The year is quite young, and yet it has already seen a multitude of disturbing events and trends — unrest in Cairo and North Africa; nuclearization in Iran; a growing anti-American alliance among Turkey, Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria; the expansionary designs of a newly unabashed China with attendant repercussions on Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan; calls for the end of the dollar as the global currency; the muscle flexing from an “I can’t believe my good luck” Russia; and the tottering of the European Union. I have no idea how most Americans react to any of the above, and I don’t think the administration has either.
We do know that President Obama wants to borrow another $1.6 trillion this year to ensure expansion of EU-like entitlements. One mystery is why the Chinese — 400 million of whom have never encountered Western-style medicine — apparently won’t mind lending us more of their hundreds of billions of dollars in surpluses to fund Obamacare. Another is why people should risk their environments in Africa, the Russian Arctic, and Asian coastal waters to provide petroleum for a thirsty planet, while we will not take much smaller risks to satisfy our own voracious oil appetite. The only common denominator is our desire to consume more than we produce.
Yet the impending crises on the horizon — so reminiscent of the annus horribilis of 1979, when the wages of another American president’s sermonizing and economic weakness came due — are not foreordained to come at America’s expense. Were we to put our financial house in order, slash our deficits, show the world how we intend to pay down our $14 trillion debt, and make the needed long-term reforms to Social Security and Medicare, the United States would be in a unique position in comparison to an ailing and sclerotic Europe, a demographically challenged Japan, and a China with a rendezvous with social tension, environmental catastrophe, and a warped demography. We are still a more open and transparent society than our rivals — with a more meritocratic ethos, far greater social and political stability, and blessed with vast natural and human resources. Why, then, cannot we regain our exceptionalism?
In a word, I think we do not wish to. The problem — aside from the fact that we are a country obsessed with wrangling over distribution of old wealth (much of it provided by previous generations) rather than creation of new national riches — is that the United States does not quite know what its role should be in yet another new world order.
Hence, President Obama was a day late and a dollar short in figuring out both the Tehran 2009 and the Cairo 2011 protests. Like a modern-day Hamlet, he paused to examine every imaginable consequence before doing nothing — as in “Should I criticize Ahmadinejad when I promised in landmark fashion to meet face to face with the Iranians? Where is the U.N. in all of this? If I encourage the protesters, am I interfering in the internal affairs of Iran — the way America did a half century ago, for which I just apologized? If I support democratic reform, will I appear no different from a Bush neocon? Will Mubarak survive or will he not? Should he, or should he not? Are the protesters authentic Egyptians or Westernized upper middle classes without Third World bona fides? Are they Kerensky types about to be swallowed up by hard-core Islamists? Could my own unique heritage not appeal to the Muslim Brotherhood as I was hoping it would when I reached out to Iran and Syria? If I pressure Mubarak, will the Right ask why I did not pressure Ahmadinejad? If I do not, will the Left accuse me of realpolitik? Isn’t Bush at fault somewhere here?” So many questions, so many occasions to vote present.