The Fighter Jock and the Gooseslayer

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Where's Paul Nitze?" a U.S. intelligence expert complained to me a few months ago. "Where's our strategic plan? Where's the NSC-68 for the war on terror?" He was referring to the famous 1950 National Security Council memo in which Nitze, who died last week at the splendid age of 97, proposed a strategy for confronting the Soviet Union. But the expert was also remembering, with anger and nostalgia, an era that started with Pearl Harbor and ended with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution of 1964, when strategic thinking in the priestly realms of foreign and economic policy was unpolluted by short-term partisan politics, when words like intellectual and realism and, yes, global weren't terms of opprobrium. This Administration has presided over the culmination of a trend that has been a long time building: the triumph of politics and populist anti-intellectualism over policy.

No one expects deep policy thinking on the campaign trail. George H.W. Bush ran a shallow, hostile race against Michael Dukakis in 1988; Bill Clinton exploited a nonexistent recession in 1992. But in office, the first Bush Administration conducted a serious, nuts-and-bolts foreign policy; the Clinton Administration was notable for its sophisticated economic thinking. The current White House has done neither. Quite the opposite: it has dumbed down governance, scorned serious planning, politicized formerly nonpartisan agencies.

One example: having the Medicare administrator mislead Congress about the true cost of Bush's Medicare prescription-drug plan. The Administration distorted the prewar analysis of Saddam's capabilities and failed to plan for the post-Saddam occupation. Last week we learned that Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith had blatantly hyped the possibility of an operational link between Saddam and al-Qaeda.

Paul Nitze's NSC-68 was a rigorous reaction to a perceived crisis.

Communists had taken over Czechoslovakia in 1948 and China in 1949; the Soviets had exploded a nuclear bomb in 1949. NSC-68 was assembled over the winter of 1949-50, and it was a careful, comprehensive document, describing the precise nature of the threat and suggesting specific military, political and economic responses. "If there is similar thinking going on now with regard to Islamist terrorism, I am not aware of it," an intelligence expert told me. The Iraq-addled Bush White House has issued no marching orders for the broader war on terrorism. How, for example, should intelligence resources be allocated among al-Qaeda, Hizballah, the Chechens, the Saudi financial networks, the Iranian nuclear program? What are the priorities? Should we use foreign aid to counter the Saudi-funded network of radical Islamist schools, or would the money be better spent buying up the former Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal? Some of these questions were raised by Donald Rumsfeld in a memo last year.

There has been no effort to answer them.

At least the Bush foreign policy has a patina of idealism. The President's economic policy does not. All previous rules of fiscal responsibility have been tossed aside. A round of tax cuts was, perhaps, a justifiable response to the recession in 2001. But those cuts were followed willy-nilly by a second round and, worse, by a blizzard of monster concessions to corporate interests. A recent example is instructive: this month Congress hilariously transformed the closing of a $5 billion tax break for exporters, which was required by a World Trade Organization ruling, into a $137 billion luau for special interests, including Nascar track owners, railroads and makers of fishing-tackle boxes. It used to be that such bills came with matching revenue-raising provisions. Not in this Administration. The President signed the fiasco, as he has every other spending opportunity to reach his desk. This, in a year with a $413 billion deficit.

There has been no responsible long-term economic planning, little thought given to how we pay for the coming baby-boom retirement. Or how the rapid industrialization of China and India will affect the American middle class: the issue is not just jobs, but also soaring prices for commodities like oil. Or how long can we sustain a global economic system in which the combined U.S. budget and trade deficits soak up 79% of the world's savings, as they did in 2003. Given the deepening evidence of American unilateralism and fiscal irresponsibility, the world may soon find more pressing priorities than the financing of our extravagant lifestyle.

And yet this President stands an excellent chance of winning re-election. The Bush campaign has successfully, and with considerable help from John Kerry, painted the Democrat as an effete, irresponsible weakling without core convictions. Which is ironic, because Kerry offers a return to Nitzerian policy seriousness. But two days after Paul Nitze died, the Massachusetts Senator, who once criticized Bush for prancing around in a flight suit on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln beneath a mission accomplished banner, could be found prancing about the backwoods of Ohio costumed as a hunter on a wild goose chase. Those two macho, flamboyantly phony images—fighter jock and gooseslayer—are the sad legacy of this election year.