If you are president of the United States, how do you know when things are going wrong, and what to do about it, especially when the evidence is hidden in clear sight? These may be the toughest questions and conditions any president will face. Given the extraordinary pace with which the Obama administration has attacked a multitude of daunting and possibly intractable issues, from conflicts abroad to economic, fiscal and healthcare crises at home, surely these questions are ones to be addressed. But can they be answered in time to make a difference?
History can be cruel in demonstrating how tough knowing and acting accordingly are. Both Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt confronted economic depression. Both got it wrong. Hoover was too slow to react. And had it not been for World War II, who knows how long the Depression would have lingered.
In the Korean War, Truman knew Gen. Douglas McArthur’s march to the Yalu was reckless. By the time McArthur was relieved, the war was on the way to becoming a bloody stalemate that took a new president to end. Lyndon Johnson agonized over Vietnam, knowing full well it went wrong and was incapable of doing anything about it. It was three years into the second Iraq war that the second President Bush finally changed course in 2006, well after conditions on the ground were in chaos.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan became Bush’s forgotten war and was allowed to deteriorate in plain public sight. More than six years after the Taliban was routed in 2001 and Osama bin Laden escaped did the new Obama administration begin a serious strategic review of Afghan policy. Some believe that this review came too late.
So, when things go badly and sufficient corroborative evidence exists, how does a president know in time to take remedial action? Conventional wisdom argues, with some merit, that it is too early to tell for the new administration. But is it? General Motors, Afghanistan and Pakistan make this point about urgency.
Regarding the economy, Obama’s aims have been to stabilize the banking and financial systems first and then repair the economy. And the severity of these crises may exceed the capacity of any government to respond. But the White House must take stock of the state of the takeover of General Motors and by extension Chrysler.
Yes, General Motors has been financially re-engineered and slimmed down. But it suffers at least one fatal flaw. The bulk of consumers are not interested in buying GM cars in sufficient numbers at competitive prices to let the company survive without further bailouts. Detroit understands that 75 percent of all new car buyers in the next decade are currently 40 or younger. Just ask them if they will buy GM cars. And when that is done and the answer is a resounding “no,” the administration will understand that things are not going right for GM. Again, this is evidence hidden in plain sight.
In Afghanistan, the Obama administration implicitly has given its AFPAK strategy no more than a year to work with the expectation that the combination of a “mini-surge” of U.S. forces and the new strategy will turn the tide. Realistically, this grace period could be six months or less. The obvious flaw here is the failure or inability to bring sufficient resources to bear on the Afghan civilian side for establishing governance, rule of law, effective policing, jobs and cracking down on rampant corruption and narcotics trafficking. We all know this. Yet, if the civil side is the weak link and hence the target for success, why is greater effort not going to it?
Pakistan’s future meanwhile rests on the government’s ability or lack thereof to contain the insurgency and violence provoked by radical jihadis. The one commodity that the United States can offer is aid. Pakistan needs about $10 billion a year to support its flagging economy, develop and reconstruct the lands vacated by 3 million to 4 million refugees, field more police and security forces, and give the army weapons to win an insurgency. Yet, given the state of our fiscal house, more money is not likely to be forthcoming. We know this shortfall is a predicate for failure. But what can be done?
Other crises are less conducive to knowing when things are going wrong and then taking remedial action. In North Korea and Iran, the choices open to this or any administration range between bad and worse. There is also no reason to believe the Obama team will be any more successful in bringing settlement to the Arab-Israeli-Palestine crises than its predecessors. So, both the outlook is grim and the room for maneuver limited.
But knowing what is wrong is tough even when the evidence is clear and present — and taking timely action often tougher!
Harlan Ullman is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisors Group and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the National Defense University. This essay was originally syndicated by UPI as “Hidden in Plain Sight.”