I’m a think tank pogue, specializing in national defense. “Pogue,” by the by, is a venerable military term, meaning anybody who’s farther from the fighting than you are. By this standard, Seattle’s a pretty poguey place. Still, whenever the metallic density of the air increases somewhere, I morph into a Media Resource. Since the ordnance started popping in Yugoslavia, I’ve spent countless hours bloviating with and for intelligent, earnest people who can’t seem to grasp that an era is ending: culturally as well as politically and militarily.
How could they? How could we? We’ve lived the 90s in a latticework of interlocking illusions and delusions, palpably false but too self-serving and convenient to do without. Yes, for seven years Bill Clinton has lobotomized us. But it couldn’t have happened, were we not so willing to surrender our brains. Not just to our chivalric warrior president, but to a strange form of bad-faith discourse, perhaps best characterized as “Everybody says it because everybody says it.”
A few examples, germane to the situation at hand.
“It’s the economy, stupid.”
Everybody says it because everybody says it. But no more. The United States is now at war – let the phrase sink in, AT WAR – in two theaters: the Balkans and the Persian Gulf. A third theater, Korea, remains unpredictable. And they’re all talking to each other, and the Russians, and the Chinese. For seven years, we’ve lived as though tomorrow would just like today, as though we had some sort of eternal, inalienable right to peace, prosperity, and a great latte every time.
No more. We have entered a period of increasing uncertainty and nervousness. War and rumors of war will segue into Y2K in a few months. Terrorism at home? The Pentagon runs a clipping service called the “Early Bird,” covering every significant newspaper in the country. Since late last year, hundreds of articles have appeared on how the Pentagon is “quietly preparing” for homeland defense . . . and for what is known in the trade as “consequence management.”
The only consequences Bill Clinton has had to manage, to date, derive from his personal habits. His popularity is a continent wide and an inch deep, fitting for a man who has asked us for nothing (save, perhaps, our souls). In event of serious crisis or catastrophe, would the people rally? And what about a prolonged humiliation, especially if Americans are captured, held hostage, placed on trial for “war crimes,” coerced into making anti-American statements, etc.? How will we react to the sight of Lt. Smith or Sgt. Jones, and what they’ve done to her?
“Americans will not accept casualties.”
Everybody says it because everybody says it. Or perhaps it’s the politicians, living in terror of the next opinion poll, who can’t accept casualties. How quickly that might change, were terrorist action or enemy attack to yield the greatest carnage on this continent since the Civil War. Historically, we’re a people slow to anger, but fearsome in our wrath. The world has never known the righteous fury of our Baby Boomers and Xers. Could it happen? Who knows? What if it can’t? And which would be worse?
No, there’s nothing glorious about body bags. But if we intend to operate in places like the Balkans, best we understand that “clean” weaponry can’t do it all. The “surgical strikes plus no ground troops” tandem invites slow disaster. If we had to go into Yugoslavia, we should have brought to bear overwhelming air and ground force at the beginning, stating clearly: “Either you cease, desist, and do the following, or you will be visited by a quality of violence that you will remember and curse a thousand years from now.”
“We’re the world’s sole remaining superpower.”
Everybody says it because everybody says it. But it’s time to get real about the world’s sole remaining superpower’s limits – a situation that would have been scandalous, had we not been so preoccupied with other, more momentous scandals.
Since Desert Storm, the Pentagon has claimed to be ready to fight two “Major Regional Conflicts more or less simultaneously.” No responsible officer, official or analyst (drunk or sober) believes that we could fight even one.
In one sense, this is no new thing. Never in the 20th century has the United States articulated a strategy that matched resources to objectives. Both World Wars ended as our limits became apparent. Korea and Vietnam, two “half wars” (the real action was supposed to be in Europe) eviscerated our forces. The military that did Desert Storm is long gone, never to return. The remnant is scattered and corroding. We have squandered our power.
“America must lead.”
Everybody says it because everybody says it. No, we don’t want to be the world’s policeman. We want to be the world’s therapist, perhaps the world’s benign dominatrix (“You’ll thank us later.”) But there’s more misery out there than we can handle. And it’s going to get worse, as Russia, the Balkans, and the Islamic world continue to fester; as chunks of Africa depopulate; as China grows more assertive, and on and on.
So perhaps it’s time to ask a simple question. Given what we are and have become, given what the world is and will become, what should be our purpose, and our wisdom, now? And, speaking of “everybody says it because everybody says it.”
Let’s do it for the children.