Voice

If Obama Were a Truth-Teller

Here’s what he would say on Tuesday night.

The White House has teed up this year's State of the Union address in the usual ways. It has leaked bits and pieces of its content to key news organizations, hinted at themes. It has invited guests to sit in the balcony with the first lady and be used to as political props. It has set up the president's schedule so that he flies out of town immediately afterward and takes his message, campaign-style, to the people -- and thus draws out the coverage the speech gets and, with any luck, steps on whatever news might be created by the twin Republican responses, one from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and the other, for the Tea Party faction, from his Kentucky colleague Rand Paul.

With the goal of setting an agenda focused not just on economics but specifically on restoring opportunity for the middle class, the president has picked a central theme that seems logical and unlikely to stir up debate. That said, to achieve his goals will require investment in infrastructure and education that will be contentious, particularly in the cut-oriented and obstructionist House of Representatives. And some issues that he will bring up, such as immigration, gun control, and climate are sure to be hotly debated, parsed, and divisive.

The president will also reintroduce his desire to eliminate nuclear weapons, a goal that is both vitally important and one on which we will make little progress over the next four years. And he will go down a foreign-policy checklist that will reassert our friendship with Israel, our desire to get out of the Middle East, probably our desire to make new progress on trade and exports, and so on. The usual.

But here's what the president won't do that would be welcome: He won't tell the real truth to the American people. It's not that he is a liar. It's not that he doesn't mean well. It's because he no doubt believes -- and he is probably right -- that the American people can't handle the truth. But frankly, whether they can handle it or not, they need to hear it. So here are 10 of the key truths he'll sidestep, talk around, or consciously ignore -- and the segments of the American population and people around the world who need to hear them.

 1. To Americans under 18: Kids, we love you, but you need to know a few things. First, you will not be retiring at 65. Your Social Security benefits will not be kicking in until you are 70; possibly until you are 72. We won't have the courage to make this change now, so it is going to come a little later in your lives -- but plan accordingly. We can't afford to do otherwise.

2. To gun owners: You guys are absolutely right. There's precious little new regulations are going to do to reduce crime if there are already 300 million guns in circulation. That's why we have to take those guns out of circulation. We're probably not going to come into your homes to get them -- although we should. So here's what we're going to have to do: We're going to outlaw your carrying them in public, trafficking them, and using them in a crime. Again, we're not going to do this now. It'll take a few more horrific tragedies to get there. But rest assured, we'll get there. Guns really are the problem and getting rid of guns is the only way to solve it.

3. To his fellow politicians: We need to clean up our act. Money is the problem. I have made things worse. I led the way in 2008 by opting out of federal matching funds. I have paid off donors with political appointments like an old time Tammany Hall pol. I have also watched as K Street money has bought and sold legislation, whole legislators, and big chunks of America's future. The only way to stop this is getting money out of politics. That's why we're going to move to 100 percent federally funded elections and 90-day campaigns, and if it takes a constitutional amendment to get it done, then so be it. (But I'll also work on rebalancing the Supreme Court every chance I get.) 

4. To Congress: Incivility and obstruction aren't just ugly, they are a violation of our oaths of office. So here's what we're going to do. I'm going to invite congressional leaders to my house once a month for the remainder of my term for dinner. We're going to spend three hours in a room together. If we sit there in silence, so be it. But we owe it to the voters to make it a priority. And we're going to start by discussing how to undo those rules and procedures that exacerbate our differences -- from gerrymandering to the filibuster -- and make obstruction all too easy.

5. To the top brass in the Pentagon: The phony debate over cuts has to end. It is no longer possible to continue spending what we do on defense and to neglect not only our fiscal plight but the investments in infrastructure, education, technology, and health care that we so desperately need. Something has got to give, and the biggest discretionary pool of spending we have is defense. In organizations in trouble, 10 to 15 percent cuts in spending are normal, 20 percent not unheard of. That means you need to find me $100 billion a year for the next 10 years just to prove you understand the problem. It's there. We're creative enough to do it and maintain our national security. It is actually by pretending we can maintain the status quo that we put ourselves at greatest risk.

6. To the energy community: This is a moment of great opportunity and challenges. A new energy paradigm will make us energy independent and safer. It can help move us toward a healthier climate. But it will also require some candor and some big changes from all parties. Shale gas is a boon, but it also presents real environmental challenges that we must acknowledge and address. The gas boon should allow us to switch away from coal. The time to start is now. The coal can be exported but, to be honest, that doesn't help the planet very much in the long run. We need to phase out its use and, in the interim, embrace the cleanest available technologies. Efficiency is as big a part of this revolution as shale. We need to create new incentives to achieve it. And we are going to need to pay for it with a carbon tax. Even big energy companies realize this is coming. Let's stop pretending it's not and start leading the world again.

7. To American taxpayers: While we're being honest about taxes, take a deep breath and accept the inevitable. The only way to fix our fiscal problem is to cut defense and entitlements and raise taxes. And the most significant change to our tax policy that is coming almost certainly will be a value-added tax. Let's plan on it and use it to initiate a process by which we drastically simplify our ridiculous, loophole-ridden tax code. And let's throw in that carbon tax while we're at it, too.

8. To our allies in Israel: We are your friends. Friends tell the truth. Your world has been rocked by big changes, and since roughly the early 1980s you have been doing nothing to help yourselves adapt. Demographics now pose the ultimate challenge to the idea of a democratic Jewish state in the Middle East. You need to stop with the ridiculous, inflammatory settlement policies and recognize that the greatest guarantor of Israel's security is not the United States but a prospering Palestinian economy. Focus on making that happen -- on creating jobs and opportunities in the Palestinian territories -- and progress is possible. Oh, and we're going to be ramping down our involvement in the Middle East for a while. Like forever. Our rhetoric won't change. We won't completely disappear. But you've already seen the changes start to happen. We simply have neither the appetite nor the budget for more wars.

9. To our friends in the Palestinian territories, and to our enemies there: Clean up your act.  Until you have a single government, a single agenda, and are willing to be serious, we're not getting involved.

10. To our terrorist enemies: We're going to keep coming for you. With drones. With Special Forces. With whatever it takes. We don't care about international law. We don't even care about our own law. You scared us. You scarred us. And no American leader can afford to drop his guard.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

Size Matters

The miniaturization of U.S. foreign policy.

The British military has become the first to deploy tiny drones the size of sparrows on the front lines. According to a report from Sky News, the mini-eyes in the sky, dubbed "Black Hornets," are helicopters approximately 4 inches long that send full-motion video and still images to soldiers so that they can check out potential risks and enemy locations.

The Brits' new nanocopters were developed as part of a $31.5 million contract with a Norwegian supplier that will result in the production of 140 of the small wonders. That comes out to about $225,000 each. (If only I had known about projects like these when I was building model airplanes as a kid.)

Despite the small size of the members of the Black Hornet fleet, the project represents two of the biggest trends in defense right now -- drones and nanotech. But the bigger question is whether, at the same time, it also hints at a size problem that is bedeviling Western -- and particularly American -- policymakers at the moment: whether our ideas are shrinking at roughly the same speed as our technologies.

On the one hand, the vaunted move toward smaller-footprint strategies is at the heart of what has become known as the "Obama doctrine," which has some clear advantages over the alternatives we have seen recently. Using tools like drones, smaller special operations units, and even the smallest warriors of them all -- the electrons that are our front-line "troops" in cyberwarfare -- reduces the risks and costs associated with our overseas interventions, such as those involved in combating terrorists. (Or, in the case of the Black Hornets, fighting in hostile terrain against entrenched insurgents.) As we have also seen, by reducing those risks and costs, we reduce impediments to taking action via these means. This can make for a nimbler, more assertive foreign policy.

As we have also seen in places like Pakistan and Yemen, however, by reducing the impediments to action, we seem to be increasing the likelihood that we will violate the sovereignty of other countries even if it means taking action in which civilian loss of life and property takes place.

On the plus side, having offensive capabilities that allow us to deal more effectively with isolated threats from non-state actors without causing major wars makes for a more flexible foreign policy. But it can also create the illusion that just because we are doing something, we are doing enough -- or that because we can mitigate risk some of the time, low-risk interventions are always the way to go. Micropolicies relying on small-footprint tactics are often smarter approaches than spare-no-expense, high-stakes, low-return adventures like Iraq or Afghanistan. But they are also not going to be a solution to the really big problems that periodically arise in international affairs.

Consider Syria, home to the world's worst current humanitarian crisis, with more than 2 million displaced people not only living in horrible conditions but threatening the stability of neighboring countries. Nearly two years and more than 60,000 deaths since the uprising began, the United States and its allies remain wary of intervention, for a lot of good reasons. It is unclear who to bet on among the opposition. It is unclear what approaches might be most effective. Some key players -- like the Russians -- have been uncooperative, backing Bashar al-Assad's regime with money, weapons, and diplomatic support. And the international community has not united around a single approach.

In the midst of this, apparently, according to a New York Times report this weekend, recently departed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former CIA Director David Petraeus came up with a plan to directly arm the Syrian rebels. The idea apparently had tacit support from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and others, but a risk-averse White House scotched the plan. The United States remained on the sidelines even as evidence that the Assad regime was testing Obama's "red lines" regarding chemical weapons movement and use came to light.

Without speaking to the merits of the Clinton-Petraeus plan, the fact that not only was it avoided but that in so doing the Obama White House maintained its consistent opposition to all but the most limited, lowest-risk sort of interventions in the region suggests a divide within even Democratic foreign-policy circles. It seems clear that a Hillary Clinton administration would have intervened faster not only in Syria but also in Libya. We can speculate about where else it might have taken a tougher line, but the question this incident raises should be front and center: Is less always more in U.S. foreign policy?

It's good to avoid Iraqs and Afghanistans. But if the message to bad actors is that the United States is now on a "think small" kick in which we'll be hard to provoke into anything more than isolated surgical strikes or the occasional cyberattack, are we actually reducing risks or increasing them? Will we be up to facing big threats, or will we persuade ourselves that it is possible to engage the world solely on our terms, with very moderated risks, and not at the same time invite really bad actors to test our resolve? That's a delusion we can no more afford than repeating the over-aggressive mistakes of the George W. Bush years. Chuck Hagel's merits as a potential secretary of defense aside, what we really need is a Goldilocks in the job: someone who understands the problems with much-too-big and much-too-small and will work tirelessly to find the just-right balance in between.

Sergeant Rupert Frere RLC/MOD