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Up Front

An Emerging Nightmare: The Impact of U.S. Political “Dysfunction”

Marvin Kalb

Ask a U.S. senior intelligence officer what is his recurring nightmare: what is it that wakes him at 3 am trembling in uncontrollable anxiety? In a public place, where he is likely to be quoted, he is almost certain to answer: a terrorist with a nuclear weapon. And that’s true enough. Ever since 9/11, administration officials, both Republican and Democratic, have worried about another terrorist attack against the “homeland,” as they put it. And though we came close on two or three occasions (remember the Christmas “underwear” bomber?), we managed to escape another attack.

But ask this intelligence officer the same question in an off-the-record session, where he is not to be identified or quoted in any way, and he will give you an answer much closer to his true concern: that the United States government has become “dysfunctional.” Meaning what exactly? We have no real budget, he goes on, and haven’t for a long time. Major decisions hover like ghosts over the political landscape, but they are not made. We argue endlessly about “Obamacare,” but devote little time to creating more jobs. Though, like new shoots in the spring, ideas about our society, economy and political system continue to pop up at universities and think tanks throughout the country, here in Washington one can easily imagine that we are all living in a cruel desert, where we mumble and grumble about governmental dysfunction, where we appear unable to bridge the widening political chasm between the two parties, where politicians who know better find solace only in complaint, anger, frustration and finger-pointing.

And this so-called dysfunction spills over into our conduct of foreign policy. Not just our senior intelligence officer but armies of scholars, diplomats and journalists from many countries also observe our domestic disharmony and conclude (some of them reluctantly) that the U.S. is truly in decline, slowly but unmistakably withdrawing from global responsibility into a troubling form of isolationism. Tired of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, fearful of getting sucked into new wars in Syria and Iran, the U.S. is going home, where President Obama hopes to do some “nation-building” of his own.

Or so it seems. But can the world’s only super power just go home? What other country can fill its place? China is number two economically, theoretically therefore in a position to challenge the U.S. for global supremacy; but it is much more the Middle Kingdom than it is a global super-power. Putin’s Russia would love to replace America, but it lacks the economic vitality and the military muscle. It is still a backward nation with wildly unrealistic dreams of grandeur.

With all its problems, only the United States can help negotiate a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. A tall order but possible. Only the U.S. can persuade Iran to back off on its quest for nuclear weapons. Another tall order and maybe impossible, but worth the effort. Only the U.S. can keep Japan and China from tangling over a string of uninhabited rock formations in the East China Sea, called the Senkaku Islands.

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The U.S. remains the indispensable nation, even though a large number of its senior officials appear to be increasingly unhappy about its apparent inability to govern in an effective manner, both at home and abroad. Only one person can right the ship of state, can lead it into calmer waters, and he is the President of the United States.

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