Patrick C. Doherty, senior editor at TomPaine.com, returns to examine America's strategic dilemma after taking March off from writing to enjoy his honeymoon. His column, Quo Vadis, focuses on America's big picture: where we are, where we're going and how to get there.
Are Peter Beinart and Will Marshall supremely cynical or just myopic?
Beinart, editor of The New Republic , and Will Marshall, president of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute, are at the center of a sustained effort to rally Democrats under the flag of anti-terrorism.
Last December, Beinart launched this loose but persistent campaign with a feature article comparing the present situation of the Democratic Party with that of 1947. Straining credibility to compare the Soviet Empire to Al Qaeda, Beinart wants Democrats to believe that Islamic totalitarianism represents the same strategic threat as Stalin's vast empire did, strategic nuclear forces and conventional armies. Two weeks ago, Marshall and Beinart were co-signers of an open letter published on PPI's house publication, challenging the Democratic Party "to make winning the war against jihadist extremism the party's first priority."
The illegitimacy of that comparison—and the over-inflation of the threat posed by Islamic extremists—was quickly demonstrated by a flurry of commentary in early January.
But last week, two new reports were released that demonstrate most viscerally just how dangerous Beinart and Marshall's strategy would be to the party and the Republic.
The first piece of staggering news popped out of the United Nations' Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. The report states the problem plainly: the world has over-consumed two-thirds of the world's natural resources. Measuring the state of the global ecosystem for the first time, the United Nations found that expansion of the post-war consumer economy has depleted the ability of the environment to provide services—food, clean water, clean air, flood control, disease management—that are essential for human life. The depletion means that every year, the world will receive less of these services than the year previous. That means scarcity on a global scale. Already, 1.1 billion people do not have access to adequate fresh water. Commercial fisheries are collapsing. Damage to forests essential to manage climate and air quality may be irreversible and is getting worse. It's stark news.
The second piece of devastating news comes from Goldman Sachs . Last Friday, the storied investment house warned of the possibility of a severe spike in oil prices, called a superspike. Prices, says Goldman Sachs, could reach $105/barrel by 2007. Oil is already at record prices, but still far below the adjusted price of $80/barrel reached in 1979. A $105 barrel of oil—on its own—would mean the doubling of current gas prices and a massive regressive tax on average Americans—with the most of money going right out of the country.
But ecosystem depletion and energy insecurity are not happening independently of each other nor are they the only problems. Rather, they are two of the four converging crises that represent the real challenge facing America. The other two are our fiscal imbalance and climate change.
Complexly intertwined, these four issues are the real threat facing the republic. Experts like Robert Rubin and Stephen Roach have made it clear that a severe shock in the midst of today's fiscal imbalance would trigger an economic chain reaction. The oil superspike could—by hitting American pocketbooks—trigger a drop in consumer spending. This in turn would spark a chain of events resulting in a severe recession with job losses, a stock market crash and widespread defaulting on consumer debt. The United Nations was clear that rapid and severe ecosystem changes could disrupt food production. Overseas, that means regional warfare over arable land and water supplies; in the United States, food prices would skyrocket. Complicating matters, our massive deficit and recent history of fiscal irresponsibility will mean little appetite for new American debt, tying the government's hands.
While last week's reports underline this converging threat, they certainly are not announcing it for the first time. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in 2001 on the advanced degree of global warming and the linkages with ecosystem depletion. The Concord Coalition and even the American Enterprise Institute have for years trumpeted the severe risks of our massive structural deficits, caused by the gap in Medicare funding and exacerbated by Bush's tax cuts. Energy security in an era of rising global demand has been a constant theme in the mainstream press and the subject of numerous studies.
So the question must be put to Beinart and Marshall: do they see all these major threats to the country and cynically believe that backing anti-terrorism is a better path to gaining political power? Or, are they so caught up in another round of Washington groupthink—the same dynamic that led these same centrists to believe Bush's rationale for war—that they are incapable of admitting overwhelming evidence to the contrary?
Either way, the Democratic Party has little time to waste on such misleadership. The Millennium Assessment and the Goldman Sachs research paper suggest that America may face a severe economic, energy or ecological crisis before or between the next two federal elections. If that happens, Democrats need to be ready to step into the fray with an alternative that is both narrative and strategy—a narrative to explain how we got to this place and a strategy to move forward.
In that narrative, Islamic extremism will be understood for what the 9/11 Commission says it is: a symptom in large part caused by 50 years of inadequate U.S. policy in the Middle East. And our strategy of course must address the real—but not existential—threats wrought by these policies.
But in the face of the much larger threat from energy insecurity, crushing deficits, climate change and ecosystem depletion, the second-order threat from Al Qaeda cannot become the centerpiece of the Democratic platform.
Whether they are cynically promising that a Democratic administration will kill more terrorists, or whether they are simply ignorant of more massive global threats—Beinart, Marshall and their intellectual brethren in the Democratic Leadership Council confirm the worst suspicions of average Americans: that neither party has a clue about how or where to lead America.
It's time for a progressive grand strategy.