Imperial Blues

Robert Borosage

…"[O]ur troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended — because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own."

—President Obama

But Afghanistan comes first?

President Obama made the best possible case for dispatching more troops to Afghanistan last night. But his speech left me with a haunting foreboding. Surely this is the way that great imperial powers decline. Their soldiers police the ends of the earth. There is always another enemy, always a threat—sometimes imagined, often real—that must be faced. And meanwhile, the productive economy declines, the rich live increasingly off investments abroad, the poor depend on public sustenance, the middle declines. No battle is so costly that it cannot be afforded; no battle so unimportant that the nation must not be mobilized. The soldiers become professionals, "volunteers" in our terms. The institutions of the Republic—the Congress, the Senate—are scorned, often deservedly so. The executive decides the questions of war and peace. The secret state expands. The country finds itself constantly at war. New presidents inherit the wars of their predecessors. They are faced not with deciding to go to war, but whether to accept defeat in one already in progress.

And slowly, the great power declines from the inside out. The wars are costly, running up national debts. Vital investments are put off. Schools decline. Sewers leak. For a long time, circuses distract from the spreading ruin. Other societies become productive centers, capturing the new industries. Some begin providing better education and support for their citizens. Their taxes, not drained by the cost of wars past and present, can be devoted to what we used to call "domestic improvements."

The escalation in Afghanistan, so inevitable, so logical, so thoughtfully considered, surely is but a chapter in this saga. The president committed the country to spend about $250 billion in Afghanistan over the next 18 months. For a wealthy country, this isn’t a lot. We can afford it. We will chase the devil in South Waziristan. Our soldiers will repel the Taliban, providing a "breathing space" for a corrupt government whose writ barely reaches the outskirts of the capital city.

On Thursday, the President will convene a jobs summit. Already, his aides have sent out the word that deficits will limit what can be done. Or as the head of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, Christine Roemer writes in The Wall Street Journal today, "Given the budget deficits this administration inherited, it is critical to leverage scarce public funds."

The collapse of revenues at the state and local level will force states to make cuts and layoffs that are projected to cost another 900,000 jobs over the next year. But more aid to the states and localities, unpopular in the polls, is apparently not on the president’s agenda. Anyone traveling in America runs into the growing costs of our aging and outmoded infrastructure, from collapsing bridges to exploding sewer pipes, to slow trains on bad tracks, to schools in such disrepair that they pose dangers to the students. But a bold program of investment in our infrastructure is considered a bridge too far.

Far worse in many ways than the money squandered on wars abroad is the attention consumed, the values distorted. This president understands that Americans are focused on the economic troubles here at home. In his speech last night, he argued "as we end the war in Iraq and transition to Afghan responsibility, we must rebuild our strength here at home. Our prosperity provides a foundation for our power. It pays for our military. It underwrites our diplomacy. It taps the potential of our people and allows investment in new industry. And it will allow us to compete in this century as successfully as we did in the last."

Note the order of priority. Our "strength here at home" is needed because it (1) is the foundation of our power; (2) pays for our military; (3) underwrites our diplomacy. It also taps the potential of our people and allows us to compete globally. Stunningly absent in that martial list is any sense of creating a society that has eradicated hunger and poverty, that has secured the American dream for its citizens.

This attention disorder undermines our security as well. Next week the president will travel to Copenhagen, where he will boldly call for setting standards on carbon emissions, in essence promising to deliver a Congress that is not nearly ready to make that commitment. This president, more than any other, has the vision and the capacity to rally this country to meet the real security challenge posed by catastrophic climate change and to grasp the vital economic opportunity of leading the impending green industrial revolution. The speech to the cadets of West Point might have dramatically made that national security case, begun a campaign to run up to the Copenhagen global summit and culminated in a Nobel Peace Prize address that framed the new challenge. Instead, the president had little choice but to focus his attention and his speech on Afghanistan, with critics already accusing him of dithering, daring to question the generals’ "requirements."

This is a very rich country, despite the years of conservative misrule. But even wealthy countries must choose. We can afford to police the word—to sustain 800 bases across the globe, to station troops in Korea, in Japan, in Bosnia, in Europe, fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, sustain fleets to police the seas.

In his speech, the president called us to that mission:

"The struggle against violent extremism will not be finished quickly, and it extends well beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan… unlike the great power conflicts and clear lines of division that defined the 20th century, our effort will involve disorderly regions and diffuse enemies…. We will have to be nimble and precise in our use of military power. Where al-Qaida and its allies attempt to establish a foothold—whether in Somalia or Yemen or elsewhere they must be confronted by growing pressure and strong partnerships."

South Waziristan, Yemen, Somalia, Kosovo, the Taiwan straits, the North Korean border, the seven seas—we can do this. But the result is that we are continually at war. And the wars cost—in money, in lives, in attention. Inevitably, domestic priorities, as well as emerging security threats that have no military answers, get ignored. A rich country, Adam Smith wrote, has a lot of ruin in it. We seem intent on testing the limits of that proposition.

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