It’s all about that ‘vision thing’

It’s all about that ‘vision thing’

In 1987, then-vice president George H.W. Bush was spending a few days at Camp David to think about how to approach his presidential campaign. When the topic of a “vision” came up, Bush is said to have responded in exasperation, “Oh, the vision thing.” Lacking vision has become synonymous for failure to articulate compelling and coherent policy positions. Bush of course, ended up being a one-term president, and there is a reason for that. The “vision thing” is the single most pressing problem of Western civilization today. Let me elaborate.

The Trump presidency has brought disarray to Washington, which is still the center of power in the world. The Political Appointee Tracker by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service shows that in its first month of office, the Trump administration passed only 18 of 553 political appointments through the Senate ( That’s a dismal 3 percent of the total. What is scarier is that appointees to 93 percent of those 553 slots have not even been named yet. It’s not that the Senate is obtrusive, it’s that the administration hasn’t done its homework. It has no plans for how it wants to fill those seats. It lacks the “vision thing.” The State Department appears to be on holiday, as key posts are still waiting for appointments, including some important ambassadorial slots.

What will be the consequence of this? Take a look at Syria. Without the medium-term political vision of the State Department, the war in Syria appears to have been left solely to the generals. For this group of people, the target of extinguishing ISIS is within sight, and all they have to do is plan for the short term. With the PYD/PKK being the most effective boots on the ground, the equation is rather straight-forward: Use that force to achieve your objective. Then go home. This is a good example of bounded rationality.

But reality is trickier. That is why we have diplomats and central planners. The military equation does not, for example, take into account the stability of Turkey. I would argue that with the massive migration flow towards Europe, Turkey’s stability is more important than objectives in Syria such as taking the ISIS capital Raqqa. But soldiers are supposed to focus on their mission, not question it. That is why the dysfunction in the State Department is a destabilizing force in the world. 

Europe has an arguably bigger problem with the “vision thing.” There are a number of important elections in core European Union countries coming up this year, starting with the Netherlands next week. Then there are the French elections in April, and finally the German elections in September. Even if she makes it through, it may take Angela Merkel until the end of 2017 to form a stable German coalition government. Poland, Greece, Italy and probably Spain face similar challenges in the near future. Everyone is in disequilibrium. 

In his 2009 book “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West,” Christopher Caldwell asks the question: “Can Europe be the same with different people in it?” It’s a good question, and a follow-up could be: “Can Europe be the same while renouncing European values of openness and compassion?” The EU lacks vision, and it doesn’t look like the elections in 2017 are going to fill that void. Things are going to get far worse before they get better. It’s a pity. 

Turkey also desperately needs a vision, but we do not take the time to contemplate that fact. Too many things are happening too rapidly. Turkey today is reacting to events rather than controlling them; its actions are fueled by existential angst rather than a prudent roadmap for the future. Again, it’s a pity.

It didn’t have to be this way. In 2002, Turkey had a clear vision for the future, thanks to its idiosyncratic system of checks and balances, as well as the EU. Sure there was infighting, but all political factions in Ankara could agree on strategic goals like the EU accession process. As I explained in this column last week, things changed after 2007, when President Ahmet Necdet Sezer stepped down and Turkey’s de facto system of checks and balances was broken. We have been in political transition ever since, and - like Europe - we probably haven’t hit rock bottom yet. Could this April’s referendum be that rock bottom? Don’t bet on it.