Posts Tagged ‘policy’

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The Islamic State group has unleashed a new set of coordinated terrorist attacks in the heart of Europe and seeks to provoke deeper fear, hatred and militarization.

Unfortunately, it is succeeding.

As we tend to the victims and their families and reassure the shaken, the trumpets of war and exclusion are already elevating their sound in both Europe and the U.S. And maybe rightfully so, as it is indeed cathartic to lash back at those who have hurt us in despicable, devilish ways.

We in the West have a long history now of combating modern terrorism, dating back to at least the 1970s, continuing through the years after the 9/11 attacks, to the recent attacks in Paris and now Brussels. And we have learned some hard lessons. We should remember a few of them as we approach the precipice of a new phase in our reactions to the current threat.

First, violent reactions to terrorism must be focused, discriminate and carefully planned.

A general resort to war has been almost completely ineffective in Iraq and other regions, and overreaction fuels the resentments and recruitment of more terrorists. Excessive violence undermines more of our friends than our enemies. The best counterterrorism operations have been clearly targeted as law enforcement, not war, and when necessary, killing those who have committed and abetted the worst of the crimes.

We must also articulate our values and live up to them. Terrorism shines a spotlight on our societies and the frequent mistreatment of people, including immigrants. We are not responsible for the terrorists, but we aid their hatred when we act in hateful ways.

During the past decade, the rhetoric of intolerance in the United States, especially in Texas, has given false evidence to terrorist claims about our alleged tyranny of Muslims and other minorities. As we fight individual terrorists, we must flagrantly display how much we value, love and cherish the millions of good people who happen to share the same religion, ethnicity and background. We are not fighting a religion or a race. We are fighting criminals, and some of them are white Christians, too.

Finally, and most important, we must show patience. Quick reactions have almost always failed to produce their promised results. Time is on our side, and we should use it to investigate, understand and plan before we react. We are better off absorbing another terrorist attack and preparing more effectively to interdict the terrorists, rather than overreacting and creating a multiplying effect of new terrorist threats down the road.

Despite the fear and suffering, the basic security of our society is not imperiled as it was by Soviet missiles during the Cold War. We are best served by addressing the core sources of criminality rather than locking down to anticipate the next fire. We must play the long game because that is our greatest interest and our greatest advantage.

The fear of terrorism is real and legitimate. Strategic leadership, however, must do more than react to fear. Strategic leadership involves deep analysis, historical perspective and policymaking for the long term.

We must use all of our capabilities, but we must use them wisely and effectively. Feel-good reactions are self-defeating and play into the terrorists’ hands. Courage comes in careful planning, close attention to our values, and considered timing. In the end, we will be judged by how we react more than how we have suffered.

This article originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News, 22 March 2016

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Electing a president every four years is one of America’s most basic democratic rituals. Complaining about the candidates is as much a part of this ritual as pulling a lever — or pressing a button — in a voting booth. Presidential campaigns seem to bring out the worst in all of us: empty promises, simplistic policy statements, personal attacks and all of those wonderful negative advertisements. In our current moment, the ugly elements of presidential campaigning are perhaps more evident than ever before.

There is, however, a pattern to elections. Every four years, especially when an incumbent president is at the end of his second term, the race for the nation’s highest office becomes a contest to show which candidate can correct for the current president’s limitations. A competent and careful president — like George H.W. Bush — inspired opponents — especially Bill Clinton — who promised vision, energy and even a little risk-taking. Eight years of Clinton encouraged voters to turn to a disciplined, pious, and predictable successor: George W. Bush. Bush, of course, made Obama possible – a cerebral, pragmatic outsider who was the perfect anti-Bush.

The shifts in style hide the continuities in policy. Every president elected since 1988 has invested in economic growth by opening new markets, encouraging free trade, and keeping taxes low. Every president since 1988 has pursued an expansive foreign policy, including sanctions against “rogue regimes” and new deployments of American soldiers and sailors to distant societies. For all the partisan rancor, there has been little change in key domestic and foreign policies from one presidential administration to another.

We elect presidents on style, but they govern on substance. Unfortunately, the winning style is often not the right substance. Most presidents struggle in their first year to adjust from campaign mode to governing, which involves a major shift in focus. Generally, the policies in place have a logic and a momentum that are hard to change. The existing policies are often better on closer inspection than the alternatives promoted in campaigns.

The change in administrations is most meaningful in terms of priorities. Which programs will the new president champion? Which programs will he or she neglect? For foreign policy, which allies and adversaries will the new president prioritize? Which ones will he or she avoid?

The wisest presidents recognize that their governing powers are much more constrained than their campaign rhetoric allows. Once in office, they must choose carefully where to devote their time and energy. They must shoot for big achievements in a few areas, not fire wildly hoping to hit every possible target.

Presidential elections matter because they reorient national priorities. Style helps to define the issues most important to the candidate and the voters. After four years of George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy focus, Clinton brought fresh attention to what was then a stagnant American economy. George W. Bush also ran on economic issues, but he promised to emphasize growth above fairness. Bush, of course, made security a priority after Sept. 11, 2001, and especially during his reelection campaign in 2004. Obama sought to abandon war and focus yet again on domestic needs. Priorities shift with the times; they define presidential success or failure.

This historical observation would serve us well as voters. We cannot avoid talking about a candidate’s style during the campaign season — it is on display every day in talk shows, debates and advertisements. We rarely hear many policy details, but we always have a chance to see how a candidate addresses a crowd, responds to a tough question or treats supporters on the street.

Instead of judging style in isolation, we should use it to assess the issues that make each candidate most and least comfortable. Which issues tug at the candidate’s heart? Which issues seem to elicit the most personal passion?

In the end, our democratic ritual will not produce a leader capable of doing all that we want. Our expectations are simply too high and our campaign rhetoric encourages an escalation of empty promises. Style, however, matters because it helps us to analyze which figure best matches what we see as the most important issues for the next four years. Elections are a time to articulate national priorities and find the right leaders for them.

In the 2016 election, the American people will have to summon the fortitude to examine candidates in this way. Otherwise, our elections will produce a president worthy only of our worst complaints. The presidency is the hardest job in the world — and choosing the president is often an ugly-but-necessary undertaking.

This article originally appeared in the Austin Statesman (11 October 2015).

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About Jeremi Suri
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Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University's Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Professor Suri is the author and editor of nine books on contemporary politics and foreign policy. Professor Suri's research and teaching have received numerous prizes. In 2007 Smithsonian Magazine named him one of America's "Top Young Innovators" in the Arts and Sciences. His writings appear widely in blogs and print media. Professor Suri is also a frequent public lecturer and guest on radio and television programs.

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