Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of "Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy" (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Question: What is the most serious threat to the United States?
Leslie Gelb: The global economic meltdown is the most serious threat to American national security and to our democracy.
So this has got to be our first priority, to restore our economy and the global economy. And that's a strategic decision I don't believe President Obama fully grasps. He says economics is the most important thing, but to exercise real leadership, real strategic leadership, to understand power, you have to make choices and set priorities. You can't do everything. I know it's fashionable in the White House to say, we only have 100 or 200 days and we got to get everything in before the tide turns against you. That's not right. What you got to do is succeed. And the way to succeed is to focus, not exclusively, but to focus on the main things and to really put your muscle behind those things.
By far, the most important security threat is the economic meltdown because, as I said, we need that economy to keep our democracy afloat. It's the basis of providing money to fix up public education, essential to our democracy. You can't have a democracy if public education continues to fall apart like it has.
And it is the way we can afford a military capability that outstrips all the rest of the world put together. We spend as much, on defense, by the way, as the next 25 largest spenders on the military put together. We do that because of the strength of our economy. That's the biggest issue for us and for our national security. Our fate is not going to be determined in the mountains of Afghanistan.
Recorded on 5/1/09.