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The Prisoner in the White House

At my request, Norman Birnbaum ’46 will be sharing some of his articles with EphBlog. Here is the first. – DK


After a year in office, the President seems—rather like most of his predecessors—a prisoner in the White House. The New York Times, not conspicuous for its irony, has just written that, other matters permitting, he hopes to do something about unemployment.

Failure to reverse it would indeed make his re-election very difficult in 2012, and is likely to result in large Republican gains in the Congressional elections of November 2010 when the entire House of Representatives and a third of the Senate will be at stake. The victory in the special election to choose a successor to the late Senator Edward Kennedy in Massachusetts (held exactly one year after the President’s assumption of office) of an unknown and not visibly gifted local politician who campaigned as exponent of the ordinary people’s virtues against the vices of the political elite, shocked the Democrats—who became aware of the danger too late to avert it. The President’s approval ratings in the public opinion polls are not worse than that of many of his predecessors at this period of the Presidency (at the end of January, half the public thought he was performing to their satisfaction) –but the contrast with the large expectations he evoked earlier, the returned confidence of the Republicans and demoralization and pronounced division amongst the Democrats, is very striking.

The relationship between domestic and foreign policy in American Presidencies follows no very standard pattern. In general, a President whose standing in domestic matters is high is freer to maneuver in foreign affairs. That is not always the case, and Lyndon Johnson, a very successful and major domestic reformer, knew that the Vietnam War was unwinnable but did not act on his insight because he feared being attacked as weak. Yet in 1964 he had won a very convincing victory against his opponent, Senator Goldwater (whom he charged with planning to do what Johnson promptly did in 1965, expand the war in Vietnam.) Nixon, per contra, entered the White House in 1969 with a reputation for unmitigated bellicosity, and proceeded to open relations with the People’s Republic of China (refused by the US, absurdly, since the Communists’ assumption of power two decades earlier), engaged in serious negotiations with the Soviet Union, and in effect abandoned our south Vietnamese client state to its fate. As the last President Bush became increasingly mired in what struck an American majority as an interminable and for many, unnecessary, war in Iraq he found that despite his re-election in 2004, he had no majority for his domestic priorities, permanent and structural rather than incidental reductions in expenditure for the American welfare state.

The Obama Presidential majority of November 2008 clearly sought a new beginning in our politics, but how many of the President’s voters shared his complex and differentiated foreign policy perspective is not at all clear. He took his election as a mandate to announce policies which would have been inconceivable under Bush and unimaginable had McCain won: reconciliation with the Islamic world, new beginning of cooperation with China and Russia, an end to hegemonic bullying in the western hemisphere, an invitation to the European Union to propose its own initiatives in world politics (of which it proved incapable), US cooperation in serious measures to control environmental destruction, a new US initiative to bring Israel and the Palestinians to a settlement, and negotiations with Iran on its nuclear project.

The program would have tried the capacities of a Franklin Roosevelt and contrasts with the minimalism forced upon Bill Clinton when he lost the Democratic majority in the House after two years in office, in 1994. Actually, in its comprehensive multi-lateralism and emphases on negotiation and economic and social development, with human rights, the Obama program is an enlarged continuation of the one Clinton espoused, but had difficulty executing. It remains to be seen if, under incomparably worse domestic economic conditions than those of the Clinton era, and with the burden of all of the losses incurred by the Bush government (Muslim hostility and generalized suspicion of our competence and motives), Obama can move forward a much more ambitious set of projects.

We have a foreign and military policy apparatus which perpetuates itself and its interests.
Its self-destructive invention, the war on terror, is hardly evidence for its perspicacity—and raises suspicions about the motives of some of the more intelligent of its members The major problems we face are: the proliferation of cultural, economic, ethnic, political and religious conflicts across borders in the absence of anything like reliable institutions of global governance, actual and potential struggles over access to markets and raw materials, major changes in economic capacity, wealth and power between the continents (with the European Union and the United States no longer occupying the commanding heights), the threats of irreversible environmental damage.

The problem of maintaining the high American standard of living is far larger, and far more difficult, than the problems of security—the more so, as many of our national conceptions of security rest on unrealistic notions of invulnerability. Our nation over time has been painfully knit together, but at the moment its cultural and ideological divisions are very acute. What we have of consensus has generally come from economic gains allowing the political and social integration of groups otherwise in conflict, or at least, encouraging explicit or tacit periods of truce in our own war of each against all. We may soon import superior Chinese railway systems (just over a hundred years after importing Chinese peasants to build our own) — a change in the division of international labor with real and symbolic consequences for the society which describes itself as “the greatest nation on earth?” Some of the change has already taken place, undermining for those US citizens able to deal with critical ideas the view that the rest of the world wants nothing so much as American hegemony. The explicit question by the Chinese Prime Minister not so long ago as to whether, in view of its large holdings of US government bonds, China could be sure that its savings were secure disturbed the economic elite. Much of the rest of the nation was and remains too concerned with its own economic condition to notice. In the Massachusetts election, the Republican winner insisted on the economic failures of Obama, while denigrating the idea of governmental action to redress the economy and articulating a primitive free market ideology. Apart from a resolute advocacy of torture for accused terrorists and deriding the idea of ordinary legal procedures for them, he said almost nothing about foreign policy.

When I was at the Harvard University Graduate School (1947-1952) my fellow students were figures like the late McGeorge Bundy, the late Samuel Huntington, Carl Kaysen and Henry Kissinger (as well as rather different persons like Robert Bellah and the late Clifford Geertz). The reigning ideas had to do with “modernization”—a thoroughly ethnocentric view in which there was no need to persuade other nations to imitate us since, given half a chance, they would wish to do so. That the world was marching toward a secular and progressive future, a society of consumption with large amounts of cultural choice, was an item of faith, if with nuances. Kissinger wondered if the US were tough enough for the struggles necessary before the golden age dawned, Bundy was worried that the nation might take democracy so seriously as to dispense with the leadership of those so obviously qualified to exercise it, like the Bundy family. That in the less academic neighbourhoods of Cambridge, Massachusetts (and the rest of the country) our fellow citizens had radically different conceptions of the nation did not trouble the prophets of Harvard and MIT. This year’s electoral surprise to many in our elites has, clearly, historical precedent.

The Cold War did not defend an American way of life, it became the American way of life. National mobilization for the wars in Korea and Vietnam, an enormous expansion of the military and political apparatus, considerable anxiety over resistance without and dissent within, and the singular denials and deformations entailed by preparation for nuclear war produced an atmosphere in which apocalyptic visions and banal careerism merged, The New Deal legacy remained intact, right through Nixon’s Presidency, mainly because a labor force in which one of three workers was unionized was able to claim a decent share of national product and elect sufficient numbers of national and state legislators to maintain governmental measures of social protection. (It was only in the seventies with the gradual decline of American manufacturing that union membership began to fall to its present low of somewhat above ten percent of the labor force.) International economic institutions the US had designed and still controlled contributed to the maintenance of economic supremacy.

The post-war decades certainly brought positive changes in our nation, the integration of the descendants of the great wave of immigration between the Civil War and the World War, a large improvement in the condition of women, and a remarkable increase in racial equality. The years 1945-90 also brought problems now very acute. Manufacturing peaked and then declined, our educational system bi-furcated into one with the most effective universities and the most under performing schools in the industrial world, our sense of a national mission rigidified into an ethnocentric triumphalism. The party of progress remained dominant, but broke in two. More than one half of the nation considered that the American revolution had been achieved, it remained to defend it against the envious and the evil. A considerable minority insisted on the uncompleted tasks of the twentieth century project of social reform—and on the danger to the US of exploitation and oppression elsewhere. Meanwhile, at least a fourth of the citizenry are political and religious fundamentalists. They think climate change an invention by arrogant scientists, resent those who too obviously think in ideas of more than one syllable, conceive of government as coercive and threatening, respond to immigration with xenophobia, and do not accept the legitimacy of the President. In a situation of intensified political polarization (for all of the President’s appeal to reason) they constitute the Republicans’ mass of political maneuver, and account for the opposition party’s decision to seek the political destruction of the President. The irresistible rage which moves the fundamentalists is something other than a critical view of the stratification of the nation and the concentration of power in it. They know enough to sense the contempt and exploitativeness with which our elites treat them. . .

The end of the Cold War brought not a respite but new problems which dismayed much of American opinion, since they seemed by comparison with the confrontation with the USSR intractable, and for many, inexplicable. (“Why do they hate us?”) Obama’s intentions of making a new beginning in our relations with the rest of the world met several sorts of resistance. That large part of the society which does not read Foreign Affairs (circulation, 145,000) remained unreflectively if at first inarticulately skeptical.

Attached on account of the Cold War and the relative quiescence of the decade which followed it to a view of the world in which the United States was in command, it was unresponsive to arguments on the necessity of multi-lateralism—and considered recourse to force of one or another kind part of the order of social nature. The so-called foreign policy community (academics, bureaucrats, journalists, politicians and their staffs, military officers and those in business, finance, the professions with vocational interests beyond our borders) is not a community at all but a set of exponents of quite antagonistic ideological and material interests—united, of course, in wishing to retain its monopolization of the political agenda.

It has been unusually difficult for the President to form and achieve control of his government. A US President names some five thousand officials, his own staff apart. The process is preposterously cumbersome, the requisite approval in the Senate slow and now often delayed or blocked by the Republicans who are following a policy of total obstructionism. The Assistant Secretary of State in charge of Latin America could not take office for eleven months, because the Republicans objected to the President’s open disapproval of the coup d’état in Honduras. Staff appointments to the White House and the executive agencies do not require Senatorial approval but are subject to extreme critical scrutiny by the opposition which has obliged the President to relinquish some of his initial choices. The Israel lobby succeeded in stopping the appointment of one of the most talented of American diplomats to a senior intelligence post because of his lack of enthusiasm for Israel’s occupation policies. There are several hundred Presidential appointments of this sort and if in some areas (the environment and labor and social protection) the President has had a relatively free hand, foreign and military policy remains terrain where strong views and independence of judgment are not always career enhancing.

The President in re-appointing Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense and naming Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State sought persons who would protect him against the very large capacities of the foreign and military policy apparatus to sabotage Presidents—and who would also serve as guarantors of his innovative projects insofar as possible. Those possibilities have not been very large and are not becoming larger.

Gates, who will stay for at least another year, was chosen because he had with former Secretary Rice drawn away from the unremitting aggressivity and unilateralism of Cheney—and, prevented Israel from attacking in Iran in 2008. Gates wrote a doctoral dissertation on Soviet foreign policy, and was a relatively competent CIA Director in an office which fells most of its incumbents, He insists on the indispensable political aspects of military action. That, to be sure, is what the newer generation of admirals and generals (most in possession of advanced degrees from the universities) thinks—the question being, what sort of politics are at issue? Gates thinks that US military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan can temporarily neutralize adverse political circumstances, giving political processes (and long term projects of reconstruction) time to set matters right. He rebuked (if softly) the US commander in Afghanistan, the special forces general, McChrystal—who had openly challenged the President on the number of troops to be sent to Afghanistan. McChrystal had previously overseen in Iraq the selective killing of adversaries of the occupation, as well as the bribery of others. Under Nuremberg criteria, he would be at severe judicial risk. Now he has intimated a willingness to bring the more cooperative of the Taliban into Afghan government. Like his superior, General Petraeus, he seems unable to imagine that those in other nations who do not welcome American intervention are not necessarily malevolent or, at best, uninformed. It is difficult to avoid the impression that like many others in the permanent apparatus, the generals are indifferent to who is President under them.

The President engaged in a long and somewhat audible period of reflection with his advisors on Afghanistan, and finally agreed to send McChrystal a large number of troops—accompanied by a very weak undertaking to start withdrawal in 2011. Given Afghanistan’s capacity to defeat invaders who intrude on its perpetual civil war, it is exceedingly unlikely that the American military operation there will succeed. The President is threatened by entrapment in a situation which can only worsen. He has explicitly denied the similarity to Vietnam, but the similarity is obvious. Kennedy refused the military and political advice he was given and was on the point of withdrawing US forces from Vietnam before he was murdered, possibly on that account. Neither Johnson or Nixon or Ford could extricate themselves before total defeat. Whatever their geopolitical miscalculations (and they were considerable) their primary motivation was fear of domestic political criticism.

Actually, Obama may have had more scope for reducing the American engagement than he allowed himself: It is now an open question of whether it is too late for him to devise a retreat. The public is not enthusiastic about the Afghan war, and is incessantly told on television that the real problem is in any case Pakistan. Some senior Congressional figures have criticized the escalation in Afghanistan, and we may have a debate on its funding. The attempted destruction of an airliner over Michigan has shifted attention to Yemen, an environment even more inhospitable to intervention than Afghanistan and Pakistan. The President finds himself making war in five Muslim nations: Iraq, where little is clear except that Iranian influence has greatly increased, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. He had previously called for increased US involvement in Africa—but instead of a program of development (in which China is already a very effective competitor) the US may find itself engaged in a limitless struggle against Islamism there too.

Who, on a daily basis, helps the President in these circumstances? The staff of the National Security Council is quite large and in effect it is a miniaturized intelligence agency and Department of Defense and State, with some domestic security functions as well. It is staffed by a mixture of diplomatic, intelligence and military officers and others recruited from the congressional staffs and the universities. The National Security Advisor, the former NATO commander General Jones, casts himself as a bureaucratic coordinator. Jones shares an advantage with the President, he grew up abroad (in France) before attending university in the US. Jones’ workmanlike approach may be due to a trait he shares with many other Roman Catholic officers, a certain sense of the limits of the legitimate and practical uses of military power (rather evident in the pronouncements of the intelligent and sober head of the armed services, Admiral Mullen.) The President is his own chief strategist —with occasional public support from the Vice-President, who was the Chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and who thinks (correctly) that many US foreign military and political ventures end either badly or ambiguously.

Senator Kerry, as his successor at the head of the Committee, seeks a large public role but is curiously reluctant to express decided opinions. The Chair of the House International Relations Committee, Congressman Berman of Los Angeles, is a persistent ally of Israel His opposite number, the senior Republican member, Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, is the voice of those of the Cuban émigrés who wish no opening to Cuba. The Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Levin, is aware of the need to control both the costs of the military budget and the Napoleonic fantasies of some of the senior officers. What he says is rational and reflective, which accounts for the fact that he is not much listened to, a condition he shares with the Vice-President.

Much of the experience, intelligence and knowledge possessed by staff of the National Security Council seems often not to rise through a compartmentalized and hierarchic structure to end in the Oval Office. The President has recurred, clearly, to his domestic political advisors—whose interest is in the immediate domestic consequences of foreign policy decision. The chief of staff, former Illinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel, is a very strong supporter of the right in Israel, from which his family emigrated. The senior political advisor, David Axelrod, appears to be more skilled at elections than at governance. In any event, he has no foreign policy profile.

Secretary of State Clinton has surprised critics of her conventionalized foreign policy utterances as Senator and Presidential candidate. She has demonstrated not only a grasp of the ambiguity and complexity of issues like human rights, and nuclear proliferation, but a willingness to undertake the education of a public usually exposed to vulgar simplifications. On problems of economic and social development and relations with, variously, China, Iran, Russia, she expresses the multi-lateralism, the emphasis on collective security and long term negotiation, of the progressive Democrats and the Republican realists descended from Eisenhower (their leaders are the older Bush National Security Advisor, Scowcroft, Colin Powell and the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Lugar—who is almost as inaudible as his Democratic colleague, Kerry.)

It remains to be seen what influence she will have on the President himself. Perhaps she has not abandoned intentions of running again for the Presidency, either in 2012 should Obama decide to retire or in 2016 if he runs in 2012. If so, she seems to think that the views originally uttered by the President from which he has at times walked or run away might still have political advantages. As long as she is in office, of course, she cannot contravene the President. The increased attention to the domestic economy devolving upon the President as the mid-term elections approach (and as the economic situation, with well over ten percent of Americans unemployed and others threatened, with whole sectors like public employment devastated, shows little sign of fundamental improvement) entails increased autonomy for the Secretary of State. She shows no inclination to excessive modesty and is clearly prepared to enlarge her role.

His Cairo speech promised reconciliation with the Muslim world. The President’s recent reluctant repetition of the rigid language of the war on terror, if with warnings about the priority of liberty, is evidence of how difficult the project has become. The campaigns of assassination in Afghanistan, Pakistan and now Yemen—whether by attacks from the air or by American special forces and their local allies —may or may not eliminate important cadres of Al Qaeda. They are certain to enflame broad fronts of resistance. American reflection on the origins of Muslim disaffection amongst the Muslim diaspora communities in Europe and the US is mostly absent—and what there is of it is often marked by shallowness when it is not pure charlatanry. The very language of discussion assumes that there is a unitary movement against the west which has nothing to do with the imperial European past or expansionist American present. Here, the Israel lobby if less omnipresent than before misses no chance to stimulate fear of Islamism.
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The American alliance with the Pakistan army, government and public is exceedingly troubled. Relations with Turkey and even the Saudi royal family are strained. US pressure on Israel to take serious steps toward negotiation with the Palestinians is so ambiguous that different parts of the government do and say different things. Still, the special envoy for Israel and Palestine, Senator Mitchell, has threatened Israel with reductions in economic aid—a step not actually taken by a US government since the senior Bush and Secretary Baker dared to do so two decades ago. US projects to exact flexibility from Israel have usually been sabotaged by Israel’s supporters in the government and the Congress

The situation is different now in three respects. It is difficult to imagine the President, if he wishes to advance his general plan for reconciliation with the Muslim world, accepting further rebuffs from Israel. The American Jewish community is itself increasingly divided, with the monopoly of leadership hitherto exercised by those who unhesitatingly take instructions from west Jerusalem challenged. Meanwhile, the previously restrained restiveness of other segments of US opinion, particularly in the foreign policy apparatus, has become more audible: there is more open critical discussion of Israel’s disproportionate influence in the US…

It is true that even a full and rapid solution to the problems between Israel and the Palestinians will not end the many conflicts between the US and the Muslim world. Without it, however, other changes remain both improbable and unlikely to last. Israel’s supporters, meanwhile, are intent on aggressive unilateralism in general, and particularly critical of negotiating Iran rather than attacking it.

It is to the President’s credit that he has indeed left open the possibility of treating Israel in terms of independent criteria of our national interest. In a long delaying action, he has held off the demands by Israel (and the entire spectrum of unilateralists) to attack Iran. The delay has allowed Iran’s domestic crisis to surface. China and Russia may profit from an eventual American confrontation with Iran, but a new Mideast conflagration would hardly leave them untouched. It does not follow that they will support sanctions but it is likely that they will assist the President in extending negotiations with Iran (even indirect ones) as long as possible.

The President has been bitterly criticized for his supposed recalcitrance to press China and Russia, as well as Iran and Cuba and Venezuela, on human rights. Many of the critics are unconditional apologists for Israel’s occupation of Palestine, many are quite selective in their (feigned or real) moral indignation. Obama’s experience of the world, his Kenyan and Indonesian families (as well as American origins in New Deal Kansas) have taught him, clearly, that the world does not tell time to American clocks. What he has not done, yet, is to embark on a serious and sustained campaign to re-educate the nation. He has not stated with the bluntness of John Kennedy (10 June 1963) that as we share the world with others, we cannot impose our model of society upon all or most of them. He has hinted at this, his omnipresence on the international stage (as in his admirably unscripted intervention at the Copenhagen climate conference) is intended to demonstrate to the nation that there are profound and permanent grounds for responding to the world in ways which mark a rupture with the assumptions that prevailed since 1945—but the nation has not gotten the message.

One reason is, of course, the conviction by many in the foreign policy apparatus (and those who seek to join it) that they can justify their privileges only by espousing a simplified triumphalism. It is an interesting question as to why a nation composed of immigrants (still a majority from Europe) should be so ignorant of other nations and their histories. It is unclear, indeed, how much of authentic as opposed to mythicised American history they know. When we add to the elite’s rejection of Edmund Burke’s conception of their legislative functions, their frequent dependence on ideological and material interest groups of every kind, we can apprehend their anxious immobility in a world escaping their control. Like Johnson in Vietnam and Nixon and Kissinger after them, they think it politically perilous to say aloud what some of them, surely, know.

It is regrettable that, neither in domestic or foreign policy, has Obama been willing to experiment with calling to government at least a few of our own dissidents— or even those who take the dissidents seriously. His failure to insist on the appointment of Freeman denied the nation the services of a thinker in direct line of descent from George Kennan, and with direct experience of both China and the Islamic world.
. He allowed his White House staff to force the departure of his own Counsel, the experienced and reflective foreign policy veteran Gregory Craig. Craig’s error was to have insisted on more rigorous adherence to the Constitutional protection of freedom than his colleagues thought compatible with the anxious state of public opinion. (Craig, probably, will be called back in some future, and inevitable moment of crisis when a senior member of the present staff will have to be replaced.)

In explanation, if not defense, of the President –he cannot be expected, alone, to reverse the accumulated errors and illusions of the last century. Our admirals and generals are definitely not fighting the last war: some recognize that they have new ones to lead. The President is fortunate, in fact, to have as the Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen—who has dared to say on national television that the nation’s financial stringency will compel new forms of military economy. Many in the foreign policy elite are victims of their own self-importance—but are sufficiently at one with ordinary citizens to share their ethnocentric provincialism. A grotesque peculiarity of American argument has intensified: those most strident in calling for “strength” have never been in the military, whose officers are usually far more restrained. . There is something of moral onanism about the desktop heroes who crowd the opinion pages of our media.

The President is constrained by the domestic situation. Quite apart from a real unemployment figure which is probably closer to thirteen or even fourteen percent than ten, one of eight Americans (and one of four children) are using government food stamps. His majorities in the Senate and House are uncertain, as numbers of Democratic legislators represent districts which voted for McCain and in any case, reject the New Deal’s welfarist and internationalist legacy. Severe budget reductions which would reduce our substantial welfare state, however, will increase the present domestic despair.

That the President has not, in the situation, called for a re-evaluation of our costly military and political expansionism (we have one thousand bases in over one hundred countries) is evidence for his caution. In his autobiography, he evoked two learning experiences. As a younger community organizer in Chicago, he learned to admire the older black pastors in an impoverished and under-privileged community: they knew that they could not do much for their congregants, minimal gains apart, but they kept at their tasks. He later reflected on what he had learned of the law at Harvard. Its function, he said, was to inform those at the bottom that things were so arranged that they were bound to remain there. Very occasionally, however, the law could be used to improve matters.

Were Obama to act less like a minimalist, his life might be in more danger than it is in already. Given the onslaught of hatred and stupidity he faces, however, he might be led to appeal over the heads of our elites to the majority which a year ago gave him their confidence and is now, clearly, disappointed. In this setting, one would wish for strong support for American alternatives from Europe. Alas, the only European voices recently heard here in Washington were those of Bildt and Rasmussen (in the Washington Post on 8 January) assuring the US of Europe’s inexpugnable solidarity with the American Afghanistan invasion. It is possible to imagine an article yet more unrealistic and servile—but only with difficulty.

Europe is important to our foreign policy makers insofar as it assents to what is asked or ordered of it. As far as the public is concerned— Brown, Merkel, Sarkozy and Zapatero could walk without escort from the White House to the Capitol down the Mall and would not be recognized except by a European tourist. Merkel with respect to Israel and Iran diligently repeats every crude formulation of the Israelis, and the singular meeting in Berlin of the German and Israel cabinets had some lines in our press. Sarkozy’s criticism of the Afghan adventure had none. It remains to be seen what impact Spain’s European Presidency may have. Disparagement of Obama for seeking to “Europeanize” the US has diminished since some in the media dared to report that, on account of their welfare states, the nations of the EU (especially in western Europe) may not have fared too badly in the economic depression.

I write as the President prepares to deliver his annual State of the Union address to the Congress and the nation. Large cuts in the Federal budget are to be announced (the large spending of the Pentagon and the huge new sums spent for internal security are to be exempted.) That represents a strategic retreat in the face of the relentless and successful Republican charge that the stimulus outlays with which he began the Presidency a year ago were largely wasted—a total fabrication exploiting the distrust of government of those who in fact are dependent upon it, but do not wish to be told so.

It is clear that the Republican counter attack on the Presidency, based not least on white America’s conviction that the Obama Presidency represents its dispossession, has thus far succeeded. Only if the President defends himself by initiating recovery from the economic disaster he inherited will he be able to win time and space for larger and long term foreign policy projects. One is reminded of Franklin Roosevelt, who inadvertently reversed recovery from the Great Depression by cutting New Deal spending in 1938—with the result that the US, with over ten percent of the labor force still unemployed, had to wait wartime spending from 1941 onward to put its people to work. Total mobilization to send, for instance, a million soldiers to Afghanistan and Pakistan is for the moment unthinkable. What is all too possible, however, are changes in southwest Asia which will endanger the forces already there, a severe confrontation with the Pakistan armed forces, and the necessity for a precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan. Meanwhile, US officialdom thinks that it can count on Arab hostility to Iran to contain Iranian influence and power—even if Iran should acquire nuclear weapons, which is discreetly and tacitly assumed to be inevitable Those who recall the German-Soviet pact of August 1939 will not be surprised by an arrangement between Saudi Arabia, and possibly Egypt, and Iran. As for the rest of the world, Obama and Clinton have rightly put a good deal of effort into constructing a stable relationship with China. The new Asian empire, however, has its own objects. In the fifteenth century, a great Chinese emperor sent fleets of huge junks to Arabia and his admiral wanted to proceed to Europe. The ruler called off the venture, since he said, the barbarians abroad were of little interest or significance and at home, he had to keep the peasants contented. His successors might still think that—and after revaluing their currency, begin the accumulation of Euros. The consequences for the US economy of a large dollar devaluation are imprevisible and in the short term, damaging. There are more ways to cause panic in the US than to threaten it with missiles.

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#1 Comment By frank uible On January 26, 2010 @ 12:01 pm

Of course, POTUS is stuck with ministering to the physical and psychic, naturally occurring aches and pains of a once, and perhaps for the short term still, great but aging world power in inevitable and irreversible decline while the American public too slowly and reluctantly gets used to the fact that domestically and abroad we ain’t what we used to be and never will be again.

#2 Comment By David On January 26, 2010 @ 3:14 pm

Were Obama to act less like a minimalist, his life might be in more danger than it is in already.

That seems overwrought to me. The history, at least post JFK, on presidential assassination attempts suggests that most (all?) such attempts are driven, not by meaningful differences in policy, but by the inner demons of the assassins themselves. You really think that if Obama, say, ended Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, his risk of assassination would increase?

I just don’t see what the mechanism would be. There is someone out there who, right now, is not angry/crazy enough to want to attack Obama but who, if Obama were less “minimalist” would mount an attempt.

Or perhaps DADT is not the sort of policy you are referring to?

#3 Comment By Jr. Mom On January 26, 2010 @ 5:21 pm

Professor Birnbaum:

This is truly a wonderful piece. Beautifully written, a pleasure to read, and most importantly, placing within my grasp a much better understanding of how many of the (heretofore, seemingly disparate) pieces of a puzzle, do indeed, fit together. Lord knows it does not lessen my worry, but I greatly appreciate gaining more clarity. Thank you for that.