The U.S. Has Power. What It Needs Is Authority.

By Ron Suskind
Sunday, November 9, 2008

Moral authority.

What is it? Do you have any? Would you like to lend some to the U.S. government?

Because that will be the holy grail for President Barack Obama: Finding moral authority -- the quicker, the better.

The rap against the United States is well known by now: Over the past eight years, we have embraced a reckless unilateral posture of action over analysis, discarding the "good process" of prudent, evidence-based policy debate in favor of the Nike Doctrine -- just do it, and clean up the mess later.

But seven years later, glorious victories, from Iraq to Afghanistan, have been slow in coming. Secret prisons, torture, putting U.S. citizens and foreigners under surveillance -- or sending armies into civilian populations to tease out friend from foe at the muzzle of a gun -- don't work very well. That's why, over the centuries, they've been discarded one by one.

But what happens next? If ever there were a president who could credibly claim to signify a clean break from his predecessor, that commander in chief is Obama. But the United States also needs a plan that shows that what's coming won't be business as usual.

The core conundrum: How does a nation with so much power, both military and economic, go about restoring moral energy, the source of true clout in the world?

The sensation of absent moral power has been felt, like a lost limb, by Americans of all stripes. But its effects are also concrete: Without it, the United States would be unable to muster a coalition to challenge Iran's nuclear ambitions, oppose Vladimir Putin's bullying in Georgia or mount a global effort to round up loose fissile materials in the world's black markets. Without moral leadership, there's no way to herd the world's cats, large and small. The response of rogue states, such newly hopeful competitors as Russia and even terrorist networks will be uniform: Welcome to the mud, America. Kind of messy at this end of the slippery slope, isn't it?

But climbing back to the moral high ground will require qualities that the United States has allowed to atrophy, starting with self-discipline. With tight funds needed for a new generation of priorities, Obama should be thinking about transforming two huge, related kingdoms: defense and intelligence. That'll set the table, institutionally, for the restoration of American moral power.

U.S. defenses are still constructed to fight the last century's land wars, designed for the state-to-state dance of force and diplomacy and armies massed on borders. Though there will be less and less of that on a planet where it is increasingly difficult to secure any territory against the will of its population -- look at Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan's tribal areas -- U.S. defense spending has risen 72 percent in eight years to a whopping $671 billion for fiscal year 2008. The U.S. intelligence establishment ($47.5 billion, fiscal year 2008) is, similarly, still structured for battle against the Soviet menace or for large state-to-state conflicts. We have very little solid espionage occurring and some 1,000 seasoned case officers (spies), most of whom don't have the acuity or language skills needed to operate in countries that might disrupt regions or export damage to our shores. What's necessary is complete reinvention: building a light, fast military, ready for guerrilla warfare and nation-building, and a first-class intelligence service, with proper oversight, that's weighted toward getting actual human intelligence, the gold standard of actionable information.

Though the United States will certainly retain a large military, its prime function may become protecting aid workers as they do good deeds such as building hospitals, schools and stringing electricity while waiting for a native population's goodwill to start yielding assistance, local expertise and precious intelligence. The tough truth: In the age of free will, people have to want to help you help them.

But that's just the half of it. Much of this Herculean effort -- which will run Obama into the strongest collected interests and lobbies in Washington -- is simply to set the platform for the slow, humbling restoration of moral authority. That's as much about what we do here in the United States -- how we, again, begin to lead by example -- as it is about our actions overseas.

This is the thorniest part of the equation. The new president will have to lead the country through a process that people may know from their own lives: getting out of the doghouse. Large errors demand large responses, and not just for show. You have to mean it.

The American list of sins is long -- from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo Bay, from human rights abuses to actual legal violations.This sort of cleansing -- of confronting the truth and taking the consequences -- is the only way to move forward on a moral arc. It is the sign of a mature country -- steady, prudent, ready to re-chart its course when needed. One worth following.

But here, at least, there's a revealing precedent for how difficult, self-correcting actions at home can, over time, improbably change world views: Watergate. In 1974, many observers were worried that President Richard M. Nixon's resignation would embolden America's enemies and send a message that the mighty United States was adrift. Someone who harbored such fears was a Nixon aide named Dick Cheney, who felt that the mistake of Watergate was that Nixon was over-briefed: Had he never been told about the break-ins, Nixon would never have been engaged in the illegal cover-up.

A quarter-century later, Cheney expanded that concept for the current president, making sure that Bush was not over-briefed so that he could, if necessary, deny his own presidential statements and dodge accountability. At day's end, it fooled no one. But the error made by Cheney and the complicit Bush was deeper -- they misread the nature of real power and misunderstood the way it flows from a truly honest conversation among leaders and, in a democracy, their bosses, the people. There is a strong consensus among historians about what the world learned from Watergate: that the rule of law in America is not a matter of convenience. In fact, under the duly constituted laws, a president is no different from the garbage collector rolling a can to his truck on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Along with the power of its example, America might finally start diverting significant funds earmarked for overwhelming force toward the goal of becoming a true humanitarian superpower. In this connected age, such efforts work as never before. To wit: The U.S. approval rating, languishing in the teens for years in the linchpin country of Pakistan, jumped to 48 percent after America's humanitarian armies arrived in Kashmir in 2005 to lead earthquake relief. A few months later, though, after a Predator drone bombed a village in the Pakistani tribal areas, killing 18 civilians, it dropped back to the teens, where it remains.

The lessons of this sort of goodwill action have not been lost on the leading terrorism experts. "When we're hit again by terrorists, and we will be, we need to show a kind of bounce-back flexibility," said former British counterterrorism chief David Omand. "We'll keep right along working on the important issues, the big ones, to lessen the world's strife in ways that are visible and consistent."

Those "visible and consistent" ways -- large development and humanitarian efforts carried forward with renewed moral authority -- are what terrify the terrorists, whose goal is to draw us into forceful overreactions and prove that humanist values are fragile and hypocritical and come only at power's convenience.

During the presidential campaign, I interviewed a London radical with suspected connections to al-Qaeda. He was particularly concerned about how Obama might be the agent of such change. "Obama would be a nightmare for us," he said. "He looks like the world, he knows Islam, his grandfather was a goat herder from Kenya, living like much of the world still lives. As president, he might finally unify the world's Muslim moderates, who outnumber us four or five to one. They know who we are, where we live. They could crush us."

While voters across the United States made their decisions last week, vast nonvoting constituencies around the world were watching, in dusty villages and crowded slums -- as were their wary leaders. That bottom-up attentiveness is this era's greatest force, creating both hope and havoc. The fact that so many people, from South Asia to Africa to South America rejoiced at Obama's election, provides a rare opportunity for the United States to start the slow, steady campaign to win their confidence, their trust and, over time, their support.

Ron Suskind's books include "The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11" and, most recently, "The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism."

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