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Presidents must be more than military commanders

The same section of the Constitution that makes the president responsible for the nation’s defense also charges him — or her — with promoting the common welfare. The two roles get equal billing. 

We’ve been hearing a lot from presidential contenders about what they’ll do as commander in chief. Many appear to regard this as the primary if not the sole function of our chief executive. Yet the same section of the Constitution that makes the president responsible for the nation’s defense also charges him — or her — with promoting the common welfare. The two roles get equal billing. Maybe someone should tell aspirants that the job involves more than dispatching troops to police the world.

Moral leadership, for example. We turn to the White House for comfort and guidance in times of national tragedy and trial. Does anyone seriously believe that a bombastic bully can lead us in mourning when another mass shooting occurs, as our failure to reduce gun violence ensures it will? Or that he can inspire young Americans to face up to the challenges of the 21st century, from saving our environment to healing racial and religious divides?

There are about 1.5 billion Muslims around the world. As both men who have served as president since 9/11 have told us, we are not at war with Islam. Such a war is not moral, necessary or practical. We cannot eradicate an ancient, worldwide religion. 

What’s required

One commentator recently told us that solving the Middle East crisis will take more than diplomacy. Well, right, but it’s just as true to note that more than military force will be required. It will in fact take all the tools in our arsenal, including diplomacy, public diplomacy, intelligence, foreign aid and law enforcement. Not to mention patience, perseverance, compassion, wisdom. These qualities, too, will be demanded of our next president.

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What is not needed, however, nor helpful, is bluster, posturing or a readiness to sacrifice our values in pursuit of ISIS or any other cause. In Vietnam, a general once said that it was necessary to sacrifice a village in order to save it. Such thinking was nonsense then and is today, too. Suggesting that it’s OK for us to apply a little torture because our ISIS foe does far worse betrays our own values. It is self-defeating and it demeans us.

Instead, in combatting this scourge we need to concentrate our fire on the fanatics pushing a perverted version of a great religion. But we must also reach out to the vast majority of Muslims who reject their nightmare vision; we need the help of responsible Muslims leaders to win the allegiance of young Muslims, whether they live in the Middle East, Europe, Asia or Minneapolis. This is a different sort of war; it can be won only by a comprehensive, balanced strategy that honors our own ideals as well as those of Islam. Vilifying all Muslims takes us in the wrong direction – and will only make eventual success more difficult.

The same is true of the related issue of illegal immigration. Let’s admit that we have done a poor job of defending our country’s laws and borders. That we have as many as 12 million people living here without proper documentation is a serious indictment of our collective laxity. This situation has developed over decades, under the leadership of presidents and Congresses of both parties. The private sector’s hunger for cheap labor — and indifference about where these workers came from — played a part, too. Just as creating this mess was a group effort, solving it will similarly require a cooperative approach.

Talking tough isn’t enough

These “undocumented immigrants” came here seeking better economic opportunities – like the forbears of most of us. Talking tough about securing the border – something everyone favors in principle — evades the tougher question of what to do about people already here. It’s dishonest, at best, to imply that every undocumented resident is of dubious character, so we can feel justified in sending them all away. Mass forced deportations would be immoral, impractical and wildly expensive. It’s not going to happen – and it shouldn’t. We need to get real. Voters should be looking for politicians resolved to respect our humanitarian ideals as well as our laws.

To “provide for the common welfare,” we also need to strengthen our social safety net. Experts have long since identified a number of relatively minor fixes that would ensure the long-term viability of Social Security and Medicare. Americans have made it clear that they want these “entitlement” programs and the relative security they provide. The failure of our political leaders to work out an acceptable compromise is cowardly and a great disservice to their constituents. We should insist that anyone running for national office commit to fixing these programs instead of belittling and undermining them.

A presidential campaign ought to be an occasion for addressing vital challenges like these and others. Few would say our campaign to date has met that test. But when shouting stops — when the barbs, evasions and demagoguery are finally over — the serious problems will remain, awaiting urgent attention from the next person to occupy the Oval Office.

Dick Virden is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer and a graduate of the National War College. He lives in Plymouth.


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