A birthday message and gift of good news for the president

Happy birthday, Mr. President.

Admittedly, there has not been a lot to celebrate lately.

With market losses in this slide now exceeding the 10 percent level, so-called correction territory (London's FTSE is down over 11 percent since April), weak employment numbers in the United States, troubling global economic indicators wherever you look, the Arab Spring stalling, the Libya intervention in slow motion, AfPak a source of deep worry and frustration, China rising, global warming, Justin Bieber, the bad reviews received by Cowboys & Aliens, it might well be, Mr. President, that you feel like there is very little to celebrate.

Well, not only do I think you've got a wide range of accomplishments that deserve celebration, but I think it is high time that those of us who actually believe government can do some good start making our case as actively as are those who are simultaneously talking it down and taking it down. That's why every week until I run out, I'm going to try to focus on at least one significant area of accomplishment, a success story.

This week, the gift wrapping around the success story is that which comes hard to some of us up here in the blogosphere's peanut gallery: an admission that I was wrong. Now readers of this blog will be the first to note that I'm wrong all the time. But in this instance, I am even willing to acknowledge it.

When you announced your National Export Initiative, I thought it was just a rehash of the National Export Strategy we did back in the Clinton days. What's more, since I thought the administration did very little on trade policy in its first year or two, I felt that the announcement, made in your 2010 State of the Union, was little more than a rhetorical device, that there was not meat on its bones nor was there likely to be any.

Well, that shows how much this former international trade official knows about it. International trade is on the verge of turning into a pretty compelling success story for the administration. Let me frame that story by quoting one of this administration's most effective officials, a man who has done an exceptional job at a small agency far from the limelight, thereby making himself one of the most effective champions for creating jobs through exports that the country has. As you might imagine, I'm talking about Fred Hochberg, the top guy at the Export-Import Bank of the United States (or Ex-Im Bank for shorthand).

In a statement released today, Hochberg said, "Today Ex-Im Bank set an authorizations record for a third straight year. Coupled with overall U.S. exports being up over 16 percent, the Nation is on a pace to achieve President Obama's goal of doubling exports by 2015."

Yes, that's right, for almost two full years, through tough times, the United States has been keeping up with a very aggressive pace that you, Mr. President, targeted during your State of the Union. Ex-Im Bank has not only hit a record of $24.5 billion in finance authorizations today -- 70 percent higher than it was in 2008 -- but it is on pace to double those numbers by the end of the year. Hochberg and his team have been traveling the world to make deals happen, to offset unfair financing by the Chinese and others, and to build growth in the fast growing markets of tomorrow like India, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Turkey, Colombia, Vietnam, South Africa, and Nigeria.

If that were the whole story, it would be a pretty encouraging nugget glittering out there on the wasteland of today's news. But it's just a piece of a bigger story that's going to get better when, as seems likely, the administration finally gets Congress to pass our pending free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama. It is enhanced further with the growing efforts being made -- as on Secretary Clinton's trip to India -- to actively attract foreign investment to the United States. And it will be enhanced further as the overall export numbers continue to rise.

In short, one dimension of your signature idea of "engagement" that's really producing results is international economic engagement, tapping into international growth to produce more jobs at home in the United States. And from what I hear from reliable sources, it seems likely that even more innovations and more focused efforts are likely on the horizon in this area in the next couple of months. That's good news for the economy -- Ex-Im Bank loans this year alone will support over 200,000 jobs -- and for you, Mr. President. Because it is just the kind of success story that is showing your efforts bearing fruit, which is bound to resonate next year during the election, especially since the other side seems more likely to be hurling invectives than actually pitching in with real, constructive ideas.

Of course, you yourself would be the first to note that all of this is not to say the trade balance numbers are great. They're not. And plenty of our trading partners aren't playing fair, and we need to do more to level the playing field. It's also not to say that more can't be done. It should be. And it doesn't offset much of the dark news out there. But it's a pretty compelling story, getting better all the time, and you and your team ought to get credit for it. So even if it's just one small, flickering candle on your cake today, enjoy it … the people for whom these efforts have created or sustained jobs certainly will.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

Time for America to end its double standard in the Middle East

Enough is enough. After remaining divided on this issue for too long, it is time to take a stand regardless of the political consequences.

It is time to join with those who have already had the courage to weather the inevitable criticism from a biased, bought, and paid for press corps that is part of the greater problem we face.

It is time to end the double standard that for far too long has guided and distorted America's policies in the Middle East.

You all know the story: For decades, special interest-driven ties have enabled a small lobby in Washington to embrace policies that have cost America dearly and today, increasingly put our national security and national prestige at risk. We have for too long supported Middle Eastern political leaders who themselves represent comparatively small populations with dubious historical claims on the land they control and extreme religious agendas. These so-called allies have not only implemented unfair policies that have earned criticism around the world, they have actually implemented apartheid-like segregation of the people they govern. Minority interlopers have unjustly appropriated power, held it by force, and often brutally oppressed majorities that deserve better.

While this is our policy for a subset of the Middle East, for others in the region we are much less accommodating. We are constantly haranguing them, criticizing, demanding that they achieve an ever-higher standard of behavior … even though their historical claims on the region are every bit as great as those we coddle, even though in many ways they have served America more reliably than those we prop up with our military aid, even though they are in many ways the source of the region's vitality and have the clearest vision as to how it might break out of the economic and political crises that torment it.

The cost of this double standard is painfully apparent today. Just look at the headlines. In Syria, all America can do is make earnest but impotent shows of solidarity with opposition leaders and search for new adjectives to add to our denunciations of the illegitimate Assad regime. But because of our double standard, because of the fact that we dare not call out the Arab nations we have supported for so long at such a high cost, because we can't count on them as our allies to do the right thing and add pressure on Assad to go, we are forced to treat this grave humanitarian crisis as though it were happening on the moon, far from any real ability of us to influence it.

Yes, the Syria crisis does, as is often noted, illustrate the greatest of the many follies associated with the frustrating saga of Western intervention in Libya. That is, of course, that by intervening in Libya ineffectively, we have now made it impossible for anyone to believe we will intervene anywhere else, even when, as in Syria's case, more credible threats of punishing Assad would have been helpful arrows to have in our quiver.

But the Syria case also underscores our core conundrum in the Middle East. Our Arab allies in the region are part of the political problem, not the solution. But because of pressure from their highly paid lobbyists and our dependence on the oil that they sell us at high cost even as they demand we help defend their right to produce it from regional threats -- and despite the costs to our economy, the environment and our national security of the manifold negative by-products of the region's oil industry and the cash it produces -- we have given these anti-democratic, abusive, intolerant regimes a free pass.

The pathetically low standard we set for them in terms of either support for our goals or in terms of their own behavior is evident not just in Syria but with regard to Bahrain, with regard to repression of democracy broadly, with regard to their mistreatment of women and religious sects that don't share a faith with the leaders. It also stands in stark contrast to our treatment of the country that gets the short end of the stick in terms of America's double standard in the region: Israel.

Imagine: here is Israel, the region's only democracy, a country that created the most vital, vigorous diversified economy in the region, a country that is widely diverse and driven by a vigorous public debate that often involves (as it has recently) open demonstrations against the ruling government, and we are constantly pressuring them to do more. Compare Israel's treatment of the Palestinians to the treatment of the Shiites or women in the Gulf or of the majority population in Syria. Israel is condemned for defending its own security when we barely offer a burble of criticism when our Arab friends underwrite attacks directly against Americans or U.S. interests.

Yes, Israel and in particular the current administration there deserve much of the criticism they have received. It is high time they worked more proactively to advance the establishment of a functioning Palestinian state that is ultimately as much in their interests as it is in those of the Palestinians who deserve self-rule. But think of how different the Israeli-Palestinian discussions are than those between oppressed populations elsewhere in the region and the governments that have a boot firmly placed on their throats. It's ugly and both sides are at fault for obstructing progress, but right now you'd have to bet that the Palestinians will achieve statehood before Saudi women gain the basic human rights they deserve, distinct oppressed minorities from Kurdistan to Syria to the Gulf get the right of self-determination, or average people in most parts of the region get a say in how their societies are run.

It's absolutely clear, then. There's a double standard in the Middle East and its costing us dearly. But until we open our eyes to its real nature and avoid the deceptive arguments of those who would prefer to coo into the ears of tyrants while publicly badgering our undoubtedly deeply flawed but more worthy Israeli allies, we will be trapped, impotent to promote the changes the region and American interests so urgently require.