- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Most Americans are concerned, worried or frightened. At home, the economic picture is grim, propelled by gasoline at $4.50 a gallon, rapidly escalating food prices, and inflation last month soared by more than 1 percent - a level unseen for nearly two decades. The rescue of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the failure of IndyMac bank reverberated throughout the land reminding us that the housing and sub-prime crises are not over. With stock markets down by a third, retirement nest eggs and personal wealth likewise are taking a pounding.

Abroad, the picture is just as somber. Despite the decrease in violence in Iraq, political stability has not been achieved. Last week, the Kurds stormed out of Parliament in protest. What happens when the United States begins its draw down and restraints are lifted on armed militias is unknowable.

The deaths of nine U.S. servicemen at a forward operating base in eastern Afghanistan and the wounding of 15 - a 50 percent casualty rate for American forces - demonstrated the tenacity of the enemy. Attacks are on the rise. And the Afghan government, beyond blaming Pakistan for contributing to Taliban operations, is still not taking the necessary governance and civil-sector reforms to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a failed state.

Unfortunately, last week’s presidential debate was sidetracked: 1) crude remarks about Barack Obama made by Jesse Jackson, someone whose sell-by date should have expired; 2) comments by former Sen. Phil Gramm, who suggested a mental and not an economic recession was the problem; 3) the unfunny cover of New Yorker magazine portraying Michelle Obama as a feline Black Panther of the 1960s and her husband dressed as a proper Muslim under a portrait of Osama bin Laden hung over a fireplace somewhere in the White House.

A cynic or a realist can claim that this is American presidential politics as usual. Unfortunately, the times are not “as usual.” Put another way, as I wrote in my last book, “America’s Promise Restored,” the nation (and the world) faces an unprecedented number of intractable issues, more or less simultaneously. Each has no obvious or good solution. At the same time, the sheer quantity of these challenges - whether at home from the economy, environment to energy or abroad from al Qaeda to Zimbabwe - has overwhelmed a political process and government that are not merely dysfunctional but also profoundly broken.

But where do the two presidential candidates stand on this mega reality as opposed to individual issues that have been part and parcel of the traditional style of presidential campaigning? The fact is that both are running more or less conventional campaigns at an unconventional time. Hence, the fear and confusion of many Americans about a dramatically changed and not well-understood world remain unaddressed.

This disconnect is underscored by what each candidate views as the most dangerous national security issue. Mr. Obama argues it is terrorists obtaining and detonating a nuclear weapon or device in America. Mr. McCain believes it is defeat in Iraq that will destroy U.S. influence and empower al Qaeda and other radical extremists to carry even bolder forays against the West. Of course, a nuclear detonation in any city would be disastrous.

However, would the consequences be worse than a three to five degree rise or fall in the planet’s climate? Or would a failed Afghanistan and Pakistan invite huge destabilization with more dangerous consequences than defeat in Iraq? And most dangerous scenarios must include a worldwide economic depression, perhaps less far-fetched than a mushroom cloud billowing over an American city.

The point is that the 21st century is a far different era than any we have faced. Call it a paradigm shift, a profound inflection point or a brave new world, the challenges, dangers and opportunities are unlikely to be tackled with the same old traditional toolbox. For one thing, these issues are far more inextricably interrelated whether they are the Siamese twins of energy and environment or the impact of instantaneous, global communications. These concerns can make a small campaign stop in the middle of the proverbial “Nowhere, USA” headline news around the world.

It would be very useful if the two candidates could take time out to reconsider these realities - a respite the public would likely welcome. Conventional campaigns do not fit an unconventional world needing comprehensive, sound solutions. The problem set is vast, much of it interconnected.And our government is broken.

One option is for both Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama to declare a joint time out and halt all campaigning for a week or so to recharge their intellectual batteries, ponder the realities of this era and define an overarching framework and vision for integrating their specific policies. Otherwise, the two will continue to punch and counterpunch - giving the real targets that will shape our future a free pass.

Harlan Ullman is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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