Opinion

Nicholas Wapshott

U.S. power: Waging cold wars without end

Nicholas Wapshott
Jun 26, 2014 06:00 UTC

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses troops at Bagram Air Base in Kabul

Suddenly, it seems, the world is at war.

In Iraq, armed and angry militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are at the gates of Baghdad. In Pakistan, government forces are mounting a ferocious campaign against the Taliban in North Waziristan. In Syria, the civil war drags on. These are “hot wars” involving the clashing of troops and weapons. Having escaped such “hot” conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, these are the sort of war Americans have made it plain they are not prepared to fight.

But there are other wars going on. In Yemen, a forgotten war against an al Qaeda outcrop continues, largely fought with lethal U.S. drones. In Ukraine, Moscow is undermining the Kiev government by stealth. Russian President Vladimir Putin, anxious not to press his luck after successfully snatching Crimea from Kiev, is like a fox sliding through the hen coop, careful not to set off the alarm. He is being countered by targeted sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union. These are “cold wars” — a contemporary variation on the 40-plus years of  Cold War fought to a standstill by the United States and the Soviet Union.

vietnam -- soldiersThe very nature of war has changed since the hauling down of the Berlin Wall in 1989. As the Cold War raged with often imperceptible intensity, the two sides mounted “hot wars” by proxy in minor theaters — the most prominent and punishing for the United States being Vietnam, a “cold war” first fought with teams of U.S. advisers, war materiel and money that became “hot.”

Before long, the heat became too intense for the American people and their children, who were conscripted to fight, and they called for a halt. Even so, it took many years to wind down. And when the last Americans scrambled out of Saigon, the city had already fallen to the Viet Cong and been dubbed Ho Chi Minh City.

Every U.S. war since the tragedy of Vietnam has been judged against that bruising conflict. It was even assumed for a while that Washington would never take part in a hot war again. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait in 1990, however, threatened the U.S. national interest, and President George H.W. Bush decided to take the oil-rich nation back by force. With memories of our bloody entanglement in Vietnam still ringing in his ears, Bush stopped the Gulf War a little way over the Iraq border.

VA scandal is no mark against big government

Nicholas Wapshott
Jun 3, 2014 06:00 UTC

U.S. military veterans listen in the audience during a House Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing on the Phoenix VA Health Care System wait list, on Capitol Hill in Washington

For some, the veterans hospitals scandal is a human tragedy pure and simple. Those who loyally served their nation in uniform, putting their lives on the line, were shunned when they sought medical help.

For others, however, the troubles at the Department of Veterans Affairs have provided what one pundit called “A gift from God.”

For those commentators, the scandal confirmed their worst fears. The logic runs like this: The VA provides a government-run health service; the failures of the VA are a disgrace; ipso facto, all government-run health systems are a disgrace; proving that all government-run bodies are a disgrace. So all government should be sharply reduced — if not abandoned altogether.

Crimea: Too small to matter

Nicholas Wapshott
Apr 1, 2014 16:41 UTC

Crimea is permanently lost to Russia.

That is implicit in President Barack Obama’s remarks about where the Ukraine crisis heads next; the terms of the Paris talks between Secretary of State John Kerry and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and the West’s rejection of military action to hurl back the occupying Russian forces.

That Crimea is gone forever is also the view of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who declared, “I do not believe that Crimea will slip out of Russia’s hand.”

It is now generally accepted in Washington that short of sparking a shooting war, Crimea is lost and will now always be Russian. President Vladimir Putin, presiding over an economy of $2 trillion, barely equal to California, has roundly defeated the United States and the European Union, with a combined worth of more than $34 trillion.

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.

Hooray for inflation

Nicholas Wapshott
Nov 13, 2013 20:25 UTC

There have been some extraordinary headlines in recent days. Here’s the Economist: “The perils of falling inflation.” Here’s the Financial Times: “The eurozone needs to get inflation up again.”

For those with memories of hyper-inflation and “stagflation” in the 1970s, these cogent pleas for higher prices is heresy, an irresponsible clamor for the return of an ever-changing fiscal landscape that led to widespread misery and economic turmoil.

A little history. By the mid-’70s the Western world was engulfed in an inflation typhoon — with prices rising rapidly and out of control. As companies increased prices to keep up with the higher costs of basic raw materials — such as oil, deliberately hiked way beyond the norm by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries — trade unions demanded higher wages to protect their members’ standard of living. This led to higher costs, and higher prices, and so on.

No, austerity did not work

Nicholas Wapshott
Nov 7, 2013 18:09 UTC

There have been a lot of sighs of relief in Europe lately, where countries like Britain and Spain, long in recession, have finally started to grow. Not by much, nor for long. But such is the political imperative to suggest that all the misery of fiscally tight economic policies was worth the pain that there are tentative claims the worst is now over and, ipso facto, austerity worked.

Hold on a minute. Growth is good. Growth is what allows countries to pay down their national debt by increasing economic activity, putting the unemployed to work and making people prosperous enough to pay taxes. But gross domestic product growth alone is not enough to provide adequate sustained prosperity if it does not also lead to significant job growth.

Take Spain, which has just emerged from two years of recession by posting a third quarter growth rate of 0.1 percent. Technically the Spanish slump is over. But a glance at their job figures shows the country has a long way to go before it can genuinely say it has escaped the diminishing effects of austerity — in the form of tight fiscal policies, public spending cuts and labor and entitlement reforms — imposed indirectly by Germany through the European Union.

Obama versus Congress on Guantanamo

Nicholas Wapshott
May 3, 2013 16:07 UTC

A young girl holds a picture of Bobby Sands in a republican march to mark the 20th anniversary of the IRA hunger strike at the Maze prison in Northern Ireland May 27. REUTERS/Archive

Barely a week after Margaret Thatcher’s funeral in London, her ghost is stalking the corridors of power. At his press conference on Tuesday in Washington, President Barack Obama was asked about Guantánamo Bay prisoners refusing to eat. In doing so, the veteran CBS reporter Bill Plante, who asked the question, exposed a running sore in the Obama administration. He also invited direct comparison between Obama and Lady Thatcher – who faced a similar dilemma in 1981.

As a candidate in 2008, Obama, a distinguished Harvard-educated legal scholar known in the Senate for his common sense and humanity, promised to quickly close the prison for 166 terrorist suspects in the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The existence of a U.S. detention center that ignores the basic legal right of habeas corpus and the failure to bring prisoners to trial after so many years “erode our moral claims that we are acting on behalf of broader universal principles,” he said. He went on to repeat his pledge, yet five years on, Gitmo is still open for business.

The real reason Obama wants Hagel

Nicholas Wapshott
Jan 8, 2013 16:58 UTC

You might imagine the president has quite enough trouble on his hands with the looming battle with House Republicans over extending the debt ceiling without opening a second front over the appointment of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense. Although a distinguished former Republican senator, Hagel has already attracted venomous opposition from his old colleagues who think, among many other complaints, he is not sound on Israel and has been too critical of American policy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Does the president really need more aggravation? Isn’t it a golden rule of politics not to spend your political capital all at once, as the president did in his first term when he pressed through healthcare reform to the detriment of an effective plan to reshape the wayward financial institutions? Having achieved a partial victory in the fiscal cliff negotiations by raising taxes on the super-rich, does Obama really need to take on the House and Senate at the same time?

The Republican charge list against Hagel is long, starting with the accusation that he is not really a Republican at all. Hagel, who believes “the Republican Party has come loose of its moorings,” might argue with conviction that it is the Republican Party that has deserted him, not the other way around, but he has certainly relished tweaking the noses of his old pals. In short, he thinks they are not up to snuff. “When you ask the question, Has [the Republican approach] worked? I don’t think many people will say it has worked,” he said. “God knows, I would never question the quality of our elected officials. That’s why I’m so popular with many of them.”

Barack Obama and the lessons of Lincoln

Nicholas Wapshott
Nov 20, 2012 18:56 UTC

You have got to admire Steven Spielberg. He has taken the well-worn story of Abraham Lincoln’s final days and turned it into a pointed piece of contemporary political commentary. When he first met Doris Kearns Goodwin back in 1999, well before she had completed her masterly account of the Lincoln White House, Team of Rivals, it seems Spielberg decided to film an episode in Lincoln’s life that would ring true at the time of release many years later. He chose to concentrate his “Lincoln” movie on a pivotal time in the presidency: the final five months when Lincoln had just been re-elected, when the Civil War was all-but won, and when the fractious House was undecided about whether to fall in with Lincoln’s stated aim of abolishing slavery.

There is an obvious comparison to today’s politics, with President Barack Obama newly re-elected and facing a similarly hazardous short period to dragoon a recalcitrant and largely hostile House to do his bidding over taxes, entitlements and spending. Where Lincoln was working against the clock to ensure the Civil War would continue long enough to prevent Southern pro-slavers from returning to the Union Congress to wreck his plan to outlaw slavery, so Obama is teetering at the edge of a similarly perilous precipice. And just as Lincoln was surrounded in government by his old rivals, so Obama has as loyal lieutenants his former challengers for the Democratic candidacy, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton.

As Spielberg’s movie shows, Lincoln rejected his close colleagues’ assessment that the daunting arithmetic of the divided House meant he would fail to force through his emancipation measure. Lincoln’s towering achievement is so well known to make a spoiler alert unnecessary. Through guile, arm-twisting, argument, bribery, and bullying, the president pressed on and, while he kept members of a Southern peace delegation kicking their heels, the requisite votes were found to convert his Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 into law. Whether Obama can pull off a similar coup and save America from a ruinous combination of high taxes and deep public spending cuts remains to be seen.

  •