Where Infrastructure Happens

Here’s a great Steven Walt post reacting to Louis Uchitelle’s point about the dearth of infrastructure mega-projects in the United States:

Road construction, Helmand Province, Afghanistan

Road construction, Helmand Province, Afghanistan

But it’s not as though the United States hasn’t started some big public works projects over the past decade or so; it just hasn’t been doing them here at home. We’ve spent billions constructing military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, and another billion or more on a giant embassy in Baghdad and another one in Pakistan. Needless to say, those “public works” projects are a drain on the U.S. economy rather than a source of additional productivity.

As I’ve said before, Americans have come to believe that spending government revenues on U.S. citizens here at home is usually a bad thing and should be viewed wth suspicion, but spending billions on vast social engineering projects overseas is the hallmark of patriotism and should never be questioned. This position makes no sense, but it is hard to think of a prominent U.S. leader who is making an explicit case for doing somewhat less abroad so that we can afford to build a better future here at home. Debates about foreign policy, grand strategy, and military engagement — including the current debate over Obama’s decision to add another 30,000-plus troops in Afghanistan — tend to occur in isolation from a discussion of other priorities, as if there were no tradeoffs between what we do for others and what we are able to do for Americans here at home.

Strikingly, I find that this myopia even extends to a refusal to discuss tradeoffs within the domain of interacting with foreigners. Say that building a well could help some people in Mozambique, and you get nowhere. Say that sending a Provincial Reconstruction Team to build a a well could help some people in Afghanistan, and the well gets built. Nevermind that you could undertake a dozen “help poor foreigners out with problems in their lives” projects in a friendly country for the cost of doing one in a country where guerilla fighters lead to security problems. Once a situation is defined as a “war” in which the objective is to “win” all kinds of considerations go out the window.

That’s how you wind up with a situation in which the big debate in official Washington is about whether there should be ~70,000 troops in Afghanistan or ~100,000 troops in Afghanistan which is just an extraordinarily limited way of looking at the possible options.