Base World: The Pentagon’s Profligate and Prodigious Presence

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USAF personnel train at Ramstein AFB in Germany.  Because we won World War II.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Elizabeth Baker)

W.J. Astore

As President Trump heads off on an overseas trip, trailing Washington scandals in his wake, it’s worth reminding ourselves of America’s prodigious global presence and the profligate expense at which it comes.  As David Vine notes in his latest article for TomDispatch.com, the USA has something like 800 military bases overseas, which must be garrisoned and maintained at a cost of roughly $150 billion each and every year.  What exactly are we getting for this colossal global footprint?

Come to think of it, why do we need 800 overseas bases?  Our aircraft carriers are basically mobile American bases, and much of our weaponry (Tomahawk cruise missiles, long-range bombers, and Reaper drones, for example) obviates the need for physical bases in foreign lands.

Of course, there are many reasons why these bases persist.  One is the influence they give us (or that we think they give us) in places like Turkey and South Korea, for example.  Second is the fear American officials have of losing their leading roles on the world stage, i.e. the concern that, if we abandon “our” bases, other countries will take them over, and we will be shunted aside, losing our starring role in world affairs.

Indeed, you could say Americans are the divos and divas of the world stage, elbowing our way into operatic tragedy after operatic tragedy.

Third (always a consideration) is money.  There’s so much money to be made from these bases, and so many U.S. contractors involved in making it.  And fourth is intelligence.  Americans think these bases are essential to gathering intelligence, even as our “intelligence” routinely proves wrong or incomplete.

I spent three years in Britain at U.S. bases there (“Little Americas”), and could have been assigned to U.S. bases in Iceland and Turkey, but the latter never materialized.  It’s funny: When you’re in the military, you never give much thought to why we have bases in faraway places.  You just take it for granted; it’s the status quo for us.

(As an aside, think of the irony here of Trump’s border wall with Mexico.  Even as Americans are everywhere in the world, thrusting our way into foreign countries with our militarized bases, we boast of building walls to keep other peoples out of “Fortress USA.”  Only “exceptional” U.S. officials could see no contradiction here.)

Select foreign bases have some value, but the U.S. has far too many at far too high a cost.  We’d do well to stop investing in them and to start closing them.  American bases in Turkey, South Korea, Japan, and elsewhere are not the key to our security.  Our security begins right here at home.

Remember that saying, “Yankee go home”?  Why don’t we?

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Yankee go home.  Why not?

Trump Shares Classified Material with Russia — Duck and Cover!

W.J. Astore

U.S. media outlets have been consumed by the story today that President Trump improperly or unwisely shared classified material on ISIS with the Russians, material that apparently came from Israel.  For its part, the Trump administration denies the charge that information was improperly or unwisely shared.

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Today, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster defends Trump’s decision to share classified information with the Russians

A couple of comments.  First, the president has broad powers of declassification and the discretion to share sensitive secrets with others.  Sharing classified information with the Russians, an ally of a sort in the struggle against ISIS, is not necessarily a bad idea. Trump seems to have decided it was a way to strengthen relations and build trust at high levels with the Russian government, a defensible position, in my view.

Second, I’ll repeat here what I said about classification and the Hillary Clinton email scandal: Far too much information is classified by the U.S. government.  Classification is vastly overused by our government to conceal many sins, blunders, nefarious designs, and who knows what else.  There’s nothing sacred about secrecy; indeed, a democracy should prefer transparency, rather than stamping everything “secret” or “top secret” and thereby keeping nearly all Americans in the dark.

Obviously, I’m not privy to the exact nature of the intelligence shared, the sensitivity and vulnerability of the source(s) and collection methods, and so on.  I’m not an intelligence trade-craft expert.  So far, Israeli operatives seem unconcerned, but whether their blase attitude is feigned or not is unknown.

Americans elected Trump because he promised to do things differently.  He campaigned on the idea of being unorthodox; indeed, he is unorthodox.  Surely no one should be surprised when he decides to speak in the clear to Russian government officials on matters concerning ISIS and terrorism.

Repeat after me, America: Secrecy is not sacred.  Transparency is desirable.  So too is building trust with rivals as well as friends.  Trump has his faults, major ones I believe, but this current controversy is a tempest in a teapot.

Memories of War

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Memories of War: So powerful yet often so fragmentary

W.J. Astore

Memories of war are powerful and fragmentary.  At a national level, we do best at remembering our own war dead while scarcely recognizing the damage to others.  This is one cost of nationalism.  Nationalism is violent, bigoted, and discriminatory.  It elevates a few at the expense of the many.  It fails fully to recognize common human experience, even one as shattering as war.

One example.  I’ve visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.  In seeing all those names of American dead on the wall, I was moved to tears.  It’s a remarkable memorial, but what it fails to capture is any sense of the magnitude of death from that war visited upon Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  As I wrote for Alternet, to visualize the extent of death from America’s war in Southeast Asia, the Vietnamese would need a wall that would be roughly 20 to 50 times as long as ours.

Think about that for a moment.  A wall perhaps 50 times as long as our Vietnam memorial wall.  It’s a staggering mental image.  Sadly, today in America the only wall garnering much media interest is Trump’s wall along our border with Mexico, yet another manifestation of nationalist bigotry and bias.

John Dower challenges us to think differently.  To explore our common humanity.  To remember the war dead of other nations and peoples, and to record the true cost of America’s wars, both to others and to ourselves.  His latest article at TomDispatch.com explores how Americans both remember and forget their wars.  Here’s an excerpt:

While it is natural for people and nations to focus on their own sacrifice and suffering rather than the death and destruction they themselves inflict, in the case of the United States such cognitive astigmatism is backlighted by the country’s abiding sense of being exceptional, not just in power but also in virtue. In paeans to “American exceptionalism,” it is an article of faith that the highest values of Western and Judeo-Christian civilization guide the nation’s conduct — to which Americans add their country’s purportedly unique embrace of democracy, respect for each and every individual, and stalwart defense of a “rules-based” international order.

Such self-congratulation requires and reinforces selective memory. “Terror,” for instance, has become a word applied to others, never to oneself. And yet during World War II, U.S. and British strategic-bombing planners explicitly regarded their firebombing of enemy cities as terror bombing, and identified destroying the morale of noncombatants in enemy territory as necessary and morally acceptable. Shortly after the Allied devastation of the German city of Dresden in February 1945, Winston Churchill, whose bust circulates in and out of the presidential Oval Office in Washington (it is currently in), referred to the “bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts.”

Too often, Americans believe they’re waging a war on terror, forgetting that war itself is terror.  That war itself is evil.  That doesn’t mean that war is never justified, as it was, I believe, in the struggle against Nazi tyranny in World War II.  Even in justifiable wars, however, we need to recognize that war breeds corruption; that war, in essence, is corruption, a corruption of the human spirit, of a humanity which should be held in common and nourished, but which during war is degraded if not destroyed.

John Dower recognizes this.  It’s a theme he explores in his new book, The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War Two.  Consider it a primer on war’s many corruptions, and a precis of America’s tendency toward a nationalism of callous indifference when it comes to the damages we inflict on others.  It’s not happy reading, but then again wars shouldn’t be a subject for happiness.

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A remarkable primer and meditation on America’s endless wars

Wars and rumors of war seem always to be with us.  Some would say they’re an inevitable part of the human condition.  Our historical record seems to support that grim conclusion.  Yet there is another way, a more pacific path, a path toward peace.  But to walk that path, we must first fully recognize the tangled undergrowth of war that imperils our every footstep.  Dower’s latest book helps us to do just that.

The Only Way to Win America’s Wars Is to End Them

W.J. Astore

Today, I saw another article on why America is losing its wars in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.  The gist of this and similar articles is that America’s wars are winnable.  That is, if we bomb more, or send more troops, or change our strategy, or alter our ROE (rules of engagement), or give more latitude to the generals, or use all the weapons at our disposal (to include nukes?), and so on, these wars will prove tractable and even winnable.  This jibes with President Trump’s promises about America winning again, everywhere, especially in wars.

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Sorry: The Missions Are Never Going to be “Accomplished”

Nonsense.  The U.S. military hasn’t won these wars since the wars themselves are unwinnable by U.S. military action.  Indeed, U.S. military action only makes them worse.

Consider Iraq.  Our invasion in 2003 and our toppling of Saddam kicked off a regional, religious, ethnic, and otherwise complicated civil war that is simply unwinnable by American troops.  Indeed, the presence of (and blunders made by) American troops in Iraq helped to produce ISIS, much-hyped as the current bane of American existence.

Consider Afghanistan.  Our invasion in 2001 toppled the Taliban, at least for a moment, but did not produce peace as various Afghan factions and tribes jostled for power.  Over time, the U.S. and NATO presence in the country produced instability rather than stability even as the Taliban proved both resilient and resurgent.  U.S. and NATO forces have simply become yet another faction in the Afghan power game, but unless we want to stay there permanently, we are not going to “win” by any reasonable definition of that word.

You could say the same of the U.S. military’s involvement in similar conflicts like Yemen or Syria (look at the mess we made of Libya).  We can kill a lot of “terrorists” and drop a lot of bombs, spreading our share of chaos, but we aren’t going to win, not in the sense of these wars ending on terms that enhance U.S. national security.

This hard reality is one that the U.S. military explains away by using jargon.  Military men talk of generational wars, of long wars, of fourth generation warfare, of gray zones, of military operations other than war (which has its own acronym, MOOTW), and so on. A friend of mine, an Air Force captain, once quipped: “You study long, you study wrong.” You can say something similar of war: “You wage war for long, you wage it wrong.”  This is especially true for a democracy.

America’s wars today are unwinnable.  They are unwinnable not only because they are not ours to win: they aren’t even ours.   We refuse to take ownership of them.  At the most fundamental level, we recognize they are not vital to us, since we don’t bother to unify as a country to declare war and to wage it.  Most Americans ignore them because we can ignore them.  The Afghans, the Iraqis, the Syrians, and so on don’t have the luxury of ignoring them.

Trump, with all his talk of winning, isn’t going to change this.  The more he expands the U.S. military, the more he leans on “his” generals for advice, the more he’s going to fail. Our new commander-in-chief needs to learn one lesson: The only way to win America’s wars is to end them.

Spin It to Win It: The High Cost of Trump’s Military “Strategy”

W.J. Astore

As the end of Trump’s first 100 days in office approaches, we can already see the novice commander-in-chief’s approach to military action.  The approach is to empower “his” generals.  And the results?  A triumph of image over substance.  “Spin it to win it” is the byword for Trump’s military “strategy.”

A few examples:

  1. The disastrous raid on Yemen that led to the death of a Navy SEAL as well as many civilians, including children, was spun by the Trump administration as a great success. At the same time, Trump pinned the death of the SEAL on his generals, saying “they” lost him.
  2. The launch of 59 expensive cruise missiles against a Syrian airfield did little to change the actions of the Assad government. Nor did it knockout the airfield.  Yet it was spun by Trump as a remarkable victory.  In his words, “We’ve just fired 59 missiles, all of which hit, by the way, unbelievable, from, you know, hundreds of miles away, all of which hit, amazing.  It’s so incredible.  It’s brilliant.  It’s genius.  Our technology, our equipment, is better than anybody by a factor of five.  I mean look, we have, in terms of technology, nobody can even come close to competing.”
  3. The use of the “mother of all bombs” (MOAB) in Afghanistan was seized upon by Trump as an example of his toughness and decisiveness vis-à-vis the Obama administration’s use of force. Yet Trump didn’t even know about the bomb until after it was used.  Nevertheless, he boasted “If you look at what’s happened over the last eight weeks [of my administration] and compare that really to what’s happened over the past eight years, you’ll see there’s a tremendous difference, tremendous difference.” Dropping MOAB, Trump claimed on scant evidence, “was another very, very successful mission.”
  4. The Trump administration lost track of an aircraft carrier battle group, saying it was on its way as a show of force against North Korea even as it was headed in the opposite direction. This blunder was chalked up to a miscommunication between the White House and Pentagon, even as allies such as South Korea and Japan expressed concern about the credibility of U.S. support at a time of rising tensions.

As Tom Engelhardt notes in his latest must-read piece at TomDispatch.com:

President Trump did one thing decisively.  He empowered a set of generals or retired generals — James “Mad Dog” Mattis as secretary of defense, H.R. McMaster as national security adviser, and John Kelly as secretary of homeland security — men already deeply implicated in America’s failing wars across the Greater Middle East. Not being a details guy himself, he’s then left them to do their damnedest. “What I do is I authorize my military,” he told reporters recently. “We have given them total authorization and that’s what they’re doing and, frankly, that’s why they’ve been so successful lately.”

Have the generals really been “so successful lately,” President Trump?  The facts suggest otherwise.  Meanwhile, Trump has not yet learned that generals always want more – they believe they can win if they just get more troops, more money, more weaponry.  They’ll support Trump as long as he keeps funneling more of everything their way – and as long as he keeps spinning their blunders and missteps as victories.

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Is this the face of “success” in Yemen?  A little girl dead?

For the moment, Trump’s generals may love him for his “spin it to win it” boosterism and his blank checks of support.  But beware, men wearing stars.  Trump has already shown he prefers to delegate responsibility as well as authority when things go bad (recall the failed raid on Yemen and the dead SEAL).

Trump may not be a micro-manager, but that’s because he doesn’t know anything.  He just wants to spin military action as a win – for Trump.  If the generals keep losing, Trump will turn on them.  The question is, will they turn on him?

More disturbing still: When failed military actions are spun as alt-fact “victories,” the violence isn’t done simply to facts: it’s done to innocent people around the world.  It’s no game when innocent children die in the false name of “winning.”

From Deterrence to Doomsday?

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A harbinger of bigger bombs and missiles to come?

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I investigate what an “America first” foreign policy actually means in practice.  What follows is an extract from the article in which I consider whether the U.S. military has morphed from a deterrent force (at least in its own eyes) to a doomsday machine.  This idea is inspired in part by an article that Dennis Showalter, a fine historian and an even better friend, wrote back in 2000 about the German military prior to World War I.  Excerpt follows:

Deterring Our Way to Doomsday

Who put America’s oil under all those Middle Eastern deserts?  That was the question antiwar demonstrators asked with a certain grim humor before the invasion of Iraq.  In Trump’s oft-stated opinion, the U.S. should indeed have just taken Iraq’s oil after the 2003 invasion.  If nothing else, he said plainly what many Americans believed, and what various multinational oil companies were essentially seeking to do.

Consider here the plight of President Jimmy Carter.  Nearly 40 years ago, Carter urged Americans to scale back their appetites, start conserving energy, and free themselves from a crippling dependency on foreign oil and the unbridled consumption of material goods.  After critics termed it his “malaise” speech, Carter did an about-face, boosting military spending and establishing the Carter Doctrine to protect Persian Gulf oil as a vital U.S. national interest.  The American people responded by electing Ronald Reagan anyway.  As Americans continue to enjoy a consumption-driven lifestyle that gobbles up roughly 25% of the world’s production of fossil fuels (while representing only 3% of the world’s population), the smart money in the White House is working feverishly to open ever more fuel taps globally.  Trillions of dollars are at stake.

Small wonder that, on becoming president, Trump acted quickly to speed the building of new pipelines delayed or nixed by President Obama while ripping up environmental protections related to fossil fuel production.  Accelerated domestic production, along with cooperation from the Saudis — Trump’s recent Muslim bans carefully skipped targeting the one country that provided 15 of the 19 terrorists in the 9/11 attacks — should keep fuel flowing, profits growing, and world sea levels rising.

One data point here: The U.S. military alone guzzles more fossil fuel than the entire country of Sweden.  When it comes to energy consumption, our armed forces are truly second to none.

With its massive oil reserves, the Middle East remains a hotbed in the world’s ongoing resource wars, as well as its religious and ethnic conflicts, exacerbated by terrorism and the destabilizing attacks of the U.S. military.  Under the circumstances, when it comes to future global disaster, it’s not that hard to imagine that today’s Middle East could serve as the equivalent of the Balkans of World War I infamy.

If Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian “Black Hand” terrorist operating in a war-torn and much-disputed region, could set the world aflame in 1914, why not an ISIS terrorist just over a century later?  Consider the many fault lines today in that region and the forces involved, including Russia, Turkey, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, all ostensibly working together to combat terrorism even as they position themselves to maximize their own advantage and take down one another.  Under such circumstances, a political temblor followed by a geo-political earthquake seems unbearably possible.  And if not an ISIS temblor followed by major quake in the Middle East, there’s no shortage of other possible global fault lines in an increasingly edgy world — from saber-rattling contests with North Korea to jousting over Chinese-built artificial islands in the South China Sea.

As an historian, I’ve spent much time studying the twentieth-century German military.  In the years leading up to World War I, Germany was emerging as the superpower of its day, yet paradoxically it imagined itself as increasingly hemmed in by enemies, a nation surrounded and oppressed.  Its leaders especially feared a surging Russia.  This fear drove them to launch a preemptive war against that country.  (Admittedly, they attacked France first in 1914, but that’s another story.)  That incredibly risky and costly war, sparked in the Balkans, failed disastrously and yet it would only be repeated on an even more horrific level 25 years later.  The result: tens of millions of dead across the planet and a total defeat that finally put an end to German designs for global dominance.  The German military, praised as the “world’s best” by its leaders and sold to its people as a deterrent force, morphed during those two world wars into a doomsday machine that bled the country white, while ensuring the destruction of significant swaths of the planet.

Today, the U.S. military similarly praises itself as the “world’s best,” even as it imagines itself surrounded by powerful threats (China, Russia, a nuclear North Korea, and global terrorism, to start a list).  Sold to the American people during the Cold War as a deterrent force, a pillar of stability against communist domino-tippers, that military has by now morphed into a potential tipping force all its own.

Recall here that the Trump administration has reaffirmed America’s quest for overwhelming nuclear supremacy.  It has called for a “new approach” to North Korea and its nuclear weapons program.  (Whatever that may mean, it’s not a reference to diplomacy.) Even as nuclear buildups and brinksmanship loom, Washington continues to spread weaponry — it’s the greatest arms merchant of the twenty-first century by a wide mark — and chaos around the planet, spinning its efforts as a “war on terror” and selling them as the only way to “win.”

In May 1945, when the curtain fell on Germany’s last gasp for global dominance, the world was fortunately still innocent of nuclear weapons.  It’s different now.  Today’s planet is, if anything, over-endowed with potential doomsday machines — from those nukes to the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.

That’s why it’s vitally important to recognize that President Trump’s “America-first” policies are anything but isolationist in the old twentieth century meaning of the term; that his talk of finally winning again is a recipe for prolonging wars guaranteed to create more chaos and more failed states in the Greater Middle East and possibly beyond; and that an already dangerous Cold War policy of “deterrence,” whether against conventional or nuclear attacks, may now have become a machine for perpetual war that could, given Trump’s bellicosity, explode into some version of doomsday.

Or, to put the matter another way, consider this question: Is North Korea’s Kim Jong-un the only unstable leader with unhinged nuclear ambitions currently at work on the world stage?

Ready for War with Iran?

W.J. Astore

General Joseph Votel, U.S. Centcom commander, testified to the House Armed Services Committee this week that the greatest destabilizing force in the Middle East is Iran, and that the U.S. must be prepared to use “military means” to confront and defeat the Iranian threat to the region.

No doubt Iran is a pest to U.S. designs in the Middle East.  No doubt Iran has its own agenda. No doubt Iran is no friend to Israel.  But the greatest destabilizing force in the Greater Middle East?  That’s the USA.  We’re the ones who toppled Iraq in 2003, along with the legitimate government of Iran 50 years earlier.

Iran/Persia has lived in, and sometimes dominated, the Greater Middle East for 2500 years.  By comparison, the USA is a newcomer on the block. Yet it’s the Iranians who are the destabilizers, the ones operating in a nefarious “grey zone” between peace and war, at least according to U.S. generals.

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According to General Mattis, the Iranians are the greatest threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.  The U.S., with its massive military and extensive weapons sales, only safeguards peace and stability. 

Besides the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which accidentally helped Iran, the U.S. continues to sell massive amounts of weaponry to Iran’s rivals, most especially Saudi Arabia. U.S. military operations in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East have both destabilized the region and created marketplaces for U.S. weaponry and opportunities for economic exploitation by multinational corporations.

I’m no fan of Iran and its leaders, but can one blame them for resisting U.S. military and economic incursions into their sphere of influence? Recall how we reacted when the Russians put missiles into Cuba. Look at all the hostile rhetoric directed today against Mexico and its allegedly unfair trade practices vis-a-vis the U.S.

Let’s not forget that for 25 years (1953-78), the Shah of Iran was an American ally.  The U.S. military loved to sell him our most advanced weaponry, which at that time included F-14 Tomcat fighters and HAWK missile systems. That cozy relationship died with the Iranian Revolution (1979); ally turned to enemy as the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein and Iraq during the bloody Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.

Yet, despite all this history, despite all the U.S. meddling, all the weapons sales, all the invasions and sanctions, somehow it’s the Iranians who are the destabilizing force, the ones deserving of more “disruptive” U.S. military action.

As America’s designs are frustrated in the Middle East, American generals never look in the mirror to see their own faults and failings. Instead, they cast about for new countries to blame — and to attack. Iran is seemingly next on the list, a country that General Mattis, America’s Secretary of Defense, said is “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.”

Anyone for war with Iran?  U.S. generals are ready.