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Deficit, Debt and Decline


Washington’s foreign policy establishment is wringing its hands over the deficit. They voice fears that America’s dominant position in the world will be jeopardized by tight budgets and lingering austerity that lowers its influence on all manner of global economic matters. That could mean a smaller military, less aggressive financial diplomacy, and weakened hand in trying to pressure countries like Iran. We are warned that curtailed power will have dire effects on our national security.

A retreat from global engagement hovers ominously on the horizon – or so we are told. One senior State Department diplomat quoted in last Friday’s New York Times darkly raised the spectre of a revived isolationism as the long-term debt problems may become an “excuse to turn our backs on the Middle East and trim our sails on the new focus on Asia.” This Cassandra does not spell out what exactly “turning our backs” or “trimming our sails” amounts to in practical terms. What strategic conceptions underlie these assessments? What hard American interests are visualized as being at risk? Is it correct to correlate foreign policy effectiveness with the availability of expensive tangible assets – abundant, all-purpose military forces above all? How credible are the financial assumptions themselves – re. debt burdens that are exaggerated; deficits due mainly to the prolonged recession, the Bush tax giveaways to the rich and near rich, Pentagon budgets that in fact will continue to rise in real terms, and the calculations of corporations to off-shore profitable operations with the encouragement of strong IRS incentives?

The emerging conventional wisdom on a deficit driven decline in the United States’ international position too easily can slip into group think that features dubious premises, doubtful logic and questionable arithmetic. We have seen this phenomenon at work constantly since 9/11 with devastatingly bad results for national well-being.

So here is a close look at what lies behind the frantic waving of distress flags. Most crucial is the firm conviction that the United States must be in a position to exercise controlling influence on the international affairs of every global region. In military terms, it is summed up by the Pentagon’s dedication to establishing “full spectrum dominance“ everywhere. Simply put, the doctrine proclaims that we should be able to prevail in any conflict at whatever level of intensity and scope. That audacious idea justifies the building of a far-flung network of bases across Southwest and Central Asia far from traditional zones of American strategic concern. It is mutually reinforced by the open-ended “war on terror.” Using the current loose definition of the terrorist threat, defending America has come to encompass everything from chasing ghosts of terrorism past across the wastes of the Sahara and fomenting acts of terror in Iranian Baluchistan to the foredoomed and vastly expensive expeditions aimed at remaking Iraq and Afghanistan according to our specifications.  As an add-on, Special Force missions are slashing through the jungles of Honduras and Columbia on the pretense that the country’s drug addiction problem is rooted there rather than in the homes and on the streets of American communities.

Special Forces number close to 60,000.  Organized as the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), this army within an army is deployed in scores of countries performing an array of secret and semi-secret missions. (By comparison, the total deployable troops in the British army numbers roughly 75,000).  Their very availability inescapably influences judgments as to where national interests require their engagement. Expensive, highly trained elite units are not easily reconciled to spending their time doing one-armed push-ups while watching the military channel.

Full spectrum dominance also entails the build-up of more conventional forces equipped with ultra-high tech weaponry in Asia to thwart any Chinese design to exercise the kind of influence around its periphery that we exercise in Latin America and Europe – as if a replay of Victory at Sea in the Pacific was in the offing. It includes as well an explicit commitment to maintaining military hegemony in the Persian Gulf and the entire Middle East. There, we are bent on denying an antagonistic Iran any role in the strategic affairs of the region they inhabit; and, there, we are working at full throttle to block the rise of Islamic fundamentalists with jihadist tendencies even as we work to undercut the regimes that have held them in check.

All of this demands enormous resources.  The waste and duplication that have become the hallmark of the bloated, contractor ridden  military/intelligence establishment adds a hefty premium to the trillion dollar sum. The bigger question, though, is whether the all-embracing strategic design and audacious goals that animate our security obsessed actions, and our foreign policy generally, make sense. Does it serve us well? The answers are taken for granted by the American foreign policy elite. This despite a decade of frustration and failure, despite a progressive militarization of foreign policy that is manifestly counter-productive, despite the abundant evidence that the country is less secure now than it was ten years ago, and despite the warping of American society in egregious ways that is doing irreparable harm to the American “brand” around the globe.

In the Middle East, we are trying to superimpose the simple logic of power politics on a turbulent political reality of unique complexity and complication. Talk of perpetuating a presumed American hegemony is out of touch with the times.  It doesn’t fit either conditions or our skills and capability in the region post Iraq/Afghanistan debacles, post-collapse of American moral standing, post-Arab Spring and the exhibition of Washington’s hypocrisy, post the relative decline of American liquid capital to lend or invest, post rise of the Muslim Brotherhood & Assoc., post sectarian passions playing out in country after country. Continuing to follow this simplistic model of yesteryear promises only more sorrow – for ourselves and for peoples of the Greater Middle East. A whiff of fresh thinking is desperately needed in Washington’s stale and smug corridors of power. That is the true deficit that we should be worrying about.

The loss of esteem in the world that we are experiencing does not stem mainly from the admittedly absurd machinations of the Republican Congress and a timid White House – however unseemly they are. Rather, it is the steady impoverishment of salaried workers; it is the sub-par health care that places us at the bottom of the standings among developed countries; it is denying the old the means for a decent existence; it is the gross culture of greed that permeates our elites and rules our politics; it is the national infatuation with violence – this is what has tarnished both the image and reality of America.  It is not the lack of political will to squeeze the vulnerable even more than we already are doing.

Hence, those who truly worry about the United States’ place and influence in the world should refocus their attention. Abandon fanciful notions of American global dominion. Let go of the ambition to reach somehow the nirvana of a world where there is zero threat to Americans’ security. Learn the diplomatic arts of accommodation. Liberate oneself from the proven fallacies of discredited doctrines of market fundamentalist economics and Social Darwinism. And regain the belief in a humane society that does not posit false trade-offs pitting the basic welfare of its citizens against the vain pursuit of a dream of world domination that is as unworthy as it is improbable.

Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.



Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

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