When it comes to the Pentagon, nothing succeeds like failure. That is the message of William Hartung’s latest article at TomDispatch.com. The Pentagon, Hartung notes, continues to receive massive funding from the American taxpayer, even as its various wars drag on, seemingly without end. Hartung, who wrote a book on Lockheed Martin and the military-industrial complex, has a knack for revealing the latest Pentagon follies. Even as you read his latest at TomDispatch.com, I’d like to add two more items to his list:
1. Washington Think Tanks: Perhaps you’ve heard of them, centers for thinking about national defense, hiring the best and the brightest to come up with disinterested recommendations to safeguard America. Ha! A few days ago, The National Interest ran an article on what these think tanks were proposing, the “latest fashions in warfighting,” as the article’s title put it. Please note there’s no “fashion” in peacemaking or war-ending.
Four out of the five think tanks featured in the article were in basic agreement. “Deterrence” had to be based on massive investments in offensive weaponry. There was much agreement as well on modernizing America’s nuclear arsenal, on the need to feature more drones and other unmanned platforms, on air power and power projection, as well as support for the wildly expensive F-35 jet fighter. In sum, more of the same at the Pentagon, only more.
One think tank, the Cato Institute, a Libertarian outfit, dared to depart from Pentagon orthodoxy. Cato called into question the Pentagon’s need for better nukes, prodigal jet fighters, and similar “sticker shock” items on the Pentagon’s wish list. This dissent drew a stinging rebuke from The National Interest, which suggested Cato had developed a defense plan for Canada rather than the great and powerful USA.
To that I say, tell me again what is wrong with Canada?
A question: If four out of five think tanks essentially agree with each other, are not at least three of them redundant?
2. Forcing Soldiers to Pay Back Bonuses: Yes, you read that right. Even as the Pentagon spends nearly $750 billion a year, even as it avoids any semblance of an audit, U.S. troops who fought overseas are being forced to pay back bonuses that the Pentagon gave them, apparently by mistake (but also with some fraud involved on behalf of recruiters), at a time when the U.S. military was under duress to improve retention rates.
Let’s be clear: In accepting the bonuses, the individual troops were not at fault. They took the money in good faith from a military that patted them on the back for staying in. But now the military says, whoops, we were wrong, we want the money back.
In Pentagon terms, we’re not talking big money. We’re talking chump change. It’s $15,000 here, $30,000 there. But of course it is big money to the troops and their families. Consider the stress of having government-sanctioned collection agencies on your tail. One soldier had to refinance his house to raise the money to repay an incentive bonus he’d accepted in good faith.
Here’s the kicker. In California, where these abuses and mistakes happened, the military “assigned 42 auditors to comb through paperwork for bonuses and other incentive payments given to 14,000 soldiers.”
Imagine that. The Pentagon can’t even hold an audit, let alone pass one, but it’s willing to hire a platoon of auditors to go after troops and their bonuses.
Here’s my recommendation: Let’s deploy an army of 42,000 auditors to comb through Pentagon paperwork for waste, fraud, and abuse. Let’s get our money back, America. And let’s stop thinking about “fashions” in “warfighting,” and instead dedicate ourselves to ending our wars — before they end us.
General (retired) David Petraeus was on PBS the other day to explain the current Iraqi offensive on Mosul. Sure, his military “surges” in Iraq and Afghanistan had no staying power, and he disgraced himself by sharing classified information with his mistress during an extramarital affair, but nevertheless let’s call on him as an unbiased “expert” on all things military. Right?
But that’s the extent of what we [the U.S.] can do [in Iraq today]. We can encourage, we can nudge, we can cajole [the Iraqi military and Kurdish forces]. We can’t force. And it is going to have to be Iraqis at the end of the day that come together, recognizing that, if they cannot, fertile fields will be planted for the planting of the seeds of ISIS 3.0, of further extremism in Iraq.
Wow. There’s no sense here that the U.S. is to blame for planting the seeds of Iraqi extremism (or, at the very least, fertilizing them) in those “fertile fields.” Overthrowing Saddam Hussein in 2003 and demobilizing Iraqi military forces predictably left a power vacuum that facilitated factionalism and extremism in Iraq, which was only exacerbated by an extended and mismanaged U.S. occupation. Petraeus’s “Surge” in 2007 papered over some of the worst cracks, but only temporarily, a fact that Petraeus himself knew (consider all his caveats about “gains” being “fragile” and “reversible”).
But no matter. Petraeus is now saying it’s up to the Iraqis to get their act together, with some “nudging” and “cajoling” by the U.S. I’m sure Iraqi leaders are happy to learn that U.S. experts like Petraeus are behind them, ready to encourage and nudge and cajole. They’re likely happiest with U.S. Apache helicopters and direct tactical assistance via Special Ops teams (yes, there are U.S. boots on the ground, and they’re in harm’s way).
And Petraeus’s reference to ISIS 3.0: Isn’t it strange to compare a terrorist organization’s evolution to a new software product roll-out? Petraeus might have added that ISIS 1.0 came as a result of the extended U.S. occupation of Iraq, and that ISIS 2.0 came as U.S. forces pulled out, leaving behind Iraqi security forces that the U.S. claimed were ready to defend Iraq, but which fled in 2014, abandoning their weapons and equipment to ISIS forces. Put plainly, U.S. bungling helped to launch ISIS 1.0 and to equip ISIS 2.0. And yet Petraeus suggests if there’s an ISIS 3.0, that version will be entirely the fault of the Iraqis.
Throughout the Petraeus interview, there’s a callous calculus in place. For example, earlier in the interview, Petraeus casually notes the population of Mosul, originally 2 million people, is down to 1.2 million and dropping. Nothing is said about the missing 800,000 Iraqis. Most are refugees, but many are dead. Doesn’t their fate suggest a colossal failure of the war and occupation you ran, General Petraeus? But questions such as this are never asked in the mainstream media.
In its long wars in the Greater Middle East, the U.S. has an incredibly short and corrupted memory. Indeed, to stay with Petraeus and his software analogies, the American memory is a circular file that is constantly overwritten with flawed data. That’s a recipe not for smooth running but for catastrophic crashes. And so it has proved.
In the last formal debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, here are a few things I heard:
1. Hillary thinks Trump is unqualified to be president. Trump thinks Hillary should be locked up as a criminal.
2. Trump thinks Hillary is a nasty woman. Hillary thinks Trump is a Russian puppet.
3. Hillary thinks Trump may start a nuclear war. Trump thinks Hillary is a loser who will make America vulnerable to foreign powers.
4. Trump thinks the election is rigged and that the media is firmly in Hillary’s corner. Hillary thinks Trump is encouraging Russia to hack and manipulate the election.
5. Trump thinks Hillary supports the ripping of babies from the wombs of mothers (late-term abortions). Hillary thinks Trump is a serial assaulter of women.
6. Trump says all nine women who accused him of unwanted sexual advances/assaults are either opportunists seeking a few minutes of fame, or stooges in the employ of the Clinton campaign. Clinton says Trump is a tax dodger, an exploiter of immigrant labor, and an enthusiast for cheap Chinese steel at the expense of American workers.
7. Trump says Clinton is all talk and no action. Clinton says Trump is a man who never apologizes and who never takes responsibility for his actions.
Yes, it was that bad. Usually the question is “Who won the debate,” and the answer is clear: we the American people lost. Put on the spot, I’d say that Hillary won because of Trump’s refusal to say whether he’d accept the result of the election. That refusal to accept the will of the voters is fundamentally undemocratic. To me, it made Trump look like a sore loser even before he’s lost.
I can’t imagine Trump or Hillary supporters had their minds changed while watching this debate. But I can guess that Hillary picked up more undecided or fence-straddling voters. Why? Because Trump’s message (as well as his demeanor) was so relentlessly negative. My wife could hardly stand being in the same room with Trump on the TV: he was, in a literal sense, giving her the creeps. Something tells me many other women across America were similarly repulsed by Trump. He was more than combative toward Hillary: he was sneering, condescending, and insulting.
Image is important in debates, and Hillary came across as the fresher of the two, the more likable, the more positive, the more focused. As I watched Trump rant, I told my wife that he reminded me of the Grinch who stole Christmas, with his snarl and his hate and his withered heart.
Will the Grinch steal the election? From the Grinch’s perspective, the election has already been stolen from him. That’s my takeaway from the debate: that Trump is a sore loser even before he’s lost.
My post-debate prediction: Welcome to four more years of the Clintons, America. See you in 2020.
This year’s presidential election is depressing. I suppose Trump and Hillary supporters are fired up. They want to see “their” candidate win. But for me, I wish a pox on both their houses, even as I hope the eventual winner is not as bad as he or she appears to be.
With respect to foreign policy, neither candidate comes close to representing my views. Instead of American exceptionalism, instead of global reach and global power, I believe the U.S. needs to learn the merits of minding its own business. I want a country that is not imperial, not militaristic, and not intent on waging forever wars against inchoate forces (terror) and with a changing roster of enemies (Al Qaeda/ISIS/radical Islam, North Korea, Iran, and now possibly Russia and China, and who knows who or what else next). I want active wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to end. I want U.S. troops to be brought home.
We don’t need a new Cold War, America. Nor should we be elevating terrorism, a containable threat, to an existential threat. The true existential threat is incessant greed-wars, which will bankrupt our country even as they administer the death blow to our democracy.
The main candidates, Trump and Clinton, are committed to feeding the national security state. Both promise more wars, especially war-hawk Clinton. With Trump, honestly, I have no idea what to expect from him. Trump has all the makings of a Nero. He’ll fiddle (or Tweet) while the world burns. And Hillary? She’s a self-styled Imperator Furiosa (from the latest Mad Max movie) but without her heart.
So much of U.S. foreign policy nowadays is about selling weaponry. We sell billions and billions to the Israelis and Saudis (among others), and the peoples of Palestine and Yemen suffer and die as a result. Are U.S. hands clean merely because we made the weapons (and in some cases subsidized their purchase)? What kind of “democracy” dominates the world’s arms trade? In more enlightened days, the U.S. excoriated European countries and their “merchants of death” (this was in the 1920s and 1930s). Now we are the merchants of death, boasting of all the money we’re making. We have met the enemy, and he is us.
Trump and Hillary: one a Nero, one an Imperator. Both American exceptionalists, both believers in the military, both willing to wield big sticks while never speaking softly. Yes, I find that depressing.
On domestic policy, Hillary hews closer to what I believe, at least in theory. But in practice who knows with Hillary? She speaks with forked tongue on so many important issues. I think liberals/progressives can count on her to be pro-choice, to be pro-LGBTQ, to be (or appear to be) sensitive to racism, to be inclusive (compared to Republicans), to be pro-immigration (again, compared to Republicans). For many liberals/progressives/democrats, Hillary’s predictability on these issues is enough, especially compared to the hard right positions embraced by Trump/Pence. And indeed more than a few of my Democratic friends are voting for Hillary based on these positions, together with their faith (fingers crossed) that her Supreme Court nominees will be somewhere to the left of Antonin Scalia.
Is that enough? Not for me. Again, it’s Hillary’s opportunism, the way she slips in and out of positions as if they’re so many interchangeable pantsuits, that I find so depressing. Whether it’s the TPP or fracking or the $15 minimum wage or health care reform or bank reform or what have you, she changes her tune, much like a piper responding to requests. Yes, he who pays the piper calls the tune, and I can’t pay the piper what Goldman Sachs can. So I’ll never hear my tune played; only theirs. And I know how that song ends: with even greater inequality followed by another financial meltdown, and this time maybe the middle class will die.
I can’t vote for more of the same (Hillary) only with more fury. I can’t vote for random acts of caprice and belligerence guided by ignorance (Trump). Honestly, you know what I want to do? Write in “Bernie Sanders.” He’s not perfect (who is?), but he has character and integrity, and that’s what this country really needs. I know: Bernie told me to vote for Hillary. But dammit, Bernie, I can’t do it.
Did I say I was depressed? After I write in Bernie’s name on November 8th, I’ll walk away from the voting booth with a smile. And to me that’s not a “wasted” vote.
Editor’s Note: I’ve been reading Chris Hedges since his fine book, “War Is A Force that Gives Us Meaning.” In this article, Hedges explains the cynicism of the U.S. political process, pinning the tail on the Democratic donkey even as the Republican elephant remains looming in the room. The Democrats, by moving to the right and by encouraging the rise of “fringe” candidates like Trump, have created a system that has alienated large swathes of the American electorate. Many of these people have embraced Trump, a political outsider with major, probably fatal, flaws. It’s what happens in the aftermath of Trump’s probable defeat that worries Hedges — as should it worry all of us.
Americans are not offered major-party candidates who have opposing political ideologies or ideas. We are presented only with manufactured political personalities. We vote for the candidate who makes us “feel” good about him or her. Campaigns are entertainment and commercial vehicles to raise billions in advertising revenue for corporations. The candidate who can provide the best show gets the most coverage. The personal brand is paramount. It takes precedence over ideas, truth, integrity and the common good. This cult of the self, which defines our politics and our culture, contains the classic traits of psychopaths: superficial charm, grandiosity, self-importance, a need for constant stimulation, a penchant for lying, deception and manipulation, and incapacity for remorse or guilt. Donald Trump has these characteristics. So does Hillary Clinton.
Our system of inverted totalitarianism has within it the seeds of an overt or classical fascism. The more that political discourse becomes exclusively bombastic and a form of spectacle, the more that emotional euphoria is substituted for political thought and the more that violence is the primary form of social control, the more we move toward a Christianized fascism.
Last week’s presidential debate in St. Louis was only a few degrees removed from the Jerry Springer TV show—the angry row of women sexually abused or assaulted by Bill Clinton, the fuming Trump pacing the stage with a threatening posture, the sheeplike and carefully selected audience that provided the thin veneer of a democratic debate while four multimillionaires—Martha Raddatz, Anderson Cooper, Clinton and Trump—squabbled like spoiled schoolchildren.
The Clinton campaign, aware that the policy differences between her and a candidate such as Jeb Bush were minuscule, plotted during the primaries to elevate the fringe Republican candidates—especially Trump. To the Democratic strategists, a match between Clinton and Trump seemed made in heaven. Trump, with his “brain trust” of Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie, would make Clinton look like a savior.
A memo addressed to the Democratic National Committee under the heading “Our Goals & Strategy” was part of the trove of John Podesta emails released this month by WikiLeaks.
“Our hope is that the goal of a potential HRC [Hillary Rodham Clinton] campaign and the DNC would be one-in-the-same: to make whomever the Republicans nominate unpalatable to the majority of the electorate. We have outlined three strategies to obtain our goal …,” it reads.
The memo names Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Ben Carson as candidates, or what the memo calls “Pied Piper” candidates who could push mainstream candidates closer to the positions embraced by the lunatic right. “We need to be elevating the Pied Piper candidates so that they are leaders of the pack and tell the press to [take] them seriously.”
The elites of the two ruling parties, who have united behind Clinton, are playing a very dangerous game. The intellectual and political vacuum caused by the United States’ species of anti-politics, or what the writer Benjamin DeMott called “junk politics,” leaves candidates, all of whom serve the interests of the corporate state, seeking to exaggerate what Sigmund Freud termed “the narcissism of small differences.”
However, this battle between small differences, largely defined by the culture wars, no longer works with large segments of the population. The insurgencies of Trump and Bernie Sanders are evidence of a breakdown of these forms of social control. There is a vague realization among Americans that we have undergone a corporate coup. People are angry about being lied to and fleeced by the elites. They are tired of being impotent. Trump, to many of his most fervent supporters, is a huge middle finger to a corporate establishment that has ruined their lives and the lives of their children. And if Trump, or some other bombastic idiot, is the only vehicle they have to defy the system, they will use him.
The elites, including many in the corporate press, must increasingly give political legitimacy to goons and imbeciles in a desperate battle to salvage their own legitimacy. But the more these elites pillage and loot, and the more they cast citizens aside as human refuse, the more the goons and imbeciles become actual alternatives. The corporate capitalists would prefer the civilized mask of a Hillary Clinton. But they also know that police states and fascist states will not impede their profits; indeed in such a state the capitalists will be more robust in breaking the attempts of the working class to organize for decent wages and working conditions. Citibank, Raytheon and Goldman Sachs will adapt. Capitalism functions very well without democracy.
In the 1990s I watched an impotent, nominally democratic liberal elite in the former Yugoslavia fail to understand and act against the population’s profound economic distress. The fringe demagogues whom the political and educated elites dismissed as buffoons—Radovan Karadzic, Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudman—rode an anti-liberal tide to power.
The political elites in Yugoslavia at first thought the nationalist cranks and lunatics, who amassed enough support to be given secondary positions of power, could be contained. This mistake was as misguided as Franz von Papen’s assurances that when the uncouth Austrian Adolf Hitler was appointed the German chancellor in January 1933 the Nazi leader would be easily manipulated. Any system of prolonged political paralysis and failed liberalism vomits up monsters. And the longer we remain in a state of political paralysis—especially as we stumble toward another financial collapse—the more certain it becomes that these monsters will take power.
Fascism, at its core, is an amorphous and incoherent ideology that perpetuates itself by celebrating a grotesque hypermasculinity, elements of which are captured in Trump’s misogyny. It allows disenfranchised people to feel a sense of power and to have their rage sanctified. It takes a politically marginalized and depoliticized population and mobilizes it around a utopian vision of moral renewal and vengeance and an anointed political savior. It is always militaristic, anti-intellectual and contemptuous of democracy and replaces culture with nationalist and patriotic kitsch. It sees those outside the closed circle of the nation-state or the ethnic or religious group as diseased enemies that must be physically purged to restore the health of nation.
Many of these ideological elements are already part of our system of inverted totalitarianism. But inverted totalitarianism, as Sheldon Wolin wrote, disclaims its identity to pay homage to a democracy that in reality has ceased to function. It is characterized by the anonymity of the corporate centers of power. It seeks to keep the population passive and demobilized. I asked Wolin shortly before he died in 2015 that if the two major forms of social control he cited—access to easy and cheap credit and inexpensive, mass-produced consumer products—were no longer available would we see the rise of a more classical form of fascism. He said this would indeed become a possibility.
Bill Clinton transformed the Democratic Party into the Republican Party. He pushed the Republican Party so far to the right it became insane. Hillary Clinton is Mitt Romney in drag. She and the Democratic Party embrace policies—endless war, the security and surveillance state, neoliberalism, austerity, deregulation, new trade agreements and deindustrialization—that are embraced by the Republican elites. Clinton in office will continue the neoliberal assault on the poor and the working poor, and increasingly the middle class, that has defined the corporate state since the Reagan administration. She will do so while speaking in the cloying and hypocritical rhetoric of compassion that masks the cruelty of corporate capitalism.
The Democratic and Republican parties may be able to disappear Trump, but they won’t disappear the phenomena that gave rise to Trump. And unless the downward spiral is reversed—unless the half of the country now living in poverty is lifted out of poverty—the cynical game the elites are playing will backfire. Out of the morass will appear a genuine “Christian” fascist endowed with political skill, intelligence, self-discipline, ruthlessness and charisma. The monster the elites will again unwittingly elevate, as a foil to keep themselves in power, will consume them. There would be some justice in this if we did not all have to pay.
As Donald Trump continues to implode, it’s worthwhile considering how he even has a chance at the presidency. It’s quite simple, actually: Americans don’t trust the Clintons, and rightly so. Why? Because the Clintons, in their quest for office, try to be all things to all people. Even as they talk about the poorest Americans and economic fairness, for example, they’re promising to make special deals for the richest and special trade deals (open trade borders for all!). Even as they criticize Wall Street they praise bankers and the financial elite behind closed doors (cashing-in big-time for these speeches). Even as they talk about the environment and global warning, they praise fracking and the fossil fuel industry.
What do the Clintons really believe? Like many politicians, they ultimately believe in themselves, in their own quest for power, a quest in which virtually all tactics are justified. In which you can don any mask depending on that day’s audience and performance.
But if you’re all things to all people, you’re basically nothing to no one. Put differently, if you’ve worn so many different masks for so many audiences, which face is the real you?
Trump’s followers embrace him in part because they think they know where he stands. He’s willing to say unpopular things. As loutish and crass and ignorant as Trump is, he’s not always holding a finger up to test the political winds. He’s not always currying favor with (and favors from) established elites. He may be bad, but he’s genuinely bad.
The Clintons? The word “genuine” just doesn’t apply. Words like “scheming” and “secretive” and “Machiavellian,” however, do.
Small wonder that Hillary Clinton is such great friends with Henry Kissinger!
My wife, who knows how to cut to the chase, pointed out a big aspect of Trump’s appeal to me this morning: “Trump is the anti-Obama.”
Think about it. When it comes to their personal qualities, it would be hard to envision two men who are such polar opposites. Consider Obama. He’s cool. Rational. Analytical. A thinker. He’s also polite, cautious, and considerate. He’s a skilled writer and a poised, often inspirational, speaker. He’s at pains to broadcast a message of inclusiveness. He’s all about diversity and tolerance and embracing those who are different. He’s also by all accounts a loyal family man, a loving husband and father, with a strong marriage.
Consider Trump. Everything I just said about Obama is the opposite for Trump. Trump is emotional. Flamboyant. Given to knee-jerk responses. A man of action. He appears to be impolite, impetuous, and inconsiderate. Near as I can tell, Trump’s books are ghost-written, and his speaking style is bombastic and inflammatory rather than poised and inspirational. Promoting divisiveness rather than inclusiveness, his message of “making America great again” is read by some of his supporters as making America white-male-dominated again. Hardly a loyal family man, he’s on his third marriage, the previous two ending acrimoniously, and if you credit his boasts caught on tape he was trying to cheat on his current wife while they were still newlyweds.
Now, which one of these men is more desirable as a role model? The loyal husband and family man, the one who embraces diversity and brings people together? Or the disloyal husband, the one who boasts of sexual encounters, who objectifies women, the one who rejects tolerance for rhetoric that drives intolerance?
It’s sobering to see self-styled conservative or evangelical Christians, who claim they are all about family values and the sanctity of marriage, twisting their professed beliefs to embrace Trump and reject Obama. Certainly, in some cases racism is involved here, a sense that Obama is “not one of us,” whereas Trump, with all his glaring flaws of character and behavior, is accepted as the imperfect guy who’s “just like me” (or perhaps just like a black sheep of the family).
Here’s another way of looking at it if you’re a “Star Trek” fan: Trump is Captain Kirk to Obama’s Mr. Spock. In his coolly logical manner, Obama has often been compared to Mr. Spock. And Trump as Captain Kirk: it seems to work, since Kirk was a man of action, often emotional, a womanizer, sometimes intemperate.
But this is to insult Captain Kirk. More than anything, Kirk was a leader: a man who brought a diverse crew together and made them better. Yes, he could be intemperate, but he had a capacity for personal growth. Smart, tough, and experienced, Kirk was a ladies’ man, but he wasn’t married and never forced himself on women (with the notable exception of “The Enemy Within” episode, in which Kirk is split in two, his hyper-aggressive twin given to attacking women for his own pleasure).
In Trump you’re not getting Captain Kirk, America. You’re getting a one-dimensional “evil” Kirk, or perhaps a Khan Noonien Singh, another “Star Trek” character (played memorably by Ricardo Montalbán), a tyrant and ruthless dictator, a man who believes it’s the right of the strong to take or do whatever they want. (So-called Alpha Male behavior, according to one of Trump’s sons, though I prefer a different A-term: Asshole Male.)
Some of Trump’s success, at least initially, came from the fact he was a powerful contrast to Obama, the anti-Obama, if you will. And the “anti-” was more than symbolic, considering how Trump drove the birther movement and its false narrative of how Obama was illegitimate as president. And I can understand after eight years the desire among many for a “Captain Kirk” after two terms of “Mr. Spock.”
But Trump is much more Khan than Kirk. He’d embrace Khan’s motto that “Such [superior] men [like me] dare take what they want.” But a man who believes in his own inherent superiority — that his might will make right — is not a leader. He’s a tyrant. And tyranny is the very opposite of democracy.