Stephen M. Walt

Wanted: A few grown-ups

I have been distracted by personal concerns for the past week, and look what happens. The stock market is on a roller-coaster triggered mostly by political incompetence. There are riots in Great Britain, and large-scale protests are roiling Israel. Syria continues its bloody convulsions, our impulsive war in Libya grinds on, and the euro crisis looks ...

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Brandon Thibodeaux/Getty Images
Brandon Thibodeaux/Getty Images

I have been distracted by personal concerns for the past week, and look what happens. The stock market is on a roller-coaster triggered mostly by political incompetence. There are riots in Great Britain, and large-scale protests are roiling Israel. Syria continues its bloody convulsions, our impulsive war in Libya grinds on, and the euro crisis looks no closer to solution. The United States suffers its single worst day in the long and misguided Afghan campaign. Add it all together, and 2011 is beginning to look like 1968 — a year that violent upheavals occurred in the United States, France, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere. Except that here the troubles are more widespread, more closely connected, and have more potentially far-reaching consequences.

What’s most disturbing about all this is the extent to which so many of our current troubles are self-inflicted. It’s obvious to any reasonably sane person how to get the U.S. economy back on track, the problem is that there’s a dearth of reasonably sane people in positions of responsibility. Some of the seeds of the 2007-08 meltdown were sown during the Clinton administration (as Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner make clear in their terrific book Reckless Endangerment), but most of the damage was done by George W. Bush’s foolhardy decision to cut taxes, start unnecessary wars, and then fight those wars badly. In short, the United States screwed up big-time between 2000 and 2008. As we all know from our personal lives: when you screw up, you generally have to pay a price.

That means that solving our current problems will not be easy or painless, and we should stop pretending that there’s some magic bullet to fire at our current woes. Nonetheless, the basic outlines of what to do are hardly mysterious. We are in a fiscal hole and have a depressed economy, which means we owe lots of people lots of money and aren’t generating enough revenues to make people confident that we can get back in the black. We need more revenue, therefore, but we don’t want to choke the remaining life out of the U.S. economy. 

Accordingly, the best place to get some more revenue is from the wealthiest members of society (who got those big tax cuts from George Bush and made out far better than the rest of America over the past decade or more, and whose consumption won’t decline if some loopholes are closed and marginal tax rates rise modestly). I mean, are Bill Gates and Warren Buffett going to lower their thermostats and cancel their summer vacations if we make them pay a bit more?) We also need to trim some entitlements over time, and to cut our bloated defense budget (no matter what new Sec/Def Leon Panetta says). For starters, getting out of Iraq on schedule and out of Afghanistan ASAP would suggest that our leaders really do understand what’s truly important and would be a reassuring signal to global markets. In short: a simple combination of entitlement reform, tax reform, and strategic readjustment and we will be on our way to ending the deficit, maintaining our credit rating, and setting the stage for long-term economic recovery.

Except that Washington won’t do it. I used to wonder how political paralysis could lead Japan to experience a "lost decade," but we’re about to do the same thing if we don’t change course. Unfortunately, the GOP is in the hands of leaders who care more about regaining power than they do about the country, and held hostage by know-nothing Tea Party extremists for whom passion is a substitute for reasoning or thought. The White House hasn’t helped either: it declared victory too soon on the economic front and thought it could continue "business as usual" in foreign and defense policy, with a better presidential salesman. And for some reason the most gifted presidential "communicator" since Ronald Reagan has been unwilling or unable to take his case to the American people.

What are these people thinking? I scan the political horizon, and I don’t see anyone remotely like George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, or even Dean Acheson. We are in the midst of the biggest strategic challenge since the end of World War II, but where is our Kennan or Kissinger? Neither of them were infallible, but each had a genuine strategic vision for the United States, its position in the world, and the actions that needed to be taken to preserve vital interests. And make no mistake: what is needed now is a foreign policy that is based on a clear and hard-headed strategy, one that identifies key priorities, writes off liabilities, and marshals the relevant elements of power to preserve what is vital first and foremost. Instead, we get a foreign policy based on wishful thinking, lofty ideals, or an endless list of global projects offered up by policy wonks and special interest groups, along with more bad advice from the people who got us into our present circumstances. And the latest GOP presidential aspirant — Governor Rick Perry of Texas — seems to think that all our problems can be solved if we just pray hard enough. I don’t want to tread on anyone’s beliefs, but if that isn’t a sign of desperation and policy bankruptcy, I don’t know what is.

Lord knows that I don’t have all the answers, but I used to think that at least a few people in positions of responsibility had a few. But at this point I’m beginning to wonder.

I have been distracted by personal concerns for the past week, and look what happens. The stock market is on a roller-coaster triggered mostly by political incompetence. There are riots in Great Britain, and large-scale protests are roiling Israel. Syria continues its bloody convulsions, our impulsive war in Libya grinds on, and the euro crisis looks no closer to solution. The United States suffers its single worst day in the long and misguided Afghan campaign. Add it all together, and 2011 is beginning to look like 1968 — a year that violent upheavals occurred in the United States, France, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere. Except that here the troubles are more widespread, more closely connected, and have more potentially far-reaching consequences.

What’s most disturbing about all this is the extent to which so many of our current troubles are self-inflicted. It’s obvious to any reasonably sane person how to get the U.S. economy back on track, the problem is that there’s a dearth of reasonably sane people in positions of responsibility. Some of the seeds of the 2007-08 meltdown were sown during the Clinton administration (as Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner make clear in their terrific book Reckless Endangerment), but most of the damage was done by George W. Bush’s foolhardy decision to cut taxes, start unnecessary wars, and then fight those wars badly. In short, the United States screwed up big-time between 2000 and 2008. As we all know from our personal lives: when you screw up, you generally have to pay a price.

That means that solving our current problems will not be easy or painless, and we should stop pretending that there’s some magic bullet to fire at our current woes. Nonetheless, the basic outlines of what to do are hardly mysterious. We are in a fiscal hole and have a depressed economy, which means we owe lots of people lots of money and aren’t generating enough revenues to make people confident that we can get back in the black. We need more revenue, therefore, but we don’t want to choke the remaining life out of the U.S. economy. 

Accordingly, the best place to get some more revenue is from the wealthiest members of society (who got those big tax cuts from George Bush and made out far better than the rest of America over the past decade or more, and whose consumption won’t decline if some loopholes are closed and marginal tax rates rise modestly). I mean, are Bill Gates and Warren Buffett going to lower their thermostats and cancel their summer vacations if we make them pay a bit more?) We also need to trim some entitlements over time, and to cut our bloated defense budget (no matter what new Sec/Def Leon Panetta says). For starters, getting out of Iraq on schedule and out of Afghanistan ASAP would suggest that our leaders really do understand what’s truly important and would be a reassuring signal to global markets. In short: a simple combination of entitlement reform, tax reform, and strategic readjustment and we will be on our way to ending the deficit, maintaining our credit rating, and setting the stage for long-term economic recovery.

Except that Washington won’t do it. I used to wonder how political paralysis could lead Japan to experience a "lost decade," but we’re about to do the same thing if we don’t change course. Unfortunately, the GOP is in the hands of leaders who care more about regaining power than they do about the country, and held hostage by know-nothing Tea Party extremists for whom passion is a substitute for reasoning or thought. The White House hasn’t helped either: it declared victory too soon on the economic front and thought it could continue "business as usual" in foreign and defense policy, with a better presidential salesman. And for some reason the most gifted presidential "communicator" since Ronald Reagan has been unwilling or unable to take his case to the American people.

What are these people thinking? I scan the political horizon, and I don’t see anyone remotely like George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, or even Dean Acheson. We are in the midst of the biggest strategic challenge since the end of World War II, but where is our Kennan or Kissinger? Neither of them were infallible, but each had a genuine strategic vision for the United States, its position in the world, and the actions that needed to be taken to preserve vital interests. And make no mistake: what is needed now is a foreign policy that is based on a clear and hard-headed strategy, one that identifies key priorities, writes off liabilities, and marshals the relevant elements of power to preserve what is vital first and foremost. Instead, we get a foreign policy based on wishful thinking, lofty ideals, or an endless list of global projects offered up by policy wonks and special interest groups, along with more bad advice from the people who got us into our present circumstances. And the latest GOP presidential aspirant — Governor Rick Perry of Texas — seems to think that all our problems can be solved if we just pray hard enough. I don’t want to tread on anyone’s beliefs, but if that isn’t a sign of desperation and policy bankruptcy, I don’t know what is.

Lord knows that I don’t have all the answers, but I used to think that at least a few people in positions of responsibility had a few. But at this point I’m beginning to wonder.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

More from Foreign Policy

An aerial display of J-10 fighter jets of China’s People’s Liberation.

The World Doesn’t Want Beijing’s Fighter Jets

Snazzy weapons mean a lot less if you don’t have friends.

German infantrymen folllow a tank toward Moscow in the snow in, 1941 during Operation Barbarossa, Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union. The image was published in. Signal, a magazine published by the German Third Reich. Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

Panzers, Beans, and Bullets

This wargame explains how Russia really stopped Hitler.

19th-century Chinese rebel Hong Xiuquan and social media influencer Addison Rae.

America’s Collapsing Meritocracy Is a Recipe for Revolt

Chinese history shows what happens when an old system loses its force.

Afghan militia gather with their weapons to support Afghanistan security forces.

‘It Will Not Be Just a Civil War’

Afghanistan’s foreign minister on what may await his country after the U.S. withdrawal.