Is the United States a Serious Nation?

U.S. Capitol Building

To many, THE issue confronting the United States is a government that is dysfunctional and even badly broken. To others, the immense and swelling fiscal debt and deficits must redressed before the nation slips into bankruptcy. Still others argue that values are the centerpiece of America and unless differences over guns, gays, gestation periods and God can be fixed, the United States is headed for moral purgatory. Meanwhile wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan and less so in Iraq and the healthcare debate in Congress still rage.

No matter what one believes is the wolf closest to the collective national sled, the question is whether the United States can act in a serious way with serious understanding and action to deal with issues that conceivably could do untoward damage to the nation. Or, as happens too readily, will the country duck, defer, water down or ignore reality and put the toughest choices off to a future date unlikely to be met except if a real crisis intervenes?

The United States, however, has acted with due seriousness at crucial times in its history. Two-hundred-and-thirty or so years ago, a relatively small band of extraordinarily courageous and visionary individuals known as the founding fathers, realized that American colonists would never achieve the rights of Englishmen that they believed were due. So, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “when government becomes destructive, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it and establish a new one.” That is what happened.

Some 70 years later, the flaws and unfinished business of the U.S. Constitution that brought the United States into being into 1789 ignited the Civil War — arguably the most serious and dangerous threat to the Union and the bloodiest war in U.S. history. After that, it still took a century to begin the final implementation of civil rights with the passage of that legislation in mid-1960s.

And despite U.S. isolationism, the nation became deadly serious in defeating and destroying the heinous threat of Nazi and Japanese military fascism in World War II.

Each of these periods required serious leaders to motivate publics whose views were as diverse as divisive. Washington, Jefferson — who has just been edited out of certain Texas textbooks — Franklin and others were determined to “hang together.” Lincoln by force of personality and will kept the Union from being ripped asunder. And FDR cleverly and even deviously prepared an unwilling nation for a war it did not wish to wage until Japan’s “dastardly attack” on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, forced its hand.

Today, those who believe the U.S. government is broken or dysfunctional are correct. Yes, debt and deficits will lead to a disaster unless checked. Healthcare must be fixed or repaired to assure both physical and national financial well-being. And if the United States doesn’t get Pakistan right, success in Afghanistan will be illusive, if not impossible.

But the forcing question is whether the country is serious in taking on each or some of the above as our predecessors were in 1776, 1861 and 1942. On that the jury is out and may not convene in our lifetime. Is there anything that can be done to avert disaster?

First, while it is politically correct to call for bipartisanship and non-partisanship, on tough issues with profoundly different and opposite ideological views, neither will follow. The gaps are too wide. For example, to some, the free market is meant to be free. To others, markets require regulation. Congress cannot decide on how to make a Solomonian division of that baby.

Second, in the absence of real non-partisanship, it would be useful to focus on what is really the serious center of gravity for each of these tough problems. For example, in healthcare, the health of the American public is the largest factor from which solutions can follow. Yet, by most measures, the national health is poor given the huge percentages of obesity, preventable diseases and other controllable factors. We know and talk about this perhaps heaviest drain on the health system. If the United States were serious, it would do something about it.

Similarly, in terms of the wars the country is fighting, it is clear that Pakistan is vital to success. Yet, the United States has been incapable of providing the capacity for the Pakistanis to succeed both on the military and economic fronts. The reason is that despite the rhetoric, the United States is not really serious.

Politicians of both parties and branches of government will of course argue they are doing their level best. But, they will complain, it is the system, the government or the opposition that make progress impossible. Where then is a Jefferson when needed most — at a time that this government sadly has become destructive?

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.

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