Candidate Trump occasionally said unconventional things about the Pentagon and America’s wars. He attacked the Pentagon for wasteful spending; cost overruns on the F-35 jet fighter were a favorite target. He attacked the Iraq and Afghan wars as wasteful, asserting they’d cost trillions of dollars without aiding the U.S. in any measurable way. He argued for friendlier relations with Russia, a détente of sort compared to the policies followed by the Obama administration. Naturally, even as he declaimed against America’s wasteful wars and costly weaponry, he promised to fund the military generously. Finally, he wasn’t afraid to take America’s generals to task, asserting he knew more than they did about war and foreign policy.
President Trump is a different man. “His” generals have brought him under control. Criticism of the F-35 has gone away. Trump, even if reluctantly, has embraced the Afghan war and the Pentagon’s open-ended commitment to it. Russian détente has taken a back seat to tough talk and sanctions (not that Trump had much of a choice, considering his campaign is under investigation for possible collusion with Russia). More than anything, Trump has tacitly admitted “his” generals know far more than he does. Mattis controls the Pentagon and the National Security State. Kelly, as White House Chief of Staff, does his best to control Trump. McMaster, as National Security Adviser, increasingly controls what Trump knows and when he knows it with respect to security policy.
In short, the generals have won. Consider the fates of Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and John Bolton. Bannon was eased out; Gorka was fired; and Bolton, according to today’s FP: Foreign Policy report, “has been shut out of the White House under the new leadership of chief of staff John Kelly. FP’s Dan De Luce writes that several sources confirm Bolton’s regular meetings with Trump are a thing of the past, and he has been unable to deliver a plan he devised to get Washington out of the deal it signed with Tehran to halt that country’s nuclear program.”
I’m no fan of Bannon-Gorka-Bolton, but they did represent a challenge to the U.S. military and the neo-con orthodoxy that rules Washington.
Trump is now firmly under the U.S. military’s control, even as he continues to feed the beast with more money and influence. His only way out is to starve the beast — to cut its funding by cutting its mission. Fat chance of that happening anytime soon, with generals like Mattis, Kelly, and McMaster in charge.
Most in the mainstream media see this in a positive light. We read about how Trump’s generals are the adults in the room, a moderating influence on Trump’s ill-informed impetuosity. There may even be some truth to this. But here’s the rub: President Trump, at least on national security policy, has ironically morphed into Hillary Clinton. He’s become a conventional hawk with no new ideas, when as a candidate he had the temerity to criticize America’s wasteful weaponry and disastrous imperial policies.
As a private citizen and presidential candidate, Donald Trump railed against the Afghan war. A waste, he said. Americans should withdraw, he said. But in last night’s speech, Trump went against his own instincts (so he said) and went with the failed policies of his predecessors. The war will continue, no timetable set, no troop levels determined, with conditions on the ground dictating America’s actions, according to the president.
What caught my attention, beyond the usual paeans of praise to America’s “warriors” and “warfighters,” was the specious reasoning to justify the continuation of the war. Trump gave three reasons, so let’s take them one at a time:
“First, our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifices of lives …”
It’s piss-poor reasoning to argue that, because a lot of people have sacrificed and died in a war, the war should continue (with more people dying) to justify those previous sacrifices. By this logic, the more who die, the more we should keep fighting, meaning more dead, meaning more fighting, and so on. Where is the honor and “worthy” outcome here?
“Second, the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable. 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in our history, was planned and directed from Afghanistan because that country was ruled by a government that gave comfort and shelter to terrorists. A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and al Qaeda, would instantly fill, just as happened before September 11th.”
Actually, the consequences of an American withdrawal are both unpredictable and (most probably) acceptable. Sure, terrorist organizations may gain impetus from an American withdrawal. It’s also possible that a notoriously corrupt Afghan government might finally negotiate with the Taliban and other organizations, and that regional power brokers like Pakistan and Iran, who have their own interests in regional stability, might broker a settlement that Americans could live with.
Trump further argued that a rapid U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 led to “hard-won gains slip[ping] back into the hands of terrorist enemies. Our soldiers watched as cities they had fought for, and bled to liberate, and won, were occupied by a terrorist group called ISIS.” The truth is far more complex. The prolonged U.S. occupation of Iraq helped to create ISIS in the first place, and failed American efforts to create and train reliable Iraqi security forces contributed to easy ISIS victories after U.S. forces left in 2011.
“Third and finally, I concluded that the security threats we face in Afghanistan and the broader region are immense. Today, 20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan — the highest concentration in any region anywhere in the world.”
Isn’t it remarkable that, after sixteen years of sustained effort by the U.S. military, the Af-Pak region is now home to 20+ terrorist organizations? The “highest concentration” in the world? Is this not an admission of the utter failure of U.S. policy and actions since 2001? How is this failure to be rectified by yet more U.S. attacks?
Trump said the new American goal is to kill terrorists. This is not a strategy. It’s a perpetual and deadly game of Whac-A-Mole. That’s what Trump’s vaunted new strategy boils down to, despite the talk of economic pressure and working with Pakistan and India and other regional powers.
On Afghanistan, Trump should have listened to his instincts and withdrawn. Instead, he listened to “his” generals. With Trump, the generals won this round. What they can’t win, however, is the war.
The news out of Washington, D.C. is that another 4000 or so U.S. troops will be sent to help stabilize and reverse the “stalemate” in Afghanistan. The commitment, relatively small in the number of troops, is open-ended in duration, and of course the numbers could (and likely will) rise.
Back in 2009, I wrote the following article for TomDispatch.com, urging then-President Obama not to give in to the “urge to surge.” Of course, America did surge in Afghanistan in 2009-10, but that surge, roughly ten times larger than the mini-surge of this moment, failed to alter the fundamentals on the ground. Indeed, the Taliban and related insurgent forces in Afghanistan have only grown stronger in the aftermath of the failed Obama surge.
Perhaps the new motto of the U.S. military should be: If at first you don’t succeed, surge, surge again.
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.
There are many ways of looking at war: as a continuation of politics by violent means, as a biological imperative, as the extreme end of a continuum of violence that defines human existence, morally as a sin that is only justified in self-defense, as a business in which profits are the main motive, as criminal activity writ large, as a response to human fears and memories of predation, as a mobilizing force that conveys meaning and a sense of belonging, as a practice that conveys masculinity, the list goes on. War, in sum, is an ecology of death that is arguably as complex as the ecology of life.
But you wouldn’t know this from American commentators talking about war. Consider the Afghan war, now in its sixteenth year and with no end in sight. It’s termed a “generational” war by American generals, a long war, a war that may require a Korean-like commitment by the U.S. military, according to retired General David Petraeus.
A commitment to the “long war” in Afghanistan, seen by Washington as the height of sobriety, is taken apart by Major Danny Sjursen at TomDispatch.com. MAJ Sjursen, who saw combat in Afghanistan, has this to say about the latest mini-surge being contemplated by Washington:
One look at U.S. military attempts at “nation-building” or post-conflict stabilization and pacification in Iraq, Libya, or — dare I say — Syria should settle the issue. It’s often said that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Yet here we are, 14 years after the folly of invading Iraq and many of the same voices — inside and outside the administration — are clamoring for one more “surge” in Afghanistan (and, of course, will be clamoring for the predictable surges to follow across the Greater Middle East).
The very idea that the U.S. military had the ability to usher in a secure Afghanistan is grounded in a number of preconditions that proved to be little more than fantasies. First, there would have to be a capable, reasonably corruption-free local governing partner and military. That’s a nonstarter. Afghanistan’s corrupt, unpopular national unity government is little better than the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam in the 1960s and that American war didn’t turn out so well, did it? Then there’s the question of longevity. When it comes to the U.S. military presence there, soon to head into its 16th year, how long is long enough? …
And what could a new surge actually do? The U.S. presence in Afghanistan is essentially a fragmented series of self-contained bases, each of which needs to be supplied and secured. In a country of its size, with a limited transportation infrastructure, even the 4,000-5,000 extra troops the Pentagon is reportedly considering sending right now won’t go very far.
Now, zoom out again. Apply the same calculus to the U.S. position across the Greater Middle East and you face what we might start calling the Afghan paradox, or my own quandary safeguarding five villages with only 82 men writ large. Do the math. The U.S. military is already struggling to keep up with its commitments. At what point is Washington simply spinning its proverbial wheels? I’ll tell you when — yesterday.
Yet U.S. military actions are worse than wheel-spinning. To explain why, consider an article I wrote in 2014, when I called upon Charles Darwin’s wedge metaphor to explain how U.S. actions were hammering the “face of nature” of Afghan societal ecology, aggravating unrest and creating new enemies.
The U.S. military keeps hitting the terrorist “wedges” in Afghan society, without really thinking about the larger ecology and the ripple effects. In the violent struggle for existence in Afghanistan, the U.S. compounds the violence, serving to strengthen the very enemy we say we’re seeking to weaken. (Indeed, the Taliban is gaining strength, hence the call for more U.S. troops). At the same time, the U.S. military’s foreign presence is serving to legitimate the indigenous enemy while simultaneously forcing it to learn and adapt.
By surging again and again, i.e. hitting the enemy harder, this is what the U.S. military has succeeded in doing:
1. The enemy has spread along new fault lines created by U.S. military-led hammer blows.
2. The enemy has adapted to force, becoming fitter in its struggle for existence against us.
3. The enemy has gained legitimacy from the struggle.
4. The wider societal ecology has become more radicalized as well as more unstable.
5. A complex and more chaotic ecology has become even less tractable in American hands.
Despite this, the U.S. military still thinks more hammer blows are the answer. The only answer that makes sense — withdrawal from Afghanistan — is the one that is not on that table in Washington where all options allegedly reside.
We’re already living in a new reality of alternative facts, so let’s just declare victory, America, and leave. With or without the U.S. military, the Afghan people will find their own way.
What’s so special about Special Ops? It used to be that special operations troops were few in number. You had Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs, mixed units like the Delta Force, and a few others, but nowadays U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) consists of 70,000 troops, equivalent to five or six regular army divisions, a military within the military.
What’s truly elite about America’s special ops community, as Nick Turse shows in his latest article at TomDispatch.com, is their global reach and global power, to borrow an Air Force phrase. Special ops forces have already been deployed to 137 countries in 2017, or 70% of the planet’s nations. Talk about reach! Yet enduring victories from past deployments, as Turse shows, have been surprisingly elusive.
Why is this? Special ops forces are good at short-term kinetic actions (hit and run strikes, commando stuff), and they do their share of training and advising. Yet their staying power, their persistence, their endurance, their ability to shift strategic winds in America’s favor, simply hasn’t been there. Some would say that’s not their purpose, except that the U.S. military and government has been selling them as strategic game-changers, which they’re not.
As I’ve written before, I see America’s special ops forces as America’s global missionaries, our version of the Catholic Church’s Jesuit order during the Counter Reformation. The Jesuits were soldiers of Christ, a militant order of highly trained missionaries, totally dedicated to upholding the one true faith (Catholicism, of course). For many peoples around the world, Catholicism was the Jesuits. And for many peoples around the world today (137 countries!), Americanism is a gun-toting special ops troop,
Coincidentally, I came across this report from FP: Foreign Policy this morning:
Pentagon taking lead in Africa makes some allies uneasy. At a recent summit meeting in Malawi attended by several U.S. generals and their African counterparts, some allies on the continent, while welcoming American attention, aren’t so sure they want it all from the Pentagon while the State Dept. is diminished.
“We have statements out of Washington about significant reductions in foreign aid,” Gen. Griffin Phiri, the commander of the Malawi Defense Forces, told the New York Times during the African Land Forces Summit, a conference between American Army officers and representatives from 40 African nations. “What I can tell you is that experience has shown us that diplomacy and security must come together.” He was unsure over the “mixed messages” coming out of Washington.
But is Washington’s message really mixed? It seems clear. Ever since 9/11, as Nick Turse has shown in several articles for TomDispatch.com, America has been downplaying diplomacy while ramping up “kinetic” strikes by special ops. This trend has only accelerated under the leadership (if that’s the right word) of Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson at the State Department. When it comes to world affairs, Trump and Tillerson have often been AWOL, leaving the real action to Mattis and the Pentagon.
And nowadays the real action at the Pentagon is centered on SOCOM, the military within the military, America’s militant missionary order.
Even allies question America’s almost monomaniacal commitment to military action everywhere. They’re right to do so. For special ops aren’t so special when they’re deployed everywhere in dribs and drabs, parceled out on missions that lack achievable aims.
Finally, there’s this. Say what you will of the Jesuits, they had faith. A clear ideology. Their faith, their devotion, was an inspiration to many. Even as their symbol was the cross, their skill-set was quite varied, e.g. they were often learned men, well ahead of their times in areas like science and mathematics.
Does Washington’s militant missionary order have a clear ideology? A compelling symbol? A varied skill-set? Favorable and enduring results? Evidence (so far) suggests otherwise.
Readers of Bracing Views are familiar with Michael Murry’s frequent contributions to our site. One of Mike’s more penetrating comments originated from a discussion he had with the late Sri Lankan Ambassador Ananda W. P. Guruge. As Mike recently recounted, Guruge “certainly had it right when he told me once why his government had refused America’s offer of military aid against the Tamil insurgency in that little island country: If the Americans come, they will just draw an arbitrary line through a temporary problem and make it permanent.”
Not many people have noticed how America’s wars, which used to have clear ending dates, like VE and VJ days in 1945 at the end of World War II, presently never seem to end. In his introduction to Bill Hartung’s new article at TomDispatch.com, “Destabilizing the Middle East (Yet More),” Tom Engelhardt reminds us of how U.S. military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere simply never end. Instead, they fester, they surge and shrink, they metastasize, they become, as Dr. Guruge noted, permanent.
That reality of permanent war is arguably the most insidious problem facing American democracy today. I didn’t say it; James Madison did:
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 …
Why do so many Americans fail to see this? Because believing is seeing. I heard that line on “American Gods” recently, a compelling reversal of “seeing is believing.” It applies here because America’s leaders believe in war, and Americans in general believe in their military, and believing is seeing. A belief in the efficacy of war and the trustworthiness of the military drives America’s “kinetic” actions around the world, and that belief, that faith, serves to make wars permanent.
Believing is seeing. It explains why our wars, despite catastrophic results that are so plainly in sight, persist without end. W.J. Astore
America’s Endless Wars
Not that anyone in a position of power seems to notice, but there’s a simple rule for American military involvement in the Greater Middle East: once the U.S. gets in, no matter the country, it never truly gets out again. Let’s start with Afghanistan. The U.S. first entered the fray there in 1979 via a massive CIA-led proxy war against the Soviets that lasted until the Red Army limped home in 1989. Washington then took more than a decade off until some of the extremists it had once supported launched the 9/11 attacks, after which the U.S. military took on the role abandoned by the Red Army and we all know where that’s ended — or rather not ended almost 16 years later. In the “longest war” in American history, the Pentagon, recently given a free hand by President Trump, is reportedly planning a new mini-surge of nearly 4,000 U.S. military personnel into that country to “break the stalemate” there. Ever more air strikes and money will be part of the package. All told, we’re talking about a quarter-century of American war in Afghanistan that shows no sign of letting up (or of success). It may not yet be a “hundred-years’ war,” but the years are certainly piling up.
Then, of course, there’s Iraq where you could start counting the years as early as 1982, when President Ronald Reagan’s administration began giving autocrat Saddam Hussein’s military support in his war against Iran. You could also start with the first Gulf War of 1990-1991 when, on the orders of President George H.W. Bush, the U.S. military triumphantly drove Saddam’s army out of Kuwait. Years of desultory air strikes, sanctions, and other war-like acts ended in George W. Bush’s sweeping invasion and occupation of Iraq in the spring of 2003, a disaster of the first order. It punched a hole in the oil heartlands of the Middle East and started us down the path to, among other things, ISIS and so to Iraq War 3.0 (or perhaps 4.0), which began as an air campaign in August 2014 and has yet to end. In the process, Syria was pulled into the mix and U.S. efforts there are still ratcheting up almost two years later. In the case of Iraq, we’re minimally talking about almost three decades of intermittent warfare, still ongoing.
And then, of course, there’s Somalia. You remember the Blackhawk Down incident in 1993, don’t you? That was a lesson for the ages, right? Well, in 2017, the Trump administration is sending more advisers and trainers to that land (and the U.S. military has recently suffered its first combat death there since 1993). U.S. military activities, including drone strikes, are visibly revving up at the moment. And don’t forget Libya, where the Obama administration (along with NATO) intervened in 2011 to overthrow autocrat Muammar Gaddafi and where the U.S. military is still involved more than six years later.
Last but hardly least is Yemen. The first U.S. special ops and CIA personnel moved into a “counter-terrorism camp” there in late 2001, part of a $400 million deal with the government of then-strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the CIA conducted its very first drone assassination in that country in November 2002. Almost 16 years later, as TomDispatch regular Bill Hartung reports, the U.S. is supporting a grim Saudi air and ground war of terror there, while its own drone strikes have risen to new highs.
It’s a remarkable record and one to keep in mind as you consider Hartung’s account of President Trump’s fervent decision to back the Saudis in a big league way not just in their disastrous Yemeni war, but in their increasingly bitter campaign against regional rival Iran. After so many decades of nearly unending conflict leading only to more of the same and greater chaos, you might wonder whether an alarm bell will ever go off in Washington when it comes to the U.S. military and war in the Greater Middle East — or is Iran next? Tom
To continue reading Bill Hartung’s article at TomDispatch.com, click here.
In a recent article at TomDispatch.com, I argued that the United States, after defeating the former Soviet Union in the Cold War, seized upon its moment of “victory” and, in a fit of hubris, embraced an increasingly imperial and authoritarian destiny that echoed in many ways the worst attributes of the USSR. You can read the entire article here. What follows is an excerpt that details some of the ways the U.S. has come to echo or mirror certain features associated with the USSR, the “Evil Empire” of the Reagan years.
Also, for a podcast in which I discuss my article with Burt Cohen, follow this link or this address: http://keepingdemocracyalive.com/just-hacking-weve-become-like-soviets/
When I was a young lieutenant in the Air Force, in 1986 if memory serves, I attended a secret briefing on the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan was president, and we had no clue that we were living through the waning years of the Cold War. Back then, believing that I should know my enemy, I was reading a lot about the Soviets in “open sources,” you know, books, magazines and newspapers.
The “secret” briefing I attended revealed little that was new to me. (Classified information is often overhyped.) I certainly heard no audacious predictions of a Soviet collapse in five years, though the Soviet Union would indeed implode in 1991. Like nearly everyone at the time, the briefers assumed the USSR would be our arch enemy for decades to come and it went without saying that the Berlin Wall was a permanent fixture in a divided Europe, a forever symbol of ruthless communist oppression.
Little did we know that, three years later, the Soviet military would stand aside as East Germans tore down that wall. And who then would have believed that a man might be elected president of the United States a generation later on the promise of building a “big, fat, beautiful wall” on our shared border with Mexico?
I wasn’t allowed to take notes during that briefing, but I remember the impression I was left with—that the USSR was deeply authoritarian, a grim surveillance state with an economy dependent on global weapons sales; that it was intent on nuclear domination; that it was imperialist and expansionist; that it persecuted its critics and dissidents; and that it had serious internal problems carefully suppressed in the cause of world mastery, including rampant alcohol and drug abuse, bad health care and declining longevity (notably for men), a poisoned environment, and an extensive prison system featuring gulags.
All of this was exacerbated by festering sores overseas, especially a costly and stalemated war in Afghanistan and client-states that absorbed its resources (think: Cuba) while offering little in return.
This list of Soviet problems, vintage 1986, should have a familiar ring to it, since it sounds uncannily like a description of what’s wrong with the United States today.
In case you think that’s an over-the-top statement, let’s take that list from the briefing—eight points in all—one item at a time.
1. An authoritarian, surveillance state. The last time the U.S. Congress formally declared war was in 1941. Since then, American presidents have embarked on foreign wars and interventions ever more often with ever less oversight from Congress. Power continues to grow and coalesce in the executive branch, strengthening an imperial presidency enhanced by staggering technologies of surveillance, greatly expanded in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Indeed, America now has 17 intelligence agencies with a combined yearly budget of $80 billion. Unsurprisingly, Americans are surveilled more than ever, allegedly for our safety even if such a system breeds meekness and stifles dissent.
2. An economy dependent on global weapons sales. The United States continues to dominate the global arms trade in a striking fashion. It was no mistake that a centerpiece of Pres. Trump’s recent trip was a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. On the same trip, he told the Emir of Qatar that he was in the Middle East to facilitate “the purchase of lots of beautiful military equipment.” Now more than ever, beautiful weaponry made in the U.S.A. is a significant driver of domestic economic growth as well as of the country’s foreign policy.
3. Bent on nuclear domination. Continuing the policies of Pres. Barack Obama, the Trump administration envisions a massive modernization of America’s nuclear arsenal, to the tune of at least a trillion dollars over the next generation. Much like an old-guard Soviet premier, Trump has boasted that America will always remain at “the top of the pack” when it comes to nuclear weapons.
4. Imperialist and expansionist. Historians speak of America’s “informal” empire, by which they mean the U.S. is less hands-on than past imperial powers like the Romans and the British. But there’s nothing informal or hands-off about America’s 800 overseas military bases or the fact that its Special Operations forces are being deployed in 130 or more countries yearly.
When the U.S. military speaks of global reach, global power, and full-spectrum dominance, this is traditional imperialism cloaked in banal catchphrases. Put differently, Soviet imperialism, which American leaders always professed to fear, never had a reach of this sort.
5. Persecutes critics and dissidents. Whether it’s been the use of the Patriot Act under George W. Bush’s presidency, the persecution of whistleblowers using the World War I-era Espionage Act under the Obama administration, or the vilification of the media by the new Trump administration, the United States is far less tolerant of dissent today than it was prior to the Soviet collapse.
As Homeland Security Secretary and retired four-star Marine Gen. John Kelly recently put it, speaking of news stories about the Trump administration based on anonymous intelligence sources, such leaks are “darn close to treason.” Add to such an atmosphere Trump’s attacks on the media as the “enemy” of the people and on critical news stories as “fake” and you have an environment ripe for the future suppression of dissent.
In the Soviet Union, political opponents were often threatened with jail or worse, and those threats were regularly enforced by men wearing military or secret police uniforms. In that context, let’s not forget the “lock her up!” chants led by retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn at the Republican National Convention and aimed at Donald Trump’s political opponent of that moment, Hillary Clinton.
6. Internal problems like drug abuse, inadequate health care and a poisoned environment. Alcoholism is still rife in Russia and environmental damage widespread, but consider the United States today. An opioid crisis is killing more than 30,000 people a year. Lead poisoning in places like Flint, Michigan, and New Orleans is causing irreparable harm to the young. The disposal of wastewater from fracking operations is generating earthquakes in Ohio and Oklahoma.
Even as environmental hazards proliferate, the Trump administration is gutting the Environmental Protection Agency. As health crises grow more serious, the Trump administration, abetted by a Republican-led Congress, is attempting to cut health-care coverage and benefits, as well as the funding that might protect Americans from deadly pathogens. Disturbingly, as with the Soviet Union in the era of its collapse, life expectancy among white men is declining, mainly due to drug abuse, suicide and other despair-driven problems.
7. Extensive prison systems. As a percentage of its population, no country imprisons more of its own people than the United States. While more than two million of their fellow citizens languish in prisons, Americans continue to see their nation as a beacon of freedom, ignoring Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In addition, the country now has a president who believes in torture, who has called for the murder of terrorists’ families, and who wants to refill Guantánamo with prisoners. It also has an attorney general who wants to make prison terms for low-level drug offenders ever more draconian.
8. Stalemated wars. You have to hand it to the Soviets. They did at least exhibit a learning curve in their disastrous war in Afghanistan and so the Red Army finally left that country in 1989 after a decade of high casualties and frustration, even if its troops returned to a land on the verge of implosion. U.S. forces, on the other hand, have been in Afghanistan for 16 years, with the Taliban growing ever stronger, yet its military’s response has once again been to call for investing more money and sending in more troops to reverse the “stalemate” there.
Meanwhile, after 14 years, Iraq War 3.0 festers, bringing devastation to places like Mosul, even as its destabilizing results continue to manifest themselves in Syria and indeed throughout the greater Middle East. Despite or rather because of these disastrous results, U.S. leaders continue to over-deploy U.S. Special Operations forces, contributing to exhaustion and higher suicide rates in the ranks.
In light of these eight points, that lighthearted Beatles tune and relic of the Cold War, “Back in the USSR,” takes on a new, and far harsher, meaning.