Lessons for Bush in the Afghan War
- By Alexei Bayer
- Apr. 07 2008 00:00
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Actually, it is a rehashing of an old joke that made the rounds after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The joke featured a young Russian soldier writing home from Prague and proudly informing his mother that he would soon get to see other European capitals. At the time of the Iron Curtain, war was the only way for thousands of young Russian men to travel anywhere beyond the Soviet border.
Soviet leaders chose to forego further military aggression in Europe but got themselves embroiled in a nasty guerrilla war in Afghanistan -- with disastrous consequences both for that long-suffering nation and for communism. Afghanistan provided an important contribution to the demise of the Soviet Union. It exacerbated the moral blight that was eating Soviet society from within and undermined the already-shaky Soviet economy. A decade after Soviet paratroopers took Kabul, Russia's East European empire disintegrated and soon thereafter the Soviet giant itself collapsed.
Bush's war in Iraq may become the means by which Americans will learn economics, too. True, the U.S. economy is far steadier than the Soviet economy ever was. It is, in fact, a formidable machine built on solid principles, one that nimbly adapts to changing circumstances, channeling and rewarding the energies and talents of the country's population.
The Iraq war probably was not directly responsible for the current economic crisis. Various bubbles starting to pop in financial markets around world -- including the housing bubble in the United States that served as the lightning rod for the crisis -- don't have much to do with the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. However, the war exacerbated global economic problems. Chaos and radicalization in Iraq, and the threat of contagion elsewhere in the Middle East, boosted oil prices. Washington's aggressive stance, its hubristic foolishness in trying to remake the world in its own image and the extraordinary incompetence its leaders demonstrated in conducting the war added to the weakness of the dollar in currency markets.
The money to wage the war, totaling $700 billion over the past five years, was mainly borrowed from China, Russia and other countries running current account surpluses. The federal budget deficit, meanwhile, added to the already massive global credit overhang.
Foreign military adventures inevitably stir nationalism and jingoism at home. U.S. authorities are becoming serious about expelling some 12 million illegal aliens working in the United States. Since this portion of the work force is both large and vital for the health of the economy, the anti-immigrant backlash, even if implemented piecemeal, could prove disastrous. Because of the war in Iraq, the United States is entering a potentially nasty recession with a weakened economy saddled with federal debt and with its flexibility severely constrained. The country may prove almost as susceptible to economic turmoil as the Soviet Union was in the mid-1980s.
War may become the means by which Americans will learn history too. The seeds of economic problems are being sown by the Bush administration, but their bitter harvest will be reaped by Bush's successor, whoever he or she may be. The next president may no longer be able to right the situation, just as Mikhail Gorbachev couldn't avert an economic debacle, despite cutting and running in Afghanistan and bringing all troops home by 1989.
There is something else the next occupant of the White House should bear in mind. Gorbachev, not his predecessors and their foolish policies, ended up getting the blame for the Soviet Union's demise and all the attendant economic woes.
Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.