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November 01, 2006

Sex, Guns, and Butter

This is beginning to feel an awful lot like Vietnam, that haunting chapter that just doesn't want to close. The world, we all know, has made many turns since but it's as if all those names carved in the subterranean wall lying below the Lincoln Memorial have something more, something important to tell`....something that yet remains just out of mortal earshot.

Iraq's become a quagmire, yeah, we can agree but quite ironically and importantly, the disaster is magnitudes bigger and the leadership magnitudes feebler this time around. And that, dear reader, most inevitably, will shape the tale to be told as the Iraq Chapter plays itself out in the years to come.

What's been the recipe for this second neocolonial quagmire? To start there are the obvious similarities: entrance is optional and not at all inevitable but, on cue, big media sides with the war hawks;  then to make it palatable to those not directly involved in the conflict, the projected costs are minimized and the gains exaggerated. Of course, no immediate sacrifice is required, and like all flegling conflicts, the war unleashes a pseudo spending boom as masked, debt-based war spending gins up the broader economy.

Then there are the more Freudian, aspects of our democracy's psyche as we fall in line to get our initial inoculation of orderly uniforms and armored might against a backdrop of flags and exploding bombs; we cede power to the President, allowing our rights to be abridged, our access to information to be choked and our individual freedoms to be shrunk. The initial euphoria fades with the first facts on the ground, and, as if on cue, the script moves on and we find out that despite our technological and organizational superiority, our military preparedness, our enormous wealth and information advantage, the occupation of a hostile country in a distant part of the world, and fighting against an internal insurgency only grows ever more complex and more difficult the longer we stay; Finally, to compensate for their blunders, the war's proponents bunker in, denying reality even when it's apparent for all to see, still further exacerbating the lasting impact of their blunders. Only when they have exhausted all political and military leverage do they begin to look for a political out. At war's long awaited and unsatisfactory end, they begin their second campaign, to spread the blame and scapegoat their critics.

What's, of course, really important to all of us, more than half a century after the Second World War is how different today's world is from what it was back in the American Century: then, there were two superpowers, the USSR and the US, pulling the strings in and around Vietnam; that is, two superpowers that could control the moves and information flows of large blocs of smaller players in their spheres of influence. There was no militarily and economically strategic goliath like today's China (with more than $1 trillion US under direct control), no assertive but still highly dysfunctional Islamic world, sitting on top of most of the world's remaining cheap (to produce) energy supplies, and no fully recovered European bloc that finds its economic interests in collision with the US as often as they are in harmony; no present and clear danger of proliferation of nuclear weapons; no potent network of non-state players capable of waging what's come to be called asymmetric warfare aimed at the US and its allies, etc. Finally, there is much less control of the flow of information throughout the world. It's a wired (and, significantly in the third world, wireless) world: a much more connected,  tuned in, multi-source information flow, planet.

That combination of cheap and abundant information technology and means of propagation brings us to the images and the wide audience.  Because, yes, in some really important way, it's still, the pictures stupid!  Those coming out of Vietnam were largely controlled. The war's media scribes attended daily briefings and were, perforce, embedded when they went into the field. The North and the Viet Cong had no counter flow of images and if they did, they would have stayed out of sight and off the American airwaves and news pages.

 Somehow, it seems hard to imagine today but perhaps for the somber chisel cuts on that black stone wall half buried in the mall near the Reflecting Pool ...America absorbed nearly 60,000 deaths in Vietnam and, despite the massive demonstrations, hung on there for years on end, even after it became clear that there was no military solution.. Just try to imagine something like PBS's The News Hour, back then, rolling the faces of 50 to 100 Americans across its parting shot screen day after day and year after year. This past month we've had over a 100 and it's been hard enough looking at the faces of those men and women.

Still, the conventional wisdom is right about war, hiding things still matters a lot.  Back In Vietnam, we got to see from 20,000 feet the explosions of carpet bombs being dropped from B2 bombers and lots of stacked bodies of the guerrillas after each offensive. American body bags were kept out of sight. Today, we don't see the 10 soldiers seriously wounded for each death, nor the somber movement of flag-draped coffins through Delaware on their final journey home. Rarely do we get even a distant glimpse of the carnage after a roadside bomb hits

There are, of course, no images of the money for the war being drained from the country's coffers. There is no accounting. No individual financial restraint is been asked. Costs have been buried as deeply as any images of Americans taking death causing fire. The money just rolls off the printing presses as silently as the military families make their sacrifices.

There's a bizarre ad that incumbent George Allen (once considered the front runner by party insiders in 2008) runs in his Virginia senate race against, yes, you guessed it, Vietnam veteran and Iraq war opponent, Jim Webb.  In it he projects the now standard for opponents, highly grainy shot of Webb, the blunt military man and successful novelist, on stage saying that revenues (to pay for the war) need to be raised. In Allen's pitch - the idea that Webb, the decorated warrior, would be for raising taxes to pay for the war, all but disqualifies him from holding serious office in this cradle of the founding fathers. As a sidebar, it goes without saying that no state has benefited more recently from military contracts than Virginia.

The more  or less official tally for the war so far is about $350 billion, enough to upgrade the education system across the entire country for decades and to cover the basic healthcare needs of 40 million uninsured American's and cement any cracks in Social Security going forward.  But of course, $350 billion is only the direct payouts so far.  A more correct tally of the war would take into account the costs of replacing worn out equipment and updating outmoded doctrine, but mainly the caring and disability and pension costs that will only mount up in future years. In the end, it's been estimated, the true dollar costs will add up to more than $4 trillion.

It's been more than painless as the borrowed money has ripped through the economy balancing off to some extent by way of a housing price boom, the duress of losing millions of middle class manufacturing jobs to Northeast Asia and service jobs to India.  At the same time, unchecked immigration has further eroded good jobs in construction and maintenance that might have benefited our own poor and certainly helped support through better wages the vital higher education aspirations of middle and working class youth.

Paying for debt in the future is certainly a tax on everyone going forward.  It's possible we will soon see as much as 10 percent of our annual expenditures go only for interest payments for the enormous national debt left behind.  But, in effect, that's probably, by contrast, the happy scenario and since we know that happy scenarios usually only happen in the movies we've got to entertain the possibility that given the Pandora's box we've left ajar, something much more dire will come out of all this.

Here's what's keeping the ball up in the air today: We run up national debt and then issue bonds and notes to cover that debt.  If there are buyers we promise them the assurances of our stability and a reasonable interest rate.  At the same time we run an internal debt, that is, the government spends more than it takes in, we also run a trade or balance of payments debt with the rest of the world. This means that we send 100's of billions more dollars out of the country to buy our widgets and our  energy, etc. than we take in sales of our own goods and services around the world.

What's most interesting in this narrative,  is that for the last couple of years there has been a kind of balance that's allowed things to go forward.  The Chinese and Saudi's, to name only the two biggest players, have found it convenient to buy the very same bonds and notes we issue to borrow to cover our internal debts.   For the moment, it is in their interest to keep the cart from tipping over and to keep the driver of that cart preoccupied with other things. But imagine what might just happen if one of them found it in their greater interest to shift out of dollars either as leverage in a geopolitical spat or just because they feared their dollar holdings were about to be devalued against say, the Euro, Yen or gold.

Guns and Butter are good yardsticks. As far as guns go, we now find the world's most advanced and powerful military tied down like Gulliver in Iraq and NATO, it's little sibling, starting to face similar problems in Afghanistan.  North Korea and Iran thumb their noses at us as we look for the chimeric diplomatic solution.

As for butter, it hasn't quite melted down yet but as long as we continue down this spend and spend domestic path and continue to blindly pursue what can only be described as insane trade and energy policies we will inevitably reach that too. 

Iraq is not Vietnam. It is a much more complex and dangerous world. Letting this President go on unfettered for two more years would be, yes, dumb.  And dumb is something we've got too much of already. It stares us in the face in press conferences and it speaks to us in political advertisements.



Technorati Tags: Iraq, elections, politics, Bush, Allen, Webb
Posted by dymaxion at 02:58 PM


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