Sunday, November 22, 2009

Obama, China and the American Press

George W. Bush left the White House a failure. He also left the nation in free fall. There are many things I wish Obama would do and many things I wish he would do faster. But he faces problems. First, he faces an obstructionist Republican Party. Even within his own party, there are moderates who have fallen behind in their understanding of how much things have changed and how much we need to do.

Day after day, Obama must deal on the one hand with millions of Americans who are angry at what happened in the last eight years and on the other with millions who are angry period. He also faces an American press that is barely in touch with what is going on out in the real world.

The truth is that the United States has not faced so many problems since World War Two. Another truth is that many of those problems are of our own making or have worsened from years of neglect. Bush's go-it-alone foreign policy was based on fantasy but it was pursued for eight years and cannot be undone in a matter of months, though Obama has done much to repair the damage done by Bush.

I was disgusted this week that so many news sources spent more time talking about Sarah Palin and her book than Obama's trip to Asia. Sarah Palin knows nothing and has accomplished nothing but her tour trumped Obama's tour.

Now I realize that for the last twenty years news stories on foreign policy trips usually start out with the phrase, "Although producing no breakthroughs on key issues...." But talking eventually does lead to results and not talking usually leads to deterioration in relations. The reality is that private talks always clear away misunderstandings and facilitate future cooperation. The above quote, by the way, is from an AP story about our ambassador to China, a reasonably rational Republican. Here's what Jon Huntsman said:
"I attended all those meetings that President Obama had with Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao," Huntsman said, referring to the Chinese president and premier.

"I've got to say some of the reporting I saw afterward was off the mark. I saw sweeping comments about things that apparently weren't talked about, when they were discussed in great detail in the meeting."

Although the Chinese stagecraft their news, one important aspect of Obama's visit is that it was the top story in China. Obama's visit was taken seriously by the Chinese even if many American journalists preferred to minimize what happened or prefer to say that Obama isn't effectively dealing with China, whatever that means.

I have no illusions about China. It is still an empire, it has a poor human rights record, it is nationalistic (one shouldn't ignore the symbolism of its pageants at the last Olympics), it is often plagued by corruption and it is still an autocratic system even if it is more benign than it once was. In addition, China is sometimes paternalistic toward its minorities, sometimes indifferent but there is never equal footing for minorities. At the end of the day, however, through deliberate policies, blunders and inattention, we are tied to China as never before. For one thing, they own a significant portion of our debt. And they make a great number of our goods, often through contracts with American manufacturing companies.

But at the end of the day, the United States is still the most powerful country in the world. Some quick graphs can be found at the BBC comparing the U.S. and China. Note, for example, that U.S. military spending is more than 5 times what China spends.

James Fallows at The Atlantic has a series of posts on Obama's visit. In one post, he talks about Chris Matthews who seems too often to follow the mood of grumpy pundits rather than finding out what actually happened:
...people have sent clips of today's talk show by my friend and former colleague Chris Matthews, which went in super-heavy for the "Obama humiliated in Asia" line. With all good will to Chris, I fear that this show today, notably the comments by the Washington Post's reporter from the Asia trip, will be the new symbol of exactly the kind of instant-analysis that, in my view, fundamentally misrepresents what happened on the trip.

In another post, Fallows writes:
...the before-and-after analyses from a private client newsletter by Damien Ma, Divya Reddy, and Nicholas Consonery of the Eurasia Group, reinforcing the idea that what actually happened on the trip was almost exactly what informed observers expected to happen, and not some humiliating disappointment.

It shouldn't be overlooked that the operative word in Fallows post is: informed.

To be honest, Obama could do a better job of courting the press—one of the many books of Roosevelt's press conferences would make great night reading. But the press has a responsibility to get out of the 24 hours news cycle and actually do news. Our country is sagging in large part because too many people simply don't understand what's going on. Let's face it, it's easier and cheaper to follow Sarah Palin around than to keep up on foreign policy and do some behind the scenes reporting.

It's ironic that there are writers who write because they want to better understand the world around them. It takes attention, a bit of reading and experience, lots and lots of practice and a bit of thought to use writing as an analytic tool. When I was younger I thought I noticed journalists that operated that way. Certainly Edward R. Murrow was like that.

Murrow was probably the last major journalist who could effectively analyze and explain things to Americans; he did an amazing job during the crises of the 1930s and 40s. We have journalists who can do that but they're not always in a position to be heard. Even very good journalists like Rachel Maddow can sometimes get distracted putting out fires instead of explaining the world, though I'm happy to see that she's getting better at that on her program. (I'm not a journalist, by the way, though I've been writing for forty years and have been working of late to add more tools to my utility box.)

I'm going to borrow from Fallows one more time but it's just a quote from Obama—from his opening statement at the controversial Shanghai Town Meeting:
...America will always speak out for these core principles around the world. We do not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation, but we also don't believe that the principles that we stand for are unique to our nation. These freedoms of expression and worship -- of access to information and political participation -- we believe are universal rights. They should be available to all people, including ethnic and religious minorities -- whether they are in the United States, China, or any nation. Indeed, it is that respect for universal rights that guides America's openness to other countries; our respect for different cultures; our commitment to international law; and our faith in the future.
Contrary to the opinions of the usual pundits, this does not sound like a "humiliated" or "humbled" president. We are in interesting times. I write often of the American Crisis. That crisis did not begin last year with the economic meltdown. It's been building for years. It was blatantly apparent during Hurricane Katrina on multiple levels from the effect it had on oil supplies to the dismal response to fellow Americans in distress.

Like many Democrats, I worry about how Obama is doing. From time to time, he surprises me and I realize, okay, he is paying attention. I'm going to stick my neck out and say maybe there's more to the Asia trip than meets the eye. Consider the following story from Bloomberg:
Bill Gross, who runs the world’s biggest bond fund at Pacific Investment Management Co., said Chinese growth is likely to be hurt by an absence of consumer demand from trading partners such as the U.S.

“The Chinese, I suspect, will have a bubble of their own to confront,” Gross said...

At the moment, the fates of the United States and China are tied together. China has been hearing conflicting advice from around Asia but they recognize that they and the U.S. have mutual interests. Whether we like it or not, we need each other. Let's see where events lead in the next few months. I'll have more to say.

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