Scorched-Earth Presidency

Posted January 5, 2008

Categories: Articles

An army in retreat often destroys the land so that it can’t be used by the adversary. This scorched earth policy began in agricultural times when retreating armies burned the fields to deprive their opponents of food. Later, the militaries would level entire cities, as the Nazis did to Warsaw before they left it to the Soviet army.

The really smart army does something a little different. It sets booby traps. Only when the victorious army walks in and establishes its headquarters do the bombs go off, destroying the city and the soldiers too.

The Bush administration has been putting fuses in place for some time now. The Iraq War is the biggest booby trap. The next administration will be saddled with the bulk of the costs — up to $3 trillion, according to estimates by Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes. It will also have to figure out how to pull the knife out of the bleeding country of Iraq without letting the victim die.

The cost of the war, coupled with the tax giveaways to the wealthy, has contributed to enlarging the U.S. budget deficit to nearly $500 billion, the highest ever. When the Clinton administration confronted the spending excesses of the Reagan-Bush years, it had to choose between deficit reduction and economic stimulus. It cut back on the latter and focused on the former. The tax-cut-and-spend Republicans learned a valuable lesson: the more debt they rack up while in office, the less their opponents can spend on public sector investment when they eventually grab the White House. Guns now mean no butter later.

And now there’s the financial crisis. Whenever Congress gets around to approving a bailout package, it will likely put much of the burden onto taxpayers. But we won’t really be presented the bill until the next administration. And meanwhile, it’s not just the feds who will be strapped for funds. State and local governments are already projecting major budget cuts — New York City is looking at $1.5 billion in public spending cuts in New York City and Los Angeles is facing a $400 million deficit — which means more broken-down buses, unfixed schools, and closed libraries in the near future.

What does this have to do with foreign policy? Everything, as Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Walden Bello explains in Wall Street Meltdown Primer. He identifies the current crisis as the third of a series of attempts to rescue the global market from itself. The first was neoliberal restructuring — the reduction of government spending and the redistribution of money toward the wealthy. The second was globalization — removing barriers to the flow of capital.

In the third attempt, global money managers created dubious financial instruments for the creation of wealth. “The problem with investing in financial sector operations is that it is tantamount to squeezing value out of already created value,” Bello writes. “It may create profit, yes, but it doesn’t create new value. Only industry, agricultural, trade, and services create new value. Because profit is not based on value that is created, investment operations become very volatile and the prices of stocks, bonds, and other forms of investment can depart very radically from their real value.”

And thus we have faced bubble after bubble, as our economy frothed up, lost its carbonation, and now tastes very flat indeed. As Rosa Brooks wrote in the Los Angeles Times, the United States has now officially entered the Third World. The booby trap will be sprung in the next administration when international financial institutions swoop in to impose conditions on the U.S. economy in much the way that U.S. government is now trying to rein in Wall Street. That is, if these institutions aren’t destroyed in the aftermath of our own financial implosion. As FPIF contributors John Cavanagh and Robin Broad explain in an excerpt from their new book Development Redefined, the institutions of the global economy are already in a weakened state because the “adverse impacts of their policies — and the arrogance and recalcitrance of these institutions — over these past decades have sparked public opposition around the world. This became even more widespread after their spectacular failure in the Asian financial crisis. In addition to their crises of credibility and legitimacy, the World Bank and the IMF are now experiencing financial difficulties as countries bypass their resources and turn instead to China, Venezuela, and other new donors for loans, often less encumbered by onerous conditions.”

Kevin Phillips, who once drafted a winning electoral strategy for the Republicans, has dissected the economic follies of his former coreligionists for some time. As FPIF senior analyst Mark Engler explains in a review of Bad Money, “When McCain was still taking comfort in the idea that America is ‘still the most innovative, the most productive, the greatest exporter, the greatest importer,’ Phillips was addressing a host of pressing challenges. ‘U.S. housing prices, credit-bubble risk, the instability of so many financial innovations never crisis-tested, the ever-more-apparent inadequacy of global oil production, the related vulnerability of the dollar, and, behind it all, the false assurance of American ‘imperial’ hubris,’ he pointed out, had already combined to put the country in serious jeopardy.”

The first presidential debate would have been a perfect opportunity for the candidates to explain how their Bomb Disposal Unit — um, I mean, their administration — will resolve both the financial crisis and the compromised position of the United States in the world. As FPIF contributor Ira Chernus argues, however, they missed this opportunity. “The very idea that the domestic emergency eclipses international concerns is misleading, because it assumes that the two arenas can be neatly divided,” he writes in Moralism vs. Pragmatism in the First Debate. “Foreign affairs and the domestic economy intersect in countless ways. But the candidates failed to make these connections or tell a compelling story about how they would remake U.S. foreign policy and, by extension, the U.S. economy.”

FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes considered the debate a failure in other ways as well. Obama didn’t challenge McCain’s positions on the surge, Iran, Pakistan, or Georgia. And he was prevented by his own support for higher military spending from challenging McCain’s budget priorities. “If Obama expects to defeat John McCain, who has indeed had more foreign policy experience, he must be more willing to challenge his opponent’s record,” Zunes concludes in Obama’s Missed Opportunity. “McCain is in fact extremely vulnerable in the foreign policy realm. Obama, however, must be more rigorous in pointing out their differences and more effective in challenging McCain’s weaknesses.”

Given the booby traps that await the next administration — what Richard Holbrooke calls euphemistically a “daunting agenda” in the latest Foreign Affairs — it must be very difficult for these candidates to continue campaigning with a smile on their faces. That goes double for John McCain, who has a booby trap as a running mate. In a much-cited column, conservative analyst Kathleen Parker urged Sarah Palin to step down as vice presidential candidate because she is so ill-equipped for the job. “If BS were currency, Palin could bail out Wall Street herself,” Parker wrote. Wow, talk about scorched earth…

The Next Debate

Unless McCain heeds Parker’s advice and replaces Sarah Palin, the next debate will pit the woman from Alaska against the man from Delaware. On foreign policy matters, it will be quite a mismatch. True, Biden doesn’t live in a state bordering Russia or Canada. Rather, he acquired his foreign policy experience the old-fashioned way: through travel, meetings with foreign leaders, and hammering out foreign policy legislation.

Stephen Zunes evaluates Biden’s foreign policy record and finds it mixed. Although Biden has favored negotiations with Iran and stronger arms control measures, the Delaware senator also backed the Iraq invasion, NATO expansion, free-trade agreements, and unconditional support for Israel.

“Obama’s choice of Biden — the quintessential figure of the Democratic Party foreign policy establishment on Capitol Hill — raises serious questions as to whether the Illinois senator really represents ‘change we can believe in,’” Zunes writes in Biden’s Foreign Policy ‘Experience.’ “At the same time, Biden has demonstrated a greater-than-average willingness to shift to more moderate positions if the prevailing pressure is from the left. His growing skepticism over Bush policy in Iraq, his calls for the withdrawal of most American combat forces, his outspoken opposition to the surge when it was put forward last year, and his tough questioning of General David Petraeus in hearings before his committee has undoubtedly been a reflection of the growing antiwar sentiment within the Democratic Party.”

It would be interesting if immigration comes up in the vice presidential debate. McCain once co-sponsored a bill that would have enabled many undocumented workers to become U.S. citizens, but subsequently reversed himself. Palin’s views on the issue are largely unknown, while Biden leans more toward open borders. The candidates would do well to read Illegal People, a new book by David Bacon. “When talking about policy options within the United States,” FPIF contributor Michele Wucker writes in her review, “Bacon makes an essential point that is too often lost in a political arena with little room for complexity: Political and social rights for immigrants must be an integral part of a broad agenda for change. As long as Americans are insecure about their own jobs, housing, healthcare, education, and workplace rights, they will be vulnerable to the toxic misinformation spread by the anti-immigrant right.”

Events in Washington

Next Monday, October 6, The Institute for Policy Studies, which runs Foreign Policy In Focus, will host a discussion panel called “The Election and War and Peace” from 12:30 – 2 p.m. Phyllis Bennis, Selig Harrison, and William D. Hartung will speak and I’ll moderate. This free event will take place at the IPS office in Washington, DC at 1112 16th Street, NW; Suite 600.

If you are in the Washington area, we also hope you can join us at this year’s Letelier-Moffitt human rights awards program on Wednesday, October 15, in the National Press Club Ballroom. The Institute hosts this annual event to honor the memories of Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier and American Ronni Karpen Moffitt, who perished on their way to work at IPS in a September 21, 1976 car bombing. This year’s award winners are Francisco Soberón and Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos (APRODEH) and the Indian Workers Congress. Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) and Barbara Ehrenreich will present the awards. The event begins at 5:30 pm. Starting at 9 pm we’ll watch the presidential debate together on a huge screen. Click here to register and purchase tickets and here for more information about the awards.

FPIF, September 30, 2008

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