Bush on Mars?

Do you spend much time worrying about how to enhance America's national greatness? Don't feel bad, if you're too busy with other concerns. But in Washington, there are people -- policy wonks, think tankers, writers -- who get paid to do so.

Not too long ago, I was invited to participate on a panel discussion of one new proposal to boost U.S. glory. The host was the Hudson Institute, a conservative outfit that attempts to interest rightwingers in issues not traditionally part of the conservative movement (such as national service), and the proposer was James Pinkerton, who was the domestic policy guru in the first George Bush administration -- an administration not known for its domestic policy.

Pinkerton, now a pundit-columnist who moonlights as a big-thinker, had written a paper that called on the current Bush-in-the-White-House to press an agenda more inspiring than tax cuts/tax cuts/tax cuts, to identify his presidency with an exciting new idea, to harness what Richard Nixon (that well-known visionary) once called "the lift of a driving dream." And Pinkerton has a specific idea in mind; he wants Bush to boldly go where no current national political figure has gone -- to declare a full-blow national project to expand American civilization into outerspace.

Pinkerton is trying to raise the spirit of Theodore Roosevelt, who, at the turn of the century, embraced the writings of Alfred Thayer Mahan. A Navy officer, Mahan wrote a trend-setting book, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783, in which he argued that a great nation had to expand.

"Nations, like men, however strong, decay when cut off from the external activities and resources which at once draw out and support their internal powers," Mahan maintained. "A nation...cannot live indefinitely off itself, and the easiest way by which it can communicate with other peoples and renew itself is the sea."

Replace "sea" with "space" and you have the essence of Pinkerton's case. He is urging Bush to emulate Roosevelt and pursue America's "manifest destiny" into the heavens (where, unlike the unsettled portions of North America in the 1800s, there are no indigenous people to massacre -- as far as we know). This "next imperialism," Pinkerton asserts, could provide the Bush Administration with an organizing principle that captures the imagination of Americans. In the post-Cold War era, it would offer a sense of mission that a great nation supposedly needs.

It also, he adds, would slyly cloak Bush's push for a national missile defense system in grander, more romantic terms. ("If Bush were to lead the way upward as well as outward, he would get his missile defense along the way.") Bush the Younger, according to Pinkerton, needs to think "large" -- "to unleash the human potential across the solar system." If Bush does, Pinkerton declares in his paper, "he would be enshrined in the historical pantheon of explorer princes, alongside Leif Ericsson, Henry the Navigator, and Ferdinand and Isabella." National greatness will boom.

After Pinkerton presented this idea to several dozen people in the conference room of the Hudson Institute, I was one of three respondents to critique his proposal. (This is what think tanks in Washington do at lunchtime.) Having once been a child who built model rockets and joined an astronomy club, an adolescent who memorized Star Trek episodes and was obsessed with UFOs (I once saw a flying saucer -- along with a dozen other people -- but I basically don't believe in them), and a young adult who attended Sun Ra concerts and drunkenly chanted "space is the place," I had to admit that I have a weak spot for space exploration. But I noted it's ridiculous to think of George W. Bush as a heroic figure who can lead the nation beyond its terrestrial limits -- even if that were a desirable goal. (T.R., by the way, is John McCain's hero. Bush has a bust of Eisenhower on his desk.)

John Kennedy had an easy time whipping up space fever, with the threat of a Red Moon looming. What's the compelling motive these days? Do Americans yearn to have their imaginations sparked by the CEO from Crawford or by real-life sci-fi? Do we crave a follow-up to Tang?

As Pinkerton noted, since the last astronaut came back from the moon in 1972, "the public in general, and the political class in particular, has shown little interest in space." But whether or not there is a market for Pinkerton's right stuff, why should national grandeur be defined by such derring-do?

As a bleeding-heart (but hard-headed) progressive, I felt compelled to ask, why don't we as a nation seek greatness by eradicating child poverty or by creating a health care system that leaves no citizen untreated? Yeah, I know this sounds like a liberal cliche -- but why seek challenges above when so many exist at ground level?

I am all for space exploration -- for the science, for the adventure, for the poetry. But the budget should not be busted for such activity, nor should it be embraced as a substitute for doing the tough chores that can strengthen national self-esteem.

After the panel finished, one attendee approached and said that the problem with my view was that it is difficult to rally the population behind campaigns to deal with systemic problems, such as poverty. A president would have a better chance of promoting a more concrete project of daring. Say, a lunar colony by 2010, or a presence on Mars by 2020. "That's human nature," he said with the customary shrug.

It's hard to argue with a fellow who claims human nature is on his side, but he might have a point when he claims the best way to inspire people is to engage them with specific, attention-grabbing projects. But is space-walking across Saturn's rings the only way to generate buzz? In the past weeks, a new opportunity has arisen for the United States to bolster its standing as the only superpower. Simply, let's save -- or try to save -- Africa from AIDS.

This past month, several major drug manufacturers have announced they will drastically cut the prices of AIDS medication in sub-Saharan Africa, where 25 million people are affected with HIV, many of them in South Africa. This move -- the result of pressures from an effective global protest campaign, from generic drug manufacturers, and from proposed or enacted laws in developing nations that permit the importation of cheaper AIDS drugs -- will lower the annual cost of treatment from more than $10,000 per patient to about $1000. And a pharmaceutical manufacturer in India is seeking permission to market an AIDS cocktail of generic medications in South Africa with a tab of about $600 a year.

At these lower prices, it would cost $3 billion to $5 billion to treat the five million Africans, who according to the World Health Organization, are ready for the antiretroviral therapy and who live within access of a suitable health care facility. Additional billions could buy an improved health care infrastructure, so more individuals could be reached for treatment.

Given that the Bush tax plan calls for an annual average of $86 billion in tax cuts for the top 1 percent, a project that costs $5 billion is hardly that expensive. After all, this would be 1 percent of the projected budget surplus for the next ten years. Or the cost of two B-2 bombers a year. Or slightly more than 1 percent of the annual military budget. And there still could be room in the budget for the boost in NASA spending Pinkerton desires.

Imagine the worldwide response if Bush announced the United States would pick up the bill for treating millions of Africans. Here's a vision that goes beyond I'm-giving-you-money-back. (Bush could even ask Al Gore to serve as head of this project. Could Gore, who two years ago was siding with drug manufacturers bullying South Africa to change its laws permitting cheaper AIDS drugs, say no?) Other wealthy nations could chip in. But America, with this unprecedented action, would demonstrate national greatness through generosity.

Sure, such an initiative would spur obvious questions. Why just in Africa? Why just AIDS? Why not spend the money on Americans who cannot afford health care? The easy answer: one act of national greatness at a time.

Proposals such as this one tend to be dismissed as unrealistic. Policy, we are told, is not made in such a fashion. And it is clear that fans of globalization -- who run the government and fund the political parties -- care about globalizing trade and capital, not globalizing health care or environmental standards.

No doubt, there would be institutional obstacles -- such as the bureaucracies of the international aid outfits and the corrupt governments of some African countries. But national greatness is measured, in part, by challenges surmounted. The Americans of the 1940s have been dubbed the "greatest generation" for sacrificing life and limb to defeat the fascists of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Is saving the lives of millions in Africa less an accomplishment? And it only requires a financial -- not a blood-and-guts -- commitment.

A slightly smaller tax cut for the rich or AIDS treatment for millions? Why are policy questions never approached this way? Perhaps Pinkerton and the Hudson Institute could hold a brown-bag lunch discussion on that.


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