The Crisis That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Why Obama and Romney are both afraid to talk about the mess in Europe.

LONDON — In a campaign dominated by serious domestic policy concerns, perhaps it's no surprise the only person asking the presidential candidates about the greatest threat to global financial stability is a comedian.

Until Tonight Show host Jay Leno raised the European debt crisis with President Barack Obama last week, the Eurozone was almost completely absent from the presidential campaign. Indeed, the closest the candidates got to discussing the issue in any of the debates was Romney's admonition that the United States would end up like Spain -- or Greece -- if it doesn't trim its spending.

Perhaps it took a late-night jokester to finally talk about Europe because, well, it's complicated. The eurozone is a $17 trillion behemoth, the largest economic bloc in the world, whose members are struggling to solve a complex crisis across 27 countries and nearly as many different economic cultures. And the debt crisis consuming the United States' largest trading partner is arguably a much more immediate threat than Iran, Libyan terrorism, or any other foreign policy issue the candidates have discussed. What's more, while the two candidates tend to spar on style rather than substance when discussing Iran, al Qaeda, or Afghanistan, Obama and Mitt Romney genuinely disagree about how to fix the debt crisis. In Obama's view, austerity is part of the problem; in Romney's, it's part of the solution.

In the last year, Obama's Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has been in repeated contact with European officials, urging them to consider infusing struggling economies with government stimulus -- and not just impose German-led programs of austerity. And over the summer, when the European crisis was so acute that it threatened to derail the U.S. economy and the president's reelection bid, Obama surrogate Bill Clinton reshaped the administration's message toward Europe into a pointed political attack against Romney.

"Who would have ever thought that the Republicans who made a living for decades deriding 'old Europe' would embrace their economic policy?" Clinton said at a $40,000-a-plate fundraiser in June as he introduced Obama. "But that's what they've done. Their economic policy is austerity and unemployment."

Two weeks later, Romney economic advisor Glen Hubbard used a newspaper op-ed in Germany -- Europe's largest creditor -- to accuse Obama of "ignorance of the causes of the crisis." Romney understands that European governments needed to cut spending, he wrote, noting that the governor "advises a gradual fiscal consolidation for the U.S.: structural reform to stimulate growth."

The debate over Europe seems to echo perfectly the one over domestic economic policy, by far the most critical issue in this year's election. So why is neither campaign talking about the European debt crisis? (Indeed, a Romney spokeswoman declined to comment for this article and Obama campaign spokespeople ignored three requests for comment.) The answer, it seems, is that both sides benefit from not speaking about it at all.

Earlier this year, when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) went, hat in hand, to the richest countries in the world asking to double the size of an emergency fund for Europe, the United States refused to pony up. Brazil, Mexico, and India contributed to a $500 billion "second line of defense" fund, but Washington said it was helping in other ways that were "most effective for what Europe needs right now," as Geithner put it at the time.

European officials expressed some sympathy that the Obama administration -- struggling with its own economic crisis -- was in no political position to offer assistance publicly, though it continued pushing for solutions behind the scenes. And yet the underlying reality marked a clear turning point: America no longer had the finances to tell Europe what to do.

The European response was equally clear. "This remains a sovereign European problem and they certainly will not take any lectures about this, beyond what they've already had to listen to from Obama," Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and a former member of the Danish government, said in a phone interview.

David Gordon, a former director of policy planning under Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, had a similar take: "This is one of these cases where you pay to play, And we are not paying."

In the past, the United States might have led the IMF into battle, putting up most of the financial and political capital to ensure a pro-American result. But today, with a "fiscal cliff" looming and  economic approval ratings threatening Obama's second term, the president can't dare admit that U.S. economic strength is waning. And Romney surely doesn't benefit from acknowledging that Europe's mess could imperil his plan to kickstart the American economy -- and that there's little he could do about it.

"The reality is that both the campaigns won't have that much influence," said Kirkegaard. "Therefore it's not something that either of them wants to highlight, this degree of U.S. overseas economic impotence."

If "impotence" is a little strong -- Obama would argue he has kept the issue on the table -- the United States has surely lost much of its ability to shape European economic policy, particularly during this extended campaign season.

"The candidates aren't talking about it partially for the same reason that they're not talking about Afghanistan," said Gordon, who is now the director of global macro analysis for the Eurasia Group. "They have an implicit bargain to keep these things where the U.S. is not in the drivers' seat -- and where neither of them has an effective plan -- off the table."

When it comes to the markets, there is nothing an incumbent president hates more than risk. The Obama administration has pushed Europe -- often in private, sometimes in public -- to make bold choices, convince the markets that it is confronting the problems, and reduce volatility in Americans' 401Ks. If that's the goal, might Romney act similarly if elected president?

Matthew Goodman, a former director of international economics on Obama's National Security Council, argued that Hubbard's endorsement of German-led austerity and Geithner's push for stimulus actually have a lot in common. 

Both sides are equally concerned about "providing greater certainty to the marketplace that Europe is on top of this and that they're going to move forward in addressing the risks to the financial system," said Goodman, who currently holds the William E. Simon chair in political economy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The U.S. is in some sense agnostic about specifically how Europe manages these issues.... The U.S. may have some opinion, but it doesn't have any particular national interest in defining for the Europeans what choices they should make."

At least, not in public. Europeans bristle when told what to do during U.S. press conferences. And despite the optics, both candidates know that there's little to be gained by criticizing European leaders openly during the campaign -- since whoever is president will need their cooperation in the future, much of which will happen behind closed doors.

And that's where some argue that Obama benefits. European love for America's first black president has barely diminished since 2008. Seventy-five percent of Europe says it would vote for Obama, according to a poll released last month by the German Marshall Fund and the Italian foundation Compagnia di San Paolo. Romney fails to hit double digits.

A popular American president, suggests Kirkegaard, might have more influence in Europe than an unpopular one. "A Vice President Ryan describing the economy to Europe," Kirkegaard quipped, "would meet with a very skeptical audience."

But if the debt crisis has been largely seen in the United States as an economic challenge, most Europeans now would argue it is now a political problem. Can German Chancellor Angela Merkel ease the draconian austerity measures the EU imposed on Greece when she is fighting for reelection amid a voting public that rejects conciliation? How much austerity can Greek Prime Minster Antonis Samaras push onto his public when youth unemployment is already over 50 percent?

This is a "transformative moment" in both the United States and Europe, said Heather Conley, a former deputy assistant secretary of state who oversaw bilateral relations in northern and central Europe during the Bush administration. In her view, it's time to strengthen the transatlantic relationship rather than squabble over it. "This is the moment we really need to think about bigger, bolder thoughts about the political relationship, not the tactical thoughts about the economic relationship," said Conley, who is currently the director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

But both campaigns have focused mostly on the economics of Europe -- rather than the politics. And both have used Europe as a foil. Romney threatens a Greek-style future if Obama's level of government spending continues, while Obama ties Romney's economic plan to Greece's soaring unemployment and increasing inability to provide basic requirements.

The curtains have not drawn on the Greek tragedy currently unfolding in Athens -- and the European threat to the global economy remains high. If the United States has any hope in finding a stable economic path within its own shores, the next administration will have to figure out a way out of the Eurozone debt crisis. Maybe it's time they started talking about it.



Winter Is Coming

Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees are living in dire conditions, and the aid the world is providing is nowhere near enough.

CAIRO — Even as the United States picks up from the wreckage left in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Mother Nature has a much larger humanitarian disaster in store for Syria -- and aid workers are scrambling to contain the damage.

Winter is approaching, threatening the millions of Syrians who have been displaced from their homes by the 19-month conflict. Temperatures are dropping fast: In the city of Aleppo, which has been ravaged by fierce guerrilla fighting since June, the average low in December is 39 degrees Fahrenheit; the average rainfall is 2.5 inches. That's about on par with the weather in Raleigh, North Carolina. Along the Turkish border, where an estimated 170,000 refugees are living, the conditions are even colder and wetter.

"It is hard. We lack the donations to purchase the supplies, we lack the people on the ground to help us, and we lack safety while working," said Diana Rifai, a Syrian from the city of Homs working to provide aid to refugees in north Lebanon. "I am actually speechless. It makes me cry every time I discuss it with anyone."

The latest report by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) paints a picture of a rapidly expanding refugee population, and international organizations struggling to keep up with their growing needs. There are currently 350,00 refugees registered in the countries bordering Syria, the UNHCR reports, and another 1.2 million people displaced from their homes inside the country. But those numbers are expected to grow dramatically in the months ahead: The refugee agency projects that the number of external Syrian refugees could double to 710,000 people by the end of the year.

The UNHCR winterization plan promises to provide blankets, cooking stoves, hygiene kits, and direct financial assistance to refugees in need. But it only aims to provide resources to 500,000 displaced Syrians inside the country, and 380,000 refugees in neighboring countries -- meaning that, even if it is fully funded, hundreds of thousands of Syrians will still not receive assistance.

But at the moment, UNHCR is still a long way from fully funding its winterization plan. The refugee agency projects that its efforts will cost roughly $75 million. Of that total, only $13 million, or about 17 percent, has so far been received.

"We're proceeding on the assumption that we're going to get this assistance. We're putting stuff in the pipeline," Ron Redmond, UNHCR's regional spokesman for Syria, says. "We're ordering the materials we need to winterize tents, we're doing cash assistance programs in Syria and elsewhere now, and we're hoping that we don't run out of money to complete this project."

Activist networks and local residents have made up the difference as best they can. But Rifai, a volunteer for the organization Watan ("Nation"), a subgroup of the opposition Syrian National Council, says that ongoing clashes in the region have become a danger to aid workers. "Aid is not being given to most refugees and internally displaced people," she said. "It is devastating and so hard to keep up with this work because refugees are afraid to register, making it even more risky for us to work."

Rifai drums up funds by appealing to local residents and spreading awareness on social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and even Instagram. Watan then uses the donations to provide care packages for infants, purchase gas cooking stoves and canned food for the refugees, and providing anything else that help the refugees survive the winter -- even at times paying their rent.

But money is always short. "Blankets are not cheap -- the good, thick ones are $12 to $13 each," Rifai said. "International organizations do not help us. We barely hear or see from the Red Cross or UNHCR."

The Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCCS), a network of activists inside the country, have also been critical to providing humanitarian assistance to those in need within Syria. Rafif Jouejati, a spokeswoman for the LCCS, says that the network has been delivering food baskets across the country, launching a blanket drive, and setting up field schools for children whose education has been halted by the civil war.

According to Jouejati, the LCCS distributed nearly 3,000 food baskets throughout Syria during September, including 1,700 in northern Idlib Province and over 700 in Damascus and its suburbs. In October, the Foundation to Restore Equality and Education in Syria (FREE-Syria), an aid organization that coordinates with the LCCS, also provided enough funds to supply 1,000 blankets, 1,000 food baskets, support for 6 orphans for half a year, and roughly $1,500 worth of toys and gifts for the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha.

The logistical difficulties of delivering aid, however, have constrained the number of people that the LCCS can reach. "Activists delivering [food baskets] are subject to detention and torture, or risk getting shot on the spot when caught, and the merchandise is easily stolen," Jouejati said. "Activists have had to establish supply routes ... bribe regime and other officials, and develop coordinated schedules with other activists to minimize danger and maximize the quantity of supplies they can deliver."

In addition to the violence, bureaucratic challenges also hinder efforts to get aid to Syrian in need. Inside Syria, the United Nations rely on what it terms a "cluster approach," where each separate agency focuses on issues related to its area of expertise -- UNICEF concentrates on children's health, for example, while the World Food Programme provides food to Syrians in need. Redmond says that the aid organizations also work closely with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), making use of its distribution networks to funnel assistance into the country.

But some activists view the presence of the SARC, an organization tied to President Bashar al-Assad's regime, with skepticism. "SARC is a regime-controlled organization, so one never knows if one is dealing with a humanitarian or a regime plant," Jouejati said. "SARC has been able to deliver goods to hard-hit areas, but only at the whim of the regime."

Nobody is denying that some SARC employees have provided invaluable assistance to stricken regions -- often at great risk to themselves. In January, the SARC's secretary-general was shot and killed while driving along the highway connecting Aleppo and Damascus in a clearly marked Red Crescent vehicle. The government blamed an "armed terrorist group" for the crime, while the anti-Assad opposition blamed regime forces.

However, activists view the top leadership of the SARC with suspicion, fearing that it is not giving anti-Assad areas of the country the same assistance as other regions. Much of the distrust centers on the aid organization's president, Abdul Rahman Attar, a Sunni businessman who rose to prominence under the Assad regime and a figure aid workers had long criticized for the level of control he exerted over international NGOs operating in Syria.

"He's a big personality, and one of the richest, most powerful men in Syria and he doesn't want to lose control over NGOs to the [Foreign Ministry]" said an international aid worker in a 2009 State Department cable released by WikiLeaks.

Activists' suspicions of the SARC, needless to say, are mirrored in the Assad regime's hostility toward aid groups connected with the opposition. It is yet another indication of how humanitarian efforts are at the mercy of Syria's poisonous politics: As the war grinds on, millions of people remain caught in the middle as winter approaches.