A Possibly Dangerous Summer, Continued

Stanley McChrystal, ISAF cmdr., and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry stand during a memorial service

The U.S. political system was designed by the best minds of the 18th century. But today, the issues and crises of the 21st century are profoundly more complex, numerous and interrelated.

To be sure, this system has changed with the times. However, when faced with an unprecedented multitude of simultaneous challenges and crises, most with difficult or indeed intractable solutions, our system of checks and balances, infected with massive amounts of pernicious partisanship and often rabid ideological differences perhaps as pervasive as the Civil War era, has broken down.

Consider the economy, deficits and debt. Whether the economy is recovering from the financial crises or a double dip recession lies ahead, unemployment remains crushingly high. The White House reportedly believes a further stimulus package of $50 billion is needed to cope with the joblessness rate that while reported as just less than under 10 percent in reality is closer to 15-20 percent or higher considering underemployment.

Critics rightly worry that increasing debt and deficits at this stage is unacceptable. No one knows who may be right in this debate. Yet, given the highly polarized political environment, Republicans use this divide for claiming the Obama administration is out to socialize America. And Democrats return the favor by chastising Republicans for courting big business and for getting us into this mess in the first place. This isn’t responsible governance.

Elections were meant to be the cleansing mechanism of politics. Perhaps the November elections will cleanse the Augean stables that constitute the current state of Washington politics. But don’t bet on it.

Both parties are under the thrall of their more extreme wings. And the moderate center that the founding fathers believed would reconcile and alleviate the gridlock and paralysis implicit in checks and balances is missing in action, overshadowed by ideology and the emergence of more radical, anti-government alternatives notably the Tea Party.

Interestingly, the founding fathers were wary of political parties (and none are mentioned in the U.S. Constitution).

What can be done is very worrying. If the Republicans sweep both houses in November, even greater paralysis is likely as the GOP tries to repeal Obamacare and Obamaeconomics and the Democrats resist. If the Democrats hold on, their majorities may be smaller (or perhaps only in one house) and the politics sharper as the 2012 presidential election looms.

With that as background, consider the predictable events that will challenge and complicate our lives:

First, hurricane activity in the Gulf of Mexico soon starts. Even if the hurricane season is mild, the effect on capping the gushing well and more importantly on the cleanup will be felt. If an Andrew, Katrina or severe storms linger over the gulf, the consequences for clean up could be catastrophic.

Second, al-Qaida and other extremist groups including Pakistan’s anti-Indian Lashkar-e-Toiba aren’t oblivious to opportunities to attack us. Another Mumbai could trigger a frightening Indo-Pakistan confrontation. A Times Square-like attack traced to Pakistani origins could destroy the U.S.-Pakistani strategic relationship. And surely the Deepwater Horizon explosion could be mimicked with terrorist strikes in the Gulf of Mexico or elsewhere particularly the very vulnerable Niger Delta.

Third, given the volatility of the globe from North Korea to Iran to Iraq and Afghanistan, and add in Greece and Spain, a major incident or crisis cannot be far away. How ready is our already overly preoccupied and polarized government to deal with these or other crises?

Last, the recall of U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal from Kabul over remarks to be published in Friday’s Rolling Stone magazine, compounded by a congressional report documenting U.S. funding of war lords to protect transport routes in Afghanistan, is exhibit “A” of the permanence of the unexpected.

Given that we won’t alter our system of checks and balances or quickly end the extreme ideological partisanship and polarization that are crippling the capacity to govern, one possibility could provide a partial respite when one of the above or other crises hit — which they will.

The Department of Defense and the military excel in contingency planning. Contingency and war plans for almost every conceivable military crisis from North Korea attacking south to terrorists obtaining nuclear weapons exist. These plans, if called upon, are unlikely to survive the first contact of combat. But they provide a framework for thinking the contingencies through.

What is needed is a political and non-partisan equivalent of contingency planning for a wider spectrum of potential crises. As this capacity is broader than “intelligence,” neither the director of national intelligence nor CIA director should lead it but clearly those agencies must be involved. The National Security and National Economic councils and staffs could be overseers for this contingent effort. And all relevant branches of government and private sector must be involved.

The capability of these councils would be augmented and housed outside the White House and Executive Office Buildings for reasons of space and the focus on contingent rather than ongoing events. However, unless or until this nation can develop a nonpartisan mechanism before a crisis unfolds and extremes of politics and ideology kick in, don’t expect happy outcomes.

Harlan Ullman is an Atlantic Council Senior Advisor and chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business.  This column was syndicated by UPI. Photo credit: AP Photo.

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