Lessons and Propaganda from the Botched Raid on Yemen

An update on the Yemen Raid, according to NBC News: “Last month’s deadly commando raid in Yemen, which cost the lives of a U.S. Navy SEAL and a number of children, has so far yielded no significant intelligence, U.S. officials told NBC News.

Although Pentagon officials have said the raid produced “actionable intelligence,” senior officials who spoke to NBC News said they were unaware of any, even as the father of the dead SEAL questioned the premise of the raid in an interview with the Miami Herald published Sunday.”

The Pentagon apparently has three investigations ongoing into the raid, though it’s unclear whether results will be shared with the American people. Meanwhile, President Trump is promising a big boost to the Pentagon’s budget: $54 billion next year. More money promises more military adventurism — and more death.

http://www.nbcnews.com/news/investigations/yemen-seal-raid-yielded-no-significant-intelligence-say-officials-n726451

Bracing Views

170130-nora-anwar-al-awlaki Nora al-Awlaki, 8 years old, killed in the Yemen raid

W.J. Astore

The Trump administration’s first “kinetic” military action, last weekend’s raid on Yemen that killed a Navy SEAL as well as fifteen women and children, was an operational failure. Aggravating that failure has been the aggressive propaganda spin applied by the White House. According to White House spokesman Sean Spicer, the operation was a major success:

“Knowing that we killed an estimated 14 AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] members and that we gathered an unbelievable amount of intelligence that will prevent the potential deaths or attacks on American soil – is something that I think most service members understand, that that’s why they joined the service.”

Later, Spicer doubled down, accusing Senator John McCain (and other critics of the raid) of defaming the dead Navy SEAL when he suggested the raid had been something less than…

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Splinterlands: A Dystopic Novel for Our Trumpian Age

splinter

W.J. Astore

Equal parts amusing and alarming, John Feffer’s dystopian novel, Splinterlands, begins with Hurricane Donald, which floods Washington DC only five years from now.  You may deny climate change, Feffer suggests, but Mother Nature will have the last word.  She will unleash catastrophes and chaos that, combined with political fragmentation driven by hyper-aggressive capitalism and myopic nationalism, lead to a truly New World (Dis)order, characterized by confessional wars, resource shortfalls, and, within two generations, the end of the world as we know it.

Can “prophets of disintegration” like Donald Trump, driven by “market authoritarianism” and their own hubris, remake the world in their own chaotic image?  Feffer makes a persuasive case that they can.  Instead of seeing “the end of history” as a triumph of liberal democracy and a beneficial global marketplace driven by efficiency and technology, Feffer sees the possibility of factionalism of all sorts, a rejection of tolerance and diversity and the embrace of intolerance, identity politics, and similar exclusionary constructs.

Coincidentally, a cautionary letter from the Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film just crossed my desk; its words encapsulate what Feffer is warning us about.  The film directors denounced “the climate of fanaticism and nationalism we see today in the US and so many other countries.”  The letter goes on to say that:

“The fear generated by dividing us into genders, colors, religions and sexualities as a means to justify violence destroys the things that we depend on – not only as artists but as humans: the diversity of cultures, the chance to be enriched by something seemingly ‘foreign’ and the belief that human encounters can change us for the better. These divisive walls prevent people from experiencing something simple but fundamental: from discovering that we are all not so different.”

The problem, of course, is that many people prefer divisive walls, while finding meaning in fanaticism, nationalism, and the politics of difference.  We are now, Feffer writes, in a period of Great Polarization. His book is about what will happen if that polarization wins out.  He writes:

“The middle dropped out of the world.  Extremes of wealth and ideology flourished.  Political moderates became an endangered species and ‘compromise’ just another word for ‘appeasement.’  First came the disagreements over regulatory policy, then sharper political divides.  Finally, as the world quick-marched itself back through history, came the return of the war of all against all.  The EU, committed to the golden mean, had no way of surviving in such an environment without itself going to extremes.”

The result?  By the 2020s, the EU “evaporated like so much steam.” With Brexit ongoing, with the EU under increasing stress daily, Feffer’s scenario of an evaporating EU seems more than plausible.

Meanwhile, another breaking news item just crossed my desk: President Trump is seeking a $54 billion increase to America’s defense budget, to be funded by deep cuts to other federal agencies such as the EPA and Education.  Trump and his team see the world as a dangerous place, and the military as the best and only means to “protect” America, as in “America first.”  But by its nature the U.S. military is a global force, and more money for it means more military adventurism, driving further warfare, fragmentation, and chaos, consistent with Feffer’s vision of a future “splinterlands.”

As one of Feffer’s characters says, “There’s always been enormous profits in large-scale suffering.”  Feffer’s dystopic novel — like our real world today — features plenty of that. People suffer because of climate change.  Energy shortages.  Wars.  Water shortages.  Even technology serves to divide rather than to unite people, as many increasingly retreat into virtual “realities” that are far more pleasant than the real world that surrounds them.

Feffer’s book, in short, is provocative in the best sense.  But will it provoke us to make wiser, more inclusive, more compassionate, more humane choices?  That may be too much to ask of any book, but it’s not too much to ask of ourselves and our leaders.  The dystopic alternative, illustrated so powerfully in Feffer’s Splinterlands, provides us with powerful motivation to shape a better, less splintered, future.

 

Two Big Reasons Not to Vote for Trump

Trump’s recent call for more nuclear weapons, so that the U.S. can be clearly “at the top of the pack,” is reckless as well as wasteful. Reckless because it may fuel a new nuclear arms race, and wasteful because the U.S. is already clearly at the top. Meanwhile, Trump continues to enact policies that can only accelerate global warming/climate change. He is wrong on two of the biggest issues facing the safety of humanity today, even as he bloviates about “safety” to be attained by building walls and deporting immigrants for the most minor infractions.

What’s driving much of this, of course, is money. A trillion dollars for nuclear modernization over the next generation. Trillions of dollars to be made in the fossil fuel industry. And much money to be made by some at least in building walls and forcing out immigrants.

A Biblical passage comes to mind: When the blind lead the blind, both fall into the pit. Trump is a blind man, leading his blind followers straight into the pit. The question is whether they’ll take the planet (and the rest of us) with them.

Bracing Views

May 29, 2016 Fear his ignorance

W.J. Astore

Nuclear proliferation and global warming are two big issues that Donald Trump is wrong about.  They’re also the two biggest threats to our planet.  Nuclear war followed by nuclear winter could end most life on earth within a matter of weeks or months.  Global warming/climate change, though not as immediate a threat as nuclear war and its fallout, is inexorably leading to a more dangerous and less hospitable planet for our children and their children.

What does “The Donald” believe?  On nuclear proliferation, which only makes nuclear war more likely, Trump is essentially agnostic and even in favor of other nations joining the nuclear club, nations like Japan, South Korea, even Saudi Arabia.  When all countries should be earnestly working to reduce and then eliminate nuclear stockpiles, Trump is advocating their expansion.  (An aside: recall in a previous debate that Trump had no idea what…

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What Is True National Security?

general-zod-kneel
He promises safety and security.  You just have to kneel.

W.J. Astore

What is true national security?  Recent answers to this question focus on the U.S. military, Homeland Security, various intelligence agencies, and the like.  The “threat” is usually defined as foreign terrorists, primarily of the Islamist variety; marauding immigrants, mainly of the Mexican variety; and cyber hackers, often of the Russian variety.  To “secure” the homeland, to make us “safe,” the U.S. government spends in the neighborhood of $750 billion, each and every year, on the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, and intelligence agencies such as the CIA and NSA (and there are roughly 15 more agencies after those two goliaths).

But what makes people truly secure?  How about a living wage, decent health care, and quality education?  Affordable housing?  Some time off to decompress, to pursue one’s hobbies, to connect with family and friends, to continue to grow as a human being?  Water without lead, air without toxins, land without poisons?

These thoughts came to me as I read the usual anodyne statement put out by Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, nominated as President Trump’s new National Security Adviser.  “The safety of the American people and the security of the American homeland are our top priorities,” McMaster said in his statement.

I agree that safety and security are important, but I wouldn’t place them as America’s top priorities, even in the realm of national defense.  Our top priority is supporting and defending the U.S. Constitution, including all those rights and freedoms that are often threatened in nervous and excitable times.  Institutions like the press, freedoms like the right to assemble and protest, the right to individual privacy, and the like.

When the powerful threaten those freedoms, as President Trump is doing by denouncing the press as the enemy of the people, that very act is a bigger threat to national security than ISIS or illegal immigrants or Russian hackers or what-have-you.

Security is not just about weapons and warriors and killing terrorists and other “bad hombres,” and safety is not just about guarding your money and property or even your person from physical harm.  Safety and security draw their strength from our Constitution, our communities, and our societal institutions, not only those that catch and punish criminals, but those that enlighten us, those that make us better, those that enrich our souls.

In the USA, we have a very narrow and negative definition of safety and security.  It’s a definition that’s been increasingly militarized, much like our government, over the last few decades.

We’d be wise to broaden and deepen our view of what security and safety really mean; we’d be especially wise not to allow leaders like Donald Trump to define them for us.  In their minds, security and safety mean doing what you’re told while shutting up and paying your taxes.

Kneeling before General Zod (to cite Superman for a moment) or indeed any other leader is not what I call safety and security.

Update: Just after I wrote this, I saw these two headlines from today: “Trump on deportations: ‘It’s a military operation,'” and “Trump adviser Bannon assails media at CPAC: Of media coverage of Trump, Steve Bannon said: ‘It’s not only not going to get better — it’s going to get worse every day… they’re corporatist, globalist media.'”

There you have it: militarization (at least of rhetoric) and scapegoating of the media before the fact.  Judge Trump, Bannon, and Co. by their deeds, but also by their words.

Update 2: Last night, a PBS report noted that the USA, with less than 5% of the world’s population, accounts for 80% of opioid prescriptions.  The overuse of powerful and addictive painkillers points to serious problems in national morale.  Even as many Americans have poor access to health care or overpay for it, America itself is awash in prescription drugs, many of them either highly expensive or highly addictive, or both. This reliance on prescription drugs is a sign of a complex communal malaise, yet the government seems most focused on policing the use of marijuana, which is now legal in many states.

The U.S. Military’s Limited Critique of Itself Ensures Future Disasters

President Trump has selected Army Lt Gen H.R. McMaster to be his new National Security Adviser. McMaster is a “warrior” and a true believer in military power, applied intelligently, that is. He has been highly critical of political power brokers in Washington, DC, and wrote a book on the mishandling of the military during the Vietnam War. Back in 2013, he wrote an article for the New York Times, an article I critiqued in the following post. McMaster, intelligent and well-read, nevertheless is defined by his military experience, seeing “security” as something to be attained through the savvy use of power by warriors like himself.

Bracing Views

War is political, human, and chaotic.  Who knew? War is political, human, and chaotic. Who knew?

W.J. Astore

In the New York Times on July 20, Major General H.R. McMaster penned a revealing essay on “The Pipe Dream of Easy War.”  McMaster made three points about America’s recent wars and military interventions:

1.  In stressing new technology as being transformative, the American military neglected the political side of war.  They forgot their Clausewitz in a celebration of their own prowess, only to be brought back to earth by messy political dynamics in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

2.  Related to (1), the U.S. military neglected human/cultural aspects of war and therefore misunderstood Iraqi and Afghan culture.  Cultural misunderstandings transformed initial battlefield victories into costly political stalemates.

3.  Related to (1) and (2), war is uncertain and unpredictable.  Enemies can and will adapt.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these points, or in the general’s broad lesson that “American forces must…

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“We’re a nation at war”

james_madison_1894_issue-2
Madison: Permanent war marks the end of democracy

W.J. Astore

Last week, Army General Raymond “Tony” Thomas, head of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), expressed his dismay about the Trump administration. “Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil,” Thomas opined.  “I hope they sort it out soon because we’re a nation at war.”

What does that mean, we’re a nation at war?  Many will think that a dumb question, but is it?  Sure, we have roughly 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, and that war isn’t over.  Sure, the U.S. is still helping Iraqi forces (notably in Mosul) against ISIS and related terrorist groups. Yes, the U.S. and NATO (joined by Russia?) are seeking to corral and eventually to end ISIS and “radical Islamic extremism/terrorism.”  But do these efforts constitute a world war, like World Wars I and II?

It doesn’t feel like a war — not in the USA, at least.  Congress has made no formal declaration of war.  Few Americans are sacrificing (of course, the troops in harm’s way are). There’s no rationing.  No tax increases to pay for the war.  No national mobilization of resources.  No draft.  No change in lifestyles or priorities. Nothing.  Most Americans go about their lives oblivious to the “war” and its progress (or lack thereof).

Here’s my point. Terrorism, whether radical Islamist or White supremacist or whatever variety, will always be with us.  Yes, it must be fought, and in a variety of ways.  Police action is one of them.  Political and social changes, i.e. reforms, are another.  Intelligence gathering.  Occasionally, military action is warranted.  But to elevate terrorism to an existential threat is to feed the terrorists.  “War” is what they want; they feed on that rhetoric of violence, a rhetoric that elevates their (self)-importance.  Why feed them?

Another aspect of this: a war on terrorism is essentially a permanent war, since you’ll never get rid of all terrorists.  And permanent war is perhaps the greatest enemy of democracy — and a powerful enabler of autocrats. James Madison saw this as clearly as anyone:

Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.  War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debt and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.  In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people.  The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both. No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare …

After reading Madison, does anyone dedicated to democracy really want to be “at war” for, well, generations?  Forever?

Of course, there’s another aspect to General Thomas’s critique that must be mentioned, and that’s his audacity in criticizing the government (and, by extension, his commander-in-chief) for not having its act together in “the war.”  Generals are supposed to fight wars, not critique in public the government they serve.

War rhetoric doesn’t just inspire terrorists and empower autocrats while weakening democracy: It also emboldens generals.  They begin to think that, if the nation is at war, they should have a powerful role in making sure it runs well, until the state becomes an apparatus of the military (as it did in Germany during World War I, when Field Marshal Hindenburg and General Ludendorff ran Germany from 1916 to its collapse in November 1918).  The Trump administration has already put (long-serving and recently retired) generals at the helm of defense, homeland security, and the National Security Council. Remember the days when civilians filled these positions?

One more point: If the U.S. is now “a nation at war,” when, do tell, will we return to being a nation at peace?  If the answer is, “When the last terrorist is eliminated,” say goodbye right now to what’s left of American democracy.

Making America Divided Again

trump
Rise above the pettiness, don’t be the pettiness

W.J. Astore

Trump’s latest press conference is worrisome for so many reasons.  He seems to live in his own reality (e.g. his administration is “a fine-tuned machine“).  He’s still obsessed with Hillary Clinton and the margin of his victory.  He seems only recently to have learned how serious the prospects of a nuclear holocaust could and would be.  He continues to defend General Michael Flynn, saying that even though Flynn undermined the Obama administration and lied to Vice President Mike Pence, his rapprochement to Russia was laudable (with Trump suggesting that, even though he hadn’t approved Flynn’s actions, he might have).  He even tasked a Black reporter to set up a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus for him!

What to make of The Donald?  Trump seems to thrive on creating animosity, then exploiting it.  Special targets for him include the U.S. intelligence community and the media, both of which he sees as implacable enemies.  But is animosity and chaos any way to run a country or to represent a people?

I can see how calling out your perceived enemies might work in business, especially a personal one, though Trump’s bankruptcies suggest otherwise.  But Trump is no longer a free-wheeling real estate tycoon.  He’s president now, a symbol (like it or not) of America. Generating animosity and discord as a public servant is divisive, fractious, selfish, and unwise.

A united America is much stronger than a disunited America, but since Trump thrives on division, his personal style is weakening our country. You might say he’s the opposite of Abraham Lincoln, who appealed to the better angels of our nature in a noble but ultimately failed attempt to unite a disunited country. Whatever else Trump is about, it’s not better angels.

Instead of making America great again, Trump is making it divided and uncivil again.

Mister President: Please stop blaming the media, or Hillary, or the intelligence community, or judges, or anyone else for that matter.  Get on with the job of being a public servant.  America needs inspired leadership, not self-serving rhetoric.  We need a uniter, not a divider.

Rise above the pettiness, Mister President.  For the nation’s sake, don’t be the pettiness.