Belmont Club

A Distant Ringing

The shape of post-Arab Spring Syria is becoming clearer with the passing months:

After three decades of persecution that virtually eradicated its presence, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has resurrected itself to become the dominant group in the fragmented opposition movement pursuing a 14-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

The revival marks an extraordinary comeback for an organization that was almost annihilated after the last revolt in Syria, which ended in the killing by government forces of as many as 25,000 people in the city of Hama in 1982. Only those who managed to flee abroad survived the purge.

Adam Garfinkle at American Interest thinks that Syria has now become the new regional magnet for militants of all stripes, and that an implosion in Damascus will “pour across borders, including the Lebanese border, as it has already begun to do.” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says there are concerns about an al-Qaeda presence in Syria, although questions about how many and how important they are in relation to other groups have not been answered.

Walter Russell Mead is wondering whether Washington now wishes the old strongmen were still around, given the potential headaches with the rising forces in the region:

Embattled Syria aside, Algeria is the last of the secular Arab authoritarian governments still standing … and nobody much in Paris or Washington is anything but grateful for Algeria’s stability– however imperfect it may be.

It is a strange reversal of fortune for an administration which once claimed the Arab Spring as its own handiwork, and which once believed that Afghanistan, not the Middle East, was where al-Qaeda’s strength was.

Well: that is the problem with “leading from behind.” Once change is afoot, when a paradigm shift is underway, the process must either be managed or the consequences accepted. The administration tried to have it both ways, and now may have the benefit of neither. This may also be the problem with fighting “wars of necessity” in places with doubtful strategic value.

The Washington Post reports that U.S. commanders in Afghanistan are changing strategic goals at practically the last minute. They are packing their bags and stopping for nothing:

Faced with an order from President Obama to withdraw 23,000 troops by the end of the summer, and the prospect of further reductions next year, [Gen. John R. Allen, the supreme allied commander in Afghanistan] Allen is hastily transforming the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan. Instead of trying to continue large U.S. counterinsurgency operations for as long as he can, he is accelerating a handover of responsibility to Afghan security forces. He plans to order American and NATO troops to push Afghans into the lead across much of the country this summer, even in insurgent-ridden places that had not been candidates for an early transfer.

The fast handover to Afghan forces is but one reminder of America’s diminished ambition. His other principal challenge is figuring out how to remove 23,000 troops by September. … For Allen and his top deputies, it is a process of trade-offs, of least-worst options. There are no good answers, even with their plan to hand off more responsibility to the Afghans.

The withdrawal is also a symbol of the collapse of President Obama’s foreign policy. None of his promises to strike a “grand bargain” with Iran, to win a “war of necessity” in Afghanistan, and to finish the peace process between the Arabs and Israel have come true. Nobody mentions them any more, for fear of causing embarrassment. They have the sound not only of having come from another place and time, but of things never begun at all, just halfheartedly started.

Asking President Obama about his accomplishments is like asking a guy you knew in high school who was confident he’d conquer the world what happened to his plans: “Oh, yeah, those.” Today, Iran is on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons, Afghanistan is finished, and Israel may now be facing a threat not only to the north from Syria but also from an imploding Egypt.

What happened to all the grand plans to remake the world? “Oh yeah, that.”

Obama’s international and domestic agendas have collapsed with extraordinary speed. Even what Jennifer Rubin called the “not so subtle Obama-rooting in the media” has failed to completely mask the decline. “Multiple front-page stories on Romney’s high school bullying” have not stemmed the tide.

But there is more to come. The state of the economy — which by most accounts determines the outcome of an election — is not looking good. Worse, the euro appears to be reaching the end game. Yesterday, a British cabinet minister warned:

 … of a “massive impact” on Britain if Greece crashed out of the euro and debt contagion spread … it came after former chancellor Alistair Darling warned that foreign aid would have to be sent to starving Greeks if the country left the single currency and lost its bailout money.

Therein lies another, but parallel, tale. Spengler points out that Europe’s problems go way beyond the single currency fiasco. Greece, he says, has no economy and no people:

The trouble is that Greece is another banana republic without bananas. Argentina is a commodity exporter that won the lottery when commodity prices soared. … Greece, by contrast, had a trade deficit in 2010 of $22 billion, equal to 7% of GDP. In 2011, both the deficit and GDP shrank, and the deficit remained at 6% of GDP.

Arianna Huffington, a liberal media prima donna and Internet purveyor of celebrity gossip, offers the silliest advice we have heard so far to the beleaguered people of Greece in today’s New York Times … Her encomium begins with a sentimental portrait of her self-sacrificing mother, and concludes:

Greece, like my mother, has always been devoted above all else to its children. When the future of those children is diminished, the future — and life — of the country will be diminished, too.

If only the Greeks still troubled to have children, Mrs. Huffington’s sentiments would have more resonance. Greek fertility (number of children per female) fell to only 1.28 in 2005, the rock bottom of the European pile.

As to people, Spengler’s demographic table — although it pertains to Greece — serves to illustrate Europe and the West’s problem as a whole. It has been consuming its seed corn, literally. The Greek example may be extreme, but all the more illustrative for all of that:

Period Total fertility
1950-1955 2.29
1955-1960 2.27
1960-1965 2.20
1965-1970 2.38
1970-1975 2.32
1975-1980 2.32
1980-1985 1.96
1985-1990 1.53
1990-1995 1.37
1995-2000 1.30
2000-2005 1.28









(Source: United Nations)

The problem, according to Norman Tebbit, was that Europe — and to a lesser extent the entire West — thought the party would keep going without replacement bananas or people. Somehow the productive engine would churn on forever, just because it always had. All they had to do was figure out how to divvy up the loot. Share the wealth. They never figured that goodies would stop dropping from the sky. That has persuaded no one, least of all the Greek and French socialists, of the error of their ways. “None the less the cargo cults have many followers who believe that if the right formulation of prayers can be found to please the gods who have the cargo, then riches will shower down from the skies”:

How sad that so many Greeks deluded into victimhood are now waiting for the Luftwaffe bankers to be commanded by Frau Merkel to continue to shower Greece with cargo. And how worrying that the delusion is now gripping France as the days of Merkozy are ended, and the new Franco-German axis initially called Merkehollande is now being shortened to Merde.

The worst part of this Greek tragedy is that the longer the delusion continues the more terrible price that not just the Greeks, but all of us Europeans will have to pay. Did I hear someone say “Those whom the Gods would destroy they first make mad”?

But if the French and Greek Left is crazy, by some accounts Washington is not far behind. Tim Stanley reviews Edward Klein’s book on President Obama, The Amateur, and focuses on the important role played by Oprah. Yes, Oprah. In national politics:

The White House is Versailles and Barack Obama is its Sun King. That’s the takeaway from Edward Klein’s new biography of the President, The Amateur. The title is a reference to Klein’s claim that Bill Clinton called Obama a political amateur and tried to convince his wife, Hillary, to run against him in 2012 …

The tale of Oprah’s rivalry with Empress Michelle Obama is a fascinating indictment of the relationship between celebrity and politics. Klein says that during the 2008 primaries, Obama welcomed Oprah’s endorsement and pursued her advice. One study calculated that she was worth 1,015,559 votes in the general election. Oprah enjoyed easy access to Obama, who treated her like a serious political adviser. To quote Klein: “When she phoned, he dropped everything and took her call. They huddled over strategy. Of all of Obama’s unofficial White House advisers, Oprah had unparalleled access, input, influence, and power.”

But Oprah quickly learned the limits of Obama’s charm. As the White House court grew and institutionalised, members of the inner core became protective about access. If Oprah could call straight through to the Prez, what was the point of being his official gatekeeper? There was a constitutional issue at hand, too – there’s only so much influence that a chat show host should be able to wield.

In some ways the story of Oprah explains why U.S. policy in the Middle East and Afghanistan has gone to the dogs as much as it did; it sheds light on how the U.S. economy fell to such depths. It is as illuminating in its own way as the population table is for Greece. Not because Oprah is dumb, far from it. But it shows that if the Greek tragedy depicts a society living for today’s ouzo, then Versailles on the Potomac is a political circle obsessed by trivia and imagery.

Forget the necessity for hard thinking about the economy, the Arab Spring, or Afghanistan. The big question is whether Oprah gets to call the president or not. When a political elite starts to order its priorities in this manner, then the current result is the inevitable outcome. Recently Time featured Obama on its cover as America’s “First Gay President.” What is wrong with that? This: whatever one’s personal views on same-sex marriage might be, whether for or against, any rational ordering of the priority of gay marriage in relation to other pressing public policy problems would have it ranked somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000. It is important to some, but it is hardly a national public policy issue except in Versailles.

Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign ad about the 3:00 a.m. phone call assumed there would always be someone in the White House to answer. The only question American voters had to answer was who would pick up the phone. But perhaps four years of the current administration have demonstrated the existence of another alternative: nobody has to answer the phone. Nor listen to the drums on the Mediterranean or pay attention to the impending crash in Europe.

All they really need to do is start another mini-meme. The war on women. Romney the high school bully. Obama the first gay president. Then everything will be alright. And the phone can keep on ringing.

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