Being the ‘indispensable nation’ is killing American democracy

October 20, 2014

U.S. military personnel take pictures of U.S. President Barack Obama as he speaks during visit to Al Faw Palace on Camp Victory in Baghdad

America — proudly dubbed the “indispensable nation” by its national-security managers — is now the entangled nation enmeshed in conflicts across the globe.

President Barack Obama, scorned by his Republican critics as an “isolationist” who wants to “withdraw from the world,” is waging the longest war in U.S. history in Afghanistan, boasts of toppling the Muammar Gaddafi regime in Libya, launches airstrikes in Iraq and Syria against Islamic State and picks targets for drones to attack in as many as eight countries, while dispatching planes to the Russian border in reaction to its machinations in Ukraine, and a fleet to the South China Sea as the conflict over control of islands and waters escalates between China and its neighbors.

Stickers stating "I Voted" in several languages are affixed to a ballot intake machine at a polling station during the U.S. presidential election in Los Angeles

The indispensable nation is permanently engaged across the globe. But endless war undermines the Constitution. Democracy requires openness; war justifies secrecy. Democracy forces attention be paid to the common welfare; war demands attention and resources be spent on distant conflicts. Democracy involves forging coalitions to get action in the Congress; war is waged on executive order. The Constitution restrains the executive in times of peace; constitutional strictures are trampled in times of war.

When the founders wrote the Constitution, they worried about the tendency of kings, or presidents, to make war for personal aggrandizement or national glory.  So they gave Congress the power to declare war, intent on “clogging, not facilitating” the rush to war.  For the Republic, peace would be the normal state of affairs. War was a disruption — entered into only with prior debate and consideration by  Congress, the elected body whose members best reflected the attitudes of their constituents.

boro -- Adams protrait George_Caleb_Bingham_(detail),_c._1850_after_1844_original_-

The United States, in the words of conservative John Quincy Adams, would provide a shining example of liberty as long as “she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

But now the pursuit of monsters to destroy is unrelenting. Almost inevitably, it seems, the restraints of the Constitution are being trampled. With little debate, U.S. leaders have chosen permanent global intervention even at the cost of undermining the Republic.

For the cost of war can be measured in dollars not spent here at home.

An educated citizenry is the foundation of a robust democracy. Yet from the absence of free, full-day pre-K to affordable colleges to advanced training, the United States is skimping on investment in educating its citizens. A modern infrastructure is also essential to a competitive, high-wage economy. But while Washington spends $3 trillion on Iraq, there hasn’t been a serious discussion about bringing America’s aged infrastructure, including our roads, bridges and airports, up to standard — which would cost about the same. 

The I-35W bridge collapse site is seen from a U.S. military helicopter in Minneapolis

Instead of this funding, the United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies spend more on their militaries than the rest of the world combined. Washington maintains more than 1,000 bases, called “military sites,” across the globe, plus 11 aircraft-carrier task forces that are essentially moveable bases. U.S. conventional and nuclear forces are unrivaled — yet Washington plans to spend another trillion dollars over the next 30 years modernizing nuclear weapons that the United States aims never to use. U.S. intelligence and covert forces are permanently engaged, often secretly creating the implicit commitments that will force the next intervention.

It is only America, as the president said in a speech announcing his intention to “degrade and ultimately defeat” Islamic State, which he refers to as ISIL, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, that “has the capacity and the will to mobilize the world against terrorism … against Russian aggression … to contain … Ebola and more.”

This president, more than his predecessors, understands the perils of being the “indispensable nation.” Elected in large part to get the United States out of the seemingly endless wars in the Middle East, he now finds himself forced into another open-ended commitment.

U.S. President Obama speaks at a Veteran's Day event at U.S. Army Garrison at Yongsan military base in Seoul In his speech to the National Defense University in 2013, Obama argued, “We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us, mindful of James Madison’s warning that ‘No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.’ ” Obama warned specifically about this. “The choice we make about war,” the president said, “can impact —  in sometimes unintended ways — the openness and freedom on which our way of life depends.”

Yet even with this awareness, and no reelection race facing him, Obama could not escape the imperatives of America’s role as the indispensable nation. The commitments are too many,  the engagement too permanent, the capacity unrivalled — seemingly making all things possible.  As a result, this former professor of constitutional law has governed over the greatest assertion of executive authority — claiming the power to make war, to surveil, arrest, detain and even kill Americans without prior judicial review or due process.

boro -- eisenhower standing

His Justice Department has used espionage laws against reporters and whistleblowers.  The secrecy shields massive waste, fraud and abuse, as the military-industrial complex that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against consumes the bulk of the national budget, aside from payments on the national debt and the insurance programs of Social Security and Medicare.

When President George W. Bush was about to launch the war in Iraq, millions of Americans – as well as many people around the globe — marched in protest. The large demonstrations against war led the New York Times to dub world public opinion a second superpower. Bush sought authority from Congress and a dramatic congressional debate took place, with strong dissent against the war.

boro -- george bush heading toward aircraft carrier

When Obama committed the United States to the fight against Islamic State, he claimed the authority to act without Congress, though adding he would “welcome” congressional support. Yet with the midterm elections then a few months away, both Republicans and Democrats in Congress chose to postpone the debate and the vote.

The bombing began on presidential order. Americans accepted their role as spectators, registering no significant objection to this presidential war-making.  The indispensable nation is not only spending lives and resources on endless wars abroad, it is shredding its Constitution at home.

Ironically, America’s democracy is still strong enough to render it less than competent as a global policeman. Our military is the finest in the world, but still finds it hard to win a war. Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrate that while presidents can commit the nation virtually anywhere, Americans sour on long, costly interventions on the other side of the world.

This leads to strategies like “no boots on the ground” — designed not to rouse public opposition but almost certain to fail. Polls show that Americans have no interest in policing the globe. If the Constitution no longer constrains the president from making war, the public still limits his ability to wage it.

 

PHOTO (TOP): U.S. military personnel take pictures of President Barack Obama as he speaks during a visit to Al Faw Palace on Camp Victory in Baghdad, April 7, 2009. REUTERS/Specialist Eric J. Glassey/U.S. Army/Handout

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Stickers stating “I Voted” in several languages on a ballot intake machine in the garage of Tom and Carol Marshall, which was made into a polling location during the U.S. presidential election in Los Angeles, California, November 6, 2012. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Detail of John Quincy Adams portrait by George Caleb Bingham. WIKIPEDIA/U.S. National Portrait Gallery

PHOTO (INSERT 3): The I-35W bridge collapse site is seen from a U.S. military helicopter in Minneapolis, Minnesota, August 4, 2007. REUTERS/Larry Downing

PHOTO (INSERT 4): President Barack Obama speaks at a Veteran’s Day event at the U.S. Army Garrison at Yongsan Military Base in Seoul, November 11, 2010. REUTERS/Jason Reed

PHOTO (INSERT 5): President Dwight D. Eisenhower standing at a table during a news conference at the White House in Washington, October 9, 1957. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/ Marion S. Trikosko

PHOTO (INSERT 6): President George W. Bush walks across the tarmac with NFO Lt. Ryan Phillips to Navy One, an S-3B Viking jet, at Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego, the day of his “Mission Accomplished” speech, May 1, 2003. WHITE HOUSE/Susan Sterner

 

22 comments

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What you fail to realize is that money is fictitious and it is our belief in it that makes it real and worth anything at all. You have faith in our system and these numbers you believe have real value. Just the word trillion makes me question our monetary system and our true intent and motives. What could possibly be worth that much. For the sake of human life – why wouldn’t we spend that money at home. You have spent like fools for several terms America. Shift your focus to infrastructure. Get us back on top of the World. Not just via the military – but by a nation as a whole.

Posted by Goodtimesyall | Report as abusive

The “constitutional strictures” of the Founding Fathers are neither timeless nor always relevant in a world of globalization, nuclear weapons, and trans-national terrorism. Trying to apply 18th century principles to the present is not always helpful. As far as the power to declare war and commit American forces into “hostilities”, historical practice and precedent is more important than statutory language. And that is why both Democratic and Republican Presidents have often bowed to necessity, regardless of their campaign proclamations and speeches, and used force to advance American interests without congressional authorization.
But more importantly, the U.S. continues to be the “indispensable nation” as global security and protection of the global commons mandates it. And there is no other state that could begin to fulfill those functions. Imagine China controlling the Malacca Straits. Or Iran controlling the Straits of Hormuz. Or ending nuclear non-proliferation efforts.
Moreover, the U.S. has alliance ties with over 50 countries, extending deterrence (and stability) to large swaths of the globe, especially in Asia and Europe. U.S. withdrawal would have serious consequences, leaving nuclear proliferation (in Japan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere) in its wake. As costly and tedious as this situation is to Americans, it is presently better than the alternative.
As far as defense spending, the level of U.S. defense spending vis-à-vis the world is irrelevant as 1) The U.S. is a maritime power and has to project force far from home, against mostly land powers, in order to defend alliance partners; 2) U.S. adversaries pour virtually all of their defense dollars into limited missions and geographical turf. For Russia, it can direct most of its defense spending against border states, and for China, most of its funding goes to anti-access forces aimed at the American navy.
I can certainly agree that excessive zeal by both Democrats and Republicans over the years has also caused disastrous military interventions as well, Iraq and Vietnam coming to mind. But anyone who wants to have the U.S. opt out of its global role should spell out what gets tossed – leadership in space capabilities or cyberwarfare? NATO? U.S.-Japanese alliance?

Posted by Cassiopian | Report as abusive

“U.S. intelligence and covert forces are permanently engaged, often secretly creating the implicit commitments that will force the next intervention.”

And often secretly preventing the implicit commitments that will force other interventions. In all likelihood, those forces would (and probably SHOULD) be permanently engaged even in peacetime, lest we miss an opportunity to head an impending conflict off at the pass.

Posted by Yashmak | Report as abusive

Killing American democracy? The fabled American democracy. Are empires run by democracy?

Let’s seen now:
In Roman times you had the ‘Arena’ where gladiators fought and entertained the public. There was the ‘thumbs-down’ and the ‘thumbs-up’.

In modern times you have the ‘Congress’ where parliamentarians fight and amuse the public. You still have the thumbs; and people can like, unlike, and dislike all they like.

Posted by Neslihan | Report as abusive

Nice ad for the Military /Industrial complex..is there a video too..?

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

What “American democracy?” The one the sheep are taught to believe in in order to keep them marching in lock step to produce and consume (to make the elites rich)? The one the sheep are taught to believe in in order to get them to send their innocent children off to fight for (meaning defend the wealth of the 1%)? This is sheep-in-the-trance junk. The cat is out of the bag. Wake up. There IS a good reason for Americans to bond to defend themselves against the wolves in the world (e.g.: radical Islam), but blind allegiance to authority just because it looks good on TV is just a modern version of what happened in Germany 75 years ago. There was no German democracy, either. Just the greed of the oligarchs pulling strings.

Posted by naughtmoses | Report as abusive

Robert L. Borosage penns another partisan fluff piece. Imagining claims from Republicans then refuting the ficticious and idiotic position. He must have learned from Neil Tyson DeGrasse. Make up a story where someone says something obviously idiotic and pounce on it in a display of wit. Similar to a kitten pouncing on a laser pointer dot. Fierce and Quick but ultimately comes up empty.

Posted by DennisVictor223 | Report as abusive

The “constitutional strictures” of the Founding Fathers are neither timeless nor always relevant in a world of globalization, nuclear weapons, and trans-national terrorism. Trying to apply 18th century principles to the present is not always helpful. And that is why Congress has ,over time, largely relinquished its role of “declaring war” for a smaller role, sometimes authorizing action (Afghanistan) but mostly consulting and criticizing as circumstances warrant. As far as the power to declare war and commit American forces into “hostilities”, historical practice and precedent is more important than statutory language. And that is why both Democratic and Republican Presidents have often bowed to necessity, regardless of their campaign proclamations and speeches, and used force to advance American interests without congressional authorization. That is not going to change and has the advantage of concentrating responsibility where it should be, with the Chief Executive.
But more importantly, the U.S. continues to be the “indispensable nation” as global security and protection of the global commons mandates it. And there is no other state that could begin to fulfill those functions. Imagine China controlling the Malacca Straits. Or Iran controlling the Straits of Hormuz. Or if the U.S. withdrew from its nuclear non-proliferation efforts.
Moreover, the U.S. has alliance ties with over 50 countries, extending deterrence (and stability) to large swaths of the globe, especially in Asia and Europe. U.S. withdrawal would have serious consequences, forcing East Asia to accommodate to an illiberal hegemon (China), creating instability, and accelerating nuclear proliferation (in Japan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere) in its wake. As costly and tedious as this situation is to Americans, it is presently better than the alternative.
As far as defense spending, the level of U.S. defense spending vis-à-vis the world is irrelevant as 1) The U.S. is a maritime power and has to project force far from home, against mostly land powers, in order to defend alliance partners; 2) U.S. adversaries pour virtually all of their defense dollars into limited missions and geographical turf. For Russia, it can direct most of its defense spending against border states in E. Europe, and for China, most of its funding goes for anti-access/area denial weapons aimed at keeping the American navy at bay. All of those collective NATO dollars could not keep Putin out of Crimea.

Posted by Cassiopian | Report as abusive

“But endless war undermines the Constitution” Were does this junk come from? And it goes downhill from there. Sorry, but our inclination to make wars does not affect or change our Constitution. Nor does it (war) make our democracy better or worse. It’s the money coming from those in power that will do that.

Posted by bryanric | Report as abusive

It is time for a Renaissance in America. It is becoming tiresome watching each generation falling victim to same desires and distracting them from a higher being. New roads and bridges and a broad range of architecture are needed all over the country. Unemployment would go to 3%. 21st century infrastructure. I’m tired of seeing every town in America replicating and conforming to corporate trash architecture. Bridges and Over Passes need to become exquisite and showcase advancement in exterior aesthetic such as Arthur Ravenel Jr.Bridge in Charleston, SC. I want tax dollars going more toward the infrastructure of America. Let’s start eating at the table again and share ideas and imagination.

Posted by mosaicvic | Report as abusive

We’ve NEVER HAD DEMOCRACY, it’s always been a REPUBLIC.

Posted by Factoidz | Report as abusive

3 or more things floating in my mind. One is, as long as America print greenish paper called US dollar in uncountable amount without any monetary law, as long as America is employing their civilians into their army thus “creating jobs” there will be more and more US military everywhere, and as long as those provoked wars are there to justify the military industry to flourish so creating profits and jobs – there is no end of USA hegemony and military bombardments of innocent small nations. We have now facing a NAZI GERMANY IN ITS PEAK across the pond – they call themselves “democrats” not “nazis”. They wave with red and blue flag with 50 little stars like nazi waved their swastika. Where is the end of this US nazism called “democracy”, their bombardments and tricks and lies they use to justify their aggressive actions – there is an end. The end of petrol-chemistry dollar will return US soldiers back to their home bases. Development of other strong nations such as China, and definitely the end of EU slavery to the USA will end the USA policing the world by all horrible means. I used to like the USA as protecting freedoms and peace in the world, but now, after they bombed Serbian people, the people never endanger any NATO state, people never attacked anyone but always defended themselves, I just can’t liking them any more.

Posted by Govornik | Report as abusive

Mr Borsage’s comment “Being the ‘indispensable nation’ is killing American democracy”misses the mark by a wide margin.The wars in IRAQ and Afghanistan and the Balkans(and WW2)were not caused by American imperialism.
Some of the root causes were German jingoistic excessives and the results of being humiliated in WW1,and Balkan ethnic/ religious differences and outdated Muslim beliefs in which they have self imprisoned their own people in a deep well of poverty ignorance and lack of opportunity .

Of course there are many other contributing factors but my major point here is :The largest danger to countries is the over concentration of wealth in the industrial societies democratic and non democratic.

Symptoms abound e.g. the near collapse of the American and European banking systems (and the criminal bail out of the bankers who caused it “too big to fail”);abysmal unemployment in Europe…
These are the same systems that gave birth to Hitler and Stalin…..and the world slumbers

Posted by ngc121629 | Report as abusive

[…] Being the ‘indispensable nation’ is killing American democracy […]

Posted by Links 22/10/2014: Chromebooks Surge, NSA Android Endorsement | Techrights | Report as abusive

In War Truth is the First Casualty.

Posted by Sertorius | Report as abusive

the problem here is that the USA likes to play big, perhaps even believing it might be bigger than God in some way. my prognosis is that the USA will ultimately overstretch its forces much like the Romans did long ago, and end up being crushed by riots and civil strife, before a new system emerges also in the USA, a system that already shows promise of emergence here in Europe.

we’re tired of getting bullied by our bosses, tired of being slaves to our paychecks. this capitalism on which the USA is constructed must be reformed or removed if the USA is to hold stake in the real new world order, an order chaired by Christ, fuelled by national pride and bound together by global empathy and a longing to create change in the world at large.

why the USA is attempting world peace, if that is what they are attempting, through a western ideology such as democracy and market capitalism eludes me. we need pluralism and diversity of opinion in the High Council, not half-deceiptful preachings of freedom and superiority.

there is no domination in the new world, only cooperation.

Posted by taotzu | Report as abusive

“…the United States is skimping on investment in educating its citizens.”
Think you can understate that just a little bit more? Skimping? They’re fleecing US citizens while fewer and fewer citizens can afford higher education. We’re under-educating our people. The American people no longer have a democracy. We play an “America’s Got Talent” game in choosing people to place in our government and then they compete for money from corporations and the wealthy. Those who bother to vote base their decision on party and name recognition. Politicians running for office don’t even bother saying what they’ll do once elected. Instead, they brag about their love of guns or how they’ll cut spending (but don’t bother saying what they’ll cut.) We need a revolution. In the meantime, donate to Lawrence Lessig’s Mayday PAC that only donates to candidates who pledge to fight corruption and support campaign finance reform.

Posted by carnivalchaos | Report as abusive

Factoidz: “We’ve NEVER HAD DEMOCRACY, it’s always been a REPUBLIC.”

Why do you people persist in repeating this stupid, stupid bit of tripe? Please stop. Please. Yes, we’re a Republic, but we’re also a democracy, if you define a democracy as a government that practices democracy. No, we are not a pure democracy. Neither is Canada, but they’re still considered a democracy. Neither is France, but they’re still considered a democracy. Neither is Great Britain, but they’re still considered a democracy. There are no pure democracies, but that doesn’t mean that democracies don’t exist. Most democracies (perhaps all) are representative democracies, like ours. We call our a Republic, but we’re still a democracy.

But I have to add this qualifier. Our government is set up as a form of democracy, but it’s morphed into something else. It’s neither a democracy nor the Republic our Founders envisioned. We are ruled by a kind of plutocracy. So if you really want to get semantically picky, we’re neither a democracy nor a Republic, at least not as our Founding Fathers envisioned.

Posted by carnivalchaos | Report as abusive

scrambling to maintain an empire is the only ‘indispensability’ that US capital understands – a psychology that is purely subjective to the big banks, transnational corporations, and their fellow travelers.

several billion other people on the planet will argue just the opposite, as the daily news demonstrates.

Posted by wilhelm | Report as abusive

This is a superb article, and only the blind are unable to see how true it is. America is (or was) defined by its Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights. Without our founding principles, how are we any better than any other empire that existed before us?

We remained a relatively free country when the USSR had thousands of nukes pointed at us and had spies infesting our land. Do we currently face any threats worse than that? A bunch of guys in sandals running around with AK-47’s in the desert on the other side of the planet doesn’t qualify in my opinion. Neither does the occasional domestic terrorist attack, which is a very rare way to die in any case.

Speaking of the USSR: Many years ago, when I was growing up, I and others used to comment on how terrible the USSR was. We noted how the USSR had a constitution guaranteeing citizens’ rights but didn’t follow that constitution. How the USSR was constantly meddling in the affairs of other countries, creating client states where possible, and even invading other nations on flimsy pretexts. How Soviet police made up their own rules. How all the citizens were constantly spied upon. How peaceful protests would be brutally put down. How people could be simply “disappeared.” And so forth.

How is that much different from the US today? Every single one of those criticisms currently applies to modern America in some form or another. Yes, even the part about being “disappeared.” Anyone who doubts this ought to familiarize himself with the NDAA of 2012, which eliminated due process for anyone “suspected” of terrorist involvement. No court case needed, just the say-so of government officials.

We Americans love to crow about how “free” we are — about how “our troops fight for our freedom.” That’s all lies and feel-good propaganda. The “War on Drugs” and the “War on Terror” are the one-two punch that have destroyed most of our freedoms. We have nothing left but some amount of free speech and the ability to get good firearms, but even these are considered privileges rather than rights.

“Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.”

William Pitt the Younger stated that long before any of us were even born, but it certainly applies to the modern USA — if this can even be called the “United States” anymore.

Posted by Heretic50 | Report as abusive

One should simply pause and think – if not for the United States than which nation state and what would be the alternative? Since the ascension of the United States at the end of World War II, the world has never been in a period of greater stability, wealth redistribution and creation (across and within national boundaries) lifting the poorest up to standards that only decades ago were considered impossible, and created a logistical, trade and information flow environment that has delivered and expanded communications, knowledge and the strengthening and growth of democracies worldwide.

No other nation state has had such a profound and positive impact on mankind in such a short period of time.

Does it err in its policies and ways? Absolutely. It is the perfect reflection of mankind’s imperfect self and capabilities.

Posted by WonderfulWorld | Report as abusive

Yes, our Nobel Peace Prize winning president and his toady political sycophants have been engaged in conflicts across the globe on a scale Rumsfeld could only imagine.
The reset with Russia? Going just fabulous now that the cold war is back on full steam ahead!
Libya we went from re-approachment to the death of our diplomatic staff and continuous robotic drone attacks against their people and an all but undeclared war (one of our many).

Syria: For the first time in US history we bomb them daily now too, but not everybody they want to yet. Undeclared war #2.

Iraq – After snatching defeat from the jaws of victory… We’re baaack! Undecalred war #3.

Afghanistan we still there only we are now losing that one too. Undeclared war # 4.
Yemen, While we bomb whom we want there, the Iranians are running amok and about to close the House of Saud’s last link to the open ocean. Undeclared war #5.

Central African Republic. Gotta bomb them too Undeclared war #6.
Mali Ditto Undeclared war #7.

North Korea AKA “China lite”. Miniaturized Nukes anyone?

China AKA North Korea heavy. Feel like sailing the Fifth fleet between Taiwan and the mainland anymore?

Way to go team Billary Obama!

Posted by DLNY | Report as abusive

I certainly wish that this author and many others would quit referring to Mr. Obama as a “Professor”, as he was no such thing. The proper term would be either a “Lecturer” or “Senior Lecturer”, much further down the academic food chain than “Professor”.

Posted by Gclan | Report as abusive

[…] revelations about National Security Agency surveillance at home and abroad — certainly hasn’t helped. Depicting the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan as exercises in democracy promotion has done […]

Posted by The United States wants to spread democratic values around the world. It can start by cleaning up its own act at home. | Groupe Gaulliste Sceaux | Report as abusive

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[…] revelations about National Security Agency surveillance at home and abroad — certainly hasn’t helped. Depicting the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan as exercises in democracy promotion has done […]

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