A Rotten State of Affairs in America

White House

To paraphrase Hamlet, “something is rotten in the state of America.”

This isn’t a matter of American decline — a question that has been overrated and exaggerated. As global power diffuses, absolute, as opposed to relative, U.S. power will decline. Unfortunately, a certain malaise, to use a familiar phrase, may be much more prevalent inside America.


The United States has been there before and as recently as the 1970’s. Vietnam, Watergate, the Arab oil embargo following the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War, a series of congressional inquiries, one of which declared the CIA to be a “rogue elephant,” and what seemed to be the inexorable march of the Soviet Union to overtake the United States as the globe’s strongest power cast the nation down.

National morale was in tatters and Americans viewed its once-treasured institutions — from the White House, Congress, the military and the media — with contempt.

The U.S. economy was suffering from a decade of war. Richard Nixon was forced from office. Congress would rewrite its internal rules and effectively end seniority as the means for selecting leadership as well as put in place the foundations for making a super-majority of 60 Senate votes as the only way to assure the passage of legislation.

And the military became a “hollow force,” an expression coined by former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army Gen. Edward “Shy” Meyer during the Carter administration.

Today is far different. The Soviet Union is long gone. It will be some time, if ever, for another rival to take its place. While it took more than 15 years to repair the damage Vietnam imposed on the military (which gained redemption in the lightning quick 1991 Gulf War), a decade of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq has taken its toll in many ways that have still not fully come to light.

The economy may be recovering. It is still fragile. But public enmity toward government and, most recently, the two political parties is perhaps even lower than during Watergate and the Vietnam War.

On Capitol Hill, both parties truly despise each other. Mutual loathing has become the rule, not the exception. It is unprecedented for one leader of the Senate to cite so publicly as his party’s first priority making the president a one-termer!

Members with long service and great distinction and accomplishment cannot recall a time when relations were as bitter. In a body where compromise is crucial to governance, the consequences are clear. Government is broken and badly so.

This malaise has translated into political campaigns and will worsen in the November election. Negative campaigning works. And negative campaigning has been perversely refined into attacking the strengths and not just the weaknesses of the opponent.

In 2000, the Bush campaign used slanderous negative attacks in the South Carolina primary to discredit war hero Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., maliciously and falsely accusing him of fathering a black child out of wedlock. In fact, McCain and his wife Cindy were so taken by an orphan of color they encountered in Sri Lanka, that they adopted her — proving the rule that no good deed goes unpunished.

In 2004, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., had every reason to think his experiences in Vietnam where he was awarded a Silver Star for valor would be an advantage. But he was “Swift-boated,” a vile term that slandered the courage of the many sailors who served in those units in Vietnam, and false allegations and lies about his record did significant damage to his campaign.

2012 could be among the nastiest elections in our history.

As troubling is the future health of the military and its psychological condition More than a decade of war and multiple tours under the most stressful conditions have had huge impact particularly on the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps that, along with Special Forces, have borne the brunt of the stress and strain.

The long-term effects, exacerbated by the concussive force of very large improvised explosive devices on the brain, are also very worrying. Suicide rates, psychological difficulties, abusive family behavior including increased divorces and other social problems, an instance of which is the inexplicable killing of Afghan civilians allegedly by an Army sergeant last month, are on the rise.

Recurrence of a future hollow force similar to what happened in the late 1970s is probably not in the offing. Instead, a psychically damaged force appears to be the risk. Unfortunately, the depth and nature of these issues and their potential consequences are still in the early stages of understanding. The full extent of what this means lacks sufficient statistical and data analysis so far, making identification of solutions and policies exceedingly difficult.

America has demonstrated remarkable powers of recovery but it is impossible to deny that something is wrong at home. Self-correction may not be automatic. Unless we are very lucky or take effective, corrective action, something will remain very rotten in America.

Harlan Ullman is senior advisor at the Atlantic Council, and chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business. This article was syndicated by UPI.

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