Humpty Dumpty Hegemon

If the US is the “indispensable nation,” as Madeleine Albright grandiosely said, why cannot the country dispense with some of its own problems, starting with the oil spill?

President Obama’s martial rhetoric involving posteriors does little to stop the toxic hemorrhage that has caused in his words, “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced.”  Action is required.  But the government is out of its depth, literally and figuratively, leaving tough talk to fill the void while BP struggles to plug a leak of its own making.

Accepting the government’s impotence would be easier if meaningful change to national energy policy grew from the crisis.  However, the president has mostly repeated tired nostrums coughed up by all and sundry about weaning the country from its oil dependence, neglecting to elaborate exactly how to make it happen—a convenient omission since that would involve real sacrifice.  To his credit, Obama has pushed Congress to move forward on an important first step, climate and energy legislation.  Yet the bill, though hardly sweeping, is going nowhere.

For their part, Republicans have circled the corporate wagons.  Demonstrating that the GOP will readily throw overboard any one company for the greater corporate good, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell claimed the climate and energy bill was actually a sop to BP.  Meanwhile, House Republicans have accused the White House of “shaking down” BP by compelling the company to set up a $20 billion Gulf victims fund.

If this all has a familiar feel that is because it does.  Look no further than the economy.  Obama and his cabinet courtiers like to remind of the mess the administration inherited, an economy shedding 700,000 jobs a month.  Fair enough.  But the undersized stimulus has failed to get the economy out of neutral.  Private sector job growth barely registers, consumer spending is weak, and the foreclosure crisis continues.  A double-dip recession is considered increasingly likely.

The White House is pinning its hopes on a “Recover Summer,” pointing to thousands of stimulus-funded construction projects coming down the pike.  If only.  Most of the projects are merely ones that states planned on undertaking but can no longer afford.  It is a worrying trend.  According to the Center on Budget Priorities, states’ budget shortfalls between 2009-2012 might actually match the stimulus dollar for dollar, entirely offsetting it.

Sensing trouble, the White House wants to take a second bite of the stimulus apple, but Obama is only expected to get a fraction of the $266 billion in additional emergency expenditures that he asked for in February.  Last week, the Senate failed to pass a modest infusion for state aid, unemployment benefits, and tax breaks.  It is unclear how the logjam can be broken.  Weak economies, like broken oil wells, apparently are beyond the ability of the country to address.

The final act in this fecklessness-themed play is Afghanistan, now the longest armed conflict in US history.  The eight year-plus war is going sideways, if not worse.  Unmet benchmarks come and go with the frequency of Taliban kingpins killed in drone strikes, who are then replaced seamlessly.  The ballyhooed campaign to clear in and around Marja was supposed to provide the course correction after years of the conflict’s mismanagement and neglect, but its architect, General Stanley McChrystal, now calls the region a “bleeding ulcer.”  The analogy works for the entire war.

Foreign policy expert Anthony Cordesman writes: “The strategic case for staying in Afghanistan is uncertain and essentially too close to call.  The main reason is instead tactical.  We are already there.  We have major capabilities in place.  If we can demonstrate that the war can be won at a reasonable additional cost in dollars and blood, it makes sense to persist.  But, only if we can demonstrate we can win and show that the additional cost has reasonable limits [his emphasis].” Are such calculations being weighed?

Afghanistan may not be winnable, though it might not be lose-able either.  Obama is not likely to pull the plug on a war that is now his, quagmire or not.  But neither is he, nor the American public, ready to commit the resources necessary via a draft and (gasp!) tax increases to stabilize the country, if that is even possible at this point.  So, like the stimulus, US commitment to Afghanistan will be big enough not to fail and too small to ever succeed.

The pattern in all of the above is as clear as its implications: great nations rise to challenges, dispensing them with commitment and purpose, while lesser ones hem and haw, calling themselves indispensable to convince one and all that they are what they are not.

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