" With great regret we present Mac Deford’s finalregular column. After 16 years, he has decided to stop writing weekly, but we take solace in his promise to weigh in now and again. "
I wrote my first column for The Free Press exactly 16 years ago, a few weeks after 9/11, in response to a request from Alice McFadden, the publisher — then and now — for some insights into the Arab World, where I had spent the majority of my short Foreign Service career. Sixteen years is plenty long enough for a weekly column, so this is my last one, though I’ll stir the pot occasionally with an offbeat reflection.

Things looked bleak in those weeks immediately after 9/11. But the worst lay ahead: our invasion of Afghanistan that fall; of Iraq, a year and a half later.

As Bush was winding up his presidency, I outlined in a column how the world had deteriorated, from an American point of view, during his White House years, listing six key reasons as to why Bush’s replacement “would face a significantly bleaker world than the one Bush inherited and wrecked.”

First was Pakistan, with its nuclear arsenal and its fragmented political scene.

Growing anti-Americanism, especially in the Arab World, was second on the list. Iran was next; then there was the Palestinian problem.

“Bush’s ham-handed, provocative approach to a resurgent Russia” was number five. And the economy (this was hard on the heels of the stock market crash in the fall of 2008) was the last.

John McCain had been the Republican candidate; Barack Obama, the Democratic one. My preference had been clear: with McCain, “we’ll stay in Iraq indefinitely; we’ll refuse to talk to those we disagree with; and we’ll support Israel on every issue even as we pay lip service to a two-state solution.” Obama, by contrast, offered “a rational, pragmatic, realist approach” (though I didn’t spell out what it would be).

So, what’s the conclusion? How did Obama do?

Pakistan is just as problematic then as now. Though Obama was more popular abroad than Bush, Trump is less so; anti-Americanism, especially in today’s Arab World, never on the wane, is once again growing.

Significantly, Iran’s nuclear ambitions have been put on hold for at least a decade; and despite Trump’s grumblings about the deal, his key national security advisors support it. The Palestinian situation is unchanged: there won’t be a Palestinian state in the foreseeable future, with all that implies for regional stability.

Putin’s Russia is even more aggressive these days. But the US economy, at least, has totally recovered.

And those issues that weren’t in the headlights when Obama was sworn in? North Korea is the key one: there’s the risk of nuclear war. Could Obama have done more to keep North Korea under control?

Then there’s the Syrian tragedy. While the ongoing civil war does not directly endanger the US, the instability it adds to the world’s most unstable area will threaten the region for years to come. And Syrian refugees fleeing across the countries of southern and eastern Europe will not enhance their stability at a time when the European Union is staggering.

Which leads to another more obvious — and obviously trite — observation: the world is a complicated place. We may be the world’s super-power, but most of what happens in today’s world is beyond our control. Eight years of President Obama’s more moderate foreign policy — certainly compared to Bush’s two wars — has not made the world a safer place.

 


A lot could still go wrong. With North Korea front and center in that category, Trump’s provocative poking of “Little Rocket Man” hardly seems the best approach. Indeed, it’s not off-the-wall to conclude that Trump is purposely trying to provoke Kim into a war, one that would result in the destruction of the Kim regime before it obtained the capacity to attack the US mainland with nuclear-tipped missiles. Of course, it would also involve hundreds of thousands of casualties in South Korea, millions in North Korea, and not inconceivably churn into a wider war involving China and perhaps Japan. By comparison, maybe a nuclear-armed North Korea is not so bad.

The other geopolitical issue that was sufficiently on the back burner in those late Bush years was China. A decade later, China is clearly on a path that will challenge the US’s solo super-power status. It may be another quarter century before they get there. But the Chinese are smart and hard-working — and there are four times as many of them as there are of us. Sooner or later, they will be a serious challenge.

The hope, and it is not an unrealistic one, is that China and the US will become so intertwined economically, and even strategically, that the Thucydides Trap — the inevitable war between the predominant power and its upstart competitor — will be a long-forgotten threat. That’s the optimistic take.

The pessimistic one is that in an era of growing economic inequality at home, and the frustration it produces, our presidential system will continue to give us more inexperienced ingenues — George W. Bushes, Barack Obamas, and Donald Trumps. And that two out of three will continue to flaunt their international inexperience. And that more inexperienced Trumps and Bushes will not just give us wars with Afghanistan and Iraq, and maybe North Korea, but with China as well.

So, once again, and for the last time, let me make that plug for a very basic change in our current political system, which tosses up all manner of unprepared presidents, in favor of the less risky, and considerably more effective, parliamentary system. Separation of powers may have seemed key in that late-18th-century era of monarchs and emperors when our Founding Fathers were working on our Constitution. Today, with nuclear confrontation the front-and-center issue, the experienced leadership that a parliamentary system delivers is a much more important consideration. 

And, of course, as we see under a Trump presidency, even when the president and both houses of Congress are from the same party, it doesn’t equal success. Worse, we’ve got more than three years of this dysfunctional government ahead of us. If we had a parliamentary system, new elections would already be on the horizon. Though, of course, if we had a parliamentary system, we wouldn’t have a Trump in the White House.

Interestingly, just a few days back, I was reading a biography of Woodrow Wilson, in which the author happened to mention that Wilson was an advocate of the parliamentary system.

That was 100 years ago.

Positive change takes time. That’s the good news. The bad news: too often, it never comes.