19 November 2006

Isolationism & Bankruptcy

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

In the early years of President George W. Bush’s administration, there was a much-discussed theory that suggested the true rationale behind Bush’s bizarre combination of massive tax cuts and massive spending increases was a desire to “starve-the-beast”: to force a reduction in the size of the Federal government by creating the budgetary and economic conditions that would make smaller government a necessity. (Given the consistency of Bush’s commitment to both tax cuts and government spending several years later, it remains difficult to validate the starvation theory; it’s possible the Republicans are just bad at math and not very good at understanding the economic consequences of their actions.) Listening to Bush’s comments from his trip to Vietnam, thinking about the state of the U.S.’s war in Iraq, and of course pondering the recent Republican election losses, I wonder if there is another theory we Americans should be considering: that the Iraq war was all along intended to fail.

First of all, wars are expensive, and unsuccessful wars are particularly expensive. With Iraq, not only are we taxpayers covering the cost of the war itself – the need to feed and equip our army, etc. – but we are paying for the unintended consequences of the war in terms of higher energy prices (as opposed to the cheaper oil we expected to have), and the many unanticipated costs associated with rebuilding Iraq or trying to repair our freedom-loving image around the world. Just as the theory was that Bush wanted to break the Federal government by driving it to bankruptcy through domestic spending programs, we should also consider the role the war has played towards this same end. The Democrats have “won” back Congress, but what the Democrats and the citizenry will be left with come Bush’s departure in 2008 remains to be seen. What we know for a fact is that it will include massive Federal deficits, helped along by the war, and a larger and even more unwieldy bureaucracy than previous Democratic administrations were able to create.

The other consequence of the Iraq war is one that should make Pat Buchanan very happy indeed: likely isolationism. The more we suffer losses in Iraq, the more the American people will experience the kind of malaise that set in between World War I and World War II. At the time, having been suck(er)ed into the first war-to-end-all-wars, America found itself resistant to the idea of supporting our European allies in their fight against fascism – that is, until the Pearl Harbor attack on our own shores awoke us to the danger of our quasi-neutrality. The terror inflicted on us on September 11, 2001 has often been cast as the psychological and policy equivalent of Pearl Harbor, the event that spurred the U.S. into action against Afghanistan and Iraq. That may be true in very raw, emotional terms – as epitomized by slogans like “These colors don’t run!” plastered over American flags – but the analogy fails since we could not attack the terrorists the same way we were able to attack Japan and Germany. In demonizing terrorists through a “war on terror,” we have succeeded mostly in infringing our own civil liberties.

Similarly, much fuss has been made by comparing the mess in Iraq to the “quagmire” of our war in Vietnam, and the desire for a withdrawal of American troops. Bush’s trip to Vietnam surely reinforces these feelings: America may have lost that war, but look at the (relative) success the Vietnamese have made of their country, on their own, following the American defeat. Iraq is no Vietnam, but anything is possible, the President’s re-dedication of himself to “victory” in Iraq notwithstanding. Perhaps an American defeat in Iraq could lead to the same kind of (mostly) peaceful victory for the Iraqi people that the Vietnamese achieved.

And so it starts to look like perhaps Bush wanted to create a more permanently at-home America by showing us the danger of foreign wars. If that was the goal, he has succeeded perhaps beyond his wildest dreams. This is likely to have an impact well beyond Iraq: even if U.S. troops leave Iraq rapidly, there will be little public tolerance for taking on the threats from North Korea or Iran militarily. Moreover, the Christian Evangelicals and naïve Jews claiming bedrock American support for our ally Israel may also find their beliefs tested if the Israelis continue to fail at peace-making, and if American military support is needed to help with what could be an escalating war there. That situation is certainly compounded by the realization across the Middle East that the Israeli army is no longer invincible, after its bloodied nose in this summer’s war with Hizbollah.

In fact, between losses in Iraq and Lebanon, the world is looking at two potential bullies, both suffering bloodied noses and damaged national psyches. I’ll take no bets on whether the U.S. or Israel recovers more rapidly, or what the next moves are for either nation. Either way, prospects for peace and economic stability only look dim and dimmer.


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