Jerusalem and an Alabama Senate Race

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Roy Moore: Was the timing of Trump’s Jerusalem announcement driven by his election bid?

M. Davout

The December 6 announcement by Trump of U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and his administration’s intention to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to that storied city sparked much consternation and puzzlement, both prospectively and in its aftermath. The consternation, especially among career diplomats and Middle East policy experts, revolved around the likely effects of such a move both for Israeli-Palestinian relations and U.S. relationships with the larger Arab world. Wouldn’t this policy change, by making a unilateral concession to Israel, make even more difficult a two-state solution and unnecessarily inflame Arab world opinion?

The puzzlement stemmed from the timing. Why announce this now? Israel declared Jerusalem as its eternal, united and undivided capital in 1980 and the U.S. Congress passed a law requiring the U.S. to move its embassy to Jerusalem in 1995 but U.S. presidents, including Trump, have signed a waiver of the law every six months for the last two decades justifying their actions in terms of national security concerns. Why didn’t Trump wait another six months or year or announce this policy change six months ago?

The consensus answer to why Trump broke with precedent is that his actions are being driven by domestic political priorities, in particular, the support for a militant Israel evinced by members of his white evangelical base as well as of deep-pocketed rightwing donors such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Johnnie Moore, co-chairman of Trump’s unofficial faith advisory board, said in the aftermath of Trump’s announcement that, “The issue was–to many–second only to concerns about the judiciary among the president’s core evangelical supporters.”

While this macro-scale view of Trump’s domestic political support might explain why he is choosing to break with U.S. foreign policy precedent and risk so much, it does not explain why this break is happening now.  For a more nuanced and plausible answer to this latter question, one has to zoom in for a closer look at Trump’s domestic political landscape and ask what Jerusalem might have to do with a closely contested Alabama senate race between Republican Roy Moore, proud fundamentalist and accused pedophile, and Democrat Doug Jones.

For several weeks after the accusations against Moore for sexual abuse and harassment of teenage girls during the time he was in his thirties, he seemed radioactive to the national Republican establishment. Trump changed that with his December 4 early morning tweet endorsing Moore. The very next day, Steve Bannon, Trump’s alt-right alter ego, spoke at a Moore rally in Mobile, Alabama. And on December 6, Trump upended U.S. policy in the Middle East with his Jerusalem announcement.

Is the quick succession of these events a coincidence? Or is it evidence that Bannon continues in his former role as Don Trump’s consigliere? Changing U.S. policy was something Trump had wanted to do from the start. He was evidently persuaded to forego the move six months ago and sign the waiver. However, the unexpected events of late November turned what would have been a shoo-in for the Republican Senate candidate in Alabama into a slogging match with a capable Democratic contender. Might this turn of events have seemed to Trump (if not also to Bannon) the perfect moment to throw some red meat to the base in Alabama and motivate any evangelicals having second thoughts about voting in an accused pedophile to go to the polls on December 12?

Whatever the motivation for Trump’s move on Jerusalem, one thing is certain. This president’s first and (apparently) only priority is to please his base by fulfilling as many of his election season promises as he can. In doing so, he demonstrates that he truly is the President of Red America.

M. Davout (pseudonym) is a professor of political science who teaches in the Deep South.

Donald Trump and His Global War on Truth

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Too many lies

W.J. Astore

Donald Trump is waging a global war on truth.  He is the anti-truth president.  From Trump steaks to his “university” to his support of the “birther” movement against Barack Obama, he’s perpetually selling lies.  Now he’s selling lies on a global stage.  By making everything potentially a lie, e.g. climate change as a “Chinese hoax,” Trump is doing his best to demolish facts, paving the way to do whatever he pleases.

Trump believes he can have his own facts and tweet them too.  We can blame Trump for being the vain, venal, and vile man that he is, but America elected him (yes, not all Americans, but enough to carry the Electoral College).  He’s a con man, a crafty one, and the media can’t look away, nor can the rest of us.

How did we end up with Trump and his assault on truth?  I’d like to focus on two reasons.  The first was noted by Bernie Sanders back in September of 1998.  Then a congressman, Sanders noted how the Democratic Party under the Clinton regime, with its corporate-friendly pursuit of “free” trade and feel-good globalization, was screwing the working classes.  Sanders then issued the following warning (in an editorial in The Nation entitled, “Globalization’s the Issue”):

Right-wing populists like Pat Buchanan are lining up to ride to power on public fear and anger about globalization.  If corporate globalism continues to result in deteriorating conditions of life for ordinary Americans, we’re likely to see a rise of scapegoating demagogy and virulent right-wing economic nationalism.

Scapegoating demagogy?  Trump and Mexicans, Trump and Muslims, Trump and immigrants in general.  Right-wing economic nationalism?  Trump and “making America great again” through massive military spending and weapons exports combined with tax cuts that are sold as helping the poor even as they reward the rich.

By betraying the working classes and becoming yet another business party, the Clinton Democrats helped pave the way for right-wing populists and unprincipled opportunists like Trump.  Indeed, by running the corporate-friendly Hillary Clinton against Trump in 2016, the Democratic Party turned its back on their own populist, Bernie Sanders, who genuinely was (and is) concerned with helping the working classes.

The second reason for Trump’s assault on truth has been all around us for decades, but it was exacerbated by the 9/11 attacks.  Think back to the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers, and Watergate.  If there’s one thing we learned from these debacles, it’s how much our government lies to us.  Now fast-forward to 9/11.  In the aftermath of those attacks, the Bush/Cheney administration did its level best to deflect all responsibility, and especially their responsibility, for the attack.  Al Qaeda inflicted a major defeat on the U.S., yet no one took the blame.  The buck stopped nowhere.  Instead, Bush/Cheney drove a climate of fear and revenge, attacking Afghanistan followed by a disastrous war in Iraq.

By turning so quickly to war on a massive scale, Bush/Cheney knew that most Americans would rally around the flag.  They further cynically used the moment to pass the PATRIOT Act to extend their power and that of the government.  Choosing not to rally Americans, they instead made them fearful, obedient, and passive (Go to Disney!  Go shopping!).

The leaders and the government that so badly let us down on 9/11 worked to convince us that only those same leaders and government could keep us safe after 9/11.  Bush/Cheney and Crew, in essence, told a Big Lie that led, I think directly, to a Big Liar being elected as president in 2016.  But I don’t just blame Bush/Cheney.  The Obama administration refused to call these men to account, e.g. no prosecution for torture and other war crimes.  Furthermore, Obama expanded the legacy of illegal surveillance, excessive secrecy, and incessant warfare that has characterized the manic opportunism of a government that refuses accountability, whether for the defeat of 9/11 or for the ongoing disasters of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, et al.

Long in the making, Trump’s victory march of 2016 quickened its pace in the aftermath of 9/11 and all the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-anything-I-don’t-like, hysteria stirred up by Bush/Cheney and Crew.  But its impetus goes back further: to the lies and deceptions revealed by the Pentagon Papers, to the sordid lies and cover-ups of Watergate, and to the abandonment of the working classes by Democrats, the latter of which provided fertile soil for right-wing populist demagogy to take root and grow.

Whether led by democrats or republicans, our government has been telling us so many lies for so long that it’s not surprising we now have a president whose chief skill is as a con man and a liar.  His global war on truth is the culmination of too much governmental lying and too little attention paid to the real needs of ordinary Americans.

The Afghan War Isn’t a Stalemate: It’s a Defeat

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My old chess clock.  Time has run out, America.

W.J. Astore

Stalemate: That’s the word of choice being used by U.S. generals to describe the Afghan War.  What, exactly, is a stalemate?  I played chess at an early age, caught up in the Bobby Fischer craze of the early 1970s, and I still play occasionally.  In chess, a stalemate is a special kind of draw, and an often frustrating one.  Put concisely, “Stalemate is a situation in the game of chess where the player whose turn it is to move is not in check but has no legal move.”

For example, I may be winning decisively, with only my opponent’s king left on the board.  But if I carelessly put my opponent’s (unchecked) king in such a position that his only move is into harm (or “check”), the position is stalemated.  My decisive material advantage makes no difference: the game is over, it’s a draw.  In effect, given my material advantage, it’s a win for him and a loss for me.

Is the Afghan War “stalemated”?  Not according to the U.S. military, since it believes the “stalemate” can be reversed, that the U.S. can still “win.”  Indeed, President Trump has already gone on record last week as saying his administration is winning in Afghanistan.  No stalemate here.

A stalemated chess match is simply a bad metaphor for the Afghan War.  It’s not that one side can’t make a legal move, therefore the game is over.  (Would that the war could end so easily and cleanly!)  The situation today in Afghanistan is that the Taliban continues to tighten its grip on the country, or, in chess terms, it’s enlarging its span of control over the board, even as U.S. and Coalition forces send more troops, expend more munitions, and issue more reports about how they can still win — as long as U.S. generals get exactly what they want.

So, if stalemate is the wrong word, what is the right one?  I have one: defeat.  U.S. and Coalition forces have been fighting the Afghan War for 16 years.  Surges have come and gone.  More than a trillion dollars has been spent.  Yet the enemy retains the initiative and largely dictates the terms of the conflict.  Whatever this is, it isn’t “victory”; it’s not “progress”; nor is it “stalemate.” It’s a lost position, a defeat, pure and simple.

There’s nothing wrong with defeat.  The very best chess grandmasters lose; and when they do, they almost always tip their king and resign before they’re checkmated (defeated utterly).  By doing so, they conserve their energy for the next opponent, even as they study the lost game so they can learn from their mistakes.

Isn’t it time the U.S. did the same in the Afghan War?  Admit a lost position, resign, and withdraw?  Then learn?

Trump, of course, says he’s all about winning.  He’ll continue to push pieces about the board, despite the lost position.  This is not reversing a stalemate (which, by the rules of chess, can’t be done).  It’s only delaying defeat – at a high cost indeed to all those “pieces” being shunted about and sacrificed on the chessboard that is Afghanistan.

The Disastrous Italian War Against Austria-Hungary (1915-18), the Rise of Fascism, and Trump’s Victory in 2016

W.J. Astore

My father’s family was Italian, and his relatives fought, suffered, and died in Italy’s wars before and during World War I.  In his diary, my dad recounted these relatives and their fates:

My mother as far as I can recall had two brothers in the [Italian military] service. One brother had an exploding shell land near him.  He was highly agitated.  A doctor who knew my mother’s family saw that he got a medical discharge.

His brother had a much more dangerous career in the Italian Army.  He was a forward observer for an artillery unit.  He was severely gassed on the Austrian front.  He survived the war but had a premature death from the effects of the gas.

Luigi, Uncle Louie, Astore had quite a career in the Italian Army.  My mother used to call him El Sargento.

Uncle Louie fought three years in the Turkish War [1911-12] and four years in World War 1.  He was a prisoner of war in Germany for a year.  I overheard a conversation and he remarked that things were tough as a prisoner and food was a scarce item.  He never told me about his experiences in World War 1.

So, my grandmother had one brother who had shell-shock (PTSD) and another who died prematurely from poison gas.  My grandfather had a brother (Luigi) who was a POW who nearly starved and who didn’t talk about his war experiences. (I am too young to have clear memories of Luigi, but photos show an unsmiling man, which is not surprising given his war experiences.)

War is all hell, as General William Sherman said, and my father’s family’s experience in Italy illustrates the truth of that.

A childhood friend of mine, who also had Italian parents, sent along a book recommendation to me: The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915-1919 by Mark Thompson.  My friend wrote a nice little review of it in an email to me, which follows below:

The White War (about Italy’s WWI fight against the Austro-Hungarians) has been fascinating but also depressing.  The insistence of Italian staff officers to send poorly armed and trained men into a battlefield even more deadly than the western front (the Italians had to scale hills and mountains in the face of withering machine gun and artillery fire) boggles the mind.  The Italian high command also had the dubious distinction of ordering more summary executions of the rank and file than the Brits, French, Germans, and Austrians.  Illiterate peasants needlessly sent to their deaths in the hundreds of thousands with Italian military policemen stationed with machine guns to their rear with orders to fire on them in case they did not show the requisite élan.  (My mother’s paternal uncle fell in that war–I wonder what horrors he saw and experienced.)  If it did not already exist, surely the stereotypical Italian cynicism toward governmental authority resulted from the incompetence and brutality of Italian military leadership in WWI.  

With respect to Italian POWs and food scarcity during captivity, my friend noted the following startling fact that he gleaned from reading The White War:

Italian authorities made it a policy to prevent food packages from being sent to Italian POWs in Austrian control as part of their strategy to deter Italian soldiers from surrendering.  Many POWs died as a result.  Unbelievable.

So much for the alleged glories of war.  Italy’s war against Austria-Hungary, fought under bitterly cold conditions in the torturous terrain of the alps, is little known in the United States.  It was a disastrous struggle that consumed nearly a million men for little reason, and the frustrations of that war – the betrayal of common soldiers by societal elites – contributed to estrangement, bitterness, and the embrace of fascism in the 1920s as an alternative to the status quo.

In U.S. politics today, with the backdrop of President Donald Trump’s strong man posturing that recalls the thrusting belligerence of the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, are we witnessing something similar?  Recall that Trump in 2016 garnered  a lot of support in rural areas by taking a position against America’s wasteful wars, even as he beckoned to an unspecified “great” past.  Mussolini, who railed against Italy’s “mutilated victory” in World War I, also won support by calling for societal revival, even as he beckoned to the greatness of Italy’s imperial past.

Like Mussolini, Trump wasn’t (and isn’t) against war.  Rather, both men were against losing wars.  Appealing to tough-guy generals like George Patton and Douglas MacArthur, Trump promised Americans who had suffered they’d “win” again.  Like Mussolini, he promised a brighter future (endless victories!) through higher military spending and aggressive military action.  No more shame of “mutilated” victories — or so Mussolini and Trump promised.

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Did Trump win because he had the nerve to highlight the “mutilated victory” nature of America’s wars?  (Note that the caption here, from the Krinera/Shen study and the Zaid Jilani article, is unclear.  The intent is to show that higher casualty rates favored Trump, and, if rates had been lower, Hillary Clinton may have won instead.)

Trump tapped the anger and resentments of American families who’d borne the sacrifices and suffering of the mutilated victories of Afghanistan and Iraq.  He did this so well that, according to Zaid Jilani at The Intercept, citing a study by Boston University political science professor Douglas Krinera and University of Minnesota Law professor Francis Shen, it may have provided his winning margin of victory in 2016.  As the study notes (also see the illustration above):

“[The] three swing states — Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan — could very well have been winners for [Hillary] Clinton [in 2016] if their war casualties were lower.”

Like rural Italian families in the aftermath of World War I, American rural families in the Bush-Obama “war on terror” rejected the status quo posturing of establishment politicians (e.g. Hillary Clinton), turning instead to the anger-driven nationalism (Italy first!  America first!) of self-styled strong men like Mussolini and Trump.

The question is, as America’s fruitless wars persist, and as rural American families continue to bear a disproportionate share of the burden of these wars, will “strong” men like Trump continue to prosper?  Put differently, will the Democratic Party finally have the guts to offer an alternative vision that rejects forever war across the planet?

We know what happened to Mussolini’s quest to make Italy great again — total defeat in World War II.  Will a similar fate befall Trump’s quest?

Time will tell.

The Dangerous Sophistry of Steve Bannon

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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 Tackles the NFL!

When it Comes to the NFL, Trump Should be Flagged and Ejected for Unnecessary Roughness

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Taking a stand by taking a knee: NFL players, including Colin Kaepernick (#7)

W,J. Astore

President Trump has once again attacked the NFL for exactly the wrong reasons.  He wants NFL owners to fire players who take a knee during the national anthem.  Their sin, according to Trump, is disrespecting the American flag.  Trump also complains that the game has gotten soft, that big and exciting hits of the past are now penalized, so much so that today’s game is boring precisely because it’s insufficiently violent.

Nonsense.  First, few players dare to use the game as a platform for protest, perhaps because they fear being blackballed like Colin Kaepernick, the talented quarterback who can’t find a job because he took a knee in protest against racism.  Second, the NFL is awash in patriotic displays, everything from gigantic flags and military flyovers to special events to honor the troops.  Just one example: During the opening game of this season, uniformed troops waving flags ran out on the field ahead of the New England Patriots as the team emerged from the tunnel.  What are troops in camouflaged combat uniforms doing on the field of play?

With respect to violence, the NFL has only lately begun haltingly to address crippling injuries, especially brain abnormalities due to recurrent hits and concussions.  Watching an NFL game is often an exercise in medical triage, as players are carted off the field with various injuries.  A new feature this season is a tent on the sidelines that injured players may now enter to be treated away from the incessantly probing eyes of sideline cameras.  Careers in the NFL are often cut short by crippling injuries, yet Trump claims the game is going down the tubes because it’s not violent enough.

Trump represents a minority view (I believe), but nevertheless a vocal one.  Given his narcissism and the grudges he carries, one wonders if he attacks the NFL because of his failed bid to acquire the Buffalo Bills team back in 2014.

Football is the most popular sport in America.  It speaks volumes about our culture.  That Trump sees it as insufficiently violent and insufficiently patriotic — and that he’s cheered for making these claims — points to the gladiatorial nature of America’s imperial moment. Bread and circuses at home, wars abroad.  And U.S. politicians who fiddle while the world burns.

Update: Trump’s comments have drawn a response during the first NFL game today (played in England).  Here’s the headline at the Washington Post:  NFL Week 3: Ravens, Jaguars respond to President Trump’s comments by linking arms, kneeling during anthem.  It will be interesting to see how other teams respond today and during Monday night football.

Military Control of the Civilian: It’s Opposite Day in America

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General Mattis: Celebrated as a moderating influence on Trump

W.J. Astore

It’s becoming increasingly difficult for Americans to recall that civilian leaders are supposed to command and control the military, not vice-versa.  Consider an article posted yesterday at Newsweek with the title, TRUMP’S GENERALS CAN SAVE THE WORLD FROM WAR—AND STOP THE CRAZY.  The article extols the virtues of “Trump’s generals”: James Mattis as Secretary of Defense, John Kelly as White House Chief of Staff, and H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser.  The article presents them as the adults in the room, the voices of calm and reason, a moderating force on a bombastic and bellicose president.

I’ve written about Trump’s generals already at TomDispatch.com and elsewhere.  The latest gushing tribute to America’s generals at Newsweek illustrates a couple of points that bear repeating.  First, you don’t hire generals to rein in a civilian leader, or at least you shouldn’t if you care to keep a semblance of democracy in America.  Second, lifelong military officers favor military solutions to problems.  That’s precisely why you want civilians to control them, and to counterbalance their military advice.  Only in a democracy that is already crippled by creeping militarism can the rise of generals to positions of power be celebrated as a positive force for good.

Speaking of creeping militarism in the USA, I caught another headline the other day that referenced General Kelly’s appointment as Chief of Staff.  This headline came from the “liberal” New York Times:

John Kelly Quickly Moves to Impose Military Discipline on White House

 

Note that headline.  Not that Kelly was to impose discipline, but rather military discipline. What, exactly, is military discipline?  Well, having made my first career in the military, I can describe its features. Obedience.  Deference to authority.  Respect for the chain of command.  A climate that sometimes degenerates to “a put up and shut up” mentality. Such a climate may be needed in certain military settings, but do we want it to rule the White House?

Here is what I wrote back in December about Trump and “his” generals:

In all of this, Trump represents just the next (giant) step in an ongoing process.  His warrior-steeds, his “dream team” of generals, highlight America’s striking twenty-first-century embrace of militarism. At the same time, the future of U.S. foreign policy seems increasingly clear: more violent interventionism against what these men see as the existential threat of radical Islam. 

Of course, now the threat of nuclear war looms with North Korea.  For a moderating influence, America places its faith in military generals controlling the civilian commander-in-chief, and that’s something to draw comfort from, at least according to Newsweek.

When military control of the civilian is celebrated, you know it’s truly opposite day in America.