As they emerge from the wrecked political shelter of their "yes, but" support for the war in Iraq, Democrats are consoling themselves with the prospect of a post-Saddam Hussein return to normalcy -- in America. "Remember 1992," they whisper. "After we get this war behind us, the next election will be about the economy again, stupid."
But the "war" will not be over by November 2004. Having successfully morphed the threat posed by al-Qaeda into the threat posed by rogue leaders -- and having morphed both into an open-ended commitment to global American empire -- George W. Bush has created a permanent wartime presidency. As he demonstrated in last year's election, fear of another terrorist attack now trumps domestic pain. In the first two years of this administration's watch, unemployment rose by 2 million, investors lost trillions in a scandal-ridden stock market and the health-care system in many parts of the country was in free fall. Yet Democrats lost both the House and the Senate.
Democrats have a powerful domestic story to tell a middle class whose living standards are being squeezed by Bush's conservative agenda. But they do not have an alternative to Bush's narrative that Americans can only be protected if the U.S. government has effective control of virtually every country in the world.
The failure of the Democrats to challenge Bush's imperial design not only undercuts the liberal agenda, it endangers our democracy. In this critical moment in history, the two-party system is not providing the clarifying debate needed for Americans to choose their future with eyes open.
Unfortunately, the imperial road has been paved with some Democratic, as well as Republican, bricks. Since the end of the Cold War, our policy class has felt entitled to bend the world to its will. In the Clinton years, the preferred instruments were the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. But after September 11, the leverage of the loan was replaced by the leverage of the gun.
Accordingly, most Democratic leaders supported the preemptive invasion of Iraq. Their complaint was that the decision was "unilateral" -- that Bush's diplomacy failed to get the requisite vote of support in the United Nations Security Council.
To most Americans, the Democrats' multilateralism seemed like carping about political cosmetics. If Hussein were a threat to America, why should the lack of support in the Security Council deter us from attacking? The United Nations has many uses, but protecting America from al-Qaeda is not one of them.
Bush is clearly right that this country has to take responsibility for its own safety. But the neoconservative reach of empire vastly exceeds the nation's grasp. Already the cost of Iraq's reconstruction is being lowballed by an administration concerned about the sticker shock to Americans facing draconian cutbacks in social spending, a daily piling on of new demands for homeland security and ballooning budget deficits. After only two quick, small wars, our regular military is stretched thin and our reservists have to go back to work.
Meanwhile, 16 months after its liberation, Afghanistan remains unstable and dangerous. New commitments are being taken on without public debate in central Asia, Colombia and the Philippines, among other places. When the mind turns to a potential confrontation with, say, a nuclear-armed Pakistan in the hands of Taliban sympathizers or to cleaning out Indonesian breeding grounds for Islamic fundamentalists thirsting for revenge -- and then adds in the relentless rise in our public and private debt -- the imperial strategy collapses under its own bloated hallucinations.
Just as important are the limitations of our moral energies. Walter Lippman's prophetic condemnation of Lyndon Johnson's claim that America could afford both "guns" for Vietnam and "butter" for the Great Society is instructive; whatever the economics, the nation did not have the spiritual resources to kill people in Asia and nurture them in the south Bronx. War's logic inevitably obliterates the boundaries between foreign and domestic policy -- to which our currently beleaguered Bill of Rights bears witness.
Opposing the march to empire seems daunting when the nation is flush with a military victory. But it would be a mistake to believe that Americans will not accept any other path. Certainly Karl Rove thought they would when he had Bush reject nation- building in favor of a more "humble" American role in the world during the 2000 presidential debates. The difference between then and now is the memory of September 11. Thus, an alternative must generate more security for the average American.
To lay the political foundation for a different story about how Americans protect themselves, liberals should begin by challenging the central myth with which the Bush administration has stopped all rational conversation: the idea that terrorism is a matter of good versus evil and has nothing to do with America's behavior in the world. Whatever the nature of Islamic fundamentalism, there is little doubt that repeated American efforts to control the Middle East by supporting corrupt leaders -- from the Iranian shah to the Saudi Arabian princes -- is a large part of what has made "them" hate "us."
Liberals also need to challenge the idea that American interests are served by empire. As we all know, Iraqi oil was a major motivation for the invasion. This is widely interpreted to mean that the war's purpose was to supply our SUVs and air conditioners. But the world's oil producers have long understood that their oil isn't worth much without the Western societies' consumers. The grab for oil is more about who gets the drilling and pipeline contracts than it is about who gets to put gasoline in their tank.
In the same vein, the party in opposition should be asking why American taxpayers are supporting 76,000 troops in Germany or, for that matter, paying for NATO membership. With the Soviet Union gone, Europe is big enough and wealthy enough to protect itself. At least part of why we remain there has to do with maintaining the power of particular American elites. "Never forget," a German businessman once said to me, "when General Electric walks into our boardroom, it walks in with the Sixth Fleet." However, as the thousands of ex-employees whose jobs have been outsourced to cheaper labor overseas can attest, what is good for General Electric is not necessarily good for America.
American policy-makers complain that the Europeans have not invested in a military sufficient to take care of problems -- such as the Balkans -- in their own backyard. They are right. But if Europe could no longer get a free ride on the U.S. defense budget, it would have to take charge of its own military affairs. The same can be said of Asia. We have had 40,000 troops in South Korea for half a century. Isn't it about time that we had a plan to get out? Shouldn't Japan and China -- both of whom would be threatened if North Korea invaded the south -- begin to take responsibility for order in their part of the world?
This is not an argument for retreat to isolationism but rather for a retreat from the notion that we can only be protected if the Washington policy class can dictate how the rest of the world lives. Withdrawing from most of the 36 countries where we have military bases, extricating ourselves from Iraq as quickly as we can and reducing our commitment to the corrupt rulers of impoverished nations around the world would do more to protect the typical American from terrorism than will the doomed chase after Pax Americana -- whether unilateral or multilateral.
In fact, a less aggressive foreign policy would allow the United States to be a better global citizen. If our policy-makers were not so ready to dispatch our soldiers anywhere in the world, they would have less of an excuse not to join the International Criminal Court or to sign the land-mine treaty. Reducing the unrealistic expectations of our intentions and capabilities would also reduce our expectations of the United Nations and lessen our frustration with its limitations.
It might also force us to get serious about creating a competent homeland-security system that could defend against both terrorists and abuse of the Constitution. The current disgraceful program relies on underpaid personnel, uncontrolled private contractors, and a complete pass for the CIA and the FBI -- the two agencies whose failure is most responsible for our vulnerability. Pulling back from empire could turn the Pentagon back into the Department of Defense -- against the growing menace of nuclear proliferation (more threatening now that our Iraqi adventure has given nations the incentive to get such weapons as fast as they can). At this point, spending time and money getting an anti-ballistic missile system to actually work would be a better protective strategy than a preemptive war with everything that moves.
"But," objects the policy class, "what about our moral obligations, such as Israel? And who would keep order in the world? Who would make the world safe from the likes of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban?"
We do have historic obligations in the world, and Israel is one of them. Indeed, this is one place where we have the authority and power to enforce a settlement, which may require policing a wall between two peoples until they realize that they need each other. The fact that successive U.S. presidents have not had the power or the courage to resolve this dispute mocks the notion that our leaders have the capacity to force peace and order on the rest of the world.
No doubt there are injustices that a superpower trawling the world for monsters to destroy might prevent. But the notion that American government officials have a special capacity for stopping the monstrous is far from clear. After all, they supported Saddam Hussein's rise to power and financed the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan. Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam and Haiti -- indeed, America's record over the last half century is grim. Ponder for a moment the moral vision of Madeleine Albright, who, when asked to comment on the 500,000 children who died as a result of the economic embargo of Iraq, declared without hesitating, "We think it's worth it."
Neither the world nor our own people need empire; we need safety. And it is the obligation of the party in opposition to foster a debate on how to achieve it in a way that will allow Americans to get on with the process of nation building at home.
Jeff Faux is former president, and now distinguished fellow, of the Economic Policy Institute.
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