Thursday, February 19, 2009

Recession Special Series: World Hold On (Part 4 of 6)

NEW YORK, New York -- Bush is the dude who made it cool to hate America. A 2007 BBC survey found less than one-third of respondents around the globe said America had a "positive influence" on the world. Ouch. As any dope middle-schooler knows, you don't gotta spend bling to become cool. Here's how America can (maybe try to) get a prom date with a part-time grocery store cashier's wages.

1. Stop treating Israel the way Bahrain treats Michael Jackson. One of the biggest US foreign policy problems can be greatly relieved by doing one simple thing: Realizing that Israel isn't infallible. Although the source of Arab (and Muslim) ire at the US has many complicated reasons, one of the most-cited reasons for hatred of the US is its unflagging support for Israel. Both because the exercise of any logic whatsoever dictates the US shouldn't uncritically support any state, including itself, when it errs; and because tackling a huge foreign policy challenge means building trust with the Muslim world, the United States needs to use its brain in relations with Israel. Israel's one of the US closest allies and, barring some huge change in Israeli policies, that shouldn't change. But when it does something ridiculous, like kill hundreds of Gazans for a few Roman Candles, Congress needs to finally put on its thinking cap. As Gideon Rachman and the Economist have both recently noted in sharp pieces, doing so is the only way to truly protect Israel's interests. Cost to the federal gov't: $0 and all the international good will that comes with it.

2. Chill out on drugs. The world hates our "war on drugs." It wastes billions of taxpayer dollars every year, including on opaque operations across Latin America and elsewhere. It results in billions more (plus lost economic potential) waste on a quarter of a million incarcerations. It pushes users to get their drugs unsafely. It treats adults like half-witted children. But most appallingly, it simply doesn't work (as a blue-ribbon Latin American panelconcluded last week); people from Michael Phelps to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama and scores of other prominent politicians have all used drugs, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a significant percentage of students at the country's universities who have never used an illegal substance. 

In continuing to pursue the "war on drugs" first coined by Richard Nixon but ramped up by Ronald Reagan, the United States angers allies with its single-minded intransigence and generally looks ridiculous when countries from Canada to Holland thrive despite having -- gasp! -- legalized marijuana.  Moreover, Washington fails its citizens in waging a "war on drugs." We force users to jail time or an unnecessary early grave by making substances like marijuana illegal, rather than regulating their use. Nobody says heroin should be illegal, yet; start with a pot pilot program and expand things as makes sense. By legalization coupled with tough regulation, drug use could be restricted to certain, safe areas; it could become a revenue-generating taxed item rather than a drain on resources; and it may well be less attractive to kids. Smoking pot illegally is cool. But paying a 50% tax to smoke something that John Boner(technically) approves of -- way less cool. 

Luckily, there is hope that the Obama administration -- itself headed by a confessed formerpot-smoker and coke-user -- will move toward decriminalization of Class D substances and adopt harm-reduction practices. We'll see. Cost to federal gov't: Up to $1bn needed to embrace "harm-reduction" policies outweighed by tens of billions in dollars in savings on persecuting a wasteful "war" and keeping large numbers of people imprisoned. 

3. Throw weight behind international organizations. The United States emerged victorious from WWII and put in place an international system designed not only to prevent a repeat episode but also to firm up its own geopolitical primacy. The IMF, the World Bank, the WTO, the G-7 (now G-8), NATO, and, most importantly the UN are all organizations that give Washington the top place at the head table. 

Although there is wide consensus that all of these organizations need reform, one of George W. Bush's fundamental stupidities was to neglect them, obviate them, and generally undermine them for being "anti-American." Bush, as everyone knows, was a man too thick to understand where the United States' strategic interests actually lie. President Obama seems aware of this, but it's necessary to hammer home the importance of giving these organizations new life. They create a stability badly needed in the midst of a global economic crisis, growing terrorism problems and myriad issues that will grow more acute while/if India, Brazil and China grow wealthier. 

And they are also a cornerstone of US foreign policy interests that prizes democracy, open markets and transparency. Give the IMF vastly expanded powers to oversee international finance, derivatives, securities, and bailout efforts. It'd be fair to say a mechanism for monitoring and stabilizing global capital markets is badly needed, but it already exists in the IMF. Sharpen its teeth, and let it assume that role. Expand the G-8 to include India, Brazil, China and perhaps Mexico or South Africa. Reinvigorate the WTO's Doha Round by dropping US agricultural subsidies. Give Japan, India, Germany and Brazil Security Council seats in the UN. Give the UN some real teeth by giving it broader powers over climate change and the environment -- a truly global cause that needs some adjudication -- or create a new body to do so. Finally (or firstly), realize this ensures that rising powers become invested stakeholders in a system that benefits the US and the world it created after WWII. Cost to federal gov't: The US is already the largest donor-country to the UN. This change would require only political capital.

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