Good Reads: Obama's economic report card and the rise of political Islam

Today's papers ask why Obama's economic policies appear to be foundering, and why the rise of political Islam across North Africa gives Washington the shivers.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Obama arrives in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Monday, to talk about the American Jobs Act.

It’s not every day that one turns to the book reviews to find good political analysis. But Ezra Klein’s review of Ron Suskind’s book, “Confidence Men,” in this week's New York Review of Books is as good an analytical look at how the Obama Administration has handled America’s worst economic recession in 60 years as you will find.

Mr. Klein credits Mr. Suskind for his hard work, for his ability to interview most of the key players in the administration, but faults Suskind with the same personality-based political analysis that afflicts much of American political journalism.

If Obama appears to be failing, and a recent Monitor poll shows that half of respondents believe Obama shouldn’t get a 2nd term, it’s not necessarily because of bad advice from his cabinet – as Suskind alleges – but rather because global economic downturns don’t respond to the quick-fix policies that US presidents have at their disposal.

As Klein writes:

The President’s poll numbers aren’t the mystery Suskind presents them as. If you want to know what killed Obamaism, the answer is the stagnant economy. No president, no matter how politically graceful or personally confident, looks good in the midst of an economic crisis. When unemployment rose during the 1980–1981 recession, President Ronald Reagan’s approval ratings fell below 40 percent and his party lost twenty-six House seats in the midterm election. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Federal Reserve twisted toward austerity too early and sparked the 1937 recession, Democrats lost more than seventy seats the following year. No one would accuse either president of insufficient charisma or weak leadership. Americans don’t want leaders so much as they want jobs. And that’s Obama’s problem now, too.

If there is one area where American foreign policy -- and the current occupants of the White House -- should be able to point to success, that is in the rise of democracy across North Africa and the Middle East.

America may have lost some reliable individual friends in the region – particularly that conservator of the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement, Hosni Mubarak – but part of America’s longer term foreign policy has been based on encouraging the growth of democracies around the world.

Yet what happens when these new democracies – Tunisia, Egypt, and presumably Libya – end up electing Islamists to rule them? Is that a win for America?

Robin Wright in this week’s Foreign Policy addresses this question, and concludes that Islam and democracy are not as incompatible as they may seem. In fact, as Islamists engage more in parliamentary politics, take part in negotiations and compromise, these same Islamists are less likely to turn toward the kind of radicalism favored by Al Qaeda, Al Shabab, and the Nigerian militant group Boko Haram.

In short, political Islam may end up being a guarantor of democracy’s future in the region, writes Ms. Wright.

... the Islamic revival has evolved significantly since the 1970s. Islamist politics entered the mainstream after Israel's rout of the Arabs in the 1973 war and Iran's 1979 revolution, which overthrew 2,500 years of dynastic rule. The 1980s witnessed the rise of extremism and mass violence, first among Shiites and later Sunnis. But in the 1990s, the trend began to shift from the bullet to the ballot -- or a combination -- with Islamist parties running within political systems, not just trying to sabotage them from the outside. And in the early 21st century, especially as militancy took growing tolls on their societies, Mideast populations began challenging both autocrats and extremism in creative new ways. The Arab uprisings, which were launched by unprecedented displays of peaceful civil disobedience in the world's most volatile region, mark a fifth phase.

A more immediate test for democracy will be faced today in the tiny West African country of Liberia, where voters will cast votes in a second round to choose their president.

Liberia, of course, suffered a brutal civil war in the early 1990s, and some of the same candidates running for office today were militia leaders back then, better known for their cruelty than their ability to think of the national interest. Polls suggest that incumbent President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf will win the election in this second round, perhaps helped by a boycott by opposition parties, but watch carefully. The more important question of how the election is carried out.

If opposition parties carry out violent protests, and police respond with a bit too heavy a hand, as happened in Ivory Coast earlier this year, then Liberia may be in for a rather painful bout of conflict. If ballot boxes go missing, or if opposition candidates reject the election process as rigged, then faith in the democratic process could be weakened.

Monitor correspondent Clair MacDougall will be watching the action on polling day, so watch this space.

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