Preventable Decline and Fall

DANIEL BERGER

May 09, 1992|By DANIEL BERGER

One superpower bit the dust. The Soviet Union self-destructed under the pressure of soaring military expenditure against a constrictive social system that prevented creation of wealth to pay for it. That is not in dispute. Whether the other superpower is following suit, is.

Had the Los Angeles riot erupted in Moscow, we would count the days till Yeltsin fell. President Aquino survived in the Philippines because, against expectations, something similar did not occur.

President Reagan's military development, particularly the Strategic Defense Initiative, was brilliant in spending the Soviet Union into the ground. The catch was whether it had the same effect on this country. That we don't know yet.

It was paid for by deficit spending so great as to prevent the U.S. from extending substantial aid to countries trying to achieve freedom, or to its own poor.

Other signs of failure are the extent to which our people do not get along with each other, and the high percentage left out of the national success story. The United States has a bigger fraction of its population in prison than the Soviet Union or South Africa on the eve of their crack-ups, and most Americans think it is not enough.

The debt inherited from the Reagan administration keeps Washington from the traditional path of spending out of recession. Because of it, politicians will look at Los Angeles and say solemnly that throwing money at the ruins wouldn't help. When they all know it is the only thing that would.

President Reagan intended this effect, or so he intimated. He subscribed to a school of thought holding that measures to alleviate poverty, however inadequate, cause that poverty. His policies redistributed wealth from the poor to the rich. Most Americans applauded.

In a trial balloon of Bush administration reaction to Los Angeles, press secretary Marlin Fitzwater blamed the Great Society programs of President Johnson in the 1960s. Since these programs were trans- formed in the 1970s and abandoned in the 1980s, anyone who would believe that would believe that Rodney King was in control of the cops beating him.

This is the same Mr. Fitzwater who called Mikhail Gorbachev a drugstore cowboy, a view that on mature reflection, President Bush did not share. Mr. Fitzwater plays that role for President Bush.

What we see in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia and Afghanistan and Ethiopia is the empire disintegrating as its ethnicities separate or make war on each other. Arguably, that is happening here. The difference is that we do not have the luxury of separate ethnic states.

Our splitting occurs when group identity prevails over individual aspiration or national loyalty. This has been going on at college campuses for a decade. To see it in the street is not surprising.

Perhaps the U.S. really does contain separate nations as the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia did. It is easy to look at white police beating a black man, blacks beating a white and Korean, and see Serbs and Croats, Armenians and Azeris, Kurds and Iraqis.

It is also possible to see what happened as an insurrection. That is the view articulated by Crips and Bloods gangsters in Los Angeles and by the intellectual left. To the extent there is something to this, the hordes who looted stores were being used for other people's ends. Some realized this the day after, hence the return of swag to churches.

Anyway, commissions will recommend that the nation spend its way out of recurrence by a Marshall Plan to the cities. Which the nation won't do because of the national debt. The U.S. is not even paying operating expenses.

I don't believe for a minute that the United States is fated to follow the Austro-Hungarian, British and Soviet empires to collapse.

I don't think the scenario sketched by Paul Kennedy in ''The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,'' which in 1987 foretold the coming Soviet demise, must follow here.

For one thing, the U.S. is inherently wealthier than the Soviet Union or the fallen empires. For another, the American political culture has almost always had a self-corrective flexibility that others lacked.

The American people (or peoples) through their government can take the steps that are necessary to turn the United States into one country in which all have a stake.

These would include balancing the budget, bringing publiLTC health back to world leader standards, reducing drug use and poverty, making the economy efficient and competitive, insuring participation and opportunity to all. These are things the American people and institutions have in their power to do.

What remains to be seen is any sign of their doing so.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

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