Step up to the plate, Mister President

So apparently, Osama Bin Laden is dead.  You know, that Osama Bin Laden.  The Osama Bin Laden who was definitely behind the 9/11 attack, most likely, so far as we can tell.  Or who, at least, was probably involved somehow, or approved of the attack after the event.

And this is great news.  Not because an individual is dead, but because Bin Laden’s death is the perfect pretext to announce that George W. Bush’s oh-so-stupid War On Terror is over — that it has been won!  And that America can therefore start recovering all the liberties that it sacrificed in the name of the WOT that was, ironically, being waged to protect those very freedoms.

My impression is that most people recognise the WOT as a horrible, horrible mistake, but no-one’s been able to  find a way to back out of it without losing face.  They can’t just say “we reacted out of fear and anger after 9/11, and didn’t think it through; it was dumb and we’re not going to do it any more”.  But now they don’t have to say that: I think we can dare to hope that America’s intelligent politicians will jump on an opportunity like this.

And of course, after the mind-numbing Bush years, we do actually have an intelligent politician in the White House.  (I say “we” even though I am British, because American politics is so globally important that the choice of president is hugely important to everyone everywhere.)  And I am not making a party-political comment — I am not arguing that Democrats are necessarily more intelligent in general than Republicans.  But it’s clear that, while Bush was as dumb as a barrel full of turkeys, Obama is smart and sharp and actually understands what he’s talking about.

That’s why I am urging the president (and, come on, we all know he reads The Reinvigorated Programmer) to do the right thing, step up, and grasp this opportunity to end the War On Terror.  It’ll take a while before Americans are able to live in the same atmosphere of freedom as before 9/11, and probably even longer before we non-Americans are once more welcome guests on US soil rather than grudgingly tolerated interlopers; but right now there is an opportunity to at least start that process.  To get out of Afghanistan and Iraq, close Guantanamo Bay, observe the process of charge and trial, and so on.  It may seem like a beautiful dream, but this is what presidential legacies are made of.  Obama needs to grasp this opportunity while he can.

But then of course you have the naysayers — whether cynical or wise, we can’t tell yet.  My boss Sebastian Hammer (quoted without permission but I assume he won’t mind) says “I don’t think anyone is going to say the WOT is over.  The WOT is a massive industry and a crucial political tool.  They desperately needed something to replace the cold war.”

This distresses me (not least because I fear it may well be true).  But: who are they in this scenario?  I can see why the Bush administration wanted there to be an ongoing WOT, if only to stop them from looking dumb for starting it in the first place.  But does Obama need it?  As a Cold War replacement?  Doesn’t he have a recession he can play with?  If he fixes that, he can be FDR instead of Truman/Eisenhower — wouldn’t that be a better legacy?

So will he do it?  I guess we will find out soon enough.  Depressingly, maybe we have already found out — as I write this Bin Laden has been dead for a few days, and there’s been time for Obama to make a game-changing announcement if he was going to.  *sigh*

Sebastian thinks Obama is trying to gradually recast the WOT as more of a global police effort.  But it can hardly have escaped Obama’s attention that all the Middle East states that are going over to democracy are the ones the USA has not “policed”.  Just like all the old iron-curtain countries, in fact.  Back in the 1980s, all the communist countries overthrew their repressive governments because we played them our Billy Joel CDs.  Now the Arab countries are overthrowing their repressive regimes because they’ve seen our iPads.  It doesn’t take a genius to see that the most effective policy is just to let them get on with it: provide them with a model of freedom to aspire to.  Because, for some reason, invading them doesn’t seem to get the job done as one would expect it to.

I feel in suspense now as I did in the 48 hours after 9/11 itself, when it felt like there was a real chance Cheyney would just lose it complete and nuke Kabul.  Back then, it was a relief to get through those 48 hours with nothing dramatic happening.  This time, it’s a disappointment.  Come on, Obama — make us proud to be Western Democracies!

People will say that it’s not that simple: that it takes time to withdraw from Afghanistan, to close down Guantanamo Bay, to decommission all the TSA’s nude-o-gram X-ray machines, to get the police used to the idea that citizens are allowed to observe and record them as they go about their duty.  Of course, all that is true.  No-one expects it to be done overnight.  But that’s not the president’s job anyway.  His job is to see far and clear, and to show that vision to the nation, and the world.  Right now is the time.

I leave you with two pie-charts, both from Wikipedia.  [NOTE added later: these are misleading — see the first few comments below.]  First, the UK’s 2009/10 budget (from here):

As you can see, Defence at £38 billion, gets 43% as much money as Education at £88 billion.  Now let’s look at the corresponding chart for the USA (from here):

Can you even find Education?

It’s the thin gold slice up around 11 o’clock.  It accounts for 1.32% of the budget, compared with 18.74% for the Department of Defense.  So in the USA, Defense gets 14.20 times as much money as Education.

In other words, the Education:Defence ratio is 32.88 times as good in the UK as in the USA.  Now let’s admit right up front that these figures are a bit misleading — a much larger proportion of American kids are privately schooled than in Britain, for example.  But even when you take that into account, that factor of 32.88 is pretty astonishing, isn’t it?

A strong president can change that.  Right now.


21 responses to “Step up to the plate, Mister President

  1. Lawrence Kesteloot

    Regarding education/military spending, imagine that the UK’s military spending were reduced to £0. Would it be any less safe? I’m guessing not. Who would dare attack it? It effectively lives under the protection of the U.S. and can spend as little as it likes on its military. So part of the UK’s defence is effectively being paid for by the U.S., and that may partly explain the ratios above. (In return, of course, the U.S. gets to call the shots.)

  2. Don’t forget that FDR needed the war to end the Depression. Fortunately, it doesn’t quite work that way any more. Unfortunately, not everyone may realize that.

  3. Jeffrey Ketchersid

    The education funding figures are even more misleading than you say. I don’t actually know but, based on the figures, I assume Britain’s education funding comes from the national budget. This isn’t the case in the US, almost all education funding comes from the states (in fact it tends to be the largest item on a state budget).

    This isn’t to say the US doesn’t spend to much on the military. It does. It spends about twice as much per person on it’s military than Britain which means it ends up spending about 10 times as much overall, but comparing military to education ratios isn’t a very good example.

  4. I don’t disagree with your main points, but the pie chart is *hugely* misleading. Public education in the US is funded through property taxes levied and spent at the school district level, and is roughly on par with defense spending. See here for a more reflective pie chart:

  5. In the USA, a lot of education spending is by the States, so won’t show up on a Federal budget chart. So this isn’t quite comparing apples with apples.

  6. Oh my. Sorry mate, but I must disagree. Obama is eloquent, yes (as long as the TOTUS doesn’t play up), verbose, indeed, and quite possibly intelligent (in an ivory-tower academic way). But he is, without a doubt, completely clueless. Not that he’s worse than the neocons, but better certainly not.
    The strategic global tragedy of the WOT (without in any way understating the countless personal tragedies on all sides) is the fact that OBL got much more than he could have hoped for. Far, far more. He managed to dictate global foreign policy on his own terms. STRATFOR has a lot on that, very enlightening.

  7. Look Ma! Pictures actually relevant to the text here!

  8. But it can hardly have escaped Obama’s attention that all the Middle East states that are going over to democracy are the ones the USA has not “policed”.

    Post-invasion Iraq has held several free and fair elections. Post-invasion Afghanistan has held elections that have been flawed, but somewhat genuine. None of the recently revolting countries has had time to get that far yet. So your statement above is simply untrue.

  9. I might be violating Godwin’s law here, but it’s scary how much the caricature of Osama Bin Laden reminds one of similar anti semitic caricatures from the Nazi era.

    It’s probably always the same game, dehumanize your enemies. But escalating that way doesn’t actually end wars to drain support for terrorists.

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  11. Richard, how can any election be described as “free and fair” if it takes place in an occupied country? We will never know for sure what the US (and the other allied forces) accomplished in Iraq and Afghanistan until after they’ve withdrawn. I am not optimistic that it will be all sweetness and light when those power vacuums sit there waiting to be filled.

    Martin, I think Godwin’s Law is a bit silly, at least as people usually apply it (i.e. any mention of Hitler or the Nazis is verboten). In fact, they are a useful source of reductio ad absurdum arguments. So violate all you want on this forum. I think you are only truly Godwinned when you accuse your interlocutor of being a Nazi.

  12. StarTrekRedneck

    Wow, I don’t know even where to begin. Perhaps with astonishment at the bitter criticism by someone who was *not* bombed with their own citizens. Aside from that, let me pick just one thing. As you mentioned, “the most effective policy is just to let them get on with it.” I think that’s what got us beat up. Instead, I think we should take a more positive role *early on* before a region becomes the world’s armpit of violence and oppression and then begins spreading said violence. I do think laziness and selfishness among the well-off nation*S* have played a part, but by now this is water under the bridge. At some point, the rampant oppression and violence spreading from an area so saturated with it that it’s own citizens are rendered powerless must be dealt with in a sadly more judgmental way. Again, it’s evil that should be dealt with earlier on before the 9/11’s, before Sadam invades, before Hitler invades, *before* the rest of us are forced to act only because it directly affects us. But to be sure, “sometimes you’ve got to fight when you’re a man.”

  13. “Wow, I don’t know even where to begin. Perhaps with astonishment at the bitter criticism by someone who was *not* bombed with their own citizens.”

    In case you’ve forgotten, Britain got the living crap bombed out of it within the lifetime of my parents (and I am sure within the lifetime of some of the readers of this blog). Being bombed is not a unique Only-In-America thing, you know.

    Also … I am not sure that StarTrekRedneck has quite got a handle on the Prime Directive there :-)

  14. StarTrekRedneck

    Far be it from me to forget, Mike. And I applaud Britain’s resolve to defend itself against such atrocities. I know both of us hold our soldiers and citizens of that time in high honor. I hear most of the current criticism come not from those valiant veterans, however, but from younger souls who understand the evils of the world far less than that generation.

  15. It is now abundantly clear to everybody (rather than just the Intelligence Services, who have known for a long while) that the Pakistani government is not in any reasonable sense in control of the country. Ironically, Pakistan being a nuclear power is a much more serious security proposition than ever Iraq or Afghanistan were, and it would be lunacy simply to walk away and leave Kharzi to his fate. So Bin Laden’s killing may reduce the rhetoric, but I fear the WOT is still very much on.

  16. “But it’s clear that, while Bush was as dumb as a barrel full of turkeys, Obama is smart and sharp and actually understands what he’s talking about.”

    This line proves you’re a simple minded moron who should leave politics to the adults.

  17. And your evidence?

  18. Would that it could be so simple as to say Bush was an imbecile based on things he’s said and done, and that Obama is mentally superior based solely on his ability to give a good speech.

    But of course, its not that easy. Think about it. Bush simply can’t be that stupid; if he was, he’d have to actually be certifiably mentally retarded. Which leaves just one other explanation: he’s an asshole who along with his cronies probably at various times throughout his career lied to his people, manipulated the system and lived high off the hog at all of our expense. He’s probably not particularly smart either, and probably relied heavily on his advisors, his father, etc.

    And similarly, Obama probably isn’t the brilliant always caring selfless leader of change we all (well, some of us) want him to be. He’s probably more or less average and will probably make mistakes and do some selfish things here and there.

    Of course the thing to note is the extremes here.. Bush is either an idiot or a bastard, while Obama is either a really stand up guy or just an average flawed human. He’s at worst an idealist with misguided ideas…

  19. Aric Caley — no argument with anything you’ve said there. No doubt the caricatures of both are misleading; but however you slice it, there’s a qualitative difference between Bush and Obama. I don’t know whether America heard it, but there was an audible sigh of relief from the rest of the world when Obama got in.

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