In 2013, I sat in during an interview with newly appointed Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson.
Congressionally mandated sequestration had taken a toll on everything from staffing levels to available supplies at the Academy, but Johnson was sanguine. As a career officer, she had dealt successfully with many challenges throughout her career — hence the three stars on each shoulder.
During the conversation, she characterized 2013 as “an interwar period.”
It was a strikingly appropriate description of the world as it is, not the world that we wish existed. The phrase implies that periods of peace and tranquility are evanescent; intermittent conflicts are inevitable; and we need to plan for every possible contingency.
At the end of the Second World War, America ruled the world. Our foes were vanquished, our armies victorious, our homeland unsullied by war and our economy stronger than all others combined.
It was the dawning of the Pax Americana — until the Russians got the bomb, North Korea invaded South Korea, we intervened in Korea on behalf of our client state, and the Chinese came to the rescue of their client state. The Korean War went on for three years at the cost of 40,000 American lives, 600,000 Chinese and 2.2 million Koreans.
A dozen years after the armistice, we intervened in Vietnam. When we finally left, 58,000 Americans had died in a conflict that began after Vietnam was partitioned in 1955 and ended in 1975. Total death toll: 3.09 million.
Then began a comparatively lengthy “interwar period” that abruptly ended on Sept. 11, 2001.
Since then, we’ve been continually engaged in conflicts in the Middle East, ranging from high-intensity conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan to low-level disputes in Libya and Syria.
We’ve done our best to stabilize the Middle East since the end of World War II, with mixed success.
We’ve tried surges of military personnel and we’ve tried pulling out of places almost completely.
Those constant interventions are easily criticized, but they have been an essential component of our global strategy.
We’re still the big dog — and sometimes the alpha has to show his teeth.
With that role comes responsibility. If the United States is to be the world’s chief economic engine and undisputed leader, we can’t allow ourselves the luxury of decay.
We have to fix our own stuff — and given our quarrelsome, inwardly focused politics, we might not be able to do it.
In an era when the old problems have gotten worse, and new ones are lurking below the surface, we’ve got some decisions to make.
Here’s a not-so-cheerful summary.
• Retirement security. The numbers are scary — according to the National Institute on Retirement Security, the average working household has virtually no retirement savings.
Our aging population will include tens of millions of paupers, hopeless wards of the state. One solution: replace the current patchwork system of 401(k)s, IRAs and Social Security with a coherent national system. In the meantime, increase the minimum Social Security payment.
• Health care. Since modern health care is unaffordable to most of us without some form of subsidy, this problem might be structurally insoluble.
The employer-paid model is slowly disintegrating, subsidized plans heavily burden state and federal governments and single-payer remains a wistful lefty dream.
So what can we do? Privatize everything and hope it works? Good luck with that.
• Private and public debt. To the $18.9 trillion owed by the federal government, add local government and unfunded pension liabilities, top it off with private debt and we’re at $70 trillion or so. As former Vice President Dick Cheney once said, “Reagan taught us that debt doesn’t matter.”
• Immigration. We don’t have too much — in fact, we might have too little. We’re making a lot of old people, and not enough young ’uns.
Our dynamic democracy attracts hard-working, ambitious folks of all kinds, from Google founder (and Russian native) Sergey Brin to the young guys who fixed your hail-damaged roof a couple of months ago.
• Fear. FDR told the nation, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Pogo Possum put it differently: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Maybe we want to withdraw from the world, seal the borders and let China run things.
No more world-historical stuff for us — the big dog would likely devolve into a toothless old mutt, sitting by the fire waiting for table scraps.
On the other hand, everybody loves an old dog…