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The Devil We Don’t Know

Posted on Apr 24, 2012

By Eugene Robinson

It may not be the economy, stupid.

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Then again, James Carville’s famous maxim about the 1992 presidential campaign might well be valid in 2012. But it’s quite possible that on Election Day, voters’ most urgent concerns—economic or not—will be driven by overseas events that neither President Obama nor his Republican opponent can predict or control.

Analysts, commentators and, yes, columnists will fill the days between now and November with sage assessments of the campaigns. Does Obama have the right strategy? Does Mitt Romney have the right message? Which party has the better ground game? Which candidate’s loose-remark-of-the-day qualifies as a certified gaffe?

But it might be more pertinent to ask, for example, what the North Korean news agency meant Monday with its threat to reduce parts of Seoul to ash with a military attack “by unprecedented peculiar means and methods of our own style.”

North Korea’s apocalyptic rhetoric can usually be written off as bluster. But the Stalinist dynasty in charge of the world’s most isolated country has an inexperienced young leader whose first attempt to cover himself in glory—testing a provocative new long-range missile—was a humiliating failure. Could Kim Jong Eun actually be thinking the unthinkable?


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We have to assume the North Korean regime cares most about its own survival and thus will not launch a suicidal war. But if Kim and the generals have decided to push the envelope, perhaps with a new nuclear weapons test, the possibility for miscalculation is greater than in the past. Kim’s father, the late Kim Jong Il, was a master at knowing just how far he could go without triggering Armageddon. Let’s hope the kid was taking notes.

As Obama has made clear, our nation’s geopolitical strategic focus is shifting from the Atlantic to the Pacific—where American interests run into those of the other emerging global superpower, China. This is why anyone trying to predict the course of the U.S. election campaign ought to pay attention to the scandal and turmoil that have gripped the Chinese government at a delicate moment of transition.

It’s a convoluted story involving money, sex, corruption, betrayal and an alleged homicide. The central fact is that one of China’s most charismatic and powerful politicians—Bo Xilai, until recently the Communist Party boss in Chongqing, an inland metropolis of nearly 30 million people—has been sacked. His wife is accused of murdering a shadowy British businessman who may have helped the couple transfer untold millions of ill-gotten dollars into illegal offshore accounts.

Why might any of this matter to U.S. voters? Because the scandal exposes the most serious threat to the Chinese government’s legitimacy—widespread corruption—just as the hierarchy prepares to name a new president this fall. The collective leadership is acting, basically, like a man caught with his pants down.

As a way of shoring up patriotic support, officials may be tempted to be more aggressive in pushing China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. The United States might feel compelled to push back. Then what?

There are other, more obvious international situations that could have a big impact on the presidential race—beginning, of course, with the war in Afghanistan. Both Obama and Romney lag well behind the public mood, which is for bringing the troops home now. Both may be tempted to catch up.

Meanwhile, there will likely be mounting pressure to do something about the brutal war of repression being waged by Bashar al-Assad in Syria. It is hard to imagine what that “something” might be; an intervention robust enough to make a difference would have more in common with the all-out Iraq invasion than with the more limited Libya campaign. But an atrocity can change attitudes overnight.

There’s also the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. It may not happen—but if it does, there’s plenty of political danger here for both campaigns.

And if the Carville dictum turns out to be right? Well, stock markets around the world swooned on Monday—not because of anything U.S. officials said or did but because of events in Europe that made investors nervous. The Dutch government fell, after failing to win approval of new austerity measures, while French President Nicolas Sarkozy finished second in his bid for re-election and faces a runoff.

It may be that in 2012 it’s the eurozone crisis, stupid. And there’s nothing Obama or Romney can do about it.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)
© 2012, Washington Post Writers Group

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By Mekhong Kurt, April 26, 2012 at 4:36 pm Link to this comment

Suuuuuure, azythos—Robinson is trying to hide the “fact” that President Obama has a crystal ball that his Secrtary of Crystal Ball Affairs monitors for him so that he always knows exactly what will happen right down to the second anywhere in the Known Universe.


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By Mekhong Kurt, April 26, 2012 at 4:29 pm Link to this comment

Mr. Robinson, re your observation that China might become more assertive in the South China Sea, they’re already doing so in their increasingly important stand-off with the Philippines in what China calls a part of its claimed (but far from agreed-upon by others) Spratley Islands, specifically the Scarborough Shoal (as the Philippines call it).

The shoal is about 140 miles off the PI’s western shore; the closest recognized-by-all Chinese territory is about three times further away (Hainan Island). The shoal is within the PI’s 230-mile exclusive economic zone, recognized by everyone *except* China, which bases its highly dubious claim on a map made by a Chinese explorer hundreds of years ago, an explorer who named it, “strengthening” Beijing’s claim—in its own eyes anyway.

Some, but by no means all, media have reported China has sent a nuclear sub to the region.

Manila proposed international arbitration; predictably, Beijing quickly rejected it, as it invariably does in such disputes. It prefers to pick on weak neighbors individually.

Heck, I remember reading a newspaper artucle in the “China Daily” many years ago about some deserted tiny rocky island, virtually barren and completely uninhabited, that China claimed, although the rock (which actually was washed over by the sea part of the time by then) is in the far-flung southern part of the South China Sea. The basis of the claim?—there was a gravestone with Chinese characters on it! Heck, by that “logic,” SAN FRANCISCO belongs to China!

I’m normally not a China-basher; I lived and worked there several years, and enjoyed it. Even married a Beijing gal when I lived there. But China’s maritime claims are usually so off the wall that at first glance, they seem impossible to be serious—but they are. China is serious about them—deadly serious.

You are right it’s a handy diversion from the the embarrassing Bo Xilai affair and the jockeying in its aftermath.

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By Clash, April 24, 2012 at 5:44 pm Link to this comment

Sounds a bit like Rummie, known known’s, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns, jeesh they must all no a lot.

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By azythos, April 24, 2012 at 3:28 pm Link to this comment

“Don’t Know”?
“overseas events that neither President Obama nor his Republican opponent can predict or control”?

As usual, Robinson is so stupid it’s no fun to hit him anymore. Can’t he at least think a second before shooting his Fuehr… ehm, Leader, in the foot?

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By gerard, April 24, 2012 at 1:07 pm Link to this comment

Postscripted confession:  And Africa?  What about Africa?  I, myself, who pretend to know this, that and the other, forget all about Africa.  It’s as if it only half existed and comes into most conversations as an afterthought, if at all. Forgive me, Mandela.  Forgive me—though I don’t deserve it. Tens of thousands of shrunken, pot-bellied starving babies and children while I have a grocery store on the corner and can go and buy “treats”—unless somebody “feels threatened” and shoots me dead.  Forgive!  Forgive!

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By gerard, April 24, 2012 at 1:02 pm Link to this comment

It’s a time in history when almost anybody could write a column citing desperate dangers everywhere—
problems either here or over there someplace. It’s also easy not to offer any possible solutions, which means one more experiment in futility.
  Three paragraphs for the most isolated, deprived, belligerent, confused, lonely country in the world—N.Korea, with nukes or a nuke or what else?
  Four paragraphs for the largest, fastest developing, second-least-understood country in the world, with nukes.
  One paragraph to a small isolated god-forsaken
wind-swept country, war-torn by US for a decade and left smouldering, nextdoor to a nuke country.
  One paragraph for one country representative of many M.E. countries struggling to free itself from retrograde dictatorship.
  One paragraph for a stubborn, self-destructive religious oligarchy with nukes nextdoor to another similar country which probably wants nukes.
  One paragraph for Europe—no mention of Greece
or Germany or money or suggestions to straighten out messed up international banking, corporate exploitation, (esp. Central/South America),
interlocked financial interests, economic tangles,
historic cultural differences desperately needing
mutual education and practice of honest human relations among all.  No hint of possibilities for improved relationships, why and how.  Nothing. 
  Thanks, but no thanks, Mr. Robinson.  You left all the good stuff out, such as millions of people working together to make changes that will solve some problems, ameliorate others, and stop others from developing.  Right when we all feel depressed and confused.  Right when we need encouragement the most. So much to be done. So many people who would like to know what can be done and how.
  Thanks, Mr. Robinson, but no thanks.

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By Ron Siewert, April 24, 2012 at 11:53 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)


You just don’t get it like everyone else in the
universe. The United States is the most powerful
terrorist organization in the World. Once, if
possible, you can recognize that then we can move
forward in the public debate in an honest manner.
Until then it’s just thrashing.

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By bigchin, April 24, 2012 at 9:12 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Neither Romney nor Obama can do anything about it because they are BOTH part of the neo-liberal cabal that has promoted, as ploicy, global despair, war, poverty and the end of democracy as we knew it.

That’s right E.R.  Both of our political parties are to blame for the very scary place the world is in.

The problem is that people like you think Obama is “not to blame.”

Getr a real job, Eugene, if you can’t see past your partisan blinders to say something important.

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By balkas, April 24, 2012 at 8:26 am Link to this comment

talking about corruption [nearly all people are corrupt or potentially
such] is an useless thinking unless one also discloses causes for it.
and all MSM columnists avoid doing that. and why, because they are in
fact more corrupt than 90% of world pop.
the FIRST CAUSE of corrupt behavior is division of people into classes or
collections of people.
all evil and not just curruption flows from the first cause.

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By Sofianitz, April 24, 2012 at 7:59 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Both Obama and Romney are abject servants of the US Corporate elite plutocracy.  A vote for either is a vote against America.

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By Paul_GA, April 24, 2012 at 7:14 am Link to this comment

You got that right, Vector—and I’m reminded of something that “Old Right” journalist and author Garet Garrett wrote just before his death in 1953: “Is it security you want? There is no security at the top of the world.

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By vector56, April 24, 2012 at 6:24 am Link to this comment

This Global financial “house of cards” setup to exploit the many for the delight of the few could and should not last forever.

As far as the brutal conflict in the middle east and the coming stand off with China; it’s just “colonialism” refusing to die quietly.

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