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General News    H3'ed 5/18/21

Tomgram: Andrew Bacevich, War as the Enemy of Reform

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

"A United States Coast Guard cutter fired 30 warning shots after 13 Iranian fast patrol boats menaced a group of American Navy ships sailing in the Strait of Hormuz, the Pentagon said on Monday"" so began a minor piece in the New York Times last week. Hmmm" Did you even know that the U.S. Coast Guard was patrolling in the Persian Gulf? Does that seem even faintly strange to you? And this isn't the first such encounter, nor is the Persian Gulf the only place on this planet of ours where Washington all too often edges close to some kind of conflict that would hold dangers for the future of any administration, no less Joe Biden's with its ambitious domestic plans.

Thought of another way, what a curiously stacked world the political inhabitants of Washington live in. Consider a recent report by Joe Cirincione at the Quincy Institute's Responsible Statecraft website on a congressional hearing in which every witness seems to have urged the further funding of the endless "modernization" of the American nuclear arsenal (just to ensure that, at any moment, in any administration, we could blow this planet sky-high). As he put it, "A panel of old white men spent 90 minutes hectoring Congress to replace every weapon in the U.S. arsenal and to maintain the Cold War policies that repeatedly brought us to the brink of nuclear war."

Sadly, we've been living in such a world for decades now. In fact, today, TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, author of the soon-to-be-published After the Apocalypse: America's Role in a World Transformed, reminds us of just how war, or the threat of war, has regularly challenged presidential domestic policy goals and what it might do to Joe Biden's fondest dreams. Though it's never thought of that way, you might even argue that Barack Obama's domestic hopes went down in his Afghan surge (that Biden opposed), which left 100,000 U.S. troops (not to speak of scads of contractors, CIA operatives, and the like) in a country already known as the graveyard of empires.

And we're in a world where, from the waters off Iran to those off China, cold wars could turn hot all too quickly. If only retired colonel and historian Bacevich were being called to Congress to testify on such subjects or those who mattered in Washington were to read his new book! And yes, hope does spring eternal, doesn't it? Tom

Is There a Doctor in the House?
Biden the Bold vs. Joe the Timid

By

Is President Biden afflicted with the political equivalent of a split personality? His first several months in office suggest just that possibility. On the home front, the president's inclination is clearly to Go Big. When it comes to America's role in the world, however, Biden largely hews to pre-Trumpian precedent. So far at least, the administration's overarching foreign-policy theme is Take It Slow.

"Joe Biden Is Electrifying America Like F.D.R." So proclaimed the headline of a recent Nicholas Kristof column in the New York Times. Even allowing for a smidgen of hyperbole, the comparison is not without merit. Much like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during his famous First Hundred Days in office in the midst of the Great Depression, Biden has launched a flurry of impressively ambitious domestic initiatives in the midst of the Great Pandemic an American Rescue Plan, an American Jobs Plan, an American Families Plan, and most recently an environmental restoration program marketed as America the Beautiful.

Biden's Build Back Better domestic campaign qualifies as a first cousin once removed of Roosevelt's famed New Deal. To fix an ailing nation, FDR promoted unprecedented federal intervention in the economy combined with a willingness to spend lots of money. As then, so today, details and specifics took a back seat to action, vigorous and sustained, not sooner or later but right now.

Of course, FDR's Hundred Days did not actually end the Great Depression, which lingered on for the remainder of the 1930s. From the outset, however, the New Deal captured imaginations, especially among progressives. It invested national politics with a sense of hope and excitement. As historians subsequently came to appreciate, the New Deal was also rife with internal contradictions. Nevertheless, in terms of both style and substance, Roosevelt became and remains the beau ideal of the activist president. As press depictions of Joe Biden as our latest FDR proliferate, one can easily imagine the president happily filling his scrapbook with newspaper clippings.

That said, any political leader who embarks on an aggressive domestic reform program has to prevent the outside world from getting in the way. Roosevelt largely succeeded in doing so through his first two terms. Activism at home did not translate into activism abroad. Eventually, however, the outbreak of war in Europe and in the Far East famously prompted FDR to retire "Dr. New Deal" and don the mantle of "Dr. Win-the-War." In doing so, he was bowing to the inevitable. The New Deal was already running out of gas when the danger posed by a global struggle against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan brought it to a screeching halt. FDR wisely chose to accommodate himself to that reality.

In the ultimate irony, defeating those enemies made good on various unfulfilled New Deal aspirations, restoring both American prosperity and self-confidence. Yet war inevitably imposes its own priorities and creates its own legacies. World War II did so in spades. If postwar America bore the imprint of the New Deal, it also differed substantially from what New Dealers back in the 1930s had envisioned as the purpose of their enterprise.

Not least of all, during the ensuing Cold War, standing in immediate over-armed, over-funded readiness for the next war became a permanent priority. As a consequence, domestic matters took a backseat to a fundamentally militarized conception of what keeping Americans safe and guaranteeing their freedoms required. As the self-designated guardian of the "Free World," the United States became a garrison state.

"That b*tch of a War"

A generation later, a reform-minded president fancying himself FDR's rightful heir faced a variant of Roosevelt's dilemma, but demonstrated far less skill in adapting to it.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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