If I want to speak to Europe, Henry Kissinger once quipped, who do I call? Well, he should try calling America via the White House switchboard (202-456-1414), as I did recently.
“Hello, you have reached the executive office of the president,” the polite recording informed me. “We apologize, but due to the lapse in federal funding, we are unable to take your call. Once funding is restored our operations will resume. Please call back at that time.”
That was very disappointing, to say the least, because there are a number of questions I’d like to have asked the president.
How is it, I wanted to know, that the most elite covert force in the arsenal of the world’s only superpower — the Navy Seals — was beaten back on Oct. 5 by a third-world guerrilla force in Somalia and forced to flee, mission unaccomplished, when they swarmed in from the sea to capture an al-Shabab leader? Did the lapse of federal funding require them to go in at half-strength, without enough ammunition and with inadequate covering fire?
And I’d have liked to ask if the president and his close advisers were following this Somali operation live from the White House situation room, just like they did during the raid to kill Osama bin Laden. Or did that nonfunctioning switchboard, the one that told me to call again, mean there weren’t any functioning lines connecting the White House to the world?
Then I’d have liked to inquire about the U.S. European Union Free Trade Agreement. The U.S. and the EU account for 40 percent of the world’s GDP. A free-trade agreement between the two would bring a measurable increase in their GDP, thousands of jobs and a chance to stand shoulder to shoulder against the commercial competition from Asia that is killing American (and European) jobs.
But the United States was missing in action at last week’s important kick-off round of these critically important talks. The lapse in federal funding meant the American delegation didn’t have money to make the trip. I suspect there must be at least a hundred U.S. companies that would have lent the president’s team the cash to send his entourage to Brussels. They’d probably have thrown in zero percent financing, too. So why was America not present at the U.S.-EU free trade talks?
Lest I forget, the United States is not yet out of the economic intensive-care ward. A critical part of the country’s life-support system is the Federal Reserve, whose hand on the tiller is still crucial to ensure that the ship of state keeps sailing towards clear water. The Financial Times reports that all but 3 statisticians at the Fed have been furloughed. Why, I’d like to have asked the president, can’t the Fed call back all of its civilian work force like the Defense Department just did. Or are guns and bullets more important for the American people than jobs and benefits?
I would also have liked to ask a number of questions of Congress. But, alas, just like Europe, Congress does not have a telephone number. And that’s the most tragic part of it all. Congress doesn’t have a number and the White House switchboard is out of action. America, it would seem, is really closed for business.
Sarwar Kashmeri of Reading is an adjunct professor at Norwich University and a fellow of the Foreign Policy Association. This column first appeared in U.S. News and World Report.MORE IN Perspective
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