Monday, September 29, 2008

The Long War - Consequences and Costs (Part IV)

In Conclusion: what must your generation do?

First, on public policy:

Our country must bring itself back from the binge we have been on. We need to be more modest. One of the best Marine Corps commentator put it simply: “It used to be said that the side with the most guns won; today, the side with the most guns goes bankrupt.” That is roughly where we are today. In his usual succinct way, Colonel Andrew Bacevich put it well: “ America doesn’t need a bigger army. it needs a more modest foreign policy…Modesty implies giving up on the illusions of grandeur to which the end of the Cold War and 9/11 gave rise. It also means reining in the imperial presidents who expect the army to make good on those illusions.”

On the nuclear issue which I, from my intimate experience in the Cuban Missile Crisis, particularly worry about, we missed the opportunity to get a moratorium on nuclear weapons; instead we multiplied what we had to fantastic numbers, 30-40 thousand when a dozen would have blown up most of the world. The result was Russia set out to match us. China followed, then Israel working with South Africa , then India and Pakistan fearing one another, North Korea et al. Now we are on the brink of a new “surge.” We are again building bombs and upgrading those we already have instead of trying to curtail them. This is exactly the opposite of what we need to do. Every new country adds new risks. Several more countries are on the brink of deciding to “go nuclear.”

What we could do is to begin with ourselves and set an example for the world. From our (and the Russian) initiative, we should branch out. The most dangerous area is the Middle East so we should start there. We should push for a regional nuclear ban. Israel is the only nuclear power in the Middle East , and it will have to play the key role. Why should it? There are two obvious answers:

  • the first is that the value of nuclear weapons to Israel is psychological rather than strategic. They were not used in the 1967 or 1973 wars or in the Lebanese war of last year. Moreover, Israel doesn’t “need” them since it already has the most powerful army and air force in its neighborhood.
  • All that Israel ’s possession of nuclear weapons does is to ensure that some of its neighbors will get them; so nuclear weapons, far from being a source of security, are a source of insecurity. In a decade or so, no matter what happens in Iran , other Middle Eastern countries will acquire them. So it would be smart for the Israelis to take the leadership in removing them from the Middle East . We can help in various ways and should.
We must get serious about the environment. What we have done so far is little more than a PR happening. If we really care, we should organize the effort we put into the Manhattan Project to acquire nuclear weapons in World War II and the Apollo Program we put into landing a man on the Moon. If we act on the environment the way we did in those programs, we could save our planet. And it is, after all, the only one we have.

We must demand government transparency and accountability. Today, the non-partisan Congressional research organization has publicly admitted that it cannot find out how the Defense Department spends out money. Congress does not even demand that testifying officials take an oath to tell the truth, and all they get asked for are sound bites. The pathetic testimony of General David Petraeus is a good example. He never gave a clear answer to a single question on American overseas military actions, pathetic as the questions he was asked were.

We must reform the electoral system. Our country is literally up for sale. A typical representative spends at least half of his effective time raising money, that is, to put it bluntly, renting himself out to lobbyists. He turns over to his staff the chores of reading reports and books. So, the level of ignorance and corruption in the House of Representatives must be witnessed to be believed. To put it bluntly, Congress has become a whorehouse. Everyone is on the take. There are an average of 5 lobbyists for each congressman and money is the main topic of conversation. Few representatives of the people get beyond it.

We must reform our educational system. By any standard it is appalling. Test scores of our students rank below most “ Third World ” countries. Studies by such organizations as The National Geographic show that few students even know where other countries are, much less who lives in them, what they think, what they want, how they earn their livings, etc. What passes in many universities as “education” is, in fact, merely job training. We pay our teachers poorly and get what we pay for. We do not apply standards to students – for many, the educational experience is merely a sort of enjoyable holding station between childhood and going out into the “real” world. As Thomas Jefferson warned us, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free…it expects what never was and never will be.”

Second, your individual tasks as citizens:

First, you must inform yourselves. Be curious. Be skeptical. Demand facts. Don’t settle for sound bytes. This is not easy. Governments since the time of the Roman Empire lulled their citizens with bread and circuses. Today, a government doesn’t even need to do what Rome did. We lap up the pap put out by the pop stars of TV “news” programs as though it were gospel and allow ourselves to be guided by ignorant commentators. Hopefully you are getting in your education the ability to differentiate real value from trash, real substance from pap. If you are not, you are wasting your time.

Informing oneself is not easy. But it can be done. Everyone who has access to a computer can sample newspapers here, in Europe and Asia free just by typing in a few words. Anyone can sign on to a number of provocative and wide-ranging websites. And anyone can ask his Congressman for government reports, most of which are reliable and readable, on all aspects of public policy.

Refuse to be marginalized. America has a long tradition of deprecating knowledge and distrusting excellence. But, the country has invested a great deal in educating you. You are national assets. And you owe the country the best you have. Do your jobs as citizens. Demand that your candidates tell you the truth and move with intelligence. Don’t be a dummy. Be active. And don’t just wait for the vote. Go out the carry your thoughts to our citizens and our candidates. Again, that powerful tool, the internet, can be used as a giant lever for democracy.

Participate. You cannot afford to sit back and do nothing. If you do, you are almost certain to pay for your laziness. A democracy is not a holding company to be run by a board of directors. You are stockholders. Your life and your well-being are at stake. If you care about them, protect them. After you inform yourself, make your voice heard and put your actions where your mouth is. Be a leader. Get your generation into action. Together you are strong.

Our future is in your hands. This is your country, your world, your time. Make it the first day of the rest of your lives.