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Is America still a serious nation?
A visit to Southeast Asia evokes memories of our folly-filled past — and serves as a reminder of the critical issues we face today
Robert Shrum
Robert Shrum
A

re Americans still capable of making this country serious? That is the question — the real and fundamental issue — that spans all the bitter debates now raging in Washington, and everywhere in a decidedly unhappy land.

Visiting Southeast Asia, you encounter powerful signs of America's enduring standing — and an indelible reminder that our country is capable of nearly invincible stupidity.

On the one hand, the dollar is the nearly universal alternative currency. U.S. companies are investing and manufacturing in Vietnam, and increasingly in Cambodia. They're welcomed, and so are Americans visiting Hanoi,  Angkor Wat, the Mekong, and all the places whose names were the common datelines of our news just a few decades ago. Of course, Saigon is now Ho Chi Minh City, in permanent celebration of our defeat. But there is no sense of unease or recrimination; one-time enemies who devastated cities, villages, dikes and dams are treated as friends.

This makes the shadow of that earlier memory even more haunting proof of our stubborn stupidity in waging the Vietnam War — known here as the American War. We blundered in and stayed the course in the name of a domino theory that turned out to be true in only one sense. Communism here was a vehicle for nationalism, not an engine to advance an international conspiracy. We might have at least suspected this when Ho declared independence from French colonial rule in the 1940s, using the very words of our own Declaration of Independence. And in the decade after the last U.S. helicopter lifted evacuees from the roof of our encircled embassy, the dominoes did fall — to our economic system. Capitalism is the norm now, if, in some cases, still in largely symbolic red trappings.

A serious nation would not shortchange an intervention in Libya that's as right as Vietnam was wrong.

Democracy doesn't flourish here anymore than it does in China. But our vital interests were never at stake and the conflict we fought was a profound mistake. We persisted because Lyndon Johnson and then Richard Nixon refused to face reality, each determined not to be the first American president to lose a war. Until Americans wearied for good in the 1970s, they also found it too hard to accept that the war was wrong — and could not be won. To paraphrase the young John Kerry when he came home from the Mekong to oppose our involvement in Vietnam, how do you tell 55,000 Americans and two million Vietnamese that, from first to last, they died for a mistake? Not to mention the hundreds of thousands of other casualties and the nearly two million lost in the killing fields of a lunatic named Pol Pot, who might never have come to power in Cambodia if Nixon hadn't secretly bombed and then invaded that country.

History never exactly repeats itself, but the impulses manifest in history can and do. Today, in very different times and circumstances, we have to ask which America will prevail: the America of hope, of global leadership for good, the great innovator and driver of its prosperity and the world's; or the America that sees through a glass darkly, that clings to self-delusion and misconceived ideology and once again loses it's way? The question is not about one policy, but about the entire span of domestic and foreign policy.

Serious leaders of a serious nation would not play political games with raising the federal debt limit, threatening to hold the full faith and credit of the United States — and the stability of the economy — hostage to repealing the New Deal, the Great Society, and health care reform, while rolling back a woman's right to choose. This is an extremist wish list and if the extremists in the Congress successfully push confrontation to this point, no one will be using the dollar as a reserve currency.

Nor would a serious nation even consider the budget just passed by House Republicans. Short-term, it would destroy jobs, and long-term, it would increase the deficit — except according to the in-the-tank Heritage Foundation, whose math isn't just fuzzy, but transparently false. Every responsible analysis shows that at the right time for fiscal tightening, the plan would do the opposite, precisely, but not surprisingly, because it would lavish tax breaks on the privileged. And along the way, it would shred the social safety net.

The unserious Republicans are exploiting the widespread misunderstanding of cyclical economics and the role of deficit spending in recession and recovery. Most presidents have yielded to this easy temptation: They've professed desire for balanced budgets, but seldom been foolish enough to follow through at the wrong point in the cycle. Only JFK ventured a candid conversation with the country about this issue. Even Barack Obama, in the midst of the GOP assault, repeated the old chestnut that government, just like a family, can't spend more than it takes in. This is certainly untrue of government — and, if you think about it for a nano-second, untrue of a family. Ever hear of a mortgage — or financing to buy a car?

Last week, the president finally stood his ground, and in a speech setting out a realistic budget plan, tried to move the debate in a serious direction. His aim is to protect the recovery, and once it's fully taken hold, focus on major deficit reduction. To get there, he will also have to overcome other angry and embedded public perceptions that reward frivolous, cheap, and dangerous economic demagoguery.

One prime example is the faux populist drivel about "bailouts" — which saved the banking system and the auto industry, and, along with the equally reviled stimulus, prevented a collapse into depression — and which are now making a profit for the Treasury. People are frustrated about the failure to provide help for Main Street, although the stimulus did just that, if not enough. And in fact, without the bank bailout, Main Street would be pretty much shuttered. People are also likely to be repelled by the Republican proposal to repeal and replace Medicare with a voucher system that should properly be named "InsuranceCompanyCare," because it would assure a profit-swelling treat for the industry instead of life-saving treatments for the elderly.

The proposal is Obama's best weapon in the battles ahead. But it's about saving the best of the past and not, to borrow a phrase, about winning the future.

A serious nation would not disinvest in education, research, alternative energy, and infrastructure — the only path to sustained prosperity in a globalized world — but that is the GOP plan. Democrats too have their own unserious streak; many in Congress adamantly resist opening up trade. Pending agreements are blocked with the easy and inaccurate rationalization that protectionism will save American jobs. The Doha Round charged with opening markets generally is just about dead. The plain reality is that this country can't just consume; it has to sell — to the two billion new middle class customers in the emerging Asian markets of the next decade. That requires bringing down barriers, not clinging to them.

Nor would a serious nation follow the GOP folly of gutting trade adjustment assistance — retraining and workforce investments which are essential to prepare Americans for the higher-skill, higher-paid jobs which have to be the heart of our future economy. This isn't just an option; if we're to prosper, it's the only choice.

Finally, in dealing with the world, a serious nation would not cut diplomacy and foreign aid — of course, the latter is really unpopular, so the Republican knives are out — while throwing billions at weapons the Pentagon doesn't even want. And a serious nation would not shortchange an intervention in Libya that's as right as Vietnam was wrong. We can't let Moammar Gadhafi stay in power, inflicting terror on his own people, or Libya could become the Rwanda of this generation. We need to do more if we have to — not with our troops — but with our airpower, if the British and French fall short.

We came to our senses in Southeast Asia, late and at a terrible price. America now seems tempted by senselessness almost across the board. The question may not be settled until 2012. You don't have to agree with Barack Obama on every issue — to some, it feels that we have moved from change we believe in to deals we can barely abide — but he is a serious leader at a critical time. A serious nation would never seriously consider replacing him with one of the Republican candidates who range from the empty suit of Romney to the clown suit of Trump.

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