Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

23 September 2012

Two Gathering Storms

Foreign affairs have a way of sneaking up on American presidents unawares. So it was with Dubya.

In his presidential debates twelve years ago, Dubya promised a “humbler” foreign policy, with no nation-building. Then a few dozen terrorists pulled off the nastiest sneak attack on our territory since Pearl Harbor. In a spastic response, Dubya started two unnecessary wars, managed them both abysmally, embarked on two creeping missions of nation building, and failed to kill the attack’s author. He left it to his successor to finish the job, wind down the two unnecessary wars, and control terrorists with counterintelligence, drones and ninjas.

Few Americans would have voted for a candidate as self-evidently stupid as Dubya in a time of clear and present danger abroad. But we thought then, along with Francis Fukuyama, that we had seen the end of history.

The Cold War was over. We were still enjoying the “peace dividend” and basking in the false glow of our supposed “victory.” Our businesses were dominating foreign markets. Our bankers were rampant. It seemed as good a time as any to drown government in a bathtub and throw a huge expensive party, with Dubya as Frat Boy in Chief.

The party came to an abrupt end on 9/11, especially for the one percent of Americans who now fight our wars for us. Then the Crash of 2008 killed the music, too.

Those two events—9/11 and the Crash—were the bookends of Dubya’s catastrophic presidency. No wonder Mitt and his pack of extremists didn’t even want Dubya at the Republican convention!

Today we’re sadder but wiser. Or at least we should be wiser. Anyone who can read the news knows there are two storms gathering at opposite corners of the globe.

No, they don’t include that ridiculous Islamophobic film (by a coward who won’t even show his face or name), nor the enraged overreaction from the usual suspects. Nor are they our still-rampant bankers, whose gambling and swindling could replay the Crash of 2008 at any time.

The real gathering storms are potentially even worse. They could sneak up on us like 9/11 and change our world and our way of life in days or months, just like the last century’s social cataclysms.

The first storm has been brewing for some time. Iran appears to be after nuclear weapons, or at least the ability to build and deploy them quickly. Israel feels an existential threat. Benjamin Netanyahu—a man whose subtlety is akin to Dubya’s—is eager to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. The only things holding him back are the President of the United States and Netanyahu’s hope that we will strike first or aid his strike.

First the strike was to be in April. Then July. Now Netanyahu appears to have agreed to hold off until after our elections. The hawks in Israel and here at home are getting restless.

Only two things are certain. First, the man in the Oval Office next year will have to handle Iran, Netanyahu and the hawks with care, finesse, and experience. Second, if a strike comes, and if Iran can carry out its threat to close the Straits of Hormuz, the man in the Oval Office will have to deal with oil at $200-$300 per barrel and a possible second Great Depression if the closure lasts for more than a few weeks.

As bad as all that might be, an even greater storm is now brewing in the East. Japan and China are rattling sabers over the Senkaku/Daioyu Islands and related mineral and ocean rights. The islands are small and uninhabited, but the conflict is real and substantial. It involves marine oil-and-gas rights, mineral rights, sovereignty, and historic grievances. Long buried nationalism and hatred are rising in both countries.

If not resolved soon, this conflict could explode the global economy as quickly as a strike in Iran and Hormuz closure. It could disrupt or terminate a $350 billion trade relationship between the world’s number-two and number-three economies, sending an already weak global economy into a deep recession. In the worst case, it could start a new world war, with us bound by treaty to defend Japan, even if its attempts to avoid the conflict appeared inadequate.

Are these fears exaggerated? The Chinese themselves don’t seem to think so. Already the fears seem to have disrupted the transition of power in China to Xi Jinping as leader. For the Chinese—who love to “save face” and give the appearance of effortless, effective transitions—Xi’s having gone AWOL for nearly two weeks is a big, big deal.

Xi himself is hard to read. In one of his most famous statements to foreigners, he said “We don’t export revolution, and we don’t mess with you.” Yet later he also said, “China is a big country, and that’s a fact.”

If he’s like most pols, he probably said the first thing for foreign consumption, and the second to provide red meat for nationalists at home. But it’s unclear what he really believes and where he’ll take China. It’s also unclear whether he has the skill to contain the dragon of nationalism that he or others already may have released. That thought is enough to give anyone a bad back.

If China and Japan go to war, it will affect us. It won’t matter whether the war is limited in military terms or only diplomatic and economic. We will be involved, willy nilly, because our economy depends hugely on both countries.

If the war is military, we might be involved in a big and disastrous way. After a century of conflicts around the world, we can never again have illusions of geographic or cultural immunity, as we once did with “that war in Europe.”

Dubya made abysmal decisions in foreign policy in part because he had no experience in that field, or with foreign cultures generally. He wasn’t even a seasoned American pol, let alone an actor on the international stage. His entire experience in public affairs (other than in his father’s campaigns) was six years as governor of Texas. He learned about the world outside our borders in a crash course from Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia during his first presidential campaign. The results speak for themselves.

Mitt has even less experience in politics than Dubya did on becoming president: four years as governor of Massachusetts. He has zero experience in foreign policy, as his gaffes in Britain and Israel showed. It’s unclear yet who, if anyone, will be his Prince Bandar, but his words so far hint that his main concern abroad (other than jingoism to win elections) will be oil, just as was Dubya’s. His jingoism on China and Iran reflect the rawest and most naive misunderstanding of the world outside our borders that anyone could imagine from a leader of the free world.

Eleven years after 9/11, we know that Fukuyama was wrong. There will be no end to history until we humans extinguish ourselves in nuclear fire or pollution, or until we ascend to a higher level of intelligence and begin to solve our problems by cooperating.

If we Yanks are to choose the better path, we are going to have to have a leader with experience, subtlety, finesse and some understanding of foreign cultures. Mitt is self-evidently not that man. His election would put us right in the center of two gathering hurricanes without an umbrella, a raincoat or any visible means of escape.



  • At Sat Sep 29, 09:15:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Firstoff, Moslems (except for the Saudi Rolyal family)had nothing to do with 9-11.
    It was strickly a CIA/Mossad operation.
    Notice GWB didn't close the borders and authorized even more student visas for Saudi 'students'?
    Too late for anything but buying more beans and bullets.

  • At Sun Sep 30, 04:11:00 PM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear Anonymous,

    I can see why you want to be anonymous.

    I’m publishing your comment not because it states facts or makes any sense. I’m publishing it as an example of the sort of pernicious nonsense that circulates on the Internet and that could destroy this country (and your young life!) if enough people believed it.

    Nothing in your comment makes any sense at all. The closest thing to a “fact” is Dubya not closing the borders after 9/11. But by then it was already far too late. What Dubya did do (because he and his family had always been close friends with Saudi rulers), was get key Saudis, including members of the bin Laden family, quickly and quietly out of the country to avoid an intentional incident.

    Your key points are patent lies. Neither the CIA or Mossad had anything to do with planning our carrying out 9/11. In fact, a memo warning of that kind of attack, partly authored by the CIA, had been sitting on then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice’s desk for about a month. Would the CIA warn of an attack it was about to spring?

    Because she had spent her whole life focusing on the Soviet threat, Rice didn’t take Al Qaeda seriously. So the memo never got to Dubya’s desk. And he—who had learned all he knew about foreign policy from Rice and Saudi Price Bandar—probably would have ignored it anyway.

    As for a motive, why would the CIA or Mossad destroy the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon? You don’t suggest a reason, perhaps because it’s impossible to conceive of any logical one.

    Last but not least, Muslims did perpetrate 9/11. At least the hijackers, bin Laden, Zawahiri (bin Laden’s second in command) and Khaled Sheikh Mohammad (the operational planner) all claimed to be Muslims. (Whether they were or are real Muslims who follow the Qu’ran is another issue, but not one that you mention.) Bin Laden, in particular, had published a famous purported fatwa, which “authorized” the attacks.

    From the quality of your writing and your absence of reasoning, I infer that you are somewhere between nine and fifteen years old. (You don’t even have a second point to go with your “Firstoff.”) If your age is near the end of this rage, you are late in attaining the age of reason.

    Stay in school. Learn history, logic and cause and effect. Then maybe in a few years, you’ll be able to see how ridiculous your comment is. Maybe you’ll even be embarrassed. You’ll certainly be happy that you chose to remain anonymous, so your self-evident immaturity won’t follow you around all your life and reduce your chances for gainful employment.

    But most of all, grow up. Politics and foreign affairs are serious businesses. They could kill you. Wait until you’re an adult and know something before trying to participate.



  • At Tue Oct 02, 10:02:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Dear Jay,

    You may be correct about the first commenter's age being between nine and fifteen years of age. However, isn't there a greater chance they are already a full grown adult that regularly follows Fox news and/or the likes of Rush Limbaugh?

    I know it is a scary thought but it is also more scary that they may have the right to vote! Maybe their type of logic is similar to the logic of the 42 percent or so that are voting for Mitt?

    Rod H.

  • At Thu Oct 04, 08:57:00 PM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • At Thu Oct 04, 09:11:00 PM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear Rod,

    I’m pretty careful about levels of certainty. Note that I said “I infer” the commenter’s age.

    I made that inference based not only on the substance of the comment, which is bizarre and logically disconnected, but on the use of language. The comment reads like a kid trying unsuccessfully to mimic an adult who thinks he knows it all. (I hope that adult is not the commenter’s father!)

    Of course the commenter could be an adult, perhaps one with serious learning/maturation disabilities. But not even Fox would propagate such obvious nonsense because: (1) it has no right-wing political purpose; (2) it discredits the CIA and Israel, both of which Fox loves, and (3) Fox tolerates Saudi royalty because it loves anything related to oil. Finally, not even Fox would make this claim because it belies bin Laden’s and KSM’s public, multimedia confessions, bragging about having planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks—a point I neglected to make in my first reply.

    So no, as much as I despise Fox and its decades-long perversion of American values and culture, it’s not guilty here. This is the type of rant that inspired me to write “The digital generation is the first truly lost generation, for in cyberspace everything is true.”




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