Gergen, Nunn discuss election-year issues in Tate Forum

The next U.S. president must make the most of common interests to restore leadership at home and abroad, two political veterans told students at SMU Sept. 16.

“We’ve got to get over this notion that you punish people by not talking to them. You’ve got to have dialogue,” said Sam Nunn, former U.S. Senator and chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Forces, at the Turner Construction/Wachovia Student Forum. Former White House adviser David Gergen questioned Nunn before an audience of SMU and local high school students in a preview of their Tate Distinguished Lecture, which also featured former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III.

We had two weeks of nonstop trivia in the presidential campaign come to a jolting halt over the Sept. 12 weekend, when we realized there are serious things going on in this country and serious issues we face in the future. Can you outline what you think will be the major challenges facing the next president, and how big and how crucial they are?

We’re going to have a lot of domestic and economic issues that transcend our own borders, and we’re seeing that every day in the headlines. We probably have never faced anything like the current financial situation, and there are all sorts of reasons for it. We’ve had excess liquidity for quite a while, at least since the dot-com and telecom boom, and the best and the brightest in the financial world have put together so many complex and almost incomprehensible financial instruments that most people can’t understand them. Most of us ordinary human beings thought the best and brightest understood them, and it turns out they didn’t, either. Banks all over the world have loaded up on those instruments, and right now there is a question of solvency. Most financial people do not know what those instruments are worth. That’s a huge problem, and it will be with us for a while.

How do you think it’s going to unfold?

I think the Fed and its counterparts around the world are going to keep pouring in liquidity right now. They’re going to back up those institutions whose collapse would cause the entire financial system to collapse. But clearly the Fed has drawn the line, at least in this country. They did not bail out Lehman Brothers, they did not bail out the stockholders, and it looks like they’re not going to bail out AIG.

In my view, we’re probably going to have to have some kind of federal government intervention in terms of setting up some kind of floor on housing. It’s not the only factor in play, but until there’s a bottom in the housing market, it’s going to be awfully hard for anyone in the financial world to know what their holdings are worth. Beyond that, I think one of our greatest economic challenges is to restore our confidence that we can compete in the world.

I hope we don’t pass a stimulus program in the short term that doesn’t include an infrastructure program. They’re building infrastructure like mad in China and other places, and we’re letting ours run down. That’s long-term investment, not consumption-type expenditures like a stimulus package, and it really would build for the future.

Another thing we have to do is get serious about education. We have a global economy and people who compete with us all over the world. We have to have the education and the skills to compete, and we can do that, but we have to get serious about it now. I don’t think you can pass a federal law to make this so. I think we need leaders at every level on this, including parents. When you look at the number of hours young people typically spend watching TV, you have to wonder how we can compete. It’s a cultural change we have to make.

How do you bring a whole new generation of talented people into teaching at the K-12 level?

I believe in national service. When I was in the Senate, we wrote a bill that would require any student who had a federal loan to give some type of service in return. I still believe in that principle. I would have the most lucrative benefits go to those students who were willing to sign up for the military. The second level of benefits would be for those in the Guard, Reserves and homeland security, and the third would be for teachers. I would have a very lucrative program available for people who were willing to go into teaching, and that service would qualify as national service. We have to pay teachers better, and we have to demand the best and the brightest.

What worries you the most about the next four years?

Well, first I want to talk about the opportunities. I don’t think we’ve ever had this much common interest with other nations – Russia, China, Japan, all of Europe, the African and Asian nations. We have common interests in economic matters, environmental matters, energy matters and security matters. If you talk with other nations, you find out that what they fear most is Islamic extremism, which is also one of our problems. But the leadership is not building on that. We’re in one dispute after another with Russia, and a lot of that conflict is based on dignity, or the lack thereof, and pride. And yet we have all sorts of common interests. I think we need to identify them, and my biggest fear is that we will continue not to understand or recognize that we have them.

The expression I use is that we tend to let the vivid come before the vital. I think Russia has lost a sense of their vital interest by what they did in Georgia. I think we’ve lost a sense of ours by our reaction to that, acting as if we’re going to cut Russia off from dialogue when we depend on cooperation with Russia in nuclear matters. If we’re going to stop nuclear terrorism or catastrophic biological terrorism, we have to work with the Russians. We have to work with them on energy.

During the Cold War, our country perhaps more than any other in history was able to keep its eye on vital interests, whether we had a Democratic or Republican president or Congress. Now we seem to have lost track of them. Those interests have to be part of a deep-seated understanding with the American public, because that focus has to be sustainable – and the only way you can sustain it is for the public to understand it.

Another vital interest is energy security. We can dramatically increase our energy security, and we can dramatically decrease the amount of carbon we put into the air, but we have to be serious about it. Even if the price of crude oil comes back down to $40 a barrel, we still have a problem. This may not be greeted by much enthusiasm, but I think we need to put a floor on the price of crude oil. For example, Texas is doing a great job on wind power, but if the price of crude oil comes back down to $30 or $40 a barrel, everyone who’s working on alternative energy is out of business, just based on economics. We’ve already been there and seen that once. A floor on oil prices would mean we wouldn’t go back down to $2 gas, but I think the American people are intelligent enough to understand. Which would we rather do, be jerked around for the next 25 years in terms of our vital security and energy interests, or actually go ahead and face up to this? I think we ought to face up to it.

For the next president, which problem is going to be harder: Iraq or Iran?

I think the hardest problem will be Pakistan. We can talk with the Iranians, and we should. Nixon went to China when the regime of Chairman Mao had to be worse in every particular than that of Iran – but we talked, and it changed the world. Not immediately, but over a period of time. We’ve got to get over this notion that you punish people by not talking to them. You’ve got to have dialogue.

The reason Pakistan is tougher is that they already have nuclear weapons and materials. They have a tremendous number of radicals, they don’t control their own borders, they have a very large presence in the Taliban and al-Qaeda and they have tremendous instability in their political system. And without addressing the problems in Pakistan, you’re not going to make much progress in Afghanistan.

What do we have to do to deal with Pakistan?

We have to support the civilian government elected by the people, but we have to understand on a pragmatic basis that we have to deal with the Pakistani military. The military controls the nuclear weapons and a large part of the intelligence, and the intelligence controls the relationship with Afghanistan. It controls the border areas to the extent that anybody does, and some elements in the Afghani intelligence service are very sympathetic to al-Qaeda. It’s a bit naïve to think we don’t have to deal with both entities.