Shadow Government

America Got Game

My friend, Kim Holmes, a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation, has written a wonderful book called Rebound that analyzes what made America great, what caused us to get off course, and how to return to greatness. This is not a "let's manage decline" book, but a "let's tap what made us great, build on it, and ensure that America leads for the rest of the 21st century" book. I am particularly taken by his prescriptions for how we shape a freer, more prosperous world. The title, Rebound, comes from basketball (of course), and he reminds the reader that one player's miss offers another a chance: The rebound, he argues, often goes to the player with the most skill and determination, and basketball is about making the most of opportunities, learning from mistakes, and making the least mistakes.

Holmes cites a series of changes in values, as well as social and financial indicators -- all going the wrong direction. The sum of these indicators is what is driving the average American, according polling, to have less confidence in the future, and to sense that something is very wrong with the country. What are the stakes if we don't change the path we are on? First, Holmes says, it will be far harder to achieve the American dream, and second -- and far more dangerous -- America could lose the "mastery over its own fate and security." In other words, decline would take America's independence of movement, reduce its options and, in essence, lose a significant part of our freedom.

Decline, he argues, is not something that happens overnight -- it is gradual, progressing over decades and driven by the slow acceptance of more limited financial, societal, and global horizons for the United States. Decline also isn't a foregone conclusion. Americans shaped their destiny and they can correct, putting themselves back on the right course -- that is, after all, how American got to great in the first place. But the book isn't a pitch for recreating the past or embracing nostalgia. Instead, it asserts the importance of regarding the lessons of the past and applying them to the challenges of today; there are some things from the past that are best left behind and some of the changes in society have made America better.

Holmes's telling starts with what made America great -- its people, its sprit, and its form of government. The values that made America great, such as frugality, hard work, honesty, and deferred gratification of various appetites, were operational from 1775 until about 1956. Mediating bodies such as churches and a rich network of self-organized civil society institutions, which created deep social capital, played a central and constructive role in the shaping of America.

So what went wrong? The values that once made America great were replaced: A counterculture became the establishment, government displaced civil society, and non-government actors were weakened in the process. In the last 50 years our constitutional form of government has been weakened and warped.

Foreign policy is where the book is strongest -- that's what Holmes does for his day job, and he saves some of his strongest criticism for what he calls the New Liberal Internationalism. He pins the birth of this movement to Noam Chomsky's 1967 article in the New York Review of Books, "The Responsibility of Intellectuals," that argued that the architects of Kennedy and Johnson's foreign policy (in line with a tradition of "American progressivism") were committing treason against their own class and the truth that America was too nationalistic -- the "pious posturing about liberty was merely a cover for greedy capitalists who wanted to dominate world markets," as Holmes paraphrases. American idealism in foreign policy, Chomsky argued, was an intentional lie.

Holmes wrote this book before the Russian invasion of Ukraine and he argues, presciently, that, "the world is too small for us to hide. And if there is anything that we learned from World War II -- and from neglect of Al Qaeda in the 1990s-it should be this: there are no impermeable national borders when it comes to U.S. national security." His vision for a strong strategic agenda for the United States today demands that it: maintain a global balance of power; ensure absolute military superiority over potential foes; prevent terrorists from killing us or our friends, or taking over countries; undertake military interventions only when our national security requires it; avoid the diplomatic minutia of the new liberal internationalism; and create a global economic freedom agenda. All I can add is "amen."

The section calling for a global economic freedom agenda will almost certainly get the least attention. As someone who thinks about and works on soft power issues and how to make them work for the United States, I found his recommendations fascinating and constructive. Holmes argues that national security is not just about armies but about the world economy and he argues that the United States has a big role in restoring the health of the global economy because doing so is in our national interest. It should contribute to the transformation of developing country economies by encouraging their liberalization and invest in higher standards of governance (something I have written about for the Center for Strategic and International Studies here).

He argues for more attention to the rule of law and eliminating corruption as ways of reducing inequality. I can't agree more. He also argues the global free trade system should be revitalized, which also sounds like a good idea to me. He argues that the United States should be exporting and promoting free enterprise in a much more focused and systematic way. He advocates the use of foreign assistance and diplomacy capital to encourage private property and, interestingly, thinks that we should be fighting "crony corporatism" of state owned enterprises, such as those in China, which is a problem for many countries. This global economic freedom agenda, he correctly says, should be based on the fundamental human right to be economically free.

How do we best grab the jump ball and take another shot at greatness? Holmes argues that there will be some event or events that will wake us from our lethargy and that it will require sustained leadership. This means, to me, that Republicans will need control of one or both houses of congress, and that we will need a Republican president who runs on this vision and brings the Republican party, the American people, and ultimately the Democratic party along with us.

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Shadow Government

Venezuela's Peace Talks Are a Scam -- And the U.S. Is Buying It

After more than two months of street protests in Venezuela, the Obama administration has placed its hopes on a spurious "dialogue" between the government and members of the organized opposition. As the Obama administration stands by, however, the chances that the crisis can lead to any positive change in Venezuela are fading.

The government and members of the opposition have just agreed to sit down for another round of negotiations, ostensibly to end the protests, which suits President Nicolás Maduro just fine. Though opposition representatives continue to plaintively seek some sort of meaningful redress for their grievances, the government has other ideas: While the talks drag on, security forces and armed militants, known as "colectivos," wage a low-intensity war of attrition to wipe out the last of the protestors that have vexed the it since mid-February. After that, if all goes to plan, it's back to the business of building "21st century socialism."

So far, the negotiations have only produced nebulous agreements on a Truth Commission, improving citizen security, and returning to constitutional procedures in electing certain government officials.

That the government was intent on blocking any meaningful agreement was evident from the start. It refused to release opposition leaders who had been jailed sans due process following the outbreak of protests -- including Leopoldo López of the Popular Will party -- to join in the talks. The government has also dodged any responsibility for the marauding colectivos, who have been brutally attacking citizens protesting in the street. Instead, Maduro claimed the opposition was initiating the violence and his "supporters" had a right to defend themselves.

Maduro set this tone for the talks at the outset, proclaiming, "The bourgeoisie will never regain political power in the homeland."

Certainly, the opposition is aware they are being taken for a ride. But it is not surprising that those opposition figures who are wary of confronting the regime have submitted to this political theater. The international community has been scolding them for the past decade to work within the system to effect positive political change, despite the "system" having been rigged against them in every conceivable way for 15 years, first under Hugo Chávez and now under his hand-picked successor Maduro.

What observers need to be aware of is that the opposition representatives arrayed around the negotiating table and those protesting in the streets are not one and the same. As I have written before, the protests began as spontaneous, organic eruptions of student discontent over street crime and economic hardship under chavismo. They were neither called for nor led by the organized opposition forces. As such, the latter does not have the power to turn them on or off depending on which crumbs the government decides to dole out.

All of this means that negotiations will not end Venezuela's crisis -- only real reforms will. Effective reforms would arrest the economic freefall wrought by the hare-brained statist policies of Maduro and his Cuban advisors, and re-establish credible institutions to channel discontent and foster real debate about the future of the country. The problem with that scenario is that to Maduro, all opposition is illegitimate and deserves no voice in the country's affairs.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, has held to its position that the negotiations could actually bear fruit. In fact, it has pressed that line on Capitol Hill, stalling sanctions legislation in both the House and Senate that could "upset" the negotiating process.

The irony, of course, is that pressure from sanctions is the only way the Venezuelan government will enact meaningful change. It has paid no price for unleashing its paramilitary thugs against protestors, so why would it alter its approach? Either we care what happens in Venezuela, or we don't. If we do, then at least let's act like it.