America the Exceptional

Posted January 2, 2007

Categories: Articles

Our allies should organize an intervention. I’m not talking about a military intervention, though some neighborhoods in the United States might welcome UN peacekeepers to replace the local constabulary. I’m talking about one of those interventions that friends organize when one of their buddies has become a drug addict or keeps driving when drunk or is maxing out a dozen credit cards on the Home Shopping Network.

Our buddies have watched the U.S. military budget go through the roof and have largely remained silent. It’s certainly difficult to know how and when to intervene. Less charitably, though, several of them—England, Japan—are big-time enablers. Like the lower-status members of an entourage, they score some military-industrial swag just by being our friends.

Still, our military addiction threatens the global economy. Virtually everyone agrees that ballooning U.S. debt pushes up global interest rates and slows economic growth. So it’s in our allies’ best interest to get us to stop. The first step is to identify a social-worker-type as a mediator. I propose Rodrigo de Rato, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The IMF is all about these kinds of interventions, which it calls “structural adjustment.” It’s a strange quirk of the global economy that the country that spends the most on its military, even as it digs itself further and further into debt, attracts no house call from the IMF.

This is what makes America so exceptional. I don’t mean “sea to shining sea” exceptional. Nor am I invoking the historians’ argument that the United States, by dint of geography and a measure of luck, has never suffered the kind of large-scale attack and devastation that has soaked the histories of other countries in so much blood (if you don’t count the attacks and devastation visited upon Native Americans).

America the exceptional gets to establish the rules and then declare itself the exception that proves the rule. No international monitoring team evaluates the validity of our elections. No international court drags U.S. soldiers or politicians before it on charges of war crimes.

And no IMF representative insists that Washington swallow a dose of its own medicine and structurally adjust the economy away from the military and toward human needs.

Unified Security Budget

However, if our friends decide to hold an intervention, FPIF has the perfect discussion guide. Our fourth Unified Security Budget (USB), which FPIF’s Miriam Pemberton prepared with Lawrence Korb, of the Center for American Progress, and a prominent task force, shows exactly how the United States can cut the military budget and redirect the money toward programs that will build real security.

President Bush is now asking Congress to spend over $600 billion on the military in fiscal 2008, including the costs of our misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. That sum will get us lots of Cold War-style weapons that we don’t really need as well as some newfangled systems of dubious feasibility. As the USB details, the president’s plan devotes more than 90% of the military budget to engaging the world with military force. The USB proposes instead $56 billion in cuts for spending on offense and $50 billion increase in spending on such critically needed programs as infrastructure protection, alternative energy, non-proliferation, peace building, and development assistance.

The USB is full of concrete recommendations couched in terms that those outside the Beltway can understand and those on Capitol Hill can support. Here’s one example. “Canceling the administration’s initiative to build offensive space-weapons, which threatens to create a whole new arms race, could provide the $800 million needed to double the originally requested annual budget for the State Department’s Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization,” the USB urges. “This corps of civilian experts in post-conflict rebuilding, envisioned for Iraq and other locations such as Haiti and Sudan, has been an unfunded political football since it was proposed in 2003. The Pentagon supports it.”

You can also read Miriam Pemberton’s op-ed in TomPaine on the USB and the story of the V-22 Osprey.

Where’s the Peace Movement?

For many years, the U.S. peace movement has tried to wean Washington of its dangerous addiction to war. It has long tried to organize an intervention to counter America’s peculiar exceptionalism. It has argued for some version of a unified security budget. And it has opposed specific wars, both current (Iraq) and potential (Iran).

Despite some notable successes—pushing for several arms control treaties, eventually ending the Vietnam War, preventing direct U.S. military intervention in Central America—the peace movement has not achieved its potential. The peace movement is like the smart kid who participates a lot in class but still scores poorly on test day.

Historian and FPIF contributor Lawrence Wittner, who has written several books on the U.S. and global peace movements, has a bold proposal. The peace movement, he argues, should learn from other causes. The labor movement, the women’s movement, and the civil rights movement all have strong, national organizations. The peace movement remains decentralized, ad hoc, almost anarchic in its organization.

“If peace activists are serious about reining in the forces of militarism, they should recognize that a movement composed of small, independent peace groups and large numbers of unaffiliated individuals is simply not up to that task,” Wittner writes. “To attain organizational cohesion, strength, and programmatic direction, the movement needs a powerful national peace organization, with a mass membership. Only then will it be in a position to effectively challenge the masters of war, impress the politicians, and set the United States on a new, peaceful course in world affairs.”

If the peace movement were a stronger national presence, then perhaps we wouldn’t be facing the current showdown between Congress and the president over the Iraq spending bill. As FPIF’s policy director Erik Leaver writes in an AlterNet commentary, if the president vetoes the quite moderate Iraq Supplemental Bill, neither the Senate nor the House will have enough votes to override.

“After Bush’s veto, progressives in Congress need to remind their colleagues of the failed policies and push for stronger legislation,” Leaver writes. “If the president is unwilling to take the moderate compromise on the table now, it is clear that more drastic measures will be needed. As each vote on the war happens, those opposed to the occupation of Iraq need to push for a full withdrawal of troops, closing the permanent bases, setting aside funds for reconstruction, and a commitment to real regional diplomacy.”

A strong, national peace movement could deliver such a message to Congress.

Western Sahara, Syria, Agriculture

Meanwhile, the administration is chastising peacemaking as “bad behavior.” When Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visited Syria in early April, Vice President Dick Cheney called her out.

As FPIF contributors Michael Shank and Marwan Kabalan point out in Bad Behavior Brings Good Results, however, America’s foreign policy mandarins and the U.S. public side with Pelosi. The Iraq Study Group recommended talking with Syria; the polls say that 70% of the public concurs. “Pelosi’s visit to Damascus may not have produced breakthroughs, but that was not the point. Diplomatic engagement was the point,” Shank and Kabalan write. “There were no threats, no orders, and no ultimatums. Soft power of this sort will salvage what remains of American credibility in an environment where anti-Americanism runs high. Hard power, meanwhile, has no chance of recovering dwindling U.S. prestige in the Middle East.”

In its eagerness to curry favor with Morocco, the Bush administration has failed to advance the negotiations around independence for Western Sahara. As FPIF contributor Jacob Mundy points out in a new policy report, autonomy has emerged as the compromise du jour. The problem is there is little support for an autonomy option that would leave Western Sahara as part of Morocco. Even James Baker, the former U.S. point person on Western Sahara, backed a referendum that would have given the inhabitants of Western Sahara a chance to exercise their right of self-determination and choose independence if they wanted it.

“For the George W. Bush administration, Morocco’s role in the ‘war on terror’ was more important than supporting Baker in Western Sahara,” Mundy writes. “The same month Baker resigned, Morocco won major non-NATO ally status and a free trade agreement from Washington. Elliott Abrams, head of Middle Eastern affairs in the National Security Council, is most likely the lead cheerleader in the White House for Western Saharan autonomy. Indeed, Moroccan expectations that the United States would support a unilaterally implemented autonomy had echoes of U.S. support for Israeli unilateralism in the occupied Palestinian territories.” A 60-Second Expert version of Mundy’s piece is also available.

Finally, FPIF looks at the threats to and resistance by small farmers around the world. In an AlterNet commentary, IPS’s Daphne Wysham describes how farmers in the Indian coastal city of Jagatsinghpur are resisting the strong-arm tactics of a South Korean investor with World Bank financing.

And in his FPIF column for this week, Walden Bello shows how free trade has been devastating to small farmers around the world, especially in Asia.

“Many economists, technocrats, policymakers, and urban intellectuals have long viewed small farmers as a doomed class. Once regarded as passive objects to be manipulated by elites, they are now resisting the capitalist, socialist, and developmentalist paradigms that would consign them to ruin,” Bello writes. “And even as peasants refuse to ‘go gently into that good night,’ to borrow a line from Dylan Thomas, developments in the 21st century are revealing traditional pro-development visions to be deeply flawed. The escalating protests of peasant groups such as Via Campesina are not a return to the past. As environmental crises multiply and the social dysfunctions of urban-industrial life pile up, the farmers’ movement has relevance not only to peasants but to everyone who is threatened by the catastrophic consequences of obsolete modernist paradigms for organizing production, community, and life.”

FPIF, April 30, 2007

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