Candidates must move beyond slogans

January 27, 2012


The foreign-policy theme that should dominate this year’s presidential campaign is “American renewal.” Each candidate claims to have a strategy for halting the nation’s decline, but their versions often amount to “more of the same” — which ain’t gonna work.

For a bracing discussion of what a revival of U.S. power would actually require over the next few decades, I recommend a new book called “Strategic Vision,” by Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter. Though he worked for a president who came to symbolize American “malaise” in the late 1970s, Brzezinski has always been on the hawkish, “realist” side of his party, and in this book, he is especially critical of status-quo policies.

A wake-up line in Brzezinski’s book is that there are “alarming similarities” between America today and the Soviet Union just prior to its fall, including a “gridlocked governmental system incapable of enacting serious policy revisions,” a back-breaking military budget, and a failing “decade-long attempt to conquer Afghanistan.”

The gist of Brzezinski’s strategy is that America must become strong enough to act as “a responsible partner to the rising and increasingly assertive East.” He sees a future U.S. role as a “balancer” and “conciliator” among Asian nations that, left to themselves, will get into messy fights.

To achieve this revival, Brzezinski argues that the U.S. needs to work closely with a democratizing Russia and Turkey (assuming they continue on that path) to build what he calls a “larger West.” If the U.S. tries too boldly to go it alone, or too meekly to accommodate the rising powers, it’s headed for trouble.

Here we come to the heart of the political debate in this presidential campaign: What does American “strength” mean in the 21st century? Is it a recovery of the kind of power and prerogative the U.S. had, say, in the Reagan years? Or is it something more aligned with changes in the global balance? Brzezinski would favor the latter, but let’s look at what the candidates are saying.

In every GOP debate, you hear insistent calls for a restoration of American power from the front-runners, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. The specific GOP prescriptions mostly involve muscle-flexing: more military pressure on Iran; more CIA covert action against Iran, Syria and other rivals; tougher trade policies toward China. The implicit theme is that President Obama’s efforts to mend fences with allies and work through the U.N. are signs of weakness — and that a strong America must lead from the front.

The problem with the GOP version is that America is already muscle-bound to a fault, and to exercise power effectively it needs good allies. If Brzezinski is right, and a “larger West” requires cooperation with Russia and Turkey, then some of the GOP rhetoric about exceptionalism is counterproductive — little more than vain boasting. Obama has actually begun the job of cultivating these new partners, with his 2009 “Russia reset” and his patient diplomacy with Turkey.

The GOP candidates sometimes seem disdainful of global realpolitik, and they voice the romantic, go-it-alone ethos of the neoconservative wing of the party. Romney, for example, dismissed the idea of negotiating peace with the Taliban — a position even some of his own advisers reject. On the Middle East, Gingrich disdains the two-state solution that every other major nation (including Israel) favors — calling the Palestinians an “invented” people who, presumably, don’t deserve a state. That kind of rhetoric is so far outside the mainstream that it’s the strategic equivalent of walking off the plank.

 As for Obama’s strategic vision, he talks a better game than he plays. He understands that the U.S. economy needs rebuilding, but despite the ringing agenda he laid out once more in Tuesday’s State of the Union address, he hasn’t enacted the strong policies that would deal with debt, decaying infrastructure and bad public education. Blaming congressional deadlock isn’t a strategy, it’s an excuse. Obama was elected to make government work again. If he can’t do it, someone else should try.

A similar criticism applies to Obama’s foreign policy. He raised hopes at home and abroad because he proposed to resolve festering problems, such as the Palestinian issue. In reality, he flopped. His Afghanistan policy is a muddle, and that’s being charitable. In this campaign, Obama needs to explain how he will lead America past the old slogans and status-quo policies into an era of genuine national revival.

— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. His email is davidignatius@washpost.com.


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 2 months ago

"Obama was elected to make government work again. If he can’t do it, someone else should try."

But in the current two-party system, there is no one out there who would do any better-- to the contrary, unless you're a millionaire or better, all the Republican candidates would make things much, much worse for the vast majority, both in the US and elsewhere.

jafs 6 years, 2 months ago

Also, a president, any president, can't "make government work" - Congress is far more powerful than a president in many ways.

If Congress isn't working, the president can't force them to do so.

jhawkinsf 6 years, 2 months ago

One of the qualities we generally associate with the President of the United States is leadership. Generally, we've come to associate our leaders with the ability to guide Congress according to his vision, or regard him as a failure as a leader. Generally, we've come to expect the President to guide the American people according to his vision, again, that being the attribute of a true leader. Generally speaking, Obama has failed as a leader. He may be a bright person with keen sense of where this country should be headed to. But if he can't get us there, then being bright and having a keen sense of where America should be going doesn't add up to much.
A person with the attributes I just described might be better suited for some other occupation, perhaps a teacher on a college campus somewhere.

jafs 6 years, 2 months ago

Since Congress is made up of a large number of different people, and different political ideologies, I disagree that a president should "guide" Congress.

If Congress is opposed to the president's ideas, then they will oppose them. That's on them, not on him, in my view.

In the past, you've argued that the American public gives a president too much credit and too much blame - that's exactly what I'm saying now - why do you disagree?

Obama would have made an excellent preacher, I think.

jhawkinsf 6 years, 2 months ago

What I said was that leadership was an attribute we usually think of when we think of the President. In that regard, Obama has been a failure.
I don't think I've contradicted my previous statements. Obama's character flaw, (if leadership is necessary and lack of leadership or failure to lead could be called a character flaw), then that's not giving credit or blame, just calling it what it is. Be clear, I'm not saying Obama is a bad person. Just that this might be the case of a bad fit.
The best college professor might not be a good kindergarten teacher. The best preacher might not be a good mayor. The best actor might not be a good musician.

jafs 6 years, 2 months ago

Again, I disagree, on two levels.

I don't expect a president to "guide" Congress, especially if it's composed of many who disagree with his goals/vision.

If he tries, and they resist, that's not his failure, in my view.

We have a clearly conflicted population, with two very differing views of political ideologies - the idea that one man can, simply by virtue of being president, somehow unify those, is unrealistic, especially when the opposing side has made it their goal above all else, to defeat him.

The "failure" here, if there is one, to me lies with that goal. We need politicians who will work for the good of the country rather than simple political advantage.

Those are sorely missing in today's political climate.

None of that is Obama's fault - it's simply the tenor of our times.

jhawkinsf 6 years, 2 months ago

Jafs, I don't see why you don't see that Congress can be led. The fact is, they elect their own leaders, majority and minority. They have party whips, as in whipping them into line. Committee chairs are handed out partly according to seniority and partly according to party loyalty. And each party gives out funds with those most loyal and in need getting priority.
The President is the nominal head of his party. Additionally, he can use his bully pulpit, calling press conferences, giving speeches that will put pressure on Congress to behave in a certain way. It won't work all the time, but it will work sometimes. Presidents have done this since the beginning. Some have been more successful than others. But it's as common as any other political activity in Washington. You may say it's a game, but it's the game they've always played.
Obama is just not playing the game very well. Maybe he thinks it's a silly game. Maybe he thinks we should play a different game. Maybe he wants to change the rules of the game. But the game was well known before he entered office. And we can certainly judge the results.

jafs 6 years, 2 months ago

I have a different idea of what I want in a president than you, or BAA, or many others do, that's all.

And, again, when the opposition party has made it their goal to eliminate the president by opposing all of his initiatives, it's not his fault that they're doing that - it's theirs.

We do live, unfortunately, in a very divided time politically, as BAA points out, and I've said as well. That's not the president's fault, though, as far as I can tell.

Given the vast divide, it's hard to imagine how somebody could bring the two sides together.

Part of the problem is the electorate, who seem to want two conflicting things - they want politicians to work together and solve our problems, but they also want them to be ideologically pure.

Richard Heckler 6 years, 2 months ago

If Obama would use executive signings as Bush did we could put the economy back together. This approach will require back bone. And it could move the wheels much faster.

Pres Obama: We taxpayers own the interstate highway system let's fix it,make it safe and put thousands of taxpayers back to work! Let taxpayers take tax dollars home to pay bills.

Maintaining all of the federal property that taxpayers own makes sense! Let’s put many more thousands of taxpayers back to work. It’s good use of tax dollars.

The following initiatives could get the economy back on the move:

  1. The medical insurance industry does not want the uninsured and senior citizens. Use the executive order privilege to initiate IMPROVED Medicare Single Payer Insurance. Allow we IMPROVED Medicare Single Payer Insurance consumers the right to bring OUR tax dollars home to our respective communities. This will create an estimated 2 million new jobs.

  2. Mandate that all federal government employees be enrolled in IMPROVED Medicare Single Payer insurance as a means of reducing the cost of the federal government substantially.

  3. Sign on to a budget that some democrats put forward in spite of the party of NO aka repubs:

This is the only budget that does everything this country needs: * Reduces Debt by $10 trillion * Creates good-paying jobs * Fully maintains our social safety net * Invests in education * Ends our costly wars * Closes the tax loopholes that have made offshoring jobs profitable * Ends oil and gas subsidies that pollute our country at taxpayer expense * Creates a national infrastructure investment bank to help us make intelligent investments for the future http://cpc.grijalva.house.gov/index.cfm?sectionid=70&sectiontree=5,70

  1. Let’s also get on with this gold mine which could put another 355,000 back to work. It’s called rebuilding economies: http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/renewable_energy_basics/renewing-americas-economy.html

Flap Doodle 6 years, 2 months ago

Where have we seen all this before? Oh, of course, right here on this award-winning website. Many, many, many, many times.

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