An Aggregation of Nincompoops

Viewed from across the pond, the U.S. government seems at best incompetent and at worst a joke.

In 1939, Joseph Kennedy, then serving as U.S. ambassador to Britain, petitioned President Franklin D. Roosevelt to restrict foreign screenings of Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on the grounds that the film was "an indictment of our government" that "will cause our allies to view us in an unfavorable light." Capra's depiction of a Washington dominated by special interests and toadying political hacks also angered Senate Majority Leader Alben Barkley, a Democrat from Kentucky, who complained that the movie presented a "grotesque distortion" of Washington politics that suggested that the Senate was nothing more than an "aggregation of nincompoops."

So not much has changed in the last 70 years.

These days, mind you, there's no need for a latterday Capra to come to Washington -- not when the Senate's tragicomedy is broadcast to the world daily by CNN and the Internet. International observers of Washington politics gaze with wonder at a system that produces so much drama from so little legislation and a republic in which even winning a contest by a landslide can't guarantee success. American elections used to have consequences. Now, they merely determine which party the public wants to hate next.

That's one explanation for the present sorry state of affairs, in which the party occupying the White House and controlling both houses of Congress cannot figure out how to pass a health-care bill that has been the progressive Holy Grail since the time of Harry Truman. Of course, the other obvious conclusion to be drawn is that the Democratic Party simply isn't very good at politics.

If it's too easy to pass legislation in many countries (including Britain), it seems too difficult to get anything done in Washington, with the 60-vote hurdle now the rule rather than the exception. Excepting the Democrats' rare, tenuous, and wasted supermajority, power generally resides, however improbably or quixotically, with the minority party, which attempts and often succeeds in stymieing every majority initiative. Minority obstructionism, of course, can be principled. But its chief attraction is that it absolves the opposition of responsibility for anything while making the majority look, well, stupid. As former British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin once said of the press, this kind of "power without responsibility" has been "the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages." And Democratic complaints that "It's the system, stupid" aren't likely to impress too many voters -- who, rather rightfully, despise Congress no matter who runs it -- even if, by any reasonable measure, the system is dysfunctional and perverse.

So what a difference a single vote makes! The lamentations that followed Martha Coakley's stunning defeat in Massachusetts were heard on the far side of the Atlantic as well, as health care and cap-and-trade legislation disappeared with a 2 percent drift in the Senate tides. All of a sudden it seems as though "Yes We Can" actually means "Well, All Things Being Equal, We'd Like to Have a Go, but, Actually, It's Terribly Complicated and Difficult. So We Won't."

This has consequences that extend beyond the useful reminder that, despite the promise of his rhetoric, the U.S. president is constrained by both the constitution and the feebleness, even the ineptitude, of his Democratic colleagues. President Barack Obama deliberately pitched himself as a leader for the post-globalization age. So many promises were made on so many fronts that, inevitably, many of them would be broken or ignored or, as now seems increasingly probable, chewed up by the legislative process.

No wonder Europeans are unimpressed by this president and his inability to deliver upon the promises he made, not merely to American voters, but to the entire planet. Campaign aspirations are always snuffed out by brutal political reality. But rarely has the contrast between campaign poetry and governing prose been quite so clear.

Nowhere has this been more the case than on climate change and the fate of the prison at Guantánamo Bay. European leaders had hoped for more from Obama at the Copenhagen conference on climate change. Hamstrung by a skeptical Congress, Obama did his best. But it was a best that satisfied few people and, once more, reminded Europeans that the U.S. president is less powerful, in terms of domestic politics, than any prime minister. It was a reminder of the Yankee separation of powers. Only the most cockeyed optimist would bet on cap-and-trade legislation passing this year.

Something similar might be said of Guantánamo. Obama's promise to close the camp was the clearest possible signal that the new administration would break with its predecessor. Yet a year has passed and Gitmo remains open. Again, political realities -- dictated by hysterical, bed-wetting congressmen who argue, with straight faces and empty minds, that the United States cannot safely imprison the Guantánamo inmates on American soil proper -- have stalled progress. But at some point one begins to wonder what the point of having a majority is if it isn't used for anything.

Because, more than anything else, it was the promise to close Gitmo that earned the president his Nobel Peace Prize, the failure to solve the detainee problem now makes that award seem even more preposterously premature. Much worse than making the president seem weak, it risks making him seem ridiculous. While politicians can survive and even, on rare occasions, embrace disapproval, mockery and ridicule are much more poisonous.

Another irritant, imposed upon the rest of the international community by the world's most ridiculous deliberative body, is the lack of U.S. diplomatic representation in key spots. Brazil went nearly a year without an ambassador because of a senatorial hold, while important positions at the World Trade Organization and other bodies still remain unfilled.

It's a measure, mind you, of how Washington has changed. In the Capra film, Jefferson Smith used the filibuster to heroically resist the system. Today, the mere threat of a filibuster is enough to persuade the majority party to run screaming for the hills.

Right now, however, the Democrats might want to take a cue from Smith's epic speech in the movie: "You think I'm licked. You all think I'm licked. Well, I'm not licked. And I'm going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause. Even if the room gets filled with lies like these, and the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place." Unless they do show some spine, it's hard to see what they're for -- and far less why voters should bother endorsing Democratic candidates in November. The system may be ridiculous, but it is what it is -- and when managed correctly, things can be changed and done. The game remains the game. Unless the Democratic Party realizes that, then it can hardly complain if voters -- and the international community -- decide it's a lost cause.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images


The Chinese Internet Century

Even as U.S. officials still give a rhetorical nod to the ideal of an open and transparent global Web, it's time to plan for another reality.

Few minds in China are likely to change on account of Hillary Clinton's call for "a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas." Last week, the U.S. secretary of state laid out two competing visions of the Internet: one open and global, the other highly controlled and often used for repression. Given that China is rapidly trending toward the latter, it's time to start asking: What might a permanently fractured Web look like?

Clinton's speech was not utopian. Her remarks were fairly measured about the potential political impact of network technologies. Eschewing the exuberant optimism that has characterized so much past thinking about the Internet, Clinton recognized that "modern information networks and the technologies they support can be harnessed for good or for ill." Still, she held out hope that the United States could strategically use Internet technology to advance freedom and human rights around the world. To tip the balance to the good, she said, the United States plans to develop and distribute technologies to help people avoid censors, foster international norms against cyberattacks, cooperate across national borders to identify and prosecute cybercriminals, and exploit public-private partnerships to build a robust cyberdefense at home.

These are noble aspirations, but they will have a very limited impact on China. Censorship, hacking, and economic warfare as practiced in China are rooted in a political and economic calculus that is unlikely to change. From the first introduction of modern information technologies, the Chinese have viewed them as a double-edged sword: essential to economic growth, but a threat to regime stability. Using a combination of old-school intimidation and high-tech surveillance, Beijing has managed to keep most materials it deems harmful off most computer screens in China and still promote economic growth.

The fact is that the majority of Chinese simply don't care, giving the government even less incentive to change its ways. Technologically savvy Chinese "netizens" -- if that term even has meaning in a place like China -- find ways to fan qiang (scale the "Great Firewall"), but most users, like their counterparts elsewhere, are more interested in entertainment gossip, pirated MP3s, and updates from their friends than missives from Falun Gong or the latest report from Human Rights Watch. U.S. State Department spending on proxy servers or technologies that hide users' identities temporarily allow some Chinese greater access to information online, but won't substantially change the underlying dynamics. 

While the hacking of the accounts of individual human rights activists has garnered the most public attention, the primary objective of the cyberattack on Google was probably intellectual property theft. The Chinese leadership has a strategic view of technology development, and the cybertheft of corporate secrets is married to an industrial policy designed to promote "indigenous innovation" (zhizhu chuangxin). Through local content requirements, tax benefits, government procurement, and the development of competing technology standards for 3G mobile phones, Wi-Fi, and other products, China consistently seeks to free itself from dependence on foreign technology, particularly from the United States and Japan. In a few cases, China has backed down in the face of concerted pressure from more technologically advanced trading partners, but old policies were quietly replaced with new ones designed to forcibly transfer technology to Chinese firms. Cyberespionage is this industrial policy taken to its logical extreme, subsidies in the form of intellectual property theft.

At the same time as it is consolidating its control over the domestic Web, China is also using its market power to create vulnerability for overseas technology producers. Fearing that they might be shut out of the market, foreign firms give in to demands that they would not consider anywhere else. In 2003, for example, after years of Chinese pressure via negative stories in the press and poor performance in the market, Microsoft agreed to share the source code for Windows with a government-run software lab. In addition, most of the world's IT hardware is manufactured in China, giving intelligence agencies an easy opportunity for inserting spyware at some point along the production chain. Fake chips and routers from China have already showed up in U.S. military and defense contractor systems.

China's cyberaggression doesn't mean that the United States should stop all attempts at engagement. In fact, more should be done to draw Beijing into discussions about the rules of cyberwar. It would be especially good if Beijing could be encouraged into an agreement about what types of hacking -- say, messing with another country's electrical grid -- constitute an act of war. But because China sees itself as the weaker military power, thinks the U.S. military is vulnerable to cyberattacks, and worries about a conflict in the Taiwan Strait, we should expect that both sides will continue to eye each other warily.

In the end, no matter what provisional agreements can be reached, China's behavior suggests that there might be no turning back from a world divided into different types of Internets. The emerging Chinese Internet may be less free, but also distinct in other ways: built on alternate technology standards and populated by proxies such as "patriotic hackers" willing to launch Web attacks in service of state goals. These characteristics could shield the Chinese Internet, giving it greater autonomy from and leverage over the more open, global networks described by Clinton. In the end, the United States might find itself locked in a never-ending process of patching vulnerabilities in a network that will always be susceptible to hacking, espionage, and exploitation.

Although Chinese activities on the Web are grounded in a specific political and economic logic, they are not unique. Iran, Russia, and other authoritarian states have also deployed a mix of technological and political tools to control the flow of information as well as project power across borders. If a strategy built around better defense, multilateral cooperative mechanisms to limit cyberconflict, and efforts to promote American values on the Web fails, we may have to rethink both how we try to influence China and the others, as well as what type of Internet we want.

Frederic J. Brown/AFP/GETTY IMAGES