Over the last eight years the Bush administration has sacrificed American lives, resources, and influence at every turn. President George W. Bush, with the avid support of Sen. John McCain and most of the Republican Party, took the US into an unnecessary war in Iraq, increased the number of America’s enemies and the threat of terrorism, strengthened the Iranian regime, and sacrificed US clout with friends and foes alike. Yet polls indicate that more Americans trust Sen. McCain than Sen. Barack Obama as military commander-in-chief.
It’s a bizarre conclusion. Sen. McCain is temperamental, sanctimonious, and moralistic; surprisingly ignorant about the nuances of international affairs, he believes that he knows far more about foreign policy than he actually does. It would be a combustible combination even if he hadn’t variously advocated war against the Bosnian Serbs, Serbia, Iraq, and North Korea, as well as promoted confrontation with Russia, a nuclear-armed power. He could prove to be the most dangerous occupant ever of the White House.
Nevertheless, the Republican sales pitch so far has fallen short. The public cares more about the economy than foreign policy. While Sen. Obama’s economic nostrums are no more believable than those of Sen. McCain, the Republican Party has lost any credibility it once had on economic issues. Sen. Obama might not have the answer, but at least he belongs to a different party than the one which spent the last eight years engaging in wild spending and orchestrating trillions of dollars in special interest bailouts.
The GOP has responded by scare-mongering, attempting to convince the American people that foreign policy remains paramount. Never mind the economy. The world is about to end unless a steady Republican hand remains upon the tiller. Republicans warn of potential terrorist strikes at home and unpredictable dangers abroad. Neoconservatives talk about the US being engaged in World War III or World War IV against Islamic terrorists.
Rep. John Shadegg recently took the argument to ludicrous extremes when he wrote his supporters denouncing any cut in military spending currently higher, even after adjusting for inflation, than at any point during the Cold War, Korean War, or Vietnam War. Complained Shadegg: "Our nation is facing the threat of Radical Islam, the gravest threat to our national security in history."
On September 11 al-Qaeda orchestrated three murderous attacks that killed about 3000 people. Evil, awful, and ugly. But in no way threatening the stability of the US government, let alone the destruction of American society.
Other countries have faced great and often greater challenges from terrorism: the Irish Republican Army versus the British government, the Basque ETA versus the Spanish government, the Tamil Tigers versus the Sri Lankan government, the Red Brigades versus the Italian government. Terrorists have struck in Greece, Germany, Japan, Uruguay, India, and even imperial Russia. Islamic radicals have murdered widely, including in Britain, Spain, Indonesia, Jordan, and Iraq. Only in Iraq could one argue that regime if not national survival was at stake, and that is only because terrorism joined a far more serious insurgency in the aftermath of a foreign invasion.
It is true that many of America’s wars were not animated by security threats, but instead involved frivolous or even immoral ends. The Mexican-American War was basically a land grab for Texas and California. The Spanish-American War used the protection of human rights in Cuba as an excuse to seize the Philippines as a colony in Asia. World War I was an idiotic imperial slugfest in which America had nothing significant at stake. Vietnam was more tragic than stupid, an unnecessary attempt to preserve the remnants of colonialism in Southeast Asia against a potent combination of nationalism and communism; three decades later communism is giving way to capitalism with Americans and their money welcomed back.
Contrast that to the Revolutionary War, from which the American colonies barely emerged independent. For years British forces ravaged the countryside and occupied major cities, including the nascent nation’s capital.
During the War of 1812 Britain eliminated American ocean commerce, occupied swaths of US territory, and burned Washington, D.C. America was saved by its lack of centralization and development. Having just suffered through years of war to end Napoleon’s brutal depredations, the British public had no enthusiasm for escalating the battle with the former colonies.
The Civil War tore the country apart. That was an internal conflict, to be sure, but for a short time the national government risked war with Britain over the illegal seizure of the Trent, a mail and passenger vessel, and in the first year or two the potential of intervention by Britain and France in support of the Confederacy loomed large. For the North to have battled the Southern states allied with two foreign adversaries would have made America’s bloodiest war far more costly.
World War II found the US confronting Nazi Germany and militaristic Japan. These were real countries animated by real ideologies deploying real militaries. Washington created a 13-million man military for combat spanning the globe. Although the US never came close to defeat, World War II was America’s first, and so far only, taste of the sort of total war which has consumed other nations.
During the Cold War, with some very hot spots, the US faced a nuclear-armed hegemonic power animated by a hostile ideology. There was nearly a direct nuclear confrontation over Cuba, wars between the US and local communist regimes North Korea, backed by China, and North Vietnam, supplied by China and the Soviet Union and proxy wars throughout the Third World. Although the two great powers and their respective alliances avoided the many tripwires for a new global war, few people took peace for granted: indeed, for a time American schoolchildren practiced taking cover in response to a possible nuclear war.
However, apparently Rep. Shadegg believes these conflicts to be minor compared to the threat of terrorism. The Soviet Union was capable of launching a nuclear attack that could annihilate the United States. Imperial Japan ranged throughout the Pacific seizing US possessions and attacking American territory in Hawaii and the Aleutians. Nazi Germany battled the US Navy in the Atlantic, the US Air Force over Europe, and the US Army in North Africa and Europe.
But no matter. It is a few jihadist terrorists who pose "the gravest threat to our national security in history," in the words of Rep. Shadegg. Which means not a single dollar can be cut from the defense budget. To the contrary, the only way to fight the terrorists is to create the biggest, most expansive, most expensive, most advanced military, deploy it to every corner of the globe, and meddle in numerous tragic but irrelevant conflicts. The US must spend as much as the rest of the world combined on the military. And spend as much, adjusted for inflation, as the US spent at any point during the Cold War, Korean War, or Vietnam War. Indeed, presumably Washington isn’t spending enough to fight jihadists because military outlays still lag behind expenditures during World War II. What is Congress thinking? If Osama bin Laden is more dangerous than Adolf Hitler, Hideki Tojo, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong, why aren’t we spending even more on defense!
The upcoming election has focused on economic issues, but the present administration’s irresponsible foreign policy has wasted hundreds of billions of dollars while creating trillions of dollars in future liabilities. More important, Americans have been made less secure as politicians like Rep. Shadegg have misled the public about the kind of enemy the US faces and the best means of defending the country.
Terrorism is ugly. But it does not constitute the most serious threat ever faced by America, akin to another world war. We will be safer not with additional expensive carrier groups and air wings to back a belligerent stance against countries like Russia over irrelevant geopolitical struggles in the Caucasus, but with a noninterventionist foreign policy which steadfastly avoids unnecessary conflicts. The world is filled with tragedy, but that doesn’t mean the US has to join in at every opportunity.
Republicans as well as Democrats once believed that the federal government’s job was to defend America, not wander the globe, mixing war-mongering with social engineering. Over the last eight years, however, the national government has become a tool of neoconservative activists who see war as the ultimate solution to most foreign problems. The economy is an important issue. But so is foreign policy. We cannot afford another four or eight years of misguided militarism and perpetual war.