By Harlan Ullman
In the late 1930’s with the economy still depressed and the march to world war seemingly irreversible, the great American humorist Will Rogers offered his solution to the dire times. Stupidity got us into this mess he observed and perhaps stupidity is the only way out! Taking his wisdom to heart, solutions that conventional wisdom currently calls stupid might extricate the United States from the series of messes in which it is stuck today.
Pakistan, Israel and the economy are illustrative cases for the application of stupidity as the solution. The high level American delegation led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that visited Islamabad last week in hopes of resetting the strategic dialogue delivered a stern warning, nee ultimatum. Get the Haqqani network to the negotiating table and the peace process or stand aside and we will deal with these insurgents the old fashion way—with Drones and if need be ground forces. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s leaders and public were selective in hearing these messages.
Believing that the United States needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs America to win the war on terror and achieve stability in Afghanistan, the presence of such a strong American contingent was proof of that conviction to most Pakistanis and the ultimatum was ignored or simply went unregistered. The Pakistani media was upbeat as well along with several important newsletters and analyses written by respected and usually well-informed individuals. But let there be no doubt: the United States will not tolerate its military in Afghanistan being targeted and attacked by anyone especially the Haqqani network. And as 2014 and withdrawal of all foreign forces draws closer, the strategy will put greater pressure on Taliban of all stripes either to force a negotiation or attrite so many that the surviving government in Kabul will have sufficient security personnel to maintain order and a measure of stability.
A collision between the United States and Pakistan is probably inevitable with consequences that will be unhelpful at best and very likely will provoke further confrontations. The stupid solution is to look east towards India and not west towards Afghanistan. Relieving the Indo-Pak rivalry should become the highest priority for regional stability. Pakistan is paranoid about its giant neighbor with substantial forces stationed in proximity to that border. A rapprochement will not guarantee success in Afghanistan. It will however have hugely positive impact in Pakistan and India and hence in Afghanistan.
The second case is Israel. Thanks to an intensive lobbying and public relations campaign matched perhaps only by the National Rifle Association, Israel has remained a close and highly if not overly influential ally. Even the slightest criticism generates intense blow back and charges ranging from anti-Semitism to accusations of some critics being self-hating Jews. Yet, resolving or ameliorating the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be the surest means of cutting the heart out of Muslim extremism and Jihad. That argues for a stupid solution of making resolution of this conflict among the highest of American priorities to the point of calling for even handed treatment for all the parties concerned. The death of Saudi Crown Prince Sultan last week and the selection of the new king in waiting might even be helpful to sparking negotiations.
Last is the economy. The stupid solution of course would be for Congress to act responsibly. Having shunted that responsibility to the super committee of 12—and from all accounts that group appears as deadlocked as Congress over spending cuts and tax increases—the legislature remains missing in action. One solution, as argued in this column before, is to create an infrastructure bank with loan guarantees in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
America’s infrastructure is collapsing. The Economist recently ran a piece comparing national infrastructures. The United States came out on the bottom—not quite a third world country and certainly not a first.
Such a bank cannot be smartly run by the federal government. That would be really stupid. A combination of state-private partnerships in which tolls and user fees would make the enterprises financially attractive and create large numbers of new jobs is essential. And the government also should dispose more quickly of many of its properties and buildings to the private sector through long-term loans or financing that will bring in revenues as well as help reduce unemployment by creating construction jobs.
None of these ideas will likely find traction. Problems and crisis spots from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe are only likely to grow. While President Barack Obama and his administration will take credit for the death of Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi and the end of that regime, as in Iraq following Saddam Hussein’s execution, things may not turn out as we would like.
Hence, Will Rogers’ solution might work and stupidity may indeed be the only way out of these messes.
Harlan Ullman is Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business and Senior Advisor at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council.
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