Fix things here at home

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I have been arguing for some time, at the risk of falling into an isolationist slough of despond, that the United States should now focus on its domestic problems and back off any expensive, military-oriented foreign initiatives. To test the realism of this approach, I made two lists to see whether reflecting on them would torpedo or reinforce the hypothesis. It is for the reader to say.

Domestic concerns

1. Pass a budget or keep part of the government shut down? The disruption and damage to the already-weak U.S. economy and the corruption, greed and clownishness in Congress that is producing this problem is a significant indication of how important its resolution is to the future of America.

2. The debt ceiling: The deadline on this one is allegedly Oct. 17. America's debt is a stunning $16.7 trillion, pushed ever upwards by continuing deficits. Anyone who has ever managed a household or even sold lemonade without parental backing -- America has no parent that I know of -- understands that breathtaking debt is, in the end, fatal to a household or a country.

The Ottoman Empire collapsed because it financed its wars through borrowing. (Would China loan us enough for a war with Syria or Iran?) In the short run we need Congress to agree without further nonsense to raise the debt limit enough to get us by. In the long run we need to get rid of the budget deficits and start paying down the debt. Deadbeat nations have little or no influence abroad. Their peoples are chronically ashamed and insecure.

3. Obamacare: The Affordable Care Act was an effort by a president and a Congress to come to terms with a major, two-sided American problem: the millions without health insurance and the constantly rising costs of health care. The best obtainable solution was made law in 2010. The politicians need to help make it work, not sabotage it as a means of catering to campaign contributors and getting even with Barack Obama for having won the 2008 and 2012 elections.

4. Immigration: I know it is tiresome to say it again, but we are a nation of immigrants. That makes the caterwauling about secure borders -- was Ellis Island hermetically sealed? -- and false claims of excessive social costs of immigrants ridiculous. I am also increasingly disgusted by the defense contractors, such as Northrop Grumman and United Technologies, linked to members of Congress by millions in campaign contributions, hustling to get paid to militarize the U.S.-Mexican border. Immigration reform is important, involving millions of residents and would-be workers. The problem urgently needs work, but nothing is getting done.

5. Gun violence: America is increasingly coming to see as routine heavily armed individuals with mental-health problems opening fire and leaving scores of innocent people dead or wounded. Mr. Obama must find it difficult to say anything new or original in his frequent role as chief mourner after these events. Every step to seek to reduce this threat is rebuffed by America's highly organized gun nuts. This is another serious national problem that needs to be dealt with.

6. Inequality and the death of Horatio Alger -- a major problem that threatens the continued success of the United States: This could be fixed by tax reform and regulation of America's institutions of greed -- the big banks and the big companies. But there also is the question of whether the aspirations of young people to rise in the economy and society can be satisfied or whether they are doomed to be frustrated -- pushed under by the rising cost of higher education and student debt and by the cute little tricks of those at the top to keep them under-educated by championing the sanctity of religion or the private sector. The bottom line of charter schools, religious academies and the like is that they take money away from public schools, the ladder by which the children of the poor have always bettered themselves.

7. Government surveillance: The idea that the National Security Agency is all over our telephone calls, emails and Internet browsing in the name of making us safer is a very serious problem if the United States wants to continue considering itself the land of the free, as opposed to a larger East Germany.

Foreign concerns

These are of less moment, not only because of the greater importance of the domestic issues listed above in terms of America's expenditure of treasure and personpower, but also because most of our foreign problems are on a generally positive road toward peaceful resolution.

1. Afghanistan: American troops, now about 54,500, are due to be out next year after a 13-year war.

2. Israeli-Palestinian peace talks: They are underway after a mighty effort by Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who made them his first priority when he was named to his post by Mr. Obama. The president has a dog in this fight, too, still needing to earn his Nobel Peace Prize.

3. Syria: The chemical weapons incident is on the way to a useful resolution, with Russian help. Syria is moving along as promised toward ending its capacity and handing over its stocks. The Syrian civil war is not America's problem, but it could be, with the Russians pushing the government of President Bashar Assad and the United States pushing the more moderate opposition into some sort of political accommodation.

4. Iran: The U.S.-Iranian contacts in New York last week may have opened the way to fruitful talks in Geneva in mid-October on Iran's nuclear program and, through them, improved communication between the United States and Iran.

5. Iraq: Messy and horrible, but no longer our problem after eight years of engagement.

6. Kenya and Somalia: Also messy and horrible, but an African regional problem, not ours.


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


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