October 5th, 2008at 06:27pm Posted by Eli
This is not the first time I’ve seen the “If this is the most important struggle ever, then why aren’t we investing more effort in it?” argument, but Bacevich does a nice job with it:
From the very outset, the president described the “war on terror” as a vast undertaking of paramount importance. But he simultaneously urged Americans to carry on as if there were no war. “Get down to Disney World in Florida,” he urged just over two weeks after 9/11. “Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.” Bush certainly wanted citizens to support his war — he just wasn’t going to require them actually to do anything. The support he sought was not active but passive. It entailed not popular engagement but popular deference. Bush simply wanted citizens (and Congress) to go along without asking too many questions.
So his administration’s policies reflected an oddly business-as-usual approach. Senior officials routinely described the war as global in scope and likely to last decades, but the administration made no effort to expand the armed forces. It sought no additional revenue to cover the costs of waging a protracted conflict. It left the nation’s economic priorities unchanged. Instead of sacrifices, it offered tax cuts. So as the American soldier fought, the American consumer binged, encouraged by American banks offering easy credit.
Bush seems to have calculated — cynically but correctly — that prolonging the credit-fueled consumer binge could help keep complaints about his performance as commander in chief from becoming more than a nuisance. Members of Congress calculated — again correctly — that their constituents were looking to Capitol Hill for largesse, not lessons in austerity. In this sense, recklessness on Main Street, on Wall Street and at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue proved mutually reinforcing.
At a Pentagon press conference on Sept. 18, 2001, then-defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld let the cat out of the bag: “We have a choice, either to change the way we live, which is unacceptable, or to change the way that they live, and we chose the latter.”…
But if the administration’s goals were grandiose, its means were modest. The administration’s governing assumption was that the U.S. military, as constituted in late 2001, ought to suffice to transform the Middle East. Bush could afford to tell the American people to go on holiday and head back to the mall because the indomitable American soldier could be counted on to liberate (and thereby pacify) the Muslim world.
The 2008 election finds the Pentagon cupboard bare, the U.S. Treasury depleted, the economy in disarray and the average American household feeling acute distress. Profligacy at home and profligacy abroad have combined to produce a grave crisis. This time around, telling Americans to head for Disney World won’t work. The credit card’s already maxed out, and the banks are refusing to pony up for new loans.
In other words, the Bush administration’s primary, all-encompassing goal was to keep the voters happy and stay in power. Sure, defeating terrorism and spreading democracy would be great, but not at the expense of the true primary mission of consolidating their power to the point of invulnerability.
I’m not sure what they planned to do when their financial house of cards inevitably collapsed – either they believed their own propaganda and thought it was infinitely sustainable, that they would be able to spin the damage as inconsequential or someone else’s fault, or that they would be so entrenched as to be beyond retribution.
Or, alternatively, they knew the collapse was coming and are deliberately tanking the election to stick the Democrats with the bill. As much as I want Obama to win, he’s going to be inheriting a major economic crisis and a crumbling civilian infrastructure and military, and he’ll have precious little budgetary latitude to fix any of it.