“Never Waste a Crisis”: Can Obama Change the Game?

19 November 2008

“Never Waste a Crisis”: Can Obama Change the Game?

 By Gwynne Dyer

US president-elect Barack Obama inherits the in-box from hell, but an all-points crisis like the present one also creates opportunities for radical change that do not exist in more normal times. As Rahm Emanuel, his newly appointed chief of staff, put it: “Never waste a crisis.” Is Obama clever enough and radical enough to seize those opportunities?

For example, he has promised to shut down the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. While he’s at it, why not hand the whole US military base at Guantanamo back to the Cubans?

Guantanamo has absolutely no military purpose; Washington has only hung on to it for all these decades to annoy the Cuban regime. If the US wanted to bomb Cuba, it would do it from Florida. If it wanted to invade, it would land Marines on beaches elsewhere, not march them into the teeth of the Cuban defences around Guantanamo.

Besides, the goal should not be to fight the Cuban Communist regime, but to smother it with love. After half a century in power the Castro brothers are nearing the end of the road. What better way to signal the end of the confrontation with the United States that has kept the Communists in power for so long than to evacuate the only foreign military base on Cuban territory?

In normal times, a decision to pull out of Guantanamo would stir up a months-long storm in the US media. Right now, it would be a two-day story that cost Obama almost no political capital. Opportunities for this sort of low-cost action that clears old obstacles away now abound, and it would be a shame to miss them.

Another example. Obama plans to cancel most of President Bush’s executive orders, including the one that overruled California’s decision to impose stricter emissions standards on automobiles. Why not accompany that with a federal commitment to an even higher standard — and make it a condition of the forthcoming bail-out of the Big Three US auto-makers that they meet that standard in all the cars they produce within three years?

They’ll whine, of course, but if Toyota can do it, why can’t they?

Sympathy for the Three Dinosaurs is very limited at the moment, so now is the time to act.

The recession will only feel like a crisis for a few more months:

people eventually get used to almost anything. So Obama should do as much of the controversial stuff as he can while the public is still willing to accept the destruction of shibboleths that have hung around since forever.

And he deserves his fun, because the rest of his agenda will be no fun at all.

The century-long preeminence of the United States as the economic superpower was bound to decline gradually as the Asian giants industrialised, but the financial collapse risks turning that into a steep and irreversible fall. Even the US dollar could lose its place as the global reserve currency. To limit the damage, Obama has to play a poor hand very well.

He has implicit permission from the financial gurus to run even bigger deficits over the next couple of years than the Bush administration did. That will let him do some repair work on the American social fabric as well as just bailing out failing businesses and jobless people. But rebuilding America’s reputation abroad will take more than money.

Current developments in Iraq allow Obama an easy and early exit from that country, but his statements on Afghanistan and Pakistan suggest that he is still trapped in the “war on terror” paradigm. In truth, US military domination of the Middle Eastern region is finished, but the hardest thing is just to walk away from the region and accept that changes will occur there. He may lack the knowledge and the wisdom to do that.

If he can untie that albatross from around America’s neck, however, he stands a fair chance of gaining a real leadership role in international affairs. Paradoxically, by turning into a financial morass that no one can ignore, the United States has regained its centrality in world affairs, and Obama can use that to do big things elsewhere if he is so inclined. The obvious place to begin is in the area where the United States has done the most damage by its obstructionist policies under President Bush: climate change.

Serious action on global warming is clearly on Obama’s list of things to do. It’s also an area in which bold action has relatively modest up-front costs (though major long-term costs), so it’s an ideal field to concentrate on in a recession. It can even create a lot of jobs, if it is done right.

If he takes leadership on that issue, avoids disaster in the Middle East, and restores faith in the US financial system, Obama can put the country back on its previous glide-path of gentle and purely relative decline in the great-power pecking order. That is his most urgent task, because the risk of a run on the US dollar and an abrupt and precipitous fall in American prestige and power still persists. But at least the economic crisis gives him unprecedented freedom of action, if he chooses to use it.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 7 and 13. (“In normal…them”; “They’ll…act”; and “Serious…right”)