Obama’s Team of Conformists
A ‘team of rivals’ is of one foreign-policy mind.
Much has been written about the “team of rivals” Barack Obama has assembled to shape his administration’s foreign policy. Politically speaking, maybe there’s something to this. Policy-wise, the differences are about as clear as those between tap and bottled water.
Here’s a blind taste test. “A political dialogue with Iran should not be deferred until such a time as the deep differences over Iranian nuclear ambitions and its invidious involvement with regional conflicts has been resolved.”
Was this candidate Obama, urging talks with Tehran without preconditions? Not at all: It is the recommendation of a 2004 Council on Foreign Relations-sponsored task force on Iran, led by Zbigniew Brzezinski and his erstwhile protege, Robert Gates.
This would be the same Robert Gates who spent months as a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which warned against deploying more troops. In a not-so-small irony of history, Mr. Gates was pulled from the ISG to lead the Defense Department — and enjoy credit for the surge — just weeks before the ISG’s report became public.
The purpose here isn’t to pick on Mr. Gates, who’s proved to be a forceful secretary. It’s merely to point out that Mr. Gates — the Republican appointee who supposedly stands furthest politically from the president-elect — doesn’t stand far away at all, at least on two of the most significant issues of the day.
Now for another taste test: “Although we must not shy away from pushing for more democracy and accountability in Russia, we must work with the country in areas of common interest.” Is this Mr. Obama’s Russia policy, or Mrs. Clinton’s? Hard to say, really, since the other candidate is of the identical view that “It is a mistake . . . to see Russia only as a threat. . . . We need to engage Russia selectively on issues of high national importance.”
Also a member of Mr. Obama’s foreign-policy team is former Marine Commandant James Jones. Not much is publicly known about the incoming national security adviser’s views, except that he is said to have authored a paper (reportedly suppressed by the Bush administration) critical of Israel’s security measures in the West Bank. Al Hunt of Bloomberg has also reported that Gen. Jones was “never a fan” of the Iraq War and that he advocates a relatively conciliatory line on Russia.
So where are the rivalries? What are the sharp policy disputes Mr. Obama will have to mediate and synthesize, of the kind that divided Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Armitage, John Bolton and Nicholas Burns?
Instead, Mr. Obama has assembled a team of intellectual clones. Not only that, it’s one that neatly conforms to the same foreign-policy consensus that typified much of President Bush’s second term: revival of the Arab-Israeli “peace process”; a diplomatic approach toward Iran; concessions to North Korea (with no serious expectation of genuine reciprocity); abandonment of what was once called the freedom agenda. As for Iraq, whatever differences there might have been are now moot, thanks to the surge and the passage last week of the status-of-forces agreement.
In this connection, it’s somewhat startling to observe that if Ms. Rice had been retained by the new administration she would have fit right in. No doubt there are policy differences between the current secretary and her designated successor (though both of them supported the invasion of Iraq and later opposed the surge). But those differences are mainly of degree, or pace.
Thus, if Ms. Rice was edging closer to direct engagement with Iran with the idea of a U.S. interest section in Tehran, the Obama administration is likely to move quickly toward fuller normalization of ties. If re-engagement with Syria was somewhere on Ms. Rice’s to-do list, it will move up a notch or two under Mrs. Clinton. If a third Bush term would have meant withdrawal from Iraq in two or three years, the Obama team will probably bring most of the troops home six months earlier.
Some commentators, including many conservatives, find this kind of continuity reassuring. Yet, surge aside, it’s worth recalling what a dreary time the last few years have been for U.S. foreign policy: Lebanon’s capitulation to Hezbollah; the failure to slow Iran’s nuclear programs; the de facto U.S. acquiescence to Russia’s Georgia adventure; the betrayal of democracy activists such as Egypt’s Ayman Nour, who has languished in prison for the crime of contesting a presidential election.
Yes, this is President Bush’s record. But it is not the neocon record that Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton ran against in their presidential campaigns and that supposedly accounts for our current predicaments. On the contrary, it is a product of the very foreign-policy “realism” that Ms. Rice gradually made her own as secretary of state, and that the Obama team now looks set to carry forward, with a few adjustments, into the next term.
So much for change we can believe in. So much, too, for the second coming of the Lincoln administration. Say what you will about Mr. Obama’s team, it’s conformist and conventional. Except, of course, for Joe Biden, the house Cassandra.
Who Will Govern Illinois?
The power struggle to appoint a replacement.
Three of the nation’s five largest states have seen their chief executives spectacularly fall from grace in recent years. California’s Gray Davis was recalled by voters after downplaying the state’s fiscal mess (the state is now in an even deeper hole). New York’s Eliot Spitzer had to resign after a sex scandal that followed on reports that he had tried to smear a political opponent. Now Rod Blagojevich of Illinois is perhaps days or weeks away from being forced out of office after being indicted for trying to sell an appointment to the U.S. Senate seat held until last month by Barack Obama.
When Mr. Blagojevich leaves office he will be replaced by Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, who for six years served as the governor’s No. 2 even though they don’t like each other and have rarely spoken in recent months. In Illinois, candidates for the state’s two top jobs run on the same ticket in the fall election but run separately in their party primaries — an arrangement that can create strange bedfellows.
So who is Pat Quinn? By all accounts, he is a populist reformer, fiscally conservative for a Democrat and, refreshingly, an honest man. That’s important in a state that has seen four of its governors indicted on corruption charges in the last 35 years.
Mr. Quinn, a tax attorney, first came to prominence in the late 1970s when he backed a measure that would have given the state’s voters the power to enact laws by initiative. He secured enough signatures to put it on the ballot, only to see the Illinois Supreme Court declare the measure unconstitutional and prevent it from being voted on. He later unsuccessfully backed a measure to limit the terms of state elected officials.
This year, Mr. Quinn led a quixotic effort to give Illinois voters the right to recall their elected officials. When that failed, he championed a proposal for a state constitutional convention that could meet and enact the right of recall along with other reforms. That measure failed last month in part because Cook County Circuit Judge Nathaniel Howse Jr. ruled that the ballot proposal’s wording was “misleading and false.” He ordered election officials to rewrite the ballot question, but his ruling came too late to change the ballot. The correct language was contained in flyers that were to be handed out to voters at the polls, but instructions to distribute the new language were often ignored.
“In a state that has more than its share of crooks and people who go along to get along, Pat Quinn stands out as someone who takes on the powers-that-be,” says Howie Rich, a conservative activist who has worked with Mr. Quinn. Charles Wheeler, who directs the public affairs journalism program at the University of Illinois at Springfield, says Mr. Quinn is “still very much a populist.”
Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise anyone, then, that the state’s power brokers are moving quickly to strip the governor’s office, and thus potentially Mr. Quinn, of the power to fill Mr. Obama’s Senate seat. Instead, they want a snap special election in which the Daley machine in Chicago would have an outsized influence. Illinois officials claim they are simply acting out of concern that the disgraced Gov. Blagojevich might try to appoint someone. Their real motivation may be to prevent Mr. Quinn from naming a fellow reformer they can’t control.
China’s Democratic ‘Charter’
‘Change is no longer optional.’
China’s democracy movement has moved in fits and starts since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. But a manifesto issued this week marks a brave new chapter in the fight for political freedom.
More than 400 Chinese citizens living inside China published “Charter 08” on the Internet. The document calls for a new constitution to establish multiparty democracy and includes a scathing account of Communist rule. It describes its ambition for a political system in which the military, courts, schools and churches are accountable to the constitution rather than to a political party.
In a year that has seen a crackdown on political dissent, especially during the Olympics and March Tibet protests, this is a bold step, and the authors don’t mince words: “Our political system continues to produce human rights disasters and social crises.” It continues: “[A]s the ruling elite continues with impunity to crush and to strip away the rights of citizens to freedom, to property, and to the pursuit of happiness, we see the powerless in our society . . . becoming more militant and raising the possibility of a violent conflict of disastrous proportions. The decline of the current system has reached the point where change is no longer optional.”
An introduction to the charter by American Sinologist Perry Link — who translated it into English — likens it to Charter 77, the document signed by Vaclav Havel and other Czechoslovakian dissidents in 1977. Like those dissidents, two signers of Charter 08 were detained by police this week and about a dozen have been questioned, according to Amnesty International.
The Czech dissidents waited 13 years to realize their democratic dream. In China, the reality of self-government also seems far off and Charter 08 won’t produce immediate change. But the boldness and bravery of its statement suggest that the democrats’ day will come.
Wasting Paul Volcker
Obama needs him for more than ‘car czar.’
Lately everyone seems to have a job for Paul Volcker. The former Federal Reserve Chairman earned a reputation for toughness and political independence when he broke inflation in the early 1980s. Now some Democrats want to make him their “car czar,” but Mr. Volcker’s talents would be wasted by entering that political morass.
As we went to press last night, the auto bailout was up in the air and it could well fail amid opposition from Senate Republicans. Thank you, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But if the bailout passes, some poor soul will have to oversee the “restructuring” of the industry. Nancy Pelosi wants Mr. Volcker to do it, and some in the future Obama Administration would be just as happy to shunt Mr. Volcker aside into that dead-end job.
With his stature and strong views, he’s a voice for stable money and fiscal restraint, for putting an end to Fannie Mae’s taxpayer-guarantee business model, and for getting government out of the banking business after the current panic ends. These views aren’t universally shared in the Democratic Party or on the Obama team.
The car czar is destined to be a political punching bag juggling various implacable constituencies. If Democrats wanted a restructurer-in-chief with real power, they’d let a bankruptcy judge do the job. But that would mean major losses for the United Auto Workers, which prefers a bailout with the illusion of discipline.
The new czar could set benchmarks for the auto makers, evaluate their “financial viability” plans and could, in theory, threaten to send them into real bankruptcy. But that’s about it. Despite this restricted brief, the job listing in the bill is hilariously comprehensive. The “designee” should have “appropriate expertise in such areas as economic stabilization, financial aid to commerce and industry, financial restructuring, energy efficiency, and environmental protection.” Congress pretends to want Pericles but really wants Pétain.
Mr. McConnell gave a floor speech Thursday strongly denouncing the bill. One of the reasons he cited was the weakness of this overseer job. Of course, a powerful car czar isn’t without risks of its own, but on balance political insulation would be better than the alternative if Congress does bail out Detroit.
As for President-elect Obama, he needs the financial reputation that Mr. Volcker provides in a prominent advisory role, not as a spear-catcher for Detroit. That’s true at home, but especially abroad. The world is now nervously watching America as our politicians promise vast new spending, trillion-dollar deficits, and trillions in new Federal Reserve guarantees. Mr. Volcker’s presence is a sign that Mr. Obama understands the risks to U.S. financial credibility. He shouldn’t squander that benefit by dispatching Mr. Volcker to Detroit.
The audacity of hope is about to be tested as President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team moves forward in the context of bailout strains, job losses, and a pessimistic economic outlook. As we watch the CEOs of the Big Three auto companies plead at congressional hearings for taxpayer money to avert “catastrophe,” the great debate about the proper role of government continues with new urgency. It is of equal importance to consider the role business should play in ensuring economic security for a hopeful citizenry.
Business leaders must use these difficult times as an opportunity to restore our credibility with the American people. We must be prepared to step up to new levels of transparency and accountability and to recalibrate our own role in an increasingly competitive world.
The 21st century is one in which literally almost any job can be performed almost anywhere. It is a world in which we can create, seemingly overnight, a global market of complex financial instruments like credit default swaps worth trillions of dollars, and then wake up one morning and realize that this market is completely opaque to regulators and virtually incomprehensible to both shareholders and taxpayers. In other words, the 21st century — defined by globalization and technology — is a world of tremendous individual power and almost limitless possibilities.
In less than a decade, the American people have witnessed three major business-led disasters: the dot-com bust, the collapse of Enron, and the current financial crisis. In all three events, jobs were lost, companies were destroyed, hard-earned savings and investments were decimated, and the credibility of business leadership was gravely damaged. All three had common causes.
The dot-com bubble occurred because people suspended good judgment and decided that technology stock prices really could go up forever and a company really was worth hundreds of times forward earnings — even though profitability was hard to define and was at least five to 10 years away. As long as everyone was making money, everyone played along. Inevitably, the bubble burst.
The fraud at Enron (and WorldCom and Adelphia) occurred because management teams decided that quarterly earnings and a rising stock price trumped ethics. Despite doubts in many quarters, lots of accountants, bankers, lawyers and credit-rating agencies played along. Inevitably, the house of cards collapsed.
In our current situation, we now know that lots of very smart people bet way too much money on the assumption that housing prices would keep on rising. If concerns existed about the unprecedented complexity of new, technology-driven financial instruments and risk-modeling tools, they were pushed aside in the pursuit of wealth.
In a fast-paced, hypercompetitive, technology-driven world, common sense, good judgment and ethics matter more than ever. The American people expect leaders to have sufficient wisdom and perspective to buck the crowd and defy conventional wisdom when necessary, even if it isn’t popular at the time. Quarterly earnings and share price cannot be the singular purpose of business or metric of success for CEOs. Shareholders are not the only constituency a CEO and board serve. Businesses have equally important obligations to employees and customers. A CEO’s job is to balance the competing requirements of all of these constituencies.
Business has an important role to play in rebuilding confidence and restoring credibility. To strengthen accountability, boards should put all aspects of CEO pay up for shareholder vote on an annual basis. Clawback provisions, which require a CEO to return compensation to shareholders if promised results aren’t delivered following their departure, should be included. CEO pay should be based on a balanced scorecard that reflects customer satisfaction and investment in employees, in addition to achievement of financial goals.
Every board seat should be voted on annually and board membership should be regularly refreshed to ensure that tough questions continue to be asked. And when CEOs go to Washington and ask for taxpayer money, they should also be prepared to submit their resignations and those of their boards. To earn a bailout, a CEO and board should be held accountable for the decisions they’ve made — or perhaps the actions they’ve failed to take.
To strengthen transparency, companies should provide far more than quarterly earnings projections and annual profit targets. Important strategic issues and operational considerations should be reported consistently. Risks and assumptions should be spelled out rather than buried in the fine print. Employees bet on a company when they show up at work. Shareholders bet when they put their money to work. Customers bet when they buy a product. And now we’re asking taxpayers to bet. It’s reasonable that we all know what the company is betting on.
I know CEOs who already practice some, or all, of these suggestions. Other CEOS will say these prescriptions go too far. I would remind the latter group that we know there are political consequences to business-led crises. After the dot-com bust, technology companies lost real political clout and could not persuade Congress to vote against the expensing of stock options. The onerous regulations of Sarbanes-Oxley and mark-to-market accounting grew out of Enron’s fall. Now, as the economy deteriorates and bailouts continue, a justifiably angry Congress will demand a stiff political price be paid by business. Business leaders must step forward and be part of the solution by volunteering greater disclosure and accepting responsibilities. Otherwise we will be treated as the source of the problem.
There is no doubt that government will now play a greater role in key industries. While this expanded role is perhaps vital for a time, our Founding Fathers knew that government’s power should be limited. If we are to emerge stronger from our current crises, businesses must restore their credibility and regain the American people’s trust by embracing accountability and transparency.
At no time in human history have we been so unconstrained by our array of capabilities or so challenged by our worst excesses. Never have common sense, good judgment and ethics mattered more.
Ms. Fiorina is a former chairman and CEO of Hewlett-Packard.