If I Were President…


I was born in April of 1968, a few weeks after Martin Luther King was assassinated and a few months before Robert Kennedy was gunned down. My generation was raised in an era of anguish over civil rights and women’s rights, as well as a failed war far away. But I can tell you that this new generation was raised with a deep sense of optimism, too. This was also the era of moon landings. As we grew, we witnessed an unprecedented wave of economic growth and constant technological improvement. Typewriters gave way to computers beneath our fingertips. The Berlin Wall crumbled as we came of age. Our peers invented world-changing industries. And for a brief moment, there seemed to be unlimited potential to what a united world could accomplish. Young Americans believed we might even overcome the racism, poverty, and careless pollution of the past.

The chaos of 2016 reminds many people of 1968, but it reminds this new generation that we want to move beyond the strife of the old. The nomination of two unsatisfactory candidates in Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is the culmination of the politics of division — and their unpopularity, especially among younger generations, proves it. As Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight writes, “No past candidate comes close to Clinton, and especially Trump, in terms of engendering strong dislike a little more than six months before the election.” Trump scores 53 percent “strongly unfavorable” while Hillary scored 37 percent (before the FBI rebuke), which are the worst two marks in presidential polling history.

If you feel that the Democratic and Republican National Committees have crafted a gonzo 2016 presidential election between two unacceptable choices, you are not alone.

I refuse to wring my hands and hope somebody else fixes this mess. Months ago I signed what has become known as the #NeverTrump letter. Some of my co-signers are endorsing Hillary Clinton, while other friends are rallying hard for Trump. I respect them, but just can’t tell my kids that either nominee deserves to sit where Abraham Lincoln sat. Not even close.

I watched every debate, usually in the living room with our youngest kids and a bag of popcorn. And after every one, the kids and I exchanged nervous looks. America deserves a chief executive with integrity and principles. Let me simply observe what most Americans know. Hillary Clinton has no integrity. Donald Trump has no principles.

Two weeks ago, a group of my veteran friends began urging me to be run as an independent candidate, and they even started an online petition. Imagine how that feels. I felt honored at first. Then I felt inspired. And then I wondered why so many Army and Navy guys were pushing their Air Force pal for the mission. Let the zoomie try it!

I promised to take the “Draft Kane” effort seriously if they could gather real support. What I’ve learned is that many, many Americans are hungry for an alternative. Amazingly, there is a real opportunity to win. National polling shows ready support for an outsider with real-world experience and integrity. I am not sure if I am worthy, but I promised my family to do everything I could to stop Trump and Clinton, so I’m at least open to the idea.

Could we mount a campaign that could raise enough money to take on the Clinton machine or the Trump media frenzy? Doubtful. But I asked Ryan Evans for the opportunity to lay out a vision of what my ideal presidential foreign policy might look like. I am crafting this from the perspective of a veteran Air Force intelligence officer who has spent the past two decades looking at the world through the lens of economics. I worry about nuclear terrorism and the long war, but I have boundless faith in American innovation and our Constitutional principles. Even though I am likely to decline to run, I could not resist sharing some thoughts about what I would do if I were president. Think of it as a middle school essay on War on the Rocks steroids.

The first thing a President needs is a belief system. She can believe in universal human rights. Or he can believe in deterrence. What I believe sounds simple, but has taken me a long time to refine: America is a good country. The American people are a good people. And American troops are heroes.

Not perfect. Good.

Never before in history has there been a great power as exceptional as the United States. This country was founded on universal rather than tribalist principles, and is committed to liberty abroad rather than conquest. Theories of hegemony and empire do not fit the American narrative. A better description of America’s exceptional power is promethean, unlike any great power before.

The people of our century will experience profound transformations as great as the industrial revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries but in half the time. Our foreign policy operates in this context. A wave of prosperity is sweeping across the globe, inexorably lifting up the incomes and wealth of nearly every village. It is a wave of modernity and globalization that is simultaneously fracturing cultural norms and generating an inevitable backlash of paranoid tribalism. That explains the self-proclaimed Islamic State. And sadly, it explains resurgent nationalisms and xenophobia in the West, too.

Even as income per capita slowly rises in country after country, a minority will take offense, blame foreigners for perceived injustice, and indulge themselves with toxic narratives of victimization. The violent response to globalization and modernity, however tragic, is ultimately doomed. The human instinct for a better life for one’s children is a thousand times stronger than the tribal bonds that urge people to isolate and destroy the other. Poor people see a richer world with medicine and literacy and clean water, and the vast majority are inspired to embrace that world rather than destroy it. The backlash of terrorism will plague economic development, but it cannot stop the march of progress. A president needs that faith, and that sympathy.

The speed of newly emerging technologies and merging cultures offers an easy scapegoat for economic and security problems. Indeed, Donald Trump’s whole campaign is based on fear-mongering. He blames Mexican immigrants and Chinese imports for “stealing jobs.” This is economic trash, but populist gold. Unfortunately, the Republican primary failed to produce a champion who could expose Trump’s siren song of isolationism. That same song has been sung by Bernie Sanders for decades, and Hillary Clinton surrendered to it, as she does to anything that benefits her politically. Neither Trump nor Clinton believes in free trade. Neither of them believe in immigration as a pillar of national strength. I believe immigration of “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” is the bedrock of American exceptionalism, and that walling ourselves off from the world will wall us off from both our heritage and a brighter future. Clinton may claim to believe the same, but it is very clear that she uses immigration first and foremost as a wedge issue, forever unresolved. Neither believes in free speech. Not even close. Underneath their philosophies is a fundamental distrust of freedom itself.

The engine of victory in the Cold War was the relentless economic growth of the West. I was a captain in the U.S. Air Force. I served two tours of duty in Asia as an intelligence officer in the early 1990s. But before that, as a cadet, I visited East Berlin as a member of the U.S. military during the summer of 1988. I saw communism just before it crumbled. It was like watching a nightmare of gray slaves, shambling, thirsty for freedom.

The conceit of central planning promised faster growth than liberal capitalism, and it failed. It failed in the Soviet empire. It failed in China. It fails in Venezuela and Cuba today.

The lesson I drew from those formative decades is slightly off from the conventional wisdom. The United States and its allies built up a powerful military to contain and sometimes clash with communism. But when the East fell, it fell faster and harder than the great strategists expected. It was not military containment that beat communism. We outgrew them.

The lesson we should remember is that right (liberty) makes might, not the other way around. Americans don’t use military strength as a means of achieving or enabling freedoms. Rather, economists see U.S. history this way: Constitutional freedoms served as a foundation for economic growth and military strength. Property rights yield investment incentives; federalism yields institutional innovation; free speech and equality yield human capital. And we grow stronger.

The next president should modernize and strengthen the armed forces before it is too late. The enemies of freedom are relentless. Abroad they threaten to terrorize us and overrun our allies. Force is essential to deter and defeat the enemies of freedom. It always has been. As I have written elsewhere, U.S. defense expenditures have declined from 9-10 percent of GDP in the 1950s to 6 percent in the 1970s, and 4 percent in recent decades. Even during a time of war, President Obama has cut and sequestered the defense budget. The next president should reverse course and prioritize federal outlays for a stronger Navy, Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps.

We cannot strengthen the armed forces without modernizing the way the most important military assets are managed, and by that I mean the men and women who wear the uniform. It is time for talent management to be a presidential priority. In fact, the next president should appoint a new Gates Commission to prescribe consensus reforms for a Total Volunteer Force that restores command authority and individual career control. I have faith in the volunteerism and professionalism of the men and women on active duty, and they deserve a personnel system that entrusts them and pays them accordingly. Less bureaucracy, more talent.

Most voters who think about foreign affairs are focused on the wars America faces and the controversies that go along with conflict. Afghanistan. Libya. Iraq. What goes unappreciated in our short-term media age is the vast and nuanced engagement our troops and diplomats make all across the globe in unheralded ways. Unfortunately, the establishment candidates leverage the anxiety of our dangerous world with simplistic solutions, as if the only options are to (1) send more troops or (2) bring the troops home. Too often, President Obama has chosen (2), with half-hearted gestures that are too small and too late, such as the Syria “red line” fiasco.

I believe American military engagement abroad is the essential element of a safe and prosperous world. Set aside the crises of the Middle East for a moment, and consider the lessons of recent European history. Absent the United States, there was a genocide in the Balkans. With American leadership, first peace and now a nascent prosperity have been secured. The great lesson of the two post-world-war experiences is savagery erupts in our absence and is transformed in our presence. That is American exceptionalism, and this is our century.

The mechanism for American exceptionalism, however, is not endless war. Rather, our greatest successes come through a long-term commitment to alliances. This is what is missing in the non-strategy ongoing in the Middle East. Too much focus on counterterrorism. An arguably futile effort at nation-building (which is executed with astounding ineptitude. I’m looking at you, Paul Bremer). The abandonment of semi-secure areas (an Obama specialty). What was the priority decades ago, and should be America’s priority going forward, is a total commitment to the development and security of allies. Turkey. Jordan. Israel. Korea. Taiwan. India. Colombia. Mexico. Great Britain. Germany. The list is long, and yes, it should be longer.

The defeat of the Islamic State will be a driving goal of the next administration. It will best be achieved by working to bolster allies in the region. When the people of Jordan and Israel are thriving, year after year, their example is more powerful than drone strikes. I would caution that we cannot kill our way to victory in this kind of war. A prosperous counter-model is the only long-term victory against an insurgency. The White House should think of economic growth as strategic counterinsurgency.

China is the rising great power of our era. I see the economic transformation of the Chinese economy as one of the great humanitarian achievements of all time, and we should all welcome their continued development. Some of our countrymen look at this new power as a likely rival to be watched with suspicion. I say battle not with monsters lest you create a monster. China’s development will continue, and it will not always be smooth, but we should understand its likely trajectory. Some Chinese officials will be paranoid and aggressive. To be sure, China’s creation of artificial islands in international waters has put neighbors on edge, and will be very difficult to resolve. But fundamentally, the Chinese people aspire to stability and prosperity. We should seek unity with Beijing (and Japan, Manila, and Taipei) in our common fight against global terrorism.

Unity will be the predominant theme of a successful presidency. Unity with respect for diversity: That is the DNA of the American federal structure encoded in the Constitution. Leave to the states the sovereign powers not enumerated for a strong but limited central government. Likewise, the modern pressure to unify the world must be guided by limits on the too much concentrated power. The global commons for the free exchange of ideas and goods should be strengthened, but it should never extend to a world government of rules and regulations. The EU and Brexit offer an instructive lesson in too much centralization that will (and should be) rebuked.

As for American unity, I think often of military peers from my time as a Human Intelligence (HUMINT) officer. I worked closely with citizens from diverse backgrounds. Some of the men in my units were Muslim Americans, born and raised here. Some were descendants of Asian immigrants. We spoke every language in the world, worshipped in every church, had skins of a dozen different colors, and cherished our individuality while fighting for the common good. They are my brothers and sister. Thinking of them, I recoil at Donald Trump’s casual hostility to fellow citizens of different faiths. He really has no idea of the caliber of people who serve. Trump likens his time at an all-boys school that played dress-up to the patriots who risk everything to defend his way of life.

My generation sees diversity and unity in a different way. One way or another, our time will come.


Tim Kane (@timmerkane) is the author of Bleeding Talent (2012) and Balance: The Economics of Great Powers from Ancient Rome to Modern America (2013). He is a veteran U.S. Air Force officer and twice served as a senior economist on the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress.

Image: CC, Jnn13