Opinion

Nicholas Wapshott

The fight over the best form of defense

Nicholas Wapshott
Mar 4, 2014 15:57 UTC

With Europe on the brink of a shooting war over Russia’s occupation of Ukraine, it may seem an odd time to propose a sharp reduction in the size of the U.S. Army. But that is what Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will do Tuesday when President Barack Obama’s new budget request to Congress is published.

Hagel wants to reduce the Army to its smallest size since 1940 — before Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor propelled  the United States into World War Two. Hagel’s plan would see the Army shrunk to 450,000 regulars, slightly less than the 479,000 troops we had in 1999, before we rapidly expanded after the 2001 al Qaeda attacks and we embarked as well on the optional war to free Iraq from the despot Saddam Hussein.

Obama’s appointment of Hagel, a former moderate Republican senator from Nebraska, was canny. Democrats have often employed Republicans in Defense to disguise what is often regarded as a weakness on military matters by the Democratic Party, which has become the natural home to the nation’s pacifists.

Democratic presidents, however, have been the most bellicose throughout U.S. history — from Woodrow Wilson taking America into World War One, Franklin D. Roosevelt entering World War Two, Harry S. Truman leading the charge in the Korean War, John F. Kennedy embroiling us in the Vietnam War and Bill Clinton bombing Kosovo.

The isolationists of the last century — from both parties — opposed the expansion of our armed forces not merely to stay out of what President George Washington labeled “foreign entanglements,” but because they resented the high cost of war. The divide between those who insist the United States should take a lead in the world, through military means if necessary, and those who insist we must keep spending to a minimum has long been with us.

Where is Ukraine’s Lech Walesa?

Nicholas Wapshott
Feb 24, 2014 20:05 UTC

The popular pro-Western revolution in Ukraine that has deposed pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich is part of a far wider and longer historical tug-of-love between the West and Russia.

Who is chosen to succeed Yanukovich will decide whether it is possible to forge a permanent Ukrainian settlement that will satisfy both the European Union and Russia. The prospect right now looks bleak.

As candidates start lining up for the elections slated for May, no one has emerged with the suitable stature, political sophistication, public integrity and plain honesty needed to put to rest a lingering dispute about national identity that has cast a long shadow over the politics of Europe. Tensions between Russia and the Western European powers, particularly Germany, France and Britain, have been rumbling for centuries.

Comcast: How to win at monopoly

Nicholas Wapshott
Feb 18, 2014 17:51 UTC

The proposed merger between the cable television interests of Time Warner Cable and its principal rival, Comcast, demonstrates a neat example of how the theory of the free market differs so radically from the marketplace in practice.

In the storybook version of how business works, companies compete for customers by offering rival services and the company with the best products and prices wins. In this fairytale, everyone wins. Customers benefit from competition through a better choice of products and cheaper prices, the good companies take a handsome profit and prosper, and the bad companies go to the wall.

In real life, this heroic version of how the world spins is far less noble. In the mythical version of the free market, companies fiercely compete with each other for market share by trying to outdo each other in pleasing customers. In reality, companies tend to forego the difficult and expensive art of wooing customers from a rival and resort to buying the competition. Buying business is far easier than earning it.

Why you should ignore the latest attack on Obamacare

Nicholas Wapshott
Feb 10, 2014 22:17 UTC

The debate around the Affordable Care Act has been mired in muddle and misinformation from the start. The latest example of deliberate obfuscation by universal healthcare’s opponents comes with publication of the Congressional Budget Office’s latest glimpse into the future, “The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2014 to 2024.”

All economic forecasting comes with a health warning — peering into the future is as riven with unforeseen danger as any other science fiction. The CBO, however, offers a cool-headed attempt to equip lawmakers and government officials with an estimate of how the economy may perform in the years ahead. It is not intended to back one side of the Obamacare debate over the other.

The section that caused all the fuss is Appendix C, “Labor Market Effects of the Affordable Care Act: Updated Estimates.” The key finding tripped headlines screaming “ObamaCare could lead to loss of nearly 2.3 million US jobs” (Fox News) and caused the Wall Street Journal to dub the ACA “The Jobless Care Act.”

On jobs: Be bold, Obama

Nicholas Wapshott
Feb 3, 2014 18:42 UTC

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union was all about jobs. He said the word 23 times, often congratulating himself on having helped create 4 million. He urged a “year of action” to make more jobs, raise wages and create opportunities for social mobility. Then he set out on a jobs tour to persuade large companies to start hiring and pay more.

But if we assume the Tea Party-dominated House of Representatives is not going to help him here and will block any new public borrowing for infrastructure projects, what is the president to do?

Perhaps he needs to do little. The economy is slowly growing, with the number of new jobs increasing at roughly 200,000 a month, and the number of out of work Americans has been falling. The unemployment rate — using the latest figures, from December 2013 — shows unemployment at 6.7 percent, lower than at any time since October 2008. At its most severe, in October 2009, one in 10 Americans was out of a job.

Message for Clinton: Look before you leap

Nicholas Wapshott
Jan 28, 2014 16:26 UTC

There seems to be a rush to get former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to declare her run for the presidency.

Two magazine covers last week heralded the arrival of the fully fledged Clinton campaign-in-waiting, outing the nation’s worst-kept political secret: Clinton is considering a run for the presidency. Both tacitly urged her to jump in soon, before the excitement about the inevitability of her run becomes stale.

It all seems a little hasty. The New York Times piece, picturing Clinton’s beaming face imposed on a planet like the man in the moon in vintage children’s books, appeared to take for granted that before long –  the sooner the better, if you don’t mind — Clinton will launch her presidential campaign, win the Democratic nomination, shaking off anyone who dares stand against her and, assuming that Republican candidates remain in disarray, assume her rightful place in the Oval Office.

Christie and Murdoch are following similar paths

Nicholas Wapshott
Jan 21, 2014 16:33 UTC

The problem with Chris Christie, it seems, is not so much that he is a political bully who quickly turns to vindictiveness and retribution when he doesn’t get his own way. It is that our politics have been so “feminized” that the sort of manly, aggressive, healthy pugilism that Christie indulges in with his political enemies is widely considered a weakness rather than an expression of his depth of character.

There are other reasons Americans have not lifted Christie to their shoulders on learning that his people were behind the four days of jams on the George Washington Bridge to punish the Fort Lee residents for electing a Democrat. Christie simply cannot get a fair hearing on Bridgegate so long as the press refuses to acknowledge Hillary Clinton’s part in the murder of Ambassador Stephens in Benghazi.

That eccentric account of Christie’s current scandal-ridden dilemma is the view from Fox News, presided over by Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch, both of whom appear to see in Christie a kindred spirit. Both believe Christie’s rough-and-tumble approach to politics and his devil-may-care attitude to his opponents, as well as the handling of his chronic obesity, show a genius for retail politics that few other Republican wannabes can match. Christie is the opposite of Willard “Mitt” Romney, whose smooth looks and awkward, alien manner caused the testosterone-fueled Murdoch and Ailes to blanch.

Punitive politics: Bigger than Christie

Nicholas Wapshott
Jan 13, 2014 22:31 UTC

There is a “Sopranos” episode where a deal for a beachfront house on the Jersey shore goes awry at the last minute and Tony Soprano decides to punish the reluctant seller for changing his mind. He sends a couple of mobsters in a boat mounted with giant speakers to remind the recalcitrant homeowner of the wonders of the Italian popular songbook played at full volume. When it comes to ingenious punishments, Jersey leads the field.

What no one has yet explained about the intentional four-day traffic jam levied on the good people of Fort Lee, New Jersey, at the George Washington Bridge, is the real reason the punishment was exacted.

Was it to hurt the mayor by making his constituents so angry they would, in some future ballot, blame it all on him? Was it to punish the voters for choosing a mayor who declined to back Governor Chris Christie’s re-election? Other possible theories have also been suggested. But in any case, closing the traffic lanes would hardly seem an effective way of exacting revenge.

Bill de Blasio and the politics of inequality

Nicholas Wapshott
Jan 6, 2014 16:39 UTC

The election of a new New York mayor usually has little political significance for the rest of the nation. Often it is a local anomaly in a city that makes its own political weather and does not follow trends found in the rest of America. Sometimes it is an expression of private grief. But the inauguration of Bill de Blasio was different.

Not only did he win handily on an unapologetically progressive ticket, his installation was presided over by President Bill Clinton and endorsed by the presence of Hillary Clinton, whose failure to declare whether she will run in 2016 is causing all other Democratic wannabes to stay their hand. The Democrats appear to be saying that if Mrs. Clinton wants the job, it is hers, so until she decides, donors won’t waste a single cent on backing anyone else.

Ever aware of the latest undercurrents of Democratic thought, President Clinton alluded to the debate that is gaining traction among not only Democrats but among Independents and even some Tea Party members, too: the gap between the rich and the poor is too much to bear and must be addressed.

The pope’s divisions

Nicholas Wapshott
Dec 30, 2013 15:29 UTC

The political roundups of 2013 make little mention of perhaps the most important event to alter the political landscape in the last 12 months. It was not the incompetence of the Obamacare rollout — though that will resonate beyond the November midterms. Nor was it House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) finally snapping at the Tea Party hounds who have been nipping at his heels.

No, it was the March 13 election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a cardinal from Argentina, as pope of the Roman Catholic Church.

It is significant the new pope chose as his name Francis, after Francis of Assisi, the 12th century saint who shunned comfort and wealth, and devoted his life to helping the poor and treating animals humanely. Pope Francis said he was inspired by a Brazilian colleague, who whispered to him, “Don’t forget the poor.” Since then he has rarely missed the chance to reprimand the rich and embrace the poor, as shown by his refusal to adopt the palatial papal lifestyle in favor of more modest accommodation.

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