By Lena Morris
The recent government shutdown, security breaches, drone strikes and controversial administrative moves have caused America to become increasingly polarized and isolated on the global stage, said Washington Post columnist David Ignatius during a talk Monday evening at the Whittenberger Auditorium.
And this is the “biggest national security problem” that the country is facing today, he told his audience during his lecture, “Imagining a Lee Hamilton Foreign Policy for 2013,” the last of the school’s fall Speaker Series events.
Ignatius examined the current state of government and what can be learned by reflecting on past administrations, utilizing the strategies of Indiana’s former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton. Hamilton now is director of IU’s Center on Congress, which, along with theInstitute for Advanced Study, co-sponsored Ignatius’ visit to campus.
Ignatius started by quoting a country song,Fly Over States, which explores the alienation many feel toward the country’s leadership.
“The lyrics reflect a truth about the American political life,” Ignatius said, “which is the people who live in the middle of the country think that the people on the two coasts who run the finance, technology, communications and government have forgotten about them. To be blunt, they think the small group has become more rich and powerful while the ordinary men and women have fallen behind.”
He said this perception of isolation explains the recent government shutdown and the unease that continues to exist in Congress.
“The message from the song is that we are not one country,” he said. “For me, this is a genuinely worrying and dangerous problem, for it leads to a popular anger that in turn justifies politics that we see in Washington everyday – which is politics of paralysis where the work and business of government doesn’t get done.”
Ignatius said these situations have only increased his admiration for Hamilton, whom he knew from political reporting and, later, writing columns covering national and global politics. Ignatius said Hamilton is remembered in Washington for his bipartisanship, stability and reasoned debate as America became a global power after WWII.
“For me, Lee Hamilton stands for a kind of liberality of spirit and an internationalism of the heartland, not of the coast, but of the very bedrock of America,” he said. “His is an embrace of the world from the very center of who we are as a country.”
Although born and bred on the East Coast, Ignatius expressed great admiration for the heartland, and the humble and strong leaders like Hamilton that it has produced. He said the politicians from the “bedrock” of the nation, including former presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, share characteristics that are rooted in their sense of identity in the heartland.
“There were always flashier generals in the U.S. Army during WWII, but none of them had Ike’s rootedness and the sense of being from somewhere, of knowing who you were that gave him analytical clarity that everyone, including Churchill, recognized,” he said of Eisenhower.
Ignatius said what the country needs now is a similarly rooted figure to reconnect the disagreeing voices. He said that globally, there was hope and enthusiasm that President Obama would be the leader who repairs the country and alliances abroad, but he has fallen short of this promise.
“As I travel the world four years later, I think that hope really has not been fulfilled,” Ignatius said of his many trips abroad to gauge opinion. “We’re seeing a kind of resentment against the United States build again that reminds me of the situation during the Bush years.”
He said he dedicated his talk to Hamilton due to the former congressman’s ability to reset the balance of America after the traumatic events of Sept. 11 through his leadership of the 9/11 Commission.
“Their final report is a work of surpassing clarity and honesty,” Ignatius said. “It’s the only government report ever written that won the National Book Award, and that was because it told the truth of why the disastrous tragedy of 9/11 happened. It was fearless, it was blunt, and it was everything that a traumatized country needed at that time.”
Ignatius outlined several key tasks for a fictional Hamilton Commission, such as repairing foreign alliances that have been jeopardized due to the NSA scandal.
“[We must find] some way to extend to the world, even if we have these powerful and, to me, often necessary intelligence collection tools, ways to respect the privacy rights of people around the world in something like the way the Fourth Amendment respects the privacy of American citizens,” he said.
His imaginary commission would demand better political leadership, he said, such as that demonstrated by Hamilton and former Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, who embody this type of leadership. And, it would “do the work of government” rather than settle into partisan gridlock.
At the end of his talk, he thanked all who attended the lecture and the readers of his work for the support in tackling the problems the nation.
“We need to rebalance, rebuild and reconstruct the basics of our foreign policy from the center of our country outward,” he said.
After a question and answer session, IU political science professor Ted Carmines presented Ignatius with the Lee H. Hamilton Public Service Fellowship award. Ignatius is the third recipient of the fellowship, after PBS NewsHour’s long-time anchor Jim Lehrer and The New York Times’ Washington correspondent David Sanger, also previous Speaker Series guests.
Hamilton had introduced Ignatius earlier in the evening and was on hand to celebrate the award.
“His twice-weekly columns in the Washington Post combine superb reporting, unparalleled access to sources of the intelligence committee and the national security community, and of course first-rate analysis,” Hamilton said. “For many of us, he has become required reading and, indeed, for many people around the world.”
Ignatius joined the Washington Post in 1986 as editor of the Sunday Outlook section, later becoming its foreign editor in 1990 and then managing editor for business news in 1993. He began writing his bi-weekly column in 1998 and served a three-year stint as executive editor at the International Herald-Tribune in Paris. He also is author of eight spy novels, with the ninth one completed just two weeks ago, he said.
Earlier in the day, Ignatius visited a journalism class and met with IU President Michael McRobbie, Hamilton and other campus officials. Today, he will have breakfast with a group of students before heading back to Washington.
The school’s Speaker Series gives students and area residents the opportunity to hear with some of the top media professionals in the country at talks that are free and open to the public. Earlier this semester, NBC’s Bob Dotson talked about his Today Show series, “The American Story.” The series resumes in January.