Soft or Hard Landing for American Decline?

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ReichstagInside.jpg
(picture of the top of the Reichstag in Berlin)
I’ve just returned from Berlin and am scribbling a brief note from JFK Airport in New York.
One of the unavoidable impressions I got from Europeans and particularly Germans during this trip is that there is widespread regret that America has slipped off its pedestal as a largely benign superpower that promoted liberty and economic opportunity. The dollar’s decline against the euro has only reinforced a widespread view that America can’t afford its global pretensions any longer. While America remains important, it is clear to everyone that it is less so.
And the Germans are angry at Bush and America as a whole for so badly screwing up a number of collective efforts — particularly on climate change — but also in the Middle East. They are angry that Europe is not in a position to fill the void America is leaving and focus their frustration not on their own leadership problems but at the U.S. for undermining the dynamics of global order.
A widespread view among elite Germans and the non-elite normal types I spoke to is that America is in fast decline — sort of like Britain after World War II. I think that the impressions foreigners have of this decline is “overshooting reality” as there are many substantive realities about America’s ability to deploy force and purpose in the world that remain formidable.
But conversation in some serious circles is turning to what Europe can do to help America stabilize in some position of “lesser global stature.” There is also a sense that the nation that is filling much of America’s previous geopolitical space is China and that Europe feels tension in its strong alliance with U.S. power in decline and its strategic distance from China clearly ascending.
More later on this, but wanted to scribble out these impressions of an interesting discussion evolving among politicos and wonks in Berlin and more broadly in Europe.
— Steve Clemons

Comments

38 comments on “Soft or Hard Landing for American Decline?

  1. Willy says:

    Mr. Clemons,
    One of the reasons the USA invaded Iraq was the EURO. The EU introduced the EURO in the year 1999. In 2000 Saddam Hoessein refused to be paid in US Dollars any longer and demanded EUROs instead. This was a direct attack on the socalled “Petrodollar”-system. And once the US had conquered Iraq the payment for iraqi oil in US dollars was reinstated. The (supposed) wealth and might of the US is based on the “Petrodollar”-system. So, once the “Petrodollar” is devastated then also the US will go “down the drain”, go bankrupt.
    But the combination of increased (war-)spending, taxcuts and irresponsible financial management by among others, the Federal Reserve over the last 27 (!!!!) years have contributed to the demise of the “petrodollar”-system which is now imminent. And no matter what the US is doing in the coming months (not years !!) the “Petrodollar” will be destroyed. There’s absolutely nothing that can be done to rescue the “Petrodollar” and the USA.
    One can say that the invasion of Iraq was the last attempt to rescue the USA and the “Petrodollar” but instead it has helped to speed up the pace of the USA going down the drain.

    Reply

  2. Willy says:

    @Alan: You’r right. The current fascist (Bush) administration is NOT very well liked over here in Europe. The sheer arrogance of that administration has very severely damaged the reputation of the USA in Europe. And it will take a lot of time repair that damage.
    And, indeed, the USA should be more modest to the rest of the world and Europe. If we, Europe, would chose to do so, we could shut down the entire USA. The US is the number one importer of both oil and gasoline. If Europe would shut down the export of gasoline to the US TODAY then (especially the eastcoast of) the US would see gasolineprices double TOMORROW. And today, on average, Europe is withdrawing its investments from the US nad reinvesting it in East Asia.
    This sheer incompetent administration has wreaked havoc in Iraq, Somalia, Lebanon and the palistinian terratories and has deepened the rift between the US and Europe.

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  3. Alan says:

    Following from John Somer I make three points:
    1. I think America is resilient and once this gang of fascists in the White House leave office things are bound to improve. Our weakness lay in the way power is shared in Washington between two competing elites: one in government and the other resting in the inappropriately named think tanks. America can do better if it gets rid of the interchangeable gang of scoundrels who vy for power in the so called democratic election for a president every four years. Only problem: one now needs a billion dollars to get there. Having got there the occupant has to make sure billions get back to his/her supporters via the public trough.
    2. Don’t turn your collective noses up or look down on Europe. They can teach us a thing or two about modesty. American arrogance has got us to the point where our name causes nostril to be pinched. Each side can do much that is good if they combine brains and resources.
    3. America has lost all respect even in the Gulf states. My family has traded in the Gulf since 1980. Forget the polite guff one hears from Arabs. That is their natural style. But deep down their hatred for America is very worrying. We literally had to close down our business and start afresh using Singapore as headquarters and trading the the Gulf using a name as fanciful as Diageo and other corporate inventions. Ashamed yes; but we have 472 employees and obligations and the Dubai Port stuff proved us to be right. fortunately our trade has no security implications: just foodstuffs.

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  4. john somer says:

    A European parliamentary delegation visiting the Heeritage Foundation some 15 years ago was given by mistake an internal document on transatlantic relations of which two chapters were entitled respectively “How to weaken Europe” and “How to divide Europe”. It seems these recommendations have been successful…..

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  5. Luke says:

    Not to worry, as long as the USA can continue to dominate the worlds film industry you are sure to be extremely influential in the future.
    For good or bad.

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  6. Delia says:

    “Fair Tax,” huh? Is this from the same wordsmith framing workshop that brought us the Death Tax and Clear Skies? Only problem is, I think this trick’s getting a little old. You can only play this game so many times before it gets predictable.

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  7. ... says:

    CRS 11:47 am – yes the fascist gov’t that has been in the process of forming in front of our very eyes is the one in power at present in the usa. that is what has many folks around the globe concerned… now china or russia doesn’t look as bad when the usa is going in the same directio which is essentially backwards as many are saying as well.

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  8. Carroll says:

    National sales tax is fair–Ha ha ha. The average person would not be able to afford to eat. The only way to clean up politics is to reverse the decision that money equals speech. This is where people like Bloomberg, etc., get their power.
    Posted by Jon Stopa at July 13, 2007 06:20 PM
    >>>>>>>>
    I so agree…every time some yahoo mentions the ‘flat tax” I want to scream or burst out laughing….do the idiots even know the details of the flat tax plan the are asking for?
    As P.T. Barnum said..”there’s one born every day”.

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  9. Delia says:

    I’m very glad to see someone addressing this issue. I’ve been suggesting this for some time and no one I meet in the real world seems to think there’s anything to worry about. There are other aspects to this, which Steve hasn’t touched on directly.
    There’s the Republican war on science. They have managed to do real damage to the American scientific establishment, and it will not be easily undone. There’s the damage done to education at all levels. Public schools have been starved for funds, as have public universities. Students who finish university are starting life with an enormous debt load. I personally became aware of the differential between the US and other countries recently because I have a niece whose father is an Australian citizen. She was admitted to an Australian university, and because she has dual citizenship, her education is completely free. But the incessant cost of war swallows up all the resources that other nations use to build an educated and productive citizenry.
    And I’ve become afraid that a mere change in party won’t be enough anymore to halt the process of decline. Not only is there the horrendous debt, as a previous poster has pointed out, but none of the major dem candidates has indicated any real inclination to address the out-of-control military spending that’s bankrupting this country. I doubt the majority of the public is ready to listen.

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  10. Garth says:

    Refresh my memory, the last Democratic president brought us the ‘Oral Office’, a health care plan attempt created by someone not voted in, and weak ploy to voters that bombing of an empty warehouse after the first attempt to take down the World Trade Center would make some sense.
    One of the reasons for our decline I believe is simply we are not united; many choose to agree with the world opposing Pres. Bush. Do you honestly think this is the first time parts if not many in the world, have disliked the US and our freedoms or our Pres? I will agree that what is occurring surrounding the US is discouraging and that the dollar value is declining. I took a class in collage titles Business Ethics, don’t worry I know I’m not an English major. For how long have we as Americans believed that because we have luxuries in life that are reasonably affordable whether you believe it or not, that everyone else in the world must have the same; get real. We all got fat and lazy and then chose to point the finger at one person; you honestly believe that’s a first?
    All I really want to say is that choosing the nominees just because of party is like rooting for a NFL team, I think they would all fumble the ball in politics. And second people make mistakes, go look in the mirror; I know of one Kennedy and one OJ that’s not behind bars. If you find yourself that perfect why aren’t you running for congress or the presidency?

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  11. Jon Stopa says:

    National sales tax is fair–Ha ha ha. The average person would not be able to afford to eat. The only way to clean up politics is to reverse the decision that money equals speech. This is where people like Bloomberg, etc., get their power.

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  12. Daniel says:

    This decline was planned and executed.

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  13. Jim in Boston says:

    The future of the USA? Joel Garreau’s “Nine Nations of North America”.

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  14. Super Mike says:

    To fix America, spoken from a Neo-Con now troubled with the Republican Party:
    * Stick to the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. Remember the Declaration of Independence. Read it word for word, end to end. Do emergency changes in Congress immediately to fix some of the more recent major laws since 9/11 so that they follow this. Bush has become like the British King George of the 1700s.
    * NPR says that the average Iraqi says we should not withdraw because we bring control to the region. He says that the problem is that 2/3 of parliament has boycotted participation in key parts of the government and so agenda goals are not being met. This makes areas where the Americans leave very unstable. The Iraqi politicians need to fix this mess, the average Iraqi says. Right now, the USA is playing one great big game of Wackamole in Iraq.
    * Don’t attack Iran. Find devious ways to take out their leadership or set their goals back about 20 steps. Do not go the joint NATO route to solve it because that merely causes information leaks and blows the whole deal. Watch Iran very carefully, and use specific force on key targets only if necessary. Or, just call up Israel and let them do so.
    * Switch to the Fair Tax (national sales tax) and abolish the income tax. This gets rid of illegal immigration in a polite way. That, in effect, diminishes some kinds of homeland security concerns, making the country more secure as well. It also repairs our welfare system and lowers our tax burden, as well as increases a tremendous revenue potential with the IRS.
    * Provide real campaign finance and tort reform. America has become a country run by lawyers and big business, not the voice of the people.
    * Do anything possible to repair the dollar again. The Fair Tax program will help, but perhaps the Gold Standard (Ron Paul’s argument) will help — serious thinktank review needs to be done for this.

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  15. Steve's fan says:

    Hi Steve,
    You know I love and respect you deeply but our friends across the pond are smoking something.
    Would suggest everyone dust off their copies of Holidays in Hell by P.J. O’Rourke and read the Euro Weenies chapter.
    “Fast decline” and “two to three years”?
    Despit the debacle of the past six years, America will be around for a while and for many reasons beyond our missles being bigger than theirs.
    Hope you’re having a great summer and I want to see pics of Andrew here sometimes too…

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  16. CRS says:

    It’s really sad to see the remarks on this article. People should not hope for an economic or other collapse on the part of the U.S., because look at what will rise to replace it. China or Russia, neither are known for being exactly friendly to freedom. And before you all start spouting off how the U.S. is evil, really examine the difference in the systems. Which can be influenced by the public and which runs over them with tanks?
    The worst possible thing that could happen would be a United States in economic crisis that has been deserted by the rest of the world. Does that remind you of any country in the 1930s? I’m not saying it would happen, but there is a strong possibility that a real Fascist government could form, not just a conservative government that everyone on the left claims is fascist. Then the world would be in trouble.

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  17. Ben D says:

    What I find more interesting is Steve’s statement that Germans are frustrated by the failures of their leadership and the EU to really be able to substantively take up any of the slack created by our decline… But still focus much of that frustration on us. We deserve much of it, but still, Europe has become in almost every realm a bit of joke. They can’t even act together in oil/gas discussions with Russia where their own energy security is at stake… Let alone supply any level of force in Afghanistan (besides Germany), where they have no right to claim to be concientious objectors.

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  18. erichwwk says:

    Along the lines of the breakup of USA global influence, M K Bhadrakumar has a great article on “the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), scheduled to take place in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in a little more than a month.”
    “Taking place against the backdrop of the deepening chill in US-Russia relations, the summit is invested with added significance. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who took part in the CFM meet in Bishkek on Monday, highlighted the SCO’s “quest for a new world order, which will rest on international law and collective action to solve global, regional and other problems”. “Washington has been propagating a “Great Central Asia” strategy, aimed at rolling back the influence of Russia and China in the region, and encouraging the Central Asian states to form partnerships with the South Asian region instead. The strategy is a barely disguised attempt to undercut the raison d’etre of the SCO.” ”
    Significantly, China’s position on the US plans of deployment of anti-ballistic-missile systems in the Asia-Pacific region is hardening. A commentary in the People’s Daily on Wednesday lambasted the US for seeking “absolute nuclear superiority”:
    Strategic nuclear balance is very important. Today, only strategic nuclear weapons can produce a deadly threat to the United Sates … Balance helps maintain stability. Without strategic balance, the order of the multipolar world would be difficult to maintain. To this extent, the issue of strategic balance does not simply indicate a military struggle. It is actually a question of the type of world order that should be established, and a contest between the unipolar and multipolar world order.”
    Meanwhile, here at Los Alamos, Sen. Pit Dementia is advocating turning Los Alamos National Laboratories into a manufacturing site, building components (PITS, or plutonium triggers) for a whole new generation of nuclear weapons, while Jeff Bingaman (“the smartest man in the Senate” ????) remains mute, despite even the ultra conservative state newspaper, the Albuquerque Journal challenging that effort.
    MHK Article is linked via my URL

    Reply

  19. Steve Clemons says:

    Tucker’s Bow Tie — I thought it was the “Bundestag” also — but was told definitively that this was the “Reichstag Building” housing the Bundestag….glad I made you laugh though.
    Steve Clemons

    Reply

  20. eCAHNomics says:

    “And the Germans are angry at Bush and America as a whole for so badly screwing up a number of collective efforts.”
    W didn’t “screw up.” Everything that is happening in U.S. foreign policy is deliberate. W went out of his way to make sure the U.S. was in a unilateral situation in every possible way.

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  21. Willy says:

    @Dan Kervik: Yes and the Soviet Union was a DICTATORSHIP. But the reason the SU folded was that (tax/export)revenues went down and expenses (i.e. BORROWING costs) went up/remaind high. They recognized they had to cut back on military spending and now they are back on the worldstage.

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  22. tucker's bow tie says:

    “(picture of the top of the Reichstag in Berlin)”
    Muahaha Steve! That would be the German *Bundestag* I, believe?
    I’d wager that the current address for the world’s Reichstag ends with Washington, D.C.
    Maybe we could have a “write your own caption contest”..
    ~LOL

    Reply

  23. Dan Kervick says:

    Steve wrote:
    “I think that the impressions foreigners have of this decline is “overshooting reality” as there are many substantive realities about America’s ability to deploy force and purpose in the world that remain formidable.”
    The Soviet Union was capable of projecting significant power for many years, as its people lived in conditions of squalor, anomie and demoralization, and its culture stagnated and foundered.

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  24. Willy says:

    @ JF: All this military force has to be paid for by the US taxpayer. In the US media there are worrying signs that taxrevenue falls short of expectations. e.g. Sales tax. The US citizens are up to their eyeballs in debt. China, Japan, South Korea together own some 2.3 trillion dollars worth of US federal debt. If they (and Russia) even would stop buying US debt today then the interestrates would go through the roof and the value of US homes would go through the floor. Inflation today is over 7% in the US, not the official 2.5%. Did you get a payraise of over 7% ?
    When (not IF) the USA is going bankrupt ALL troops will have to be withdrawn from every corner of the earth. US troops already are in the process of withdrawing from South Korea and Japan. These two countries have applied the lever of their Treasury holdings to pressure the US into a partial withdrawel from these countries.
    @bob h: A Democratic president inherits this giant US federal debt left from the current administration, so they will NOT be able to bring about a turn around. Never heard of the US housingbubble and the giant US mortgagedebt ? And the number of US citizens who are going bankrupt in ever increasing droves ?

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  25. ckrantz says:

    As an European I would rather see an independent European foreign/security policy under democratic oversight.
    I think it’s a matter of trust. And the Bush administration was the wakeup call. Europe can simple not afford to assume that the occupant in the White House will always take European interest in consideration. Which is as it should be but also an end to the old cold war global order.

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  26. bob h says:

    Despite the depredations of Bush, I am confident this impression of “decline” can be turned around with a Democratic president. Our soft power continues to grow- we have the best universities, we get the Nobel Prizes, we produce the iPhones, etc.
    All bets off, though, if we pick a nutcase like Giuliani or Thompson.

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  27. JF says:

    I quote “Yes, The US is still able to deploy force but the question is for how long ?” … no the real question is “to what effect ?” – unavoidable defeat in Iraq ? coming back of the Talibans in Afghanistan ?

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  28. Carroll says:

    Posted by WhatBillOfRights at July 12, 2007 06:07 PM
    >>>>>>>>
    O.K. I will call ( again).
    I have been off and on about impeachment but now I think impeachment of “both” Bush and Cheney would be at least a PR message to the world and a good thing.
    But impeachment isn’t going to change enough of anything for very long…we absolutely, “have to” clean out congress and the whole system or we will be right back in the same mess.
    Looks to me that there is more effort going on in congress to set up reasons to attack Iran at some date than there is going on in Bush’s office right now.

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  29. Scott Bidstrup says:

    When I first published my essay on the decline of the American empire and the rise of neofascism in 1997, people thought I was nuts. They don’t think I am nuts anymore, at least the Europeans don’t. Americans, however, are still divided – the quarter who are still in denial, and the three-quarters who have come around, after all these years, to agree with me. It is gratifying to know that through all those years of people dissing me, that I was right – but at the same time, I am deeply saddened by it too. The United States is not the same nation I was born into a half-century ago, and that is why I have sadly left it behind. I live in a Latin American nation now, and I feel more free than I did in the States when I left. Certainly less intimidated by police and government.

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  30. Scott Bidstrup says:

    When I first published my essay on the decline of the American empire and the rise of neofascism in 1997, people thought I was nuts. They don’t think I am nuts anymore, at least the Europeans don’t. Americans, however, are still divided – the quarter who are still in denial, and the three-quarters who have come around, after all these years, to agree with me. It is gratifying to know that through all those years of people dissing me, that I was right – but at the same time, I am deeply saddened by it too. The United States is not the same nation I was born into a half-century ago, and that is why I have sadly left it behind. I live in a Latin American nation now, and I feel more free than I did in the States when I left. Certainly less intimidated by police and government.

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  31. Carroll says:

    I think Russia would be the one to fill the role played by the US.
    And Russia is more likely to step up for that position.

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  32. Carroll says:

    Soft or hard?
    Maybe.. sputter,sputter,sputter ..plop!
    As said, Germany and Europe and others are so distressed over the US because we have been the lead mules on the world mule team for so long they got use to not having the responsibility.
    Now the status quo is going to be shaken up..horrors of horrors. Everyone is going to have to get use to something new and all the uncertainties that go along with it.
    We could turn it around but we would have to kill 80% of Washington first to get them out of our way while we do it.
    And if we started today it would still take decades.
    We should do what any business in trouble does, take time out to take stock, figure out where to put what resources to keep the various wolves from the door to stay in business and start negotiating out our problems to cut some loses and reduce our liabilities and exposures.
    But instead we have “leaders” who are running around like freaking chickens with their heads cut off still blah,blahing on the great terrier wur. Like a bunch of doctors in a emergency room comedy skit slapping each other and everything they see but the actual patient with a heart paddle while the actual patient lies dying.

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  33. erichwwk says:

    Pretty decent summary of the German perspective.
    Main aspect missing is the issue of the US position on the UN Security Resolution, which, despite wire tapping and bugging the offices of the UN Security members and using that information to get a resolution passed warning of “dire consequences”, it was passed on the condition and understanding that it was NOT an authorization to use military force against Iraq, and that the US WAS REQUIRED to return to the UN Security Council for such an authorization. That the US only did not do so, but lied to the American public that it had such an authorization left Germany with the clear understanding that this was an administration that lies and could not be trusted.
    Also, the arrogance in insisting on unilateral administration of the occupation without input from other nations left Germany (that fully understands what dictators look like)did indeed leave Germany angry, as it knew and foresaw clearly the disaster that would occur, how it would impact the world order, and that it had limited ability to help AFTER the disaster was manifest, having issues of its own apart from Iraq.
    But otherwise, right in line with what I heard.

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  34. Willy says:

    Welcome to the real world, mr. Clemons!
    This is a perfect example of what we Europeans call “american provincialism” ! Your notion of “overshooting reality” is correct but this is the CURRENT situation. Yes, The US is still able to deploy force but the question is for how long ?
    In the future it is going to be worse. The decline of the USA is bound to end up in a US bankruptcy within, say, the next 2 to 3 years. And the Bush administration has done a lot of things which have hastened to bring about a this bankruptcy, e.g. the war in Iraq & Afghanistan and the taxcuts. Despite the taxcuts Bush has increased spending for the Pentagon by over 100% in 6 years.
    And then the US army will have to reduce its force and size by more than 90%. The former AMERICAN secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin has said: “The USA will become a third world country”.
    The only way to save the american republic is to reduce spending on the US army by at least 50% and this MUST happen A.S.A.P. When this reduction doesn’t take place the republic WILL become a military dictatorship. You should read the book of mr. Chalmers Johnson called “”Nemesis, the end of the american republic””. A.S.A.P.

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  35. Willy says:

    Welcome to the real world, mr. Clemons!
    This is a perfect example of what we Europeans call “american provincialism” ! Your notion of “overshooting reality” is correct but this is the CURRENT situation. Yes, The US is still able to deploy force but the question is for how long ?
    In the future it is going to be worse. The decline of the USA is bound to end up in a US bankruptcy within, say, the next 2 to 3 years. And the Bush administration has done a lot of things which have hastened to bring about a this bankruptcy, e.g. the war in Iraq & Afghanistan and the taxcuts. Despite the taxcuts Bush has increased spending for the Pentagon by over 100% in 6 years.
    And then the US army will have to reduce its force and size by more than 90%. The former AMERICAN secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin has said: “The USA will become a third world country”.
    The only way to save the american republic is to reduce spending on the US army by at least 50% and this MUST happen A.S.A.P. When this reduction doesn’t take place the republic WILL become a military dictatorship. You should read the book of mr. Chalmers Johnson called “”Nemesis, the end of the american republic””. A.S.A.P.

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  36. WhatBillOfRights says:

    Nancy Pelosi’s office is now officially taking comments on whether to impeach Cheney (will wonders never cease??? — the Democrats are finally listening to the people who gave them their mandate last November!!!)
    Call Pelosi’s office on this toll free number:
    800 828 0498
    Please make sure and give them an earful on getting Israel out of U.S. foreign policy and PLEASE pass along this message so that other people will know that Cheney’s impeachment IS now on the Democrats’ table.

    Reply

  37. ... says:

    my comment from earlier here >>the bush admin has been an unmitigated disaster. most folks outside the usa see this.. many in the usa seem to have caught on also… <<
    Posted by … at July 12, 2007 11:20 AM
    i am suprised americans are suprised to see how they have went astray so badly under the present administration. it is going to be a lot of work to get back and frankly like the views of those germans, i would agree that the usa is never going to get back to the position it had prior to bush 2 admin.

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  38. Jack says:

    It’s a combination of such things as the backward leadership (or lack thereof) of BOTH Bush and The Right in Congress.
    The influence of American Industries such as auto and oil on lobbying has not helped in such areas as climate change negotiations either.
    The latter points to deep problems in the American political system that must be addressed via REAL campaign finance reform. In other words, to restore much more substantial separations between corporate interests and the interests of what’s best for the United States of America as a national entity.
    But perhaps just as important is massive media reform, including a return of the fairness doctrine.
    Why? To properly educate the people in what they should be demanding of their politicians to make life in America and the world better. And in terms of what they are really voting for. The mass media took far too long to catch up to the realities of both climate change and Iraq, and had they gotten it right, the world could well have been a much different place right now.
    Also, I’ve seen multiple studies of people asked about their political positions and then who they are voting for. Too often, the candidate they are voting for does NOT have the positions the person claims to have, suggesting that too many American voters are not being properly educated about who and what they are really voting for.
    These are deep deep problems. What do you think our prospects are on these fronts, Steve?

    Reply

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