The president may look incompetent on Syria. But his behavior fits his strategy to weaken America abroad.
by Norman Podhoretz
It is entirely understandable that Barack Obama’s way of dealing with Syria in recent weeks should have elicited responses ranging from puzzlement to disgust. Even members of his own party are despairingly echoing in private the public denunciations of him as “incompetent,” “bungling,” “feckless,” “amateurish” and “in over his head” coming from his political opponents on the right.
For how else to characterize a president who declares war against what he calls a great evil demanding immediate extirpation and in the next breath announces that he will postpone taking action for at least 10 days—and then goes off to play golf before embarking on a trip to another part of the world? As if this were not enough, he also assures the perpetrator of that great evil that the military action he will eventually take will last a very short time and will do hardly any damage. Unless, that is, he fails to get the unnecessary permission he has sought from Congress, in which case (according to an indiscreet member of his own staff) he might not take any military action after all.
Summing up the net effect of all this, as astute a foreign observer as Conrad Black can flatly say that, “Not since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, and before that the fall of France in 1940, has there been so swift an erosion of the world influence of a Great Power as we are witnessing with the United States.”
Yet if this is indeed the pass to which Mr. Obama has led us—and I think it is—let me suggest that it signifies not how incompetent and amateurish the president is, but how skillful. His foreign policy, far from a dismal failure, is a brilliant success as measured by what he intended all along to accomplish. The accomplishment would not have been possible if the intention had been too obvious. The skill lies in how effectively he has used rhetorical tricks to disguise it.
The key to understanding what Mr. Obama has pulled off is the astonishing statement he made in the week before being elected president: “We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” To those of us who took this declaration seriously, it meant that Mr. Obama really was the left-wing radical he seemed to be, given his associations with the likes of the anti-American preacher Jeremiah Wright and the unrepentant terrorist Bill Ayers, not to mention the intellectual influence over him of Saul Alinsky, the original “community organizer.”
So far as domestic affairs were concerned, it soon became clear—even to some of those who had persuaded themselves that Mr. Obama was a moderate and a pragmatist—that the fundamental transformation he had in mind was to turn this country into as close a replica of the social-democratic countries of Europe as the constraints of our political system allowed.
Since he had enough support for the policies that this objective entailed, those constraints were fairly loose, and so he only needed a minimum of rhetorical deception in pursuing it. All it took was to deny he was doing what he was doing by frequently singing the praises of the free-enterprise system he was assiduously working to undermine, by avoiding the word “socialism,” by invoking “fairness” as an overriding ideal and by playing on resentment of the “rich.”
But foreign policy was another matter. As a left-wing radical, Mr. Obama believed that the United States had almost always been a retrograde and destructive force in world affairs. Accordingly, the fundamental transformation he wished to achieve here was to reduce the country’s power and influence. And just as he had to fend off the still-toxic socialist label at home, so he had to take care not to be stuck with the equally toxic “isolationist” label abroad.
This he did by camouflaging his retreats from the responsibilities bred by foreign entanglements as a new form of “engagement.” At the same time, he relied on the war-weariness of the American people and the rise of isolationist sentiment (which, to be sure, dared not speak its name) on the left and right to get away with drastic cuts in the defense budget, with exiting entirely from Iraq and Afghanistan, and with “leading from behind” or using drones instead of troops whenever he was politically forced into military action.
The consequent erosion of American power was going very nicely when the unfortunately named Arab Spring presented the president with several juicy opportunities to speed up the process. First in Egypt, his incoherent moves resulted in a complete loss of American influence, and now, thanks to his handling of the Syrian crisis, he is bringing about a greater diminution of American power than he probably envisaged even in his wildest radical dreams.
For this fulfillment of his dearest political wishes, Mr. Obama is evidently willing to pay the price of a sullied reputation. In that sense, he is by his own lights sacrificing himself for what he imagines is the good of the nation of which he is the president, and also to the benefit of the world, of which he loves proclaiming himself a citizen.
The problem for Mr. Obama is that at least since the end of World War II, Americans have taken pride in being No. 1. Unless the American people have been as fundamentally transformed as their country is quickly becoming, America’s decline will not sit well. With more than three years in office to go, will Mr. Obama be willing and able to endure the continuing erosion of his popularity that will almost certainly come with the erosion of the country’s power and influence?
No doubt he will either deny that anything has gone wrong, or failing that, he will resort to his favorite tactic of blaming others—Congress or the Republicans or Rush Limbaugh. But what is also almost certain is that he will refuse to change course and do the things that will be necessary to restore U.S. power and influence.
And so we can only pray that the hole he will go on digging will not be too deep for his successor to pull us out, as Ronald Reagan managed to do when he followed a president into the White House whom Mr. Obama so uncannily resembles.
Mr. Podhoretz was the editor of Commentary from 1960-95. His most recent book is “Why Are Jews Liberals?” (Doubleday, 2009).
A version of this article appeared September 9, 2013, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Obama’s Successful Foreign Failure.
- A New Moral Low (statelymcdanielmanor.wordpress.com)
- Obama, Syria, and The Prufrock Syndrome (reflectionandchoice.org)
(Reuters) – The battleship USS Iowa, a storied vessel that served during World War Two and the Cold War, made a brief final voyage on Saturday to its permanent berth at the Port of Los Angeles, where it will open as a naval museum next month.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and U.S. Navy veterans who served on the 175-foot-tall (53-metre) ship, which was decommissioned in 1990, were among the hundreds of invited celebrants along for the ride.
The USS Iowa was commissioned in 1943. It carried President Franklin Roosevelt across the Atlantic to a meeting with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin during World War Two.
Later in the war, the Iowa pounded beachheads in the Pacific with its 16-inch guns ahead of Allied landings and took part in the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay in 1945. During the Korean War in the 1950s, it conducted gun strikes and bombardments.
After being decommissioned in 1958, it returned to service in 1984 during the latter years of the Cold War.
On Saturday, it was towed from a temporary anchorage in the outer harbor through the port’s main channel.
As onlookers cheered and a high school band played, the ship arrived at its permanent spot at Berth 87. It will open as a naval museum on July 7.
“The USS Iowa, ‘The Battleship of Presidents,’ is a symbol of American ingenuity and common purpose,” Villaraigosa said onboard the ship shortly after it docked.
“We are honored to welcome the USS Iowa to its new home in Los Angeles,” he said. “What a great thing to the men and women of the U.S. Navy. She’s a ship unlike any other.”
The 887-foot-long (270-metre) battleship had previously been moored in the Northern California city of Richmond, where volunteers refurbished it for months until the Los Angeles Harbor Commission voted in May to create a permanent home for it.
Tugboats pulled the ship under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco on May 26 and took it south to Los Angeles, where in recent days it underwent final preparations.
Bob Dedic, an 86-year-old Navy veteran, served on the USS Iowa during World War Two. He was an electrician and said that he and his fellow crewmates during battle were often not told their location. But ice cream cones sold for 5 cents.
“It was a great experience in my life. Too bad there was a war going on,” Dedic said with a laugh.
The distance between the two points in the Los Angeles harbor that the ship covered on Saturday was roughly 1 1/2 miles. But the ship stretched out its last journey by first passing Pier 87 and traveling under a huge suspension bridge farther up the channel, before circling back to dock at its destination.
- Historic battleship makes last, brief voyage (news.yahoo.com)
By Stella Dawson Sun Jan 1, 2012 8:04am EST
(Reuters) – Dysfunctional politics threatens to deliver a protracted period of slow global growth, possibly lasting well beyond 2012, which will only deepen the political and economic problems for the West.
The global financial crisis that began four years ago has morphed into a political crisis for the United States and Europe. Leaders incapable of wrestling their debt loads to manageable levels or reviving strong economic growth are stoking turmoil in markets and populist unrest among the citizenry.
The political malaise is also hastening the shift of world economic power toward developing countries led by China. At worst, it could cause a second global recession bringing with it political upheaval on a scale not seen since the 1930s.
These unpalatable scenarios are being sketched by a growing number of leading political strategists, academics and economists after an extraordinary year when the once unthinkable came to pass: the United States had its credit rating downgraded while the developing world enjoys upgrades; Europe went cap in hand to Beijing for a financial bailout; and Brazil overtook Britain within the G7 club of major economies.
The shifting international economic order toward developing countries is nothing new. But it has been happening at a faster pace than expected, accelerated by what these analysts have begun describing as Western democracy in crisis.
They see a government credibility problem in the United States and European Union, stemming from a perception that the political elite is too closely tied to the financial elite in the West, and their collusion caused the financial chaos of 2007 and 2008 and its messy aftermath, leaving the average citizen burdened with higher public debt, higher taxes, unemployment and austerity programs.
Left to pay for what voters see as the elite’s mistakes, public confidence in government has been undermined, and political paralysis has set in as Western leaders struggle to pull governmental levers that are not working effectively.
In contrast, developing nations have been modernizing their institutions and markets, delivering growth rates in the past decade triple those of the West. By 2020, the Centre for Economics and Business Research in London estimates that India and Russia will have joined China and Brazil in the G7 ranks as the biggest economies in the world based on total GDP output, ousting Britain and France. Only the United States, Japan and Germany will be left from the old G7 that dominated the international order since World War II.
Niall Ferguson, a prominent economic historian now at Harvard, calls this an historic power shift.
“For the better part of 500 years, it was Westerners on both sides of the Atlantic who could say that they had the best economic system, that they developed the best political system and so forth. And those claims have sounded increasingly hollow in our time,” Ferguson said in an interview.
The breakdown in public confidence caused by the financial crisis has revealed a deeper problem. “What we’re seeing in government is part of a wider crisis of Western institutions,” he said.
The Tea Party movement in the United States, the Occupy Wall Street movement and riots in Europe all are populist expressions of this breakdown of trust. Institutionally, it is reflected in a U.S. Congress deadlocked over taxes and spending with lawmakers so polarized by different narratives on the causes and fixes for the financial crisis that it is nearly impossible to reach decisions, even though both sides recognize that if left unchanged, their policies will bankrupt the nation, he said.
In Europe, leaders lurch from summit to summit, making partial decisions on fixing a debt crisis and trying to save the 17-member monetary union. But in the process the political elite in Brussels and the capitals are losing touch with their democratic base, which is uncertain it wants to pay the price required for monetary union through deep cutbacks.
Heather Conley, a former U.S. Under Secretary of State for European Affairs and now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said this near political paralysis seen in the United States and Europe is common when governments are at an inflection point.
“Without decisive direction and leadership, we march in place or attempt to muddle through, uncertain of which path to take. The West is at such a moment,” she said.
“Only an external shock I fear will force us to take the uncertain (new) path. Or we will become so frustrated that the West will choose leaders who will take us in a radically new direction. I’m not sure our frustration level has reached that level, yet. But Europe may be arriving there soon.”
Governments in Greece, Italy and Spain have collapsed or been voted out of power in the past year, and 2012 brings presidential elections in the United States, France and Russia.
ASIA NOT IMMUNE
The fall-out from Europe’s debt crisis is being felt far and wide.
Japan already has endured nearly two decades of lost economic growth and weak political leadership after its financial bubble collapsed in the early 1990s.
George Friedman, geopolitical strategist and chief executive of Stratfor Global Intelligence, sees a distinct risk that China too will join the club of countries in political stalemate, subdued or stalled growth and popular unrest – with potentially serious consequences.
“When the United States, Europe and China go into a crisis of this sort, it can reasonably be said that the center of gravity of the world’s economy and most of its military power is in crisis. It is not a trivial moment,” Friedman wrote in “Dominoes of Doom” on the website EconomyWatch.com.
China’s economy, heavily dependent on exports, is slowing fast. Officials described the global economic outlook as “extremely grim” last month after its annual work conference, signaling deep concern as China enters a year of leadership change.
The Chinese government responded to the global recession spawned by the 2007-2008 financial meltdown with a massive credit expansion that has stoked inflation and fed a property boom. It also increased controls on the economy through state-owned companies, further concentrating state power, which Friedman sees as politically destabilizing as growth slows down.
Witness the past month villagers in southern China in a 10-day standoff with public officials over land expropriation, thousands marching in Haimen city to protest a power plant and a worker sit-in in Dongguan city demanding back pay after their paper plant closed.
The best that can be hoped for in 2012 is a muddling through, where economic growth in the United States averages around 2 percent compared with zero in the euro zone, analysts said. World growth, buoyed by emerging markets, looks set to average around 3 percent.
Martin Sass, founder of the New York based hedge fund M.D. Sass with $7.5 billion under management, is among those pinning his hopes on the elections breaking the stalemate. “I never expected the level of dysfunction in the U.S. and European lawmaking … and I never saw fundamentals count for so little in the stock market. Politics and contagion were the drivers of this underperforming market, not balance sheets and earnings.”
“It is going to take a new election in November (in the United States) to get any legislation through to deal with our problems,” Sass said.
If the political system starts functioning effectively again, Mohamed El-Erian, chief executive officer at PIMCO, the world’s largest bond fund, said it’s not too late for policymakers to catch up and avert serious economic downturn.
But elections alone may not prove the answer. To break the paralysis, political leaders need to offer a new vision, one that rebalances the cozy linkage between finance and politics, otherwise the credibility of the political system will remain compromised, said Scheherazade Rehman, professor of international affairs and finance at George Washington University.
“There has to be a shifting of our institutions. The banking system is at the heart of our economic system and with it extraordinary ties to the political system. We have to rethink the close relationship that caused the breakage,” she said.
The political crisis shot to the foreground this year as voters lost confidence in how governments responded to the 2007-2008 financial crisis, global recession and the resulting explosion in sovereign debt levels. Two narratives have emerged of what went wrong. The left casts the banker as the prime villain, unpunished by the political elite who allowed CEOs to violate all the principles of fiduciary and moral responsibility in pursuit of personal gain, which fuels the perception of a political system in collusion with a criminal financial elite it is unwilling to punish.
The right-wing narrative casts big government as the villain for exploiting the crisis to expand its regulatory powers that intrude on free markets, and to spend money on huge bailouts and social welfare programs that have only exploded the budget deficit.
In both narratives, the victim is the average citizen who is left paying a gigantic bill – through high unemployment, higher taxes and lost economic opportunity. Either way, the compact between political governance and economic life has broken.
“The political reaction, whether big government is seen at fault or big business, the reaction is that the system is tainted and there is too much crony capitalism at work,” said Raghuram Rajan, finance professor at the University of Chicago and former International Monetary Fund chief economist.
There is a distinct possibility that political dysfunction will continue well after the 2012 elections – held in May for France and November for the United States, while China completes its leadership handover by the spring of 2013.
In the United States, voters could return a divided and polarized Congress again, continuing the legislative standoff. One-party rule may prove little better, if the path chosen toward budgetary discipline is excessive taxation or ultra-steep budget cuts. In France, the election winner’s relationship with Germany and fellow EU leaders will prove critical.
Although Western democracy has demonstrated the flexibility to reform when facing severe challenges, the shadow of the 1930s looms large. This uncertainty over whether strong political leadership can emerge in 2012 is haunting markets.
John Browne, senior economic consultant to Euro Pacific Capital, is among the pessimists. He told clients in his year end note that American and European Union politicians have shown utter unwillingness to take tough decisions they know should be enacted to avoid looming global economic disaster.
“With an estimated $6 trillion plus solvency shortfall of the euro zone banks, and $16 trillion in U.S. public debt, it will take leadership of far greater caliber to avert a disaster. Such leadership is nowhere in sight,” he said.
(Reporting By Stella Dawson; editing by Claudia Parsons)
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