Debt and Empire

To: General Petraeus, Langley HQ
From: Operative 650, Kabul office
Re: Memo XE1955

General Petraeus:

First, I would like to introduce myself. I was in close communication with your predecessor, Leon Panetta. My memos on outsourcing targeted killings to the Chinese and producing a new TV program Top Terrorist were well-received. Or, at least, I did not receive any indication that Leon found them objectionable, so I assume that they are still "in process."

I am writing to you from my new post in Kabul, where I arrived only a few short weeks ago. Soon I will submit my first field report. In the meantime, like many of my colleagues here in Afghanistan, I am concerned about the debt discussions taking place in Washington. In fact, we can talk about nothing else. Before I make my modest proposal, permit me a couple observations.

  • It's easier to get an agreement between the Taliban and coalition forces than it has been to get Democrats and Republicans to see eye to eye. It seems to me, from here in Kabul, that the Tea Party is basically just like the Taliban, minus the beards. They are both determined to take over their countries, they are both fanatical and uncompromising, and they are both willing to destroy their respective governments in order to achieve their aims.
  • Given their intransigence, I'm wondering whether it might be useful to run an extraordinary rendition program for some of these Tea Party types. I know that the CIA is prohibited from working inside the United States, but perhaps we can use a Colombian or Israeli contractor to bring these folks here to Afghanistan. A few weeks here at Bagram prison under "austerity measures" would surely make some of these legislators more amenable to compromise. Since Congress is about as popular right now as al-Qaeda, I'm willing to wager that the public would wholeheartedly support such a program.
  • We talk a lot about fighting the enemy over here so that we won't have to fight them on the streets of America. We're afraid that our enemies will destroy the American way of life, bomb our infrastructure, take food from the mouths of our children and elderly, gut our educational system, and so on. I haven't taken a close look at the debt deal that averts government default, but it seems to me that we're applying scorched-earth tactics to ourselves. Instead of handing over a well-functioning society to our debtors -- the Chinese, the Japanese -- we're slashing and burning in a preemptive maneuver. Cutting all this domestic spending is basically like calling in aerial strikes on ourselves, right? Except that all the damage is collateral.

But domestic spending and comparisons to Afghanistan are not really why I'm writing to you. I send memos to the top only when I have Big Ideas. This time, I have a proposal for reducing the debt, keeping our Asian creditors at a reasonable distance, and maintaining our overseas commitments.

From my reading of the political situation in the United States, I believe that Americans aren't willing to pay for U.S. overseas engagement through higher taxes. Even Republicans who insist on maintaining or even increasing military spending are obviously not geniuses at accounting, since they refuse to increase revenues through taxation. It doesn't take an economist to tell you that you can't run an empire on the cheap. A good chunk of the recent debt comes from the wars we've waged in Iraq and Afghanistan. The military budget has doubled over the last decade. It costs a whole lot of money to maintain a thousand overseas bases, keep our fleet afloat, and run the kind of covert ops that have kept me employed around the world for more than two decades.

I want to keep my job. And I know that my colleagues in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines want to keep theirs. So, here's my proposal: an Empire Tax. We charge all the countries where we maintain bases and troops a tax that completely covers our costs there. And to pay the additional costs of our military presence overseas, such as the Pacific Fleet, we assess a tax on U.S.-based transnational corporations, who have also benefited so much from our military policies. With this Empire Tax, we would make our military and intelligence operations entirely self-sufficient. We wouldn't have to worry about congressional whims or the pacifist tendencies of our public. We would pay as we go.

I can anticipate certain objections. Many of our allies already contribute to the maintenance and upkeep of U.S. forces on their territories. But they do not cover the full costs, so they are still receiving subsidies. The Empire Tax would essentially remove that subsidy. You might also point out that some countries, like Afghanistan, simply don't have the money to pay for our extensive operations. I would suggest that we treat Afghanistan like the Pacific Ocean, which also can't support the operations of our Pacific fleet. Instead, we use the revenues from the Empire Tax on the transnational extraction industries that will depend on U.S. forces to drill for trillion dollars of energy and minerals in this benighted region.

Perhaps, too, you might not like the name. The word "tax" is not very popular. And many Americans hesitate to say we are an empire. After all, we don't directly administer colonies. But if we don't have to depend on the largesse of Congress or the American people, I think we can just go ahead and be blunt. We walk like an empire, we talk like an empire. And, until now, we've spent like an empire. If necessary, of course, we can use this name only among ourselves. For public consumption, perhaps we can call it the Liberty Surcharge.

Finally, let me add that an Empire Tax is consistent with the direction we've been moving in for a while. We've been declaring war without much regard for what Congress has to say. And we've been expanding the range and frequency of our drone attacks without much regard for the opinions of American citizens (the absence of American casualties in these attacks means that we've largely removed U.S. public opinion from the equation). Our greatest vulnerability is not the Taliban or al-Qaeda or North Korea. It's our dependence on Congress and the American people to pay our bills. The Empire Tax would simply cut Congress out of the picture.

Will the American people agree to give up their fiscal control over national security? I have two answers to that question. One, Americans already have done so. Polls consistently show that Americans want reductions in U.S. military spending, and yet that spending has gone up anyway. Two, during elections, Americans unerringly focus on domestic issues except in extraordinary circumstances like after 9/11. I'm confident that the American public will be happy with this new "pay to play" arrangement. They weren't playing and, thanks to the Empire Tax, they won't be paying any more either.

Now that we've averted default, I'm no longer worried about immediately losing my job, being stranded in Kabul without a ticket home, or having the Chinese repossess my house. I am worried, however, about the future of our empire. Thanks to the Agency, I've been able to travel the world, meet thousands of interesting people, and help subvert their governments. It would be a shame if the next generation of young Americans can't have the same opportunities I had.

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