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Gray Lady Weeps as 2016 Off to Ugly Start

Walter Russell Mead

Twenty-fifteen was a year to forget, as far as the causes of peace, prosperity, world order, and democracy were concerned. Displaced persons were at their highest levels since World War II. The Middle East devolved into sectarian war. Territorial and political disputes between China and its neighbors roiled the waters of the Eastern Pacific. Russian-Western relations hit new post-Cold War lows even as Moscow reasserted itself in the Middle East. Jihadi ideology and mayhem went on the march in Europe. Jitters upset financial markets as major economies like China and Brazil gazed, for at least part of the year, into the abyss.

This was almost certainly not the world that President Obama and his close knit band of foreign policy supporters expected as the result of their seven years of labor transforming the world and renewing America, but it was the year we had.

Unfortunately, 2016, the little of it that we have so far seen, is already beginning to look like another year of Grim Slide, of a world stumbling down a slippery slope to become less secure, less stable, and less free. A quick look at the New York Times, normally not the place to look for bad news for the Obama administration, offers a window into a scary new year.

The lead story, on Saudi Arabia’s decision to break diplomatic relations with Iran over the destruction of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, read like an epitaph for the Obama administration’s Middle East policy. In 2015, the central conviction of President Obama’s policy in the Middle East, the only element of his original, ambitious agenda (reconciliation with the Sunni world, promotion of moderate Islamist democracy, solving the Israel-Palestine issue) still standing, was that he could stabilize the Middle East by pursuing a nuclear deal with Iran. The President has his nuclear deal, but so far it isn’t making him, or anybody else, happy. The perceived U.S. tilt toward Iran has inflamed Sunni jihadis, contributed to the meltdown in Syria, and has made regional sectarian conflict hotter and more dangerous than ever. What’s more, the U.S. has lost leverage over Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and Israel—without gaining leverage over Iran. As a result, the U.S. is both less able to persuade the Sunni powers to refrain from steps that could inflame regional conflict and is completely unable to persuade the Iranians to moderate their behavior in the interest of regional peace.

Meanwhile, world stock markets celebrated the first business day of the New Year by swooning in Asia and Europe. Fears over China’s economy are still with us, it appears. And even if the China bulls are right that China is successfully shifting from a manufacturing-based economy to one based on services and information, this will still be bad news for commodity producing countries everywhere. Countries like Brazil, Venezuela, South Africa, Nigeria, and many others across Africa and Latin America can expect a difficult 2016.

In Europe, the German government warned that the decision made by Denmark to impose border controls, which follows on Sweden’s decision to institute ID checks, endangers the Schengen Accord, the system that allows seamless movement across the borders of member states in Europe’s core. The crisis of the European Union that made so many headlines in 2015 will continue in the New Year.

In India, the New Year’s violence continues, as Indian forces seek to take down the remaining members of a Pakistan-based assault squad who attacked an Indian air force base near the Line of Control in Kashmir. Peace in South Asia is not at hand.

In Latin America, the news from Venezuela is worse than bad; it is ominous. The Supreme Court’s decision to invalidate the election of just enough legislators to deny the opposition a two-thirds majority will be seen as nakedly political and will further polarize a divided country. The problem is that while the government can no longer run the country and has lost much of its support, an armed and determined core of Chavistas seems unwilling to give up power peacefully. Some kind of social conflict could explode in a country of major strategic importance to the United States and the region. The destabilization of an important neighboring country continues.

At home, there is more bad news, another “success” going sadly awry. If the Iran nuclear deal and the Middle East peace it was intended to create were the cornerstone of President Obama’s intended foreign policy legacy, the ACA plays that role at home. And despite the scrappy cheers from the President’s most committed defenders, the news on the ACA, even as reported by the New York Times, continues to suggest that the dysfunctional system created by the law will need to be seriously reformed.

Today’s story is particularly ominous. The point it makes is that Obamacare policies are such terrible bargains for anybody who doesn’t qualify for a subsidy that significant numbers of healthy people find it cheaper to pay the fine than to pay thousands of dollars a year for health insurance with $6,000 deductibles and small provider networks. In effect, what Obamacare delivers to many of its intended beneficiaries is a massively expensive and badly designed catastrophic care policy. (Many of the ACA’s critics, it should be noted, argued that well-designed catastrophic care policies would be a cheap alternative to Obamacare and could make sense for many healthy people.) This failure matters, as the decision by millions of people to avoid Obamacare could increase the costs of insurance for those who remain, and turn Obamacare into something more like an “assigned risk pool” for very sick people and less like a sustainable national system of health insurance. In any case, it is becoming crystal clear that the ACA will survive, at best, as a kind of ugly first draft of a new national system. Whether President Obama’s successor is a Republican or a Democrat, she or he will be trying to repair or replace Obamacare because of its failures rather than trying to build on its success.

Finally, the occupation of the aptly named “Malheur National Wildlife Refuge” by armed protesters is more than a poke in the eye of federal authorities by a fringe group. It’s a sign that the polarization eating at the foundation of American society is continuing. After seven years of President Obama’s leadership, the right and the left (to say nothing of the races) in America are angrier and more polarized than when he took office. This does not bode well for anybody going forward, not for American politics, not for the President’s historical legacy, not for the peace of a world which needs a strong and united America as the global situation continues to darken.

2015 was a year in which the world lurched away from peace and order. 2016 is starting off on the wrong foot.

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