From Deterrence to Doomsday?

moab
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?

Hillary Clinton’s Flat and Misleading Foreign Policy Speech

DEM 2016 Clinton
Wrapping herself in the flag: Hillary talks foreign policy in San Diego, Calif. (AP Photo/John Locher)

W.J. Astore

Yesterday, Hillary Clinton gave a foreign policy speech in San Diego that was notably flat and misleading.  It’s been getting decent reviews in the mainstream media for the zingers she tossed at Donald Trump.  But when you listen to the speech (you can watch it here) and think about it, you realize how insipid and unoriginal it really was.

Here are my thoughts on Clinton’s speech:

1. The speech featured the usual American exceptionalism, the usual fear that if America withdraws from the world stage, chaos will result.  There was no sense that America’s wars of choice in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, etc. have greatly contributed to that chaos.  Oh, there was also the usual boast that America has the greatest military.  That’s what Imperial and Nazi Germany used to boast — until the Germans lost two world wars and smartened up.

2.  Hillary mentioned we’re electing “our” next commander-in-chief.  No, we’re not.  The president is a public servant, not “our” commander-in-chief.  The president serves as the civilian commander-in-chief of the military, and the military alone.

3.  Hillary mentioned the US has a “moral obligation” to defend Israel.  Why is this?  Sure, Israel is an American ally, but why is Israel the one country we’re “morally” obligated to defend? There’s only one country we’re morally obligated to defend, and that’s the USA, assuming our government is actually honoring the US Constitution.

4.  The speech had no new ideas.  It was a laundry list of neo-conservative principles about making America stronger, safer, and so on.  As a friend of mine put it, “Nothing that I heard her say deviated in any way from her hawkish record of recommending bombing at every opportunity.”

5.  Hillary seems to have two speech-giving styles: a somewhat bored monotone and a somewhat agitated yell.  A line like, “this isn’t reality TV, it’s reality,” should have been a big applause line, but her delivery was flat and her timing was off.  In this case, style and substance met as one.

Hillary Clinton reminds me of the grey leaders in the USSR before Gorbachev.  She’s like a Brezhnev or an Andropov. A cookie-cutter product of the system with no fresh ideas.

For many people who are leery of a Trump presidency, Hillary’s hawkish and colorless conformity to the Washington system is more than enough to qualify her.  If she wins the presidency, she will be much like Brezhnev and Andropov, senior apparatchiks of an empire in denial of its own precipitous decline.

The Bull, not the Eagle, Is the New Symbol of U.S. Foreign Policy

Send in the bombers! A "strange love" indeed
Send in the bombers! A “strange love” indeed

W.J. Astore

One of the first acronyms I learned in the military was KISS.  No, not the heavy metal band.  No, nothing romantic either.  It stands for “keep it simple, stupid.”  The lesson: don’t think too much.  That leads to “analysis paralysis.” Be decisive!  Act, if need be, with extreme prejudice, a preference expressed vulgarly as “Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out.”

It’s a preference readily expressed by the current crop of political candidates for commander-in-chief.  With the possible exceptions of Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders, all are slavering for a chance to bomb the bastards back to the Stone Age.  Like the young macho fools in the movie “Boiler Room,” they all want to wield their (fantasy) big swinging dicks.  They’re all budding Curtis LeMays, cigar-chomping bulls in a china shop.

Indeed, the bull rather than the eagle should be the symbol of American foreign policy.  Always charging off to foreign lands, always striving to gore anyone within reach of its horns, all in the name of being decisive, of showing that “America means business” (and not just on Wall Street).

To this season’s peculiar electoral crop of presidential candidates, it looks remarkably easy to win wars. Just bomb the bastards!  Teach them not to mess with Team USA.  Heck, I’m sure it looked easy to the political hacks of London in 1775 as they faced a perceived terrorist threat in a faraway land.  Just send some “special ops” Redcoats supported by Hessian mercenaries (boots on the ground!) to teach those New England terrorists a lesson. Use superior technology (in this case, gunboats) to bombard their rebellious cities (like Boston).  Never mind civilian casualties – a show of force will show the bastards who’s boss.

At least the British had enough sense to cut their losses after six years of bungling that ended at Yorktown (1781).  The U.S. today just keeps sending more troops and more money and more bombs overseas, each time expecting victory instead of the destruction and chaos that characterized previous misadventures (Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria …).

American foreign policy: It’s become like a bull in the ring, snorting, pawing at the ground, racing madly at red capes.  Each time it thinks it’s going to get that cape – until it ends up impaled on the toreador’s sword.