05/04/2012 12:29 pm ET Updated Jul 04, 2012

The Enemies We Love

In the waning days of the Cold War, the head of the Soviet Institute turned to U.S. journalist Daniel Schorr and relayed a warning from Mikhail Gorbachev: "We will deprive you of an enemy and then what will you do?" Although the United States had won the Cold War, the loss of an existential enemy that galvanized and held our otherwise ephemeral attention turned out to be what former president George W. Bush termed "catastrophic success." Bush and the neo-cons, of course, were rescued from that predicament (if it can be called that) on September 11, 2001. A new monster to destroy had been served up just as America could have more easily chosen a different path than the one it went on the following decade.

When the latest of America's bogeymen, Osama bin Laden, was "KIA" by members of SEAL Team Six a year ago, it seemed we reached yet another opportunity to shift this paradigm and change how we are viewed around the world, by starting first with how we view ourselves, so that we may resemble more of what we're about than what we're afraid of.

But old habits die hard, whether at the personal level, as Fareed Zakaria recently reported, or as a nation. Our predisposition to reaching first for the big stick of hard power will go neither quietly nor easily, as the Obama administration's preference for CIA-directed drone attacks is demonstrating.

The House Appropriations Committee, for example, proposed cuts to the State Department and foreign operations budget for next year by more than $5 billion, which could represent a 14 percent cut to proposed non-war related diplomatic and development activities. Meantime, Congress is trying to figure out how to avoid mandatory cuts to DoD's budget under the sequestration clause of the Budget Control Act later this year. The Ryan budget proposal endorsed by Mitt Romney would restore almost half of the administration's planned half-trillion dollar cuts to military spending over the rest of the decade.

Yet, President Obama's proposed cuts, part of a strategic rebalancing towards greater investment in infrastructure, education, and other long-term sources of American strength, are relative -- at worst, they represent a flatlining of defense spending. Even then, those outlays would represent higher than Cold War levels of spending, despite the absence of a mortal enemy like the Soviet Union.

Neither now nor in the foreseeable future, we do not face an existential threat or combination of threats to justify such spending -- unless you believe we're going to fight a Battle of Midway with the Chinese, whom we still outspend six times on defense and, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, more than the next 19 countries combined.

In truth, however, the defense budget is the central problem of neither our poor fiscal situation nor our anemic economic state. Quite simply, we have yet to face up to the fact that our appetite for "entitlements" and government programs -- including defense -- has far exceeded our willingness to pay for them. Sure, "privileging the Pentagon with extra funding while our citizenry makes all the sacrifices and while we continue to wallow in debt could worsen the social contract," suggests F. G. Hoffman of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Still, we can no longer afford our greatest of indulgences in enemies and threats that are more invented than authentic.

So why this constant fixation on bad guys?

Because it's so deeply embedded in our collective consciousness that we suffer from a permanent enemy complex, or what David Rothkopf, in his recent Foreign Policy blog, calls an "enemy dependency." "Since the end of the Cold War," he notes, "America has been on a relentless search for enemies," adding that "America seems to have a visceral need for them." We also have a tendency of going OTT on threats. (I still remember seeing the dilapidated barracks and run-down equipment of the Red Army in eastern Germany and Poland after the fall of the Berlin Wall, saying to my colleagues: "And we thought these people were 10 feet tall?")

One thing is for sure: Our enemy complex goes back a long way, perhaps as far as Puritanism's fire-and-brimstone brand of Christianity that set the stage of our simplistic morality play, as in Hollywood black-and-white, good-and-evil movie plots, our Coke-or-Pepsi politics, or in our "if you're not with us, then you're against us" attitude towards the world in the months following 9/11.

Evoking Tip O'Neill's observation that "all politics is local", America's foreign enemy complex is merely an extension of our toxic feuding family, making even the most minor of issues some kind of political Armageddon. Many politicians and pundits -- and their sympathizers in the media -- love demonizing those who don't share their opinions because it stirs up public passions, distracts attention from the real issues (as well as their own shortcomings), and is low in intellectual as well as financial overhead. Their exploitation of this character flaw for their own ideological is, at best, reckless.

It's not necessarily un-American, but it is anti-American.

The good news -- if you want to call it that -- is that our greatest threats are not from overseas, and thus more within our span of control. "They don't come from terrorists," Rothkopf points out. "They come from political obstructionists and know-nothings who are blocking needed economic and political reforms, whether fixing a health-care system that poses a debt threat many times greater than the immense U.S. budget deficit or tackling the growing inequality in American society or overhauling the United States' money-corrupted, dysfunctional political process."

Hoffman sees it a bit differently, suggesting that the greatest threat to our national security "... is not the debt, nor a dysfunctional political process, but our failure to be honest with ourselves."

Self-honesty, however, requires moral courage -- and we seem to be short on that these days, because we seem to be a nation gripped more by fear, denial, complacency, and self-congratulation than our willingness to be more humble, engage new frontiers, and move forward. As I've noted before: America cannot long remain the land of the free if it is no longer the home of the brave.

No doubt devoting more of our national energies and assets towards fostering our greatest comparative advantages in human capital and our dynamic, entrepreneurial economy would do more to secure the blessings of liberty than pouring money to feed our enemy complex abroad. As Thomas Friedman suggests, there would be greater return on investment of taxpayer foreign assistance dollars spent on scholarships than tanks. Besides, if Alexis de Tocqueville was right that "trade is the natural enemy of all violent passions", then such rebalancing would go far to allowing us to play to our strengths than focus on vulnerabilities, real or imaginary.

Moreover, we would also be wise to heed the advice of another former Republican president, who warned us, in vain, against our penchant for self-destruction: "We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

Whether beyond or within our shores, our love of enemies begins -- and ends -- with us.