John Bolton’s “Revelations”

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W.J. Astore

Former National Security Advisor John Bolton, the Walrus Man, is back with “revelations” about Donald Trump.  Yet, unless you’ve been a MAGA man or under a rock for the last four years, these are hardly as revelatory as media mouthpieces are making them out to be.  Some examples:

Trump cares most of all about getting reelected in 2020.  To this end, he’ll make deals with China to shore up his domestic support.

Trump sympathizes with authoritarian dictators and promises to intercede on their behalf in various investigations.

Trump is ignorant of the most basic facts, e.g. he didn’t know the UK has nuclear weapons; he didn’t know Finland was not part of Russia; etc.

Trump is mocked behind his back by some of his most ardent supporters, e.g. Mike Pompeo.

Trump said Venezuela is “really part of the United States.”

And so on.  That last one is especially funny.  Trump must mean their oil, for he hasn’t exactly been clamoring for more people south of the border to be put on a path to U.S. citizenship.

Earlier today, Bolton gave an interview in which he said Trump is unfit to be president.  Surprise!  I was saying that in March of 2016, and I was hardly the only one.

Look: I’m no Trump fan, but none of this is news.  As a narcissist and egotist, of course Trump places his reelection above all else.  As an authoritarian ruler (at least in a wannabe sense), of course Trump relishes striking deals with other dictator-types.  Clearly, Trump doesn’t have a democratic bone in his body.  He’s incurious and apparently doesn’t read (not even the Bible, it seems), so he doesn’t know some of the most basic facts about geography and foreign policy.  Indeed, in this sense he’s the prototypical American.  We only learn geography after we invade a country.

It’s not hard to predict the reaction of Trump’s base to these “revelations”: they couldn’t care less.  But, hey, if it helps Bolton to sell books, then he’s taken a page from Trump’s own playbook.  Lots of hype, “alternative facts,” and controversy are good ways to move copy; don’t some people say there’s no such thing as bad publicity?

Meanwhile, Trump’s true feelings for his base are revealed in his decision to press ahead with a mass rally in an indoor arena this weekend.  Never mind the deadly danger of Covid-19: Trump says its fading away.

Now there’s a true “alternative fact” that may prove a killer for far too many, true believers and otherwise.

The Bankruptcy of Conventional Wisdom at the Pentagon

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A fair depiction of General Petraeus and the busy uniforms of America’s generals

W.J. Astore

Perhaps the most blatant example of the bankruptcy of conventional wisdom at the Pentagon came from retired General David Petraeus in an interview with PBS reporter Judy Woodruff in June of 2017.  Petraeus spoke of a “sustainable, sustained commitment” to Afghanistan and the need for a “generational struggle” with Islamic terrorists who are located there.  Comparing Afghanistan to the U.S. commitment to South Korea, he hinted U.S. troops might be there for 60 or more years (though he backtracked on the 60-year figure when challenged by Woodruff).

Here’s a telling excerpt from his interview:

We need to recognize that we went there [Afghanistan] for a reason and we stayed for a reason, to ensure that Afghanistan is not once again a sanctuary for al-Qaida or other transnational extremists, the way it was when the 9/11 attacks were planned there.

That’s why we need to stay. We also have a very useful platform there for the regional counterterrorist effort. And, of course, we have greatly reduced the capabilities of al-Qaida’s senior leaders in that region, including, of course, taking out Osama bin Laden.

But this is a generational struggle. This is not something that is going to be won in a few years. We’re not going to take a hill, plant a flag, go home to a victory parade. And we need to be there for the long haul, but in a way that is, again, sustainable.

These statements are so wrongheaded it’s hard to know where to begin to correct them:

  1. The U.S. military went into Afghanistan to punish the Taliban after 9/11.  Punishment was administered and the Taliban overthrown in 2001, after which the U.S. military should have left.  The decision to stay was foolish and disastrous.  Extending a disastrous occupation is only aggravating the folly.
  2. “Transnational extremists”: According to the U.S. military, the Af-Pak region has exploded with terrorist elements, and indeed Petraeus and his fellow generals count twenty or more factions in Afghanistan.  In sum, rather than weakening Islamic extremism in the area, U.S. military action has served to strengthen it.
  3. “A very useful platform”: The U.S. has spent roughly a trillion dollars on its eighteen-year-old war in the Af-Pak region.  The results?  The Taliban has increased its hold over Afghan territory and Islamic extremism has flourished.  How is this “very useful” to the United States?
  4. A “long haul” that’s “sustainable”: What exactly is “sustainable” about a war you’ve been fighting — and losing — for nearly two decades?  Leaving aside the dead and maimed troops, how is a trillion dollars a “sustainable” price for a lost war?
  5. No “victory parade.”  At least Petraeus is right here, though I wouldn’t put it past Trump to have a military parade to celebrate some sort of “victory” somewhere.

It appears President Trump is finally fed up, suggesting a withdrawal of troops from Syria as well as a force drawdown in Afghanistan.  But it appears Trump is already caving to pressure from the Pentagon and the usual neo-con suspects, e.g. National Security Adviser John Bolton suggests U.S. troops won’t withdraw from Syria without a guarantee from Turkey not to attack America’s Kurdish allies, which, according to the New York Times, may extend America’s troop commitment by “months or years.”

Trump needs to realize that, if it were up to the Pentagon, America today would still be fighting the Vietnam War, rather than working closely with Vietnam as a partner in efforts to counterbalance China.

The Pentagon’s conventional wisdom is that U.S. troops, once committed, must never leave a region.  Victory or defeat doesn’t matter.  What matters is “sustaining” a “sustainable” commitment.  Hence troops are still in Iraq, still in Afghanistan, still in Syria, still in 800+ bases around the world, because any withdrawal is couched as surrender, a display of weakness, so says America’s military “experts.”

The U.S. doesn’t need a “sustainable, sustained commitment” to the Middle East or Central Asia or anywhere else for that matter, other than right here in the USA.  We need a sustainable, sustained commitment to a better health care system.  To better roads, bridges, airports. To affordable education.  To tax cuts that actually help the middle class.

When it comes to “generational struggles,” David Petraeus, let’s fight for a better America, not for sustaining troops in lost causes around the world.