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Ed Driscoll

‘Three Cheers for Decline’

August 11th, 2011 - 1:28 pm

“Assume you are a senior political aide in the Obama White House,” Peter Wehner writes at Commentary, wishing a truly ignominious fate upon his readers. Fortunately, such a horrible career choice will only last as long as his blog post:

This morning, while eating a bowl of Cheerios, you read the front page of the Washington Post, where you found an above-the-fold story by Joel Achenbach. The story, titled “Is debt downgrade an alarm bell for a great nation in decline?” quotes Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served Jimmy Carter, who was jettisoned from office after his first term in large part because of the sense his policies were ushering in a period of American decline.

According to Brzezinski, “We have been for decades now the number one global economic power. But an increasing question mark is whether we are going to remain one.”

As Wehner adds, “when journalists take to the front page of the Washington Post to analyze whether or not we are seeing ‘the American empire in twilight,’ you can bet things are–politically speaking–very bad and about to get even worse.”

But hey, is that really such a bad thing to imagine if you’re a senior political aide to President Obama? Because if you put down the Washington Post (in the sense of putting the paper back onto your desk, as opposed to the way the Blogosphere puts down the Washington Post), you can then pick up a copy of Foreign Policy which is busy singing the praises of American decline.  Heck, Charles Kenny shouts “Three Cheers for Decline,” complete with a photo of the American flag in twilight, asking us to “Look on the bright side, America: Downgrading your global ambitions could make you a healthier and happier nation:”

Defense cuts would allow the United States to tend to a few other priorities, which just might take Americans’ minds off the fact that their country is no longer No. 1. Perhaps the United States could focus on constructing a high-speed rail line or two, or maybe even finish the job on extending health care. After all, of the large economies that enjoyed a AAA rating from Standard & Poor’s last week, the United States ranked at the bottom of the list in terms of life expectancy, and it was the only country without universal health care. Perhaps America could also spend a little more on basic education; the United States was at the tail end of the AAA club when it came to believing basic scientific truths like evolution, and it scored lowest out of all those countries on international tests of students’ math skills.

The end of Britain’s imperial ambitions allowed the country to abandon national service and just relax a little. Similarly, with less need to flag the martial spirit through adrenaline-pumping threat alerts and wars on terror, the United States could find a moment to reform its criminal justice system; another international indicator where the United States remains in the lead, after all, is in percentage of its population behind bars. And once America accepts it doesn’t need to work every waking hour to keep up with the Soviets, Japanese, or Chinese, perhaps it could take time for a vacation. At the moment, there is no statutory minimum for paid leave in the United States. Even Singapore provides seven days, and the rest of the AAA club gives employees minimums ranging from 18 to 30 days.

As to foreign relations, the United States couldn’t — and wouldn’t — follow Britain’s example and join the European Union, but here too, there could be scope for baby steps. What about signing up for the International Criminal Court or taking a less obstructive line during climate negotiations? In fact, a decline from hyperpower status will doubtless help prolong the upward trend in international opinion of the United States. It’s even possible that the U.S. government could get more done in the world by playing nice than barging around on its own.

Whatever happens to the United States in the global economic rankings, it will remain a great country. Accepting — even embracing — decline will serve as a reminder that American exceptionalism is built on a set of values, not stock indices. If the S&P downgrade helps the United States foster a shift toward prioritizing the good life over great-power status, perhaps it will be seen as a blessing in disguise. What’s more, the United States starts out its decline with many advantages over 1950s Britain. Not least, in large parts of the country, it is already possible to find a good restaurant — something that took the Brits 30-plus years of not-so-bad power status to achieve.

Yes, including Pho restaurants owned by former South Vietnamese boat people who fled when a Democratic Congress pulled the rug out from under our defense of South Vietnam, Afghani restaurants owned by people who fled because we’ve failed to pacify the Taliban, Chinese restaurants owned by people who would rather live here than in Thomas Friedman’s Beijing Jetsons wonderland for some strange reason, etc.

But I digress.

How is President Obama coping with this sort of cognitive dissonance? As we’ve seen, not very well, which is why the third year in Obama’s first term feels like the exhausted last year of a two term-president, where everybody, from the staff to the voters to likely the president himself can’t wait to go home and bring in the new guy.

Which is why, Mickey Kaus writes, “We’ve reached the stage in Obama’s presidency when he can’t seem to do anything right:”

 Even his summer house is on fire.  At a similar point in Jimmy Carter’s presidency Carter collapsed in a road race.  (I urge Obama to refrain from strenuous athletics until his approval rating gets back above 44%.) Everyone’s piling on–from the left as well as the right and the center. It’s almost enough to make my inner contrarian demand that I defend the guy. Almost, but not quite.

Here’s the thing: When other presidents have reached this point–at least other Democratic presidents, Carter and  Bill Clinton–they have recognized the problem and tried to get fresh advice. Carter had a series of excessively well-publicized meetings with critics. Clinton met secretly and more effectively with non-liberal strategist Dick Morris. And Obama?

The president is in a situation in which virtually none of his considered beliefs–in Keynesian economics, in the power of redistributive populism, in coalition politics, in  his own oratorical skill–is being affirmed by the real world. It’s like the period Thomas Kuhn talks about in his famous Structure of Scientific Revolutions, when scientists are working along within the old “paradigm” but the data start coming back funny. Most scientists just ignore the discordant data and keep plodding along. A few start to question the “paradigm.” You’d want a President in tough times to be one of the latter, no? You’d expect someone like Obama to undertake some reevaluation.  As Bret Stephens noted recently, genuinely smart people know what they don’t know–or in this case they know what they used to know but now aren’t so sure about anymore.

Barack Obama was quoted on the campaign stump by one of his biographers as saying, “You know, I actually believe my own bulls***.” The problem is that there’s so much bulls*** for Obama the Fightin’ Progressive to believe, and it’s mutually contradictory.

Construction unions exist to build things, but environmentalists exist to stop them, in addition to calling for the destruction of previously built projects such as hydroelectric dams. Obama calls for lower energy prices, but as a candidate promised a major US newspaper that he’d bankrupt the coal industry, and a major TV network that he was perfectly cool about higher gas prices, as long as their adjustment is “gradual” enough. He tells Americans not to drive SUVs as a candidate, but as president requires American taxpayers to absorb the bottomless debt of two of the America’s three purveyors of SUVs. Politicians on both sides of the aisle love to funnel defense department projects to companies like Boeing, but Obama was beholden to his largely anti-war base, which he doesn’t mind flipping the bird to, because hey, where are they going to go? Obama promises over and over again to focus like a laser on jobs, but businesses are terrified to hire and expand because of the regulatory uncertainty that defines his administration.

Note this passage in the Washington Post article that Peter Wehner linked to at Commentary:

The downgrading of U.S. debt may be more symbolic than empirically significant, but it gives one small data point to those who argue that America isn’t what it used to be, that it is an empire in twilight.

It was 70 years ago that Time magazine founder Henry Luce introduced the concept of “The American Century.” The term was ideologically loaded and did not wear well with those who feared, rather than celebrated, American hegemony. The naming rights to the new century seem to be up for grabs. Today, there are a slew of books that ponder a “post-American” epoch.

And Obama’s been photographed carrying one, written by a journalist and CNN talking head who eagerly puffs himself out and calls himself an advisor to the president (speaking of doublethink).

And speaking of twilight, perhaps this passage from the postwar left’s user’s manual sums up the complexities and contradictions of doublethink:

‘What are the stars?’ said O’Brien indifferently. ‘They are bits of fire a few kilometres away. We could reach them if we wanted to. Or we could blot them out. The earth is the centre of the universe. The sun and the stars go round it.’

Winston made another convulsive movement. This time he did not say anything. O’Brien continued as though answering a spoken objection:

‘For certain purposes, of course, that is not true. When we navigate the ocean, or when we predict an eclipse, we often find it convenient to assume that the earth goes round the sun and that the stars are millions upon millions of kilometres away. But what of it? Do you suppose it is beyond us to produce a dual system of astronomy? The stars can be near or distant, according as we need them. Do you suppose our mathematicians are unequal to that? Have you forgotten doublethink?’

Juggling all of that cognitive dissonance inside your cranium can really wear a man out — no wonder Obama needs to hit the links and Martha’s Vineyard so frequently.

Of course, if you consider your own rhetoric to be “bull***,” don’t be surprised if the rest of us think of it that way, too:

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Related: Victor Davis Hanson at the Hoover Institute on Obama vs. Obama. “Barack Obama is now at war with Barack Obama. It is not just that the public has fathomed that what Obama says one day will change the next. It is more troublesome than that: Americans are catching on that what Obama now insists is true usually proves at odds with what Obama once asserted. So the nation is insidiously tuning him out—a novel and annoying experience for the president, who heretofore had received little criticism over his habitual inconsistencies and had assumed his formidable powers of rhetoric and his own landmark heritage would trump any scrutiny from nit-picky critics.”

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