Can Trump Tame the Pentagon?

101222_pentagon_605_reuters
Can Trump tame the Pentagon?

W.J. Astore

Will Donald Trump keep his campaign promise to end America’s wasteful wars overseas?  Since he’s stated he knows more than America’s generals, will he rein them in?  Will he bring major reforms to the military-industrial complex, or will he be nothing but talk and tweets?

At Trump’s first news conference today as president-elect, he had little to say about the military, except once again to complain about the high cost of the F-35 jet fighter program.  The questions asked of him dealt mainly with Russia, hacking, potential conflicts of interest, and Obamacare.  These are important issues, but how Trump will handle the Pentagon and his responsibilities as commander-in-chief are arguably of even greater import.

Ironically, the last president who had some measure of control over the military-industrial complex was the retired general who coined the term: Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Another president – Jimmy Carter – attempted to exercise some control, e.g. he cancelled the B-1 bomber, a pet project of the U.S. Air Force, only to see it revived under Ronald Reagan.

Excepting Carter, U.S. presidents since Ike have issued blank checks to the military, the Pentagon, and its bewildering array of contractors.  Whether Democrats (JFK, LBJ, Clinton, Obama) or Republicans (Nixon, Ford, Reagan, the Bushes), rubber-stamping Pentagon priorities has been a common course of presidential action, aided by a willing Congress that supports military spending to “prime the economic pump” and create jobs.

Ike, of course, was hardly perfect, but he had the cred to command the military, to rein it in, perhaps as much as any one man could in the climate of fear generated by McCarthyism and the Cold War hysteria of the 1950s.  Hardly a pacifist, Ike nevertheless came to hate war.  Can we imagine any president nowadays writing these words?

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children… This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

Ike’s wisdom stemmed from his experience with the bloody awfulness of war. Recent presidents, by comparison, have been unstinting in their praise of the U.S. military.  Ronald Reagan, who had a cozy job in Hollywood during World War II, was a snappy saluter who oversaw a major military expansion.  More recently, Barack Obama, with no military experience, went out of his way to praise the U.S. military in hyperbolic terms as the “greatest” in human history.

Recent presidents have idolized the military, perhaps because they either never served in it or never really experienced its foibles and faults, its flaws and failings.  Perhaps as well they’ve celebrated the military because they saw it as a popular and easy form of patriotism.  But the Pentagon needs a commander-in-chief, not a cheerleader-in-chief.  It needs to be challenged, it needs a boot up its collective ass, if it’s ever going to reform its prodigal ways.

Trump has been critical of the military, an encouraging sign.  But his appointment of retired generals to key positions of power suggests conformity and business as usual.  Trump himself is a military poseur, a man impatient with facts, a man who didn’t know what the nuclear triad was even as he talked of (false) nuclear gaps vis-à-vis Russia.

Even as he talked of wasteful wars and clueless generals, Trump promised to use the U.S. military as a battering ram to smash America’s enemies.  He promised as well to rebuild the military, increasing the Pentagon budget while taking the fight to ISIS, words that suggest President Trump won’t often say “no” to the national security state.  Ike, however, could and did say “no.”  He had the toughness to weather the predictable Pentagon, Congressional, and military/corporate storms.  Will Trump?

Again, the last president to lead a novel initiative in national security was Jimmy Carter, with his focus on human rights.  Dismissed as naïve and pusillanimous, he became a one-term president.  Trump has promised to end wasteful wars, to re-prioritize federal spending to focus on internal “security” measures such as national infrastructure, and to make NATO and other U.S. allies pay their fair share of defense costs.

If he carries through on these promises, he’ll be the first president since Ike to make a measurable and significant course correction to America’s warship of state.  But first he needs to be held to account, most certainly at press conferences but elsewhere as well.  Endless war is a threat to democracy; so too are politicians who posture but do nothing to rein in militarism, imperialism, and authoritarianism.

If Trump combines the two, if he doubles down on incessant war and a cult of authority, American democracy may suffer a mortal blow.

Greed-War: The Power and Danger of the Military-Industrial Complex

Ike
Ike in 1959: Too critical of the military to be elected today

W.J. Astore

President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his most powerful speech as he left office in 1961.  He warned the American people about an emerging military-industrial complex, a complex that was already beginning to erode democratic rule in America.  Originally, Ike had Congress as a collaborator with and enabler of that Complex, but he deleted the reference in the final version, apparently deciding that by alienating Members of Congress, he’d only push them further into the Complex’s corner.

The military-industrial complex, the Complex for short, has only grown in power over the last half-century.  Today, more than half of Federal discretionary funding goes to it.  With the post-9/11 addition of Homeland Security and more and more intelligence agencies (seventeen of them at last count), the Complex continues to grow like Topsy.  It consumes roughly $750 billion each and every year, a sum likely to grow whether Trump or Clinton wins the presidency.  (Trump has promised to rebuild an allegedly shattered military; Clinton, meanwhile, is a steadfast supporter of the military as well as neo-con principles of aggressive foreign interventionism.)

In the U.S. today, the Complex is almost unchallengeable.  This is not only because of its size and power.  The Complex has worked to convince Americans that war is inevitable and therefore endless (it’s never the fault of the Complex, of course: it’s the terrorists, or the Russians, or the Chinese …), and also that military service (and spending) is virtuous and therefore a boon to democracy.

America’s founders like James Madison thought differently, knowing from bitter experience and deep learning that incessant wars and standing militaries are an insidious threat to democracy.  Nowadays, however, Americans say they trust their military more than any other societal institution, and mainstream society universally celebrates “our” troops as selfless heroes, the very best of America.  This moral, indeed metaphysical, elevation of the U.S. military serves to silence legitimate criticism of its failings as well as its corrosive effect on democratic principles and values.

All of these topics I’ve written about before, but I wish to cite them again by way of introducing an article by Maximilian C. Forte, an anthropologist who writes at Zero Anthropology (I first saw his work at Fabius Maximus).  The article Forte wrote is on Bernie Sanders and his limitations, but what struck me most was his reference to C. Wright Mills and his analysis of the nexus of interests and power between U.S. capitalism and militarism.

The following extended excerpt from Forte’s article shines much light into the darker corners of America’s corridors of power:

In The Power Elite (1956) and “The Structure of Power in American Society” (The British Journal of Sociology, March 1958), Mills’ explanations can look like an elaborated, in-depth version of what former president Dwight Eisenhower described as the military-industrial complex, but with a stronger focus on the role of private corporations and special interest lobbies. These approaches endure today — because the problem they describe and analyze continues — as shown in the work of anthropologists such as Wedel on Shadow Elite: How the World’s New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market[as well as works by other authors that showcase] the relationship between the stock market, multinational corporations and the US’ CIA-led coups against foreign governments …

For C. Wright Mills, the problem was not just “Wall St.,” nor the “Pentagon” alone — focusing on one over the other produces a half-headed understanding, with all of the political demerits that result. As he argued in his 1958 article, “the high military, the corporation executives, the political directorate have tended to come together to form the power elite of America” (pp. 32-33). The power elite is what he described as a “triangle of power,” linking corporations, executive government, and the military: “There is a political economy numerously linked with military order and decision. This triangle of power is now a structural fact, and it is the key to any understanding of the higher circles in America today” (Mills, 1958, p. 32).

Contrary to Bernie Sanders, Mills emphasizes the decisive influence of the military in the corporate oligarchic state (as Kapferer later called it):

“The military order, once a slim establishment in a context of civilian distrust, has become the largest and most expensive feature of government; behind smiling public relations, it has all the grim and clumsy efficiency of a great and sprawling bureaucracy. The high military have gained decisive political and economic relevance. The seemingly permanent military threat places a premium upon them and virtually all political and economic actions are now judged in terms of military definitions of reality: the higher military have ascended to a firm position within the power elite of our time”. (Mills, 1958, p. 33)

US politics are dominated, Mills argued, “by a few hundred corporations, administratively and politically interrelated, which together hold the keys to economic decision,” and the economy that results is “at once a permanent-war economy and a private-corporation economy”:

“The most important relations of the corporation to the state now rest on the coincidence between military and corporate interests, as defined by the military and the corporate rich, and accepted by politicians and public”. (Mills, 1958, p. 33)

Mills also pays attention to the history of this type of corporate-military state. The influence of private lobbies dates back deep into US political history, when the influence of railway tycoons, banana magnates, and tobacco barons was considerable at different times. From this Mills discerned the rise of what he called the “invisible government,” which existed starting from at least 50 years prior to his 1958 article…

“Fifty years ago many observers thought of the American state as a mask behind which an invisible government operated. But nowadays, much of what was called the old lobby, visible or invisible, is part of the quite visible government. The ‘governmentalization of the lobby’ has proceeded in both the legislative and the executive domain, as well as between them. The executive bureaucracy becomes not only the centre of decision but also the arena within which major conflicts of power are resolved or denied resolution. ‘Administration’ replaces electoral politics; the maneuvering of cliques (which include leading Senators as well as civil servants) replaces the open clash of parties”. (Mills, 1958, p. 38)

The corporate-military government is tied to US global dominance, and its power increased dramatically from 1939 onwards. As Mills noted, “the attention of the elite has shifted from domestic problems — centered in the ’thirties around slump — to international problems centered in the ’forties and ’fifties around war” (1958, p. 33). (As I argued elsewhere, this shift also registers in US anthropology, which moved from research at home, on domestic social problems, to fieldwork abroad as the dominant norm.)

Rather than challenge the arms industry, whose growing size and power stunned Eisenhower, Sanders would simply tax them more. It is open to debate whether Sanders is offering even half of a solution, and whether he sees even half of the bigger picture. Usually Sanders has voted in favour of military appropriations, supported the financing of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has backed a range of regime change and “humanitarian interventionist” efforts, from NATO’s war in Kosovo, to support for the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act and for regime change in Libya (contrary to his false representations on the latter point). He is also an aggressive supporter of NATO and its anti-Russian posture. While he is not even half of anti-imperialist, some might argue that it is also too generous to see him as half of a socialist–either way, we need to do better than beat each other up with half-answers.

*** 

Forte’s criticism of Sanders is spot on.  My guess is that Sanders refused to take on the Complex precisely because of its financial, its political, and finally its cultural and societal clout.  There are only so many windmills you can tilt at, Sanders may have decided.  Yet, notwithstanding his willingness to appease the Complex, Sanders has been relegated to the sidelines by a corrupt Democratic establishment that did everything it could to ensure that one of its own, Complex-abettor Hillary Clinton, won the party nomination.

The fundamental problem for the U.S. today is as obvious as it appears insoluble.  The Complex has co-opted both political parties, Republican and Democratic.  It has at the same time redefined patriotism in militaristic terms, and loyalty in terms of unquestioning support of, even reverence for, American military adventurism and interventionism.  Candidates who have rival ideas, such as Libertarian Gary Johnson or Green Party candidate Jill Stein, are simply not allowed on the stage.  Their voices of dissent are suppressed.  They are never heard within the mainstream.

Johnson, for example, has suggested cuts to the Complex approaching 20%; Jill Stein has suggested cuts as deep as 50%.  Such suggestions, of course, are never seriously discussed in mainstream America.  Indeed, when they’re mentioned at all, they’re instantly dismissed by the “power elite” as the ravings of weak-kneed appeasers or unserious ignoramuses.  (Johnson, for example, is now depicted as an ignoramus by the mainstream media because he couldn’t place Aleppo or instantly name a foreign leader he adored.)

We have a new reality in U.S. government and society today: the Complex essentially rules unchallenged.  Back in the 1950s, Ike had the military and political authority to constrain it.  Today, well, no.  There are no restraints.  Just look at Hillary and Trump, both boasting of how many generals and admirals support them, as if they couldn’t run for office unless they’d been anointed by men in military uniforms wearing stars.

And America calls this democracy?

Democracy in America is dying.  It’s dying because it’s being strangled by winner-take-all capitalism and corrosive militarism.  Greed-war is consuming America’s resources.  Not just material, not just political, but mental and emotional resources as well.  The greed-war nexus as represented and nurtured by the Complex and its power elite is both narrowing and coloring the horizons of America.  Tortured by mindless fear and overwrought concerns about weakness and decline, Americans embrace the Complex ever tighter.

The result: America builds (and sells) more weapons, supports higher military spending, and wages more war.  Trump or Clinton, the war song remains the same.  It’s a narrowing of national horizons, a betrayal of American promise, that we will overcome only when we reject greed-war.

Afterword: The sad part is that Martin Luther King said it far better than I can fifty years ago in this speech on Vietnam.  Ike in 1961, MLK in 1967, both prophetic, both largely ignored today for their insights into the “spiritual death” represented by greed-war.  Even earlier, General Smedley Butler, twice awarded the Medal of Honor, argued in the 1930s that war is a racket and that it would end only when the profit motive was eliminated from it.

So, if I had one question for Hillary and Trump, this would be it: When it comes to your decision to enlarge the military-industrial complex, to feed it ever more money and resources, what makes your decision right and the warnings of Ike, MLK, and General Butler wrong?

Why I Still Like Ike

Ike in 1959
Ike in 1959

W.J. Astore

Recent news that the planned Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C. remains in trouble greatly saddens me.  When I was young, I considered myself a moderate Republican/conservative Democrat.  I recall favoring Gerald Ford over Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election.  My idea of a Democrat was someone like Senators Scoop Jackson and Sam Nunn, supporters of a hard line against the Soviet Union.  To me, these men appeared to be pragmatic, tough-minded, and willing to put country before partisan politics — much like Ike himself.

Ike, of course, was a Republican but could have run as a Democrat.  Indeed, today’s Republican Party would probably reject men like Ike and Gerald Ford.  They wouldn’t pass certain litmus tests in the primaries on issues like abortion or gun rights or school prayer and the like.  More’s the pity for our country.

Back in February 2012, I wrote this article (at Huff Post) on “Why I Still Like Ike.”  When you read Ike’s warning below about too much money being spent on weaponry, and his prophecy about the disastrous influence of the Military-Industrial Complex, ask yourself whether any mainstream political candidate today of either party would dare to denounce major weapons makers and America’s propensity for war with such clarity and guts.

Instead, today we have Democrats wetting themselves in their eagerness to appear tough (witness Vice President Biden’s comment about confronting the Islamic State at “the gates of hell”), and Republicans eager to bomb everything in sight.

Ike wasn’t perfect, but we sure could use a person of his courage and gravitas in 2016.  Chris Christie or Hillary Clinton, anyone? Forget about it.

Why I Still Like Ike (2012)

The ongoing controversy over the national memorial to President Dwight D. Eisenhower provides us with an opportunity to recall Ike’s legacy and his deeper meaning to America. Ike was of course a national hero, the supreme allied commander who led the assault at D-Day on June 6, 1944 and who later served as president during the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. His legacies are many and profound, from ending the Korean War to the interstate highway system that bears his name to advancing civil rights to creating the space program to the establishment of the department of health, education and welfare.

As important as Ike’s deeds were to our country, in some way his words were (and are) even more important, especially in this time of constant war and bloated budgets for “defense” and our burgeoning trade in deadly weaponry.

Ike was a citizen-soldier first and foremost, not a warrior or warfighter, and like the citizen-soldiers of World War II he came to hate war. This is not to say that Ike was a pacifist. He believed in a strong defense and intervened in countries such as Iran, Guatemala, Lebanon, Formosa, and South Vietnam, in order in his words to prevent “communist efforts to dominate” these countries. And we may certainly question the legality as well as the wisdom of these “wars in the shadows,” especially with respect to Iran and Vietnam.

But let us focus on Ike’s words — his lessons to America. Grossly underestimated by intellectuals who were deceived by his amiable public demeanor and his love of golf (with its country-club associations), Ike was a fine writer and a deep thinker who thoroughly understood the American heartland — and the American heart.

Any memorial to Ike should seek to capture the wisdom of his words and how they struck to the very core of the American (and human) experience. It should confront us with his words and encourage us to contemplate their meaning in a setting conducive to reflection and reconsideration.

First, let’s consider what Ike said about war. In a speech at the Canada Club in Ottawa on Jan. 10, 1946, Ike stated:

“I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”

Let all Americans pause and reflect on the hard-earned wisdom of that statement before plotting our next military intervention.

Second, let’s consider what Ike said about the true cost of spending on military weaponry. In remarks prepared for the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1953, Ike declared that:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children… This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

Third, let’s consider Ike’s final warning upon leaving office in 1961 about the dangers of a growing “military-industrial complex” to democracy and freedom in America. In his words:

The conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Ike’s tersely prophetic words are rarely heard in American political discourse today. Indeed, his avowed hatred of war, his condemnation of the deadly weapons trade as contrary to human values, his warning about an emergent military-industrial complex with the power to threaten our liberties, would likely be dismissed in this year’s election season, whether by mainstream Democrats or Republicans, as the ravings of a left-wing, weak-kneed, liberal.

All the more reason why these words need to be enshrined in a national memorial to Eisenhower.

One more lesson Ike can impart to us: the virtue of humility. In spite of his immense accomplishments, Ike remained a humble man. Doubtless this humility stemmed from his upbringing, but so too did it come from his military service. As he himself wrote, “Humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in blood of his followers and sacrifices of his friends.”

In this age of American exceptionalism, in which our nation touts its “generation of heroes” and boasts of its unrivaled military power, Ike’s words remind us that humility is far more becoming a man and a nation.

Even the most powerful nation may fall if it loses itself in its own celebratory braggadocio. Ike knew this, and if despite his efforts such a fate had happened on his watch, he doubtless would have taken full responsibility. Consider here the words Ike prepared in case the D-Day attack had failed on June 6, 1944. This was what Ike was prepared to say:

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.

Fortunately for history, Ike never had to say those words. Left unsaid, they nevertheless live on as an example of Ike’s willingness to bear unselfishly the burden of defeat, even as he humbly bore the laurels of victory.

Whatever final form the national memorial to Ike eventually assumes, I sincerely and fervently hope it enshrines the wisdom, the courage, the humility, the humanity of Ike’s words, so desperately do we need these qualities today.

For Ike knew that America’s true strength resides not in the size of our arsenals but in the generosity of our spirit.

Professor Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.

The Conservative Critique of Higher Education Misses the Mark

Prius Politics -- Seen at a campus near you!
Prius Politics — Seen at a campus near you!

W.J. Astore

I have conservative friends (Yes, I do!) who express disfavor with higher education.  They see higher ed as being in lockstep with liberal/leftist agendas.  Things like gay marriage, aggressive feminism, multiculturalism, and diversity that focuses not on wide-ranging political views but on the politics of gender and race.  They further see higher ed as being unfriendly to conservatives, hostile to organized religion (especially Christianity), and intolerant of alternative views that challenge leftist shibboleths.

There’s truth to this critique.  I’ve been around enough liberal faculty members to recognize a certain collectivism, often manifested by smug superiority, in their treatment of anyone who challenges their views.  So-called Birkenstock Bolsheviks are hardly immune to prejudice, including the refusal of job interviews or the denial of tenure to conservatives.  Such prejudice is especially galling among faculties that pride themselves on tolerance.

But while conservatives fight loud skirmishes against conformist liberals in higher ed, they ignore real battles of enormous significance.  The middle class in America continues to wither, even as the cost of higher ed spirals ever upwards (Americans now carry more student loan debt than credit card debt); financial and corporate elites continue to gain more power at the expense of the little guy, even in higher ed, which is increasingly obedient to business imperatives; the American empire continues to grow, and the individual rights of Americans continue to atrophy, even as higher ed willingly genuflects before the military-industrial-homeland security complex.

Everywhere in American society, including in higher ed, we see the exercise of power without regard to communal functions.  And most liberals (and conservatives) in higher ed either kowtow to power or hunker down in their own little academic fiefs. 

To liberals in higher ed, the power elites basically say: We’ll give you gay marriage, we’ll give you your left-leaning courses on feminist basket making in the Punjab.  But we reserve real power, the power that translates into money and influence, for ourselves.  Even liberal icons like President Obama are just the multicultural happy face on a power structure that continues to screw the little guy and gal. 

Think about it.  Whether you’re liberal or conservative, do you believe you have any real say in America?  Any real power?  Any real speech?  Compared to financial and corporate elites, who are now citizens and who can outshout you with billions of dollars in political campaign “donations”?

Again, those wine-drinking and cheese-eating liberals in academe, with their smug, Prius- and Volvo-driven politics, may be annoying, but they have no real power except to annoy.

Of course, in some ways this is nothing new.  President Dwight Eisenhower identified part of the problem: the growing domination of militarized corporate agendas in the name of “security.”  What has made it worse is our permanent war footing, which both drives and justifies fascism-lite, and which works to break down the social contract.  Even Ike couldn’t foresee the extent to which Washington and the Congress have become beholden to, and virtually owned by, major corporate and financial interests.

The character Gordon Gekko’s quote of “greed is good” from the movie Wall Street caught the Zeitgeist of the 1980s.  Then in the recent sequel Gekko adds: “Now it seems it’s legal,” a statement as sardonically funny as it is indicative of America’s new 21st century Zeitgeist.

To preserve their power and perks, the rich and powerful use their usual divide and conquer strategy, in which they sic the middling orders on the welfare class.  Look over there!  A lazy welfare mom buying king crab legs using food stamps!  Even as another CEO cashes in his golden parachute for $10 million and another luxury yacht.

The media serve power, the politicians serve money/power, and when politicians leave office, they cash in as well.  It’s all a circle jerk in which the little guy gets hosed.

Colleges and universities, in the meantime, are divided or distracted by identity politics and the usual grievances and petty animosities, even as administrators increasingly align themselves with corporate types, who promise to run a tighter ship while cutting benefits (including health care) to temporary/contingent faculty.

So, my message to my conservative friends is this: Don’t worry about the leftist types in higher ed who get under your skin: they’re just parlor pinks.  They have the power to annoy, and within academe they have a smidgen of authority.  But they have no real power, especially when compared to our corporatist state, to multinationals, to the big banks, Wall Street, and the K Street lobbyists.

If you don’t believe me, if you continue to chew the carpet at midnight, pause for a moment and ask yourself this question: When was the last time Prius-driving liberals with their “Coexist” bumper stickers got $700 billion from American taxpayers in the TARP to bail them out?