- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2008




Presidents and presidents-elect are not known for their correspondence or collusions with Santa Claus. Still, it would be intriguing to learn what the nation’s 44th president, Barack Obama, wishes for in the nation’s stocking or under the National Christmas Tree in front of the White House come dawn tomorrow.

Peace on Earth, goodwill to all and speedy reversals of economic misfortune are very desirable. But fantasies aside, and armed with the knowledge that neither the grim economic conditions nor the array of intractable problems and crises facing the nation can be quickly or easily fixed, here is what Santa can do to make the future of America much brighter in filling our wish lists.

First on this wish list should be the institutionalizing of a permanent understanding of history and the realization that all enemies are not created equal at the highest levels of government. Second is giving the new administration the ability to function as a team for the good of the nation and not be deadlocked or divided by continuing struggles over turf and power as has been the case for too many years. And third is the implementation of programs and policies for governance that are factually and logically - and not ideologically - based in both the White House and Congress.

Every time America is unmindful or ignorant of history, we fail and fall into deep traps from which extrication drains our will, resources and international standing. Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan are cases in point. In Vietnam, we completely underestimated the will of the enemy and overestimated the intent of Red China and the Soviet Union to intervene. In our rush to avenge September 11 and then to defang and dethrone Saddam Hussein, we dismissed the postwar necessities of putting in place functioning governments as we had done so successfully in Germany and Japan after World War II.

In waging the war on terror - a term the Obama administration would be wise to jettison immediately after it takes office on Jan. 20 - we forgot that all enemies are not equal. Religious extremists and groups that support extremism are not states; do not have armies, navies and air forces; and exploit both the strengths and weaknesses of societies through a mixture of terror, ideology and message. We have overly relied on military force to kill, capture or neutralize these adversaries and to accomplish the nation-building that rightly should be done by civilian agencies. And despite acceptance of the need to expand these civilian capacities, little has been done so far to take serious corrective action.

No. 2 is the wish that the Obama administration avoids the pitfalls of all recent presidencies and functions as a team working together for the national good and not be caught up in endless turf and policy battles. Mr. Obama’s appointments so far have been largely well received and in some ways were stunning. Joe Biden is a highly experienced vice president. Controversy over Hillary Clinton’s nomination as secretary of state was inevitable but does not diminish her intellect and skills. The appointments of Gen. James Jones as national security adviser, Tim Geithner as treasury secretary and Nobel Prize winner Steven Chu for energy, and the reappointment of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, garnered praise.

But eight years ago, George W. Bush’s team was reviewed as even better than JFK’s best and brightest. Yet Vice President Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice far from bonded, and highly touted Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill quickly proved to be out of step. With the departures of Mr. Powell in January 2005 and Mr. Rumsfeld a year-and-a-half later, the infighting more or less ended. By then, the damage had been done.

Last is the wish for a fact- and logic-based set of policies rather than those driven by ideology and instinct. The Bush administration was too faith-based, dependent on the spread of democracy as the foundation for foreign policy and infatuated with supply-side economics without addressing the downsides. And Congress was and remains too infected by excessive partisanship and a campaign mentality that often drive politics to place re-election above providing good government.

The first gift from Santa is to instill in the president the abilities to demand and achieve discipline in his administration. Disputes and disagreements are inevitable. However, crisp decisions and faithful execution are essential to success.

Second is the gift throughout government of dissecting problems analytically, rigorously and objectively along with crafting credible messages that make the best case for policy.

Third is the most precious gift of all - the courage to tell the truth and confront all issues directly and non-ideologically, allowing facts, not opinions, to be the basis for sound judgment. Let us hope when the nation awakens tomorrow morning, Santa will have been generous to us all.

Harlan Ullman is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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