Your humble blogger has returned from Shanghai, and would like to apologize profusely for the lack of blogging this past week. Conspiracy theorists might be wondering if it was because of The Great Firewall or rising anti-foreigner sentiment in China (which, based on personal experience and media reportage, appears to be vastly exaggerated) or whether I was some top-secret emissary of the U.S. governmment. The truth is much more banal: my laptop's power cord died during this trip, so my computer had no juice for blogging.
I will post something about Sino-American relations in due course, but in the meanwhile I see that over the past week, my departing zombie joke became... a big enough zombie story to require a CDC public response. The Huffington Post's Andy Campbell reports:
It's hard to believe, but ten years ago Robert Kagan published "Power and Weakness" in the pages of Policy Review. Coming on the heels of the invasion of Afghanistan and the start of the Iraq debate, Kagan's essay seemed to crystallize the state of the transatlantic relationship back in the day.
To celebrate it's 10th anniversary, Policy Review has come out with a special issue devoted to the essay, asking a variety of smart people to weigh in. Oh, and me. As I put it in my essay, "I come to praise Kagan's insights -- and then to bury them." You'll have to read the whole thing to see what I mean.
Check out the rest of the essays as well. With the passing of a decade, it's pretty easy to point out the ways in which Kagan's analysis breaks down (and, to be fair, the ways in which it doesn't). To his credit, Kagan himself is painfully aware of how his essay has aged:
Ten years ago, when I wrote the original essay, it would not have occurred to me that anyone would be commenting on it a year later, let alone a decade later. As Tod knows, I only wrote the essay because he had invited me to speak at a conference, and I had to deliver something. No doubt the other contributors will recognize the experience. Therefore from the beginning I have been acutely aware of the essay’s limitations — and have had the good fortune to have all those limitations pointed out to me frequently, in many languages, with greater or lesser kindness over the years, and now again at the scene of the crime a decade later.
I remember talking with Kagan when the original essay came out and blew up, and I can aver that he was just as surprised as anyone else about its impact. Let this be a lesson for policy wonks everywhere. Sure, most of the time when you write something it disappears into the ether, to be forgotten almost immediately. But on occasion, serendiptity or fortuna strikes, and you've suddenly got a major essay on your hands. Always write with that in mind -- because if your essay does blow up, you better be ready, willing and able to defend every paragraph of it.
Amid a series of bloody and troubling episodes in Afghanistan that have inflamed Afghan opinion against the United States, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are now calling for a reassessment of American policy there — suggesting that it may be time to withdraw troops sooner than the Obama administration has planned....
Mr. Romney has said he would rely on advice from military commanders for his Afghanistan policy, adding last summer that it was “time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, as soon as our generals think it’s O.K.” He has also said he would not negotiate with the Taliban.
“He’s definitely given himself wiggle room,” Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University, said of Mr. Romney’s policy toward the country.
What’s more clear, Mr. Drezner added, is growing public opposition to a conflict some once described as “the good war.”
“There’s no question that there has been a rising tide of, ‘Why are we in this conflict now,’ ” he said. “And so as much as Republicans might want to sound hawkish, it’s tough to sound hawkish on a conflict where your rationale for being there has evaporated.”
“That said,” he added, “remember that these guys are fighting for hard-core G.O.P. primary voters,” some of whom believe the United States should fight until victory. (emphasis added)
To elaborate on my point here -- American public opinion on wars is a fickle thing when it comes to war. By and large, the primary metric that Americans use to gauge their support for military statecraft is whether the operation appears to be successful. There's a "halo effect" comes from successful uses of force - they are deemed successful regardless of public attitudes prior to and during the conflict. In the case of the 2011 Libyan intervention, for example, A July 2011 CNN poll found 35% support for U.S. military action, with 60% opposed. A month later, with the fall of Tripoli, 54% supported the operation and 43% opposed it. Military victory can create its own supporters.
So, when a conflict drags on, Americans tend to split into two camps -- those that write off the possibility of victory and demand an immediate termination to the conflict, and those that want to double down to achieve victory -- but will favor withdrawal if a "surge" or other strategy to fight the war more aggressively is off the table. This split was observed in Vietnam, in Iraq, and Afghanistan. What's happening in Afghanistan right now is that the hawkish camp is starting to conclude that the gloves aren't coming off -- and therefore withdrawal is better than the status quo. Gingrich and Santorum are just following that shift in public opinion.
Since they're not gonna win, they have that luxury. Presidents and possible future presidents have additional constraints. Even if withdrawal is the right political and strategic move, there are other considerations -- alliance politics, exiting in as non-chaotic a manner as possible, and so forth. This is why Romney, who will likely get the GOP nomination, issued his wiggle-room-statement.
The same goes for the Obama administration's response, as today's broadsheets are a bit unclear about next steps. The New York Times story is headlined, "U.S. Officials Debate Speeding Afghan Pullout," while the Washington Post goes with "Despite challenges in Afghanistan, U.S. determined to stick to exit strategy."
Bear all of this in mind, by the way, as the debate about what to do on Iran continues. I know the polling appears to show majority support for military action against that country's nuclear program, but there are some significant caveats:
1) It's a bare majority;
2) The moment a "diplomatic and economic action" option is introduced, support for force collapses down to the teens;
3) The polls are based on Iran going balls out to develop a nuclear weapon -- which, according to U.S. intelligence, is not necessarily occurring; and
4) It's not going to be hard for doves to bring up Afghanistan and Iraq as a way to blunt any enthusiasm/expectation for a quick strike.
A few months ago I blogged about how the Putin-Medvedev two-step caused some grumbling among Russian elites. Russian parliamentary elections were held over the weekend, and as it turns out there was some grumbling among the public as well:
Russians voting in parliamentary elections apparently turned against the ruling United Russia party in large numbers Sunday, exit polls and early results suggested, to the great benefit of the Communist Party.
In what only months ago would have been a nearly unimaginable scenario, the party dominated by Vladimir Putin was predicted to get less than 50 percent of the vote, while polling organizations put the Communists at about 20 percent, nearly double their count in the last election.
Not long ago, anything under the 64.3 percent that United Russia won in 2007 would have been seen as unacceptable failure for the party and Putin, who has relied on its control of government and bureaucrats across the country to deliver ever more votes and entrench his authority.
But now its aura of invincibility is badly dented, and opponents may begin to sense an opportunity. If United Russia falls short of 50 percent of the seats in the lower house of parliament, it will turn to the nationalist Liberal Democrats, or even the Communists, for support. Those parties have been pliable up to now — Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrats never vote against the government — but could start testing the limits of their power, given a chance.
Well.... that's the odd thing about how this plays out in Russia. On the one hand, elections like these do matter, because they dent the veneer of an effective authoritarian being in control. Despite rigging the game, it appears that Putin and his loyalists couldn't secure the desired result. Any time an authoritarian aparatus demonstrates fallibility is not a good day for the authoritarian apparatus.
On the other hand.... Putin and his cronies have two to three serious advantages going into the presidential elections. First, they can use this election as a wake-up call. By turning up the public spending taps (which high oil prices will allow them to do) they can probably buy some more loyalty. Second, they can be more ruthless in rigging the electoral game to ensure Putin's victory. In trading off the international legitimacy of elections vs. winning, I suspect Putin will opt for winning.
Third, and most important, Russia is not like the Middle East, in which a grass-roots organization has been waiting in the wings to challenge the corrupt authoritarian state. I suspect that what will save Putin is the existing alternatives to Putin -- namely, the communists and nationalists. Russians might not like the status quo, but it's not like the opposition has covered itself in glory either. The Liberal Democrats have done no real governing, and the Communists have done way too much governing in its past. These are not really desirable alternatives.
Unless a genuine grass-roots democracy movement sprouts up in the Russian tundra, I suspect Putin and his allies will muddle through the presidential elections. What's more interesting is whether this event triggers some longer-term planning on the part of Putin or his opposition.
What do you think?
Your humble blogger has just completed writing a long essay on the 2012 candidates and their foreign policy views that will be coming out soon. Readers will be shocked, shocked to learn that it's pretty scathing.
I'm hardly the only person to make this point. When Senator Lindsay Graham is castigating his fellow Republicans, you know there's a problem. FP's own David Rothkopf thinks this is a harbinger of Obama winning re-election. And now the New York Times' Michael Shear reports that the GOP presidential candidates' myriad foreign policy gaffes are starting to embarrass the Republicans' foreign policy wonks:
[T]he embarrassing moments are piling up, and some veteran Republicans are beginning to wonder whether the cumulative effect weakens the party brand, especially in foreign policy and national security, where Republicans have typically dominated Democrats.
“It is an ‘Animal House.’ It’s a food fight,” said Kenneth Duberstein, a chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan. “Honestly, the Republican debates have become a reality show. People have to be perceived as being capable of governing this country, of being the leader of the free world.” ....
[S]ome veterans of past Republican administrations said the candidates’ national security stumbles could have a more lasting impact on how voters perceive the party in the future.
“This is the core of the Republican brand. You mess with it at your peril,” said Peter Feaver, a national security official under President George W. Bush. He compared the foreign policy flubs to reports about safety problems in Toyota vehicles.
“The whole reason you bought a Toyota was so that you didn’t have those problems,” he said. “It cuts directly to the essence of the brand. Republicans should be concerned about this.”
George W. Bush confronted some of the same concerns in his party during his 2000 campaign, especially after he was unable to name the leader of Chechnya, Taiwan, India or Pakistan. But Mr. Bush surrounded himself with veteran Republican foreign policy advisers who helped reassure the doubters.
Peter Wehner, a former speechwriter for Mr. Bush, said that “in the short run, you can do some damage to the so-called brand,” but he said long-term damage would happen only if the party’s presidential nominee made such mistakes.
“The key thing is the nominee,” Mr. Wehner said. “One worries, if you are a Republican, if you get too many statements like this.”
Mr. Wehner said many of the Republican candidates had demonstrated a “pride in ignorance and a lack of knowledge.” But he predicted that voters would not reward those kinds of appeals during the primaries and caucuses.
Peter is a good friend, and I don't like to see him this anguished in print, so let me say that for once I agree with Peter Wehner. Six months from now, when we know who the GOP nominee will be, I suspect a lot of the ignorance on display right now will be forgotten.
I say this because, oddly enough, even before a vote has been cast, the political ecosystem actually seems to be working. Sure, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain have had their moments in the sun -- and then the media reported on them, and people actually listened to what they were saying. At which point, they crashed and burned. They didn't only crash and burn because of their foreign policy gaffes -- but I don't think they helped.
I can understand if international observers look at what's been said and gasp in horror at the American process of selecting a major party nominee. In the end, however, the difference between the system now and the system fifty years ago is that nowadays someone like Cain can enter the race. Before, the barriers to entry would have been higher. Now, the barriers to entry are low, but the crucible of the campaign is far more fierce. So people like Cain or Bachmann can enter and then be destroyed.
At this juncture, it looks like Mitt Romney is the most likely nominee, and he's also the candidate who's done the most heavy lifting in thinking about foreign policy. There's a lot of stuff to criticize in his foreign policy views, to be sure -- but that's true of Barack Obama as well. Romney does pass the test of someone whohas some background knowledge about the world, and someone who has actually bothered to think about the subject. Post-primary, that will be the foreign policy brand of the GOP.
[And if it's not Romney?--ed. Then it's Newt Gingrich, who, again, has demonstrated a little knowledge about foreign affairs. Throw in Rick Santorum and Jon Hunstman as wild card candidates yet to have their bubble. Huntsman clearly knows foreign affairs, and that's also been Santorum's strength in the debates.]
Don't worry, Peter -- the wheel is turning.
Bill Keller has moved on from the esteemed position of New York Times executive editor to the very vulnerable position of New York Times Op-ed Columnist Ripe for Mockery.
Alas, it's hard to mock Keller's column today for two reasons. First, Keller bothered to do some actual reporting, traveling to India to interview supporters of Anna Hazere to get their opinion on Occupy Wall Street. Since the Times itself has suggested that overseas protest movements might inspire similar action in the advanced industrialized economies, this seems appropriate. It certainly seems more appropriate than comparing the Occupy movements to the Arab Spring.
The second reason is what Keller got from his interview with Anna Hazare associate Kiran Bedi:
“When we started the movement, it was like Occupy,” Bedi told me. “But we went beyond Occupy.”
For starters, while Occupy Wall Street is consensus-oriented and resolutely leaderless, Hazare is very much the center of attention. There was an anticorruption movement before Hazare, but it was fractious and weak until he supplied a core of moral authority. When he announces his intention to starve himself, he parks himself on an elevated platform in a public place, thousands gather, scores of others announce solidarity hunger strikes, and TV cameras congregate, hanging on his every word. Hazare and his entourage can seem self-important and high-handed, but he is a reminder that leadership matters.
Second, the Occupiers are a composite of idealistic causes, many of them vague. “End the Fed,” some placards demand. “End War.” “Get the money out of politics.” Much of the Occupy movement resides at the dreamy level of John Lennon lyrics. “Imagine no possessions. ...”
Hazare, in contrast, is always very explicit about his objectives: fire this corrupt minister, repeal that law bought by a special interest, open public access to official records.
His current mission is the creation of a kind of national anticorruption czar, a powerful independent ombudsman. The measure is advancing, and Team Anna hovers over the Parliament at every step, paying close attention to detail, to make sure nobody pulls the teeth out of it. Instead of a placard, Bedi has a PowerPoint presentation.
Occupy Wall Street is scornful of both parties and generally disdainful of electoral politics. Team Anna (yes, they call themselves that) likewise avoids aligning itself with any party or candidate, but it uses Indian democracy shrewdly, to target obstructionists. Recently Hazare turned a special election for a vacant parliamentary seat into a referendum, urging followers to vote against any party that refused to endorse his anticorruption bill. Hazare has also called for an amendment to the election laws to require that voters always be offered the option of “None of the Above.” When it prevails, parties would have to come up with better candidates.
“What really changes them,” Bedi said of recalcitrant politicians, “is the threat of losing an election.”....
“Occupy has been, to my mind, an engaging movement, and it’s driving home the message, to the banks, to the Wall Street circles,” Bedi said. “That’s exactly the way Anna did it. But we had a destination. I’m not aware these people — what is their destination? It’s occupy for what?” (enmphasis added)
Damn, that sounds familiar.
There's one other big difference that's buried in Keller's column, however. He notes that, "One poll found 87 percent public support for Hazare’s 12-day August fast." While the Occupy movement is certainly more popular than the Tea Party movement, I haven't seen a single U.S. poll demonstrating that breadth of public support.
Am I missing anything?
You humble blogger has been skeptical but not dismissive of the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon. My general assessment was that it did reflect ongoing frustrations about trendlines in the American and global economy, but that in all likelihood the decisions of a few banking bureaucrats would have more of an effect than these protests.
As I've noted before, the big problem with networked movements of this kind is what happens over time:
What happens when the coalition of like-minded individuals stop being of like mind? These sorts of protests can be very powerful on single-issue questions where a single policy change is desired. Maintaining this level of activism to affect the ongoing quotidian grubbiness of politics, however, is a far more difficult undertaking. Even if people can be mobilized behind the concept of "Policy X is Stupid!" getting the same consensus on "Policy Y is the Answer!" is harder. Over time, these kind of mass movements have an excellent chance of withering away or fracturing from within. See, for example, the Tahrir Square movement in Egypt.
Another thing, and this is important: unless the people in these movements actually vote in elections, then their agenda will be thwarted in the long run. Even if these kinds of networked movements are new, the political imperative to get elected and re-elected is not. If they don't vote, then officials have a pretty powerful incentive to curry favor with the people who do vote, don't take to the streets and
don't like these young whippersnappers with their interwebshave different policy preferences.
I bring this up because n+1 relays some of the internal deliberations among the Occupy Wall Streeters.* Let's take a peek, shall we?
Friends, mediation with the drummers has been called off. It has gone on for more than 2 weeks and it has reached a dead end. The drummers formed a working group called Pulse and agreed to 2 hrs/day at times during the mediation, and more recently that changed to 4 hrs/day. It’s my feeling that we may have a fighting chance with the community board if we could indeed limit drumming and loud instrumentation to 12-2 PM and 4-6 PM, however that isn’t what’s happening.
Last night the drumming was near continuous until 10:30 PM at night. Today it began again at 11 AM. The drummers are fighting among themselves, there is no cohesive group. There is one assemblage called Pulse that organized most of the drummers into a group and went to GA for formal recognition and with a proposal.
Unfortunately there is one individual who is NOT a drummer but who claims to speak for the drummers who has been a deeply disruptive force, attacking the drumming rep during the GA and derailing his proposal, and disrupting the community board meeting, as well as the OWS community relations meeting. She has also created strife and divisions within the POC caucus, calling many members who are not ‘on her side’ “Uncle Tom”, “the 1%”, “Barbie” “not Palestinian enough” “Wall Street politicians” “not black enough” “sell-outs”, etc. People have been documenting her disruptions, and her campaign of misinformation, and instigations. She also has a documented history online of defamatory, divisive and disruptive behavior within the LGBT (esp. transgender) communities. Her disruptions have made it hard to have constructive conversations and productive resolutions to conflicts in a variety of forums in the past several days.
At this point we have lost the support of allies in the Community Board and the state senator and city electeds who have been fighting the city to stave off our eviction, get us toilets, etc. On Tuesday there is a Community Board vote, which will be packed with media cameras and community members with real grievances. We have sadly demonstrated to them that we are unable to collectively 1) keep our space and surrounding areas clean and sanitary, 2) keep the park safe, 3) deal with internal conflict and enforce the Good Neighbor Policy that was passed by the General Assembly.
This description sounded faintly familiar, and then I remembered -- it was a replay of every dorm meeting I attended when I was a first-year in college.
Don't worry, OWS sympathizers -- a few hours after this was posted, there was the following update:
Crisis averted: tonight at the General Assembly, the working group of drummers, Pulse, in a spirit of conciliation and generosity, brought forward a proposal to limit their drumming from 12 to 2 and 4 to 6 PM only. The proposal had been worked out through weeks of mediation with the direct action working group. It was considered a first step toward showing the community board that the community in Zuccotti Park can regulate itself. The proposal was approved by consensus by the General Assembly, with applause and rejoicing on all sides.
Good on OWS for resolving some conflict, but this little window into their internal deliberations suggest the hard limits on their movement. If the transaction costs of regulating drumming are this massive, I'm extremely dubious about their ability to agree on concrete policy proposals and articulate them effectively to anyone outside their band of sympathizers -- especially since I'm not sure that all of their views will resonate within the mainstream of American public opinion.
Am I missing anything?
*I confess that part of me is still wondering if this is satire.
Centrist pollster Douglas Schoen has an op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal that reports on some polling his firm did of the Occupy Wall Street protestors:
The protesters have a distinct ideology and are bound by a deep commitment to radical left-wing policies. On Oct. 10 and 11, Arielle Alter Confino, a senior researcher at my polling firm, interviewed nearly 200 protesters in New York's Zuccotti Park. Our findings probably represent the first systematic random sample of Occupy Wall Street opinion.
Our research shows clearly that the movement doesn't represent unemployed America and is not ideologically diverse. Rather, it comprises an unrepresentative segment of the electorate that believes in radical redistribution of wealth, civil disobedience and, in some instances, violence. Half (52%) have participated in a political movement before, virtually all (98%) say they would support civil disobedience to achieve their goals, and nearly one-third (31%) would support violence to advance their agenda....
What binds a large majority of the protesters together—regardless of age, socioeconomic status or education—is a deep commitment to left-wing policies: opposition to free-market capitalism and support for radical redistribution of wealth, intense regulation of the private sector, and protectionist policies to keep American jobs from going overseas.
Sixty-five percent say that government has a moral responsibility to guarantee all citizens access to affordable health care, a college education, and a secure retirement—no matter the cost. By a large margin (77%-22%), they support raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans, but 58% oppose raising taxes for everybody, with only 36% in favor. And by a close margin, protesters are divided on whether the bank bailouts were necessary (49%) or unnecessary (51%).
Thus Occupy Wall Street is a group of engaged progressives who are disillusioned with the capitalist system and have a distinct activist orientation.
Now there are two ways to look at this data. The first, as many sympathizers with the movement have done, is to impugn the pollster's politics, his methods, and the ways in which he's inferring broad political generalizatiions from the data.
These points are worth considering, though looking at the precise questions asked compared to his inferences, I'm not seeing all that much conceptual stretching. Plus, Schoen's results seem to jibe pretty strongly with a smaller New York poll of 100 protestors conducted earlier this month.Furthermore, consider Nate Silver's analysis of the protests that took place over the weekend across the globe. In looking at turnout, Silver arrives at a similar -- thouugh not identical -- conclusion:
The nascent movement known as Occupy Wall Street had its largest single day of protests on Saturday. And a funny thing happened: most of the action was far from Wall Street itself....
Over all, about 38,000 protesters — more than half of the documented total — turned out in the Western Census Bureau Region, which accounts for about 23 percent of the country’s population. On a per-capita basis, the West drew about two-and-a-half times more protesters than the Northeast, four times more than the Midwest, and five times more than the South. And it wasn’t necessarily in large cities — although places like Los Angeles and Seattle had large crowds, so did the wine-and-cheese town of Santa Rosa, Calif., and the college town of Eugene, Ore. among others.....
This could be due to a number of factors. Perhaps it has something to do with race, for instance. Cities where African-Americans make up a majority of the population, like Detroit, New Orleans and Cleveland, have tended to have underwhelming numbers of protesters and poorly organized Occupy groups. (There are plenty of those cities in the South, the Northeast and even the Midwest — but not really in the western United States).
Or maybe it has something to do with technology: Much of the organizational activity for the Occupy movement has taken place online, and the West Coast is particularly tech-savvy.
I suspect that more than anything, however, it reflects the politics of the protesters. Specifically, they tend to be more liberal than they are Democratic partisans. Take liberalism, subtract the Democratic Party, and the remainder might look something like Occupy Wall Street (emphasis added).
There needs to be more data, but Schoen's results don't seem out of line with the other data points.
Bruce Gilley argues in The National Interest that the next leader of China is going to be trouble for the United States:
It may be time to concede that China’s leader-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, is not the moderate that many have assumed. Indeed, evidence from his past suggests that Xi is going to steer China in a more aggressive direction, both domestically and internationally....
Foreign policy is where new Chinese leaders tend to make their mark quickly, given the small number of people involved compared to domestic policy. Thus it’s also the area where the question of who’s in charge in Beijing really matters, and the fine art of Pekingology remains important. Vice president Joe Biden came away from an August visit praising Xi as “strong” and “pragmatic.” Biden is probably right. But Xi’s strength and pragmatism do not necessarily augur well for those fearful of a rising China.
The first time that Xi’s “strong” dark side emerged publicly was in 2009 when on a visit to Mexico, he told local Chinese, “Well-fed foreigners have nothing better to do but point fingers at China. But China does not export revolution, we do not export poverty and hunger, and we do not interfere in the affairs of others. So what is there to complain about?”
Xi’s “three did nots,” as they have become known, have won plaudits from the country’s nationalists, including the authors of the vitriolic 1996 book The China That Can Say No. These nationalists express hope that Xi will be the first leader since Mao who is willing to stand up to the West. In early September, Xi told students at the Central Party School, the party’s elite training academy in Beijing, that “two overriding objectives—the struggle for both national independence and popular liberation, which is to say the realization of both state power and popular wealth—have always been closely related. The former has always been the basis of the latter.”
Gilley's hypothesis is certainly plausible, but can I suggest an alternative? China is in the middle of a leadership transition -- and when politicians are trying to move on up but ain't there yet, they often have the freedom to make all kinds of crazy, out-there, irresponsible foreign policy statements secure in the knowledge that foreign policy statements are not all that binding once politicians assume power .
Indeed, one could go even further. The phrase "only Nixon could go to China" refers to the idea that only someone who sounded as rabidly anti-communist as Richard Nixon in the past would be able to have the dometic political clout to meet with Mao Zedong and cut a deal with the People's Republic of China. Could it be that Xi is simply buttering up his base before taking power in order to make it easier to do business with the United States?
I don't know the answer, but I suspect even hardcore China-watchers don't know either. China is already experiencing some serious foreign policy blowback that has nothing to do with the United States, however. I'm not sure that Xi will really need the headache of ratcheting up tensions with Washingtgon, unless the global economic downturn is sooooooo bad that scapegoating foreigners is the best option for political survival.
What do you think?
I was pretty dismissive of Standard & Poor's debt downgrade last month. Re-reading that post, I stand by my political analysis of events going forward. Furthermore, the recovery of U.S. equity markets, the sharp reduction of yields on U.S. debt, and the failure of the other ratings agencies to follow suit are further data points suggesting that the S&P decision was flawed.
There's reality and perceptions of reality, however. On that latter front, after a recent expedition to Washington, I've concluded that regardless of whether S&P was right, they've won the argument in terms of perception. The summer debt debacle is, in many ways, the political equivalent of Hurricane Katrina. Perceptions of the Bush administration never recovered from that event, even though one could plausibly argue that the policy outputs of Bush's second term were better than the first term. Neverthelesss, Katrina was an inflection point that has caused a number of actors to reassess their perceptions about the political and policy competency of the White House and Congress.
Something similar seems to have happened with the debt deal. Politico's Ben White relays the dramatic effect on consumer confidence:
The Conference Board this week reported the biggest monthly decline in consumer confidence since the height of the financial crisis in 2008, its consumer confidence index falling from a reading of 59.2 to 44.5, the lowest in two years....
“The debt ceiling negotiation is an extremely significant event that is profoundly and sharply reshaping views of the economy and the federal government,” Republican pollster Bill McInturff wrote in a presentation of survey work he has done recently that suggests the debt ceiling debate has led to a significant shift in public opinion.
The partisan struggle over raising the debt went on for weeks before Obama finally announced on the night of Aug. 1 that a deal had been reached that resolves the issue for now. But while Washington has moved on to its next drama — the deliberations of the so-called supercommittee agreed to in the deal — its psychological impact has resonated widely.
McInturff said the result has been “a scary erosion in confidence” in both the economy and the government “at a time when this steep drop in confidence can be least afforded. … The perception of how Washington handled the debt ceiling negotiation led to an immediate collapse of confidence in government and all the major players, including President Obama and Republicans in Congress.”
A recent Washington Post poll found that 33 percent of Americans have confidence in Obama to make good decisions on the economy and just 18 percent have confidence in Congressional Republicans to do so.
These are especially dangerous readings when Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has essentially said it is up to politicians to help boost the economy now that the Fed has fired nearly all its monetary policy bullets.
Speaking of Bernanke, he had this to say at Jackson Hole last week:
[P]erhaps most challenging, the country would be well served by a better process for making fiscal decisions. The negotiations that took place over the summer disrupted financial markets and probably the economy as well, and similar events in the future could, over time, seriously jeopardize the willingness of investors around the world to hold U.S. financial assets or to make direct investments in job-creating U.S. businesses. Although details would have to be negotiated, fiscal policymakers could consider developing a more effective process that sets clear and transparent budget goals, together with budget mechanisms to establish the credibility of those goals.
Ten days before Bernanke's speech, FP's Josh Rogin reported that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had acknowledged the global ramifications of the debt fracas, telling a forum at National Defense University:
I happened to be in Hong Kong a few weeks ago, and I said confidently that we were going to resolve this; we were not going to default; we would make some kind of political compromise.
But I have to tell you, it does cast a pall over our ability to project the kind of security interests that are in America’s interest. This is not about the Defense Department or the State Department or USAID. This is about the United States of America. And we need to have a responsible conversation about how we are going to prepare ourselves for the future
Clinton's statements were confirmed by officials I talked to while down in DC.
So, can this perception be changed? Here, I'm bearish in the short-term. These kind of perceptions can be self-fulfilling. Economic growth is a remarkable political palliative, but growth looks anemic for a good long while. The Obama administration can try to change the narrative, but that's almost as difficult as Inception -- for the same reasons:
As Reinhart and Rogoff have observed, the economic aftereffects of debt crises are long-lasting. From here on out, the political effects of such crises will be on full display.
As someone who studies global political economy, this is fascinating. As a U.S. citizen, this is utterly depressing.
Remember that global political economy funk I was feeling about ten days ago? I think Felix Salmon caught it, and caught it bad. Riffing off of a George Magnus research note for UBS, Salmon thinks that we're currently experiecing, "the most uncertain outlook, in terms of the global political economy, since World War II ended and the era of the welfare state began."
If you think that's dramatic, consider this paragraph:
Most fundamentally, what I’m seeing as I look around the world is a massive decrease of trust in the institutions of government. Where those institutions are oppressive and totalitarian, the ability of popular uprisings to bring them down is a joyous and welcome sight. But on the other side of the coin, when I look at rioters in England, I see a huge middle finger being waved at basic norms of lawfulness and civilized society, and an enthusiastic embrace of “going on the rob” as some kind of hugely enjoyable participation sport. The glue holding society together is dissolving, whether it’s made of fear or whether it’s made of enlightened self-interest.
Magnus says something similar in his note, lamenting the "malaise in politics and policymaking," albeit conceding that, "While there is plenty of talk about endgames of war and conflict, muddling through and the rediscovery of good politics are just as, if not more likely." Walter Russell Mead nods along sagely, while John Sides is more skeptical.
In part for reasons proffered here, I'm more sympathetic to Sides than Salmon. Another reason is that Salmon's gloominess seems to be swamping the data. Edelman's 2011 Trust Barometer, for example, suggests that Salmon is exaggerating the "massive decrease of trust" across-the-world claim juuust a wee bit. That survey is not perfect (it's targeted at the top 25% of income-earners). It's also not all good news -- the advanced industrialized democracies are not strong reservoirs of trust right now. That said, the increase in trust -- not to mention the continued decrease in crime in kep places -- is broad-based enough to suggest that perception is overwhelming reality.
I'm not without concerns -- the disconnect at the global economic governance level is pretty disconcerting, and even G-20 optimists are starting to sound like me. Furthermore, the longer that sluggish growth and anemic job creation persists in the advanced industrialized democracies, the gloomier things get. If Reinhart and Rogoff are correct, Salmon is just demonstrating rational expectations.
Still, given the general suckiness of the global political economy over the past few years, what's striking is not the signs that the world is falling apart, but rather the dogs that haven't barked.
What do you think?
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
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?
Over the past week there's been a lot of foreign policy outputs coming from the gut, particularly with respect to the greater Middle East. Newly minted Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has been cursing like a PG-rated sailor as of late, saying about the Iraqis, "dammit, make a decision" with respect to a new defense minister. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has declared that Bashar Assad has "lost legitimacy," which is A) true; and B) not all that helpful a guide for future policy toward Syria. U.S. ambassador to that country Robert Ford took to Facebook to express his ire at the Syrian government. And now we're halting $800 million in military aid to Pakistan, which sounds great but is not necessarily going to make things better.
Do these gestures of frustration accomplish anything? That's hard to say. In terms of concrete outcomes, the likely answer is no -- part of the reason for the venting of frustrations on these issues is that the United States has so little leverage in most of these situations. On the other hand, just the acknowledgment of frustration can be politically useful, a venting of pressure that might otherwise lead to hopelessly misguided or absurdly risky policy options.
For exhibit A, see Reuel Marc Gerecht's latest on Syria in The Weekly Standard, which opens with, "The administration's policy toward Syria is shaping up to be the greatest missed opportunity of Barack Obama's presidency." The essay goes to great length to
bash realists detail the myriad policy benefits that would come with regime change in Damascus. This is all well and good (though a bit exaggerated), until we get to what the Obama administration should be doing to foment change:
There are many things that the Obama administration should be doing that it isn’t: using the presidential bully pulpit against the Assad regime, deploying the American ambassador in Damascus as a shield and voice for the opposition (if Ford gets expelled, he gets expelled), organizing the Western diplomatic community in Damascus to do whatever it can to aid the opposition, offering substantial technical support to the Turks to extend a Wi-Fi-ed broadband as far over the Syrian border as possible, and working with Paris to implement energy sanctions that might severely impair the Assad regime. But the most important thing it could do now is encourage Turkey to stand firm against Syria.
Ideally, we should want to see the Turks establish a buffer zone or safe haven on the Syrian side of the border (Ankara sometimes did this in Iraq to counter nefarious Kurdish activity).
Let's be clear: The Obama administration could be doing everything on that list, and it wouldn't make an iota of difference. The only policy that would matter is if the Turks actually wanted to establish a buffer zone -- except in a later paragraph even Gerecht acknowledges that, "neither Erdogan nor Davutoglu would want to do this."
So, to sum up, Gerecht is really enthusiastic about Syrian regime change, and wants the U.S. to beat its breast a little more and ask "pretty pretty please" for the Turks to do something they view as against their self-interest. This will accomplish … nothing.
If you start seeing gut-level foreign policy, it's usually a sign that every other rational option has failed. And although we hope otherwise, frustration alone rarely leads to policy breakthroughs.
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
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.
Germany's move—marking a contrast with the U.S. and other countries that have largely stuck to plans to continue pursuing nuclear power—is a U-turn from a contentious plan that Ms. Merkel engineered just last fall that would have extended the lifetimes of some of Germany's reactors into the 2030s, more than a decade longer than previously scheduled. Ms. Merkel's latest move is effectively a return to an agreement to phase out nuclear power approved in 2002 by a center-left Social Democrat-Green coalition....
In few countries is nuclear energy the hot-button issue it is in Germany, where polls show some 70% of the populace opposes it, the legacy of a broad-based antinuclear movement that harks back to the 1986 Chernobyl accident. Since the Fukushima accident, antinuclear protests have taken place across the country.
Ms. Merkel's change in course, though, hasn't produced the desired political effect. Conservative allies have been frustrated by her turn away from a cherished policy victory, and nuclear opponents have seen the move as opportunistic. Those perceptions contributed to several stinging regional election losses for the Christian Democratic Union this spring, and have led to a surge in clout for the opposition Green Party.
And now the NYT:
For Mrs. Merkel, the embrace of clean energy represents a transformation based on the politics of the ballot box. Just last year, her center-right coalition forced through an unpopular plan to extend the life of nuclear power plants, with the last to close in 2036. That action inflamed public opinion but the Fukushima disaster politicized it. The nuclear crisis is widely believed to have caused Mrs. Merkel’s party to lose control of the German state of Baden-Württemberg for the first time in 58 years, in a March election that became a referendum on energy policy.
By Monday, Mrs. Merkel said the country must “not let go the chance” to end its dependence on nuclear power.
And, finally, Reuters:
The German chancellor has, in nine months, gone from touting nuclear plants as a safe "bridge" to renewable energy and extending their lifespan to pushing a nuclear exit strategy that rivals the ambitions of the Social Democrats and Greens.
Merkel had her atomic epiphany after the Fukushima disaster in Japan in March, announcing a moratorium on nuclear power and launching an urgent overhaul of German energy policy, resulting in the exit strategy announced on Monday.
Her change of heart, however genuine as it may be, coincides with a string of disastrous election results for her Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Free Democrat (FDP) allies that have been partly blamed on her unpopular pro-nuclear policy so far.
With the FDP losing popularity almost as fast as the Greens gain it, and the Greens unseating the CDU in their heartland of Baden-Wuerttemberg in March as well as outpolling them for the first time in Germany in Bremen this month, Merkel has upgraded the nuclear moratorium to a rush for the exit.
Watching Merkel's performance during the myriad euro crises of the past two years, I'm beginning o detect a decision-making algorithm at work. Let's call it The Merkel Algorithm. It consists of the following steps:
1) A problem festers;
2) Dither and do nothing;
3) Public opinion polls drop;
4) Let things fester some more;
5) Lose an electioon somewhere;
6) Announce new policy that reverses prior position
7) Lose even more political support.
Merkel appears to have brilliantly executed this strategy on both the eurozone and nuclear power. In all seriousness, what I don't understand is the long periods of dithering and festering. I get that politicians will sometimes be wrong-footed on policy shocks. Merkel, however, really does seem to wait until the worst, most cravenly political moment to do something. Why?
Your humble blogger hereby calls on all Germany-watchers to offer either an explanation or a more nuanced take on the Merkel Algorithm -- because your humble blogger is good and truly flummoxed.
Krugman's argument is that the messes of the developed world are the fault of elites and not the mass public:
The fact is that what we’re experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. The policies that got us into this mess weren’t responses to public demand. They were, with few exceptions, policies championed by small groups of influential people — in many cases, the same people now lecturing the rest of us on the need to get serious....
President George W. Bush cut taxes in the service of his party’s ideology, not in response to a groundswell of popular demand — and the bulk of the cuts went to a small, affluent minority.
Similarly, Mr. Bush chose to invade Iraq because that was something he and his advisers wanted to do, not because Americans were clamoring for war against a regime that had nothing to do with 9/11. In fact, it took a highly deceptive sales campaign to get Americans to support the invasion, and even so, voters were never as solidly behind the war as America’s political and pundit elite.
Finally, the Great Recession was brought on by a runaway financial sector, empowered by reckless deregulation. And who was responsible for that deregulation? Powerful people in Washington with close ties to the financial industry, that’s who. Let me give a particular shout-out to Alan Greenspan, who played a crucial role both in financial deregulation and in the passage of the Bush tax cuts — and who is now, of course, among those hectoring us about the deficit.
So it was the bad judgment of the elite, not the greediness of the common man, that caused America’s deficit.
Hey, you know what would help assess this hypothesis? Some actual data.
First, let's consider the tax cut question. Take a gander at this chart from Gallup:
Gee, as it turns out, the public did seem to think a tax cut was a swell idea around about 2001. Indeed, the problem the American public had was that they were skeptical the tax cuts would actually come to pass:
Although the public has not been asked specifically about the Gramm/Zeller bill, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted January 5-7, 2001, showed that over half -- 52% -- of Americans favor Bush's tax plan, based on what they have read or heard. However, the public is generally pessimistic about the new administration's ability to actually pass the tax cut -- only 38% of Americans think Bush will be able to pass such legislation (50% do not and 12% have no opinion on the matter).
Now, to be fair, the Gallup data also suggests that tax cuts were not the #1 priority of Americans in 2001. Based on that chart, however, it seems pretty clear that there was a fair degree of enthusiasm for tax cuts.
Similarly, on Iraq, again, the Gallup poll data shows that a majority of Americans supported "invading Iraq with U.S. ground troops in an attempt to remove Saddam Hussein from power." The numbers between June 2002 and March 2003 fluctuate between a low of 53% and a high of 64%, but every poll demonstrated majority support for the policy option.
Krugman may or may not be correct on the financial deregulation question, though I suspect the best answer on that issue is that the public was rationally ignorant about the issue. And for the record I think he is right on the Europe side of the equation.
The point of this post is not to let American policy elites off the hook. The point is that Krugman's notion of a passive, innocent American public doesn't wash either. Political leaders only implement the kinds of Big Policies like the Bush tax cuts and Iraq invasion if there's an American public that's copacetic with these policies. The majority of the American public supported the key policy decisions that led to the current macroeconomic situation, and suggesting otherwise is tendentious.
Am I missing anything?
UPDATE: Kevin Drum thinks I am missing something: public support for tax cuts/invading Iraq were constants, and it took the Bush administration to execute these policies:
Despite this broad support, nobody was crying out for either huge tax cuts or invading Iraq until George Bush and the rest of the GOP started talking them up. Without that, the public would have continued to vaguely think that taxes were too high and Saddam Hussein was a bad guy before switching the TV to Monday Night Football and forgetting about it.
It's true that public support was probably necessary in order to pass the Bush tax cuts and invade Iraq. But the polling evidence is pretty clear that it was far from sufficient. Nothing about public opinion changed in 2001. The only thing that changed was the occupant of the Oval Office. The public isn't blameless in all this, but the polling evidence makes it pretty clear that it was a minor player.
I completely agree with Drum about the "necessary but not sufficient" quality of American public opinion. I'm not sure "minor player" is correct, however. First, bear in mind that George W. Bush was re-elected rather handily after implementing both of these policy choices, so it's not like the public was experiencing buyer's remorse in 2000.
Second, in my recollection, politicians in democracies have a strong incentive to translate majority public sentiments into concrete policies that favor their particular political coalition. George W. Bush took a popular sentiment for tax cuts and ran with it; Barack Obama took a popular sentiment to address health care and ran with it. Neither outcome was quite in line with the public sentiment that animated it, but that's public policy for you.
To reiterate, I'm not disagreeing with Krugman that policy elites must shoulder the burden for their mistakes; I'm just pushing back against his implied argument that the American public is blameless -- hence the "unindicted co-conspirator" language.
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.
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.
Since I moved to Foreign Policy, the blog post that generated the most feedback was my impressionistic take on the Millennial generation's foreign policy perspectives. I concluded that post on whether generaional cohorts would have distinct foreign policy attitudes with the following:
As I think about it, here are the Millennials' foundational foreign policy experiences:
1) An early childhood of peace and prosperity -- a.k.a., the Nineties;
2) The September 11th attacks;
3) Two Very Long Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq;
4) One Financial Panic/Great Recession;
5) The ascent of China under the shadow of U.S. hegemony.
From these experiences, I would have to conclude that this generation should be anti-interventionist to the point of isolationism.
There was a LOT of very thoughtful pushback in the comments and e-mails from Millennials themselves -- enough for me to wonder whether my jaded Gen-Xer eyes were growing too world-weary.
Now, however, we actually have some data. The Brookings Institution has released a new report, "D.C.'s New Guard: What Does the Next Generation of American Leaders Think?" The survey results came from 1,057 respondents (with a average age of 16.4) who attended the National Student Leadership Conference, Americans for Informed Democracy young leaders programs, and other DC internships -- i.e., those young people already predisposed towards a political career.
The results are veeeeery revealing. The headline figure is that 73% of respondents think that "The U.S. is no longer globally respected" -- which actually suggests that the respondents haven't been looking at the data, but that's a side note. No, the really interesting response is as follows:
[A]lmost 58% of the young leaders in this survey agreed with the statement that the U.S. is too involved in global affairs and should do more at home. Alternatively, 32.4% thought the U.S. had "struck the right balance" between issues at home and abroad," while only 10% thought that the United States should be more globally proactive.
This isolationist sentiment among the younger generation stands in stark comparison to the Chicago Council's recent 2010 polling of older Americans, which found that 67% wanted America to have an active role in the world and only 31% thought we should limit our involvement, a near exact reverse. The older generation survey concluded that there was "persisting support for an internationalist foreign policy at levels unchanged from the past," but this perceived persistence is certainly not there among the young leaders (emphasis added).
Now, to be fair, It is possible to reconcile beliefs that the United States is doing too much abroad now while still believing that the U.S. should exert global leadership, but on a more modest scale. Still, I'm counting this as a clear win over the young people insisting that my impressionistic take on their generation was wrong. Take that, Bieberheads!!!
[Hey, I just noticed this paragraph by P.W. Singer at the start of the report:
In 2011, a “silver tsunami” will hit the United States: the oldest Baby Boomers will reach the United States’ legal retirement age of 65. As the Boomers leave the scene, a new generation will begin to take over. But while the generation that directly follows the Boomers, Generation X, may be “of age”, there is a good chance that it will not actually shape public life and leadership as much the following generation, the Echo Boomers, also known as the “Millennials." (emphasis added)
Say, could that swipe at your generation explain your attitude in this post?--ed.]
No!! Really!! It has nothing to do with that! Now if you'll excuse me, I need to lock myself into a dark room and watch Reality Bites on an endless loop for the next 24 hours.
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.
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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.
There was something about the TSA body scans/patdowns
mass elite backlash that I agreed with on the specifics but found vaguely disconcerting for some reason.
In this post, Tyler Cowen goes a long way towards explaining those reasons. His glosing paragraphs:
The funny thing is this: when Americans insist on total liberty against external molestation, it motivates both good responses and bad ones. It supports a libertarian desire for freedom against government abuse, but the same sentiments generate a lot of anti-liberal policies when it comes to immigration, foreign policy, torture, rendition, attitudes toward Muslims, executive power, and most generally treatment of "others." An insistence on zero molestation, zero risk, isn't as pro-liberty as it appears in the isolated context of pat-downs. It leads us to impose a lot of costs on others, usually without thinking much about their rights.
The issue reminds me of the taxation and spending debates; many Americans want low taxes and high government spending, forever. For airline security, at times we want to treat it as a matter of mere law enforcement, to be handled by others, and one which should not inconvenience our daily lives or infringe on our rights. At the same time, so many Americans view airline security as a vital matter of foreign policy and indeed as part of a war. We own and promote this view and yet we are outraged when asked to behave as one might be expected to in a theater of war.
The main danger to liberty here is not the TSA but rather a set of American attitudes which, at the same time, take our current "war" both far too seriously and also not nearly seriously enough.
Overall, I'd like to see less posturing in these debates and more Thucydides.
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.
Cards on the table: having experienced one first-hand, I hate the new full body scanners being used at airports. I hate that their existence allows TSA officials to bark additional orders at me like I'm a five-year old. I hate having to hold my hands up in a surrender position to be scanned. I hate having to empty every f***ing piece of lint from my pockets before going through one. I hate that they have lengthened and not shortened the time it takes to get through security. I hate the fact that other countries with equally acute terrorist concerns are not nearly as physically invasive in their security screenings. I hate the sneaking suspicion I have that the scanners are merely a massive exercise in
kabuki security theater designed to alleviate the psychological fears of some travelers. I hate that the official response to these complaints boils down to, "we face a determined enemy." I hate the stupid reassurances that the "imaging technology that we use cannot store, export, print or transmit images," when, whoops, it turns out that this has already happened. I hate the ways in which these scanners make it so easy to mock the United States.
The thing is, right now I'm in the distinct minority of Americans.
The above chart is the result of a CBS poll released yesterday (which also found a majority of Americans to oppose racial profiling) on the question of full-body scanners in airports. The results speak for themselves.
Or do they? Here are a couple of different ways of interpreting these results.
1) Big friggin' surprise. It's pretty easy to find U.S. public opinion polls demonstrating majority support for homeland security measures ranging from crackdowns on illegal immigration to
torture enhanced interrogration techniques. As I've said in the past, when it comes to homeland security, the average American has few qualms about strengthening the national security state. This latest poll is just one more data point supporting that argument.
2) Oh, you wait... you just wait. Nate Silver ably rounds up the rages against these machines coming from angry unions, pissed-off bloggers, and generally cantankerous individuals surreptitiously taping their pat-downs.
What do these vocal members of the minority have in common? They've all had to fly recently. Silver posits that as more Americans face the indignity of these scanners, the poll numbers will start to change. Well see.
3) New Elite, meet Real America. Silver also points out that a minority of travelers comprise a majority of actual air travel:
A study by the market-research firm Arbitron found, for instance, that frequent fliers — those who take 4 or more round trips per year — account for the 57 percent majority of all air travel, even though they make up just 18 percent of air travelers and something like 7 percent of the overall American population.
At least one past survey has identified differences in perceptions about airport security procedures between frequent and occasional fliers. This was a 2007 Gallup poll, which found that while just 26 percent of occasional travels were dissatisfied with airport security, the level rose to 37 percent among those who fly more frequently.
What I think we need to know then, is how those who have actually traveled through an airport that uses the full-body scanners feel about them — particularly if they’re people who fly frequently and are therefore going to bear the burden of any inconvenience, embarrassment, invasion of privacy or health risk brought on by the new technology.
Well... maybe. Silver wants to prioritize the preferences of frequent travelers over other Americans. To be fair to the pro-scanner position, however, it's not just the people who board planes who are affected the consequences of homeland security failures. I'm not convinced that the opinions of grounded Americans shouldn't apply.
There's a deeper cultural question, however. There's an awful lot of resentment welling up in the United States against "elites." Defining just who is in the elite and who is in "Real America" is an inexact science. I can't help but wonder, however, if frequent air travel is the perfect Sorting Hat that separates the elites (i.e., the frequent travelers) from the masses (i.e., everyone else). [UPDATE: Adam Serwer makes this point as well: "The TSA's new passenger-screening measures just happen to fall on the political and economic elites who can make their complaints heard. It's not happening to those scary Arabs anymore. It's happening to 'us.'" See also Seth Masket and Kevin Drum on this point.]
This isn't necessarily a partisan divide -- conservative elites appear to be just as frosted with the TSA as liberals. Body scanners are an issue that only animates the hostility of elites, however. Real America couldn't give a flying fig one way or the other -- except if National Op-out Day gets them mad when they're traveling because of even longer security lines. But I think it's a better than 50/50 chance that they'll be angrier at the opt-outers than the TSA employees.
Maybe the scanners will quickly disappear in the face of elite protests. Or maybe it means that some clever populist will seize on this issue as a way to talk about out-of-touch elites again.
Clearly, I hope it's #2, but I don't know. With travel season upon us during the next six weeks, we'll see.....
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.
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.