Bread and circuses above legions

What price honour? Less than $1 million per soldier, according to the Obama administration. Which is a lot of money, I admit. But strategic ruin and national shame are not costless either. Nor is cluelessness disguised as sophistication.

This bleak reflection is prompted by a New York Times report that "While President Obama's decision about sending more troops to Afghanistan is primarily a military one, it also has substantial budget implications that are adding pressure to limit the commitment, senior administration officials say." Including insisting each military option "include the quickest possible exit strategy."

To suggest openly that America's willingness to confront threats and convey determination has been sold for scrap is unbelievably reckless. Watching this administration flail it has struck me that while amateur idiots are usually less dangerous than professionals it is not true in foreign policy. But in one alarming sense we should not blame the jokers now in power in Washington.

Barack Obama's grovelling bows to the King of Saudi Arabia and the Emperor of Japan reinforce the impression he is a silly man with a silver tongue, whose grasp of foreign affairs goes no deeper than an undergraduate reflex to blame American arrogance for international tension. But a much more profound problem underlies his budgetary blather over Afghanistan and conspicuous display of weakness on his China visit. Apparently the U.S. can afford cash for clunkers, a car company, huge bank bailouts and a vast expansion of free health care. It just can't afford national security. And Barack Obama didn't cause this problem though he is certainly not helping by word or deed.

Last spring the University of Ottawa hosted a fascinating yet scary talk on the U.S. federal budget by Cindy Williams, a principal research scientist at MIT. Her key argument was that unless some way were found to contain the runaway costs of entitlement programs, the United States would be obliged to withdraw from a global security role for want of money regardless of any other considerations. To my surprise, her charts showed the main culprit as health care, not Social Security. And while Democrats on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue seem determined dramatically to inflate the cost of socialized medicine, neither the excuses made nor the commitments flubbed by any specific administration or Congress are much more than foam on this tidal wave.

I take no cheap shot at the U.S. here. As the main protector of liberty in the world it is simply the scariest to watch put bread and circuses above legions. But this Saturday the Citizen reported that Canada has too few police officers to indulge in such luxuries as crime-fighting and quoted former RCMP boss Giuliano Zaccardelli that the Mounties can tackle less than a third of the organized crime they know about. Protecting citizens against foreign attack is the first duty of government and protecting them against domestic attack is a pretty close second, yet our politicians appear to regard both with irritated amusement given so many more politically attractive options for spending way more money than they will ever have.

It doesn't have to be this way. And since politicians including Mr. Obama clearly imagine they are statesmen, let me summon the shade of William Pitt the Younger, who took the helm in Britain at the absurdly precocious age of 24 in 1783, righted the ship of state after the American Revolution and brought it safely through the Napoleonic storms. In steering through these appalling perils Pitt put particular emphasis on restoring the shattered national finances. Before the effort killed him at 46 (after helping his friend William Wilberforce end the slave trade; reckless spending is not a precondition of compassion) Pitt gave no fewer than 17 budget speeches over 19 years on the theme "let us look our difficulties in the face."

Barack Obama should drop the Jimmy Carter trick of dressing up irresolution as resolution and give it a try. He may well fear that voters don't want truth. But statesmen don't let that bother them. There or here.

If citizens squawk that we cannot afford armies or policemen because we are too busy helping ourselves to cake, someone should bluntly opine that we are stupid as well as greedy. As W.H. Auden wrote in the aftermath of 1930s appeasement: "Be frank about our heathen foe,/ For Rome will be a goner/ If you soft-pedal the loud beast;/ Describe in plain four-letter words/ This dragon that's upon her;/ But should our beggars ask the cost,/ Just whistle like the birds;/ Dare even Pope or Caesar know/ The price of faith and honour?"

Nor presidents or prime ministers. And take heart: If you're quoting poetry you must be sophisticated even if you're not clueless.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson