President George W. Bush says he has the authority to send more troops to Iraq. Last week, he put Iran and Syria on notice that they were in the crosshairs of the U.S. soldiers in Iraq, and U.S. planes bombed apparent Islamic militants in Somalia.
Our soldiers are fighting in Afghanistan and on the border of Pakistan. The United States is pushing for greater sanctions on North Korea and on Iran — part of the "axis of evil" the president condemned in 2002.
But that is the least of it. We've got soldiers strewn in literally hundreds of bases across the world. Our largest deployments — outside of Iraq — remain in Germany, Japan and Korea, where the United States polices a reduced Russia and a proud China. Our fleets patrol the world's oceans, skirmishing with the increase of piracy on the high seas.
Our military spending — not counting the war in Iraq and Afghanistan — is almost as much as the rest of the world combined. With our allies in Europe and Asia, we spend about 80 percent of the world's military budget. We've spent about $500 billion already on Iraq — with the likely cost headed far north of $1 trillion on that misbegotten venture.
At the same time, the United States is the world's largest debtor. We have to sell off assets or borrow more than $2 billion a day to cover our trade deficit.
The country has been transformed without much of a debate. From the founding of the country through World War II, the United States was basically a trading nation. We took Washington's advice and avoided "entangling alliances." We stayed out of Europe's wars and largely out of the race for colonies. We were for the "open door" for trading with all. Our military was small, our Navy relatively weak. We had to mobilize rapidly to participate in World War I and World War II, and in both cases, we entered the war after much of the fighting had been done.
The United States nurtured its industries, protected them with tariff walls, sustained a trade surplus, enjoyed the benefits of foreign investments and developed rapidly to compete on a global scale. We were happy to let Britain patrol the seas and get entangled in the shifting sands of Middle East politics.
World War II changed that. The United States emerged so powerful that it had to act. We helped Europe and Japan get back on their feet and marshaled the alliance against the Soviet Union. The result changed America. We started involving ourselves in countries across the world, not just in our hemisphere. We deposed the first democratically elected president in Iran, for example, and set up the dictatorship of the Shah, actions that embitter Iranians to this day.
Now the United States has come full circle. We no longer protect our industries. We run up unprecedented debts with the rest of the world. Essentially, China and Japan and other nations loan us the money to police the world. We've taken Britain's place in the great game of oil politics. And our military and intelligence operatives are permanently engaged across the world, in the narrow straits, the back alleys, the frontier outposts. And the cost is a crippled manufacturing sector, growing inequality at home, middle class and working families that now work longer hours than any other industrial nation with less security.
This was Dr. King's warning to the nation: "A nation," he said, "that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."
He understood that the war on poverty was lost in the jungles of Vietnam. Now, in the ashes of the Iraq debacle, it is time for the Americans to decide clearly — will we devote our resources and our imagination to making this country a vibrant and productive democracy or will we continue to squander them on policing the world even as we neglect our own neighborhoods? The choice still is ours — if we make it.
Jesse Jackson is founder of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and a longtime civil rights activist.