Lots o' stuff to chat about in the higher education universe, but let's keep it to three items in this blog post:
1) My student-soon-to-be-Doctor-of-Philosophy Patrick Meier and Chris Albon blog "Advice to Future PhDs from 2 Unusual Graduating PhDs." They make some interesting, provocative, and dare I say counterintuitive arguments.
I disagree with a couple of their points. First of all, I ain't buying "the blog is the new CV." The blog is a calling card, and if you're lucky it's a branding device -- but it's not the same thing as a vita. Second of all, I think they tend to inductively generalize from their own experiences and capabilities. Not everyone should take on outside projects or teach at every opportunity, because these are excellent not-writing-your-dissertation activities. Finally, I think their seven pieces of advice are out of sequence. Their #3, #6 and #7 are the most important things. Only once you've answered those questions should you even consider following the rest of their advice. Still, read the whole thing.
2) I see that Naomi Schaefer Riley got fired from her Chronicle of Higher Education gig for writing a 500 word blog post bashing dissertations-in-progress in African-American studies without reading them. Riley has written her response on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page. James Joyner provides an excellent round-up of the affair. My take is similar to Joyner in that, to be blunt, neither the Chronicle nor Riley come out of this looking very good. The Chronicle looks like it kowtowed to the pressures of academic political correctness by either not reacting sooner or standing their ground. Riley, on the other hand, has put herself in the indefensible position of calling for greater academic rigor while whinging that those standards shouldn't apply to her when she blogs for the Chronicle. So, a pox on everyone's house for this affair.
3) The House of Representatives, in its infinite wisdom, has voted to cut funding for political science -- and only political science -- from the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences part of the National Science Foundation. Representative Jeff Flake's justified cutting the funding using pretty much the same logic as Senator Tom Coburn did in 2009 when he lamely tried to do the same thing [At least he didn't claim that "social scientists brought our world to the brink of chaos"!!--ed. Thank goodness for small favors.] .
There’s real irony here in a Republican-controlled House of Representatives voting to defund a political-science program at a time when the Department of Defense and “intelligence community” seem to be increasing spending on it. With things like the Minerva Initiative, ICEWS, IARPA’s Open Source Indicators programs, the parts of the government concerned with protecting national security seem to find growing value in social-science research and are spending accordingly. Meanwhile, the party that claims to be the stalwart defender of national security pulls in the opposite direction, like the opposing head on Dr. Doolittle’s Pushmi-pullyu. Nice work, fellas.
ABC News reports on a "hot mic" moment between President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev:
At the tail end of his 90 minute meeting with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev Monday, President Obama said that he would have “more flexibility” to deal with controversial issues such as missile defense, but incoming Russian President Vladimir Putin needs to give him “space.”
The exchange was picked up by microphones as reporters were let into the room for remarks by the two leaders.
President Obama: On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space.
President Medvedev: Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space. Space for you…
President Obama: This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.
President Medvedev: I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir.
Now, compared to past "hot mic" moments, this certainly seems less, well, profane. Nevertheless, it has gotten the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin all hot and bothered about the hidden Obama that will emerge in 2013:
It’s helpful to have a vivid illustration of this, but is there anyone who thinks Obama, should he get a second term, wouldn’t run wild with policies and positions that the majority of the electorate oppose? Otherwise, he’d roll them out now, of course....
Elections are taken as mandates by elected officials and the media (even if the message is less clear than the winner would have us believe).
In sum, the election is not simply a referendum on President Obama’s actions to date; it’s essentially a blank check for the president’s second term. Romney should be asking wary independent and moderates: Is there a scintilla of a chance that Obama would be less liberal in a second term?
Rubin's logic seems pretty clear: Obama is really a liberal, and free of political constraint -- particularly on the foreign policy remit -- he'll revert to type. There's just one problem: based on recent evidence, there's an excellent chance Obama will be less liberal in the second term.
Consider the last three two-term presidents: Reagan, Clinton, and Bush 43. I'll grant this is a very small sample, but bear with me. Did their second-term policies look different from their first-term?
You bectha. Reagan tacked in a decidedly liberal direction with respect to the Soviet Union, switching from rhetoric about the "evil empre" to cutting substantive arms control agreements with the Soviet Union. Clinton, on the other hand, tacked in a more conservative direction. After being enamored of multilateralism and leery of using fore in his first term, he became more comfortable with using force and using it outside of UN strictures in his second term. Finally, Bush 43's second terms was decidedly more liberal. In his first term, he declared an "Axis of Evil" and invaded Iraq without UN support. In his second term, however, the Bush administration was decidedly more dovish, working through the UN on both Iran and North Korea, demonstrating a willingness to directly negotiate with the Iranians, and refusing to use force in Syria. This, by the way, is why claiming a continuity between Bush 43 and Obamas is not quite as much of a political jab as people like to claim. The dfifferences between Bush in 2003 and Bush in 2008 were massive.
Now, these narratives are not really as clean as the last paragraph suggests. Reagan also embraced Iran/Contra in his second term. In Clinton's second term he pushed hard to address US arrears to the UN. And Bush had some elements of
compasionate conservatism liberalism in his first term, what with PEPFAR and a refusal to declare a clash of civilizations following the 9/11 attacks.
What's striking, however, is that recent second-termers have not reverted to their ideological bliss point -- if anything it's been the reverse, they've tacked away from their starting point. Part of this is circumstances. Reagan had, in Gorbachev, a real negotiating partner in his second term. Bush had to be more circumspect on Iran and North Korea after the cost and constraint of military operatons in Iraq and Afghanistan. All three presidents had less favorable legislatures in their second term than their first.
Still, it's not all about circumstances. What gives? I'd argue that precisely because presidents have fewer foreign policy constraints than dometic ones, they feel free to pursue their preferred set of policies from day one. Reality, however, quickly determines which ideas are working and which do not have any staying power. Over time, therefore, presidents change tack until they hit on a more successful formula. This usually means overcoming one's personal ideology and embracing new ideas.
I've argued that this is exactly what Obama has done in his first term -- and I'm hardly the only one. And, so, yes, contra Rubin, I think the notion that a second-term of President Obama will be the second coming of the Kellogg-Briand Treaty requires a willful misreading of Obama's first term of foreign policy -- as well as ignorance of the last thirty years of American foreign policy.
Am I missing anything?
In an excerpt from his forthcoming book The Escape Artists, Noam Scheiber has a behind-the-scenes story in The New Republic about how the Obama administration mostly botched the debt ceiling negotiations with Republicans last year. I'm guessing that Scheiber's best sources were the Treasury folk, because they come off looking the best -- advising Obama to cut a deal with the Republicans in December 2010, telling him to not negotiate policy concessions to get a debt ceiling boost, and so forth. Obama did not listen to them, and we all know what happened. Scheiber goes on to note that after the debt ceiling drama of the summer, Obama learned to attack conservatives rather than compromise with them, thereby improving his political fortunes.
He closes the essay with the following:
For voters contemplating whether he deserves a second term, the question is less and less one of policy or even worldview than of basic disposition. Throughout his political career, Obama has displayed an uncanny knack for responding to existential threats. He sharpened his message against Hillary Clinton in late November 2007, just in time to salvage the Iowa caucuses and block her coronation. He condemned his longtime pastor, Jeremiah Wright, just before Wright’s racialist comments could doom his presidential hopes. Once in office, Obama led two last-minute counteroffensives to save health care reform. But, in every case, the adjustments didn’t come until the crisis was already at hand. His initial approach was too passive and too accommodating, and he stuck with it far too long.
Given the booby traps that await the next president—Iranian nukes, global financial turmoil—this habit seems dangerously risky. Sooner or later, Obama may encounter a crisis that can’t be reversed at the eleventh hour. Is Obama’s newfound boldness on the economy yet another last-minute course-correction? Or has he finally learned a deeper lesson? More than just a presidency may hinge on the answer.
There are two big problems with this kind of formulation. The first is that, for all of Obama's stumbles and bumbles on the debt ceiling issue, it's hard to argue in retrospect that he lost that political fight. Since the debt ceiling dispute, Obama's approval numbers have moved north while Congress has become historically unpopular. The improving economy likely explains some of this -- but if that was the only part of the story then Congress' numbers should be rising as well.
It's not that Obama handled the debt ceiling talks terribly well -- it's just that Scheiber misses the point that the Republicans made an even bigger hash of things. Obama came off as someone willing to deal and the House GOP came off as a group of people looking forward to the apocalypse. Looking more reasonable that one's adversaries occasionally matters in domestic politics -- and it's not in Scheiber's account (full and fair disclosure: I would have been in agreement with Scheiber six months ago).
The more interesting question is whether there's any validity to Scheiber's larger point -- that Obama's initial passivity in responding to political crises suggests he's ill-prepared for handling global crises. Does Scheiber's pattern of how Obama responded to domestic political challenges match up with his foreign policy?
I think Scheiber has half a point. As I've noted in the past, the administration's first set of foreign policies were predicated on the same basic impulse that Obama had domestically: deals and bargains were possible in many parts of the globe. However, as the administration found itself rebuffed and frustrated by various international actors (Iran, China, etc.) it quickly pivoted to a more aggressive -- and more fruitful -- counterpunching approach. Similar to how the debt ceiling negotiations play out, Obama has benefited from his initial outreaches; he can say he tried the olive branch before turning to the stick. When it comes to global actors that Obama perceives as enemies or rivals, his administration has been pretty ruthless.
Where Scheiber might have a point is with how Obama has handled America's friends and allies. Obviously, these countries should have more common interests with the United States, so by and large they should be less obstreperous. When issues have flared up, however -- with Israel on housing settlements, with Europe on the sovereign debt crisis, with post-reset Russia on anything, and with G-20 allies on quantitative easing -- the administration seems slow-moving, awkward, and occasionally shocked that these countries might have interests that diverge from the United States.
Pressuring and cajoling allies is a tricky and delicate business. One would be hard-pressed to argue that the Bush administration did a great job of it. Still, as the latest iteration of the Eurocrisis plays out, Scheiber might have hit on the Achilles heel of Obama's foreign policy acumen.
What do you think?
I'm at a stage in my career when reporters will occasionally call or e-mail me for an "expert" opinion on something. I've gotten better at refusing those requests when I'm not really an expert but just a snarky blogger. Still, even when I can claim expertise, I don't always do that great of a job.
To see what I mean, consider this New York Times front-pager by Mark Landler and Annie Lowrey on President Obama's proposed reorganization of foreign economic policy agencies. I'm quoted accurately in this story -- but I'm not quoted fully.
To explain, here's the key bits of the article:
Mr. Obama called on lawmakers to grant him broad new powers to propose mergers of agencies, which Congress would then have to approve or reject in an up-or-down vote. If granted the authority, he said, he would begin pruning by folding the Small Business Administration and five other trade and business agencies into a single agency that would replace the Commerce Department....
Despite regular vows by presidents to overhaul government — Mr. Obama made one in his State of the Union address last January — few have followed through. Those who did, like Richard M. Nixon, often met with failure. Scholars have mixed feelings about such reorganizations, with some arguing that they rarely lead to lower head counts, more effective departments or savings.
“My gut tells me those benefits will end up being much smaller than advertised, and the costs much larger,” said Steven M. Teles, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University, pointing to the time wasted during the consolidation and the changed political dynamic between the agencies and Congress.
But experts on government efficiency applauded the initiative, saying it was overdue, and some analysts said it made sense to combine agencies involved in business development, foreign investment and trade promotion into a single department with the mandate to promote American exports.
“If you look at American exports, it’s dominated by big business,” said Daniel W. Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University. “If you want small and medium enterprises to get more involved in exporting” — a goal of the Obama administration — “having small business and the trade office in the same agency makes sense,” he said. “So this could be a boon for that.”
Now, based on that quote, you might think that I'm pretty enthusiastic about this initiative. If, however, you checked my initial tweets about this proposal, you would notice a lot more agreement with what Stephen Teles said in the paragraphs above me. My instant assessment was that this was one of those "reorganizing government" initiatives that makes a lot of sense in the abstract but probably leads to more transition costs than long-term benefits. Indeed, the first thing that came to mind could be summed up in four words: Department of Homeland Security.
So what gives? This is what happens when I talk to reporters. I had a long chat with Annie Lowrey during which I listed A) the various ways in which Congress won't go for this; and B) why merging different organizational cultures will likely be a big mess. Lowrey then asked me if there was any rationale for this kind of reorganization. At which point I said what was quoted in the paper of record.
Now if you know my views about the National Export Initiative, you'll see I don't hold out much hope of this accomplishing anything. Still, to repeat, Lowrey's quote of me is completely accurate, and it is a decent motivation for this kind of initiative.
This is one of those mismatches between reporters and experts. It's not really the reporter's job to convey the full gist of a conversation with an expert. This story isn't "What Dan Drezner The Expert Thinks About Something," after all. Still, this is often the natural expectation of many experts, because we think about the entire conversation, not just one part of it. Furthermore, it's an expectation that, despite multiple occurences like this, stubbornly persists in my brain. So the impulse to develop disciplined talking points and not stray from them has never developed.
Why? Because I like answering questions fully, or trying to, anyway. That's why I got a doctorate, and why I became a professor. This impulse, by the way, is why so many experts loathe presidential debates. The candidates are usually too savvy to directly answer a question. Rather, they are being tested on their ability to pivot from the question that's asked to the talking point that is closest to that question.
This is a long-winded way of saying that what I said in the Times was the truth but not the whole truth. And that the odds are good that I'm probably going find myself in this situation again. And that's OK -- one of the perks of having this blog is that when this sort of thing happens, I can ramble my way to a more fuller explanation of my views.
So check out David Rothkopf for a full-throated defense of Obama's proposal. Despite my quote in the Times, you're not going to see one here.
UPDATE: Now this is fascinating. The Anchorage Daily News runs a version of the Times story -- except that the ADN version has much fuller quotes from more experts. The relevant portion:
One government efficiency expert, Jitinder Kohli, applauded the move.
"These efforts to rationalize government are long overdue, frankly," said Kohli, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. "In fiscally tight times, it's even more important to think carefully about how to deliver savings — and that includes making websites easier to use, providing single points of entry and streamlining."
"In the world of business, reorganization happens all the time, for good reason," Kohli added. "The world changes around businesses, and businesses change to better serve the world. But the government is far, far less nimble."
Still, a body of research throws cold water on the notion that such reorganization leads to lower head counts, more effective departments or cost savings.
"The most important considerations are the costs in wasted time while they do the reorganization, how this changes the politics of the affected agencies in relation to Congress and other executive branch agencies, and how specific the purported benefits of consolidation are," said Steven M. Teles, an associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. "My gut tells me those benefits will end up being much smaller than advertised, and the costs much larger."
Daniel W. Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts, said "This is one of those ideas that looks great in abstract. But you're talking about merging the organizational cultures of five or six agencies. It takes a long time for efficiencies and synergies to work out. They're not going to play well for a while."
Nonetheless, Drezner said that having a single body devoted to export promotion made sense.
"If you look at American exports, it's dominated by big business," he said. "If you want small and medium enterprises to get more involved in exporting" — a goal of the Obama administration — "having small business and the trade office in the same agency makes sense. So this could be a boon for that."
Susan C. Schwab, who served as a U.S. trade representative during the Bush administration, agreed that the move might improve export promotion. But she said that it might do so at the expense of broader trade policy.
"You'd take a small, very efficient agency and have it totally swallowed up by this behemoth," said Schwab, who is now a professor of public policy the University of Maryland. "From a trade policy perspective, it makes no sense at all."
Schwab added, "Trade policy involves so many different sectors of the economy, and U.S. interests. It's foreign policy. It's manufacturing. It is services, agriculture, consumers, labor, the environment, intellectual property."
An agency without a strong trade representative, she said, could end up giving "short shrift" to some concerns.
Had this been the version that the Times ran, I wouldn't have bothered blogging about this, because my quotes were both accurate and captured to gist of what I was saying.
Of course, this is a longer story, which reminds me that sometimes it's not the reporter that has mismatched incentives -- it's the editor worried about length.
American politicians are super-mad at Standard & Poor's for downgrading U.S. debt even after the debtopocalypse was averted earlier this week. These same politicians seem torn between pointing out that S&P sucks at math and blaming the other political party for the S&P screw-up.
I really don't care about that as much as the debate over whether S&P got its political analysis right. Here's the key paragraphs of the actual Standard & Poor statement:
[T]he downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges to a degree more than we envisioned when we assigned a negative outlook to the rating on April 18, 2011....
Compared with previous projections, our revised base case scenario now assumes that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, due to expire by the end of 2012, remain in place. We have changed our assumption on this because the majority of Republicans in Congress continue to resist any measure that would raise revenues, a position we believe Congress reinforced by passing the act.
Felix Salmon, thinks that this analysis is spot on:
[T]he US does not deserve a triple-A rating, and the reason has nothing whatsoever to do with its debt ratios. America’s ability to pay is neither here nor there: the problem is its willingness to pay. And there’s a serious constituency of powerful people in Congress who are perfectly willing and even eager to drive the US into default. The Tea Party is fully cognizant that it has been given a bazooka, and it’s just itching to pull the trigger. There’s no good reason to believe that won’t happen at some point.
David Weigel concludes that the S&P political analysis is fair:
This is not crazy.This what Republicans imply about the supercommittee -- they will not accept plans that increase taxes, and despite the fact that they've agreed to let the Bush tax cuts lapse on January 1, 2013, they are making noises about not accepting a return of the rates. The best possible scenario, if we assume that stance, is what I wrote about today -- tax reform plans that start in the supercommittee and win over a committed Congress.
Kevin Drum, however, thinks that S&P's political analysis is way off:
S&P shouldn't be in the business of commenting on a country's political spats unless they've been going on so long that they're likely to have a real, concrete impact on the safety of a country's bonds. And that hasn't happened yet. There's no serious macroeconomic reason to think Americacan't service its debt and there's no serious political reason to think the Tea Party has anything close to the power to provoke a political meltdown in which wewon'tpay our debt....
[S&P]should care only about the safety of U.S. bonds, and for the moment anyway, there's no legitimate reason to think either that we can't pay or that we won't pay. The bond market, which has all the same information as S&P, continues to believe that U.S. debt is the safest in the world, and in this case the market is right. S&P should stop playing dumb political games and stick to its core business.
I side, mostly, with Drum. It's totally fair for S&P to factor politics into their assessment of sovereign debt. Indeed, a key trend in sovereign debt analysis over the past five years has been the recognition that political fundamentals can matter as much as economics. That said, if ratings agencies are going to do this, then their political expectations can't just be retrospective -- they need to do some actual forecasting. Instead, they looked at recent weeks and extrapolated into the future.
There are three factors that should give S&P pause before assuming that political dysfunction could lead to no increae in tax revenue. First, as Drum points out, despite all the displays of ideological inflexibility, in the end the debt ceiling vote secured a strong majority of the GOP House caucus. Some Tea Party members were willing to risk a crisis, but not actually go and perpetuate one. It was not a Great Moment in Democracy, but in the end a deal was done. You can't dock for intransigence without noting the outcome.
Second, unlike the debt ceiling, deadlock in late 2012 means that the Bush tax cuts expire. Either a lame-duck Obama or a newly-re-elected Obama will be able to make that fiscal decision (no way any faction in Congress musters the 2/3 vote necessary to override). As Jonathan Chait has repeatedly observed, that dynamic is the opposite of the debt ceiling episode, in which case paralysis led to bad fiscal outcomes. If S&P thinks partisan gridlock will persist on Capitol Hill, then the conclusion to draw is that taxes will go up.
Third -- and this is pretty important -- S&P has failed to observe the political aftereffects of the debt deal. As I argued previously:
[T]he thing about democracy is that it has multiple ways to constrain political stupidity and ideological overreach. The first line of defense is that politicians will have an electoral incentive to act in non-crazy ways in order to get re-elected. The second line of defense is that politicians or parties who violate the non-crazy rule fail to get re-elected. So, in some ways, the true test of the American system's ability to stave off failure will be the 2012 election.
The first line line of defense has been breached, but the second line of defense looks increasingly robust. Public opinion poll after public opinion poll in the wake of the debt deal show the same thing -- everyone in Washington is unpopular, but Congress is really unpopular and GOP members of Congress are ridiculously unpopular. At a minimum, S&P needs to calculate how the current members of Congress will react to rising anti-incumbent sentiment. If they did that analysis and concluded that nothing would be done, I'd understand their thinking more. I didn't see anything like that kind of political analysis in their statement, however.
In the end, I suspect Moody's and Fitch won't follow S&P's move, so this could be a giant nothingburger. Still, if these guys are going to be doing political risk analysis, it might help to actually have some political scientists on the payroll. Based on their statement, S&P is simply extrapolating from the op-ed page, and that's a lousy way to make a political forecast.
Am I missing anything?
As the markets begin their full-on freak out over the failure of Washington to raise the debt ceiling, I must confess to having a semi-out-of-body experience about the whole thing. The American in me is simply appalled by the stupid, self-destructive behavior that led to this thoroughly avoidable apocalypse. The political scientist in me, however, is utterly fascinated by the whole shebang. I understand that wartime photographers have the same kind of problem -- I wish they had a word for it.
So, taking my American hat off and putting my poli sci hat on, I find it fascinating that House Speaker John Boehner is having so much difficulty whipping a debt ceiling bill that is already a dead letter in the Senate. Conventionally, whipping is done through a mixture of cajoling, coercing and cash -- with an emphasis on the latter. A pet project here, a pet project there, and presto, you have a majority.
The problem is that the nature of the GOP House caucus, combined with the party's anti-government ideology, has stripped Boehner of everything but the cajoling. First, here's the Politico story on last night's whip effort:
Boehner and his top lieutenants worked deep into Thursday night trying to find a just-right solution that would attract 216 votes for the package of $900 billion in new borrowing authority, $917 billion in spending cuts over the next decade, and a process for entitlement and tax reform legislation that could lead to $1.6 trillion or so in deficit reduction and a second increase in the debt limit.
They don’t have available to them the same tools as past Republican leadership teams: There are no earmarks to hand out, nor any to take away, for example.
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), one of the last holdouts and a candidate for the Senate in Arizona, spoke of how “refreshing” it was to see a lobbying effort bereft of the legislative grease that used to secure last-minute votes in the House. He said the vote-building would have “cost $20 billion” in the past.
Yes, it's totally refreshing. It's also totally f**king useless, because Boehner isn't trying to cajole moderates, he's trying to cajole ideological hardliners. David Weigel explains in his wrap-up:
The Republican dilemma quickly revealed itself. In other situations where a majority party needed to grind out a few final votes, it called on members who agreed with the concept of legislation but quibbled with the text....
John Boehner and Eric Cantor couldn't sell their Republicans in the same way. Their diehards never wanted to raise the debt limit. They had supported a strict, doomed version of a debt ceiling deal, Cut, Cap, and Balance, which did that, but even then, they weren't really comfortable with the concept of what they were doing. They did not want to raise the debt limit. Their constituents were uncomfortable with the idea, at first. And now they were being asked to raise the limit, without the conditions they liked, because... why? Because they were told that failing to do so would give Barack Obama all the leverage in the debt fight. That was too clever by half for some Republicans. More than 24 Republicans, it seemed.
Tonight, reporters stalked outside the offices of Boehner and Cantor as members walked in and out for meetings. This wasn't like health care, or even the continuing resolution. We were watching diehard conservatives, who had never wanted to raise the debt limit, and who had never done so in their careers, being begged for votes. As the night dragged on, the visitors did not look like the sort who could cave on big, existential votes. Louie Gohmert, one of the diehards who believes that Tim Geithner is lying about the threat of default, was dragged in. Tim Scott, the co-president of the freshman class, was dragged in; he walked out nonplussed, walked past reporters, and took out his iPod earbuds to confirm he was a "no." Roscoe Bartlett, an octogeniaran, who's not usually counted on for tough votes, entered the hot room telling reporters he didn't want to choose between "bad and really bad." The farce peaked when Gohmert joined freshman Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., for a prayer session in the House's chapel. It can't be good when members of Congress are literally asking for salvation.
If you are looking only to God for a clue about how you should vote, neither material incentives nor political rhetoric is gonna sway you. And now you know why I think there's a 50/50 chance that no deal occurs by August 2.
UPDATE: Megan McArdle has some similar reactions to the same Politico story as I did.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Here's an open secret -- most American foreign policy observers loathe domestic politics. To those who seek to define and distill the national interest, the notion that factions or parties can get in the way of the common good is very, very frustrating. This is why, whenever gridlock breaks out in Washington, there is a spasm of caterwauling from prominent foreign policy thinkers that Something. Must. Be Done.
This leads to some silly memes, like claims that a third party will break the logjam. It won't -- a glance at Duverger's Law and you know that the first-past-the-post electoral system in this country means that a two-party system is the only stable long-term equilibrium. A third party in the United States could only achieve electoral viability in one of two ways: either supplanting one of the existing parties, or focusing on success in a particular region. Since neither of these outcomes has occurred since the Civil War, I'm not holding my breath.
Gridlock frustration also leads to proposals of Grand Diagnoses and Remedies for Fixing the System. Fareed Zakaria goes down this road, offering a diagnosis of why partisanship has been rising in the United States and then links to Mickey Edwards' essay in The Atlantic of how to fix things. Zakaria, riffing off of Edwards, lists four reasons why partisanship is so high:
1) Redistricting has created safe seats so that for most House members, their only concern is a challenge from the right for Republicans and the left for Democrats....
2) Party primaries have been taken over by small groups of activists who push even popular senators to extreme positions.
3) Changes in Congressional rules have also made it far more difficult to enact large, compromise legislation.
4) Political polarization has also been fueled by a new media, which is also narrowcast.
These sound compelling, except that A) none of them really explain increased polarization in the Senate; and B) only the fourth trend is in any way recent (the rest of these phenomenas can be traced back to the 1970's).
The real problem with Congress is that any proposed institutional reform to correct the problems would require either a dilution of legislative power or a dilution of the minority's power to obstruct. Neither minority nor majority parties in Congress will be interested in moves like that unless and until we're in a crisis that made 2008 look like a ripple in the pond.
If you are looking to this humble blogger for ways out of this current problem... um... look elsewhere. My training is in international relations, and I've found that people with that kind of training tend to prefer policy reforms that provide political leeway and insulation to the executive branch. These measures are appealing because they tend to minimize the number of stupid interactions with galactically stupid members of Congress. Over the long-term, however, even a stupid Congress still serves as a valuable check on executive branch authority.
I'm as frustrated as the next foreign policy observer when it comes to the current policy paralysis. I know my own kind, however, and we suffer from the flawed belief that there was a halcyon era of bipartisanship in the foreign policy days of yore. Be very, very wary when a foreign policy pundit gives advice about how to reform the American system of government. Most of the time they are relying on decades-old Introduction to American Government arguments that are either obsolecent or incentive incompatible.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Despite Fareed Zakaria's best efforts, it seems that foreign policy commentators can't stop offering advice on American grand strategy.
Richard Haass provides the latest salvo in Time. After arguing that no other great power can offer a serious revisionist challenge to the current system, concluding, "Today's great powers are not all that great." With that set-up, he proposes a grand strategy of "Restoration":
The U.S. would continue to carry out an active foreign policy—to create international arrangements to manage the challenges inherent in globalization, to invigorate alliances and partnerships, to deal with the threats posed by an aggressive North Korea, a nuclear-armed Iran and a failing Pakistan.
But under a doctrine of restoration, there would be fewer wars of choice—armed interventions when either the interests at stake are less than vital or when there are alternative policies that appear viable. Recent wars of choice include Vietnam, the second Iraq war and the current Libyan intervention. There would, however, continue to be wars of necessity, which involve vital interests when no alternatives to using military force exist. Modern wars of necessity include the first Iraq war and Afghanistan after 9/11....
Restoration is not just about acting more discriminating abroad; it is even more about doing the right things at home. The principal focus would be on restoring the fiscal foundations of American power. The current situation is unsustainable, leaving the U.S. vulnerable either to market forces that could impose higher interest rates and draconian spending cuts or to the pressures of one or more central banks motivated by economic or conceivably political concerns.
Reducing discretionary domestic spending would constitute one piece of any fiscal plan. But cuts need to be smart: domestic spending is desirable when it is an investment in the U.S.'s human and physical future and competitiveness. This includes targeted spending on public education, including at the community-college and university levels; modernizing transportation and energy infrastructures; and increasing energy efficiency while decreasing dependence on Middle East oil. Spending cuts should focus on entitlements and defense. Further deficit reductions can be achieved by reducing so-called tax expenditures such as health care plans and mortgage deductions. The goal should be to reduce the deficit by some $300 billion per year until the budget is balanced but for interest payments on the debt.
Adopting a doctrine of restoration for several years would help the U.S. shore up the economic foundations of its power.
[Hasss' argument is] derivative of what journalist Peter Beinart called a “solvency doctrine” back in 2009. He wrote, “No matter what grand visions Obama may harbor to remake the world, the central mission of his foreign policy--at least at first--will be to get it out of the red.” None of these plans or explanations is perfect, of course, but taken together, they seem to me good starting points for what a grand strategy for the U.S. should look like, namely a focus on tending to the sources of American power rather than on making more commitments that draw on it.
Color me skeptical. It's not that I don't like the ideas behind Haass' argument -- they're sympatico with a welter of realpolitik-friendly strategies that have been promulgated at regular intervals.
There are two currently insurmountable political problems with Haass' strategy, however. The first is that it is ridiculously hard for the U.S. government to draw down military commitments -- particularly if the U.S. military doesn't want to do it. It's worth remembering that Barack Obama entered office with a worldview that closely matched Haass' restoration idea -- and yet, in the end, he expanded U.S. operations in Afghanistan and attacked Libya to boot. The U.S. military strongly supported the former, while Obama's foreign policy advisors jump-started the latter. [So, you're saying that if a powerful executive-branch foreign-policy actor favors the use of military statecraft, it's gonna happen?--ed. Um... yeah, I guess I am.]
The second is that a restoration strategy is really a focus on domestic policy. And, as I noted in the pages of Foreign Affairs:
The most significant challenge to Obama's grand strategy is likely to emerge at home rather than abroad. Viable grand strategies need to rest on a wellspring of domestic support. The biggest problem with Obama's new grand strategy is its troublesome domestic politics....
By focusing on renewing the United States' domestic strength, the Obama administration has introduced more partisan politics into the equation. There is still some truth to the aphorism that politics stops at the water's edge. But if the administration argues that the key to U.S. foreign policy is the domestic economy, then it increases the likelihood of domestic discord. Based on the tenor of the debates about the rising levels of U.S. debt, the possibility that the president can hammer out a grand bargain over fiscal and tax policies is looking increasingly remote.
I wrote that a few months ago, and of course as the debtopocalypse approaches, I'm sure things will improve in our domestic political discour--- HA HA HA HA HA HA HA... I'm sorry, I couldn't finish that sentence, I was
crying bitter tears laughing too hard.
Restoration won't be happening anytime during this session of Congress... or perhaps ever. The real problem in today's political climate is devising a grand strategy that is sustainable both domestically and internationally. I'm reluctantly coming around to Peter Trubowitz and Charles Kupchan's conclusion that the bipartisan political foundations for a viable grand strategy are badly eroded.
Chinese overlords alien visitors robot masters zombie hegemons post-apocalyptic historians:
Greetings. My goal in this message is to explain to you why the most powerful country in the world committed financial seppuku in the summer of 2011 AD*.
To set the stage: by now you know that the U.S. Congress was obligated to increase the debt ceiling in order for the United States government to continue to function normally. President Obama, Democrats in Congress, and most of the Republican leadership recognized the gravity of the situation. The GOP leadership, however, wanted to use the debt cekiling vote as leverage to get President Obama to commit to significant deficit reduction. After much haggling over "grand bargains," there was a recognition that no such deal could be passed. As a backup, leaders from both parties reluctantly advocated a bill that hiked the ceiling and put off questions about long-term deficit reduction to the future.
The problem was, a political faction emerged that some called "debt kamikazes." These were politicians and interest group leaders -- all Republicans -- who genuinely believed that nothing of consequence would happen if the debt ceiling wasn't raised. There were a few others who did believe it and were nevertheless copacetic with that outcome -- I'll get to that group later.
Sounds absurd to your futuristic ears, you say? Consider my evidence. The Daily Beast's John Avlon detailed the position of the 2012 GOP presidential candidates:
There were also interest group coalitions called "Tea Party" organizations that pressured their members of Congress not to raise the debt ceiling. As CNN's Shannon Travis chonicled, these organizations believed that the effects of more government spending were far more disastrous than defaulting on the debt:
Similarly, Red State blogger Erick Erickson wrote an open letter to the House GOP that boiled down to "do not believe the doom and gloom."
Now, future historians, you might argue that neither Tea Party activists nor presidential candidates (Bachmann excepted) were in Congress and therefore did not matter. However, what's important to understand is that these views were prevalent inside the House GOP caucus as well. The Washington Post's David A. Fahrenthold provided a detailed description of the members of the House of Representatives who thought a default wouldn't be such a big deal. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) offered the most extreme example of House GOP thinking:
Lest you think the view that a default was not such a big deal was limited to backbenchers, Outside the Beltway's Steven Taylor found House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan telling CNBC that a "technical default" of a few days wouldn't be a big deal:
Now, at this point, I'm sure you, future post-apocalyptic historians, must be scratching your
third eye heads, thinking the following:
Why, why did these human beings maintain these beliefs in the face of massive evidence to the contrary? Why did these people continue to insist that default wasn't that big a deal when Federal Reserve Chairman Benjamin Bernanke (a Republican first appointed by Republican president George W. Bush) insisted that there would be a "huge financial calamity" if the debt ceiling wasn't raised? Why did their belief persist when Moody's, Standard & Poor's, and Fitch Ratings all explicitly and repeatedly warned of serious and expensive debt downgrades if the ceiling wasn't raised? Why did they stick to their guns despite news reports detailing the link between the rating of federal government debt and the debt of states and municipalities? Why did they stand firm despite the consensus of the Republican Governors Association and the Democrat Governors Association that a failure to raise the debnt cailing would be "catastrophic"? Why did they refuse to yield despite bipartisan analysis explaining the very, very bad consequences of no agreement, and nonpartisan analysis explaining the horrific foreign policy consequences of American default? Why did they not understand that even a technical default would cost hundreds of billions of dollars**, thereby making their stated goal of debt reduction even harder?
Most mysteriously, why did these people throw their steering wheel out the window despite witnessing the effect of the 2008 Lehman Brothers collapse, which revealed the complex interconectedness of financial markets? Treasuries were far more integral to global capital markets than Lehman, but the debt kamikazes refused to recognize the possibility that a technical debt default would have unanticipated, complex, and disastrous consequences. Why?
I would like to be able to offer you a definitive answer, I really would, but I can't. The implications listed in the previous paraqgraph seemed pretty friggin' obvious to a lot contemporaneous observers at the time. As near as I can determine, there are four partial explanations for why the debt kamikazes persisted in their belief that nothing serious would happen: One explanation, which I've detailed here, is that the debt kamikazes refused to budge because refusing to budge had yielded great political rewards in the past.
Another explanation is that the debt kamikazes convinced themselves that no possible alternative was worse than the federal government accumulating more debt. They looked at countries like Greece and Portugal and decided that the U.S. was only one more Obama administration away from such strictures.
A third explanation was the general erosion of trust in economic experts during this period. To be fair to the debt kamikazes, many of the prominent policymakers who warned about calamities if the debt ceiling wasn't raised had pooh-poohed the effects of the housing bubble in 2005, or the collapse of that bubble in 2007.
The final explanation goes back to those people who acknowledged that a default might be a big deal, but were nevertheless OK with the outcome. These debt kamikazes had undergone a fundamental identity change. That is to say, despite all their protestations to the contrary, they were no longer loyal Americans. They were loyal to Republicans first and Republicans only. Erick Erickson made this logic pretty clear in his open letter to Congress:
As Outside the Beltway's Doug Mataconis explained in response:
That's the best set of answers I can give you. I'm sure, future post-aopocalytpic historians, that you have devised new and sophisticated methodologies to unearth the mysteries of the past. I hope you can solve this historical puzzle -- because me and my contemporaries are thoroughly flummoxed.
I wish you the best of luck, and once again, apologies for the whole collapse-of-Western-civilization-thing that happened in 2011. Our bad.
*To translate into your time scale, 15 B.B. (Before Lord Beiber, Praised Be His Hairness)
** 100 billion U.S. dollars = 15 BieberBucks
For those readers not keeping close tabs on the debt ceiling negotiations currently under way in Washington, here's how each participant views them:
There's been a lot of online debate about this question. Business Insider's Joe Weisenthal thinks this is just a matter of re-election motives, but I don't think it's that simple. As Nate Silver points out, "there is a larger ideological gap between House Republicans and Republican voters than there is between Republican voters and Democratic ones." Furthermore, many of the House GOP freshmen were elected in swing districts, so it's not as if they're representing only ultraconservative portions of the country.
I'd attribute the strategy of the House GOP caucus to two factors. The first is rhetorical blowback. It's simply impossible for elected representatives to say "we're not going to raise the debt ceiling, we're not going to raise the debt ceiling, we're not going to raise the debt ceiling..." and then actually raise the debt ceiling. And they really can't agree to the Mitch McConnell plan of "raise the debt ceiling with no concessions and then blame Obama." They can't agree to any "grand bargain" on austerity because any such bargain would have to include tax increases and there's that darn pledge not to. Politicians do occasionally go back on flat-out pledges not to do something. The example of George H. W. Bush to current GOP House members is not a good one, however. With blowback, it doesn't matter whether a member of Congress really and truly believes what they're saying or whether they can't reverse course without exposing their political backside. They're just as screwed.
The second factor is even simpler: to date the current Tea Party strategy of "no retreat, no surrender" has worked like political gangbusters. Recall that the conventional wisdom in Washington in early 2009 was that the GOP was going to have to be in the wilderness for a couple of election cycles before moderating their positions and winning at the polls again. The exact opposite of that scenario has occurred (see Erick Erickson on precisely this point). The Tea Party movement has been built on uncompromising hardline positions, and has led to significant electoral and political victories. As Joshua Green explains, even the exception proves this rule for Tea Partiers:
Unless and until the Tea Party wing of the GOP pays a political price for its positions, they have zero incentive to change their strategy.
Am I missing anything?
Hey, remember a few months ago, when I wrote that, "the Tea Party's influence on American foreign policy has peaked and will be on the downswing for quite some time."? How has time treated that statement?
Well, it's kind of a mixed bag. On the one hand, as Greg Ip notes over at the Economist's Free Exchange blog, the distrust in government that is the fuel for Tea Party activism has waned considerably:
My colleague at Democracy in America imputes from Mitt Romney’s surge into the lead among presidential contenders the beginning of the end of the Tea Party’s influence in the GOP. Now, the latest WSJ-NBC opinion poll contains clues that the movement’s broader appeal may also be waning. As my chart shows, after a brief reversal, Americans are once again getting comfortable with more government in their lives....
[T]ime and events have cooled passions. The bail-outs are receding from memory (and turning a profit), Mr Obama has tacked to the centre, and the economy continues to disappoint. Republicans overreached with Paul Ryan’s budget, thinking the population ready for a draconian restructuring of Medicare to deal with a looming debt crisis. Apparently, it isn’t.
I read several lessons into these results. First, political leaders regularly get out over their ski tips when they think the population is shifting rapidly to the left or the right. Ronald Reagan learned that in 1982, Mr Obama did so in 2010, and it may soon be the turn of the Republican far right.
While this suggests that the Tea Party's animating force is waning, it's possible that foreign policy proves to be the remaining policy dimension through which mainstream candidates like Mitt Romney appease the Tea Party wing of the party.
At a minimum, John McCain ain't pleased:
US Senator John McCain on Sunday expressed concern about growing isolationism in the Republican party, particularly among those vying for the 2012 presidential nomination.
McCain, the 2008 Republican nominee, said he was alarmed to hear various candidates at a campaign forum last Monday express opposition to US military involvement in the NATO military assault on Libya's Moamer Kadhafi.
"There's always been an isolation strain in the Republican party, that Pat Buchanan (a former Republican presidential contender) wing of our party. But now it seems to have moved more center stage, so to speak," he said.
I'm not entirely sure that this is isolationism talking, but the evolution of GOP foreign policy thinking is likely to move in a realpolitik direction. Which, coincidentally enough, is a cheap way to satiate the Paulite wing of the Tea Partiers.
UPDATE: Wow, I might have broken my personal typo record in one sentence. Fixed now.
For the past two years, staunch monetarists and economic conservatives have warned about the evils of massive deficit spending and quantitative easing. They have argued that such policy measures are inevitably inflationary and will debase the currency and raise nominal interest rates. By and large, supporters of Keynesian policies have responded by loudly pointing to the data on core U.S. inflation and the dollar's performance as falsifying the conservative argument. And, by and large, they have a point. If inflationary concerns really were prominent, the dollar should have depreciated in value an awful lot, and nominal interest rates should have soared. Neither of these things have happened. Point for Keynesians.
Right now, however, markets are providing a pretty powerful data point for Tea Party supporters who argue that hitting the debt ceiling is not the end of the world. Last week Moody's issued the following warning:
Moody's Investors Service said today that if there is no progress on increasing the statutory debt limit in coming weeks, it expects to place the US government's rating under review for possible downgrade, due to the very small but rising risk of a short-lived default. If the debt limit is raised and default avoided, the Aaa rating will be maintained. However, the rating outlook will depend on the outcome of negotiations on deficit reduction. A credible agreement on substantial deficit reduction would support a continued stable outlook; lack of such an agreement could prompt Moody's to change its outlook to negative on the Aaa rating.
Although Moody's fully expected political wrangling prior to an increase in the statutory debt limit, the degree of entrenchment into conflicting positions has exceeded expectations. The heightened polarization over the debt limit has increased the odds of a short-lived default. If this situation remains unchanged in coming weeks, Moody's will place the rating under review.
Make fun of the ratings agencies all you like, but this was front-page news last week. One would think that markets would be pricing in the possibility of institutional investors diversifying away from dollar-denominated debt, a collapse in the dollar, skyrocketing interest rates, a drastic reduction in nominal GDP, dogs and cats living together, and so forth. Or, as Tim Geithner put it, "catastrophic economic and market consequences."
And yet.... last week, the yield on 10 year Treasuries fell below three percent. Maybe markets are underestimating the likelihood that a debt ceiling deal won't happen, maybe they are underestimating the damage caused by hitting the debt ceiling, or maybe they think the Chinese will continue to buy dollar-denominated debt no matter what happens on the debt ceiling (though read this). Or... maybe the Tea Party activists have a point.
So, my question to readers, investors, and experts on the global political economy -- why aren't markets freaking out more about the rising probability of hitting the debt ceiling?
With the government not shutting down and all, Washington can now look forward to the next moment of Gotterdammerung, which is when the debt ceiling has to be raised. By risking minor things like the full faith and credit of the United States, that kind of shutdown really would have serious foreign policy implications.
That said, there is another possibility on the horizon -- a grand bargain on long-term fiscal rectitude. The good news is that there really is a bargaining core among the major players on entitlement reform, budget cuts, and tax reform. The bad news is that one could say the same thing about an Israeli/Palestinian peace deal, and look how that's playing out. The follow-up good news is that I think there are political reasons to be more optimistic about the U.S. situation.
Seasoned DC-watchers might immediately laugh at the prospect of the kind of bipartisan brand bargain on fiscal policy that hasn't been seen since the days of Gramm-Rudman-Hollings and the 1986 tax reform bill. That said, I think a bargain can be struck for the simple reason that there is at least a general consensus that the long-term fiscal picture for the United States is really daunting and in dire need of proactive policy measures. This jibes with U.S. public opinion on the question. The biggest question is what mix of spending cuts need to be taken -- though I think the fiscal picture is sufficiently dire such that there's gonna have to be serious steps taken in all possible spending spheres (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, discretionary domestic spending, Defense spending). The combination of the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission, Paul Ryan's proposed budget, and Obama's scheduled Wednesday address means there will be multiple proffers on the table, so at least there are concrete measures to talk about.
Furthermore, the tax code has gotten so complicated that there's actual room for a tax deal that would simultaneously raise revenues but be palatable to Republicans. For all the debate over raising or lowering tax rates, the key problem is that tax revenues as a percentage of GDP are at postwar historic lows. If distortionary loopholes were eliminated, it would be possible to keep marginal tax rates where they are, or even lower them, while still raising revenues.
Finally, the economic argument against fiscal tightening is that the economy is still in recession, except that's not really true. The economy has been growing at a steady clip for a yeat now. The real concern is the job picture, but if last month's numbers are suggestive of a more robust turnaround, then this would be exactly the moment to rein in spending and signal to financial markets that fiscal probity is coming.
So I think a grand bargain is possible. Now, the natural rejoinder to this is that the partisan split in Washington is too great for bipartisanship to work, the Tea Party will be unyielding, yadda, yadda, yadda. This is a possibility. It's certainly true that the last time something on this scale was attempted, in 1993, it was a straight partisan vote. If the Obama administration and GOP members of Congress see this as a zero-sum game that ends with the 2012 election, then no bargain will be struck.
There are two political reasons why I'm more optimistic this time around -- although these reasons normally don't count for much in political science. First, the personalities of the key players suggest that they want to make a deal. Barack Obama was the happiest I'd seen him in a long time when he announced on Friday night that a budget deal had been struck. John Boehner, and his staff, set a nice precedent of being able to bargain with the Democrats while holding his caucus together, and earned some praise from Democrats for his dealmaking. The personal inclinations of the pcvotal actors are biased towards cutting a deal. [But what about the Tea Party?!--ed. See this Dave Weigel post.]
Second, I think it's beginning to occur to GOP legislatures that their crop of 2012 presidential camdidates really and truly stinks:
A presidential primary favorite is emerging among the ranks of congressional Republicans: none of the above.
The dissatisfaction with the likely GOP field — long whispered among party activists, operatives and elected officials — is growing more audible in the House and Senate.
Interviews on both sides of the Capitol have revealed widespread concern about the lackluster quality of the current crop of candidates and little consensus on who Republican senators and House members would like to see in the race.
It's early, and the fundamentals suggest that the eventual GOP nominee might make it a close race, but still -- whoever gets the nomination is gonna have to run against a sitting president who's still surprisingly popular given the state of the economy.
If GOP legislative leaders calculate that they can't win back the White House in 2012, their preference flips over to cutting a deal with the Obama administration. Bipartisan deals help incumbents and hurt challengers, which means that in cutting a deal, the House Republicans would help Obama while helping themselves. That's not their first option, but in a political climate when Donald Trump can poll second in New Hampshire by embracing the birthers, it's not the worst calculaion either.
I look forward to commenters telling me how wrong I am about this. But let me close this post by pointing out something that I think is obvious but might pass by some foreign policy pundits
who get scared by economics that tend to focus more on matters of hard security. From a foreign policy perspective, whether or not a Grand Bargain can be struck is of far more importance than whether or not there's such a thing as an Obama Doctrine. Over the long term, America's hard power and soft power resides in its economic vitality. A close reading of Obama's rhetoric suggsts that he gets this point. It will be very interesting to see if he decides to invest his political capital in cutting a deal.
President Obama is scheduled to address the country this evening on Libya, and the odds are pretty good that Ben Rhodes will be writing the bulk of the speech. I'm sure the speech will be interesting, full of false choices for the Obama administration to surmount and the like.
Still, what I'd love to see is Rhodes' first draft -- you know, the one where he just spits out exactly what he thinks Obama is thinking on Libya, warts and all.
Well, fortunately, due to your humble blogger's vast
and imaginary network of sources inside the Beltway, I have secured a copy of that first draft of the speech, reprinted below for your edification:
FIRST NOTES/DRAFT OF POTUS LIBYA SPEECH
By Benjamin Rhodes
I'm addressing you, my fellow Americans, because my administration's message on our
war limited humanitarian interventionkinetic military action in Libya has truly and totally sucked. Seriously, I'm gobsmacked at how f***ing incoherent we've been in communicating our rationale to the foreign policy community and the American public. The bickering within my administration and within the international coalition has not helped -- sweet Jesus, multilateralism can be a royal pain in the butt sometimes. No wonder public support has been relatively anemic (although there's also the fact that I'm launching another war when all Americans care about right now is the domestic economy).
How bad is it? I'm getting hit by the neocons for moving without Congressional permission less than a week after I was getting hit by them for not moving quickly enough!! Thank God for Newt Gingrich, or I'd look really bad. Now I'm getting flak from the left on not being consistent with R2P when, in fact, anyone who knows anything about R2P knows that I'm doing the best I can. Seriously, I'm supposed to intervene militarily in Bahrain and Syria too? Sure, right after I send the 82nd Airborne to liberate Tibet. At least I can ignore the criticism from those who went on junkets to Tripoli last year. Hypocrisy sure is a bitch, huh?
What kills me, what absolutely kills me, is that in just ten days, without any boots on the ground, we've accomplished one whole hell of a lot. First off, if we hadn't intervened, the rebels would have been routed in Benghazi, and Khaddafy would be in control of the entire country again. OK, so maybe the "100,000 dead" figure was a bit exaggerated, but surely the fall of Benghazi would have created hundreds of thousands of Libya refugees flowing into Egypt, which is exactly what that country doesn't need right now. Anyone who doesn't realize that the situation in Libya and the situation in Egypt are connected is a f***ing moron (which, since we forgot to mention this fact for an awfully long time, apparently includes my messaging shop).
Now, the situation on the ground looks pretty much like how things looked during the high tide of the Libyan rebellion. So long as our air support continues, that's now the worst-case scenario -- and you know what, that's actually pretty tolerable. It would mean that the rebels would control about 70% of Libya's oil reserves and that the regions of the country most hostile to Khaddafy would be free of his grip. Over time, sanctions will start to hit Khaddafy's resources, the Libya Transitional Council can get its act together, and we can burden-share with NATO a hell of a lot more. The Libyans don't want our boots on the ground any more than we want to have them there -- so further escalation is not in the cards.
All the while -- and remember, this is the worst-case scenario -- the United States will have accomplished two direct deliverables and quite a few positive policy externalities. Directly, we averted a humanitarian disaster and created a buffer in eastern Libya that eases any economic or humanitarian pressure on Egypt (which is where our strategic interest lies).
In many ways, the policy externalities are even bigger. The biggest bonus is that, for once, our hard power is actually augmenting our soft power. Those images on Al Jazeera of Libyans saying thank you to the United States -- that's pure soft power gold. When you compare how the U.S. government has handled the Arab Revolutions to Al Qaeda or Iran, the contrast is pretty stark. What's happened in Libya has helped to obscure our more realpolitik response in, say Bahrain. Oh, and we managed to find a purpose for NATO.
Is this messy? Duh, of course! Could this intervention distract us from The Big Picture? Maybe for the past week and this week, sure, but it's not like Iran or China is really exploiting what's going on in the Middle East -- they're too busy trying to pretend it's not happening domestically. As for North Korea learning that it's a mistake to give up their nukes, I'm pretty sure they'd learned that lesson way back in 2003, thank you very much.
Look, I'd have loved for the messaging to be clearer, and in retrospect it would have been good if we'd had asked Congress for authorization, but this is what happens when you make foreign policy on the fly in a region wracked by revolution. It's not perfect, but if you think about the counterfactuals real hard, I'm fully confident that the benefits massively outweigh the costs of this intervention. So there.
Yesterday Director of National Intelligence James Clapper provided his sober assessment of the situation on the ground in Libya:
Responding to questions, Mr. Clapper told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that Colonel Qaddafi had a potentially decisive advantage in arms and equipment that would make itself felt as the conflict wore on.
“This is kind of a stalemate back and forth,” he said, “but I think over the longer term that the regime will prevail.”
Mr. Clapper also offered another scenario, one in which the country is split into two or three ministates, reverting to the way it was before Colonel Qaddafi’s rule. “You could end up with a situation where Qaddafi would have Tripoli and its environs, and then Benghazi and its environs could be under another ministate,” he said.
The White House was clearly taken aback by the assessment that Mr. Qaddafi could prevail.
The White House wasn't the only actor that didn't like what Clapper was saying:
Clapper's prediction of defeat for the Libyan opposition prompted a furious Sen.Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to demand that Clapper resign or be fired.
"The situation in Libya remains tenuous and the director's comments today on Gadhafi's 'staying power' are not helpful to our national security interests,'' Graham said in a statement, using a different spelling of the leader's name. "His comments will make the situation more difficult for those opposing Gadhafi ... and undercut our national efforts to bring about the desired result of Libya moving from dictator to democracy.
Yeah, how dare Clapper say things that jibe with open-source analysis of the situation!!
I kinda sorta understand the argument that Clapper shouldn't have said this in public, but not really. To have a quality debate about policy options on Libya, this kind of dispassionate analysis is crucial. Clapper's job description is to provide an assessment of what's actually occurring on the ground, regardless of what people want to happen on the ground. It's then up to policymakers to craft responses to try to alter or reinforce that situation as they see fit. Calling for Clapper's resignation because he provided what appears to be an accurate assessment of the current state of play seriously politicizes the job of intelligence analysis and assessment. Doesn't the past decade suggest that politicized intelligence leads to catastrophic foreign policymaking?
What worries me is not what Clapper said but how the White House responded:
The White House was clearly taken aback by the assessment that Mr. Qaddafi could prevail, and Mr. Donilon, talking to reporters a few hours later, suggested that Mr. Clapper was addressing the question too narrowly.
“If you did a static and one-dimensional assessment of just looking at order of battle and mercenaries,” Mr. Donilon said, one could conclude that the Libyan leader would hang on. But he said that he took a “dynamic” and “multidimensional” view, which he said would lead “to a different conclusion about how this is going to go forward.”
“The lost legitimacy matters,” he said. “Motivation matters. Incentives matter.” He said Colonel Qaddafi’s “resources are being cut off,” and ultimately that would undercut his hold on power.
A senior administration official, driving home the difference in an e-mail on Thursday evening, wrote, “The president does not think that Qaddafi will prevail.”
Hmmm. Over the past week, the Libyan opposition to Qaddafi has been winning on only one dimension -- garnering international support. On the ground in Libya, not so much. And the international support won't affect the situation on the ground anytime soon. Even the tightest financial sanctions don't matter at this point. Qaddafi possesses far more financial reserves than, say, the Ivory Coast's Laurent Gbagbo -- and yet Gbagbo has managed to stay in power for five months. Sanctions should eventually work in the Ivory Coast, but they're not going to work anytime soon in Libya.
Contra Donilon, the only way in which the dynamic changes on the ground in Libya is if international support becomes far more concerted and proactive in support of the Libyan rebels. Based on Mark Landler and Helene Cooper's analysis in the New York Times, however, the Obama administration won't be spearheading that kind of policy shift. For Donilon to suggest that, absent U.S. action, the dynamic is working in favor of Libya's anti-Qaddafi movement smacks of utopian thinking.
Graham and others should criticize the Obama administration's handling of Libya if they want to see a more forceful policy response. Criticizing the DNI for providing an accurate intelligence assessment, on the other hand, is seriously counterproductive.
The lead article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs is Walter Russell Mead's disquisition regarding the Tea Party's attitudes about American foreign policy. This intellectual exegesis comes on the heels of P.J. O'Rourke's similar effort in World Affairs. This spread of analysis about the Tea Party's hopes and dreams for Amerian foreign policy into the serious policy journals can mean only one thing: the Tea Party's influence on American foreign policy has peaked and will be on the downswing for quite some time.
I actually have some data on my side. The common denominator to all Tea Party supporters is a healthy distrust of the federal government. A Pew poll released last week, however, suggests that anger at the government peaked six months ago:
[F]ewer Americans say they are angry at government than did so last fall. Overall, the percentage saying they are angry with the federal government has fallen from 23% last September to 14% today, with much of the decline coming among Republicans and Tea Party supporters.
There is also data demonstrating that trust in government is rising from last year's nadir. Part of this might be a dead cat bounce. Part of it is likely due to the fact Tea Party supporters are pleased with the midterm election results. Part of it might even be due to a mildly improving job picture. The point is, it's happening.
The performance of the Tea Party's rock stars is also suggestive. As Glenn Beck has careened even further into conspiracy theory territory, he has seen his ratings and popularity fall to the point where other conservatives feel free to rip into him like a garden-variety Democrat. As I pointed out last December, Sarah Palin's poll numbers have been nosediving for the past year now -- enough so that, again, possible contenders for the 2012 GOP nomination feel free to
rip mildly tweak her.
This has all happened after just two months of a new GOP-held House infused with Tea Party members. My prediction is that, if anything, the Tea Party movement will splinter even more going forward. Governing means compromising, and that's exactly what Tea Party activists don't want to see. As the GOP members of Congress consider the
pathetic horrible underwhelming list of 2012 challengers to Barack Obama, they'll decide that it's better to cut a deal with the current administration as a way to stay in power.
As for foreign policy, Beck and Palin have radically different foreign policy worldviews, which suggests the inchoate nature of the Tea Party movement itself. O'Rourke noted last fall:
What is the Tea Party’s foreign policy? It’s a difficult question on two counts. There is no Tea Party foreign policy as far as I can tell, and, on inspection, there is no Tea Party. There are, of course, any number of Tea Party Coalition groups across the country. But these mix and mingle, cooperate, compete, debate, merge, and overlap with countless other groups grouped together as the “Tea Party movement” in the public mind.
Mead makes a similar observation, but argues that passionate minorities can still wield veto power in American politics, and that eventually, "the contest in the Tea Party between what might be called its Palinite and its Paulite wings will likely end in a victory for the Palinities." This implies the status quo of different elements of the Tea Party movement holding contradictory views cannot hold -- and I see no reason why it can't. The simplest fact about the Tea Party is that, by and large, they don't care about foreign policy.
The only issue areas where I suspect the Tea Party will really matter going forward are in the policies that cater to both wing's inherent American nationalism -- namely, immigration and anti-Muslim
hysteria concerns. Beyond that, however, I suspect that ten years from now we'll look back at the Tea Party movement the same way we now look ay Ross Perot's Reform Party -- a brief, interesting but in the end unstable collection of political oddities.
According to the Associated Press, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dropped many pretenses and bluntly explained the birds, the bees, and the bombs with respect to the Sino-American relationship:
The U.S. risks falling behind China in the competition for global influence as Beijing woos leaders in the resource-rich Pacific, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday.
Her unusually strong comments before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are certain to anger the communist power, especially in light of Chinese President Hu Jintao's recent high-profile visit to Washington, seen as boosting trust and trade between the world's two largest economies....
[S]he told senators, "We are a competition for influence with China. Let's put aside the humanitarian, do-good side of what we believe in. Let's just talk straight realpolitik. We are in competition with China."
She noted a "huge energy find" in Papua New Guinea by U.S. company Exxon Mobil Corp., which has begun drilling for natural gas there. Clinton said China was jockeying for influence in the region and seeing how it could "come in behind us and come in under us."....
Clinton also said China had brought all the leaders of small Pacific nations to Beijing and "wined them and dined them."...
Charles Freeman, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the U.S. was "unquestionably" involved in a "soft power competition with China. But this isn't a hard power, Cold War exercise." (emphasis added)
So this is how soft power works! I can picture the scene......
[Setting: a small banquet hall. Violin music is playing in the background. A sumptuous feast is on a table, as are two large, empty wine glasses.]
CHINA: Say, we sure would love to get exclusive drilling rights to your offshore oil discoveries.
PAPUA NEW GUINEA: I'm not sure I should even be here. I mean, we've been in a long relationship with the United States. So many memories....
CHINA: Well, where is the United States right now? I don't see them paying as much attention to you as they should be.
PAPUA NEW GUINEA: America is a little short on cash now. Washington keeps saying that it will change, but... I've heard that song too many times before. The USA keeps saying, "it's not you, it's me." (grimaces)
CHINA: Say, have you tried the 1960 cheval blanc? It really is heavenly. (pours wine)
PAPUA NEW GUINEA: Oh. Oh my. Well, who would be hurt by an exploratory agreement? (lights dim)
OK, somewhat more seriously, Clinton's comments need to be put into perspective:
Clinton railed against cuts sought by Republican to the U.S. foreign aid program....
America's top diplomat accused China of supporting a dictatorial government in Fiji, where plans to reopen an office of the U.S. Agency for International Development would be shelved under a resolution passed last month by the Republican-led House. That measure proposes sharp cuts to foreign assistance, including a $21 million program to help Pacific islands vulnerable to rising sea levels, as part of efforts to rein in government spending....
She said foreign assistance was important on humanitarian and moral grounds, but also strategically essential for America's global influence.
"I mean, if anybody thinks that our retreating on these issues is somehow going to be irrelevant to the maintenance of our leadership in a world where we are competing with China, where we are competing with Iran, that is a mistaken notion," Clinton said.
Clinton is correct in the short term. If I was the foreign policy budget czar, I'd be transferring at least $100 billion from DoD to State on the premise that problem prevention is always more cost-effective than problem-solving.
The "China is going to eat our lunch" meme is a popular one in Washington for domestic reasons -- it's a great argument to motivate policy. The Obama administration is going to this well an awful lot, however. My concern is that this rhetorical device doesn't lead to any genuine policy change but does lead to blowback - i.e., it scares the crap out of everyone in DC. That's the worst of both worlds.
What do you think?
Your humble blogger has repeatedly stressed the theme that when it comes to foreign or economic policy, the U.S. public is rationally ignorant. This does not mean, despite my occasional slip of the pen, that Americans are stupid. It means that they lead busy lives and don't see the need to read up on arcane policy issues that do not appear to affect their daily lives.
One of the awesome upsides of being rationally ignorant is that it allows the voter to reconcile what policy wonks know, in their hearts, is utterly irreconcilable.
Two recent polls of U.S. public opinion reveal this point quite nicely. Pew's latest survey of U.S. attitudes about China reveal deep-seated American anxiety about China's rising economic power, but a desire to strengthen relations. This leads to a headline assessment, "Strengthen Ties with China, but Get Tough on Trade," that is already contradictory.
Even better, however, is the Reuters/Ipsos survey of American attitudes about the debt ceiling:
The U.S. public overwhelmingly opposes raising the country's debt limit even though failure to do so could hurt America's international standing and push up borrowing costs, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday.
Some 71 percent of those surveyed oppose increasing the borrowing authority, the focus of a brewing political battle over federal spending. Only 18 percent support an increase.…
With the Pentagon fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, 51 percent supported cutbacks to military spending.…
Expensive benefit programs that account for nearly half of all federal spending enjoy widespread support, the poll found. Only 20 percent supported paring Social Security retirement benefits while a mere 23 supported cutbacks to the Medicare health-insurance program.
Some 73 percent support scaling back foreign aid and 65 percent support cutting back on tax collection.
How to put this gently… any serious effort to tackle the deficit/debt problem can't be accomplished without addressing Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid and tax reform. So any American who says they don't want the debt ceiling raised is logically saying, "I want interest rates to skyrocket and massive cuts in Social Security and Medicare."
Except, of course, most Americans are rationally ignorant -- so they don't see these set of beliefs as contradictory.
It's not a bad way to go through life… unless, of course, you're the one trying to get the books into balance.
As Ian Bremmer announced over at The Call, Eurasia Group recently released their top risks for 2011. Coming at no. 7 is the U.S. political system: "In 2011, headline risk will be driven by both parties loudly promoting priorities for which there is no path forward."
It's telling that political risk assessments need to be used for the United States, but not surprising. The U.S. political system does not always work terribly well.
The events of the past week would appear to expand that sentiment to U.S. political culture, however, which is several cognitive leaps too far. For example, Gideon Rachman compares the murder of a Punjabi governor in Pakistan to the attempted assassination of Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords:
Events in both Pakistan and America suggest what happens when you not only disagree with your political opponents - but when you demonise them as enemies of the faith or the nation. At that point, some may conclude that it is legitimate to end the argument with bullets.
Sigh… let's all take a few deep breaths, shall we?
Let's turn to Lexington's response to Rachman:
Well yes, America could become like Pakistan if people concluded that it was legitimate to settle arguments with bullets. But in America, where guns are plentiful and political and religious feelings intense, the telling thing is that almost no one at all considers political violence to be legitimate. The killings have been met with universal condemnation by ordinary Americans and the whole political class. The violent act of one probably deranged individual doesn't show that America is heading down the same road as Pakistan. And the response to it suggests that the political cultures of the two countries are fundamentally different.
Indeed, seen in historical context, Adam Serwer points out that the United States' political culture has trended away from violence:
Political violence in the United States has never been more illegitimate. There was a time when a member of Congress could walk into the Senate and beat a political rival senseless and walk away unmolested. The South was once a place of unrestrained terrorist violence conducted with the tacit approval of local authorities. Even when those authorities were brave or responsible enough to press charges, securing guilty verdicts would be difficult because of a local culture willing to accept crimes committed in service to white supremacy. We live in a time where no major political movement would be willing to openly justify such behavior.
This is why, in the aftermath of the incident, both the left and right began placing the blame on the other side.
Finally, we get to James Pethokoukis:
[P]olitical violence has been rare in the United States in recent years. That's despite the disputed 2000 presidential election, the unpopular Iraq war and the election of the first black president. Indeed, the World Bank ranks America above the UK when it comes to "political stability and absence of violence." And the U.S. rank has actually been on the rise in recent years.
There's going to be a rollicking debate about whether political vitriol contributes to political violence. Fine. But let's put things in perspective -- extremist rhetoric or not, this kind of thing is blessedly rare in the American polity.
As I'm typing this very sentence, it looks like the New START treaty will be passed. This happened even though GOP arms control pointman Senator Jon Kyl
acted like a petulant child for the last month came out in opposition to the treaty (along with Mitch McConnell).
David Weigel Fred Kaplan has an excellent summary of why the GOP leadership failed to halt ratification, even though the threshold for blocking it was only 34 senators:
If a Republican were president, the accord would have excited no controversy and at most a handful of diehard nays. As even most of its critics conceded, the treaty's text contains nothing objectionable in substance.
There were two kinds of opponents in this debate. The first had concerns that President Barack Obama would use the treaty as an excuse to ease up on missile defense and the programs to maintain the nuclear arsenal. In recent weeks, Obama and his team did as much to allay these concerns as any hawk could have hoped—and more than many doves preferred.
So that left the second kind of opponent: those who simply wanted to deny Obama any kind of victory. The latter motive was clearly dominant in this debate (emphasis added)
Let's step back here for a second and contemplate the truth and meaning of that last sentence. Is it true? Kevin Drum and Greg Sargent clearly think the answer is yes, and they've got some damning quotes to back up their argument. Rich Lowry is particularly revealing on this point:
As the sense builds that ratification is inevitable, Republicans are lining up to get on the “right side.” Lamar Alexander’s support, noted below, is a crucial sign of which way the wind is blowing, although he’ll probably be the only member of the Republican leadership to vote for it. At least Jon Kyl was able to get more money for modernization and that letter from President Obama making assurances on missile defense. Otherwise, this is a dismaying rout (emphasis added)
Um... at best, this is a dismaying rout for the GOP, not the USA. As
Weigel Kaplan points out, however, it's not elements of the GOP didn't favor the treaty:
The task of Obama and the Democratic floor managers, Sens. Harry Reid and John Kerry, was to convince enough Republicans to view the issue not as political gamesmanship but as an urgent matter of national security. Hence their rallying of every retired general, former defense secretary, and other security specialist—Republican and Democrat—that anyone had ever heard of. (At one point, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she might vote for the treaty if former President George H.W. Bush endorsed it. A few days later, Bush released a statement doing just that.)
A few other things happened as well. Beyond the U.S. foreign policy establishment, the Eastern European foreign policy establishment got behind the treaty. There's also the fact that some GOP senators are still nursing a grudge against other GOP senators. Josh Rogin also points out that the treaty always had GOP supporters. And, finally, the Obama administration wisely decided to go to the mat on what was a rather unobjectionable treaty, no matter how hard John Bolton bloviates on the matter.
What does this mean going forward? In my bloggingheads with Matthew Yglesias last week, I was optimistic that Kyl's blatant obstructionism was a step too far, and that maybe this will lead to a little less needless obstructionism when it comes foreign policy. There's also the fact that the American people seems to really like what's happened during the lane duck session. Perhaps the GOP legislators that want to get re-elected will take note of that fact and decide that some cooperaion with the Obama administration on things like KORUS and arms control are a decent idea (there's also the fact that more GOP legislators from Democrat-friendly territory means more moderate Republicans).
That said, the nuclear negotiations with Russia only get harder from here. Plus, my gut tells me that the GOP leadership will become even more obsteperous going forward in order to bolster their reputation as the really tough bargaining party and eliminate the bitter aftertaste they're feeling from the lame duck session.
What do you think?
FP's Josh Rogin ably summarizes the State Department's rollout of the first-ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), an exercise that was clearly inspired by the Defense Department's Quadrennial Defense Review. This was Anne-Marie Slaughter's signal achievement during her tenure as Director of Policy Planning,* which leads to the obvious question of whether it really matters.
The QDDR is dedicated to Rickard Holbrooke, who passed away earlier this week. In a revealing Financial Times article, Brain Katulis of the Center for American Progress makes a particularly telling point about the arc of Holbrooke's career:
"If you compare Holbrooke's tenure in his job as representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and compare it to what he was able to do in the 1990s on Bosnia, you really see that the balance of power in the interim had shifted from the state department to the Pentagon," said Brian Katulis at the Centre for American Progress in Washington.
Katulis hits upon a theme that has been a source of concern here at this blog for a good long while. For at least a decade, there's been a vicious feedback loop: State loses operational authority and capabilities because of poor funding, which leads to more tasks for Defense, which leads to even more lopsided funding between the two bureaucracies, which leads to an even greater disparity in responsibilities, and so forth.
Will the QDDR change that? That's sorta the point of the whole exercise -- the phrase "civilian power" appears 281 times in the QDDR. I'm dubious -- the only way this works is through greater staffing and greater funding for U.S. foreign aid, and in this Age of Austerity, the first things that get cut are.... diplomats and foreign aid funding.
I'd love to see Hillary Clinton make the case to Congress than an extra $50 billion for State would improve American foreign policy enough to cut, say, $100 billion for DoD. I'd love a free pony too, for all the likelihood that this will happen.
I'm not the only one who's dubious. The Christian Science Monitor's Howard LaFranchi ends his story on the QDDR as follows:
[E]xperts, as well as some military officials, have pointed out that the concept of "civilian power" sounds good, but that the US diplomatic corps is not prepared and doesn't have the numbers to take over many tasks from the military.
Clinton acknowledges that the shift in priorities and organization is "a work in progress," but she also emphasizes that someone will be designated at both the State Department and at USAID to oversee implementation. "I am determined that this report will not merely gather dust, like so many others," she said. And she wants Congress to approve making the QDDR a regular and required State Department policy-review process.
Slaughter echoed those words in a humorous sum-up with reporters. "I'm pretty sure you're thinking, 'I've heard this before,' " she said - a big plan to change the way a government agency works. "But this is different."
The big difference, she insisted, is that Clinton has given the reorganization top priority: "She knows ... we can't afford to continue working in the way we have been."
Reading the QDDR, it's clear that there's a hope that Foggy Bottom will scrape together more resources through wringing greater efficiencies out of the current budget. This is certainly possible -- no one is going to label the State Department a lean, mean fighting bureaucratic machine -- but color me skeptical that there's all that much savings of "government waste" in them thar hills.
To be fair, however, one report is not going to change a dynamic that's been building for more than a decade. It's only a first step. Still first steps are better than no steps. We'll see if this remains Clinton's top priority.
*I have no inside knowledge about this, but am simply assuming that Slaughter will be returning to her academic haunts after the standard two-year leave has expired -- in other words, in early 2011.
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One of my guilty pleasures is Ana Marie Cox's Twitter feed, and based on what I'm reading there, there's apparently some hearings going on down in Washington about repealing the Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) policy with respect to homosexuals serving in the military. The House has already voted to repeal; it's up to the Senate now. The Defense Department report seems pretty through and clear that, in the end, it's a repeal that should take place as soon as possible.
Senator John McCain, who earlier in the decade voiced cautious support for the repeal of DADT, is now
digging deeper into his bunker expressing serious reservations about any change in the policy. He wants the soldiers polled directly (though that's kinda what the DoD report already did) and wants their opinions to dictate the policy change (which kinda contradicts the 200+ year traditions of civilian control of the military and, you know, the chain of command).
In doing so, McCain seems to be undercutting his past statements on how and if/when to repeal DADT, as Jon Stewart demonstrates to devastating effect in the clip above. This has prompted much pop psychoanalysis about what's exactly driving John McCain's truculence.
My position, based on careful consideration of the matter, is as follows:
1) The perceptual bias in the testimony to date is focusing on the risks and costs of changing the status quo. Will unit cohesion be compromised? Will the change undermine national security during wartime? This partially misses the point: the status quo is undermining national security far more than any change. The rigorous enforcement of DADT is preventing competent and patriotic soldiers from serving their country, particularly in high-demand positions like, say, Arabic translators. It's fine to say that repealing DADT might have some costs -- but those costs have to be weighed against the costs of continuing as is. And from what I read, those costs are serious to the country and debilitating to the affected soldiers.
2) I therefore really and truly don't give a s**t why John McCain's position has shifted. I just want to know why the ranking minority member of the Senate Armed Services committee is throwing national security, civilian control of the military, and the hierarchical chain of command under the f***ing bus. John McCain is weakening the institution he claims to love the most. I don't care why he's doing it -- I just care that he's doing it.
That is all.
Hmmm.... this is interesting:
Nations on the front lines of the old Cold War divide made clear here Saturday that they want the Senate to ratify the new U.S.-Russia nuclear treaty, and said that Republican concerns about their well-being were misplaced.
In an unannounced group appearance at the end of an administration background briefing on Afghanistan, six European foreign ministers took the stage with a message for Congress.
"Don't stop START before it's started," Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nickolay Mladenov said.
Conservative Republican senators have said the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, signed early last year, needs more work and have rejected the administration's hopes of bringing it to a vote in the lame duck session before the end of the year.
The ministers insisted that Obama administration officials, some of whom stood at the back of the room as they spoke, did not put them up to the appeal. All are here participating in the NATO summit.
"I'm the one who initiated this initiative," Danish Foreign Minister Lene Espersen said. The idea, she said, was to "at least make the Republican Party [aware] of how important this is."
In addition to being her country's foreign minister, Espersen said with some indignation, "I'm also the chairman of the Conservative Party of Denmark. Nobody can ever accuse me of being soft on security."
"We're all conservatives," Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi added.
Two major Jewish groups came out Friday in favor of ratification of the START treaty.
Both the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) cited the importance of passage of the U.S.-Russian nuclear arms reduction treaty in order to maintain American-Russian cooperation in pressuring Iran to curtail its nuclear program.
"We are deeply concerned that failure to ratify the New START treaty will have national security consequences far beyond the subject of the treaty itself," the ADL said in a letter sent to every senator Friday.
"The U.S. diplomatic strategy to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons requires a U.S.-Russia relationship of trust and cooperation," ADL continued. "The severe damage that could be inflicted on that relationship by failing to ratify the treaty would inevitably hamper effective American international leadership to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program."
The National Jewish Democratic Council, meantime, issued a statement Friday urging citizens to call Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and tell "him to put politics aside, and join the broad bipartisan consensus behind START."
Will this have any effect on START's ratification chances? Earlier this week Fred Kaplan observed that passage might still be a possibility:
If Kyl thinks that the treaty will get ratified anyway—or that, if it doesn't get ratified, he will lose all the extra money for nuclear modernization—then maybe he'll jump onboard. That way he could preserve his standing as a security hawk and, perhaps more important, an effective power broker.
Of course, he and his colleagues in the Republican leadership might think it's more important to deny Obama any victory, to make him seem ineffective and thus erode his chances of re-election in 2012 (the GOP's No. 1 priority, according to Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell). If that's what ends up happening, at least Obama will know the name of the game for the next two years—and, maybe, figure out how to play it.
The first couple of stories suggest that maybe, just maybe, the GOP would pay a price for out-and-out obstructionism -- and let's be blunt, that's really what Kyl's behavior is at this point. Sure, pissing off France or South Korea comes with few downsides for U.S. Senators, but Poland and other former Warsaw Pact countries are another kettle of fish. If
neoconservatives Jews Eastern Europeans powerful interest groups within the GOP have bigger fish to fry than relations with Russia, then they will make life somewhat more difficult to Republican Senators. Just how much more difficult remains to be seen, however.
The most painful time for a book author is that interregnum between handing in the completed book manuscript, knowing that the text is locked down for good, and the book's arrival on the bookshelves. That's because stuff happens during these months that would be awesome to put into the book, but alas, it's too late.
Fortunately, there are blogs to write.
With the success of AMC's The Walking Dead (don't worry, that show got into the introduction; oh, hey, did I mention that you can now preview the introduction online? And that the endorsements are glowing?), pundits are now falling all over each other to try to use zombies as a political metaphor. Late last month, Jeremy Grantham entitled his third quarter investment letter "Night of the Living Fed," with a pretty amusing cover graphic:
Grantham's effort, however, pales besides New York Times columnist Gail Collins, however. Her op-ed today posits that the revived popularity of the zombie genre is a bad omen for politics:
Zombies are in. This cannot possibly be a good sign....
What’s the attraction of zombies? They don’t really do anything but stagger around and eat raw flesh. The plot possibilities seem limited. Zombies come. Humans shoot them. More zombies come. Humans hit them over the head with shovels. Nobody ever runs into a particularly sensitive zombie who wants to make peace with the nonflesh-devouring public. (“On behalf of the United Nations Security Council today, I would like to welcome the zombie delegation to the ... aaauuurrgghchompchompchomp.”)
Maybe that’s the whole point. Our horror movies are mirroring the world around us. The increasingly passé vampire story is about a society full of normal people threatened by a few bloodsuckers, some of whom are maybe just like you and me, except way older. It was fine for the age of Obama. But we’ve entered the era of zombie politics: a small cadre of uninfected humans have to band together and do whatever it takes to protect themselves against the irrational undead....
I have three responses to this.
First, I wish
her minions Ms. Collins had taken a deeper bite out of the zombie canon in researching her op-ed, because, as I discuss in Theories of International Politics and Zombies, there is the possibility that the undead would follow the George Romero narrative arc and learn over time. From p. 42-3 of the text:
Even in Night of the Living Dead, Romero's ghouls demonstrated the capacity for using tools. In each of his subsequent films, the undead grew more cognitively complex. The zombie characters of Bub in Day of the Dead and Big Daddy in Land of the Dead were painted with a more sympathetic brush than most of the human characters. Both Bub and Big Daddy learned how to use firearms. Bub was able to speak, perform simple tasks, and engage in impulse control-that is, to refrain from eating a human he liked. Big Daddy and his undead cohort developed a hierarchical authority structure with the ability to engage in tactical and strategic learning. In doing so they overran a well-fortified human redoubt and killed its most powerful leader. It would take only the mildest of cognitive leaps to envision a zombie-articulated defense of these actions at the United Nations (emphasis added).
If you buy the book, you'll see some sweet artwork depicting this very possibility.
Second, Collins repeats a point that others have made in the past -- that the persistence of the zonbie genre seems aesthetically puzzling because the zombies themselves are such uninteresting characters. That misses the point, however -- what makes the zombie genre interesting has less to do with the ghouls themselves than with how humans respond to them. The zombies in Night of the Living Dead and Shaun of the Dead are exactly the same -- it's the human responses that evoke such different responses to those films. Sure, it's quick and easy to label one's political opponents as brain-dead zombies -- what's intriguing is how one responds to that possibility.
Third, it is noteworthy that both conservatives and liberals are using the zombie metaphor to advance their aims. They both think the other side is brainless. This doesn't sound good for political discourse -- but it might just lead to a cultural consensus.
Ten days ago,The Hollywood Reporter's James Hibbard pointed out the ideological split in TV-watching. Both sides like a lot of quality TV shows, but different ones: Democrats lean towards Mad Men, 30 Rock and The Good Wife; Republicans go for Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory, and The Amazing Race. I'm willing to bet, however, that The Walking Dead appeals to both sides of the partisan fence, precisely because they imagine the other side as the zombies.
This leads to an interesting prediction. Politicians, pundits and professors like to use pop culture references to explain a concept to the widest possible audience. If zombie TV is one of the few remaining places where an ideologically diverse group, however, then we're going to see a lot more uses of the zombie metaphor in politics over the next few years.
The only thing I dislike more than admitting I'm wrong is admitting that Spencer Ackerman was kinda sorta right.
Cautiously in March and then more confidently in July, I predicted that new START was going to be ratified. Right now, however, Josh Rogin reports that the odds don't look so hot:
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), the key Republican vote in the drive to ratify the New START treaty, said Tuesday he doesn't believe the treaty should be voted on this year.
"When Majority Leader Harry Reid asked me if I thought the treaty could be considered in the lame duck session, I replied I did not think so given the combination of other work Congress must do and the complex and unresolved issues related to START and modernization," Kyl said in a statement. "I appreciate the recent effort by the Administration to address some of the issues that we have raised and I look forward to continuing to work with Senator Kerry, DOD, and DOE officials." ?
Kyl spoke with Defense Secretary Robert Gates about it last week. A possible meeting between Kyl, Biden, Gates, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in the works and could happen on Wednesday. The treaty was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by a vote of 14 to 4 on Sept. 16, and is awaiting a vote on the Senate floor.
The Washington Post reported that the White House is offering an additional $4.1 billion for nuclear facilities. This latest offer comes on top of the other promises related to nuclear modernization, which have a price tag totaling over $80 billion, that the administration has offered in an effort to win over Senate Republicans.
I thought Kyl was making some not unreasonable requests back in the summer, but as near as I can read the Obama administration had pretty much given him what he wanted.
It's possible that the treaty will be ratified in the next Congress, though that's a tougher road, and there's now some bad blood between Kyl and the administration to work away.
Substantively, the treaty itself is not a nothingburger, but it's not that big a deal either. There are two implications that flow from Kyl's decision, however. First, he's given the Russians a great excuse to become even more obsteperous. As Bob Kagan pointed out earlier this month:
Few men are more cynical players than Vladimir Putin. One can well imagine Putin exploiting the failure of New START internally and externally. He will use it to stir more anti-Western nationalism, further weakening an already weak Medvedev and anyone else who stands for a more pro-Western approach. He will use it as an excuse to end further cooperation on Iran. He will certainly use it to win concessions from Europeans who already pander to him, charging that the Americans have destroyed the transatlantic rapprochement with Russia and that more concessions to Moscow will be necessary to repair the damage. There's no getting around it: Failure to pass START will help empower Putin.
Second, even if START passes eventually, this little episode, combined with the
endless ongoing negotiations over KORUS, are highlighting the massive transaction costs involved with trying to negotiate any hard law arrangement with the United States. The rest of the world is now recalculating the cost-benefit ratio of doing business with the U.S. government.
Anyway, the real point of this post is that I was wrong... again. Let the pillorying in the comments section begin.
As I said last week, the emergence of gridlock between the legislative and executive branches of U.S. government is going to put political pressure on the unelected components of government.
This isn't just a national phenomenon, however -- it's also an international one. What happens if the big players on the global stage can't agree -- either internally or externally -- on new arrangements to solve a mounting policy problem? If the problem clearly needs fixing, then pressure inevitably builds up to use a pre-existing mechanism to address the issue. Some elites in gridlocked countries will welcome this kind of development, because it allows them to bypass domestic impediments to policy change. Because this new possibility is both suboptimal and less than democratic, however, it inevitably builds up global resentments against unaccountable international institutions.
For exhibit A of this phenomenon today, let's wander over to John Broder's New York Times story on the latest developments in fashioning a policy response to climate change:
With energy legislation shelved in the United States and little hope for a global climate change agreement this year, some policy experts are proposing a novel approach to curbing global warming: including greenhouse gases under an existing and highly successful international treaty ratified more than 20 years ago.
The treaty, the Montreal Protocol, was adopted in 1987 for a completely different purpose, to eliminate aerosols and other chemicals that were blowing a hole in the Earth's protective ozone layer.
But as the signers of the protocol convened the 22nd annual meeting in Bangkok on Monday, negotiators are considering a proposed expansion in the ozone treaty to phase out the production and use of the industrial chemicals known as hydro fluorocarbons or HFCs The chemicals have thousands of times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide, the most prevalent greenhouse gas.
HFCs are used as refrigerants in air-conditioners and cooling systems. They are manufactured mostly in China and India, but appliances containing the substance are in use in every corner of the world. HFCs replaced even more dangerous ozone-depleting chemicals known as HCFCs, themselves a substitute for the chlorofluorocarbons that were the first big target of the Montreal process…
[T]he plan is not expected to be adopted this year. Large developing countries, including China, India and Brazil, object that the timetable is too rapid and that payments for eliminating the refrigerant are not high enough.
One advantage to using the Montreal protocol as a vehicle, supporters say, is that negotiations over the treaty have been utterly unlike the contentious United Nations climate talks that foundered in Copenhagen last year. Negotiators say that without legislative action on curbing greenhouse gases by the United States, little progress will be made when countries gather in Cancún, Mexico, late this month for another round of climate talks.
In a post-election news conference, President Obama noted that it was doubtful that Congress would do anything to address global warming "this year or next year or the year after."…
Daniel A. Reifsnyder, the deputy assistant secretary of state for environment and the nation's chief Montreal Protocol negotiator, said that it might take several years to persuade the ozone treaty countries to back the plan.
In addition to pace and cost issues, some countries say that HFCs have little impact on the ozone layer and thus should be handled under the United Nations climate change talks. Mr. Reifsnyder dismissed that as a legalistic argument and said that the ozone treaty could and should be used to achieve broader environmental objectives.
"What we've found is that the Montreal Protocol has been a very effective instrument for addressing global environmental problems," Mr. Reifsnyder said in an interview. "It was created to deal with the ozone layer, but it also has tremendous ability to solve the climate problem if people are willing to use it that way."
If I was the policymaker in charge of pushing action on climate change forward, I'd be very tempted to agree with Reifsnyder. This might be a way of achieving a deliverable that would simply not be possible under the Copenhagen Accord or the United Nations effort to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.
On the other hand… this is also an action that would inject political controversy into what was a ridiculously successful accord. It will push another governance process that's already in critical condition into hospice care. Plus, I'm not sure it will work -- China and India are going to stoutly resist this move.
My larger point, however, is that political paralysis in certain global governance forums is simply going to trigger a search for more suitable global governance structures. That search isn't going to change the underlying disagreements, however, and it just might cause an erosion of faith in the few multilateral structures that do appear to work well.
I see I wasn't the only one to muse about the effect of the midterm elections on American foreign policy. See Bruce Stokes, Richard Haass, James Lindsay, Daniel Larison at various other parts of the interwebs, as well as FP's own Phil Levy, Marc Lynch, Peter Feaver, and Steve Walt.
Reading all of this accumulated wisdom doesn't change my mind all that much. For example, I don't disagree that a more conservative Congress will be even more obstreperous in blocking Obama's foreign affairs appointees than it was previously. To be sure, this has a profound effect on individual lives and careers -- but it doesn't really matter all that much in the grand scheme of things. The cumulative effect might be problematic, in that a more obstructionist Congress might lead to some policymakers staying in office for a longer-than-optimal period of time.
On the other hand, I find the notion that a resurgent GOP will contribute to a more adventuresome foreign policy in the Middle East to be pretty absurd. First, to repeat, the administration holds almost all of the policy levers. Sure, Congress can sanction Iran -- again -- but it's not like that's going to change anything.
In his post, Lynch implies that Congress can browbeat Obama into supporting regime change in an echo of the Iraq Liberation Act. I'd point out that it's not 1998 anymore -- Obama is unlikely to fall for the same trap that befell Clinton. Oh, and by the way, the American public is really sick of the current wars, ain't looking for a new one, and clearly wants Washington to focus on the economy and job creation. Republicans know that they didn't get elected because of their foreign policy views. If they start making noise about Iran, I'd imagine the administration lambasting them for taking their eye off the economy.
No, the more I think about it, there is one obvious effect and one longer-term effect that the midterm swing will have on American foreign policy.
The obvious effect is that gridlock will make it that much more difficult for Washington to get a grip on long-term policy problems like debt reduction and global warming. There's no way that any climate change legislation will get through, and I'm pessimistic that the deficit commission will trigger a grand bargain on getting America's financial house in order. None of this will matter much over the next two years, but it will start to matter more over the next two decades.
The more subtle, pernicious effect is that paralysis in the elected branches will lead to more populist outrage at the unelected portions of the U.S. government. Consider, for example, the Fed's decision yesterday to engage in $600 billion more of quantitative easing (translated into plain English here). In today's Washington Post op-ed explaining this action, Ben Bernanke had an interesting comment in his closing section:
The Federal Reserve cannot solve all the economy's problems on its own. That will take time and the combined efforts of many parties, including the central bank, Congress, the administration, regulators and the private sector.
He's right, but think about this for a second. If Congress and the administration can't agree on anything, then the only public actors capable of taking concrete action on the economy are the central bank and the regulators. These institutions are already ridiculously unpopular. Being forced to take imperfect actions because of elected branch paralysis won't help matters (compared to fiscal and tax policies, there's only so much that quantitative easing can do to stimulate the economy). If you think hostility to elected elites is high, wait until the focus switches to unelected elites.
Note that all of this is contingent on the economy continuing to stink. Robust economic growth will ease populist anger, which will blunt some of the effects I just discussed.
So, in the short term, I still don't think U.S. foreign policy will change all that much. The long-term effects of gridlock combined with a persistently sour economy, however, could be very worrisome.
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.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.