12 05 2019

Yes, the US is dysfunctional. But does it matter?

Road side bomb, Iraq Road side bomb, Iraq By https://www.flickr.com/photos/soldiersmediacenter/ - https://www.flickr.com/photos/soldiersmediacenter/2583385889/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8363211

It has been common to say that the main strength of the US political system is its checks and balances. The three branches of Government are balancing each other out, and the free press and civil society in its many forms contribute with more checks on the system. Sometimes this is still true. But in many cases the result is dead-lock and a non-functional system. Most worrying is that in the fundamental case of war and peace, it simply does not work. This puts the whole world in danger.

Saying that the US political system has become dysfunctional is nothing new. There are thousands of articles from authors, right and left, complaining about this dysfunctionality, coming up with explanations and solutions. Some are dismissing it as irrelevant, noting that is has been so since the USA was constituted more than two hundred years ago, and still it has been limping on and is now the only superpower of the world. The dysfunctionality of the US political system has been debated long before Trump became president, but his erratic presidency has given the issue a new sense of urgency.

There are many expressions of the dysfunctionality. The Congress cannot agree on solving a series of - mostly internal - problems in the US: how to curb gun violence, how to secure medical care for the poor, how to finance a renovation of the crumbling infrastructure, how to act on climate change, how to balance the budget and so on. The shifting Governments can get tax cuts through Congress, but they can’t get the corresponding expenditure cuts through. So the budget deficit is spiralling, and the public debt is now extremely high and growing. As is the trade deficit.

It could be argued that these are basically the Americans’ own problems. And I agree, even if the lack of balance in the public finances is bound to also affect rest of the world, given the size of the US economy and the role of the dollar.

The main worry is the immense US military power and the absolute lack of control of it. Firstly, the military budget is a holy cow. When it is proposed to increase the military budget, there is no real political opposition, despite that the US uses more money on the military than the eight next biggest countries combined. There may be some complaints about the lack of efficiency, but that does not stop it. When cuts are suggested, the system becomes dysfunctional. There is only one way forward: up. Financing is not a problem. That is done by increasing the budget deficit.

When it comes to foreign policy and the use of military power, no checks and balances are working either. We could hope that non-Government powers as the media and civil society would do the counterbalancing, but that is not the case. The days of big anti-war demonstrations as during the Vietnam are long gone. The media are not advocating restraint, they are requiring more action. And when the actions turn out in a disaster, there is no remorse. This is an extremely dangerous combination.

When a small group of influential politicians surrounding the then American President George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq in 2003, there were no serious objections, despite that the arguments for the war were clearly fallacious, and everybody with a little insight in international politics knew that. Did the mainstream media function as a check on a belligerent Government? Not at all. On the contrary, they campaigned for the war and argued that this was a humanitarian mission. Did the US European allies function as a check on the Superpower? The French President Jacques Chirac and the German PM Gerhard Schröder tried, but they were undermined by other unscrupulous European PMs (Tony Blair from the UK, Aznar from Spain, Berlusconi from Italy, Fogh Rasmussen from Denmark and a couple of other political minions). Was there any remorse afterwards, when it was clear that it was a disaster that caused somewhere between 300,000 and one million premature deaths? Some politicians (not the above mentioned) did show remorse afterwards, but few media did so. And most importantly, they don’t show any sign of having learnt from it.

The Democratic Party, which now has a majority in the House of Representatives, is too occupied with ‘Russiagate’ to care about war and peace. They are convinced that it was Russia that prevented Hillary Clinton from winning the 2016 presidential elections, and that the best way of winning in 2020 is to promise to be tougher on Russia and China than Trump is. The Obama foreign policy was to their opinion too bland, particularly in the Middle East. Hillary Clinton wanted to bomb the Syrian Government troops to achieve regime change in Syria, following up on the success in Libya, even if that implied shooting down Russian warplanes. She also wanted to bomb Iran. The Democrats celebrated Trump’s recent bombing of Syria. So the pressure the Democrats are putting on Trump is not to avoid war in the Middle East, it is rather to increase military intervention. Even thinking of accepting defeat and end the war in Afghanistan after 18 years of war, the longest in the US history, is looked at as a monstrosity (though it seems some Democrats are secretly considering to support pulling out). Pulling out of Syria would be a ‘present to Putin. The same is echoed in the media and in influential think tanks and human rights organisations. After the humanitarian wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria to spread democracy and human rights, the time has come for humanitarian military interventions in Iran, Syria, Venezuela and Cuba. The pressure is on Trump to be more aggressive, not less – as if he wasn’t bad enough as he is. As it is stated in ‘Foreign Policy’: ‘The gambit to out-hawk Trump is a dangerous one’. There are some voices against engaging in more wars and for stopping the forever wars’. But they drown in clamours for more military interventions. If you are against more military interventions, or – even worse – for ending the ‘forever wars’, you are supporting Trump. And giving presents to Putin.

Even if Europe did not prevent the disastrous invasion of Iraq, and actually was in the front seat in eliminating Libyan strongman Gadaffi in 2011, submerging the country in chaos ever since, could we hope that EU will act as a constraining factor on new US steps towards wars with Iran, Syria and Venezuela? The litmus test is Iran. The US has walked away from the international agreement with Iran (the socalled ‘Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’),and it is now impeding any access of Iran to the international financial system, blockading its oil export and threatening any third country that does not support the unilateral US measures with dire consequences. What has EU responded? It came in like a tiger and went out like a lamb. EU promised to cooperate with Iran to save the deal, even without the US. However, all big European companies have already subdued themselves to the US extraterritorial policy and pulled out of deals with Iran. The list is long and includes among others European airlines, oil companies, banks and car manufacturers. The EU financial mechanism to go around the US sanctions (called INSTEX) is not in place yet, and will only be used by smaller European companies that are not trading with the US. If at all. According to a former UK ambassador to Tehran, ‘Europe hasn’t delivered in a single one of the areas – transport, trade, investment, banking – where it promised Iran cooperation in 2018, when the U.S. pulled out’. Seems nobody cares what the EU is doing or not doing. Least of all European multinationals and the US. Anyway, there are signs that the European countries are making a virtue of necessity and now aligning with Trump’s aggressive policy on Iran. They are running out of patience with the Iranians, they say angrily. The European media too are increasingly aligning with the US positions, and there are no serious popular movements against a new war. So, the answer is ‘no’, there is not much hope that the EU can be a constraining factor.

They want war! Bolton and Pompeo with Trump [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

They want war! Bolton and Pompeo with Trump. [State Department photo/Public Domain]

 

The only hope for avoiding a war with Iran lies in the fact that it is a much tougher prey than Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, which may make the US think twice. Sure, if the US, with or without its European followers, decides to attack Iran, they can crush it. Russia and China will be protesting, but they will not intervene militarily. The Iranians feel betrayed by the Europeans, but that is not helping them much. They are on their own. However, a war with Iran will not be a cake walk – as Pentagon officials boasted on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. And don’t count on all the casualties being Iranians.

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Thorbjorn Waagstein

Thorbjørn Waagstein, Economist, PhD, since 1999 working as international Development Consultant in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

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