Thursday, July 4, 2013

The future of the American experiment

The fourth of July, the annual celebration of the thirteen colonies declaring their independence from Great Britain, is an appropriate occasion to reflect on the future of this democratic experiment.

The United States has twice been undisputedly the most powerful nation on the planet, first at the end of WWII and then at the end of the Cold War. Both times, the U.S. attempted to employ its power to force changes that it thought would achieve a safer, more peaceful future. Both times, it failed. The unnecessary, unsuccessful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven a massive drain on the nation's financial resources, resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, and diminished U.S. power, reputation, and competitiveness.

The nation's founders, having studied prior experiments in democracy, were concerned that a standing military, overseas entanglements, and a too-powerful executive all had the potential to subvert our democratic experiment. Since WWII, a great many Americans have sadly accepted all three as givens.

Seven decades of those policies have produced an economy and political system that views defense expenditures as nearly sacrosanct. Recommending substantial reductions in defense spending triggers unsubstantiated allegations of comprising national security. Defense contracts and spending, deeply embedded in almost every Congressional district, mean that reductions potentially cost politicians votes and are therefore unpalatable. Even seemingly harmless proposals, such as eliminating the $1 billion commissary system that only military personnel and retirees can patronize, cause the same reaction. The outcry over this proposal (harm to national security and loss of jobs) was particularly egregious because Wal-Mart had offered to match commissary prices for shoppers previously authorized to patronize the commissary system, i.e., the change would have saved taxpayers $1 billion with no reduction in military benefits.

Has the over-sized U.S. military already become so deeply entrenched in the U.S. economy and political system that substantial reductions are impossible? Have overseas entanglements (e.g., NATO and other treaty obligations, a continuing presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an unfaltering commitment to Israel) become so permanent that global dominance rather than mutual cooperation is how the U.S. views the world, a perspective increasingly untenable in a globalized, multi-power world? Has the imperial presidency, which beginning with FDR has progressively abrogated Constitutional processes to appropriate power for itself, set the U.S. on an irreversible trajectory toward dictatorship?

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