War and Consumption: How America is Out of Touch with the World

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If you’ve listened to John McCain’s repetitive line that Barack Obama just doesn’t understand the problems facing the world, then maybe you’d be surprised to the learn that the vast majority of the world would prefer to see Obama in the White House.

A recent Economist survey and poll that divided the world up into theoretical electoral votes found that a shocking 8,375 world electoral votes would go to Obama and only 16 to McCain. In every country and every region in the world, with maybe the sole exception of Georgia (where all Americans are Georgians, according to McCain), Obama would win handsomely. Even after Sarah Palin claimed that she “loved Israel” and would never second guess them, Israelis poll 74% in favor of the candidate with the funny Muslim sounding name. In another survey, the Economist found that the great majority of professional economists preferred Obama’s economic plans to those of McCain.

Now is there something that John McCain doesn’t understand? Does the fact that Obama is only leading by single digits show that America is increasingly distancing itself from the international mainstream? The U.S. has stood alone and against all the other major democracies on some of they key moral issues of the day from ending capital punishment, creating an international criminal tribunal to ratifying international climate change measures. Furthermore, the U.S. is increasingly seen, not as a force of good, but as a military empire that uses its force for the sole purpose of sustaining it’s economic and military dominance. This isn’t the view point of America’s enemies, but that of its friends. I know. I live in Europe and hear this kind of talk all the time. For example, in a recent headline in a major Spanish newspaper, El Mundo, a leading communications scholar likened Obama to Gorbachev, hoping that the American politician could move the U.S. away from imperial militarism in the same way that Gorbachev loosened the oppressive grip on the Soviet Union.

I believe that when you analyze the facts, there are two areas where the U.S. is moving dangerously out of touch with the world: consumption and war. These will eventually alienate America to its own detriment.

This summer I spent almost an entire month in the U.S. (both at home in the Washington, DC area and New York). Both cities were beautiful, and I often felt compelled to move back. But a few things struck me as unsettling. The first and most obvious was the air conditioning. There is absolutely no justification for why the air temperature indoors (whether on a train, in a shopping mall, at home or work) should be freezing cold in the summer. It is one thing to set the temperature to mitigate the heat, but it is another to live in the summer as if it were winter and vice versa. There is nothing so unnatural as being freezing cold indoors with a sweater on while it is only 80F degrees outside.

The next thing that was incredibly disconcerting was to see the size of the gas guzzling cars and SUVS during a time when oild prices were over $100/barrel. Instead of consume more wisely, everyone was screaming to drill for more oil. Americans can find second hand smoke inexcusably offensive, but no one seems to be disgusted by the Hummer next to them at the stoplight.

Sure, Europeans streets are not plagued with huge, gas-inefficient and environmentally unfriendly SUVs in part because they simply don’t fit in Europe’s tighter quarters. Nevertheless, there is absolutely no denying that America is out of touch with the world’s trends. The Europeans I know who traveled to the U.S. this summer all made the same three observations: food portions excessive, cars too big, and indoors too cold.

Americans are trying to live outside of their own financial means and beyond what their natural resources will bear. As New York City mayor Bloomberg said recently on Meet the Press,

We, we spend money we don’t have.  We have trillion dollar deficits.  We have a birth rate that’s too low to support Social Security.  We have a health care system that’s going to bankrupt us.  We’re going to spend 25 percent of our GNP on health care, and we get worse health care than they do in Western Europe and they spend less money.  Our public education system throughout this country–we worked hard on it in New York–but we all have–and other cities are doing it, too–but we have a long ways to go.

We have an energy policy–we’re transferring our wealth to overseas to a bunch of countries that don’t have the same values as us.  In some cases, they’re using our money to finance terrorism against us.  We’ve got to sit down–infrastructure as well. There’s a whole list of things. Immigration. We don’t have an intelligent policy. Those are the things we’ve got to do.

In a fantastic interview on the Bill Moyers Journal, Andrew Bacevich explained it best

Our foreign policy is not something simply concocted by people in Washington D.C. and imposed on us. Our foreign policy is something that is concocted in Washington D.C., but it reflects the perceptions of our political elite about what we want, we the people want. And what we want, by and large – I mean, one could point to many individual exceptions – but, what we want, by and large is, we want this continuing flow of very cheap consumer goods.

We want to be able to pump gas into our cars regardless of how big they may happen to be, in order to be able to drive wherever we want to be able to drive. And we want to be able to do these things without having to think about whether or not the book’s balanced at the end of the month, or the end of the fiscal year. And therefore, we want this unending line of credit.We, we spend money we don’t have.  We have trillion dollar deficits.  We have a birth rate that’s too low to support Social Security.  We have a health care system that’s going to bankrupt us.  We’re going to spend 25 percent of our GNP on health care, and we get worse health care than they do in Western Europe and they spend less money.  Our public education system throughout this country–we worked hard on it in New York–but we all have–and other cities are doing it, too–but we have a long ways to go.

We have an energy policy–we’re transferring our wealth to overseas to a bunch of countries that don’t have the same values as us.  In some cases, they’re using our money to finance terrorism against us.  We’ve got to sit down–infrastructure as well. There’s a whole list of things. Immigration. We don’t have an intelligent policy. Those are the things we’ve got to do.

We are quick on our way to becoming a country of barbarians. Don’t take my word for it, just listen to how the politicians frame the issues. How many times have McCain and Palin talked about war and the need for staying at war — at any cost — during the debates? McCain even concluded the first debate by saying how much he “loved” our troops. Palin argued that McCain should be elected because he “knows how to win a war”. Ever since World War II, the U.S. has been converted into a military state. This has been solidified since the 1960s with absolutely meaningless military interventions in Vietnam and now Iraq. So how does the world see the U.S. and Americans when they hear the statements of McCain or Palin? And what do they hear?

They hear a lot of talk about war and a lot of talk about not negotaiting. Sitting at the table is bad. Diplomacy is a sign of weakness. That translates to the rest of the world as an America that favors war over diplomacy. Imagine the same paradigm in any other relationship you are familiar with, say at work or at home. Would you advice an American style paternalistic pro-military, no negotiation communication strategy for your family or business?

Look at what Palin has said in her interviews with Catie Kouric about how shes perceives the U.S. role in the world:

I see the United States as being a force for good in the world. And as Ronald Reagan used to talk about, America being the beacon of light and hope for those who are seeking democratic values and tolerance and freedom. I see our country being able to represent those things that can be looked to … as that leadership, that light needed across the world.

Unfortunately, the world we live in no longer trusts the intentions of the U.S. goverment. They don’t see the U.S. government as a force for good, but as a military bully who refuses to negotiate or seek diplomacy. Palin also doesn’t understand that no one in the world, not in Iraq or elsewhere (maybe with the sole exception of Iran) wants us to stay in Iraq, she can smile and say,

And as I say, Katie, that we cannot afford to retreat, to withdraw in Iraq. That’s not gonna get us any better off in Afghanistan either. And as our leaders are telling us in our military, we do need to ramp it up in Afghanistan, counting on our friends and allies to assist with us there because these terrorists who hate America, they hate what we stand for with the… the freedoms, the democracy, the… the women’s rights, the tolerance, they hate what it is that we represent and our allies, too, and our friends, what they represent. If we were… were to allow a stronghold to be captured by these terrorists then the world is in even greater peril than it is today. We cannot afford to lose in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately by doing so, we don’t make any friends but only increase the cynicism towards us. Given, the Europeans and our other allies don’t have the backbones or political will to step up to the plate. They sit back and wait for the U.S. to screw up and then point their fingers at us. Nevertheless, America’s image is so tainted that it is easy to see how Barack Obama may be seen as a Gorbabev. This should not necessarily be seen as compliment to Obama but as a wake up call to Americans that they are simply too out of touch.

Even Barack Obama with his “Yes We Can” is not going to fundamentally change the American military machine identity. As Bacevich says,

. . . one needs to be unsparing in fixing responsibility as much on liberal Democratic presidents as conservative Republican ones. I think that the Bush Administration’s response to 9/11 in constructing this paradigm of a global war on terror, in promulgating the so called, Bush Doctrine of Preventive War, in plunging into Iraq – utterly unnecessary war – will go down in our history as a record of recklessness that will be probably unmatched by any other administration.

But, doesn’t really mean that Bill Clinton before him, or George Herbert Walker Bush before him, or Ronald Reagan before him, were all that much better. Because they all have seen military power as our strong suit. They all have worked under the assumption that through the projection of power, or the threat to employ power, that we can fix the world. Fix the world in order to sustain this dysfunctional way of life that we have back here.

Bacevich goes on to argue, and I believe correctly so, that the U.S. lost course when it began to believe that it had some fundamental constitutive obligation to enter into the affairs of other nations. For John McCain or Sarah Palin to say that leaving Iraq is to wave a white flag of defeat, is to totally miss both the point that the world would see the U.S. leaving Iraq as a victory to America’s tarnished image. Furthermore, there is simply no ongoing justification for being in Iraq alone.

I mean, if as Americans, we could simply step back a little bit, and contemplate the significance of the fact that Americans today are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and ask ourselves, how did it come to be that organizing places like Iraq and Afghanistan should have come to seem to be critical to the well-being of the United States of America.

There was a time, seventy, eighty, a hundred years ago, that we Americans sat here in the western hemisphere, and puzzled over why British imperialists went to places like Iraq and Afghanistan. We viewed that sort of imperial adventurism with disdain. But, it’s really become part of what we do.

. . . Let’s think about World War Two. A war that President Roosevelt told us was essential to U.S. national security, and was. And President Roosevelt said at the time, because this is an important enterprise, you, the American people, will be called upon to make sacrifices. And indeed, the people of the United States went off to fight that war in large numbers. It was a national effort. None of that’s been true with regard to Iraq. I mean, one of the most striking things about the way the Bush Administration has managed the Global War on Terror, which President Bush has compared to World War Two.

. . .  One of the most striking things about it is that there was no effort made to mobilize the country, there was actually no effort even made to expand the size of the armed forces, as a matter of fact. The President said just two weeks or so after 9/11, “Go to Disney World. Go shopping.” Well, there’s something out of whack here, if indeed the Global War on Terror, and Iraq as a subset of the Global War on Terror is said to be so critically important, on the one hand. And on the other hand, when the country basically goes about its business, as if, really, there were no War on Terror, and no war in Iraq ongoing at all.

. . . Well, I think the clearest statement of what I value is found in the preamble to the Constitution. There is nothing in the preamble to the Constitution which defines the purpose of the United States of America as remaking the world in our image, which I view as a fool’s errand. There is nothing in the preamble of the Constitution that ever imagined that we would embark upon an effort, as President Bush has defined it, to transform the Greater Middle East.

. . . We are squandering our wealth. In many respects, to the extent that we persist in our imperial delusions, we’re also going to squander our freedom because imperial policies, which end up enhancing the authority of the imperial president, also end up providing imperial presidents with an opportunity to compromise freedom even here at home. And we’ve seen that since 9/11.

There is even an irony to all of this. Imagine that the greatest military power in the world believes that its biggest threat, one that costs its billions of dollars, thousands of its soldiers’ lives, and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians’ lives abroad is not a big competing super power, but rather a bunch of backward sheepherders living in caves in the middle of central Europe. And somehow by fighting these guys, we are going to win the hearts and minds of the world over. It’s time for a real wake up call. Sorry, Senator McCain, but you’re the one who doesn’t understand.

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5 Comments

Filed under Essays, Obama 08

5 responses to “War and Consumption: How America is Out of Touch with the World

  1. Borja

    Wow, long post but enlightening, I particularly enjoyed the we aren’t a nation of small towns article.

    I am missing though your opinions on the presidential debate between McCain and Obama.

    And btw, no more five day truce to not talk about US politics, you have a duty to educate your european readers in the intricacies of the American presidential election! We demand to know your (biased) view on the campaign 🙂

    Thanks for this great blog, from a European US admirer.

    Borja.

  2. eric

    Thanks, Borja, I appreciate your appreciation. You know I don’t just write these long winded posts for my mental health (although it helps). Actually, a friend of mine confessed to me today that he has been reading my blog as well to keep up with the elections.

    My opinion on the McCain Obama debate was that McCain came off as the stronger debate, but that overall Obama was the winner. McCain was forceful and aggressive, while Obama calmly listened and made his basic arguments. This actually worked in Obama’s favor. His goal wasn’t to win, but simply to sound competent and acceptable, and not like the radical that the Republicans have been trying to paint him as. Furthermore, McCain was supposed to be the foreign policy expert, so Obama’s needed to hold his own and he did.

    Another interesting observation is that Obama has to avoid counter-attacking in any way that may appear overly impassioned or heated. Apparently this would make him look like an “angry black man” and that would turn off white voters. At least that is what the experts are saying. This limits Obama’s ability to defend himself on equal grounds, but it does work in his favor in allowing him to appear calm, collected, and cool under pressure — as opposed to what McCain has looked like lately: unstable.

    I hope that helps.

  3. ReWrite

    Excellent post. I really liked the Bacevich interview, but his concluding statements about US imperialism seemed a bit off. What the gov’t tells its people about spreading freedom and trying to convert everyone to US values isn’t what US imperialism is all about. And Bacevich knows this.

    I liked that whole discussion of the constitution and the preamble. But again US imperialism has nothing to do with spreading or values or establishing democracies. It is in fact the exact opposite and we are fulfilling the constitution and the preamble… we are taking other countries natural resources or cheap labor so that we can enjoy ‘life, liberty and happiness’ and all of the property rights stuff in the constitution. In order to obtain more property (The American dream- is non-stop mass consumption) Americans need to consume on the cheap. And the only way to do that is to get control of the natural resources and free/cheap labor in the developing world.

  4. Borja

    It’s interesting that you mention that Obama has to avoid to be pictured as an “angry black man” if anything, the campaign has shown how McCain is totally unpredictable and in love with populist but stupid decisions like nominating Palin or suggesting to cancel the campaign because of the crisis. I am actually scared to hell if he were to became the president. I don’t want an angry and unpredictable white old man to be in charge of America. Obama seems to me much more competent and predictable, which to me is a virtue.

  5. eric

    Yes, it seems that McCain is sometimes McCain’s worst enemy.

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