When George Bush issued his new National Security Strategy in June of 2002, he announced that if there were countries that the US considered dangerous we would feel free to attack them. This was a reversal of post-war US policy and was called the strategy of preemption. Any country that looked like a nuclear danger ought to watch out. Beginning with Iraq.
We all know what happened after that. Evidence was concocted to portray Saddam Hussein as in possession of nuclear weapons and we invaded. Seven years later 95,000 troops are still there. It would be hard to say how life in America has been made one iota better. We are more in debt. We lost global credibility. We lost over 4,397 lives. We are stuck there. Preemption was, in a nutshell, a multi-billion dollar windfall for the military industrial complex but a disaster for everybody else.
Obama was elected in part because of his promise to do something other than just bomb people. He would also talk to them. John McCain and Hillary Clinton had been more willing than he to bomb the Iranians. Obama got elected and has initiated a new openness to engagement. Now, a year and a half into the new administration, it is clear that neither of these two approaches has restored American power. In fact, it has now become clear that American power is nothing like it used to be, whether we bomb our enemies or talk to them. Power in these days has turned substantially commercial, not military, and commercially America is not keeping up.
We have tried to talk to the Iranians and they have scorned us. We have tried to talk to the Taliban and they have ignored us. We have tried to bring Israelis and Palestinians to peace talks and Benjamin Netanyahu has met our envoys with conscious and deliberate humiliation. We have tried to talk to the Pakistanis and they have tolerated us. We have urged the nations at the Copenhagen Summit to move on global warming and they have been unwilling to make any concessions to our moral leadership. We have sent a delegation of 200 to China searching for ways to open up their markets, or to get them to unbind their currency or to help us with North Korea and they have been polite, distant and non-committal.
In effect, the United States no longer has the leverage to get much of anybody to do much of anything.
The great temptation for the right wing is to go back to bombing people, beginning with Iran. The temptation for the left is to try harder at sanctions and engagement.
But both of these approaches fail to recognize the new reality: the United States is not producing the new inventions, manufacturing the new products, encouraging the new universities, training engineers, chemists, physicists, with sufficient energy and commitment to keep us ahead in the world market. We are not finding ways to harness our enormous wealth for the good of the whole rather than to allow it to be siphoned off for life styles of oligarchs and plutocrats. We should be directing the excess billions that go into private bonuses and racing yachts and private airplanes toward the public good, building roads, bridges, wi-fi networks, better electric cars and all the infrastructure that is the necessary foundation for global competition. We are turning a blind eye to the dulling effects of luxury, the same softness that did in the senators of Rome when they allowed the Caesars to destroy the Republic and the same attitude that allowed the Medicis to soften to irrelevance the republican laws of Renaissance Florence.
The new Obama National Security Strategy delivered by Secretary Clinton on May 28 recognizes these realities: The foundation, said Clinton, for American leadership is what we do here at home. “What takes place within our borders will determine our strength and influence beyond them.”
The military industrial complex will resist this formulation but this new direction is wise in the extreme. Obama is right. Tanks and missiles, better intelligence and sneakier planes, will not ever recapture America’s pre-eminence. We need to tighten our belts, make sacrifices, pay the necessary taxes, attend the long term, and that means getting serious about education, energy, science, technology and health. Critically, we need political leadership that will take us toward those objectives rather than into the blame game, the search for simple “bomb the bastards” solutions. We need leaders, especially among Republicans, who are willing to make democracy work rather than demonstrating how to stop it from working.
Let us hope that the months to come will allow those who understand the turning point in America’s influence that has now arrived, and lead us to revitalize our competence and self confidence at home before we continue to expand our military reach abroad.