The Obama administration is in the midst of doing something rather extraordinary. While most of the U.S. government and frankly, most major governments worldwide, are mired in a swamp of political paralysis, victims of their own inaction, the president and his national security team are engineering a profound, forward-looking, and rather remarkable change.
It is addressed directly in National Security Advisor Tom Donilon's column in today's Financial Times entitled "America is back in the Pacific and will uphold the rules." It has been manifested in the president's recent trip to Asia and it will be further underscored through Secretary of State Clinton's historic trip to Myanmar later this week.
Superficially, this shift can be and might be perceived to be what Clinton has called "the pivot" from the Middle East to Asia as the principal focus for U.S. foreign policy. But as Donilon's brief article effectively communicates, this shift is far more sweeping and important than has been fully appreciated.
In the beginning of the article, he writes that presidents must struggle to avoid become so caught up in crisis management that they lose sight of the country's strategic goals. Listing the astonishing array of crises President Obama has faced, Donilon then notes that he has nonetheless managed to pursue "a rebalancing of our foreign policy priorities -- and renewed our long-standing alliances, including NATO -- to ensure that our focus and our resources match our nation's most important strategic interests." Asia, he asserts, has become "the centerpiece" of this strategy.
As the article goes on it reveals dimensions of this pivot that have gotten less attention than the simple but nonetheless refreshing restatement of the Obama administration's recognition that -- to oversimplify for contrast's sake -- China is more important to America than Iraq. Because while Donilon writes of regional security agreements and the decision by the administration to embark on a "more broadly distributed, more flexible and more sustainable" defense strategy in the Pacific Basin, what is striking about the article is how often the words it uses and the subjects it references are economic in nature.
Donilon speaks of our priorities in the region as tying to "security, prosperity and human dignity." He defines security needs in terms of concerns about commerce and navigation. He talks about alliances as being "the foundation for the region's prosperity." And he makes a core point of saying that "As part of an open international economic order, nations must play by the same rules, including trade that is free and fair, level playing fields on which businesses can compete, intellectual property that is protected everywhere and market-driven currencies."
Establishing, observing and enforcing international rules are another core theme of the piece and of the statements that Obama, Clinton, Donilon, and others have regularly been underscoring.
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The bad news about the U.S. Congress is that nothing is what they do best. The good is that most important thing they can do in the year ahead is nothing.
Now, this is not me channeling my inner Rick Perry. I don't think that government ought to be irrelevant. Rather, this is a simple statement of fact. While this Congress has demonstrated itself to be grid-locked, brain-locked, inept, and hopelessly corrupt, it may be more than just the Congress that an ill-informed, apathetic, impulse-driven American electorate deserves. It may actually be the Congress we need.
Because right now the single best way for the U.S. Congress to fix the deficit debacle that it created is to continue to behave in the partisan, ideological, childish, and irresponsible fashion that has become their hallmark. If they do, they will do more to cut the deficit than any number of over-hyped, under-performing committees could even dream of.
By remaining frozen as they have been in the headlights of the oncoming 18-wheeler of euro-style economic calamity that is bearing down on America, this group of empty suits may actually not only miraculously avoid becoming historical road-kill, they may actually end up in the Do Nothing Hall of Fame.
How? It's simple. By failing to address the deficit in the supercommittee, our current Congressional "leadership" has effectively ensured that the single most important item on the legislative and national agenda for 2012 is the expiration of the Bush tax cuts at the end of this year. And the very best way for America to cut its deficit and bring its house back in order after the wanton profligacy of the past decade is to simply let those cuts expire. Which will happen if this Congress plays to type and does the nada it does so well.
There is no single budget factor that can make as big a difference as simply letting these ill-conceived cuts lapse. Projections by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget show that over the next forty years, no single factor will contribute more to our growing deficit. According to the Congressional Budget Office, letting the tax cuts lapse would immediately restore $380 billion dollars a year in revenue and would, therefore, cut the deficit by $3.8 trillion dollars over the next decade, fully 50 percent more than the $2.4 trillion in total deficit reduction that was the goal of the debt limit deal.
Letting them lapse would also not have an unduly burdensome impact on American voters, simply restoring tax rates to where they were a decade ago. Further, as the dismal economic performance of the decade since the cuts were introduced shows, they actually have not had the stimulative effects they were touted as offering.
In fact, if you look at the huge and ever-growing cost to the United States of the cuts, it is very clear that they and not the 9/11 attacks were the most destructive event to hit the country in 2001. Compound them with the costs of our two misguided wars in the Middle East and you have destruction to America's financial condition, economic prospects, role in the world and national strength that no terror group or competing national power has been able to achieve in America's modern history.
The question of course, is this Congress up to the task at hand. Will they fight and bicker and then ultimately end up so divided that they do not pass an extension. As that great Washington oracle the Magic 8 Ball used to say, "Signs point to yes."
After all, this Congress -- in the midst of a great economic crisis -- has not managed to meet its fundamental obligations to pass a budget in 19 months. The Senate has not actually passed a budget in regular order in over 90 months. (The last time a Congress submitting all its spending bills by the mandated October 1 deadline was 1998.) A big job creation bill? No. An up or down vote on Simpson-Bowles? Nope. A major infrastructure initiative? Not. Something to deal with the mortgage crisis that started all this in some meaningful way? Get real. Something minor but promising? Wishful thinking.
That's why this year could be this Congress' most productive ever. Because not only could they undo one of the greatest mistakes of America's recent past by continuing their game of statues, they could add to the victory by letting the automatic cuts that should be triggered by the supercommittee's failure stand. Of course, these fraudsters have learned well from their sponsors on Wall Street and they never actually believed in that "fail-safe" mechanism anyway, figuring they would undo it later. But what if they can't even do that. More savings. And for those who argue the U.S. defense department can't afford $600 billion in cuts...and with all due respect to Leon Panetta who is a great public servant and will be a terrific Secretary of Defense...nonsense. That's a 10 percent cut which would still leave us spending more on defense than virtually every other country in the world added up...and something like 10 times more than any of our nearest rivals. Somehow I think we can handle it. Somehow I think we must.
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Why should Pakistan's smart, hard-working ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani have to resign for doing his job? After all, if as has been asserted, he was involved in getting a back-channel note passed from Pakistan's president to Admiral Mike Mullen when Mullen was chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, isn't that what ambassadors do for their bosses? Yes, it's embarrassing if the note offered to reshuffle the leaders of Pakistan's military and intelligence services in exchange for U.S. assistance in quashing a potential coup. And yes, it's even more embarrassing that Mullen's staff asserts he more or less totally ignored the note.
But let's be honest, isn't the real problem here that a message that was supposed to be on the down-low was found out? (And doesn't that suggest the real mistake was channeling the note through a Pakistani-American businessman who couldn't keep his mouth shut?)
On a deeper level, doesn't the entire incident simply further confirm the fact long-acknowledged by Pakistan hands (and anyone else who's paying attention) that this country seems to be emulating the Chinese model in Hong Kong: one country, two systems? Given the depth, history and tensions associated with the divides between that country's civilian political establishment and its military-intelligence establishment, isn't the truth about Pakistan that is one of the world's true schizo-states?
It is the fact that the civilian government has never been able to assert effective authority over the military or the ISI that has led to the repeated instances of the government promising one thing while its security apparatus was doing another. It is why the country is viewed by the charitable in Washington as a "frenemy." (The less charitable simply view it as an enemy we have to work with, the diplomatic equivalent of a hostile witness in a court case.) In fact, it is why I have also heard more than one Pakistani diplomat use the same term to refer to their own country's relationship with the United States in the past year or so. Admittedly, the Pakistani diplomatic corps tends to represent the civilian government and are so regularly frustrated in their duties by the military and the intelligence services that they are often even more openly hostile to them than are the Americans who by now are simply resigned to their lying and coddling of extremists.
In fact this entire incident underscores why it is misleading and dangerous to think of Pakistan as a unitary country. Not only are its institutions divided, but so too are its people. For every cluster of extremists or those who view their region and much of the world with paranoia-fed hostility, there are masses who seek peace, stability and prosperity and would happily be done with the costly distractions of fighting and divisiveness -- whether internally or, for example, with neighbors like India.
The challenge for the United States and the rest of the world is to manage to work with constructive, sympathetic elements in Pakistan while somehow containing the threat posed by the others, notably those in the ISI and the military who somehow feel it is in the country's interest to support militant groups and to grow the country's nuclear capabilities. Unfortunately, the outlook for managing that challenge does not look good. The civilian government, even if it can hang on for a while longer, is weak and electoral challenges from groups supported by and sympathetic to the military look likely to grow stronger. The nuclear weapons program only looks to grow more dangerous ... and thus we will become even more dependent on the dubious elements of the Pakistan establishment to look out for our most pressing security interests. The country faces profound economic risks that could easily inflame unrest, undercut civilian authority and lead to a push back for the stronger hand of military leadership. And the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will undoubtedly trigger and effort by the Pakistani security elites to support their allies among the Taliban in the struggle for control that will undoubtedly come as the power void in that country next door to Pakistan grows.
As a consequence, our complex and tense relationship with Pakistan is only likely to grow more tense as the complex and tense relationships within the country do as well. Perhaps the greater problem is that the more likely "cure" for schizo-statehood will be a return to military rule. While some will argue this offers desirable stability, it is worth remembering just how that has worked out in the past. It has resulted in a country that unsettled the region and the world with its rogue nuclear program and its support for terrorist and extremist groups. While the illusion was momentary institutional stability in Islamabad, the result was not only undemocratic, it was deeply destabilizing and profoundly dangerous. And that is why anyone with an interest in Pakistan or the region should resist the allure of a return to such faux "stability." Because as schizoid as the situation we face is here, we need to remember that some of the divisions mean that there are forces in the country fighting for democracy, for genuine progress, for an end to conflict and for the kind of civilian control of the security apparatus that is essential to any healthy state.
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America's special relationship with the United Kingdom began at conception. We were born as a nation of British stock and despite periodic tensions and the occasional war, we have built and deepened the relationship until it has become one of the closest on the planet. But being a special relationship and being especially important are two different things and it may be that another special relationship is brewing that in the 21st century could transcend that with Britain.
That said, Brits can take comfort. This newly ascendant relationship remains within the extended family of their former colonies.
Currently, President Obama is on his first official visit to Australia. So far, during his stay, he has sent several clear messages that America's almost always warm relationship with our cousins down under is getting warmer and is being seen by this White House as strategically more important than ever. His interactions with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard have been characterized as especially warm. He has described America's shifting focus to the Asia-Pacific region that is increasingly be presented as the centerpiece of this administration's foreign policy. And, backing up his assertion that the region is "of huge strategic importance to us", the President and Gillard have announced a new defense deal that will establish a U.S. military presence in Darwin and will deepen and enhance cooperation between the two nations' air forces.
There is no coyness about why a United States that is pulling back from other deployments around the world is establishing this new relationship. While Obama has said that the presence is not intended to contain China, there is no question that it is intended to both counterbalance what is seen as China's growing military clout and in particular to assure the ability to control key regional sea lanes. One of Obama's security deputies asserted that the deal was struck in direct "response to demand" from China's neighbors.
Britain's importance to the United States through most of the last century was due in large part to her strategic location off the coast of Europe, the area of America's principal economic and political interests. That Britain, though a fading empire, was still one of the world's most powerful nations and one that was deeply tied to America in almost every conceivable way, added to the "specialness" of the relationship.
While Australia is not as closely integrated with the U.S. economy as Britain nor is it as militarily powerful -- spending less than half of what Britain does on defense -- it does have a few things going for it. Much as Britain was the most natural ally in the European region, so too is Australia the most natural in the Asia-Pacific region. Its location -- near to Asia but separated by the sea -- offers a similar set of strategic advantages. It has cultivated close regional relationships and can be an effective interlocutor -- in some ways more effective than outlier Britain can be in the context of modern Europe (whatever that is). Moreover, with China and the rest of Asia on the rise, Australia is only likely to grow in significance and potential value as an ally.
What Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are doing in Asia is as clear as it is deft. They are making China the centerpiece of their efforts, engaging deeply across a wide range of issues. They challenge where they feel they should. They cooperate wherever they can. And thus they are managing to deepen what is clearly the most important bilateral relationship on the planet. Meanwhile, through efforts like that in Australia, they are strengthening the U.S. position throughout Asia -- from the Koreas to Japan, across ASEAN, and on to India and the sub-continent. In all this, the old ties of empire give special place and ease of dealing to relations with the Australians, the Indians, and the Singaporeans. It is hard to see how these relationships will not continue to grow in significance during the decades ahead -- perhaps to a time when the relationship between two or more of England's stroppier colonies end up being more important than those any of them share with the "mother country."
(By the way, as a closing footnote, it should be noted that Secretary Clinton, who has played a central and effective role in these efforts working closely with the NSC team and a Department of Defense for whom this shift in focus has long been a top priority, is currently enjoying yet another affirmation of her special role in the cabinet having just won the top ranking among all senior members of the Obama team in the Partnership for Public Service's rating of leadership performance.)
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Watching this weekend's Republican presidential debate on U.S. foreign policy, you might be forgiven if you thought it shed absolutely no light on U.S. foreign policy. After all, by definition ... and by God's good graces ... the views expressed represented those of people who will have precious little influence over America's international course. Only one of these people can be the Republican nominee. And, in part thanks to performances like what we saw on Saturday, even that individual is very likely not going to ever be president of the United States.
As a consequence the vapidity of Herman Cain is irrelevant. The pro-torture stance of the wing-nuts in the group is irrelevant. The ridiculous zero-based foreign aid formula suggested by Rick Perry is irrelevant. Even the pontificating of Republican non-Romney of the Month, Newt Gingrich is irrelevant. Because these weren't foreign policy ideas or positions. They were desperate cries for attention.
Sadly, also irrelevant will be thoughtful views offered by Jon Huntsman, who clearly distinguished himself as the most capable, thoughtful, experienced, and credible of the crew.
This means that the 30 minutes of the debate that CBS chose not to air will have a virtually identical impact to the 60 minutes of Obama-bashing, fear-mongering, and peacocking that actually were broadcast.
It is possible that some of the views that were offered by likely nominee Mitt Romney could be consequential. This would not seem to be good for U.S.-China relations except that there is virtually zero possibility that President Mitt Romney -- who would essentially be the hand-picked candidate of the business community and the major party presidential candidate with the closest ties to America's economic establishment in modern memory -- would actually follow through on his anti-Beijing saber-rattling once in office. Further, some of his statements were essentially meaningless to begin with -- like his assertion that a vote for him was the only way to avert Iran getting the bomb, not being backed by facts or even being remotely credible given how key what happens between now and when the next president takes office will be.
But more important still is that Romney isn't going to be the next President either. In all likelihood that will be Barack Obama. Here are 10 reasons why:
Obama is the incumbent. That matters. And he has become increasingly confident in using the bully pulpit to his advantage, at appearing presidential. The crucial issue is going to be economics.
Despite Europe's economic mess, a number of other factors suggest that the U.S. economy may begin to tick upward more during the next year. Other parts of the world are likely to be growing from the emerging markets to, in a modest way, Japan. More importantly, the likelihood that the U.S. unemployment rate declines the better part of a point to something closer to 8 percent is pretty good. That ought to be enough to make the case he avoided the abyss and turned things around in much the same way that Ronald Reagan did in 1984.
Like Reagan, Obama is liked and seen as trying hard to do the right thing. That, plus some signs of progress goes a long way with the American people.
Furthermore, none of these candidates are a Ronald Reagan. Moreover, none of them are even a George W. Bush, which is saying something. Mitt Romney is the whitest white man in America. He will look more like the establishment than Obama in an anti-establishment year. He will not get any journalistic good bounces because frankly it is hard to spin a narrative about the guy that will grab anyone's heartstrings. Want evidence, look at how desperately half the Republican party is at looking for alternatives.
That search for alternatives could lead to a third party candidate. If it's Ron Paul it will eat into Romney's base. It is highly unlikely the left will pose a similar challenge to Obama. As for the possibility of a centrist third party candidate, appealing as it may be, it will be less so to many if it appears that candidate can't win and will only increase the likelihood that Mitt Romney will be elected on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ticket.
While external events in the world -- like the Iranian detonation of a nuclear device or a terror attack -- could hurt Obama, in all likelihood, given his growing comfort with foreign-policy and the tendency of the American people to rally around the president in times of crisis, it would be a mistake to count on such a development being more likely to help the Republican candidate.
The reality is that while foreign policy won't be central to the election, Obama has already succeeded in doing something remarkable: Taking it off the table. He is hard to criticize given his record with bin Laden, Al Awlaki, Qaddafi, meeting his promise in Iraq, starting to get out of Afghanistan, and restoring America's international reputation.
We haven't gotten to the one-on-one segment of the campaign yet. Whoever is the Republican candidate has to run against the very disciplined, intelligent, well-prepared, charismatic president. Which of those folks you saw Saturday night can hold their own versus Obama?
The Republican Party on the Hill, via the Tea Party and via its more extreme elements has adopted a bunch of policies that are astonishingly out of touch with the moment. They should be doing great given the economic problems. But they are not only seen as obstructionist on the Hill but they are seen as advocates of millionaires they don't want taxed and opposed to fairness in sharing the burden for the sacrifices fixing the economy will require.
By extension the leading voices for the Republican Party are folks like those on the stage ... and John Boehner and Eric Cantor and Mitch McConnell. Really? That's going to grab America in the current environment?
The electoral map says it will be close. But already Republican overreaching has pushed Ohio back toward Obama. The Republican hope re: Florida, Marco Rubio has suffered some self-inflicted wounds. Virginia gets bluer by the day. It's close ... but it's trending toward the President.
And so, while making predictions a year out is a sucker's game, for those of you who watched the Saturday debate and were disheartened there is at least all the above to suggest that none of it mattered that much anyway. As of right now the favorite to be the next president of the U.S. has to be the current president of the U.S.
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I'll spare you the back story, but first thing this morning, in an effort to denigrate New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, one of my colleagues offered up the observation that not only was Brady overrated but that so too was his wife, Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen. Apparently, in the eyes of my colleague (which clearly require medical attention), Bundchen looked quite average without her makeup on. Pressed on this subject, he went further, asserting that the women he runs with are much better looking and that he simply wouldn't be interested in Bundchen.
While I know I run the risk of devastating Ms. Bundchen by posting this story, within minutes after the discussion, it crossed my mind again when I read this weekend's sttement by Afghan President Hamid Karzai that, "God forbid, if ever there is a war between Pakistan and America, Afghanistan will side with Pakistan."
Whew, I'm glad that's settled. My sense is that the prospect of having to contend with the opposition of an opponent of the strategic vision, credibility, and power of Karzai will have roughly the same effect on the United States that the prospect of doing without my colleague will have on Gisele Bundchen. These are both people who are clearly delusional about the impact their derision may have on their intended targets.
The biggest difference of course, is that whereas Gisele Bundchen will never feel the sting of being dissed by my friend because he is utterly invisible to her (with or without his makeup) the United States has once again gotten loud and clear the message from Karzai. He is working hard to win a place among the worst allies America has ever chosen, which is really saying something considering the rogue's gallery of losers and bad guys that the United States has thrown in with -- a list that includes Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega, the Shah of Iran, and Josef Stalin. Tellingly, also vying for a spot on that list are at least some members of the Pakistani government with whom Karzai is vowing to work.
Naturally, all this once again sends the message loud and clear that Karzai is part of the problem, not part of the solution in Afghanistan. More importantly, it also reinforces the urgency with which the U.S. approach its principle task in Afghanistan which is folding up its tents, shutting down its bank accounts and getting the heck out of Dodge. If we happen to shut down all forms of financial and other support for Karzai's security first, well, all the better. Once upon a time, he was a necessary evil. Now, having declared himself an enemy of the United States and having demonstrated a marked incapability of ruling within any standards of efficiency, morality or even decency, it's time to cease any pretense of supporting this stooge and simply do what we can to build ties elsewhere in the leadership of this fragmented, tribal society so that once we are out, we have good contacts, useful intelligence, and conduits with whom we can work going forward.
We can then return to paying precisely as much attention to Karzai as he deserves ... which happens to be identical to the amount my buddy is likely to be receiving from Gisele Bundchen or anyone in her aesthetic zip code at any time in the near future.
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For Barack Obama and his national security team, the simultaneous fall of Sirte and the death of Muammar al-Qaddafi provide an important punctuation mark in their successful initiative to support Libyan rebels and bring an end to an odious dictatorship.
The political benefits that accrue to the president at home will be modest. Domestic issues command the attention of American voters. What's more, the president's Republican opponents don't want to talk foreign-policy very much. And with good reason. The president's record is for the most part too good to take issue with.
The president came into office promising to get the United States out of a disliked war in Iraq and has kept the promise. He came in promising to shift the focus to Afghanistan and finishing the business of decapitating al Qaeda. He did both. Bin Laden is dead. And we are committed to coming home from Afghanistan, too. While the administration's response to the first stirrings of rebellion in the Middle East -- in Iran -- was muddled and late, the overall approach has been constructive and the Libya chapter will stand out as a gamble that worked. Restoring relations with our European allies, engineering the "pivot" in priorities to Asia cited by Secretary of State Clinton, and the recognition of the growing importance of dealing with emerging powers are all additional positive developments that are a credit to the president and his team.
But more important than any political benefits that accrue to the president as a result of this successful outcome to the Libya effort is that it brings into focus an important shift in U.S. national security strategy, a doctrine that stands alongside Clinton's "pivot" as one of the signature contributions of Obama and his security policymakers. Indeed, although I am reluctant to throw around the term "doctrine" because it has become devalued through overuse, I believe it puts into focus what can and should be identified as the Obama Doctrine.
This doctrine stands in contrast to the famous doctrine named for General Colin Powell. Powell's approach turns on the idea that prior to military action being taken by the United States, we must first exhaust all other means of advancing our national interest and then when we engage that we use every available means to achieve clearly defined goals and thus be able to execute a reasonable exit strategy. This approach was, more than anything else, a reaction to the problems the U.S. encountered in Vietnam and the "every available means" or "overwhelming force" element was clearly a manifestation of a deep pockets view of U.S. resources that now seems like the quaint echo of a bygone time.
The Obama Doctrine, while also grounded in the idea that we must exhaust every other means of advancing our national interest, is responding to the lessons of a different unpopular war, in this case, Iraq. It is a reaction against the use of "overwhelming force" to achieve rather narrow (not to mention dubious) goals. It is an antidote to "shock and awe," "three trillion dollar wars" and unilateral conventional invasions if they can possibly be avoided.
Whereas the Bush administration engaged in an open checkbook approach to a global "war on terror" (a perversion of the Powell doctrine that was especially uncomfortable for Powell himself to watch unfold), Obama's approach -- in fighting terror, getting Bin Laden, assisting with the ouster of Qaddafi, and elsewhere -- has been not only to cast aside the term "war on terror" but also the strategies and tactics of massive ground war.
Obama & Co. embrace the orthoscopic alternative to the open heart surgery favored by the Bush team. The Obama Doctrine prioritizes the use of intelligence, unmanned aircraft, special forces, and the leverage of teaming with others to achieve very narrowly defined but critical goals. That word leverage is the key. It is about using technological superiority, effective intelligence, surprise, and smart collaboration to make the most of limited resources and do so in a way that minimizes risks to both personnel and to America's international standing and our bank account.
"Leading from behind" is an important element of this doctrine. It is no insult to lead but let others feel they too are architects of a plan, to lead without making others feel you are bullying, to lead but do so in a way in which risks and other burdens are shared. Libya is a test case for this approach. It too started ugly and there are many lessons to be learned by NATO and the United States about how to do this better. Our communications around the time of undertaking the involvement were also handled in a ham-fisted manner. No matter. Most of that will be forgotten now. Outcomes matter most and the outcome here has been low-cost and high-reward.
More importantly, perhaps, it solidifies an Obama approach to meeting international threats that seems better suited to America's current capabilities, comparative advantages, political mood and the preferences of our allies everywhere than prior approaches which were created in and tailored to far different times.
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As it turns out, my mother was wrong. Or was it Madison Avenue? (I always get the two confused.) You can get too much of a good thing.
Case in point: the Republican presidential debates. Admittedly, there is something oddly compelling about them. It's kind of like watching the middle-aged country club dining room version of the food fight from "Animal House." (Romney=Neidermeyer, Perry=Blutarski, Bachman=Mandy Pepperidge) But they're on more frequently than most infomercials and they contain even less intellectual substance.
Every so often however, I give in to temptation and tune in for a fix of comic mayhem. Last night, I settled in to watch the exchange regarding foreign-policy. I can't quite decide whether it was more embarrassing or frightening. The panderdates were crawling all over one another to declare their fierce opposition to foreign aid and their love for defense spending. Even Ron Paul, who as best as I can tell is for shrinking the entire government down until it can be run out of an abandoned Fotomat booth in a parking lot somewhere near Galveston, Texas and who thinks foreign aid carries the ebola virus, found the tiptoeing around the Pentagon pocketbook to be intellectually dishonest.
Here are the facts: We spend less than 1 percent of the federal budget on foreign aid. We spend roughly $50 billion a year on the entire State Department and the foreign aid budget. We spend about 11 times that on the Defense Department plus another three or so times that on "overseas contingency operations" like fighting wars and firing drones into various compounds and convoys and that sort of thing. (Let's not count the Veterans Administration or the Department of Homeland Security or the intelligence community in these budgets though they certainly might be thought of as part of our broader national security establishment.) As it happens we spend a smaller percentage of our GDP on aid than almost any developed country and we spend roughly 10 times on defense what the next biggest spender, China, pays out to defend itself. (Go get a pencil and figure how that works out in terms of per capita defense spending. It won't take you long.)
Cutting foreign aid drastically diminishes our influence. It also sends the message, articulated last night by the most "reasonable" Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, that we have made the decision as a society that the richest nation on earth doesn't feel any responsibility to help other countries with their humanitarian needs. For a bunch of candidates who seem hell-bent on proving their essential Christian-ness, that's a heck of a message for the richest family in town to be sending to those that are in need ... especially when it is the one clear way to support those who support our interests and expand good will toward America while supporting the stabilization of troubled regions. Whatever happened to those "what would Jesus do" wristbands? I'm certainly no expert but I'll tell you one thing, Jesus would not be cutting U.S. foreign aid.
As for cutting defense spending, where do you think Jesus would come out on that one ... especially if they taught any arithmetic in the Nazareth public school system of the Galileean Unified School District. Might he suggest that spending say, only eight times more than our next biggest rival was sufficient to maintain the peace and that we could use the extra $140 or so billion that saved us per year ... $1.5 trillion over a decade, to meet the budget cutting goals of the Supercommittee in one fell swoop? Might he note that there is no way to make the big cuts we need by chopping away at comparatively small programs? Or that somehow cutting the programs that help the rest of the world versus those that are designed to blow it up might send the wrong message?
Heck, it doesn't take being the Prince of Peace or a guy with a knack for stretching a budget (see the whole fishes and loaves thing) to recognize that this approach of eviscerating U.S. smart power while blindly protecting the brute sort is kind of dumb not to mention dangerous.
There is no path to American recovery that does not involve very significant defense spending cuts. Just like there is no path to recovery that does not involve rationalization of entitlement spending. And just as there is no way to where we need to be that doesn't require new sources of revenue. You've got to do all three. And while last night's food fight did indeed have all the low comic appeal of "Animal House" while bearing an uncanny resemblance, as "Morning Joe" noted, to a showdown among the Real Housewives of New York, it skirted reality like Lindsay Lohan dodging community service on her way to another night clubbing. But it did so by offering approaches that were grossly irresponsible and, on their face, should have disqualified each and every one espousing them from occupying any office with responsibility for America's economic or physical security.
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We can't blame the moral failures of today on someone else.
It's not Bush this time. It's not a prior generation betraying a trust. It's not another country failing to live to the standards of civilization. We're not even able to defend ourselves by saying we were ignorant of what was happening or by feigning that we were looking the other way.
This time, it's us. American liberals have the reins of U.S. foreign policy right now and we are embracing a course in which we are the ones who condone torture, turn our back on genocide, sidestep the rule of law. We operate Guantanamo and defend using extreme measures with terrorists. We ignore national sovereignty. We acknowledge the deaths of thousands upon thousands at the hands of weak, brutal regimes and we say, "not our problem" or "to intervene would be too hard." Then we go off and weep and some other movie of the Holocaust and walk out wondering how any generation could allow such a thing to happen. But we are demonstrating that evil exists in the world not because of the occasional rise of satanic bad men but because of the enduring willingness of average people tolerate what should be intolerable -- apathy has killed more people than Osama or Saddam ever did.
(And before all the "yes, buts...": It is too easy to say Obama is not "really" a liberal. He is in fact, the distilled essence of the liberal ideal in America over the past couple decades, the product of liberal movements, the liberal establishment, an espouser of liberal ideals, the most open and clearly liberal political candidate to be elected to high office in the United States since the middle of the last century -- more so than self-described "centrists" like Clinton, Carter or Kennedy. He may have checked his liberal ideals at the door of the White House situation room, but that's not a counter-argument, that's the point.)
All of us who embrace in any way any part of the idea of liberalism need to own up to the current situation, to remember our past righteous condemnations of others and to ask how we got here. We need to examine why we apply our values so sporadically -- if any beliefs that are so haphazard and so selectively applied can be called a values system at all.
Look at the story running in today's New York Times and elsewhere on the new U.N. report on torture in Afghanistan. Based on hundreds of interviews, the conclusion is that America's Afghan allies regularly employ torture against prisoners linked to that country's insurgency. According to the Times "It paints a devastating picture of abuse, citing evidence of ‘systematic torture' during interrogations by Afghan intelligence police officials even as American and other Western backers provide training and pay for nearly the entire budget of the Afghan ministries running the detention centers." It would be preposterous to suggest the United States, bankrolling these operations, did not know what was going on. It is clear that despite our vast military presence in Afghanistan, we did nothing to stop it. It is also, as it happens, illegal for the United States to provide aid to police organizations embracing torture but that little issue seems to have been set aside. That these governments we support also abuse their female citizens or institutionalize intolerance only compounds the wrong.
Or, alternatively, look at the discussions surrounding the decision by this administration to authorize the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen. CNN reported yesterday that U.S. may release its memo authorizing the decision to kill the terrorist leader. The objective is to demonstrate the legal basis for the attack which also killed another U.S. citizen. While Awlaki richly deserved to die, the question as to whether U.S. officials have the right to summarily order such an attack raises important ethical questions about the nature and conduct of modern warfare and the decision processes by which public officials arrogate onto themselves roles traditionally left to judges and juries.
Another dimension of the ethical issues raised in the Awlaki attack has to do with the broader question of drone warfare. Scott Shane's "Coming Soon: The Drone Arms Race" in the Sunday Times raised the specter of this issue growing and, as I have argued before, before it does, we ought to be having a vigorous discussion about why it is we think having the technology to violate the sovereignty of other nations with impunity grants us the right to do so. The implication of Shane's piece, of course, is that sooner rather than later, the shoe is going to be on the other foot. We will be targeted. Our officials may be cited as direct threats to some other nation ... perhaps even reasonably cited as such. And then what?
Further, as important as are the issues raised in such stories, equally important are the issues raised by the instances where there are few if any stories at all. We don't hear much about Guantanamo any more. We don't debate much those wars and social catastrophes in which we don't intervene despite the huge human costs. We are essentially silent about the moral consequences of postponing discussion on tolerating an economic system that promotes inequality, puts the weakest at risk due to the greed of the most powerful or threatens the planet's environment.
Some might call the approach America today embraces as realism. Others might say it is justified by circumstances. Both may be true and the tough hard realities of the world may be what directs all American presidents into the mainstream of compromise and pragmatism. But what it is also is frequently morally indifferent and occasionally indefensible.
We have to acknowledge that we have become that which we condemned. We have demonstrated through our actions that we too feel morality is just for speeches and or to be used as a cudgel with which to attack the opposition. And we have to ask, can there be such a thing a liberal U.S. foreign policy or is our national character so corrupted by a sense of self-righteous exceptionalism that there is no place in our policies for solid values consistently applied?
I'm feeling curiously optimistic this morning which has me thinking it may be time for a CAT scan.
But I can actually see a way that things don't turn out so bad for the world.
First, to deal with the wolf closest to the sled, the Europeans will have to get their act in order. While they have thus far resisted this tooth and nail, I've heard some modestly encouraging rumblings from folks in the center of the negotiations. I want to point out the people with whom I have been speaking are not terribly optimistic themselves. But they have offered a few crumbs of optimism for those of us who starved for it to scarf up.
First, in the words of one participant, European leaders have begun to work themselves through "the stages of grief associated with the crisis. First, even just a few weeks ago, they were purely in denial. Then, they entered a phase of denial in which it was clear they didn't even believe their own denials. Finally, last week we entered what might be called the ‘silly ideas' phase. And I am hopeful that means now we can get down to serious ideas."
What kind of ideas? Coming up with a program that takes a big chunk, perhaps $250 billion, of ESFS money and uses it as "equity" in funding a "firewall" that might then include a trillion or so capital available to the ECB in the event a big economy -- Italy or Spain -- stumbles. The plan would also need other elements such as Europe dealing with the structural issues associated with achieving something like monetary union and a recognition that no firewall can protect against all threats, especially those that could be associated with a fixation on austerity. Governments in Europe need to focus on getting growth restarted in places like Spain or Italy or bigger problems are inevitable. A final element of an effective plan would then include a significant recapitalization of the IMF which currently is not funded properly to deal with the new forms of risk and contagion which confront global markets.
At some point, banks will need to pay for the insurance policies they are expecting their governments to provide for them and whether that is done by a Tobin tax or some levy on non-deposit liabilities, grappling with that issue will be key to winning political support for further government involvement. And while countries and the IMF are at it, they ought to start to tally what sovereign exposures are to those "implied liabilities", their unwritten but real "obligation" to bail out the too big to fail institutions that are the nuclear charges set at the fault lines of the global economy.
That might in turn trigger a recognition that we will not be well and truly out of the woods of this crisis until we demand more transparency from these banks in terms of their liabilities (including counter-party risks in all manner of derivative transactions), regulations that enforce responsible provisions for dealing with those risks, and perhaps even globally agreed upon limits on the size and activities of such institutions.
But one step at a time. While the insiders with whom I spoke were only cautiously optimistic that progress might be made on putting together an interim solution-firewall for Europe -- or to be more accurate, while they did not outright dismiss the possibility -- they did emphasize that there was a long way to go, the Germans and the French were not playing nicely with each other, and there were deep cultural barriers to even having an intellectually honest conversation among the players about what ails them.
Still, since the focus is optimism, another encouraging sign were the glowing reports I have been hearing of the work that both new IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde and U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner having been doing trying to hammer some sense into Europe's fiscal policy pygmies. No, not pygmies ... lemmings. Well, blundering action-phobic bureaucrats. (The problem, according to a friend, is "lots of leaders, not enough leadership.") By one account, about a third of the progress made during the last few weeks is due to circumstance, the growing direness of the situation, and the rest is due to the compelling arguments and forceful interventions of Lagarde and Geithner.
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New York at U.N. General Assembly meeting time operates with the kind of fevered intensity of a B movie with just about as much artificial drama. Layers upon layers of security guards and police and blockades and magnetometers stir up congestion and resentment and tension even before you enter the rooms full of government officials and the coteries of aides who follow them around like the cloud of dust at Pigpen's feet.
This year, of course, the central drama centered on the Palestinian bid for statehood and how, if at all, it could be managed so it was not a huge setback to Israel and a huge embarrassment to the United States. In the hotel in which I am staying, some of the principals in this drama were camped out buzzing about the latest rumors and fretting that events were spinning out of their control.
Thus far the drama is unresolved. President Obama gave a speech that managed to thread the needle offering a string of formulations designed to resonate well in Israeli ears, Palestinian ears, and, most importantly, in the ears of those (comparatively few) American voters who really cared enough to be following this particular episode of the Real Diplomats of New York City. The Palestinians appeared unmoved. The Israelis seemed pleased. Obama went on to his next event, at the Clinton Global Initiative.
Yet for all the familiarity of the arguments that both separate and bind together the Israelis and the Palestinians, there was something different about the feel of this particular minuet.
The Palestinians had clearly taken the initiative and set the statehood vote drama in motion. The Israelis, knocked back on their heels at first by the Palestinian move, regrouped and launched a political offensive in the United States (as well as around the world) to seek support. As the New York Times reported yesterday in its on target story "Netanyahu's Ties to G.O.P. Grow Stronger", the Israelis deftly reached out to key U.S. Republicans to win support and succeeded in generating enough that the President felt the pressure. If he did not line up with Israel in the clearest possible way, he might well lose a key part of his base in swing states like New York or Florida. At the same time, Europeans and major emerging powers all staked out their positions, most in direct or indirect opposition to the United States and the Israelis.
America, once the orchestrator of Middle East peace talks, always until now a prime driver behind the scenes, had assumed a new, much more reactive role. While the Obama team worked furiously behind the scenes, at every turn, it was responding to someone else's moves. It's own initiatives largely seemed to fall flat or come a little late.
The Obama Administration has been dramatically more engaged in the peace process than was the first term Bush Administration. So this may be part of a longer term trend. But in any event, America now seems to be a less influential actor than it has been for most of the modern history of the Arab-Israeli relationship.
That doesn't mean President Obama's remarks struck a wrong note or that U.S. diplomats don't have an important role to play in this process as it moves forward. It is just that amid the frenzy of this U.N. General Assembly week, one gets the impression that much of the most important work is getting done in rooms where the Americans are not present.
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One of the primary ways the attacks of September 11, 2001 were supposed to have changed the United States was by revealing to us our vulnerability within our own borders to terrorist attacks. But of course, we had seen many terrorist attacks before then.
We had seen them throughout American history -- shootings and hijackings and bombings. The destruction of Pan Am flight 103 in 1988 remains an open wound today. The 1995 Bojinka plot of Ramzi Yousef and his uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, to blow up 12 airliners en route to the United States and possibly kill as many as 4,000 people was a contributing factor leading to a major heightening of airport security by the Clinton Administration a year later. The Oklahoma City bombing, also in 1995, is still regularly invoked as a sign of our vulnerability to domestic terrorists. Indeed, it was in 1995 that I first remember Richard Clarke, then a colleague in the Clinton Administration and a man who had been both prophetic and evangelical in his warnings of the al Qaeda threat, first describing to me what he sensed that threat to be.
Even just two years before 9/11 we went on high alert on the eve of the millennium, stopping a well-formed, multi-pronged terror threat aimed at our West Coast.
The 9/11 attacks were not even the first attack on the World Trade Center, that having taken place in 1993, also having involved Yousef, Mohammed and a half dozen or so others. In fact, several years before 9/11, I participated in a conference co-sponsored by the Naval War College that was entirely focused on terrorist threats on Wall Street. It took place on the top floor of the World Trade Center. Among those helping to support the event was Howard Lutnick, the chief executive of Cantor Fitzgerald. Many of his team from the company attended the event which considered a variety of potential ways terrorists might target the U.S. financial community including bombings using trucks or aircraft. And a few years later, some of those from Cantor Fitzgerald who attended the event would die when their offices in the World Trade Center were consumed in the attacks we have spent much of the past few weeks commemorating.
The morning of Sept. 11, I was to have met with an admiral whose office was adjacent to the wing of the building that was destroyed. But at six o'clock the night before my office received a call saying that he would have to reschedule the meeting. I was pretty put-off. For almost 15 hours.
As a consequence of the postponement of that meeting, I was in my office on the morning of Sept. 11. I was on the phone with a friend who lived in Lower Manhattan a little before 9 a.m. Suddenly, he became agitated and said, "Oh my God, oh my God." I asked what was wrong and he described for me what he had just seen, a plane flying into the north face of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. He suggested that I turn on the television in my office, which I did.
Soon after, I walked into the office next door which was occupied by my business partner at the time, former U.S. National Security Advisor Tony Lake. We were joined by another colleague, former Deputy CIA Director John Gannon. It was there that we saw the second plane hit the tower. At that moment, Tony said, "Al Qaeda" softly to himself. John nodded. It was, at that point, only a well-informed guess. But again, both men had been involved for most of the past decade in a growing effort to understand and contain the threat posed by al Qaeda and other similar groups.
Al Qaeda had officially "declared war" on the United States in 1996 and that the Clinton Administration, that had been tracking Bin Laden and his associates since almost its very first days had made him a principle target of its intelligence and counter-terror efforts years before 9/11. In 1998, for example, the Central Intelligence Agency had reported that al Qaeda was planning attacks on the United States and that personnel were being trained to hijack aircraft. In August of that year, our embassies in East Africa were attacked.
We went to lunch that day at an outdoor café near our offices, joined by another colleague, Susan Rice, today the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. I remember a meandering, vaguely surreal conversation touching upon what that day's events might mean and semi-deserted streets over which periodically could be heard jet fighters rushing overhead through the bright blue skies. There was a sense that threats which had been underestimated by many in Washington might now be taken more seriously, but even then there was also a sense that we would need to be careful to succumb to the temptation to over-reaction. As John Gannon would later often say, "the terrorists are not twelve feet tall," meaning that we should not succumb to the temptation to overstate the threat from them. And yet, of course, he was at the vanguard of those who also worked tirelessly to identify and contain the very real threats that existed.
As profound and horrifying a tragedy as it was therefore, 9/11 was not new but part of a pattern, not the beginning of a threat but in fact, one of the few instances in which the threat was realized by a small hate group with limited, sporadic capability to successfully follow-through on its grandiose, malevolent plans.
Nonetheless, due to the gravity of what happened a decade ago, we have had a tendency to set aside the historical context. It helped with the healing and indeed, it seemed respectful to those who were lost to frame the attacks as though they were something new, the act of a great enemy, a piece of a much grander struggle akin to past conflicts that took a high toll. I know when I think of those that were lost, personalizing it as we all do to the stories closest to us -- the kid who grew up across the street from me who was killed in Tower Two or my tennis partner whose sister in law was a flight attendant on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon -- there is some comfort from such an approach.
But comfort aside -- and it's no small thing, comfort, in the face of such grief -- the view is wrong. 9/11 was one of the few realized plots of a small band of outcast criminals. Such plots and such groups will always exist and we are within our rights and indeed, it is our responsibility to civilization, to eradicate such groups and take all reasonable steps to minimize such threats. But it does no one any good to overstate the risks and indeed, as we have seen, it has done us great damage to do so ... even as it has done service to the goals of al Qaeda and other radical extremists.
A decade later the attack has changed us because it touched us and altered irrevocably millions of lives here and across the Middle East. But if you look at the great issues before the United States in 2011, terror is no greater a threat nor any greater an issue today than it was throughout the 1990s. It is important, but our great challenges are the reinvention of our economy, the education of our children, the protection of our environment, the rise of new great powers and a rapidly changing global order, and the implications of participating in an interconnected, risk-filled, under-regulated, untransparent global economy.
9/11 was a heartbreaking event, an important chapter, but it was neither a beginning nor an end, not redefining nor an appropriate lodestar for future policies. As a consequence, tributes having been appropriately paid, memories having been rekindled, it is time to realize that the biggest threat posed that day comes from misunderstanding it and that the best way to contain the risks posed by the men who orchestrated it is to put them and their actions in the right historical context.
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Ramrod straight and offering up cringe-worthy physical and verbal salutes to his hosts at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, Republican presidential front-runner Governor Rick Perry yesterday offered a glimpse into what his foreign policy might look like were he to eventually become America's commander in chief.
Normally, such a speech would be an important event. It would be studied by voters and foreign leaders alike, each searching for clues about where the world's most powerful nation might be heading. But in that respect, this speech was superfluous. From its very first stiff, nuance-lite, detail-free bursts of formulaic jingoism it triggered something back in our lizard brains, releasing whatever combination of neural chemicals it is that produces dread-filled déjà vu. Sweet Josephine, says your autonomic nervous system, I've seen this movie before! The Texas Chain Saw Foreign Policy! In fact, I just saw it and have been drinking heavily ever since trying to forget. I know what happens when you elect a Texas governor who thinks borrowed, not-fully-understood opinions and strong words make up for a nearly complete lack of foreign-policy experience.
However, for those of you who like to assess such performances at more than a reflexive level, let's dig deeper. To do so we will have to first translate his remarks from Texan into English. Then, based on what we find we can determine whether this latest candidate is, like his predecessor from the Lone Star State, all hat and no cattle when it comes to foreign policy.
Let's take a few key phrases:
While these subtexts and echoes of the Bush years may give you the willies, there is one set of people who love them. That's the boys and girls in the White House. They love the ascendancy of Rick Perry more than they love lemonade on a hot summer afternoon. Because they know how to run against the Bush record. They know that the one candidate guaranteed to be weaker than this president is his predecessor. As one canny former White House official (yes, a Democrat, I'll admit it) said to me, "All they have to do with Perry is dust off those old 2008 Obama campaign posters and replace the word "HOPE" with "FEAR." They know they can go after Perry for producing "fear you can believe in."
Sept. 11, 2001 marked the beginning of a decade in which the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy was "the war on terror." As we approach Sept. 11, 2011, it is clear that America's foreign policy priorities have changed.
Not only has the United States achieved our principle goal of decapitating al Qaeda and degrading its capabilities, we have hardened our assets, enhanced our intelligence capabilities, developed better networks of international cooperation and, above all, recognized that there are other issues of far greater importance to our national interests that should take precedence. Even the term "war on terror" has thankfully fallen into disuse, a sign that while combatting threats from extremists remains an important element of our national security mission, we no longer seek to equate tactical responses to isolated threats with past conflicts in which our strategic interests were at stake. Instead, we are now appropriately addressing such broader strategic questions such as the rise of new powers like China, India, and Brazil, collaborating to manage the global economy, and containing important regional threats that include but are far from limited to the risks associated with terror.
Nowhere is this shift more striking than in the Greater Middle East, the source of not only the 9/11 attacks but of many of the most serious terror threats of recent memory. Recent events in Libya only underscore that America's number one issue in the region is now supporting the transition of a large number of important regional governments from autocracy to more inclusive forms of government and from top-down, crony states to more open, opportunity-rich economies. In the Middle East we have gone from the war on terror to a new campaign focused not on destruction but on building, not on sidestepping our ideals in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo but on promoting them consistent with the spirit of places like Tahrir Square.
In Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Iraq, and Afghanistan, while the individual situations are different as is our involvement, our missions are consistent and mutually reinforcing. In the near future, it is to be hoped that similar missions will exist in Syria and in Palestine. Related reforms in countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and even Jordan -- no one like the other, but all sharing a need to evolve to reflect new economic, political, social, and technological realities -- are also likely to grow ever more important to our overall goals in the Middle East.
Of course, the initiatives we support -- those that enfranchise citizens and create opportunities for self-sufficiency and advancement -- are also far more effective tools to combat the spread of terror than have been many of our military and political initiatives of the recent past. That's not to say that there is not an important dimension to that on-going fight that will require swift, decisive use of force -- sometimes even unilateral use of force. But among the best elements of this new approach in the region is that it can only be done through effective multilateral cooperation in conjunction with a broad array of other supporters and international institutions.
Anniversaries like 9/11 are important because they help us remember. But they are also important because they provide needed punctuation marks, allowing us to bring to an end dark chapters like the "war on terror."
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Think regulatory oversight of credit rating agencies is going to increase in the months ahead? Think Washington is going to put Standard and Poor's through the ringer as a consequence of its downgrade decision? It is as certain as the fact that in lieu of vision, courage, and action, the political swamp rats of D.C. will play the blame game while trying desperately to change the subject from the current crisis.
Think the decision of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to stay on through the election will fill the markets with confidence? Geithner is earnest, incredibly hardworking, and intelligent, but he has been snake-bitten from the start and the president is misreading the mood of the markets and voting public if he thinks that what this situation calls for is "staying the course." That's a mistake that's been made before … and it would be a stark irony if in his efforts to avoid being a one-term president like Jimmy Carter, President Obama instead became one like George H.W. Bush.
Think the intervention of the European Central Bank to prop up the debt of Italy and Spain is going to restore investor confidence in the eurozone, or is its action more like that of a drowsy emergency room doctor in the middle of a long shift waking just long enough to place a few Band-Aids on the gunshot wounds of several recently admitted critical-care patients?
Think the fact that the U.S. Congress being in recess at a time of great risk to the nation is a big story … or is it a bigger story that most Americans think that is a net positive, given how unlikely it is that the petulant children of the U.S. Congress would be likely to get anything positive done were they actually in their offices working?
Think that with the great economies of the world circling the drain that profound security and humanitarian concerns will fester and worsen -- from famine in East Africa to Iran's nuclear program to the mess in Afghanistan that took such a tragic toll this weekend (undoubtedly thanks to the support the Taliban receives from elements in the government of Pakistan)?
Moments like this will get you thinking. Unfortunately, most of the thoughts that are likely to cross your mind are unsettling ones. In many ways this moment is more complex and daunting than the crisis in 2008 and 2009. Because back then there was a pervasive sense that we would and should do anything in our power to avoid a global economic meltdown. Not that we actually did do what should have been done. But at least we felt like everyone was pulling in the same direction.
Now, not only is Europe as riven with political divisions as is the United States, but there is a widespread belief that certain types of actions are off the table either because we tried them and they didn't seem to work the last time around or because they seem to be politically not viable. I would argue, however, that while this may be the conventional wisdom, we all need to work to undo it at the earliest possible moment.
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Enough is enough. After remaining divided on this issue for too long, it is time to take a stand regardless of the political consequences.
It is time to join with those who have already had the courage to weather the inevitable criticism from a biased, bought, and paid for press corps that is part of the greater problem we face.
It is time to end the double standard that for far too long has guided and distorted America's policies in the Middle East.
You all know the story: For decades, special interest-driven ties have enabled a small lobby in Washington to embrace policies that have cost America dearly and today, increasingly put our national security and national prestige at risk. We have for too long supported Middle Eastern political leaders who themselves represent comparatively small populations with dubious historical claims on the land they control and extreme religious agendas. These so-called allies have not only implemented unfair policies that have earned criticism around the world, they have actually implemented apartheid-like segregation of the people they govern. Minority interlopers have unjustly appropriated power, held it by force, and often brutally oppressed majorities that deserve better.
While this is our policy for a subset of the Middle East, for others in the region we are much less accommodating. We are constantly haranguing them, criticizing, demanding that they achieve an ever-higher standard of behavior … even though their historical claims on the region are every bit as great as those we coddle, even though in many ways they have served America more reliably than those we prop up with our military aid, even though they are in many ways the source of the region's vitality and have the clearest vision as to how it might break out of the economic and political crises that torment it.
The cost of this double standard is painfully apparent today. Just look at the headlines. In Syria, all America can do is make earnest but impotent shows of solidarity with opposition leaders and search for new adjectives to add to our denunciations of the illegitimate Assad regime. But because of our double standard, because of the fact that we dare not call out the Arab nations we have supported for so long at such a high cost, because we can't count on them as our allies to do the right thing and add pressure on Assad to go, we are forced to treat this grave humanitarian crisis as though it were happening on the moon, far from any real ability of us to influence it.
Yes, the Syria crisis does, as is often noted, illustrate the greatest of the many follies associated with the frustrating saga of Western intervention in Libya. That is, of course, that by intervening in Libya ineffectively, we have now made it impossible for anyone to believe we will intervene anywhere else, even when, as in Syria's case, more credible threats of punishing Assad would have been helpful arrows to have in our quiver.
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In this moment of national confusion and public despair with officials in Washington, variations on the following cry have often been heard, "Somewhere in the world there must be an American political leader with a vision of tomorrow, a focus on what is really important and an ability to translate rhetoric into success."
I'm pleased to report that there is. If it has escaped your attention it's because that politician has been on the other side of the world the past couple of weeks advancing American interests and the policies of the president with meaningful results and exceptional skill.
That politician is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is just completing an around-the-world mission that has taken her from the economic frontlines of the eurozone crisis to the markets of tomorrow in Asia. The trip, obscured in the noise around the debt ceiling debate, has been a real triumph for the Obama administration and has revealed that many of its policies over the past two years are now bearing significant fruit. It has also revealed the State Department's deftness and bench-depth in dealing with an Asia agenda that is vastly more important in every respect than virtually anything that has been discussed inside the beltway for months.
Given that most trips by senior officials, even secretaries of state, are more often than not a series of pro forma efforts in diplomatic box-checking, the scope and results of the Clinton trip are worth noting. In Greece, she conveyed at a critical moment, America's unequivocal support for that country's economic recovery plan. When visiting Pakistan, the site of America's most difficult relationship, her performance was even hailed in the local press. The Pakistan Observer carried an article stating, "Drum roll for Hillary because she has hit a home run." Her India visit was also widely hailed producing progress on a number of fronts from counterterror cooperation to opening up investment flows between the two countries. More importantly, it also continued the important work that will be a central legacy of her efforts at State which is the elevation of the U.S.-India relationship to being a centerpiece of America's 21st century foreign policy.
The focus on the U.S.-India relationship is, as the trip also revealed, part of an even broader reorientation of U.S. foreign policy under President Obama. This administration was the first in U.S. history to enter office acknowledging that China was America's most important international counterpart -- one that was both vital partner and challenging rival. But, rather than simply acknowledging this fact and focusing on that relationship, Obama, Clinton and their Asia team have systematically worked to establish a foundation for managing that relationship. What is more their choice was not kow-towing or bluster nor was it the blunt instrument of containment. Rather than have chosen what might be called broad engagement, deepening not only the relationship with Beijing and with potential counter-weights like India, but also systematically and often invisibly working to strengthen ties with many of the smaller countries in Asia.
The approach was clearly illustrated during several other stops on Clinton's trip. In Hong Kong on July 25, she delivered an address to the American Chamber of Commerce which was not only a model for a sweeping, specific, thoughtfully-argued policy address, but which revealed a clear vision for the future of America's relationship with China and the rest of the region. It did not hesitate to press the Chinese to abandon unfair economic practices and to embrace the openness healthy markets demand. It was effectively built around the enumeration of four core principles: markets be open, free, transparent, and fair. But it also underscored the mutual dependence at the center of the relationship and outlined a systematic strategy for how to build upon it. It did not stop there, however. It addressed as effectively as anything I have heard the nature of the current debt-ceiling debate in an effort-successful to date at ensuring continuing Asian market confidence. And it emphasized the importance the United States places on deepening ties elsewhere in Asia, from the Korea-U.S. trade agreement the administration is pushing hard to win passage of to links to ASEAN's rising economies. The full text of the speech is worth a read and appears here.
Prior to the visit to Hong Kong, Clinton attended the ASEAN Regional Forum in Bali, Indonesia, and actively engaged with not only many of the region's leaders but made real substantive progress on issues from re-opening conversations with North Korea to managing a constructive multi-national approach to addressing tensions in the South China Sea. These meetings were also a chance to advance the systematic strengthening of relations with all the region's players, including many that have often been overlooked by the United States. This process has over the past two years included both establishment of formal policy dialogues with many countries in the region and also work on issues from reform in Myanmar to those associated with the Mekong River delta area that have been an important part of the Obama team's Asia strategy.
Regional diplomats not only give Clinton high marks for her efforts and in particular for this trip, but they also cite her top lieutenants including Under Secretary of State Robert Hormats and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell. One of Washington's most respected senior diplomats specifically cited to me the contributions of Campbell in helping Clinton shape the regional strategy, in managing complex core relationships with China, Japan and Korea but recognizing the importance of other players as well. "He is the most effective assistant secretary of state for East Asia in modern memory," said the official. "No one else even comes close and I have high regard for many of them."
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Let's peel away the diplomatic varnish, shall we? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's statement today in New Delhi that the U.S. and India are "allies in the fight against violent extremist networks" was essentially the announcement of an alliance against Pakistan.
Pakistan is America's ally, of course. We say it all the time. Unfortunately, Pakistan also harbors our enemies, supports our enemies, tolerates the intolerable by our enemies, and is therefore also our enemy. Not all of Pakistan, of course. Just some of the most influential of its elites and institutions as well as substantial cross-sections of its population.
Pakistan therefore has no one to blame for the steady deepening of the security ties between the United States and India than itself. As containing the problems within Pakistan through cooperation with the Pakistanis looks increasingly difficult, it is only natural that the United States should simultaneously develop a Plan B approach. That approach is containment and it necessarily must involve a partnership with India.
That India and the United States share many other interests, are the world's two leading democracies, having rapidly growing, deepening economic ties, and share cultural links associated with their past experiences within the British empire make the partnership a natural one. Differences and frustrations will exist naturally -- and some surrounding the U.S.-India nuclear power deal have surfaced during Clinton's India visit -- but there is perhaps no single major power relationship likely to undergo more positive change over the next several decades than that between Washington and New Delhi. To put it another way, this is the emerging world-developed world major power axis of cooperation to watch most closely as it is the one where the aligned interests are perhaps greatest.
The deterioration of U.S. relations with the Pakistanis coupled with the acceleration of Pakistan's development of its nuclear arsenal is only one aspect of these ties and, for Clinton, among the most delicate to handle. That's why her directness in making the statements she did is so striking, timely ... and utterly appropriate.
The recent attacks in Mumbai may not, as of yet, be linked to any groups associated with the Pakistanis, but they certainly remind of the attacks that took place in 2008 and claimed 160 lives which were the handiwork of extremist groups with close ties to some in the Pakistani intelligence services. The fact that these most recent incidents took place while the head of Pakistani intelligence services was visiting Washington was a particularly uncomfortable coincidence.
So when Clinton said that the U.S. would not accept any nation offering "safe havens and free pass" it is clear who she was talking about. It is clear that the discovery of Osama bin Laden being nurtured in the bosom of Pakistan has had a permanent impact on the relationship and that the subsequent bristling of the Pakistanis and their push back on key aspects of U.S.-Pakistani cooperation in combating terror have pushed the alliance to being, in key respects, to use the words of one U.S. government official with whom I recently spoke, "stubbornly dysfunctional."
The U.S. has had, in the past, myriad dysfunctional alliances. But you have to go back to that with the Soviets in the waning days of World War II to find one in which a leading ally was simultaneously viewed as a leading threat. While the statements in New Delhi today do not suggest that our alliance with Islamabad is finished, it does send a clear message that, as was the case with the Soviets, flawed alliances can be turned into dangerously adversarial relationships almost overnight if the sides involved do not work in good faith to resolve their differences.
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For years the hackneyed joke about Brazil was that it was the country of tomorrow and always would be. But almost a decade ago, in the wake of the reforms of the Cardoso administration, and then thanks to the remarkable presidential tenure of Luiz Inacio "Lula" Da Silva and the industry and enterprise of the Brazilian people, the joke was overtaken by events. As investors, CEOs, journalists and most of the world's leading powers have recognized, Brazil has arrived.
While U.S. leaders like Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama have acknowledged the change, many in the U.S. policy community remained holdouts or skeptics. Yes, Brazil was on the rise they said, but they always found a way to qualify their views, to establish one criteria or another that Brazil would have to meet before it was finally seen as a "first-class power." While Asia specialists embraced the rise of China and India and quickly began to remake policy based on changing power relationships, Latin specialists clung to the past, to old formulations and prejudices.
In the eyes of these living museum pieces of Washington's small, inbred Latin American affairs community, Brazil might be the country of tomorrow, it might even be the country of later on today, but we would be sticking with the policies of yesterday until further notice.
Today, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) has issued a new task force report on U.S.-Brazil relations that goes a long way toward breaking with the past by recommending the U.S. move toward a new policy stance with regard to Brazil. The central point of the report is that Brazil must be liberated from the Latin policy barrio and viewed as one of the most important global powers of today and of the century ahead.
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.)
The Greek parliament's austerity vote accomplished one thing. It advanced the possibility of a deal that will pump enough cash in the direction of Athens for the country to pay off its creditors. Here's what it will not do:
It also won't reduce Europe's vulnerability to upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa, address the problems caused by growing dependence on Russian gas that is the direct implication of Germany's decision to shut down its nuclear power generating capacity, address the deep flaws in its common foreign policy mechanisms that have been revealed by the seemingly endless war of "days not weeks or months" in Libya, or somehow address Europe's inability to produce decent pop music.
In short, yesterday's Greek vote may have soothed markets temporarily ... but it is nothing more than the latest effort to treat the symptoms of Europe's ills while steadfastly ignoring the underlying disease.
On Friday, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote an article in the Washington Post titled, "Why Europe No Longer Matters." Today, Monday, the headline in the Wall Street Journal was "Europe Wrangles Over Greece," the top two headlines in the Financial Times were "Medvedev rules out poll tussle with Putin" and "Greek PM's plea for unity to tackle crisis," the top headline in the Washington Post was a story about NATO entitled "Misfire in Libya kills civilians" and the lead story in the New York Times was entitled "Companies Push for a Tax Break on Foreign Cash" which dealt with a key challenge in the age of global companies.
Haass, one of the canniest and most thoughtful U.S. foreign policy analysts around, was responding to Secretary of Defense Bob Gates's valedictory jabs at Europe concerning pulling their weight within NATO. The point of the Haass article was that Gates's comments were not just a coda on his time in office, but the end of a "time-honored tradition" which involves Americans tweaking our allies for shirking their global responsibilities. The piece made all the usual points: Europe's influence beyond its borders will decline, Asia is rising, the threats NATO was established to address have vanished to be replaced by new ones it is not very well-suited to meeting, etc.
The problem with the piece is that while Haass is right in terms of each of these points, I think he comes to the wrong conclusion.
The headlines in this morning's papers attest to the fact that Europe still very much matters today. In a tightly integrated global economy, Europe's economic fate impacts ours dramatically. An economic meltdown there around Greece or Spain could easily create a global economic crisis and send the United States into a precipitous and uncomfortable double dip.
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For political junkies, the mere thought of it gets us all to tingling. It's the equivalent of the day pitchers and catchers show up at spring training or the kick off of the Hall of Fame game for football fans. (For U.S. football fans, that is. For soccer fans, it's the equivalent of handing out the first bribes of the season to a FIFA official.) It's a new beginning.
It's the first real debate of the presidential campaign season and it was scheduled to take place last night in New Hampshire. Dutifully, I settled into the dent in my couch made the night before while gleefully watching the self-destruction of LeBron James, and I waited for the fireworks to begin.
Unfortunately, I must have had the channel wrong because what I saw on CNN was something that looked like an elimination round for the Stepford version of "America's Got Talent." A combination of the vaguely deranged and the semi-robotic moving their lips but apparently speaking in sounds only Republicans can hear.
I squinted and leaned closer to the screen looking for some semblance of presidential candidates but this group look like they were roughly up to competing for the job of Deputy U.S. Secretary of Commerce.
Here we have a country that is in the midst of a protracted economic calamity, precious little is going right, the current president may be the last holder of that office ever to be referred to as "the most powerful man in the world" and these seven non-entities were the best America's opposition party could come up with?
Pizza executive Herman Cain? A man who could barely string three words together and yet managed to reveal volumes about how little he knows or understands about domestic or foreign policy? Governor Tim Polenta ... a big, steaming plate of bland mush? Ron Paul? America's crazy uncle who looked like he wandered into the wrong bingo game? Mitt Romney? A man whose name is Mitt? The man most likely to become America's first animatronic president? Newt Gingrich? The unsightly piece of spinach on the big fake smile of Republican politics? Michele Bachmann? Who indicated proudly that she had had 23 foster children? 23 foster children? Was she auditioning to become the first human collector to have an episode of "Hoarders" devoted to her? And Rick Santorum? Mr. "Man on Dog?" Mr. "Intelligent Design?" The guy who tried to blame the Hurricane Katrina disaster on its victims?
Where do they stand? They're against big government ... except when it comes to women's reproductive rights in which case they feel the government should regulate what women do with their internal organs. They feel government is incompetent ... except apparently the military to whom all but Ron Paul would defer on most big issues ranging from how to handle Afghanistan to how to manage the basic civil rights of citizens who happen to be in the military. Muslims, for the most part, make them uncomfortable but they are not for deporting them immediately. Or was that immigrants? Well, basically they don't much like either group. They believe Obama has it wrong on the economy and that the way back to growth is through a lower deficit and lower taxes. The impossible math of that aside, apparently they think the main structural problem facing the U.S. economy is the structure of the U.S. government and that other competitive factors ... like, say, the comparative advantages of the rest of the world don't really figure in the equation.
Of course, I oversimplify. They had differences of views. And apparently the commentators were all very impressed that they didn't fall down like Shania Twain at the CMT Awards. But I have to admit, I came away pretty disappointed. At least when the Mavs-Heat game slowed down, I was able to switch to watch the Tony's. I mean try as these G.O.P. wannabes might to tap dance around substance, facts, or the substantial reasons why each of them would fare badly against President Obama, they really couldn't hold a candle to the amazing Norbert Leo Butz or spectacular Sutton Foster. The only thing the two telecasts had in common was that the acknowledged big winner of each was Mormon. But as you might have gathered, I'd only actually pay to see one of those. (Hint: It's the one where you actually get to see a live performance.)
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Things are so tough even the past isn't what it used to be. That is the message of Woody Allen's lovely, good-hearted new movie Midnight in Paris. While the movie's goal is to enhance our appreciation for the present by puncturing the "golden age syndrome" of those who yearn for impossibly beautiful cultural yesteryears, it inadvertently sends an important political message as well.
Starting this summer, a parade of Republican presidential wannabes will offer a message of recycled hope, promising to restore America to good old days goodness. Candidates and possible candidates like Tim Pawlenty and Sarah Palin already invoke Ronald Reagan so often it's hard not to conclude that he has become the reverse Voldemort of the Republican Party, "He Who Must Always Be Named." They and their Republican primary opponents will call so often for it to be "morning in America" that I wouldn't be surprised if Denny's sponsors Palin's tour bus to promote its Grand Slam breakfasts.
But of course, for those of us who actually lived through the 1980s, it was mostly bad haircuts, Iran-Contra and the music of Dexys Midnight Runners.
Similarly, there will be efforts from candidates from both parties to associate themselves with past "golden ages" of U.S. foreign policy. President Obama will certainly cite the prosperity of the Clinton years or seek to channel the charisma of John F. Kennedy or the toughness of Harry Truman or the true leader of the free world stature of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Republicans will -- as they did after the Osama raid -- seek to assert that Bush 43-era resoluteness was key to fighting terror. Or they will argue that Bush 41-era mastery of the end of the Cold War proves that the GOP knows foreign policy best, that they can stand up to evil like Reagan did to Gorbachev or even that they are the party of Nixon-Kissingerian savvy or Eisenhower's ability to epitomize everything you want in a commander-in-chief.
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While NATO bickers over strategy in Libya, BRIC leaders have gathered in Sanya, China, to demonstrate the growing strength of an alternative grouping that has among its principle selling points the fact that it is neither Western nor U.S.-dominated. To compare the world's most potent and enduring military alliance with a loose affiliation of emerging powers that are divided by perhaps more issues than unite them is clearly comparing apples and lychee nuts or guarana seeds, but the juxtaposition of the two events does offer yet another whiff of how the institutions and ideas of the 20th century are giving way to those of the 21st.
In Libya, the potent alliance that "won" the Cold War is coming apart at the seams fighting over strategy, tactics, and objectives in an optional, low-grade intervention in a largely irrelevant country. The U.S. secretary of state is forced to make public pleas for the bumptious commanders of the coalition to get their acts together, while on the ground the weakened forces of the isolated Muammar al-Qaddafi seem to be holding the megapower onslaught at bay. It is too poignant a reminder that intangibles like knowing what you're fighting for and political will are as important to any battle as the hardware being brought to bear by each side on the other.
In Sanya, Brazil, Russia, India, and the hosts welcomed South Africa into their little club, and if they achieved little else they underscored that they are taking coordination among their countries very seriously and seeking to deepen their ties. However, they did go further and offered a broad agenda including more hints that they will push for alternatives to the dollar-dominated global monetary system that we currently have.
Of course, the BRICs summit resonates with the Libya follies because the original four BRICs voted as a bloc to abstain during the Security Council vote on the imposition of the no-fly zone in Libya and within days of its initiation were publicly speaking out against it. That they were joined in the vote by Europe's most powerful country, Germany, also sent a message that the opposition to the initiative was meaningful and suggested that future votes in international institutions might see the BRICs (or the BRICS … if the final "S" is for South Africa) emerge at the core of a potent new alternative coalition to the traditional Western or developed powers.
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It is hard to argue with the White House's reasoning behind working collaboratively with other nations in formulating the response to the Libya crisis. But, if the president is going to talk the multilateralist talk, the crucial question is going to be whether he does so effectively or not.
Obama's multilateralism is both ideological and pragmatic. Since his first days as a candidate, he has made it clear that he believes in the international rule of law, support for international institutions and a United States that is a committed partner rather than a unilateralist rogue within the international system. On the practical front, the U.S. public has neither the appetite nor the checkbook for a sequel to the series of with-us-or-against-us-themed American Sherriff road movies that recently have been playing to such mixed notices in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. (In both instances while we have worked with coalitions, the U.S. role has been so great that other nations have really been extras, featured ensemble members at best.)
So the president has shown reasoned restraint in the wake of the outbreak of civil war in Libya. While the plight of citizens on the ground cries out for support, Obama and his team have felt that given both the complexities associated with widely bruited-about "solutions" like the imposition of a no-fly zone as well as other interventive measures, that whatever is done would be both more legitimate and more sustainable if undertaken through collective initiative.
That seems like a sound approach -- if intervention actually takes place. But the president and his team must not fall into the trap of thinking that embracing multilateralism excuses inaction when decisive measures are called for. The United States still has national interests -- whether they are in maintaining oil flows or preventing a humanitarian disaster or discouraging other thugocracies from brutalizing their own people -- and if it is the choice of this administration to advance those interests through collaboration with our NATO allies, via the United Nations or through some ad hoc coalition then the United States must find ways to actually do so and to do so in a timely, resolute and ultimately successful way.
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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:
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The greater good is the bitch-goddess of foreign policy. It provides at once both the inspiration to elevate society and the temptation to debase it. I'm sure one of the reasons that the study of foreign policy draws in so many passive-aggressive poindexters is because they get a cheap thrill from entering a fraternity in which the only admissions requirement is checking your conscience at the door.
In the first international affairs class one attends or the first serious discussion of foreign policy in which one participates, sooner or later the focus turns to the tough choices that must be made in the name of the Shiva of Foggy Bottom.
It is easy to understand this impulse when one watches scenes as in Libya in which a corrupt despot seeks to maintain his illegitimate chokehold on a society through the slaughter of those who only seek the rights due all men and women. Using force and taking life to stop evil and to protect those who cannot defend themselves is certainly justifiable albeit fraught with moral complexities that we too often too easily set aside.
That said however, we have to acknowledge that the natural habitat of this particular bitch-goddess is the slipperiest of slopes. It is worth remembering that most of the world's greatest sins have been committed in the service of someone's definition of the greater good. It is a point the Obama administration ought to take to heart as recent headlines suggest that we are crossing to the wrong side of the world's most dangerous border, the one that divides "realism" from "evil."
Not surprisingly, no place illustrates this danger like the region we call AfPak. And as a consequence no place more emphatically shouts out the question: "Have we no decency? Are there no limits to what we are willing to accept in the pursuit of our allegedly high-minded goals?"
We accept Hamid Karzai and elements of the Pakistani government although we know them to be corrupt and very likely supporting or enabling our enemies. We do this despite the lesson being chanted in public squares across the Middle East -- not to mention most of the history of modern U.S. foreign policy -- is that this approach inevitably comes back to bite us in the most sensitive parts of our national interests. We are seen as the co-authors of the wrongs our chosen despots commit or tolerate because ... well, because we are. That we are doing this in Afghanistan even as we are seemingly preparing to embrace a bigger role for the Taliban in the government only compounds the wrong -- the only justification for supporting Karzai is that he is better than the alternative but we don't seem to think that's necessarily the case anymore. Whatever your view of the issue, you have to admit it's a treacherously morally ambiguous place to venture to reclaim the national standing the Obama team correctly feels the United States lost during the Bush years.
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Recently, there have been perturbations in the wonkosphere. While the trembles are so slight that they wouldn't show up on the Richter Scale of a real human being, they have generated blog headlines and conversations at conferences full of people with advanced degrees and too much time on their hands. The stir has been caused by the assertion that we now live in something that big idea branding experts are trying to characterize as a "G-Zero" world.
In the words of one of the term's proponents, Ian Bremmer, the term refers to the assertion that we now live in a world in which "no country or bloc of countries has the political and economic leverage to drive an international agenda." Bremmer, and another supporter of the idea, NYU's Nouriel Roubini, have been explaining the notion and have done so compellingly enough that after it came up at this year's World Economic Forum gabfest in the Swiss Alps, the New York Times called it the event's "buzziest buzzword."
Buzz words are important in the wonkosphere because people are very busy going from conference to conference, periodically stopping to Tweet about who they bumped into and how they influenced them, and they have very little time to really think about anything. So if you can take an idea, reduce it to a couple of key, easily digestible, tasty ingredients, and wrap into a piece of shiny gold foil you have ... a Reese's Pieces Mini. Well, actually, you have something just like it, but not quite as tasty; you have a candidate for buzz-term of the moment.
Sometimes, it must be said, that even the fizziest of the buzziest actually contain a core idea of real value. Take a stroll down foreign policy nerd memory lane and savor past hits like "illiberal democracy" or "the world is flat" or "clash of civilizations" or "the end of history." Agree with the core notion of the idea or not (the delicious peanut butter center), you have to admit these ideas performed a useful purpose, captured a zeitgeist, and got the conversation going. Some, like "the end of history," were both widely misunderstood and, when understood correctly, wrong. But it was a compelling idea thoughtfully arrived at.
This G-Zero thing, not so much. The idea, of course, plays on all the discussion that has swirled around recent international summits as the attendance lists changed and the labels were altered accordingly. We went from the G-8 to the G-20 and then, keen observers, eager to build their own bit of buzz in the pundit-hive, pondered whether we weren't really seeing a case of a G-18 wrapped around a G-2 (the United States and China.) The Chinese didn't much like this and wished pundits would leave their g-darned labels off of them.
Bremmer and Roubini and company make the case that the United States and the Europeans and the Japanese are too deeply under economic water, and the emerging powers like China and India are too busy developing all the time for anybody to be able to step up and drive the international agenda. And while I know and like Ian and think both he and Roubini are smart guys, this is as an idea that looks like what it is: not much built around a big zero.
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When I read the Washington Post's story "Palestinians Seek Recognition through South America" this morning, all I could think of was Sarah Palin. Now, some might think that is a kind of a disorder that calls for therapy more than it does another blog post. But I suspect you are probably jumping to the wrong conclusion about what I think about either issue.
In defense of my mental health (which needs all the defending it can get), one reason I thought of Palin was that as I was reading the article, she appeared on the television. She was being asked what she thought about birther claims that President Obama was not born in the United States. Without the hesitation or weasel words that have made recent statements on this subject by Michele Bachmann and John Boehner such indictments of their ability to lead, Palin said that it wasn't an issue for her and that we ought to be talking about how to fix the economy. In this instance, she got it precisely right.
But the Palin comment and the birther debate also resonated with the story of the eight Latin American governments that in December and January recognized Palestinian statehood. representatives of the Netanyahu government including the prime minister himself apparently vigorously tried to persuade the region's leaders not to join the almost 100 nations that have also acknowledged the legitimacy of the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people.
Once again, the issue seems like a distraction to me. The response of Israel ought to be like the response of Palin, "Of course, the Palestinian people have a right to a state." In fact, it's only a bit of an over-simplification to say, the right response ought to be literally what Palin's was: That it's not an issue for them and we ought to be talking about how to fix the economy -- that is we ought to be focused on how you go from the indisputable right of the Palestinians to have their own state to working together to create one that is self-sustaining and can do a better job creating opportunities for the Palestinian people than neighboring states (other than Israel) have done for their citizens. That's the critical challenge for both Israelis and Palestinians together.
That of course, also requires that the Palestinian leadership actually get serious about both negotiating a deal and providing fundamental services to the Palestinian people. An honest debate about this subject, stripped of the distractions upon which both sides have depended on as cover for so long, would turn more to such practical issues.
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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.