By Harlan Ullman
Albert Einstein’s advice that solutions to tough problems should be made as simple as possible and no simpler applies in part today with the caveat that solutions should also be as bold as possible — but no bolder! Incremental or marginal change to complex, Sisyphean-like problems will almost certainly fail. Boldness counts, knowing that American politics will attack such initiatives as fiercely as a lioness defends her cubs from peril.
War, the famous military strategist Karl Von Clausewitz wrote, was a series of relatively simple activities. Yet, in the fog and friction of war, even the simplest of activities becomes impossible to accomplish. The same phenomenon applies to boldness particularly in the context of American politics.
That said, here are several bold ideas for resolving four complex and seemingly intractable problems on which much of the nation’s future rests. None of these ideas is new to this column. And each must avoid Clausewitz’ aphorism of becoming impossible to achieve.
The U.S. political system is badly broken. One reason is because both political parties are dominated by extremes of the left and right making compromise virtually impossible. Checks and balances, the brilliant experiment created by the Founding Fathers, cannot work under these circumstances. The majority of Americans reflect the center. But, they are unconnected to politics through choice, distaste or lack of access. Hence, tiny extremist minorities dominate. That strangle hold must be broken.
One bold solution is mandatory voting. Many countries employ such a system with obvious exemptions for age, infirmity or other reason. In the U.S., a little more than half of us vote. If that figure were increased to 80 or 90%, the power of the extremes would be reversed. And perhaps the system would return to the balance that we have enjoyed before.
Second, despite the stimulus and other relief packages, the U.S. economy is neither growing sufficiently nor creating enough jobs to close the gigantic debt and unemployment crises threatening the nation. A bold solution is to create an infrastructure bank, perhaps guaranteed by the Export-Import Bank that has this authority, and collateralized by user fees or tolls that will ultimately pay for the construction and repair of bridges, highways and the like. Additionally, new materials that speed construction are less expensive and provide for longer life spans as well as green technologies that will generate power for lighting and other electrical needs can be incentivized.
Third, events in Russia signal a growing hostility to the West and basic democratic values and include the Kremlin’s neuralgia over NATO and American policies from missile defense to dealing with Iran and Afghanistan. The bold idea is reversing these negative trends through imaginative and innovative strategic approaches that can reconcile these divergences. In 1968 and 1969, China was a country convulsed in the madness of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and largely perceived as a permanent enemy of the United States. Yet, only three years later President Richard Nixon went to China and triangular politics was created that in two decades would contribute to the demise of the Soviet Union.
The resulting idea for Russia combines missile defense and Iranian nuclear and missile intent. If Iran can be prevented from achieving those ambitions with certainty, missile defense would become redundant or as an insurance policy for quick deployment if needed. Why not then raise the idea of a grand bargain in which Russia delivers the former and we the latter?
Finally, the Defense Department faces budget cuts that could prove Draconian. Currently directed by the White House, the Pentagon is drafting a strategy that accommodates to $450 billion in reductions over ten years mandated by the budget control act. Should sequestration kick in as the current law directs, another $450 billion reduction will automatically follow. But the Obama administration has told the Pentagon to defer the possible impact of sequestration until after it completes analyzing the effects of the first $450 billion reduction. The unstated reason for deferral is the hope that these cuts will be adjusted or minimized by Congress.
While the political pressures of an election year weigh heavily, the White House order will prove catastrophic when greater reductions follow which they will. The first cuts are largely achievable without collapsing the force. A trillion dollar reduction will require a drastically different approach to avoid a repeat of causing a “hollow force” of the 1970’s or worse.
Miracles can happen. Absent that, common sense vice political maneuvering mandates that the Pentagon at least examines the prospect of a severely reduced budget as a prudent course of action. Most certainly, that will not happen soon.
Politics attempts to suffocate bold thinking. Altering that outcome requires courage and leadership, meaning taking risks. The Special Air Service (SAS) motto is “Who Dares Wins.” But will our leader dare to do so?
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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