The greatest elected body that money can buy (UPDATED)

Just when you think your contempt for Congress could not get any higher, our elected representatives manage to do something to ratchet it up another notch. After congressional shenanigans helped spark a major market sell-off and sparked fears of a double-dip recession, you'd think every single one of them would be heading back to their districts to figure out what their constituents wanted and to try to explain how they were going to help make things better. Or maybe a few of them would even spend the recess taking a crash course in macroeconomics and public finance, so that they could start exercising their public duties more responsibly.

But what did 81 of them decide to do instead? You guessed it: they are off on junkets to Israel, paid for by the American Israel Education Foundation, an AIPAC spinoff that has been funding such trips for years. That's right: during the August recess nearly a fifth of the U.S. Congress will visit a single country whose entire population is less than that of New York City.  

Such behavior is especially disturbing in light of our current woes; even Greta Van Susteren of Fox News found it appalling (h/t Mondoweiss here and here). But it's not really a new pattern: in recent decades about 10 percent of all Congressional trips overseas have been to Israel, even though it is only one of the nearly 200 countries in the world.

Why do Congresspersons do this, especially at a moment when it is obvious that they ought to be worrying about conditions here at home? Mostly because such junkets burnish a legislator's ‘pro-Israel' credentials and facilitate campaign fundraising. Such trips also expose these visitors to the policy preferences and basic worldview of Israel's leaders, which is of course why AIEF pays for them.   

I suppose I ought to be grateful that AIPAC and its sister organizations continue to work overtime to prove me and my co-author right. But there are bigger issues at stake here, which is why I hope that every one of those eighty-plus Congressmen faces a lot of nasty questions from their constituents upon their return. 

And in a related story, the Israeli government has just announced a new round of settlement building in occupied East Jerusalem. (For apt commentary, see Matt Duss of the Center for American Progress here.) If you've been wondering why most people have lost faith in U.S. stewardship of the peace process and are turning to other strategies--such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement or the push for a Palestinian state at the UN --well, I think you have your answer. And if "two states for two peoples" is never achieved and Israel ceases to be either a Jewish majority state or a true democracy, you'll know exactly which misguided or feckless Americans helped bring that about.  

UPDATE:  American taxpayers will be pleased to know that Representative Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) has reassured Israelis that financial challenges "will not have any adverse effect on America's determination to meet its promise to Israel."  Translation: we may be cutting Medicare and Social Security for U.S. citizens, but Israelis--whose country has the 27th highest per capita income in the world--will continue to get generous subsidies from Uncle Sucker.

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Stephen M. Walt

Wanted: A few grown-ups

I have been distracted by personal concerns for the past week, and look what happens. The stock market is on a roller-coaster triggered mostly by political incompetence. There are riots in Great Britain, and large-scale protests are roiling Israel. Syria continues its bloody convulsions, our impulsive war in Libya grinds on, and the euro crisis looks no closer to solution. The United States suffers its single worst day in the long and misguided Afghan campaign. Add it all together, and 2011 is beginning to look like 1968 -- a year that violent upheavals occurred in the United States, France, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere. Except that here the troubles are more widespread, more closely connected, and have more potentially far-reaching consequences.

What's most disturbing about all this is the extent to which so many of our current troubles are self-inflicted. It's obvious to any reasonably sane person how to get the U.S. economy back on track, the problem is that there's a dearth of reasonably sane people in positions of responsibility. Some of the seeds of the 2007-08 meltdown were sown during the Clinton administration (as Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner make clear in their terrific book Reckless Endangerment), but most of the damage was done by George W. Bush's foolhardy decision to cut taxes, start unnecessary wars, and then fight those wars badly. In short, the United States screwed up big-time between 2000 and 2008. As we all know from our personal lives: when you screw up, you generally have to pay a price.

That means that solving our current problems will not be easy or painless, and we should stop pretending that there's some magic bullet to fire at our current woes. Nonetheless, the basic outlines of what to do are hardly mysterious. We are in a fiscal hole and have a depressed economy, which means we owe lots of people lots of money and aren't generating enough revenues to make people confident that we can get back in the black. We need more revenue, therefore, but we don't want to choke the remaining life out of the U.S. economy. 

Accordingly, the best place to get some more revenue is from the wealthiest members of society (who got those big tax cuts from George Bush and made out far better than the rest of America over the past decade or more, and whose consumption won't decline if some loopholes are closed and marginal tax rates rise modestly). I mean, are Bill Gates and Warren Buffett going to lower their thermostats and cancel their summer vacations if we make them pay a bit more?) We also need to trim some entitlements over time, and to cut our bloated defense budget (no matter what new Sec/Def Leon Panetta says). For starters, getting out of Iraq on schedule and out of Afghanistan ASAP would suggest that our leaders really do understand what's truly important and would be a reassuring signal to global markets. In short: a simple combination of entitlement reform, tax reform, and strategic readjustment and we will be on our way to ending the deficit, maintaining our credit rating, and setting the stage for long-term economic recovery.

Except that Washington won't do it. I used to wonder how political paralysis could lead Japan to experience a "lost decade," but we're about to do the same thing if we don't change course. Unfortunately, the GOP is in the hands of leaders who care more about regaining power than they do about the country, and held hostage by know-nothing Tea Party extremists for whom passion is a substitute for reasoning or thought. The White House hasn't helped either: it declared victory too soon on the economic front and thought it could continue "business as usual" in foreign and defense policy, with a better presidential salesman. And for some reason the most gifted presidential "communicator" since Ronald Reagan has been unwilling or unable to take his case to the American people.

What are these people thinking? I scan the political horizon, and I don't see anyone remotely like George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, or even Dean Acheson. We are in the midst of the biggest strategic challenge since the end of World War II, but where is our Kennan or Kissinger? Neither of them were infallible, but each had a genuine strategic vision for the United States, its position in the world, and the actions that needed to be taken to preserve vital interests. And make no mistake: what is needed now is a foreign policy that is based on a clear and hard-headed strategy, one that identifies key priorities, writes off liabilities, and marshals the relevant elements of power to preserve what is vital first and foremost. Instead, we get a foreign policy based on wishful thinking, lofty ideals, or an endless list of global projects offered up by policy wonks and special interest groups, along with more bad advice from the people who got us into our present circumstances. And the latest GOP presidential aspirant -- Governor Rick Perry of Texas -- seems to think that all our problems can be solved if we just pray hard enough. I don't want to tread on anyone's beliefs, but if that isn't a sign of desperation and policy bankruptcy, I don't know what is.

Lord knows that I don't have all the answers, but I used to think that at least a few people in positions of responsibility had a few. But at this point I'm beginning to wonder.

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