Dan Simpson: Invest at home, not in wars

We must ignore the puddin’-heads and avoid getting dragged into senseless wars

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We, the American people, have a very serious problem that confronts us as a result of a military-industrial complex, in bed with our government through campaign contributions, a media that pretty much dishes up to us what the government and military-industrial complex want them to, and a very disorderly world, which almost always has some new possible war for us to consider.

Fortunately, at least three aspects of our society keep us anchored and out of the latest conflict of the day.

The first of these is a deep-rooted sense of our own best interests. Most Americans understand fairly well that we don’t want our sons and daughters in miserable places such as Nigeria, South Sudan, Syria and Ukraine standing at risk to their lives between people who want to fight over something that has nothing to do with us.

The second is that we as Americans have a very short attention span. Notice, for example, that Syria, an intense passion not long ago, is now sloping off into channel-changing obscurity. Ukraine now seems well on its way to falling into the same level of disinterest, particularly as the parties there realize that the only country destroyed by U.S. intervention would be theirs.

Any country thinking seriously about trying to draw the United States into its own internal conflict ought to look closely at Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, all of which we have reduced to near-chaos and eternal dependence on external aid to be able even to eat.

Thus, if America can be held off from interfering for a reasonably short period of time, we will move on to the next mini-drama elsewhere. We do distract easily. I absolutely adored the newscast of the cat rescuing the little boy from the guard dog that was biting his leg.

The third grace that may save us from self-destruction through meddling in other people’s affairs is a decent sense of what is really important to us.

We have more or less digested the half-step forward that the Affordable Care Act represents in terms of making our medical care moderately more efficient and perhaps slowing its catastrophically spiraling costs.

There are other issues that some hoped President Barack Obama would have tackled, including immigration, closing the offshore prison at Guantanamo, gun control and tax reform. I will confess to sometimes taking pleasure in watching known Obama voters’ faces crumble when I mouth the words of his first campaign, “Change you can believe in,” now five years into his presidency, although I know the joke’s on me, too.

At the same time, I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t understand that America’s priorities now must be putting our own house in order, in particular, fixing our own infrastructure, our rusting bridges and buckling highways. If the question is put to Americans calmly and rationally, “Our bridges and roads — and jobs — or Ukraine or Syria?,” they have no difficulty making the choice.

The trick now is getting our money-soaked politicians to get it. Could they leave off for a minute listening to General Dynamics, Boeing and other arms makers and peddlers who finance their campaigns and concentrate on putting America’s own house back in order? If the politicians had their way we wouldn’t even know in most cases who gave them their campaign money and what they do to repay their benefactors.

In the meantime, we must continue to wave off the wars that the United States is invited to become involved in. I was appalled to read last week that the United States had just added another $27 million to the stash we have so far provided the Syrian “opposition,” bringing the total to $287 million. That bunch have pretty much given up in Syria, and that is probably just as well. If they had won, we would have been faced with a regime in Damascus that probably would have been dominated by al-Qaida-affiliated elements.

Anyone who thinks that the “nice” opposition Syrians would have been calling the shots hasn’t read much history. In particular, anyone who thinks that hasn’t looked recently at Libya, where violent militias are faithfully preserving an atmosphere of chaos, our reward for helping them achieve power.

So, according to me, for a variety of only slightly different reasons, the United States must continue to resist Department of Defense, defense contractor and congressional puddin’-heads and “I’ll hold your coat” foreign elements who want to drag the United States into a variety of wars around the world. “Candidate wars” that we have so far resisted include Iran, Syria, rocks in the East China and South China seas, South Sudan, Nigeria, the Central African Republic, Ukraine, Georgia, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Yemen and North Korea. We are out of Iraq, although some wish otherwise. The urge to keep American troops in Afghanistan is alive and well in the Obama administration, in spite of the basic fruitlessness of that enterprise, clear after 13 years.

We still have U.S. forces that can serve as tripwires in a raft of places, including Germany, Japan, South Korea, Colombia, Djibouti, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, the Philippines and Kenya. The presence of tripwire U.S. forces makes it harder for Americans to resist being drawn into wars there if something bad happens.

The long list of countries I have cited tempts me to think that this task is fundamentally hopeless, but I still think that Americans basically have good sense and will not let their leaders’ greed or folly lead us into failure as a nation by setting the wrong priorities.

America’s greatest strength, its basic greatness, lies in its strength at home. We won World War I and World War II through our ability to mobilize our power at home quickly and efficiently. A quick glance at our situation now would discourage anyone from thinking we could do that at this point, but the situation is still not that hard to fix if we get on with the job, undistracted by the foreign relationships that George Washington warned us about.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1976).

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