Barack Obama’s aborted excellent adventure in Syria removed the scab from a long-festering sore on the American body politic. The wound, kept hidden for decades under the disingenuous Band-Aid of a “bipartisan foreign policy,” has at last begun to seep out from under its flimsy, worn-out protective covering.
What came to a head during the truncated debate over America’s proper response to the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war had little to do with distinctions between Democrats and Republicans or liberals and conservatives. Rather, it was a fundamental disagreement, now out in the open, about the role of US power in the world, a widening split pitting the country’s political elites against its ordinary citizens.
For years, the Cold War with the Communist bloc and the succeeding so-called War on Terror meant that nascent differences were papered over in red, white, and blue; the elites favoring worldwide foreign engagement were given the benefit of every doubt. Their supporting institutions — the State and Defense departments, the top-tier colleges and universities dependent on military-related grants and subsidies, the establishment print and electronic media in the communications centers of New York and Washington, the vested defense industries nationwide — enjoyed carte blanche to develop and implement, directly or indirectly, American foreign policy.
The result has been one foreign involvement after another since the end of the Second World War, with a major hot war every few years (Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan) and innumerable smaller conflicts (Libya, Panama, Grenada, the Dominican Republic, Somalia, the Balkans) in between. In effect, the US has become “policeman of the world,” an assumed role eagerly sought by America’s best and brightest, and carried out by presidents of both parties. Opposing Communism or terrorism has been the stated rationale, but the habitual interventionism goes well beyond preemptive defense and resisting aggression.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who served under President Clinton in the 1990s, inadvertently summed up what’s really going on here in remarks related to that decade’s Bosnian situation: “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and see further into the future.” This messianic impulse, an updated version of the Manifest Destiny pursued by Americans in the 19th century, has been reconfigured to justify a contemporary foreign policy based on maintaining US global supremacy in the name of establishing free-market democracies (little USAs) everywhere; it amounts to what some have called “progressive imperialism.” Republican neocons support the concept and so do Democratic neoliberals.
In the heady postwar years of the late 1940s, when America was astride the world, economically and militarily, this hubristic stance may have made some sense; most of the Western democracies were prostrate, and the US was indeed the indispensable nation. By the mid-1970s and particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, such was no longer the case. As America’s quarter-century economic golden age that followed the V-E and V-J Day celebrations gradually waned, reality began to intrude, but not for the nation’s elites, glorying in the power and prestige they had become accustomed to expect.
Over the past 40 years, a series of economic calamities — recessions, monetary crises, structural dislocations, trade imbalances — brought about, ironically, by the very deindustrializing globalization U.S. foreign policy encouraged — have steadily undermined the basis of the American postwar imperium. Yet, we maintain a multi-billion-dollar military-industrial-security complex that carries on foreign-policy business as usual, as though Gen. Douglas MacArthur were still standing in pomp and circumstance on the deck of the battleship Missouri in Tokyo harbor.
Our armed forces dwarf those of the nearest competitor nations. Even under sequestration, the top-heavy Pentagon and the massive Department of Homeland Security created for the amorphous anti-terrorism campaign continue to eat up a quarter of the national budget. Presiding over it all, in a policy-making sense, is the US State Department, our face to the world, whose current head, Secretary of State John Kerry (the force behind the Syrian involvement), personifies the very definition of membership in the American elite.
With so many people (2.3 million uniformed and civilian personnel) and so much money (over $600 billion annually) dedicated to projecting American power overseas, is it any wonder Uncle Sam is constantly treading in hot water? Syria, if it flares into an all-out war for the US, is the logical follow-on to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya in the making of an Americanized Middle East. There’s just one fly in the ointment for the elite policy makers: the almighty dollar.
Since the US emerged from World War II as the self-appointed world arbiter and enforcer, the associated military expenditures (in 2007 dollars) have amounted to $691 billion for Korea, $650 billion for Vietnam, $92 billion for the Persian Gulf, and (through 2008) $754 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan. Economist Joseph Stiglitz estimates further that the bill for the current Middle East commitment could ultimately reach $3 trillion, including ancillary costs.
If taken on, Syria will add still more to the debt pile, a national burden that’s squeezing out domestic spending desperately needed to repair the crumbling infrastructure, create needed jobs at home, eradicate poverty, deal with climate change, and so on. Assad’s use of chemical weapons is certainly reprehensible, but the question is, how long can the US neglect its home front in order to address this and the world’s other myriad problems? What’s needed is a multinational approach led by the United Nations or NATO.
The American people see this clearly. Recent polling by the Pew Research Center indicates that 46% now favor a pullback from international conflicts by the US — the figure was 30% in 1999 and 18% in 1964 — while 83% want the president to focus on domestic, rather than foreign, policy, an increase from 39% in 2007. Only the nation’s scolding elites, who detect a “Fortress America” isolationism, seem not to have gotten the memo. It’s time for a reappraisal, agonizing or otherwise, at Foggy Bottom and at the White House.
Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He is the author of two prizewinning books.
From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2013
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