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A White House in extremis needs help now

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
A White House in extremis needs help now
It's time for President Joe Biden's administration to consider some new ideas. Photo by Oliver Contreras/UPI | License Photo

A year ago, I proposed six recommendations for the incoming Biden administration to consider as it developed its policies. The administration did not. As it begins its second year, on the current course, the administration is in or close to extremis.

Inflation is at 30-year highs. The filibuster seems here to stay. The Build Back Better Bill is foundering. Vaccine mandates were rejected by the high court. Omicron is raging. Russia is threatening Ukraine and taunting the United States and NATO. And presidential popularity polls are tanking.

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What can the administration do? Exploring some new ideas is a good start. Of my original six recommendations, five are still relevant as eliminating the filibuster appears to have failed.

The first was to implement a 21st-century version of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's solarium project. Following Stalin's death in March 1953, Ike ordered an outside review called Project Solarium, named for the White House's top floor. Completed in four months, the conclusions led to sweeping policy changes incorporating containment and nuclear deterrence that formed Ike's strategic New Look.

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The administration's newest National Security and Defense Strategies are soon to be released. It may be too late to make major revisions. But commissioning a "red team" to study these strategies given recent events seems imperative. Solarium is a good model.

The second was to jettison great power competition as a strategy. The current U.S. National Security Strategy is based on a great power competition with China and Russia. However, that strategy was deeply flawed. Its requirement to compete, deter and -- if war arose -- defeat either power was never defined; was unrealistic, unaffordable and unexecutable; and offered no off-ramp to prevent repeating 1914 and an earlier great power rivalry provoking a world war. Perhaps great power competition will be modified by the new review.

Third was to create a national infrastructure investment fund. Some will argue that passage of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, combined with Build Back Better, fit that need. But BBB looks dead on arrival, and the $1.2 trillion has two fatal flaws. The first is that it not large enough to upgrade and modernize America's infrastructure, much of which is falling down or coming apart. The second is lacking adequate oversight and coordination.

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The solution is to establish a private-public partnership for an infrastructure investment fund. Private investment would be incentivized through 30-year bond issues at 2% to 3% above prime interest rates guaranteed by the U.S. government and with oversight coming from both sectors. A total amount of $3 trillion to $4 trillion would be the target, including the $1.2 trillion already funded infrastructure bill added to private sector investment.

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The fund would invest in advanced technologies in healthcare, artificial intelligence and related areas, genome, environmental, renewable energy, cyber and infrastructure modernization focused on universal 5G and broadband access and repaid by user fees, tolls and returns on investment.

Fourth was to revise the National Security Act, the Unified Command Plan and Goldwater-Nichols Law. While seemingly arcane, all three are bureaucratic and budgetary concrete walls that have become "clear and present dangers" to providing for the common defense. One example makes this case.

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Before passage of the first National Security Act in 1947, since 1815, the United States was victorious in every war it fought. After 1947, the nation failed to win a single war (with the possible exception of the 1991 Iraq War that was, in essence, a military campaign). The UCP organizes the military operational chain of command. GN incorporates "jointness" across the force. Both represent last-century thinking. To win future conflicts, all these must be revised for the 21st century.

The final recommendation was to upgrade American alliances. Under the past administration, America first policies diminished the importance and priority of alliances in Europe and Asia, often undermining them. Doubtless, the Biden administration swept into office intending to re-establish and strengthen relations with allies. Despite the intent, the White House has not succeeded.

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The administration has followed the Trump policy of confronting China but relying on European and Asian partners to help. It is unclear that this has worked or that America's international standing has improved and made much impact on Beijing. The current Ukraine situation has challenged several NATO states over whether or how to confront Russia given dependence on Russian energy supplies. Hence, the administration must rejuvenate its alliances as a first order matter now.

The Biden White House may not be in extremis yet. But it is close. These ideas can help.

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council, the prime author of "shock and awe" and author of "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large."

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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