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Environment

America's Priorities

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Post 9/11, the United States has yet to have a national conversation on whether its political leaders overreacted to the threat of terrorism. You would think that our involvement in two simultaneous wars that lasted longer than any other previous war in the country's history might have prompted us to reflect on how we got into that position. That hasn't happened. We just...moved on. So let's quickly review the past decade. The short version is that we got ourselves into one war that made no sense at all, and then after messing things up in that one, we woke up to another one we had been sleepwalking in. Lessons learned? Let's gear up for some more war! Hey, third time is the charm, right? And maybe this one really will be a cakewalk! So while I agree with David Rothkopf that it's long past time for reflection on the U.S. military strategies that guided the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan--and the unrestrained budget for military defense in general--I see it as putting the cart before the horse. He writes:

We have lost more than lives in our wars in the Middle East, more than money, more than precious elements of our national reputation. We have also lost our ability to judge our actions or their consequences with a critical eye.

True, but what about the uncritical assumptions, fears and national hysteria that set the stage for those actions? What put us on that trajectory? Yes, we know it all starts with 9/11, but what came after that? And why haven't we reexamined this time in our history that led to the color coded alerts, the conflation of Iraq with Al Queda, the endless war footing? That said, it's hard to quibble with Rothkopf's larger critique:

We need to have enough confidence in ourselves and our system to know that asking questions about why our system has not worked as we might have hoped is a sign of strength, not of weakness, of genuine patriotism, not the opposite. The scars of Vietnam have healed, but in their place we are creating, through our unwillingness to have the full and open discussion of both our strengths and our weaknesses on the battlefield, new ones. As a country, America has made a decision over the past several decades to devote the greatest part of our discretionary budget to national defense, to outspending all the world's major militaries added together. This should raise perhaps the biggest question of all -- about our priorities. Historians will look back and conclude that we bet on raw power to maintain and extend our global leadership, consistently choosing force over investments in our people, schools, infrastructure, or research. Our military leaders and their sponsors in the defense industry have been complicit in helping us arrive at this decision, reducing our risk of foreign attack perhaps but also increasing the likelihood we succumb, as other great powers have, to a combination of overreach and fear of losing what we have gained.

These are all worthy points that hopefully will be raised one day in a meaningful national conversation. But any discussion of America's "priorities" would seem to require an honest examination of how they became priorities in the first place.

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