The Pentagon’s $733 Billion “Floor”

$1.6 trillion to “modernize” this triad?  Doesn’t sound like a “peace dividend” or “new world order” to me

W.J. Astore

In testimony last week before the Senate Armed Services Committee, “longtime diplomat Eric Edelman and retired Admiral Gary Roughead said a $733-billion defense budget was ‘a baseline’ or a ‘floor’ – not the ideal goal – to maintain readiness and modernize conventional and nuclear forces,” reported USNI News.

Which leads to a question: How much money will satisfy America’s military-industrial complex? If $733 billion is a “floor,” or a bare minimum for national defense spending each year, how high is the ceiling?

Part of this huge sum of money is driven by plans to “modernize” America’s nuclear triad at an estimated cost of $1.6 trillion over 30 years.  America’s defense experts seek to modernize the triad when we should be working to get rid of it.  Perhaps they think that in the future nuclear winter will cancel out global warming?

Also last week, Senator Elizabeth Warren gave a foreign policy speech that  addressed military spending in critical terms.  Here’s an excerpt:

The United States will spend more than $700 billion on defense this year alone. That is more than President Ronald Reagan spent during the Cold War. It’s more than the federal government spends on education, medical research, border security, housing, the FBI, disaster relief, the State Department, foreign aid-everything else in the discretionary budget put together. This is unsustainable. If more money for the Pentagon could solve our security challenges, we would have solved them by now.

How do we responsibly cut back? We can start by ending the stranglehold of defense contractors on our military policy. It’s clear that the Pentagon is captured by the so-called “Big Five” defense contractors-and taxpayers are picking up the bill.

If you’re skeptical that this a problem, consider this: the President of the United States has refused to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia in part because he is more interested in appeasing U.S. defense contractors than holding the Saudis accountable for the murder of a Washington Post journalist or for the thousands of Yemeni civilians killed by those weapons.

The defense industry will inevitably have a seat at the table-but they shouldn’t get to own the table.

These are sensible words from the senator, yet her speech was short on specifics when it came to cutting the Pentagon’s bloated budget.  It’s likely the senator’s cuts would be minor ones, since she embraces the conventional view that China and Russia are “peer” threats that must be deterred and contained by massive military force.

Which brings me to this week and the plaudits being awarded to President George H.W. Bush before his funeral and burial.  I respect Bush’s service in the Navy in World War II, during which he was shot down and nearly killed, and as president his rhetoric was more inclusive and less inflammatory than that used by President Trump.

But let’s remember a crucial point about President Bush’s foreign and defense policies: With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bush could have charted a far more pacific course forward for America.  Under Bush, there could have been a true “peace dividend,” a truly “new world order.” Instead, Bush oversaw Desert Shield/Storm in 1990-91 and boasted America had kicked its “Vietnam Syndrome” once and for all (meaning the U.S. military could be unleashed yet again for more global military “interventions”).

Bush’s “new world order” was simply an expansion of the American empire to replace the Soviet one.  He threw away a unique opportunity to redefine American foreign policy as less bellicose, less expansionist, less interventionist, choosing instead to empower America’s military-industrial complex.  Once again, military action became America’s go-to methodology for reshaping the world, a method his son George W. Bush would disastrously embrace in Afghanistan and Iraq, two wars that proved a “Vietnam syndrome” remained very much alive.

In sum, defense experts now argue with straight faces that Trump’s major increases in defense spending constitute a new minimum, Democrats like Elizabeth Warren are content with tinkering around the edges of these massive budgets, and the mainstream media embraces George H.W. Bush as a visionary for peace who brought the Cold War to a soft landing.  And so it goes.

Note: for truly innovatory ideas to change America’s “defense” policies, consider these words of Daniel Ellsberg.  As he puts it:

“neither [political] party has promised any departure from our reliance on the military-industrial complex. Since [George] McGovern [in 1972], in effect. And he was the only one, I think, who—and his defeat taught many Democratic politicians they could not run for office with that kind of burden of dispossessing, even temporarily, the workers of Grumman, Northrup and General Dynamics and Lockheed, and the shipbuilders in Connecticut, and so forth.”

Training Wheels: The Fatal Flaw in U.S. Foreign Policy

Put them on? Take them off? The dilemma of US foreign policy "experts"
Put them on? Take them off? The dilemma of US foreign policy “experts”

W.J. Astore

You read it here first: the fatal flaw in U.S. foreign policy is training wheels.  Yes, those supplemental wheels you add to your child’s bike when she’s first trying to learn how to balance herself as she pedals.

How so?  Listen closely to America’s leaders as they talk about helping Iraqis, Afghans, and other peoples.  A common expression they use is training wheels, which they visualize themselves as affixing to or removing from the Iraqi or Afghan governmental bike.  Because the idea of democracy is apparently so new and novel to foreign peoples, and because these foreigners basically act like so many children when it comes to governing themselves equitably, the U.S. must treat them like so many unskilled and tippy children on bikes.  We must affix training wheels to their bikes of state, and at the proper moment – a moment that only American adults can determine – those training wheels must then be removed.

Sounds simple – or is it?

Some examples suggest it’s not so simple.   In January 2004, President George W. Bush told his fellow Republicans that Iraqis were ready to “take the training wheels off” and assume some responsibility for their own self-government.  Yet a decade later in June 2014, retired General Michael Hayden, formerly head of the NSA and CIA, claimed that America “took the training wheels off the new Iraqi government far too early,” and by “too early” Hayden meant 2011, not seven years earlier in 2004.

Another American “adult” in the room, retired General Anthony Zinni, formerly commander of US Central Command, disagreed with Hayden, saying in December 2014 that those training wheels were still very much on in Iraq as well as Afghanistan, and that it was now high time for us to take them off.   That may have surprised Vice President Joe Biden, who said back in November 2010 that it was time for Afghans to remove their governmental training wheels, and if they didn’t, “Daddy” would do it for them.

In fact, those were Biden’s exact words on Larry King Live:  “Daddy is going to start to take the training wheels off … next July [2011], so you [Afghan leaders had] better practice riding.”  That admonition from their American “Daddy” in 2010 has failed over the last half-decade to inspire Afghan leaders to pedal smartly for American-style democracy.

And there’s the rub.  You don’t win foreign peoples to your side by treating them like so many unskilled and tippy children.  You don’t condescend to them by comparing their efforts to children trying to learn to ride a bike for the first time.  And you certainly don’t shake a finger at them that “Daddy” has lost patience and is going to remove the training wheels, whether they’re ready or not.

So, how do Americans respond when their Iraqi or Afghan “children” get angry at “Daddy” for messing with their training wheels?  Whether oblivious or indifferent to their own condescension, Americans respond by treating their foreign “children” as ingrates.  “Ingratitude, the vilest weed that grows,” to cite Eugene O’Neill’s play, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, generates anger – and violence.

Dammit, why can’t these foreign “kids” learn to ride their democratic bikes?  Time to cut their allowance (in this case, American aid).  Or perhaps it’s even time for a good ass whooping with Daddy’s belt (in this case, drones firing Hellfire missiles).

Those foreign ingrates!  We gave them everything — lots of money, lots of aid, American troops and advisers, even “training wheels” for their bikes of democracy — and they still despise us.  Why?

I’ll tell you why.  They don’t hate us for our freedoms, as former President George W. Bush once claimed.  But they may very well despise us for our training wheels – and for all the smugness and paternalism and condescension they represent.

What the President Should Say to the Troops

vietnam

W.J. Astore

For George W. Bush, American troops were the greatest force for human freedom in the world.  For Barack Obama, the troops represented the world’s finest fighting force, not just in this moment, but in all of human history.  What is the reason for such hyperbolic, I’d even say unhinged, praise for our troops?  Well, presidents obviously think it is both politically popular with the heartland and personally expedient in making them seem thankful for the troops’ service.

But here’s the problem: We don’t need hyperbolic statements that our military is the “finest fighting force” ever or that our troops are the world’s liberators and bringers of freedom.  Such words are immoderate and boastful.  They’re also false, or at least unprovable.  They’re intended to win favor both with the troops and with the people back home, i.e. they’re politically calculated.  And in that sense they’re ill-advised and even dishonest; they’re basically nothing more than flattery.

If I were president, I’d say something like this: “I commend our troops for their dedication, their service, their commitment, their sacrifice.  They represent many of the best attributes of our country.  I’m proud to be their commander in chief.”

Our troops and most everyone else would be more than satisfied with that statement.  Our troops don’t need to hear they’re the best warriors in all of history.  At the same time, they don’t need to hear they’re the bringers of freedom (“a global force for good,” to use the U.S. Navy’s slogan, recently dropped as demotivating to sailors and Marines).  Let’s pause for a moment and compare those two statements.  The toughest warriors and the finest liberators?  Life-takers and widow-makers as well as freedom-bringers and world liberators?  You think there just might be some tension in that equation?

We need honesty, not immodesty, from America’s presidents.  Give me a president who is able to thank the troops without gushing over them.  Even more, give me a president who thanks the troops by not wasting their efforts in lost causes such as Afghanistan and Iraq.  Give me a president who thanks the troops by downsizing our empire while fully funding benefits and health care for wounded veterans.

That’s the kind of thanks our troops really need – not empty flattery.

Torture: A Conservative Defense of Bush/Cheney

Obama

W.J. Astore

About seven years ago, I had an impassioned debate with a conservative friend about whether the U.S. had engaged in torture and, if we had, whether it had been effective.  My position was clear: we had engaged in torture, and it was both wrong and counterproductive.  My friend was unconvinced.  His arguments, which I detail below, provide a contrary perspective on the issue of torture as well as insight into the rationale of those who supported Dick Cheney’s unapologetic stance on torture.

(My friend is now deceased.  I don’t believe he would object to having his views outlined here, but I do believe he would wish to remain anonymous.  I have edited his comments for clarity, putting them in the form of a list.)

1.  Torture. The very word makes us feel a bit uncomfortable. Yet we have yet to come to anywhere near an agreement on exactly what the word means. To some it is hot irons, the rack, and beatings. At the other end are those who maintain the act of keeping prisoners at a facility like Gitmo, or indeed at any facility, is in of itself a form of torture.

I am not in favor of categorically using physical means to obtain intelligence from captives. From the tone of the [White House] memos [on torture], and from what I have read of the views of those in both the White House and the Pentagon, no one there was in favor of that approach either.  That is clearly not in the best interests of anyone. At the same time, it is folly to advertise [to the enemy] exactly what we will and will not do.

Clearly, from the very fact that the memos exist at all, and that questions were asked requiring legal answers, this subject was not approached in a cavalier fashion by anyone [in the Bush Administration].

It was St. Augustine who first offered the admonition that you may not do evil that good might come of it.  But he also said that it is at time permissible to tolerate a lesser evil to prevent a great evil.

2.  Waterboarding did yield results that stopped an attack on US soil. I believe that Cheney is correct in asking that further memos be released that either prove or disprove that point. I also believe that these episodes of waterboarding are being presented [by the media] out of context and without perspective.  In sum, if waterboarding resulted in obtaining info that did indeed foil an operation against the U.S., then I see no problem with having used it.

3.  The Geneva Conventions [on the treatment of prisoners of war] do not apply here. Terrorists are not soldiers of any state.  They do not wear uniforms.  We have a new paradigm to which we must adjust, both in the pure military sense, as well as the way we deal with those we capture.

Are such men to be treated as soldiers?  Are they to be treated as criminals?  Are we to extend such niceties as the Geneva conventions to those who would offer the exact opposite to those who would come under their control?

If we treat all captives as if they were soldiers, under Geneva Convention rules, that would create some problems, and would also effectively end the conversation. There would be no interrogations. On the other hand, if we treat this as a war, and all captives as POWs, then we are well within our rights to keep those same persons under confinement until the war ends.

If we treat these captives as criminals, we have other problems. First, and this may sound silly, but I doubt that they were read their Miranda rights as they were taken prisoner. But if they are to be treated as criminals, then other rules apply as well, and one of those rules is the right for authorities to question them.

As it stands now, how you treat terrorists is open to debate. They are clearly not soldiers. They are also not actually criminals either.

4.  The nature of the enemy: What we have now is a very different paradigm. These are not State actors. There is no fear on their part of betraying their “State,” or of facing consequences relating to betraying the State. There is no “State” in the first place.  These are Islamo-fascist terrorists, who have no state, only a religious conviction from which they draw their motivation.

We also know that they view cooperation and diplomacy and forbearance as weakness.

We know how totalitarian thugs act and react. We know what drives them, and we know what stops them.  We have had ample experience over the centuries.

5.  Abu Ghraib in Iraq, while deplorable, also did not represent an attempt to garner intelligence. And its commander was sacked.  I take exception to any comparisons with such places as the Hanoi Hilton [in North Vietnam]. The objective there was not information, but rather confession.

And what do we do to detainees who, after being treated as “guests,” respond by throwing feces and attempting to assault US guards?  Is no physical response to be permitted at all?

6.  This media focus, some would say obsession, with torture is more about attacking the Bush Administration than it is about protecting the rights of prisoners.

7.  While I have concerns about the prisoners who are the recipients of torture and abuse, I also worry about those on the other side. The act of abusing another human being is not healthy, and leads to many psychological problems. I worry about the effect any of this activity will have on our own people.

8.  The validity of information obtained under torture is always suspect. But we come back then to the very definition of torture. Is the stress of being questioned in of itself a form of torture?  And again, we are not talking about soliciting confessions; we are talking about obtaining and confirming information, from various persons and from different sources. If we decide that we cannot in any way, shape, or form question captives, then we might as well just treat them as we would soldiers. And that would mean keeping them locked up for a very long time.”

If I were to summarize my friend’s views, I’d say he believed that torture was regrettable but necessary to keep America safe, that those who were making a big deal about it were motivated by animus against the Bush Administration, and that those who objected to torture in principle didn’t realize the nature of the enemy, i.e. “Islamo-fascist thugs” who had to be “stopped,” even at the cost of committing lesser evils (torture) to prevent greater evils (attacks on innocent Americans).

And I’d say his views, politicized and biased as they were, were and are widely held in America, which is exactly why the Obama Administration chose not to prosecute anyone for the crime of torture.  “We tortured some folks,” as Obama memorably said, but let’s look forward, not backward.  So, in essence, Obama pretty much agrees with my conservative friend.

Update: Another thought: this debate over torture is much like the current debate over the renewal of The Patriot Act. The Obama Administration is trotting out the usual suspects to argue that, to defend ourselves from Islamo-fascist thugs, we must reauthorize the Patriot Act and consent to unlimited surveillance.

It’s yet another version of “we had to destroy the village to save it.”  In this case, it’s “we must empower authoritarian and secretive governmental agencies to preserve democracy and freedom in America.”  Good luck with that!

A Nixon Quote Explains the Root of So Many U.S. Foreign Policy Blunders

Giving war a chance
Giving war a chance

W.J. Astore

On 30 April 1970, 45 years ago this month, President Richard M. Nixon ordered an invasion into Cambodia.  Explaining his reasoning for widening the war in Southeast Asia, Nixon declared:

If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions.” [Emphasis added]

So much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, then and now, is frightfully worried about appearing weak, helpless, impotent.  The solution, then and now, is military action.  They all want to be Caesars, if only in their own besotted minds.  As Shakespeare had Cassius say about Caesar:

he doth bestride the narrow world/Like a colossus, and we petty men/Walk under his huge legs and peep about/To find ourselves dishonorable graves.

America, to its image-conscious imperators like Nixon, must bestride the world like a well-hung giant, while little foreigners gasp in awe at the shadow cast, especially when aroused.

Think about John McCain’s fervent desire to bomb Iran, as Dan White deconstructed here. Think about George W. Bush’s transparent desire to play the conquering hero in the Middle East, ending Saddam Hussein’s reign once and for all in Iraq in 2003.  Recall here the words of Henry Kissinger when he was asked about why he supported the invasion of Iraq, when it was clear that country bore no responsibility for the 9/11 attacks. “Because [attacks on] Afghanistan wasn’t enough,” Kissinger replied.  Radical Islam had humiliated the U.S. at 9/11, and now it was our turn to strike back harder and to humiliate them. That simple.

As America’s foreign policy establishment continues to struggle with radical Islam and instability in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere, don’t expect any strategic retreats or retrenchment.  Don’t expect wisdom.  Don’t expect a containment policy that might allow radical Islam to burn itself out.  No.  Expect more military strikes, more troops, more weapons, more impassioned speeches about holding the line against barbarians determined to end our way of life.

Why?  In part because it’s far easier for insecure men to lash out as a way of compensating for their impotence and growing irrelevance.  Acting tough is the easier path.  Having patience, demonstrating forbearance, knowing when to sheath the sword, requires a quieter strength and a more confident sense of self.

You would think the “most powerful nation on the planet” with “the world’s best military in all of history” would have such quiet strength and confidence.  But remember that Nixon quote: No matter how big and strong we are, we can’t afford to look tiny and weak.

Bombs away.

The Ongoing Civil War in Iraq: Mission Accomplished?

Yet another "magnificent victory" in Iraq, this time in Tikrit, twelve years after "Mission Accomplished" was declared
Yet another “magnificent victory” in Iraq, this time in Tikrit, twelve years after “Mission Accomplished” was declared

W.J. Astore

American reporting on Iraq focuses on the eternal now, such as the rise of ISIS or recent battles in Tikrit.  Rarely is any context given to these events, and rarer still is any accounting of the costs of war (still rising) to the Iraqi people.

Let’s return to 2003 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  Before the invasion, the U.S. Army War College accurately predicted what was to come.  A report co-authored by Conrad C. Crane and W. Andrew Terrill warned that U.S. forces would have “to prevent Sunnis from fighting Shiites, secular Iraqis from fighting religious ones, returned Iraqi exiles from fighting non-exiles, Kurds from fighting Turkomans or establishing an independent state, tribes within all these groups from fighting one another, Turkey from invading from the north, Iran from invading from the east, and the defeated Iraqi army–which may be the only national institution that can keep the country from being ripped apart–from dissolving,” as summarized in “After Saddam,” a short article in “Primary Sources” in the Atlantic Monthly in June 2003.*

Read that last bit again: America’s military experts stated the Iraqi army had to be preserved so as to prevent Iraq from devolving into factionalism and chaos.  So what did America’s proconsul for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, proceed to do when he took over in 2003?  He dissolved the Iraqi army!  Under the orders of the all-wise Bush Administration.

In a much longer article for the Atlantic Monthly, James Fallows detailed how the Bush Administration went “Blind into Baghdad” (January/February 2004).  Fallows concluded that Bush/Cheney (and Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz) oversaw “a historic failure” in Iraq precisely because they “willfully” disregarded “a vast amount of expert planning.”  Whether this was by design or not is still disputed, but one must recall Cheney’s rosy prediction that Iraqis would welcome U.S. troops as “liberators.”

Hubris is one explanation for such folly.  Other commentators suggest a deliberate policy to destabilize Iraq.  Whatever the case, the big winner of Iraq’s decline and near fall was Iran, followed by various forms of Islamic extremism that arose from the ashes of violence and civil war.

By the spring of 2004, as the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) headed by Bremer prepared to return “sovereignty” to the allegedly newly-democratic Iraq, American officials who hadn’t drunk the kool-aid recognized that civil war was coming.  A friend of mine, an Army major, was at that time serving with the CPA in Baghdad.  He wrote to me at the time that:

“The emperor has no clothes … corruption, private militias, insecurity, and coming civil war [in Iraq] is accepted as given amongst the CPA staff.  The focus is on making some sort of transition on 30 June [2004] to whatever ‘government’ we can get in place by then.  Anything after 30 June is ‘we’ll get to that when we can.’  This whole operation is a train wreck waiting to happen, and the [Bush] administration simply refused to acknowledge it, much less do anything about it.”

Ominously, my friend concluded that “Even the Iraqis who welcomed us after Saddam [fell] have lost patience with us and are pursuing other routes to power and national control.”  This was because the U.S. was throwing its support behind an Iraqi regime “which is seen as completely illegitimate by the people it’s supposed to rule in the name of democracy.”

In short, the CPA and Bush Administration were selling a lie in 2004, and they knew it.  But Bush won reelection later that year, so who really cares if the U.S. lost, in the words of my friend, “serious credibility” in the region as a result?

For informed Americans not suffering from amnesia, the above narrative shouldn’t come as a total surprise.  By its actions and inaction and lies, the Bush Administration brought endless civil war to Iraq.  The U.S. essentially created the conditions for the rise of ISIS and similar extremist groups.  But the U.S. media has cloaked this hard reality in a shroud of myths about the “decisive” Petraeus Surge of 2007 (really a temporary lull in the civil war) or various other “mission accomplished” moments promoted by both Bush and Obama.

Mission accomplished?  A magnificent victory?  Only if the “mission” was the dismantling of Iraq, and “victory” is measured by more and more war.

*The report, dated February 2003, was “Reconstructing Iraq: Insights, Challenges, and Missions for Military Forces in a Post-Conflict Scenario.”

The Best and the Brightest Have Become the Venal and the Vacuous

the-best-and-the-brightest

W.J. Astore

Over at TomDispatch.com, retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich asks a telling question: Why does Washington continue to rely on policy “experts,” the “best and brightest” as they were called during the Vietnam War, even when events prove their advice to be consistently wrong?

As Bacevich puts it (with considerable relish):

“Policy intellectuals — eggheads presuming to instruct the mere mortals who actually run for office — are a blight on the republic. Like some invasive species, they infest present-day Washington, where their presence strangles common sense and has brought to the verge of extinction the simple ability to perceive reality. A benign appearance — well-dressed types testifying before Congress, pontificating in print and on TV, or even filling key positions in the executive branch — belies a malign impact. They are like Asian carp let loose in the Great Lakes.”

One of the big drawbacks of a Hillary Clinton vs. Jeb Bush joust in 2016 is that both candidates will be relying on the same neocon “experts” who got us into Afghanistan and Iraq and the ongoing, seemingly endless, war on terror.  What Washington needs most of all is fresh blood and fresher thinking; what 2016 promises is retread candidates and recycled pundits.

The problem is that these pundits rarely admit that they’re wrong.  Even when they do, their admissions run false. They say things like: “We were wrong for the right reason [about Iraq and WMD],” a sentiment echoed by George W. Bush in his memoir that “There are things we got wrong in Iraq, but the cause is eternally right.”  So, as long as your cause is “eternally right” (fighting against Communism in Vietnam; against terror in the Middle East), it doesn’t matter how many things you get wrong (such as how many innocents you end up killing, especially if they’re foreigners).

Their mantra is something like this: Never admit your wrong.  And never apologize. Instead, double down on talking tough and committing troops.

As Bacevich notes:

The present-day successors to Bundy, Rostow, and Huntington subscribe to their own reigning verities.  Chief among them is this: that a phenomenon called terrorism or Islamic radicalism, inspired by a small group of fanatic ideologues hidden away in various quarters of the Greater Middle East, poses an existential threat not simply to America and its allies, but — yes, it’s still with us — to the very idea of freedom itself.  That assertion comes with an essential corollary dusted off and imported from the Cold War: the only hope of avoiding this cataclysmic outcome is for the United States to vigorously resist the terrorist/Islamist threat wherever it rears its ugly head….

The fact that the enterprise itself has become utterly amorphous may actually facilitate such efforts.  Once widely known as the Global War on Terror, or GWOT, it has been transformed into the War with No Name.  A little bit like the famous Supreme Court opinion on pornography: we can’t define it, we just know it when we see it, with ISIS the latest manifestation to capture Washington’s attention.

All that we can say for sure about this nameless undertaking is that it continues with no end in sight.  It has become a sort of slow-motion Vietnam, stimulating remarkably little honest reflection regarding its course thus far or prospects for the future.  If there is an actual Brains Trust at work in Washington, it operates on autopilot.  Today, the second- and third-generation bastard offspring of RAND that clutter northwest Washington — the Center for this, the Institute for that — spin their wheels debating latter day equivalents of Strategic Hamlets, with nary a thought given to more fundamental concerns.”

Tough talk by “experts” with no skin in the game has proved to be a recipe for disaster in slow-motion.  The best and the brightest have become the venal and the vacuous.  Bacevich is right: We can do better, America.