December 30, 2007
Changing Our Direction
By William S. Cohen and Sam Nunn
ACCORDING TO recent surveys, nearly 70 percent of Americans believe that the country is headed in the wrong direction. It is not geography that is in question, but rather our national purpose, spirit, credibility and competence.
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Central to the wave of unease and negativity surging throughout the country is the realization that the values and virtues that made America a source of strength, stability, and inspiration throughout the world are now in disrepair.
Our falling dollar and soaring budget and trade deficits reflect the overindulgence of our appetites and neglect of prudent fiscal planning, discipline, and savings. Extended military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan have placed extraordinary stress upon the brave men and women of our all-volunteer force (Guard and Reserve), putting pressure on the Pentagon to lower physical, mental, and moral standards and to raise the age limits for new recruits. As a result of pursuing ill-conceived or mismanaged policies, we have unsettled our allies and emboldened our adversaries.
The failures of bridges in Minneapolis and levees in New Orleans are harsh metaphors for the reckless disregard for the need to invest in the critical infrastructure that protects our citizens and propels our economy.
The absence of sound fiscal, tax, and energy policies has eroded our international competitiveness and subjected us to regional instabilities and to the pricing policies of oil cartels and authoritarian leaders who are eager to flex their new muscle. Our leadership in science and technology is challenged by powers in Asia and Europe as we debate the validity of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.
While these and other challenges demand serious attention, our political process seems determined to engage in games of trivial pursuits. This is not to criticize the candidates who are doing their best to pass through the fog of exhaustion to promote their interests and ideas. Yet the very process of campaigning and fund-raising for public office today draws candidates toward partisan extremes, compressing substantive discussion into 30-second sound bites or the silly and superficial. The price of a haircut or the authenticity of a laugh drowns out any candidate who talks seriously about how to deal with a rising China and a resurgent Russia or develop a sustainable global strategy against terrorism.
Our purpose is not simply to indulge in our litany of frustrations, for they are self-evident. As two people who spent years working to forge bipartisan solutions to America's important challenges, we believe that the nation is not well served when those who wish to lead have every incentive to avoid facing up to the tough issues and simply retreat to the comfortable embrace of their most ideological supporters.
Election campaigns are inevitably rough and tumble, but they must also be a time for vigorous national debate and discussion. They best serve the nation when the public and the candidates are exposed to new ideas and approaches. The national discussions of 2008 must better prepare our nation and our leadership than have the national discussions of this past year.
As citizens, each of us has a role to play in serving our country. Over the course of the next year, the two of us plan to help stimulate a national conversation on the direction our country must take in this turbulent age filled with both promise and peril. We intend to launch a series of public discussions, inviting leaders from throughout the country and from many walks of life to bring their experience, expertise, innovation, and energy to these dialogues.
We need to focus on seminal issues that those who seek to be our leaders must address: How do we restore our government's credibility and competence? How do we rebuild our physical and human capital so that we can face a dynamic world of change with confidence in our ability to compete? How do we promote energy security and reduce our vulnerabilities to the most unstable regions of the world? How do we operate in a complicated world where other nations will not always be "with or against us"? How do we restore America's international leadership role and renew the values for which we have been so long admired? How do we engage and use "smart power" that combines economic, diplomatic, and military strength to achieve national security and foreign policy goals? How do we encourage citizens of every age, race, and creed to act on the premise that we have not just inherited our wonderful country from our parents, but we have borrowed it from our children?
If as a nation we begin to ask, debate, and answer these questions and these challenges, we can renew our commitment to community, enable those we elect, and restore an exhilarating sense that, once again, we are all in this together.
William S. Cohen is a former secretary of defense and former Republican senator from Maine. Sam Nunn is a former Democratic senator from Georgia and former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.