By William Pfaff
Abroad, what is happening in Washington remains to most a mystery of very little interest. It is back pages stuff. If the American government ceases to function because the Republican majority in the House of Representatives refuses to pass a budget bill that does not include a rider disabling President Barack Obama’s health reform program, already law of the nation, well that is America for you. Americans are always telling the world they are an exceptional people.
Among the few foreign observers who have bothered to inform themselves on why the Republicans have imposed this government shutdown (and would-be political shakedown), it has generally been seen as a frivolous political maneuver by the extremist wing of the Republican Party, not to be taken seriously and sure to be resolved within a day or two. It has happened before.
On the major European stock markets, nearly as hypersensitive as American markets to any incident that might be turned to a profit, neither stocks nor currency values significantly moved before last weekend or even on Monday. This was just American politics, notoriously eccentric and irresponsible; all this would blow away. The European papers had moved on. On Tuesday people began to get interested again.
Tuesday was when Americans themselves began again to get serious, since it had become clear that the Tea Party Right among the Republicans was seized by the spirit of nihilism, and had so irrevocably blackmailed the Republican leadership that the party now was committed to nothing short of presidential capitulation.
They were now doubling down and preparing the same stand on freezing the national debt ceiling, which in theory has to be raised within the next week or two. The president called a press conference to insist that if this were not done, the result could be default on the American nation’s obligations and an international financial crisis, possibly bigger and better than the last one, since the people in positions of power then were not wholly aware of what was happening as it actually happened, which was too late.
There are, of course, alternatives. The president could surrender, abandon his health program and commit political suicide (which, of course, would bring maximum delight to the bloodthirsty Tea Potters).
According to certain Washington economists, Obama, facing default, could also be justified in instructing the Treasury to ignore the law concerning a debt limit, whose extension has in the past been quasi-automatic, and to continue borrowing on the markets as usual, so as to meet obligations as they arrive.
The president could simultaneously invite the House majority to vote his impeachment for breaking the law, which they would be entitled to do, and to send the bill of impeachment to the Senate, which under the Constitution must try the case. There, the Democratic majority could be expected to rule that Obama was innocent of treason, or of high crimes or misdemeanors against the state, the offenses that invoke impeachment. (The Senate majority might even move to thank Obama for saving the nation from the raging lunacy that had infected the Republican Party.)
As for foreign opinion, the cover stories of two recent German publications, the distinguished weekly Die Zeit and Junge Welt, were “In the Hands of the Extremists” and “America Runs Amok.” A Saudi Arabian paper (Al Yawm) nervously asked its readers, “What Is the Alternative to Washington?”
Is there one? Western Europe seems to be sinking into a bipolar depression/panic at the absence, for the first time in nearly 70 years, of an American government telling them how to run their own affairs. In foreign policy, poor Francois Hollande in France made himself absurd, promising to bomb Syria, then shocked to find that Washington and London were not bombing Syria, then saying that France would bomb Syria anyway, and then that after all it would not, so let’s drop the subject. By that time, the U.N. weapons inspectors were at work.
David Cameron had already been humiliated when Britain’s Parliament ordered him to stop barking and get back inside the 10 Downing Street kennel. Vladimir Putin, we found, would take care of it all. By then the Europeans seemed to be simultaneously asking what they could do without America leading them, and at the same time how could they respect the United States as the self-proclaimed world-leading country (but whose president didn’t have time to pivot to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Indonesia, for a chat with China’s new leader, Xi Jinping).
And then this last weekend had to provide the moment for Obama to display his warrior side once again, and SEAL Team 6, current heroes of Hollywood, got beaten back from a landing meant to seize a Somalian beach estate. At least with that people were dealing with more serious matters than Washington politics. But the Saudi Arabian paper’s question remained unanswered. Is there an alternative to Washington? There must be.
Visit William Pfaff’s Web site for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.
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