Herbert London is Senior Fellow of the Manhattan Institute, founder of the London Center for Policy Research, and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America).
For the new class of self-proclaimed progressives there is a tale of two cities, one privileged and one underprivileged. This dichotomous model comes right out of the Marxist playbook. However, despite its simplicity and repudiation of human nature, it continues to have appeal as President Obama and Mayor Bill de Blasio can attest.
The tale of two cities appeals on several levels. It plays into the psychology of guilt-riddled individuals who feel they may have been responsible for the condition of the downtrodden. It also appeals to those who are indeed downtrodden by suggesting their condition will improve if you can redistribute resources from the rich and give it to them.
Of course history demonstrates that you cannot make the poor rich by making the rich poor. But most people ignore empirical evidence. It is the narrative that counts. Hence Marxism's appeal, even if it is now progressivism or another euphemism. Taking from Peter to give to Paul always satisfies Paul.
The tale of two cities is a tale of tails, for the actual distribution of the wealthy, those earning over $300,000 annually, is about 5 percent, and the poor, those earning or living on $20,000 for a family of four or more, is about 15 percent. In other words, this tale is one of extremes that leaves 80 percent out of the equation.
One might assume that any theory or narrative that ignores the bulk of the population would be rendered useless. But this narrative has vitality because it is what many choose to believe. Nuance hasn't any standing. In fact, a progressive tax of the kind the U.S. has, does take disproportionately from the rich (nationwide 1 percent of the population pays 40 percent of the taxes) and has yielded trillions over the last four decades to the poor in welfare payments, public housing, Medicaid, food stamps, etc. However, the percentage of the poor remains largely unchanged.
Although the explanation for this phenomenon is complicated with several variables in play such as illegitimacy, joblessness, and structural economic change, it should be noted that most rich Americans were once poor. Children are generally not born with a silver spoon in their mouths. At twenty-one many Americans do not lead a hardscrabble life. But wealth is generally beyond their reach.
In the political world and in popular culture the tale of two cities narrative persists. It does so because in films that explore the tension between rich and poor, with the poor protagonist the hero who triumphs in the end, is a story line the public embraces. Similarly, in the New York mayoralty race Bill de Blasio spoke of the two cities theme, yet offered few concrete proposals for reform. His major reform, if you can call it that, is raising the taxes on the rich to pay for pre-kindergarten education. How much this tax will be and what the definition of rich may be remain obscure. There is also no evidence to suggest pre-kindergarten education necessarily advances the achievement level of poor kids. Whether you can pay for it and whether it works are irrelevant concerns. It sounds good and strikes the right public nerve endings.
In 1922 Antonio Gramsci, the architect of the Italian Communist party, converted the Communist ethos from economics to culture. It was a brilliant tactical move that gave Communism an appeal that its failed economic theory could not. It is the Gramscian view we live with almost a century later, despite its perverse and wrongheaded analysis of reality.
If perception is reality, however, a president and a mayor have adopted this stance. They see the world through a Marxist lens that defies all we know about the failures of the Communist experience. For them the failures do not matter because they realize the tale of two cities narrative lives in the hearts of true believers.
Weakness Begets Challenges
The world stage is trembling with emerging challenges, challenges so deep and potentially fracturing that the globe may never be the same again. This is 1789, 1848, 1917, and 1941 wrapped in one momentous year. Wherever one turns, chaos reigns and, in large part, this dislocation is due to a United States' reluctant to play its post-World War II role as the "great equalizer." From the Middle East to the Far East, from London to the Levant, U.S. withdrawal physically and emotionally is having a profound influence on diplomatic calculations.
There are obvious examples. Geneva negotiations over Iran's nuclear enrichment program offers the retention of fissile material, in return for the relaxation of sanctions. This is precisely what the Iranians have contended for, for more than a decade. It virtually assures an Iran with nuclear weapons, and incorporates the Iranian economy into the global economic network. It also invites regional nuclear proliferation as a counterweight to Iranian ambition and brings Israel close to the brink of war.
The unilateral Chinese declaration of an air defense zone over the East China Sea, incorporating the contested Senkaku islands, is a direct challenge to U.S. interests in the Pacific. It has shaken our allies and portends possible air and sea confrontations.
The Ukrainian government is facing hostility from Russia, which threatens to turn off its natural gas supply. Ukraine is facing a choice of domination by Putin and Russian, or alliance with the European Union. The people would prefer the latter, the government the former, but the U.S. sits on the sidelines unwilling to take a position.
Since the death of Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda has regrouped, roiling North Africa from Libya to Syria. Although it was declared an insubstantial threat by President Obama, it is now the main opposition force in Syria, an influential group in Iraq yet again, an ally of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and even has a formidable presence in South America.
The prevailing sentiment in the Obama administration is that if you speak softly and carry no stick, things will fall into place. U.S. forces should not be seen as the global policeman because our involvement - it is widely believed - complicates knotty issues, making them even more complicated than they would have been otherwise. Overlooked in this calculation is what the perception of U.S. weakness means for our friends and foes alike.
Allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel have already arrived at the conclusion that a weak, appeasement-minded U.S. government is not one on whom they can rely. These nations must fend for themselves or seek new alliances. The Japanese, sensing a U.S. withdrawal from the Pacific, have doubled their defense budget this year.
Conversely our foes such as China and Russia believe they can exploit the appearance of U.S. weakness. They are increasingly assertive in the United Nations and have filled a vacuum left by the United States in Syria, much of the Middle East, and the China Sea.
Even in South America our enemies are jockeying for influence in areas where the U.S. response has been neutrality, a stance without substance. The Monroe Doctrine has been tar and feathered and resigned to disuetude. Latin America isn't even on the U.S. radar screen.
The signs of weakness are ubiquitous, notwithstanding the obvious fact that the U.S. is still the most powerful military force on the globe. By channeling American foreign policy interests through the United Nations and a variety of international organizations, the Obama administration has allowed others to dictate policy, even hold our interests hostage to their goals.
A classic idea that weakness begets challenges is once again emerging. From Athens to Rome, the lessons of history march forward, often ignored, but repeatedly reenacted. History is now at our doorstep asking questions that have a distinctly familiar ring.
U.S.-Iran Deal on Nuclear Weapons
A presumptive deal between the United States and Iran to curb the Iranian nuclear program in exchange for an easing of sanctions is regarded in the White House as a breakthrough, cutting the Gordian knot between intractability and persistence. Yet before the acclamation begins a cautionary note is warranted.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently said, "I believe that adopting them [the deal proposals] is a mistake of historic proportions." There is much to suggest that he is right.
For one thing, perhaps most notably, Iran retains the capability of making nuclear weapons. The deal - described as unfolding - merely freezes the most advanced aspects of its nuclear program, including the production of near-weapons-grade fuel. With uranium enriched at the 20-percent level as is presently the case, Iran can probably produce six Hiroshima-like atom bombs today. Moreover, it possesses the missiles to deliver them over a 1000-kilometer distance.
Second, Iranian leaders have been known to lie. The assurances offered in the past have disappeared like soap bubbles. After all, negotiations of one kind or another have been going on for decades. Prime Minister Rouhani, in his previous role, was the chief Iranian negotiator at a diplomatic table with American and European representatives. Despite his pleasant smile and moderate demeanor, he is a jihadist who is eager to promote Iran's imperial agenda, and that political position is enhanced by the possession of nuclear weapons.
Third, although this deal is the first phase in what is presumed to be a step-by-step process, verification procedures are obscure. It has been established from Intelligence sources that Iran has several projects deeply hidden underground on heavy-water nuclear production and centrifuges. Even if one or two are "frozen" to satisfy IAEA inspectors, how can one be sure other facilities aren't operating at full tilt?
Fourth, the acceptance of an Iran with nuclear capability will lead inexorably to nuclear proliferation in the region. Saudi Arabia has recently completed an arrangement to buy nuclear weapons from Pakistan that are congruent with its present delivery capacity and in defiance of U.S. admonitions. This arrangement was precipitated by the American "rapprochement" with Iran.
Fifth, the acceptance of the U.S.-Iran deal means that Iran will be perceived as the "strong horse" in the Middle East. It is, in effect, precisely the perception Iran has been trying to cultivate with its neighbors.
Sixth, this deal is actually little more than a public relations bonanza for the president, even though it weakens U.S. ties to allies in Saudi Arabia and Israel. President Obama will hail this diplomatic "achievement" as a Chamberlain-like "peace in our time" deal. In fact, as was the case with Chamberlain's concessions to Hitler, this deal probably brings us closer to the brink of war than was formerly the case.
At the risk of hyperbole, this "exchange" with Iran is part Munich and part Yalta. The concession designed to promote better relations with Iran is probably an illusion, a case of believing before seeing. Moreover, the concession catapults Iran into a Shia leadership position that threatens surrounding nations.
The Saudis believe that in the last phase, when sanctions are finally eliminated, Iran will still have nuclear capability. It will resemble the "Japanese solution," a point at which there is sufficient fissile material to build several bombs, but the missiles are simply not yet weaponized. This may be an arrangement the U.S. is prepared to live with, but it is not one the Saudis can embrace.
Since this is the era of illusions, it is easy to predict what is likely to occur. President Obama, with great fanfare, will announce to the American people that this tension over nuclear weapons in Iran has been resolved. There will be a national sigh of relief. However, behind the curtain of illusion, the dogs of war are plotting. What they see is a U.S. devoid of military commitment and struggling to maintain a peace at any price.
Chinese Air Defense Zone
The negotiations over Iran's potential nuclear weapons arsenal has pushed all other foreign policy issues out of the headlines. But as Washington muses about Iran, one of the boldest attempts to challenge the U.S. as a Pacific power has occurred with very little commentary.
Recently China unilaterally created an "air defense identification zone" in the East China Sea that has the Senkaku Islands within its perimeter. These islands now claimed by China have been administered by Japan since an accord signed in 1972.
While the Chinese describe this perimeter as "air defense," in actuality it is "air control." In fact, the way the perimeter is drawn comes within 80 miles of Japanese territory. These Chinese air patrols have already encountered Japanese Coast Guard vessels and air defense planes in what can only be described as a game of who blinks first.
This "zone" has already had a profound influence on regional states. The South Koreans distrust Chinese ambitions, but may distrust Japan even more. Some commercial airlines have already agreed to recognize the Chinese identification zone, albeit Japan's aviation authority ordered national airlines to disregard the Chinese air zone. Most analysts assume China will employ this zone of influence to push aggressively for the "satisfactory" resolution of island disputes with Brunei, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
But the most significant development is the challenge to U.S. hegemonic regional influence. Recognizing a U.S. government distracted by Iranian negotiations in Geneva, the Chinese acted. The head-to-head confrontation between these Pacific superpowers, which the American government wants to avoid, is now upon us. If the U.S. allows this perimeter to stand unchallenged, the East China Sea will be regarded as a Chinese aerial protectorate in a few months.
In an effort to calm jittery allies in the region, the U.S. government sent a pair of B-52 bombers over the disputed islands and well within the Chinese perimeter. At this point, there hasn't been a Chinese response. But there will be other challenges as long as China and her neighbors are jostling for control of waters with potentially rich hydrocarbon reserves.
China's Defense Ministry noted that the Chinese military would take "defensive emergency measures" against aircraft that didn't obey the rules of the newly created zone. White House spokesman, Josh Ernest, said the dispute between China and Japan should be settled diplomatically, but also noted "The policy announced by the Chinese . . . is unnecessarily inflammatory."
It was merely a question of time before U.S. supremacy in the Pacific was tested. For years the U.S. and China have been on a collision course, notwithstanding American efforts to placate Chinese ambitions. As China sees it, this is the ideal time for a confrontation.
The U.S. is withdrawing forces in several nations indicating both war fatigue and budgetary restraints. Negotiation with the Iranians has become a State and Defense department preoccupation. Despite President Obama's "pivot" to Asia, our allies on the continent are apprehensive about the American defense commitment. At a recent conference I attended in Tokyo the most often heard refrain was "where is the United States?"
The question, of course, is really "where is the U.S. when we need her." Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines need her now. Clearly the U.S. does not want a confrontation with China; a view probably shared by the Chinese government. But the Chinese believe the United States will back down. B-52s may fly today and possibly tomorrow, but does the U.S. have the will to sustain resistance to the assertion of Chinese power? In the answer to that query lies the future of the Pacific. An unchallenged China will regard herself as dominant over the contested islands in the East China Sea and even regional nations, soon to be viewed as satellites in the reconfigured Middle Kingdom.
The Nelson Mandela Legacy
In life Nelson Mandela was admired; in death he is venerated. As time passes his life story is evolving from hagiography to beatification. There is something to admire in a man who stood by his convictions and altered the course of history by destroying the hateful apartheid institution. But the Mandela story has been so sanitized it has lost any relationship to the truth.
Mandela was a Communist who lied about his party membership in order to confuse South Africans about his actual goals. Till his dying day he admired Fidel Castro and the Cuban leadership, overlooking their crimes and the police state they built.
Some might say even if Nelson Mandela was a Communist it doesn't matter because Communism collapsed. Those rationalizers do not know what has happened and is happening in South Africa. The ruling African National Party (ANC) is a front for the South African Communist Party (SACP). Jacob Zuma, a high-ranking SACP member, is the current South African president. As Zuma noted in a recent speech:
You need to have a clear understanding of dialectical and historical materialism. You need to be armed with a theory of the working class Marxism-Leninism. You need to understand this theory as a guide to action.
Remarkably, the popularizers of the Mandela myth overlook the plight of the poor blacks Mandela vowed to assist. Intimidation and anti-democratic methods are routinely used against those who have the temerity to stand up to government police tactics. Mandela also received worldwide acclaim for resisting attacks on the minority white population when he seized power. Overlooked in the midst of applause are ANC banners in a recent rally saying the "Honeymoon is over for white people in South Africa."
In addition, to his Communist affiliation, Mandela had a curious group of luminaries he admired including: Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat, and Muammar Gaddafi. The hero worshippers never cease to ignore this fact.
It isn't the only fact ignored by the mythmakers. At one point, Mandela recruited Joe Slovo for the armed ring of the ANU in a campaign of sabotage. Slovo, accompanied by a small group of well-trained explosives experts, was dubbed "the KGB colonel" and was considered by many analysts to be an agent of Soviet intelligence.
Mandela continually denied being a Communist Party member or sympathetic to Communism. He even went so far as to suggest he was "an anti-communist." This artful dissimulation was designed to dupe foreign audiences, particularly the Western hero worshippers. Of course, they believed this propaganda.
U.S. and European press corps members are complicit in the creation of the legend. They exalt the hero and ignore the damage. They ignore the death of Jonas Savimbi and pretend that Namibia and South Africa are free. They ignore Cuba's presence in Africa and Mandela's role in enhancing that influence. They praise Mandela as a reconciler, but ignore his rejection of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) that advocated the abolition of apartheid, but refused to engage in violence against innocent people. It was also anti-communist.
For the Obama administration, history doesn't count. The U.S. government presently provides $500 million of aid to the present regime. Money is being raised for the Nelson Mandela Center of Memory, a center for very selective memory.
For the nave hero worshippers, nothing can excoriate the memory of a legend superordinated into demigod status. It would be one thing if Mandela's compromises, however dubious, resulted in a free, prosperous nation where corruption didn't exist. But the reality is a South Africa with dictatorial control and the exploitation of the poor.
So much for the real Mandela legacy. *