Donald Sensing links to a post by John Krenson about the need to be optimistic about the US in face of mountains of contradictory facts. Krenson analogizes the current situation to the 1970s, when things were looking down before getting better under Reagan. Then he gives the speech he thinks Bush should give, a mix of Reagan’s exchange of action for hope and standard jingoism:
Here at home in these United States many fear we are revisiting the unpleasant times of Vietnam – that we are being dragged into a quagmire in which we cannot win. But in fact we have more in common with the unpleasant times of the late 1930s that led to the abandonment of free nations – Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, and others to Nazi tyranny and millions of people abandoned to die horrifically in the Holocaust. Out of our fear of a despotic dictator not even 100 years ago we abandoned others, thinking we could buy our own national security. But in the process of that fearful appeasement and isolationism we were abandoning our own security, that is, until a man who had the courage to tell us that we had nothing to fear but fear itself led us out of fear. That man led us from the fear of economic collapse when he first came to office with those words and his words were every bit as applicable a few years later when he led us out of our fear of Nazism. Then a nation that was divided at that time – with 82% of Americans opposing potential war with the Nazis and thus unwilling to face the truth of the threat – finally united in a common cause for the survival of our freedom. Roosevelt refused to be led by that fear and instead led us out of fear as the institutions of America united behind him seeing the security of Americans at stake. Roosevelt saw the moral imperative of the victory of freedom over the evil of tyranny.
Today there is also fear abroad. But it is not us our enemies fear. What they do fear is what we stand for. Today medieval powerbrokers fear granting women rights. Today medieval powerbrokers fear educating their people. Today medieval powerbrokers fear the economic independence of their people. Today medieval powerbrokers fear liberty for their people. Today medieval powerbrokers fear allowing people to worship in different ways. It is not that these medieval powerbrokers do not understand our ways and the ways of freedom. They fully understand and they fully reject it because it threatens their medieval position of domination.
I could go on forever with snark about how the Dominionists that form most of the Republican base are precisely these medieval powerbrokers. But there’s no point; let’s grant for a moment that some power-sharing agreement causes the US to have a non-fascist domestic policy and a neoconservative foreign policy. Even then, optimism is unwarranted.
First, the US today is nowhere as powerful as it was in 1945, or even 1938. Then the only competing power was the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had a somewhat higher population than the US; China has four times the USA’s population. The EU has a slightly higher GDP than the US and slightly faster growth; China is somewhat lower, but is catching up at an immense speed. The days when the US had half the world’s GDP are long gone.
Second, the situation in Iraq isn’t really analogous to the situation in Germany. American isolationism in the late 1930s was a vestige of World War One. Today, isolationist sentiments are the direct consequence of American failure in Iraq. There has yet to be a single war in American history that didn’t go out of fashion within 3 or 4 years. There were draft riots in 1945 and 1968. World War Two was a success and Vietnam was a failure, but the principle is the same. No President, not even a Lincoln or a Roosevelt, has ever been able to avoid that. Accepting that fact is not defeatism, but realism.
And third, a good definition for eternity is that it will end the day anyone can justify a statement like “They hate us for our freedom” with non-circular logic. After all, most Iraqis welcomed the US in 2003. The number one Shi’a leader, Sistani, was pro-American, and even many Sunnis wanted something new. It’s not that the Iraqis loved freedom in 2003 more than they do now; it’s that they’ve gotten tired of an occupation that’s increasingly deadly and visibly incompetent.
The 4-year shelf life of wars is not the only fact of American foreign policy history. Another fact is that the US can’t maintain any kind of maritime empire. Britain and France were the only countries that could really do it; Spain, Portugal, Belgium, and the Netherlands haven’t. Part of it is that Brits could maintain long-term commitments Americans never could. Another part is that British corporations invested in the colonies a lot more than American ones are now investing in the third world.
Like Russia and China, the US is better when it comes to expanding over land. Thus the US grew from an Atlantic seaboard country to one spanning much of North America, even extending to Hawaii and Puerto Rico, just like Russia grew from a collection of principalities in Eastern Europe to a country spanning all of northern Asia. Neither country has been particularly good at maintaining overseas colonies.
The comparison to the 1970s is optimistic to the point of ignoring reality. The oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 were political; the current one is due to peak oil. The military problems of the Vietnam era were due to an unprofessional army; the current ones are ultimately due to the attempts to solve the Vietnam-era problems. The Soviet Union needed a GDP per capita almost on a par with the US to eclipse its economy; China and India need only a quarter of the USA’s GDP.
However, there is one point of similarity between today and 1979 – namely, the politics of optimism. Reagan never offered a single concrete solution; instead, he offered Morning in America ads. Likewise, Obama and Edwards have no Rooseveltian vision, let alone the ability to implement one; Edwards’ 2004 DNC speech’s theme was “Hope is on the way.”
The people Krenson suggests – McCain and Lieberman – don’t have even that. McCain could implement at least some reforms, but nothing that would prevent the decline of the US, and at any rate he blew his reformist political capital when he started being enthusiastic about Bush. Lieberman never had that political capital to begin with.
From a strictly pro-American viewpoint, that 9/11 happened when it did is a tragedy. It’s caused the US to chase the wrong target – Islamists instead of China. It happened under the watch of a President too crude to understand the importance of global political capital; Clinton could invade a country and get the entire world to support him, while Bush made anti-Americanism respectable. Even another President of Bill Clinton’s caliber couldn’t regain the support Bush lost, because any future American-led war will be judged by Iraq’s yardstick.
Reagan lucked out. He was elected precisely when the Soviet Union got bogged down in Afghanistan and was forced to increase military spending. Later on in his presidency, Gorbachev rose to power and bogged down the USSR further in a political quagmire instigated by anti-reformist communist officials. Reagan could run a front porch administration and still be credited with winning the Cold War. Krenson implies that the US will continue being blessed by serendipity; but I’m a realist, and I don’t see any reason to assume the US will remain an unchallengeable power.