Your humble blogger has, in the past, live-blogged or live-tweeted the State
of the Union address. After reading the National
Journal's draft of the speech, I've decided
the mindless applause will convert a decent 30-minute speech into an
interminable 75-minute talkathonso I'm gonna watch Mystery Men instead to
Looking over the draft, however, I see that the Obama administration has really taken this competitiveness theme to heart. More than any State of the Union I've seen before, President Obama raises the examples of other countries doing things better than the United States as an impetus for the U.S. to do more. Consider:
The rules have changed. In a single generation, revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work and do business. Steel mills that once needed 1,000 workers can now do the same work with 100. Today, just about any company can set up shop, hire workers, and sell their products wherever there's an internet connection.
Meanwhile, nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They're investing in research and new technologies. Just recently, China became home to the world's largest private solar research facility, and the world's fastest computer....
Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik¸ we had no idea how we'd beat them to the moon. The science wasn't there yet. NASA didn't even exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.
This is our generation's Sputnik moment....
The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations. America has fallen to 9th in the proportion of young people with a college degree. And so the question is whether all of us - as citizens, and as parents - are willing to do what's necessary to give every child a chance to succeed....
Our infrastructure used to be the best - but our lead has slipped. South Korean homes now have greater internet access than we do. Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do. China is building faster trains and newer airports. Meanwhile, when our own engineers graded our nation's infrastructure, they gave us a "D."
We have to do better.
I'm curious to see how this will play out. On the one hand, the administration is obviously using this kind of "we're falling behind other countries!" shtick as a way to build public support for investments in education and infrastructure. In the same speech he talks about falling behind South Korea, for example, he embraces the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.
At the same time, I have two big concerns with this approach. First, there's the risk of rhetorical blowback, in which everyone freaks out and reacts in a hysterical manner.
Second, and more important, the percentage of the speech devoted to microeconomic "competitiveness" issues vastly exceeds the amount devoted to long-term macroeconomic policy. If the federal government really wants to create a better climate for innovation, it needs to send a credible signal that steps are being taken to deal with long-term budgetary problems. That section of the speech was, er, less solid.
[What about the foreign policy sections?!--ed. Meh. Nothing bad --
just nothing of substance either. One could argue that the biggest foreign
policy innovation of the SOTU is the administration's decision to use
globalization as the political crowbar to pry infrastructure
investments from Congress.]
Feel free to comment away on what you would like to see in the speech.
I've expressed skepticism about whether WikiLeaks will actually lead to greater foreign-policy transparency. That said, l'affaire WikiLeaks has generated just a smidgen of greater candor from at least one U.S. policy principal. Here's Defense Secretary Robert Gates on the fallout from the cable dump:
Let me just offer some perspective as somebody who’s been at this a long time. Every other government in the world knows the United States government leaks like a sieve, and it has for a long time. And I dragged this up the other day when I was looking at some of these prospective releases. And this is a quote from John Adams: “How can a government go on, publishing all of their negotiations with foreign nations, I know not. To me, it appears as dangerous and pernicious as it is novel." …
Now, I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer, and so on. I think -- I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought. The fact is, governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets.
Many governments -- some governments deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us. We are still essentially, as has been said before, the indispensable nation. So other nations will continue to deal with us. They will continue to work with us. We will continue to share sensitive information with one another. Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.
Hat tip: Jack Goldsmith.
In yesterday's Boston Globe, James Verini trotted out the latest historical analogy for Barack Obama, arguing that the president he's really like is George H.W. Bush. If you read the article, however, you'll see that Verini's argument is primarily based on how the events are similar, rather than the men:
In the first year of Bush's term, he was beset by three unforeseen calamities that are eerily resonant. First was the savings & loan crisis…
Then, in the spring of 1989, student-led protestors began assembling in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and in June Chinese police and soldiers took to beating and murdering them. Like Obama, Bush came into office with higher than average respect from foreign leaders, but he had to shelve plans to improve American-Chinese relations, a blow to his larger ambitions to redefine American engagement with the Communist world…
That didn't turn as many people against him as what was, until this year, the worst man-made natural disaster in American history. In March of 1989 the Exxon Valdez spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound… Bush, a former oilman, bore only somewhat less blame than Exxon.
Jump to 2009-10: The Troubled Asset Relief Program and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as the stimulus, are seen by many Americans as bailouts, not legitimate attempts to stave off economic catastrophe. (TARP was created by the George W. Bush administration, but according to recent polls two-thirds of Americans attribute it to Obama.) Obama, who has arrived in office with the hopes of foreign leaders and populations riding high, wants to redefine relations with, most of all, the Muslim world, but before he has the chance there are protests, and then violent crackdowns, in Tehran. (Unlike the crisis Carter faced in 1979, this was not a revolution, and the Iranian government was in no danger of crumbling.) He is criticized for not expressing enough support for the protestors, criticism that pales in comparison to that of his handling of the BP oil spill.
George H. W. Bush came into office facing what many economists called the worst economic downturn since the Depression, accompanied by a collapse in the real estate market and a Wall Street racked by scandal and stock market decline. He succeeded a president, Ronald Reagan, who staked his reputation on limited government while expanding it in certain costly areas, particularly the military, leaving record deficits…
Twenty years later, Obama followed on the heels of a self-proclaimed Reagan Republican whose tenure ended in straits like those Reagan's had…
I really don't think this holds up terribly well for a number of reasons. I
don't know which economists called the 1989 "downturn" the worst
since the Great Depression, but I'm sure they were
smoking something not
looking at all of the data. That downturn wasn't even the worst one of the
1980's -- the 1982 recession was far more severe in its effects. Plus,
beginning with the fall of 1989 the Bush administration started reaping
unparalleled foreign policy developments -- the collapse of Eastern European
communism, the release of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, the cresting of the
third wave of democratization, yada, yada, yada.
Still, Verini's essay points to the ways in which humans can't help but search for historical analogies to try to explain the present day. We're hard-wired to look for patterns like this, even if they are exaggerated. Indeed, I've just spent a week of conferencing about the future of the global political economy in which various historical analogies were deployed to explain the current moment. It's possible that I contributed to this analogy-fest just as much as I consumed others.
I'll get to those historical analogies in a later post, but for now, I'll leave it to readers -- which past U.S. president do you think Barack Obama evokes?
I also know that even if this turns out to be a big "wave" election, things aren't really going to change all that much on the foreign policy front. This is for the following two reasons:
1) Congress doesn't have too much sway over foreign policy. Sure, things like foreign aid and treaty ratification rely on the legislature, and the election results will affect those dimensions of foreign policy. But think back to 1994 and 2006, in which both houses of Congress turned over to the opposition party. Was there any real change in U.S. foreign and security policy? The Clinton administration was still able to send troops to Bosnia, and the Bush administration was able to launch its "surge" strategy.
Foreign economic policy might be an exception. After both of those elections, the president found it harder to get trade deals through Congress. Given that this president hasn't been all that keen about trade anyway, I don't think the midterms will matter all that much -- though the South Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) might finally be put to a vote with the hope of securing GOP support.
2) In a sour economy, presidents don't get much of a bump for foreign policy successes. The best foreign-policy president of the past four decades was George H.W. Bush. How many terms did he serve? [Hey, this sounds familiar! -- Ed. Click here to see why. The only things that have changed since that post simply reinforce my thesis.] See Aaron David Miller's FP essay for more on this point.
Enjoy watching the returns, poll-watchers -- I'll be going to bed early, secure in the knowledge that U.S. foreign policy will persist in its current form.
Trying to pick the most offensive campaign ad of this election season is not easy -- there's a long and distinguished list of truly offensive ads out there. However, my award for Most Offensive Ad goes to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee with this attack ad on Pennsylvania Republican senatorial candidate Pat Toomey:
I'll give credit to the DSCC: Not everything in the ad is offensive, just 98 percent of it. By far, however, the worst part is the DSCC's suggestion that Pennsylvanians not vote for Toomey because he thinks that "it's great that China is modernizing and growing." Using that logic, apparently the DSCC supports doing everything to keep China backwards and impoverished. Which, if you think about it a little bit, is really disgusting.
I'd love to say that this is the only anti-globalization ad of this election cycle, but that's obviously not true. In another ad, the DSCC blasts Toomey for -- God forbid -- spending part of his career overseas. Forbes' Shikha Dalmia points out, however, that both sides have been throwing up mercantilist ads as fast as they can produce them:
Virg Bernero, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Michigan, where I live, has dubbed his opponent, Rick Snyder, Chief Executive Outsourcer (ha, ha). Mr. Snyder's crime is that he is a successful businessman who invested in a semiconductor company that once employed five -- five! -- people in Shenzen to sell its products in China. In other words, it is no longer a sin to buy from China. It is also a sin to sell to China! (Where did Bernero get his views on trade theory, anyway? The Kim Jong Il School of Autarky?)
Nor is Bernero alone in the Democratic Party: California Sen. Barbara Boxer is accusing her opponent Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett Packard, of outsourcing thousands of jobs to "Shanghai instead of San Jose"; Senate Speaker Harry Reid is calling Sharron Angle "a foreign worker’s best friend"; and Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Attorney General running for Senate, who lied about serving in Vietnam, has the temerity to attack his opponent, the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, for "outsourcing" American jobs because her company got toy action figures manufactured in China instead of America.
Hostility to trade is par for the course for Democrats perennially beholden to Big Labor, but what is the excuse of Republicans -- the alleged believers in free markets? In race after race, they too are hitting China to beat Democrats. In West Virginia, Spike Maynard, a Republican running for the House is airing ads against his opponent, complete with Asian music in the background, castigating him for giving stimulus money to a Texas company that happens to be buying windmills from China. Meanwhile, in Virginia Republican Robert Hurt is accusing Rep. Tom Perriell of supporting tax breaks for foreign companies "creating jobs in China."
Well, it's not that surprising to see this. Americans think about trade through a mercantilist, relative gains lens, as opposed to the radical concept that trade can generate win-win outcomes. The Obama administration has abetted this mindset with a trade policy that careens between an
idiotic exclusive focus on exports and complete radio silence. And, of course, China has been taking steps in recent months in order to perfect their role as economic bogeyman.
I'd love to say that if the Obama administration mounted a full-throated defense of trade liberalization, this mindset would go away. The thing is, I don't believe that. As the Gallup data suggests, even decent growth rates won't eliminate the zero-sum mindset that people have when it comes to free trade.
Developing… in a thoroughly depressing manner.
Tom Brokaw has acquired sufficient gravitas such that, when he clears his throat in a meaningful way, he gets his own New York Times op-ed essay.
This morning, Brokaw cleared his throat about why the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan in Iraq aren't being talked about during this election campaign season.
[W]hy aren’t the wars and their human and economic consequences front and center in this campaign, right up there with jobs and taxes?
The answer is very likely that the vast majority of Americans wake up every day worrying, with good reason, about their economic security, but they can opt out of the call to arms. Unless they are enlisted in the armed services -- or have a family member who has stepped forward -- nothing much is asked of them in the war effort.
The all-volunteer uniformed services now represent less than 1 percent of the American population, but they’re carrying 100 percent of the battle…
No decision is more important than committing a nation to war. It is, as politicians like to say, about our blood and treasure. Surely blood and treasure are worthy of more attention than they’ve been getting in this campaign.
It's true that Iraq was a much bigger issue during the 2002 and 2006 midterms. Is Brokaw right that the lack of a draft is deflecting the issue? Sort of.
Brokaw has half a point in saying that the all-volunteer force blunts the incentive to have a public debate on this Very Important Topic. There's a better reason to explain the silence, however: There's not much daylight between the two parties on this issue.
In 2008, the Bush administration began the drawdown phase in Iraq. In 2009, the Obama administration anted up for 30,000 more troops in Afghanistan. Neither war is popular with the U.S. electorate.
Given these political facts, why would either party bring up these conflicts? Democrats can't rail against wars being prosecuted by a Democratic president. Not even nutjob ultra-conservative hacks can credibly claim that Obama has been a "Kenyan anti-colonialist" on the military front. Democrats can't really run on a "see, we told you that Obama isn't a war wimp!" message either. The GOP has little incentive to call for doubling down in these conflicts and can't really pivot towards a "pro-peace" position either. [I suspect the Islamophobia issue is cropping up on the GOP campaign trail because it's a stalking horse for "getting tough" with the United States' enemies. Even here, however, it's not like Democrats have created all that much daylight between them and the party of opposition.]
If neither party has an incentive to bring up these wars during the campaign, the only way it becomes an issue is if a powerful interest group and/or social movement raises it. Here's here the all-volunteer force comes into play. Perhaps some returning veterans want to bring up the war as an issue for policy debate -- but the returning veterans do not appear to be alienated en masse. There is also no U.S. equivalent of the Union of the Committees of Soldiers' Mothers of Russia -- not that the Russian version was all that effective. All one finds on this terrain are the Cindy Sheehans of the world, and her credibility has been eroding as of late.
Brokaw is right that matters of blood and treasure should be debated. But a debate requires politicians to have divergent views to debate about -- and right now, that doesn't exist between the major parties.
I was remiss in not blogging about Tom Donilon replacing James Jones as National Security Advisor. Well, actually, I don't think I was remiss, because I didn't think it was all that big of a deal. Past reportage indicated that Donilon had been the de facto national security advisor for some time now.
The one difference is that Donilon has had the ear of Obama in a way that Jones never did. And sure, access to the president is an important lever of influence in Washington. It's no guarantee of success, however. Condoleezza Rice probably had a closer relationship to President Bush than Steve Hadley, but the latter did a better job as NSC advisor. Like Peter Feaver, I figured that this move simply matched titles to actual responsibilities.
The personnel change, however, is causing some people to say some silly things. Steve Clemons, for example, provides this assessment:
Obama's decision making system -- which is huge now and an obvious corrective to the cabal-like operation that Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Richard Cheney ran during the G.W. Bush years -- simply could not function without Donilon (and [Denis] McDonough).
But that does not mean that the role of being the premier adviser to the president on America's global threats and challenges can be properly filled by someone who is excellent at a speedy, inclusive, decision making process but too overwhelmed to get distance to think and advise strategically.
Some of the early reactions to the Donilon appointment have focused on his political connections and savvy over his intellectual merits and standing. These critics couldn't be more wrong.
While Donilon has not taken the path to power that many others in the national security establishment have of carefully pruned and crafted exposes on American foreign policy -- published in journals of record like Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, National Interest, and American Interest -- he has been actively engaged for years in national security strategy groups and working meetings.
His thinking about U.S. foreign policy is known to any who have worked with him in these groups. He's a systematic, creative, pragmatic thinker about America's foreign policy challenges -- and whether he has expressed himself in roundtable discussions rather than a large volume of opeds makes no difference.
Donilon is a pragmatic, non-ideological practitioner who knows that America's greatest challenge today is restoring its stock of power and its ability to positively shape the global system. He knows that American power is doubted today and needs to be reinvented -- and he thinks about this all of the time. It is what animates him and the furious pace he keeps.
This might be the ritual suck-up-to-the-next-NSC-advisor kind of blog post, but taken at face value, a few minor corrections are warranted.
First, by definition, a good foreign policy process should be able to function well regardless of personnel changes. If a process can't function without particular individuals in charge, then it's neither a good nor a robust decision-making process.
Second, "non-ideological" policymakers don't exist. Policymakers might be in denial about what ideologies they possess. Their ideologies might be so moderate and mainstream that they're not noticed as ideologies. But any policymaker has a set of ideas that guides them through the complex swamp that is world politics.
Finally, from what I can read, there was no policy distance between Jones and Donilon. The only difference seems to be that Donilon was more willing to push back against the military, and that the military dislikes Donilon more. Why this promotion should lead to fundamental policy changes is beyond me.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
There are many peculiar rites of passage for each incoming U.S. administration: the first scandal, the first resignation, the first broken campaign promise, and the first botched use of force.
Add to this list the first Bob Woodward book of an administration. Like a debutante's coming-out party, there are highly formalized rituals -- the press leaks about the good stuff in the book, the Sunday morning talk show commentators obsessing over the more controversial bits and pieces, the inevitable meta-essays on Woodward himself. As a young foreign policy wonk, I remember looking forward to the latest Woodward tome the way others looked forward to the latest Stephen King novel.
That was then, however -- with Obama's Wars, has Bob Woodward demonstrated that he's about as irrelevant as the debutante circuit?
Woodward is operating in a very different media environment now. What used to be his bread and butter -- the political and bureaucratic machinations of presidential administrations -- is no longer his exclusive province. Beyond the Washington Post and New York Times, media outlets as varied as Politico, Vanity Fair, Huffington Post, and the New Yorker now generate
monthly weekly hourly revelations that Woodward used to be able to hoard for his books. As my old dissertation advisor used to say, "is there anything new here?"
Let's see what Steve Luxenberg's preview in the Washington Post has to say:
President Obama urgently looked for a way out of the war in Afghanistan last year, repeatedly pressing his top military advisers for an exit plan that they never gave him, according to secret meeting notes and documents cited in a new book by journalist Bob Woodward....
Among the book's other disclosures:
-- Obama told Woodward in the July interview that he didn't think about the Afghan war in the "classic" terms of the United States winning or losing. "I think about it more in terms of: Do you successfully prosecute a strategy that results in the country being stronger rather than weaker at the end?" he said.
-- The CIA created, controls and pays for a clandestine 3,000-man paramilitary army of local Afghans, known as Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams. Woodward describes these teams as elite, well-trained units that conduct highly sensitive covert operations into Pakistan as part of a stepped-up campaign against al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban havens there.
-- Obama has kept in place or expanded 14 intelligence orders, known as findings, issued by his predecessor, George W. Bush. The orders provide the legal basis for the CIA's worldwide covert operations.
-- A new capability developed by the National Security Agency has dramatically increased the speed at which intercepted communications can be turned around into useful information for intelligence analysts and covert operators. "They talk, we listen. They move, we observe. Given the opportunity, we react operationally," then-Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell explained to Obama at a briefing two days after he was elected president.
-- A classified exercise in May showed that the government was woefully unprepared to deal with a nuclear terrorist attack in the United States. The scenario involved the detonation of a small, crude nuclear weapon in Indianapolis and the simultaneous threat of a second blast in Los Angeles. Obama, in the interview with Woodward, called a nuclear attack here "a potential game changer." He said: "When I go down the list of things I have to worry about all the time, that is at the top, because that's one where you can't afford any mistakes."
-- Afghan President Hamid Karzai was diagnosed as manic depressive, according to U.S. intelligence reports. "He's on his meds, he's off his meds," Woodward quotes U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry as saying.
Hmmm.... there is some interesting stuff, but it's more in the details (Karzai's depression, the CIA's paramilitaries) than in the overarching narrative. Obama feuded with the military on Afghanistan? There was bureaucratic dissension on Afghanistan? Well, blow me down!!
This ain't how it used to be. In The Commanders, for example, Woodward showed that JCS Chairman Colin Powell was much more reluctant to attack Iraq than previously known.
Now it's possible that this is simply a function of me being
more cynical older than I used to be. But the fact is, I just don't look forward to a new Bob Woodward book anymore.
Question to readers: has Woodward jumped the shark?
As I was reading Paul Wolfowitz's essay on Obama and realism, I kept thinking, "there's realism and then there's Realism."
Small "r" realism consists of a recognition that there are some unpleasant truths in world politics that must be acknowledged if one is going to pursue a prudent foreign policy. If a government amasses significant capabilities or acts aggressively, it will tend to trigger balancing coalitions. International institutions are often feckless and hypocritical. Forcible regime change is really, really hard. Implacable hostility to powerful actors with different ideologies won't work terribly well. Power is a relative measure and a resource that should be husbanded for important matters of state. You get the idea.
Big "R" Realism is a theoretical paradigm that makes certain assumptions about what drives powerful actors in world politics, and derives interesting predictions (and occasional prescriptions) from those assumptions. Many of these predictions match up with small "r" realism (balancing behavior, useless international institutions, etc.). Many go beyond them, however. According to Realism, regime type is unimportant in explaining world politics. The democratic peace is a mirage. Strong states are better at foreign policy. Not all Realists agree on everything, but they agree on some big and not obvious things, and they all seem to publish in International Security an awful lot (don't aske me to parse out the difference between defensive realists, neoclassical realists, structural realists, and offensive realists; if you do, well, I'm going to have this kind of reaction).
The difference between the two "realisms" is one of purpose. Small "r" realism is a set of guidelines for real, live policymakers, and is intended to foster prudence. Big "R" Realism is intended to be more provocative to the point of caricature -- i.e., to the point where Realists might have little difficulty incorporating zombies into their paradigm. It is certainly possible to be both. Behind closed doors, I have heard big "R" Realists proffer small "r" realist prescriptions that might contradict the academic paradigm. In public, it's funny how Realists who believe that anarchy and the distribution of power are the only things that matter nevertheless rail against the pernicious influence of ethnic lobbies.
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Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.