With Syria, the Senate Neocons Are at It Again

U.S. Army soldiers from the 1-320 Field Artillery Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, watch helicopters at Combat Outpost Terra Nova
A scene from America’s endless war in Afghanistan (Council on Foreign Relations)

Ronald Enzweiler

The current brouhaha in the U.S. Senate (and the larger neocon community) over President Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria is a repeat performance of the passion play that the same actors performed earlier this year when Trump first announced his intention to make good on his campaign promise to get our country out of its endless wars.  In the leading role for the neocons last time, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made a speech on the Senate floor on January 19, 2019 excoriating Trump for doing what he told the electorate he would do if he was elected president.

Having been an interloper in our country’s national security state, I know how things work in Washington and the tactics the pro-war political establishment uses to sell the public on its interventionist foreign policy and endless wars.  I wrote a book (When Will We Ever Learn?) on this subject based on my personal experiences.

As this drama plays out again, I’ve excerpted passages from my book that reveal the modus operandi the neocons used last time for overruling President Trump in determining U.S. military policy.  My critique of Senator McConnell’s speech is as pertinent now in exposing the fallacious thinking underlying the neocons’ current “stay forever” battle cry for Syria as it was in the brawl Trump lost to the neocons earlier this year when he wanted to bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan after 18 years.  Let’s hope the president learned from that defeat.

It’s now “game on” in round two of this battle.  The same players are back.  Senator McConnell is even using the word “precipitous” again.  Get your popcorn out and let’s see who wins this round in this heavyweight bout.

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We’ve already seen [earlier in my book] how the national security state sandbagged a Democrat president in his role as Commander-in-Chief in the conduct of the Afghan war.  Let’s now see how Washington elites are trying to sandbag a Republican president in his attempt to end this 18-year long war – despite President Trump’s vow in his presidential campaign and strong public support in the polls for getting all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan.

The neocon foreign policy establishment used three of its most prominent members to maintain their control over national security matters: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell; President of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Richard Haass; and James Dobbins, Senior Fellow at the Rand Corporation.  Mr. Dobbins was the lead author of the 15-page Rand Report dated January 7, 2019, Consequences of a Precipitous U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan.  (Take note of the word “precipitous” in this title.)

For those who don’t recognize the name, Rand Corporation is a charter member of the national security state insiders’ club.  Military history buffs might recall Rand wrote the Pentagon Papers for the DoD in the late 1960s.  They were the War State’s obvious go-to think-tank for this important assignment on Afghan war policy.

First, let’s see what Senator McConnell had to say about President Trump’s decision to start pulling U.S troops out of Afghanistan and Syria.  Below are remarks Senator McConnell made on the Senate floor on January 31, 2019.

“Simply put, while it is tempting to retreat to the comfort and security of our own shores, there is still a great deal of work to be done,” McConnell said. “And we know that left untended these conflicts will reverberate in our own cities.”

The United States is not the “world’s policeman,” it is the “leader of the free world” and must continue to lead a global coalition against terrorism and stand by allies engaged in the fight. He also stressed the importance of coordination between the White House and Congress to “develop long-term strategies in both nations, including a thorough accounting of the risks of withdrawing too hastily.”

“My amendment would acknowledge the plain fact that al-Qaeda, ISIS, and their affiliates in Syria and Afghanistan continue to pose a serious threat to our nation.” McConnell said his amendment “would recognize the danger of a precipitous withdrawal from either conflict and highlights the need for diplomatic engagement and political solutions to the underlying conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan.”

Notice the word “precipitous” in the Leader’s remarks.  Do you think it’s a coincidence that the title of the Rand Report is Consequences of a Precipitous U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan?  Obviously, Mitch got the memo from neocon headquarters.

He even got in the “we’re not the world’s policeman” line.  In Washington-speak, this is called “a non-denial denial.”  It translates to: “I’m really doing what I say I am not doing, but I can’t admit it, or you would catch on to how duplicitous I am.”  I’ve hung around with Washington swamp creatures too long to know that this professed denial is really an affirmation.

The line “we know that left untended these conflicts will reverberate in our own cities” is also classic neocon-speak.  It’s meant to scare the public.  But what it really does is reveal the flawed logic in their interventionist foreign policy doctrine.  The U.S. builds military bases around the world, starts wars, deposes governments, and occupies other countries – this is the interventionist foreign policy Senator McConnell champions as the head neocon in the U.S. Senate.  But the local nationals affected by this U.S. militarism don’t like a foreign power meddling in their part of the world, changing their governments, and interfering with their way of life.  (Who would?)

The obvious way to avoid blowback “in our cities” is for the U.S. to stop intervening in centuries-old ethnic, religious and territorial disputes in other parts of the world.  Not realizing this cause and effect (or simply ignoring it), Senator McConnell’s solution is to “stay the course.”  In neocon-speak, this means sending in more troops, intensifying bombing, and increasing extrajudicial drone killings.  These actions only worsen the conflicts, causing the U.S. to sink deeper into quagmires.

Predictably, Senator McConnell’s amendment passed the Senate on a 63-28 non-binding vote, proving that bipartisanship isn’t dead in Washington when it comes to authorizing endless wars.  This vote just shows how out of touch our elected officials are with the electorate as well as the power of the pro-military and pro-war lobby in Washington.

The other character on the neocon’s tag-team to undercut the President on his Afghan exit plan is Richard Haass, CFR President.  Mr. Haass was a senior State Department official in the first term of the Bush administration when the Iraq war began.  He’s one of several media savvy spokespersons for the national security state who apparently was charged with getting the word out on the Rand Report and endorsing its conclusion.

On the day after the report came out, Mr. Haass tweeted to his 150,000 followers:

“This report has it right: winning is not an option in Afghanistan (nor is peace) but losing (and renewed terrorism) is if we pull out U.S. forces any time soon.  We should stay with smaller numbers and reduced level of activity.”  Twitter, January 18, 2019.

In sum, even though there’s no chance of winning, America needs to keep fighting.  How do they sell this nonsense?

This was a three-step process.  First, the “let’s stay in Afghanistan forever” doctrine was composed by Mr. Dobbins in the Rand Report.  It was next preached by CFR President Haass. And finally, it was ordained by Senate Majority Leader McConnell in his speech on the Senate floor with the hallelujah chorus being the 63 “yes” votes for his resolution.

Picking up the trio’s “let’s stay in Afghanistan forever” cue, guest op-eds and editorial board columns appeared in the usual pro-War State newspapers advocating the neocon position. Media talking heads – as semiofficial spokespersons for the Washington national security state – echoed the neocons’ talking points on this issue.

This modius operandi for keeping the national security state in charge of foreign and military policy – and its untouchable $1-trillion-plus/year War State budget– has been going on since the Kennedy presidency.  Michael Swanson documents how this takeover evolved in his  book War State.  Most times, the story being sold (e.g., keep U.S. troops in Syria; stay in NATO after it became obsolete; continue the DoD’s $300-billion unworkable missile-defense program) is a front for the national security state’s real objectives (e.g., maintain U.S. influence in the Middle East to keep Israel’s supporters happy; keep the Cold War alive with Russia as an adversary; and fund make-work projects for defense contractors).

This duplicity is how business is done in Washington.  It’s an insiders’ game where what’s good for the American people and U.S. national security is, at best, a secondary consideration.  Among the Washington ruling class, what counts most is retaining power by keeping big donors happy.  And if that means endless wars, so be it.

Mr. Enzweiler, who served in the US Air Force in the 1970s, has lived and worked extensively in the Middle East, serving seven years (2007-2014) as a field-level civilian advisor for the US government in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  Now retired, he has written a book (When Will We Ever Learn?) that critiques US foreign and military policy.

Trump and the Generals

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W.J. Astore

There’s a new article at The Atlantic by Mark Bowden that cites America’s generals to condemn Donald Trump’s leadership of the military.  Here’s how the article begins:

For most of the past two decades, American troops have been deployed all over the world—to about 150 countries. During that time, hundreds of thousands of young men and women have experienced combat, and a generation of officers have come of age dealing with the practical realities of war. They possess a deep well of knowledge and experience. For the past three years, these highly trained professionals have been commanded by Donald Trump.

That’s quite the opening.  A few comments:

  1. It’s not a good thing that American troops have been deployed to nearly 150 countries over the last 20 years.  Indeed, it points to the scattershot nature of U.S. strategy, such as it is, in the “global war on terror.”
  2. Hundreds of thousands of troops have “experienced combat” — and this is a good thing?  What wars have they won?  What about the dead and wounded?  What about the enormous monetary cost of these wars?
  3. Dealing with “the practical realities of war” — Please tell me, again, how Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, etc., have played out?
  4. “Highly trained professionals” with “a deep well of knowledge and experience.”  Again, tell me which wars America has clearly won.

The gist of Bowden’s article is that Trump is capricious, vain, contrary, and ignorant.  But his biggest sin is that he doesn’t listen to the experts in the military and the intelligence community, whereas George W. Bush and Barack Obama did.

Aha!  Tell me again how things worked out for Bush and Obama.  Bush led the USA disastrously into Afghanistan and Iraq; Obama “surged” in Afghanistan (a failure), created a disaster in Libya, and oversaw an expansion of Bush’s wars against terror.  And these men did all this while listening to the experts, those “highly trained professionals” with those allegedly “deep” wells of knowledge and experience.

Given this record, can one blame Trump for claiming he’s smarter than the generals?  Can one fault him for trying to end needless wars?  He was elected, after all, on a platform of ending costly and foolish wars.  Is he not trying, however inconsistently or confusingly, to fulfill that platform?

The point here is not to praise Donald Trump, who as commander-in-chief is indeed capricious and ignorant and too convinced of his own brilliance.  The point is to question Bowden’s implied faith in the generals and their supposed “deep well” of expertise.  For if you judge them by their works, and not by their words, this expertise has failed to produce anything approaching victory at a sustainable cost.

Bowden’s article concludes with this warning: In the most crucial areas, the generals said, the military’s experienced leaders have steered Trump away from disaster. So far.

“The hard part,” one general said, “is that he may be president for another five years.”

The generals “have steered Trump away from disaster.”  Really.  Tell me who’s going to steer the generals away from their disasters — Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, the list goes on.

Bowden, it must be said, makes valid points about Trump’s weaknesses and blind spots.  But in embracing and even celebrating the generals, Bowden reveals a major blind spot of his own.

Trump Treason?

Here we go again. Trump is being impeached over his dealings with Ukraine, even as he accuses Democrats like Adam Schiff of treason. This sordid spectacle will doubtless dominate the news for the next few months, and probably longer. Impeachment, as they say, is a political process, and thus partisanship will reign supreme, fueled by Trump’s temper tantrums and his rhetoric of coups and civil wars.

Trump is, simply put, constitutionally unsuited to be president. Not just because he doesn’t know the U.S. Constitution: he doesn’t have a public service bone in his body. It makes perfect sense to him to use his position and its powers for his own personal gain. He’s been doing that his entire life, so why stop now? Trump also sees himself as a victim — the biggest victim in all of history. He reminds me of the comedian Rodney Dangerfield, whose shtick was about how he got no respect.

It’s all so sad and depressing, and it’s only just begun.

Bracing Views

soccer Trump gets a soccer ball from Putin.  A win-win?

W.J. Astore

America’s MAGA President, Donald Trump, has generated enormous criticism for his news conference with Vladimir Putin.  Typical of this is James Fallows at The Atlantic, who wrote that “Never before have I seen an American president consistently, repeatedly, publicly, and shockingly advance the interests of another country over those of his own government and people.”  A “national nightmare,” opined The Washington Post.  A “train wreck,” said NBC News, that made Russians “gleeful.”

Is Trump advancing the interests of Russia?  Is this an example of high crimes and misdemeanors, perhaps even rising to treason?

Methinks not.  Trump, if he is advancing Russian interests, is doing so indirectly.  Because only one thing matters to Trump: his own interests.  With Trump, it really is all about him.

Consider the accusations of Russian meddling in the 2016…

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The Dangerous Myth of Patriotism

Richard Sahn

For most Americans, patriotism means love of country.  But I’d like to suggest this “love” is misplaced for three reasons.  First, I’d like to suggest that “country” is an imaginary construct.  Two, I’d like to show how patriotism is misused and abused by the powerful, most infamously by President Donald Trump.  And three, I’d like to suggest a new form of patriotism, the love of the tangible, and by this I mean our fellow human beings.

“Country” as an imaginary construct

“Imagine there’s no countries,” John Lennon wrote nearly fifty years ago. Generally, citizens of a given country insist they love their nation. But can one truly “love America,” or any other country or nation? For that matter can you love any state, city, town, or sports team?

In general semantics, a branch of linguistics which is itself a branch of philosophy, the word is not the thing, the map is not the territory. Canada, France, the Red Sox are only names, concepts, phenomena of consciousness. Or a neurological system in the brain if you adhere to the Western materialist worldview.

Think about it: You can’t see, touch, feel, hear, or taste “France.” But you can taste a French pastry made in “France” and see and touch the Eiffel Tower. ”Vive La France” does not mean that French people collectively are going to live a long life. In fact, the concept of France vanishes if there are no longer any human beings left after, say, France is devastated by a massive nuclear attack.

Now, one can literally love the beauty of the land that comprises the legal territory of a given country. I love the mountains and the deserts of the Western U.S., the woods of northern Maine, the seacoasts of California.  I love Fourth of July celebrations, the fireworks and cookouts. I even love the old Frank Sinatra song, “The House I Live In” because it names things in America that you can put your hands on, such as the line “the ‘howdy’ and the handshake.” And then the concluding lyric, “that’s America to me.” (Notice there is no insinuation there is an America out there, only the symbolic meaning of the phrase.)

Love of country, in short, is nonsensical because a country, a nation, is an abstraction, a conceptual phenomenon, a byproduct of mental processes, that has no existence in the material universe.  Perhaps Lennon’s dream of “imagine there’s no countries” will only become reality when we no longer perceive people as enemies or opponents merely because they live elsewhere or look different.

The misuse and abuse of patriotism

Politicians and journalists tend to affirm, for obvious reasons, that it’s important to state how much you love America. Not to do so could easily result in your career or ambitions heading south. Still, proclaiming your love of country, whatever country that is, all too often has undesirable and destructive consequences. For instance, it becomes easier to support a government taking the country to war.  Or colossal military budgets in the name of “defending” the “country.”

To an unreflective patriot the country is not seen as the sum of its parts but as a reality sui generis, perhaps symbolized by a father figure like Uncle Sam.

us
You know Uncle Sam isn’t real, right?

If I can make a sweeping generalization, among rural chauvinists “country” is part of the “God, Country, and Guns” trinity.  This idea is well captured by the Merle Haggard song from 1970 that “When they’re runnin’ down our country, man/They’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.”

President Trump’s recent call for members of the so-called squad, the four progressive Congresswomen of color, to “go back”  to where they came from (a takeoff of “love it or leave it”) is one step away from “I will hurt you if I see you  again.” Obviously, there is no place natural-born U.S. citizens can go back to. And even if they were not citizens by birth, why should they have to leave after having become U.S. citizens?  Trump’s “patriotism” is racist nationalism – and shamelessly so.

Patriotism, in the narrow Trumpian usage of that word, demands opponents, sides, an “us versus them” mentality.  And that’s a mentality calculated for division, distraction, and destruction.

Real patriotism

We humans can’t see national borders from space, but we do see our planet.  Our real “homeland.”  Nevertheless, the false choice of “America: love it or leave it” has recently been revived from the days when protesters against the Vietnam War were denounced as unpatriotic. In truth, they were performing the most patriotic act imaginable, if patriotism is properly defined as love of one’s fellow human beings. In that sense, real patriotism is humanitarianism.  It’s focused on humans and the home where we live, not on constructs that are insensible.

False patriotism may remain “the last refuge of a scoundrel,” as Samuel Johnson, the 18th century British social philosopher, observed.  Even so, a literal belief in “my country, right or wrong” could still do us all in some sunny day.  A dangerous myth, indeed.

Richard Sahn is a retired professor of sociology.  You may also wish to read his article on sports and reification.

Trump’s Impeachment

4000
Happier days for Trump

W.J. Astore

President Donald Trump, it now seems clear, pressured the Ukrainian president to investigate a political rival, Joe Biden.  He exerted this pressure by withholding military aid to Ukraine approved by Congress, and by calling Ukraine’s president and asking him for a “favor,” the said favor being the investigation of Biden and his son, Hunter.  The White House apparently acted to “lock down” transcripts of the phone call, but a whistleblower came forward backed by an inspector general.

And my first reaction was: Can Trump be impeached for stupidity?

Joe Biden is a weak candidate for the presidency.  It’s questionable whether he’ll win the nomination next year.  Why bother going after him in such an egregiously illegal way when Biden is very likely to implode as a candidate on his own?

I can’t answer that question, but I can guess.  Trump, to put it mildly, has never been a public servant, and I include his term as president in this statement.  Trump is always about himself; the world revolves around him, or so he thinks.  He has no conception of following laws simply because he believes he is above them.  Furthermore, Biden may be a weak rival, but rival he is nonetheless.  And Trump, operating from his experience in the take-no-prisoners world of New York real estate, casino management, and similar escapades, knows what to do with a rival: you search for any edge you can get, including pressuring those who are dependent on you to dig up dirt on said rival.

Put bluntly, in this case Trump simply did what he regularly does.  The only difference is that a whistleblower wouldn’t play the game of “nothing to see here, move along.”

If only Trump had done what he promised as a candidate.  If only he’d acted to drain the swamp; if only he’d worked hard to end America’s forever wars; if only he’d truly put America first by rebuilding our country’s infrastructure and cutting taxes for workers.  Instead, he hired the swamp; he refueled those forever wars; he abandoned infrastructure along with meaningful tax cuts for workers.

Trump lacks integrity.  In short, he’s just another self-interested politician.  More than this, however, is Trump’s complete lack of respect for the law.  It’s time for him to go.

Update (9/27/19)

A few comments in passing:

1. Investigating Trump, on credible charges, is not an example of Trump Derangement Syndrome.
2. Saying that Biden is also corrupt, or that Democrats are corrupt, in no way exonerates Trump. For my money, let’s prosecute all corruption everywhere.
3. Often, the cover-up is worse than the crime. That may well be the case here.
4. Trump, as is his wont, is making matters worse, suggesting the whistleblower’s sources acted like spies and suggesting execution would be appropriate. (Please don’t say he was vague; we all know what he meant.)
5. Readers of this blog know that I voted third party in 2016. If you examine my articles, you’ll find I’m critical of both Democrats and Republicans.
6. Justice should not be partisan, even as it’s inevitably influenced by it.
7. I don’t care if the Republican-controlled Senate chooses not to convict Trump. Our lawmakers will have to go on the record, as they should, History will render the final verdict.
8. I don’t know if impeachment will make Trump stronger or weaker, and I don’t care. What it will do, assuming the evidence is sufficient, is to make justice in America stronger. No man should be above the law.

Of Premature Withdrawals, Forever Wars, and the U.S. Military

generalsintrumptransitioncnn1216
Remember these generals?  The “adults in the room” for Trump?  How well did that work out?

W.J. Astore

As the Trump administration prepares to deploy more U.S. troops to serve the needs of Saudi Arabia, I got to thinking about America’s forever wars in the Middle East and Central Asia.  Back on August 17th, I clipped an article from the New York Times entitled “Debate Flares Over Afghanistan as Trump Considers Troop Withdrawal.”  I noted the usual “arguments” presented by U.S. military leaders and chickenhawks of both parties.  That withdrawals would constitute a “retreat” that would be “premature” and “reckless.”  That U.S. troops had to remain to counter “an enduring terrorist threat.”  That the Taliban enemy had perfected “weasel language” that would allow them to win any peace treaty.  Making his usual appearance was General (retired) David Petraeus, who warned ominously that a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan “would be even more ill-advised and risky than the Obama administration’s disengagement from Iraq.”  Petraeus, of course, has argued for a generational commitment to Afghanistan that could last as long as seventy years.

A few points to make here:

1.  A U.S. withdrawal wouldn’t be “premature.”  Rather, it’s at least seventeen years overdue.

2.  Terrorist threats are nothing new (I was reading about them on active duty in 1985).  Moreover, they are often fed by the presence of U.S. troops and bases as well as by “kinetic” actions, i.e. killing people, especially innocent civilians.

3.  It’s funny that the Taliban can’t be trusted for its “weasel” language, whereas Americans always negotiate in good faith.

4.  Why is Petraeus, a man who disgraced himself by illegally sharing classified information with his mistress, always the go-to guy for advice on any military situation?

Speaking of “premature withdrawals,” Tom Engelhardt noted how these same “arguments” were used to support the Iraq War in 2010.  The war song always remains the same: any military withdrawal is “premature” without total U.S. victory (whatever that may mean).

I swear if the U.S. military had had its way, U.S. forces would still be in Vietnam, and generals would still be arguing that withdrawal from Southeast Asia is “premature.”

In 2016, then-Candidate Trump deplored America’s dumb and costly wars, yet as President he now embraces the same tired tactics of the generals and their neo-con enablers.  All these men have a great fear of premature withdrawal — are they confusing it with premature ejaculation?

Even as America’s leaders boast about having the world’s greatest and most powerful military, their actions betray fears of defeat, of a lack of potency, and a concern they’re being played (i.e. those “weasel” words).  And indeed they are losing, they are showcasing their own impotence, they are being played, as long as these disastrous wars persist.

Global Strikes, Global Warming, Global Change

Thunberg
And a teenager shall lead them: Greta Thunberg

W.J. Astore

Today, Friday September 20th, is a global strike day to address global warming/climate change.

It’s hard to believe we need a teenager from another country, Greta Thunberg, to remind Congress and the American people to listen to scientists on the subject of climate change, but that’s the sad reality in the Land of Greedica.  We all know the world is getting hotter, storms are getting more intense, birds and insects are dying in large numbers, coral reefs are dying off due to bleaching — the list goes on.  And we also know human actions are contributing to global warming.

But we also know there are trillions of dollars of fossil fuels still in the ground, or under our oceans, or in rapidly melting arctic regions, and that fossil fuel companies want the profits from the extraction, production, and sale of the same.  And those companies buy as many politicians as they can, they control as much of the media as they can, they even buy scientists to present “contrary” evidence about global warming, all in the cause of greed and power.

They get away with it in part because we’ve been trained to think in the short term.  We keep daily and even hourly calendars.  The business cycle is quarterly and yearly.  Even those long Communist plans of the past dealt with five-year cycles.  We humans simply aren’t used to thinking in terms of generations, nor are we encouraged to.

The process of global warming has been occurring slowly, gradually, over the last few generations, but it’s beginning to pick up speed, with major changes occurring faster than many scientists predicted.

Speaking of generational changes, it’s interesting that the Pentagon and its generals easily think in generational terms when it comes to America’s wars, and encourage Americans to do the same, but we’re not encouraged at all to work persistently and patiently to win the “war” on climate change.  (As an aside, the fossil-fuel-driven U.S. military is obviously not helping the cause of ameliorating the impact of global warming, though the Pentagon is planning for global disruptions to be caused by climate change.  With military budgets approaching a trillion a year, I’d say they’re winning, even as the planet loses.)

As Tom Engelhardt noted this week at TomDispatch.com, we humans need to stop empowering the pyromaniacs who’d prefer to see the earth burn as long as they’re making money off of it.  We need to act globally to protect our planet from irreversible harm, or we’re pretty much screwed as a species.