The United States, viewed from outside, is almost sleepwalking into a post-American world, with practically no audible awareness that this is happening. It may be that the media and government of the country are now so completely in the hands of people who think America’s prominence in the world is a bad thing, or think that a retreat to America will release more resources for addressing domestic problems, that a general retreat of the U.S. in the world is not judged newsworthy. More vigilant and traditionally patriotic and optimistic Americans dissent from this silence, and they also largely refrain from the ceaseless mantras about America’s greatest years’ being ahead of it (even though, as Marco Rubio and others assert, it has long been “the greatest country in human history”).
One of the observers most sensitive to the constant evidences of this decline is Peggy Noonan, the blithe spirit and fine wordsmith who was once Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter, and writes now in the Wall Street Journal. Her column on June 1 was headed “An Antidote to Cynicism Poisoning.” She again deplored the disgraceful abandonment of the besieged consulate in Benghazi, which cost the lives of the ambassador and three of his officials, and she was annoyed by the fraudulent pretense that it wasn’t a terrorist operation but merely a response to a cranky video from a freelance American critic of Islam. She deplores the official harassment of various media critics of the Obama regime. But Peggy Noonan is truly and sensibly appalled most particularly at the conduct of the IRS.
Ms. Noonan brushes aside the feeble sophistries that presidents have often used the IRS to harass opponents; the current revelations are of especially widespread misconduct, and officials of the IRS have lied to Congress and have exercised their right to silence in unusually suspicious ways. What occurred in 2012, she correctly remarked, was that a Democratic president used the Democratic political clerisy to reelect himself in a corrupt abuse of the system, followed by a glazed pall and indifferent shrug of ignorance and prevarication. The president claimed to know nothing.
Noonan is more concerned by the politicization of government employees than she would have been 20 or more years ago because “all parts of American life have become more political, more partisan, more divided, and more aggressive. . . . When a scandal is systemic, ideological, and focused on political ends, it will not just magically end. What does it mean when literally half the country understands that [the IRS] is politically corrupt, sees them as targets, and will shoot at them if they try to raise their heads?” Bingo. I can’t agree, though, with her proposal for an independent counsel, because that is another matrix for terrible abuse, and the last thing the system needs is another demented partisan like Archibald Cox (Watergate) or a Torquemadan lunatic like Lawrence Walsh (Iran-Contra) lurching and plunging through government like a Frankenstein monster. Unleashing the prosecution service, professional or special, on the IRS will just create earth-shaking Jurassic combat among the psychopathic mastodons of government and escalate collateral damage among the people. Hopeless though the Congress has been in almost every respect since, at the latest, the Clinton years, it should hold the hearings and begin the process of doing what it was created to do, and its members are sworn and paid to do: act as a coequal branch, bring injustices to light, and generate attempted solutions to problems the administration and the judiciary are not addressing.
The IRS scandal is only one of these problems. For decades, immense numbers of illegal immigrants were permitted to enter the country to do menial work while scores of millions of low-end industrial jobs were outsourced, and the issue was just ducked by the executive and legislative branches until it became too hot a potato to be susceptible to serious resolution. The elected officials of government just ducked the abortion issue as well, until, by default, it fell into the incapable lap of the courts. This is an inconvenient issue, of course, because of the sharp division of opinion on when the unborn attain to the rights of people, but the country’s political institutions are charged with the responsibility to govern, which is not exclusively a matter of simple questions that achieve unanimous concurrence.
All branches of government have sat as mute as unaerated puddings while the medical-care system achieved a per capita cost of $7,000, compared with $3,000 in Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom, which have, on average, comparable or better medical care for their populations. In the U.S., 30 percent of the people, over 100 million Americans, have a level of care beneath the standard of an economically advanced country. All indications are that Obamacare will make this worse and not better.
Having mentioned it a number of times before in this space, I will confine my comments on the legal system to the notorious facts that the American legal cartel comprises approximately half the trained lawyers in the world, accounts for about 10 percent of U.S. GDP, and generally locks arms in support of a system that has the highest prosecution-success rate of any democracy and six to twelve times as many incarcerated people per capita as the sociologically comparable countries mentioned above. Neither incantations about exceptionalism nor piling prosecutors on prosecutors will address the real problem.
Free people get the government they deserve, and Americans deserve the poor government they have generally had for 20 or more years. While the branches of government are equal, the president is the head of the government, the chief of state, and in the words of the longest-serving occupant of the post, “the head of the American people.” The next president, it being too late for the incumbent to fill such a role, must announce that crises afflict the country — chronic indebtedness (the current projection of a $642 billion deficit is proclaimed as a triumph of frugality and revenant prosperity), uncompetitive education and health-care systems, and a justice system that is so out of control that 20 percent of adult Americans are technically felons — and then the president must propose a comprehensive plan of action and ask for public support and be prepared to compromise reasonably with the other party, in the Congress and in the states.
The economic measures will have to encourage a revival of manufacturing, the reduction of the current-account deficit, accelerated energy self-sufficiency, discouragement of the depredations of the legal cartel, restraint on the service industries, and the creation of jobs that add value and do not just accelerate the velocity of money in inconsequential transactions.
Also on June 1, the Wall Street Journal editorialized that the Obama administration appears to favor the Assad government in the Syrian civil war, although it still gives lip service to the desirability of Assad’s departure. There is no need to recite the dismal sequence of official humbug on this issue, starting with Hillary Clinton’s lionization of Assad the “reformer.” Assad has prostrated his country, with greater servility than ever, before Iran, and he has gassed his own population, yet there is no American Mideast policy that can be divined in the platitudes and U-turns and dissembling of the president and his servitors. But that is not as irritating as the pretense that there is such a policy. It may be the downside of America’s legendary optimism that most Americans fail to see how hollow and redundant such pretenses have become.
The “reset” button with Russia has emboldened the Kremlin to encourage Iran’s nuclear capability and to salvage the Assad satrapy in Damascus. At least the Kremlin knows what it’s doing: A nuclear Iran may drive the Asian former republics of the USSR somewhat back into the arms of the Russians, and influence over Syria will give the Kremlin a renewed place in the Middle East, especially as the U.S. has almost completely abdicated there and is seen as a friend of Israel only by that country’s enemies. Even Zbigniew Brzezinski, the only serious foreign-policy person in the Carter administration, called in Time magazine last week for an attempted agreement with Russia and China on a common front for the Middle East. In America’s present palsied state, however, those powers would not agree with it even that the earth is not flat.
The United States is not the sick man of the West; Germany and Canada are the only large countries in the West that are not sick. The Chinese, who have their own problems, are fortunately long-term thinkers and assume that the Americans will emerge from their torpor eventually. The U.S. is not circling the drain, but, to borrow the words of General de Gaulle, it is “crossing the desert.” Great Powers do, but they get to the other side.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and the recently published Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at [email protected].