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The greatest threats

March 9, 2010 - Jim Anderson
A Zogby poll asked this question:

When you think about the long-term security and well-being of the U.S., which of these do you believe is a more serious threat?

— The debt owed by the United States to China.

— Terrorism from radical Islamists.

— Neither.

— Not sure.

Overall, more than twice as many of the respondents (58 percent) chose the debt owed to China over terrorism from radical Islamists (27 percent).

Seven percent said neither and 8 percent weren’t sure.

Results were strikingly similar by party identification: Democrats, 57 percent said debt to China, 24 percent terrorism, 12 percent neither, and 8 percent not sure; Republicans, 61 percent debt to China, 32 percent terrorism, 2 percent neither, 4 percent not sure; independents, 59 percent debt to China, 28 percent terrorism, 5 percent neither, and 8 percent not sure.

The results speak to the uneasiness everyone feels about the federal debt — $12.3 trillion and climbing. Figures released by the Treasury Department about a week ago showed that China’s holdings of U.S. Treasury securities stood at $895 billion at the end of December. That keeps China the top foreign holder of U.S. Treasury securities., followed by Japan at $769 billion.

China’s holdings are less than the $1 trillion-plus that we’ve spent directly so far on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s not a fair comparison, of course, since even in retrospect we couldn’t simply switch one for the other. Looking forward, however, it illustrates the tough political choices ahead. More war adds to the debt — unless taxes are raised or domestic spending is slashed.

The Zogby respondents weren’t asked to rate a third threat — our reliance on foreign oil.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, oil imports accounted for about 66 percent of our total usage in 2008. Of that, nearly 40 percent came from “dangerous or unstable” nations, the State Department says.

A recent report by the Truman National Security Project points out that our annual oil debt is greater than our trade deficit with China. In 2008, petroleum imports created a $386 billion U.S. trade deficit, versus a $266 billion trade deficit with China.

The Truman report, “Oil Addiction: Fueling Our Enemies” links oil demand with risks to national security: U.S. demand increases global prices and that money “enriches hostile governments, funds terrorist organizations and props up repressive regimes.”

Regarding the treasury’s debt to China, we at least have the uneasy assurance that, for now, the U.S. is China’s indispensable trading partner.

Our oil addiction carries less of a safety net. It places us in competition for a limited — and many experts would say — dwindling resource. That fuels our core problems, leaves us vulnerable to the whims and instabilities of dangerous nations and pressures our military to keep markets secure.

If oil addiction is now among our greatest threats, we might one day see energy security as among our greatest blessings. But we’re a long ways from that day.


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