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Militarism’s Lethal Logic

James P. Pinkerton writes a column for Newsday in New York. E-mail: pinkerto@ix.netcom.com.

Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor famous for taking the long view of things, has offered a new forecast--not about the future of Wall Street but about the fate of New York City. It’s “virtually a certainty,” he said recently at a shareholders meeting, that terrorists will inflict “a major nuclear event” on the United States sometime soon. And the most likely target, he added, is New York or Washington.

What makes Buffett so pessimistic? Maybe he read the Capitol Hill testimony of Undersecretary of State Charlotte Beers before the House Appropriations Committee on April 23, in which she discussed the deep hostility the entire Muslim world--not just Arab countries--feels toward the U.S.

It’s tempting, perhaps, to dismiss all this discouraging news, but in the era of suitcase nukes the threat from weapons of mass destruction isn’t so dismissible.

So what to do? Beers outlined one approach; she asked Congress for $595 million--a 5% increase over last year’s budget--for “public diplomacy,” which is State Department-ese for public relations and outreach. That’s about 10 cents a person around the world, probably not a bad investment. After all, the events of Sept. 11 inspired the Bush administration to ask for a $48-billion increase in defense spending, plus an additional $38billion for homeland defense.

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Taken together, all these new expenditures, on goodwill and good defense, would seem in keeping with Teddy Roosevelt’s dictum: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

But others in the government have a different idea. Some, such as John R. Bolton, another undersecretary of State, seem to think the goal is to speak loudly, rattle the saber even more loudly--and never mind the consequences. On Monday, Bolton delivered a speech to the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, titled “Beyond the Axis of Evil,” in which he listed three more countries--Cuba, Libya and Syria--that posed an imminent danger to the U.S. So now the “axis of evil,” which President Bush cited in his State of the Union address as Iraq, Iran and North Korea, is up to six nations.

But hold on a second. Cuba? To be sure, Fidel Castro is a communist nogoodnik, but does his impoverished country of 11million really pose a threat to the U.S.? Bolton did not offer reporters any specific proof, saying only that the Caribbean country has a “sophisticated biomedical industry.”

In this listing of Cuba, one might surmise that the administration is playing politics with anti-Castro Cuban Americans in Florida more than offering a serious assessment of the threat posed by the island nation. But the rest of us could end up at risk because the Bush administration’s determination publicly to label potential foes as actual foes could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Indeed, other great powers have been here before. Americans might like to think of themselves as unique, but history suggests a pattern of behavior into which superpowers can stumble. Here’s what the late economist Joseph Schumpeter wrote about the Roman Republic, the predecessor to the Roman Empire: “There was no corner of the known world where some interest was not alleged to be in danger or under actual attack. If the interests were not Roman, they were of Rome’s allies; and if Rome had no allies, the allies would be invented. When it was utterly impossible to contrive such an interest, why then it was national honor that had been insulted.”

At all times, Schumpeter noted, Roman leaders maintained “an aura of legality”; that is, they declared themselves to be on the side of truth and justice, dealing decisively with rogues. But the result was a Rome constantly at war. Soon, as a matter of military necessity, democracy was supplanted by dictatorship, and eventually the Romans could no longer beat back all the enemies they had made.

Schumpeter, no leftist, was nevertheless concerned about the logic of militarism, which always turns reflexively toward war as the best method of dispute resolution. The United States is not yet close to that point. But, as Buffett says, we are getting closer to the destruction of a major American city.

It would be nice, therefore, if we thought harder about making friends, not naming enemies.


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