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
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.