The New York Times' Roger Cohen files an optimistic column today, arguing that predictions of American decline are premature. I tend to agree with Cohen's sentiment but not his logic because, well, it's God-awful. Here's the key bits:
Perhaps the most successful U.S. chief executive of the past decade is stepping down this month. Samuel Palmisano of I.B.M. has presided over a remarkable transformation of the technology giant, extracting it from the personal computer business and shifting it toward services and software to power a “Smarter Planet.”
In a fascinating interview with my colleague Steve Lohr, Palmisano said the first of the four questions in his guiding business framework was, “Why would someone spend their money with you — so what is unique about you?” At root, business is still about getting money out of your pocket into mine. By being unsentimental in making I.B.M. unique, Palmisano ensured a lot of money flowed the company’s way.
Profits followed. The stock price surged. Warren Buffett, who knows which way the wind blows, recently acquired a stake of more than 5 percent. I.B.M. has been re-imagined, not least in the way it has shifted from being a U.S. multinational to a global corporation powered by rapid expansion in growth markets like India and China.
The question arises: If an American colossus like I.B.M. can be turned around, can America itself? (emphasis added)
A small aside: if Cohen's logic is correct, then the 2012 election is over and everyone should vote for Mitt Romney. This kind of ruthless turnaround is exactly what Romney did while at Bain. While his track record can be disputed, there's no doubt that he was willing to be ruthless to increase profits. So, whether he knows it or not, Cohen is making the argument that a turnaround specialist like Romney would be just the ticket for the United States, transforming America's political economy into a leaner, more efficient engine for progress.
The thing is -- and this is kind of important -- governments are not corporations. I cannot stress this enough. There's the obvious point that in democracies, legislatures tend to impose a more powerful constraint than shareholders, making it that much harder for leaders to execute the policies they think will be the most efficient.
There's also the deeper point that it's a lot harder for governments to be "unsentimental" when it comes to the provision of public services. It's a lot harder for states to eliminate the functions that are less efficient. Frequently, demand for government services emerges because of the perception that the private sector has fallen down on the job in that area. This means that the government has been tasked with doing the things that are difficult and unprofitable to do. It is precisely because these government outputs are often so hard to measure that Newt Gingrich's claims about Six Sigma sound pretty laughable. Even libertarians who want the government to reduce its operations drastically will acknowledge the political risks and costs of trying to execute this plan.
To be fair, there are some policy dimensions where this analogy holds up better. Cohen implicitly argues that America's willingness to jettison costly and inefficient foreign ventures -- cough, Iraq, cough -- is an example of this kind of turnaround strategy. Fair enough. Even on foreign policy, however, it's hard to execute this kind of ruthless efficiency. Israel is prosperous enough to not need the $3 billion it gets in U.S. aid. Good luck to anyone trying to cut that. Africa is not a vital strategic areas of interest for the United States, but I suspect AFRICOM isn't going anywhere. I've been a big fan of getting the United States out of Central Asia, but critics make a fair point when they observe that the last time the United States tried this gambit, Al Qaeda took advantage of it.
There's been a lot of bragging in the 2012 primary about candidates that have "real world" business experience, and how that translates into an effective ability to govern. That logic is horses**t. Being president is a fundamentally different job than being a CEO -- because countries are not corporations.
Following up on Newt Gingrich and his assessment of threats, I see that the New York Times has a William J. Broad front-pager on Gingrich's obsession with the possibility of adversaries using an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) against the United States:
[I]t is to the risk of an EMP attack that Mr. Gingrich has repeatedly returned. And while the message may play well to hawkish audiences, who might warm to the candidate’s suggestion that the United States engage in pre-emptive military strikes against Iran and North Korea, many nuclear experts dismiss the threat. America’s current missile defense system would thwart such an attack, these experts say, and the nations in question are at the kindergarten stage of developing nuclear arms.
The Missile Defense Agency, an arm of the Pentagon that maintains an arsenal of ground-based interceptors ready to fly into space and smash enemy warheads, says that defeating such an attack would be as straightforward as any other defense of the continental United States.
“It doesn’t matter if the target is Chicago or 100 miles over Nebraska,” said Richard Lehner, an agency spokesman. “For the interceptor, it’s the same thing.” He called the potential damage from a nuclear electromagnetic pulse attack “pretty theoretical.”
Yousaf M. Butt, a nuclear physicist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who last year did a lengthy analysis of EMP for The Space Review, a weekly online journal, said, “If terrorists want to do something serious, they’ll use a weapon of mass destruction — not mass disruption.” He said, “They don’t want to depend on complicated secondary effects in which the physics is not very clear.”
Mr. Gingrich’s spokesman, R. C. Hammond, did not respond to e-mails asking for comment. But the candidate, a former history professor and House speaker, has defended his characterizations as accurate. At a forum in Des Moines on Saturday for military veterans, Mr. Gingrich said an electromagnetic pulse attack was one of several pressing national security threats the United States faced. “In theory, a relatively small device over Omaha would knock out about half the electricity generated in the United States,” he told the veterans.
I'm neither a security expert nor a rocket scientist. After reading Broad's article, the Space Review annalysis, the rebuttal to that analysis, and Sharon Winberger's excellent FP write-up from last year, however, I'm reasonably confident that the threat posed by EMP is remote for the near-to-medium future. The scenarios in which an EMP would affect the United States rely on a) rogue states making serious leaps forward in their ballistic missile technology and nuclear engineering; and b) those same actors deciding that it's in their national interest to launch a first strike against a country with a reliable second-strike nuclear deterrent.
Nevertheless, I can see why Newt Skywalker would be concerned. Most of the taking-EMP-threat seriously essays harp on the devastating effect of such an attack. Surely, Gingrich would argue, even a small possibility of this actually happening justifies at least some investment into countermeasures and preventive actions. Indeed, Gingrich has explicitly made that argument:
Without adequate preparation, its impact would be so horrifying that we would basically lose our civilization in a matter of seconds.... I think it's very important to get people to understand now, before there is a disaster, how truly grave the threat is.*
Fair enough... let's be generous and say there's a 10% chance of this being a real problem over the next two decades. If that's the case, maybe Gingrich is right to bring it up as an underestimated threat.
Here's my question, however. If we're talking about threats to civilization as we know it, isn't there another possibility that has a much higher probability of occurring -- let's say, better than 50% at least -- and a similarly lax amount of preventive action? Like, say, climate change?
As Uri Friedman and Joshua Keating have documented for FP, however, Gingrich's assessment of that threat has changed recently. Last month, on this issue, he said the following:
I actually don't know whether global warming is occurring.... The earth's temperatures go up and down over geologic times over and over again. As recently as 11,000 years ago the Gulf Stream quit for 600 years. And for 600 years you had an ice age in Europe because there was no warm water coming up. And then it started up again. Nobody knows why it quit, nobody knows why it started up. I'm agnostic.
This is fascinating. On the one hand, you have a long-term cataclysmic threat to the planet that commands the consensus of an overwhelming majority of experts in the field. On the other hand, you have a long-term cataclysmic threat to the United States that commands nowhere close to the same level of consensus. Based on his rhetoric, Gingrich wants urgent action to be taken on the latter, but not the former. Why?
I'm not bringing this up to suggest that Gingrich is a buffoon. He could plausibly argue that a lot of people are harping on climate change while only Gingrich can call attention to the EMP possibility. It's possible that the costs of preventive action on climate change are much greater than dealing with EMP (though if that includes preventive attacks on Iran and North Korea, I'm dubious).
What I'm wondering is whether there is a partisan divide in assessing threats, as there is in assessing economic principles. I wonder if conservatives are far more likely to focus on threats in which there is a clear agent with a malevolent intent, whereas liberals are more likely to focus on threats that lack agency and are more systemic in nature (climate change, pandemics, nuclear accidents, etc.)
What do you think?
*Incidentally, this is the same logic I used to justify greater research into the threat posed by the living dead. Just saying....
Foreign policy didn't play much of a role at all in last night's GOP debate, but there were a few telling moments about Newt Gingrich's foreign policy worldview -- telling in that they scared the living crap out of your humble blogger.
The foreign policy portion was devoted entirely to Newt Gingrich's description of the Palestinians an "invented people". Gingrich doubled down during the debate, labeling all Palestinians as terrorists. When pushed by Romney on the wisdom of going further rhetorically than Israel's Likud government on this point, Gingrich fell back on the "I'm speaking blunt truths like Reagan when he called the USSR an 'evil empire'" gambit.
This is pretty odd. Last I checked Israel was a democracy, had a healthy amount of free specch, and has a ruling coalition that seems pretty hardline with respect to the Palestinians. I don't think the Israelis need an American candidate to speak truths to them that their government is hiding.
To be honest, however, that wasn't the scariest part of Gingrich's rhetoric. No, the part that set my hair on edge was during the last question on the night, when the candidates were asked what they'd learned from the other candidates.
Gingrich responded by praising Rick Santorum's "consistency and courage on Iran." He then added:
If we do survive, it will be in part because of people like Rick who've had the courage to tell the truth about the Iranians for a long time. (emphasis added)
Now, this was practically a throwaway clause, but still, how can I put this clearly.... this is f***ing insane. Totally, completely, utterly f***ing insane.
Even a nuclear-armed Iran led by the current regime of nutball theocrats cannot threaten America's survival. I get why the United States is concerned about Iran going nuclear, and I get why Israel is really concerned about Iran going nuclear. The only way that developments in Iran could threaten America's survival, however, would be if the US policy response was so hyperbolic that it ignited a general Middle East war that dragged in Russia and China. Which... come to think of it, wouldn't be entirely out of the question under a President Gingrich.
Gingrich's apocalyptic rhetoric will go down well with many neoconservatives and GOP hawks, but to resuscitate a point I've made before:
I'm about to say something that might be controversial for people under the age of 25, but here goes. You know the threats posed to the United States by a rising China, a nuclear Iran, terrorists and piracy? You could put all of them together and they don't equal the perceived threat posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Gingrich, as he is fond of pointing out nowadays, is a 68-year old grandfather and trained as a historian. He should know better than to sound as apocalyptic in his foreign policy statements as the very mullahs he lambasts.
As Andrew Sullivan (the only other debate-watcher who picked up on this line) observed, "Wow. Does Gingrich really believe that the US faces an existential threat from Iran? Or is he running for the Likud party?"
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.