Friday, November 12, 2010
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
America's 43rd President George W Bush might not be the brightest of presidents, but he is certainly the closest any president can be to honest. In more than 480 pages, and in a delightful and entertaining style, W recounts his experience leading the United States.
You might not agree with Bush's thinking, but the book illustrates how he thinks, and how he took many of his decisions. Just beware that at times, W does not say all what he knows, even though what he tries to hold back has become common knowledge.
For instance, David Sanger of the New York Times reported, and later published in a book, that Israeli officials showed up in Washington with satellite pictures of a Syrian nuclear reactor. In the book, Bush wrote: "In the spring of 2007, I received a highly classified report from a foreign intelligence partner. We pored over photographs of a suspicious, well hidden building in the eastern desert of Syria."
Bush argues that since US intelligence could not verify that the reactor was part of a Syrian weapons program, he told former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that America's air force would not take out the facility. Bush reported that Olmert said his country considered the Syrian reactor an "existential threat." On September 6, 2007, the facility was destroyed.
Needless to say, it is publically known that the Israelis supplied the intel, while their fighter jets - publically - took out the Syrian reactor. The fact that this book leaves out such details is annoying, even if it was a matter of style only.
The Syrian reactor account might make some readers think: If W was leaving out details, how much detail was he leaving out exactly? And would such details change our perception of some stories if they were told differently?
At any rate, Bush's narration makes readers - even his opponents amongst them - like him again. The book is certainly a legitimate PR stint that aims at correcting Bush's image.
But whether readers will love the book or hate it, it is certainly a primary source from a man who presided over America during its darkest of days. I am happy to have a copy in my library.
Past midterm defeats suggest that America’s current shift to the right is only temporary US President Barack Obama (L) and First Lady Michelle Obama (R) dance during a cultural event at The Holy Name High School in Mumbai on 7 November 2010.
WASHINGTON: In November 2008, dressed in a tuxedo and next to his elegant wife, President-elect Barak Obama led a ball dance in Washington to celebrate his sweeping electoral victory. Two years later, on a visit to Mumbai, Obama and his wife Michelle danced to the beat of Indian folk music, along with children who performed before their special guests.
Unlike in Washington in 2008, the Obamas were all but elegant in Mumbai in 2010. The president was dressed in a white shirt and had rolled up his sleeves, while the first lady appeared in a modest skirt and a cardigan. Shabby and seemingly exhausted after two trying years in power, Obama had been defeated in mid-term elections a week prior to his Asian tour. His party had lost 60 seats, and thus the majority, to the Republicans in Congress. The Democrats also saw their nine-seat majority shrink to one in the Senate.
Pundits started asking questions about the presidential election of 2012 and the fate of America’s first African-American president. Fears about Obama’s political future were fueled by statements from Republican figures stating that their next goal was to make Obama a one-term president.
Obama himself conceded. The American people had grown impatient with an economy that seemed to be alive, but in a coma. Growth stood at less than two percent, while unemployment was stubbornly stuck at 9.6 percent. Amidst their economic hardships, Americans punished Obama, and—in the words of Republican Congressman Eric Cantor—gave the GOP a second chance. If a Republican displaces Obama in 2012, America’s shift back to the right would become complete.
This American shift, however, is not guaranteed. In fact, the chances of knocking Obama out of the White House in 2012 would have been higher had the Democrats kept their Congressional majority. The rationale behind such an explanation is based on the idea that, apart from ideological loyalties, the greater majority of Americans tend to punish their incumbent representatives by electing their rivals. This is what happened earlier this month when the Democrats lost to the Republicans.
For their persisting economic ills, Americans blamed the Democratic Party, which has been in control of Congress since 2006, and of the White House since 2008. But now that the Republicans took over Congress, come 2012, should America’s economy remain in limbo, the Republican Party will receive its share of popular anger. When Americans are equally angry with both of their parties, presidential and Congressional candidates, from both sides of the aisle, will stand equal chances in the coming election cycle.
Recent history supports the theory of presidential comebacks after midterm defeats. In 1982, legendry former President Ronald Reagan saw his party humiliated in Congressional elections. Two years later, Reagan’s own reelection victory was so resounding that he won 49 states and left his Democratic opponent, Walter Mondale, with only his home state of Minnesota.
America’s 42 president, Democrat Bill Clinton, also rebounded from a humiliating midterm defeat in 1994 as he saw his fortunes reversed during his reelection in 1996. A replay of the Reagan and Clinton scenarios is not inevitable for Obama, however. In both scenarios, Reagan and Clinton were first elected on the promise to fix a weak economy. When recovery was late, both presidents were punished when their respective parties were defeated in midterm elections. During the second halves of their first terms, both Reagan and Clinton succeeded in firing up the economy. America reelected them.
For Obama to keep his job in 2012, the American economy should roar once again. To Obama’s good fortune, several economists project strong growth and a decrease in unemployment by the end of 2011.
The pattern of midterm Congressional losses, followed by presidential reelection, does not suggest that America has shifted permanently away from the left in 2008, to the right in 2012. It rather shows that when it comes to elections in the United States, it is always about the economy, which apparently comes first, while all other issues, whether domestic or foreign, come a distant second.
US President Barack Obama (L) and First Lady Michelle Obama (R) dance during a cultural event at The Holy Name High School in Mumbai on 7 November 2010.
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
By abandoning manufacturing, the U.S. has cleared the path for the Beijing Formula to replace the Washington Consensus
The United States will reverse its economic decline only when it abandons the neo-liberal school of economics, reindustrializes and understands that the so-called Washington Consensus, once hailed as the only formula for the wealth of nations, has created false illusions of economic prosperity.
The U.S. financial meltdown of September 2008 was more than a routine economic hiccup. It marked the end of three decades of Reaganomics and replaced them with what many believe is the Chinese model of combining the market's "invisible hand," a longtime orthodoxy for Western countries, with the "visible hand" of the government, inherent from long-ago abandoned Marxist theories.
In a word, the new Beijing Formula seems to be replacing the Washington Consensus.
The ascendance of the West - the European powers and later the United States - as leading world economic, military and political powers, started some five centuries ago and accelerated with the onset of the Industrial Revolution.
The more the West manufactured, the more capital it accumulated, and the more markets it conquered. Wealth could afford standing mechanized armies that allowed the various European powers to subdue the world and use their might for their own mercantile interests - often leading to clashes over these interests.
While many historians argue that the raging intra-European conflicts ultimately led to the demise of their empires, a few other economic historians now attach the decline of the British Empire (for example) to the country's decision to slowly abandon its manufacturing sector in favor of service-oriented economies, in particular financial services. Britain was then replaced by other countries whose economies were perfecting manufacturing of all sorts: Enter the United States.
As an industrial powerhouse, the United States accumulated wealth that allowed it to fund a huge army and build an economic empire even greater in depth and breadth than Britain's.
By the 1960s, when the rebuilding of post-World War II Europe had concluded, the Cold War and the number of countries under Soviet control meant that the United States was left struggling to find markets for its robust production. To make up for this absence of international markets, the United States compensated by transforming itself into the world's leading consumer.
By the 1970s, the American market became saturated, and with the emergence of other industrial hubs in Germany and Japan, the United States' economy stalled. Inflation surged along with unemployment. The 1973 Arab oil boycott further complicated and exacerbated American economic troubles.
By the time the presidential elections of 1980 came around, President Jimmy Carter had failed to break this dead economy spell. Americans thus elected conservative Ronald Reagan, who brought with him neo-liberal economists like Milton Friedman and Arthur Laffer, among others.
The Reagan team argued that the market, if left on its own, was efficient enough to generate economic growth and that the solution to the United States' economic troubles rested in fixing its monetary policies. Lo and behold, the Friedman-Laffer trick worked - at least temporarily.
Between 1980 and 2000, the United States saw unprecedented economic growth. And with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, the country stood as the world's lone military superpower.
The United States' economic prosperity combined with its military might - and the accompanying collapse of the command economies in the formerly communist states - made thinkers like Francis Fukuyama argue that history had reached its end with the West's combination of liberal political and economic systems proving to be the best model for society.
At the same time, John Williamson drafted the Washington Consensus in 10 points: Impose fiscal discipline, reform taxation, liberalize interest rates, raise spending on health and education, secure property rights, privatize state-run subsidies, deregulate markets, adopt a competitive exchange rate, remove barriers to trade and remove barriers to foreign direct investment.
The resulting availability of cheap credit not only pushed Americans, and their government, to live beyond their means through borrowing, it made Americans believe that the financial services sector was more important than all other sectors. Why use the capital to manufacture if this same money, when thrown into the financial market, can bring more money?
Eventually, the decline of the United States' industrial "rustbelt" in the Northeast and Midwest came to encompass much of the rest of the country. Through the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Washington managed to shove its Consensus pill down the throats of countries all around the world, most of which are under water today with colossal debts.
There was at least one major country that did not swallow the pill: China. Instead, benefiting at first from vast sources of cheap labor, it became the world's biggest factory.
Like a century earlier when an industrial United States displaced the financial services hub, Britain, as the world's economic power, China has come today to replace the United States in manufacturing, accumulation of wealth, and is en route to similarly displace the United States as the driver of the world economy.
At the same time, with the world increasingly interconnected and transforming into a "global village," China introduced some innovations into its own industrial model. Beijing realized that winning the biggest share in world trade required government intervention in favor of Chinese companies when competing with international companies.
China's model has so far been a success, and it does not look to be bending anytime soon.
Meanwhile, the United States has to grapple with $13 trillion in government debt and 10 percent unemployment. More Friedman-Laffer will not cut it for American revival this time. Only reindustrialization will.
After all, a nation of real estate agents and stockbrokers cannot lead the world.
- The author is the Washington D.C. correspondent for the Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai.
US President Barak Obama speaks at a rally for Democratic Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts in Boston, Massachusetts last month. (AFP/Saul Loeb)
The US midterm elections are expected to tip in favor of the Republicans, and some speculate US foreign policy will also shift. Several think that Obama’s Middle East efforts will not only take the backseat, but that US strategy in the region will take a new and aggressive turn.
With the House and Speaker in the hands of the Republican Party and the Democratic majority significantly shrinking in the Senate, President Barak Obama will find it increasingly hard to rule from the “left,” and will inadvertently find himself inching closer to the center of American politics.
One of the favorite parallels pundits have been drawing over the past few months has been between Obama and former President Bill Clinton, another Democrat who swept his way to power in 1992, only to crumble facing a Republican midterm tsunami in 1994. If the parallel stands, Obama’s re-election in 2012 should be a done deal.
However, history does not repeat itself every time. Republicans have been trying to highlight their 1994 Congressional victory, along with their 1980 presidential upset, when Republican Ronald Reagan defeated sitting Democratic President Jimmy Carter.
It remains too early to predict whether Obama will pull a Clinton or a Carter in 2012. What is certain is that the Democratic defeat will force Obama to offer Republicans more concessions on a number of issues: America’s foreign policy being one of them.
During his 2008 electoral campaign, Barak Obama gave voters big promises, including some that were seen as unrealistic, such as initiating dialogue with Tehran, engaging Syria, or forcing a peace treaty on the Palestinians and Israelis.
Since his inauguration, many foreign policy experts have said Obama’s foreign policy has been too ambitious and naïve. And they were right. Iraq remains a mess, and although a complete withdrawal of US forces is scheduled for the end of 2011, it is pending another security agreement between Washington and Baghdad, which could be challenging in light of the instability on the ground.
On Palestinian-Israeli peace, Obama has been soft, rolling back his harsh words against Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories, and telling The New York Times that peace talks were ‘harder than he had anticipated.’
Obama has been wrong. His vision for Middle East peace has been disconnected from reality.
For all of his foreign policy mistakes, nothing compares to Obama’s failure to engage diplomatically with Iran and Syria. He extended his hand to the Iranians, who – with a regional status quo in their favor – saw no reason to negotiate, and left it dangling in the air, while cracking down on the Green Movement activists in the aftermath of the forged presidential re-election in 2009. Obama has sent one secret emissary after another to Tehran, but the Iranian regime still stands defiant.
In Syria, Obama’s foreign policy fared slightly better. At least American envoys were able to land in Damascus and meet with Syrian President Bashar Assad and his associates. Yet unfortunately for Obama, Syria calculated that with Iran on the rise and America on the decline, there was no reason to concede anything to the United States.
The Syrian lobby in Washington – consisting mainly of senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Arlen Specter (D-PA)—had Obama’s ear for a while, propelling America’s “engagement with Syria” program, which included reappointing a US ambassador in Damascus. The last US ambassador there, Margret Scobey, was recalled in February 2005 after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Despite being in the minority, Republicans mustered enough power to block Syria’s reconciliation with Obama. GOP senators threw a hold on Robert Ford’s appointment as ambassador to Syria. Obama rightly guessed that overriding such a hold – during Congressional recess in August – would be politically costly and not worth the trouble, given Syria’s general unresponsiveness and inability to deliver amidst Iran’s dominance throughout region.
Obstruction by the Republican minority is now history. The GOP will now be the majority in Congress. This does not mean Republicans will be able to dictate foreign policy over the Commander-in-Chief, it means Obama will have to pick his battles, lest his chances for re-election in 2012 be compromised.
Obama and his aides have already rehearsed a Democratic defeat in the midterm elections, and have decided to reorganize their priorities. With 2012 in the back of their minds, Democrats are expected to focus on domestic issues, avoiding battles on foreign policy.
This means Obama’s zeal for the peace process will recede. Washington’s mood on engagement of hostile regimes, such as Iran and Syria, will likely sour. More aircraft carriers are expected to sail from US ports to the Gulf, in order to turn the heat on Iran and other adversaries.
With the House of Representatives in Republican hands, Obama will either have to turn into a hawk like Clinton, gritting America’s teeth to the world, or risk appearing weak like Carter, and exit the White House without a second term.
Obama’s attempts to settle disputes through diplomacy in the Middle East have proven disastrous. As such, America’s foreign policy has shifted from engagement to more confrontation. A Republican victory will bring a more assertive American superpower to the world stage.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Correspondent of Kuwaiti daily Al Rai.