- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 6, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

This column was put to bed well before the votes of yesterday’s Tsunami Tuesday were counted. Lacking the courage, audacity or insight to predict the likely winners and losers, it struck me as more helpful to pose a few questions for readers to ponder as they decide on their choice for president. Unfortunately, none of these questions is likely to be part of the coming major debates, in large measure because reporters and journalists who become the public’s de facto interrogators are usually neither trained nor asked to raise them.

As the economy is currently the number one issue, let’s start there. Looming is the specter of a serious economic contraction in the form of the dreaded “R” word of recession. However, has anyone asked what exactly that word means instead of implicitly confusing it with the “D” word for depression and images of the 1930s, when America and much of the world were in dire economic shape? Economists define recession as two or more quarters of flat or declining economic growth. That hardly need be catastrophic. Why then the sense of panic — another question that begs an answer.

Of course, no candidate can turn a blind eye to the hundreds of thousands or millions of American families caught in the sub-prime mortgage crunch. Nor can any candidate ignore a large drop in the stock market because, given the magnitude of retirement and pension fund holdings, the bulk of American workers and not only those prosperous enough to invest in equities are adversely affected. But to steal John McCain’s call for “straight talk,” some economic straight talk is sorely needed.

Second, with the exception of Ron Paul, who advocates American retrenchment abroad, each of the other candidates generally takes a pro-democracy stance whether or not couched in the code words of advancing human rights or more aggressively as President Bush has done in spreading democracy as the means for winning the global war on terror. Advancing democracy is viewed by many as one of America’s principal contributions to a world filled with conflict, despair, inequality and instability. Yet, does anyone recall where, when and how this notion started or indeed how many times the word “democracy” is mentioned in either the Declaration of Independence or Constitution? The answer is “zero.”

For those Republicans favoring the appointment of Supreme Court judges who are strict constitutionalists, it is consistent if not fair to ask why such a constructionalist interpretation should not be applied to ending the spread of democracy as a national mission because it lacks a constitutional basis. And to Democrats who see this a raison d’etat for American foreign policy, we need answers as to why this is not a prescription for future Vietnamese or conceivably Iraqi quagmires.

Third, over the past year to 15 months, how much money will Congress have appropriated for defense and the Afghan and Iraqi wars? The answer is about $850 billion — $450 billion for the Pentagon budget and the rest in two supplemental appropriations.That is about 6 percent of a roughly $14 trillion gross domestic product, surely economically sustainable. But whether that amount can survive the political realities of defense claiming the lion’s share of all of the nation’s discretionary spending indefinitely is the question that confronts the Pentagon with dire consequence.

This question leads to a fourth. Iraq, now entering the fifth year of war, Afghanistan in its seventh and other commitments are eroding if not crippling American military power. While the drawdown of the “surged” force in Iraq will slightly relax the pressure to which the military is stretched, continued deployment of 130,000 troops will still exact a huge toll.

We could get to the point, and some including me believe we are there, where continued long-term presence at these levels in Iraq could reduce the U.S. military to a “hollow force” reminiscent of the post-Vietnam War. If this is happening, and some will argue it is not, should we be faced with the choice of staying in Iraq with 130,000 or so troops or eviscerating our military? Do we put the future of Iraq ahead of the future of our armed forces? One would hope that this question will be put to the candidates.

Finally, and this is not an academic or trick question: Since great attention has rightly been placed on the future of Pakistan, a country many believe is potentially the most dangerous in the world should radicals provoke a civil war or worse orchestrate a coup, how much do the candidates really know and understand about the region? Our knowledge and understanding of other cultures and societies have been notorious Achilles heels. Hence, pray tell, what is the provenance of the name Pakistan and what should that inform us? First one in might get my vote.

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