National Defense versus Global (In)Security

armada
Carrier strike forces, bombers, fighters: As American as apple pie

W.J. Astore

Our government likes to talk about global security, which in their minds is basically synonymous with homeland security.  They argue that the best defense is a good offense, that “leaning forward in the foxhole,” or always being ready to attack, is the best way to keep Americans safe.  Hence the 800 U.S. military bases in foreign countries, the deployment of special operations units to 130+ countries, and the never-ending “war on terror.”

Consider this snippet from today’s FP: Foreign Policy report:

If Congress votes through the massive tax cuts currently on the House floor, it would likely mean future cuts to Pentagon budgets “for training, maintenance, force structure, flight missions, procurement and other key programs.”

That’s according to former defense secretaries Leon E. Panetta, Chuck Hagel and Ash Carter, who sent a letter to congressional leadership Wednesday opposing the plan. “The result is the growing danger of a ‘hollowed out’ military force that lacks the ability to sustain the intensive deployment requirements of our global defense mission,” the secretaries wrote.

“Our global defense mission”: this vision that the U.S., in order to be secure, must dominate the world ensures profligate “defense” spending, to the tune of nearly $700 billion for 2018.  Indeed, the Congress and the President are currently competing to see which branch of government can throw more money at the Pentagon, all in the name of “security,” naturally.

Here’s a quick summary of the new “defense” bill and what it authorizes (from the Washington Post):

The bill as it stands increases financial support for missile defense, larger troop salaries and modernizing, expanding and improving the military’s fleet of ships and warplanes. The legislation dedicates billions more than Trump’s request for key pieces of military equipment, such as Joint Strike Fighters — there are 20 more in the bill than in the president’s request — and increasing the size of the armed forces. The bill also outlines an increase of almost 20,000 service members — nearly twice Trump’s request.

In the House of Representatives, the bill passed by a vote of 356-70.  At least Congress can agree on something — more and more money for the Pentagon.  (The $700 billion price tag includes $65.7 billion “for combat operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, various places in Africa, and elsewhere,” notes FP: Foreign Policy.)

Besides all this wasteful spending (the Pentagon has yet to pass an audit!), the vision itself is deeply flawed.  If you want to defend America, defend it.  Strengthen the National Guard.  Increase security at the border (including cyber security).  Spend money on the Coast Guard.  And, more than anything, start closing military bases overseas.  End U.S. participation in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and throughout the greater Middle East and Africa.  Bring ground troops home.  And end air and drone attacks (this would also end the Air Force’s “crisis” of being short nearly 2000 pilots).

This is not a plea for isolationism.  It’s a quest for sanity.  America is not made safer by spreading military forces around the globe while bombing every “terrorist” in sight.  Quite the reverse.

Until we change our vision of what national defense really means–and what it requires–America will be less safe, less secure, and less democratic.

The Missions Unaccomplished Force

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At least we win in Hollywood …

Tom Engelhardt.  Introduction by W.J. Astore.

Colonel (retired) Andrew Bacevich has a new article at TomDispatch as well as a new book on America’s War for the Greater Middle East (my copy is already coming in the mail). Bacevich’s main point in his latest article couldn’t be more clear: Congressional cowardice.  Congress refuses to exercise the people’s authority over presidential warmaking, a gross dereliction of duty that ensures perpetual wars with missions perennially left unaccomplished.  And that is the theme of Tom Engelhardt’s introduction to Bacevich’s article.

You’ve heard of the Impossible Missions Force, or IMF, which somehow always gets the job done, whether led by Martin Landau or Peter Graves or Tom Cruise?  Well, that’s Hollywood.  In the real world, we have the MUF, or Missions Unaccomplished Force.  Yes, they always muff it, no matter if the “Decider” is the strutting George W. Bush or the cool and calculating Barack Obama.  But let Tom Engelhardt tell the tale …  W.J. Astore  

The Missions Unaccomplished Force, by Tom Engelhardt

It was a large banner and its message was clear.  It read: “Mission Accomplished,” and no, I don’t mean the classic “mission accomplished” banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln under which, on May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush proudly proclaimed (to the derision of critics ever since) that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.”  I’m actually referring to a September 1982 banner with those same two words (and an added “farewell” below them) displayed on a landing craft picking up the last Marines sent ashore in Beirut, Lebanon, to be, as President Ronald Reagan put it when they arrived the previous August, “what Marines have been for more than 200 years — peace-makers.”  Of course, when Bush co-piloted an S-3B Viking sub reconnaissance Naval jet onto the deck of the Abraham Lincoln and made his now-classic statement, major combat had barely begun in Iraq (and it has yet to end) — nor was it peace that came to Beirut in September 1982: infamously, the following year 241 Marines would die there in a single day, thanks to a suicide bomber.

“Not for the last time,” writes Andrew Bacevich in his monumental new work, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, “the claim proved to be illusory.”  Indeed, one of the grim and eerie wonders of his book is the way in which just about every wrongheaded thing Washington did in that region in the 14-plus years since 9/11 had its surprising precursor in the two decades of American war there before the World Trade Center towers came down.  U.S. military trainers and advisers, for example, failed (as they later would in Iraq and Afghanistan) to successfully build armies, starting with the Lebanese one; Bush’s “preventive war” had its predecessor in a Reagan directive called (ominously enough given what was to come) “combating terrorism”; Washington’s obsessive belief of recent years that problems in the region could be solved by what Andrew Cockburn has called the “kingpin strategy” — the urge to dismantle terror organizations by taking out their leadership via drones or special operations raids — had its precursor in “decapitation” operations against Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid with similar resulting mayhem.  The belief that “an additional increment of combat power might turn around a failing endeavor” — call it a “surge,” if you will — had its Iraq and Afghan pretrial run in Somalia in 1993.  And above all, of course, there was Washington’s unquenchable post-1980 urge to intervene, military first, in a decisive way throughout the region, which, as Bacevich writes, only “produced conditions conducive to further violence and further disorder,” and if that isn’t the repetitive history of America’s failed post-2001 wars in a nutshell, what is?

As it happened, the effects of such actions from 1980 on were felt not just in the Greater Middle East and Africa, but in the United States, too.  There, as Bacevich writes today, war became a blank-check activity for a White House no longer either checked (in any sense) or balanced by Congress.  Think of it as another sad tale of a surge (or do I mean a decapitation?) that went wrong.

Above the people, beside the people, against the people

abe

W.J. Astore

Remember when Abraham Lincoln wrote about our government as being “of the people, by the people, for the people”?  Even after 150 years, those words still resonate, but they are increasingly less true.  Today, our government places itself above the people, and when the government is not working against the interests of (most of) the people, it acts as if the people’s interests are beside the point.

We’ve entered a new historical moment in America, which is precisely the point of Tom Engelhardt’s latest essay at TomDispatch.com.  As Engelhardt notes, our electoral process is “part bread-and-circuses spectacle, part celebrity obsession, and part media money machine.” Our foreign policy, and increasingly our domestic policy as well, is dominated by the national security state, the one leviathan in our government that is never paralyzed.  The political process itself is ever more divisive, polarized, and disconnected from the hardships faced by the working and middle classes.  Even planetary dangers such as climate change are either denied or ignored, as if denial or ignorance will keep seas and temperatures from rising.

The very disconnection of our government from painful realities explains in part the appeal of “maverick” candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.  Yes, they are two very different men, but what they have in common is their willingness to take the side of ordinary Americans, who have seen their standard of living stagnate or drop over the last thirty years.  Trump says he wants to make America great again: the implicit message is that we pretty much suck now, that we are a nation in decline, and that the sooner we admit it, the sooner we can take action to restore America to greatness.  Sanders says he wants a future we can believe in, which is at its core much like Trump’s message.  America has serious problems, both men are saying, but greatness is still within our grasp if only we act together as a people.

Again, much separates Trump and Sanders, yet both are willing to admit the times are bad for many hardworking Americans.  What they’re saying is this: the American dream is increasingly a nightmare.  And part of the nightmare is a government that doesn’t act in the people’s interests because it’s been co-opted by special interests.  A government that can’t even do its job, such as to declare war or to advise on a Supreme Court nominee, in accordance with its Constitutional duties.

The promise and potential of our country remains.  But that promise, that potential, is being squandered by an alliance of various interests that are no longer responsive to the people.  If not dead, representative democracy in America is on life support.  Unless we can reinvigorate it, as Engelhardt notes in his article, we will continue to suffer a decline analogous to the declines of other great empires (think Rome, for example).  The difference today is the possibility of planetary-wide destruction, whether quickly from nuclear weapons or slowly from climate change.

Never was a revival in American democracy more urgently needed, not only for ourselves, but for the world.

The Yearly Federal Budget for Planned Parenthood: About the Cost of Two F-35 Fighter Jets

Misleading and dishonest chart shown at Congressional hearing to attack Planned Parenthood
Misleading and dishonest chart shown at Congressional hearing to attack Planned Parenthood

W.J. Astore

My wife and I were talking about the Republican attack on Planned Parenthood and how ludicrous it is in the grand scheme of things.  The Federal Government contributes just over $500 million to the budget of Planned Parenthood.  That’s the equivalent of two F-35 jet fighters to support vitally important health services provided at 700 clinics across the country.  Talk about bang for the buck!

If a person playing with a full deck had to make a choice, which would she choose to fund: basic medical and information services for nearly three million Americans each year, or two underperforming F-35 jet fighters?  Indeed, for the projected cost of the F-35 program, you could easily fund Planned Parenthood for more than 2000 years!

Speaking of Planned Parenthood, it’s reassuring to know such centers and clinics exist, especially given how squeamish Americans are, generally speaking, about sex.  Planned Parenthood provides invaluable services at low cost, but I guess Congress prefers funding extraneous jet fighters at sky-high cost.

The true chart for the services rendered by Planned Parenthood is below, courtesy of Politifact.  The false chart had been used to suggest Planned Parenthood was increasing abortions and decreasing cancer screening services.  But a decline in cancer screening is due mainly to changes in frequency of pap smears, and abortion rates have held steady across time.  Note all of the other services provided, to include screening for STDs.

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Of course, phony charts and Congressional hearings are all about politics and hot button issues like abortion.  Hysterical opposition to Planned Parenthood is a cynical exercise in emotional manipulation by disinformation and scare-mongering.  The sad thing is how easily it gains traction in our country.

Even as Republican men (yes — it’s mostly men) beat their collective chests about Planned Parenthood, consider that the Federal Budget (discretionary) for FY 2016 is $1.168 trillion.  Recall that total federal funding for Planned Parenthood is a mere $500 million.  If this was shown on a pie chart, the budgetary piece for Planned Parenthood would not be a slice; not even a sliver.  It would be a flake off of the crust.

Compare this to defense spending, Homeland Security, and war funding, which constitutes more than half the federal pie (discretionary spending), and which a Republican Congress wants to increase.  Still think we should focus on flakes off the crust of the pie?

For shame, Congress.  For shame, all of us, for allowing our politics to be manipulated by liars, opportunists, and ignoramuses.

(Note: Planned Parenthood “provides sexual and reproductive health care, education, information, and outreach to more than five million women, men, and adolescents worldwide each year.  2.7 million women and men in the United States annually visit Planned Parenthood affiliate health centers for trusted health care services and information.”  Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?  Except that it’s true.)

Your Wish Is My Commando

W.J. Astore

Privatization of war is making it far easier for America’s imperial state to wage endless war throughout the world.  Consider the case of Afghanistan.  The U.S. military is allegedly leaving that country, turning the fight over to the Afghan military, trained and equipped largely by America.

Ashton Carter, Ready to Send in the Mercs
Ashton Carter, ready and willing to send in the Mercs — there ought to be Mercs — don’t bother, they’re here

But the truth is different: the U.S. has simply privatized the Afghan War, turning it over to military contractors, secretive Special Forces, and the CIA, as reported in this article by Tim Shorrock, in which you’ll find the following quote:

“If you define combat mission as only having large numbers of US combat troops in the field, doing patrols, and engaging the Taliban, then, yes, it [the Afghan War] is coming to an end,” says David Isenberg, a Navy veteran and author who has been researching private security and military contractors since the early 1990s. But if you define it as continuing to attack and degrade those you consider hostile, via drone or Special Forces or CIA paramilitaries, all of which are supported by contractors, then not so much.”

Not so much, indeed.  The future is indeed bright for privatized military contractors.  So much so that I have a slogan to offer the next Blackwater/Xe/Academi, the next DynCorp, the next Triple Canopy, the next global mercenary outfit:

My Slogan: Your Wish Is My Commando

Your imperial wish is also my profit, but we won’t mention that fact too loudly.

America was not supposed to go to war like this.  Remember our Founders and their ideas on war?  War was supposed to be a terrible decision, hotly contested among the people by their duly elected representatives in Congress.  It wasn’t supposed to be an easy choice made by presidents, with no real input or debate by that Congress.  It was supposed to involve citizen-soldiers motivated to defend the Constitution and sacred freedoms, not pay-for-hire mercenaries motivated by profit and spoils.

But our imperial state knows that it can’t fool all of the people all of the time on the need for endless wars in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, hence the recourse to wars fought largely in secret by hired guns and CIA/paramilitaries.  The mainstream media, of course, is owned by some of the same corporations that profit from weapons sales overseas, so don’t expect push-back from them.  No — the push-back will have to come from us.  We will have to use all the tools at our disposal to fight for enduring peace.

One thing I know: Without our push-back, enduring (as in endless) war is a certainty for America’s future.

Bonus Lesson: Isn’t it nice to know that this is Ashton Carter’s first day on the job as Secretary of Defense?  And that he’s open to sending more American troops to Afghanistan?  Just the man we needed at the Pentagon.  No wonder he was confirmed 93-5 by the Senate.

In Iraq, That Dog Don’t Hunt

That President Don't Hunt?
That President Don’t Hunt?

W.J. Astore

News that President Obama has doubled the number of American troops (whoops — I mean advisers) in Iraq to 3100 is already a tacit admission of defeat in that troubled region.  Let’s recall that the Iraqi security forces the U.S. trained and equipped to the tune of $25 billion simply melted away when faced with serious combat this summer.  Their performance put me to mind of the National Rifle Association’s slogan against John Kerry in the presidential campaign of 2004.  Kerry had gone bird shooting, mainly it seems to be photographed with a gun in his hand, a necessity for any red-blooded American male (just ask Obama).  But the NRA wasn’t fooled (or so they claimed).  “That dog don’t hunt,” the NRA said about Kerry.  And something about that slogan stuck.

You could say the same of that Iraqi army that the U.S. created and funded and trained and equipped: That dog don’t hunt. Or, it won’t hunt for us.  Because that’s not its purpose.  That’s not how or even why we trained it.  But that’s OK.  We’ll just send more American troops to Iraq, and waste more money, further destabilizing the region, making it even easier for radical jihadists to recruit more followers, whether to the ISIS banner or some other Islamist flag (Khorasan, perhaps?).

It’s just incredible how inept U.S. foreign policy is today.  If George C. Marshall had been like this during World War II, we’d be speaking German today at the Pentagon, instead of simply misinterpreting Clausewitz.

Of course, Congress will have to authorize funding for the latest U.S. military misadventure.  Anyone want to offer odds on Congress actually exercising oversight on our foreign entanglements?  A long shot, indeed.

Even as Congress seeks to cut funding to the poor, there’s always plenty of money for military adventurism overseas, no matter how often those adventures fail.  When it comes to exercising real oversight, Congress is always a lame duck — so lame that even a dog that don’t hunt (that Iraqi military again) succeeds in bagging billions of dollars from the American taxpayer.

The moral to the story?  America doesn’t lack for guns; we lack for brains.

Update: Iraq has “shook up” its military, relieving 26 officers of their commands and forcibly retiring 10 others, even as 18 new commanders were appointed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi among promises of greater professionalism and less graft and corruption.  Progress?  Time will tell.  But what does it say about a military that, in spite of prolonged training and massive infusions of cash from the U.S., was so ridden with corruption that it collapsed when facing its first challenge?  Sadly, the need for ever more U.S. advisers and money suggests this is yet another case of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Update 2 (written by b. traven)

What is truly tragic is how the back story to the total failure of the Bush-Cheney wars is not reviewed by Obama, the Senate, or the House as this tragedy for Iraq unfolds. Obama just continues to follow the Bush lies by one week saying no “boots on the ground” while his top military people say “yes, more boots” and the next week Obama announces doubling the number of troops with no sense of embarrassment. And the American people stay entranced with baseball, football, and basketball scores.

And you can say you saw it here first. No sooner had General Dempsey said he wanted more troops in Iraq then Obama complied by doubling the force. Now Dempsey has told Obama what he wants even more troops so you can count on Obama complying in a couple of weeks. There’s nothing like doubling down on a failed policy in hopes that the result will come out differently than the last failure. Here’s Dempsey’s new demand as reported in the Guardian of London newspaper:

“The top-ranking officer in the American military said on Thursday that the US is actively considering the direct use of troops in the toughest upcoming fights against the Islamic State (Isis) in Iraq, less than a week after Barack Obama doubled troop levels there.

General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, indicated to the House of Representatives armed services committee that the strength of Isis relative to the Iraqi army may be such that he would recommend abandoning Obama’s oft-repeated pledge against returning US ground troops to combat in Iraq.”

President Truman fired the most renowned five star General of his day, Douglas MacArthur for voicing a policy contradicting Truman’s in regard to China. If we had a real president he would do the same with Dempsey, who is certainly no MacArthur.

The Millionaires in Congress Don’t Care About Sending Your Son or Daughter to War

Please save us from flag lapel pins
Please save us from flag lapel pins

W.J. Astore

Yes, I know it’s a harsh claim that Members of Congress don’t care about sending your son or daughter off to war. Partly that’s because more than half of them are millionaires. And if they’re not millionaires now, they will be when they leave office and cash in as lobbyists and similar Beltway bandit jobs.  After all, it’s hard to sympathize with working-class families with sons and daughters in the military when 1) You’re rich (or at least comfortably well-off); and 2) You have no sons or daughters in the military, and never will.

I wrote to one of my senators in PA, Bob Casey, about the need to end our wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere — about the need to bring our troops home rather than continuing to place them in harm’s way for no reason that’s in our national interest. When I wrote, I asked him if he would send any of his four daughters to Afghanistan, or even if he’d urge any of them to serve our country in any capacity in the military. I never heard back from him or his staff, not that I was surprised.

Senator Bob Casey is a Catholic who went to Holy Cross in Massachusetts in the early 1980s. I’m a Catholic who did my ROTC service at Holy Cross in the early 1980s. We may have even crossed paths on campus. But Bob Casey is from a well-connected political family. I’m the son of a firefighter and a homemaker who joined ROTC to help pay for college. Bob Casey and his daughters have never had to think about military service except in the most abstract terms. They might applaud it, but they won’t do it.

The same was true for Mitt Romney and his five sons. Eager to salute the military; not eager to join and serve. Fortunate sons (and daughters), all.

You could say the same for virtually all Members of Congress today.  Almost no military service.  Few sons or daughters in the military, and certainly none in the front lines in combat branches.  Certainly, they’ll praise our troops.  They’ll salute the flag with vigor.  But what they won’t do is to send their loved ones into harm’s way.

Each and every time our Congress or our President sends troops into harm’s way, they should think whether they’d risk their own.  For example, it’s conceivable that President Obama’s oldest daughter, Malia, could join the military in 2015 at the age of seventeen.  (You can join the military at seventeen with parental permission.)  After basic and advanced training, many American teenagers have been sent into combat only to die before they’re out of their teen years.

Can we imagine such a tragic fate befalling the son or daughter of any prominent politician in the United States?  Of course not.  The burden of military service has perhaps never been shared equally in our history, but its inequality has never been more slanted than it is now.  The rich and privileged exempt their offspring from service (or at least from dangerous service), which only emboldens them when they cast their votes for more war.  In doing so, they risk nothing near and dear to them.  Heck, they may even pose as being “tough” and “uncompromising.”

Save me the flag lapel pins of our millionaire politicians and all their posing.  Want to support our troops?  If you’re young enough, quit Congress and enlist in the military.  Or be sure to encourage your own sons and daughters to join and serve in harm’s way.  At least then you can say you’ve made a sacrifice commensurate with those made by so many working-class families across the USA.