"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark..."

The greed, corruption and blatant lack of ethics that has ravaged practically all of the financial institutions in the United States is not new unfortunately. I was working at Arthur Andersen as a real estate consultant when the Enron scandal broke in 2001, which resulted in the eventual collapse of both companies. Because of the actions of a few, approximately tens of thousands of employees globally were suddenly out of work at Arthur Andersen as the 89 year old company fell apart piecemeal. With Enron, individuals that had worked at the company their entire lives, lost not only their jobs but their life savings.

(AP Photo/ Seth Wenig)

Fast forward eight years and the degree of corruption is so pervasive it has become systemic. Federal bailout after bailout is needed just to keep the financial institutions barely afloat. The numbers that are tossed around ($700 billion, $900 billion, one trillion...) are so incredibly high (but according to many economists, not high enough) and yet while I am struggling comprehend how much money this really is, I have at the same time almost become desensitized to the number.

And yet, so many of these financial executives who are drowning in their own immorality continue to reward themselves with mind boggling bonuses while pleading for bailout funds. The biggest offense I have heard so far is from Merrill Lynch. I read in the newspaper today that in spite of operating losses of $41.2 billion in 2008, and just days shy of Bank of America's acquisition of Merrill Lynch with government funds, Merrill executives rewarded themselves with bonuses totaling just under $4 billion! (The top four executives alone took home $121 million)!

No doubt those numbers alone are infuriating. It is my tax dollars that these crooks are pocketing! However, it was not until yesterday, when I heard Jeffrey Sachs', a man who has spent so much of his life fighting to alleviate global poverty, in an interview with Rachel Maddow that I finally appreciated the full degree of this depravity. According to Sachs, "What Merrill took in bonuses is about what the U.S. gives for all its help to the world's poorest people in Africa. And they just took that. They just grabbed that in a moment. And now we have a shortfall for AIDS, TB and malaria. This is millions of...[lives] at stake."

When I heard that, I sat still, unable to move for a few minutes in shock and horror. Could this be? And so I did a little research. According to the Brookings Institution, under the latter half of the George W. Bush years, the United States gave $3.9 billion in foreign aid to Sub-Saharan Africa to help the world's poorest of the poor. In December 2008, 700 Merrill executives gave themselves $3.6 billion in bonuses with money they did NOT have. To quote Marcellus in Hamlet, "something is rotten..." and boy, does it reek.


Yes, We Can! Pragmatism Finally Trounces Senseless Ideology

When George W. Bush finally boarded the 'Special Air Mission 28000' for Texas on January 20th, 2009 along side Karl Rove and a crippled Dick Cheney finally wheeled himself out of White House with all his boxes of secret documents, so too thankfully marked the end of the most botched foreign policy of any U.S. administration. How long I have waited for the day that research and dialogue, insight and cooperation would once again trump ideology.

The Bush Administration was the least traveled, least intellectually curious administration in U.S. history. Really, that comes as no surprise. Any administration that can proudly unveil the regressive concept of the "Axis of Evil" and the utterly un-winnable "War on Terror" as the core principal behind their foreign policies has to be detached from reality, mercilessly and blindly driven by ideology and/or incomprehensibly ignorant.

The entire concept of declaring war on anything so nebulous and amorphous as terror is obviously self defeating. The 'War on Terror' much like the 'War on Drugs' could have never resulted in a successful conclusion. The War on Drugs failed because it was never clear who or what the target was. A more successful strategy would have been to focus on drug addiction treatment. Likewise, the strategy behind the War on Terror would have never successfully countered terrorism, because the efforts needed to counter terrorism should never have been defined as a war at all. After studying 648 terrorist groups between 1968 and 2006, the conservative think tank the Rand Corporation concluded in a report titled "How Terrorist Groups End," that war is the least effective means of achieving success. Instead war gives the local population, as in the case of Afghanistan, greater impetus to turn against the government and aid terrorist recruitment. The War on Terror completely ignored the root cause of the problem and instead focused on perpetuating a cycle of butchery.

Now enter Smart Power, the Obama administration's new catch phrase for their foreign policy strategy. A modification of Joseph Nye's soft power, smart power stands for defence, diplomacy and development. Hallelujah! It seems so obvious, so sensible but has been overlooked and ignored for so long. Obama's new foreign policy team is not only extremely educated, globally conscious but also uniquely qualified for their role on their team. (Unlike Condoleezza Rice, who while brilliant, is an expert on the communism and former Soviet Bloc and was therefore terribly unsuited for understanding the new complexities and dynamics of a post-communist world). President Obama has on his foreign policy team, a collection of intellectually driven Rhode scholars and individuals like Samantha Power (anticipated to hold a senior position at the National Security Council) and Ivo Daalder (expected to be US Ambassador to Nato) who grew up outside the United States, much unlike Bush's foreign policy team who came primarily from the south and Midwest of the United States. But more importantly, Obama has assembled a group of realists and pragmatists like Anne-Marie Slaughter (tipped to be head of policy planning at the State department), who believe that the U.S. is not in an arch battle with other great powers in the world but is instead a central player in an integrated world. He has real experts on counter-terrorism, not ideologues or war mongers, like Daniel Benjamin and Philip Gordon who respectively believe that such threats need to be "managed and reduced" and that terrorism can be overcome when "the ideology that underpins it loses its appeal." And although, interested in reigning in America's hard power as the sole option in fighting terrorism, with Samantha Power and Carlos Pascual (now at Brookings Institution, he may move to the State Department) there will be greater focus on expanding the American military to achieve humanitarian aims, preventing future genocide and peace-keeping.

Now I am not so naive or idealistic to think that just because we now have a infinitely more globally conscious, enlightened, culturally sensitive and pragmatic foreign policy team in Washington that U.S. foreign policy will move in a completely new direction or be completely even-handed. The world of politics is too complex and more often very dirty and messy. I am fully aware that the Israeli lobby is still firmly entrenched in American politics and so undoubtedly, this administration will continue to cater to the expansionist whims of the Israeli government partially if not completely. But after the eight years we have just experienced, we and the rest of the world finally have a reprieve from the 24 hour inane and insane, all day every day.

I guess time will tell, if our optimism is warranted. But for now, I sleep a little better at night.
For more information check out:
Shifting Horizons by Gideon Rachman (FT)
The U.S. can reclaim 'smart power' by Joseph Nye (LA Times)