Why Did Nancy Pelosi Go to Taiwan?

W.J. Astore

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan was a disaster. It angered China, provoking a military response (missile firings and the like) that could escalate into something far worse. It interfered with cooperative efforts between China and the U.S. on vitally important fronts such as climate change. And it featured a startlingly incoherent speech by the Speaker in which she implied Benjamin Franklin was an early U.S. president as she proceeded to misquote and butcher his sentiment on liberty and security. Jimmy Dore does an excellent job here of allowing Pelosi to slay herself with her own words:

So, why did she go to Taiwan? Putting aside her own conceit and vainglory, she went for two reasons. The first was domestic politics. Just as the Democrats have (falsely) accused Trump and the Republicans of being soft on Russia, the Republicans have (falsely) accused Biden and the Democrats of being soft on China. Pelosi’s trip was meant to inoculate the Democrats against charges of “softness” vis-a-vis China. Meanwhile, as both major political parties accuse the other of being “soft” vis-a-vis regional powers (China, Russia), the military-industrial complex continues to cash in with record-setting “defense” budgets.

The second reason is connected to the first. Pelosi’s trip has generated the response the military-industrial complex was looking for from China. Thus on NBC News today, you see the following article that touts a resurgent Chinese military and how it constitutes a major threat to U.S. imperial dominance in the Pacific. The conclusion you’re supposed to draw from this is simple: China is a big-time threat to America, therefore we must spend even more money to “rebuild” America’s military to meet that threat.

There’s possibly a third reason, and that is the unreliability of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as deliverers of a coherent message. Both Biden and Harris rely heavily on teleprompters; when they depart from the script, Biden is liable to blurt out inappropriate remarks that need to be “walked back” by aides, whereas Harris has a tendency to laugh inappropriately to cover her confusion. It’s doubly ironic that the Speaker of the House, sent to speak for America and the Democrats, spoke so poorly and confusingly.

This is no laughing matter, since diplomacy depends on clear communication. Certainly, the Chinese are speaking clearly with their military exercises and diplomatic warnings. That America’s leaders can’t speak clearly and exercise sound judgment is assuredly the clearest sign yet of U.S. decline, a decline that will not be arrested by throwing more money at the military.

Sound policy requires sound leaders. Whatever else one might say, the words of Biden, Harris, and Pelosi are unsound, marking them as not just ineffective leaders but dangerous ones.

I keep this globe in my office. It comes in handy to remind me of America’s “global reach” and “global power.” You can see how close Taiwan is to mainland China, and also how far Taiwan is from the U.S. But of course U.S. hegemony has no geographical limits, hence the presence of roughly 750 U.S. military bases globally. The world is not enough, since the U.S. must dominate space and cyberspace as well. Perhaps Nancy Pelosi should give her next muddled speech from low Earth orbit. Or the Moon?

Bully Boys with Bull Bars

W.J. Astore

Even as gas and diesel prices soar along with global temperatures, American vehicles continue to get bigger. In my first Air Force job in 1985, I had a friend who drove a classic Ford Bronco. It was a little bigger than a jeep and truly meant for off-road adventures in Colorado where four-wheel drive is a necessity. Nowadays, Ford trucks and SUVs are much more likely to resemble military vehicles like Humvees or even MRAPs. Bigger is better, especially for the truck makers and fossil fuel companies, who profit much more by selling and fueling steroidal trucks than Ford Escorts or hybrids.

But there’s a darker side to these steroidal, quasi-military vehicles on America’s roads, notes Stan Cox today at TomDispatch.com. They’re being used to intimidate, to bully, even to injure and kill people that the drivers of these vehicles don’t like. Typical targets are protesters for the BLM movement or women trying to protect abortion rights. When Dodge named their Ram pickup, I really don’t think they meant you should use it as a battering ram, but that seems to be crude animus motivating more than a few white male drivers today.

This phenomenon isn’t just limited to flyover states like Kansas, where Stan Cox lives. Here in Blue Massachusetts, I recently saw a pickup that was proudly flying a “Fuck Joe Biden” flag, modeled after Trump MAGA flags. Heck, I don’t much like Joe Biden, but I don’t feel the need to mount a giant flag on my vehicle to that effect. I guess I’m just too humble or shy — or sane.

Steroidal trucks are nothing new in America, and I’ve seen plenty with stickers that say “No Fear” or even “Fear This.” (You learn quickly to give these idiots on wheels a wide berth.) But using these trucks to hurt people is truly cowardly. What kind of young men are we producing?

The wars are coming home again, America. Just look around at all the mini-tanks in America’s parking lots and driveways.

A final caution: Beware of bully boys with bull bars, coming soon (though I hope not) to a protest near you. If you stand your ground, they might just run you over — and in some states you’ll be to blame for blocking their way.

So use common sense and get out of their way. You’re not the coward: they are.

Fear this!

Of Products and Assets and Families

W.J. Astore

When I was a college professor, whether civilian or military, I was told unironically that I was part of a “family.” I had an Air Force “family.” I had a Penn College “family.” But when these institutions wanted me to do something, often something I really didn’t want to do, the “family” talk went out the window and I was reminded I was an “employee” in the civilian world and “just another f*cking officer” in the military world. None of this surprised me because I never bought any of that “family” crap. I only have one family, thank you very much, and they are related to me by blood or by marriage. My “family” is not my boss, not my employer.

Management loves to talk about employees as if they’re “family” when they really think of us as “assets” or “products” or even simply “the cost of doing business” (and the quickest way to reduce cost is often to get rid of “family” members).

It’s especially telling to hear corporate/management talk in the sports world. Sam Kennedy, who’s the president of the Red Sox, talks openly about putting the best “product” on the baseball diamond. He doesn’t see his players as people, he reduces them to “assets” that are basically interchangeable. Winning only matters in the sense that it produces profit while elevating the value of the “product.”

Of course, this is nothing new. In Slap Shot (1977), an amusingly vulgar and perceptive movie about a minor-league hockey team starring Paul Newman as an aging player, we learn that the team is owned by a wealthy woman who decides to liquidate the team rather than sell it because it’s more valuable that way as a tax write-off. The players, the fans, all the employees, mean nothing to this absentee owner. All that matters is money.

Paul Newman as player-coach Reg Dunlop in “Slap Shot,” one of the finest movies about sports in America

And of course any Red Sox fan can cite “the curse of the Bambino,” when a century ago the owner of the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees to raise money (for a theater production, if memory serves).

Capitalism reduces everything to products, assets, profit margins, and the like. I don’t know about you, but this is not how I think of my real family.

American Exceptionalism

W.J. Astore

Two images of American exceptionalism to mull over today. The first shows how exceptional the U.S. is with its military spending:

Of course, U.S. military spending is projected to rise in FY 2023 to $840 billion or so. Note how most of the countries that spend significant sums on their military are U.S. allies, such as Germany, the U.K., Japan, and South Korea. Russia is weakening due to its war with Ukraine, yet U.S. military spending continues to soar because of alleged threats from Russia and China.

The second image is a spoof sent by a friend, but it wouldn’t entirely surprise me if it did become the official seal of the Department of Education:

Jesus riding a dinosaur: Why not? We have serious museums for creationists in the U.S., where dinosaurs wear saddles and Adam and Eve are depicted as cavorting with creatures dating to the Jurassic and Cretaceous eras. I’m not sure how they all fit on Noah’s ark, but the Lord does work in mysterious ways.

Given the emphasis on gun rights, babies, and Jesus in America, perhaps the bald eagle isn’t our best national symbol. Perhaps it should be the Baby Jesus holding an assault rifle. It certainly would give new meaning to “love God” and “love thy neighbor.”

Destroying the Village in Vietnam

It seems the Vietnam War may as well be the Punic Wars for most Americans, i.e. ancient history. Yet it was a scant 50 years ago that America finally pulled out of that disastrous war, leaving a horrific legacy of towns and villages bombed, burned, and poisoned.

High explosive, napalm, Agent Orange, and other ordnance was dropped in massive quantities by U.S. warplanes, yet North Vietnam remained unbowed. The self-serving lesson the U.S. military took from this was twofold. First, it obviously couldn’t be the military’s fault.  Blame was most often pinned on alleged civilian micro-management; more bombing, with fewer limits, would have worked, so airpower enthusiasts argued. The second lesson was to hide or otherwise obscure or deny civilian casualties in future wars, a cynical approach lacking in integrity but one we’ve seen used with considerable success in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other places.

These were not the lessons that leaders with integrity would have drawn. But they are the lessons that a system designed to protect itself did draw.

U.S. leaders refuse to consider the costs of war, not only on foreign peoples but also on ourselves. The words of James Hildreth remind us of the costs of war as well as the seductiveness of destruction and of lies.

It’s a lesson to bear in mind, whether with the Russia-Ukraine War or possible future wars, e.g. current talk of a possible war with Iran.

Bracing Views

W.J. Astore

One day, a village of roughly 1200 people in South Vietnam ceased to exist. The U.S. Air Force destroyed it, and the report read “Target 100% destroyed, body-count 1200 KBA (killed by air) confirmed.”

It wasn’t an “enemy” village. It was a village that had failed to pay its taxes to a South Vietnamese provincial commander, a lieutenant colonel and ostensibly a U.S. ally. He wanted the village destroyed to set an example to other recalcitrant villages, and the U.S. Air Force did what it does: It put bombs and napalm on target.

At Seventh Air Force headquarters, the brass knew this village’s “crime.” As a brigadier general said to then-Lieutenant Colonel James Robert “Cotton” Hildreth, “Damn, Cotton, don’t you know what’s going on? That village didn’t pay their taxes. That [South Vietnamese] lieutenant colonel … is teaching them a lesson.”

It’s a “lesson” that made Cotton Hildreth…

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The Giant War Robot that Rules America

Not exactly the “Great Society” envisioned by LBJ in the 1960s. How long before war becomes both programmed and automated into our society as an unstoppable force?

W.J. Astore

Readers, I admit to you I’m demoralized after seeing this news a couple of days ago:

The House on Thursday passed, 329-101, its version of the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, which would authorize $840.2 billion in national defense spending.

I’ve been writing against massive and unnecessary spending on wars and weapons since the early 1980s, when I did a college project that was highly critical of the Reagan “Defense Buildup” under then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. Those were the days when there was a real movement against Reagan’s pursuit of the MX “Peacekeeper” ICBM and the deployment of nuclear-tipped Pershing II and GLCMs (ground-launched cruise missiles, or “glick-ems”) to Europe. The Nuclear Freeze Movement helped to stimulate talks between Reagan and Gorbachev that led to the elimination of weapons like the Pershing II, the GLCMs, and Soviet SS-20s, introducing a small sliver of (temporary) sanity to U.S.-Soviet relations.

Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and America’s unipolar moment of triumph. Who knew that 30 years later, America would be vigorously advancing and inflating a new Russian threat that would then be used to “justify” renewed spending on all sorts of esoteric, exorbitant, and wildly unnecessary weaponry to feed the never-satiated military-industrial-congressional complex (MICC). I didn’t predict it, that’s for sure.

For the last 15 years, I’ve been writing for TomDispatch.com, averaging six articles a year whose main theme has been the often colossal failures of the MICC and the total lack of accountability for the same. Never has failure bred so much success for an institution. And the institution itself, I truly hesitate to write, is woefully lacking in integrity. Whether it was the Pentagon Papers in Vietnam, the Afghan War Papers, the lies about WMD in Iraq that precipitated the disastrous Iraq War in 2003, or that hoary chestnut about babies being ripped from incubators in Kuwait that helped to justify Desert Shield/Storm in 1991-92, the American people have been told so many lies about war by “their” MICC that it boggles the mind.

And don’t even get me started about how the military lied about Pat Tillman’s death, tarnishing the legacy of a brave soldier inspired by service and idealism.

People with integrity who try to tell us the truth about America’s wars, like Chelsea Manning and Daniel Hale, end up in jail. The liars and the ones who always get it wrong end up being richly rewarded and often promoted to the highest levels.

This has to end, or America itself will come to an end. And it’s so frustrating because, again, I’ve been writing about this, off and on, for forty years, and steadily over the last 15 years. But nothing I say or write, or other critics like Andrew Bacevich and William Hartung say or write, makes any difference, so it seems, as the MICC continues to become the giant war robot that rules America.

Democrats, Republicans, and the Need for Alternatives

W.J. Astore

The last real Democratic President was Jimmy Carter. The last U.S. election offering a real alternative vision was George McGovern versus Richard Nixon in 1972.

Since then, Democratic Presidents like Clinton, Obama, and Biden have been DINOs, or Democrats in name only. In a rare moment of honesty, Obama admitted his administration had echoed the policies of “moderate” Republicans. Friendly to Wall Street, banking interests, corporations, the military-industrial complex, and the usual assortment of oligarchs. Obama’s health care plan was a corporate-friendly sellout that echoed the plan put together by Republicans like Mitt Romney. The DINOs fully support forever war and huge military budgets; Obama was quite happy to admit America had “tortured some folks” and that he’d gotten very good at ordering people to be killed, mainly via assassination by drone. It’s a far cry from Jimmy Carter trying to put human rights at the center of his foreign policy in the late 1970s.

Democrats began to move rightwards after McGovern’s resounding defeat in 1972. They haven’t stopped this rightward drift; indeed, it’s accelerated. The Republicans responded by embracing men like Trump as they found plenty of room even further to the right of the DINOs. America, Gore Vidal once said, basically has one property party with two right wings, and that’s only become truer and more obvious over the last fifty years.

What is to be done? We need viable alternatives, but of course the game is rigged, as Matthew Hoh, principled candidate for the Senate in North Carolina, discovered as Democrats conspired to keep him off the ballot, even though his efforts with the Green Party were more than sufficient to earn him a place on that ballot. Both parties, Democrat and Republican, will do anything to keep their duopoly while also endlessly punching each other. Neither party serves the interests of the people.

Perhaps Caitlin Johnstone can offer some hope, or at least a diagnosis for the right path ahead. Here’s what she had to say in her latest post about how the political system in America is structured and manipulated for the benefits of the powerful:

1. Use narrative manipulation to divide the population into a roughly 50/50 ideological split.

2. Ensure you control both of those factions.

3. Convince everyone that the only reason nothing changes is because their half of the population doesn’t win enough elections.

Everyone’s pulling on a rope that doesn’t lead anywhere and doesn’t do anything, convinced by powerful manipulators that they’re engaged in a life-or-death tug o’ war match of existential importance. Meanwhile the powerful just do as they like, completely indifferent to that spectacle and its back-and-forth exchanges.

A group is artificially split into two sides and told to pull a rope in opposite directions while someone else stands back and shoots them all with a BB gun. When they complain about the welts, they’re told it’s happening because their side isn’t pulling hard enough. But really they’d be getting shot no matter what they did.

This doesn’t mean give up, it just means give up on the fake tug o’ war game. If you’re playing tug o’ war while someone rummages through your handbag looking for cash, the first step to stopping them is putting down the rope and going after them. It’s like if everyone was pushing on a fake fire escape in a burning building: the first step to getting them out of there is showing them that the door is just painted on the wall and doesn’t lead anywhere. That’s not telling them to give up hope, it’s just telling them to give up on an ineffective strategy.

Perhaps Johnstone didn’t go far enough here. Americans go in for assault rifles, not BB guns. But she’s surely right that you’re not going to reform this system from within, i.e. from pulling harder on the Democrat or Republican rope. You need to stop playing an unwinnable game.

Organize. Vote third party when a sane candidate is available. Stop donating to DINOs and their even more dubious Republican cousins. Protest. Tell others. You never know what will be the spark that ignites true and meaningful change.

A Modest Plea for a Sane Defense Budget

The Pentagon will never be forced to make choices if Congress keeps shoveling money its way

W.J. Astore

In the tradition of the U.S. Army, which talks about BLUF, or bottom line up front, here’s what I consider to be a sane defense budget for the United States: $333 billion.

I arrived at this figure by complex math. The U.S. population currently sits at just under 333 million. A reasonable figure to spend per person on national defense is $1000. Hence my figure for a sane defense budget.

How does this immense sum compare to other countries’ budgets? Russia’s defense budget (before its war with Ukraine) hovered around $70 billion a year. China’s defense budget hovered around $245 billion. So my “sane” defense budget easily surpasses the combined budgets of Russia and China, America’s main rivals, or so our military experts say.

Other countries that spend impressively on defense include Germany, France, and the U.K. But note that these are American allies; their spending should serve to lessen the need for our own.

Now, I wish to stress my budget is about defense, as in defending the U.S. against all enemies, foreign and domestic. My budget is not about projecting imperial power around the globe; it’s not about full-spectrum dominance; it’s not about spending more than a trillion dollars over the next thirty years on unneeded nuclear weapons, or more than a trillion to buy and maintain more underperforming F-35 jet fighters.

Again, my sane budget is not a war budget, an imperial budget, or a budget to enrich U.S. weapons makers. It’s a budget intended to DEFEND our country.

So, let’s now compare my sane budget to the actual “defense” budget planned for FY2023. It appears that budget will likely exceed $833 billion, more than half a trillion higher than mine!

What could America do with half a trillion dollars? Think of how many good-paying jobs we could create, how much better our country could be, with safer roads and bridges, more alternative sources of energy, improved schools and hospitals, a cleaner environment. How about drinking water without lead in it? The list is long because we have so many needs as a country.

It wasn’t that long ago that $300 billion was considered more than enough for national defense. But since 9/11 the budget has spiraled upwards as the U.S. government pursued forever wars like Iraq and Afghanistan that ended disastrously. Things are now so bad that the Pentagon can’t even begin to pass a basic audit. Send a small army of accountants to the Pentagon and the brass surrenders instantly.

$333 billion is still an enormous sum of money, yet there will be many who’ll suggest this figure isn’t close to being enough for the brass, all those wearing stars who call the shots. My response: try it. If it doesn’t work, you can always boost the budget. But if you really want the Pentagon to think creatively, cut the budget to $333 billion and watch the real wars begin within the five-sided puzzle palace on the Potomac.

The Pentagon Cowbird

W.J. Astore

Three years ago, nature provided me a lesson in bird parasitism and its repercussions. Unbeknownst to me and especially to the yellow warblers I was watching, a cowbird snuck an egg into the warbler nest. The result is what you see in this photo I took:

Guess which one is the cowbird hatchling?

Cowbird chicks generally hatch quicker, and of course they’re bigger and can fight harder for food. What generally happens is what happened to the nest I was watching. The yellow warbler chicks died as the cowbird chick ate just about all the food provided by its warbler “parents.” All that was left in the end was a rather surly-looking cowbird chick that was incongruously bigger than the warbler “parents” that fed it. Nature can be cruel.

And, as I wrote about here, that cowbird chick made me think of a certain entity in Washington DC that always clamors for money, and which in its sheer bellicosity and bottomless appetite always dominates the nest and crowds out and kills its weaker yet more deserving rivals for sustenance. Yes, you guessed it: the Pentagon and the National Security State.

There’s something about the gaping mouth of that cowbird that says it all. For example, the Biden administration was planning on spending $813 billion on the Pentagon in FY2023, an already enormous sum, only for it to be revealed this week that a bipartisan effort in the Senate is seeking to increase this by $45 billion. That’s on top of the $55 billion or so provided to Ukraine, roughly half of which is going directly to America’s merchants of death.

As Jimmy Dore points out in this segment, at the same time as the Pentagon cowbird cries for and consumes all the money, smaller, vulnerable programs (our yellow warbler chicks) like money for free school lunches for 10 million needy kids are allowed to wither and die.

Dore’s segment here is excellent: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=crNrmEP2lt8

Imagine allowing kids in schools to go hungry because of alleged lack of funds but then funneling nearly a trillion dollars yearly to the parasitic Pentagon cowbird in our midst.

Nature can be cruel. So too is America’s political process.

The War in Yemen

Map of Yemen from 2017 that shows the site of the botched SEAL Team raid at Yakla

W.J. Astore

I haven’t followed the Saudi war in Yemen that closely. But I’d wager most Americans know far less about it than I do. I know the U.S. has been supporting Saudi Arabia in its bloody repression of Iranian-backed Yemeni forces (the Houthis), providing critical resources such as aerial refueling, intelligence sharing, and, most importantly, an endless supply of weaponry. I know this support has been couched as consistent with a “war on terror,” when it’s driven much more by the U.S. need to appease Saudi rulers for economic reasons (primarily the petrodollar and oil exports). I know the Yemeni people have suffered greatly due to famine and diseases exacerbated by constant warfare and economic blockades. I know Joe Biden campaigned against the war and criticized Saudi officials but as president has done nothing to stop it. And I know a bipartisan force in Congress is trying to take steps to end America’s involvement in what essentially constitutes a genocide against the Yemeni people.

Occasionally, Yemen has appeared in my articles here, as with the SEAL Team fiasco launched by President Trump in late January 2017. (One Navy SEAL died in the raid; his father later accused the Trump administration of hiding behind the death of his son instead of admitting the raid had been a murderous failure.) In passing, I’ve mentioned Yemen in a few articles like this one, but again it’s not something I’ve written about in detail. I’ve been focused on the Afghan war, the military-industrial complex, the new Cold War, plans to build a new generation of nuclear weapons, and on and on.

Fortunately, a freelance journalist based in Yemen, Naseh Shaker, contacted me with a few questions that got me thinking a bit more about Yemen and the U.S. government’s role there. His article addresses whether Congress has any chance of invoking the War Powers Act to limit or end America’s involvement in this brutal war, given the reality that President Biden is once again courting and kowtowing to the Saudis. You can read his article here, which includes a few comments by me, but it may be useful to include his original questions to me, and my responses to them. He asked me to keep my responses short, 2-3 sentences, which I did:

Questions by Naseh Shaker

1- Why the US is sanctioning Russia for invading Ukraine but when it comes to the Saudi invasion of Yemen, the US is providing the Saudis with all logistics and weapons as if it is the American war, not the Saudi war?

2- Why Biden doesn’t fulfill his promise to end the war in Yemen?

3- Is invoking the War Powers Resolution (WPR) an attempt from Democrats to cover Biden’s scandal of not ending the war in Yemen as he promised?

4- If WPR is passed, does it mean the US is responsible for Saudi war crimes in Yemen given that it is providing the coalition “intelligence sharing” and “logistical support for offensive Saudi-led coalition strikes”? 

Answers by William Astore

Question 1: The US sees Russia as a rival and an enemy.  The US sees Saudi Arabia as an ally and a friend.  Put differently, the US economy owes much to the petrodollar and the Saudi appetite for expensive American-made weaponry.

Question 2: Because he doesn’t really care about the Yemeni people.  He cares about maintaining good relations with the Saudis.

Question 3: Unclear.  But I don’t think Democrats consider it a “scandal” that Biden failed to keep his promise.  There are many other promises Biden failed to keep, such as a $15 federal minimum wage for Americans, and these failed promises are not treated as “scandals.”

Question 4: The US government refuses to take responsibility for its own war crimes, so it certainly isn’t going to admit to responsibility or culpability for Saudi crimes.

Ignorance is a major enemy in the USA. We owe it to ourselves as citizens (and to what’s left of our democracy) to inform ourselves about what our government is up to, especially when what it’s up to is killing, whether directly or indirectly, untold numbers of people around the world.

The war in Yemen has killed at least 377,000 people. To what end? For what purpose? How is aiding the Saudis in this war remotely related to the defense of our country?

End the killing. End the wars. Let’s do something right for a change.