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PERSPECTIVE ON AMERICAN POWER : No. 1 but Overstretched? : We’re so bedazzled by this display of our military prowess that we’re blind to its effect on our sagging economy.

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Among the varied responses to the Kuwait crisis that are observable these days in the American media and among strategic analysts, one of the more prominent has been a sense of satisfaction at the country’s rapid projection of military force halfway across the globe.

After all of the worrying talk about the decline of the United States, it was clear once again that only America had the capacity to dispatch large military forces to Saudi Arabia, to deter further Iraqi aggressions and to preserve international order.

By comparison, the German and Japanese, touted as the new economic superpowers, had failed the basic test; the European Community once again displayed the weaknesses of not being a unitary state; a weakened Soviet Union played a marginal role.

America was still No. 1, the actor who dominated the world’s stage. Far from displaying imperial overstretch, it had robustly demonstrated its quasi-imperial power. And the only worry left was whether its own public opinion had the will to support a conflict that might be both lengthy and bloody.

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Such feelings of satisfaction at the display of American power may, of course, dissipate if the conflict does become costly or stalemated.

Yet all of this focus on U.S. military capabilities, or on national willpower, may be obscuring rather than illuminating the larger question of the real U.S. position in world affairs. That obscurity stems in large part from the media’s excitement at the demonstration of American military muscle, which causes us to forget the critically important, nonmilitary dimensions of national power. If we allow this to be so, we will be repeating the national blindness of many earlier great powers engaged in large military operations abroad.

Consider, for example, Spain’s decision in 1634 to send a powerful army into Germany to join its beleaguered Austrian Hapsburg cousins during the Thirty Years War. Its infantry and generals were first-rate, its deployment (from Spain by way of Milan, the Alps, the upper Rhine) swift and professional, its troops moving to the battlefront from a wide array of Spanish bases and possessions.

No other European nation at the time could equal such force projection; Spain, it was clear, was still No. 1 militarily. Yet it was a country that, in the nonmilitary dimensions of power, was beginning to sag badly: enormous debts, inefficient industries, reliance on foreign manufactures, vested interests that debilitated rather than strengthened.

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Naturally, little attention was paid to those features in the excitement of watching the glittering Spanish battalions pour into the Rhineland. By the 1640s, however, the suspension of interest payments and declarations of bankruptcy by the Spanish Hapsburgs fully revealed the decline of Spanish power.

Is there a lesson here for the United States?

No doubt many critics will rush in to claim that America in 1990 is not like Spain in 1634 (and they will be right; no two countries in history are ever alike). But that misses the basic point, which is that to remain No. 1 generation after generation requires not just military capabilities, not just national will, but also a flourishing and efficient economic base on which the nation’s military strength ultimately rests.

This, then, is the larger irony of President Bush’s bold decision to commit American forces in strength to Saudi Arabia.

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The cause may be a rightful one (as the Spaniards and British believed their causes to be rightful). The deployments may be impressive and the actual fighting by U.S. forces--if it comes to that--may also demonstrate efficiency and resolve.

All of this is going to take national attention, energies and resources away from dealing with the signs of America’s growing fiscal, technological and educational weaknesses.

Bush, like Philip IV of Spain, much prefers to be in the glorious role of commander-in-chief than to be haggling over budget deficits; and much of the media reflects the same bias.

The most significant news item of recent weeks may, therefore, have occurred neither in Kennebunkport, nor in Baghdad, but in an inner-page article of the Wall Street Journal, where it was reported that next year’s budget deficit will almost certainly be the largest one in American history, between $250 billion and $300 billion.

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The cost of the military deployment (estimated by some to reach $1.5 billion before October, even if no shots are fired), the likelihood that there would be smaller (or no) cuts in overall defense spending, the difficulty of imposing a gas-hike tax, the slowing of the economy and consequent drop in revenues, would all weaken America’s fiscal position. In consequence, the article concluded, the “cuts” authorized by the Gramm-Rudman budget law will likely be canceled by legislation.

Is it any surprise that the dollar’s value has been sagging, the stock market quaking and voices rising to demand that super-rich Japan and Germany help pay the spiraling cost of America’s force projection?

The American nation may get out of this within a short while, and without serious fighting and cost. But it may also find itself dragged into a lengthy and expensive stay in the Arab world, which will certainly worsen its fiscal position and make it increasingly dependent on foreign capital, just as occurred to Britain when it lingered too long “East of Aden,” until the Suez crisis.


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