Monday, May 9, 2011

A New Vision

Now that the leader of al-Qaeda has been taken out, it will be tempting to look only at how the U.S. moves forward in a post bin Laden world. The questions will be many. What reprisals, if any, should America expect to contend with as a result of last Sunday’s mission? What does this mean for our on-going involvement in Afghanistan? Is it time to bring home the remaining troops from that country? And what of Pakistan? Were they complicit in allowing bin Laden to live just over 35 miles north of their capital city right outside their chief military training facility? Or were they simply incompetent? In either case, how does America deal with an “ally” – a nuclear one at that – in the War on Terror that appears to have some profound issues with its government and perhaps even military? Everyone agrees that a destabilized Pakistan could deal a blow to any future plans the U.S. has in dealing with extremist elements in the region.

But while all these questions are crucial, and must be answered, there is one question that begs to be asked that outweighs all of them. It is the one question that few, if any, have had the stomach to ask, because it is so inflammatory and controversial in its nature, that to even speak it would cause a rip in the space-time continuum. But last Friday on Bill Maher’s Real Time show, Maher dared ask it.

Did bin Laden win?

Seriously, barely one week after Navy SEAL Team 6 put two bullets in his skull, it’s time to consider the unthinkable: Is it possible that Osama bin Laden won the war he started on September 11th, 2001? To begin to answer that question honestly, it is essential that we understand what his real objectives were. The fact is that the narrative the West has been operating on regarding this war has been faulty from the onset. Yes, Osama bin Laden intended to murder Americans and anyone else who rejected his narrow interpretation of Islamic law. But his major objective went far greater than mere death and destruction. His main goal was ostensibly to bankrupt the U.S. and its allies, and put an end to our whole system of laws and values.

With respect to the latter, he damn near succeeded. The wave of anti-Muslim extremism currently sweeping America has been a stain on all that this nation is supposed to stand for. But while these movements have been ugly and malignant, they are, thankfully, unconstitutional, and will go down to defeat in the courts eventually. While political ideologues will continue to exploit the fears and fan the flames of racism among the ignorant, the Constitution is far more resilient than such myopia would allow. Despite their efforts we will survive this period.

But, as for the former, call it, “Mission Accomplished.” Let’s look at the facts. At the start of the last decade, the total debt of the United States stood at $5.7 trillion. When Bill Clinton left the White House there was a $200 billion dollar surplus, and the CBO estimated that if the current level of spending was maintained the nation would be debt free within a decade.

By February, 2011, the national debt has risen to $14.2 trillion, and the surplus Clinton had left us became a $1.6 trillion deficit. Why the profound turnaround in both? There were many factors. Massive tax cuts under the Bush Administration cost the treasury $400 billion per year in lost revenue over the last ten years. The fairytale of supply-side economics has resulted in record deficits in two Republican administrations with little return on investment. And then there is the Medicare prescription drug plan – also unfunded – that is projected to cost the taxpayers about $1.2 trillion over its first ten years.

But a major reason for the huge debt problem of the country is owed directly to two massive wars that were launched under Bush in the months after 9/11. The first – Afghanistan – was waged, we were told, to get bin Laden. And yet, when push came to shove, the U.S. found and killed him not in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan. The second war – the phony war as I call it – resulted in the removal of a dictator who not only posed no eminent threat to American interests, he proved to be the only check on Iranian aggressions in the region. With Saddam Hussein gone Iraq has slid into virtual chaos and Iran is now a major exporter of violence in the region. The total costs of prosecuting both wars, according to Joseph Stiglitz, now stands at $3 trillion when you factor in both combat expenses and the impact the conflicts have had on the economy. Only World War II was costlier. In current dollars, that war would’ve cost $5 trillion. But for our money we defeated Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohita and put an end to fascism.

What have we gotten for our $3 trillion so far? The execution of one mass murderer, a deeply fragmented and destabilized Middle East and a badly tarnished American reputation that may well end up taking decades to repair. Throw in the sub-prime mortgage meltdown – a testament to capitalist greed run amuck, which sucked another trillion out of the economy – and you have a mountain of debt that is crippling the country. But the lion share of it belongs to a failed doctrine, which owes its heritage to a world that long ago passed into oblivion.

Think about it. When Osama bin Laden attacked the United States he didn’t invade with 100,000 troops and a floating armada. He sent in special operatives who trained for months to carry out their deadly mission. For a fraction of what the U.S. spent on retaliating against him, bin Laden managed to kill 3,000 people, reduce to rubble two of the largest buildings in the world, and suck $3 trillion dollars out of the American economy. Now that’s a return on investment! If he had been a Wall Street broker, Osama would’ve been the greatest financial genius of all time.

We didn’t know it at the time, but 9/11 marked the end of conventional warfare, as it were. The days of global disputes being settled through traditional methods of engagement had gone the way of the dinosaur. We just didn’t get the memo. With all the casualties we suffered and inflicted in both Iraq and Afghanistan – estimated to be in the tens of thousands – it came down to a handful of highly trained SEALs acting on intelligence obtained through operatives to put down public enemy number one. Nearly ten years after it began, the United States finally caught on that when it comes to fighting the War on Terror less is more.

And now, nearly bankrupt, and clawing its way out of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the United States can boast that it has sent Dr. Evil to the infernal region. But somewhere in hell, the sinister mastermind is laughing his ass off at his handiwork. Yes, he murdered thousands of innocent people, but he did much more than that. He murdered our economy, with, of course, the help of some terribly naïve and archaic thinking on the part of our leaders.

Faced with such overwhelming and irrefutable evidence, the real issue isn’t whether bin Laden bested us, but whether or not we can learn from our colossal mistake. In some respects, the U.S. may have already begun to reexamine its modus operandi. Now that it is has become clear to all that the best way to defeat this enemy is not with huge military forces, but with small targeted special ops missions and, yes, drone attacks, expect a significant draw down in forces in Afghanistan and a dramatic rise is the same kind of smaller, assassin-like missions that took place last week. While the Left may object to such attacks, the truth is they are far more effective than what we have been doing and cost far less to execute.

But if the United States really wants not only to ensure its survival in a post bin Laden world, but begin to rebuild its badly damaged reputation within it, it can embrace the wave of democratic revolutions that are currently sweeping the Middle East. It was, in hindsight, a tragic blunder of epic proportions for America to prop up dictators in this region based solely on the fact that they supported our interests. The repression and violence these despots perpetrated on their citizens over the decades caused a deep and resounding resentment to metastasize toward America. The first hint there was trouble in the “empire” was the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979. While most political pundits point to 9/11 as the start date of the War on Terror, its real origins date back to the collapse of the Iranian monarchy and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. As is typical, we were blind to what happened and why.

And now we are presented with another opportunity to reevaluate our true priorities in a fragile and turbulent region. Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and maybe one day even Saudi Arabia; they could all wind up being a part of a new geopolitical democratic movement that would transform the Middle East from early nineteenth century imperialist dictatorships to 21st century republics. Interesting thing about democracy. Once it starts, it’s hard to stop it.

It’s not too late to get on board this train. For all our missteps as a nation, the ironic thing about all this is that it’s not our values that these people despise, it’s our policies. We can go a long way towards changing their view of us simply by doing something unique in American foreign policy: staying the hell out of their lives.

But while America can and must stop being the cop on the beat, we cannot afford to be the ostrich hiding its head in the sand either. No matter how hard many on the Left may wish it, the simple truth is that even if we were to do a 180 and become the true beacon of freedom the world deserves, there will still be forces out there determined to strike us. Like it or not, we will have to engage this element proactively, aggressively and efficiently with reckless abandon. I am not at all comfortable with the ramifications of what this means, and no doubt it will take a great deal of dancing on a tightrope as we grapple with and mold this foreign policy, but this is the world we live in, not the world we’d like to live in. Like Teddy Roosevelt we will have to learn to speak softly and carry a big stick. But that stick doesn’t have to be a massive troop surge. To some extent, Obama may already be realizing that the old methods don’t work anymore. They are bankrupting the nation and producing little, if any, results.

It’s time the United States learned how to walk and chew gum at the same time. Strutting our stuff as we advance from nation to nation to root out our enemies may have worked during World War II when we were fighting the Nazis, but this is a different time and a different enemy. The circumstances of today call for out of the box thinking. We can be effective and respected leaders in the world, while at the same time making it crystal clear to that same world that anyone who threatens our sovereignty will end up looking like Moe Greene, and we have the pictures to prove it.

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