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We need a militarily strong, morally confident America -- it's time for smart power

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FILE -- Sept. 15, 2013: Military personnel carry an American flag on to the field before an NFL football game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the San Diego Chargers in Philadelphia.AP Photo/Matt Rourke

The national security debate in Washington is a muddled affair.  Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu warned us Tuesday at the U.N. that conciliatory gestures from an Iranian regime bent on nuclear domination of the Middle East are a ruse.  But in Washington, no one seems to be listening--or preparing for the dangerous new world Netanyahu outlined.   

President Obama continues to “lead from behind” first following the French and now the Russians in ad hoc decision making on a crisis-by-crisis basis.  

Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham’s reflexive solution to any situation is apparently to call for the imposition of a “no fly zone.”  

There may be more interest in Beijing in his smart power theories and strategies today than there is in Washington.

But the no fly zone option is becoming a more complicated proposition for our Armed Forces as “Tea Party” Republicans join “San Francisco” Democrats in embracing sequestration, which is literally decimating the American military and could sideline four carrier battle groups.  

Dennis Kucinich-led progressives are allied with Ron Paul-led libertarians in advocating a new era of American isolationism, hoping that by withdrawing from the world, the world’s problems will stop at our shores.

Missing in the debate are vocal advocates of the formerly bipartisan post-war consensus that a militarily strong and morally confident America, actively engaged with its allies in the world, is a force for peace and good.  

Ronald Reagan called the approach “peace through strength.”  Now into the void steps former Bush administration State Department official, Christian Whiton, with his book, “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War.” 

Whiton makes the case for a robust foreign policy that pursues the nation’s interests using the full spectrum of the foreign policy tools in America’s tool box.  This is what we need for today's world.

Whiton argues that there is a fertile “smart power” middle ground between diplomacy and war, which can be cultivated to harvest American national interests. He points to American post war success in stopping the spread of communism in Western Europe as the high point for the use of smart power.  

Starting in 1948, the United States and its allies fought the Soviet Union and its proxies intellectually (e.g. broadcasting Radio Free Europe), economically (implementing the Marshall Plan), overtly (ending the post-World War II military draw down) and covertly (providing direct clandestine aide to anticommunist parties).  

Ronald Reagan rejoined the fight and further enhanced the West’s position when he deployed new classes of American nuclear weapons (Pershing IIs and cruise missiles) to Europe in 1983 to counter the Red Army’s numerically superior armored and infantry divisions.  

He also provided covert aid to freedom fighters in Central America and Africa.  

Shortly thereafter, occupied Eastern Europe was free and the Soviet Union had disintegrated; not as a result of war but through the systematic application of American smart power.

Fast-forward to today.  

From the United States’ hasty withdrawal from Iraq, which is on the verge of renewed sectarian chaos, its lack of a clear exit plan in Afghanistan, its management of the fiascos in Libya, Egypt and Syria, the lack of Western will to defend Georgia, where the Brezhnev doctrine seems to have been resurrected by Russia, to the failure to respond meaningfully to Chinese assertiveness in the Pacific, and the West’s inability to stop Iran’s relentless march toward a nuclear bomb -- a game changer in the Middle East, Whiton concludes that America lacks both global and regional smart power strategies to advance its interests.

Whiton’s proposed solution to America’s smart power deficiency is also the shortcoming in his otherwise well-reasoned book.  

Having lost confidence in the State Department and CIA bureaucracies, he advocates the creation of a new government agency that would have the communications tasking of the former U.S. Information Agency and the political warfare and intelligence collection capabilities of the World War II-era Office of Strategic Services.  

Rather than create another bureaucracy in a foreign policy and national security arena that is already an alphabet soup, the conservative approach would be to bring strong leadership to bear in refocusing State, Defense, the CIA and their sister departments on their roles in implementing U.S. smart power initiatives.

Ironically, the country that seems to be best employing the type of smart power and its subcomponent, political warfare, advocated by Whiton is the looming adversary that concerns him most – China.  

Whiton argues it is China “that wages relentless cyberwar on the United States, that is building a navy to exclude the United States from the Western Pacific, that trades unfairly, and that systematically steals U.S. technology and intellectual property to improve its military and damage America’s economy.”  

Further Whiton claims, even Pentagon officials are unwilling to criticize China’s “peaceful rise” for fear of being accused of having a “Cold War mindset,” a cleverly coined phrase deployed by the Chinese government. 

Accordingly, Whiton should not be surprised if the first country to seek translation rights for his book is China.  There may be more interest in Beijing in his smart power theories and strategies today than there is in Washington.

From China to Iran and across the Middle East the world is becoming more dangerous for America and its allies.  Rather than ignore the warning provided this week by Prime Minister Netanyahu at the U.N., we should get smarter about confronting our adversaries.

Robert C. O'Brien is a partner in a national law firm in Los Angeles. He served as a U.S. Representative to the U.N. and advised Republican presidential candidate Governor Mitt Romney on foreign policy matters. Robert’s website is www.robertcobrien.com.  Follow him on Twitter @robertcobrien.