Winston Churchill once famously said, “We can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, but only after they have exhausted all the other possibilities”.  Sadly, having just arrived in Washington I am not so sure. Dear old Johnny Yank seems to have invented an entirely new form of non-government called ’C-Castration’, or something such.  Now, I thought we British had a particular talent for electing the politically incompetent and willfully impotent but C-Castration is incompetence bigger and better than anything we have thought up for a while. Whatever happened to government of the people, for the people and by the people?  So, for those of you non-Yanks out there let me try and explain C-Castration.

It seems to involve a lot of American politicians of all persuasions who know they have to make budget cuts (because technically the US is broke) but who do not want to be actually caught in the Act. They are like those ‘perps’ beloved of American cop shows such as CSI who are compelled to return to the scene of their crimes and yet deny any involvement. 

The scene of the crime is Congress, hence C-Castration, which on 1 March applied a particularly sharp knife to a particularly sensitive part of the American body politic.  Known as the Budget Castration Act funding was automatically cut to most of the bits of government that made America virile.  However, as neither Democrats nor Republicans could agree just what parts of government are virile it was NOT decided to cut all of it.  Still with me? 

So, Congress created a mechanism whereby cuts would happen but for which they would not be responsible.  George Washington must be spinning in his grave.  No wonder we British had to kick Johnny Yank out of the Empire for being silly.  Old George might now understand why in 1812 we had to burn down the White House and the Capitol (and to be honest much of the rest of Washington but the lads got a bit carried away – you know the British squaddy – er, sorry). 

However, that is not the funny bit.  Apparently Congress having NOT decided to cut federal spending by $85.4bn in fiscal year 2013 and will continue to NOT decide to cut federal spending by about the same amount until 2021.  However, because of the Harry Potter politics here in Hogwarts, sorry Washington, overall federal outlays will actually INCREASE over the same period by some $238.6bn.  Cutting budgets and increasing expenditure?  It is a ‘cunning plan’ as Baldrick would say.  George ‘Blackadder’ Osborne, the British Finance Minister, will be over here in a shot when he gets wind of this as it is just the sort of financial alchemy he loves. 

Anyway, I digress.  The best bit is that the castration is to be shared ‘equally’ between ‘defense’ (why can’t the Yanks spell) and ‘non-defense’.  In other words for every dollar that Congress has NOT decided to cut in defence it will NOT decide to cut another dollar across the rest of government.  

This also means President Barack Obama gets to talk a lot about shared values and good ideas as he has been doing this week at British taxpayer’s expense at the G-Complete Waste of Time and Money. However, because no-one in Congress has NOT cut the federal budget he cannot actually do anything because the amount of US taxpayer’s money ‘invested’ (good one that) in government is  actually going up.   Got it?  Good, because it makes no sense to me.

In fact sequestration is no joke precisely because Washington is bringing America – the most inspirational of political adventures into very deep disrepute.  Sadly, the impact on American leadership is becoming all too apparent.  As America untangles itself from Afghanistan and the fog of Afghan dust clears Washington is beginning to realise the sheer scale and complexity of the challenges this country faces – both at home and abroad.  One can argue about whether facing those challenges demands big or small government. However, at this tipping point in international affairs, in which the world could either go east or west Washington has gone AWOL. 

Which brings me to the real tragedy of sequestration.  Americans are constantly and rightly complaining to me about the inability of Europeans to think and act strategically.  And yet what is happening in this town is the very antithesis of responsible strategy or politics. Indeed, it is little politics at its very worst. 

At the end of the day the US cannot expect to lead the rest of us abroad when its politicians abrogate leadership and responsibility at home simply to score self-defeating, utterly narrow and strategically pointless own goals (soccer).   

Alfred Lord Tennyson once wrote, “Though much is taken much abides, and though We are not now that strength which in old days Moved heaven and earth; that which we are we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will, To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.” 

The world is changing dangerously and rapidly and we need you America…but not like this. 

Julian Lindley-French is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisory Group. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.

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