From Deterrence to Doomsday?

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A harbinger of bigger bombs and missiles to come?

W.J. Astore

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?

Can Trump Tame the Pentagon?

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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.

What Would My Parents Think of this Election?

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My parents in the 1970s

W.J. Astore

In 1976, I remember my mom voted for Jimmy Carter for president.  It surprised me because I was a fan of Gerald Ford, the Republican candidate.  Both Carter and Ford were decent men, and their debates were informative and issues-oriented.  Back then, the big scandal was Jimmy Carter’s admission, in an interview for Playboy magazine, that he had lusted in his heart. What innocent times!  Two generations later, we have a Republican candidate, Donald Trump, who by his own words has done far more than lust in his heart.

My mom would have been appalled by Trump (as are many people today).  My dad, I think, would have found Trump objectionable and shallow.  One of my dad’s favorite sayings was “the empty barrel makes the most noise.”  He didn’t respect other men who bragged and bellowed about themselves.  And he didn’t like anyone who was a sore loser, those who, when they lost, resorted to “sour grapes.”  Even before Trump has lost (if he does), he’s already resorted to sour grapes, claiming the election is “rigged” against him.

I know my parents would be against Trump.  Would they be for Hillary?  I don’t know.  I think my mom would have voted for Hillary, respecting her struggles as a woman for equality and fair treatment in a man’s game (and politics in America is still very much a man’s game, despite important strides made by women).  My dad?  When in doubt, he voted for the Democratic Party.  As a firefighter, he was a union man who knew first-hand the hard experience of factory workers and the penury of a hand-to-mouth existence during the Great Depression.

Resuscitating my parents to vote in 2016: yes, it’s fantasy, one that I share with Tom Engelhardt, who wrote this telling article at TomDispatch.com on next week’s election and what his parents would have thought of the whole spectacle.  To me, two aspects of election 2016 are especially telling when compared to 1976:

  1.  On foreign policy and national defense, Hillary Clinton is running to the right, not only of Jimmy Carter, but of Gerald Ford, a moderate Republican.
  2. Donald Trump not only lacks the fundamental decency of Carter and Ford: he lacks any experience in public service.  His entire life has been dedicated to making money. This may qualify him to run a business, but it doesn’t qualify him to run a country and to represent a people.

A few more words on Trump and what his rise represents.  Trump is the candidate of casino capitalism.  He’s the logical terminus of a system that wants to run everything for profit, winner-take-all.  Such public systems and concerns as education, health care, the prison system, even the military, are increasingly run as businesses, often privatized, the operative words being “efficiency” and “productivity” and “growth.”

With so many sectors of American society being privatized and run as for-profit businesses, with corporations being enshrined as superpower citizens with especially deep pockets to influence public elections, with the media also almost completely privatized and also run for-profit, is it any wonder a candidate like Trump has emerged as the business leader to “make America great again”?  Americans used to call men like Trump “robber-barons.”  Now, some Americans treat Trump as a savior.

In America, we seem to measure societal progress strictly in terms of economic growth as measured by GDP and the stock market.  Such measures are indicative not of true progress but of our shallow desires, our preference for glitzy materialism.  Again, isn’t Trump the very embodiment of insatiable appetite, bottomless greed, and casino capitalism?

I know my parents — decent members of the working classes — wouldn’t have voted for him.  Hillary, I think, would have been their (reluctant) choice.  And I think they’d hope for better candidates in 2020, or, at the very least, a political process that takes vitally important issues like climate change seriously.

Seriousness of purpose is what we need in America, along with courage, honesty, and strength of mind. Let’s strive for those in the aftermath of this depressing election season.