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The world according to Lee Hamilton


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As the president was trying to gather support for the Affordable Care Act, he said repeatedly that people who like their health insurance can keep it. That does not seem to be true in all cases. Some plans that do not meet the minimum coverage required by the ACA, for example, are being canceled, forcing people to buy a new plan. What’s your response to people who accuse the president of being less than truthful about the ACA’s impact?

I think the president misspoke; I think he oversimplified. What he should have said is most people would be able to carry their insurance. This arose as a discussion point during the campaign when he was making that statement over and over again. Even at that time, there were people thinking that he was overstating it. Now the people who will not be able to continue their insurance will be able to get insurance, and they will end up better. ... So I think the president overreached, he overspoke. People said he lied; this depends on your attitude toward the president. ...

A few years ago, Democrats walked out of the Indiana Legislature to protest Republican legislative plans, such as the right-to-work issue. Currently, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and Gov. Mike Pence have been at odds over educational instruction, and Ritz has filed a lawsuit claiming that members of the Pence-appointed state Board of Education met in secret. How do you compare this political infighting in the state to what you have seen in Congress?

Congress is not working very well as an institution. It is under stress. It is by no definition a co-equal branch of government. It is timid. It is not living up to its responsibilities. It is moving from crisis to crisis. I believe when you have difficult questions, you have to sit down and negotiate them. I do not favor walking out. I do not favor not leading. I don’t want to suggest it’s easy, but I don’t see how our system works unless the parties come to the table and negotiate. ...

What needs to happen so that Congress and the president don’t push the nation near the brink of economic collapse every time there are budget negotiations or every time the nation moves close to the debt ceiling?

They have to take seriously their responsibilities as legislators and as president to solve the problem. They cannot, should not shut the government down. They should not refuse to pay our debts. Those are things great countries just don’t do. And they should work on the problems before them. So I believe in this case the president and the appropriate congressional leaders should sit down and solve the problem.

Back in the ’90s we had similar problems arise. We took about 25 or 30 legislators to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington and told them to solve the problem. ... We kept them on the compound. They could not leave, and they solved the problem. I think something like that may be required now with this new committee. ...

As Congress attempts to reduce the federal deficit and craft a budget, would you be in favor of reducing cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security recipients?

Yes. The focus on the Congress is wrong but understandable. You have two problems in this country. Economically, the growth is weak and the unemployment is high. What you need to do now is to focus on economic growth, creating good-paying jobs. The deficit is a serious problem, but it’s a longer-term problem. We are not about to crash. We’ve reduced the deficit the last two years in a row, and we’re on the right track. But we have a serious spending problem. It is not something to panic about, but it is something that needs to be addressed.

So you have to take steps now to grow the economy. In my judgment that means infrastructure investment, R&D, education, all of which pay off. ... Deficit reduction has to be attacked, but you’ve got some time to do it. So you have to put into place a 10-year deficit reduction strategy, including adjustments in Social Security, Medicare. And you’re going to have to have some tax revenue increase. ...

The entitlements are a serious problem. My preference is that we protect Social Security and Medicare for low-income and even middle-income people. But a guy like me who has a job even at my age, you could shave my Medicare, you could shave my Social Security, and I think it would be quite appropriate to do so. In other words, go after the well-to-do and not the people who are struggling to pay debt. ...

Was the Boston Marathon bombing in April an indication that the U.S. homeland security efforts still have considerable weaknesses? If so, what can or should be done to make Americans feel safer?

We are much safer today than we were on 9/11 and before. We have spent a lot of money — a lot of money. We’ve fought a couple of wars. We have strengthened the FBI, we’ve created a new department of government: the Department of Homeland Security. Almost every department of government has made significant changes. All of these things have made us safer.

There is no such thing as 100 percent safety from terrorism. Now the Boston Marathon was a horrific event, but keep in mind that our record since 9/11 has been pretty good. We have not had an attack from an outside power that killed Americans since 9/11. ...

The key is always the quality of our intelligence. The better the intelligence, the more likely you are to be able to protect against an act of terrorism. ...

Syria has been a hot spot in the international community regarding use of chemical weapons. Is the American government taking this perceived threat too seriously? Not serious enough?

It is a positive sign for Syria to be dismantling their chemical weapons. It’s a big plus. But people are still being killed in Syria with conventional weapons. So the No. 1 priority of the United States in Syria must be to try to get beyond the chemical weapon ban to a political settlement.

I do not favor America entering the war in Syria. Syria is a chaotic country today; it is controlled by not a few, but by literally scores of warlords. (President Bashar al-) Assad controls the biggest part. Putting Syria back together again may not be possible. But look, there are great limitations to what the United States can do. And bringing Syria together would mean billions and billions of dollars spent by the United States, troops on the ground over a period of decades. We’re not prepared to do that. ...

Assess the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan over the past 12 years. Will the region be stable after most of the U.S. troops pull out?

We are certainly going to fall short of our maximum ambitions: Democracy in the Middle East and Iraq and Afgha nistan. I think the game is still in doubt in regard to the future of Afghanistan, but I do not like the trends. The president has not yet decided if we’re going to keep troops in there after 2014 or not. We now have 50,000 or 60,000 troops in there, and they’re coming out. You have to ask yourself the question, who’s going to be in Afghanistan 10 years from now, us or the Taliban? We’re not going to be there. I don’t know if the Taliban will take over or not. ...

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