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.
Political scientists have a ton of explanations for why good policy might be bad politics, and vice versa. There are limits to that perverse correlation, however. A common-sense narrative is that is a policy actually yields concerete and positive results, then it should be perceived in a more favorable light. I mean, that's pretty straightforward, right?
The Troubled Asset Relief Program is widely viewed as the original sin of the Obama administration -- though it was put together under President George W. Bush and succeeded far beyond expectations. It’s widely seen as the tipping point for disgust with elites and insiders of all kinds -- though it could also be seen as those insiders' finest moment, a successful attempt to at least partially fix their own mistakes....
"It's become demonized on the left and the right by screamers -- Glenn Beck and Rachel Maddow -- who have no interest in the facts; they’re just interested in hyperbolizing and generating attention," lamented New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg, a key player in guiding the measure through the upper chamber and one of the few Republicans willing to talk about TARP in positive terms.
Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Gregg is retiring from the Senate at the end of the year -- or that hardly anyone from either party is joining him in praising TARP....
The consensus of economists and policymakers at the time of the original TARP was that the U.S. government couldn’t afford to experiment with an economic collapse. That view in mainstream economic circles has, if anything, only hardened with the program’s success in recouping the federal spending.
A study this summer by former Fed Vice Chairman Alan Blinder and Moody's chief economist Mark Zandi was representative of that consensus. They projected that without federal action -- TARP and the stimulus -- America’s gross domestic product would have fallen more than 7 percent in 2009 and almost 4 percent in 2010, compared with the actual combined decline of about 4 percent.
"It would not be surprising if the underemployment rate approached one-fourth of the labor force," they wrote of their scenario. "With outright deflation in prices and wages in 2009-11, this dark scenario constitutes a 1930s-like depression."
Despite this policy success, public attitudes towards TARP are pretty hostile. Of course, part of that is due to some ignorance over the content of TARP itself:
Polls suggest the public has only the haziest view of what TARP was. It's often conflated -- not least by politicians who voted for it and now seek to muddy the waters -- with the stimulus, a piece of policy whose supporters and foes have fallen into a much more familiar debate about the role of government and public spending....
Even Nevada GOP Senate nominee Sharron Angle at one point referred to TARP as "the stimulus." And few Americans seem to know that the banks at the center of TARP have paid the money back -- with interest.
Pollster Ann Selzer asked voters this summer, "Do you think the Troubled Asset Relief Program, known as TARP, was necessary to prevent the financial industry from failing and drastically hurting the U.S. economy, or was it an unneeded bailout?"
Fifty-eight percent of Americans said TARP was unneeded. Only 28 percent called it "necessary."
Smith is correct to point out the myriad ways in which TARP has been lumped in with the other bailouts and stimulus programs that got enacted in 2008 and 2009. No doubt the mass public would not necessarily be able to pick, choose and evaluate each individual bailout/stimulus program.
Still, it's very troubling to see a manifest policy success get almost no love whatsoever from its creators. Over the long run, good policy should translate into good politics. The failure of that to occur in this case could lead to some very perverse policy outcomes after the midterms.
I confess that I haven't yet read all of Robin Marantz Henig's 8,000 word New York Times Magazine essay on the extended adolescence of twentysomethings because
I have a life I need to clip my toenails I don't care oh, OK, I care a little but I'm too inured to generational politics to read 8,000 words on it of a variety of reasons. Instead, I've been reading (and enjoying) Peter Beinart's The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris [Hey, what the hell happened to your late summer reading list?--ed. I've read some of them, but since I've long ago left my twenties, I've determined that I'm allowed to discard any leisure book that does hold my interest after thirty pages.]
Henig's essay and Beinart's book are linked in that they both are talking about generational cohorts and how their experiences affect their thinking going forward. The Icarus Syndrome follows multiple generations of foreiogn policy thinkers who were seared by formative experiences (mostly wars) and how their initial enthusiasms and/or mistakes colored their foreign policy views going forward.
I bring this up because I wonder whether the current generation of millennial twentysomethings will develop a worldview about international relations that transcends party and clique. If that happened, it would profoundly shape the contours of American foreign policy starting next decade.
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. Then again, I'm looking at this through my own irony-drenched Gen-X eyes.
I'm curious to hear from twentysomethings in the comments -- what are the foreign policy lessons that you can draw from your upbringing? I'm also curious what lessons twentysomethings in other countries can draw from their own formative experiences.
Stanford Professor Jon C. Krosnick has an interesting op-ed in today's New York Times in which he argues that public skepticism about climate change in the United States has been way overblown:
[N]ational surveys released during the last eight months have been interpreted as showing that fewer and fewer Americans believe that climate change is real, human-caused and threatening to people.
But a closer look at these polls and a new survey by my Political Psychology Research Group show just the opposite: huge majorities of Americans still believe the earth has been gradually warming as the result of human activity and want the government to institute regulations to stop it.
In our survey, which was financed by a grant to Stanford from the National Science Foundation, 1,000 randomly selected American adults were interviewed by phone between June 1 and Monday. When respondents were asked if they thought that the earth’s temperature probably had been heating up over the last 100 years, 74 percent answered affirmatively. And 75 percent of respondents said that human behavior was substantially responsible for any warming that has occurred.
For many issues, any such consensus about the existence of a problem quickly falls apart when the conversation turns to carrying out specific solutions that will be costly. But not so here.
Fully 86 percent of our respondents said they wanted the federal government to limit the amount of air pollution that businesses emit, and 76 percent favored government limiting business’s emissions of greenhouse gases in particular. Not a majority of 55 or 60 percent — but 76 percent.
Large majorities opposed taxes on electricity (78 percent) and gasoline (72 percent) to reduce consumption. But 84 percent favored the federal government offering tax breaks to encourage utilities to make more electricity from water, wind and solar power.
And huge majorities favored government requiring, or offering tax breaks to encourage, each of the following: manufacturing cars that use less gasoline (81 percent); manufacturing appliances that use less electricity (80 percent); and building homes and office buildings that require less energy to heat and cool (80 percent).
Thus, there is plenty of agreement about what people do and do not want government to do.
Our poll also indicated that some of the principal arguments against remedial efforts have been failing to take hold. Only 18 percent of respondents said they thought that policies to reduce global warming would increase unemployment and only 20 percent said they thought such initiatives would hurt the nation’s economy. Furthermore, just 14 percent said the United States should not take action to combat global warming unless other major industrial countries like China and India do so as well.
Krosnick goes on in the essay to debunk polling results suggesting contrary trends for all of the above statements -- except the one on burden-sharing with China and India, which is the observation that intrigues me the most.
Krosnick's essay is a useful rejoinder to morose pessimism about climate change. That said, methinks Krosnick's take on public demand for action on climate change is a bit overstated, for three interrelated reasons.
First, Krosnick finds strong opposition to end-user taxation on carbon-emitting activities. This suggests to me that there's less consenus on what exactly to do than Krosnick believes. Furthermore, this opposition provides a political opening for opponents of climate change legislation to frame the issue in such a way as to generate opposition.
The increase in climate skepticism is driven largely by a shift within the GOP. Since its peak 3 1/2 years ago, belief that climate change is happening is down sharply among Republicans -- 76 to 54 percent -- and independents -- 86 to 71 percent. It dipped more modestly among Democrats, from 92 to 86 percent. A majority of respondents still support legislation to cap emissions and trade pollution allowances, by 53 to 42 percent.
Opposition among the Republican mass public will mean that the issue will not generate groundswells of public opinion for action, as with financial regulation. Unlike FinReg, this is not an issue on which the GOP will crumple like a pinata.
Finally, despite Krosnick's assurances in the op-ed that climate skeptics have not influenced public attitudes about the phenomenom, his own experiments suggest that the more face time skeptics get, the more doubt they can sow:
The news stories that respondents watched featured the views of only one skeptic and made no claims about the prevalence of such skeptical views. Nonetheless, respondents generalized from a single skeptic to scientists more generally, perceiving less agreement in the scientific community broadly. Our findings suggest that balanced news coverage may have been at least partly responsible for discrepancies between the American public and the scientific community on issues of climate change.
Still, read the whole thing.
Analysts are trying to decipher the content and implications of the Senate's financial regulation bill. Noam Scheiber and James Pethokoukis have surprisingly similar takes, in that the bill doesn't directly address the "too big to fail" problem, though Scheiber thinks it does address the problem indirectly.
Wall Street has an enduring PR problem. Yes, big banks are unpopular. But it has gotten so bad that they may not be able to so easily counter their image issues with campaign cash. Getting Wall Street money now has a stigma attached to it like oil and tobacco money. Candidates like Meg Whitman in California and John Kasich are getting hammered for their Wall Street ties. The industry’s continued unpopularity will no doubt spawn further attempts to tax, regulate and restrict the sector.
If the public stays this outraged for this lomg, then Pethokoukis is right. The political problems of finance are becoming so great that we could be talking about a shift in social norms with regard to what is considered "honorable" work.
Of course, paradoxically, this could serve to increase the salaraies of those still willing to go into finance. As Adam Smith pointed out in Wealth of Nations:
[T]he wages of labour vary with... the honourableness or dishonourableness of the employment.... Honour makes a great part of the reward of all honourable professions. In point of pecuniary gain, all things considered, they are generally under-recompensed, as I shall endeavour to show by and by. Disgrace has the contrary effect. The trade of a butcher is a brutal and an odious business; but it is in most places more profitable than the greater part of common trades. The most detestable of all employments, that of public executioner, is, in proportion to the quantity of work done, better paid than any common trade whatever.
Question to readers: Will the social stigma against Big Finance persist or fade as the economy bounces back?
I think it's safe to say that the financial regulation bill has not evolved the way that Simon Johnson predicted last year. Johnson's thesis was pretty simple -- because of the structural dependence of politicians on financial capital, neither the executive nor the legislative branches would be willing to regulate that sector.
Johnson wasn't necesaarily wrong in making that prediction -- when in doubt, political scientists follow the money as well. Still, the regulation that is likely to emerge is clewarly stronger than expected. In The New Republic, Noam Scheiber has offers his explanation for why:
Basic political science tells us that, when Congress targets a complex industry with billions of dollars at stake, the legislation should weaken as it moves toward passage. The industry will plead its case with vehemence, while voters will be oblivious to the importance of subtle changes. “Words on the page are not that critical to the public,” one derivatives industry lawyer told me in March, conveying a general truism. But something unforeseen is happening as Congress wraps up its overhaul of Wall Street: Key elements of the bill are getting tougher—in some cases markedly so....
What explains the unexpected success? The financial-services industry had counted on public passion subsiding with time. As the derivatives lawyer told me a few weeks ago, “The current strategy you’re hearing is basically to keep Republicans together till cooler heads prevail.” But cooler heads aren’t prevailing. As the bailed-out banks have surged back to profitability while unemployment hovers near 10 percent, the public has, if anything, grown crankier. By holding the line on a tougher reform package, the White House has been able to ride the anger rather than get trampled by it. In a moment of rising public frustration, the populist argument gains force the longer the debate continues.
So does this contradict basic political science? Yes and no. The outcome is still consistent with political science odels -- just not the ones that focus on interest groups. Any Americanist will tell you that interest group politics matters a lot. If public opinion is pretty unified around a high-profile issue, however, then there are hard political constraints that block the ability of lobbyists to do that voodoo that they do so well. And it's pretty clear that the public is thermonuclearly pissed at the financial sector.
Still, this is pretty surprising, because financial regulation is so friggin' arcane. Quick, what's a credit default swap? A collateralized debt obligation? Are they examples of derivatives or not? Sure, readers of this blog likely know the answers to those questions, but I guarantee you that 99% of registered voters do not know the answer. The fact that public pressure and attention is still mobilized on this issue is unusual.
I think it's tied into the one part of the story that Scheiber failed to mention -- the SEC indictment of Goldman Sachs. Whether what Goldman did or not was actually illegal is not the issue. There was a lot of reporting about what Goldman actually did -- and it seems like they weren't acting like just a couple of bookies. The indictment changed the political optics of financial regulation and dramatically reduced the utility of lobbying from the financial sector.
Finreg isn't law yet, and experts like Johnson might argue that their "capture" story works on other dimensions of the regulation. Still, I don't think this is a case where basic political science failed -- unless you think that poli sci should have predicted the SEC indictment.
What do you think?
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Views of the US around the world have improved sharply over the past year, a BBC World Service poll suggests.
For the first time since the annual poll began in 2005, America's influence in the world is now seen as more positive than negative.
The improved scores for the US coincided with Barack Obama becoming president, a BBC correspondent notes.
As in 2009, Germany is viewed most favourably while Iran and Pakistan are seen as the most negative influences.
Nearly 30,000 people in 28 countries were interviewed for the poll, between November 2009 and February 2010.
Now, on the one hand, this is particularly impressive, because the people of the world are in a really sour mood. If you look at the entire report, the United States is the only great power and one of only two countries (South Africa is the other) to record an uptick in positive influence over the past year. This is also fully consistent with other surveys demonstrating an "Obama effect."
On the other hand, it's worth asking whether this boost in U.S. favorability ratings has yielded anything in the way of tangible policy gains. Sullivan avers that:
[I]n trying to defuse as well as defeat Jihadist terror, this kind of profound change could serve America's interests well. The idea that a better reputation abroad is meaningless uplift is foolish. It helps the US leverage its power to greater ends. The more popular the US is, the likelier it is to have a positive impact on other countries' leaders.
There's some truth to this -- otherwise you don't get the largest number of world leaders on American soil since the founding of the United Nations. That said, I do wonder just how much leverage this kind of soft power carries with it. Consider the ability of the U.S. to enact multilateral economic sanctions. The Bush administration, at the depths of its unpopularity, was still able to get the UN Security Council to pass three rounds of sanctions against Iran, as well as measures against North Korea. The Obama administration, despite a serious effort to open a dialogue with Iran, is encountering resistance from China, Brazil, and Turkey in its efforts to craft another round of sanctions.
All else equal, it's better to see these numbers going up. I'm just unsure of how much this translates into usable leverage.
What do you think?
Your humble blogger has a very long day-job to-do list the first half of this week. Still I can't resist not linking to this John Sides post from The Monkey Cage about why there's been a decline in in trust in government.
There was a secular decline in trust in government that levelled off after the Vietnam War started winding down. Since then? It's the economy, stupid:
What drives the trend in political trust? By and large, it is the economy. People trust government when times are good. They don’t trust it when times are bad. For the presidential election years from 1964-2008, I merged the trust measure with the change in per capita disposable income, courtesy of Douglas Hibbs. Here is the relationship between trust and the economy:
The relationship is striking. The economy explains about 75% of the variance in trust. If you delete 1964, which looks like a potential outlier, the economy still explains 73% of the variance.
Of course the economy is not the only important factor. But it gets far less attention than it deserves when the hand-wringing begins.
I suspect it gets less attention because its a structural factor that is largely beyond the control of politicians. It's also boring. It's like a diet guru simply saing "eat less and exercise more" when asked what the trendy explanation is for how to lose weight.
I wonder how generalizable the relationship is between trust and the economy. For example, would a booming economy make Americans more likely to trust business, the academy, and other institutions? Would it make Americans more likely to accept the evidence for global warming?
What do you think?
Picking up on a theme I discussed earlier this week, I see that both Fred Kaplan and Matthew Yglesias conclude that a politically chastened Obama will not find any salvation in foreign policy. They both give similar reasons -- anything of significance will require Congressional approval, and Congress ain't in the giving mood.
I don't really disagree with Kaplan and Yglesias, but I do think they're missing something important: with an economy shedding jobs, the last thing Obama wants to do is pump up his international profile. Even if he could claim successes, foreign policy achievements -- particularly of the non-military kind -- during an economic downturn are pretty much a dead-bang political loser. Why? Because even successes suggests that the president cares more about the rest of the world than his own countrymen.
Think about it. The last time a sitting president focused on foreign affairs in the middle of a recession was George H.W. Bush. That was great from a policy perspective, but a political disaster for Bush. I won't swear to this, but my impression is that Obama's standing has taken a hit whenever he's gone overseas in the past year.
On the other hand, during a recession presidents can tell the rest of the world to go f*** themselves and they won't lose much in the way of popularity.
Just a glance at the December 2009 Pew survey shows the extent to which Americans are looking inward. And who can blame them -- it's a pretty bad economy and there's double-digit unemployment. This tendency is exacerbated by something that Kaplan does point out:
In the post-Cold War world, with the fracturing of power and the decline of influence by any one country or bloc, the problems that he faces are simply harder—more impervious to military, economic, or diplomatic pressure—than they would have been 20 to 50 years ago.
I'd say "post-Great Recession world," but that's quibbling. If Americans are fed up with how long it takes for anything to get done in Congress, wait until they pay attention to foreign affairs. The Doha round is on year nine and counting. With important exceptions, the United States has military forces in practically every country it's intervened in since 1945. Who knows how long a global warming treaty -- or the reconstruction of Haiti -- will take.
Are there exceptions? Sure, but they're ephemeral. I suspect the follow-on to START-II would get through the Senate, because, really, is now the time to pick a fight with Russia? Osama bin Laden's head on a pike would probably warm the cockles of most Americans. But they wouldn't stay warm for long.
No, it's the economy, stupid. The healthier the economy, the more political capital for Obama, and the less likely he will be punished for taking an interest in foreign affairs. If Obama has any political self-preservation instincts at all, international relations will be done on the DL for a while.
It's unfair, and very problematic for foreign policy wonks, but no one said life is fair.
So, Pew has a new survey of elite and mass attitudes about foreign policy, and it's chock-full of interesting results. Turns out Americans sound pretty realist right now:
In the midst of two wars abroad and a sour economy at home, there has been a sharp rise in isolationist sentiment among the public. For the first time in more than 40 years of polling, a plurality (49%) says the United States should "mind its own business internationally" and let other countries get along the best they can on their own....
The public sees China's emerging power as more worrisome than do the foreign policy opinion leaders. There has been virtually no change since 2005 in the percentage of the public saying that China represents a major threat to the United States (53% today, 52% then). Moreover, while Iran is mentioned most often as the country that poses the greatest danger to the United States, China continues to rank among the countries frequently named by the public as dangers to the U.S....
At the same time, there has been a rise in unilateralist sentiment. Fully 44% say that because the United States "is the most powerful nation in the world, we should go our own way in international matters, not worrying about whether other countries agree with us or not." That is by far the highest percentage agreeing since the question was first asked by Gallup in 1964.
Hmmm... this sounds familiar.
Now, you might think supporters of these policy positions would be overjoyed at this news, or at least extoling the sage wisdom of the common folk of America.
The thing is, there are other results in this survey suggesting the public is kinda, sorta stupid*:
In a reversal of opinion from the beginning of last year, 44% of the public now says China is the world's leading economic power, while just 27% name the United States. In February 2008, 41% said the U.S. was the top economic power while 30% said China.
Now I understand that China's relative power has grown vis-a-vis the United States in the past
year two years decade. Maybe in a decade or so, China will be the more powerful and robust economy. Maybe. Right now, however, there is simply no way you can describe China right now as "the world's leading economic power."
If you were to take a snapshot of the distribution of economic capabilities in the world, then the United States remains the most powerful country in the world, and it's not close. The U.S. share of the global economy has hovered around 25% for the past decade. This is twice the size of China or Japan, and far larger than that of any other individual nation-state. Any measure of science and technology outputs generally has the United States coming out on top. Historically, the U.S. is not only the current hegemon - the country controls a far greater share of the world's resources than most great powers of the past. [But, but, but, China has the largest amount of official currency reserves in the world!!--ed. Yes, and a fat lot of good that does Beijing.]
Is China more economically powerful than it was in 2008? Absolutely. Is it more powerful than the United States? No f***ing way.
There's a lot more to dig through here -- I'll be bashing the inconsitencies of foreign policy elites sometime this weekend. But I highlight these results to suggest that anyone talking about this stuff as an example of the "wisdom of crowds" does not know what they are talking about. These are very interesting results, but they're based on a pretty high degree of ignorance about world politics.
*Yes, the more accurate word to use would be "uninformed," but I'm trying to provoke here.
[Drezner] then notes a small "to be sure": fewer than 5% of voters in France, Germany, Italy and Britain support sending more troops to Afghanistan too. That pretty decisively handcuffs those goverments. Why not call the Germans or Brits "passive-aggressive-y"? Because it wouldn't fit the American stereotype of Gallic limp-wristedness.
Two quick responses. First, the alleged constraint of public opinion (see below) did not cause either the British or German defense ministers to categorically rule out sending more troops to Afghanistan the day after Barack Obama was sworn in. I focused on France because the French defense minister spoke up on this at an interesting juncture.
Second, the Economist's blogger did not read precisely what I wrote, nor did s/he apparently click through to the FT story to which I linked. I wrote, "Less than five percent of those polled believed that European countries should send troops to Afghanistan as a gesture of solidarity with Obama. (emphasis added)" If you look at the poll, however, a significant fraction of respondents (though not a majority or a plurality) were comfortable with the idea of sending more troops "if warranted by conditions in Afghanistan." Furthermore, this support is stronger in France than it is in either Germany or the UK, which suggests that the French government faces a lesser constraint than policymakers in Berlin or London.
I firmly believe that public opinion should play an important role in dictating the foreign policy of a democracy -- including France. But these opinion polls are not quite the binding constraint that the Economist suggests. Furthermore, it seems only polite to wait and see what Obama will say on Afghanistan before issuing a firm "Non!"
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.