America’s next top crisis

Imagine, if you can, that you are me. I wish I could give you a taste of what it’s like. Perhaps you have some idea. That throng of 10,000 models wildly stampeding in New York over the weekend? Despite what you may have heard or read, it was all over a completely unsubstantiated rumor that ...

587749_090316_57586817_rez2.jpg
587749_090316_57586817_rez2.jpg

Imagine, if you can, that you are me. I wish I could give you a taste of what it's like. Perhaps you have some idea. That throng of 10,000 models wildly stampeding in New York over the weekend? Despite what you may have heard or read, it was all over a completely unsubstantiated rumor that I was in New York to visit my poor brother who was suffering with the fact that his beloved Orangemen had once again choked in a big game...this year, on his birthday. There they were, thousands of semi-literate stick-figure women hurling their eighty-six pound frames into one another just for a glimpse of me, pushing, shoving, hungering as though I were that forbidden extra slice of tofu that they would later barf up when no one else was looking. Oh, I know, the news said they were all there to audition for the latest season of "America's Next Top Eating Disorder Victim" but seriously, don't you think that even the modeling community is sick to death of Tyra at this point?

And I understand it. She was a trail-blazer once: a breath of fresh air with a bright smile and an agenda to help others. But, now after an endless series of episodes in which chain smoking high-school drop-outs steal each other's hair products, we realize that this show isn't about helping people. It's all about Tyra all the time. The winners, the losers, they hear her pep talks, they get the benefit of insights from her hand-picked staff of fashion-world superstars, the crème de la crème of the world's narcissicists, but none of them actually win except Tyra who gets to keep her career going (and of course, the fabulous J. Alexander, who only actually exists inside Tyra's mind... as a kind of idealized image of what she would be like if she were actually a woman.)

Imagine, if you can, that you are me. I wish I could give you a taste of what it’s like. Perhaps you have some idea. That throng of 10,000 models wildly stampeding in New York over the weekend? Despite what you may have heard or read, it was all over a completely unsubstantiated rumor that I was in New York to visit my poor brother who was suffering with the fact that his beloved Orangemen had once again choked in a big game…this year, on his birthday. There they were, thousands of semi-literate stick-figure women hurling their eighty-six pound frames into one another just for a glimpse of me, pushing, shoving, hungering as though I were that forbidden extra slice of tofu that they would later barf up when no one else was looking. Oh, I know, the news said they were all there to audition for the latest season of “America’s Next Top Eating Disorder Victim” but seriously, don’t you think that even the modeling community is sick to death of Tyra at this point?

And I understand it. She was a trail-blazer once: a breath of fresh air with a bright smile and an agenda to help others. But, now after an endless series of episodes in which chain smoking high-school drop-outs steal each other’s hair products, we realize that this show isn’t about helping people. It’s all about Tyra all the time. The winners, the losers, they hear her pep talks, they get the benefit of insights from her hand-picked staff of fashion-world superstars, the crème de la crème of the world’s narcissicists, but none of them actually win except Tyra who gets to keep her career going (and of course, the fabulous J. Alexander, who only actually exists inside Tyra’s mind… as a kind of idealized image of what she would be like if she were actually a woman.)

Come to think of it, though, there is absolutely no fair analogy that I am willing to make between that show and anything currently going on in Washington. So, back to my weekend…which, of course, did not actually involve throngs of stampeding models. (Although my brother actually was devastated by Syracuse’s loss, suffering that will only grow worse when North Carolina once again wins the NCAA Championships in a couple weeks.) Instead, it involved tramping through the mall trying to get Verizon to fix my daugher’s cell phone, dealing with their special brand of customer service that puts a capital UCK back into the expression F YOU, and spending hours more switching her over to AT&T. Meanwhile, all the while I am actually thinking, what kind of a blog posting will I write on Monday morning?

I even put myself through the torture of watching of all the Sunday morning television talk fests. There the administration rolled out its economic spokespeople — Austan Goolsbee on Fox, Larry Summers on “This Week” and Christina Romer on “Meet the Press” to say, in unison, “we hate AIG but other than that everything is under control.” Of course, especially frustrating was the AIG rant which was certainly too little too late much as the time Tyra failed to move quickly enough to rein in Bre after she wrongfully accused poor Nicole of stealing her granola bars during Season Five. (“The Girl Who Retaliates.”) 

Also the focus on the AIG bonuses was a distraction from the much bigger and more offensive component of the AIG story that unfolded over the weekend thanks to the fact that they finally released the names of the counterparties who got made whole by tax-payer dollars. For example, Societe General, Deutsche Bank and Barclay’s alone got over $30 billion (we’ll leave aside the over $12 billion Hank Paulson’s Goldman Sachs got because that is a story that is so breathtaking offensive that apparently no one wants to write about it). While much of this happened last year, let’s face it, Tim Geithner was in the middle of it all from the outset, so was Ben Bernanke, the Obama team was looped into this from November on and they could have done plenty from the moment they got into office but they didn’t. Of course, they could have done more had they actually made it a priority to hire a team at Treasury at some point during the past five months of knowing they were going to take over the country in the middle of the worst crisis since the depression or the Black Death of the 14th Century or the time Tyra was shown in an unflattering one-piece and accused of being fat in early 2007. (I’m not minimizing this. I am merely trying to track the Obama administration’s move from the talking points produced by their initial economic spokesperson, Chicken Little, to those produced by their most recent hire in the press office, Alfred E. Newman.)

Of these performances by the way, I give Romer and Goolsbee each Cs, (able to translate complex ideas into simple English sentences, unfortunately obligated to tap dance around tough issue like just what exactly we are going to do about the financial crisis) and Summers an A (calm, thoughtful discussion of issues). Summers conversation actually contained a really important nugget: that the administration was working on moving derivatives transactions to an exchange setting which would regularize them and make them more transparent. This would be a big breakthrough and could in fact, be one of the most important steps of fixing what is broken in the financial world. Needless to say no one has picked up on it (that I have seen) since he said it. The “balance” on these shows was provided by the likes of what appeared to be cardboard cutouts resemblng Senators Mitch McConnell and Bob Corker and Representative Eric Cantor. Corker outshone his colleagues by seeming to actually think about the issues and gets a D. The other two get Fs only because I can’t give anything lower. Reflexive, barren of ideas, purely partisan. America could do with an opposition party but truly, I think we may be heading into a period in which the relevant and defining political division in the U.S. is between moderate and liberal Democrats. McConnell and Cantor make us yearn for the refreshing relevance of say, John Bell, last candidate to run for president under the Whig banner. (As a reminder to all who do not think that political parties in America can come and go as swiftly as did Janice Dickinson off the judging panel at America’s Next Top Model as soon as it was realized that she was both a psycho skank from hell and, at the same time, ten times more interesting than Tyra.)

Anyway, not only did the superficial discussions of the Sunday talkers drive me as crazy as usual (I was particularly infuriated with CNBC’s Steve Liesman of CNBC who when asked about whether the media dropped the ball on the financial crisis responded by saying he was all over the mortgage backed securities risks in 2006…as though that were a good record given that these problems had been brewing for a decade and that the bigger issues of problems in the derivatives markets, Wall Street’s failure to assess risk properly, the regulatory breakdown in Washington, the problems of mark to market financing, the corruption associated with Wall Street’s revolving door in DC, and the wrong-headed decision to bring down Glass Steagall were more or less ignored), but I was also tormented by what they weren’t covering. They let the Obama administration set the agenda by who was being made available. They bought into the Obama administration’s theme of the week story packaging the way viewers bought into last year’s heart-warming but completely fabricated ANTM victory of plus-sized model Whitney as she demonstrated that in the end “inner beauty” always trumps a love of Kit Kat bars.

Meanwhile, back in the real world you could feel America’s Next Top Crisis brewing off camera. Soon, I couldn’t help but sense, Obama’s, Q-rating, his smooth talk and his desire to have it both ways (spend but lecture about responsibility, offer conciliation with the world but talk tough, declare the end is nigh but encourage everyone to cheer up) would no longer help. Tough issues that will pose tough choices about America’s willingness to use force, to confront friends, to show political courage, were emerging.

Zardari’s last days in Pakistan are once again producing the specter of a meltdown in that nuclear nation of 170 million. Russia is announcing plans to establish bomber bases in Cuba or Venezuela (and the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is shrugging it off). The left’s victory in El Salvador extending Chavez’s Axis of Bluster even as keen observers recognize that Mexico’s war on its drug cartels is pushing them into Guatemala where, at the moment, the government is doing practically nothing. Meanwhile, the Chinese are announcing their discomfort with U.S. Treasuries (which Larry Summers fairly glibly dismissed as Chinese political posturing). The G20 ministerial revealed real divisions between the United States and Europe and between the United States and the BRICs. And the press entirely missed the subtext of President Lula’s visit to meet with Obama over the weekend. While all was sweetness and light for the cameras, and while the two men genuinely did have a quick rapport, rumors among Brazilian officials suggest that Lula came away concerned about Obama’s attitudes toward trade and what was characterized as a sense of Obama’s naivety. Obama gave off signals in their talks that he was not going to push hard to get the Doha Round done and that fixing the distortionary U.S. tariff on Brazilian ethanol would have to wait. You’ve got to love it…and also, um, hate it…when an old-school leftist labor leader comes to Washington and comes away disappointed that the U.S. president is not going to do enough to liberalize the trade agenda or fight off protectionist forces at home.

Then, after all this, I ended up having to be up late at night sitting up while my high school senior age daughter — who by the way deserves all the blame for making me watch “America’s Next Top Model” — worked on a creative writing assignment that was supposed to be stream of consciousness. So now, in retrospect, it is clear to me that even the structure for this post was not my own idea. But after such an enervating, mind-numbing weekend, there is a part of me that considers any consciousness at all to be something of an achievement.

Scott Gries/Getty Images

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.