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« African economy tied to rest of the world | Main | America's discipline, globalization's survival »
Sunday
Mar162008

Losing America's middle ground means losing our way

For a decade now, I've had a high enough profile in national security issues that I routinely receive e-mails concerning American foreign policy from strangers living all over this country and world. Because I've always been easy to find on the Web, people reach out to me in the hope that I'm somehow powerful enough - alas - to effect the change they seek, unloading their fears and anger in often disturbing ways. Let me explain why that worries me.

Having worked professionally all over the national security community for the past 18 years, meeting more people than I can remember and going everywhere you might imagine, I know there're wings and factions on every issue and that, generally speaking, they duke it out under roughly fair conditions in the best interest of the United States.

I also know many citizens don't believe that. They sense everything is decided by cabals and secret programs and groups you've never even heard of because I'd have to kill you once you did! They imagine money passing under every table and officials taking notes primarily to inform bestselling memoirs or their lawyers when the indictments hit.

Most people see too many movies and don't read enough material that accurately describes the day-to-day workings of things, so their images of policy-making tend to be very dark and nefarious. Vietnam and Watergate created a lot of that bad feeling - that sense of hopelessness - in the 1960s and 1970s. I grew up in those years, and it saddens me deeply to see people feeling this way again.

I watched "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" last weekend with my kids on Blu-ray, and I realized that one of the reasons I liked that film so much was that it showed the U.S. government in a benevolent light. Of course, it's secretive under those circumstances, but the movie showed this vast collection of people all working together under these very strange conditions - plenty of screw-ups but everybody trying hard.

Of course, the notion that you'd keep something like that secret for any length of time is utterly fantastic because you get that many people together, and somebody always talks. Still, I liked the image of a caring government trying to do the right thing.

Soon after 9/11, I was assigned to a newly created Pentagon office set up to think about the future of war and peace. What I remember most about those heady times was that it was suddenly cool to be working for the U.S. government and especially with the military. It wasn't like that across the 1990s, when politicians often pointed to the government as the example of what was wrong with America.

Today, the tide seems to be turning quickly back to those earlier days: 1970s-style movies filled with paranoia and dread, conspiracy thinking returning to its pre-millennial high, people believing we live in an era more dangerous than the Cold War and starting to view government and the military as more evil than good.

People feel powerless over events, and so they go to blogs and discussion boards and type in statements I couldn't deliver as an actor, they're so angry and out of control. I mostly get two types of responses nowadays to my writings: either "God bless you and the work you do" or "I hope you and your kind go straight to hell for all the damage you've done."

What's missing in those responses and in much of our national discourse right now is any sort of middle ground, and that's dangerous.

You get as many e-mails as I do - from all political stripes - and you realize there is a profound mismatch between our current grand strategy fixated on terror and what most Americans feel needs to be something visionary and more positive - not just the future to be prevented but the one worth creating. To me, that's Barack Obama's appeal in a nutshell.

The next president better address that mismatch or we'll see the moral vigor of this nation continue to decline in dangerous ways, especially during an economic downturn.

Most ominously, we won't see the federal government attract new workers in the numbers it will need to replace the roughly half of its labor force that's getting ready to retire across the next decade.

People don't join a cause they mistrust.

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