Nation-Building At Home Rather Than Nation-Building in Afghanistan or Elsewhere

by George Kennedy on October 23, 2011


Nation-Building At Home Rather Than Nation-Building in Afghanistan or Elsewhere

Nation-building is an idea advanced by Jon Huntsman, a 4th-tier candidate for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. I don’t know if the statement represented nothing more than an attempt to differentiate himself as a candidate or that he actually believes it. I picked up on it because I think the inherent idea summarizes the view of millions of this country’s economically dispossessed.

Nation-building at home is what Americans want; it is what the country needs and I believe people are prepared for a serious discussion about any plan that concentrates on problems that roil their lives. We have consciously allowed inequality to grow and Americans are insisting that something be done about it. Income inequality is one of the concerns that launched the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. Although the average voter may not speak of nation-building, it is also among the missing topics in the Republican presidential debates although you would not know it judging from audience reactions at their debates.

An America-first policy of structural and economic reforms could coexist with our international treaty and other global obligations. We would, however, have to rebalance our national priorities to include a new slate of domestic priorities for the first time since the Reagan era. If the past 11 years of two different administrations have proven anything, it is that strong internal dissent, a down economy, and a divided society are a fragile base upon which to build an interventionist foreign policy that included two of the longest military conflicts in our history. It is imperative to repair, to restore, to renew our economy and the fractured faith of Americans at home. Furthermore, this country “needs government to invest in infrastructure, education, and technology” notes Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz.

Another four years of domestic neglect and decline in the American standard of living could push us over the edge. The problem for either Obama in a second term or a Republican president is this: domestic policy is tough; it is not for the faint-hearted. There are conflicting interests on a political level and certainly with a President’s corporate benefactors. Business is global and there are no neat lines of demarcation between costly domestic economic reform and job creation, and cheaper offshore job creation and manufacturing.

Also, the minority party will snipe incessantly and filibuster important pieces of legislation. Moreover, resources have to be allocated within a divided Congress; programs and budget cuts are inevitable with lobbyists swarming over the Hill like locusts to protect their individual rice bowls; and, finally, each issue, each item on the legislative agenda has a domestic constituency e.g., voters, PACS, NGOs, unions, Wall Street, corporations, etc.
The hard truth is, nation-building at home with divided government suggests a virtual intra- and inter-party bloodletting. Why? Imagine a major reallocation of resources for the first time in 30 years with or without new revenue. Long before any bipartisan agreement could be forged, the process would be so acrimonious, we might wish for the relative tranquility of a shooting war somewhere outside our borders.

The politician bold enough to suit up for the fight over new, government-backed domestic priorities with a reasonable chance to capture the White House is not in the current mix – from either party. However, this may be changing, at least among Republicans, thanks to the Tea Party. In addition to less spending and less government, they also insist on less engagement abroad.

What we should fear is the probability of more Tea Party-inspired gridlock on domestic policy priorities, and grudging bi-partisan agreement on foreign policy, especially if we can justify military intervention to reclaim America’s fragile leadership role. Meanwhile, we may continue to rot from the inside if we cannot resolve more fundamental questions regarding the role of government today: how much government is enough? And, what role should government play in a modern 21st century society?

I have outlined some of the problems with nation-building at home, but, solutions are available – if you are adept at capturing mercury in one hand. Again, domestic policy solutions are really logical: it’s just that the politics are ugly, even potentially suicidal for the most intrepid politician.

Every President knows you spend too much political capital too quickly on complex domestic issues. That, however, is our leverage. Political capital is derived from the electorate, from the consent of the governed. We give our elected officials the margin of victory they celebrate. Of course, we then allow them to ignore us until the next election. We want greater bipartisan cooperation to address problems closer to home, but, if we do not hold our elected officials accountable, they will be captured, literally, by Washington’s legion of lobbyists and unlimited campaign funds.

Therefore, the lure of foreign policy to a sitting president is seductive, intoxicating, particularly when fights over domestic priorities result in low poll ratings and a dispirited base. Too often, Presidents hear what they believe is the siren call of history (GW Bush – a victorious wartime president).

They envision the mantle of statesman and a doctrine to which they attach their name, perhaps a Nobel peace prize, but, often, the hoped-for foreign policy success to silence critics. The only missing element is the financing to construct their tax-payer-supported presidential library.

Our greatest national requirement in 2012 and beyond is to rebuild faith and trust at home to believe that our economy will be restored, jobs will be created, our financial institutions will once again inspire trust, our quality of life sustained, opportunities created for a new generation, income disparity narrowed, and American pride restored. If there is such a thing as a wish list for the average American, this might be it. Alas, the magnitude of the challenge does not appear to resonate with any of our presidential options for 2012. If ever there was a time for a leader bold enough to stare into the abyss of rebuilding our country, this is it. We don’t build them like FDR anymore. And we are paying for it.

The neglect of the American voter by both political parties has created a residual cynicism that is dangerous to our medium-term social stability. The most potent weapon we have is the faith, the trust, and the confidence of Americans they, almost uniquely, can shape outcomes – anywhere.
A loss of trust in our political leadership and those who direct our corporate and financial institutions is the social equivalent of a malignant cancer. It exists and it is metastasizing. We have an opportunity to remove this cancer, but I fear we are too polarized to do so.

Moreover, neither President Obama nor any of the current candidates on the Republican side excite voters. With the President, the subtext of his reelection campaign is a variant of “I’m doing the best I can with recalcitrant Republicans” as a substitute for real leadership. The Republicans are uninterested in any domestic policies that benefit the middle class because the 1 percent wants it that way. Growth-killing austerity is their only policy message.

If there is a bottom line, it might be something as inelegant as this: the 99 percenters and the 1 percenters have interests which must be harmonized, not necessarily balanced. The fates of both are bound to each other. This is still America and certain ideals matter: our identity as a people in which “fair play, equality of opportunity, and a sense of community are so important.” The 99 percent will launch messy collective action to retain this in their lives. The 1 percent ignores this to their detriment. In the end, the two sides will meet; the question is how and at what cost?

George Kennedy

George Kennedy is a retired senior Foreign Service officer with extensive international experience. He holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon and two graduate degrees from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. Mr. Kennedy was a political advisor to state and federal officials and has authored strategy pieces for Members of Congress and presidential candidates. He serves on the Advisory Board for the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona.

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