President Joe Biden turns 80 this year. If he chooses to run and is reelected in 2024, he’ll be 82 and will serve as president until he’s 86. His Republican rival, Donald Trump, will be 78 in 2024 and is overweight and perhaps obese. Biden, meanwhile, is moving more slowly and appears to be experiencing signs of age-related cognitive decline. Leaving aside their politics and policies and personalities, are either of these men truly fit to be president?
We all age differently, of course. But it used to be said that being POTUS was the toughest job in the world. Younger men like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush aged noticeably in office due to the strains of the job. Yet pointing out the rigors of the presidency, and raising questions about whether men in their 80s are truly capable of handling such rigors, exposes one to claims of bias based on age.
A lot of jobs have mandatory retirement ages. My dad was a firefighter and he had to retire at 65. While we don’t expect the POTUS to climb ladders or charge into burning buildings or carry bodies, there’s still something to be said for the difficulty of men in the twilight of their lives serving as the “leader of the free world.”
(I say men here because women live longer and often age more gracefully. But I think it’s also true in the U.S. that a woman “pushing 80” would be dismissed out of hand as too old for the presidency; societal bias against older women still exists, though of course older women can cling to power with the same tenacity as men: just look at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.)
I remember the bad old days of the Cold War when Soviet leaders were mocked in the U.S. as a gerontocracy of sorts. So when Leonid Brezhnev died at the age of 75, he was briefly succeeded by Yuri Andropov (died at 69) and Konstantin Chernenko (died at 74 after serving for just over a year as General Secretary). Then the much younger Mikhail Gorbachev took over at age 54 and more than anyone helped to revolutionize U.S.-Soviet relations.
In a way, Joe Biden is the U.S. equivalent of Andropov and Chernenko, a time-server who was elevated by his party as a caretaker. “Nothing will fundamentally change,” Biden said of his administration, a promise he has indeed kept. Those same words could have come from Andropov and Chernenko.
The problem for the Democrats is that there’s no clear younger heir-apparent to Biden. Harris? Mayor Pete? Gavin Newsom? (Newsom, like Mitt Romney, has presidential hair but little else.) Where is the Democratic equivalent to Mikhail Gorbachev?
The Republicans have their own issues, the main one being the cult of personality surrounding Donald J. Trump. But what really empowers Trump, besides his own craftiness at cons and culture wars, is the weakness and hypocrisy of the Democrats. When your most likely opponent is a “no hope, no change” figurehead in his early 80s, even Trump appears by comparison to be a change agent of sorts.
America truly needs fundamental change, someone like Mikhail Gorbachev, a leader willing to face facts and tell harsh truths. Someone with a fresh perspective and the energy to convey it. Both Biden and Trump are too old, if not in their bodies, then in their thinking, to be the reformer America so desperately needs.
My esteemed colleague Davout and I have different ways of looking at the Russia-Ukraine War. We thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to share our differing perspectives here, allowing our readers to think over the merits of our approaches and the validity of our conclusions. Davout has framed the questions and made the initial response; I get the last word, so to speak, for each question. Our mutual intent is not to “win” a pseudo-debate but to pose questions and provide answers that inform and stimulate. To that end, here we go.
What caused the Russian invasion of Ukraine?
Davout: Putin’s desire to reestablish Russian hegemony over Eastern Europe and ensure the stability of his autocratic regime has been the main driver of the invasion. In 2005, Putin declared that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” What was catastrophic about it for Putin? The eastern flank of the former Soviet Union, including Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Moldova, and Ukraine shifted from being an appendage of an authoritarian Soviet regime to being a collection of independent democracies or democracies-in-process. Membership in the European Union and in NATO has either been achieved (the Baltic states) or been pursued (Ukraine pursuing both, Moldova pursuing European Union membership only). None of these countries (not to mention the formerly occupied countries of Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia) singly or together have the capacity or will to invade Russia or otherwise project military power across Russian borders. The real threat to which Putin is responding is the example set by the people of former Soviet territories opting for more democratic, less corrupt regimes and societies. That example endangers his own hold on power and pushes his own society toward historical irrelevance.
Astore: Putin was obviously the prime mover of the invasion. He chose the military option, and he surely believed it would strengthen his authority over a former Soviet republic that was tracking toward joining NATO.
When we speak of causes, however, it’s often wise to take a broad view over a breadth of time. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, NATO’s reason for being ended with it. Nevertheless, NATO persisted, expanding to the very borders of Russia despite assurances to Russian leaders that the alliance would not expand eastwards beyond a newly unified Germany. Russian leaders, including Putin, had issued clear warnings that NATO expansion into Ukraine would constitute a “red line,” the crossing of which would likely lead to a military response. Putin’s decision to invade, therefore, was eminently predictable, thus it was also potentially preventable. The United States, which leads NATO, could have sent a clear signal to Russia that Ukraine should and would remain a neutral buffer state. The US chose not to do so.
One may question the premise of Ukraine as a “more democratic, less corrupt regime.” In Ukraine, corruption is endemic, exacerbated by extensive U.S. meddling, as in the notorious coup of 2014 orchestrated in part by Victoria Nuland, citing the support of then-Vice President Joe Biden. And while it’s important to recognize Russian regional hegemonic ambitions, one should never forget the global hegemonic ambitions of the U.S. empire. In sum, the US has not been an innocent bystander here.
US proxy war or Ukrainian war of independence?
Davout: A proxy war is a conflict instigated by a state in which it does not directly engage in hostilities. This war was a war of choice on the part of Putin. It has had the unintended result of inspiring patriotic resistance (even amongst Russian-speaking Ukrainians who were formerly pro-Russian like the mayor of Odessa). In the lead up to the invasion, the US and its NATO allies attempted to dissuade Putin from invading. In the invasion’s aftermath, they have provided critical arms and support to Ukraine and have sought economically to undermine Russia’s war-making capacities. While current official US policy may be the crippling of Russia’s capacity to engage in another such invasion in the near future, the US did not instigate this war in pursuit of this aim. While US and NATO armaments are a necessary factor in Ukraine’s continued defense against the Russian invasion, it is Ukrainian solidarity and resolve and Russian refusal to end its invasion that keep this war going.
Astore: Clearly, most Ukrainians believe they are fighting for their independence. Ukraine has no desire to become a Putin puppet state. Nor, however, do they wish to become a puppet state to the USA.
Lloyd Austin, the US Secretary of Defense, spoke clearly that weakening Russia was a key goal of this conflict. To that end, the US government, in a rare show of bipartisan unity, provided $54 billion in largely military aid to a Ukrainian military with a yearly budget of $6 billion. Such profligacy is not an example of generosity driven by disinterested ideals. Clearly, the US sees this war as the latest front in a new cold war, a way to stress Russia to the breaking point. As President Biden openly stated, that man (Putin) must go.
So, it’s worse than a proxy war: it’s yet another US regime-change war. The stated goal is to topple Putin and turn Russia into a divided and dysfunctional state, much like it was in the 1990s when Western corporations and financial institutions invaded Russia and exploited it in the name of capitalism and reform.
Are there any legitimate parallels to draw between Putin and Hitler?
Davout: Yes, though the parallels with Hitler are not the same parallels so often drawn to delegitimize non-interventionists as appeasers. Historian John Lukacs’s various histories of Hitler’s strategizing in that crucial period after the invasion of France to the start of the Battle of Britain paint a picture of Hitler less as the hubristic dictator irrationally striving for world conquest than as a canny but flawed geopolitical strategist, driven by geopolitical grievance and with a large capacity to hate those who opposed him. Lukacs argues that Hitler was prepared to cut a deal with Great Britain on terms that would allow Germany to exercise hegemonic powers on the continent. It was Churchill’s longstanding aversion to Hitler and Hitlerism and his ability to maintain British popular support for the war that blocked Hitler’s strategy to cut a deal. Once his overture was blocked by Churchill, Hitler underestimated British morale in the Battle of Britain. Then, in an effort to circumvent Britain’s resistance, Hitler gambled that he could cripple Stalin’s war making capacity and knock him out of the war and thereby present England with a fait accompli of German hegemony on the continent. The picture of Hitler Lukacs draws can plausibly be applied to Putin—a grievance-driven leader attempting to restore a lost geopolitical sphere of influence, who has miscalculated the resolve of democratic leaders and peoples and has doubled down on violence.
Astore: In a word, no.
Whenever American leaders want to justify military action and high spending on weaponry, they turn to Hitler and World War II. The claim is made that we must stop the “new” Hitler. We must not be appeasers. Saddam Hussein was allegedly the new Hitler in 2003; his WMD was supposed to be a mushroom cloud on our horizon. But there was no WMD and eliminating Saddam by invasion tipped Iraq into a disastrous civil war from which that country has yet to recover.
Putin isn’t the new Hitler, and his invasion of Ukraine doesn’t represent the kind of existential threat the Third Reich presented to democracies in 1938-39.
Hitler had the finest military machine of his day backed by the economic powerhouse that was Germany in the late 1930s. Putin’s military machine is mediocre at best, and Russia’s economy is smaller than that of California. Putin doesn’t appear to be seeking a huge empire or world domination, as Hitler was. And while Hitler may have temporarily played nice with Britain, that didn’t prevent the Nazis from hatching plans to invade and loot Britain and to massacre its Jews as well.
Of course, Putin was wrong to have invaded Ukraine, but George W. Bush was wrong to have invaded Iraq in 2003. Both these leaders have essentially nothing in common with Hitler, who was sui generis–a tyrannical dictator driven by genocidal fantasies of world dominance by a “master race.”
To what extent is US democracy hurt or helped by the Biden Administration’s policy of military support for Ukrainian resistance?
Davout: Seeing his country in hostile competition with western democracies, Putin has deployed various forms of soft power and hard power to undermine confidence in, and injure the working of, democratic regimes. Hackers and internet influencers employed by the Russian state have intervened in the elections of established democracies either to foster social distrust or to promote candidates (e.g., Trump) and policies (e.g., Brexit) that weaken adversary countries. Military interventions are carried out on Russia’s border to maintain regimes favorable to Putin (as was the case when a popular uprising against fraudulent elections in Belarus was put down with the help of Russian soldiers). Meanwhile, as was documented by the Panama and Pandora Papers, the huge amounts of money pilfered from the Russian people by oligarchs moves through the banking, legal, and commercial institutions of democratic countries (including South Dakota!) with corrupting effect on people and officials alike. To be sure, the US has corruption problems of its own. And US military support of Ukraine will have the unfortunate result of strengthening the position of defense contractors and their lobbyists, Pentagon brass, and congressional hawks. However, it would be worst for US democracy if Russian ambitions to occupy or dismember Ukraine succeed. This would undermine European democracies whose continued survival and flourishing provide democratic reformers in the US with critically important role models and partners.
Astore: US democracy hasn’t been hurt or helped by this war because the US is a democracy in name only.
In reality, the US is an oligarchy in which the rich and powerful rule at the expense of the many. The unofficial fourth branch of government is the US National Security State, a leviathan of enormous power. Its biggest component is what President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1961 termed the military-industrial complex (to which he added Congress as well). This MICC is profiting greatly from this war, not only in the $54 billion in aid provided to Ukraine, but also in the ever-rising Pentagon budget for FY 2023, which will exceed $813 billion, a gargantuan sum justified in part by the Russia-Ukraine War.
The new cold war with Russia, and increasingly with China as well, is strengthening the state of permanent war in America. As James Madison warned, permanent warfare serves autocracy while insidiously destroying democracy. As militarism becomes more deeply entrenched in the US government, and as that same government continues to send more destructive weaponry to Ukraine such as artillery and missile systems, options for de-escalation narrow even as chances for a nightmarish escalation to nuclear war, whether by design or accident, increase.
What would truly strengthen democracy in America, assuming it could somehow be reanimated, is if the USA pressed ahead with all its strength to broker a peace treaty between Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine is getting wrecked by this war, and our aggressive actions, mainly in providing more and more lethal weaponry together with onerous sanctions, are guaranteed to shred more bodies and aggravate economic dislocation both here and in Europe.
Readers, what are your thoughts here?
Coda by M. Davout (6/6/22)
W. J. Astore has asked me to compose a “coda” of sorts, in which I might add some concluding reflections about the commentary provoked by our different views on the war in Ukraine.
Yes, there is a relevant pre-2022 history to the current conflict—decades old promises from US officials to Russian officials about not expanding NATO east of the Oder, a popular pro-West Ukrainian uprising (supported by Western intelligence agencies, some have plausibly argued) against a Ukrainian administration’s decision to reject closer ties with the European Union (as was the will of the Ukrainian parliament) in favor of the Ukrainian president’s decision to push the country toward closer ties with Russia, a counter-uprising in the Donbas that drew Russian political and military support, etc. But there is also the fact of a full-scale military invasion against a country that posed little if any military threat to Russian borders, a military invasion that has led to the needless deaths of tens of thousands of civilians and combatants and the uprooting of millions of Ukrainians.
It is undeniable that the invasion has promoted patriotic solidarity among different language speakers within Ukraine against the invasion, including Russian speaking Ukrainians whose rights Putin’s invasion was presumably intended to defend. It is also undeniable that voter support for Ukraine’s resistance to the invasion is very high in Eastern European countries. More noteworthy is the fact that in Western European countries, governments have been forced to respond to the pro-Ukrainian sentiments of their voters by sending arms to Ukraine and destroying longstanding economic relationships with Russia to the financial detriment of both European businesses and consumers.
So the situation is nowhere near as neat or clear as either my contributions or Astore’s contributions or the contributions of the majority of the commentators would have it be. In this regard, the comments of Denise Donaldson strike me as the most interesting. You can tell that she can see the issue from both sides and is struggling with that ambiguity.
That is the place to be on the Ukraine war, I think: struggling with ambiguity. There is no clearly right answer: the war is not solely a product of American empire, nor is it solely a product of Russian empire. And there are no good outcomes, only bad or worse outcomes.
But, in politics, one has to make choices and, for now, I choose align myself with current US and NATO policy. Not because I am a dupe of the mainstream media or a supporter of the Establishment or the MIC (my earlier posts on this website should put those notions to rest) but because I believe the expulsion of the Russian military from the Ukrainian lands it currently occupies (maybe including Crimea, maybe not) is both possible and more likely to lead to a lasting peace in eastern Europe. And my taking that position does not mean that I do not also see some merit in the points my esteemed colleague WJ Astore (and his many followers) make.
Response by Astore (6/6/22)
I would like to thank M. Davout for his reasoned response and for continuing this important discussion. One thing I can say with certainty: you won’t hear such a nuanced and broad debate in the mainstream media, which basically just sells U.S. weaponry while waving Ukrainian flags in our faces.
Davout suggests that Ukraine posed no threat to Russia. Alone, that is true. But Ukraine was planning to join NATO, a powerful alliance led by the world’s most hegemonic country. Surely, that combination was something for Russia to be wary of, and even to fear.
When Americans think of Russia, many negative images come to mind. The evils of communism. A charging and rampaging Russian bear. But Russia has had its share of devastation. Davout certainly knows the rampage of Napoleon’s empire in 1812. Russia and the Soviet Union were almost destroyed by World Wars I and II. Russian leaders have been reassured by Western leaders before that “we come in peace,” but surely 1812, 1914, and 1941 taught Russia much about trusting Western assurances.
Look at a map. From a Russian perspective, NATO surrounds them. Look at military budgets. The U.S. and NATO combined spend more than 20 times what Russia spends. If the roles were reversed and we were the Russians, might we see this differently?
My point is not to excuse Russia’s invasion but to offer a partial explanation.
I agree with Davout that by this point “there are no good outcomes, only bad or worse outcomes.” Therefore, I choose not to align myself with current US and NATO policy, since I see this as recklessly escalatory and focused primarily on providing more and more weaponry to kill more and more Russians (and Ukrainians too). I propose an immediate cease fire, the end of arms shipments to Ukraine, and negotiation that would end with some territory being ceded to Russia, a promise from NATO and Ukraine that the latter will remain neutral, and a promise from Russia that Ukraine will not be attacked again, and that its territorial integrity will be respected. I would also insist on Russia paying reparations dedicated to rebuilding Ukraine. Finally, the U.S. should end all sanctions on Russia and redirect its aid entirely to rebuilding Ukraine rather than to more weaponry.
I think this approach would save lives and restore equilibrium to Europe while avoiding dangerous escalation that could conceivably end in nuclear war. It’s time for statesmanship and compromise, rather than militaristic grandstanding and mendacious obstinacy.
Sadly, I see no one in the US government with the sagacity and cojones to join Putin and Zelensky in working to stop this war reasonably and quickly.
President Biden is at it again, and so is the New York Times. Abandoning the policy of “strategic ambiguity,” Biden vowed that America would militarily resist a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The “liberal” New York Times did its part by describing (in its “Morning” daily newsletter) Biden’s vow as “tough words.” Who cares if Biden’s words unnecessarily aggravate tensions with China and contribute to a cold war running increasingly hot? After all, Biden sounded “tough,” and that’s all that really matters here.
Consider these “tough” words from the New York Times:
“The central problem for the U.S. is that it might not be able to stop Xi if he chose to attack. The American public is tired of faraway wars with uncertain connections to national security — an attitude that limits any U.S. president’s options. China’s leaders, on the other hand, would view a conflict in Taiwan as a vital domestic matter and devote vast resources to victory.
For these reasons, the surest way to protect Taiwan is to make China’s leaders believe that even if they could win a war, it would be costly enough to destabilize their regime.”
Remarkably, the Times makes it sound like the American public’s fatigue when it comes to disastrous foreign wars that are unconnected to our national security is a bad thing. Note how this “tired” feeling is allegedly an “attitude that limits any U.S. president’s options,” as if that’s a bad thing.
Did the Times forget that it’s Congress that’s supposed to declare war? That wars should be a last resort? Anyway, so far I haven’t noticed how the American public’s tiredness has stopped any recent war. Most Americans didn’t want to invade Iraq and quickly grew tired of that war, but as Vice President Dick Cheney famously said, “So?” So what if the people are “tired”? When it comes to war, men like Cheney, Obama, Trump, and Biden do what they want. If they listened to us, the Afghan War would have been over in two months instead of persisting for two decades.
“Tough words.” Please, God, save us all from such dangerous nonsense.
In my latest for TomDispatch.com, I tackle America’s disastrous 60-year war (1961-2021), which began with Ike’s warning of the pernicious threat to democracy of the military-industrial complex and ended with last year’s humiliating retreat from Afghanistan. Has America learned anything? Based on recent events with Russia and Ukraine, together with bellicose acts toward China, it doesn’t seem so.
Here’s an excerpt from my article; you can read it in its entirety at TomDispatch.com.
Three Generations of Conspicuous Destruction by the Military-Industrial Complex
In my lifetime of nearly 60 years, America has waged five major wars, winning one decisively, then throwing that victory away, while losing the other four disastrously. Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, as well as the Global War on Terror, were the losses, of course; the Cold War being the solitary win that must now be counted as a loss because its promise was so quickly discarded.
America’s war in Vietnam was waged during the Cold War in the context of what was then known as the domino theory and the idea of “containing” communism. Iraq and Afghanistan were part of the Global War on Terror, a post-Cold War event in which “radical Islamic terrorism” became the substitute for communism. Even so, those wars should be treated as a single strand of history, a 60-year war, if you will, for one reason alone: the explanatory power of such a concept.
For me, because of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation in January 1961, that year is the obvious starting point for what retired Army colonel and historian Andrew Bacevich recently termed America’s Very Long War (VLW). In that televised speech, Ike warned of the emergence of a military-industrial complex of immense strength that could someday threaten American democracy itself. I’ve chosen 2021 as the VLW’s terminus point because of the disastrous end of this country’s Afghan War, which even in its last years cost $45 billion annually to prosecute, and because of one curious reality that goes with it. In the wake of the crashing and burning of that 20-year war effort, the Pentagon budget leaped even higher with the support of almost every congressional representative of both parties as Washington’s armed attention turned to China and Russia.
At the end of two decades of globally disastrous war-making, that funding increase should tell us just how right Eisenhower was about the perils of the military-industrial complex. By failing to heed him all these years, democracy may indeed be in the process of meeting its demise.
The Prosperity of Losing Wars
Several things define America’s disastrous 60-year war. These would include profligacy and ferocity in the use of weaponry against peoples who could not respond in kind; enormous profiteering by the military-industrial complex; incessant lying by the U.S. government (the evidence in the Pentagon Papers for Vietnam, the missing WMDfor the invasion of Iraq, and the recent Afghan War papers); accountability-free defeats, with prominent government or military officials essentially never held responsible; and the consistent practice of a militarized Keynesianism that provided jobs and wealth to a relative few at the expense of a great many. In sum, America’s 60-year war has featured conspicuous destruction globally, even as wartime production in the U.S. failed to better the lives of the working and middle classes as a whole.
Let’s take a closer look. Militarily speaking, throwing almost everything the U.S. military had (nuclear arms excepted) at opponents who had next to nothing should be considered the defining feature of the VLW. During those six decades of war-making, the U.S. military raged with white hot anger against enemies who refused to submit to its ever more powerful, technologically advanced, and destructive toys.
Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is making a comeback as the Pentagon hypes a new Cold War with China and Russia. Threat inflation is a big part of this “new” war, just as it was in the old one. So too is greed. There’s much money to be made (a trillion or more dollars, perhaps) in building new nuclear missiles and bombers, even though these weapons represent incipient holocausts.
We need to stop this MADness. There is no need for a new Cold War, and there is no need for new nuclear weapons, weapons that could very well destroy human civilization and most of life on our planet.
This is the subject of my latest article at TomDispatch.com. What follows is an excerpt. I encourage you to read the article in its entirety here.
Only Fools Replay Doomsday
In the early 1960s, at the height of America’s original Cold War with the Soviet Union, my old service branch, the Air Force, sought to build 10,000 land-based nuclear missiles. These were intended to augment the hundreds of nuclear bombers it already had, like the B-52s featured so memorably in the movie Dr. Strangelove. Predictably, massive future overkill was justified in the name of “deterrence,” though the nuclear war plan in force back then was more about obliteration. It featured a devastating attack on the Soviet Union and communist China that would kill an estimated 600 million people in six months (the equivalent of 100 Holocausts, notes Daniel Ellsberg in his book, The Doomsday Machine). Slightly saner heads finally prevailed — in the sense that the Air Force eventually got “only” 1,000 of those Minuteman nuclear missiles.
Despite the strategic arms limitation talks between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the dire threat of nuclear Armageddon persisted, reaching a fresh peak in the 1980s during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. At the time, he memorably declared the Soviet Union to be an “evil empire,” while nuclear-capable Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles were rushed to Europe. At that same moment, more than a few Europeans, joined by some Americans, took to the streets, calling for a nuclear freeze— an end to new nuclear weapons and the destabilizing deployment of the ones that already existed. If only…
It was in this heady environment that, in uniform, I found myself working in the ultimate nuclear redoubt of the Cold War. I was under 2,000 feet of solid granite in a North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) command post built into Cheyenne Mountain at the southern end of the Colorado front range that includes Pikes Peak. When off-duty, I used to hike up a trail that put me roughly level with the top of Cheyenne Mountain. There, I saw it from a fresh perspective, with all its antennas blinking, ready to receive and relay warnings and commands that could have ended in my annihilation in a Soviet first strike or retaliatory counterstrike.
Yet, to be honest, I didn’t give much thought to the possibility of Armageddon. As a young Air Force lieutenant, I was caught up in the minuscule role I was playing in an unimaginably powerful military machine. And as a hiker out of uniform, I would always do my best to enjoy the bracing air, the bright sunshine, and the deep blue skies as I climbed near the timberline in those Colorado mountains. Surrounded by such natural grandeur, I chose not to give more than a moment’s thought to the nightmarish idea that I might be standing at ground zero of the opening act of World War III. Because there was one thing I knew with certainty: if the next war went nuclear, whether I was on-duty under the mountain or off-duty hiking nearby, I was certainly going to be dead.
Then came 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Cold War was over! America had won! Rather than nightmares of the Red Storm Rising sort that novelist Tom Clancy had imagined or Hollywood’s Red Dawn in which there was an actual communist invasion of this country, we could now dream of “peace dividends,” of America becoming a normal country in normal times.
It was, as the phrase went, “morning again in America” — or, at least, it could have been. Yet here I sit, 30 years later, at sea level rather than near the timberline, stunned by the resurgence of a twenty-first-century version of anticommunist hysteria and at the idea of a new cold war with Russia, the rump version of the Soviet Union of my younger days, joined by an emerging China, both still ostensibly conspiring to endanger our national security, or so experts in and out of the Pentagon tell us.
Excuse me while my youthful 28-year-old self asks my cranky 58-year-old self a few questions: What the hell happened? Dammit, we won the Cold War three decades ago. Decisively so! How, then, could we have allowed a new one to emerge? Why would any sane nation want to refight a war that it had already won at enormous cost? Who in their right mind would want to hit the “replay” button on such a costly, potentially cataclysmic strategic paradigm as deterrence through MAD, or mutually assured destruction?
Aside from climate change (Armageddon in slow motion) and nuclear war (Armageddon in the blink of an eye), the biggest threat to America is perpetual war and preparations for war driven by threat inflation. We’re witnessing it now, before our very eyes, with America’s increasingly polarized relations with China, notes David Vine in his latest effort for TomDispatch.com. Both parties, Republican and Democratic, accuse the other of being “soft” on China, even as the U.S. “defense” budget (meaning the war and weapons budget) soars with bipartisan support in Congress.
It’s folly, of course, and dangerous folly at that. China has roughly four times as many people as the U.S. and a vibrant economy; China is also a leading trading partner and owner of American debt. China, in short, should be a friend, or friendly rival, or a competitor worthy of respect. What China shouldn’t be in American eyes is a manifestation of a new “Yellow Peril,” an inscrutable foe, a soon-to-be enemy. Anything that tips us in that direction is truly folly, since any war with China could end in nuclear catastrophe. And even if such a catastrophe is avoided, war, even a “cold” one, will destroy any chance for concerted action against climate change, imperiling the very planet we live on.
If we want to avoid Armageddon, whether the one in slow motion or the one in the blink of an eye, the USA needs good relations with China, based again on mutual respect and a cooperative spirit. What should unite us (working to mitigate climate change and reduce the threat of nuclear war) is far more important than what is allegedly dividing us.
But threat inflation works, especially for the military-industrial-congressional complex, to justify colossal war budgets to the American people. Here’s the problem, though: When you inflate the threat, in some way you also create it. You instantiate it, at least in your own mind. You give it more and more substance. And the more weapons you build to meet the threat you created, the more likely it becomes that you’ll choose to use those weapons when push comes to shove — and Americans sure do a lot of shoving in the world.
I just hope the Chinese are wise enough to see that America’s national security state is indeed a big threat — to America. So they’d be wisest to stand back and let America defeat itself with debilitating wars and profligate spending on costly weaponry. Meanwhile, they can use their strong economy to dominate trade. While we build weapons and fight wars, China will defeat us — at capitalism! Ah, the irony, comrade.
Yet even as China wins the new cold war, the planet itself will lose. Anything that distracts humanity from facing climate change together is folly. It may not seem so at this moment, but check back with the planet in 2031. Another decade lost to military folly is another nail in the coffin to efforts at preserving and restoring life on our planet.
So, as David Vine asks in his article, Do you want a new cold war? Anyone with any sense knows that “No!” is the only possible answer.
On “Two Minutes to Midnight,” I talk about some of the themes I’ve developed at this site. Produced by Catalysta, the idea behind the series is to encourage fresh thinking on the challenges confronting us in a rapidly changing world.
In this interview, I explain how and why America spends way too much on weaponry and wars, and how we can shift the narrative and revive the idea of peace. Echoing George McGovern, it’s time to “come home, America,” to invest in our country and ourselves, rather than to fund more weaponry and more overseas wars.
Near the end of the video, I make an appeal to younger generations of America to lift their voices against the military-industrial-Congressional complex. I urge them not to be intimidated and to speak their mind, explaining that many veterans are just as fed up as they are. Collectively, we need to act. And perhaps the first and most critical step is getting big corporate money out of politics even as we work to make major cuts to the U.S. war budget.
Special thanks to Edward Goldberg at Catalysta.net for inviting me and offering me a chance to share my views with a wider audience.
In my latest for TomDispatch.com, I tackle the Pentagon’s latest proclivity for “near-peer” conflicts, the near-peers being China and Russia, which conveniently serves to justify huge war budgets in perpetuity. It’s the Cold War, rebooted and rebranded, with a new generation of nuclear weapons thrown into the mix to make things even more interesting. As they say, what could possibly go wrong?
What follows is an excerpt that focuses on a “Star Trek” episode that has much to teach us:
In the 1970s, in fact, I avidly watched reruns of the original Star Trek. Lately, one episode, “A Taste of Armageddon,” has been on my mind. It featured two planets, Eminiar VII and Vendikar, at war with each other for 500 years. Here was the catch: those planets no longer used real weapons. Instead, they fought bloodlessly with computer-simulated attacks, even as citizens marked as “dead” had to report to disintegration chambers in a bizarre ritual meant to keep the peace through a computer-driven holocaust. The peoples of these two planets had become so accustomed to endless war that they couldn’t imagine an alternative, especially one that ended in a negotiated peace.
So many years later, I can’t help thinking that our country’s military establishment has something in common with the leaders of Eminiar VII and Vendikar. There’s so much repetition when it comes to America’s wars — with little hope of negotiated settlements, little talk of radically different approaches, and a remarkably blasé attitude toward death — especially when it’s largely the death of others; when foreign peoples, as if on another planet, are just “disintegrated,” whether by monster bombs like MOAB or more discrete Hellfire missile strikes via remotely piloted drones.
What gives? Right now, America’s military leaders are clearly turning back to the war they’d prefer to be fighting, the one they think they can win (or at least eternally not lose). A conventional warlike state vis-à-vis those near-peers seems to play to their skills. It’s also a form of “war” that makes loads of money for the military-industrial complex, driving lucrative acquisition decisions about weaponry in a remarkably predictable fashion.
Near-peer “war” remains largely a fantasy set of operations (though with all-too-real dangers of possible conflagrations to come, right up to nuclear disaster). In contrast, real war, as in this century’s terror wars, is a realm of chaos. So much the better to keep things as predictable as possible. Fresh and original ideas about war (and peace) are unlikely to prove profitable for the military-industrial complex. Worse yet, at an individual level, they could damage one’s chances for promotion or, on retirement, for future posts within the industrial part of that complex. It’s a lot healthier to salute smartly, keep planning for a near-peer future, and conform rather than fall on one’s sword for a dissenting idea (especially one related to peace and so to less money for the Pentagon).
Please read the article in its entirety here at TomDispatch.
A Few Heretical Thoughts as America Celebrates Itself
Back in the days of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, most Americans took pride in not being like the USSR, or our image of the USSR. We, the USA, were not a militaristic empire. We, the USA, didn’t have state propaganda. We, the USA, took in Soviet dissidents who spoke out against state abuses of power and for personal freedoms. We, the USA, didn’t have old sclerotic leaders who were simply figureheads for elites. We, the USA, didn’t have military forces in the streets to maintain order. And so forth.
I was thinking about this today because Trump didn’t pardon Edward Snowden, whose only sanctuary is Russia. I was thinking about this today because some of the more interesting shows with critical coverage of the USA are on RT, a Russia-owned network. (I’m thinking here of shows hosted by Jesse Ventura and Chris Hedges. Their outspoken criticism and honesty is rarely heard on America’s mainstream media networks.) I was thinking today of a mainstream media that’s celebrating the inauguration of an aging man, Joe Biden, who’s visibly in decline and who is a tool for the establishment. I was thinking today of the nation’s capital that resembles an armed and fortified camp for a “peaceful” transference of power.
These are uncomfortable thoughts, I know.
Similarly, my wife and I were joking this morning about what the Washington Football Team should call itself, now that the “Redskins” has finally been rejected as impolitic and inappropriate. An innocuous name like the Washington Monuments came to mind. But if we wanted to be more honest, how about the Washington Lobbyists? The Washington Bullies? Or the Washington Awesome Splendor of Timeless Exceptionalism (WASTE)?
The idea for the latter name came from a recent statement the Trump administration released in support of a “Garden of American Heroes.” Here’s a sample of the rhetoric:
The garden’s purpose is “to reflect the awesome splendor of our country’s timeless exceptionalism.”
The garden of heroes “is America’s answer to [a] reckless attempt to erase our heroes, values and entire way of life. On its grounds, the devastation and discord of the moment will be overcome with abiding love of country and lasting patriotism. This is the American way.”
A garden of heroes is a perfect antidote to “a dangerous anti-American extremism that seeks to dismantle our country’s history, institutions and very identity.”
So, what Trump was saying is that America’s main enemy is “a dangerous anti-American extremism” that’s seeking to destroy our very identity. Meanwhile, anti-Trump forces are similarly arguing that Trump and his minions represent a dangerous anti-American extremism that’s out to destroy our way of life. Not much room for compromise and unity here, is there?
The Soviet Union collapsed in part due to internal tensions and disorder, massive military spending, and lost wars. A sclerotic leadership was incapable of changing course, and by the time the empire attempted to change course with Gorbachev, it was too late for restructuring and openness.
Is it already too late for the USA? Or does today’s pomp and ceremony promise a new beginning? Readers, what do you think?
Item: After reading an interesting story about Joseph McCarthy’s rise and fall in the 1950s, I came across this headline today at NBC News: “‘I’m not a communist’: Potential Biden running mate Rep. Bass reassures Cuban American voters.”
Explains Congresswoman Bass of California: “I’m not a socialist. I’m not a communist. I’ve belonged to one party my entire life and that’s the Democratic Party and I’m a Christian,” Bass told NBC News.
Isn’t that reassuring? She’s a Christian and a Democrat. And she has to deny strongly that she’s a communist, as if 2020 was really 1952 at the height of McCarthyism.
Why today are we supposed to be so scared of the commie wolf? I thought America won the Cold War thirty years ago.
Item: Speaking of the big bad commie wolf, a friend who’s privy to senior U.S. military thinking (ha!) tells me that this is the “New Era of Great Power Competition,” i.e. a new cold war. How else can you justify rapidly expanding “defense” budgets? Another concept — or opportunistic notion — being kicked around is “unbounded strategic uncertainty.” For the military-industrial complex, this sounds like a very useful concept indeed. In these unbounded, uncertain times, shouldn’t America’s “defense” budget also be unbounded? Who knows what will be the next threat? We must dominate everything!
This reminds me of the story of mask shortages among troops in the U.S. military. The military’s solution, at least in the short-term, was to encourage troops and their families to make their own protective masks for the Covid-19 outbreak. A trillion-dollar military complex can’t afford to outfit troops with protective masks that cost pennies on the dollar. But of course we can fund more F-35s, more aircraft carriers … It’s like the satirical Onion said: Each American should get an aircraft carrier as a stimulus. What better way to protect ourselves while stimulating the economy?
Item: Andrea Mazzarino, a Navy spouse, has a great new article at TomDispatch.com that brings together two subjects that are rarely connected: the U.S. has a global empire with bases in 80 countries, even as Covid-19 cases spike in the “homeland” and affect (and infect) U.S. troops. It’s conceivable that infected U.S. troops, in their worldwide deployments, will emerge as super-spreaders of a sort, especially given the out-of-control nature of Covid-19 cases in the American South, where so many U.S. troops are stationed.
We Americans fancy ourselves as the world’s sole superpower. Will we emerge as the world’s viral super-spreader as well? Yet another example of full spectrum dominance!
And that’s enough items to ponder today. Readers, what say you?