Posted on Saturday, February 14th, 2009 at 3:47 pm
Author: Feature Writer
Gc contributor: Sarah Jaffe
Those “Oh my god, the Bush era is over” moments are getting fewer and farther between now as the Obama administration settles in.
The easy-to-accomplish changes have happened, and now the hard work has set in. Congress fought bitterly over the economic stimulus plan, and a second nominee for the Commerce department has dropped out before confirmation hearings.
But in the car Friday morning, I had one of those moments where I pounded the steering wheel and cheered for the voice on the radio again.
The voice this time belonged to the new director of national intelligence, retired four-star admiral Dennis Blair. And what he said was, “The primary near-term security concern of the United States is the global economic crisis and its geopolitical implications.”
The director of intelligence, the person in charge of keeping the United States safe from external threats, said that the economy is the biggest security concern.
In other words, this administration and its intelligence officials understand that the primary danger to people is that they won’t be able to eat, or feed their kids. That crime is bred from poverty and desperation as much as from fundamentalist ideologies.
This marks a major shift in the thinking of our government and by inference, a major shift in how it deals with the world:
Obama spoke along these lines on the campaign trail, pledging to increase foreign aid, but it is more than refreshing to hear it said by the chief intelligence officer. If the U.S. Government’s priority is not fighting a war on some nebulous enemy that, we are repeatedly assured, hates our way of life, but instead helping people have the basic necessities of life, it will breed far more goodwill than any violently created outpost of “democracy” that we could’ve created.
The economic crisis is leaving people in bad enough shape in the U.S., but its ripple effects around the world, Blair noted, can lead to much more frightening instability.
Yes, this is still using a specter of threat to motivate support for aid spending and for domestic economic spending. I would much rather see concern for poverty for the sake of the people dealing with it, not because it makes the U.S. safe from “terrorism.” But this shift in rhetoric is another move toward shifting the center and shifting the way we talk about security threats.
Reframing economic issues as security issues gives them new significance in our military-fetish society. Since the days of Reagan we’ve been dealing with a bomb-first-ask-questions-later foreign policy. The economy? It could take care of itself. Poor people just needed to get off the welfare rolls and get jobs—just ask Bill Clinton’s welfare reform. Crime rates going up? Just throw ‘em in prison. Never mind the people in other countries who are starving, or even the people in our own country.
Hurricane Katrina was a turning point in this thought process, at least for most of the world. We saw Americans dying in the streets while their rich president flew over in Air Force One and furrowed his white brow in concern. Though stories in the media talked about looting, suddenly people could see and understand why you would have to steal when your kids couldn’t eat.
The economic stimulus bill that passed Congress last night signaled a shift in thought on the domestic policy front, and coupled with Blair’s words on Thursday, they outline simply the difference between this administration and the previous ones.
One could read Blair’s speech as a pitch for stimulus spending, but it’s bigger than that. The stimulus bill gives more money to the departments of Agriculture and Transportation, Health and Human Services, and even the Environmental Protection Agency than Defense, according to ProPublica’s breakdown.
But that is on the domestic front. A similar shift in priorities in foreign relations would mean more aid dollars flowing to health programs and educational support, not military aid.
And if news reports from India and China are any indication, such efforts cannot come a moment too soon. Resentment against elites turns rapidly to resentment against the U.S., and who can blame people?
Douglas Redker of the New America Foundation, speaking to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said:
“It is understandable for the US, like other countries, to turn our focus inward and address the domestic impact of the current economic crisis before considering the more strategic global implications of our response.
But it is imperative that we not send a signal to the world that we are now solely focused inwards. If we assume that we can try to right our own domestic ship and deal with international issues later, then we are almost certain to find that other, more creative, aggressive and opportunistic actors will step in and try to fill any vacuum created by a lack of attention on our part.”
Blair’s words reflect an important first step in acknowledging the importance of such focus, and the legislative body’s participation in the discussion puts added muscle behind his words.
Poverty isn’t sexy, and building infrastructure doesn’t make for nearly as glamorous a photo op on the nightly news as war does. But the economic crisis, as Blair noted, is global, and it requires global solutions. Understanding that not every problem can be solved with military action is a good start, and acknowledging our interconnectedness and the need for cooperation to solve this problem is a move in the right direction.
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