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Great Questions | Pennsylvania Avenue

Ross Douthat wrote a brilliant column — as he often does — Sunday on The New York Times op-ed page raising the question: What will the next Republican president (if there is one) replace Barack Obama’s dangerously inept foreign policy with?  

As a matter of fact, the Times op-ed page was filled with good questions: Nicholas Kristof’s asked how American kids will ever compete in the world economy when they’re so far behind in math. And Maureen Dowd’s asked nothing less than what will become of the human race in the age of robotics.  

Douthat’s question, though, ought to have instant results. It should inspire Republican policy pros, journalists and, ultimately, GOP primary voters to demand answers of the ’16 presidential contenders — and not just swallow their expected denunciations of Obama as evidence of wisdom.  

Douthat correctly describes Obama’s policy — toward Afghanistan, Pakistan, the group that calls itself the Islamic State, Syria, Iran and Russia — as having gotten the U.S. into a series of “frozen conflicts.” We’re involved in wars and proxy wars, but we’re not winning any of them — or even trying to win. And our allies and adversaries all get it, to our detriment.  

Republicans (except for Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who’d opt out of global involvement) are on the hustings criticizing Obama and, in essence, promising to adopt the stance of Napoleon: “When you set out to take Vienna, take Vienna.” I.e., fight to win. Douthat’s important question is: Which Vienna? Some neo-conservatives (Lindsey Graham, among the possible contenders) say we should escalate everywhere: arm the Ukrainians, bomb the Syrians, maybe bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, resist Chinese expansion in Asia, wipe out ISIS.  

Douthat doesn’t say it, but it’s that we-can-do-anything attitude that led President George W. Bush into the Iraq war folly that turned the Mideast into the cauldron it is today. (Remember how easy Donald Rumsfeld thought it would be? Why, the enemy would even run out of suicide bombers!) So far, most of the 2016 GOP contenders are content to criticize Obama and enjoy the applause of their audiences.  

Douthat’s point is that’s not good enough. They need to be asked: What are your priorities? What is your strategy? They may not want to spell it out in detail — after all, grand strategy involves considerable secrecy and not a little deception.  

But, they ought to be required to show they’ve thought about it.  

Ideally, the next president would be smart enough (and have advisers smart enough) to reverse the current situation where the U.S. is at the mercy of other nations’ strategies — Russia’s to divide the West and restore the Russian empire; China’s to dominate Asia; Iran’s and ISIS’ to dominate the Middle East. The models are President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, playing China off against the Soviet Union (though cynically abandoning Vietnam) and Ronald Reagan and George Shultz, seeing the Soviet Union as weak enough to be toppled (though carelessly abandoning Afghanistan when the Soviets were out.) They were far from perfect, but the competition among GOP candidates should be to show they might be that smart.  

Meantime, Kristof’s column re-exposed in exceptionally lively fashion the fact that American teenagers trail practically the whole world in math skills, a danger to US competitiveness and their own employability. He doesn’t approach the question — what to do? But he was at the same Arizona State University-GSV conference I was at this month and he knows that private-sector tech developers, charter-school operators and teacher-training experts have amazing answers: programs to make learning fun and tailor lessons to students’ abilities. He should tout them.  

And, finally, Dowd reviewed, in her inimitable way, the new movie Ex Machina, whose premise is that a female-like robot can be programmed to make a human male fall in love with it—raising the question: what can’t robotics, plus massive data collections about each of us, result in? Maybe robots that’ll help us do what we’d rather not do. But maybe robots smart enough to improve their own digital DNA, take over the world and make us their toys.  

Big, big questions. Thank, you, NYT.  

The 114th: CQ Roll Call’s Guide to the New Congress

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