Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
Less than six years after 9/11, Washington is as divided and conflicted over foreign policy as it has been at any point in the last 50 years. Senator Arthur Vandenberg once famously declared that "politics stops at the water's edge"; today, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee declares that our major political parties should carry out two separate foreign policies. The Senate unanimously confirmed General David Petraeus, who pledged to implement a new strategy, as the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. Yet just weeks later, the Senate began crafting legislation specifically designed to stop that new strategy. More broadly, lines have been drawn between those labeled "realists" and those labeled "neoconservatives." Yet these terms mean little when even the most committed neoconservative recognizes that any successful policy must be grounded in reality and even the most hardened realist admits that much of the United States' power and influence stems from its values and ideals.
In the midst of these divisions, the American people—and many others around the world—have increasing doubts about the United States' direction and role in the world. Indeed, it seems that concern about Washington's divisiveness and capability to meet today's challenges is the one thing that unites us all. We need new thinking on foreign policy and an overarching strategy that can unite the United States and its allies—not around a particular political camp or foreign policy school but around a shared understanding of how to meet a new generation of challenges.
A GENERATION'S LEGACY OF LEADERSHIP
Today's challenges are daunting. They include the conflict in Iraq, the resurgence of the Taliban, and global terrorist networks made even more menacing by the threat of nuclear proliferation. While Iran's leaders relentlessly pursue nuclear weapons capabilities and spout genocidal threats against Israel, the world largely stands silent, unable to agree on effective sanctions even as each day the danger grows. Genocide ravages Darfur even as the world stands frozen. In Latin America, leaders such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez seek to reverse the spread of freedom and return to failed authoritarian policies. AIDS and potential new pandemics threaten us in an interconnected world. The economic rise of China and other countries across Asia poses a different type of challenge. It is easy to understand why Americans—and many others around the world—feel so much unease and uncertainty. Yet although we face fundamentally different issues today, the United States has a history of rising to meet even greater challenges. Indeed, we need not look to ancient history, but only to the courage and determination of our parents and grandparents to see a stark contrast with the confusion and infighting of Washington today. Just over 60 years ago, we were in the midst of a global war that would take the lives of tens of millions. The outcome was far from certain. General Dwight Eisenhower drafted a short note before the D-day landings at Normandy accepting full responsibility "in case of failure."
The invasion did not fail. Yet no sooner had we defeated fascism than we were engaged in a 50-year struggle with communism. Those whom the journalist Tom Brokaw memorialized as "the greatest generation" made the tough choices that allowed us to prevail in these struggles. And it was not just our Washington leaders who were decisive. In the 1940s, Americans rationed and saved, and mothers and daughters enlisted to work in factories. Together with the GIs who returned home, they built this country's prosperity and fueled a sense of optimism. In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, America pursued learning and innovation to lead the world in space, technology, and productivity—outcompeting the Soviets and driving them to an economic bankruptcy that matched their moral bankruptcy.
In the aftermath of World War II and with the coming of the Cold War, members of "the greatest generation" united America and the free world around shared values and actions that changed history. They unified U.S. military and security efforts, creating the Department of Defense and the National Security Council. They rethought U.S. approaches to the world, building the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, and the Peace Corps. They forged alliances, such as NATO, that magnified the power of freedom and created a world trading system that helped launch the greatest expansion of economic and political freedom and development in history. Our times call for equally bold leadership and for a renewed sense of service and shared sacrifice among Americans and our allies around the world.
A NEW GENERATION OF CHALLENGES
Today, the nation's attention is focused on Iraq. All Americans want U.S. troops to come home as soon as possible. But walking away now or dividing Iraq up into parts and walking away later would present grave risks to the United States and the world. Iran could seize the Shiite south, al Qaeda could dominate the Sunni west, and Kurdish nationalism could destabilize the border with Turkey. A regional conflict could ensue, perhaps even requiring the return of U.S. troops under far worse circumstances. There is no guarantee that the new strategy pursued by General Petraeus will ultimately succeed, but the stakes are too high and the potential fallout too great to deny our military leaders and troops on the ground the resources and the time needed to give it an opportunity to succeed.
Many still fail to comprehend the extent of the threat posed by radical Islam, specifically by those extremists who promote violent jihad against the United States and the universal values Americans espouse. Understandably, the nation tends to focus on Afghanistan and Iraq, where American men and women are dying. We think in terms of countries because countries were our enemies in the last century's great conflicts. The congressional debate in Washington has largely, and myopically, focused on whether troops should be redeployed from Iraq to Afghanistan, as if these were isolated issues. Yet the jihad is much broader than any one nation, or even several nations. It is broader than the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, or that between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Radical Islam has one goal: to replace all modern Islamic states with a worldwide caliphate while destroying the United States and converting all nonbelievers, forcibly if necessary, to Islam. This plan sounds irrational, and it is. But it is no more irrational than the policies pursued by Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s and Stalin's Soviet Union during the Cold War. And the threat is just as real.
In the current conflict, the balance of forces is not nearly as close as during the early days of World War II and at critical points during the Cold War. There is no comparison between the economic, diplomatic, technological, and military resources of the civilized world today and those of the terrorist organizations and states that threaten it. Perhaps most important is the incredible resourcefulness of the American people and their unmatched education, inventiveness, and dedication. But today's threats are fundamentally different from those we grew used to confronting during World War II and the Cold War. Our enemies now have sleeper cells rather than armies. They use indiscriminate terror rather than tanks. Their soldiers—as well as their victims—include children. They count radical clergy among their generals. They communicate via the Internet. They recruit in schools, houses of worship, and prisons. They pursue nuclear weapons not as a strategic deterrent but as an offensive tool of terror.
The jihadist threat is the defining challenge of our generation and is symptomatic of a range of new global realities. It is common to the point of cliché to talk about how much the world has changed since 9/11. Our president led a dramatic response to the events of that day and has taken action to protect the U.S. homeland. Yet if one looks at our tools of national power, what is surprising is not how much has changed since then but how little. While we wage wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. troop levels and our investment in the military as a percentage of GDP remain lower than at any time of major conflict since World War II. Decades after the oil shocks of the 1970s highlighted the United States' vulnerability, we remain dangerously dependent on foreign oil. Many of our instruments of national security were created not only before most Americans had access to the Internet and cell phones but also before they had televisions. Our difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with disturbing gaps in our intelligence, are well known. A growing number of experts question whether we have the capabilities to meet various transnational challenges, ranging from pandemic diseases to international terrorism. And while the United Nations has stood impotent in the face of genocide in Sudan and has been unable to address Iran's rush to build dangerous nuclear capabilities, we have done little more than tweak international alliances and antiquated institutions.
While the difficult struggle in Iraq dominates the political debate, we cannot let current polls and political dynamics drive us to repeat mistakes the United States has made at critical moments of doubt and uncertainty about our role in the world. Twice in the last several decades, following the end of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam and the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, the United States became dangerously unprepared. Today, among our main challenges are an Iranian regime and an al Qaeda network that developed while we let down our defenses. Whether or not the current "surge" in troop levels in Iraq succeeds, the United States and our allies need to be prepared to deal not only with the struggle against jihadists but with a new generation of challenges that go far beyond any single nation or conflict.
We need an honest debate about what policies and what sacrifices will ensure a strong America and a safe world. As President Ronald Reagan once observed, "There have been four wars in my lifetime. None of them came about because the United States was too strong." A strong America requires a strong military and a strong economy. And we need to take further action if we are to remain strong and if we are to build a safe world, with peace, prosperity, freedom, and dignity. Doing so will be controversial, and it will be strongly resisted because it will require dramatic changes to Cold War institutions and approaches. The Cold War is over, and the world that too many of our current capabilities and alliances were created to address no longer exists. We cannot remain mired in the past.
Change is difficult in and of itself. And it is especially hard to summon the will necessary to set a new course in the absence of a clear and convincing crisis. Look at how long it took the U.S. government to confront the reality of jihadism. Extremists bombed our marines in Lebanon. They bombed our embassies in East Africa. They bombed the U.S.S. Cole. They even set off a bomb in the basement of the World Trade Center before we truly saw the threat they posed.
Change will require sacrifice from the American people. But I believe America is ready for the challenge. To meet it, we need to focus on four key pillars of action.
BUILDING U.S. MILITARY AND ECONOMIC STRENGTH
First, we need to increase our investment in national defense. This means adding at least 100,000 troops and making a long-overdue investment in equipment, armament, weapons systems, and strategic defense. The need to support our troops is repeated like a mantra in Washington. Yet little has been said about the commitment of resources needed to make this more than an empty phrase.
After President George H. W. Bush left office, in 1993, the Clinton administration began to dismantle the military, taking advantage of what has been called a "peace dividend" from the end of the Cold War. It took a dividend, but we did not get the peace. It seems that our leaders had come to believe that war and security threats were gone forever; as Charles Krauthammer observed, we took a holiday from history. Meanwhile, we lost about 500,000 military personnel and about $50 billion a year in military spending. The U.S. Army lost four active divisions and two reserve divisions. The U.S. Navy lost almost 80 ships. The U.S. Air Force saw its active personnel decrease by 30 percent. The Marines' personnel dropped by 22,000.
And we purchased only a small fraction of the equipment needed to maintain our strength, living off the assets that had been purchased in prior decades. The equipment and armament gap continues to this day. Even as we have increased defense spending to meet the challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan, our budgets for procurement and modernization have lagged behind. This is a troubling scenario for the future, and it puts our country and our troops—present and future—at risk, as we wring the life out of old and inadequate equipment.
The Bush administration has proposed an increase in defense spending for next year. This is an important first step, but we are going to need at least an additional $30-$40 billion annually over the next several years to modernize our military, fill gaps in troop levels, ease the strain on our National Guard and Reserves, and support our wounded soldiers. Looking at military spending over time as a percentage of GDP provides an interesting perspective. During World War II, the United States made huge sacrifices, investing more than a third of its economic activity to fight the war. As we confronted different enemies, such as those in Korea, our investment in defense responded accordingly. Since then, slowly but surely, it has decreased significantly. Through the buildup under President Reagan, it reached six percent of GDP in 1986 and helped turn the tide against the Soviet Union. Yet during the Clinton years, defense spending was dangerously reduced. More recently, although spending has increased, less than four percent of our GDP has been devoted to baseline defense spending. These ebbs and flows stemming from political dynamics have increased the costs and the uncertainty of our military preparedness.
The next president should commit to spending a minimum of four percent of GDP on national defense. Increased spending should not mean increased waste, however. A team of private-sector leaders and defense experts should carry out a stem-to-stern analysis of military purchasing. Accounts need to be thoroughly scrutinized to eliminate excessive contractor and supplier charges and prevent deals for equipment and programs that do more for politicians' popularity in their home districts than for the nation's protection. Congress needs to set stricter lobbying rules and keep a far more watchful eye on self-serving politicians, current and past, in regard to these matters.
The United States' strength goes beyond its military capacity. Indeed, a nation cannot remain a military superpower if it has a second-tier economy. The weakness of the Soviet economy was a vulnerability that President Reagan exploited. Our ability to influence the world also vitally depends on our ability to maintain our economic lead through policies such as smaller government, lower taxes, better schools and health care, greater investment in technology, and the promotion of free trade, while maintaining the strength of America's families, values, and moral leadership.
Second, the United States must become energy independent. This does not mean no longer importing or using oil. It means making sure that our nation's future will always be in our hands. Our decisions and destiny cannot be bound to the whims of oil-producing states.
We use about 25 percent of the world's oil supply to power our economy, but according to the Department of Energy, we possess only 1.7 percent of the world's crude oil reserves. Our military and economic strength depend on our becoming energy independent—moving past symbolic measures to actually produce as much energy as we use. This could take 20 years or more; and, of course, we would continue to purchase fuel after that time. Yet we would end our strategic vulnerability to oil shutoffs by nations such as Iran, Russia, and Venezuela and stop sending almost $1 billion a day to other oil-producing nations, some of which use the money against us. At the same time, we may well be able to rein in our greenhouse gas emissions.
Energy independence will require technology that allows us to use energy more efficiently in our cars, homes, and businesses. It will also mean increasing our domestic energy production with more drilling offshore and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, more nuclear power, more renewable energy sources, more ethanol, more biodiesel, more solar and wind power, and a fuller exploitation of coal. Shared investments or incentives may be required to develop additional and alternative sources of energy.
We need to initiate a bold, far-reaching research initiative—an energy revolution—that will be our generation's equivalent of the Manhattan Project or the mission to the moon. It will be a mission to create new, economical sources of clean energy and clean ways to use the sources we have now. We will license our technology to other nations, and, of course, we will employ it at home. It will be good for our national defense, it will be good for our foreign policy, and it will be good for our economy. Moreover, even as scientists still debate how much human activity impacts the environment, we can all agree that alternative energy sources will be good for the planet. For any and all of these reasons, the time for energy independence has come.
RETHINKING AND REENERGIZING CIVILIAN CAPABILITIES
Third, we need to dramatically and fundamentally transform our civilian capabilities to promote peace, security, and freedom around the world. After World War II, America created capabilities and structures—such as the National Security Council, the Department of Defense, and the U.S. Agency for International Development—to meet the challenges of a world that was radically different from that of the 1930s. In the Reagan era, the Goldwater-Nichols Act helped tear down bureaucratic boundaries that were undermining our military effectiveness, fostered unified efforts across military services, and established "joint commands," with an individual commander fully responsible for everything going on within his or her geographic region. We need the same level of dramatic rethinking and reform that took place at these critical junctures.
Today, there is no such unity among our international nonmilitary resources. There is no clear leadership and no clear line of authority. Too often, we struggle to integrate our nonmilitary instruments into coherent, timely, and effective operations. For instance, even as we face the need to strengthen the democratic underpinnings of a country such as Lebanon, our resources in education, health, banking, energy, commerce, law enforcement, and diplomacy are spread across separate bureaucracies and are under separate leadership. As a result, we have had to look on as Hezbollah has brought health care and schools to areas of Lebanon. And guess who the people followed when the conflict between Israel and Lebanon broke out last summer? Likewise, the popularity of Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank should be no surprise given that the group has provided Palestinians with the basic services that neither the international community nor the Palestinian government could deliver.
The problem has been just as evident in Iraq. In 2003, while the U.S. military moved in rapid order to topple Saddam Hussein, many of our nonmilitary resources seemed stuck in tar. Then, even as we were taking casualties and spending over $7 billion a month on the war, U.S. civilian authorities were fighting over which agency was going to pay their employees' $11 daily food allowance. In response to these problems, the White House has sought to give to a single individual the authority to oversee all the agencies operating in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet broad interagency challenges remain and continue to stymie our efforts not only in these areas but around the world.
It is time to move beyond the current limited approaches that call for "transformation" and truly transform our interagency and civilian capabilities. We need to fundamentally change the cultures of our civilian agencies and create dynamic, flexible, and task-based approaches that focus on results rather than bureaucracy. We need joint strategies and joint operations that go beyond the Goldwater-Nichols Act to mobilize all areas of our national power. Just as the military has divided the world into regional theaters for all of its branches, the work of our civilian agencies should be organized along common geographic boundaries. For every region, one civilian leader should have authority over and responsibility for all the relevant agencies and departments, similar to the single military commander who heads U.S. Central Command. These new leaders should be heavy hitters, with names that are recognized around the world. They should have independent objectives, budgets, and oversight. Their performance should be evaluated according to their success in promoting America's political, military, diplomatic, and economic interests in their respective regions and building the foundations of freedom, democracy, security, and peace.
REVITALIZING AND STRENGTHENING ALLIANCES
Finally, we need to strengthen old partnerships and alliances and inaugurate new ones to meet twenty-first-century challenges. The inaction, if not the breakdown, of many Cold War institutions has made many Americans skeptical of multilateralism. Nothing shows the failures of the current system more clearly than the UN Human Rights Council, an entity that has condemned the democratic government of Israel nine times while remaining virtually silent on the serial human rights abuses of the governments of Cuba, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, and Sudan. In the face of such hypocrisy, it is understandable that some Americans would be tempted to favor unilateralism. But such failures should not obscure the fact that the United States' strength is amplified when it is combined with the strength of other nations. Whether diplomatically, militarily, or economically, the United States is stronger when its friends stand alongside it.
In the changing world we face, our alliances and engagement must change, too. Clearly, the United Nations has not been able to fulfill its founding purpose of providing collective security against aggression and genocide. Thus, we need to continue to push for reform of the organization. Yet where institutions are fundamentally incapable of meeting a new generation of challenges, the United States does not have to go it alone. Instead, we must examine where existing alliances can be strengthened and reinvigorated and where new alliances need to be forged. I agree with former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar that we should build on the NATO alliance to defeat radical Islam. We need to work with our allies to pursue Aznar's call for greater coordination in military, homeland security, and nonproliferation efforts.
The challenges we now face—especially terrorism, genocide, and the spread of weapons of mass destruction—require global networks of intelligence and law enforcement. We should also look for new ways to strengthen regional cooperation and security partnerships with responsible actors in order to confront challenges such as the genocide in Darfur. And if the UN Human Rights Council continues to be inactive or behave hypocritically, we should unite with nations that share our commitment to defending human rights in order to promote change.
In no area is our leadership more important and more urgently needed than the Islamic world. Today, the Middle East is facing a demographic crisis: over half the population there is under 22 years old, and the GDP of all Arab nations put together remains lower than that of Spain. A growing population and a lack of jobs create fertile ground for radical Islam. The Marshall Plan showed our deep understanding that winning the Cold War would depend on far more than the strength of our military. The situation we face today is dramatically different from the one we faced in the wake of World War II. Yet it requires the same type of political attention and resolve we exhibited then. Today, thousands of Americans, such as former Senator Bill Frist, are helping to alleviate problems in the vulnerable parts of Africa and the Middle East, showing that we are a compassionate people. And other leaders in this effort, such as the musician Bono, have highlighted the need to address problems far from one's borders in today's interconnected world. Recent government efforts such as the Middle East Partnership Initiative, the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative of the G-8, and the Forum for the Future are a start, but they have garnered nowhere near the degree of attention, resources, and commitment necessary to address such serious problems.
If elected, one of my first acts as president would be to call for a summit of nations to address these issues. In addition to the United States, the countries convened would include other leading developed nations and moderate Muslim states. The objective of the summit would be to create a worldwide strategy to support moderate Muslims in their effort to defeat radical and violent Islam. I envision that the summit would lead to the creation of a Partnership for Prosperity and Progress: a coalition of states that would assemble resources from developed nations and use them to support public schools (not Wahhabi madrasahs), microcredit and banking, the rule of law, human rights, basic health care, and free-market policies in modernizing Islamic states. These resources would be drawn from public and private institutions and from volunteers and nongovernmental organizations.
A critical part of this effort would involve creating new trade and economic opportunities for the Middle East that could be powerful forces, not only economically, but also in breaking down barriers to cooperation on even the most intractable problems. Muslim countries pursuing free-trade agreements with the United States, for example, have dismantled all aspects of the Arab League's boycott of Israel. The power of trade to break down barriers and build ties is also seen in the Qualified Industrial Zone program that grants U.S. free-trade benefits to Egyptian products that incorporate materials from Israel. When the program was first suggested, some Egyptian officials balked, saying that trade with Israel would spark protests. When the program was launched, there were indeed protests—from Egyptians who were excluded from the program and wanted to participate.
Congress must give the president the authority to move forward with these efforts so that we can expand and integrate our existing free-trade agreements in the region. A critical part of the economic resurgence and peace of postwar Europe was the United States' support for a unified market and U.S. engagement in cross-country ties. Today, we must push for more integration and cross-border cooperation in the Middle East. As a group of experts working on the Princeton Project on National Security noted recently, "The history of Europe since 1945 tells us that institutions can play a constructive role in building a framework for cooperation, channeling nationalist sentiments in a positive direction, and fostering economic development and liberalization. Yet the Middle East is one of the least institutionalized regions in the world."
Few would have thought before 1945 that the war-torn and divided nations of Europe could achieve the stability and economic growth that these states know today. Some have called for developing in the Middle East a regional organization based on the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which would build cooperation and encourage political, economic, and security reforms and integration. How these efforts would be institutionalized is a question that we must address in partnership with our friends in the region and key allies. Yet we cannot wait to address this problem.
Merely closing our eyes and hoping that jihadism will go away is not an acceptable solution. U.S. military action alone cannot change the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions of Muslims. In the end, only Muslims themselves can defeat the violent radicals. But we must work with them. The consequences of ignoring this challenge—such as a radicalized Islamic actor possessing nuclear weapons—are simply unacceptable.
The new generation of challenges we face may seem daunting. Yet confronting challenges has always made the United States stronger. The confusion and pessimism that prevail in Washington today in no way reflect the United States' legacy or underlying strengths. I believe our current generation can match the courage, dedication, and vision of "the greatest generation." I recently had the privilege of spending some time with Shimon Peres, the former prime minister of Israel. Someone asked him about the conflict in Iraq, and he said, "You need to put this in context. America is unique in the history of the world. During this last century, there was only one nation that laid down hundreds of thousands of lives of its own sons and daughters and asked for nothing for itself." He explained that in the history of the world, whenever there has been a war, winning nations have taken the land of losing ones. "America is unique," he added. "You took no land from the Germans, no land from the Japanese. All you asked for was enough land to bury your dead."
We are a unique nation, and there is no substitute for our leadership. The difficulties we face in Iraq should neither cause us to lose faith in the United States' strength and role in the world nor blind us to the new challenges we face. Our future and that of generations to come depend on our resolve to move beyond the divisiveness in Washington today and unite America and our allies to confront a new generation of global challenges.