Critics of Washington politics have often noted that there is a huge disconnect between the thinking on Capitol Hill and what is clear to most Americans who live in the rest of the country. Many Americans, most particularly those who do not work for the federal government and who therefore do not benefit from inflated salaries, solid-gold benefit packages and the option to return as contractors earning even more, are in serious financial trouble. Official unemployment approaches ten percent, with at least as many more no longer looking for jobs and even more having taken jobs at reduced salaries and without benefits. One quarter of American homes are worth less than their mortgages.
So what does President Obama do? He bails out the banks and forgives them their debts before going on television and telling young Americans to go to college so they can become teachers, seemingly unaware that most local school districts are not hiring because they, unlike the banks, have run out of money. And what do the Republicans do? Nothing, beyond pretending to be paragons of fiscal responsibility. They arrived in the White House in 2000 with a budget surplus and then wrecked the economy courtesy of Mr. Greenspan and ballooning deficits. George W. Bush vowed not to take any steps that would reduce the US standard of living, but he has destroyed the futures for our children and grandchildren through his fiscal recklessness and his ridiculous war on terror.
And then there is global warming. No reasonable debate on what can or should be done is possible because some wing nuts in the Republican Party have decided that even if the polar ice caps are melting there must never be any suggestion that the cause of the change is human activity. As it is a Republican mantra, one has to presume that the argument derives from something written in the Old Testament, probably a few pages over from the bit that confirms that Israel must be exalted among all nations. So when Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman suggest that climate change just might be manmade, at least in part, they suddenly find themselves in the GOP wilderness, mostly because they were speaking the truth. And don’t look for the Democrats to do any better on the issue because it might actually cause some pain to limit emissions. Both Democrats and Republicans would have done well to look out the window over the past few weeks. The weather is getting a little bit strange, isn’t it? What is it going to be like in about ten years if this keeps up?
But the real kicker is how the two major parties close ranks on foreign and defense policies. Foreign policy and the associated Pentagon bill are largely non-issues in American elections apart from bromides about remaining strong and free, an indication that the ability of the average American to absorb anything beyond a bumper sticker slogan or an episode of Glee or Dancing With the Stars is decidedly limited. Only enthusiasm for America’s "warriors" is welcome in most circles. On Memorial Day, a contributor to one local paper in Virginia praised America’s soldiers overseas, writing that they are "fighting for freedom," an assertion that fails the who what when and where test.
But foreign policy and Washington’s prodigious Pentagon budget are important even if ignored because they actually are the drivers of many of the domestic ills that Americans are experiencing. Tea Partiers who are resistant to government overspending are right to do so, but they fail to come to grips with the underlying cause of the sorry state of the US economy, which is the constant wars that have been fought since 2001. The wars have sucked trillions of dollars out of the US economy and, as they are unending, they are fated to claim trillions more in the decade to come, a legacy that derives from both Bush and Obama.
Even though runaway defense spending is the largest discretionary item in the federal budget it is virtually untouchable and actually increases annually in spite of the fact that it includes weapons systems that are far in excess of what is needed for actually protecting the homeland. It also ignores serious needs in the domestic economy at a time of deep economic malaise. Among the Republicans only Walter Jones and Ron Paul have dared to question the perpetual state of war and the costs that it entails. The Democrats, meanwhile, are content to line up behind their president, politely tut-tutting over Afghanistan because it has gone on so long and has cost so much, but not challenging the principle of US interventionism. And there is virtually no dissent from the mainstream media, both from the left and the right, so the public is blissfully unaware that there might be an alternative to America the Imperial.
Without a phony threat of terrorism and a constant series of wars there would be no Patriot Act and no military commissions, no Guantánamo or secret CIA prisons, no Abu Ghraib, no invocation of state secrets privilege, no extraordinary renditions, no targeted assassinations, and no waterboarding. No one would have had the opportunity to invent the word "Islamofascism" or worry about Sharia law in Oklahoma. Even with much-reduced defense outlays one doubts if the federal budget would be in balance but it is at least likely that the federal government’s debt would be much reduced. A stable economy and a peaceful America might not have forestalled the tech bubble on Wall Street that wiped out millions of 401Ks followed by the real estate bubble that swept away the rest, but it is at least possible to speculate that the last decade’s economic catastrophe could have been either mitigated or averted.
Those who support a return to something approaching normalcy must challenge the groupthink that prevails. Last week outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates castigated NATO because the member nations are not spending enough on their respective militaries. As there is no military threat in Europe to counter, the reason NATO exists, it was a clear signal that the Obama administration foresees many more Libyas with Europe and the US united to police the world. But almost certainly the Europeans have it right and Obama and Gates are themselves unwilling to read the tea leaves: wasting hundreds of billions on defense spending when there is no real threat is an anachronism, born of the cold war.
And the real irony is that the war party has little to point to in the way of success beyond killing Osama bin Laden after ten years of trying. If American soldiers overseas are truly endangering their lives delivering freedom, the proponents of a huge military to enable constant war should be able to demonstrate exactly how that has occurred, when and where, and what gain has come from it. Iraq? A dictatorship that was stable has been replaced by a corrupt one-party rule. A state that was the Arab bulwark against Iranian expansion is now one of Tehran’s best friends. Afghanistan? Nearly everyone agrees that it is insoluble and it is time to leave, but ten years have gone by and a trillion dollars wasted on a nation-building catastrophe that even the US government concedes has failed. When the US finally does leave the Taliban will return and the only unity in Afghanistan will be that everyone hates the Americans.
Libya, the latest cakewalk candidate, is already a money pit and is showing every sign of a failed policy. Yemen? Somalia? Are they better off due to US predator drone attacks? Are we Americans better off because we have the technology and will to carry them out? Are we safer or has stirring up the hornet’s nest in so many places actually placed us at risk?
If Washington cannot appreciate that we Americans are far worse off and even less safe now than we were ten years ago, there is definitely something wrong with the cognitive process that prevails in the White House and in Congress. And it all starts with the false narrative that combines global threats with American exceptionalism to support an expanding imperial role. George W. Bush was not imaginative enough to conceive anything different but the much more clever Barack Obama has also bought into the same suffocating fiction about the United States’ appropriate place in the world. It is time to replace that story with a gentler tale that the proper place for Americans is in America, not in Afghanistan or Iraq or any other country that displeases Washington’s Mandarins and the beltway punditry.