Debt and Empire

Posted January 8, 2011

Categories: Articles

To: General Petraeus, Langley HQ
From: Operative 650, Kabul office
Re: Memo XE1955

General Petraeus:

First, I would like to introduce myself. I was in close communication with your predecessor, Leon Panetta. My memos on outsourcing targeted killings to the Chinese and producing a new TV program Top Terrorist were well-received. Or, at least, I did not receive any indication that Leon found them objectionable, so I assume that they are still “in process.”

I am writing to you from my new post in Kabul, where I arrived only a few short weeks ago. Soon I will submit my first field report. In the meantime, like many of my colleagues here in Afghanistan, I am concerned about the debt discussions taking place in Washington. In fact, we can talk about nothing else. Before I make my modest proposal, permit me a couple observations.

  • It’s easier to get an agreement between the Taliban and coalition forces than it has been to get Democrats and Republicans to see eye to eye. It seems to me, from here in Kabul, that the Tea Party is basically just like the Taliban, minus the beards. They are both determined to take over their countries, they are both fanatical and uncompromising, and they are both willing to destroy their respective governments in order to achieve their aims.
  • Given their intransigence, I’m wondering whether it might be useful to run an extraordinary rendition program for some of these Tea Party types. I know that the CIA is prohibited from working inside the United States, but perhaps we can use a Colombian or Israeli contractor to bring these folks here to Afghanistan. A few weeks here at Bagram prison under “austerity measures” would surely make some of these legislators more amenable to compromise. Since Congress is about as popular right now as al-Qaeda, I’m willing to wager that the public would wholeheartedly support such a program.
  • We talk a lot about fighting the enemy over here so that we won’t have to fight them on the streets of America. We’re afraid that our enemies will destroy the American way of life, bomb our infrastructure, take food from the mouths of our children and elderly, gut our educational system, and so on. I haven’t taken a close look at the debt deal that averts government default, but it seems to me that we’re applying scorched-earth tactics to ourselves. Instead of handing over a well-functioning society to our debtors — the Chinese, the Japanese — we’re slashing and burning in a preemptive maneuver. Cutting all this domestic spending is basically like calling in aerial strikes on ourselves, right? Except that all the damage is collateral.

But domestic spending and comparisons to Afghanistan are not really why I’m writing to you. I send memos to the top only when I have Big Ideas. This time, I have a proposal for reducing the debt, keeping our Asian creditors at a reasonable distance, and maintaining our overseas commitments.

From my reading of the political situation in the United States, I believe that Americans aren’t willing to pay for U.S. overseas engagement through higher taxes. Even Republicans who insist on maintaining or even increasing military spending are obviously not geniuses at accounting, since they refuse to increase revenues through taxation. It doesn’t take an economist to tell you that you can’t run an empire on the cheap. A good chunk of the recent debt comes from the wars we’ve waged in Iraq and Afghanistan. The military budget has doubled over the last decade. It costs a whole lot of money to maintain a thousand overseas bases, keep our fleet afloat, and run the kind of covert ops that have kept me employed around the world for more than two decades.

I want to keep my job. And I know that my colleagues in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines want to keep theirs. So, here’s my proposal: an Empire Tax. We charge all the countries where we maintain bases and troops a tax that completely covers our costs there. And to pay the additional costs of our military presence overseas, such as the Pacific Fleet, we assess a tax on U.S.-based transnational corporations, who have also benefited so much from our military policies. With this Empire Tax, we would make our military and intelligence operations entirely self-sufficient. We wouldn’t have to worry about congressional whims or the pacifist tendencies of our public. We would pay as we go.

I can anticipate certain objections. Many of our allies already contribute to the maintenance and upkeep of U.S. forces on their territories. But they do not cover the full costs, so they are still receiving subsidies. The Empire Tax would essentially remove that subsidy. You might also point out that some countries, like Afghanistan, simply don’t have the money to pay for our extensive operations. I would suggest that we treat Afghanistan like the Pacific Ocean, which also can’t support the operations of our Pacific fleet. Instead, we use the revenues from the Empire Tax on the transnational extraction industries that will depend on U.S. forces to drill for trillion dollars of energy and minerals in this benighted region.

Perhaps, too, you might not like the name. The word “tax” is not very popular. And many Americans hesitate to say we are an empire. After all, we don’t directly administer colonies. But if we don’t have to depend on the largesse of Congress or the American people, I think we can just go ahead and be blunt. We walk like an empire, we talk like an empire. And, until now, we’ve spent like an empire. If necessary, of course, we can use this name only among ourselves. For public consumption, perhaps we can call it the Liberty Surcharge.

Finally, let me add that an Empire Tax is consistent with the direction we’ve been moving in for a while. We’ve been declaring war without much regard for what Congress has to say. And we’ve been expanding the range and frequency of our drone attacks without much regard for the opinions of American citizens (the absence of American casualties in these attacks means that we’ve largely removed U.S. public opinion from the equation). Our greatest vulnerability is not the Taliban or al-Qaeda or North Korea. It’s our dependence on Congress and the American people to pay our bills. The Empire Tax would simply cut Congress out of the picture.

Will the American people agree to give up their fiscal control over national security? I have two answers to that question. One, Americans already have done so. Polls consistently show that Americans want reductions in U.S. military spending, and yet that spending has gone up anyway. Two, during elections, Americans unerringly focus on domestic issues except in extraordinary circumstances like after 9/11. I’m confident that the American public will be happy with this new “pay to play” arrangement. They weren’t playing and, thanks to the Empire Tax, they won’t be paying any more either.

Now that we’ve averted default, I’m no longer worried about immediately losing my job, being stranded in Kabul without a ticket home, or having the Chinese repossess my house. I am worried, however, about the future of our empire. Thanks to the Agency, I’ve been able to travel the world, meet thousands of interesting people, and help subvert their governments. It would be a shame if the next generation of young Americans can’t have the same opportunities I had.

Debt and Foreign Policy

On a less satirical note, let’s turn to the philosophical underpinnings of the debt debate. Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Marc-William Palen looks at the ideology driving Republican deficit hawks in Washington. They’re not classical liberals or Ayn Rand supporters, he argues. Instead, their fear of the outside world pushes them to embrace an even older philosophy.

“Their fear-driven ideological inspiration dovetails with the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, who predated Adam Smith by a century and who expounded on an amoral philosophy of self-interested individualism, counterbalanced by acquiescence to authoritarianism,” Palen writes in The Ideology that Drives the Republican Party. “Hobbes believed that a strong state prevented ‘war of every man against every man,’ a chaotic type of warfare that Republicans believe is contained within al-Qaeda’s radical philosophy.”

The horror that Hobbes imagined is taking place today in Afghanistan, where a war of all against all is playing out daily. “With Europeans overwhelmingly opposed to the war, there is a stampede for the exit by virtually every country but Britain and the United States,” writes FPIF columnist Conn Hallinan in Afghanistan: Anatomy of a Hit. “Afghanistan may well end up the graveyard of NATO. The biggest losers, of course, are Afghans, with 2011 the deadliest year for civilians since 2001. Most of those deaths come via roadside bombs, but casualties from NATO air attacks are up. In spite of hundreds of billions of dollars in aid, Afghanistan is still grindingly poor and stunningly violent.”

Yet, the U.S. military still claims success for its two primary tactics, drone attacks and night raids. FPIF contributor Adam Cohen questions the military’s claims in The Dual Failure of Night Raids and Drones: “These tactics may be deadly and serve to limit the number of foreign troops needed for attacks, but they are strategic failures. If the coalition’s primary goal in Afghanistan and Pakistan is to isolate and neutralize the influence of the insurgency and bolster the legitimacy of the local government, tactics that illicit fear of the government and drive people to shoulder up to the Taliban for protection against foreign attacks are clearly steps in the wrong direction.”

Iran’s New Tilt

Iran has declared 2011 the year of “economic jihad.” The country is still suffering under an international sanctions regime. But, argues FPIF contributor Richard Javad Heydarian, the sanctions have not had their intended effect of changing Iran’s external policies.

Iran “is increasingly tilting east and south, trying to maximize its ties with major emerging economies across the globe,” he writes in Dissecting Iran’s Economic Jihad. “And it has introduced much-needed economic reform by restructuring its subsidy schemes, gradually privatizing its key economic sectors, and adopting a more conservative macroeconomic policy. As a result, the sanctions regime — designed to place economic stress on the country and force its leaders to alter behavior — has failed to substantially alter Iran’s foreign policy.”

One country that Iran is increasingly leaning toward is Pakistan. Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari recently made two trips to Tehran.

“Given the current confrontational U.S. approach toward Iran and its tendency to frame everything Iran-related in zero-sum terms, Pakistani leaders may have intended to raise the alarm for the United States by giving the impression of seeking closer partnership with Iran,” writes FPIF contributor Abolghasem Bayyenat in The Courtship of Iran and Pakistan. “This development shows once again how far the U.S confrontational approach toward Iran has created unnecessary costs for its foreign policy and has limited its room for maneuver in the region.”

Brazil on the Security Council?

The restructuring of the United Nations is a perennial topic of discussion, but there’s been little movement forward on making the institution better reflect the changed balance of power in the world. Brazil, however, has been gradually maneuvering to put itself forward as the primary Latin American candidate to join the Security Council as a permanent member. The United States, argues FPIF contributor W. Alex Sanchez, should support Brazil’s bid.

“More open Washington support for Brazil’s UN aspirations would certainly help improve relations between the United States and Latin America,” he writes in An Easy Way to Improve U.S.-Latin American Relations. “The election of Barack Obama was very well received by the Global South in general but, at least regarding the Western Hemisphere, not much has happened during his tenure. A stronger endorsement by the White House stating that Latin America does deserve a permanent member at the UNSC table would be a very important positive step in making the Washington-Latin American relationship a partnership of equals.”

South Sudan, meanwhile, is now officially a new country, with its own seat at the UN. The new constitution allows for citizenship to all northerners living in the country. The situation is not so clear for southerners living up north, writes FPIF contributor Terah Edun in South Sudan’s New Democracy: “According to co-deputy chairman of the National Congress Party and top presidential aide, Nafie Ali Nafie, ‘For the southerners that want to work in the private sector in the north, they will have to get permission and residency permits.’ It is still not clear if a southerner in Sudan automatically loses his citizenship regardless of whether they become a South Sudanese citizen. The Khartoum government has offered southerners a nine-month transitional period to settle their situations and either obtain a residency permit or prepare to depart Sudan.”

Finally, we feature two poems this week about Israel-Palestine relations. In Cluster, FPIF contributor Zein El-Amine describes the “strange fruit” that fell on the people of Gaza. In A Question of Friendship, Yvette Neisser Moreno looks at how international relations affect personal relations.

FPIF, August 2, 2011

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