It’s Halloween, America, which perhaps explains the gruesome results of the latest Republican presidential debate. I watched a sliver of them (terrifying!), and read as much as I could stand of the debate transcript (horrifying!). As usual, the Republicans want you to be afraid, very afraid, of the bogeyman. With respect to the economy, the bogeyman is variously described as a socialist, a Bolshevik, even a Menshevik (!), someone who favors big government to make all of your decisions on health care, education, and what not.
The Republican solution? Trust the free market! Empower the makers by cutting their taxes. Vilify the moochers and takers while starving them of their entitlement candy. Something like this cartoon, perhaps:
Long ago, George H.W. Bush described Reagan’s “supply side” tax plan as “voodoo economics.” That’s the idea you can cut taxes on the richest and most privileged Americans, thereby supposedly stimulating investment and growth, in which case the benefits would “trickle down” to the lowest of Americans on the economic ladder, even as the federal budget miraculously balanced itself.
If you thought that voodoo was thirty-five years in the grave, think again. It’s been exhumed from the graveyard of dead ideas, stalking us yet again, this time from the stage of that presidential debate in Boulder, Colorado.
For me, the scariest part of the Republican debate was its total lack of original ideas. Talk of Bolshevism is Cold War rhetoric that was dead a generation ago; supply-side economics was dead on arrival almost two generations ago; but like zombies these dead ideas are consuming the brains of the Republican candidates.
I don’t need to watch the TV series “The Walking Dead” to see zombies. For that, I just need to watch the Republican presidential debates.
“The president announced last week that American troops will remain in Afghanistan beyond the planned withdrawal at the end of 2016. This is a devastating blow. We’ve already spent $716 billion and counting on the war in Afghanistan alone, plus countless lives lost and derailed.”
Of course, not the same American troops will “remain” in Afghanistan until 2017 (or 2024, or who knows what year). U.S. troops, intelligence operatives, privatized paramilitaries, and assorted imperial straphangers are constantly rotating in and out of war zones around the world, sometimes on yearly tours, often on much shorter ones. This reality got me to thinking about American imperialism as a peculiar form of global tourism. All those repetitive, fairly short-term, “tours” to foreign countries, followed by new American tour groups (fresh deployments of new combat units). The result is needless repetition, endless waste, and flat learning curves for Americans. For the locals who have to endure America’s “tours,” the results are often far worse — and unlike Americans they usually can’t get on a boat or helicopter or jet and leave.
I was stimulated to write this new article on America’s “tourists of empire,” which appears at TomDispatch.com today. You can read it in full here. I’ve included some excerpts below. I hope this article provides a contrary perspective on U.S. military efforts around the world.
Tourists of Empire: America’s Peculiar Brand of Global Imperialism
The United States is a peculiar sort of empire. As a start, Americans have been in what might be called imperial denial since the Spanish-American War of 1898, if not before. Empire — us? We denied its existence even while our soldiers were administering “water cures” (aka waterboarding) to recalcitrant Filipinos more than a century ago. Heck, we even told ourselves we were liberating those same Filipinos, which leads to a second point: the U.S. not only denies its imperial ambitions, but shrouds them in a curiously American brand of Christianized liberation theology. In it, American troops are never seen as conquerors or oppressors, always as liberators and freedom-bringers, or at least helpers and trainers. There’s just enough substance to this myth (World War II and the Marshall Plan, for example) to hide uglier imperial realities.
Denying that we’re an empire while cloaking its ugly side in missionary-speak are two enduring aspects of the American brand of imperialism, and there’s a third as well, even if it’s seldom noted. As the U.S. military garrisons the planet and its special operations forces alone visit more than 140 countries a year, American troops have effectively become the imperial equivalent of globetrotting tourists. Overloaded with technical gear and gadgets (deadly weapons, intrusive sensors), largely ignorant of foreign cultures, they arrive eager to help and spoiling for action, but never (individually) staying long…
Call it Imperial Tourist Syndrome, a bizarre American affliction that creates its own self-sustaining dynamic. To a local, it might look something like this: U.S. forces come to your country, shoot some stuff up (liberation!), take some selfies, and then, if you’re lucky, leave (at least for a while). If you’re unlucky, they overstay their “welcome,” surge around a bit and generate chaos until, sooner or later (in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, much, much later), they exit, not always gracefully (witness Saigon 1975 or Iraq 2011).
And here’s the weirdest thing about this distinctly American version of the imperial: a persistent short-time mentality seems only to feed its opposite, wars that persist without end. In those wars, many of the country’s heavily armed imperial tourists find themselves sent back again and again for one abbreviated tour of duty after another, until it seems less like an adventure and more like a jail sentence.
The paradox of short-timers prosecuting such long-term wars is irresolvable because, as has been repeatedly demonstrated in the twenty-first century, those wars can’t be won. Military experts criticize the Obama administration for lacking an overall strategy, whether in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere. They miss the point. Imperial tourists don’t have a strategy: they have an itinerary. If it’s Tuesday, this must be Yemen; if it’s Wednesday, Libya; if it’s Thursday, Iraq …
It was a dynamic already obvious five decades ago in Vietnam: a ticket-punching mentality that involved the constant rotation of units and commanders; a process of needless reinvention of the most basic knowledge as units deployed, bugged out, and were then replaced by new units; and the use of all kinds of grim, newfangled weapons and sensors, everything from Agent Orange and napalm to the electronic battlefield and the latest fighter planes and bombers — all for naught. Under such conditions, even the U.S. superpower lacked staying power, precisely because it never intended to stay. The “staying” aspect of the Vietnam War was often referred to in the U.S. as a “quagmire.” For the Vietnamese, of course, their country was no “big muddy” that sucked you down. It was home. They had little choice in the matter; they stayed — and fought.
Combine a military with a tourist-like itinerary and a mentality to match, a high command that in its own rotating responsibilities lacks all accountability for mistakes, and a byzantine, top-heavy bureaucracy, and you turn out to have a surefire recipe for defeat. And once again, in the twenty-first century, whether among the rank and file or at the very top, there’s little continuity or accountability involved in America’s military presence in foreign lands. Commanders are constantly rotated in and out of war zones. There’s often a new one every year. (I count 17 commanders for the International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan, the U.S.-led military coalition, since December 2001.) U.S. troops may serve multiple overseas tours, yet they are rarely sent back to the same area. Tours are sequential, not cumulative, and so the learning curve exhibited is flat…
At some level, the U.S. military knows it’s screwed. That’s why its commanders tinker so much with weapons and training and technology and tactics. It’s the stuff they can control, the stuff that seems real in a way that foreign peoples aren’t (at least to us). Let’s face it: past as well as current events suggest that guns and how to use them are what Americans know best.
But foreign lands and peoples? We can’t control them. We don’t understand them. We can’t count on them. They’re just part of the landscape we’re eternally passing through — sometimes as people to help and places to rebuild, other times as people to kill and places to destroy. What they aren’t is truly real. They are the tourist attractions of American war making, sometimes exotic, sometimes deadly, but (for us) strangely lacking in substance.
I read the news today, oh boy. President Obama has decided to keep thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan until 2017, effectively kicking the war to the next president. According to the New York Times, “The Obama administration sees the choice to slow down the United States’ Afghan exit as the best of bad options.” Not to be cynical, but the decision to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan until 2017 is obviously intended to prevent an Iraq-like collapse in 2016, a collapse that Republicans would seize upon in next year’s election cycle to portray democrats as weak and feckless. All politics is local, as Tip O’Neill said.
Afghanistan is known as the graveyard of empires, but the United States believes if we whistle loud enough past it, no harm will come to us. In other words, we refuse to learn anything from history, the theme of an article I wrote back in 2009 for TomDispatch on the lessons of Vietnam for Obama, recently anointed as presidential savior. Sections (2) and especially (4) below seem especially germane to today’s news of yet another extension to America’s troop commitment to Afghanistan.
Mary McCarthy in Vietnam, Barack Obama in Afghanistan
Seven Lessons and Many Questions for the President
By William Astore (written in 2009)
In 1967, outraged by the course of the Vietnam War, as well as her country’s role in prolonging and worsening it, Mary McCarthy, novelist, memoirist, and author of the bestseller The Group, went to Saigon, then the capital of South Vietnam, to judge the situation for herself. The next year, she went to the North Vietnamese capital, Hanoi. She wrote accounts of both journeys, published originally in pamphlet format as Vietnam (1967) and Hanoi (1968), and later gathered with her other writings on Vietnam as a book, The Seventeenth Degree (1974). As pamphlets, McCarthy’s accounts sold poorly and passed into obscurity; deservedly so, some would say.
Those who’d say this, however, would be wrong. McCarthy brought a novelist’s keen eye to America’s activities and its rhetoric in Vietnam. By no means a military expert, not even an expert on Vietnam — she only made a conscious decision to study the war in Vietnam after she returned from her trip to Saigon — her impressionistic writings were nevertheless insightful precisely because she had long been a critical thinker beholden to no authority.
Her insights into our approach to war-fighting and to foreign cultures are as telling today as they were 40 years ago, so much so that President Obama and his advisors might do well to add her unconventional lessons to their all-too-conventional thinking on our spreading war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
What were those lessons? Here are seven of them, each followed by questions that, four decades later, someone at President Obama’s next press conference should consider asking him:
1. McCarthy’s most fundamental objection was to the way, in Vietnam, the U.S. government decided to apply “technology and a superior power to a political situation that will not yield to this.” At the very least, the United States was guilty of folly, but McCarthy went further. She condemned our technocentric and hegemonic form of warfare as “wicked” because of its “absolute indifference to the cost in human lives” to the Vietnamese people.
Even in 1967, the widespread, at times indiscriminate, nature of American killing was well known. For example, U.S. planes dropped roughly 7 million tons of bombs on Vietnam and parts of Laos and Cambodia during the war, nearly five times the tonnage used against Germany during World War II. The U.S. even waged war on the Vietnamese jungle and forest, which so effectively hid Vietnamese guerrilla forces, spraying roughly 20 million gallons of toxic herbicides (including the dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange) on it.
In her outrage, McCarthy dared to compare the seeming indifference of many of her fellow citizens toward the blunt-edged sword of technological destruction we had loosed on Vietnam to the moral obtuseness of ordinary Germans under Adolf Hitler.
Questions for President Obama: Aren’t we once again relying on the destructive power of technology to “solve” complex political and religious struggles? Aren’t we yet again showing indifference to the human costs of war, especially when borne by non-Americans? Even though we’re using far fewer bombs in the Af-Pak highlands than we did in Vietnam, aren’t we still morally culpable when these “precision-guided munitions” miss their targets and instead claim innocents, or hit suspected “terrorists” who suddenly morph into wedding parties? In those cases, do we not seek false comfort in the phrase, C’est la guerre, or at least that modern equivalent: unavoidable collateral damage?
2. As Richard Nixon campaigned for the presidency in 1968 by calling for “peace with honor” in Vietnam, McCarthy offered her own warning about the dangers that arose when the office of the presidency collided with an American desire never to be labeled a loser: “The American so-called free-enterprise system, highly competitive, investment-conscious, expansionist, repels a loser policy by instinctive defense movements centering in the ganglia of the presidency. No matter what direction the incumbent, as candidate, was pointing in, he slowly pivots once he assumes office.”
Questions for President Obama: Have you, like Vietnam-era presidents, pivoted toward yet another surge simply to avoid the label of “loser” in Afghanistan? And if the cost of victory (however defined) is hundreds, or even thousands, more American military casualties, hundreds of billions of additional dollars spent, and extensive collateral damage and blowback, will this “victory” not be a pyrrhic one, achieved at a price so dear as to be indistinguishable from defeat?
3. Though critical of the U.S. military in Vietnam, McCarthy was even more critical of American civilian officials there. “On the whole,” she wrote, they “behaved like a team of promoters with a dubious ‘growth’ stock they were brokering.” At least military men were often more forthright than the civilians, if not necessarily more self-aware, McCarthy noted, because they were part of the war — the product, so to speak — not its salesmen.
Questions for President Obama: In promising to send a new “surge” of State Department personnel and other civilians into Afghanistan, are you prepared as well to parse their words? Are you braced in case they sell you a false bill of goods, even if the sellers themselves, in their eagerness to speak fairy tales to power, continually ignore the Fantasyland nature of their tale?
4.Well before Bush administration officials boasted about creating their own reality and new “facts on the ground” in Iraq, Mary McCarthy recognized the danger of another type of “fact”: “The more troops and matériel committed to Vietnam, the more retreat appears to be cut off — not by an enemy, but by our own numbers. To call for withdrawal in the face of that commitment… is to seem to argue not against a policy, but against facts, which by their very nature are unanswerable.”
Questions for President Obama: If your surge in Afghanistan fails, will you be able to de-escalate as quickly as you escalated? Or will the fact that you’ve put more troops in harm’s way (with all their equipment and all the money that will go into new base and airfield and road construction), and committed more of your prestige to prevailing, make it even harder to consider leaving?
5.A cursory reading of The Pentagon Papers, the famously secret government documents on Vietnam leaked to the New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg, reveals how skeptical America’s top officials were, early on, in pursuing a military solution to the situation in South Vietnam. Nevertheless, knowing better, the “best and brightest,” as journalist David Halberstam termed them in his famous, ironic book title, still talked themselves into it; and they did so, as McCarthy noted, because they set seemingly meaningful goals (“metrics” or “benchmarks,” we’d say today), which they then convinced themselves they were actually achieving. When you trick yourself into believing that you’re meeting your goals, as Halberstam noted, there’s no reason to reexamine your course of action.
Questions for President Obama: Much has been written about an internal struggle within your administration over the wisdom of surging in Afghanistan. Now, you, too, have called for the setting of “benchmarks”for your new strategy’s success. Are you wise enough to set them to capture the complexities of political realities on the ground rather than playing to American strengths? Are you capable of re-examining them, even when your advisors assure you that they are being achieved?
6.In her day, Mary McCarthy recognized the inequities of burden-sharing at home when it came to the war in Vietnam: “Casualty figures, still low [in 1967], seldom strike home outside rural and low-income groups — the silent part of society. The absence of sacrifices [among the privileged classes] has had its effect on the opposition [to the war], which feels no need, on the whole, to turn away from its habitual standards and practices — what for? We have not withdrawn our sympathy from American power and from the way of life that is tied to it — a connection that is more evident to a low-grade G.I. in Vietnam than to most American intellectuals.”
Questions for President Obama: Are you willing to listen to the common G.I. as well as to the generals who have your ear? Are you willing to insist on greater equity in burden-sharing, since once again most of the burden of Iraq and Afghanistan has fallen on “the silent part of society”? Are you able to recognize that the “best and brightest” in the corridors of power may not be the wisest exactly because they have so little to lose (and perhaps much to gain) from our “overseas contingency operations”?
7.McCarthy was remarkably perceptive when it came to the seductiveness of American technological prowess. Our technological superiority, she wrote, was a large part of “our willingness to get into Vietnam and stay there… The technological gap between us and the North Vietnamese constituted, we thought, an advantage which obliged us not to quit.”
Questions for President Obama: Rather than providing us with a war-winning edge, might our robot drones, satellite imagery, and all our other gadgetry of war seduce us into believing that we can “prevail” at a reasonable and sustainable cost? Indeed, do we think we should prevail precisely because our high-tech military brags of “full spectrum dominance”?
One bonus lesson from Mary McCarthy before we take our leave of her: Even now, we speak too often of “Bush’s war” or, more recently, “Obama’s war.” Before we start chattering mindlessly about Iraq and Afghanistan as American tragedies, we would do well to recall what McCarthy had to say about the war in Vietnam: “There is something distasteful,” she wrote, “in the very notion of approaching [Vietnam] as an American tragedy, whose protagonist is a great suffering Texan [President Lyndon Baines Johnson].”
Yes, there is something distasteful about a media that blithely refers to Bush’s or Obama’s war as hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans suffer. For American troops, after all, are not the only ones paying the ultimate price when the U.S. fights foreign wars for ill-considered reasons and misguided goals.
A revealing question and answer came in this week’s presidential debate among the Democratic candidates. They were asked if Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who revealed illegal spying by the NSA and the U.S. government, should be considered a hero or traitor.
Hillary Clinton’s answer was revealing of who she is and what she stands for; here it is in full:
CLINTON: He broke the laws of the United States. He could have been a whistleblower. He could have gotten all of the protections of being a whistleblower. He could have raised all the issues that he has raised. And I think there would have been a positive response to that.
COOPER: Should he do jail time?
ClINTON: In addition — in addition, he stole very important information that has unfortunately fallen into a lot of the wrong hands. So I don’t think he should be brought home without facing the music.
According to Hillary, Snowden is not officially a whistleblower, since he failed to apply for such status within the government. If he had, she suggests he would have been given a fair hearing. (Right! Just like the “positive response” Hillary Clinton’s State Department gave Peter Van Buren, who for his honesty about Iraq reconstruction was outcast and hounded into retirement.) She also suggests that Snowden’s revelations have “fallen into a lot of the wrong hands,” by which I think she means not foreign terrorists but the American people — what she terms “everyday” people to distinguish them from people like her.
But, finally, this sentence is the killer: I don’t think he should be brought home without facing the music.
Facing the music: Do you know what that potentially means for Edward Snowden? Accused of treason (his information having fallen into all those “wrong hands“), he would face the possibility of execution by the U.S. government. Facing the music in this case may mean facing a firing squad. At the very least, we’re talking about a LONG jail sentence, doubtless in a maximum security federal penitentiary.
By comparison to Hillary, the other candidates showed measures of compassion. Lincoln Chaffee said he wanted to bring Snowden home: that he deserved praise for revealing illegal activities by the U.S. government. Martin O’Malley essentially agreed with Clinton but without the ominous warning about the need to face the music. Bernie Sanders applauded Snowden for his role in educating the people about their dishonest and abusive government; he said that important service should be taken into account if and when Snowden returns for trial. Jim Webb punted the question to “the legal system” but he also highlighted the dangers of uncontrolled surveillance and how such power can be used for undemocratic purposes: “We’ve got a vast data bank of information that is ripe for people with bad intentions to be able to use,” Webb said. Of course, we truly wouldn’t know the full extent of this without the revelations provided by Snowden.
Following on from what Webb said, the conclusion is obvious: Edward Snowden is a hero. He should be brought back to the United States and praised for his courage in revealing how our government has spied illegally, not only on the American people but on much of the world. Untrammeled spying is not making us safer; it’s people like Snowden, those who still have integrity and who believe in the ideals of democracy, who are making us safer.
On the question of Snowden, hero or traitor, all the candidates disappointed. But in calling for Snowden to face the music, Hillary Clinton’s answer represented the deepest bow to the National Security State.
If I were Snowden, I wouldn’t plan on returning to the USA if Clinton is elected president.
My wife and I were talking about the Republican attack on Planned Parenthood and how ludicrous it is in the grand scheme of things. The Federal Government contributes just over $500 million to the budget of Planned Parenthood. That’s the equivalent of two F-35 jet fighters to support vitally important health services provided at 700 clinics across the country. Talk about bang for the buck!
If a person playing with a full deck had to make a choice, which would she choose to fund: basic medical and information services for nearly three million Americans each year, or two underperforming F-35 jet fighters? Indeed, for the projected cost of the F-35 program, you could easily fund Planned Parenthood for more than 2000 years!
Speaking of Planned Parenthood, it’s reassuring to know such centers and clinics exist, especially given how squeamish Americans are, generally speaking, about sex. Planned Parenthood provides invaluable services at low cost, but I guess Congress prefers funding extraneous jet fighters at sky-high cost.
The true chart for the services rendered by Planned Parenthood is below, courtesy of Politifact. The false chart had been used to suggest Planned Parenthood was increasing abortions and decreasing cancer screening services. But a decline in cancer screening is due mainly to changes in frequency of pap smears, and abortion rates have held steady across time. Note all of the other services provided, to include screening for STDs.
Of course, phony charts and Congressional hearings are all about politics and hot button issues like abortion. Hysterical opposition to Planned Parenthood is a cynical exercise in emotional manipulation by disinformation and scare-mongering. The sad thing is how easily it gains traction in our country.
Even as Republican men (yes — it’s mostly men) beat their collective chests about Planned Parenthood, consider that the Federal Budget (discretionary) for FY 2016 is $1.168 trillion. Recall that total federal funding for Planned Parenthood is a mere $500 million. If this was shown on a pie chart, the budgetary piece for Planned Parenthood would not be a slice; not even a sliver. It would be a flake off of the crust.
Compare this to defense spending, Homeland Security, and war funding, which constitutes more than halfthe federal pie (discretionary spending), and which a Republican Congress wants to increase. Still think we should focus on flakes off the crust of the pie?
For shame, Congress. For shame, all of us, for allowing our politics to be manipulated by liars, opportunists, and ignoramuses.
(Note: Planned Parenthood “provides sexual and reproductive health care, education, information, and outreach to more than five million women, men, and adolescents worldwide each year. 2.7 million women and men in the United States annually visit Planned Parenthood affiliate health centers for trusted health care services and information.” Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? Except that it’s true.)
At the New York Times, Robert Draper had a fascinating article last month on how Republican candidates for president are positioning themselves on foreign policy. Rand Paul excepted, all of the Republican candidates are calling for a more “aggressive” U.S. foreign policy, one that promises more military interventions and higher military spending. The goal is apparently to show more muscle than President Obama, who has been “weak,” according to these same Republicans.
The language here fascinates me. Again and again in Draper’s article, you see references to “a more muscular foreign policy.” Showcasing muscles appears to be a favorite trope of Republican advisers, as is the need to be more “aggressive” overseas (Obama, of course, is viewed as being passive and timid). Republicans according to Draper favor the “aggressive promotion of American values” (whatever those are), an aggression that will somehow avoid recklessness (good luck with that). So, ISIS will be aggressively “destroyed,” even as the Middle East is stabilized by infusing it with “American values” (freedom? democracy? human rights?) promulgated by (as near as I can tell) American military muscle.
To cite just one example, consider this political ad featuring Senator Lindsey Graham, seen in his Air Force reserve uniform, highlighting his promise to “destroy” ISIS.
A muscular and aggressive foreign policy to destroy America’s enemies: If that excites you, vote Republican. But consider the cost of this love affair with muscles and aggression. And then ask yourself: Are they not the real “American values”?
All this talk of bulging military muscles and coldly calculated aggression: the ideal candidate for gung ho Republicans is not the reincarnation of Ronald Reagan. It’s an American Vladimir Putin.