07/20/2011 02:36 pm ET Updated Sep 19, 2011

Fix America First

Perhaps we have already had our lost decade; we just didn't know it until now.

The ten-year period that began with September 11, 2001, has not been one of our nation's best. In fact, by almost every objective consideration, this period has seen one embarrassment after another.

While we came together briefly as a nation to comfort our wounded and mourn our dead after 9/11, we then launched a global war against terrorism. It appeared well-intentioned, focused, and necessary. But we quickly shifted from pursuing our enemies in Afghanistan to launching an ill-informed, poorly planned war against Iraq and Saddam Hussein that was based on a monumentally spectacular intelligence failure: the certainty that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction when, in fact, there were none.

Now our efforts have grown to fighting four wars simultaneously: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Libya. The cost in terms of lives and money has been enormous. Our purpose has also been uncertain, shifting at times between national security concerns to efforts at rebuilding war-ravaged nations or preventing failed states.

Meanwhile, at home, our much bragged-about system of free market capitalism has been revealed for what it really is: a free market casino where Wall Street insiders pursue short-term gains by placing bets rather than long-term investments. No one could call what we've been through since 2006 -- a housing bubble, a giant ponzi scheme referred to yet ignored by the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the deepest recession since 1929 -- the efficient allocation of scarce capital to the most productive uses possible.

When these bets soured, the American taxpayer bailed out many of the key players. Trillions of dollars of wealth disappeared, and yet no one has gone to prison (save Bernard Madoff). There seems to be no sense of national shame or embarrassment given the massive human and financial losses caused around the world by the spectacular greed of so many elites.

A very different example of American institutions mishandling a highly public matter is the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former director of the International Monetary Fund who has been accused of sexual assault by an alleged victim whose credibility and veracity are now at issue. We may well never know precisely what happened in Room 2806 at New York's Sofitel Hotel, but what is profoundly troubling is the way in which our media and legal system reacted. The government authorities thought they knew everything, but they acted on incomplete or inaccurate information. The constitutional presumption of innocence was only theoretical and was massively undermined by a celebrity-driven media frenzy that has now harmed both the alleged attacker and the alleged victim.

The District Attorney properly obeyed the rules in sharing potentially exculpatory evidence with defense counsel -- and for that action he should be commended. But the much-publicized "perp walk" of an as-yet-unconvicted individual was outrageous -- not to mention its potential impact in undermining the accused's ability to have a fair trial by an impartial jury. All the D.A. had to do to prevent Strauss-Kahn's immediate flight was to confiscate his passport.

What was especially troublesome was the way in which some journalists almost reflexively began the French-bashing by suggesting that those "French elites" -- the writers, artists, politicians, and public intellectuals who congregate near the rue de Bac along Boulevard St. Germain des Pres -- were part of some misogynistic conspiracy to promote and condone sexual aggression. The issue was one man's alleged wrongdoing, not the sexual mores of an entire nation. As an American, I am profoundly embarrassed by the rush to judgment of our media. France is one of our oldest and closest allies. Surely we can do far better than the cheap shots expressed by some of our leading journalists.

I cite three seemingly unrelated -- and by no means equivalent -- examples: foreign wars, the Great Recession, and the Dominique Strauss-Kahn matter, which, upon reflection, strike me as having much in common. In each instance, our country's institutions have been tarnished as the result of impulsive and reckless behavior that might have been avoided. Act first, think later, accompanied by a complete lack of modesty and humility, seems to be a common thread. Nuance, after all, is of French origin, and, as George W. Bush reminded us, we do it poorly, if we do it at all.

It is not all that difficult, then, to understand why some people outside the United States -- including some of our friends -- see these examples and conclude that we may suffer from illusions of excessive hubris. Our school children think they are doing rather well in subjects like math and science, when in fact their performance is abysmal. Because we spend more on health care than any other country, we believe we have the best health care system in the world. We don't: France spends half as much with far better outcomes in terms of longevity, infant mortality, and obesity. Our government continues spending recklessly, unable to set priorities or live within its means. House Speaker John Boehner was exactly right when he said in New York in May: "We're broke."

We should be proud and grateful to live in this country, where the extent of freedom and democracy is unparalleled in world history. At the same time, we have serious structural issues -- in education, energy, fiscal policy, health care, infrastructure, and our tax code -- that our leaders just keep ducking. Recognizing these needs is by no means saying "blame America first." Nor does it mean that we should embrace a neo-isolationist stance and avoid foreign commitments. America needs to be engaged with the world, but we must do so against a set of clear, affordable priorities. Historically, we have been exceptionally generous in our willingness to save the rest of the world -- but now it is time to revisit our priorities at home with clarity and determination. It is time to fix America first by addressing these structural needs. Our friends throughout the world will thank us if we succeed.

Charles Kolb is president of the nonpartisan, business-led Committee for Economic Development in Washington, D.C. He served in the George H.W. Bush White House as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy. The above views are solely the author's.