(HOST) Commentator Christopher Wren has been watching with growing concern as American policies change in response to the threat of terrorism, and he offers the following cautionary tale.
(WREN) Once I lived in a country that defaulted on its dreams. Its ruling party rewarded loyalty over competence. Dissenters were called unpatriotic, disloyal. The government spied on its citizens – for their own protection, it said. Its army was sent under false pretenses to liberate a faraway land, only to mire down as hated occupiers. And presiding over all of this was a genial party ideologue who never admitted to making a mistake and who spent recklessly, without caring where the money came from.
You may have already guessed the country. It was, of course, the former Soviet Union. I worked in Moscow for four years as a foreign correspondent and saw the decay spreading under the misrule of Leonid Brezhnev. The Soviet Union fancied itself indestructible. But bankrupted by superpower excess and scuttled by ideological folly, it went belly up in 1989 and shattered into fifteen pieces.
So when I look at what is happening at home today, I feel a sense of deja vu. Another old Moscow hand has confided to me that he feels the same unease. War on Moslem militants? Secret prisons? Wiretaps without court warrants? Political cronyism? Sleaze and corruption? Massive deficits? We’ve seen it all before.
Of course there are real differences between the United States and the old Soviet Union. Our democracy still works. Critics here get trashed, but they don’t end up in labor camps. American soldiers fighting in Iraq are better trained and equipped than the hapless Russian draftees who were cannon fodder for the Kremlin’s misadventures in Afghanistan and Chechnya.
But the superpower overconfidence is all too similar. And other differences no longer seem as stark.
What really scares me are the deficits spiraling out of control. The Soviet Union didn’t care how much it squandered until it was too late. Here we have a record budget surplus – nearly 250 billion dollars left by Clinton – turned into a record budget deficit – more than 400 billion dollars in Bush’s first term, and now fast approaching 600 billion. We were once the world’s largest creditor. Now we’ve become its largest debtor. Just to service the national debt costs us 247 billion dollars a year. And to pay our bills we’re borrowing from our old enemy, Communist China. We have passed the point where we’re talking real money. And Congress keeps wanting to pass more tax cuts for the rich.
The Soviet Union collapsed because it was too arrogant to stop from going broke. I wish I were more confident that it could never happen here.
Christopher Wren is a former reporter and editor for the New York Times.