Monday, August 1, 2011

Port Security, the Debt Ceiling Debate, and a Chance for American Renewal(?)

On the aforementioned sail in Boston (on my stepdad’s boat New Horizons), we happened to be coming back into the Harbor at the same time as a natural gas tanker started coming into port. Over the course of the half-hour trip into port, we witnessed a security spectacle of sea and air – Coast Guard, Environmental Police, Boston and State Police boats, a State Police helicopter, three Boston Harbor tugboats (Liberty, Freedom, and Justice – really)… all narrated by open band radio charter between the units. All told, there were probably 25 - 30 vessels deployed in support of this one tanker coming into port.

If any other vessel got within 200 yards of the tanker, or appeared to be headed towards doing so, one of the police or Coast Guard boats would bear down on them with impressive quickness and politely but sternly warn them off. ‘The tanker is coming in – vacate the channel’ was the call of the day, coming over loudspeakers and radio anytime it seemed someone hadn’t yet heard or heeded it.

The reason for all these procedures, and the considerable expense that came with them, was that an errant collision or purposeful attack could quite literally send the tanker sky high, taking a chunk of Boston with it, from the massive gas explosion and resulting waves of water. This has in fact caused some controversy in the city of Boston, and Mayor Tom Menino and the City Council have argued for the banning the passage of LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) tankers through the city on the way to the local LNG facility in Everett. Alternatives such as offshore offloading of tankers (especially those from Yemen) have been proposed, to no avail thus far.

The problem is that the Everett facility is quite vital to the natural gas supply in New England – the facility alone supplies 20 percent of New England’s natural gas (or more, on a cold day), according to a spokesperson who works for the company that runs the facility. Any disruption of its service as a result of security concerns and/or xenophobic tendencies could lead to an energy shortage and a very cold winter.

The Spectre of Terror

My point in all this is that we are living in deference to one of history’s haunting spectres, as we have been since 2001. It has pervaded the ways we live our lives, so that, now, the impossibly complicated variable of security is entered into every major equation. Over the past decade, security has become a routine feature of our lives, from airports and ports to ‘see something, say something’ campaigns and a resurgence of disaster planning initiatives reminiscent of (though not as pervasive as) those from the Cold War. America sees itself as living under threat once again, after a brief stint in the limelight of the global stage, the so-called ‘Pax Americana’ of the 90s.

One could hold a lengthy and likely-never-ending debate as to the origins of this situation – who is to blame, who is not, how the/a global capitalist/imperial/hegemonic system’s actions have forced the hand of the downtrodden and oppressed, et cetera – and I have been party to more than a few of those (never arguing for that particular side, for the record). Fair warning, if the reader has not read Julian Reed’s The Biopolitics of the War on Terror, this next paragraph will likely make little sense.

I get incredibly frustrated at hearing some variation on the ridiculous notion that I/we should be held responsible for a person’s decision to blow up market squares with the express purpose of inflicting terror. This act (and, more importantly, the decisions and orders regulating and inspiring it) is, despite some claims to the contrary, clearly born of political motivations towards power and control, and not some fanciful noble notion of eliminating the oppressive system over the heads of the people in order to allow some transcendent form of “life” to spring forth from the wreckage.

No, this struggle is a war, not a revolution. There is no label of noble and ignoble, of ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy,’ beyond the ‘us’ and the ‘them’ – that foundational friend/enemy dichotomy to which Schmitt gave so much thought. I happen to believe that flying planes into buildings puts “the terrorists” on the wrong side of the cosmic equation, but the historical legacy of American foreign policy includes a fair number of interferences and attacks that have killed innocent people, and in any case, I am not the person to speak expertly on cosmic equations.

I will leave that debate to history, or perhaps some night at the bar.

Returning to the point. The reason this all relates to the debt ceiling debate is that we have as a country recently been operating under the delusion that we can achieve the impossible task of increasing the responsibilities of government while decreasing its role in daily life, retaining and even lowering already historically low tax rates at the same time as we demand more and more from our government.

Defense and the Debt Ceiling Debate

Beyond the fact that the standing of the United States has diminished spectacularly as a result of this debt ceiling debacle, the deal reached today is particularly relevant for foreign policy, because the so-called ‘trigger’ that will be, well, triggered, if a special committee formed to figure out how and where to cap and reduce spending fails to do so, splits its $1.2 trillion in spending cuts evenly between domestic and defense spending. Given that key social programs are protected from these cuts (as they should be), the trigger effectively treats defense spending as more than half of the federal budget.

These cuts will have a significant impact on the military, and by extension on the mechanisms of security that we have come to expect and rely on over the past decade. We can ill afford slashing the programs that defend that nation, that much is certain. But that does not mean that we should hold only them sacrosanct -- my approach to making sure we do not do so would not be to blindly favor them over all focus on domestic spending or economic growth. An increase in revenue through taxes, and ultimately through economic recovery, is the only responsible path forward.

I would imagine that in the coming years, a resurgence of appeals for isolationism in this country might very well occur, spurred by the growing necessity for the country to get back on its feet, and a sense that retracting for a while could foster growth and healing. While these goals are certainly noble, that particular methodology will likely fall short of them, or cause harm in the process of succeeding.

Paths Towards an American Restoration?

This is where Richard Haas' article ("Bringing Our Foreign Policy Home") comes into this whole affair. He argues for an American 'restoration,' distinctly separate from isolationism (an outdated and ineffectual approach anyhow) in that it aims to refocus attention and resources towards the domestic, as opposed to completely cutting off the foreign. He makes a powerful argument (though he gets bogged down in some awkwardly forced examples and hypotheticals), and I tend to agree with him that an actual enactment of Obama's plea to the country that it is "time to focus on nation building here at home" is the most responsible, ethical, and effective course forward into the 21st century.

We've been seeking out the flaws and evils in others for far too long, and we have ceased to pay attention to our own. Perhaps turning our attentions and criticisms back on ourselves will be the first step in raising this country out of the mire and muck in which it has been stuck in recent memory.

This is largely why I find this budget deal to be inadequate – in merely pushing the problem back another few years, rather than working to enact genuine revenue and spending reform, we aren’t really solving anything, and thus the same problems will continue to plague us a few years down the road. But, given the absurdity that we were facing, I am thankful that we at least got something done.

That sentiment, perhaps more than anything else, underlines the criminal casualness that was tossed around throughout this debate in regards to the national economy and world-standing, and the utter absurdity of the pedestal onto to which partisan politics has been placed in this country. This is no way to do business and certainly no way to run a country, and I can only hope that it will not be with us into the future.

Readers can refer to Ezra Klein’s piece, “A deal that found the lowest-common denominator,” for more on this whole issue. I’ve found it incredibly useful.

And in the end, I think I'm at about 1,500 words -- suppose that's a start. I never really got into Richard Haas' article as much as I wanted to, but I encourage people to track it down themselves, if they are a TIME subscriber or willing to go to a local library.

Thanks for reading.