By nature, I’m an optimist, but lately I worry that my beloved country is on a downward spiral for three reasons: (1) our national debt is off the charts, (2) the U.S. and Russia have decided to scrap the Intermediate range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF)they signed in 1987, thus bringing about another arms race, and (3) the Trump administration and the Senate Republicans are in denial about the catastrophe that is global climate change.
In February 2019, the U.S. national debt hit a record of $22 trillion with a rise of more than $2 trillion since Mr. Trump took office in 2017. Yet in 2015, Mr. Trump remarked that “when we have a $18 to $19 trillion debt, they need someone like me to straighten it out.” The head of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), Phillip Swagel, noted on Aug. 22, that the federal deficit is “on an unsustainable course.” As a fiscal conservative, this news creates a giant knot in my gut.
When running for the presidency in 2016, Mr. Trump assured voters that he would not only balance the budget, but he would pay off the entire national debt. It seems that he has failed badly on both counts. In this connection I’m reminded of Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York, who at the Democratic National Convention in 2016 remarked, “If Mr. Trump runs the country like he runs his businesses, God help us.”
Mr. Bloomberg also pointed out that Mr. Trump went into bankruptcy four times when his casinos in Atlantic City failed. Mr. Trump also boasted that he’s the “King of Debt,” the ultimate deal-maker, and said he would bring the country closer together, yet our country is more divided than ever.
To date, the Trump administration has accomplished very little. It’s true that the Republican controlled Congress passed a $1.5 trillion tax cut that benefited mainly the billionaires However, such a tax cut created a bonanza for the rich and famous, but entailed a horrific downside, since it came at the cost of adding to the national debt.
Meanwhile, we have deadlock in Congress between the Republican-controlled Senate and the Democratic-controlled House. Yet, both houses went along with the president’s 2020 budget that gave huge amounts of money to the Defense Department, despite the fact that this department is the only federal agency that has never passed a financial audit.
In fairness, I do not believe that the Trump administration should be entirely blamed for our massive national debt. Democrats and Republicans in Congress have allowed the Defense Department to have a swollen budget going back to the '60s with John F. Kennedy. The U.S. started the war in South Vietnam drenching it with napalm and Agent Orange, both carcinogens that have long-lasting effects on crops and ground cover.
The war then spread to Indonesia, North Vietnam, northern Laos, and on to rural Cambodia. The bombs dropped on Cambodia were “equivalent to all Allied air operations in the Pacific region during WWII.” (See Noam Chomsky, "Who Rules the World," N.Y., Metropolitan Books, 2017, page 67).
The U.S. has been at war against the Taliban in Afghanistan for about 18 years, yet this is a war our generals say we cannot win. Our invasion of Iraq cost close to $3 trillion, and our regular military plus the Special Operations Units are in 147 countries around the globe and add significantly to the national debt.
(2) There’s also the danger of a limited nuclear war now that the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty no longer prevails. This treaty stipulated that nuclear missiles would no longer be kept on European soil. Intermediate ground-launched missiles are those within the range of 500 to 1,500 kilometers. Under the (INF) treaty, about 2,700 ballistic and cruise missiles had been destroyed. These types of missiles are capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. That’s why North Korea remains such a threat particularly to South Korea and Japan.
Recently, two military experts, Adam Lowther and Curtis Mc Griffin, published an article in the book, "War on the Rocks," suggesting that artificial intelligence (AI) should have control over our nuclear weapons, rather than our leaders. They argued that by using AI we could cut down on the time decision makers would have to answer a nuclear attack.
I am uncomfortable with their arguments. First, I believe that there’s no situation in which nuclear weapons can be used, ethically speaking, because of their effect on the environment. Second, on Sept. 26, 1963, the Soviet missile launch detection system read that five inbound missiles were about to attack the Soviet Union. However, to his credit, Lt. Colonel Stanislaus Petrov surmised that the detection system made an error and overrode the system, thus preventing a huge disaster.
(3) The final point concerns the denial and refusal of the Trump administration to acknowledge the catastrophe that is global climate change as a clear and present danger to the entire planet. Limitations of space do not allow me to cover this point today. I will speak about this global threat in a future column.
Richard Penaskovic is an emeritus professor at Auburn University, who taught religious studies for 30 years.