BACKBONE NEEDED NOW

By Harlan Ullman

Resurrection is a popular metaphor often promiscuously applied to fallen or disgraced athletes, politicians, celebrities and, of course, religion.  But fewer entities are more in need of resurrection than the governance of the United States. To be fair, the pernicious state of politics in Washington could make this a fool’s errand as Republicans and Democrats on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are currently incapable of agreeing on specific actions and plans to address what most threatens and challenges the nation.

That said, aside from hoping to win both houses of Congress in 2014—and misplaced hope is not far from delusion—the Obama administration seems content with the status quo and unwilling to reassess its assumptions and visions about the United States and the safety and security of its citizens at home and abroad.  Miniscule economic growth and signs of tepid improvement in employment figures justify its monetary and fiscal policies.  While the international scene is fraught with crises and potential powder kegs, muddling through seems to be the safe route.

Perhaps the White House will be proven correct in taking minimalist positions.  Do no harm or do least harm extends beyond the practice of medicine. Yet, the absence of ideas and courage to create and exploit opportunities in these difficult and dangerous times, while understandable, is inexcusable.

The next two columns will advance ideas for a better way of governing that is desperately needed internationally and domestically.  That will require challenging basic assumptions regarding current policies and having the political courage to act on those critiques. And the greatest flaw in these assumptions is a persistent dose of cultural arrogance that has infected and continues to infect government.

The first flawed policy assumption is that the United States is the sole remaining superpower whose democratic ideals and accomplishments have near universal application.  The next two assumptions are corollaries of the first, namely that America is capable of understanding what needs to be done abroad and what is best for other states particularly those with failed and failing government. And last is that Washington knows best when it comes to providing Americans good government.

Embrace of the notion of sole remaining superpower is as destructive as was the ill-advised “war on terror.” It implies the ability and resources to do virtually whatever the nation chooses to undertake and subliminally subordinates other states to American “unilateralism.”  Further it subjects America to the charge of “hypocrisy.”  Hypocrisy is be no means fatal—the U.S. Congress and many politicians thrive on it. Congressional action to insulate air traffic controllers from budget sequestration so as to assure members uninterrupted travel service to home districts (while allowing sequestration to begin decaying the readiness of its military) is one of many examples of hypocrisy.

As dangerous is the theological desire to make democracy and democratic values crucial criteria in advancing foreign policy especially when undue focus is placed on elections and the ballot box, not good governance under the rule of law.  Humility and circumspection are better advised.  Events in Egypt dramatize these flaws as the duly elected Morsi government was overthrown by a second popular revolution (in keeping with our own Declaration of Independence).

Second, the disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrate that America does not know what is best for other states—a lesson learned and forgotten long ago in Vietnam.

Third, Washington is fixated on social issues rather than on good governance. Guns, Gays, God and Gestation periods, driven by powerful interest groups, trump the well-being of Americans from education to the environment to the economy as imperatives heading the current (and wrong headed) political agenda.

Each of these assumptions harms not advances American interests.  The rational conclusion for any White House would be to make providing good governance its overriding criterion.  That flies in the face of small but influential interest group constituencies, the thrall and necessity of campaign financing and the incestuous relationships among the political classes above all to retain power.  Overcoming these realities will be seen as a political form of hari-kari. Still, profiles in courage have never been needed more.

In terms of foreign policy, the term “sole remaining superpower” must be eliminated from the lexicon and, as George W. Bush promised and failed to deliver, humility must help shape policies. At home, the White House needs to understand that while individuals are entitled to their own opinions, they are not entitled to their own facts.  This calls for objectivity and truthfulness in laying out the rationale, facts and evidence to support positions—and not manufactured figures or arguments that are untruthful or espouse ideological preferences not reality.

Broken government will not be easily repaired.  Repair requires Americans to demand better government. But a start is vital.  A little backbone is long overdue.

Harlan Ullman is Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business and Senior Advisor at Washington DC’s Atlantic Council.  

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