Reaping and Sowing

In The Limits of Power, Andrew Bacevich (a West Point graduate) has argued that we cannot disconnect our foreign policy from our “domestic dysfunction.” Bacevich notes that US foreign policy is driven by a belief in “liberty,” but liberty defined as abundance, the freedom to indulge our lust for more and ever more. In its fight for liberty, Washington’s foreign policy establishment determines “that nothing interfere with the individual American’s pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness” – all defined as “more.”

The combination is unsustainable. “Here is the central paradox of our time,” Bacevich writes, “While the defense of American freedom seems to demand that U.S. troops fight in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, the exercise of that freedom at home undermines the nation’s capacity to fight.  A grand bazaar provides an inadequate basis upon which to erect a vast empire.”

Within weeks of 9/11, President Bush was exhorting Americans to contribute to the war effort not by cutting back, joining the army, or tightening belts, but by jumping on airplanes and taking trips to Disney World.  Bacevich notes wryly, “Bush noted with satisfaction that the nation’s annual holiday season spending binge [in 2006] was off to a ‘strong beginning.’  Yet the president summoned Americans to make even greater exertions: ‘I encourage you all to go shopping more.’”  A strange alchemy, that: To turn shopping into sacrifice.

One reason we separate foreign and domestic issues is because the US military is in many respects the last outpost of traditional (not necessarily Christian) morality and values. Soldiers know there are good guys and bad guys, and the military seeks to inculcate an ethic of selflessness and sacrifice, the “can-do” spirit that has defined America. American soldiers often act with heroism and even kindness. Another reason is that the US has actually done good in some far-flung places. Poles and Czechs love us because we stood by them when they were threatened.

But that doesn’t ease the inconsistency. The military doesn’t decide policy. The people who keep abortion legal, and raise your taxes, and pile bureaucracy upon bureaucracy – those are the people in charge of American foreign policy.

Though Bacevich focuses attention on the links between foreign policy and American materialism and greed, the same logic applies to the typical “culture war” issues. It makes no sense to think that sexually permissive America becomes a paragon of purity when its armed forces fight on the other side of the globe. It’s insane to think that the America that winks at the murder of American babies beams benevolently when armed with a payload and issued an M-16 and deployed to the Middle East.

We can’t have it both ways. Maybe the US isn’t such as mess domestically as culture warriors have said. Maybe we’re not so bad after all; maybe we’ve exaggerated the evil of abortion and maybe gay marriage is not a sign of cultural decay. If so, we should cool the rhetoric. But if the culture warriors are right, and we are an increasingly godless people, then we can hardly be anything but a godless global hegemon.

That is not a happy thought, because “you reap what you sow” does not observe national boundaries.

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