U.S. leaders sleepwalk through times of economic and military peril

US Navy Aircraft Crash
The USS Ronald Reagan arrives in Hong Kong last month. “We have too many planes that can’t fly and ships that can’t sail and a military that is too small to adequately face the numerous, diverse, and dangerous threats to our national security,” says Christopher Lehman.

In his Nobel Prize-winning history of World War II, Winston Churchill described the political leadership of Europe in the late 1930s as being unwilling to “undeceive” the public when it came to the threats that were facing them. He wrote that this failure of leadership unquestionably led to the deaths of tens of millions of people in World War II — which he dubbed the “Unnecessary War.”

I fear we are in an advanced state of history repeating itself. For the last two decades or more, we have seen America’s leaders repeat the mistakes of 1930s Europe, when politicians failed to respond to the danger of Germany’s rearmament, which violated the Treaty of Versailles.

With each new German provocation, Europe’s politicians made concession after concession to Hitler’s demands in hope of maintaining the peace. By early 1939, Hitler was convinced that the democratic nations would never stand up to him. “Our enemies have leaders who are below the average,” he told his military commanders. “No personalities. No masters, no men of action. … Our enemies are little worms. I saw them in Munich.”

Eight days later, Poland was invaded. Two days after that, Britain and France declared war on Germany, and thus began the deadliest conflict in history.

Today, U.S. politicians spend too much time hiding from these simple facts: Our nation has a $20 trillion national debt that has doubled in the last nine years. Our military readiness is in decline and our forces are the smallest they have been since before World War II. At the same time, the threats our nation faces are growing rapidly. On top of these dangerous problems, we are a nation deeply divided along political lines.

Churchill could have been describing our own time when he said: “The multitudes remained plunged in ignorance of the simplest … facts, and their leaders … did not dare to undeceive them.”

Instead of leadership, we have a Democratic Party of today moving so far to the left that it is almost unrecognizable and the
Republican Party seems to be so divided that it can’t get anything done despite its majorities in both the House and the Senate. The Democrats seem to want to spend us into oblivion and the Republicans fight over whether to be deficit hawks or defense hawks. So the nation is paralyzed by a political stalemate, and we drift along ignoring the very real economic and security problems that face our nation.

Where do we go from here? Can our political leadership dare to start “undeceiving” Americans and instead identify the very serious threats we face and then chart a course out of this mess?

Let me offer a simple reminder as a starting point. According to the 52-word preamble to the Constitution, our government was formed in order to “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”

Using this preamble as a basic mission statement, it should be clear to our leadership that they are failing us in two important ways. First, the failure to provide for the common defense is becoming more clear. We have too many planes that can’t fly and ships that can’t sail and a military that is too small to adequately face the numerous, diverse, and dangerous threats to our national security.

Second, our current fiscal path of endless deficits and an unsustainable national debt are a pernicious threat to providing for the general welfare of the American people.

New administrations are often a good time to address looming issues, but the narrow victory of President Trump failed to provide the kind of mandate needed to move forward decisively on these issues. In the campaign, he pledged to strengthen our economy and to restore our military strength. But he can’t move forward on either of these massive problems without support in Congress, which, unfortunately, reflects the deep divisions of our nation. The Republicans are in control there but infighting keeps their majorities from overcoming the stalemate.

I have a fundamental faith in the common sense of the American people, but I fear they, and their leaders, are sleepwalking through a dangerous time. Their blindness reminds me of the lyrics of Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me (Not to Come):

This is the craziest party
That there ever could be
Oh, don’t turn on the light
‘Cause I don’t want to see.

Our nation’s leaders need to turn on the light.

Christopher M. Lehman served as a special assistant for national security affairs to President Ronald Reagan in 1983-85. CLehman48@aol.com