Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

22 January 2007

What Politicians Do When Reality Intervenes

Politicians work in two ways. Some find a solution to a real problem and use their charisma and political skill to sell their solution to the people. Some take a different tack. They figure out what they can sell, call it a “solution,” and implement it, whether it works or not.

The second approach is easier than the first. The people may be unaware or skeptical of a real problem. Or a real solution may require real sacrifice and pain, creating political resistance from one group or another. In that case it takes more brains, guts, charisma and political skill—i.e., leadership—to “sell” a real solution than to mediate a compromise, declare victory and follow the herd.

The classic example of the preferred approach is Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s leadership before and during World War II. For nearly six years before the war, he worked ceaselessly to rouse the Congress and the people from their isolationist slumber. He managed to help keep Britain afloat through his Lend-Lease program and other temporizing measures despite fierce opposition from a determined Congress and the popular notion that “that war in Europe” would never come to our shores. After 1939, he even managed to start wartime mobilization on the sly.

Yet despite Roosevelt’s legendary political skill, he did not really succeed in rousing Americans until after Pearl Harbor. Based on that fact, some believe he deliberately encouraged lax preparedness by our Navy, in the hope that a sneak attack (which he allegedly thought would be far less devastating than it actually was) would jar us awake.

We do not know how true that claim was. Roosevelt’s political enemies here at home, not his supporters, made it. But even if it were true, such a draconian political tactic may have been necessary. Pearl Harbor got our nation fully committed to the war as nothing else had—not Nazi or Japanese atrocities, the sinking of our ships at sea, or the fall of most of Europe and Asia. Toward the end of the war, the Nazis were about eighteen months away from having the atomic bomb. Had we entered the war two years later, the world might now be a far, far darker place, and we might have lost our Republic. When I was a youth hitchhiking in Europe, a German truck driver who picked me up described in detail his training as a paratrooper, during the war, to invade the United States.

Now contrast what our current president did in Iraq. If you take him at his word, he believes that “success” in Iraq is vital our national security, if not our national survival. He says he thought so before the invasion as well. So Bush apparently thought and thinks that the war in Iraq is as important to our national security as Franklin Roosevelt thought our entry into World War II was from 1936 to 1942.

But what solution did the two leaders “sell” to the American people? By the end of World War II the United States had 5 million troops under arms; in 1944 it produced more than 8,000 aircraft per month. I won’t even mention the Manhattan Project that built the atomic bomb or our rapid invention of synthetic rubber to compensate for the Japanese occupation of Malaysia’s rubber fields.

Today we have a population over twice as large as during World War II and a mighty military-industrial complex that only began in World War II. Yet our response to the so-called “existential threat” in Iraq has been pathetic. We have about a tenth as many troops under arms as we had 62 years ago and less than 150,000 in the theater of conflict. We can’t even armor a few thousand Humvees or provide body armor for all our troops. And we haven’t even begun to think about a buildup of unmanned, conventional air power that might help us realize legitimate foreign-policy goals in the region without so many casualties and so much destruction.

Colin Powell sent half a million troops to Iraq in Gulf I, when taking Baghdad was not on the agenda and only Kuwait was at stake. Bush’s generals told him that succeeding in the current war would require at least twice the number of troops we have ever had on the ground there. Did Bush follow their advice? No. He knew that fielding those troops would require reinstating the draft or busting the budget with new incentives for a volunteer army. Training additional troops also would take time. So he “shopped” his generals, bought Donald Rumsfeld’s pipe dream, and sent an inadequate force to perform an ill-defined mission. He based his “solution” to this putatively vital real problem on what he thought he could deliver politically.

Future historians will forever scratch their heads as they contemplate the vast gulf between the “threat” that Bush says he sees and the response of our great nation to it. Only a solution based on domestic politics, not the alleged reality of the threat, can explain the difference. The only other explanation is a president who doesn’t really believe the threat himself and is using it cynically to manipulate the nation for domestic political benefit. Even the president’s worst enemies have trouble believing that scenario, as least as concerns the war in Iraq. Much more likely, the president is just a lazy politician who tries to solve problems that he sees as real the second way.

The president’s current call for a “surge” is much the same. Does anyone really think that increasing our troop level by fifteen percent is going to make a difference when it’s been low by a factor of two (100%) since the very beginning? Yet the “surge” will make a big difference to the troops going in to “secure” Baghdad. If current trends are any indication, they will be marching to meet death squads without adequate political cover, without a clear chain of command, and without clear and effective rules of engagement. They will be surrounded by Iraqi troops whose training and loyalty are questionable at best. In other words, they will be going into a meat grinder, with only a small chance of success. If our soldiers and marines feared “fragging” by their own comrades in Vietnam, you can imagine how their successors will feel today, entering Baghdad surrounded by ill-trained Iraqis who might themselves be members of death squads or their sympathizers.

No one in his right mind could think this approach has a reasonable, let alone good, chance for success. So why is the president doing it? Because it is what the nation’s generally low level of force preparedness, its current political mood, and the state of our exhausted and overstretched armed forces allow. The president is prescribing what he thinks opposing forces in government and the military will grudgingly accept, calling it a “solution,” and sending our “surge” troops into the maelstrom. He is letting domestic politics and a bit of Iraqi politics prescribe the “solution” for his own losing war.

Tragically, our defeat in Vietnam had a similar origin. Lyndon Johnson was a skilled American politician, well versed in persuading, cajoling and (if necessary) blackmailing his colleagues in Congress to do what he thought was right. Several times in the depths of the war, he wondered out loud why he couldn’t deal with Ho Chi Minh like an American pol. But Ho Chi Minh was not an American pol. He was a skilled and resourceful foreign leader totally determined to realize a decades-old dream of freeing all of Vietnam from foreign domination. He was willing to sacrifice millions of his people to do so. Johnson’s “solution” to the war—continual escalation as a source of political pressure—was ineffective, and we lost. Ho Chi Minh was not about to compromise like an American pol.

Otto von Bismarck once remarked that “politics is the art of the possible.” He meant that, when people disagree, you can only compromise so far. To the extent stakeholders have differing interests, a political “solution” lies on the middle ground. In current parlance, reaching that kind of solution requires “triangulation.”

That may be true when compromising abstract human interests. But a solution has to be more exacting when external reality intervenes. When events external to the relevant political “universe”—in this case domestic politics—make demands that cannot be ignored, a political compromise will seldom be enough.

Katrina was another example. After decades of Bismarckian political compromises over short funding, New Orleans’ levees were ready to withstand hurricanes of Category 3. There were several Category 4s and 5s that season, and Katrina was a Category 4. The political compromise did not provide a real solution to the real-world problem of increasingly severe storms, and New Orleans died.

The Department of Homeland security likewise was a creature of political compromise, in both its existence and organization. That political compromise hollowed out the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and gave it Michael Brown as a leader, who was clueless in disaster response. We all know the result: an embarrassing debacle that shamed us before the world.

But the story is still not over. Not only is the debacle of homeless refugees still ongoing; the future also looks grim. The levees failed and killed New Orleans because they were not strong enough. So what did the Administration do? It built them back up to the same level that killed New Orleans in the first place (able to withstand only hurricanes up to Category 3). It did so although hurricanes of Categories 4 and 5 are known to have become increasingly numerous and, due to global warming, may increase in number still further in the future. Once again, political compromise, not a real-world solution, determined the levees’ strength.

If a Category 4 or 5 wipes New Orleans off the map again—this time no doubt permanently—it will do so because nature—a force external to our political system—doesn’t always respect the art of the possible among humankind. Neither do implacable enemies like al-Qaeda.

There are still other examples. Rejecting the Kyoto Protocol, bad-mouthing China and India, and making token gestures at increasing automobile economy and encouraging alternative fuels does not solve the problem of global warming. But those tactics do make it easier to achieve “consensus” among auto manufacturers, energy producers, and a public that (having been fed the Administration’s own propaganda for six years) is largely selfish and clueless on this issue.

I could go on and on, but I’ll stop here. During the past six years, we’ve gotten the kind of problem-solving we deserve. We elected a back-slapper and marketer of grand, utopian visions as our president, not once but twice. On every important issue from Iraq to social security, the president has demonstrated his inability to conceive or sell real solutions and a willingness to accept whatever half-baked “solution” he can sell.

We now have two years to reconsider our approach to electing leaders.

A well-known prayer may show us the way. It asks God to “help me change what I can, accept what I can’t change, and give me the wisdom to distinguish between the two.” Our nation’s political prayer should be similar: “Help us find leaders with the skill to solve political problems by compromising conflicting interests, the brains to find real solutions to real-world problems, and the wisdom to distinguish between the two.”

We’ll all need to say that prayer, for finding leaders with those qualities will not be easy. The present front-runners for president in 2008 are all from Congress. They all have shown the ability to compromise, for that is what Congress does. But few have demonstrated the ability to find a difficult solution to a real-world problem and sell it to a recalcitrant Congress and an uncomprehending public.

Much the same is true of the governors who are running. Unlike members of Congress, governors are executives. But they don’t make foreign policy, and they don’t fight wars. Most of what they do from day to day involves compromising competing interests for scarce resources: money, land, and the environment. Occasionally, an accident or natural disaster requires them to solve a real-world problem. But no one from Louisiana or Mississippi is running, nor would anyone from those states have a chance of winning on the present record.

Rudy Giuliani, although only a mayor, is the only candidate who can claim to have passed this test. His response to September 11 showed good leadership of a shocked, united and unanimous public in a short time of crisis. He was heroic and effective. But his leadership did not show the ability to sell an uncomprehending public a difficult and controversial solution to a longstanding problem. Good leadership of New York City united in crisis is not in the same league as Roosevelt’s six-year effort to sell an unpopular but vitally necessary war. Like the rest of the field, Mr. Giuliani still has to show us he has that kind of skill.

So how should we vote, when none of our presidential contenders has a track record of solving real-world problems by selling effective but painful solutions?

We might be tempted to look for the best compromiser, i.e., the one who stays away from ideological extremes and seeks the middle. Avoiding stubborn ideology and extremes is a good quality for any national leader to have. Blind adherence to ideology—whatever its nature—seldom solves real problems. The Bush Administration has been an object lesson on that point.

But avoiding extremes and blind ideology is not enough. Seeking the middle is just another form of compromise. It doesn’t demonstrate the ability to solve real-world problems and sell effective solutions, especially those that may require sacrifice or delayed gratification. Senator Hillary Clinton's "triangulation" of a "solution" for Iraq demonstrates that point. Solving real problems and making the hard sell is another skill entirely, one which has been absent from the Oval Office for far too long.

Since few in recent memory have demonstrated that skill decisively, we will have to look for hints. Has the candidate sought solutions that work, rather than those that are easy to sell and/or meet ideological predilections? Has the candidate been flexible ideologically and willing to work with political rivals and the opposing party, while insisting on practical and workable solutions to real problems? Has the candidate publicly rejected approaches that won’t work—even when they have strong ideological support? Has he/she done so on pragmatic, not ideological, ground? Has the candidate been willing to give others credit for solutions that work? Has the candidate rejected solutions that won’t work, even if he/she might have enjoyed credit or public acclaim for sponsoring or participating in an unworkable but superficially attractive solution?

A case in point is building a 700-mile fence along our 2,500 mile border with Mexico to stop illegal immigration. That “solution” insults the intelligence of the American people, not to mention the pride of Mexicans and their government. It is the worst sort of demagoguery, and any politician who supported it should automatically be stricken from the rolls of possible presidential contenders.

These tests are stringent. They are especially hard for members of the last Congress, one of the most self-centered, most ideological and least thoughtful in our nation’s history. If we are honest with ourselves, we will find that few can pass them.

Yet if we keep the foregoing questions in mind as we vet the candidates, our prayer may be answered. We may yet have a leader who knows how to solve real problems as well as how to compromise.

Neither an ideologue like our current president nor a hapless, amiable compromiser will suffice at this critical time in our history. We need a problem solver who has the brains to see real solutions and the charisma and political skill to sell them to those who see less clearly and whom the solutions may cause pain. We haven't had such a leader in a long time.

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