March 6, 2011 | Commentary on National Security and Defense
History rates as losers those leaders who fail to deal with big problems. Consider the Iranian Revolution. President Carter fretted about the turmoil as protesters took to the streets of Tehran, writing in his diary, "The situation in Iran varies from bad to terrible." Still, it was just one of many issues on his plate.
In fact, Carter spent far more time on normalizing relations with China and arms talk with the Soviets. Days later, he even penned hopefully, "[Khomeini] indicated he might return to Iran and would be receptive to friendship with the U.S."
It didn't pan out. Today, America faces an implacable enemy in Iran, and that nation is helping "stir the pot" against us throughout the world.
It's tempting, then, to point at the Carter legacy and conclude that President Obama needs to drop everything and focus laser-like on the Middle East, and most especially Iran, lest history tag him "loser."
But the real lesson is that successful leaders must be able to multitask. While addressing critical issues quickly and decisively, they must remain ever alert to emerging challenges, making sure that they are dealt with effectively, lest they slip under the radar and wind up becoming full-blown crises down the road.
What's the biggest "stealth" challenge today? It may well be in the Arctic. While the world is fixated on the hot sands of the Middle East, the Obama administration cannot afford to forget the frozen north.
In less than half a dozen years, international competition for primacy in the Arctic will be fierce. An Arctic passage could cut some the world's busiest trade routes by 40 percent. The region holds rich and as-yet unexploited stores of oil and other natural resources.
Gaining and maintaining critical economic assets in the Arctic will require a serious commitment to scientific research, law enforcement, search and rescue, navigational aids and environmental protection. Yet, the U.S. has taken almost no concrete steps to field the capabilities needed to protect our sovereignty, safeguard our interests, or give us a competitive edge.
In particular, our ice-breakers, the cornerstone of Arctic presence, are in pathetic shape. While other Arctic powers are building up their fleets with state-of-the art ships, the U.S. can barely field three.
The Department of Homeland Security inspector general flatly stated that our Coast Guard has neither the ships nor the budget authority needed to achieve its current mission. And that means failure in the future is guaranteed as well.
Don't look for the Coast Guard to start building new ships. According to retired Rear Adm. Jeff Garrett, the commandant of the Coast Guard and others estimate it would take three-quarters to a billion dollars to buy the kind of ice-breaker the future demands. And the Defense Department hasn't asked Congress for dime one.
But the U.S. can perhaps solve this problem-in-waiting by taking a lesson from Finland. There, the government is responsible for coordinating, developing and managing Arctic navigation. But ice-breaking services are contracted out.
The Obama Administration would do well to turn over ice-breaking operations to American-owned and operated vendors. To help lower the cost of these services, Congress could exempt bidding firms from the Jones Act, allowing them to buy ships in the global marketplace. Lifting the prohibition against flagging foreign-built ships would let U.S. companies get the best ships at the best price.
Rarely can government save money and get much better service. But, as Washington frets about the Middle East, it has a rare opportunity to do just that, even as it helps head off a future crisis in the frigid north.
James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Examiner