Monday Military Musings

W.J. Astore

A few items I’ve been saving up for quick comments:

Remember when civilians were supposed to control the military?  Not in Trump’s White House.  Besides putting retired generals in charge (e.g. Defense Secretary James Mattis), Trump is throwing money at the Pentagon while empowering “his” generals to do what they wish.  As FP:Foreign Policy put it today:  

Frustrated by lack of influence and disheartened by U.S. President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, Department of Defense civilians are heading for the door, leaving key positions unfilled in a Pentagon increasingly run by active-duty or retired military officers, Foreign Policy’s Lara Seligman writes.

Described in interviews with a dozen former and current DOD officials, the exodus has insiders and observers worried that civilian control of the military is being undercut.

“The Joint Staff and the [combatant commanders] are having a field day,” said one Pentagon official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They don’t answer any requests, they feel emboldened, and Policy is really struggling.”

As commander-in-chief, Trump has largely been AWOL.  When things go bad (like the Yemen raid early in 2017), he blames his generals.  Instead of “The buck stops here,” the motto of Harry S Truman, who knew how to serve as commander-in-chief, Trump’s motto is “The buck never stops here — unless it’s a literal buck I can add to the Trump empire’s balance sheet.”  

The U.S. military’s commander-in-chief has deserted his post, but the Pentagon doesn’t seem to mind.

Meanwhile, even with roughly $700 billion in yearly budgetary authority, with more billions on the way, the Pentagon is warning it may not be able to win a war against China or Russia unless it gets even more money!  Here’s a quick report from CNN:

Could the US lose a war against China or Russia? It might, according to a new report from a bipartisan panel of military experts. The report warns that the Trump administration’s new National Defense Strategy doesn’t have enough resources, which puts the country at greater risk of losing a military conflict with the Chinese or the Russians.  

I’m shocked, shocked, the U.S. might lose a war against China or Russia!  When the U.S. can’t even win a war against the lowly Taliban in Afghanistan after 17+ years. 

The “solution” is always more money and resources for the Pentagon. How about this instead: Don’t fight a war against China or Russia … period.  Or for that matter against any other country that doesn’t pose a real and pressing threat to the United States.

You have to hand it to the Pentagon: the generals know how to launch preemptive attacks.  Not against foreign armies, mind you, but against what is perceived as “the enemy within.”  The military-industrial complex knows the Pentagon budget could conceivably shrink in 2020, so they’re already claiming “the world’s finest military” is in danger of slipping a notch … unless it gets more money.

The only “war” the Pentagon is clearly winning is the war for money and influence in the American “Homeland.”

Finally, there’s the grim news the Trump administration is pulling out of the INF Treaty with Russia that eliminated intermediate range nuclear weapons in 1987.  That treaty was a remarkable achievement by the Reagan administration: it got rid of nuclear weapons such as the SS-20 on the Soviet side and the Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) on the American side, weapons which were considered “first-strike” and therefore destabilizing to nuclear deterrence.  The Trump administration wants to “invest” in more nukes, including intermediate-range ones, supposedly to deter the Russians, who can already be destroyed dozens of times over by America’s current crop of nuclear weapons.

Cost of nuclear modernization to the U.S.?  At least $1.2 trillion (yes–trillion) over the next thirty years.  Weapons that, if they’re used, will only make the radioactive rubble bounce a little bit higher.  More MADness indeed.

An unchecked Pentagon promises ill not just for America but for the world.  Ike knew this.  So did many other U.S. presidents.  Trump is too busy tweeting and making a buck to care.

The Dangerous Sophistry of Steve Bannon

steve-bannon-interview-on-donald-trump
Bannon Wormtongue: Hiding behind the troops

W.J. Astore

After Republican Bob Corker had the guts to criticize President Trump for his bellicose rhetoric and incompetent management of U.S. foreign policy, Steve Bannon issued the following riposte:

“Bob Corker has trashed the commander in chief of our armed forces while we have young men and women in harm’s way.”

The indecency of Bannon’s argument is obvious.  According to Bannon, Corker’s criticism of Trump is tantamount to treason, because an attack on Trump is an attack on “our” troops “in harm’s way.”

If Bannon had his way, no one would be allowed to criticize Trump about foreign policy while U.S. troops are in harm’s way.  Since U.S. troops are deployed to more than 800 bases overseas and to more than 130 countries while incessantly fighting wars in places like Afghanistan, they are, in essence, always in harm’s way.  Thus, no criticism of our Great Leader would ever be allowed, which is convenient for Trump and Bannon Wormtongue.

It’s infuriating how men like Bannon attempt to squelch criticism of the president by hiding behind the troops.  Judging by his rhetoric, Bannon doesn’t want to live in a democracy; he’d much prefer a dictatorship.  Meanwhile, Trump’s riposte to Bob Corker focused on his height.  (Corker is roughly six inches shorter than Trump.)

Mr. Bannon, Trump is more mocker-in-chief than a commander.  And, in defending our chief mocker, your sophistic attempt to hide behind the troops was more than shameful.  It’s grotesque.

Trump and the Afghan War

Afghanistan
A slice of life in Afghanistan (Photo by Anna M.)

W.J. Astore

A concept that you learn quickly in the military is that you can delegate authority but not responsibility.  The buck stops with the guy or gal in charge, and when it’s policy at the national level, that guy is the commander-in-chief, currently Donald Trump.  Yet when it comes to the Afghan war, it appears Trump may be seeking to evade responsibility even as he delegates the specifics of strategy and troop levels to his “civilian” Secretary of Defense, retired General James Mattis.

That’s the news out of Washington: that Trump has delegated to Mattis the decision as to how many additional U.S. troops should be sent to Afghanistan, and what strategy they should employ in a war that Mattis admits the U.S. military is “not winning.”

Think about that. After nearly 16 years and a trillion dollars spent, the U.S. is “not winning” in Afghanistan, which is, to put it honestly, an admission of defeat.  “Not winning” means we’re losing, yet how likely is it that the U.S. military, effectively under the command of retired General Mattis, is going to shift gears completely and withdraw?

Mattis testified to Congress that the Taliban “had a good year last year” and that “winning,” which we’re currently not doing, is a scenario in which U.S. forces, working with Afghan forces, are able to provide local security after several years of “frequent skirmishing” with the Taliban and other insurgent forces.

Yes — that’s the definition of “winning.”  A long-term U.S. commitment of more troops and more money with continued internecine warfare in Afghanistan.

In the near-term, Mattis will likely send more troops (“trainers” and “advisers”) and more money, promising that this time American training and methods will work, that this time corruption will be curtailed, that this time the Taliban will be neutralized (I doubt Mattis is foolish enough to promise “victory”).  Trump will rubber-stamp Mattis’s decision, which gives him the ability to blame his generals if and when the Afghan war takes yet another turn that is contrary to U.S. imperatives.  (Recall how Trump blamed his generals for losing the Navy SEAL in the bungled raid on Yemen.)

As a candidate, Trump deplored the waste of America’s wars and suggested he would try to end them.  As president, Trump is kowtowing to the Pentagon, ensuring these wars will continue.  Worst of all, even as he delegates authority, he is evading responsibility.

It’s a recipe for incessant warfare, yet more suffering, and the continued erosion of democracy in America.

An Afterthought: Let’s suppose for a moment that Trump actually wanted to end the Afghan war.  It would require considerable political capital to take on the national security state — capital that Trump currently doesn’t have, embroiled as he is in controversy (lawsuits!) and ongoing investigations.  This is hardly ever remarked upon in the media: the fact that Trump, who ran on a platform that was often quite critical of conventional wisdom and wasteful wars, has little latitude to act on this platform (assuming he’d want to) when he’s constantly under attack in the media as a Putin stooge, or worse.  Some would say he has only himself to blame here, but it goes deeper than that, I think.

Update (6/16/17): Surprise!  News out of the Pentagon today suggests that another 4000 or so U.S. troops will be sent as a mini-surge to help train and advise Afghan forces.  And so the “stalemate” in Afghanistan will continue.

As I wrote back in February for TomDispatch.com:

That a few thousand troops could somehow reverse the present situation and ensure progress toward victory is obviously a fantasy of the first order, one that barely papers over the reality of these last years: that Washington has been losing the war in Afghanistan and will continue to do so, no matter how it fiddles with troop levels.

Update 2 (6/16/17): Editorial title at the New York TimesAfghanistan Is Trump’s War Now.  It reflects a major flaw and a fatal conceit — that Afghanistan is a war and not a country or a people, that it only matters as a war (at least to Americans), and that somehow Trump now owns it.  Recall that before Americans wage war, it’s supposed to require a Congressional declaration.  Wars are not supposed to be owned by presidents and waged at their whim.  WTF, America?

Update 3 (6/17/17): Watching retired General David Petraeus last night on PBS was a grim experience.  He spoke of a generational war  in Afghanistan and a U.S. commitment that might come to rival our time in South Korea, i.e. 60+ years.  Most revealing of all was the language he used.  He spoke of achieving “a sustainable, sustained commitment” to Afghanistan.  4000 additional troops are part of that “sustainable, sustained commitment.”

There was the usual talk of regional stability, of maintaining a base against terrorism, and so on.  But what the Petraeus interview revealed was the total bankruptcy of American strategy and thinking, encapsulated so well by the concept of a “generational war” modulated by a “sustainable, sustained commitment.”

Update 4 (6/17/17):  Good god.  At Fox News, retired General Jack Keane is calling for an additional 10,000 to 20,000 troops to change the momentum in the Afghan war.  These troops will somehow change the “absolute disgrace” of the war (he mainly blamed President Obama for refusing to make the necessary commitment to win the war).

These generals never ask the question: Why are our “enemies” doing just fine without U.S. troops and billions of dollars in heavy equipment and air power?  Whether in Vietnam or Afghanistan or elsewhere, the answer for these generals is always more: more U.S. troops, more firepower, more aid to our “allies.”

If these generals were investors, they’d keep funneling money to Bernie Madoff even after his fund had been revealed as a Ponzi scheme.  After all, the initial returns were promising, and if we keep sending more money, this time, maybe this time, it won’t all be stolen …

Trump: A Worrisome Commander-in-Chief

Trump holds a rally with supporters at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi, Michigan, U.S.
He doesn’t speak softly, even as he now inherits a very big U.S. military stick. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

W.J. Astore

I’d never watched a U.S. presidential candidate who scared me – truly scared me – until the Republican debate on March 3, 2016.  This candidate literally gave me the creeps.  As a historian and as a retired U.S. military officer, his answer to a question on torture and the potential illegality of his orders if he became the military’s civilian commander-in-chief horrified me.  The next day, I wrote a short blog post in which I argued that this candidate had disqualified himself as a candidate for the presidency.  That candidate’s name was Donald Trump.

What did candidate Trump say that so horrified me?  He said this: They [U.S. military leaders] won’t refuse [my illegal orders]. They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me.  After again calling for waterboarding and more extreme forms of (illegal) torture, as well as not denying he’d target terrorists’ families in murderous reprisal raids, candidate Trump then said this: I’m a leader. I’m a leader. I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.

As I wrote at the time, “Our military does not follow blindly orders issued by ‘The Leader.’ Our military swears an oath to the Constitution.  We swear to uphold the law of the land. We don’t swear allegiance to a single man (or woman) as president.”

“Trump’s performance … reminded me of Richard Nixon’s infamous answer to David Frost about Watergate: ‘When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.’ No, no, a thousand times no.  The president has to obey the law of the land, just as everyone else has to.  No person is above the law, an American ideal that Trump seems neither to understand nor to embrace.”

“And that disqualifies him to be president and commander-in-chief.”

Yes, I wrote those words just before the Ides of March.  And yet here we are, with Trump as our president-elect and, come January 2017 the U.S. military’s next commander-in-chief.  What the hell?

Confronted with criticism of his remarks that the U.S. military would follow his orders irrespective of their legality, Donald Trump soon walked them back.  But for me his dictatorial instincts, his imperiousness, and, worst of all, his ignorance of or indifference to the U.S. Constitution, stood revealed in horrifyingly stark relief.  Little that Trump said or did after this major, to my mind disqualifying, gaffe convinced me that he was fit to serve as commander-in-chief.

Here’s what I wrote back in March about the prospect of Trump serving as commander-in-chief:

Donald Trump: Lacks an understanding of the U.S. Constitution and his role and responsibilities as commander-in-chief.  Though he has shown a willingness to depart from orthodoxies, e.g. by criticizing the Iraq War and the idea of nation-building, Trump’s temperament is highly suspect.  His bombast amplified by his ignorance could make for a deadly combination.  Hysterical calls for medieval-like torture practices are especially disturbing.

Another disturbing tack he took was to suggest that he’d clean house among the military’s senior ranks — apparently, America today doesn’t have enough men like George Patton and Douglas MacArthur, Trump’s all-time favorite generals.  Patton was a notorious hothead, and MacArthur was vainglorious, egotistical, and insubordinate.  Leaving that aside, Trump doesn’t seem to understand that the president is not a dictator who can purge the military officer corps. Officers are appointed by Congress, not by the president, and they serve at the will of the American people, not at the whim of the president.

Combine Trump’s ignorance of the U.S. Constitution with his cavalier attitude toward nuclear weapons and you truly have a combustible formula.  Clearly, Trump had no idea what America’s nuclear triad was during the Republican primary debates, but few people in the media seemed to care.  (Gary Johnson, meanwhile, was pilloried by the press for not knowing about Aleppo.)  Trump gave statements that seemed to favor nuclear proliferation, and seemed to suggest he saw nuclear weapons as little different from conventional ones.  He also repeated that hoary chestnut, vintage 1960, that some sort of “missile gap” existed between the U.S. and Russia: the lie that Russia was modernizing its nuclear forces and the USA was falling hopelessly behind.  Again, there was little push back from the press on Trump’s ignorance and lies: they were enjoying the spectacle and profits too much.

When it comes to nuclear war, ignorance and lies are not bliss.  Can Trump grow up?  Can he become an adequate commander-in-chief? America’s future, indeed the world’s, may hinge on this question.

The Next Commander-in-Chief

Governor_John_Kasich
John Kasich

W.J. Astore

A reader wrote to ask my opinion on which presidential candidate would make the best commander-in-chief.  This is a speculative exercise, of course, but why not speculate? I’ve watched most of the debates and have a sense of the candidates, though of course I’ve never met them and have no direct experience with them.  (I once shook President Bill Clinton’s hand, and saw Hillary in the background, but that’s a story for another day.)  So let’s take the five remaining candidates in alphabetical order:

Hillary Clinton: Often wrong and too hawkish, which is a bad combination. She was wrong on the Iraq War, wrong on Libya, and unapologetic in her fondness for Henry Kissinger. Under Clinton, I see more wasteful military interventions.

Ted Cruz: Far too eager to use military force.  You’ll recall his posturing about “carpet bombing” and making the sand “glow” in the Middle East, apparently by using nuclear weapons.  The recent terrorist attacks in Belgium have him calling for a police state in U.S. neighborhoods where Muslim-Americans live.

John Kasich: Has experience working military matters while in Congress (18 years on the House Armed Services Committee).  Has executive experience as a governor.  Has had the temerity to criticize the Saudis for supporting radical elements in Islam.  Has opposed wasteful weapons systems (the B-2 and A-12, for example).  Speaks carefully and appears to be temperamentally suited to the job.

Bernie Sanders: He was right to oppose the Iraq War.  Thinks for himself.  Not a slave to neoconservative interventionism.  Yet he lacks experience dealing with the military and with foreign policy.  Has the capacity for growth.

Donald Trump: Lacks an understanding of the U.S. Constitution and his role and responsibilities as commander-in-chief.  Though he has shown a willingness to depart from orthodoxies, e.g. by criticizing the Iraq War and the idea of nation-building, Trump’s temperament is highly suspect.  His bombast amplified by his ignorance could make for a deadly combination.  Hysterical calls for medieval-like torture practices are especially disturbing.

Of the five major candidates, and with Sanders somewhat of a blank slate, I think John Kasich has the best potential — in the short-term — to be an effective commander-in-chief.  This does not mean that I support Kasich for president, for I object to several of his domestic policies.

Not exactly a “bracing view,” perhaps, but it’s my honest attempt to answer a reader’s question.  I do think Sanders has considerable potential to be an excellent commander-in-chief because he possesses moral courage.

Sadly, the odds of either Kasich or Sanders winning in November seem very long indeed.

Last Night, Donald Trump Disqualified Himself

Donald Trump
Hail the Leader (Trump at FreedomFest, July 11, 2015 (AP Photo/John Locher)

W.J. Astore

As a retired military officer, I watched last night’s Republican debate from Detroit (transcript here) with a special focus on which candidate is qualified to lead the military as commander-in-chief.  I knew, of course, that Donald Trump had promised in the past to use torture against America’s enemies (last night, he called them “animals”), that he would pursue and kill not only terrorists but their families (apparently because the families always know, according to Trump, what their father/brother/sister is up to, as if there are no secrets in families).  Trump, in short, is an Old Testament “eye for an eye” man: if they behead us, we’ll torture and kill them, end of story.

But Trump was put on the spot when he was asked what he would do if the U.S. military failed to carry out his unlawful orders.  Instead of saying he wouldn’t issue unlawful orders, that he would support and defend the U.S. Constitution, which as president would be his sworn duty to uphold, Trump boasted that the military would follow his orders no matter what.

America: those are the words of a dictator.

Here’s what was said:

BAIER: Mr. Trump, just yesterday, almost 100 foreign policy experts signed on to an open letter refusing to support you, saying your embracing expansive use of torture is inexcusable. General Michael Hayden, former CIA director, NSA director, and other experts have said that when you asked the U.S. military to carry out some of your campaign promises, specifically targeting terrorists’ families, and also the use of interrogation methods more extreme than waterboarding, the military will refuse because they’ve been trained to turn down and refuse illegal orders.

So what would you do, as commander-in-chief, if the U.S. military refused to carry out those orders?

TRUMP: They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me.

BAIER: But they’re illegal.

TRUMP: Let me just tell you, you look at the Middle East. They’re chopping off heads. They’re chopping off the heads of Christians and anybody else that happens to be in the way. They’re drowning people in steel cages. And he — now we’re talking about waterboarding.

This really started with Ted, a question was asked of Ted last — two debates ago about waterboarding. And Ted was, you know, having a hard time with that question, to be totally honest with you. They then came to me, what do you think of waterboarding? I said it’s fine. And if we want to go stronger, I’d go stronger, too, because, frankly…

(APPLAUSE)

… that’s the way I feel. Can you imagine — can you imagine these people, these animals over in the Middle East, that chop off heads, sitting around talking and seeing that we’re having a hard problem with waterboarding? We should go for waterboarding and we should go tougher than waterboarding. That’s my opinion.

BAIER: But targeting terrorists’ families?

(APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: And — and — and — I’m a leader. I’m a leader. I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.

Our military does not follow blindly orders issued by “The Leader.” Our military swears an oath to the Constitution.  We swear to uphold the law of the land.  We don’t swear allegiance to a single man (or woman) as president.

Trump’s performance last night reminded me of Richard Nixon’s infamous answer to David Frost about Watergate: “When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.” No, no, a thousand times no.  The president has to obey the law of the land, just as everyone else has to.  No person is above the law, an American ideal that Trump seems neither to understand nor to embrace.

And that disqualifies him to be president and commander-in-chief.