Members of the Rhode Island Army National Guard prepare to process patients at the sample collection site at the Community College of Rhode Island’s Knight Campus in Warwick, R.I., on April 1, 2020.
Photo: Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
The coronavirus pandemic now ravaging the United States should lead every American to a series of important questions: What are the real threats that I face? What has my government been prioritizing in terms of my — and the nation’s — security? And where has all my tax money been going?
Considering these questions, it’s hard not to conclude that the American government’s national security priorities have been so askew of reality that they left the country dramatically unprepared for an acute threat to millions of its people.
The last few weeks have revealed a spectacle of a federal government apparently incapable of doing what is required to stop the spread of a pandemic on American soil.
The government’s focus has been overwhelmingly on the threat of extremist groups and unfriendly regimes abroad, mostly in the Middle East. Over a period of two decades, the United States spent trillions of dollars waging wars and occupations across the region. These confrontations have won America an ever-growing list of enemies around the world. They are still making life miserable for millions in the Middle East. But their impact on the United States itself is now also being painfully revealed: a country that has spent trillions on foreign wars but is unable to defend its citizens from basic threats like disease and economic collapse.
The last few weeks have revealed a spectacle of a federal government apparently incapable of doing what is required to stop the spread of a pandemic on American soil. Not only has testing capacity lagged far behind much smaller and less wealthy countries like Taiwan and South Korea, but shortages of critical health infrastructure will likely mean the excess deaths of potentially hundreds of thousands of Americans in the foreseeable future. Governors of large states have been publicly begging the federal government for ventilators, masks, and other basic tools to deal with the outbreak. There is little sign that the capacity even exists at present to respond to these requests.
Meanwhile, the avalanche of military spending that was released after the September 11 attacks continues to roll onwards. According to Brown University’s Costs of War Project, the U.S. government has spent a staggering $6.4 trillion on its wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan since 2001. This gargantuan number does not even account for interest payments on the borrowing needed to pay for the wars, which could run to as much as $8 trillion by midcentury, let alone the opportunity costs to American society of this massive spending on foreign adventurism. Then there are the attendant inflations of the Pentagon’s base budget; domestic “war on terror” spending at the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security; and of course the wild expansion of our intelligence apparatuses, all but unaccountable to the general public in both their acts and spending.
That American counterterrorism wars have killed hundreds of thousands of people while failing to achieve any clear political or strategic benefit makes the squandering of this generational wealth even more bitter.
The parlous state of America’s critical infrastructure has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the world amid this crisis. Even though the pandemic originated in China, the Chinese Communist Party later exhibited a reasonable ability to get the outbreak under control domestically and is now attempting to position itself as an exporter of global goods: shipping masks and doctors across Europe and Asia. While the Trump administration visibly struggles to muster an appropriate response at home, it has also been undercutting the efforts of other countries to handle the crisis. It has done so by diverting critical resources away from allies like France while attempting to exacerbate the global pandemic through economic sanctions against enemies like Iran, despite the pleading of its allies to change course.
The net result of all this might be a United States that has bled its institutions to the point of anemia in pursuit of ideological crusades abroad, only to find itself unable to compete with major rivals on the things that matter most.
In a recent article in the national security publication War on The Rocks, Mira Rapp-Hooper of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the forthcoming book “Shields of the Republic: Triumph and Peril in America’s Alliances” noted the grimly ironic implications of this.
“It seems unlikely that the American leadership that knowingly abetted this global catastrophe will be capable of transforming its governance efforts when it has embraced poor governance as strategy,” Rapp-Hooper wrote. “If China exits this epochal crisis as a confident leader it will not be the ineluctable result of a structural shift; Beijing will have Washington’s calamitous domestic mismanagement and myopic foreign policy to thank for it.”
Even after two decades of nearly unmitigated strategic failure in the Middle East coupled with the disastrous self-harm of unchecked defense spending, it seems that significant portions of the U.S. elite have still not awoken from their intoxication with foreign wars of choice. Amid a global pandemic that could kill millions and cripple the American economy for years to come, there are strong signs that the U.S. military might be ordered to embark on yet another war in Iraq — this time to fight Iranian-backed militias in that country whose ambitions are ultimately local to the region.
Such a conflict would serve the purposes of well-organized elite interest groups in the nation’s capital. But it is almost impossible to argue that it’d make any contribution to improving the day-to-day security of ordinary people living thousands of miles away in the United States. If this war does take place, we can place it into a larger context: a once-powerful country depleting its strength through costly military adventures in distant lands, but institutionally incapable of providing the basics of life for its people at home.
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