As Congress let another opportunity to prove America’s doubters wrong slip through its fingers, lawmakers at least saw fit to pass legislation to make sure that our armed forces will still be paid. Amid a government shutdown that puts hundreds of thousands of federal workers out of work, that must be cold comfort when seen from a chilly outpost in Afghanistan or a carrier deck in the Persian Gulf.
After a decade of war during which the all-volunteer force has been ground down deployment-by-deployment, it was the moral, and political, thing to do – all in the name of national security. But it also reflects a huge gap in Congress’ understanding of what makes up American national security in the 21st Century. If lawmakers truly comprehended the source of U.S. power, they never would have allowed the shutdown to take place.
It is easy to focus on the military as the source of American might. Our order of battle is unparalleled. Moreover, any nation that abuses its military eventually pays a steep price. Yet letting a partisan healthcare fight take down the American federal bureaucracy, even if just for a day, does more to harm American national security than most lawmakers will ever admit publicly.
Today, America’s strength increasingly rests on its competitiveness in the global economy. Without a functional political system, a robust and growing private sector and a society that is resilient as well as compassionate, our country will cede its historic place of power.
America needs to be seen as a nation that is unafraid of big challenges, at home or abroad. That requires the political will to tackle them with the kind of long-term vision that has not been seen for years in Washington. Such over-the-horizon goals require compromise, which is seen as a liability today. And if our politicians can’t make deals among themselves, what will our allies think of our ability to join them in times of need. All of this erodes American competitiveness.
If there is one thing that lawmakers take away from this episode it should be that this fight is bigger than an ugly brawl over healthcare. It is really a battle over American competitiveness and therefore national security. When it comes to the vote this month on raising America’s debt ceiling, what was once a procedural step, let us hope that our armed forces watching from afar are spared another disappointing spectacle. They deserve to return home to a country that is stronger than when they left it.
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