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When muddling through no longer works: U.S. needs leadership, competence

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
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When muddling through no longer works: U.S. needs leadership, competence
With great fanfare, when Congress managed to approve a gun bill on a bipartisan basis, does anyone believe that law will make any difference in preventing the pandemic of mass shootings that has broken out across the land? Photo by Tasos Katopodis/UPI | License Photo

Consider this image of America's ship of state as a magnificently huge vessel hurtling at great speed into uncharted waters whose rudders are locked and whose powerful engines cannot be stopped or reversed despite all the commands being issued by her captain, trapped on the bridge, to alter course.

Excessive imagery? Perhaps?

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But the rudders and engines are a metaphor for a gridlocked Congress, incapable of approving serious legislation to address serious issues. For example, with great fanfare, when Congress managed to approve a gun bill on a bipartisan basis, does anyone believe that law will make any difference in preventing the pandemic of mass shootings that has broken out across the land?

And regardless of Democratic or Republican leadership on the bridge of this ship of state, neither has been able to reverse the engines reflecting the bitterness and divisions infecting the nation.

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Public belief in virtually all its institutions, from government to the clergy, media, Boy Scouts and police, is at or approaching rock bottom, an unmistakable symptom of the precarious state of the union. Could it get worse? Yes.

No matter if one supports or opposes the Supreme Court decisions reversing Roe and permitting concealed carry of firearms, the consequences for the nation will be dire simply because there is no legal compass or chart for determining how these actions will be implemented. Should the House Jan. 6 committee lead to the possible indictment of a former president, regardless of the charge, can the nation survive that spectacle without a destructive blowback?

Perhaps the most apolitical example of this political paralysis and failed and failing government concerns the one institution that most Americans trust -- the U.S. military. For reasons it cannot control, the military is on course to becoming a 21st version of the post-Vietnam War "hollow force," that is a force that was unready, ill-equipped and unprepared to fight and win our nation's wars. And the past default solution of muddling through is unlikely to work.

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How can this be? The answers are a microcosm of the larger ills and dangers menacing the nation. First is an extraordinary fiscal imbalance. The fact is that the more we spend on defense, the more the force shrinks in size. The 2023 defense budget that will be in excess of $800 billion will still produce substantial cuts in people, aircraft, ships and weapons systems.

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Second, what was once known as the all-volunteer force is now the all-recruited force as very few Americans simply volunteer for duty on an unsolicited basis. Similarly, the cohort of Americans qualified and eligible for service is also shrinking. And competition for human capital is becoming more intense. The shortage of airline pilots will likely be filled by pilots leaving the Defense Department.

Third, because of the convoluted and archaic set of acquisition regulations, moving advanced systems into active service takes years and decades rather than months. Planning for the nuclear aircraft carrier began in 1995 -- so long ago that some officers engaged in that process are now retired. The consequences are self-evident. Yet, who is taking note?

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Each of these conditions applies in force to society at large. The more spent on healthcare, the less healthcare seems to be provided. The same pattern follows in too many other programs from education to infrastructure. Meanwhile, more and more debt accumulates that at sometime will have to be repaid. And what happens when interest rates begin to soar as is happening?

Human capital is not being developed for the 21st century in which the need for skilled non-white-collar workers will become dominant. And technology that holds one set of solutions for resolving many of these challenges and problems is not being fully exploited. Despite all these danger signs of impending disaster for the ship of state, muddling through seems to be the default action.

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Would any crisis change this attitude? More Americans died of COVID-19 than all who were killed in battle in all the battles fought since 1775. Yet, that pandemic, unless it reignites, seems to be now largely forgotten. And what was learned? The plans that we do not have for COVID-20, 21 and 22 make this point.

The public, consumed with inflation, gasoline prices, rising crime and gun violence need leadership and competence. Until leaders and government show both, it is clear the ship of state is headed for a dangerous collision with reality or grounding because we could not muddle through. Yet who is sounding the collision alarm?

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." Follow him @harlankullman.

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

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