JP Diplomatic Consultancy - our "round up" 5 February 2010
Obama and the State of the Union: look at all those open files!
(n.b. those disappointed by Obama’s ‘lack of progress’)
Existential challenges: for the first time in history humanity faces a raft of existential challenges – climate change, pandemics, water shortage, nuclear proliferation, and overpopulation (the least discussed). And all need to be confronted as it is already late in the day.
If there is to be any hope of our species meeting these challenges, it is clear that there must be a shift in the foreign policies of the leading powers from confrontation to cooperation. President Barak Obama does appear genuine in trying to lead in creating the era of cooperation that was made possible by the end of the cold war – but which was already proving elusive before fading away with President G. W. Bush’s eight years of confrontation. But, as we warned during the 2008 presidential election, President Obama is finding it quite extraordinarily difficult to make that huge ark, USS America, alter course from confrontation to cooperation.
And if the United States does not clearly make that shift, no other major power is likely to take the lead. On the contrary, used to reacting to G. W. Bush’s neo-conservative (Project for a New American Century) attempt to create a uni-polar world, China and Russia in particular will continue to be tempted, and at times act, to take advantage of America and the West’s present weakness to forward their own narrow national interests in a confrontational manner. .
So it is vital that President Obama’s moves toward cooperation succeed. Otherwise the Pentagon is likely to prove correct in formulating its dread vision of an indefinite era of unending wars as each nation struggles to keep a portion of an ever-diminishing cake – ever diminishing because of the failure of humanity as a whole to meet those existential challenges.
“Too many open files” Our own experience working for political leaders is that just one unexpected development can take a minister’s mind away from some urgently required decision in order to deal with a minor crisis demanding immediate attention. Great leaders can of course focus on several matters at once. They are able to do so because they have well chosen their cabinet and can trust their ministers to brief them accurately and truthfully about any problem in their department that needs the leader’s personal attention. In turn, ministers know that the leader has the talent quickly to understand the issue and give the guidance required.
But, after seven disastrous years of President G. W. Bush, President Obama has – as he himself acknowledges – inherited “too many open files” (to cite the warning our computers generate from time to time). This would be daunting for any leader – even for one so gifted as Obama.
To short list just some of these “open files” all requiring his attention is to take a peek at Obama’s work load – remembering that he too, lives a 24 hours day:-
1. Climate change (over which G.W. Bush lost ten precious years doing nothing). This very complex but top priority problem is perhaps the main reason why a new era of international cooperation is essential. Here America must lead – not promise to act if China or some other country acts first. But there is immense opposition from major corporate interests to truly effective action by the US. And misrepresentation of the issues has confused not just the public but much of Congress. There is also the paralysis of the Senate (see below). Possibly the best hope is for the European Union to take the lead – as it attempted to do at Copenhagen speaking for the first time with “post Lisbon” unity – and so obliging the US to follow. A strategy of “after you, Claude” requiring some hours of briefing and careful consideration by the President himself.
2. The threat of nuclear proliferation, presently from North Korea and Iran, is perhaps the second most urgent problem requiring far greater cooperation from the major powers. Here much depends on improved relations especially with Russia – the only other possessor of a huge stock of nuclear weapons. That in turn requires rebuilding trust by definitively ending the neo-conservative uni-polar policies that Russia, China and other countries believe the US is continuing to pursue. In the case of North Korea, the best hope for success if for China, Russia, Japan and other countries involved to take the lead. In the case of Iran, once again real results are most likely to come from pressure by Russia and the European Union, backed by other countries in the region. But arranging for the US to back the initiatives of others demands great diplomatic skill and coordinatioin – requiring the President’s personal attention.
3. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars undertaken simultaneously by G. W. Bush Because simultaneous, and thus over-straining American resources, they have morphed into two “Vietnams” which have to be dealt with at the same time (“Vietnams” in the sense “now we’re in, how to do we get out with least damage”) The outcome in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan still remains decidedly uncertain. At this late stage Obama has few options in both striving to get out of Iraq as quickly as possible without a collapse of security, and striving to hold Afghanistan long enough to internationalise the stabilisation of the country. These formidable tasks are all the more difficult thanks to the widespread perception by friends and enemies alike that the US is close to losing both the wars Present G W Bush started.
4. Closely connected to both these wars is the “clash of civilisations” (Islam versus the secular West) – greatly exacerbated by Al Qaeda’s stunning success with “9/11” – a provocation designed to provoke a disproportionate ill-directed response from the US. The Iraq war, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, extraordinary rendition, and the failure to resolve the Palestine problem have all helped to make Al Qaeda’s gamble a huge success: it has successfully spawned offspring not only in Islamic countries but also in Western countries, notably the United Kingdom. This requires a comprehensive international effort to undermine Al Qaeda’s appeal – starting with a major attempt to resolve the Palestine problem, for the plight of the Palestinians still remains the No.1 reason for Muslim resentment and a major motive for “jihadism” and suicide attacks.
5. But the decades old Palestine problem which might at last have been resolved in the wake of “9/11” at the height of America’s international popularity, is stuck as never before with extremists dominant in both Israel and Palestine. And this at a time when the US is unable to pursue its own foreign policy in the Middle East because of the overwhelming influence of hard line Israeli governments through Jewish lobbying of both Congress and the media, and through the Mossad’s peculiarly close relationship with the Pentagon and the CIA. This provoked the second intifada and the electoral victory of Hamas – equally as obdurate as its Israeli opponent. The virtual Israeli “veto” freezes all attempts to establish a Palestine state, and hence to diminish Al Qaeda & Co.’s appeal and enable majority non “jihadi” Muslims to take a stand against violence without being labelled American stooges.
6. The Palestine problem and much else that needs to be resolved in the Middle East again comes back to the fact that no US president can achieve his foreign policy aims without international support. And he has to start with mending fences with the European Union and deftly encouraging the ability of the Union to speak with one voice on the international stage now that the Lisbon treaty has came into force. That is not impossible – as mentioned, it happened at the Copenhagen conference on climate change. But restoring Western unity is not enough. As President Obama has acknowledged, nothing much can be done without Russia – that other essentially European country. And reconciling Russia and Europe so bringing Russia into the “greater West” is a formidable task after and suspicions and hostility aroused not just by Putin’s Russia, but also by G W Bush’s America and some of the Europeans themselves. Nevertheless the national interests of the US, the EU, and Russia coincide remarkably – and this is recognised by clearer heads in all three.
7. And on top of these great political challenges President Obama has to grapple with the financial and economic collapse from the final year of the last US administration - essentially caused by President G W Bush continuing the fiscal deregulation begun by his predecessors of both parties, and which he exacerbated by going recklessly to war on a massive tax cut. At the root of the financial crisis is the strange but tenacious return of laissez-faire capitalist ideology notably under Britain’s former Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher and America’s President Reagan, neither of whom appear to have grasped the lessons of the Great Depression of the 1930s which led to the post-Keynesian pragmatic economics of the post World War II years where banking was confined to banking leaving risky speculation to other concerns. Fiscal discipline required annual budget surpluses to have large stimulus funds available to cushion trade cycle slumps. But under G W Bush the significant surplus left by the Clinton administration was replaced by large and ever growing deficits during years when the economy was healthy. So President Obama has been forced to further increase the deficit to provide the huge stimulus needed after years of government and private prodigality. But to do this he has has to do all he can to de-fang the opposition with its long outdated laissez-faire concepts and its refusal to accept that capitalism, to be socially acceptable, requires rules and their enforcement every bit as much as, say, football.
8. The Great Depression of the 1930s absorbed the lion’s share of the attention of both President Hoover and President Roosevelt but neither had also to deal with climate change, two “Vietnams”, nuclear proliferation etc. let alone one other “open file”: the American “addiction to oil” and the related collapse of the automobile industry partly due to government failure to require less gas-guzzling products. Lessening oil-addiction requires drastic economies, securing oil supplies, and major investment in alternative energy in very tight fiscal conditions.
9. Another aspect of the financial crisis is the US’ huge deficits on both balance of trade and balance of payments, which, coupled with Chinese undervaluation of their currency, have led to China’s vast holdings of US Treasury bonds giving China a major say over US and Western financial policies. Here part of the solution is to encourage savings when so many Americans are “under water” with mortgage and credit card debt. Even more difficult is persuading an exultant China that beggar my neighbour is not in its long term interest.
10. Then on the home front there is the imperative for the US to catch up with other advanced nations in providing universal health care – all but ignored by G.W. Bush. And health care is only one of America’s political problems that cannot be resolved without standing up to corporate interests and their lobbying power. But the big corporations are shielded by the sharp division of American society between the “politically correct” the self-described “progressives” and the traditionalist conservatives, particularly in the “red” states where ordinary people vote Republican against their financial interests to preserve what they see as their traditional morality, their way of life. So there is the task of gathering a sharply divided electorate behind the internal and external policies required by a pragmatic approach to governing. That means reassuring both “Americas” and that means persuading each side to compromise. And that is essential if Obama’s welcome pragmatism is to continue into a second term.
11. There are of course even more “open files”, but no list can leave out the present near ungovernability of the United States. None of the great challenges the United States and the West) faces can be resolved because the present filibuster arrangements require a 60 vote majority in a hundred member Senate to pass legislation. And at present the Republican party is in no mood to help a Democrat President to achieve the essential changes in foreign and domestic policy that the country urgently needs. Exploiting the President’s difficulties – in large measure caused by them - their eyes are on this year’s Congressional elections and, already, on the 2012 presidential election. So something needs to be done about the filibuster so that government can be carried on with a simple majority in the Senate.
Many people, including Americans, do not realise how far the Senate is profoundly undemocratic. While 4 states have a population of over 18 million, 21 have a population under 3 million and 6 have less than a million – yet all are represented by two senators. The two senators from California represent 37 million people, while those from Wyoming represent just over half a million! Worse, of the four most populous states three voted Democrat in 2008 – only Texas went Republican. And in the 21 states with a tenth of the population of Florida, the majority are central “red” states that are Republican. So even though the Democrats have a simple majority in the Senate, all legislation requiring a filibuster proof vote of 60, can be blocked by the senators from just 5 of the Republican central states whose electors typically have little interest in the great questions of the day. In a time of acute party conflict when the minority party is bent on wrecking the presidency, only a reform of the filibuster rules will make America able to take a full part in international affairs. Finding a way out of this paralysis is far from easy, and another urgent call on the President’s attention. Because all treaties must be approved by the Senate, America could not go to Copenhagen with a guaranteed offer for approval. Europe could, and so could China.
12. As if all this was not agenda enough for a superman, another element in the separation of powers remains under the control of G W Bush “right wing” appointees - the Supreme Court, which has just issued a judgment that threatens to tip future elections into the hands of the more extreme Republicans. It ruled 5 to 4 that there is effectively no financial limit to what corporations may spend on candidates’ election expenses. As America’s democracy depends in large measure on any administration’s ability to stand up to the great corporations and financial entities where necessary, means must somehow be found to negate this judgment. But how pass a Constitutional Amendment or even corrective legislation with the Senate as it is? That’ another dilemma for the President.
There are many other open files requiring some attention from the President, such as countering the misinformation of an overwhelming “right wing” media (notably Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation,slashing waste from the Pentagon's over $700bn budget (including the $159bn for the two wars and the the supplementary $33bn requested for the Afghanistan surge), mending relations with an increasingly independent Latin America, and responding to the situation the Sudan where peace in the South is again at risk, and the conditions in Darfur remain inhuman. But we have said enough to demonstrate President Obama’s Herculean workload and the need for patriotic Americans to sink their bitter “progressives” versus traditionalist differences and back this unusually gifted President who is blocked by so many ill-wishers from taking the actions needed to bring about the change he has promised. The US is the world’s lead country and the world is imperilled when its institutions are clogged and its electorate polarised. As never before there is a need for true patriotism and a readiness to compromise – and this applies not only to the public and Congress, but to the media.
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