Debt, dogma, and dents in US image

July 29, 2011

Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

No matter how the wrangling over America’s national debt is resolved, it will leave lasting dents in the international image of a country that prides itself on its can-do spirit and its competence. “The entire whole world is watching,” as President Barack Obama put it, and parts of it are dismayed by a monumental display of dysfunction.

Not to speak of an equally impressive display of rigid dogmatic thinking by anti-tax zealots more befitting Afghanistan’s Taliban than legislators of the Republican Party, a mainstay of America’s democracy for more than 150 years. An outspoken British cabinet minister, Vince Cable, described Tea Party-backed Republicans as “right-wing nutters” posing a threat to the world financial system.

Elsewhere in Europe, less sharp-tongued commentators saw the deadlock in Washington over raising the debt ceiling and avoiding default as a sign of America’s decline.

“The United States must fundamentally renew itself,” columnist Ansgar Graw wrote in the conservative German newspaper Die Welt. “This means that both parties must place the common good above gains in electoral campaigns.”
Failing to do so, he said, could result in turning “the American 21st-century crisis into the demise of the dominant power of the 20th century.”

One of the most striking depictions of the gap between long-held perceptions of the United States as a model of democratic competence and the new reality of politicians risking financial havoc for the sake of the purity of anti-tax dogma came not from abroad but in a political cartoon in the New Jersey Record newspaper. Cartoonist Jimmy Margulies portrayed Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Afghan Prime Minister Hamid Karzai standing together looking at a paper marked “U.S. default.”

The bubble coming out of Maliki’s mouth says: “Maybe they are not ready for self-government just yet …”

Both in Afghanistan and Iraq, after invading the countries and waging war, the United States has engaged in costly nation-building efforts designed to lead to the adoption of America’s system of democratic government. Belief in its superiority has been a constant in U.S. foreign policy, illustrated by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright with her famous observation that “we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future.”

The last few months of a Washington spectacle that resembled the game of chicken more than a joint problem-solving exercise by mature politicians have left parts of the world to wonder how correct Winston Churchill was when he said, in a 1947 speech, that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those others that have been tried from time to time.”


The leaders of China, the world’s most populous country, never subscribed to that idea but less so now than ever. The Chinese prize stability and predictability above all else and over the years became America’s largest creditor, amassing more than $1.5 trillion in U.S. Treasuries, long considered the world’s safest asset.

There’s nothing safe and predictable in the Washington wrangling over the national debt.

Which is why U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to considerable lengths during a tour of Asia, including China, this month, to reassure worried Chinese officials that the debt debate was a perfectly normal part of the democratic process in the United States. “These kinds of debates have been a constant in our life throughout the history of our republic — and sometimes they are messy,” she said.

True enough. The American political system is messy and disputatious. But to describe what has been happening in the past few months as business as usual is a stretch. Both in the United States and abroad there is a growing perception that political leadership has sunk to its lowest point in decades.

Four out of 10 Americans responding to a Gallup poll this month said they were seeing the worst leadership in Washington in their lifetimes.

Some seasoned Washington watchers agree. On a panel discussion on National Public Radio this week, the interviewer asked Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute and Alice Rivlin of the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution how they viewed the present quality of leadership. The two are prominent members of the capital’s political establishment.

Said Ornstein: “Inmy lifetime, I have not seen a level of dysfunction in congressional leadership that comes close to what we are seeing now. Leaders in the past always knew they had to deal with your wings (on the far side of the spectrum) and you had to deal with your idiots, but you would come together.” Ornstein is 63.

Said Rivlin, whose government posts included vice chairman of the Federal Reserve: “I’m older than Norm and I would say it’s the worst in my lifetime, the most dysfunctional Congress.” Rivlin is 80.

(You can contact the author at


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The “common good” is for the government to quit overspending! We can pay our debts if we stop this insane spending! Stop paying for testing how fast shrimp can run, oil exploration for Brazil, Tarp, Illegal Aliens, Foreign Wars, Etc, Etc.

Posted by G_A_M | Report as abusive

Good column, well written.
I think the follow-on question must be asked. Can the US survive this void of leadership? When politicians threaten possible secession, as Gov. Perry of Texas did in April 2009, and Tea Partiers grow in both clout and voice, can the republic stand, or finally fall, as all great nations have done throughout the course of history? Will the South rise again to finally succeed in its goal of a dis-united America?

Posted by edgyinchina | Report as abusive

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Posted by Global Concern Over US Debt Ceiling Disagreement – New York Times « Contacto Latino News | Report as abusive

Obama has no plan at all to make cuts. He wanted to walk in and just vote on continued raises in debt to print money we don’t have. Sorry, Tea Party is here now. It’s time to slap the childs hand who dips in the cookie jar to often. Seriously some of us want to be able to retire 20 or more years from now.

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edgy in china-
Perry didnt threaten succesion, i suggest you google it and read what he actually said, if china still allows you to use google that is…
NOT raising the debt ceiling is the right thing to do, it may be the more difficult choice in the short term but it is probably the only thing that will save this country from out of control government spending.
Why would we care what british cabinet members or german columnists think is the right thing to do with our country? Is britian or germany a shining example of fiscal health and perfect government? I think not.

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Speaking of China, prior to heading for operation it is well desired that persons that can provide me with relief will appear so that there will be a clear cut end of campaign preferably this Friday while I haven’t gone downtown because that way I can also get my goods that I don’t want to keep here until I find a new place as I can stay here in this home awhile with documents that can be handed right after contact. If there will be an obstacle to see people of concern in my vicinity that should add up to fine amount in an ECHR trial of concern please.

Posted by ta-boo | Report as abusive

“as President Barack Obama put it, and parts of it are dismayed by a monumental display of dysfunction.” As a strong nation we have the right to recognize our weakness and find cures. Politicians are natural fearmongers but shame on a president to fall into the same trap. Just relax and let the system work – if you are a weak leader, someone will take over your job. As for the “dents in US image”, people will respect US more if we can recognize the problem in the past, as opposed to keeping a blind eye and marching on. For China they’d be better off hearing the boy’s shout in the emperor’s parade TODAY.

Posted by Whatsgoingon | Report as abusive

Bernd has it right and doesn’t play ‘false equivalence:’

the source of the deadlock and intransigence that’s putting America’s credit rating at risk is the astroturf and infantile “Tea Party” who won’t even sign on for legislation that they approved of weeks ago, simply because Obama and Reid agree to it (and in doing so, they compromise the longstanding ideals of Democrats).

Utter insanity, and Republicans are squarely to blame for this game of chicken…

Posted by snarkus | Report as abusive

The picture for this expressed it well — the one with the guy dressed as Captain America. It visually expressed what the United States is heading towards at a breath-taking pace: a nation run by absolute clowns and idiots! Who care only about themselves, getting noticed, and being ideologically right — without ever considering: right according to who?

We are rapidly becoming Unbelievably Stupid America — in which the Democrats, including War-Obama, are too afraid and cowardly, and bought off, to stand up for The American People, the used-to-be-normal Republicans only care about themselves getting re-elected, and the Baggers publicly display their seemingly infinite ignorance about both the U.S. and world economics, and endless despise of the U.S. government; to name just two topics they consistently act like clowns and fools about.

Very, VERY sad.

As I heard said recently: you can’t fix stupid.

If that’s true, the U.S. is screwed!

Posted by MadAsHell2 | Report as abusive

Most of the annual government deficit could be eliminated by reducing our military expenses to, for example, the average rate of the world. This would also eliminate most the blow-back that we suffer from our war-making and hegemony operations throughout the world.

We could reading run a surplus if the richies were properly taxed. They pay an average 15% while us middle class are paying more than twice that.

Moreover, the financials business, richies again, have hugely ripped on the country.

An irony of this is the richies are ruining the country for actually relatively small parts of the cash flow involved: a military-industrial complex so they can live off the profits; a world wide financial meltdown so Wall Street/banking trading houses can make a few percentage off the CDSes, etc.; and politicians bought out for a few million bucks, when they are dealing with trillions of the people’s money. The whole system has evolved to such a tawdry mess!

If the Tea-Partyers would address the real problems of our dysfunctional system, I’d certainly be happy to be with them. Instead, they promote the interests of the system which is ruining our country.

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive

What do we have in “common” in the USA? Our rulers. Not much else. The “old” USA is either dead or is dying, and those who deny that simply advocate using force to repress dissent. The “greatest” generation is mostly dead and their younger supporters do not have any significant numbers, though they have loud voices.

If true representation of the population returns to Government, all branches, all levels, we might be able to work this out without terrible disorder. But don’t hold your breath. The Old Guard does not share power.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

@MadAsHell2 – you can fix stupid but you have to do it by promoting smart people IMHO President Obama is very smart when compared to GW Bush –

“Fool me once..Shame on you…Fool me twice….the point is you can’t fool me again” -George W Bush Vs.

“What’s clear now is that any solution to avoid default must be bipartisan. It must have the support of both parties that were sent here to represent the American people -– not just one faction.” President Obama

Come on people can’t you recognize intelligence when you see it?

Posted by varela | Report as abusive

Here’s an idea: how about restoring taxes to the pre-Bush era? Seems everyone forgot that THAT tax cut was because of a SURPLUS we had at the time. SURPLUS is gone…so why haven’t taxes reflected the change?


Change tax laws to keep mega-million corporations from avoiding taxes by mean of stupid loop-holes.


(Here’s my favorite) TAX CHURCHES!!
If you enjoy the freedom of religion in this country then show your appreciation by paying your tax. The term “wealthy-Christian” is an oxymoron and BTW, Jesus had no issues with paying your taxes. (MARK 12:14-17)

As for spending being out of control..yes, Congress does not need another pay raise. But it’s much easier to cut social services than deny Congress their pay-raise I suppose. /SARCASM

Posted by HAL.9000 | Report as abusive

Judging by the comments on here then it seems there is a rush to apportion blame to others, while trying to appear holier than thou. There’s plenty of hypocrites in this whole mess and maybe people should look a bit closer to home.

The voices of those employing Freudian defense mechanisms (others are bad while I am good) seems to be the order of the day. Reasoned argumentation and facing up to facts, too late, seem to be the order of the day.

Posted by rob18767 | Report as abusive

It seems that most of the Speculations revolve round the US loosing its Tittle as a Super Power- The Argument is although very Correct that there are a lot of Discrepancies in the Political System —but then is there anyone who can point towards any Nation in the Entire World who’s Political System is Safe from all these Perils—The Word Politics describe it self— In Times of Distress no one Cries with anyone and in times Joy every one is your friend and wants to Laugh— I fail to understand that each review that i read consist only sarcastic remarks, Previous mismanagement, Blaming Governments for their inappropriate structural Policies Etc etc–But the Question arises — That is this the right time to look over the spilled Milk or to adopt a positive approach by accepting the mistakes and make amendments in both the Political Systems and the Attitude and Behavior of the Citizens— like the saying goes –that there is no Greater Grief than to remember days of Gladness when Sorrow is at Hand…This kind of Reviews and Comments will not Suffice the Condition but will only bring down the Spirits of all. great many nations have seen total disasters, Debacle of the Governments and more over have Suffered because of other Oppressing Factors– Yet they did get up –and once again made their Mark by accepting the Challenges—One must have the Courage to Live —Anyone can Die— Negative Approach begets Negative elements—-Those who have the ability to Communicate via any medium must always adopt a Positive approach— to address the Masses—–“There is Nothing to be feared –but only to be Understood” ( Marie Curie )

Posted by aisha200bc | Report as abusive

For those who have who have not been paying attention for the last thirty plus years, the United States has moved so far right as to make present day liberals look quite conservative to the rest of the world. In fact Richard Nixon’s policies by our standards today would be called socialist or extreme left wing.

That being said, it is clear we have more in common with the governments of Chile and Argentina in decades past(banking failures, torture, excessive military largess..etc.). The right wing agenda in this country has created the greatest disparity of wealth since we began recording such data in the 1930s (Great Depression). The wealthy elite’s unwillingness to pay taxes to support our governments debt is deplorable. This Great Recession may evolve into something like the Long Depression of the 1870s that lasted over 30 years. As it was then, so it is now, fraud and economic contraction caused investors from around the world to lose their shirts. Banking collapses and human suffering will continue to abound.

When I was raised by my folks, I was taught that there are consequences to my actions. Good or bad, whatever I did earned tangible consequences. It is unfortunate for the country and for that matter the entire world that we have once again elected a class of spoiled children posing as adults. Compounding the problem is Democratic and Republican Party leadership vying for control of the three branches of government rather than serving the People. George Washington was correct when he stated in his farewell address to the Union, “Political parties in a purely elected representative form of government are the rankest form of evil for they distort and misrepresent the views of others to further their own gains for power”.

Posted by coyotle | Report as abusive

“Four out of 10 Americans responding to a Gallup poll this month said they were seeing the worst leadership in Washington in their lifetimes.”

…let me guess, the other 6 (out of 10 Americans) said that the Washington leadership that preceded the current Washington leadership, was the worst in their lifetimes?

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