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

18 October 2012

Foreign Affairs: They Matter Much More Than You Think


[For a brief comment on Libya, click here.]

The deciding factors in this race are not jobs or the economy. At least they shouldn’t be. At home, will get the same thing—more gridlock!—no matter whom we elect. Abroad, the next president will influence, if not determine, how we and the globe respond to a whole set of economic, social and military challenges.

Mitt says he can make bipartisan miracles in Congress because he “knows what it takes.” But knowing isn’t the problem. Congress is.

All the polls and projections say Congress won’t change. Voters hate Congress but love their own representatives, no matter how inflexible or extreme. So gridlock will continue, no matter who wins.

Remember Obama’s pitch in 2008? It was all about “hope.” We all hoped that his mildness and eagerness to compromise would end “Washington as usual” and restore bipartisanship. Many of us read his second book, The Audacity of Hope, which is a blueprint for bipartisanship.

But what happened? More gridlock.

GOP propagandists now want you to think it was all Obama’s fault, a result of his “polarizing quality.” But that’s utter nonsense. Congress and the electorate are deeply polarized, not the Executive. The Executive can be and is flexible. It has a whole phalanx of career servants, plus eager political appointees, whose job is to get things done.

Obama’s Executive is no exception. He made a $ 4 trillion debt deal with Speaker Boehner, only to have the House’s Tea Partiers rip it up. He put forward the American Jobs Act, which would encourage job creation by lowering taxes. That’s been the GOP’s economic prescription for as long as anyone can remember. But the House killed that bill because partisan discord is just too hot.

Mitt will find it even harder to make deals because of the way he’s run his own campaign. He pandered to the Tea Party and the GOP’s worst economic and social extremists for the entire primary campaign. Now he’s thrown them under the bus to win the general election. So the Tea Partiers are fuming and in no mood to deal.

Most or all of them will still sit in the House come January. Their electoral success will continue to terrorize otherwise more moderate Republicans, moving the party ever rightward. The tiny, vanishing breed of GOP moderates will remember what happened to Dick Lugar, the late Arlen Specter, and Olympia Snowe. So even if Mitt governs as moderately as he now promises, he won’t have many allies in his own party.

For different reasons, the Democrats are fuming, too. Mitt and the GOP have blamed them for all the blunders of Dubya, whose national reputation is so bad that he didn’t even show at the GOP’s convention in Florida. If that blame sticks and the Democrats lose, they’ll be in no mood to make nice or make deals in January. And they will have enough votes in the Senate to jam up the works with filibusters, just as the GOP has done. They might even still have a Senate majority.

So whoever wins the White House, we will see the same old thing: nothing out of Congress. Mitt’s grand legislative plans, about which he’s told us no details, will be dead on arrival.

Mitt himself knows this. He’s a smart guy and a good businessman. Good business people always have good business plans, complete with spreadsheets and numbers that add up. But Mitt has none.

Why? Because he knows that all his plans are going nowhere. Why bother? Good business people also follow the 80/20 rule: spend 80 percent of your time working on the 20 percent of tasks that will get the most done.

Like Obama before him, Mitt is no fool. He’s not wasting his time preparing detailed proposals that will go nowhere because he knows presidents don’t control domestic policy. That’s Civics 101.

None of this analysis applies to foreign policy, war or peace. In those fields, a US president today is as close to a dictator as any leader in any major power worldwide.

Our Constitution and our laws give any president plenary and unreviewable authority over foreign and military affairs. In theory, the House can influence the course of a war by tightening the purse strings. But it’s only done that once, during the War in Vietnam. And Congress has not used its equally theoretical power to declare war effectively since Korea.

These facts make our country unique in the world today. In China, a nine-person top ruling body must agree to go to war. Even in Russia, two men, Putin and Medvedyev, probably must agree. Here, it’s all a one-man show. Remember Iraq?

Not only that. We can’t easily see the back of a “supreme leader” who starts needless wars and then prosecutes them badly. Remember Dubya?

In parliamentary systems a prime minister is always just one “no confidence” vote away from retirement. A simple majority can see his back, just because they think he’s doing a bad job. That’s true, for example, in Britain, France, Germany and India. Here, the House has to find “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” to indict, and the Senate has to prove them, beyond a reasonable doubt, with a two-thirds vote.

So when you think about the two candidates, think about the risks of war today. Think about Iran. Think about China and Japan—the worlds’s number two and number-three economies—duking it out over uninhabited islands and marine resources. Think about what might happen if Syria’s civil war spills over into the region, if the Arab Spring turns sour, or if Kim decides to get even more warlike and less reasonable.

All of these things could affect your life—including your job prospects—far more intensely than the differences in policy and vision between two men whose domestic agendas are going nowhere. Any one could make huge, global economic waves, even trigger a global depression. Some of them are already making economic waves.

If war breaks out in Iran, or between China and Japan, it could tank the global economy instantly. Just think how the markets would react. And unlike job-growth plans that go nowhere, foreign affairs could put you or someone you love right into harm’s way, physically. In the worst case, they could cause massive civilian casualties, like 9/11.

My next essay will analyze in detail which candidate can keep us safer from war and global instability and moderate or win conflicts with the fewest false starts and the least suffering.

For a brief foretaste of that analysis, consider the following:

Coda: Heroism in Libya


Our big problem in Libya is information. We have no military presence. We have virtually no civilian presence. We’ve had none for decades. So we have no idea what is going on there.

Before we commit our people, strategy and treasure to a very dangerous place, we have to know more. That’s why we sent an ambassador and support staff there. And that’s why we sent them to Benghazi, the rebels’ origin and stronghold, not Tripoli. The staff undoubtedly included seasoned intelligence professionals.

But you don’t learn much about people in a rapidly changing environment by staying inside a fortress. And you won’t learn much more by walking the streets surrounded by beefy guys in kevlar armor holding automatic weapons and speaking into microphones. The locals now know that those microphones are even more deadly than the automatic weapons; they can call in airstrikes or drone strikes.

When you walk outside surrounded by such a phalanx, people lie to you. Enemies give you disinformation. Friends and neutrals tell you what they think you want to hear. Everyone you meet just wants the menacing armed presence to go away. (Wouldn’t you, in the same situation, confronted by an intimidating force of foreign warriors on your own city streets?)

That’s what caused the tragedy in Libya. It wasn’t negligence or lack of funds.

Everyone knows the caliber of our Marines and their reputation. They could have done the job of protecting the ambassador and his staff. But that wasn’t the mission. The mission was securing vital intelligence for future strategy and action, and gaining locals’ trust. What killed our diplomats was not an error of judgment, but the inescapable hazard of a delicate balance between protecting them and accomplishing their mission.

No risk, no gain. Every soldier knows and respects that tradeoff. Our fallen diplomats were civilian soldiers obeying orders, and they died for their country just like any grunt. They were heroes sacrificing themselves for what they came to get: information and trust.

They died so that armed warriors wouldn’t have to. The massive and rapid changes sweeping the Middle East, our globalizing economy, and the changing nature of war itself foretell that we will need many more like them. And there will be more such casualties in our diplomatic corps, especially in Syria.

A diplomat who does her job well can save a thousand soldiers’ lives and ten thousand families’ agony. That’s always been true. But the changing nature of warfare and globalization makes it even more true today. In failing to recognize these vital truths, and in failing to see that our fallen diplomats are soldier-heroes of a different breed, Mitt and the GOP reveal their inability to understand and cope with foreign affairs in a changing world.

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