Provoking Wars: Is that what U.S. Foreign Policy Is About?

Send in the heavily-armed carriers.  It's about peace!
Send in the heavily-armed carriers. It’s about peace!

b. traven and W.J. Astore

Are America’s foreign policy leaders mad?  It’s a serious question.  Consider last week’s dispatch of 300 military trainers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade to Western Ukraine, a country involved in a contentious jousting match with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.  Or consider this week’s deployment of an aircraft carrier battle group off the coast of Yemen, ostensibly to interdict weapons shipments from Iran, shipments that may not even exist.

These moves have more serious possible repercussions than the usual stupid moves our government makes. They can lead to real war with Russia and Iran. Look at today’s headline in the New York Times: “Putin Bolsters His Forces Near Ukraine.”  Putin may be provoked into an invasion of Ukraine because U.S. meddling has been so blatant (he also knows that when it comes to war in Ukraine, NATO is largely a toothless tiger). The Iranians may renege on the nuclear agreement and deliver extensive military support to the Houthis while directly engaging the House of Saud. In both situations, it’s easy to predict what Obama will do.  Just what John McCain and the neo-cons want him to do.  Bombs away.

It’s a clear case of global reach, global power–and global stupidity.  You’d think massive bungling and endemic corruption in never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would have taught us something, but the U.S. insists on getting involved in sensitive regional conflicts that could easily spiral out of control.

And when the U.S. chooses to get involved, it’s not with diplomacy.  It’s all about military power.  Yet as much as America professes to love its military, its power is a blunt (and deadly) instrument.  It exacerbates tensions rather than alleviating them.  U.S. military meddling in Ukraine and Yemen promises more conflict, not less.

And perhaps that’s by design.  Consider the reality of America’s ever-burgeoning military budget.  As Dan Froomkin notes, that budget still exceeds the combined defense budgets of the next seven highest spenders (four of those countries—Saudi Arabia, France, the UK, and Germany—are U.S. allies; China and Russia, the only rivals on the list, spend far less than the U.S.).  As the U.S. continues to spend hog-wild on its military, small wonder it remains the go-to option for “diplomacy” around the globe.

Democratic or Republican administration, Obama or Bush, the one constant is global war.  The U.S. is already waging illegal “low intensity” war with drones and special operations across the globe.  (It’s worth pointing out that “low intensity” doesn’t feel low when Hellfire missiles are raining down on your neighborhood or when Special Forces are raiding your village and hauling away your neighbors–or you.)  So why not add another serving of war to an already full plate by meddling in Ukraine?  Sadly, the faction the U.S. seems to favor the most has its share of outright fascists.  But they’re “our” fascists, so who cares if they vote to honor Nazi collaborators and perpetrators of the Holocaust?

Russia, predictably, is antagonized by U.S. meddling.  They see it as the decades-old Anglo-British effort to encircle and isolate Russia and cut them off from their access to the Mediterranean by denying them their Black Sea Fleet base in the Crimea.  To add insult to injury, the essentially Russian population of Eastern Ukraine will be marginalized by the coup regime the U.S. helped to install.  Well, there’s nothing like a new Cold War with Russia to push “defense” spending to even higher levels.

If the U.S. fails to rouse the Soviet bear from slumber, perhaps we can provoke a war with Iran.  So let’s continue to send billions of dollars in weaponry to the Saudis so they can continue to bomb and dominate Shia factions in Yemen.  Heck, let’s send an aircraft carrier task force to show how serious we are about “peace.”  (Let’s hope the U.S. Navy doesn’t blunder and shoot down an Iranian commercial aircraft, as it did in 1988, killing 290 innocent passengers and crew.)

Provocation—that’s when U.S. leaders deploy the military to meddle in Ukraine, in Yemen, and elsewhere across the globe.  Yet men like Bush and Obama continue to sell the military, not as provocateurs, but as peace-bringers.  As diplomats in uniform.  They just happen to carry assault rifles and use Hellfire missiles rather than briefcases and pens.

Saddest of all is that things are only going to get worse.  We’ve witnessed how America’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning President morphed into its assassin-in-chief, approving “signature strikes” to snuff out evil-doers everywhere.  Now look who’s running to replace him in 2016: Hillary the Hun on the Democratic side, and all those little chickenhawk Republicans clucking that they’re to the right of Hillary.

If you’re reading this and have money, we advise you to invest in “defense” stocks.  With all these provocations in the works, the staff here at The Contrary Perspective are bullish on prospects for more weapons–and more war.

U.S. Foreign Policy: Too Much Captain Kirk–and William Shatner

Fire those phasers, America!
Fire those phasers, America!

W.J. Astore

Much of our foreign policy is driven by fear–fear that if we don’t act, whether in the Middle East or Africa or elsewhere–the bad people there will thrive, after which they’ll come for us in the good old USA.  Most of us will recall George W. Bush’s saying, “We’ll fight them over there so that we don’t have to fight them here.”  But what if constantly fighting them “over there” is a guarantee of blowback right here in Homeland USA?

As one of my conservative friends (Yes – I have them!) says, “If they (the enemy) stay over there, I’ll airlift knives, forks, and condiments to them.”

Well, we’ll never know unless we try.  Call the cavalry home, America.  Send in the cutlery and condiments. And let’s see what happens.

OK, call me an isolationist.  All these American machinations in and deployments to the Middle East and Africa – paraphrasing Otto von Bismarck, to me they aren’t worth the bones of a single Pennsylvanian grenadier.  Isn’t the Middle East of today roughly the equivalent to the Balkans of c.1910?  Except for the oil, why bother with Iraq and Iran?  Radical Islam is no picnic, but a direct threat to the USA?  Come on.  If we leave, my bet is radical Islam will burn itself out.

Our constant interventions in the Middle East merely fan the flames of radicalism there, except when we throw fuel on the fire by sending lots of weapons or burning a Koran or wiping out (accidently, of course) another convoy of civilians with Hellfire missiles.  If we’re the enemy’s “Great Satan,” let’s leave and see how they do in a paradise without the US serpent in it.

The problem is that our foreign policy “experts” are subservient to national and international (corporate and financial) interests (among others), and those interests, along with their own hubris, make it impossible for them to order strategic withdrawals, much less imagine them.

Put briefly, our experts see the world as a stage (or as a staging area for military forces), upon which the USA must play the leading role.  They believe that if we don’t occupy that stage, and dominate it, some other country will, e.g. China will take over Africa.

The US military, meanwhile, favors “proactive,” forward-leaning, can-do, spirit.  The mentality is: We must act, or someone else will.  And our way of acting is necessarily a military way, since that is what our nation favors–and funds.

For my fellow “Star Trek” fans, the U.S. government is like the aggressive, action-driven Captain Kirk (even better: the bombastic, scene-hogging William Shatner), but without Mr. Spock or Dr. McCoy at his side to provide cool logic or warm compassion.  So all we get is warp drive and phasers (or lots of histrionic overacting and scene-stealing, a la Shatner).

We can do better, America.  Let’s start by calling the cavalry home.  Cutlery and condiments to the fore!

Senator Tom Cotton: Bomb Iran — It’s Easy!

A Panel from Tom Tomorrow lampooning Tom Cotton.  Love the R-Lunacy designation!
A panel from Tom Tomorrow lampooning Tom Cotton. Love the R-Lunacy designation!

W.J. Astore

Would a war against Iran take “only a few days“?  According to Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a few days of precision bombing would be enough to destroy Iran’s nuclear capability.  Oh, there might be a few (thousand) innocent Iranians killed.  And perhaps some radiation spread about.  But wouldn’t some dead and irradiated (Iranian) bodies be worth it?

Despite his military experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, Senator Cotton is a proponent of imaginary war.  You know, war like in a video game, where you drop bombs on target, witness a few explosions, and then it’s game over, with victory for Play Station America.  When you view war like this, as a game, it’s easier to think of it as “inevitable,” which is precisely the word Cotton uses: War with Iran, he says, is inevitable, so let’s flatten them now before they have nukes.

Let’s consider, for a moment, the worst-case scenario: Iran conspires successfully to gain a nuclear weapon in seven years.  What would Iran do with such a weapon?  Iran would face a regional neighbor, Israel, which possesses roughly 200 nuclear weapons. Iran would face a superpower, the United States, which has more than 2000 active nuclear warheads with another 3000 or so in reserve.  Any use of nuclear weapons by Iran would lead to overwhelming retaliation by Israel and/or the United States, so it’s extremely unlikely that Iran would ever use such weapons, unless Iran itself was faced by invasion and destruction.

And there’s the rub.  Relatively weak countries like Iran know that acquiring WMD is a potential game-changer, in the sense that such weapons can deter aggression by the United States.  An Iran with a nuclear weapon is a country that’s less easy for the U.S. to bully.  And Iran has regional rivals (India, Pakistan, and of course Israel) that already possess nuclear arsenals.

Look at what happened to Gaddafi in Libya.  He gave up his WMD (chemical weapons and nerve agents) and the next thing he knew he was being overthrown by a U.S.-led coalition.  We came, we saw, he died, cackled Hillary Clinton.  But would “we” have come if Gaddafi could have threatened a coalition with WMD?

(This is not an argument for WMD or for nuclear proliferation.  As I’ve argued elsewhere, I’d like to see the complete elimination of nuclear weapons on our planet.  They are genocidal weapons, pure and simple.)

It’s all well and good for the U.S. and its partners to work to eliminate any chance of Iran acquiring nukes, but the U.S. needs to go one giant leap further and work to eliminate all nuclear weapons everywhere.  If we did that, maybe Iran wouldn’t want one so much.

In the meantime, Senator Cotton needs to stop imagining how clean and simple it would be to destroy Iran’s nuclear program.  Dropping lots of bombs on Iran while hoping for an imaginary “happy ending” for the U.S. is more than facile thinking.  It’s lunacy.

Update (4/17/15): After I wrote this, I came across Jon Schwarz’s “Seven Things You Didn’t Know the U.S. and its Allies Did to Iran” at The Intercept.  Schwarz also makes the point about the Iranian desire for a nuke as a deterrent against U.S. aggression, and he notes other prominent American leaders who’ve threatened Iran with bombing and/or obliteration.  From his article:

U.S. leaders have repeatedly threatened to outright destroy Iran

It’s not just John McCain singing “bomb bomb bomb Iran.” Admiral William Fallon, who retired as head of CENTCOM in 2008, said about Iran: “These guys are ants. When the time comes, you crush them.” Admiral James Lyons Jr., commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in the 1980s, has said we were prepared to “drill them back to the fourth century.” Richard Armitage, then assistant secretary of defense, explained that we considered whether to “completely obliterate Iran.” Billionaire and GOP kingmaker Sheldon Adelson advocates an unprovoked nuclear attack on Iran — “in the middle of the desert” at first, then possibly moving on to places with more people.

Most seriously, the Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review declared that we will not use nuclear weapons “against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.” There’s only one non-nuclear country that’s plausibly not in this category. So we were saying we will never use nuclear weapons against any country that doesn’t have them already — with a single exception, Iran. Understandably, Iran found having a nuclear target painted on it pretty upsetting.”

Iran on the Rise, Courtesy of the United States

The Iranian Revolution
The Iranian Revolution

W.J. Astore

In the early 1970s, the US counted Iran as a close ally.  A big fan of warplanes and weapons, I recall the US selling the F-14 Tomcat, the plane flown by Tom Cruise in “Top Gun,” as well as HAWK surface-to-air missiles and other advanced weaponry to the Shah of Iran.  Back then, the F-14 had the most advanced avionics of any American plane, with a powerful radar linked to Phoenix air-to-air missiles.  By selling the F-14 to Iran, the US was in a sense entrusting the Iranians with some of America’s most classified military secrets.  (I later recall reading that the Iranians used F-14s as mini-AWACs planes, as in airborne warning and control, due to the power of its radar systems.)

Well, that was then, when the Shah of Iran was our ally.  Then the Iranian Revolution came, the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power, Iranians took Americans hostage in the US embassy, and Iran morphed into our “Great Satan” even as we became theirs.  (As a teenager, I wore a t-shirt with Khomeini’s profile in a sniper’s crosshairs; the t-shirt read “Put a Hola in the Ayatollah.”  It was quite popular.)

Now, of course, Iran is a nuclear bogeyman and a meddler in American designs on the Middle East.  The irony is that the USA itself has been instrumental in facilitating the rise of Iran.  This is amply documented in Peter Van Buren’s latest article for TomDispatch.com.  It seems that what ever the US attempts in the Middle East, notably the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Iran emerges as the biggest beneficiary.

Maybe we’re still allies after all, and the Iranian Revolution was just a dream, as in that old plotline on the nighttime soap opera, “Dallas”?  Heck, given the poor script being written by our foreign policy experts, anything seems possible.

But let Peter Van Buren tell it:

Iran should send America a fruit basket to thank it for setting the stage so perfectly for its ascent. As a start, in 2003 the United States eliminated Iran’s major border threats: Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to the west and the Taliban in Afghanistan to the east. (The Taliban are back of course, but diligently focused on America’s puppet Afghan government.) The long slog of Washington’s wars in both those countries dulled even the reliably bloodthirsty American public’s taste for yet more of the same, and cooled off Bush-era plans in Tel Aviv and Washington for air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. (After all, if even Vice President Dick Cheney couldn’t pull the trigger on Iran before leaving office in 2008, who in 2015 America is going to do so?)

Better yet for the Iranians, when Saddam was hanged in 2006, they not only lost an enemy who had invaded their country in 1980, launching a bitter waragainst them that didn’t end for eight years, but gained an ally in the new Iraq. As U.S. influence withered away with the failure of the March 2010 Iraqi elections to produce a broadly representative government, Iran stepped in to broker a thoroughly partisan settlement leading to a sectarian Shia government in Baghdad bent on ensuring that the country’s minority Sunni population would remain out of power forever. The Obama administration seemed nearly oblivious to Iran’s gains in Iraq in 2010 — and seems so again in 2015 …

The U.S. is running around in circles in the Middle East, patching together coalitions here, acquiring strange bedfellows there, and in location after location trying to figure out who the enemy of its enemy actually is. The result is just what you’d expect: chaos further undermining whatever’s left of the nations whose frailty birthed the jihadism America is trying to squash.

And in a classic tale of unintended consequences, just about every time Washington has committed another blunder in the Middle East, Iran has stepped in to take advantage. Consider that country the rising power in the region and credit American clumsiness for the new Iranian ascendancy.”

Mission accomplished — for Iran.

Hillary Shillary: A Deeply Compromised Presidential Candidate

Hillary Clinton (NY Times)
Hillary Clinton (NY Times)

W.J. Astore

Hillary Clinton will soon be announcing her candidacy for the presidency.  She has learned from 2008, or so reports say, and will be reaching out to voters in “intimate” settings like pseudo-town halls, rather than the mass rallies of her previous candidacy, which were supposed to anoint her as the “inevitable” Democratic candidate in 2008.

Yes, Hillary is searching for the common touch, the touch that came so naturally (in more ways than one) to her husband Bill.  It’s an act, of course, for there’s no candidate more calculating and controlling and imperious than Hillary.  This is not necessarily a bad thing in a leader; nice gals finish last, especially in the man’s world of U.S. presidential politics.  Hillary knows it’s not enough for women to “lean-in”; you have to be willing to get down and dirty to beat the old boys at their own game.

No, the main problem is not Hillary’s imperiousness.  It’s her shilling for major corporate donations, and her willingness to accept major “donations” from foreign governments (via the Clinton Foundation) while claiming that her hands remain untied and unsullied.

An interesting graphic from LittleSis illustrates the point, which explains that: “Of the 425 large corporate donors to the Clinton Foundation, the Wall Street Journal found 60 of those donors lobbied the State Department during Hillary Clinton’s tenure.”

http://littlesis.org/maps/534-hrc-complex-corporate-ties/raw?embed=true&zoom=0.617

As Peter Van Buren notes, the Clintons have already broken their promises of transparency with respect to donors and their donations.  It’s say one thing and do another: business as usual for the Clintons.

When she was in high school, Hillary was an enthusiastic supporter of Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election, whose campaign slogan, “In your heart, you know he’s right,” was appositely funny.  Yes — far right, people said. Hillary’s slogan for 2016 should be, “In my heart, I know I’m right,” so vote for me, peasants.  Never mind where and how Bill and I got our money, and to whom we owe favors.

Shilling for money is a large part of the American “democratic” process, and Bill and Hillary are masters at it.  This shouldn’t necessarily disqualify Hillary.  But the broken promises, the dubious ethics, the constant evasiveness: well, those qualities are far more worrying.  And deeply compromising.

A Nixon Quote Explains the Root of So Many U.S. Foreign Policy Blunders

Giving war a chance
Giving war a chance

W.J. Astore

On 30 April 1970, 45 years ago this month, President Richard M. Nixon ordered an invasion into Cambodia.  Explaining his reasoning for widening the war in Southeast Asia, Nixon declared:

If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions.” [Emphasis added]

So much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, then and now, is frightfully worried about appearing weak, helpless, impotent.  The solution, then and now, is military action.  They all want to be Caesars, if only in their own besotted minds.  As Shakespeare had Cassius say about Caesar:

he doth bestride the narrow world/Like a colossus, and we petty men/Walk under his huge legs and peep about/To find ourselves dishonorable graves.

America, to its image-conscious imperators like Nixon, must bestride the world like a well-hung giant, while little foreigners gasp in awe at the shadow cast, especially when aroused.

Think about John McCain’s fervent desire to bomb Iran, as Dan White deconstructed here. Think about George W. Bush’s transparent desire to play the conquering hero in the Middle East, ending Saddam Hussein’s reign once and for all in Iraq in 2003.  Recall here the words of Henry Kissinger when he was asked about why he supported the invasion of Iraq, when it was clear that country bore no responsibility for the 9/11 attacks. “Because [attacks on] Afghanistan wasn’t enough,” Kissinger replied.  Radical Islam had humiliated the U.S. at 9/11, and now it was our turn to strike back harder and to humiliate them. That simple.

As America’s foreign policy establishment continues to struggle with radical Islam and instability in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere, don’t expect any strategic retreats or retrenchment.  Don’t expect wisdom.  Don’t expect a containment policy that might allow radical Islam to burn itself out.  No.  Expect more military strikes, more troops, more weapons, more impassioned speeches about holding the line against barbarians determined to end our way of life.

Why?  In part because it’s far easier for insecure men to lash out as a way of compensating for their impotence and growing irrelevance.  Acting tough is the easier path.  Having patience, demonstrating forbearance, knowing when to sheath the sword, requires a quieter strength and a more confident sense of self.

You would think the “most powerful nation on the planet” with “the world’s best military in all of history” would have such quiet strength and confidence.  But remember that Nixon quote: No matter how big and strong we are, we can’t afford to look tiny and weak.

Bombs away.

Are Troops Being Evangelized Instead of Being Treated for PTSD?

An older symbol of the Chaplain Corps that includes Christian and Jewish symbols.  There are now Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim symbols as well
An older symbol of the Chaplain Corps that includes Christian and Jewish symbols. There are now Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim symbols as well

W.J. Astore

I wrote the following article for Huffington Post back in August of 2010.  Good Friday seems an appropriate day to revive it.

Our country was founded on the idea of religious freedom, and several of our nation’s founders were deists (Thomas Jefferson) or skeptical to the point of atheism (Thomas Paine).  Religious plurality and diversity characterized America from our earliest days, and so too was that true of our citizen-military.

Private religious belief should remain that: private.  Evangelism in military settings is inappropriate.  It is especially insidious when practiced by supervisors.  Militaries are rigidly stratified, and certain positions (drill sergeants, first sergeants, commanders, and so on) carry with them great authority.  It is totally inappropriate for NCOs and officers in supervisory positions to promote religion in any way, especially among their subordinates.  

That said, you cannot banish religion from the military since our military will always be a reflection of American society.  In national polls, Americans routinely say they believe in God, with the percentage affirming this belief exceeding 90%. Our military today is more rural than urban, more small town than big city, more Southern and Midwestern than Coastal. In short, our military recruits from areas of the country that are often powerfully infused with evangelical Christian beliefs. Such beliefs are not going to disappear when troops don their uniforms.

God and country are united in the minds of many of our troops.  And a person’s mind is his or her own private affair.  What we must guard against is the intrusion of religion in policy areas and public arenas where it doesn’t belong.  The article below highlights one such case.

Yesterday [8/9/2010], the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) and Veterans for Common Sense sent a startling letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. It alleged that the military has sent some psychological casualties to chaplains for counseling, rather than to mental health care professionals for diagnosis and treatment. In a few cases, the letter alleges, chaplains sought to provide comfort through evangelism. In essence, it seems wounded and disturbed troops were encouraged to put their trust in Jesus: that He would provide for them if only they accepted Him.

General George S. Patton Jr. was fired during World War II for slapping soldiers with PTSD. Assuming the MRFF letter is correct, are we prepared to fire chaplains for seeking to alleviate PTSD and other disorders with a healthy dose of scripture and heartfelt appeals to Jesus?

I would advise against this.

I can well imagine that a few chaplains, perhaps of an evangelical bent, in their zeal to provide help, may have conflated their own personal conversion experiences and the resultant comfort they gained from them with the kind of professional care and treatment provided by mental health care experts. If one’s own doubts and problems were resolved through heartfelt conversion, it’s quite possible one would believe that evangelism in the name of Jesus could cure all ills — a belief they may then have tried to transfer to hurting, even desperate, troops.

Such misguided ministering, if it exists, must stop.

But at the same time let’s not forget that chaplains are invaluable as counselors. The equivalent at times to a “big brother” or “big sister,” they are both part of a unit but also in a (moral) sense stand above it and the entire military system. It’s a demanding job — indeed, it’s more than a job, it’s a calling — and the vast majority of chaplains perform it well.

Chaplains, of course, are not mental health care providers. Psychological trauma and other serious mental health issues clearly go beyond their abilities and training to treat and meliorate. The letter from the MRFF and Veterans for Common Sense reminds us of this fact, as well as of the burdens of war on our troops and of the dire shortages of qualified mental health care. It’s the latter that requires the lion’s share of our attention and resources.

That said, allow me a moment to praise military chaplains. The several I’ve known have been dedicated, decent, godly souls as well as good troops. They share in the burdens of their units even as they provide selfless counsel, spiritual or otherwise. One older chaplain I knew eagerly went through jump training prior to joining the 101st Airborne. If he was going to serve alongside airborne troops, he wanted to know what jumping out of airplanes was like.

National prayer breakfasts I’ve attended, run by military chaplains of multiple faiths, were always open to troops of any faith (or no faith at all). There were no distinctions between Protestants or Catholics, or for that matter between Muslims or Jews. As celebrations of non-denominational and undifferentiated spirituality, they were irenic, life-affirming, even moving.

Let’s be careful, then, not to let instances of Christian evangelism in the ranks distract us from a healthy exercise of spirituality and religious feeling. Let’s applaud our military chaplains even as we recognize that they too have limitations. But most of all, let’s be sure to get our troops the professional mental health care they both need and deserve.