He has an impish smile, a sharp tongue and a huge advantage: Zbigniew Brzezinski, once national security adviser for President Jimmy Carter and now the éminence grise of the US security policy community, has the leeway to pass harsh judgement on his country. It is the kind of leeway that Europeans don't enjoy, much as they might agree.
Brzezinski has most recently turned his attention to the race for the Republican presidential nomination. It is a primary campaign that threatens to devolve into electoral insanity with no happy ending. Frontrunner Mitt Romney made strides toward securing his party's nomination on Super Tuesday. But, once again, he was unable to shake off his most dangerous competitor, Rick Santorum. Romney can still not turn his attention to the looming general campaign against President Barack Obama.
Brzezinski has seen enough, and he feels like someone who has watched too much trash television: a bit dirty. "Look at those Republican debates," Brzezinski said recently on CNN. "I must say I literally feel embarrassed as an American when I see those people orate." His damning verdict: Either the Republican candidates seriously mean what they are saying, which means they are dumb. Or they are only interested in winning support from the arch-conservative voters, which means they are dishonest.
The former security adviser certainly isn't the only one to have complained about the weakness of the Republican field of candidates. He points out, however, that matters are made worse by the fact that the debate has veered far away from the most pressing problems facing America. Not one of the candidates for the most powerful office in the world has had the guts, he says, to face American voters and say: "We need to talk."
Brzezinski has summed up the country's most pressing problems in his new book "Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power":
- Exploding sovereign debt: Absent far-reaching budgetary reform, US debt would rise to 108 percent of gross domestic product by 2025, according to the Brookings Institution. This would approach the level of some troubled euro-zone members.
- A financial system that continues to lack effective controls: The four largest banks in the US are now larger than they were before the global financial crisis and remain "too big to fail." It is a situation that invites further abuses.
- A dramatically enlarged chasm between the rich and the poor in which the richest 1 percent of Americans possess 40 percent of the country's wealth.
- A decaying infrastructure that receives the grade of "D" by the American Society of Civil Engineers. An example: China's high-speed rail network extends over 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles). The US total? Zero kilometers.
- Widespread ignorance about the rest of the world: Just one example is shown by studies that have found that an overwhelming majority of young Americans are unable to find Afghanistan on a map, even though US soldiers are fighting there.
- A political system that is hopelessly divided, with two camps preferring obstruction to cooperation, egged on by a partisan media: Furthermore, thanks to new rules governing campaign donations, just five wealthy individuals are responsible for a quarter of all money flowing into Republican super PACs.
Republican candidates have been largely silent on these issues, apart from the issue of state debt, for which they place the blame squarely on Obama's shoulders. Instead, they fall all over themselves with incantations about just how uniquely wonderful America still is.
Obama's Open Flanks
But most of all, Romney, who portrays himself as a cool problem solver, is in the process of talking himself out of the race with his clumsy locution .
After all, incumbent Obama is anything but a shoo-in for re-election in November. Should gas prices continue to climb, should Israel attack Iran, should Pakistan implode: There are several scenarios which could make Obama's already difficult battle that much more challenging.
Furthermore, the president is eminently assailable because he too has largely ignored the problems that Brzezinski points to. Despite his avowals to the contrary, Obama's commitment to budget cuts has been half-hearted, and he plans to take on yet more debt. Obama has not broken up the country's largest banks, and his treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, is seen as an ally of the "1 percent." Ambitious infrastructure projects such as high-speed rail have stalled, and the cross-aisle reconciliation promised by Obama when he entered office has yet to materialize.
There are plenty of open flanks for an intelligent Republican candidate -- and Romney is nothing if not intelligent -- to attack. Indeed, it wouldn't take much to don the mantle of a justifiably concerned leader addressing urgent problems -- as Obama did successfully four years ago.
Filling the Void
Instead, the coming months threaten to serve up a continuation of the Republican campaign circus, funded by additional millions in donations and cheered on by the rabid GOP grassroots. Romney never misses a chance to brand Obama a "European socialist " and, earlier this week, he blasted the president's foreign policy, calling Obama "the most feckless president since Carter."
In a Tuesday press conference, Obama merely wished Romney good luck in the Super Tuesday primaries. Once the general campaign arrives, however, it is likely to resemble a war more than an issues-based debate.
So, should Europeans rejoice in the poverty of American political discourse? Not in the slightest. Europe can only lose when the US tears itself apart in election campaigns and ignores its own problems -- even more so now that several European countries are facing a severe debt crisis and Europe has become a Republican chew toy.
Brzezinski, the wise American with roots in Europe, is concerned. If America can no longer lead, he says, there is no other country in the world that can fill the void.