Monthly Archives: June 2010

I’ve been a fan of Matt Taibbi ever since I read his review of The World Is Flat. I laughed so hard over that piece I nearly injured myself. Since then he has shown he is not just a master of invective but also an energetic reporter and (though he seems embarrassed to admit it) a thinker, until his anger gets the better of him, which usually doesn’t take long, I admit. Yet I am also–and how many Taibbi fans can say this?–an admirer of David Brooks. So I’ve been thinking about Taibbi’s complaints over Brooks’s column on the McChrystal episode.

FT column: Fiscal disarray is the least of the G20’s sins

My latest column is on the G20 Summit in Toronto

The first Group of 20 summit in November 2008 proclaimed a new era of “global solutions to global problems”. Less than two years later, with the economic crisis barely contained, the partners are at odds. Reaching agreement was not the main challenge in Toronto this weekend. They knew that was not going to happen. Mainly, they hoped to put the best face they could on disunity.

Last night my wife and I watched the Seinfeld episode where Jerry is forced to rerun a high-school race. As you recall, he’d destroyed the field with a false start. Nobody noticed except his bitterest rival. Everybody thought they had witnessed a miracle. After this amazing victory, he explains, he had never raced again. Friends begged him to; coaches begged him to. He refused, “and so the legend grew”.

That is what we should have done in 1966. England should have retired from international football. Asked to take part, implored to compete, we should have said no. England, mighty footballing nation, why do you deny us your talent? We’ll tell you why. Because we choose not to play.

On balance the president made the right decision-and two things about the statement make me more confident of this than I would otherwise have been.

First, David Petraeus is a smart choice as McChrystal’s replacement (though I suspect I was not alone in watching the general for signs that he might faint during Obama’s statement: imagine if that had happened). “Demoting” McChrystal’s old boss into the most important job in the armed forces is one of those things that seemed obvious the second it was announced, but not before. Nobody else would be capable of so seamless a transition. Petraeus, for the moment, helps stifle the suspicion that the whole strategy is coming apart.

Of course, the strategy may in fact be coming apart. But that’s another question. For now I’m focusing on the decision about McChrystal.

Second, the statement itself showed Obama at his most impressive. What a contrast with the Oval Office broadcast on the Gulf. He seemed decisive, determined, full of resolve. Above all, he was asserting himself as commander in chief. This is what taking charge looks like. Yesterday, commenting on the McChrystal scandal, I said that Obama would lose however he responded. Perhaps it will look that way in time, if the war keeps going badly and McChrystal’s leadership is missed on the ground. Right now, though, the episode has done Obama a favour. For the first time in a while, he looked the part.

I still have a lot of sympathy for the departing general. The chorus of outrage as usual includes a fair measure of hypocrisy. The case for firing him was strong, no question, for all the reasons Obama stated: what McChrystal and his aides said does call their judgment into question, and would have made relationships with civilian officials even more difficult than they were already. However, a distinction does need to be made between public insubordination and private ribaldry among comrades, of the sort that Dilberts in every office in the world ought to recognise.

What the general and (especially) his aides said in the Rolling Stone profile was public, and they should have known it: a reporter was there, for heaven’s sake. But plainly this was not on their minds. The reporter had receded into the background. They relaxed. They trusted him not to embarrass them-or else just didn’t think about it.

Sadly, trusting or failing to notice a journalist is often a firing offence. But this was not the same thing as calculated open defiance: “Here  is what I think of the idiots in charge, and I want everybody to know it.” It is a distinction that a lot of people seem content to ignore. McChrystal probably had to go-and Obama’s disposal of the problem was most impressive. But check your emails, my friends; recall your private conversations. Anything you would wish your boss or your co-workers not to know?

The Rolling Stone profile of Stanley McChrystal looks like a crippling setback for Obama’s Afghanistan strategy, if the policy still deserves that term. On the face of it, the general cannot keep his job. McChrystal and his team are openly contemptuous of their political leaders. If this is not rank insubordination, what is?

You have to wonder what they were thinking, letting these comments go on the record. It is not as though they are advancing an alternative policy. McChrystal mostly got his way on that, though the deadline Obama has imposed obviously chafes.

One wants to put it all down to McChrystal’s innocence when it comes to dealing with the press. Bitter venting about the clowns in head office is routine in the best-run organizations. One wants to say, this is how people talk about their bosses when they think the conversation is private. But how could McChrystal and his top aides have thought they were talking privately, with reporter and notebook along for the ride? McChrystal is no longer entitled to be innocent. He has been told to watch his mouth already, and he has been warned about testing the limits of the chain of command. He was slapped down over the leaking of his report to the White House last year, predicting failure in Afghanistan unless the US committed extra forces. Now this.

Obama might wish he could overlook it. McChrystal was his choice, part of his seizing ownership of the war. The president was applauded for it. Nobody doubts the general’s superlative qualities as a soldier and leader of men. But how can Obama let this go and retain his own authority?

If he sacks him, he removes the officer he has been describing as uniquely qualified to do the job, which sets back the mission and calls the president’s own judgment into question. If he leaves him in charge, he looks weak, affirming a gathering line of criticism. That is the dilemma McChrystal has created: in either case, Obama loses. On balance, I think, the best thing would have been for McChrystal to offer his resignation publicly and immediately, and for Obama to refuse it with a final warning to shut up. That opportunity has already slipped by.

Needless to say, the timing is as bad as could be. Even before this, Afghan policy was in worsening disarray. The rate of US casualties is rising. Allies are bailing out. Despite earlier assurances and scaled-up operations, Helmand is not stabilised: Marjah remains a “bleeding ulcer,” according to McChrystal’s previous assessment. The much-advertised campaign in Kandahar has been delayed. The US says a good local partner is indispensable; it does not have one. Karzai is sending mixed messages (to put it kindly) about détente with the Taliban; he is hinting that the US and its allies are losing; his well-regarded security and interior ministers are gone.

The promised review of policy in December is already looming, to say nothing of the promised start of the drawdown next summer. Things are going badly, and because of the deadline Obama imposed on himself and McChrystal, time is running out. Right now, keeping this strategy on the road until December looks hard enough, let alone through next summer and beyond.

A US House-Senate conference has started work on merging the chambers’ respective financial reform bills. This tortuous process still has some way to go. The good news is that the plans are similar, and not that different from the blueprint suggested by the administration last year. Agreement will most likely be reached, and the final measure will tick the main boxes. It will be better than nothing. The bad news is that it will be no more than a start.

Continue reading “Sleight of hand is not the best reform”

A remarkable man you never heard of died last week. In a splendid obituary The Economist salutes the creator of its intellectual identity. As the piece says, Norman Macrae was both brilliant and batty–but mainly brilliant. In December 1988 he “retired”, insofar as people ever retire from The Economist. (“Enjoy your retirement. See you on Monday.”) He marked the occasion with a long article reflecting on his 40 years at the newspaper. He concluded:

I don’t know what I expected… When I joined The Economist in 1949 it seemed unlikely the world would last [this long]. But here we stand, 40 memory-sodden years on, and what have we done? What we have done, largely because the poorest two-thirds of people are living much longer, is approximately to octuple real gross world product. During the brief civilian working lives of us returning soldiers from the second world war, we have added seven times as much to the world’s producing power as was added during all the previous millennia of homo sapiens’s existence. That may help explain why some of us sound and write rather tired. It does not explain why anybody in the next generation, to whom we gladly vacate our posts, can dare to sound pessimistic.

Once in my my early days there I turned up to read proofs on a Thursday morning to find that Norman, as usual, had been busy during the night. A piece of mine had aroused his interest. He had left the first and last paragraphs untouched, and in between had inserted a whole new story on, as it seemed to me, an entirely different subject. “Is that all right?” he asked. I was new. I thought it was good of him to enquire.

On another occasion he told me about his experience of writing a piece for Time. (I think it was Time.) He said he wouldn’t advise it. They sent his copy out for fact-checking, he chuckled. The fact-checker wasn’t sure about one thing and sent it on to another fact-checker. The second fact-checker didn’t know and sent it on to a friend at Harvard. The scholar wasn’t sure and sent it on to a friend in the State Department. The official in the State Department–by this time, two weeks had passed since Norman had filed–wasn’t sure either, but he knew exactly whom to ask. He called his friend in London, Norman duly confirmed his own fact, and the information traveled back up the line. I can picture Norman, eyebrows raised, waiting for my reaction. He laughed, and laughed, and laughed.

In late 2008, Dartmouth’s Ken French assembled an all-star group of 15 finance and economics scholars at Squam Lake in New Hampshire to discuss what was going on and what to do about it. Their discussions continued over the succeeding months and as consensus was reached, topic by topic, a series of white papers issued forth. These findings have now been gathered together as The Squam Lake Report: Fixing the Financial System. It’s concise–barely 150 pages–and crystal clear. It provides the rationale for much of what is in the bill being debated in the House-Senate conference, and points to some areas where the legislation seems likely to fall short.

Arnold Kling is not impressed. I am. If you asked me to recommend one thing to read on reforming financial regulation, this would be it.

The book was launched at a conference in New York this week. Ben Bernanke gave a speech, which is also worth a look.

I agree with much of the instant TV commentary: Obama’s address was surprisingly bad. He and his people made such a big deal of it–Oval Office and all–then when it arrived there was no there there. Nothing new. Hard facts were sparse, and in every case already well-known. I expected some new information. I expected at least a detailed, authoritative account of what was being done, and who was in charge of what. I thought there would be a more precise statement of what was being demanded of BP. He gave us none of this.

Then it got worse, with a lame, formulaic, campaign-style call for a clean energy policy. Perhaps that might have some traction after the emergency in the Gulf has been dealt with. Even then, I doubt it. But for now, with the oil still leaking and the problems with the clean-up anything but resolved, it is simply beside the point. I cannot think that this is what the country wanted to hear from Obama this week.

Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash American innovation and seize control of our own destiny.

Now is the moment for such grand thoughts? Now is the moment for effective crisis management. Later, perhaps, is the moment for embarking on a national mission to reinvent the economy.

As we speak, old factories are reopening to produce wind turbines, people are going back to work installing energy-efficient windows, and small businesses are making solar panels.

No, as we speak, the oil is still pouring into the Gulf. What on earth were they thinking? This part of the speech blended grandiosity and complacency: as though he were saying, “Having dealt with the immediate crisis, I’d like to move on to the bigger issue of which this is just a part.” The immediate crisis hasn’t been dealt with; it is still getting worse.

It was a bad speech, all right–but what about the substantive charges of White House incompetence? I’ve lately taken Obama’s side against some of his critics in the US media: not angry enough, not paternal enough, just not doing enough, and all that drivel. Watching the polls, I’ve seen little sign over recent weeks that the US as a whole has much time for those attacks. But one important accusation does seem fair, and might be starting to stick: there is no clear chain of command. Who is in charge of operations? Whose responsibility is it to co-ordinate the efforts of the multiple agencies and levels of government–to organise offers of help from abroad, and to put resources where they can best be used? I had innocently supposed that after two months such a structure must exist, but maybe not. If there is a chain of command, Obama could have done himself a lot of good tonight by explaining it.

He looked nervous too, don’t you think? It was an unconfident performance. He moved his hands too much. He did not look strong. It was a bad night for his presidency, and he would have been wise to give no speech rather than this speech.

A week ago I criticised the US media for childishly demanding that President Barack Obama “just do something” about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, observing there was much to be said for a leader who stayed calm in a crisis. Next day, no doubt as a result, Mr Obama became pointedly less calm. He called for some “ass to kick”, a very Bushian sentiment, and dialled up the invective against BP – which he likes to call by its old name, British Petroleum, to underline the company’s alien perfidy.

Continue reading “Britain should back down over BP”

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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