personally, as I have stated before, even the president's most ardent supporters have to acknowledge the realities of a modern presidential campaign: He must work tirelessly to raise perhaps $1 billion and then spend essentially a year fending off attacks and implementing a complex, demanding strategy likely to be so taxing that it will be very, very difficult for him. Oh yeah and he also needs to give the rescue of the U.S. economy the attention it warrants. I'm a supporter of the president and I think he is a considerably better choice to hold the office than anyone who is a declared Republican candidate for president or who has been mentioned as a potential such candidate. In some extreme cases, the Republican candidates would have me shopping for real estate in New Zealand.
That said, the Times article due to the limits of space involved truncated one of my views in a way that I believe triggered the brain cancer greeting I received this morning. The story said:
Mr. Obama, Mr. Rothkopf argues, has to focus in the next 18 months on getting the economy back on track for the long haul, even if that means pushing for politically unpalatable budget cuts, including real - but hugely unpopular - reductions in Social Security, other entitlement programs and the military."
While everything in this statement is true with respect to my views, it is distorted because it refers to only part of what I said when I was interviewed. The question posed to me was, to paraphrase, "How does the president get a meaningful deal done and what would the deal look like?"
My response was that in order to address our twin crises--- unemployment and the deficit -- he would have to seek to produce significant, job-creating stimulus and in exchange for that, which will be resisted by the Republicans, do a serious budget deal. That serious deal in turn would have to involve painful concessions on entitlements by the president and the Democrats in order to win Republican concessions on increasing revenues and producing meaningful defense cuts. While such an approach sounds implausible, it is also the only way for America to get back on our feet.
Reasonable observers -- and even angry, frustrated, hurlers of invective at strangers -- will have to admit that regarding all the elements of such a grand bargain there are ways to approach the problem that could appeal to both sides, to reason and stay within the rules of arithmetic (the real kind you learned in elementary school, not the Washington variety). So, for example, you could produce a stimulus that made sense to fiscal conservatives by embracing and building up ideas like an infrastructure bank that would use limited federal funds leveraged up by major private investment to provide the urgently need renovation America's transportation and IT networks require. It's an idea that is supported by both the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and by Sens. John Kerry and Kay Bailey Hutchison. You could also move investment spending onto a capital budget thus forcing the Congress to treat money that is likely to bring a return differently from that which is going straight out the window … as companies already do.
On the budget deal, any superficial consideration of our debt problems has to acknowledge that the current structure of our entitlement programs is unsustainable. Further, proposals like raising the retirement age or reducing benefits for rich people who don't need them or creating more competition and fairer pricing, make sense in any case. Personally, just so you know where I am coming from, I believe the only way we will get there is some kind of new, national single-payer plan that encourages competition … see, for example, how they handle this in Switzerland. But since that's not going to happen soon, we should consider some of these other basic steps. And one reason we need to is in order to pry loose more revenue. We're going to have to accept a value-added tax (VAT) and/or a carbon tax very soon. We can trade some of those revenues for tax reform that the Republicans want, especially for a corporate tax code simplification that will help attract needed foreign investment to the United States. Should the Bush tax cuts be allowed to expire? Of course. Urgently. It was a mistake to extend them. It was a mistake to implement them in the first place. And America needs to get over the idea that we need to spend more than every other country in the world on defense added up in order to be secure. Want a place to start there? Let's get the heck out of Afghanistan and Iraq ASAP.
The point is, my quote in the Times offered only a shard of my views, and one that might understandably offend when taken out of context. That said, when put into context, I am sure there is something in my views to offend everyone. Going forward we need to look for that. If everyone is howling, then we are probably doing something right.
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A couple of years ago, in the wake of the market shocks of 2008, a colleague and I went around the world speaking to business and government leaders. In every conversation, the question was: "What's next?" We responded by saying that the answer was better described with letters than numbers.
We then drew out on a sheet of paper a few letters: a "V", an "L", a "U", a "W," and a backwards "J". The idea was that each represented a graph of the path the U.S. economy would take. A "V" was a pretty conventional path for a downturn with a fall followed by a rebound with a similar slope. An "L" was a kind of disaster scenario. It meant that, like the old woman in the television commercial, once the market had fallen, it couldn't get up. A "U" was a "V" with a longer period at the bottom, during which the economy was in a recession. A "W" was the tease and then heartbreak of the double-dip. And the backwards "J" was perhaps the most troubling of all because it also seemed the most realistic: the market would fall, be kept down for a protracted period and then, when it recovered, it would not recover to the levels it had enjoyed before. It suggested that this crisis was not just a momentary problem but a watershed and that, afterwards, America would not be the same again.
Well, our presentation would be a lot shorter today. Now, for the economy as a whole, we have two choices: a "W" or something that is a combination of the "W" and the backwards "J" -- call it an "unfinished W." Because, denials of the politicians and pedants aside, in real world terms, most Americans at least feel like they are entering the double dip, the downturn we were promised would not happen. The only real question now is whether the recovery that comes brings us back up to past levels or whether it only gets us part of the way there to a future of protracted slower growth.
In looking for the reasons why we are where we are, we gain some insights into which of these patterns we are most likely to follow. For example, there is the old algebraic formula that has once again seemed to govern here in the U.S., even though its meaning has seemed to change over the years.
The formula is R + D = W. In it, R + D represents America's political arithmetic of Republicans plus Democrats. Interestingly, however, W is a variable that has meant different things for different eras. Initially, the W stood for the wins the U.S. was racking up economically and otherwise worldwide. Our political system in this era worked out to being a net advantage for the U.S. -- always fractious but at critical moments, from commitments to war to the New Deal to the Great Society, capable of coming together to make elevating, energizing decisions.
In a later era, during the first decade of this century, with Democrats and Republicans almost evenly divided and new media and national attitudes reducing much of the political debate into a bitter, lowest-common-denominator stew flavored with acrimony and big floating chunks of foolishness, the "W" ended up standing for the middle initial of the then-president of the United States. In that case, the "W" no longer meant a win but, rather, a president who was both fiscally and internationally reckless.
Now, the W refers to a situation in which R and D end up cancelling each other out or producing a net negative result. The political process has produced measures that either compound problems or fail to address them. And the market, sensing the problem here, and seeing similar formulas that have zeroed-out leadership, decisiveness and progress elsewhere, has slammed us back onto a vertiginous downward trajectory.
Are there other factors fueling the downturn? Macro cycles? Core economic problems? Yes, of course. But in Europe, the U.S., and Japan, one common denominator is that the current round of concerns is dominated by the economics of failed leadership. When we went around saying it wasn't numbers but letters on which people should focus, we didn't know it but we were making an important point: the point that you have to look past the simple arithmetic. It's not economics but politics that seems to be driving this current phase of the crisis.
The inability of America to come together to fund the government programs and reforms demanded by recovery, the inability of Europe to address its own structural flaws, the inability of Japan's diet to produce any consistent series of major decisions to fuel change and compensate for the country's demographic and other great challenges -- these factors have led markets to think that the growth many companies have enjoyed the past couple years, the energy seen in emerging markets, the massive amount of capital available in the world, would not enough to fuel real, serious recovery.
All that said, while it is a "W" or an "unfinished W" for the economy as a whole, for the bottom third of the population, it is a "U" or, worse, an "L." They never rebounded even slightly. They have fallen away from the top of society like the jettisoned booster of a Saturn V rocket. And partial recovery hasn't helped them a bit. For them, even the misleading uptick in the middle of a double dip would have been encouraging. But it never came, and now, wherever they look, the numbers don't add up and the letters they see spell out a bleak future. That will remain the case until, once again, adding R and D in the same equation produces the positive by product of cooperation, compromise, reason, and good faith.
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"I don't think most people in Washington have any idea of the damage that has been done in the past few weeks to America's brand around the world." So observed today one of the keenest observers of Washington I know, a major international figure who is regularly in touch with heads of state, finance ministries, and financial institutions worldwide. He says they are shocked and worried by what they have observed over the past several months.
While some in Washington are congratulating themselves for the debt-ceiling deal, they are failing to recognize the toll their debate has taken. Rather than restoring confidence in a United States returning to sound financial principles, they have revealed -- both in their actions of the past few months and in the cynical, half-baked nature of the deal that has been struck -- profound flaws in the character of our system and our leaders.
A downgrade may come or not. Certainly, if the ratings agencies stick to their guns and assess whether real progress has been made in controlling the growth of U.S. indebtedness, one is imminent. This deal, as has been noted by observers such as Gang of Six member Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican respected by Democrats for his straight shooting on these issues, is less than meets the eye. It neither produces really meaningful savings nor does it actually lock us into a process that is certain to produce meaningful savings in the near future. There are too many accounting tricks and loopholes, too many hard choices sidestepped and pushed off to the future.
In fact, the deal is really an almost perfect manifestation of what might be considered the ultimate legislative form of double negative: the compromised compromise. Finding common ground is healthy. Providing both sides with cover but taking no real steps to advance either of our national necessities -- promoting growth or reducing the deficit -- is quite another matter. The result is much more of a muddle than it is, as advertised, a triumph for the middle.
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Celebrating the pending debt-ceiling deal is like a cancer patient in a burning house surrounded by hostile troops celebrating finding his empty wallet. It is not only a solution to a self-created, third-order problem; it is one that is not just inadequate to addressing the really serious challenges at hand; it has almost nothing to do with them.
While criticisms of the deal that note that it barely makes a dent in the debt and buys into spurious principles about how to actually balance the debt are perfectly fair, there are three much bigger problems associated with the proposed agreement.
The first, of course, is that it reveals what a hopeless mess the U.S. political system is. It does so via the process that got us here, the problem being addressed, and the deal's reliance on numerous tell-tale standards of Washington nonsense -- such as the very long-term nature of the cuts or the reliance on yet another committee to address what couldn't be resolved. This would be worrisome in any case. But it is made more troubling because of the other two major problems with the deal.
The second problem is that the deal is more than an agreement to minimal debt cuts, a convoluted process that is more likely to invite mischief among our political class than it is to make a sensible dent in our national debt, and a concession to extremists whose values will bankrupt much of the United States while handing over even more of the national patrimony to a super-empowered elite. It's that it also carries with it an invisible unspoken rider. The rider is that, since this process was so traumatic, the likelihood that any new spending program of size or new revenue program is off the table for the next 15 months or so … despite the fact that the staggering U.S. economy needs both.
(And for those who think the president has scored a "victory" by getting an extension of the debt ceiling through the end of 2012 -- think again. First, there will be plenty of other opportunities for further standoffs in the normal budget process. Secondly, what the president gave up in exchange for this is a process in which the failure to agree on a path forward guarantees nothing but cuts to the budget … not smart ones as much as mutual punitive ones. Thirdly, the deal probably is not big enough to avoid a downgrade.)
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While President Obama's comments on the debt ceiling standoff on Friday morning were pretty much a non-event, there was one thing he said that was so dead on target it is likely to live on. When -- and I don't think it's "if" -- the U.S. gets downgraded, it will not be because the United States does not have the ability to meet our obligations it will be because the U.S. does not have a AAA political system.
While the president meant this as a commentary on the current situation, the more disturbing element of the comment is that the flaws to which he was referring to are likely to endure and exacerbate the economic problems already burdening the nation. It would be a mistake to think that those flaws are simply a matter of the misguided views of one party or another or even the extremism of one wing or both.
The system is fundamentally structurally damaged. While we would benefit from having a third party, plans to introduce a third party candidate for president ignore the fact that our more urgent need for a third party is in the Congress. Further, adding parties won't address the money cancer that has corrupted the system and which is getting worse with each passing election's growing demands for more and more cash.
In addition, the structural problems are more deeply ingrained in the processes that drive the political system, such as having an upper house of Congress that requires supermajority votes to get almost anything done and yet also allows individual senators to hold up nominations for critical offices indefinitely without rationale. Budget problems are associated with Byzantine collection of appropriating and authorizing committees and made worse by the self-interested behavior of chairs and ranking members who see the gavel as an ATM card that enables them to fund campaigns and stay in power.
No, as President Obama rightly observes, when the downgrade comes it is likely to be less due to the size or cost of our government than it is its shape, structure and the personalities of those who are mismanaging it. But we shouldn't let ourselves off the hook so easily. Those personalities serve at the behest of the American people and to the extent those people do not demand productivity and reason from their representatives then ultimately the downgrade is a verdict about the judgment of the U.S. electorate.
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It's a comedy. It's a tragedy. No one is sure who deserves top billing. There's a massive debate over what would constitute a happy ending. The frenzy over the edition of Cirque du So Lame headlining in Washington has turned everyone into a theater critic. Jackie Calmes, writing in the New York Times, sent the White House into a tizzy, for example, with her assertion that President Obama has in fact become a supernumerary in the current drama.
Personally, I think the whole thing was scripted not by Boehner nor Reid nor Norquist nor even by the elusive Master Teabagger writing from his secret retreat somewhere near Black Helicopter, Montana, but by Eugene Ionesco, writing in Paris in the late 1950s. Back then, the play was called "Rhinoceros" and with it Ionesco helped introduce the public at large to the theater of the absurd in much the same way the denizens of the swamplands of the Potomac are doing for America and the world today.
In the original version of the play, a town is gradually destroyed as each of its citizens, save one independent minded fellow with a healthy appreciation for wine and conversation, is transformed into a rhinoceros. Ionesco captured the thrust of what he was getting at in an interview for Le Monde in January of 1960 when he said:
I have been very much struck by what one might call the current of opinion, by its rapid evolution, its power of contagion, which is that of a real epidemic. People allow themselves suddenly to be invaded by a new religion, a doctrine, a fanaticism. ... At such moments we witness a veritable mental mutation. I don't know if you have noticed it, but when people no longer share your opinions, when you can no longer make yourself understood by them, one has the impression of being confronted with monsters-rhinos, for example. They have that mixture of candour and ferocity. They would kill you with the best of consciences."
That was all half a century ago and in France both of which would in other moments make it all seem wildly alien to most Americans. But despite Ionesco's own observation that "you can only predict things after they have happened" he would see much that is painfully familiar in Washington today. Lines from "Rhinoceros" ring as true in 2011 as they did 51 years ago (when the play was seen as an allegory about the rise of extremist movements like Nazism).
"There are many sides to reality," he wrote as if prescribing the game plane adopted by many players in the current battle over the role and size of American government, "Choose the one that's best for you." Surely, this approach, used by everyone in this town in which the most dangerous entitlement program is the one that leaves everyone believing they are entitled to their own facts, is taking the theory of relativity to new depths, previously unimagined by science.
Or, as the United States hurtles toward outcomes that were once unimaginable -- like debt downgrades and withering gridlock in what was once the world's most outstanding set of government institutions -- Ionesco offers the following dry acceptance of what follows when the absurd becomes the commonplace: "I can easily picture the worst, because the worst can easily happen."
In Washington today, the rhinoceroses are winning. Our extremists are not murderers like the jihadists we are at war with or Anders Breivik, but they are nonetheless at work on America's political system in a way that follows the pattern about which Ionesco warned. They promote a doctrine that is a kind of solvent for facts-breaking them down and distorting them until they become unrecognizable. They argue in the true absurdist tradition that somehow they offer a superior form of mathematics that involves only subtraction. They deny history-whether it is the compromises of Reagan, the big-government spending of every recent Republican president, the debt-ceiling extensions of the past, or the culpability of failed Republican tax cuts and spending n unnecessary wars for creating the problem we face. They view reason and compromise as weakness. And they claim they are helping those who they are irreparably hurting.
Magnificently ... from an absurdist perspective...they are combining inexperience, ignorance, intolerance and intransigence into a formula by which they are setting the rules for America. They recognize that, as military strategist Ed Luttwak once observed to me, "In most wars, it's the dirtiest fighter...or the craziest...who sets the rules of the game." Regardless of the final outcome of the debt ceiling drama, a few things are emerging as new realities in Rhino DC:
It was all put into perfect perspective for me in a conversation with one of the most experienced diplomats currently resident in Washington who, after expressing deep concern over the current follies on the Hill, recounted a cartoon that had recently run an international newspaper which showed Hamid Karzai and another leader from the region reading headlines from Washington and wondering aloud whether America was ready for democracy. Or, as Ionesco, observes in "Rhinoceros", "Lunacy is lunacy and that's all there is to it."
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President Obama and Speaker of the House Boehner both wasted their opportunities to address the American people Monday night. They repeated familiar formulations, made no progress, offered no hope. Indeed, they offered the American people a display of empty petulance that will only confirm their darkest fears that Washington is now hopelessly broken. Obama's call for compromise and balance was far more lucid, rational and constructive, but, even as one who is very supportive of the approach offered by the President, watching the remarks I was forced to acknowledge that neither man led us one inch closer to the resolution of the unnecessary, man-made crisis that now holds the United States and the global economy in its thrall.
As Melissa Harris-Perry stated accurately in wrap-up comments on MSNBC, if this kind of display served anyone at all, it was the Republicans who argue that government is the problem. To them, it hardly matters that they are the ones who have guaranteed that theirs is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Which of course, would be just breathtakingly cynical were it not so dangerous.
It's dangerous of course, because government is not the problem. Indeed, for those who expect a functioning national defense, or stewardship of our national resources, or care for those who cannot help themselves, or education for our children, or the infrastructure we need to compete in the world, government is an essential part of the solution. In fact, in times like these, it is an even more important part of the solution than it is when the economy is more robust.
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This week marks the premiere of the eighth installment of the most successful series in movie history. As such, it offers a useful comparison in the differences between what makes a successful summer blockbuster in Hollywood and what makes for one in Washington, DC. Here are the top ten:
10. Too Few House Elves in Washington (Too Many House Death Eaters)
Oh Dobby, Dobby, if only there were a man in Washington of your stature. Poor Dobby who died, according to his epitaph, "a free elf" was cranky and even less photogenic than Anthony Weiner, but he had heart and courage and took risks for those he served in ways that none on Capitol Hill seem to even comprehend. Meanwhile, there are far too many Death Eaters up there on the wrong end of Pennsylvania Avenue, swirling around in service of He Whose Name Cannot Be Spoken (Grover Norquist) regardless of the pain it may bring to those who actually elected them. (Norquist may succeed with anti-tax religion in doing what the leadership of the Soviet Union could not -- bankrupting and thus breaking America.)
9. Even Hollywood Accounting is Better Than How They Do Math in DC
Hollywood is famous for skimming and double-entry book-keeping but even they know it takes both revenues and sensible spending to balance a budget. And they sure have their focused fixed securely on the bottom line on ways that would be revolutionary in DC. Meanwhile back in our nation's capital it would take a Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher with more gifts than Mad Eye Moody to combat the trickery that has in just over a decade transformed a budget surplus into a $1.6 trillion annual deficit. (Face it: Threats to downgrade U.S. debt aside, the real story is that Moody's and S&P haven't trash-canned America's Triple A rating yet. America is ... very lucky ... to still coasting on the reputation of past generations of leaders.)
Read the full list here.
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Last night I attended a dinner of old Washington hands. Some had served in high government offices, some were lobbyists, some were think tankers, some were still running for office, others were active in campaigns of one sort or another. These were seasoned players who had seen it all … and there was fear and outrage in their eyes.
They felt the leaders of both parties had lost any sense of accountability. They were appalled by the degree to which, at a moment of national crisis, twisted notions of ideological purity and cynical politics had obliterated any focus on solving the problems at hand, on public service. Whether or not the country averts fiscal default, that we had come to this point was a sign to all that a leadership default had already taken place.
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Here at Les Recontres Economiques d'Aix-en-Provence we are ostensibly discussing "The States of the World" but in reality the buzz around the event is about the global economic ugly pageant. Although much of the conversation among delegates --whether at the venerable conference sites like the law school of the Universite Paul Cezanne or the local outpost of Sciences Po -- focuses on the harrowing state of the Eurozone, one can regularly hear concern expressed for the other contestants in the current perverse competition among the world's economies.
To understand the competition, you just have to understand the old joke about the group of friends whose picnic is disturbed by a hungry grizzly bear. As the friends bolt from their campsite, one stops to put on his sneakers. The others ask what he is doing, worried that he will never be able to outrun the bear if he stops. The one in the sneakers observes as he starts sprinting away, "I don't have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun the rest of you."
So it is now with the global economic ugly pageant. While most of the major economies of the world are spluttering and the possibility of an unprecedented geoeconomic disaster remains palpably real, what money there is does have to go somewhere. That place is likely to be the least ugly of the world's economies. In other words, absent a true safe haven, capital will seek the safest haven of those available. It's one reason the dollar has done fairly well recently, for example. While the U.S. government seems to do everything in its power to screw things up economically, investors buy dollars because the managers of the world's other big currencies, the Europeans and the Japanese, are screwing things up worse.
The question now is will our "luck" remain the same going forward? How will the world's economies fare in the next round of this contest? Here's the current betting line based on my scientific eavesdropping on conversations here in Provence, appropriate discounting for self-interest and biases of the speakers and my own reading of the tea leaves that get floated as economic news in the world's newspapers. (Note: I am focusing only on national and regional economies here. Suffice it to say that almost certainly the big losers of the coming months -- whether policymakers accidentally blow up the world economy or they dodge disaster through a judicious combination of austerity and stimulus -- will be the poor. They have no voices advocating for them (as do, for example, the makers of private jets currently lobbying to keep the corporate tax breaks their purchasers receive under present U.S. law). Austerity programs will squeeze them further. Disaster will crush them. And almost certainly the biggest winners will be big corporations and the super-rich who will venue-shop and use their access to cash to buy up devalued assets including fire-sales among privatizing formerly state-owned bric a brac like roads, ports, powerplants and water rights.)
Dear Democracy Advocates and Freedom Fighters Everywhere,
We know it is hard enough to battle autocrats, daubing the tear gas out of your eyes, spending your nights in jail cells or your days dodging errant NATO bombs without having the thing you are fighting for debased and devalued by its supposed champions. We apologize.
We know what is happening in the one-time capital of the Free World now is ugly and demoralizing and no doubt has many of your supporters wondering if democracy is really worth its costs. Are you fighting for freedom of speech and assembly and representative government, those supporters must be asking, or is it inadvertently a fight that will ultimately bring you your own versions of Tea-Partiers and gridlock and the complete sacrifice of national interests on the altar of cheap political showmanship?
We are sorry our display of the spineless, visionless, shrill, embarrassing debasement of our political system is so ill-timed given your purposes ... but by now you must realize that while we are pretty good at giving speeches about democracy promotion, we've never been so great at following through with support for your efforts.
Ok, maybe that's not really the best apology ... suggesting you are to blame for believing too much in a country that almost always brings down that which it lifts up. Let me try another tack: Perhaps you can turn all this to your benefit if you simply change your perspective.
Perhaps the trick is in not looking at America as a beacon of democracy anymore but rather as a kind of a lighthouse perched up on the rocks of where not to go, of what not to be, warning you to avoid our example.
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Congressman Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, deserves considerable credit for violating the "no leadership zone" that has seemingly been imposed on Washington without even benefit of a vote of the U.N. Security Council. His proposed 2012 budget is misguided in parts, inadequate in others, and would be laughed out of any serious discussion about getting America's fiscal house in order -- if such a discussion were actually taking place in Washington. But it's not, of course. The White House has been frustratingly passive on the subject, failing to address America's deficit in any meaningful way and treating their own deficit commission's recommendations as though they were created in the radioactive bowels of a Fukushima reactor rather than by a bipartisan panel of experts. Meanwhile, the right and the left have been engaged in their usual childish political games in which both sides are far more focused on criticizing their opponent's manifold and inarguable shortcomings than they are in addressing their own craven shallowness, pandering to their bases and inability to do simple arithmetic.
Overshadowed by this debate that makes Muammar al-Qaddafi's rants look like the crystalline rationalism of Spinoza or Descartes have been some of the details of Ryan's plan and their implications. While much of the discussion of the proposed budget has centered on potential cuts to health care for older Americans and its complete dodge on seeking new revenue or seriously looking at defense budget cuts, there has not been enough discussion of one of its most egregious -- and stunningly wrongheaded and dangerous -- components: the utter evisceration of the U.S. international affairs budget.
As White House Budget Director Jack Lew has accurately observed, a "budget is not just a collection of numbers, but an expression of our values and aspirations." Thus, Ryan's budget -- which clearly has been vetted carefully by his fellow Republican leaders -- can be seen as a manifestation of Republican views on everything from how we should treat our parents to what America's role should be in the world. I'll leave it to others to continue the debate on health care. Instead, I would just like to point out that according to the summary of the budget in today's Washington Post, Ryan is proposing spending $27 billion less than the administration's figure of $63 billion on international affairs -- the portion of the budget covering diplomacy and U.S. foreign assistance programs. That 43 percent whack is by far the most draconian of all Ryan's cuts when measured in terms of the contrast between the White House's and Ryan's 2012 proposals.
Meanwhile, on defense, Ryan is proposing spending $26 billion less than Obama … but out of a much, much larger base so the Republican proposal is just 3.5 percent less than that of the administration. What this suggests is that Ryan and company feel that in the world in which we live today, the tools of American foreign policy should almost exclusively be those of force and hard power and that we should effectively unilaterally disarm in terms of soft power and diplomacy.
At just the moment when aid is most critical on initiatives of vital national security from fighting terrorism to stabilizing the Middle East to winning support for the U.S. in regions where our rivals are spending furiously to tip the scales in their favor, Ryan would effectively shut off the lights in Foggy Bottom and say that America will now do less, be less engaged, be less influential -- right up until the point at which any issue must be resolved with force. And of course, removing the tools of diplomacy and persuasion virtually guarantees we will be required to use the military and coercive tools that are all we have left.
Think about it … this is a budget that says the developed country that spends less than any other on aid will shrink that amount dramatically while still maintaining its status as the country that spends more on defense than every other significant power in the world combined. More $9 billion dollar next-generation aircraft carriers? Check. Less aid to ensure Egypt follows through on its reforms and the Middle East is stabilized? Check. Them's our values, says Ryan: We're cutting all programs for "speaking softly" and only maintaining those for "carrying a big stick."
And, while he's at it, underscoring that this budget shows a lack of national security awareness that is as breathtaking as it is frightening, Ryan throws in a whopping $7 billion cut in proposed Energy spending levels just to help ensure the country remains dependent on foreign sources of energy from dangerous places. Tax cuts for the rich? Intact … actually, let's make them and corporate tax cuts bigger. Spending to ensure America's energy security and create jobs doing it? Cut.
Add all this up and what do you get? A powerful statement by Ryan and the Republicans that they don't understand foreign policy and that they don't want America to continue to play a leadership role in the world. Appalling as that is, it pales in comparison to the even greater threat to U.S. leadership that is posed by the fact that no one has dared to do what is sensible and required and offered up a budget that solves America's fiscal problems the only ways it can be done: by sensibly cutting both defense and entitlement spending and by increasing revenues.
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It says something about Gary Locke's tenure as secretary of commerce that it is clearly a promotion for him to have been named to an ambassadorial post and sent to the other side of the world. It also says something about the post he is being offered -- ambassador to China -- by far the U.S. government's most important diplomatic posting in the world. Locke is an excellent choice for the new job and will undoubtedly excel in the role. In fact, there is really only one thing the Obama administration can do to make this smart appointment even better: It can not appoint a replacement for Locke.
Locke is a soft-spoken, detail-oriented, thoughtful, lawyerly fellow, which is not surprising given that in addition to being the former governor of Washington, he is also a lawyer. As a Chinese-speaking, trade-smart Chinese-American from a state with important export ties to China and having the stature that comes of cabinet and state governor posts, he's an ideal choice for the Beijing job.
His tenure as commerce secretary was muted because his particular skill set was not particularly suited to being a cheerleader for U.S. industry. He has no bombast in him, and for a politician he is singularly devoid of the hail-fellow-well-met gene. But beyond his personal traits, one of the reasons he struggled as commerce secretary was that the Commerce Department itself is such a mishmash of agencies with competing missions that the reality is that the vast majority of people who have led the agency have disappeared without a trace into its bowels.
Frankly, it should be considered a destination of choice by the folks over at the federal witness protection program.
President Obama and those closest to him -- including one of the few people who have ever successfully led the Commerce Department and then gone on to bigger and better things, White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley -- recognize this and have very wisely and none too soon undertaken a review of whether or not to restructure the agency along with the other white elephants, redundancies, and lost causes of the federal bureaucracy. The effort is being led by former business exec Jeff Zients, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, and as a former management consultant, CEO, and very successful entrepreneur, an ideal choice for the mission.
While it is reported that Locke himself only heard of the president's intention to announce the initiative to rationalize the structure of departments including his own a few minutes before the announcement was made, the idea is a sound one that should be well-received by both parties in the current atmosphere of frugality -- or at least expressed frugality -- in Washington.
What Obama should do is appoint an acting commerce secretary to serve as a place holder. (Perhaps appointing Zients into a kind of caretaker role to oversee the change would be a good step. An analogy is the role Elizabeth Warren is currently playing re: the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.) Putting someone new and "permanent" in the existing commerce job would a.) Immediately create an opponent to any meaningful restructuring and b.) Be quite tough if they knew there was a serious effort to dismantle the agency afoot. Then, the president and his team should take the steps that have been obviously called for by many of us who have worked at the Commerce Department and on the economic side of the U.S. government for years. They would include:
KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images
While it is often ruefully noted that you can't pick your relatives, there is an expectation in life that you can pick your partners. Barack Obama is discovering that when you are president of the United States, that's just not the case.
In fact, if there is one theme that runs through every corner of the Obama presidency it is that he has been forced into partnerships that are so complex, difficult, and undependable that it must leave him yearning for the relative simplicity of good old fashioned enmities. This was illustrated yesterday as the president made the short walk across Lafayette Park to visit the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, symbolic headquarters of the U.S. business community, a group with which the president has come to realize he must work more closely going forward.
But in and amid all those complicated relationships, which are the most difficult? Naturally, there are many ways to measure this but we'll stick with one: Which among the most difficult are most likely to blow up in his face during the next two years?
Here's the verdict:
This, the most important international bilateral relationship, is both difficult and likely to be relatively stable because it is so complex. There is so much economic co-dependency here that the political issues are likely to work themselves out. Over the next two years trade and currency tensions may grow, but it is unlikely that either side will flirt with a big blow up prior to the 2012 leadership change in China or the presidential elections that same year in the U.S.
China is likely to be the U.S. most important international counterpart in the decade ahead but Russia remains the wildcard among the major powers. Stephen Cohen summed it up well on "Morning Joe" this morning: Russia's the biggest country in landmass, the leader in energy output and it has all those nuclear weapons. It also has a massive Muslim population, related challenges in its near abroad, memories of empire and what might politely be called a mischievous streak when it comes to international challenges. Oh, and it is undergoing a demographic meltdown and it is suffering from a divided less-than-dependably friendly political leadership. It's at the bottom of this list primarily because of the "next two years" focus of our metric.
Israel is the United States' most dependable friend in the Middle East and a vital ally. That said it is also facing massively unsettling changes from within and without that are creating enormous pressures on its political leaders. The Bibi-Barack marriage was never exactly made in Heaven but as the Israelis face demographic pressures at home, the Hezbollah take-over of Lebanon, instability in Jordan and Egypt, the prospect of a nuclear Iran, growing international pressure to cut a deal with the Palestinians and seeming growing inability of the Palestinians to cut a deal due to their own internal divisions ... what was difficult is going to get any easier. While many expect Netanyahu to offer his own concessions and a roadmap to progress sometime soon, there is real concern even among his supporters whether he can go far enough to break the logjam in the peace process. If he can't, pressure will build in this already fraught partnership.
Egypt nudges out Israel only because it is so volatile right now and we don't know where the current unrest now heading into its third week is likely to head. One thing we do know, there are almost no circumstances in which the relationship will be easier for the United States. If there are massive reforms, a more pluralistic Egypt will be harder to deal with than an autocracy with a fairly dependable ally at the helm. If the current regime holds, they will never trust the U.S. in the same way as they did prior to this crisis.
6. Democrats in the Congress
Will Rogers said, "I'm not a member of any organized party, I'm a Democrat!" And as far as we know he never sat at a cocktail party between bickering leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer or Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer. (Although, Pelosi clearly had a little celebratory sip of champagne last night to celebrate the departure of Jane Harmon, a longtime thorn in her side.) Pick an issue from fighting the deficit to rationalizing our regulatory framework to investing in energy infrastructure, you'll find both Obama's biggest supporters and some of his most difficult opponents in his own party.
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Stephen J. Solarz, who died Monday afternoon at the age of 70 after a long, courageous battle with cancer, was a member of the U.S. Congress' "Watergate Class" of 1974. He served 18 remarkable and illustrious years in the House of Representatives, becoming one of the Democratic Party's most respected foreign-policy leaders. He was so bold and courageous in his calls for the United States to pull back its support for the corrupt and abusive regime of Ferdinand Marcos that Corazon Aquino dubbed him "the Lafayette of the Philippines." He played an instrumental role in leading support for the first Gulf War. He attacked human rights abuses and worked to broker the end to brutal conflicts. He chaired both the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Subcommittee on Africa.
With such a record, it was no surprise that he was considered for years to be a likely future secretary of State. He studied foreign affairs avidly, immersed himself in his travels, worked tirelessly and did not suffer fools lightly. I know this because when I began working for him shortly after I left graduate school, I surely qualified as a fool -- if not by disposition then by virtue of my utter ignorance. But he generously not only gave me my first professional opportunity, but for the following 30 years he patiently shared his insights, his wisdom, and his humor, and offered an example I will remember and treasure the rest of my life.
As Steve used to joke, he "represented a district that would have elected Mussolini if he were a Democrat." It was the Brooklyn of Coney Island and Midwood, of Ocean Parkway and Avenue U, a district "with more Jews than live in Tel Aviv" and thus one that not only tolerated his interest in the rest of the world but encouraged it. Having a congressman who knew and quoted Abba Eban or Yitzhak Rabin was a plus even in a country where some mind-boggling percentage of members of the House didn't (and don't) even have passports. Of course, as his press secretary I spent hours squirreled away in his offices in the district, writing press releases about new subway escalators and the thrilling periodic visits to DC where we would work on issues closer to my heart and his, from East Timor to arms control, from the Middle East to the latest diplomatic crisis.
I remember vividly the time he took me on my first visit to the White House during which he invited me in to a meeting with then-National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. Just the three of us. Me, perhaps 22 at the time. Brzezinski at his intimidating best. Solarz, not forty yet, holding his own, advancing his points with grace and eloquence.
Eloquence mattered to him. There was a school of politics back then in which rhetorical command was still highly valued, something more than today's soundbites or cable news sniping. Solarz, like the Kennedy brothers or Daniel Patrick Moynihan or Eban, the ultimate master, spoke in perfectly formed paragraphs, always seeking the right balance of dignity and substance, humor and sharp points where needed.
His intensity could be off-putting. Truth be told, he was not -- despite his nine electoral victories -- a natural politician. He alienated enemies and, sometimes, friends. In Washington, an old maxim is that you need both a great inside game and a great outside game. He ruffled enough feathers with his lack of attention to the inside game that when he hit turbulence toward the end of his time in Congress, potential allies stepped away from him. Opponents in Albany carved up his district in a way that forced him to choose between running against his friends and running in a district with which he had precious little connection. He chose the unfamiliar district, was a political fish out of water, and lost in the Democratic primary in 1992. It might have been a moment of opportunity. He was only 52. Two months later, a Democrat would be elected president and perhaps he could begin his long foretold ascent to the job he was best suited for, the one in the big office in Foggy Bottom.
His name came up to be ambassador to India, a post he would have filled exceptionally well. But an old enemy from the State Department raised the issue of a questionable contact he had made in Hong Kong and once again, potential allies retreated into the shadows and did not point out that the assertions made about him were absurd reasons to block the career of a man who had devoted his life to exceptional public service. It was an episode of gutless Washington at its worst and the American people were the ultimate losers.
Solarz went on to a distinguished post-congressional career, continuing to immerse himself in foreign policy, to lead the search for lasting solutions to the most complex international problems and to provide warm, wise advice to his friends and love to his dear family.
And then he got sick. And then he died. And now the memories come flooding back and it is clear that we are sorely in need of everything he was -- a dedicated student of foreign policy, a believer in the old school doctrine that national interests always trumped partisanship, a man who placed principle before reflexive loyalty and even self-interest, a guy with a sense of humor and a good heart … a mensch-statesman.
When he lost in 1992, the New York Times ran an article about the reactions to his loss. Solarz himself was quoted as saying that one of his few regrets was leaving office before Saddam Hussein did. Indiana Representative Lee Hamilton, another of the very best Congress has produced in the past several decades, is reported to have sent Steve a note saying: "Few events of the last several months have saddened me more than the realization that you may be leaving."
I can't help but feel the same way right now. But I was cheered by one of the valedictory lines Steve himself offered -- because of its characteristic humor and the way it evokes Steve as well as by its message. "I take comfort in Abba Eban's observation," he said, "That politics is the only profession where there's life after death." That is, of course, especially true of men whose public contributions were of genuinely historic magnitude and whose private kindnesses have touched thousands.
Richard A. Lipski/The Washington Post
Be afraid. Be very afraid. Mainstream, rock-ribbed, you-can't-make-me-flinch Republicans are. One former leader of the party I spoke with the other night said, "We've never seen anything like them. The Gingrich 'Contract with America' revolution was mild by comparison." Representative Bob Inglis, attacking the play to the lowest-common I.Q. of the base, said, "We're getting what we deserve."
America's first know-nothings were a mid-19th century collection of nativists who dreaded "foreign" influences on the American way of life. Reactionary as they were, we may someday see them as a collection of Rhodes Scholars and Nobel Prize Winners compared to their lineal political descendents who make up the current crew of Republican extremists now flexing their recently pumped up muscles in the Congress. Knowing nothing would be an improvement for this group which defiantly embraces the wrong, the indefensible, the illogical and the absurd with their only apparent criteria for taking a position being that it feels good for their adrenaline-stoked base. Facts, science, knowledge, and reality are all seen as the tools of elites, weapons against common folks who have gotten along just fine believing in foolish ideas for all these years.
The roots for the current movement could be found in the arguments of creationists against teaching the science of evolution in the schools. But today we have a new generation of fundamentalists ... climate creationists, foreign policy creationists, deficit creationists ... for whom arithmetic and history are simply the tools of the devil. They invoke the founders but sound more like their contemporaries in England who argued that the reason that British hikers were finding fish fossils in the mountains of England had nothing to do with where seas once might have been millions of years before and instead was a consequence of God putting the fossils there to trick people into doubting the literal word of the Bible.
In just the past couple of weeks since the election we have seen half a dozen examples of this next generation know-nothingism, this translation of a dumbed-down zeitgeist into a new movement that might be called Snookiism.
Some Republicans take comfort in the fact that the Tea Party isn't really a party and had no real hierarchic organization or unified platform in the last election. They see it more as an emotional spasm, the Perot Party Version 2010, and that it will pass. But the 110 newly elected representatives on Capitol Hill who were elected with some Tea Party affiliation are now starting to coalesce into a driving force. If they can effectively form and maintain the discipline of a caucus then they have a chance at further institutionalizing and preserving their movement.
In some respects this might be seen as democracy at work. The problem is we are taking an affliction of democracy -- ignorance -- and turning it into a political movement. This may be disturbing to all those who have a passing interest in the facts, but it creates a special burden for those who must oppose the movement, because those on the other side are actually immune to rational argument, by definition allergic to it.
It now falls to the mainstream Republican leadership, especially to presumptive Speaker John Boehner, to control this group and limit its worst traits. And all spirited Americans who can read and write ought to be pulling for him. Because if he fails, America will face the threat of the spread of a strain of reckless demagoguery unprecedented in our history, a Snookidemic that threatens to effectively lobotomize the body politic.
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After a brief stop at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit that will almost certainly be the anticlimax of a 10-day swing through Asia, President Barack Obama will briefly return to Washington to pick up a new change of socks before heading off to Europe. From unsatisfying discussions about the world economy he will move on to unsatisfying discussions about Afghanistan. From difficulties with the new powers of Asia he will move on to difficulties with the old powers of Europe. And through all this he must be thinking, "The heck with the birthers debating where I was born -- if this keeps up, I have to wonder, where am I going to live once I leave this job?"
Admittedly, many of the challenges he faces are not of his own making. He did not send the world economy into a tailspin, gut the U.S. manufacturing sector, recalibrate global labor markets, or introduce the first U.S. troops into Afghanistan. And on this trip to Asia and next week's to Europe he has taken many substantial steps to address these problems and to restore the United States' international footing. From a successful mission to India, the innovative and smart (if largely symbolic) move to endorse India for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, a sensitively handled journey to an Indonesia where he spent time as a boy, and an effort to embrace the new world economic order by continuing to support the empowerment of the G-20, many of his efforts deserve praise.
Having said that, as is often the case with this administration, Obama giveth and Obama taketh away.
The frustrations and missteps of this trip, especially those encountered in Seoul, could have been easily avoided. First, the United States could be somewhat less disingenuous about our economic policies. I am a supporter and admirer of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner in most things, but his line that "We will never seek to weaken our currency as a tool to gain competitive advantage or grow the economy…" has to go down as the howler of the month, and may qualify for howler of the year honors next month. In the wake of QE2 and longer-term easing, money-pumping policies -- which are clearly designed to offset what are seen as unfair Chinese currency practices -- the United States is guilty of promoting precisely the race to the bottom that earned such broad condemnation from Europeans, Asians, and other emerging powers in Seoul.
The failure of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement talks is also due to American misplays. Long ago in this space I warned about the mistake of giving too much authority to the office of Senator Max Baucus (D-Mont.) in appointing senior officials at the office of the U.S. Trade Representative. This week, Baucus' influence apparently triggered the breakdown of the Seoul talks. Sources suggest that the Montana senator pushed for greater beef market access beyond what the Koreans had repeatedly said were their limits. The result: A deal the president promised would be done this week floundered -- and its prospects do not look good.
Should the White House, then, have been as surprised and disgruntled as it was this morning by the two column New York Times lead headline "Obama's Economic View Rejected on the World Stage"? Heck no. Them's the facts. What's more, like the election results, perhaps it was a message the team needed to see written out in bold dark type.
Obama embarked on this trip with a message from the American people: They were frustrated with the state of the U.S. economy, and something had to change in the way Washington was dealing with it. As it happens, that is the same message he got from the G-20 leaders in Seoul. While he was away there were two events that may present him with an opportunity to gain ground with both of his stakeholder constituencies, the voters who elected him and the creditors to whom the United States owes so much money. One was that by some sort of alchemy (which is to say the ability of Democrats to do basic arithmetic), the administration realized they would have to accept a deal to extend all the Bush tax cuts, probably for a couple of years. They leaked their inclination in this regard without clearly confirming it. The second was the leaking of the co-chairman's bullet-point summary of the Deficit Commission report. Whatever the problems with their recommendations, they represent the first recent, high-level effort to deal seriously with this problem on both the revenue and the cost side of the ledger.
My sense is that there is a potentially transformational deal here for the president: Agree to an extension of the Bush tax cuts for two years, if Congress agrees to an up or down vote on the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform report -- provided it receives support from at least 14 members of the deficit commission. Link dealing with the poor economy to a commitment to getting our house in order -- as our creditors, allies, and most sensible citizens and neighbors are pleading with us to do. (If it is not "fast track" for the deficit report, perhaps it could be a commitment to linking a deficit reduction plan to the first budget of the new congress.)
The president has three big game changers that could restore his standing at home or abroad. One is a spontaneous recovery of the U.S. economy. Another is catching Osama bin Laden. Neither of these is likely, nor are they things that he has much control over. The last would be establishing himself as a president with the courage to manage us through first a market crisis and then a deficit crisis, who could do so in the face of criticism from both parties and who could engineer support from both parties. It is not that much more likely than the first two "brass ring" events, but it is the one outcome over which he has the most potential control.
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I am moderating a conference today here in Chicago for a group of large institutional investors. Needless to say, I will report back on what I learn unless it is really valuable information, in which case I will keep the information to myself, move my chips to the right number on the roulette table and cash out.
That said, I wanted to leave you with the answer to a burning question on your minds: Who emerged from Tuesday's elections as the most important political voice in the United States?
No, it's clearly not President Shellacking. He may re-emerge, but that will take new ideas. Speaker-to-be John Boehner (R-OH)? Nope, same reason. First of all, he is a workhorse and not a show horse. That's not a bad thing. But he's no limelight-hogging Newt, nor is he a creativity engine. Mama Grizzly? Ha -- although she will probably remain an energizing force for a large cross-section of Republican voters…
Might it be Mitt Romney, who just by happenstance had an op-ed in the Washington Post Wednesday almost as if to say, "Gentlemen, start your engines…"? Could be -- Republicans tend to pick the runner-up from the last election cycle, and he has many attributes that could make him a front runner in the current environment. Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI)? One could only hope. New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg? I light a candle every night.
No, the most important political voice in U.S. politics today is … British Prime Minister David Cameron. Listen to the new Republican agenda or at least the new Republican rhetoric -- cut entitlements, be courageous, battle the deficit, and make the hard choices. While this language has been batted around before by the party of big deficits that the GOP became as far back as the Reagan era, you see a glint in the eyes of the new leadership when they speak these words (viz. Tim Pawlenty today on "Morning Joe"… in a pretty impressive performance).
Why the glint? They have seen the blueprint and they have seen it can work. At least that's the sense that's in the air. Cameron … and to some extent French President Nicolas Sarkozy … are the new heroes of courage, and of speaking truth to special interests. This is not to deny their flaws … it is to recognize their accomplishments to date and the resonance they have.
Having said that, I must acknowledge again, misreading Cameron ranks high atop the long list of blown calls I have made here in this space … and who knows, I could be wrong about him twice. I underestimated him. And every day I must live with that -- most recently watching with admiration the one-two punch of his bravely cutting defense budgets and then, just as bravely, compensating for it in a historic way through diplomacy with an ancient enemy via the recent and innovative defense cooperation agreement with France. But it would also be a serious mistake for Democrats in the United States to underestimate the power or appeal his budget-cutting, fiscally responsible, courageous approaches might have here in this country.
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I've been on a bit of an odyssey the past few weeks, traveling to Abu Dhabi, Dubai, London, Paris, Washington, New York, Cleveland, Columbus, Juno Beach, Florida, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and now Chicago. I've seen up close a country reinventing itself for the new global economy (not the United States, the UAE). I've seen governments tackling tough fiscal problems with real political courage (not the United States, the British and the French). I've seen protests in the streets of people outraged at having to cope with a new economic reality (not the United States, the French, but America's day is coming). I've seen a capital city obsessed with its own jobs lose touch with a country worried about theirs. (That would be the United States.)
I was in Cleveland when President Barack Obama spoke to a half empty arena (and where he was overshadowed by Ohio's number one narcissist, LeBron James, playing his first game in a Miami Heat uniform). I was in countless board rooms and conferences in which the amount of anger directed at the White House makes last night's election results look obvious and inevitable.
In fact, one of the few unifying factors through all the stops on this trip, regardless of local politics, was the level of disappointment in Obama. Sometimes it was laced with anger. Sometimes it was expressed with simple regret for hopes that people now worried had been misplaced. But almost everywhere it was stoked by a sense that the president at this point in time didn't get it.
It is conventional wisdom that U.S. elections seldom turn on foreign-policy issues. Armies travel on their stomachs and so do American voters. It's all about the pocketbook. But every so often the pocketbook has a foreign-policy component, which is the case this year -- and it has led to a rather extraordinary shift.
This is the first election in U.S. history in which the most important foreign-policy issue is China. It won't be the last.
Two years ago we had one of those rare elections in which foreign policy mattered. But back then, even in the midst of an historic economic crisis, the foreign-policy focus was on the Iraq War, which served as a referendum on the Bush administration's handling of the war on terror. In 2004 and 2006, the war on terror was the dominant foreign-policy issue. In 2000 foreign policy was not central, but to the extent it played a role, it was it was all about the vision for U.S. leadership in the post-Cold War era. The 1996 vote had a similar theme, plus some focus on the ongoing small wars, notably the upsets in the former Yugoslavia. The 1992 election was influenced by the end of the Cold War and the first Gulf War. During the Reagan Era Cold War issues drove the agenda. Jimmy Carter was bounced from office largely due to his impotence in the face of the Iranian hostage crisis. Prior to that Vietnam and the Cold War were central from 1964-1972.
But during this election cycle the subject of the United States' two wars hardly came up. It is in fact, a tribute to the Obama administration's handling of those wars that, despite their potential to create the formation of political fault lines, they have not. On the contrary, they are one of the few areas in which there is a seeming confluence of views between the parties.
But if you look at campaign ads and listen to campaign rhetoric, China repeatedly arose. China was cited as our top economic rival and as an unfair competitor because of its currency policy, its potential to overtake the U.S. as a global economic leader, and especially its impact on U.S. workers. The giant sucking sound is coming from across the Pacific these days. But unlike that sound in the days of wacky Ross Perot, this time the giant sucking sound is accompanied by the ominous rumblings of a rising superpower -- that many politicians running this year had no problem framing as the United States' natural enemy in the 21st Century.
Much of it was demagoguery. But there was no other foreign policy issue that competed with it for prominence … with the exception of immigration in the border states; a coincidence that reflects a broader theme of turning inward, protectionism and isolationism that threatens to alter the fundamental nature of U.S. international engagement in the long run.
Call it what you will, but this election won't be the last in which China plays such a central role. This administration is also the first, as has been noted here in the past, for which the relationship with China was paramount among all those the United States has worldwide. It was also the first during which China played a central role in an issue outside its region -- as in the case of its important role in the Iranian nuclear issue. It was also the first during which Chinese views began to play a central role driving important international discussions -- from climate, to currency, to coordinating the global economic recovery.
It looks like President Obama's first major visitor of the new year will be Chinese President Hu Jintao. That is no coincidence either.
There are big shifts afoot this election day. And despite what you may read in tomorrow's papers, they have precious little to do with how many House seats the Republicans pick up in these midterm elections.
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With the U.S. mid-term elections still a week away, the media is glutted with polls and prognostications. Cable news has offered up a menu of non-stop pundit stew, bubbling with hyperbole and featuring hard-to-digest floating bits of bias spiced with speculation and guess work.
For this reason, lest you collapse of intellectual starvation in the interim, it is up to us to offer something like a fact, something solid which, as it happens, is also something of an antidote to the hand-waving and hand-wringing of most pre-election "coverage."
Take to heart the near-hysteria of the newspapers or the TV reports and you would think the United States was on the verge of a political cataclysm, a transformational event that will change all our lives and the very nature of American politics. In this respect, the coming election is seen as something akin to the recent transformational events that we have seen associated with the economic crisis, subsequent Wall Street reform, and health care reform. In each case, our world would never be the same.
And in each case and in this case the opposite is true. Not only is the world the same, it is in several key respects samer. (Yes, I said "samer." It's my blog and I'll make up the words around here if I want to.) Some of the traits we most expected to change have become more entrenched, even more impervious to reform.
Banks are back to sub-prime lending, some even more actively than before. Other banks -- especially those in Europe and China -- are still underestimating and under-reporting their financial weakness. New economic bubbles are percolating up throughout the emerging world. The U.S. is facing another predictable financial crisis -- two actually, one having to do with a trillion dollars in underfunded public pension liabilities, and the other having to do with the current or looming insolvency of a large number of cities, counties and states -- with the same inaction as before. Not only are most derivatives traded in the world still beyond regulation, they connect to the huge and hugely volatile world forex markets in ways that should have us all more nervous than we were before. Wall Street reforms passed by Congress not only failed to address many core problems they still are a long way from having much effect on the problems they did manage to zero in on, because we are a long way from implementing many reform provisions, legal challenges will block many and delay others, and underfunding will make enforcement impossible on others.
A similar story is the case with health care reform which, while addressing a few of the gross flaws in the health care system, has left the grossest flaws unaddressed -- and getting worse. What was underfunded is becoming even more so with every passing day, and that underfunding remains the single greatest threat to the United States' economic and thus strategic health… exactly as it was prior to all the health care hubbub in Washington, in the media, and in the small minds of those whose ideologies have no room for the solutions we so urgently need.
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During Thursday night's episode of 30 Rock, the first clear sign that the show was being performed live and not on tape was the telltale stark, cool video feel of the images. Alec Baldwin's Jack Donaghy commented on it saying, "Does it seem weird in here to you? Everything looks like a Mexican soap opera."
Then he added, to Tina Fey's Liz Lemon, "My God I can see every line and pore in your face. It's like a YMCA climbing wall."
I kind of feel the same way about Washington at the moment. It's the election. It's the fact for a few weeks the focus of government shifts away from the monumental settings and practiced rituals that have all been carefully designed to show off politicians in the same way good lighting and a little Vaseline on the lens shows off aging actresses -- except in the case of D.C., the goal is to make those who serve look as though they are the ones with power, those who come and go at the whim of the people as though they were the constant, enduring elements of the U.S. power structure.
But then, during the home stretch of the election cycle when candidates are actually out campaigning, the settings and the lighting change. Everything seems less predictable. Gaffes and red-herrings drive the process. Stars stumble while unknowns are thrust center stage.
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Pete Rouse is one of the great untold stories of President Barack Obama's White House. In fact, his is a great story precisely because, until now, it has been untold. Rouse has toiled tirelessly for the president, serving an absolutely vital role and to his credit he has not attracted one one hundredth of the attention in which his colleagues have basked… often thus revealing their short-comings to the world.
Rouse, the new interim White House chief of staff, is in fact, The Master Staffer, perhaps the best example of a breed upon which Washington depends, the great aides that both elevate and protect their bosses. Rouse did it for Tom Daschle and then he did it for Obama in the Senate and then again during the campaign. Other Senate chiefs of staff I know and for whom I have enormous respect consider him to be the standard by which others are judged and one told me that in his view it was only a matter of time before Rouse stepped into this role in the White House. Many who have known him for years also expect that he will excel in his new -- and yet familiar -- role to such a degree that ultimately President Obama will inevitably drop the "interim" from his title.
In fact, Rouse is so diligent, professional, accessible, and likeable that less than a day into his new role it is already a cliché to characterize him as the anti-Rahm. But while he is certainly unlike his volatile, ADD-challenged predecessor in many respects and, I would go further, an immediate improvement on many fronts, that does not mean that he will or can change what is broken within the president's inner circle, the White House or the administration writ large.
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I've had a heck of a hard time trying to explain the Tea Party to my friends from outside the United States. This is counterintuitive because virtually every country in the world has its wacky fringe parties and many countries have wacky parties that are absolutely mainstream -- every bit as narrow-minded, jingoistic, religion-infused, and angry as the Tea Partiers. Could it be that the rest of the world actually -- despite everything -- has higher expectations of the United States than they do for themselves?
That seems implausible. It's more likely that the consternation about the nature of the Tea Party movement is simply associated with its newness. Either that or a double standard. I'll leave that to you to decide.
But given the ever increasing strength spinning up this storm that's sweeping across the American landscape (Tropical Storm Sarah?), the world's questions will soon be answered. Tea Partiers will inevitably be elected. Maybe a bunch of them. And soon the world will have to deal with the policy initiatives of the Tea Party Caucus in the Congress.
To help prepare for this, I offer a snapshot of what could be the 5 Top Foreign Policy Initiatives of the Tea Party once it seizes the reins of power in America. This requires a leap of imagination since the primary Tea Party foreign-policy plank seems to be little more than "leave us alone or we'll kick your ass." But come to think of it, that perfect blend of isolationism, know-nothingism and bullying actually captures the primary themes of U.S. foreign policy for most of American history.
That said, my picks for the 5 Top Foreign Policy Initiatives:
1. Putting God Back into U.S. Foreign Policy, Part I
They'll drop all pretenses of getting along with anyone other than Israel in the Middle East. This is not necessarily good news in the long run for the Israelis. Introducing the concept of theo-realism, they will argue that our national interest, narrowly defined centers on keeping Israel safe ... for the Second Coming. At that point, of course, they believe that the Israeli-Palestinian problem will ultimately be solved not through negotiation but rather via rapture, in which all good Tea Partiers will be called to a higher place, far far away from the fighting. Of course, hating Islam will also factor into the reasons behind their policy shift.
2. Putting God Back Into Foreign Policy-Part II
Naturally, Stephen Hawking's visa will be pulled and he will be placed on a new TSA watch-list designed to keep out people who pose a threat to our national "values." Hawking will be kept out due to his recent assertion that God was not necessary for the creation of the universe. That and the fact that he is a scientist. And a foreigner. Also: They will withhold U.S. support for the EU so long as it continues to support the current activities of CERN, the European particle physics research laboratory. They have seen "Angels and Demons" and they will demand that the entire facility be converted to being a retreat dedicated to "better understanding of the universe through prayer."
3. A New Global Environmental Effort
They will launch the "Global Accord on the Human Slaughter and Marketing of Exotic Species" also to be known as the Polar Bear Burger Act which will focus on the more efficient harvesting and marketing of endangered species that "God made delicious for a reason."
4. The Dome
Clearly, the wall at our border is not enough. Taking this idea to the next logical step, the Tea Party homeland security policy team will propose the building of an actual bubble over the entire U.S. It is still being debated whether it will include any entrances at all although sufficient exits will be made available for deportations.
5. Back to Empire
Seeking to make America more sufficient, the Tea Partiers will undo what historians have called the greatest strategic error in American history and will work to annex Canada. The goal, they will argue, is to "tap into Canada's vast reserves of oil, gas, minerals, delicious endangered species, spoilable natural beauty and bland white people."
Interestingly, not only are these their top 5 foreign policy initiatives, these are their only foreign policy initiatives based on their guiding theory that "even having a foreign policy is a sign of misplaced priorities."
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The Washington Post, like many Beltway watchers, took President Obama's statement that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel would make a "great mayor of Chicago" as an acknowledgement that Emanuel is as good as gone from his administration -- and that the typical midterm game of musical chairs that enlivens the West Wing has begun.
I take the statement as something different. I take it as a personal request from the President to me to let him know what changes he needs to make after the November elections.
So, let's begin with replacing Rahm. Rumor has it that Emanuel himself has been mentioning Valerie Jarrett, among the president's closest confidantes, for the job. While being as simpatico with the president as Jarrett clearly is would be a big plus, the chief of staff job has a massively tough management component to it that would undercut Jarrett's ability to remain the vital sounding board for the President she has become. Better suited to the job would be two of the other names mentioned: Ron Klain, the vice president's chief of staff, and Tom Donilon, the deputy national security advisor. Both are excellent, smart and proven administrative masters. Tom Daschle, former Democratic majority leader in the Senate, has also been mentioned. He played a vital role in the president's campaign and would add an important capacity for Hill outreach to the mix.
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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.
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David Rothkopf is the CEO and Editor-at-Large of Foreign Policy. His new book, "Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government and the Reckoning that Lies Ahead" is due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on March 1.