Electile Dysfunction and Asia

Greetings. And if you’ve come to this page in recent weeks looking for some fresh postings, my apologies.  I’ve been busy relocating to Asia, where I’ll be based for the next several months — and hopefully able to give you more, and more lively, up-to-date and on-the-ground observations.
And to begin, I’ve written my second bi-monthly column for The Edge Review.  For those unfamiliar with The Edge Review, it’s a new digital only weekly publication, available on your iPad or iPhone, that gives serious and in-depth coverage to Southeast Asia.  I’ll be giving a regular take in a column called “Inside Edge.”  I invite you to check it out — and if you like it, consider subscribing for continued access.  And follow us on Twitter @EdgeReviewSEA.  And find and like The Edge Review on Facebook.
Meantime, here’s my most recent piece, where I look at the political dysfunction in Washington, and the implications for Asia — among other things, how a Republican takeover of the Senate in November, as many now predict, will make Obama a veritable lame duck with more than two years left in his term, and that would mean saying goodbye to initiatives like the free trade pact with Asia, the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP, that would need Senate ratification.
In a subsequent posting coming up soon, I’ll offer a few solutions for our political gridlock.
Please give me your feedback.
Copyright: The Edge Review
“Erectile dysfunction”
A beacon of democracy now looks a paragon of limp paralysis
Okay, quickly now: tell me which Asia-Pacific country’s political system has stalled due to hopeless gridlock, where the opposition refused to accept the legitimacy of the last election results and gummed up the normal functioning of government with obstructionist tactics?  All hope of compromise seems spent, as the two competing factions feel they are locked in a winner-take-all battle for control of the country’s very future.
Thailand, you guessed?  Cambodia? Or maybe Indonesia, if presidential loser Prabowo Subianto were able to use his rapidly unravelling “permanent coalition”in parliament to block President-elect Joko Widodo’s agenda?
All good guesses. But the place I’m thinking of is none other than the United States.
Once admired as a global model for its democratic values and practices, the U.S. today seems like the world’s poster child for political dysfunction, and an abject lesson in how not to run a modern, advanced country.
America’s allure as a model was fading before, thanks to the 2008 financial crisis that exposed deep flaws in the financial system and called into question the ability of the U.S. to manage the global economy.  Then came the self-inflicted wounds — the showdown over the debt ceiling and the Tea Party-engineered 16-day government shutdown of 2013.
No wonder President Barack Obama expressed such exasperation in his revealing August 8 interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. “Societies don’t work if political factions take maximalist positions,” Obama said.
Now here’s the really depressing news – it’s only likely to get worse.
When Obama travels to Asia in November for talks that will include the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Beijing and the East Asia Summit in Myanmar, it will be just one week after American midterm elections that are widely expected to hand Obama’s Democratic Party a brutal drubbing at the polls, and could, if the current prognoses hold, deliver the Senate to his Republican opponents.
So Obama will likely arrive in Asia a severely weakened leader, a veritable lame duck with no chance of enacting anything meaningful for the remaining two years and two months of his term. And his Republican critics will feel emboldened enough to launch endless corruption investigations, stymie any new presidential initiatives and appointments, and perhaps even turn the impeachment fantasy of the rightwing base into reality.
This was much the same situation former President Bill Clinton found himself in when he traveled to Asia in November 1994, after Democrats suffered a similar midterm election shellacking that left Republicans in charge of Congress. And the same was true for former President George W. Bush, who had to make the sojourn to the APEC summit in Vietnam after his party suffered bruising losses in the 2006 midterms and who saw his presidency ever-after diminished.  Clinton had time to recover – but still became embroiled in a bitter impeachment fight.  Obama, like Bush, will be in the twilight of his tenure.
This is all bad news for America’s partners in Asia.
Southeast Asia in general prefers a strong American leader who can make decisions and push through his commitments.  A weakened Obama will be unlikely to deliver much of anything — so forget about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the free trade agreement that was supposed to be the cornerstone of the administration’s new Asia-focused policy.  Obama said he hoped to have a TPP framework agreement in place by the time of his November summit.  But the likelihood of Congress passing anything after this year is between zero and zilch.
On foreign policy, it matters. The Southeast Asian countries facing off against China over the disputed South China Sea islands would like to see a strong America act as a counterweight to Beijing’s rising power and ambition.  But because of its political paralysis, Washington has become the butt of Chinese humour — as when Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu of China’s National Defense University joked at a conference in June that the U.S. was suffering from “erectile dysfunction.”
America’s current paralyzed political system couldn’t manage to pass an infrastructure bill to start repairing the nation’s outdated and crumbling highways, bridges and rail lines. China, meanwhile, is forging ahead with plans for a high-speed rail line that will eventually link Bangkok to Kunming, reshaping Southeast Asia to Beijing’s liking.
A dysfunctional America is also not in a very strong position to lecture others on the virtues of democracy and the necessity for political enemies to find common ground. How can the U.S. engage Thailand’s ruling generals on the need to speed up the transition to democracy when the compelling counterargument is that an excess of party politics brought only chaos?  Can the U.S. really still preach to the Vietnamese or Laotian Communists about the virtues of multiparty democracy?
Is there any good news here?  Only that there’s another U.S. presidential election coming in November 2016, with a new president set to take office in January 2017.  She, or he, should have a brief honeymoon period of a few months to get something done.
But only a few months.  Remember, the 2018 midterm elections will be just around the corner, and the cycle starts all over again.
Now that’s really depressing.