The Decade Ahead: From Radicalism to Restraint

Washington just turned the page on a decade filled with reckless spending, military adventurism and political fratricide. The costs of that era will be with us for some time.
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Washington just turned the page on a decade filled with reckless spending, military adventurism and political fratricide. The costs of that era will be with us for some time.

Ten years ago, Charles Krauthammer took note of what seemed to be conventional wisdom at the turn of the century: that the United States dominated the world economically, culturally and militarily in a way that no other empire had done since imperial Rome. The Washington Post columnist was right, but not for long.

The ugliness of Impeachment in 1999 soon bled into the divisions of the 2000 election, the shock of 9/11, the "good war" in Afghanistan, the "bad war" in Iraq, rising deficits, record debts, a decaying industrial base, reckless Republican budgets, mindless consumer spending, massive trade deficits, a rising China, a falling dollar, the shame of Katrina, the enabling of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the empowering of Wall Street, the loosening of credit, the awarding of too many mortgages, the flow of too many dollars, credit default swaps, an economic death spiral, a reckless bailout bill, Bernie Madoff, the collapse of GM, Too Big to Fail, a Stimulus bill Washington forgot to read, reckless Democratic budgets, reckless health care bills, reckless Republican demagogues, imaginary death panels, the resurrection of Mediscare, skyrocketing unemployment rates, a surge in Afghanistan, record bonuses for CEOs, record poverty levels, and a country where elites in Washington and on Wall Street lived in a parallel universe from the rest of us.

Americans' hubris at the end of the 20th Century gave way to an time of cynicism and doubt. In a few short years, our unipolar world became multipolar and America looked less like Julius Caesar's Rome than an empire besieged by an assortment of invading barbarians.

So how do we rise to that challenge as we face a new decade?

At home and overseas, America's recent recklessness must give way to an age of restraint.


The United States can no longer take it upon itself to make the world safe against every threat real or imagined.

While our citizens have spent the last quarter century fighting and dying in foreign wars, our global competitors have used that time to perfect a brand of economic nationalism that has laid waste to a way of life in American Rust Belt towns from Buffalo, New York to Detroit, Michigan.

Over the past decade, America has found itself bogged down by two occupations that drained our Republic of blood, treasure and credibility. And while we have been exhausting our resources in the pursuit of war, China has been making strategic gains across Asia, Africa and with our economic allies.

America can no longer afford to be the world's policeman. Instead, we should only go to war as a last resort and then follow the strategy laid out by Colin Powell before the first Iraq War: "We will find the enemy, we will cut off the enemy, we will kill the enemy and we will come home."

But we have never had a clear exit strategy in Afghanistan or Iraq. And without an exit strategy, wars become occupations and occupations become nation-draining adventures.

After nine years of such occupations, it is time to start bringing our troops home.


Washington also has to start showing restraint at home. As I noted in my 2004 book, Republican leaders on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue put our economy at risk by refusing to make tough choices.

The Bush Era gave us record deficits and debts because its leaders decided they could have it all. History proved them to be wrong.

George W. Bush decided to increase spending at record rates at the same time he added a $7 trillion debt to Medicare, passed massive tax cuts and fought two wars on the other side of the globe. Choosing guns and butter--and trillions of dollars for a new entitlement program--put America's future in the hands of foreign creditors.

President Bush inherited a $5.7 trillion debt and doubled it.

Barack Obama inherited a $11 trillion national debt and his budget plans will double that debt over the next decade.

By the time the 44th president leaves office, his own administration admits that US debt will equal 100% of America's GDP.

Democratic shock at GOP fiscal recklessness before Nancy Pelosi became Speaker of the House in 2007 suddenly looks less than sincere. The truth is that no recent Congress--other than those brought in by the Republican Revolution of 1994--dared to make the kind of tough spending cuts that lead America toward a balanced budget.

We need those kind of leaders again.


Though Democrats and Republicans love blaming the other side exclusively for all the ills that plague Washington, when it comes dealing out the kind of savagery that has turned American politics into a blood sport, both sides share responsibility.

Ask a Republican why they refuse to give President Obama the benefit of any doubt and they will tell you it is because of how badly Democrats treated George W. Bush. But Democrats justified those attacks against Bush by pointing to the terrible treatment that Republicans like myself gave Bill Clinton in the 1990s. Many Republicans who attacked Clinton without pause pointed back to the liberal establishment's harsh, personal attacks against Clarence Thomas, Robert Bork, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon.

Unfortunately, there will always be party hacks and political extremists on both sides. But my belief is in this new decade, there will be a growing majority of Americans who will rise to the challenges that face us over the next decade and punish politicians who engage in nasty political campaigns.

There are new opportunities for alliances between progressives and conservatives outside of the Beltway.

Most Americans who are not in the ruling class have been offended by the Wall Street bailouts that the New York Times' Andrew Ross Sorkin calls "the greatest redistribution of wealth in the history of the world." Sadly, those trillions flowed from Main Street to Wall Street.

Both progressives and conservatives may also find common ground on issues like Afghanistan, where political commentators from Arianna Huffington and Pat Buchanan agree that it is past time to start bringing American troops home.

And though there will be tough policy debates on how we bring death-defying deficits under control, most grown ups know that Washington has to stop spending money that it does not have.

Maybe I'm a dreamer, but I really do believe that over the next decade Americans will find common ground and start getting this country moving again. Our divisions may be great, but what unites us is greater--a love for our country and the belief that our greatest days lie ahead.

Let's get started.

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