Thursday, December 3, 2009

How an empire declines: Robert Borosage

President Obama made the best possible case for dispatching more troops to Afghanistan last night. But his speech left me with a haunting foreboding. Surely this is the way that great imperial powers decline. Their soldiers police the ends of the earth. There is always another enemy, always a threat -- sometimes imagined, often real -- that must be faced. And meanwhile, the productive economy declines, the rich live increasingly off investments abroad, the poor depend on public sustenance, the middle declines. No battle is so costly that it cannot be afforded; no battle so vital that the nation must be mobilized. The soldiers become professionals, "volunteers" in our terms. The institutions of the Republic -- the Congress, the Senate -- are scorned, often deservedly so. The executive decides the questions of war and peace. The secret state expands. The country finds itself constantly at war. New presidents inherit the wars of their predecessors. They are faced not with deciding to go to war, but whether to accept defeat in one already in progress.
And slowly, the great power declines from the inside out. The wars are costly, running up national debts. Vital investments are put off. Schools decline. Sewers leak. For a long time, circuses distract from the spreading ruin. Other societies become productive centers, capturing the new industries. Some begin providing better education for their citizens, better support for their citizens. Their taxes, not drained by the cost of wars past and present, can be devoted to what we used to call "domestic improvements."

The escalation in Afghanistan, so inevitable, so logical, so thoughtfully considered, surely is but a chapter in this saga. The President committed the country to spend about $250 billion in Afghanistan over the next 18 months. For a wealthy country, this isn't a lot. We can afford it. We will chase the devil in South Waziristan. Our soldiers will repel the Taliban, providing a "breathing space" for a corrupt government whose writ barely reaches the outskirts of the capital city.
On Thursday, the President will convene a jobs summit. Already, his aides have sent out the word that deficits will limit what can be done. Or as the head of the president's council on Economic advisors, Christine Roemer writesin the Wall Street Journal today, "Given the budget deficits this administration inherited, it is critical to leverage scarce public funds."
Robert Borosage.
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