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Barack Obama Criticism Economics Financial Crisis Foreign Policy Politics The Opinionsphere

Kashkari, 2009’s Ideas, Richard Milhouse Obama, Frum!, Chinese-American Trade Imbalance, Obama’s Nobel, and Charborg

1. The Personal Toll TARP Exacted. Laura Blumenfeld profiled Neel Kashkari for the Washington Post – the Treasury employee and Hank Paulson confidante who presided over TARP and assisted with much of the government’s response to the bailout who is now “detoxing” from Washington by working with his hands in an isolated retreat. The piece focuses not on what happened and the enormous impact, but on the personal toll this crisis exacted on Kashkari and those around him: the heart attack by one of his top aides; the emotional breakdowns; the trouble in his marriage as he didn’t come home for days, sleeping on his office couch and showering in the Treasury’s locker room:

Thoughts tended toward the apocalyptic. During midnight negotiations with congressional leaders, Paulson doubled over with dry heaves. A government economist broke into Kashkari’s office sobbing, “Oh my God! The system’s collapsing!” Kashkari counseled her to focus on things they could control. (Minal: “So you offered her a bag of Doritos.”)

“We were terrified the banking system would fail, but the thing that scared us even more was, what would we do the day after? How would we take over 8,000 banks?”

The piece seems to ask us to feel pity for these men and women who toiled under difficult circumstances, but it seems inappropriate to feel pity for those who assume power because they also feel its heavy weight. But the piece acknowledges that Kashkari himself seeks to get back to Washington again, “Because there’s nowhere else you can have such a large impact — for better and for worse.” Lionize them for their heroic sacrifices if you will, but there is no place for pity. Those who choose to take on the burdens of power should not be pitied because it proves too weighty.

2. New Ideas. The New York Times briefly discusses the Year in Ideas. Some of the more interesting entries:

  • Guilty Robots which have been given “ethical architecture” for the American military that “choose weapons with less risk of collateral damage or may refuse to fight altogether” if the damage they have inflicted causes “noncombatant casualties or harm to civilian property.”
  • The Glow-in-the-Dark Dog (named Ruppy) that emits an eerie red glow under ultraviolet light because of deliberate genetic experiment.
  • Applying the Google Algorithm that generates the PageRank which first set Google apart from its competitors to nature, and specifically to predicting what species’ extinctions would cause the greatest chain reactions.
  • Zombie-Attack Science in which the principles of epidemiology are applied to zombies.

3. Obama’s Afghanistan Decision. Fareed Zakaria and Peter Beinart both tried to place Obama’s Afghanistan decision into perspective last week in important pieces. Both of them saw in Obama’s clear-eyed understanding of America’s power shades of the foreign policy brilliance that was Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Zakaria:

More than any president since Richard Nixon, he has focused on defining American interests carefully, providing the resources to achieve them, and keeping his eyes on the prize.

Beinart:

Nixon stopped treating all communists the same way. Just as Obama sees Iran as a potential partner because it shares a loathing of al-Qaeda, Nixon saw Communist China as a potential partner because it loathed the U.S.S.R. Nixon didn’t stop there. Even as he reached out to China, he also pursued détente with the Soviet Union. This double outreach — to both Moscow and Beijing — gave Nixon more leverage over each, since each communist superpower feared that the U.S. would favor the other, leaving it geopolitically isolated. On a smaller scale, that’s what Obama is trying to do with Iran and Syria today. By reaching out to both regimes simultaneously, he’s making each anxious that the U.S. will cut a deal with the other, leaving it out in the cold. It’s too soon to know whether Obama’s game of divide and conquer will work, but by narrowing the post-9/11 struggle, he’s gained the diplomatic flexibility to play the U.S.’s adversaries against each other rather than unifying them against us.

Perhaps this accounts for Henry Kissinger’s appreciation for Obama’s foreign policy even as neoconservative intellectuals such as Charles Krathammer deride Obama as “so naïve that I am not even sure he’s able to develop a [foreign policy] doctrine“:

“He reminds me of a chess grandmaster who has played his opening in six simultaneous games,” Kissinger said. “But he hasn’t completed a single game and I’d like to see him finish one.”

4. The Unheeded Wisdom of Frum. It seems that almost every week a blog post by David Frum makes this list. This week, he rages at how the Republican’s “No, no, no” policy is forcing the Democrats to adopt more liberal policies (which Frum believes are worse for the country, but in the case of health care, more popular among voters):

I hear a lot of talk about the importance of “principle.” But what’s the principle that obliges us to be stupid?

5. Fiscal Imbalances. Martin Wolf in the Financial Times identifies the imbalance between America’s deficit spending and China’s surplus policy as the root of our financial imbalances in a piece this week:

What would happen if the deficit countries did slash spending relative to incomes while their trading partners were determined to sustain their own excess of output over incomes and export the difference? Answer: a depression. What would happen if deficit countries sustained domestic demand with massive and open-ended fiscal deficits? Answer: a wave of fiscal crises.

While he says both sides have an interest in an orderly unwinding of this arrangement, both also have the ability to resist:

Unfortunately, as we have also long known, two classes of countries are immune to external pressure to change policies that affect global “imbalances”: one is the issuer of the world’s key currency; and the other consists of the surplus countries. Thus, the present stalemate might continue for some time.

Niall Ferguson and Morris Schularack offered a few suggestions in a New York Times op-ed several weeks ago as to how best unwind this. I had written about it some months ago as well, albeit with a pithier take.

6. War & Peace. Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech was an audacious defense of American power and ideals. If you read nothing else on this list, read this.

7. Song of the week: Pinback’s “Charborg.”

Categories
Foreign Policy History The Bush Legacy

Henry Kissinger on Obama

The German weekly Der Spiegel ran an interesting interview with Henry Kissinger about the Treaty of Versailles and Barack Obama’s foreign policy. There are those who simply condemn Kissinger as a war criminal and choose to ignore his opinions – but by most accounts, his tenure as Secretary of State and National Security Advisor under Presidents Nixon and Ford were a virtuouso performance as he exercised American power at a time when many saw it being diminished. I do not seek to defend Kissinger’s green-lighting of the Chilean coup or his sabatoging of the Paris peace talks with Vietnam to ensure Richard Nixon’s election in 1968. This last act was certainly treason – and his role in Chile led to the reign of the convicted war criminal, Augosto Pinochet and the removal of the elected leader of that country.

But existing alongside these amoral acts – and underlying these acts – are an understanding of power – as it is, rather than as it should be. Kissinger saw – with Nixon – that by persuading China to seperate itself from the Soviet Union’s world order, he would strengthen America’s hand significantly – and help end the stalemate that the Cold War had become. With Richard Nixon succumbing to alcoholism late in his term, it was Kissinger who single-handedly ran America’s foreign policy – managing crises and coups d’etat throughout the world.

Unsurprisingly to some (Stephen Walt had already described Obama’s foreign policy as “Kissingerian“), Kissinger seemed to have a more substantial understanding of Obama’s foreign policy approach:

Obama is like a chess player who is playing simultaneous chess and has opened his game with an unusual opening. Now he’s got to play his hand as he plays his various counterparts. We haven’t gotten beyond the opening game move yet. I have no quarrel with the opening move.

Unlike Ahmadinejad’s useful idiots from McCain to “Smart” Girls to Ajami, Kissinger credits Obama for having a strategy, while witholding judgment about its effectiveness.

Kissinger offers a revealing criticism of Wilson’s Fourteen Points and America’s role in the Treaty of Versailles – which also rather neatly contradicts the Bush doctrine:

The American view was that peace is the normal condition among states. To ensure lasting peace, an international system must be organized on the basis of domestic institutions everywhere, which reflect the will of the people, and that will of the people is considered always to be against war. Unfortunately, there is no historic evidence that this is true.

And of course Kissinger also came out with this quotable line:

I believe more suffering has been caused by prophets than by statesmen.

[Image by DarthDowney licensed under Creative Commons.]

Categories
History Humor

The Best Minds of a Generation, Naked, and Destroyed by Madness

[digg-reddit-me]Scott Shane in The New York Times describes this little known story now available as part of the freshly indexed archive of Kissinger telephone calls:

In April 1971, Mr. Kissinger accepted a call from the beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who hoped to arrange a meeting between top Nixon administration officials and antiwar activists.

“Perhaps you don’t know how to get out of the war,” Ginsberg ventured.

Mr. Kissinger said he was open to a meeting. “I like to do this,” he said, “not just for the enlightenment of the people I talk to, but to at least give me a feel of what concerned people think.”

Then Ginsberg upped the ante. “It would be even more useful if we could do it naked on television,” he said.

Mr. Kissinger’s reply is transcribed simply as “Laughter.”

[Picture courtesy of Linda Bisset licensed under Creative Commons.]

Categories
History Political Philosophy Politics

The Spirit that Animated the American Experiment


[Image courtesy of the World Economic Forum.]

Moderation [in the use of power] is a virtue only in those who are thought to have an alternative.1

So said Henry Kissinger, one in a long time of the power-hungry and the unrestrained whose sense of hubris led them to take unto themselves as much power as they could amass. It is on this point that Kissinger would agree with George W. Bush, with Mao Tse Tung, with Josef Stalin, with Maximilien Robespierre, and with radicals throughout history.

This sentence contains two fundamental insights about radicals and their approach to power:

  1. That moderation is a limit on power;
  2. That those who reject the seemingly unimposing virtue of moderation in favor of the more attractive quality of “moral clarity” or some similar sense of certainty are bound only by the limits of their power.

My preference is this prescription masquerading as a definition used by Plato:

Moderation, which consists in an indifference about little things, and in a prudent and well-proportioned zeal about things of importance, can proceed from nothing but true knowledge, which has its foundation in self-acquaintance.

This is the spirit animates the American experiment and liberal democracy and represents a truly fundamental achievement of collective wisdom. The past century has been the story of numerous ideologies that have challenged this spirit of moderation – Nazism, Communism, nationalism, religious fundamentalism. All have offered certainty and clarity and rejected moderation. So far, each ideology, certain as it may be, has been beaten back by the forces of moderation – often led by America.

It is the rejection of this fundamental virtue by the Bush administration that led to our own failed experiment in hubristic radicalism.

  1. This might be an unfair addition by me. I cannot find any information about the context in which it was used – only many sources attributing it to Henry Kissinger. I am interpreting it based on my understanding of Kissinger’s character and place in history. []