Notably absent this morning from President Obama’s monthly meeting on Afghanistan and Pakistan will be Richard Holbrooke. The special envoy passed away yesterday evening after a weekend full of surgeries to attempt to repair his torn aorta. He had fallen ill on Friday during a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and had been rushed to the hospital. Known as the Bulldozer for his work to help end the Bosnian war, Holbrooke was praised by leaders across the world, even those with whom he had an at times tense relationship, like Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Larry Summers, who has stepped down as an adviser to President Obama, holds the distinction, in a very crowded field, of being one of the most pompous government officials in recent memory. As Dana Milbank observes in the Washington Post, Summers couldn't even gracefully manage his own exit from the administration. Instead, in a farewell address at the Economic Policy Institute, he remained true to himself--sneering at everyone as he departed.
Fortunately, Summers' goverment service has presumably reached its terminus. Summers is symptomatic of the problems that have plagued Obama, which is to say that he exemplifies the Ivy League syndrome. He is a high IQ moron.
Of course Obama put all his faith in the wunderkinder from the Ivy Leagues who would supposedly turn around the economy. They never did. Instead, Summers, a protege of the now-discredited Robert Rubin, had no real remedies for the catastrophes that he helped bring about during his years as Treasury Secretary in the Clinton administration--a post that he should never have occupied. Now Summers apparently thinks that everything will be hunky-dory with the economy. This blowhard told Milbank that it's "not always easy for people to understand," but things aren't so bad.
10 percent unemployment? Crushing federal debt? No matter. As Milbank acidly put it, "Americans don't know how good they've got it--because they aren't as smart as Larry Summers."
Smart. The word brings to mind an anecdote about Saul Bellow that Irving Kristol once recounted:
A poll of Iranian public opinion taken in September and released last week underscores some American misperceptions of how Iranians view issues that divide the two countries. The poll, conducted for the International Peace Institute, perhaps needs to be treated with caution because it involved just 700 respondents who were questioned by telephone from outside Iran. It nevertheless shows some distinct patterns in Iranian views about relations with the west and the vexing nuclear issue.
About half of those polled believe that international sanctions are having a significant impact, and just over half consider sanctions and isolation to be Iran's chief foreign policy problem. Moreover, Iranians clearly are worried about their economy—the harming of which is part of what sanctions are all about—with three-fourths of respondents complaining that their incomes are either stagnant or dropping. So far, so good regarding the immediate objective of sanctions, of making things hurt. But as for the ultimate objective regarding the nuclear program, sentiment is heading in the wrong direction. Seventy-one percent said they want Iran to have nuclear weapons, up from 52 percent in a similar poll taken in 2007.
Another bifurcation appears in attitudes toward the United States and the rest of the West. By a three-to-one margin, Iranians want closer relations with the West. But almost nine-tenths of the respondents expressed negative sentiments toward the United States—up 40 percentage points from a similar question two years ago—while 55 percent are negatively disposed toward the European countries.
Last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that progress in the Afghan war has "exceeded" his expectations. I'm prepared to believe that Gates's expectations were probably far too high to begin with, but they are extraordinarily so considering the pessimistic expectations of Afghans recently surveyed by a joint Washington Post, ABC, and BBC News . It found that Afghans interviewed are less confident in the ability of the United States and its allies to provide security. Nationwide, more than half said that U.S. and NATO forces should begin to leave the country by mid-2011 or earlier.
Ahead of a major White House review of its Afghan strategy, the most recent incidents of violence against American soliders certainly don't help the administration's latest effort to galvanize public support for the war.
As an aside, my friend Gilles Dorronsoro signed a letter to President Obama urging him to change the American strategy in Afghanistan:
U.S. envoy George Mitchell will meet with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today to try to get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table. Also on Mitchell’s schedule is a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meanwhile outlined the U.S. approach in a speech. She said that Washington will push the parties “to lay out their positions on the core issues without delay, and with real specificity,” vowing that “the United States will not be a passive participant.”
Center for International Policy Asia program director Selig Harrison and retired U.S. Army Lt. General John Cushman think they know how to stop the fighting in the Yellow Sea between the two occupants of the Korean peninsula. Noting that the latest tussle (in which the North first sunk a South Korean warship in March and then shelled a sparsly occupied island in the disputed waters) is only the most recent in a string of naval incidents going back to the end of the Korean War, the authors write in the New York Times that the main problem is that the boundary line, originally meant to "impose a limit on any potential South Korean encroachment" on the North, in fact gives "the best fishing grounds" to the South. Now that Seoul is light years ahead of Pyongyang economically, it can afford to give some ground in order to prevent further "accidental" conflicts. And luckily (since the ROK's "hard-liner" President Lee Myung-bak might not be so keen on the idea), the 1950 UN Security Council resolution that gave Washington the power to redraw the boundary is still in effect, so President Obama doesn't even need permission from the South Koreans to take care of the problem. Harrison and Cushman also float North Korean General Ri Chan-bok's proposal to replace the 1953 armistice with a "trilateral peace regime," and say Pyongyang would even accept the presence of U.S. forces on the peninsula if it means replacing the original treaty.
Talking about decline can, as the late political scientist Samuel Huntington once observed in these pages, be a way of averting it. Today Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne tackles the topic. The question is simple: Can America continue to say "I am the greatest" or is it the latest superpower to go down the tubes. Is it still an exceptional nation (if it ever was) or has it become a journeyman?
Two things are at work. The first is a lack of confidence in the Obama administration. The administration's performance has been haphazard abroad. It's stuck in Afghanistan. North Korea is thumbing its nose at Washington. China is a rising power. The recovery of the economy has been halting. So one avenue of attack is to claim that the Obama administration is personally culpable for the loss in prestige of America. Had John McCain or another Republican been elected, none of this would be occurring. So the first theory of decline ties America's declining power to the Obama administration.
The second approach is to see it less as a product of Obama and more as a structural problem. It's inevitable that other powers will rise. India and China are on the march. Shanghai school students are now scoring top marks on international tests, while American ones flounder. There isn't really much the United States can, or really should even try, to do about it, apart from retrenching and improving its own performance at home. As Paul Pillar recently argued, the notion of American exceptionalism has caused a lot of problems for both Americans and the rest of the world.
The attack by student protesters Thursday evening in London on a limousine carrying Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, offers some broader conclusions. None of them are, as some commentary has suggested, that we are on the verge of a new era of protest with students in the vanguard. My alternative lessons:
Security threats can emerge from just about anywhere. The main theme in commentary in Britain about the incident is recrimination over a breakdown in security. “How could this be allowed to happen?” is the most frequently asked question. Investigations and inquiries no doubt will retrospectively point to some error in judgment about the route selected, or some shortfall of communication between the royals' security detail and other police elements. But even with terrorism—which this incident was not, although it could have been—the potential sources of threat are multitudinous. When non-terrorist agents of disruption such as rowdy students on a London street are factored in, the potential sources are essentially infinite. Even meticulous preparations cannot allow for them all.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is putting all of her diplomatic skills to use trying to break the stalemate over the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Yesterday the secretary met with Isaac Molho, Israel’s chief negotiator. Molho sat down with Clinton for an hour and also spoke with special envoy George Mitchell for three hours. State Department spokesman PJ Crowley was vague about what went on during the meeting. He said Clinton was “getting a perspective on the Israeli side of how to move forward” and that the two also touched on “substantive issues.”
Today, Clinton will meet with the other side. The Palestinians’ chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Twice this week the secretary of state spoke on the phone with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas to try to get the Palestinians to Washington. She is also scheduled to meet with Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, today. The two-day push will be wrapped up this evening with Clinton’s speech at the Saban Center that is expected to touch on the administration’s ideas on how to move forward.
Of course the peace process isn’t the only issue on Clinton’s plate. The secretary of state will head to Quebec on Monday for talks with the foreign ministers of Canada and Mexico. The meeting, according to Crowley, will be key to identifying the countries’ “trilateral priorities,” including in the areas of economics, regional security and climate change.
If you needed evidence that there isn’t much of a constituency for the First Amendment these days, the hysterical bipartisan reaction to WikiLeaks’ latest document release should do the trick. Senators Joe Lieberman and Diane Feinstein view constitutional protection of speech as a mere speed bump on the road to prosecuting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for espionage. The Obama administration, now promising his prosecution, does not dissent. The Republicans calling Assange a terrorist (presumably based on a novel definition of terrorism as “things that harm the US government”) avoid even such minor gestures toward constitutional restraint. Acceptance of their previous claims that the government can kill whomever it designates a terrorist would moot debates about the speech rights of those so labeled.
Happily, the predictability of unpopular speech is why it enjoys constitutional protection. Which is another way of saying that the First Amendment is for a-holes.* Julian Assange qualifies—in the sense that he is both engaged in an activity deserving First Amendment protection and annoying enough to need it.