The MYOB Foreign Policy

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Listen to my parents, America!

W.J. Astore

My parents taught me a lot of common sense sayings.  You’ve probably heard this one: mind your own business, or MYOB.  Most people have enough problems of their own; it’s not a good idea to compound one’s problems by messing around with other people’s lives.

What’s common sense for individuals is also common sense for nations.  Think of the USA.  We’ve got plenty of problems: crumbling infrastructure, inefficient and inadequate health care, too many people in too many prisons, social divides based on race and sex and class, drug and alcohol abuse, not enough decent-paying jobs, huge budgetary deficits, the list goes on.  Yet instead of looking inwards to address our problems, too often we look outwards and interfere in the lives of others.  How can we solve other people’s problems when we can’t solve our own?

Consider our nation’s foreign policy, which is basically driven by our military.  We have a global array of military bases, somewhere around 700.  We spend roughly $700 billion a year on national “defense” and wars, ensuring that we have “global reach, global power.”  To what end?  Our nation’s first president, George Washington, famously warned us to avoid foreign entanglements.  The nation’s great experiment in republican democracy, Washington knew, could easily be compromised by unwise alliances and costly wars.

This is not an argument for isolationism.  The USA, involved as it is in the global economy, could never be isolationist.  With all those military bases, and all those U.S. military units deployed around the world, we could never turn completely inwards, pretending as if the rest of the world didn’t exist.

No – not isolationism.  Rather a policy of MYOB.  Don’t intervene when it’s not our business.  And especially don’t intervene using the U.S. military.  Why?  Because U.S. troops are not charitable or social workers.

The U.S. military is supposed to be for national defense.  It’s not an international charity.  Even military aid is somewhat questionable.  And if you profit from it, as in weapons sales, it smacks of mercenary motives.

As a good friend of mine put it:

I have become rather isolationist myself in my old age.  The way I see it, we have the natural resources and (hopefully) the intellectual capital to be largely self-sufficient.  We should enter the international marketplace as a self-reliant vendor of goods and services, ready to trade fairly with those who are of a similar mind.  The rest can pound sand (no pun intended).  Charity begins at home, and we should know by now that our ideology, while “ideal” for America, is not deployable or even beneficial to other countries steeped in ancient cultures of a different nature.

My friend then added the following caveat:

The remaining challenge is how you protect basic human rights, where you can.  That is something I feel we have an obligation to attempt to do, but don’t know how to do so without crossing other lines.  Perhaps that is how Mother Teresa became St. Teresa of Calcutta.

That’s an excellent question.  Again, my response is that U.S. troops are not social workers.  Charity and social work is best left to people like Saint (Mother) Teresa.  Soldiers may be necessary to protect aid convoys and the like, but military intervention in the name of humanitarianism often ends in disaster, e.g. Somalia.  And of course “humanitarian” motives are often used as a cloak to disguise other, far less noble, designs.

Again, the U.S. military is never going to be a do-nothing, isolationist, military.  The USA itself will never return to isolationism.  What we need to do is to recognize our limitations, realize that other countries and peoples often don’t want our help, or that they’d be better off without our often heavy-handed approach when we do intervene.

We need, in short, to take care of our own business here in the USA, and to let other peoples and nations take care of theirs.  Listen to my parents, America: MYOB.

War as a Business Opportunity

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There’s lots of money in war (and rumors of war)

W.J. Astore

A good friend passed along an article at Forbes from a month ago with the pregnant title, “U.S. Army Fears Major War Likely Within Five Years — But Lacks The Money To Prepare.” Basically, the article argues that war is possible — even likely — within five years with Russia or North Korea or Iran, or maybe all three, but that America’s army is short of money to prepare for these wars.  This despite the fact that America spends roughly $700 billion each and every year on defense and overseas wars.

Now, the author’s agenda is quite clear, as he states at the end of his article: “Several of the Army’s equipment suppliers are contributors to my think tank and/or consulting clients.”  He’s writing an alarmist article about the probability of future wars at the same time as he’s profiting from the sales of weaponry to the army.

As General Smedley Butler, twice awarded the Medal of Honor, said: War is a racket. Wars will persist as long as people see them as a “core product,” as a business opportunity.  In capitalism, the profit motive is often amoral; greed is good, even when it feeds war. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is willing to play along.  It always sees “vulnerabilities” and always wants more money.

But back to the Forbes article with its concerns about war(s) in five years with Russia or North Korea or Iran (or all three).  For what vital national interest should America fight against Russia? North Korea?  Iran?  A few quick reminders:

#1: Don’t get involved in a land war in Asia or with Russia (Charles XII, Napoleon, and Hitler all learned that lesson the hard way).

#2: North Korea? It’s a puppet regime that can’t feed its own people.  It might prefer war to distract the people from their parlous existence.

#3: Iran?  A regional power, already contained, with a young population that’s sympathetic to America, at least to our culture of relative openness and tolerance.  If the U.S. Army thinks tackling Iran would be relatively easy, just consider all those recent “easy” wars and military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria …

Of course, the business aspect of this is selling the idea the U.S. Army isn’t prepared and therefore needs yet another new generation of expensive high-tech weaponry. It’s like convincing high-end consumers their three-year-old Audi or Lexus is obsolete so they must buy the latest model else lose face.

We see this all the time in the U.S. military.  It’s a version of planned or artificial obsolescence. Consider the Air Force.  It could easily defeat its enemies with updated versions of A-10s, F-15s, and F-16s, but instead the Pentagon plans to spend as much as $1.4 trillion on the shiny new and under-performing F-35. The Army has an enormous surplus of tanks and other armored fighting vehicles, but the call goes forth for a “new generation.” No other navy comes close to the U.S. Navy, yet the call goes out for a new generation of ships.

The Pentagon mantra is always for more and better, which often turns out to be for less and much more expensive, e.g. the F-35 fighter.

Wars are always profitable for a few, but they are ruining democracy in America.  Sure, it’s a business opportunity: one that ends in national (and moral) bankruptcy.

America the Fearful

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My dad in the Civilian Conservation Corps in Oregon, c.1937

W.J. Astore

America.  Land of the free, home of the brave.  Right?  Peter Van Buren, who spent a career at the State Department, has a great new article at TomDispatch.com that highlights the way in which America has changed since the 9/11 attacks.  In sum: too many wars, too much security and surveillance, and far too much fear.  One passage in Van Buren’s article especially resonated with me:

Her [Van Buren’s daughter] adult life has been marked by constant war, so much so that “defeating the terrorists” is little more than a set phrase she rolls her eyes at. It’s a generational thing that’s too damn normal, like Depression-era kids still saving aluminum foil and paper bags in the basement after decades of prosperity.

Van Buren’s reference to Depression-era kids: Well, that was my dad. Born in 1917, he endured the Great Depression in a fatherless family. He really wasn’t certain where his next meal was coming from. Decades later, he still saved everything: plastic bags, twist ties, newspapers, old vacuums and toasters and other appliances (good for spare parts!), scrap wood, and so on. He wasn’t a hoarder per se; he just couldn’t throw away something that he might need if the times grew grim again.

My Dad would cook and eat broccoli rabe greens, then drink the green juice from the cooking. “Puts lead in your pencil,” he’d say.  When he ate corn on the cob, there was nothing left on the cob when he was through. He stripped it bare like those crows I watched as a kid on Saturday morning cartoons.

He came of age in a time of want and later served in an armored division in World War II. My dad’s generation knew, like FDR knew, that the only thing they truly had to fear was fear itself. He became hardened to it, but the Depression indelibly marked him as well.

How is today’s generation being marked?  Compared to the Great Depression, these are times of plenty.  Few Americans are starving.  The new normal for this generation is living in fear. Being surrounded by security guards and surveillance devices. Being immersed in celebrations of “patriotism” that involve steroidal flags and deadly military weaponry. Hearing about distant wars fought largely by the children of the working classes.

Looking overseas, they see an American foreign policy defined by perpetual war and an economy driven by perpetual weapons sales. Domestically, they see penury for social programs and profligacy for the national security state.

Is it any wonder that so many millennials seem detached or disenchanted or even defeated? They sense that America has changed, that the focus has shifted, that the American dream has darkened, that America the home of the brave has become the land of the fearful.

Fear is the mind-killer, to cite Frank Herbert.  My father’s generation knew this and overcame it.  Yet today our leaders and the media seek to generate and exploit fear. America has turned to the Dark Side, giving in to anger, fear, aggression.  Just look at our two major party candidates for the presidency.

Mister, we could use a man like FDR again.

Hillary Clinton’s Deplorables and Irredeemables

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W.J. Astore

When Hillary Clinton called out half of Trump’s supporters as “deplorables,” to the point where some are “irredeemable,” I shook my head at her elitism even as I was surprised by her lack of political acumen.  Her comment lumping these “deplorables” into a “basket” came at a fundraiser on September 9th, even as her podium touted the message “stronger together.”  As I wrote in a Facebook post on September 10th, “Painting half your opponent’s supporters as [potentially] irredeemable is just bad strategy.”

But it’s worse than that.  First off, Hillary should have known better.  After all, she went aggressively after Barack Obama when in 2008 he made his comment about bitter rural folk clinging to guns and religion.  (And Obama’s comment is considerably milder than Hillary’s.) By calling out Obama for his comment, Hillary was able to win that year’s primary in Pennsylvania.  Second, for a seasoned pol Hillary showed a surprising lack of discipline.  She herself prefaced her remarks with the phrase, “to just be grossly generalistic.”  Grossly generalistic?  That’s supposed to be Trump’s sphere, not Hillary’s.

But third and finally is that word, “irredeemable.”  Having been raised Catholic and having studied evangelicalism and American religion, that word instantly caught my attention. For Christians, to suggest that someone is “irredeemable” is in itself deplorable.  It’s as if you’re limiting the agency of God.  God determines who is redeemable and who isn’t.  No sinner, i.e. human, has the probity or power to do so.

All Christians know the story of the thief on the cross next to Christ as He was crucified. Christ chose to redeem that man, saying to him that “today, you will be with me in paradise.” As I type these words, an old hymn plays in my mind: “Christ, Jesus, victor.  Christ, Jesus, ruler.  Christ, Jesus, Lord and Redeemer.”  For God, no one is “irredeemable,” nor should any person make such claims, for God’s ways are past searching out.

Mark Shields on PBS put this exceptionally well this past Friday night:

You don’t [use that word, irredeemable] — America is built on redemption. People came here because things weren’t working out.

My generation, the old, oldest fart generation, OK, 13 percent of us were in favor of same-sex marriage 15 years ago, now 41 percent. On civil rights, America has changed dramatically and profoundly. We believe in redemption, not just because you’re a liberal, because you’re an American.

And that — when you write off people and blame the customer, that is really bad.

To this, David Brooks at PBS added the following:

[The word] irredeemable is what leapt out at me.

And the person who was at the Emanuel Baptist — AME Church in Charleston, they believe the guy who shot and killed their close friends was redeemable, but she thinks millions of Americans aren’t?

And that speaks and I think it plays, because there is a brittleness there. And I don’t know if there is a brittleness within. I sort of doubt it. I think she’s probably a very good person within. But there has been a brittleness to her public persona that has been ungenerous and ungracious. And it plays a little to that and why people just don’t want to latch on [to her campaign].

If Hillary loses the election in November, it may very well come back to her “grossly generalistic” comments on September 9th, when she anointed herself as the judge of who is redeemable and who isn’t.

 

U.S. Military Strategy: Of DDT, Bug Zappers, Lawyers, Guns, and Money

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Just spray the bad bugs with DDT.  What can go wrong?

W.J. Astore

Today, the essence of U.S. military “strategy” is targeting.  The enemy is treated as vermin to be exterminated with the right bug bomb.  As if those bombs had no negative consequences; as if we learned nothing from the overuse of DDT, for example.

You might recall DDT, the miracle insecticide of the 1950s and 1960s.  It wiped out bad bugs (and a lot of good ones as well) while leading to DDT-resistant ones.  It also damaged the entire ecology of regions (because DDT is both persistent and bio-accumulative).  Something similar is happening in the Greater Middle East.  The U.S. is killing bad “bugs” (terrorists) while helping to breed a new generation of smarter “bugs.”  Meanwhile, constant violence, repetitive bombing, and other forms of persistent meddling are accumulating in their effects, damaging the entire ecology of the Greater Middle East.

The U.S. government insists the solution is all about putting bombs on target, together with Special Forces operating as bug zappers on the ground.  At the same time, the U.S. sells billions of dollars in weaponry to our “friends” and allies in the region.  Israel just got $38 billion in military aid over ten years, and Saudi Arabia has yet another major arms deal pending, this time for $1.15 billion (with Senator Rand Paul providing that rare case of principled opposition based on human rights violations by the Saudis).

Of course, the U.S. has provided lots of guns and military equipment to Iraqi and Afghan security forces, which often sell or abandon them to enemies such as ISIS and the Taliban.  The special inspector general in Afghanistan reported in 2014 that “As many as 43% of all small arms supplied to the Afghan National Security Forces remain unaccounted for – meaning more than 200,000 guns, including M2s, M16s, and M48s, are nowhere to be found.”  A recent tally this year that includes Iraq suggests that 750,000 guns can’t be accounted for, according to Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), a London-based charity. The Pentagon’s typical solution to missing guns is simply to send more of them.  Thus the U.S. is effectively arming its enemies as well as its allies, a business model that’s a win-win if you’re an arms merchant.

The essence of U.S. strategy makes me think of a Warren Zevon song lyric, “Send lawyers, guns, and money.”  As we’ve seen, U.S. lawyers can authorize anything, even torture, even as U.S. guns and money go missing and end up feeding war and corruption.  The tag line of Zevon’s song is especially pertinent: “The shit has hit the fan.”  How can you flood the Greater Middle East with U.S.-style bureaucracy, guns and money, and not expect turmoil and disaster?

Back in World War II, the USA was an arsenal of democracy.  Now it’s just an arsenal.  Consider Bill Hartung’s  article on U.S. military weaponry that’s flooding the Middle East. The business of America is war, with presidential candidates like Donald Trump just wanting to dump more money into the Pentagon.

There is no end to this madness.  Not when the U.S. economy is so dependent on weapons and war.  Not when the U.S. national security state dominates the political scene.  Not when Americans are told the only choices for president are Trump the Loose Cannon or Hillary the Loaded Gun.

Forever War: A Peculiar Form of American Zen

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W.J. Astore

As a teenager, I read Joe Haldeman’s book, “The Forever War.”  The title intrigued, as did the interstellar setting.  Haldeman’s soldiers are caught up in a conflict whose rules keep changing, in part due to time dilation as predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity.  But there’s one thing the soldiers know for certain: no matter what year the calendar says it is, there will always be war.

For the United States today, something similar is true.  Our government, our leaders, have essentially declared a forever war.  Our military leaders have bought into it as well.  The master narrative is one of ceaseless war against a shifting array of enemies.  One year it’s the Taliban in Afghanistan.  The next it’s Al Qaeda.  The next it’s Iraq, followed by Libya and ISIS.  Echoing the time dilation effects of Haldeman’s book, Russia and China loom as enemies of the American future as well as of the past.  One thing is constant: war.

Our government and leaders can no longer imagine a time of peace.  For them the whole world has become a zone of conflict, an irredeemable realm of crusaders jumping from place to place, country to country, even time to time.  I say “time to time” because I had a student, an Army infantry veteran, who described Afghan villages to me as “primitive” and “like traveling back to Biblical times.”  Indeed, U.S. troops are much like Haldeman’s soldiers, jumping in and out of foreign lands, in both “primitive” and modern times, the one constant again being war.

Why the “forever war”?  In part because we as a country have allowed war to become too profitable, even as we’ve assigned it too much meaning in our collective lives.  The USA is a country whose past is littered with wars, whose present is defined by war and preparations for it, and whose bellicose future is seemingly already determined by those who see generational conflicts ahead of us.  In fact, they’re already planning to profit from them.

War, in short, is a peculiar form of American zen, a defining mindset.  When we’re not actually fighting wars, we’re contemplating fighting them.  Our form of meditation is ceaseless violent action.  Wherever the USA goes, there it is, exporting troops and weapons and, if not war itself, the tools and mindset that are conducive to war.

What Did 9/11 Inaugurate?

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The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Viktor Vasnetsov)

W.J. Astore

On this 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, we should ask ourselves what those attacks inaugurated.  In a word, calamity.  The wildly successful actions of Al Qaeda, combined with the wild overreactions of the Bush/Cheney administration, marked the 21st century as one that will likely become known to future historians as calamitous.

In thinking about the 9/11 attacks, as an Air Force officer, what struck me then, and still does now, is the psychological blow.  We Americans like to think we invented flight (not just that the Wright Brothers succeeded in the first powered flight that was both sustained and controlled).  We like to think that airpower is uniquely American.  We take great pride that many airliners are still “Made in the USA,” unlike most other manufactured goods nowadays.

To see our airliners turned into precision missiles against our skyscrapers, another potent image of American power, by a terrorist foe (that was once an ally against Soviet forces in Afghanistan) staggered our collective psyche.  That’s what I mean when I say Al Qaeda’s attacks were “successful.”  They created an enormous shock from which our nation has yet to recover.

This shock produced, as Tom Engelhardt notes in his latest article at TomDispatch.com, a form of government psychosis for vengeance via airpower.  The problem, of course, is that the terrorist enemy (first Al Qaeda, then the Taliban, now ISIS) simply doesn’t offer big targets like skyscrapers or the Pentagon.  The best the U.S. can do via airpower is to strike at training camps or small teams or even individuals, all of which matter little in the big scheme of things.  Meanwhile, U.S. air strikes (and subsequent land invasions by ground troops) arguably strengthen the enemy strategically.  Why?  Because they lend credence to the enemy’s propaganda that the USA is launching jihad against the Muslim world.

The wild overreactions of the Bush/Cheney administration, essentially continued by Obama and the present national security state, have played into the hands of those seeking a crusade/jihad in the Greater Middle East.  What we have now, so the experts say, is a generational or long war, with no foreseeable end point.  Its product, however, is obvious: chaos, whether in Iraq or Libya or Yemen or Syria.  And this chaos is likely to be aggravated by critical resource shortages (oil, water, food) as global warming accelerates in the next few decades.

We are in the early throes of the calamitous 21st century, and it all began fifteen years ago on 9/11/2001.