America will leave Afghanistan next year, undefeated certainly, but not victorious either (against a bloodstained gaggle of goat-herders). The full-time terrorists have moved on to other sanctuaries in other failed states. NATO has become a relic almost beyond mobilization, and the famous “reset” with Russia is a fiasco. The pivot to Asia may be marginally useful to the states that China is now trying to bully in the usual manner of immature, self-asserting powers. But America’s relevance and status as a superpower, after all these inconsistencies and false starts, are now fuzzy. Again and again President Obama and Secretary Clinton have declared the conduct of other states to be “unacceptable” and then meekly accepted it. Accept it or stop it; there is a case for prudent retrenchment, but not for a self-authored rout.
In the last 40 years, as many as 20 million unskilled peasants have illegally entered the U.S. while 60 million low-paying jobs have been outsourced from it. An economy geared entirely to consumption and instant gratification has become more and more dependent on service industries that add little or no value, such as the legal industry, which consumes nearly 10 percent of GDP and strangles the country in laws and regulations. The luxury-goods industries of France and Italy and the engineered-products industries of Germany and Japan have been carried on America’s back. Trillions of dollars were borrowed from China and Japan to buy, largely from China and Japan, goods that America formerly made for itself.
No country has ever been as broke as the U.S. is now. Its reelected president has promised to reduce the annual deficit (in a country that had a basic money supply of $900 billion when he was inaugurated) to about $1 trillion per year. Most of the bonds issued to pay for these deficits are sold to the Treasury’s subsidiary, the Federal Reserve, which pays for them with cyber-notes e-mailed into existence as virtual money. Federal-government debt is piling up at $188 million per hour. It is a shell game with nothing under any of the shells. This is what has become of President Washington’s reliable treasury and strong currency.
In the late election, the Republican challenger was not one of the four strongest candidates his party could have put forward, but the others declined to make the race. This president could not run on his record and just smeared his opponent as a rich asset-stripper, and frightened women voters with fatuous red herrings about “reproductive rights.” It was an inane $3 billion election campaign that confirmed a failed president and inept leadership in both houses of Congress and the continuation of a dysfunctional system. For the first time, a coalition of pigmentational minorities and government employees and other benefit recipients outvoted the bulk of the traditional white majority. If this is the template for America’s electoral future, strains unimaginable since the Civil War will result.
Where library shelves are crowded with the elegant prose of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, the current trio have given us memorable phrases of a rather different kind. Bill Clinton had “I feel your pain” and “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”; George W. Bush had “Yo Blair” (as he greeted the British prime minister with his mouth full of food), “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” (the Katrina debacle), and “This sucker could go down” (in reference to the economy under his stewardship). We will have to await Mr. Obama’s second term for similarly lapidary phrases from him.
American exceptionalism is dead, except as a matter of scale. It is still a monster country; in fact, just 40 years after Mr. Nixon’s warning, it is perilously close to becoming “a pitiful, helpless giant.” Its foreign, economic, and national-security policies have been incoherent since the end of the Cold War. America can do better, but last week, it didn’t. These next four years will be very difficult.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and, just released, A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at [email protected].