- - Monday, May 18, 2015


From al Qaeda to the Islamic State, we have learned to kill enemy leaders but not much else about basic issues of war and peace. Just last week, the media diverted attention from the scandals of Our Lady of Perpetual Ambition Hillary Rodham Clinton by asking Jeb Bush some really hard questions. Would he have done the Iraq War the same way as his brother — or at all?

The subsequent fumbling and tap-dancing recalled an earlier time when Roger Mudd of NBC News asked presumptive White House heir-apparent Edward Kennedy, “Senator, why do you want to be president?” But neither Ted Kennedy nor Jeb Bush were prepared for those painfully obvious questions.

So have we really learned our lessons — or only identified them? A broad hint is contained in “The Water Diviner,” Russell Crowe’s new movie about Gallipoli — a World War I disaster where arrogance outweighed strategy and all common sense. A hard-bitten Turkish sergeant ruefully tells Russell Crowe’s character, “Never invade a country when you don’t even know where it is.”

Always a basic presidential qualification, leadership on national defense is becoming more urgent. After last weekend’s attack on the Islamic State, or ISIS, assume that the 2016 campaign may be defined by an American security crisis, either another Sept. 11 or a provocative challenge abroad. David Rothkopf, Democratic scion and author of “National Insecurity,” argues that we have become a “bipolar superpower,” plagued by both the overreach of George W. Bush and the underreach of Barack Obama. How can our adversaries — from ISIS to peer competitors — fail to challenge this provocative erosion of American will? Or an aging military establishment last modernized under Ronald Reagan?

The key to the 2016 campaign and possibly much else: Re-establishing a bipartisan consensus on national defense. Among those bedrock principles:

• Rediscovering American roots: Ronald Reagan’s highly successful diplomacy has recently been rediscovered by Henry Nau, dean of George Washington University’s Elliott School. In “Conservative Internationalism,” Mr. Nau argues that Reagan’s principles endure because they resonate deeply in American history and on both sides of the aisle. His core ideals: the disciplined defense of freedom; the integration of force, diplomacy and free markets; and pursuing “armed diplomacy” through a decentralized world system rather than centralized kleptocracies such as the United Nations. Reagan’s basic strategic premise — “Always trust the people to determine the limits of both freedom and force” — is how we avoid either overreaching or underwhelming.

• Renewing American institutions: Voters cheer whenever politicians promise to abolish the Internal Revenue Service or clean out the Stalinist rear guard at the Department of Veterans Affairs. But every wave of reform seems to leave the bureaucrats more entrenched than ever, like burrowing beetles left over from Jurassic Park. The new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Republican Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, is the latest reformer to shoulder the thankless task of streamlining defense procurement, a chore he shrewdly began by creating a bipartisan consensus of experts. Whatever their ideological differences, those experts understand that red tape costs tax dollars, slows innovation and shelters bureaucrats. If you want to restore the high-tech American combat edge, then begin by unshackling the innovators. But if you want to build a lasting consensus on defense, then make slashing the federal bureaucracy an ongoing national priority. Stop only after Washington real estate prices plummet and D.C. traffic jams fade into history.

• Righting a generational wrong: With debt levels rising and student test scores declining, Americans are fast becoming a spoiled people. Our enemies mock our worst failing: For a generation we have fought our wars with less than 1 percent of our people answering the call to the colors. We glory in our volunteer forces even when that small band of brothers and sisters must return to the fight over and over — as they did again last weekend. How many times did his inattentive countrymen ask Navy SEAL Chris Kyle to put his life on the line?

Because it is politically incorrect, leaders of both parties refuse to recognize this obvious truth. Imagine if Jeb Bush had answered: “What we didn’t do well after Sept. 11 was recognizing the need to mobilize the American people. Why were we fighting at all, much less in far-off hellholes, if the sons and daughters of the powerful wouldn’t serve alongside kids who will never attend Harvard? Doesn’t Great Britain’s royal family send even its princes to war?”

Bottom line: We need to explore a comprehensive 21st-century system of national service tied to earned educational benefits. Our best young people should be encouraged to go the extra mile, volunteering for reserve duty at home or active duty abroad. The overriding objective: Showing society’s future leaders that either in deterring wars or fighting them, shared sacrifice is the only predictable outcome.

Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel, is a military analyst and author on national-security issues.

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