The new American averagism

The "American exceptionalism" riff that has become so popular among Republicans recently has understandable appeal. First of all it contains the word "American" which is always a plus when trying to appeal to base, nationalistic impulses. (Unless, of course, it is a reference to American Airlines, which can only produce deep national feelings of shame, discomfort, and lost luggage.)

Next, it speaks to the growing self-doubts Americans have (generated in part due to having the entire country performing much like American Airlines -- run down equipment, not up to past standards, being directed around by disgruntled, self-absorbed people who seem to have had their empathy glands surgically removed). It says: We can be special again. Or we're still special. Better yet, it goes a little further, tweaking the planet and those among our leaders who seem to be inclined to apologize for the United States.

It says, "It's morning in America" and "F- you, world" at the same time.

What message could speak more directly to the American zeitgeist of the moment? (That's a German word meaning "why you feel so pissed off all the time" … much as though you were a passenger on American Airlines.)

Here's the problem with the riff. We don't get to be exceptional just because we want to be exceptional. We don't even get to be exceptional just because we once were exceptional. We need to actually be exceptional -- not just standing apart from the world but out-performing it in key respects or having that special something that sets us apart.

Unfortunately, the latest news seems to suggest we're headed in the wrong direction. In fact, a more honest framing of our current situation might speak to a new American averagism, perhaps even a new American subpar-ism.

Look at the latest results on educational achievement from the Program for International Student Assessment of the OECD. In reading, Shanghai-China leads the world with South Korea, Finland, Hong Kong-China and Singapore rounding out the top 5. In math, Shanghai-China leads the world with Singapore, Hong Kong-China, South Korea, and Taiwan rounding out the top 5. In science, Shanghai-China leads the world, with Finland, Hong Kong-China, Singapore, and Japan rounding out the top 5.

In reading, the United States finished 17th … right behind Estonia. In math, America finished 31st… 10 points below the OECD average. In science, the United States finished 23rd… right behind Hungary and roughly at the OECD average. Think there's some Asian bias that makes it hard for us poor North Americans to compete? Canada finished in the top 10 in every category.

Remember "The Greatest Generation"? Well, it looks like our kids (well, not my kids… who actually are exceptional, but your kids …) are the Not So Much Generation. They will be Generation DQMI.

How does that translate into a return of American exceptionalism? Some still cling to the notion that somehow we have cornered the world market on creativity, industry, and entrepreneurship. We may not be as book smart as all those grinding Asians but we've got "The Right Stuff" and they are all just school-bots.

But we need to face it. That's just an old idea, dying hard. Take as just one among hundreds of indicators the fact that the last Forbes billionaires list showed the United States' share shrinking with Asia growing fastest. Think China just produces state-programmed automatons? They are now number two in billionaires to the United States, and catching up as quickly as we are losing ground. Isn't manufacturing rich people what the United States is all about? I mean, it's one thing to lose our edge in cars, but to be losing it when it comes to billionaires?

The United States is still the world's richest and most powerful country but what's the outlook if other countries -- some with many more people, some with vital and scarce resources -- are better educating their kids, better managing their finances, investing more strategically in leading industries? We may be lousy at math, but surely we can do that arithmetic.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the test results "a wake-up call." Yesterday, President Obama called this a "Sputnik moment" arguing that the quality of education will be decisive in determining which countries surge ahead and which fall behind in the current era. "In the race for the future," he asserted, "America is in danger of falling behind."

He is clearly right. And no doubt rather than rallying to his side and recognizing that we are desperate need of a bipartisan push to restore excellence to America's schools and at least give our kids a fighting chance in an increasingly competitive global economy, the "new exceptionalists" will no doubt seek to gain political advantage instead. They will cast the president as an America-skeptic, try to present his realism as anti-Americanism, and offer jingoism in the place of the dollars, curriculum reforms and infrastructure we need. Watch this space: surely they will sacrifice America's children rather than giving the president a "victory" on education reform. And if that's true, yesterday's test results will go from being a warning sign to being a harbinger of a future in which the U.S. workforce finds itself squarely in the middle of the pack, squeezed in between the Estonians and the Hungarians, which will make our actual economy feel even less comfortable than economy class on the world's worst airline.

And that's something to which it's worth taking exception.

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David Rothkopf

Who will al Qaeda back in the 2012 elections?

WikiLeaks provides few revelations but many resonant reminders. The reminders put into language stark enough to reawaken the senses information that we long ago knew but had repressed. For example, take today's multiple reminders that so-called "friendly" governments in the Persian Gulf remain cash machines for the worst people on earth, terrorist groups dedicated to the slaughter of innocents.

"More needs to be done since Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaida, the Taliban, LeT and other terrorist groups," declared a document that went out a year ago under Hillary Clinton's signature, "Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide."

Other cables describe how the group responsible for the Mumbai bombings, Lashkar-e-Taiba, raise cash through Saudi front businesses, and how the Taliban and their allies work through networks in the United Arab Emirates. They report fitful progress in reducing these cash flows, the use of religious pilgrimages as cover for illicit cash transfers from the Gulf to militants and the quiet if pointed methods the United States uses to press our so-called friends for assistance.

Here we are coming up on a decade since 9/11, two years since Mumbai, bogged down in horrifyingly costly conflicts against these terrorists and the stark, perverse reality remains that the countries of the Gulf are getting rich selling us oil and then passing part of the proceeds on to bands of murderers who have sworn to attack us and our allies. They are worse than drug dealers who kill only through the deadly addiction they promote. These terror bankers and their fat, arrogant, callous royal protectors have for years placed us in double jeopardy by both promoting a different kind of dangerous addiction and then using the proceeds from that to fund efforts to kill us.

Of course, we knew all this. But if we have become so inured to it that we accept it or forget it or are complacent about it, then we have yet another reason to be thankful for the Wikidump. Because it reminds us both of the treachery of these Arab royals and the elites they empower and it also underscores that the dangers brought to light in the attacks of the past decade remain unabated. Further, they remind us that we can deploy all the military we want to whatever corner of the globe we choose, but if we do not cut off the funding at its sources the threat will live on regardless of the number, scale or scope of our battlefield victories. This is how the metastasizing terror threat has extended the al Qaeda threat to Yemen and North Africa, how LeT has emerged as a player (and what a bargain for our friends the terror philanthropists -- at an annual budget of just over $5 million, the organization that wreaked havoc in Mumbai is cheaper than a small Washington think tank.)

There is an additional dimension to this reminder, of course. It is simply that the terror threat remains. Read these cables and then give me a call about how invasive your last airport search was. Or to put it in another context, perhaps it reawakens the question that was in our minds so constantly earlier in the past decade: When will they strike close to home again? Surely it will happen.

Think about it this way: al Qaeda or LeT or other terrorists see a world that has changed much since 9/11. The United States was attacked and their triumph was followed by one U.S. move after another that inflamed support for the radical cause -- the invasion of Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo. Then, a new U.S. president was elected who promised to get out of Iraq and adjust the United States' stance to be more broadly acceptable to moderates in the Islamic world. He is getting out of Iraq. He is taking a middle course with Iran. He has doubled down in Afghanistan but has made his way with much more local sensitivity than his predecessor. Further, he seems to be in better shape with his allies, working more effectively with Russia and China, possibly making some gains elsewhere on his foreign policy agenda with significant victories on a New START deal and a free trade deal with Korea possible in the not too distant future.

In fact, especially if the world economy improves at all, he might very well be re-elected and have even more time to promote his moderate, more amenable agenda throughout the Middle East. However, one thing that might derail him would be a major terrorist attack on a U.S. target. Such an attack could be seen as a sign of ineffective federal policies and reflect badly on the president, impacting his political prospects negatively. Certainly, depending on the timing and target of the attack, it could have significant political consequences.

So, the question becomes: Who does al Qaeda want in the 2012 election? Will they attempt to play a role? What role do they think they can play? They haven't in the past couple election cycles, but the risk remains clear.

Do they use the cash that continues to flow to them -- from American wallets via Saudi and other Gulf bank accounts into bags of dirty money, off of which they live -- to launch another attack now? Or do they wait and keep their attacks and activities focused within the region? Fight the ground war or escalate it? Throw an unexpected twist into the upcoming election campaign and possibly invite a return to something more like the Bush years or sit back and see how Obama harnesses the tail-winds incumbents enjoy?

This is not a science, of course. A terror attack could help coalesce support for Obama. And it is not easy to pull off such attacks in today's world. We may have repressed much of what we have learned over the past decade. But not all of it. We are more prepared now. Not yet prepared to take a tougher stance with the Saudis and the other potentates of the Gulf, but we have better intelligence, heightened awareness, more men on the ground, better ability to strike, and undo plans and thus a better chance of frustrating the ambitions of the terrorists and their sugar daddies.

But until we stop the bankers -- stop the flows to the bankers, seek to isolate and punish them, stop catering to them and taking their occasional "bones" of help in lieu of real concerted efforts to assist us in stopping this mortal threat, stop deluding ourselves that they are actually on some level our friends -- then we would do well to remember the threats so well described in this past week's tranches of stolen cables. But, even if we do not, we should know that other more devastating reminders will certainly soon be delivered.

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