The Coming of the Second Jimmy Carter

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For those of us in 2008 who voted enthusiastically for Senator Obama from the center of the Democratic Party it has been quite a ride.  Through TARP, the auto-bailouts, and the killing of Osama Bin Laden we saw a steady moderate hand at the tiller of crisis.  Then the diversion into healthcare resulted in the loss of a governing majority.

Having sacrificed his political capital on healthcare, the President has been unable to follow a traditional Keynesian path to stimulate the economy.  His vaunted stimulus was both more effective than his critics admit, too structurally dependent on temporary tax cuts,  and too short lived to have any real long term effect.  His efforts on “too big to fail” banks who are bigger than ever ended in another regulatory flop. The most capitalists in the US can hope for is that the supposedly “Keynesian” President ceases raising taxes, imposing higher healthcare costs, raising the minimum wage, and pursuing short term austerity in a shrinking discretionary budget.

But while the President remains tactically more reliable than his predecessor overseas, he remains blunderingly opaque on strategy.  Surely a pivot to Asia involves more than sending a detachment of Marines to Australia. Would not a transformative economic proposal linking China further into the international trading system be a stronger strategic initiative?

But there is another immediate foreign policy strategic tipping point coming in our most important ally – Great Britain. In 2014 Scotland may secede from Britain. Sometime after 2015 Great Britain will probably vote on whether to leave the European Union.

What is President Obama’s policy on revolutionary change within our strongest ally?

If Scotland leaves, the Labor Party in Britain is finished.  England is a Tory bastion.  And in a rump Britain England will dominate even more. The Tories will chart a more conservative course.  And since the desire to leave the EU is even stronger with Tories than in Britain as a whole, a follow-on referendum could leave a smaller and militarily weakened Great Britain outside the EU.

Mr. President, what is our plan for that?

Scotland has played an outsized role in Anglo-American defense strategy since World War I.  Most of the secure naval harbors in Britain, including its only harbor for nuclear weapons capable ships, are in Scotland.  The Scots have sacrificed the most per capita in causalities within the UK from World War I onward.  Scotland has always been at the heart of British defense capabilities.

Now this is not all bad news.  Change is inevitable and Britain has not yet faced all of its past in Scotland, Ireland, the Falklands, and Gibraltar.  The US could much more easily reach trade agreements with an independent Britain than with the EU.  The debate over Scotland’s readmission into NATO after it leaves Britain could force a needed conversation. Why are the United States, Britain, Canada, and France undertaking to defend small countries who cannot or in the case of the Scottish Nationalist Party will not contribute to our nuclear deterrent?

The point is a major strategic moment is coming within this President’s term.  What is the plan?  Surely it is not merely to send a mid-level official to London to lecture the British government on why it is in the United States’ interest for Britain to stay in the EU. I am confident FDR or Reagan would have sent a high level official to explain why it is in Britain’s interest to stay in the EU.

But as with all the strategic things in his Presidency – the economy and foreign policy – President Obama is incapable of acting. It is if he exists in an ether world of soft focused rallies calling for dinners to discuss budgets.  As with President Carter’s last years the President just cannot get anything strategic done.  Perhaps at this point that is a comfort.  And on and on we go riding the 13 year merry-go-round of limp leadership.

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