Political gridlock makes everyone stupid. When each side digs in its heels and simply won’t budge an inch, well, there’s nothing left to say, other than to offer endless analysis of why each side won’t budge – ideologically or historically or demographically, or all three, or for some other reason having to do with psychology or innate personality traits or organic brain damage or something or other. What the stunning political implications would be if one side or the other actually did budge, which they won’t, can be discussed endlessly too, but that’s beyond hypothetical, as no one’s changing their minds about one damned thing right now.
Elections resolve gridlock. Nothing else does, but the next elections that could resolve anything are in 2014, the midterm congressional elections, and then the 2016 presidential election – both a long way off. For now, everything is fixed in place, and fixed in place for a curious reason. Elections have consequences, as they say, but the Republicans don’t seem to believe that. In 2008, Obama won the presidency and the Democrats won both the House and the Senate, and two years later we got the Affordable Care Act – signed, sealed and delivered – and the Republicans have argued ever since that’s not what Americans wanted, really, no matter how America had voted. When the Republicans, riding their Tea Party wave, won back the House in 2010, the House voted forty-five times to repeal that damned Affordable Care Act that all of America hated, but they had never won back the Senate, and, in 2012, Obama was reelected, soundly defeating the guy who promised to repeal that damned Affordable Care Act that he said all of America hated.
He was wrong. Certain Americans in certain congressional districts, districts that had been carefully redrawn after the 2010 census, hated what they called Obamacare, and hated Obama and all he stood for, and those specific elections had specific consequences. We got a House that would block anything Obama proposed, and anything the Senate sent over to them, like their proposed budget and their comprehensive immigration reform package, where the Democrats in Senate had rounded up enough Republican votes to overcome the filibuster-everything barrier that the Republicans over there now use all the time, so not all elections resolve gridlock. The 2010 House elections assured gridlock. Landslide elections, where one party takes the House and the Senate and the White House, resolve gridlock. Nothing else will do. After those, things get done, for better or worse, depending on your point of view. At least then we have a functioning government.
All this means that, for now, there’s nothing more to say about Obamacare. It’s in place, and the rollout has been a mess, and there have been hearings, and the Republicans have mocked it and been appalled by it and have told everyone that they said all along it was a disaster and that they had been right all along, and the Democrats have said all the problems will be fixed and it will work just fine – give it time. No one’s changing their minds about any of it now. The recent sixteen-day government shutdown, which crippled the economy, when we also came close to choosing to refuse to let the administrative branch pay the bills that the legislative branch had rung up over all the years, which would have destroyed the economy, and the world’s economy, were both designed to do what the Republicans couldn’t get done through legislation or in the courts or with the last presidential election – rid us of that Affordable Care Act entirely. It still stands, and the Republicans may or may not try this again, but promising to inflict as much pain as possible on as many Americans as possible, unless you get your way, only impresses the folks who were going to vote for you anyway.
Everyone else thinks you’re a jerk, but many Republicans seem fine with that. They already lost the vote of Hispanics and blacks and women and gays and the young, and all those folks who foolishly think that science is pretty nifty, and they’ve made their peace with that, so being seen as total jerks too hardly matters now. They’ll go with their base of angry old white folks muttering about Jesus and that guy from Kenya in the White House, and we’ll have gridlock for now, and for the foreseeable future.
That will keep the media busy with their endless ain’t-it-awful stories. Each side will eat those up. Such stories confirm what each side always thought about how awful the other side is – except that they’re stories about how nothing changes or can change, stories about stasis, about nothing happening. Perhaps all the new supporting detail about how awful the other side is, detailing the intricacies of each new and appalling tactic, are fascinating, or, alternatively, those are stories about nothing, or at least about nothing useful happening.
Enough of that – on Obamacare, wait and see, and on comprehensive immigration reform too, and on the farm bill and food stamps too. Let the multiple grudge-matches play out, if they will, or wait for the next round of elections. Otherwise you’ll get caught up in that inside-baseball trivia, like CNN’s Wolf Blitzer challenging Newt Gingrich saying that Kathleen Sebelius’ testimony on the Obamacare rollout made her a far bigger and more dangerous liar than Richard Nixon ever was – as if it matters. Newt relented, by the way, and finally said she was precisely as bad as Nixon, not actually worse, but does anyone care what Newt thinks? Political gridlock makes everyone stupid, or self-absorbed.
Americans really do need to get over their self-absorption. There’s no point is discussing what never changes, or will change no time soon, and there is the larger world out there. We are still fighting a war, or something, in Afghanistan, and the Middle East is an awful mess. The Syrian civil war is still raging – our close ally, Israel, just bombed another shipment of Russian missiles in Syria once again – and Iran is still spinning their centrifuges, worrying Israel no end, and everyone else too. Perhaps that news is not for domestic consumption, but it ought to be. That’s where things are changing, and where change is possible.
Obama tried to force a change in Syria. After another thousand civilians dead from Assad’s poison gas, Obama drew that red line – do that again and America will do something about it. The world will do something about it. Everyone thought that was a terrible mistake, a foolish statement that might lead us to our third war in the Middle East, which no one but John McCain and Bill Kristol wanted – but things worked out. The Russians, for whatever reason, said they’d take care of it. They’d lay down the law to their client-state, Syria, and then oversee the rapid inventory and destruction of all those chemical weapons, and they were fine with doing that under the supervision of the United Nations, with the help of the United Nations. That seemed kind of a joke, until Syria agreed and sent their weapons inventory to the UN and the Russians arranged for the UN guys to go in and do their thing. John McCain and Bill Kristol and the other neoconservative dinosaurs from the Bush years fumed – the whole point was to go in, one way or another, and remove that Assad fellow. The chemical weapons were only a minor matter. Obama disagreed. He, and many others, knew that the rebels fighting Assad were a sorry lot – mostly angry jihadists aligned with al-Qaeda who hated us just as much as they hated Assad – so ridding Syria of Assad might make things even worse for us. We could make him get rid of those chemical weapons. No one should use those, as the world has agreed since 1918 or so. That was something, even if John McCain and Bill Kristol and the other neoconservative dinosaurs from the Bush years were then outraged that the Russians were taking the lead on this, not us. That made us look weak, a second-rate player in the world, but the counterargument was that we’d played the Russians for suckers – if anything went wrong, if this didn’t work, they’d be the ones who’d look like chumps. We’d handed them the tar baby. They were on the spot.
America may be in full political gridlock, where nothing can change for a few years, but something odd happened in Syria. The whole thing actually worked:
The international chemical weapons watchdog said on Thursday that Syria had met an important deadline for “the functional destruction” of all the chemical weapons production and mixing facilities declared to inspectors, “rendering them inoperable” under a deal brokered by Russia and the United States. …
The next phase of the timetable set down by the United Nations foresees Syria destroying its stockpiles of chemical weapons by mid-2014. Those weapons are reported to include mustard gas and sarin, a toxic nerve agent which the Obama administration says was used in the Aug. 21 attack.
This left Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum quite puzzled:
As near as I can tell, Bashar al-Assad is really and truly sincere about destroying his chemical weapons stocks. But why? I very much doubt it’s because he fears retaliation from the United States. And given his past behavior, it’s hardly likely that it’s driven by feelings of moral revulsion.
So what’s his motivation? For reasons of his own, he must have decided that he was better off without chemical weapons than with them. Perhaps it has to do with the internal political situation in Syria. Or maybe Russia got fed up for some reason. But it’s a bit of mystery, and not one that I’ve seen any plausible explanations for.
No one knows, really, but Bashar al-Assad changed his mind. He completely renounced his previous position, that this was no one else’s business at all. Perhaps Drum is puzzled that anyone ever does that, as such a thing never happens here at home, in the land of perpetual gridlock. Ted Cruz isn’t going to say he’s fine with Obamacare, as he has realized that everyone else, other than his dwindling Tea Party posse, thinks that Obamacare just might work, or that we ought to at least give it a shot, because getting as many people as possible insured is the right thing to do. Never using chemical weapons again is also the right thing to do, as everyone also agrees. Perhaps Bashar al-Assad decided he’d rather not be a total jerk. Heck, this might even keep him in power a little longer. Ted Cruz ought to have a chat with him.
Saudi Arabia is furious with us about this, and also with our ongoing negotiations with Iran, which look like they may lead to Iran not producing nuclear weapons, which is a bit of a bother. They think we should have gone in and simply removed that Assad guy, and we should send in the cruise middles and bunker-busters to take out anything in Iran that has to do with anything nuclear at all, which makes sense as they see a region-wide war in progress pitting the Sunnis against the Shiites, and here are two of their enemies, and we’re their close ally and always have been. They say that we should do the right thing, and if you haven’t noticed, because you were following the news about Obamacare, they’ve threaten to cut off diplomatic relations with us, implying cutting off all the oil.
In World Affairs Journal, Michael Totten sees the “American-Saudi alliance is in danger of collapsing” and he’s disgusted:
Foreign Policy 101 dictates that you reward your friends and punish your enemies. Attempts to get cute and reverse the traditional formula always lead to disaster. Yet Barack Obama thinks if he stiffs his friends, his enemies will become a little less hostile. That’s not how it works, but the Saudis have figured out what Obama is doing and are acting accordingly. …
The Saudi regime is in a dimension beyond distasteful. It’s an absolute monarchy wedded to absolute theocracy. It’s worse than merely medieval. Human rights don’t exist. The regime – and, frankly, the culture – offends every moral and political sensibility I have in my being. I’d love to live in a world where junking our “friendship” with Riyadh would be the right call.
But the United States and Saudi Arabia are – or at least were until recently – on the same page geopolitically. For decades we have provided the Saudis with security in exchange for oil and stability, and we’ve backed them and the rest of the Gulf Arabs against our mutual enemies, Iran’s Islamic Republic regime and its allies.
The alliance isn’t deep. It’s transactional.
Now Obama has blown it all, because he’s a wimp or far too clever, or something, but Andrew Sullivan disagrees:
The possible deal with Iran would upset all that – for good reasons, from the American point of view, it seems to me. If the US were to develop a transactional relationship with Iran on the lines of the Saudi relationship, it would transform the regional dynamics that the Saudis have used to promote their Sunni brand of Islamism. It would give the US a more balanced relationship with both Sunni and Shiite strands of Islamism, and enlarge our spectrum of policy choices. It could also give us more leverage over Israel’s destabilizing right-wing, and potentially unleash democracy over the long run, as Iranians, many of whom despise their regime, slowly develop more of a prosperous middle class, empowered by new media and eager to join the world of the West.
The Saudi temper tantrum seems to me a sign of a monarchy that views the Shi’a as inferior, and sees Persians a threat to Arabs. I can see why they see things that way. But why should we?
Yes, why should we? And you don’t give in to temper tantrums anyway. Any parent knows that. Obama knows that too. That’s how he took care of the Republican temper tantrum over Obamacare, where they shut down the government for sixteen days and threated to wreck the world’s economy for a few generations. He didn’t give in. They had to.
Slate’s Fred Kaplan also makes a good point, that the Saudis aren’t really going to walk:
First, they have nowhere else to go.
The Saudi army and air force are structured along the lines of the American military, which provides them with tremendous amounts of weaponry, support, and training. The French and Russians could offer some assistance, but not nearly as much—and their political interests and alliances wouldn’t align so neatly with the Saudis’ either.
In fact, Bandar’s stratagem may reflect a growing awareness of Saudi weakness. Figures released earlier this month reveal that the United States has overtaken Saudi Arabia as the world’s biggest supplier of petroleum. To put it another way: The Saudis need our arms more than we need their oil.
By the way, on Obamacare the Republicans also had nowhere to go. Obama had a national health plan. They had nothing. It’s the same sort of thing.
In Foreign Policy, Steven Walt widens the perspective:
The United States is not about to abandon its current allies or entirely reverse its long-standing regional commitments, and widening our circle of contacts won’t immediately force others to leap to do our bidding. Nor do I think it should. But a bit more distance from Tel Aviv and Riyadh, and an open channel of communication between Washington and Tehran would maximize U.S. influence and leverage over time. It’s also a useful hedge against unpredictable events: when you become too strongly committed to any particular ally (as the U.S. was once committed to the Shah of Iran), you suffer more damage if anything happens to them.
This idea is to avoid gridlock:
Because the United States is not a Middle Eastern power – a geographic reality we sometimes forget – and because its primary goal is the preservation of a regional balance of power, it has the luxury of playing “hard to get.” That’s why it’s not such a bad thing if our present regional allies are a bit miffed at U.S. these days. Remember: they are weaker than the United States is and they face more urgent threats than we do. And if they want to keep getting U.S. protection and support and they are concerned that our attention might be waning, a wee bit, they might start doing more to keep U.S. happy.
Maybe Obama does know how to play the game here. “Foreign Policy 101 dictates that you reward your friends and punish your enemies” – if you were foolish enough to take that course at Neoconservative University and your professor was Dick Cheney, and Daniel Larison explains why:
Whatever one thinks of Obama’s foreign policy, it’s not true that the conduct of foreign policy should be guided by the principle of “reward your friends and punish your enemies.” The priority should always be to secure the country’s just interests first, and that may sometimes require reaching agreements with antagonistic states and being at odds with allies and clients on certain issues. It is tempting but misguided to think of international relationships in terms of friendship. States can have productive and cooperative relations, and they can even be allies for many decades, but they aren’t ever really “friends.”
Andrew Sullivan, ever the Brit, chimes in with this:
The famous quote from Lord Palmerston, along with many others, is more stringent still: “England has no eternal friends, England has no perpetual enemies – England has only eternal and perpetual interests”. That’s why I object to notions of an “unbreakable bond” between the US and Israel.
At the American Conservative, Noah Millman is on the same page:
The whole paradigm of “reward and punish” is derived from the game theory strategy of “tit for tat” which, indeed, reliably produces the best results in simulations. But those simulations are one-dimensional. The real world isn’t.
India and the United States have common interests in fighting Islamist terrorism and in providing a strategic counterweight to China. But India has a fruitful relationship with Iran that they see no reason to sever. Should we “punish” them for that? How would we do that without also “punishing” them for being our allies against the Taliban? Should we have “punished” our ally, France, for not supporting our war in Iraq by not supporting their war in Libya? Or should we have supported our ally Britain for its staunch support in Iraq by joining the very same war against Libya? Should we have rewarded Russia for its support for our war in Afghanistan by dropping our support for Georgian membership in NATO? Or should we have rewarded Georgian support for the Iraq war by pushing harder for their membership in NATO?
If the whole paradigm of “reward and punish” derived from the game theory is, in fact, useless in the real world, then someone really should have explained that to Ted Cruz. Promising to inflict as much pain as possible on as many Americans as possible, unless you get your way, leads to all sort of complications you never imagined, and to gridlock. One-dimensional thinking, about sure friends and certain enemies, and thinking that only this one thing will simply lead only to this other thing, is simple-minded and crude, and useless. Cruz and his crew found out that some of his so-called friends were pretty pissed at him. More than a few rock-solid Republicans who were sent home without pay for two weeks during that heroic government shutdown might not be rock-solid Republicans at this point.
Gridlock really does make people stupid, or is created by stupidity in the first place. This becomes obvious if one steps back from the continual flood of ain’t-it-awful domestic news, about what’s sadly not happening. What’s happening is in the news that is not meant for domestic consumption, or so most people think. There are, however, valuable lessons there.