Hillary Clinton conceded on Saturday, gracious at last, in a speech to supporters in Washington, D.C. She said what needed to be said: that every Democrat, and many Americans who identify themselves as something other than Democrats, must now get behind the candidacy of Barack Obama with all the passion they can muster.
She had finally run out of gas, concluding a primary marathon that revealed her grit and her hunger, her intelligence and her ruthless instincts. She was done in first and foremost by a superb opponent, one she didn’t take seriously enough at the outset, but also by her own choices: her hawkish stance on Iraq, her willingness to play a divisive hand (what Nixon advisers once called “positive polarization”), and most of all her decision to run as an insider ready to govern “from day one.”
And that turned out to be a little too close to business as usual. What I and a lot of other Democrats wanted to see was someone who talks a completely different game, who is less invested in the status quo, and who speaks compellingly about reversing the horrors of the last eight years – even (dare we say it) the last 16 years.
Actually, the exhaustion of America’s global legitimacy began before Bill Clinton with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. We couldn’t handle being a lone superpower. We let it go to our heads. We were right, we were good, we were indomitable. American stuff, American culture, American-style democracy should and would rule the world. We succumbed to the temptations of hubris, of good intentions misapplied – of empire. And the costs of empire are now sucking us swiftly toward mediocrity, if not abject failure.
All empires think they are invincible, think they have God on their side. And then they crash. The Roman Empire collapsed in the fifth century A.D., beset by autocratic rulers, too many wars, and the adoption of Christianity as the state religion. The paternal, racist, British Empire died of obesity in the 1930s and 40s. The decline of the American Empire, while it began sometime in the Reagan years, will date from George W. Bush’s declaration of the so-called War on Terror.
The costs of that war, morally and financially – on top of our already overstretched responsibilities as Team America World Police – will be our ruination. Unless Barack Obama can redirect attitudes and resources in more productive directions. John McCain will not do it.
Miriam Pemberton wrote a revealing piece for the Institute for Policy Studies called “Raiding the War Chest,” in which she detailed the staggering numbers for what she calls the military budget. (“Defense” in her mind is a misnomer.)
We will spend $711 billion on the military this year, more than the rest of the world combined. It’s six times what China will spend, 10 times what Russia is spending, 97 times Iran’s military budget. It’s more than we spent over 12 years in Vietnam.
Half a trillion of these dollars ($515 billion) will go to the Defense Department, twice what its budget was in 2001. A lot of it is earmarked to support the 800 military installations the U.S. maintains on every continent around the world. Forty-four billion will go to new weapons systems, many of which don’t work, like Ballistic Missile Defense, or address non-existent threats, like the F/A 22 Raptor, which was designed to counter a Soviet airplane that was never built. Defense’s budget does not include the $170 billion needed to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We’re sending $115 billion this year in “military aid” (from the State Department budget) to places like Pakistan Israel, and Columbia, aid that ends up fueling conflicts rather than defusing them.
In 2008 we will spend $88 on our military for every $1 we spend on climate change. And Congress can’t find the money to fix our roads.
We need to talk about this stuff. We need to redefine priorities in order to save ourselves, and possibly the planet, from a grim future. The empire is toast. The Bush/Cheney paradigm was utterly ill-equipped, as it happened, to deal with radical insurgencies, with the global energy crisis, a warming climate, declining resources, gross inequity and rapid modernization in the Third World. It made a mockery of leadership, the English language and international cooperation.
We’ve got to work out a new storyline, with the rhetoric and inspiration to go with it. Can Obama pull it off? We’ll see. I’m afraid neither Hillary nor Bill quite grasped the importance of rewriting the script.