Monday, May 16, 2016

America in 2016 Resembles 1910 More Than the Postwar Era. By Michael Barone.

America Today Resembles 1910 More Than the Postwar Era. By Michael Barone. Real Clear Politics, May 17, 2016.


What’s your benchmark? What is the historical era with which you compare life in contemporary America?

For many astute commentators on various points of the political spectrum, it is postwar America, the two decades after the United States and its allies won World War II and before Lyndon Johnson sent half a million U.S. troops to Vietnam.

Conservatives look back fondly on postwar America’s high marriage rates and stable families, few divorces and out-of-wedlock births, low crime rates and widely shared cultural values celebrated in classic movies and television sitcoms that almost everyone watched. Liberals look back fondly on postwar America’s high income equality and labor union membership, its low rates of unemployment and rising education levels, its high marginal tax rates and its high rates of social mobility.

Neither side embraces the whole package. No one today wants to go back to legally mandated and violently enforced racial segregation. Very few Americans today want to return to stigmatizing homosexuality.

But some things have been lost. Books like libertarian Charles Murray’s Coming Apart or liberal Robert Putnam’s Our Kids, which lament the family instability and economic stagnation of today’s downscale America, inspire a nostalgia for a time widely seen as the American norm.

But was it really the norm? Postwar America was the result of unique circumstances – economic dominance when competitor nations were devastated, cultural uniformity that followed from a universal popular culture and the common experience of military service (16 million Americans served in the wartime military; the proportional equivalent today would be 38 million).

So let me offer a different benchmark: the America of 1910 or some other year before the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

I started thinking about that on a recent weekend sightseeing tour of lower Manhattan. It’s become a kind of outdoor museum, with few cars on the street and with dozens of tourists eyeing the massive buildings -- the columned stock exchange, JP Morgan’s austere headquarters, the massive Equitable Building and the 60-story Woolworth Building looming over lower Broadway – with their marble gleaming as it must have when they were newly built 100 or so years ago.

The America of 1910 was a lot more like today’s America than you might think. The economy was growing, but fitfully. Disruptive technology was threatening old industries, creating new jobs but eliminating many others.

Income inequality was much greater than today, and living conditions more disparate. Electricity was common in cities but unavailable on the farms where half of Americans lived. John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford were billionaires at a time when average annual incomes were below $1,000.

It was an America even more culturally divided than we are today. Within a mile or so of Wall Street lived hundreds of thousands of Jewish and Italian immigrants in the world’s most crowded neighborhoods. Immigration as a percentage of pre-existing population between the opening of Ellis Island in 1892 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914 was three times the level of 1982-2007.

The South was in many ways a separate and underdeveloped country, still estranged half a century after the Civil War, with income levels one-quarter those of New York. Even as 30 million Europeans crossed the ocean to America, only 1 million Southern whites and 1 million blacks moved North despite the promise of much higher wages.

Marriage rates were lower than in postwar America, and many young people dropped by the wayside. Alcohol consumption was much higher than today; prostitution, female and male, was common. People didn’t like to talk about these things, but you get hints about them in the novels of Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser.

The Americans of 1910 faced terrorism and globalization, too. Anarchists murdered President William McKinley in 1901 and set off a bomb that killed dozens next to J.P. Morgan’s 23 Wall Street in 1920. This America was interlaced with the global economy and, with its growing economic and demographic might, risked being drawn into any world war.

So, America in 1910, with nearly 100 million people, was in important ways less like the postwar America of 150 million than like today’s America of 300 million. Studying how Americans handled – or mishandled – similar challenges may prove more fruitful than yearning to restore the unique and non-replicable America of Charles Murray’s, Robert Putnam’s and my youth.

Les Enfants Terribles of Barack Obama. By Hisham Melhem.

Les enfants terribles of Barack Obama. By Hisham Melhem. Al Arabiya English, May 7, 2016.


The world according to President Barack Obama described recently in the Atlantic Magazine and the portrait of Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, in the current issue of the New York Times Magazine reveal an insular White House suspicious of the foreign policy establishment entrenched in Washington and New York, including senior members of Obama’s cabinet, contemptuous of traditional allies and friends in Europe and the Middle East, and disdainful of what they see as the very gullible American Media they became very adept at skillfully manipulating and ventriloquizing its narratives.

Some of the president’s relatively young men, particularly Rhodes and Jon Favreau a former speechwriter, are like him, gifted wordsmiths who see the skillful use of “messaging” and the way the “narrative” is advanced, as important as the content of the policy, and at times the “narrative” supersedes everything else. In Obama’s universe words sometimes are synonymous with policy and action. In these two lengthy articles, Obama’s universe is cold, unsentimental, calculating, deceitful, and its inhabitants are willing to live comfortably with horrendous tragedies like Syria’s “where more than 450,000 people have been slaughtered.” What is so egregious in these two lengthy articles is that the President and his men did not even come close to questioning a single decision or position they have taken in the Middle East in more than seven years. There was no hint of an attempt at introspection or honest self-criticism; only naked, unbridled arrogance and self-righteousness.

A portrait of the advisor as a young man

The portrait of Ben Rhodes as “the single most influential voice shaping American foreign policy aside from Potus (Obama) himself” is stunning. Rhodes channels and mirrors the President. The two are inseparable. The braggart Rhodes boasts “I don’t know anymore where I begin and Obama ends.” Rhodes and Denis McDonough, White House Chief of Staff, and others who constitute Obama’s inner circle of advisors are more powerful and influential than Secretaries of State and Defense. Obama insists on controlling national security issues and foreign policy from the White House. Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel found that out in a humiliating way when he was asked to step down because he was out of step with the White House on Syria and ISIS, and because the inner circle never warmed up to him. One of Obama’s most consequential and most controversial decision was taken, after he took a walk and consulted Dennis McDonough at the height of the Syrian crisis in the summer of 2013, when Obama decided to retreat from his announced decision to punish the Syrian regime after its use of chemical weapons and killing 1,400 civilians.

It was after the walk, that Obama called his Secretaries of State and Defense, to inform them of his decision. Obama did not even bother to consult them first. When Obama began his secret contact with Cuba, via the Vatican, he assigned that mission to Ben Rhodes, who began his contacts without the knowledge of Secretary of State John Kerry. Rhodes was tasked with selling the Iran deal to congress and the American people. When Rhodes joined the Obama campaign in 2007 he was 30 years old, and he brought with him “a healthy contempt for the American foreign-policy establishment, including editors and reporters at The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker and elsewhere, who at first applauded the Iraq war and then sought to pin all the blame on Bush and his merry band of neocons when it quickly turned sour.” Rhodes derisively refers “to the American foreign-policy establishment as the Blob. According to Rhodes, the Blob includes Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and other Iraq-war promoters from both parties who now whine incessantly about the collapse of the American security order in Europe and the Middle East”. One would suspect that Obama shares this sentiment with his young guru.

Rhodes, the morally dubious and masterful manipulator concocted a deceptive “narrative” about the evolution of the negotiations with Iran, and successfully sold it to the American Media. This tale of the deal alleges that negotiations became possible in the wake of a new political reality in Iran following the elections that brought the moderates, including President Hassan Rouhani to power. But that narrative “was largely manufactured”. When Obama claimed in 2015, that the deal was struck “after two years of negotiations” he was technically correct, but “actively misleading because the most meaningful part of the negotiations with Ira had begun in mid-2012, many months before Rouhani and the “moderate” camp were chosen in an election among candidates handpicked by Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.” Obama’s advisors always understood that he was eager for a deal with Iran since the beginning of his first term; “It’s the center of the arc,” Rhodes explained to the New York Times Magazine.

In describing how he manipulates the media, Rhodes and one of his aides drip with derision towards the reporters they spoon feed the narratives and the messaging they want. Rhodes’ in your-face cynicism screams in the following passage: “Rhodes singled out a key example to me one day, laced with the brutal contempt that is a hallmark of his private utterances. ‘All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,’ he said. ‘Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.’” This passage is full of ironies. Rhodes was in his twenties when he was a congressional aide writing reports, and he expressed his brutal contempt of reporters to a journalist.

Obama’s bargain

President Obama and his men come across in the two articles as insurgents trying to disrupt the “Washington playbook” written by the despised “foreign-policy establishment” with its dangerous “credibility” fetish, which according to Obama tends, as a default position to prescribe militarized options to settle international crisis. After all this is the President who was elected to end the “dumb” war in Iraq, and terminate the longest war in America’s history in Afghanistan; and who extended a hand to Iran’s clenched fist in his first inaugural speech. For all of Obama’s declarations and speeches about a “new Beginning” with the Muslim world, his intentions to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict in his first term, his supposed sympathy with Arab and Iranian reformers, his central interest –bordering on obsession- was to strike a strategic bargain with Iran leading to a historic opening, hence his dogged determination to reach a nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic. To that end Obama and his men used subterfuge and misled the American people and their representatives about the negotiations, and betrayed his promises to the Syrian people when he refrained from seriously challenging Iran’s predations in Syria fearing that such posture could undermine the prized nuclear deal.

Now in the twilight of his presidency, with the nuclear deal with Iran behind him, Obama and his men feel liberated enough, to voice their criticism of and to express their disdain for their traditional friends and partners in the Middle East who are seen as “free riders” or entitled to unqualified American support. With the exception of Iran, and the imperatives of fighting al-Qaeda and the “Islamic State” (ISIS) Obama did not exhibit serious and sustained intellectual curiosity in the societies of the Middle East, or the kind of genuine sympathy with the plight of the numerous victims there that would require effective support. Reading Obama and his unscrupulous foreign policy guru Ben Rhodes one could easily sense their disdain for things Middle Eastern, and their eagerness to abandon the region and never look back. As related by Ben Rhodes to the New York Times Magazine, the deal with Iran “would create the space for America to disentangle itself from its established system of alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Turkey. With one bold move, the administration would effectively begin the process of a large-scale disengagement from the Middle East.”

Betraying Syria

Syria hovered over the negotiations with Iran. Leon Panetta, who served as Obama’s head of the C.I.A. and later Secretary of Defense said that Obama was obsessed with avoiding a conflict with Iran, even if it was at the expense of ignoring Syria’s tragedy, “If you ratchet up sanctions, it could cause a war. If you start opposing their interest in Syria, well, that could start a war, too.” When the author of the article asks Rhodes about the ability of White House officials “to get comfortable with tragedy” in reference to Syria, Rhodes’ answer is startling; “Yeah, I admit very much to that reality,” he says. “There’s a numbing element to Syria in particular. But I will tell you this,” he continues. “I profoundly do not believe that the United States could make things better in Syria by being there. And we have an evidentiary record of what happens when we’re there — nearly a decade in Iraq.”

When the author asks Rhodes why the Obama administration is “spending so much time and energy trying to strong-arm Syrian rebels into surrendering to the dictator who murdered their families, or why it is so important for Iran to maintain its supply lines to Hezbollah.” Rhodes mumbles something about John Kerry, and then says something to the effect, “that the world of the Sunni Arabs that the American establishment built has collapsed. The buck stops with the establishment, not with Obama, who was left to clean up their mess.” This cowardly denial and the claim that Obama is absolutely blameless in the slow death of Syria, is the most jarring in the article.

The Obama administration’s claims that Syrian tyrant Assad and his cohorts should have no place in the new Syria that emerges after the negotiations rings hollow. When the author describes Rob Malley, Obama’s senior advisor on ISIS and Syria as the official “currently running negotiations that could keep the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in power” the circle of deceit and the betrayal of Syria is complete. Les enfants terribles of Obama are like him; conceited, arrogant, contemptuous and proud of it.