America doesn’t have a foreign policy, it has a business plan, and it’s business as usual in the Biden administration. Joe Biden promised his donors that nothing would fundamentally change in his administration. Kamala Harris said her agenda wasn’t about substantive change. So what we’re getting under the Biden/Harris team is eminently predictable:
More blank checks for Israel, and no recognition of any rights for Palestinians.
A revival of the old Cold War, with China as the leading “threat” but with Russia not forgotten.
Politics subordinated to the military, rather than the military in service of political aims. In brief, military dominance is America’s foreign policy.
Related to (1-3) is dominance of the world’s trade in weapons. The State Department has become a tiny branch of the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex. It’s all about closing arms deals, moving hardware, selling weaponry, making a buck.
Naturally, one of Biden’s first acts as president was to bomb a foreign country, in this case Syria. So presidential!
In Joe Biden, America has a fading and flailing man to lead a fading and flailing empire. In Kamala Harris, America has an example of old wine in new packaging. She’s a woman, she’s Black, she’s South Asian — and she thinks like Hillary Clinton and Henry Kissinger.
Remember when Joe Biden said he’d be all about diplomacy? That the power of America’s example would rule over the example of our power? Nice words, but that’s all they’ve been so far. Words.
Two examples where Biden has appeared to offer meaningful change are with Afghanistan and Yemen. With Afghanistan, Biden has promised a complete military withdrawal by 9/11/2021. But does this apply only to combat troops while excluding mercenaries, the CIA, special forces “trainers,” and the like? It’s not yet clear. Plus anything can happen between now and 9/11 for Biden to switch gears and keep some combat troops in place.
With Yemen, Biden made a point about excluding offensive arms sales to Saudi Arabia while still allowing defensive ones. Almost any weapon can be labeled as defensive in nature, so it’s doubtful whether Saudi operations in Yemen will be impacted at all by Biden’s weasel-word policies.
The Biden/Harris foreign policy, such as it is, is retrograde. It’s a return to the Cold War, with an emphasis on new nuclear weapons and larger Pentagon budgets. It’s about global dominance while America at home burns. It’s foolish and stupid yet it will make a few people richer for a few more business cycles.
And thus it’s business as usual in Washington, which is exactly what Biden/Harris were hired for.
According to FP: Foreign Policy, these are the top five stories in U.S. foreign policy in 2019. I’ve inserted quick comments at the end in bold:
1. U.S. and Turkey Lock Horns Over Syria.
“U.S. support to the Syrian Democratic Forces has long angered Turkey, a NATO ally which views the Kurdish-led group as a terrorist threat … But in a fateful October phone call, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeated his longtime threat to launch a cross-border invasion. This time Trump capitulated, moving a handful of U.S. troops so the Turks could begin the assault against the Kurds … Hundreds have been killed and roughly 200,000 people were displaced.”
Comment: Syria is not a vital U.S. interest. U.S. forces shouldn’t be there. And who are these “democratic forces” of Syria?
2. Trump Impeached Over Ukraine Scandal.
“Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine into investigating a Democratic rival this year led to the third impeachment of a U.S. president in history, thrusting Washington’s national security apparatus into the spotlight.”
Comment: The U.S. shouldn’t be meddling in Ukraine. And we shouldn’t be sending more weapons there. I sure as hell don’t want my taxpayer dollars going to weapons for Ukraine.
3. North Korea Talks Sputter and Stall.
“The historic nuclear talks between Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un in 2018 offered hope that the two countries could de-escalate tensions and prevent a nuclear confrontation. Talks stalled after the Singapore Summit in June 2018. While both sides made significant verbal commitments in 2019, the year saw a gradual deterioration of bilateral relations.”
Comment: North Korea isn’t giving up its nuclear weapons. The North Koreans saw what happened to Gaddafi in Libya when he gave up his WMD. Plus nuclear weapons and missiles are a prestige project for Kim Jong-un, who’s played Trump like a fiddle.
4. Iran Strikes Back.
“Tensions between Iran and the United States skyrocketed in 2019, as the U.S. maximum pressure campaign took effect and Tehran lashed out against harsh U.S. sanctions. (Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal in 2018.) … Attacks have ceased in recent weeks as Tehran launched a brutal crackdown on the worst political unrest the country has seen since the Islamic Revolution 40 years ago. But U.S. officials are bracing for another devastating strike in the region, this time perhaps targeting the region’s critical sources of drinking water.”
Comment: Harsh U.S. sanctions are an act of war — or at least we’d see them that way if the roles were reversed. And why is Iran always seen as the aggressor capable of launching “devastating” strikes?
5. Venezuela Crisis Simmers.
“Venezuela’s Russia-backed leader Nicolás Maduro clung to power this year despite an economic collapse, nationwide blackouts and fierce opposition from Juan Guaidó, who declared himself Venezuela’s interim president in January with support from the West. Tensions threatened to boil over in May, when Guaidó tried and failed to ignite an uprising. The attempted coup was seen as an embarrassing failure by the United States and particularly National Security Advisor John Bolton, reportedly the architect of multiple attempts to unseat Maduro. In addition to harsh sanctions, the United States went so far as to draw up military options, but never took any action.”
Comment: Looks like Bolton takes the fall for inept U.S. meddling in Venezuela. Guess what? It’s all about the oil — and the money.
Of course, FP: Foreign Policy missed the biggest story of 2019: Consistent, extensive, and persistent lying by U.S. leaders about the course of the Afghan War, as revealed by the “Afghan Papers” published by the Washington Post.
Readers — what do you think about this list? In the holiday spirit, I see much naughtiness here, and no niceness. Santa won’t be pleased.
In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I investigate what an “America first” foreign policy actually means in practice. What follows is an extract from the article in which I consider whether the U.S. military has morphed from a deterrent force (at least in its own eyes) to a doomsday machine. This idea is inspired in part by an article that Dennis Showalter, a fine historian and an even better friend, wrote back in 2000 about the German military prior to World War I. Excerpt follows:
Deterring Our Way to Doomsday
Who put America’s oil under all those Middle Eastern deserts? That was the question antiwar demonstrators asked with a certain grim humor before the invasion of Iraq. In Trump’s oft-stated opinion, the U.S. should indeed have just taken Iraq’s oil after the 2003 invasion. If nothing else, he said plainly what many Americans believed, and what various multinational oil companies were essentially seeking to do.
Consider here the plight of President Jimmy Carter.Nearly 40 years ago, Carter urged Americans to scale back their appetites, start conserving energy, and free themselves from a crippling dependency on foreign oil and the unbridled consumption of material goods. After critics termed it his “malaise” speech, Carter did an about-face, boosting military spending and establishing the Carter Doctrine to protect Persian Gulf oil as a vital U.S. national interest. The American people responded by electing Ronald Reagan anyway. As Americans continue to enjoy a consumption-driven lifestyle that gobbles up roughly 25% of the world’s production of fossil fuels (while representing only 3% of the world’s population), the smart money in the White House is working feverishly to open ever more fuel taps globally. Trillions of dollars are at stake.
Small wonder that, on becoming president, Trump acted quickly to speed the building of new pipelines delayed or nixed by President Obama while ripping up environmental protections related to fossil fuel production. Accelerated domestic production, along with cooperation from the Saudis — Trump’s recent Muslim bans carefully skipped targeting the one country that provided 15 of the 19 terrorists in the 9/11 attacks — should keep fuel flowing, profits growing, and world sea levels rising.
One data point here: The U.S. military alone guzzles more fossil fuel than the entire country of Sweden. When it comes to energy consumption, our armed forces are truly second to none.
With its massive oil reserves, the Middle East remains a hotbed in the world’s ongoing resource wars, as well as its religious and ethnic conflicts, exacerbated by terrorism and the destabilizing attacks of the U.S. military. Under the circumstances, when it comes to future global disaster, it’s not that hard to imagine that today’s Middle East could serve as the equivalent of the Balkans of World War I infamy.
If Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian “Black Hand” terrorist operating in a war-torn and much-disputed region, could set the world aflame in 1914, why not an ISIS terrorist just over a century later? Consider the many fault lines today in that region and the forces involved, including Russia, Turkey, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, all ostensibly working together to combat terrorism even as they position themselves to maximize their own advantage and take down one another. Under such circumstances, a political temblor followed by a geo-political earthquake seems unbearably possible. And if not an ISIS temblor followed by major quake in the Middle East, there’s no shortage of other possible global fault lines in an increasingly edgy world — from saber-rattling contests with North Korea to jousting over Chinese-built artificial islands in the South China Sea.
As an historian, I’ve spent much time studying the twentieth-century German military. In the years leading up to World War I, Germany was emerging as the superpower of its day, yet paradoxically it imagined itself as increasingly hemmed in by enemies, a nation surrounded and oppressed. Its leaders especially feared a surging Russia. This fear drove them to launch a preemptive war against that country. (Admittedly, they attacked France first in 1914, but that’s another story.) That incredibly risky and costly war, sparked in the Balkans, failed disastrously and yet it would only be repeated on an even more horrific level 25 years later. The result: tens of millions of dead across the planet and a total defeat that finally put an end to German designs for global dominance. The German military, praised as the “world’s best” by its leaders and sold to its people as a deterrent force, morphed during those two world wars into a doomsday machine that bled the country white, while ensuring the destruction of significant swaths of the planet.
Today, the U.S. military similarly praises itself as the “world’s best,” even as it imagines itself surrounded by powerful threats (China, Russia, a nuclear North Korea, and global terrorism, to start a list). Sold to the American people during the Cold War as a deterrent force, a pillar of stability against communist domino-tippers, that military has by now morphed into a potential tipping force all its own.
Recall here that the Trump administration has reaffirmed America’s quest for overwhelming nuclear supremacy. It has called for a “new approach” to North Korea and its nuclear weapons program. (Whatever that may mean, it’s not a reference to diplomacy.) Even as nuclear buildups and brinksmanship loom, Washington continues to spread weaponry — it’s the greatest arms merchant of the twenty-first century by a wide mark — and chaos around the planet, spinning its efforts as a “war on terror” and selling them as the only way to “win.”
In May 1945, when the curtain fell on Germany’s last gasp for global dominance, the world was fortunately still innocent of nuclear weapons. It’s different now. Today’s planet is, if anything, over-endowed with potential doomsday machines — from those nukes to the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.
That’s why it’s vitally important to recognize that President Trump’s “America-first” policies are anything but isolationist in the old twentieth century meaning of the term; that his talk of finally winning again is a recipe for prolonging wars guaranteed to create more chaos and more failed states in the Greater Middle East and possibly beyond; and that an already dangerous Cold War policy of “deterrence,” whether against conventional or nuclear attacks, may now have become a machine for perpetual war that could, given Trump’s bellicosity, explode into some version of doomsday.
Or, to put the matter another way, consider this question: Is North Korea’s Kim Jong-un the only unstable leader with unhinged nuclear ambitions currently at work on the world stage?
Yesterday, Hillary Clinton gave a foreign policy speech in San Diego that was notably flat and misleading. It’s been getting decent reviews in the mainstream media for the zingers she tossed at Donald Trump. But when you listen to the speech (you can watch it here) and think about it, you realize how insipid and unoriginal it really was.
Here are my thoughts on Clinton’s speech:
1. The speech featured the usual American exceptionalism, the usual fear that if America withdraws from the world stage, chaos will result. There was no sense that America’s wars of choice in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, etc. have greatly contributed to that chaos. Oh, there was also the usual boast that America has the greatest military. That’s what Imperial and Nazi Germany used to boast — until the Germans lost two world wars and smartened up.
2. Hillary mentioned we’re electing “our” next commander-in-chief. No, we’re not. The president is a public servant, not “our” commander-in-chief. The president serves as the civilian commander-in-chief of the military, and the military alone.
3. Hillary mentioned the US has a “moral obligation” to defend Israel. Why is this? Sure, Israel is an American ally, but why is Israel the one country we’re “morally” obligated to defend? There’s only one country we’re morally obligated to defend, and that’s the USA, assuming our government is actually honoring the US Constitution.
4. The speech had no new ideas. It was a laundry list of neo-conservative principles about making America stronger, safer, and so on. As a friend of mine put it, “Nothing that I heard her say deviated in any way from her hawkish record of recommending bombing at every opportunity.”
5. Hillary seems to have two speech-giving styles: a somewhat bored monotone and a somewhat agitated yell. A line like, “this isn’t reality TV, it’s reality,” should have been a big applause line, but her delivery was flat and her timing was off. In this case, style and substance met as one.
Hillary Clinton reminds me of the grey leaders in the USSR before Gorbachev. She’s like a Brezhnev or an Andropov. A cookie-cutter product of the system with no fresh ideas.
For many people who are leery of a Trump presidency, Hillary’s hawkish and colorless conformity to the Washington system is more than enough to qualify her. If she wins the presidency, she will be much like Brezhnev and Andropov, senior apparatchiks of an empire in denial of its own precipitous decline.
At Salon.com, Patrick Smith has a telling article on the Obama administration’s foreign policy. He details the way in which style has triumphed over substance, and how tightly the Obama administration controls the narrative in the mainstream media. Essentially, Smith provides more evidence of the way in which reporters and journalists serve as stenographers to the powerful.
Many journalists, notes Smith, are twenty-somethings who attempt to provide coverage of foreign affairs from inside the Washington Beltway. Under such conditions, even a diligent reporter has to rely far too heavily on official mouthpieces at the Pentagon, State Department, and similar governmental agencies. Those reporters who buck the system risk losing access; in short, they risk losing their privileges — and their jobs. Most end up conforming.
This is nothing new to anyone familiar with Stephen Colbert’s famous take-down of insider journalists at the Washington Correspondents’ Dinner in 2006. As Colbert said a decade ago:
But, listen, let’s review the rules. Here’s how it works. The President makes decisions. He’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put ’em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know, fiction!
Along with that critique, Smith is excellent on critiquing the fundamental unoriginality, the militarized banality, of much of Obama’s foreign policy. As Smith notes:
There can be no radical shift in American conduct abroad, of course, until goals and purposes are addressed very forthrightly. This means taking on, in explicit fashion, our inherited tropes—our claims to exceptionalism and universalism—as well as the hegemonic ambitions the Pentagon shares with American corporations. It is a question, as noted in a previous column, of techne and telos, two words from ancient Greek. You can change the former—your method, your means—all you like, but it will matter little until you alter your telos, your aims, the ideal you strive for …
What is the new [Obama administration] narrative, then? May we know, please? I address the question to Ben Rhodes, David Samuels and Samuels’ editors at the Times Magazine. All this palaver about a brilliant foreign policy innovator and not one word about his masterstroke innovation, a reimagined frame for American conduct abroad?
The lapse is a symptom of the above-noted problem: style without substance, form without content. We cannot count even the openings to Iran and Cuba as any great departures, given Washington’s behavior since. There is no new narrative, only a new way of telling the old narrative.
Just so. Consider recent events. More U.S. “advisers” (troops) to Iraq. More foreign weapons sales. The commitment of ABM missiles to Romania. Sending B-52s (a symbol of the Cold War) to strike at ISIS. More talk of the dangers of a resurgent Russia. And (of course) more talk of enlarging the Pentagon and feeding it more money.
Yes, the Obama administration has been more reluctant than Bush/Cheney to commit big battalions of the regular army to overseas invasions and wars, but otherwise the foreign policy song has remained pretty much the same. Obama just prefers a smaller stage presence or “footprint,” as defined by Washington as drones and special ops, together with privatized militaries and extensive weapons sales, rather than big battalions.
That’s hardly a new narrative in U.S. foreign policy — precisely the point of Smith’s telling critique.
One of the first acronyms I learned in the military was KISS. No, not the heavy metal band. No, nothing romantic either. It stands for “keep it simple, stupid.” The lesson: don’t think too much. That leads to “analysis paralysis.” Be decisive! Act, if need be, with extreme prejudice, a preference expressed vulgarly as “Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out.”
It’s a preference readily expressed by the current crop of political candidates for commander-in-chief. With the possible exceptions of Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders, all are slavering for a chance to bomb the bastards back to the Stone Age. Like the young macho fools in the movie “Boiler Room,” they all want to wield their (fantasy) big swinging dicks. They’re all budding Curtis LeMays, cigar-chomping bulls in a china shop.
Indeed, the bull rather than the eagle should be the symbol of American foreign policy. Always charging off to foreign lands, always striving to gore anyone within reach of its horns, all in the name of being decisive, of showing that “America means business” (and not just on Wall Street).
To this season’s peculiar electoral crop of presidential candidates, it looks remarkably easy to win wars. Just bomb the bastards! Teach them not to mess with Team USA. Heck, I’m sure it looked easy to the political hacks of London in 1775 as they faced a perceived terrorist threat in a faraway land. Just send some “special ops” Redcoats supported by Hessian mercenaries (boots on the ground!) to teach those New England terrorists a lesson. Use superior technology (in this case, gunboats) to bombard their rebellious cities (like Boston). Never mind civilian casualties – a show of force will show the bastards who’s boss.
At least the British had enough sense to cut their losses after six years of bungling that ended at Yorktown (1781). The U.S. today just keeps sending more troops and more money and more bombs overseas, each time expecting victory instead of the destruction and chaos that characterized previous misadventures (Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria …).
American foreign policy: It’s become like a bull in the ring, snorting, pawing at the ground, racing madly at red capes. Each time it thinks it’s going to get that cape – until it ends up impaled on the toreador’s sword.
At the New York Times, Robert Draper had a fascinating article last month on how Republican candidates for president are positioning themselves on foreign policy. Rand Paul excepted, all of the Republican candidates are calling for a more “aggressive” U.S. foreign policy, one that promises more military interventions and higher military spending. The goal is apparently to show more muscle than President Obama, who has been “weak,” according to these same Republicans.
The language here fascinates me. Again and again in Draper’s article, you see references to “a more muscular foreign policy.” Showcasing muscles appears to be a favorite trope of Republican advisers, as is the need to be more “aggressive” overseas (Obama, of course, is viewed as being passive and timid). Republicans according to Draper favor the “aggressive promotion of American values” (whatever those are), an aggression that will somehow avoid recklessness (good luck with that). So, ISIS will be aggressively “destroyed,” even as the Middle East is stabilized by infusing it with “American values” (freedom? democracy? human rights?) promulgated by (as near as I can tell) American military muscle.
To cite just one example, consider this political ad featuring Senator Lindsey Graham, seen in his Air Force reserve uniform, highlighting his promise to “destroy” ISIS.
A muscular and aggressive foreign policy to destroy America’s enemies: If that excites you, vote Republican. But consider the cost of this love affair with muscles and aggression. And then ask yourself: Are they not the real “American values”?
All this talk of bulging military muscles and coldly calculated aggression: the ideal candidate for gung ho Republicans is not the reincarnation of Ronald Reagan. It’s an American Vladimir Putin.
Here are a few excerpts from my latest article at TomDispatch.com. I urge you to read the entire article here. Thank you!
War on drugs. War on poverty. War in Afghanistan. War in Iraq. War on terror. The biggest mistake in American policy, foreign and domestic, is looking at everything as war. When a war mentality takes over, it chooses the weapons and tactics for you. It limits the terms of debate before you even begin. It answers questions before they’re even asked.
When you define something as war, it dictates the use of the military (or militarized police forces, prisons, and other forms of coercion) as the primary instruments of policy. Violence becomes the means of decision, total victory the goal. Anyone who suggests otherwise is labeled a dreamer, an appeaser, or even a traitor.
War, in short, is the great simplifier — and it may even work when you’re fighting existential military threats (as in World War II). But it doesn’t work when you define every problem as an existential one and then make war on complex societal problems (crime, poverty, drugs) or ideas and religious beliefs (radical Islam).
America’s Omnipresent War Ethos
Consider the Afghan War — not the one in the 1980s when Washington funneled money and arms to the fundamentalist Mujahideen to inflict on the Soviet Union a Vietnam-style quagmire, but the more recent phase that began soon after 9/11. Keep in mind that what launched it were those attacks by 19 hijackers (15 of whom were Saudi nationals) representing a modest-sized organization lacking the slightest resemblance to a nation, state, or government. There was as well, of course, the fundamentalist Taliban movement that then controlled much of Afghanistan. It had emerged from the rubble of our previous war there and had provided support and sanctuary, though somewhat grudgingly, to Osama bin Laden.
With images of those collapsing towers in New York burned into America’s collective consciousness, the idea that the U.S. might respond with an international “policing” action aimed at taking criminals off the global streets was instantly banished from discussion. What arose in the minds of the Bush administration’s top officials instead was vengeance via a full-scale, global, and generational “war on terror.” Its thoroughly militarized goal was not just to eliminate al-Qaeda but any terror outfits anywhere on Earth, even as the U.S. embarked on a full-fledged experiment in violent nation building in Afghanistan. More than 13 dismal years later, that Afghan War-cum-experiment is ongoing at staggering expense and with the most disappointing of results.
While the mindset of global war was gaining traction, the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq. The most technologically advanced military on Earth, one that the president termed “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known,” was set loose to bring “democracy” and a Pax Americana to the Middle East. Washington had, of course, been in conflict with Iraq since Operation Desert Storm in 1990-1991, but what began as the equivalent of a military coup (aka a “decapitation” operation) by an outside power, an attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein and eliminate his armed forces and party, soon morphed into a prolonged occupation and another political and social experiment in violent nation-building. As with Afghanistan, the Iraq experiment with war is still ongoing at enormous expense and with even more disastrous results …
It’s the mindset that matters. In places like Iraq and Afghanistan, places that for most Americans exist only within a “war” matrix, the U.S. invades or attacks, gets stuck, throws resources at the problem indiscriminately, and “makes a desert and calls it ‘peace'” (to quote the Roman historian Tacitus). After which our leaders act surprised as hell when the problem only grows.
Sadly, the song remains monotonously the same in America: more wars, made worse by impatience for results driven by each new election cycle. It’s a formula in which the country is eternally fated to lose…
b. traven asked me about “First Causes” when it comes to America’s permanent war mentality. With respect to the Middle East, he mentioned the Saudis and Israelis and the extent to which the USA kowtows to each. Here is my quick response:
I’d say that our war mentality pre-dates our tango with the Saudis and Israelis. We really didn’t come to support them in a big way until the early 1970s, and by that point Korea and Vietnam and the military-industrial complex had already created a permanent war mentality.
First Cause(s): It’s so hard to say. The Cold War and anti-Communist hysteria played a powerful role. So did our culture: the John Wayne mentality. American exceptionalism and our own myths. The misreading of history: We must always resist violently or we’re risking another Munich. Capitalism and the pursuit of profit by any means, to include violence. Violence itself as a means to profit.
I’ve been writing for TomDispatch.com and the amazing Tom Engelhardt since 2007. When I wrote my first article, “Saving the Military from Itself: Why Medals and Metrics Mislead,” I never imagined I would come to write 37 more for Tom and his site over the next eight years. TomDispatch has given me an opportunity to write about topics like the elimination of nuclear weapons, the rise of American militarism, the perils of calling all troops in the military “heroes,” the over-hyping of American military prowess by our leaders, and many others. In all my articles, I hope I’ve offered a contrary perspective on the U.S. military as well as American culture, among other subjects.
My latest article, America’s mutant military, is a personal odyssey of sorts. I reflect on how the military has changed since I entered it in 1985. Today’s post-Cold War U.S. military is, to put it bluntly, not as I envisioned it would be as the Berlin Wall was falling and the Soviet Union was collapsing. Today’s military still has its Cold War weaponry and mindset largely intact, even as a new “mutant” military has emerged, based on special ops and connected to corporations and intelligence agencies, a military hybrid that is often shrouded in secrecy even as it’s celebrated openly in Hollywood action films.
My essay runs 2300 words, so I encourage you to read all of it at TomDispatch. What follows are a few excerpts from it:
It’s 1990. I’m a young captain in the U.S. Air Force. I’ve just witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, something I never thought I’d see, short of a third world war. Right now I’m witnessing the slow death of the Soviet Union, without the accompanying nuclear Armageddon so many feared. Still, I’m slightly nervous as my military gears up for an unexpected new campaign, Operation Desert Shield/Storm, to expel Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein’s military from Kuwait. It’s a confusing moment. After all, the Soviet Union was forever (until it wasn’t) and Saddam had been a stalwart U.S. friend, his country a bulwark against the Iran of the Ayatollahs. (For anyone who doubts that history, just check out the now-infamous 1983 photo of Donald Rumsfeld, then special envoy for President Reagan, all smiles and shaking hands with Saddam in Baghdad.) Still, whatever my anxieties, the Soviet Union collapsed without a whimper and the campaign against Saddam’s battle-tested forces proved to be a “cakewalk,” with ground combat over in a mere 100 hours.
Think of it as the trifecta moment: Vietnam syndrome vanquished forever, Saddam’s army destroyed, and the U.S. left standing as the planet’s “sole superpower.”
Post-Desert Storm, the military of which I was a part stood triumphant on a planet that was visibly ours and ours alone. Washington had won the Cold War. It had won everything, in fact. End of story. Saddam admittedly was still in power in Baghdad, but he had been soundly spanked. Not a single peer enemy loomed on the horizon. It seemed as if, in the words of former U.N. ambassador and uber-conservative Jeane Kirkpatrick, the U.S. could return to being a normal country in normal times.
[But it didn’t happen. With the Soviets gone, the U.S. military itself was now uncontained, and many hankered to use its power to achieve America’s goal of global power.]
Yet even as civilian leaders hankered to flex America’s military muscle in unpromising places like Bosnia and Somalia in the 1990s, and Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, and Yemen in this century, the military itself has remained remarkably mired in Cold War thinking. If I could transport the 1990 version of me to 2015, here’s one thing that would stun him a quarter-century after the collapse of the Soviet Union: the force structure of the U.S. military has changed remarkably little. Its nuclear triad of land-based ICBMs, submarine-launched SLBMs, and nuclear-capable bombers remains thoroughly intact. Indeed, it’s being updated and enhanced at mind-boggling expense (perhaps as high as a trillion dollars over the next three decades). The U.S. Navy? Still built around large, super-expensive, and vulnerableaircraft carrier task forces. The U.S. Air Force? Still pursuing new, ultra-high-tech strategic bombers and new, wildly expensive fighters and attack aircraft — first the F-22, now the F-35, both supremely disappointing. The U.S. Army? Still configured to fight large-scale, conventional battles, a surplus of M-1 Abrams tanks sitting in mothballs just in case they’re needed to plug the Fulda Gap in Germany against a raging Red Army. Except it’s 2015, not 1990, and no mass of Soviet T-72 tanks remains poised to surge through that gap.
[Along with the persistence of America’s “Cold War” military, a new military emerged, especially in the aftermath of 9-11.]
In 2015, so many of America’s “trigger-pullers” overseas are no longer, strictly speaking, professional military. They’re mercenaries, guns for hire, or CIA drone pilots (some on loan from the Air Force), or warrior corporations and intelligence contractors looking to get in on a piece of the action in a war on terror where progress is defined — official denials to the contrary — by body count, by the number of “enemy combatants” killed in drone or other strikes.
Indeed, the very persistence of traditional Cold War structures and postures within the “big” military has helped hide the full-scale emergence of a new and dangerous mutant version of our armed forces. A bewildering mish-mash of special ops, civilian contractors (both armed and unarmed), and CIA and other intelligence operatives, all plunged into a penumbra of secrecy, all largely hidden from view (even as they’re openly celebrated in various Hollywood action movies), this mutant military is forever clamoring for a greater piece of the action.
While the old-fashioned, uniformed military guards its Cold War turf, preserved like some set of monstrous museum exhibits, the mutant military strives with great success to expand its power across the globe. Since 9/11, it’s the mutant military that has gotten the lion’s share of the action and much of the adulation — here’s looking at you, SEAL Team 6 — along with its ultimate enabler, the civilian commander-in-chief, now acting in essence as America’s assassin-in-chief.
Think of it this way: a quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military is completely uncontained.
[And an uncontained military, in a country that celebrates its troops as heroes, that boasts of itself as having the best military in all of recorded history, does not bode well for America’s democratic future.]
There was a time when American democracy, however imperfectly practiced, and American ideals served to inspire peoples and independence movements around the world. Heck, even Ho Chi Minh in the 1940s confessed his admiration for Thomas Jefferson and the U.S. Declaration of Independence. But now it seems all that really matters in our foreign policy is troops and weapons. If we’re not basing troops or at least deploying them to a country, or if we’re not exporting arms to a country, we believe we have no influence.
Take this headline from FP: Foreign Policy.
The United States is in danger of losing its clout in Baghdad. Courage on the battlefield is how respect is won in the Middle East. The lack of U.S. presence in the fight for Tikrit is allowing Iran, whose forces are leading the charge, to gain leverage in Baghdad. FP’s Lara Jakes and Kate Brannen: “It is clear that the top U.S. priority in Iraq is to defeat the Islamic State — and deal later with Iran’s ever-growing influence in Baghdad. Yet that trade-off carries long-term consequences, and it’s not clear Washington has thought them through.”
So: Unless we’re fighting wars in Iraq (or Syria, or maybe even Iran?), the United States has no leverage. Indeed, in Iraq the U.S. risks being emasculated by the Iranians, who are swinging their big dicks in the form of tanks, rockets, and so on.
And those primitive Iraqis: All they respect is military force, right? If that’s so, why don’t they love America? After all, no country has “courageously” bombed them more over the last 25 years.
Talk about projection! Maybe it’s not the Iraqis or other unnamed Middle Easterners who are enthralled by “courage on the battlefield.” Maybe it’s all those “American sniper” wannabees, especially in Congress.
Consistent with Members of Congress clamoring for more war, America’s real ambassadors today are special forces and the special ops “community.” As Nick Turse noted for TomDispatch.com:
During the fiscal year that [started on October 1, 2013 and] ended on September 30, 2014, U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) deployed to 133 countries — roughly 70% of the nations on the planet — according to Lieutenant Colonel Robert Bockholt, a public affairs officer with U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). This capped a three-year span in which the country’s most elite forces were active in more than 150 different countries around the world, conducting missions ranging from kill/capture night raids to training exercises. And this year could be a record-breaker. Only a day before the failed raid that ended Luke Somers life — just 66 days into fiscal 2015 — America’s most elite troops had already set foot in 105 nations, approximately 80% of 2014’s total.”
As the U.S. deploys its special ops forces around the planet, part of their mission, stated or unstated, is to encourage foreign military sales (FMS in the trade). Naturally, in selling weapons to various “allies” around the world, the United States continues to dominate the world’s arms trade, a lead that we’re supposed to keep until the year 2021. Think about it. What other sector of industrial manufacturing will the U.S. dominate for the next seven years?
Here’s an excerpt from the Grimmett Report (2012) that tracks weapons sales around the globe. Note that U.S. dominance of the global arms trade has come under a Democratic president who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize:
Recently, from 2008 to 2011, the United States and Russia have dominated the arms market in the developing world, with both nations either ranking first or second for each of these four years in the value of arms transfer agreements. From 2008 to 2011, the United States made nearly $113 billion in such agreements, 54.5% of all these agreements (expressed in current dollars). Russia made $31.1 billion, 15% of these agreements. During this same period, collectively, the United States and Russia made 69.5% of all arms transfer agreements with developing nations, ($207.3 billion in current dollars) during this four-year period. In 2011, the United States ranked first in arms transfer agreements with developing nations with over $56.3 billion or 78.7% of these agreements, an extraordinary increase in market share from 2010, when the United States held a 43.6% market share. In second place was Russia with $4.1 billion or 5.7% of such agreements. In 2011, the United States ranked first in the value of arms deliveries to developing nations at $10.5 billion, or 37.6% of all such deliveries. Russia ranked second in these deliveries at $7.5 billion or 26.8%.”
When it comes to deploying troops to foreign countries or to selling weapons overseas, the U.S. is indeed Number One. And that is precisely the problem. Troops and weapons do not spread freedom. Troops are trained to fight wars; they are trained to kill. Weapons are designed to kill. It’s a foreign policy based on a readiness — a willingness — perhaps even an eagerness — to kill.
For U.S. foreign policy, our national security state has reached one clear conclusion: the sword is mightier (and far more profitable) than the pen. Sorry, Thomas Jefferson.
Update (3/19/15): Greg Laxer makes an excellent point in the comments about how many weapons the U.S. gives away to foreign countries, i.e. bought and paid for by the American taxpayer. Incredibly, much of this weaponry gets “lost” and is often diverted to American enemies. The latest story out of Yemen speaks to half a billion dollars worth of weaponry getting “lost.” Here’s the story, written by Craig Whitlock and courtesy of the Washington Post:
The Pentagon is unable to account for more than $500 million in U.S. military aid given to Yemen, amid fears that the weaponry, aircraft and equipment is at risk of being seized by Iranian-backed rebels or al-Qaeda, according to U.S. officials.With Yemen in turmoil and its government splintering, the Defense Department has lost its ability to monitor the whereabouts of small arms, ammunition, night-vision goggles, patrol boats, vehicles and other supplies donated by the United States. The situation has grown worse since the United States closed its embassy in Sanaa, the capital, last month and withdrew many of its military advisers.
In recent weeks, members of Congress have held closed-door meetings with U.S. military officials to press for an accounting of the arms and equipment. Pentagon officials have said that they have little information to go on and that there is little they can do at this point to prevent the weapons and gear from falling into the wrong hands.
“We have to assume it’s completely compromised and gone,” said a legislative aide on Capitol Hill who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
U.S. military officials declined to comment for the record. A defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon, said there was no hard evidence that U.S. arms or equipment had been looted or confiscated. But the official acknowledged that the Pentagon had lost track of the items.
“Even in the best-case scenario in an unstable country, we never have 100 percent accountability,” the defense official said.
Yemen’s government was toppled in January by Shiite Houthi rebels who receive support from Iran and have strongly criticized U.S. drone strikes in Yemen. The Houthis have taken over many Yemeni military bases in the northern part of the country, including some in Sanaa that were home to U.S.-trained counterterrorism units. Other bases have been overrun by fighters from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
As a result, the Defense Department has halted shipments to Yemen of about $125 million in military hardware that were scheduled for delivery this year, including unarmed ScanEagle drones, other types of aircraft and Jeeps. That equipment will be donated instead to other countries in the Middle East and Africa, the defense official said.
Although the loss of weapons and equipment already delivered to Yemen would be embarrassing, U.S. officials said it would be unlikely to alter the military balance of power there. Yemen is estimated to have the second-highest gun ownership rate in the world, ranking behind only the United States, and its bazaars are well stocked with heavy weaponry. Moreover, the U.S. government restricted its lethal aid to small firearms and ammunition, brushing aside Yemeni requests for fighter jets and tanks.
In Yemen and elsewhere, the Obama administration has pursued a strategy of training and equipping foreign militaries to quell insurgencies and defeat networks affiliated with al-Qaeda. That strategy has helped to avert the deployment of large numbers of U.S. forces, but it has also met with repeated challenges.
Washington spent $25 billion to re-create and arm Iraq’s security forces after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, only to see the Iraqi army easily defeated last year by a ragtag collection of Islamic State fighters who took control of large parts of the country. Just last year, President Obama touted Yemen as a successful example of his approach to combating terrorism.
“The administration really wanted to stick with this narrative that Yemen was different from Iraq, that we were going to do it with fewer people, that we were going to do it on the cheap,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “They were trying to do with a minimalist approach because it needed to fit with this narrative . . .that we’re not going to have a repeat of Iraq.”
Auditors with the Government Accountability Office found that Humvees donated to the Yemeni Interior Ministry sat idle or broken because the Defense Ministry refused to share spare parts. (Government Accountability Office)
Washington has supplied more than $500 million in military aid to Yemen since 2007 under an array of Defense Department and State Department programs. The Pentagon and CIA have provided additional assistance through classified programs, making it difficult to know exactly how much Yemen has received in total.
U.S. government officials say al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen poses a more direct threat to the U.S. homeland than any other terrorist group. To counter it, the Obama administration has relied on a combination of proxy forces and drone strikes launched from bases outside the country.
As part of that strategy, the U.S. military has concentrated on building an elite Yemeni special-operations force within the Republican Guard, training counterterrorism units in the Interior Ministry and upgrading Yemen’s rudimentary air force.
Making progress has been difficult. In 2011, the Obama administration suspended counterterrorism aid and withdrew its military advisers after then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh cracked down against Arab Spring demonstrators. The program resumed the next year when Saleh was replaced by his vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, in a deal brokered by Washington.
In a 2013 report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the primary unclassified counterterrorism program in Yemen lacked oversight and that the Pentagon had been unable to assess whether it was doing any good.
Among other problems, GAO auditors found that Humvees donated to the Yemeni Interior Ministry sat idle or broken because the Defense Ministry refused to share spare parts. The two ministries also squabbled over the use of Huey II helicopters supplied by Washington, according to the report.
A senior U.S. military official who has served extensively in Yemen said that local forces embraced their training and were proficient at using U.S. firearms and gear but that their commanders, for political reasons, were reluctant to order raids against al-Qaeda.
“They could fight with it and were fairly competent, but we couldn’t get them engaged” in combat, the military official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with a reporter.
All the U.S.-trained Yemeni units were commanded or overseen by close relatives of Saleh, the former president. Most were gradually removed or reassigned after Saleh was forced out in 2012. But U.S. officials acknowledged that some of the units have maintained their allegiance to Saleh and his family.
According to an investigative report released by a U.N. panel last month, the former president’s son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, looted an arsenal of weapons from the Republican Guard after he was dismissed as commander of the elite unit two years ago. The weapons were transferred to a private military base outside Sanaa that is controlled by the Saleh family, the U.N. panel found.
It is unclear whether items donated by the U.S. government were stolen, although Yemeni documents cited by the U.N. investigators alleged that the stash included thousands of M-16 rifles, which are manufactured in the United States.
The list of pilfered equipment also included dozens of Humvees, Ford vehicles and Glock pistols, all of which have been supplied in the past to Yemen by the U.S. government. Ahmed Saleh denied the looting allegations during an August 2014 meeting with the U.N. panel, according to the report.
Many U.S. and Yemeni officials have accused the Salehs of conspiring with the Houthis to bring down the government in Sanaa. At Washington’s urging, the United Nations imposed financial and travel sanctions in November against the former president, along with two Houthi leaders, as punishment for destabilizing Yemen.
Ali Abdullah Saleh has dismissed the accusations; last month, he told The Washington Post that he spends most of his time these days reading and recovering from wounds he suffered during a bombing attack on the presidential palace in 2011.
There are clear signals that Saleh and his family are angling for a formal return to power. On Friday, hundreds of people staged a rally in Sanaa to call for presidential elections and for Ahmed Saleh to run.
Although the U.S. Embassy in the capital closed last month, a handful of U.S. military advisers have remained in the southern part of the country at Yemeni bases controlled by commanders that are friendly to the United States.
Craig Whitlock covers the Pentagon and national security. He has reported for The Washington Post since 1998.