You often hear that the United States no longer has big goals, the way it did when President Kennedy challenged the country to put a man on the moon. And by big goals, I mean something that costs an enormous amount of money, focuses the entire country on the objective, takes years to accomplish, and delivers more in the way of psychological and technological benefits than it gets from actually accomplishing the goal. Walking on the moon was trivial compared to the emotional and psychological boost it provided, and the technology developed along the way.
I think we already had this generation’s equivalent of a moon landing, except it involved landing helicopters in Pakistan. And instead of astronauts sticking a flag in the moon, Seal Team 6 stuck a bullet in Osama Bin Laden’s skull.
Killing Bin Laden cost the United States, oh, let’s say ten trillion dollars, if you include everything from the opportunity costs, to the interest expense, to the Iraq war, to homeland security, and of course the war in Afghanistan. And by the time we got Bin Laden, the objective itself was trivial compared to the effort. But man, did it feel good.
In the long run, the technology developed to fight terrorism will probably be as important to the world as the technology developed getting to the moon. And like the moon race, we didn’t choose the objective so much as it was chosen for us by international forces. The race to the moon was a message to the Soviet Union. The bullet in Bin Laden head was a message to anyone who thought attacking the mainland United States was a good idea.
Countries are like people in the sense that they develop personalities. Countries are the sum of their parts plus the sum of their histories. When a country does something notable, good or bad, that becomes its personality for a century. And getting the personality right has a huge economic value.
For example, Cyprus will probably have a century-long reputation as the unemployed uncle who rifled through your underwear drawer looking for your hidden sock full of money so he could buy beer. Russia is a well-dressed mobster. Canada is the guy who mows his lawn and then mows yours too because he was “…already out there, eh?”
The personality of the United States changes periodically. Sometimes we’re generous and inspiring. Other times we’re total dicks. It’s a complicated country. But no one thing defines the personality of the United States more than our willingness to spend ten trillion dollars – and kill anyone who gets in the way – just to put a bullet in one asshole’s skull. That gives me neither pride nor embarrassment; it’s just a statement of fact.
This brings me to North Korea. I don’t know enough about complicated international affairs to have informed opinions, so I’ll put this in the form of a question from a citizen: Why isn’t North Korea China’s problem?
The old United States, with its old personality, probably needed a strong military presence in the area to keep things from getting out of hand. And of course we wanted to be there for our allies.
But today the United States has a different personality, and that provides different options. Today we could pack up all of our stuff, slap China on the back and say, “It’s all yours, buddy. Call if you need anything. Glad to help.” And we’d totally mean it.
The best part of our new personality is that Kim Jong-un understands that if someday he lobs a missile at the mainland United States, we’ll spend ten years and another ten trillion dollars to put a bullet in his head. We’ll even shoot his kids on the way up the stairs. And realistically, if North Korea did attack the United States, China would either step out of the way or do some regime-changing themselves in North Korea, as a favor to their biggest customer.
My observation over a lifetime is that when it comes to a fight, the craziest person has a huge advantage because he’s not worried about his own losses. When Kim Jong-un’s father was running North Korea, he had the craziness advantage. Today I’m not buying their act. From my dim vantage point, it looks like acting crazy instead of the real thing. If they want to see the real thing, all they need to do is send a rocket a little too far toward California.