Politics & Policy

Rendezvous with Disaster

America’s prospects after the election debacle.

The United States has endured a dumbed-down, hideously expensive election that retained gridlock and showcased the modern enfeeblement of its political process. The only previous time the U.S. had three consecutive two-term presidents, they were the principal authors of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Monroe Doctrine. Now, 192 years later, a less accomplished trio has taken America’s current-account deficits from $80 billion to over $400 billion under Bill Clinton, on to $800 billion under George W. Bush, where it has generally held under Barack Obama. Accumulated federal gross debt had accumulated to $6 trillion in the 216 years of American history prior to Bill Clinton, moved up to $10 trillion after George W. Bush, and has burst out like the Incredible Hulk under Barack Obama, to $16 trillion just four years later.

When George Washington handed over command of the Continental Army in 1783, and when he convened the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and again when he retired as president in 1797, he enjoined the legislators and statesmen of the future to create and preserve an indissoluble Union, ensure that it was adequately defended militarily, and give it a strong currency issued by a reliable treasury. The conservation of the Union appears to have been determined in Lincoln’s time. And the U.S. now spends 44 percent of the world’s entire military outlays but the wars that it has engaged in since Korea haven’t accomplished much. (The pseudo-wars against poverty, crime, and drugs have been lost.) President George H. W. Bush very efficiently evicted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, but President George W. Bush returned a decade later to remove him from Iraq. In the interim, President Clinton underreacted to the Khobar Towers, East African embassy, and USS Cole attacks, which helped incite the terrorist onslaughts on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001.

There is no doubt that the second President Bush inherited a very serious terrorist threat, though not such a threat as had been represented by the totalitarian Great Powers, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Terrorists cannot threaten the survival of a great nation. Guerrilla wars, and even more so terrorist assaults, are conducted only by forces with insufficient strength to carry out a real war. Since the 9/11 attacks were conceived in Afghanistan, the U.S. led the civilized world into that country, ejected the primitive theocrats who ruled the capital, and deployed the allies to bring civilization to that ancient, poor, mountainous, and unremitting land, before abruptly decamping to Iraq and leaving the allies undermanned to carry out an ambiguous mission in Afghanistan.

In one of the greatest military blunders in American history, the 400,000 men of the Iraqi armed forces and state police were disbanded: rendered unemployed and without income, but permitted to keep their weapons and ordnance. The easily foreseeable bloodbath ensued, and America’s deterrent influence on the neighbors was lost. Pakistan was paid billions in assistance for heavily qualified support on the ground, while it harbored fugitives from the American anti-terrorist drive, including Osama bin Laden, architect of 9/11 and a tedious sequence of subsequent belligerent videos. And Pakistan parceled out a sizeable part of its aid from the U.S. to the Haqqani Taliban in Afghanistan, which was busy killing NATO forces in that country. The U.S. was effectively on both sides of wars in the Middle East in which it has lost over 7,000 dead, around 40,000 wounded or seriously affected, and has spent $2 trillion.

It has been accused of chasing oil, but has not received, either in the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, nor from Iraq since 2003, one free barrel of oil, or even one at a discounted price. In 1957, President Eisenhower warned of the national-security dangers of importing 10 percent of America’s oil needs. President Nixon raised the same concern, and started “Operation Independence” to reduce such dependency when it passed 20 percent of needs. It crested at 60 percent under President Obama, in four times as big a national demand at 40 times the 1957 price, before fractional-recovery methods and natural-gas conversions reduced the import total to about 45 percent, and it should continue to decline. But here too, as much of America’s payment for petroleum imports goes to states that finance militant Islamist activity, the U.S. is on both sides of its self-proclaimed war on terror (and the Obama administration resisted increased domestic production for environmental reasons).

The U.S. has nothing to show for its Iraq effort and that country could break up, or into strife, at any moment. The upshot of the second Bush administration’s holy crusade for democracy is the victory of the Hamas terrorist organization in the Palestinian elections, the Hezbollah terrorists in the Lebanese elections, and the Muslim Brotherhood (which murdered Anwar Sadat, the modern Arab world’s greatest and most pro-Western statesman) in Egypt.

Barack Obama had no such romantic ideas about democracy. He cold-shouldered the Iranian Green Revolution as he tried to “engage” with the ayatollahs (i.e. appease them), ignored the anti-Qaddafi rebels in Libya until shamed by the French and British into acting in a support capacity, and has wobbled irresolutely over Syria as tens of thousands have died trying to dispose of a U.S.-designated terrorism-supporting state that Secretary Clinton initially claimed was led by a “reformer.” Successive administrations have warned that they would not tolerate Iran’s becoming a nuclear military power and Obama has given great lip service to arms control, but there is no reason to believe that the U.S. will stop this program, which it certainly has the military power to do by air interdiction. If it does not, it will once again leave it to Israel to do the world’s dirty work for it, and if Israel does not act, Turkey and Egypt and Saudi Arabia will acquire nuclear arms also and America’s value and credibility as an ally will excavate a new low point, other than as a provider of anti-missile defenses.

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 cbletters@gmail.com.

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