Exceptional

26 09 2011

One can only rest on one’s laurels for so long. Sooner or later, you will have to remind everyone why you earned the laurels in the first place. Put up or shut up. We are long past that point, in my opinion. Despite the shrill rhetoric in this country supposedly to demonstrate the patriotism of one or another group of yammerheads, none of those doing the yammering seems capable of identifying exactly why they think America is number one. What have we done lately to earn the adoration and envy of the rest of the world we seem to crave so desperately?

A bit of history is in order. The US has been a major world player since before the First World War, based largely upon our manufacturing capacity and the military capabilities afforded by that manufacturing. We exported manufactured goods and foodstuffs all over the world, and had a first-rate Navy to keep that trade flowing. It wasn’t until the aftermath of the Second World War that the so-called “American Century” began in earnest. For a brief period starting in the late 1940s through the early 1960s, the US was an economic juggernaut. These are the so-called “golden years” so fondly recalled by the strident reactionaries in America’s political climate today. Contrary to popular belief, however, this was not because of some uniquely American trait, but the result of the US being the only industrialized country which still had any industry to speak of. Most of the rest of the industrialized world was still trying to dig themselves out from under the piles of rubble where their cities and factories had been.

Because total war had not raged across North America in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the US was just about the only functioning economy left on Earth. We took advantage of this to do some good things, such as helping rebuild both allies and enemies, but we also developed a wholly unwarranted sense of superiority which persists to this day. What is so special about us that we think everyone else should kiss our ring? Nukes? Bah- there are over a dozen nuclear powers in the world at the moment, both acknowledged and secret. Don’t even begin to speak about the US economy- if we’re not fully in recession, we’re still teetering on the ragged edge of it, despite the optimistic pronouncements from the government. Liberty and freedom? Sorry, Charlie. Parts of this country might as well be Banana republics for all the actual freedom enjoyed by the citizens. Health and longevity? I’m not sure the US even makes it into the top ten. Technology? Not so much, anymore. Most of our technology is developed and built by scientists and engineers from other countries, and almost all of the raw materials for that technology comes from foreign sources outside US control. Education? Not even close. American universities still enjoy a stellar reputation worldwide, but this is the lone bright spot in an otherwise dismal showing by US students from pre-school through graduation from high school. A large percentage of adults in this country would be unable to correctly identify the US on a map if it weren’t properly labeled, and US schoolchildren lag significantly behind most of the world in math and sciences. Standard of living, perhaps? Hmmm. That one does have some merit.

Even poor people in the US enjoy a standard of living which would have been classified as high living in most of the world throughout much of history. America is so wealthy that modest cities such as the one where I reside make schedules so those needing food or other assistance can take advantage of all the largess available. To be poor in much of the world even today often means you are one bad day away from death by starvation. To be “poor” in the US all too often means you don’t have high-definition on your color television. The average standard of living in this country is staggeringly high by historical standards.

Okay. The US has a high standard of living. Other countries are nearly as well off, however, so we’re back to searching for something we have that no one else has.

What about our military? In this arena, the US is supreme. No one else even comes close. We can go anywhere on Earth, kick ass and take names, then drop in someplace else on the other side of the planet to do it all over again. In this, the US really is exceptional. Now, what do we do with this exceptional capability?

Sadly, what we’ve done with our military for the last couple of decades is throw our weight around. Without a serious military rival to act as a counterbalance, Washington has been swaggering across the world stage with an arrogant sneer and giving anyone who looks at us crossways the back of our hand. In the absence of an enemy, we seem to have been going out of our way to turn ourselves int the enemy for everyone else. We are acting less like the world’s policeman and more like the world’s neighborhood bully.

Granted, American military power has a lot of little-noticed benefits for the rest of the world. Our Navy keeps trade flowing freely on the world’s oceans. We have sometimes stepped in to put a stop to unspeakable atrocities- although this could easily be said to be both too much and not enough. US military units respond to disasters around the world to provide food, shelter, and medical care quickly when the devastated area is often completely unable to provide any of these services. The mere fact that US warplanes and troops can show up on a troublemaker’s doorstep with no warning has a chilling effect on a lot of would-be conquerors- military adventures are a lot less useful or profitable when they might anger the biggest kid on the block.

Despite these often-unacknowledged global benefits from US military supremacy, most countries are not enthusiastic about our peerless might. No one is comfortable when the biggest, toughest kid on the block has a drinking problem and poor impulse control, and this is a pretty good description of US policy over the last couple of decades.

If we overlook our military prowess, the US doesn’t rate too highly as a nation. Our politics are a shambles, our economy not much better, and the few things we do really well are getting cut out of the budget by penny-wise and pound-foolish government officials in the service of their respective ideologies. The one thing we are absolutely the best at (killing people and destroying things) is a skill unlikely to endear us to other nations. Assuming we want other nations to like us, perhaps we should cut back on the killing-people-and-destroying-things bit and start acting like just another country. That’s what we are, after all.

Current status: Incensed

Current music: Flagpole Sitta by Harvey Danger

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Missed Opportunities

11 09 2011

The past ten years have been a litany of botched opportunities and profoundly stupid mistakes. For one brief moment, a large part of the world was united in purpose. Such moments are more precious than diamonds, pearls of such rarity that they stand out like beacons in history books amid the clutter of dates and place names. For an instant, we had the chance to change the world and make it better for everyone. Instead, we tossed away the opportunity in favor of short-term political and economic gain for a privileged few.

Under similar circumstances in the past, governments have mobilized their people to face an existential threat posed by power-hungry madmen ruling other countries. We face no such external threat to the very existence of our country and way of life today. Those who attacked us ten years ago were not particularly interested in the United States per se, but rather wanted to decrease our influence with their real target- the House of Saud. For all the hype about our enemies’ hatred of our liberties, the US was (and is) a side issue for our enemies. Our enemies wish to rule Mecca and Medina, and thereby gain control of all of Islam. The US government is closely tied to the ruling family of Saudi Arabia, and this influence was an obstacle to our enemies’ primary goal. In order to remove that obstacle, our enemies struck at what they saw as the heart of US power in the hope of provoking a general war between the west and Islam. In the ensuing chaos, our enemies could topple the House of Saud and become masters of “a billion muslims” already at war with the west.

When you buy into the media and political hype about remembering 9/11, think well on the facts listed above. The worst attack on US soil in history was basically a tactical sideshow in a larger strategic drama in which we were only bit players.

In response, we have endured a decade of increasing loss of essential liberties and a profound sense of dislocation between the general population and the US military. There used to be a sign posted in a Marine barracks which said, “America is not at war. The Marines are at war. America is at the mall.” If the US was truly facing a threat to our very existence as a nation, why were we not called upon to make sacrifices as was the case when previously threatened with destruction? Unless one was a member of the uniformed services or a relative of a service member, most of the US acted as if nothing had happened. The only sacrifices we (the People) were called upon to make were in our individual liberties. Under the fallacious guise of keeping Americans safe, ever-more intrusive government agents routinely violated the civil rights of millions of Americans to fight the “war on terror”. Legislation passed by our elected representatives to make this task easier was almost never used to arrest and convict terrorism suspects, but was used extensively to convict thousands of marijuana growers and users.

Aided and abetted by Congress, the administration at the time kept the costs of all this activity separate from the actual budget. Trillions of dollars and thousands of US servicemen were expended in the “war on terror” to what end? It’s been ten years- has terror been defeated yet?

Let us examine this “war on terror”. Terror is a tactic, a tool used to force one’s political adversaries into certain courses of action favorable to the terrorists. There is a way to fight terrorism, and that is the Russian method of demonstrating to the terrorists that the costs of using such tactics is too high. We, as a culture, are unwilling to employ the methods necessary to win such a war. I’m still naive enough to think that is a good thing, but where does that leave us? We are unwilling to become terrorists ourselves to dissuade others from committing terrorism, but we are in a war against terrorism. Can we win this “war on terror” without becoming what we fight against? I’m not sure we can.

Our military can handily defeat any number of enemies with guns, but classical use of military power is not what is needed here. A far better use of our overwhelmingly potent military force would be to isolate and destroy our enemies in detail (such as the methods used to drive the Taliban out of Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002) and long-term political action to deny our enemies bases from which to strike. Another way would be to decide whether or not supporting the House of Saud is worth the odd terror attack and its attendant civilian casualties, and make our national security policy based upon a rational appraisal of that question.

The ruling family of Saudi Arabia gets its power and prestige from two main sources: the oil they sell to Japan, China, and Europe and their control of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. As a country, Saudi Arabia exhibits the very worst traits of a theocratic monarchy. As an economy, they demonstrate the worst traits of monopolistic capitalism. The combination of these traits results in a profoundly poor and uneducated population ruled harshly by a political and religious elite.  Since such conditions are normally ripe for revolution, the House of Saud deflects popular unrest from the ruling family to outside forces by means of their support for the Wahabbi sect of Islam. The royal family funds Wahabbist schools throughout their country, providing a means of identifying and re-targeting disaffected youths. Those identified and re-purposed are used as purity police throughout the country when possible, or exported to other countries to become someone else’s problem. Note that 17 of the 19 attackers on 9/11 were Saudis, and you might start to understand why US support for the Saudi royal family is a big part of the problem. I fail to understand how allowing the House of Saud to fall could be any worse for American interests than the current state of affairs.

Why do we put up with the Saudis? Contrary to popular belief, it is only partially about oil. The US gets very little of its oil from Saudi Arabia. Our interest in Saudi oil is primarily in keeping the fuel taps open for our allies and trading partners elsewhere in the world. A larger part of the American backing of the Saudis is as a counterweight for Iran. Why is this important to US interests? I have no idea.

In a rational world, the US should be closely tied to Iran in lieu of Saudi Arabia. Iran has less oil than the Saudis, but more than triple the population. Furthermore, Iran’s Shi’a sect is philosophically better suited to a partnership with America than the Wahabbist butchers in Riyadh. Why, then, is America courting the Saudis?

We’re back at missed opportunities. Iran had a democratically elected government once, back in the 1950s. For reasons which (presumably) seemed good at the time, the US decided to help overthrow this democratically-elected government and replace it with a dictator presumed to be more amenable to American interests. The resulting tyranny and autocratic excesses of the Shah led inexorably to the rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the subsequent overthrow of the Shah. In lieu of welcoming the new rulers of Iran to the international community, the US government decided to cut them off from the Shah’s expatriated fortune and give weapons to Iran’s unpleasant neighbor- Iraq. Iran responded by taking a few dozen US citizens hostage and giving the US nose a very public tweaking for several years.

At some point during this time, it became US policy to dislike Iran. In order to “punish” Iran for giving us the finger back in the late 1970s, we gave Iraq the go-ahead to start a long and bloody war with Iran. After nearly ten years of increasingly bloody fighting, both sides were too exhausted to continue- particularly Iran, which relied heavily on “human wave” assaults. Iran lost a generation of young men in the war, which has created an enormous philosophical and cultural gap between the survivors of that war and the generations which followed. Iraq, by contrast, ended up with a moderately well-trained military increasingly under the thumb of the often unstable Saddam Hussein.

During all this time, Saudi Arabia was relatively stable, and was therefore increasingly seen as a useful tool to use against Iran. The US sucked up to the House of Saud to help “contain” Iran, when it should have been the other way around. Because the US was increasingly involved in helping maintain the theocratic rulers of Saudi Arabia, we became a target of those who wish to tear down the Saudi royal family and install themselves in their place. The end result of that was four hijacked airliners and more than three thousand dead US civilians.

So let us take this opportunity to take a long, hard look at exactly what US policy is and why. Short of becoming as ruthless as our enemies, there is little prospect of a military solution to the “war on terror”. The long-term solution would be to remove the root causes of the conflict, which is less about religion and more about the monopoly on power and economic might enjoyed by a handful of despots and their courtiers throughout the middle east. Let us concentrate on taking out the bad guys when we find them while working on loosening the bonds of the massive underclasses in north Africa and the middle east.

We’re Americans. We should start acting like it.