Tuesday, October 20, 2009

the great myths of ronaldus magnus

Can you imagine how the right-wing noise machine would react if President Obama:

  • Increased federal spending as a percentage of the economy to levels previously seen only during World War II.
  • Tripled the national debt.
  • Dramatically increased Social Security payroll taxes on employees and employers.
  • Increased the capital gains tax to 28%.
  • Raised gas taxes.
  • Increased federal government employment.
  • Created a massive new cabinet department.
  • Sold arms to Iran.
  • Withdrew entirely from a Middle Eastern war zone in response to a single deadly terrorist attack against US troops.
  • Funded terrorist groups in our own hemisphere.
  • Signed a treaty committing to make deep cuts in our strategic nuclear weapons.
  • Proposed the total elimination of nuclear weapons.
I'm sure there would not be enough tea in India to express the wingnut outrage.

And what if the most expensive federal office building in history was subsequently named after him? I'm sure it would be mocked as a fitting legacy to this “big government” president.

The president I'm describing is, of course, Ronald Reagan.

Is it just me or have you noticed a surge in Ronald Reagan adulation lately? Of course, he achieved Republican sainthood a long time ago. But for the past eight years it was Bush who could do no wrong. Anyone who criticized Bush hated America and if the critic happened to be a Republican he or she was excommunicated. Even as he left office during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, with the federal deficit running well over $1 trillion/year and two wars going badly, Bush still commanded an approval rating among Republicans of 75%. Think about that. Three out of four Republicans still thought Bush had done a good job. (And that was even after the financial and auto bailouts, now the subject of rage among many of those very same Bush supporters.) Makes you wonder what it would take for Republicans to think he had screwed up.

In fairness, Republicans now seem to have more or less thrown in the towel when it comes to defending Bush's legacy. So they have had to reach back over twenty years to Reagan for a time when their Dear Leader could do no wrong. (Bush's recent disappearance from Republican idolatry is kind of like one of those Chinese Communist Politburo photos that has been altered to remove the guy who is now in prison.)

Last week, the new Republican National Committee Web site was launched and it included in its “GOP Heroes” section a
reference to Reagan as “Ronaldus Magnus” (that’s Latin for “Ronald the Great”). Now, I will confess to being among those who hold President Obama in high regard. But as far as I am aware the Democratic Party hasn’t taken to referring to him with a title befitting a Roman emperor.

One of Reagan’s biggest cheerleaders over the years has been his former speechwriter and now Wall Street Journal op-ed writer Peggy Noonan. She had a
Journal piece last week saying that it was “absurd” that Reagan hadn’t gotten the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing about the fall of the Berlin wall.

Which is what prompted me to write this post.

The myth that Reagan brought about the end of the Cold War has become so entrenched that it is no longer even questioned. Next time someone makes that assertion, pose this one-word question: “How?”

You might get an answer something like this: Reagan gave a speech where he said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” and 29 months later the Berlin Wall came down. What more evidence of causation do you need? Post hoc ergo propter hoc (“After this, therefore because of this”). “A” happened, then “B” happened. Therefore, “A” caused “B”. For example, I can stand on the beach at high tide and successfully command the water to recede. And unlike Reagan and the Berlin Wall, I can repeat this trick. Twice a day.

A more sophisticated theory of how Reagan ended the Cold War goes like this: Reagan’s big military build up caused the Soviets to overspend in an attempt to keep up which bankrupted the Soviet economy. This explanation has the benefit of a plausible theory of causation. But let’s break it down. We spent a huge amount of money on the military during the ‘80’s (a true statement). The Soviets tried to keep up with our escalating military spending (an untrue statement). The Soviet economy collapsed (a true statement). Can you spot the problem? The Soviets didn’t attempt to match our military build up. We greatly increased our military spending during the ‘80’s (tripling the national debt in the process),
but the Soviets didn’t.

The Soviet Union's defense spending did not rise or fall in response to American military expenditures. Revised estimates by the Central Intelligence Agency indicate that Soviet expenditures on defense remained more or less constant throughout the 1980s. Neither the military buildup under Jimmy Carter and Reagan nor SDI had any real impact on gross spending levels in the USSR. At most SDI shifted the marginal allocation of defense rubles as some funds were allotted for developing countermeasures to ballistic defense.

If American defense spending had bankrupted the Soviet economy, forcing an end to the Cold War, Soviet defense spending should have declined as East-West relations improved. CIA estimates show that it remained relatively constant as a proportion of the Soviet gross national product during the 1980s, including Gorbachev's first four years in office. Soviet defense spending was not reduced until 1989 and did not decline nearly as rapidly as the overall economy.
Go ahead – research it yourself. Google (or “Bing”) “soviet military spending” and read everything you can find on the subject. You can start
here or here or here. Or just take my word for it. This is not a matter of serious factual dispute.

A lot of things contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Basically, their economic system sucked. You’d think right wingers would be satisfied with that explanation. You don’t really have to come up with a heroic story line with the US at the center – Soviet-style communism was perfectly capable of collapsing on its own. But if you do need US heroics, you can point to the policy of “
containment” begun with Truman and George Keenan and supported by both parties for 40 years. (The wingnuts at the time wanted to pursue a policy of “regime change” against Stalin, but after two world wars our country wasn’t much in the mood for more war, especially against a country that had been our ally in defeating the Nazis.)

I would argue that a key event in that Cold War history was the signing of the Helsinki Accords in 1975 by President Ford, whereby the Soviet Union agreed to international principles of human rights, which gave rise to groups monitoring human rights within the Soviet Union and its satellites. As noted in

However, the civil rights portion of the agreement provided the basis for the work of the Moscow Helsinki Group, an independent non-governmental organization created to monitor compliance to the Helsinki Accords (which evolved into several regional committees, eventually forming the International Helsinki Federation and Human Rights Watch). While these provisions applied to all signatories, the focus of attention was on their application to the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies, including Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Romania.

According to the Cold War scholar John Lewis Gaddis in his book "The Cold War: A New History" (2005), "[Leonid] Brezhnev had looked forward, [Anatoly] Dobrynin recalls, to the 'publicity he would gain... when the Soviet public learned of the final
settlement of the postwar boundaries for which they had sacrificed so much'...
'[Instead, the Helsinki Accords] gradually became a manifesto of the dissident and liberal movement'... What this meant was that the people who lived under these systems — at least the more courageous — could claim official permission to say what they thought."

Another key event was the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland which began the unraveling of Soviet control of Eastern Europe. Polish independence was certainly encouraged by native son Karol Józef Wojtyła becoming Pope John Paul II in 1978. But it was the famous strike at the Lenin Shipyards in Gdańsk, led by Lech Walesa, that gave birth to Solidarity, the first non-communist controlled trade union in the Warsaw Pact countries. That was in September of 1980 – when Jimmy Carter was president (if only Walesa had held off another four months this, too, could have been credited to Reagan).

Another factor was the spread of information technology that helped undermine centralized control. I traveled to the Soviet Union in 1990 just as it was collapsing. Their economy was bleak. I remember being told by people I met that they always knew they had it tough, but they had been led to believe that they had it much better than those of us in the West. It was the decentralization of information technology (the fax machine was the revolutionary technology at the time) that made Soviet citizens aware of just how bad they had it. That brought with it a huge sense of betrayal – that their leaders had been lying to them all those years and they had been enduring hardships to no good end.

The Soviet Union’s nine-year quagmire in Afghanistan certainly didn’t help things. As a result of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in 1979, President Carter ended Nixon’s policy of “
détente” toward the Soviet Union and began funding the Mujahedeen fighting them in Afghanistan. He also imposed a trade embargo on the Soviet Union (and boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics). The Soviet Union eventually withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988 – leaving them drained militarily, economically and emotionally. (Afghanistan – where empires go to die.)

But perhaps the straw that broke the Soviet Union’s back was the collapse of oil prices in the ‘80’s. In 1980, as a result of the Iran-Iraq war drastically curtailing oil production in both of those countries, the price of oil reached a high of $39.50/barrel, a record high in inflation-adjusted terms until last year, equal to more than $100/barrel today. As energy conservation measures begun in the ‘70’s really kicked in (
between 1973 and 1985, the energy/gdp ratio in the US declined by 28%), the price of oil fell again, and by 1988 it averaged below $15/barrel for the year. That was great for big oil importers like the US, but bad for an oil exporter like the Soviet Union. (Oil prices continued to stay low, reaching an all-time annual low of less than $12/barrel in 1998 – in inflation-adjusted terms lower than at any time since World War II. Indeed, the poor performance of the US economy in the mid/late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s can be attributed largely to high oil prices, while the strong economy during the late ‘80’s and throughout the ‘90’s can be attributed, to a significant degree, to the collapse in oil prices.)

Oh, and it is probably worth noting that the Berlin Wall actually came down in November of 1989, ten months into the administration of George H.W. Bush, not under Reagan. The final collapse of the Soviet Union followed two years later, in 1991.

But Reagan was the rooster crowing just before dawn. Next time someone claims he caused the sun to rise, just ask, “How?”

(In fairness, I will give Reagan credit for recognizing Gorbachev as a true partner for peace and, against the strident objections of his wingnut advisors, agreeing with Gorbachev to big reductions in the nuclear arsenals of both countries. Much to the consternation of those advisors, Reagan even
agreed with Gorbachev at Reykjavik, Iceland in October 1986 on the ultimate goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons. This is a goal that President Obama has revived. But those were actions that, if anything, would have helped the Soviet economy not undermined it.)

Another claim I have been hearing a lot lately is that Reagan cut government spending. Unlike the causes of the end of the Cold War, this one is easy to dispel and the proof is objective and indisputable.

Federal spending as a % of GDP was higher under Reagan than under any president in US history before or since (other than four years during WWII). Here are the

1980 21.7
1981 22.2
1982 23.1
1983 23.5
1984 22.2
1985 22.9
1986 22.4
1987 21.6
1988 21.3
1989 21.2

[Note: I would attribute fiscal years 1980 and 1981 to Carter – I include them here just for comparison to the years that follow. The federal government’s fiscal year begins October 1, so by the time a new president is sworn in we are almost four months into that fiscal year. Given that there are lags in economic performance, and it takes a new president time to enact new policies, I credit that year to the previous president. For example, in the first three months of the fiscal year that just ended, the federal debt increased by over $500 billion – putting us on course for an annual deficit of over two trillion dollars. That was before Obama took office. This is not a perfect methodology but it is probably better than giving the incoming president credit or blame for the first partial year of his administration. In any event, it doesn’t change any of my basic points.]

(Spending stayed at about the about the same level during the administration of the first Bush, coming in at 21.4% of GDP in 1993. By the end of Clinton’s eight years, however, it had been reduced to 18.5% of GDP in 2001.)

Along the way Reagan also increased federal civilian employment by 60,000 (it declined by more than 400,000 under Clinton). And he created a new cabinet agency (the Department of Veteran Affairs).

Of course, as we all know, Reagan also cut taxes. What do you think happens when you increase spending and cut taxes? From the time of Reagan’s tax cuts in 1981 until Clinton and a Democratic Congress raised them in 1993,
federal debt increased more than four fold – from under a trillion dollars in 1981 to over $4 trillion by the end of 1992. (Under George W. Bush, it almost doubled again, increasing by over $5 trillion, from $5.6 trillion in January, 2001 to $10.7 trillion in December, 2008. As a percentage of GDP it went from 54% to 75% under Bush. And that’s not even counting the trillion dollar structural budget deficits he left behind.)

For those who think that President Obama’s campaign proposal to raise the tax on capital gains from 15% to 20% is “socialism” and will destroy the economy, please take note that Ronaldus Magnus raised the capital gains tax from 20% to 28% in 1986. And the economy did just fine over the ensuing decade before it was cut to 20% again in 1997. (I should note the Tax Reform Act of 1986 was one of the best pieces of tax legislation in my lifetime. Reagan, to his credit, worked in a bipartisan manner with Senator Bill Bradley and Rep. Dick Gephardt to eliminate almost every loophole in the Internal Revenue Code. It even eliminated the tax preference for capital gains. The result was a much simpler tax code and lower overall rates. Unfortunately, while the structural changes were good, overall rates were left too low to pay the bills, perpetuating Reagan’s massive budget deficits.)

Reagan didn’t cut all taxes, however. He signed into law
increases in Social Security taxes on employees and employers, taking the tax from 7% to 7.65%. And he increased gas taxes by a nickel a gallon, raising an additional $3.3 billion in the first year. But these are taxes that effect working people not the rich.

So much for the idea that Reagan cut spending or otherwise was a fiscal conservative. Just more Reagan myths.

This post is too long already so I won’t go into any depth on the whole Iran-Contra thing (you can
read all the details here), other than to note that Reagan sold arms to Iran (which was against the law) and used the money to fund terrorists in Central America (which was also against the law). And it wasn’t like this was some kind of rogue operation run out of the CIA or the Pentagon. It was run out of the White House. But the cover up largely worked. Most of the relevant documents (including a presidential covert action finding signed by Reagan authorizing the sale of weapons to Iran) were destroyed. Most of the key players (including Reagan’s secretary of defense and national security advisor) were subsequently pardoned by George H.W. Bush. And some of those convicted of felonies in conjunction with the Iran-Contra affair (like Elliott Abrams and John Poindexter) even turned up later in the administration of George W. Bush. Just one observation: How do think it would have gone over with the wingnuts had it been a Democratic president who illegally sold arms to the Islamic Republic of Iran?

A final Reagan myth that we might as well refute is the idea that Reagan was a uniquely popular president. Compared to George W. Bush, sure. But, to quote
Paul Krugman:

A number of news sources have already proclaimed Mr. Reagan the most popular president of modern times. In fact, though Mr. Reagan was very popular in 1984 and 1985, he spent the latter part of his presidency under the shadow of the Iran-Contra scandal. Bill Clinton had a slightly higher average Gallup approval rating, and a much higher rating during his last two years in office.
You can’t blame Republicans for wanting to mythologize Reagan. After all, what’s the alternative? Nixon? But that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to accept those myths unchallenged.

UPDATE: A good op-ed from the Boston Globe, “Who Ended the Cold War?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

thoughts on the peace prize

France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, probably summed up best the sentiment underlying the unanimous decision of the Norwegian Nobel Committee:

"By awarding [President Obama] its most prestigious prize, the Committee … does justice to your vision of tolerance and dialogue between States, cultures and civilizations. Finally, it sets the seal on America's return to the heart of all the world's peoples."

America’s return to the heart of all the world’s peoples.

It's hard to see how that is a bad thing.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel also praised the decision,
saying, "In a short time [President Obama] has been able to set a new tone throughout the world ..."

A new tone. Hard to argue with that.

Despite the view on the American right that Europe is some kind of anti-American socialist monolith, Sarkozy and Merkel are both conservative, pro-American leaders. They even supported Bush. (For that matter, two of the five members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee are members of the conservative party in that country. But, then, as a German friend of mine used to say, "The US has a conservative party ... and a far right party.")

[It's also worth noting that Germany and France have the
largest contingents of NATO troops in Afghanistan after the US and the UK. Of course, they were mocked by many in this country for not joining Bush's folly in Iraq. "Freedom fries," and all that. As it turned out, it's too bad we didn't heed their advice and focus on stabilizing Afghanistan instead. Sometimes it’s a good idea to listen to your friends. But that is another subject.]

More than anything, the award the of the Nobel Peace Prize to a sitting US president is an affirmation that US leadership matters profoundly to the rest of the world. It is a fundamentally "pro-American" gesture. Which is why it was condemned by those who hate America like the
Taliban, Hugo Chavez, and Hamas -- and the anti-Obama crowd in this country, like hate radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh who acknowledged his alliance of convenience with the enemies of freedom: "Now that's hilarious, that I'm on the same side of something that the Taliban, and that we all are on the same side as the Taliban." We are all on the same side as the Taliban? What do you mean "we," paleface? (Hey, Rush -- the Taliban share your views on a lot of things, like feminists and gays, to cite just two examples.)

By contrast, those who praised the decision included the likes of previous Nobel Peace Prize winners Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Shimon Peres and Mikhail Gorbachev. Which crowd would you rather associate yourself with?

But, then, President Obama was attacked by his domestic critics for telling school kids to work hard and stay in school. As Eugene Robinson
wrote, "If Obama were to cure cancer, the blowhards would complain that he’s put thousands of hard-working, red-blooded American oncologists out of work."

As E.J. Dionne noted on NPR:

There is something kind of rancid about our current politics that you saw here, again, as you saw when there was a certain celebration on the right when Chicago didn't win the Olympics. ... [T]here was just such anger that our president won the Nobel Peace Prize, that's kind of disturbing about the state of politics.

(As Dionne also noted, "Obama’s critics can’t have it both ways. If it was bad for presidential prestige to lose the Olympics, isn’t it good for presidential prestige to win the Nobel Peace Prize? ... Why isn't that worth celebrating? ... Yet, if Oslo should deflate a lot of the bloviating about Copenhagen, I doubt that Obama’s critics will notice any contradiction. They will just move on smartly to the next attack.")

The Republican party didn't waste a moment to turn this honor for our country into a partisan attack. Within minutes of the announcement from Oslo, Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele came out with

“The real question Americans are asking is, ‘What has President Obama actually accomplished?’ It is unfortunate that the President’s star power has outshined tireless advocates who have made real achievements working towards peace and human rights. One thing is certain - President Obama won’t be receiving any awards from Americans for job creation, fiscal responsibility, or backing up rhetoric with concrete action.”

I quote Steele only because it allows me to pass along this quip from Pat Buchanan: "Michael Steele had a Kanye West moment, coming out there and saying Beyonce should have gotten the award. He shouldn't have done that." What does it say about the state of politics in this country when Buchanan is a voice of moderation on the right?

President Obama's senior advisor David Axelrod made this
initial observation upon hearing the news: "I’d like to believe that winning the Nobel Peace Prize is not a political liability." Sadly, given the "rancid" state of American politics, it probably is the case that the Nobel Committee did President Obama no favor by awarding him this prize. But I think President Obama will survive this setback as he has others.

It's a perfectly reasonable view to state that the award was premature. President Obama is fairly new on the scene and presumably (cross your fingers) has a long time remaining on the political stage. We can only hope that his best work is still ahead of him. But it is also reasonable to note that the Nobel Peace Prize is not given posthumously. Which means it is often given long before the recipient's life work is done and before history has rendered a verdict on the success of those efforts.

[It's worth noting that despite all the chatter about the 205 nominations for the Peace Prize having been made back in February, when President Obama had only been in office for a couple of weeks, the decision of the Nobel Committee was not made until last Monday.]

President Obama
correctly noted, "[T]hroughout history, the Nobel Peace Prize has not just been used to honor specific achievement; it's also been used as a means to give momentum to a set of causes."

In some cases, it has gone to honor specific achievements, like Jimmy Carter brokering the Camp David accords between Israel and its largest Arab neighbor, Egypt, which has resulted in a peace between those two former enemies that has endured for over 30 years. But in other cases it has been used to give momentum to a cause. Aung San Suu Kyi received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, but the brutal military dictatorship she has resisted continues to rule Burma. What has she "accomplished"? Archbishop Desmond Tutu received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 -- ten years before the apartheid regime in South Africa fell. Was it "premature" then? Or in 1993 when it was awarded to Nelson Mandela for the same cause? Shirin Edabi received it in 2003 for promoting democracy and human rights in Iran -- how has that been going lately? And last time I checked the Dalai Lama hadn't succeeded in securing the freedom or cultural autonomy of the Tibetan people. But he gives inspiring speeches.

Which is the point. The path to peace lies in the hearts of people. (Our friend, Mickey Lemle, who made the excellent documentary
Compassion in Exile: The Story of the 14th Dalai Lama, tells a story of His Holiness advising him not to go to an anti-war demonstration if he had anger in his heart. "Be the change you seek in the world," as Gandhi said.) Changing peoples' hearts is an accomplishment.

As far as I'm concerned, President Obama's speech in Cairo in June alone fully justifies the Nobel Peace Prize. (If you never saw it, it is still worth doing so.
You can watch it here.) Given the increasingly violent "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West, a US president traveling to the largest Arab city to deliver an eloquent message of peace is a remarkable event. (If only that had been done in the immediate aftermath of 9-11 -- instead talk of a "crusade" and Manichean macho swagger like "either you are with us or you are with the enemy" and "God is not neutral.")

Those who say President Obama got the Peace Prize for being "not Bush" have half a point. The magnitude of the change President Obama represents is defined by the starting point. It is fair to say this is as much a prize given to American voters for choosing a change of course as it is to President Obama for leading that change of course. It is not a good thing when the world's sole superpower becomes a force of destabilization and in some ways even lawlessness. No one would be celebrating the end of torture and secret prisons if those things never existed in the first place.

Of course, those who want us to start yet another war, with Iran, when we are overextended in two wars already aren't going to like a message of peace. (Remember this one? “
Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.”) And the Chinese were pretty unhappy about the Dalia Lama getting the Nobel Peace Prize.

As Steve Benen
wrote in the Washington Monthly:

For all the recognition of George W. Bush's unpopularity, it's easy to overlook the ways in which the international community was truly mortified by the U.S. leadership during the Bush era. The irreplaceable leading nation could no longer be trusted to do the right thing -- on use of force, torture, rule of law, international cooperation, democratic norms, even climate change. We'd reached a point at which much of the world was poised to simply give up on America's role as a global leader.

And, love him or hate him, President Obama changed this. I doubt anyone on the Nobel committee would admit it, but the Peace Prize is, to a certain extent, an implicit "thank you" to the United States for reclaiming its rightful place on the global stage.

It's indicative of a degree of relief. Much of the world has wanted America to take
the lead again, and they're rightly encouraged to see the U.S. president stepping up in the ways they hoped he would. It's hard to overstate the significance, for example, of seeing a U.S. president chair a meeting of the United Nations Security Council and making strides on a nuclear deal.

This is not to say Obama was honored simply because he's not Bush. The president really has committed himself to promoting counter-proliferation, reversing policies on torture, embracing a new approach to international engagement, and recommitting the U.S. to the Middle East peace process. But charting a new course for American leadership, breaking with the recent past, no doubt played a

For many of President Obama's critics, it isn't so much that he hasn't done anything as it is that they don't like the things he is doing.

The Nobel Committee's
statement read, in part:

Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play. Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts. The vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations. Thanks to Obama's initiative, the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting. Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened.

Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future. His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values
and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population.

I don't think it is unfair to say that many of President Obama's critics don't like exactly those things the Nobel Committee cited in giving him the prize. For them, world opinion is something to distain not cultivate.

(To take just
one example, when the US Supreme Court banned executions of mentally retarded convicts Justice Stevens cited foreign law in a footnote noting that "within the world community, the ... death penalty for crimes committed by mentally retarded offenders is overwhelmingly disapproved." Right-wingers went nuts. Over a footnote. In a scathing dissent, Justice Scalia called it "dangerous dicta" since "this court should not impose foreign moods, fads, or fashions on Americans". In her confirmation hearings, Justice Sotomayor was attacked for saying that while "[f]oreign law cannot be used as a holding or a precedent or to bind an outcome of a legal decision interpreting the constitution," American judges should not "close their minds to some good ideas".)

It might be worth recalling in this context the preface of the
Declaration of Independence which asserts that "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires" that its signatories explain themselves. Talk about "dangerous dicta." Why should we care what the rest of the world thinks?

I agree with the State Department official who
quipped: "Certainly from our standpoint, this gives us a sense of momentum -- when the United States has accolades tossed its way, rather than shoes."

When the pro-American conservative Sarkozy was elected president of France in 2007, Condoleeza Rice asked him what she could do to help him. "Improve your image in the world," he told her.

Coincidentally, last week, prior to the Nobel announcement, the results of the annual
Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands Index were announced. That index measures the global image of 50 countries. NBI founder, Simon Anholt said:

"What’s really remarkable is that in all my years studying national reputation, I have never seen any country experience such a dramatic change in its standing as we see for the United States in 2009. Despite recent economic turmoil, the U.S. actually gained significant ground. The results suggest that the new U.S. administration has been well received abroad and the American electorate’s decision to vote in President Obama has given the United States the status of the world’s most admired country.”

Between 2008 and 2009, the US went from seventh to first. As another NBI official noted: "While most nations’ reputation does not undergo major change from year to year, the U.S. has clearly bucked the trend."

Most of the things we seek to accomplish in the world are not achieved through force or the threat of force. Mililtary might can command respect or acquiescence. But it can also engender hatred and resistance. In most of our dealings with the world it is more or less irrelevant. It is our moral leadership that is the source of our greatest power.

Most Americans, I hope, believe it is a good thing that our president received one of the world's highest honors. If the world is expressing optimism over our leadership, maybe we should, too.

Friday, October 9, 2009

the obama nobel peace prize

What passes for a political “dialogue” in this country has become so distorted by what one wag has described as the “over-the-top, tween-girl-at-a-Jonas-brothers-concert-hysteria” of the right, that I have found myself increasingly just checking out. But President Obama keeps reminding me of our better nature. I was as surprised as anyone by the announcement today that he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. I thought it worth taking the time to compose an essay on the subject, and I probably will still do so. But this piece by Rachel Maddow does about as good a job of it as I could hope to:

When I dashed off this post I picked up the phrase, “the ‘over-the-top, tween-girl-at-a-Jonas-brothers-concert-hysteria’ of the right” because it had a nice ring to it. But I didn’t give it sufficient thought. As the father of two pre-tween daughters who have just discovered Beatlemania (we watched “Help” tonight), I realized upon reflection that “over-the-top, tween-girl-at-a-Jonas-brothers-concert-hysteria” is something spontaneous, fun and harmless. It’s a beautiful, innocent, joyful thing, like … a dog chasing a Frisbee. Or something. The hysteria of the right, by contrast, is calculating, cynical and hateful. It was a totally inappropriate metaphor. I apologize to tween girls.