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Frederick W. Kagan
As the scale of the economic crisis becomes clear and comparisons to the Great Depression of the 1930s are tossed around, there is a very real danger that America could succumb to the feeling that we no longer have the luxury of worrying about distant lands, now that we are confronted with a “real” problem that actually affects the lives of all Americans. As we consider whether various bailout plans help Main Street as well as Wall Street, the subtext is that both are much more important to Americans than Haifa Street.
One problem with this emotion is that it ignores the sequel to the Great Depression–the rise of militaristic Japan marked by the 1931 invasion of Manchuria, and Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in 1933, both of which resulted in part from economic dislocations spreading outward from the U.S. The inward-focus of the U.S. and the leading Western powers (Great Britain and France) throughout the 1930s allowed these problems to metastasize, ultimately leading to World War II.
Is it possible that American inattention to the world in the coming years could lead to a similarly devastating result? You betcha.
The current economic crisis is extremely grave. The question is how long the recovery will take and how bad things will get before it takes hold.
When Franklin Roosevelt replaced Herbert Hoover in the White House, the country’s economy was in shambles but its security was not threatened. No American forces were engaged in significant military conflict; America faced no threats. The U.S. was largely disarmed militarily and disengaged internationally.
Yet within a decade, American territory had been attacked for the first time in 130 years, a massive rearmament program was underway, and the U.S. was fighting a desperate struggle that spanned the globe and ultimately cost the lives of nearly half a million American service members. The seeds of that global conflict, unimaginable in 1933 given the relative weakness of Germany and Japan, were planted in the first years of the Roosevelt administration as FDR focused on the American economy.
Hoover had the distinction of being the last American president who did not command American troops in important conflicts. After FDR, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower led the war in Korea that ended up shaping East Asia and the global economy profoundly.
John F. Kennedy’s ill-fated efforts in Cuba shape Central America and the Caribbean to this day. He also made key decisions regarding Vietnam, followed, of course, by Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. These decisions had major effects on American security and also helped launch a social revolution within the U.S.
Jimmy Carter’s disastrous hostage rescue operation in Iran had profound implications for the U.S. there and throughout the region, as did his reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Ronald Reagan’s failed policies in Lebanon in the early 1980s, leading to the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut in 1983, shaped the nature of American involvement in that key region, and also the perception of the U.S., for two decades. His attack on Libya, on the other hand, effectively ended a significant terrorist threat to the U.S. It also laid the basis for the elimination of Libya’s WMD program after 9/11.
George H.W. Bush fought in Panama and Iraq. Bill Clinton, who took office promising to focus “like a laser beam” on the economy, led U.S. forces to humiliation in Somalia, ineffective, pinprick responses to al Qaeda terrorism and to Saddam Hussein’s provocations, and to large-scale conflict in the Balkans. The current administration inherited ongoing military operations in the Balkans and almost immediately confronted the consequences of President Clinton’s policy failures in Afghanistan on 9/11.
The next president will not break this string of fighting presidents. He will inherit two ongoing wars involving more than 180,000 troops. He will face two global enemies–al Qaeda and Iranian terror networks, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps/Quds Force and Hezbollah.
It is important to note here the distinction between an enemy and a threat. Threats are problems to be concerned about in the future; enemies are organizations trying to kill Americans right now. Al Qaeda and Iranian agents are both killing Americans on a regular basis and have proclaimed their determination to kill more. They are enemies, not threats, and they will confront the next president from day one.
There are threats too, such as Pakistan’s instability, combined with its inability and unwillingness to confront the al Qaeda safe havens on its territory. The growth of al Qaeda organizations in Algeria and Somalia poses another. Russian adventurism on the borders of states to which the U.S. has already given security guarantees is still another. The dangers of nuclear proliferation if the North Korean regime collapses–or if it does not–are still another.
Lastly, the next president will almost certainly face Iran’s arrival at the threshold of nuclear-weapons capability. This, combined with Iran’s efforts to develop long-range (and ultimately intercontinental) ballistic missiles and its global terrorist networks, is a threat to America’s allies and to Americans at home.
Whatever the parallels between the current economic situation and that of the early 1930s, the current international environment is by any comparison more dangerous for the U.S. than the one that led to World War II. This is not hyperbole, particularly considering a last factor. When France and Britain ignored developing dangers while handling them would have been possible and relatively inexpensive, America was able to bail them out, if at terrific cost. There is no one to save us if we make similar mistakes in the coming years.
The current economic crisis is extremely grave. It is hurting many Americans today and will hurt many more as it unwinds. It will end, however, as economic crises always do. The question is how long the recovery will take and how bad things will get before it takes hold.
This question should be at the forefront of voters’ thinking as they consider the economic proposals of the two candidates for president, but not necessarily as they decide whom to vote for. Better policies can speed the recovery; worse ones can slow it–but none are likely to prevent it.
The presidential impact on foreign-policy problems is much more direct. Skillful approaches can avoid or mitigate conflict; foolish ones can lead to cataclysms. And make no mistake–mistaken policies will lead to the unnecessary deaths of Americans, and not just our soldiers. Any American who wants to travel outside the U.S. can be directly affected by the wisdom or folly of our foreign policy. Even those who never leave their own state must be concerned, as residents of New York, Arlington and Pennsylvania can attest.
The health of our economy rests on its fundamentals, and on the way the entire government–the president, the Congress, the Federal Reserve, and the courts–approach the problem. The lives of American citizens rest on the way the president interacts with our enemies. When people feel relatively safe, they vote their pocketbooks. When they feel endangered, they vote for security. The world today offers no reason for Americans to feel safe. If we want safety, we have to be ready to fight for it.
Frederick W. Kagan is a resident scholar at AEI.
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