- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 16, 2008


The mood of the nation is not a happy one. Better than 80 percent of us, if polls are accurate barometers, believe the country is on the wrong track. The Bush administration admits that Iraq and Afghanistan will require patience, time and considerable resources before stability and real governance take hold. Osama bin Laden is still on the loose, and, while al Qaeda has taken its lumps in Iraq, few believe the danger has passed. According to former Federal Reserve chairmen, the economy has entered a recession that the International Monetary Fund believes will persist for some time.

So what if anything can or should be done in facing up to these realities and addressing with effective solutions the most pressing problems, dangers, uncertainties and threats that lie ahead from possible fiscal and economic storms — to prevailing in the conflicts at hand and preventing new ones from breaking out? Sometimes, solutions are hidden in plain sight. The NATO summit held in Bucharest earlier this month and last week’s congressional testimony on Iraq by Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker provide vivid examples of what is missing yet is readily visible. Neither the NATO alliance nor the U.S. government has a cogent, comprehensive and potentially effective strategy worthy of the name for addressing the major threats, dangers and challenges to be overcome.

Of course, attacking the absence of a “strategy” can be a simplistic and glib attempt for scoring debating points rather than bringing light and substance to bear on the most important issues of the day. NATO will argue that it has a strategy based on consensus, enlargement of the alliance and moving towards more expeditionary capabilities manifested by the deployment of 42,000 troops to Afghanistan. The Bush administration can point to its latest National Security Strategy to make the same case. But Gen. George C. Marshall put this in perspective 70 years ago.

If you start with the right objectives he said, “a lieutenant can write the strategy.” If the objectives are too vague and expansive, almost any strategy fits and will be unlikely to succeed. If objectives are too narrow, strategy deteriorates into grand tactics and almost certainly will fail. At best, NATO’s approach to Afghanistan and the current U.S. plan for Iraq in which “conditions on the ground” will dictate future actions are extensions of grand tactics and not cogent strategies.

How then can this trap be avoided? Virtually every commission and lessons learned study investigating these topics invariably recommended a coherent and well-thought-out strategy as the starting point. But the collective “we” seem studiously able to avoid accepting that wisdom. Perhaps this failing is embedded in the current DNA of our politics, politicians and publics, and may be one price of our democratic system.

So, here is a reasonable suggestion: Every administration will argue that it spent or will spend great effort in compiling its strategy for — and fill in the blanks from — the war on terror to the war on drugs to the war on whatever. But the fact is that politics today operate in an age of instant communications and seemingly infinite opinions transmitted in cyberspace that too often are taken with more than a proverbial grain of salt. The impact may make us incapable of deliberate, careful thought. Why then not give candidates running for president ample time to discuss and debate strategy beginning with a clear-cut statement of aims and objectives to be achieved?

The format cannot be the current debate structure designed for minimum risk to the candidates based largely on “sound bites,” one-liners and the unfortunate dividend of catering to advancing the egos, reputations and earning potential of the media moderators and inquisitors. Instead, change the form and substance of the presidential debates to facilitate a cogent and tough exchange of views.

Consider a three-hour format. For the first two hours, the candidates should debate between themselves without a moderator. Issues would be agreed upon in advance. For the first hour, one candidate would have the lead to initiate the discussion. The other would have the second hour. The third hour would be used to answer questions from an audience rather from the usual media talking heads and would have a moderator. A minimum of two sessions on foreign policy and two on domestic issues to permit ample exchanges of point and counterpoint seems appropriate.

Without in-depth discussion of serious issues, candidates will not be forced to produce complete responses to the most important issues, challenges and dangers facing the nation. One-liners and slogans must be replaced by real debate and longer exchanges that cannot be accomplished in sound bites. Gen. Marshall got it right. Force the candidates to state clearly their policy and strategy aims and the rest will follow.

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