Belaboring the Obvious

Saturday, October 14, 2006

If Only Ignorance Were Strength....

Ever since the end of WWII, there has been endless political discussion of the "strength" of the United States (most generally in the act of attempting to define a political opponent as "weak").

What's missing in the discourse, of course, is a uniformly understood definition of national strength. It is whatever the speaker of it wants it to be, and for a long, long time, the volume of the expression has been what has counted, rather than the precision of use of the term.

If one listens carefully to Bush's speeches, it's the indiscriminate application of military force for specious reasons. For him, it's an act, not a quality. To exercise that "strength" is to be strong. But, even that circular logic can't be separated from the political and the personal, where Bush is concerned, since Bush can't help but, in casual fashion, link himself to that strength he perceives in action, as in his offhand self-referential, solipsistic language: "I'm the decider," or, "I'm the war president." Bush is saying, and not all that convincingly, either, that he himself is "strong" because he has the will (or the stupidity) to act militarily. Indiscriminate use of force isn't necessarily a manifestation of "strength."

There are all kinds of strengths, but at the national level, strength of mind is probably more important than strength of purpose. I once had a math instructor in college whose second-favorite expression--invariably used when faced with a student who consistently misinterpreted a concept--was "the inability to let go of a bad idea is the sign of a weak mind" (her first was, "I know whereof I speak"). And that inability of Bush's to let go of a bad idea undermines any other notions he might have of "strength," prevents him from behaving differently, if only because he's incapable of seeing a bad idea for what it is, seeing the problem for what it is. His vaunted intractability, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary of what he asserts, is not an asset (what most of us would call a "strength"). Eventually, and ultimately, that steadfastness of direction, that "staying the course," only appeals to similarly weak minds, which explains Bush's steadily declining support since the attacks of 9/11, as evidenced by the polls.

How much of that intractability has its roots in the political, and how much is personal, i.e., the way Bush thinks, is difficult to discern. After all, the same rhetoric was effective in the two prior elections. Nevertheless, the longer that Bush remains intractable and refuses to acknowledge the destruction and occupation of Iraq to be a disaster, the more support he has lost.

Certainty of purpose can be a strength--if, and only if, one has considered the rectitude of one's actions rationally, on a multiplicity of grounds and weighed their potential effects--and if one is willing to modify one's thinking as conditions change, in order to achieve that ultimate purpose. It is not, however, an absolute strength in and of itself--even the paranoic has certainty of purpose, that his actions are defensive, are the result of the persecutions of others. The schizophrenic has some certainty that the voices in his head are directing him in purposeful ways.

It's not likely that one can create a definition of national strength that will satisfy everyone, but we can make some determination of whether or not the policies of the current government, as espoused by George Bush, are accomplishing their purported ends (a backwards definition of strength, I suppose). International polling by the Pew Research Center shows that ordinary people around the world think little of the United States' policies, that this lack of respect for the country corresponds to the unwarranted invasion of Iraq, and that this lack is particularly notable in predominantly Muslim countries. In internal polls, Americans, too, have increasingly come to think of that action as a mistake.

Iraq, it seems, has turned out be a net negative--a weakness, if you will--which was predicated on presumed strengths--military power, determined policy and resolve. There is no evidence that greater application of any of those supposed strengths will improve the situation, or will make the United States respected once again. Therefore, the problem may be that we have, for too many years, believed in those errant definitions of strength.

Largely with the aid of Congress and Presidents of all stripes, the American people have come to believe that, for example, spending more on defense makes us stronger. Does it? We've rarely questioned that seeming truism. We've spent so much on defense over the years that the Pentagon has become a kind of sub-government within the government which has its own rules of operation, its own lobbying contingent, its own spies, its own domestic and foreign policy. We don't run it. It runs us. And with Donald Rumsfeld in charge of it, by extension, that means...?

Strength, somehow, has come to mean not something real, but something virtual and symbolic, something highly political, as with portraits of bald eagles on nationalist art. If I were able to ask average people, fifty years ago, what they thought national strength meant, they would likely have said, "freedom from fear," following FDR's lead, or, "the ability to maintain the peace." In fact, over the years, the U.S. has done neither of those things. The U.S. has been at war for much of the last fifty years, either overtly or covertly, and the military machine has actually stoked the fears of the public in order to obtain its own ends.

In the meantime, the other aspects of what many would perceive as strength--solid economics, good jobs and respect in the world have been steadily diminishing over time. The economy, particularly in the last few years, has been going great guns for the wealthy, but, umm, not so well for the great unwashed, the middle class. Respect around the world for the U.S. is also going the way of the dodo bird more than a hundred years ago--it's very close to extinct.

As importantly, the negatives implicit in past and current military spending have the potential to be extraordinarily damaging economically, because of the relationship of deficit spending for arms and the interest on the debt. While George Bush is currently crowing about the tax cuts reducing the annual deficit, there's most likely some sleight-of-hand creative accounting justifying the claim (we'll eventually find, I think, that more of the deficit has been offset by borrowing from the SS trust fund than is being currently advertised). In fact, as even Bush's own economists have previously admitted, the tax cuts have not generated enough economic activity to raise tax revenues to the level of the revenues lost by the tax cuts. They didn't during the same regimen during the Reagan years, and they won't this time around.

This set of circumstances points to an obvious result. As large amounts of debt--incurred through deliberate war and military spending--are deferred into future years (and because so much of that debt is being carried by the SS trust fund), US taxpayers will eventually find themselves in the position of the consumer subsumed by credit card debt--most of the tax money they pay will go for servicing debt. If substantially trimming military expenditures (which also requires substantially trimming the ambitions of the neo-colonialists in government) is not politically possible, the taxpayers will find that virtually all social programs will either not be funded or will be funded in ways that increase debt, because interest on the debt, along with repayments to the SS trust fund, will have crowded out virtually all other government functions--except defense. (This eventuality--as well as Wall Street's desire to sink its teeth into the tax-rich SS system--may be behind the current attempts by the Bushies to privatize Social Security. Certainly, Republicans want to remain in power as long as possible. That, of necessity, means they will be the political victims of their own policies. They will have to raise taxes to meet future SS obligations, or they will have to renege on their policies of unrestrained defense spending and give up their reputed political advantages on "national security," or, in the worst case, both.)

None of the immediate above could be described, by anyone sane, that is, as a position of strength. Add in the potential currency problems created by offshore holdings of U.S. debt, the inseparability of U.S. energy policy from its military and foreign policies, and one begins to see that what has been traditionally and contemporarily described as strength is actually an increasing overall weakness.

Now, let's overlay onto all this a couple more variables--declining oil reserves coupled with increasing worldwide demand and the potential for social, economic and political disruption due to global climate change. There are material costs associated with alleviating or minimizing the effects of those interrelated problems. There has been, along with increasing global temperatures, a concurrent shortage of and misallocation of fresh water. There will be large costs associated with improving that situation (and even larger costs if the current trend of privatizing water distribution continues). There will be large costs associated with repairing damage incurred from extreme weather events. There will be a strong desire on the part of all future U.S. governments, Democratic or Republican, to use military force to guarantee risk-adverse U.S. corporations high profitability by securing for them monopolies on low-cost labor and low-cost natural resources, and there will be large costs (social, political and economic) associated with those misadventures. All this will have to be done, to a considerable extent, with tax dollars and dollars borrowed from abroad.

Just as with the consumer overwhelmed with debt, there may be no cushion left for the time when a real emergency occurs. The government has been able to use deficit spending for limited periods of time to stimulate the general economy (such as using tax dollars to fund the CCC and the WPA during the Great Depression), but what happens when something truly dramatic happens, such as the so-called tipping point, when the Atlantic "conveyor belt" which drives the Gulf Stream shuts down completely, and the upper third of the country is almost immediately engulfed in year-round cold and damp, while the lower third begins to dry out and burn up? Similar events will be happening not just here, but all around the world, and with the credit card maxed out, the borrowing resources of government simply may not be there, either to staunch the bleeding or to fund the measures to fix the problem.

The government, reduced to having only a very heavy hammer in its toolbox, will then likely see all these myriad problems as nails, maintaining or increasing excessive levels of military spending in order to use the only tool it has at its disposal--the military, thus exacerbating each problem that arises. We're doing precisely that at the moment, so why should it seem fanciful that we would continue doing exactly the same in the future?

Does that sound like real strength? Until the public lets go of that bad idea--that more and more military spending, combined with lower and lower taxes on the wealthy, means more national "strength"--we're going to have weak-minded policy going into the future, no matter who's in Congress or the White House.

We may, in the end, not be able to come to any set definition of what national strength is, but we've had ample opportunity to see, in demonstrable, fact-driven ways, what it is not.


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