September 11, 2012
Hit the Road, Niall
In the annals of partisan hackery few pieces of late have been as ridden with inaccuracies, half-truths and flawed logic as Niall Ferguson's August piece in Newsweek, certainly one that brimmed with as much cocksureness and self-contentedness so as to verge on the solipsistic (Mr. Ferguson accuses President Obama of having a “solipsistic narrative” but he might be better served to look in the mirror). Ferguson assures us he was a “good loser four years ago” with respect to his ill-fated support of John McCain, but this time, “fired up,” he wants the Romney-Ryan ticket “badly to win”. In this misguided “fired up” zeal, Tina Brown provided him the perfect middlebrow forum in which to embarrass himself, and rather “badly”, I dare say. The misrepresentations (I am being generous) crossed with subsequent nakedly transparent and disingenuous CYA with respect to distorted contentions that health-care reform costs were accretive to the federal deficit have been amply documented, here (Paul Krugman), here (Ezra Klein ) and here (Matthew O’Brien). I have occasionally wondered since the article’s publication whether Newsweek had deigned to issue a correction, but was dubious enough given Newsweek’s pedestrianism to not waste my time checking, nor I’d wagered would Niall bother to, of late in defiant crouch, ostensibly above the whimsical niceties of eating some humble pie when caught with his hands in a partisan spin cookie jar large enough to make even the rotund grotesqueries of an El Rushbo-type blush.
But let us not further detain ourselves with the crude arithmetical rigging of isolating in a vacuum costs of the insurance-coverage provisions of The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (that dastardly Obamacare, always good for a rabble-rouse or two) deployed to help score rhetorical points in furtherance of Ferguson’s charmingly school-boy bromance with Paul Ryan (of which more below) as there is so much more in his piece that merits rebuttal. Let’s start with a point where I actually agree with Niall, where he writes, “[I]t is five years since the financial crisis began, but the central problems—excessive financial concentration and excessive financial leverage—have not been addressed.” True, Dodd-Frank is something of a travesty (for one, the regulators will ultimately almost inevitably be outsmarted by the banks), and what was required was a dismantling of the large banks and a resurrection of Glass-Steagall (as even Sandy Weill recently advocated for, in a wondrous chutzpah-on-steroids cogitation on CNBC) but a small question for Niall: does he remotely believe that Mitt Romney—who if nothing else has dutifully signaled he will be every bit the willing handmaiden and apparatchik to Wall Street—would even begin to consider such dramatic moves? Of course not, you can be certain. Indeed, the only major candidate in the Republican field who indicated he might so countenance (that is, if I can recall the surreal burlesque of the Republican imbeciles trotted out during the primary season, candidly it’s all a bit of a haze) was one Jon Hunstman. Rather, Romney would strip out whatever small teeth might survive Dodd-Frank’s ‘comment period’ (e.g., whatever the legions of lawyers for the bulge-bracket banks couldn’t excise from, say, the already tottering and embarrassingly diluted Volcker Rule), in the supposed furtherance of removing policy uncertainty, regulatory headwinds and such, so that “business confidence” would miraculously reappear on the corporate budgeting and investment scene. Were it only so easy, and were it even remotely possible that a Romney-Ryan ticket would pursue such policies! As for Niall’s whine regarding levered-up banks, at least Obama is supportive of the enhanced Basel III regime, and again I ask: would Romney impose stricter leverage requirements than Basel III legislates on the likes of Morgan Stanley or JP Morgan? If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you, keeping in mind Romney’s assiduous Manhattan money-raising, in the very precincts most moan-heavy and aggrieved by the cruel slights of Basel.
But Mr. Ferguson was just getting started, saving his ‘deep think’ for the latter part of the piece. He ponderously—and, I’m afraid, emptily--proclaims to the masses from Cambridge: “The failures of leadership on economic and fiscal policy over the past four years have had geopolitical consequences…For me the President’s greatest failure has been not to think through the implications of these challenges to American power”. If one were hoping for an intelligent critique of the President’s foreign policy (a policy that is certainly not flawless, but nonetheless materially under-rated), their hopes would have been cruelly dashed, alas, with readers instead subjected to a sophomoric world view that seems to cross neo-Victorian nostalgia with Risk (meaning Hasbro’s board game, not strategic risk mitigation). Mr. Ferguson’s attempted targets range from Obama’s Asia “pivot”, to his Cairo speech, on to his analysis of Obama’s (non)-interventions in Iran, Tunisia (!), Egypt, Libya (leading from behind, etc) and Syria, before ending his foreign policy musings ruing the erosion of nation-building in favor of drone-strikes. Let us take each briefly in turn.
While I myself had expressed some skepticism about Obama’s Asia pivot, to include deployment of Marines in Australia, this basing decision did not come in a vacuum, but rather was accompanied by other roughly contemporaneous policy moves, including an intrepid re-invigoration of relations with Myanmar, support signaled to key allies regarding territorial disputes with China, and more. While I think our policy vis-à-vis China is rife with possible room for mutual miscalculation and distrust (see this excellent piece for more), I certainly do not think Romney’s empty China-bashing a superior approach, nor have I seen a smidgen of any indication that a Romney Administration would out-perform Obama’s on China policy. So while I can certainly agree PRC policy needs to be ameliorated, rationalized and above all better communicated and ‘socialized’ with our diplomatic counterparts in Beijing (whomever is in the Oval Office next January), I cannot for the life of me see how assorted China chest-thumping by Romneyites would help the situation any. If I’m missing something here beyond yelping "currency manipulator" and “Day 1” and “cheater” to pander a few votes from the Panda-phobes (even discounting for political silly season), Ferguson should step up and tell us what dramatic value-add Romney will bring to the table on PRC policy. I see none whatsoever, whatever derisive poo-pooing Niall chooses to dish out with respect to the so-called “pivot”, which incidentally, at very least signals to the international community we are not hell-bent on more deeply enmeshing ourselves in pointless nation-building in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.
Ferguson than sees fit to remonstrate Obama for his Cairo speech, which he describes as an “especially clumsy bid to ingratiate himself on what proved to be the eve of a regional revolution”. Per Niall’s caricature, Mousavi’s Green Movement was a direct harbinger of Cairo to come, and basically Obama was asleep at the wheel, uttering sweet nothings at Al-Azhar. Sorry, but this is claptrap. As I explained here, Egypt exploded after Tunisia, with any direct causation to Iran debatable at best. Beyond this, and far more important than academic debates around causation, to have waded forcefully into the Iranian situation would have had precisely the opposite impact that we’d have wished for, as I laid out at the time in some detail here. Now, while it is true our somewhat ad hoc policy of ‘differentiation’ in our responses to the Arab Spring (over-deference to Saudi Arabian views on Bahrain, for instance, versus at the other extreme Bernard-Henri Levy worthy Libya-jingo, albeit only from ‘behind’, to the disappointment of the post-Trotskyites at the Weekly Standard) has not exactly overwhelmed with its strategic coherence, the recycled ‘bomb Iran’ incantations of post-McCain Republicans are not terribly confidence inspiring either. To stress, absent blow-hards making the rounds at venues like Morning Joe assuring they’d have a panacea-like solution to Syria, I’ve seen precious little (well, nothing) by way of intelligent policy prescriptions emitting from the Romney campaign when it comes to Middle East policy, whether the Arab Spring, the Arab-Israeli peace process (to the extent they even believe in said process, rather than perennially genuflecting to the Likud Wing of the Israeli polity), or even a more intelligent approach to Afghanistan, let alone Syria. As for the Cairo speech, while it may annoy Niall that a refutation of the excesses of neo-conservatism was well needed at that juncture, particularly those conflating Islam as the next ‘ism’ requiring American opposition (in a manner erroneously akin to communism and fascism), the reality is the speech, while mostly inconsequential to date given admittedly little tangible policy follow-on, at least accomplished signaling an olive branch was being proffered the Islamic world after the crude excesses of the prior Administration.
Yet, when it comes to Niall’s foreign policy musings, it is best to keep the biggest doozy for last. Ferguson writes (when criticizing the drone program, not mind you because of the highly worrisome so-called collateral damage, but evidently mostly because “the real crime is that the assassination program destroys potentially crucial intelligence”: “(W)hat that means in practice is the abandonment not only of Iraq but soon of Afghanistan too. Understandably, the men and women who have served there wonder what exactly their sacrifice is for, if any notion that we are nation building has been quietly dumped. Only when both countries sink back into civil war will we realize the real price of Obama’s foreign policy.” Oh, I see: a crude trotting out of the stabbed in the back myth, this time of the good rulers sitting in Baghdad and Kabul, whom of course are only wishing that we’d keep 100,000-200,000 plus troops in each theater for another decade or two, per Niall’s risibly unmoored fantasy. This is particularly so as here we are dealing with a supposed Ryan fan and austerity adherent! Is Niall aware of our almost $800 billion military budget, and the material sub-components of said sum represented by these increasingly quixotic foreign adventures borne of over-reactions to 9/11 (understandable at the time, but have we learned nothing)? No matter, of course, as the security situation in each country deteriorates moving forward, it will be Obama’s fault, not that we should have never engaged in such unabashed nation-building adventurism in the first place.
Sad too, and worthy of at least a mention given Ferguson’s prominence on Harvard’s faculty, is that in his castigation of Obama’s drone campaign and the like, nary a mention is made of the Bush torture policy that Obama—if not as effectively as I’d have liked, moved to course correct away from--except evidently, to rue the current dearth of intelligence-gathering opportunities (read: resuscitating so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques", known in plain English as torture). After all, it’s one thing to have flubbed closing Guantanamo as did Obama, it’s another to cheer-lead doubling it as Romney did as a candidate in 2008, to quote: “You said the person is going to be in Guantanamo. I'm glad they're at Guantanamo. I don't want them on our soil. I want them in Guantanamo where they don't get the access to lawyers they get when they're on our soil. I don't want them in our prisons. I want them there. Some people have said we ought to close Guantanamo. My view is, we ought to double Guantanamo." Impressive Niall, that you’ve thrown in your lot with a phony panderer who would throw such red meat to a party yelling for the brown-skins to be denied the rights of habeas corpus enshrined in the Magna Carta almost a millennia ago. Good show, mate. Who gives a damn about Enlightenment values and the abolition of torture being on par with abolishment of slavery in its importance to any civilized nation?
Incidentally, it is amusing to read in Ferguson’s piece this spot of befuddlement: “(R)emarkably the president polls relatively strongly on national security”. It wouldn’t be so remarkable if Ferguson snapped out of his empire-nostalgia reverie and intuited the American people are tired, profoundly tired, of these absurd military adventures overseas. Also, of course, there is one word which doesn’t appear in Niall’s long Newsweek hack-fest, and that is Osama bin Laden (I might note in passing as I’m writing this on 9/11/12, Obama’s directives as Commander-in-Chief allow this New Yorker to commemorate the first anniversary of this tragedy with bin Laden actually dead).
Ferguson’s embarrassing piece ends with a barely concealed man-crush on Paul Ryan (the aforementioned bromance) where he gushes: “I first met Paul Ryan in April 2010. I had been invited to a dinner in Washington where the U.S. fiscal crisis was going to be the topic of discussion… Ryan blew me away. I have wanted to see him in the White House ever since.” Let's keep such breathless enthusiam a tad tempered, no? As the sentient conservative (whom these days can perhaps be counted on a hand or two) David Stockman put it in a must-read piece, one that cuts through the miasma of bullshit and spin with crushing efficacy with respect to Ryan, and much else besides:
Paul D. Ryan is the most articulate and intellectually imposing Republican of the moment, but that doesn’t alter the fact that this earnest congressman from Wisconsin is preaching the same empty conservative sermon. Thirty years of Republican apostasy — a once grand party’s embrace of the welfare state, the warfare state and the Wall Street-coddling bailout state — have crippled the engines of capitalism and buried us in debt. Mr. Ryan’s sonorous campaign rhetoric about shrinking Big Government and giving tax cuts to “job creators” (read: the top 2 percent) will do nothing to reverse the nation’s economic decline and arrest its fiscal collapse…
Spot on, to the word. And here’s the bottom line. Beyond the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of attack ads that will carpet bomb the swing states over the next fifty or so days, the broad middle of the polity smells that no real leadership or even truly persuasive alternative fiscal direction is on tap with the Republicans. Barring externalities like massive Euro-zone contagion, a material Middle East conflagration, or serious bungles during the debates by the President, I believe Obama is going to win this thing, even if it will be very close, to be sure. But Niall’s “choice between les Etats Unis and the Republic of the Battle Hymn” is a mockery. Are their disappointments with Obama? You betcha. Lofty rhetoric was too rarely complemented by real execution. The jobs crisis required more hands-on spade-work and sense of urgency by the White House. Yes, the Afghanistan “seminar” was protracted, and the sausage-making emitted at the end cynical (a misguided surge only to tee up a withdrawal?). And Wall Street deserved tougher treatment than it got, even if many of the extraordinary Government actions initiated during the Bush 43 Administration were arguably necessitated given the gravity of a looming depression on the near horizon. But, and be that as it may, Obama, contra Ferguson’s juvenilia, is not “psych[ed]…out” by Ryan, whatever that means. Was their a frisson or two of excitement with Romney’s pick, rather than a deathly dull Portman or Pawlenty? Sure. Ryan, with the benefit of a decade or so more years, and rather a lot more gravitas, on the top of a ticket? Just maybe. But Ryan psyching Obama out today under a flip-flopping, politically-challenged Romney as the GOP’s standard-bearer? No way (the only candidate whom might have troubled Obama a bit, assuming he had more resonance with voters, would have been Jon Huntsman).
Of course, I may be proven wrong. We'll know soon enough. Meantime, Ferguson, apparently unchastened, is just getting warmed up. Recently I espied him on Bloomberg TV suggesting he’d never seen more hot air than at the Democratic Convention (perhaps he's depressed by the healthy post-Convention bounce the Democrats got, in contrast to the rather underwhelming spectacle that was Tampa). As Bill Clinton might say, Niall’s got a lot of “brass” to so contend, given the amount of hot air and spittle shoveled through Newsweek's pages with this embarrassing effort. I'm afraid I will not be reading him with much respect moving forward after this nakedly partisan screed, and I suspect I am not alone.
About Belgravia Dispatch
Gregory Djerejian, an international lawyer and business executive, comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.
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