National Defense versus Global (In)Security

armada
Carrier strike forces, bombers, fighters: As American as apple pie

W.J. Astore

Our government likes to talk about global security, which in their minds is basically synonymous with homeland security.  They argue that the best defense is a good offense, that “leaning forward in the foxhole,” or always being ready to attack, is the best way to keep Americans safe.  Hence the 800 U.S. military bases in foreign countries, the deployment of special operations units to 130+ countries, and the never-ending “war on terror.”

Consider this snippet from today’s FP: Foreign Policy report:

If Congress votes through the massive tax cuts currently on the House floor, it would likely mean future cuts to Pentagon budgets “for training, maintenance, force structure, flight missions, procurement and other key programs.”

That’s according to former defense secretaries Leon E. Panetta, Chuck Hagel and Ash Carter, who sent a letter to congressional leadership Wednesday opposing the plan. “The result is the growing danger of a ‘hollowed out’ military force that lacks the ability to sustain the intensive deployment requirements of our global defense mission,” the secretaries wrote.

“Our global defense mission”: this vision that the U.S., in order to be secure, must dominate the world ensures profligate “defense” spending, to the tune of nearly $700 billion for 2018.  Indeed, the Congress and the President are currently competing to see which branch of government can throw more money at the Pentagon, all in the name of “security,” naturally.

Here’s a quick summary of the new “defense” bill and what it authorizes (from the Washington Post):

The bill as it stands increases financial support for missile defense, larger troop salaries and modernizing, expanding and improving the military’s fleet of ships and warplanes. The legislation dedicates billions more than Trump’s request for key pieces of military equipment, such as Joint Strike Fighters — there are 20 more in the bill than in the president’s request — and increasing the size of the armed forces. The bill also outlines an increase of almost 20,000 service members — nearly twice Trump’s request.

In the House of Representatives, the bill passed by a vote of 356-70.  At least Congress can agree on something — more and more money for the Pentagon.  (The $700 billion price tag includes $65.7 billion “for combat operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, various places in Africa, and elsewhere,” notes FP: Foreign Policy.)

Besides all this wasteful spending (the Pentagon has yet to pass an audit!), the vision itself is deeply flawed.  If you want to defend America, defend it.  Strengthen the National Guard.  Increase security at the border (including cyber security).  Spend money on the Coast Guard.  And, more than anything, start closing military bases overseas.  End U.S. participation in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and throughout the greater Middle East and Africa.  Bring ground troops home.  And end air and drone attacks (this would also end the Air Force’s “crisis” of being short nearly 2000 pilots).

This is not a plea for isolationism.  It’s a quest for sanity.  America is not made safer by spreading military forces around the globe while bombing every “terrorist” in sight.  Quite the reverse.

Until we change our vision of what national defense really means–and what it requires–America will be less safe, less secure, and less democratic.

More on Trump’s Generals

trump

W.J. Astore

In a longer article for TomDispatch.com, I recently wrote about Donald Trump’s team of generals for national defense and homeland security. Trump wants four senior retired generals, two from the Army and two from the Marine Corps, to serve as his senior civilian advisers in matters of defense and security.

Here’s the point: You simply can’t have civilian control of the military when you appoint senior generals to these positions.

I’m astonished more Americans aren’t outraged at this. It’s a sign of how much militarism has gripped our nation and government, as well as the sweep and scope of the national security state.

I was reading Samuel Hynes’ excellent book, The Soldiers’ Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War, and came across two passages that resonated with me. In talking about war as a culture, Hynes notes that “Military traditions, values, and patterns of behavior penetrate every aspect of army [and Marine Corps] life and make the most ordinary acts and feelings different.”

The generals Trump is hiring are all military careerists, men whose “traditions, values, and patterns of behavior” are steeped in the ways of the Army and Marine Corps, affecting even “the most ordinary acts and feelings.” Their behavior, their commitments, their loyalties, their world views, are the antithesis to civilian culture and to the ethos of democracy. (For example, General James Mattis, Trump’s selection as Secretary of Defense, is most often described as a “warrior-monk,” a man with a Spartan-like dedication to war.  But would Athens have anointed a Spartan, even as its minister of war?)

Again, the point is not to attack the military. It’s that the U.S. government already has plenty of generals in charge, wielding enormous authority. Trump’s decision to add yet another layer of military authority to his government makes it less of a democracy and more of a junta.

A second point from Hynes. He notes how most citizen-soldiers in America’s military past were not war-lovers, but that a few were, notably General George S. Patton. In the same breath, Hynes notes that dictators like Hitler and Mussolini “loved war.”

Which American general does Trump profess to admire the most? George S. Patton. And who among his generals most resembles Patton as a “real” warrior? According to Trump, it’s General Mattis.

Again, the point is not to attack the military, but rather to note the U.S. national security state already has plenty of warriors and warfighters in charge. Putting an alleged Patton-clone in charge of the Pentagon represents an abrogation of two centuries of American tradition that insisted on civilian supremacy over the military.

Given his inflammatory tweets about nuclear arms races with their “bring it on” mentality, Trump has all the makings of tinpot provocateur, an unstable military poseur who likes to speak loudly while swinging a nuclear-tipped stick. Will Trump’s generals, his Pattons and MacArthurs, serve as a check to his provocations and his posturings? It doesn’t seem likely.

Congress should reject Trump’s choices for Secretary of Defense (Mattis) and Homeland Security (Kelly). Not because these retired generals are bad men, but because they are the wrong kind of people. If you want civilian control of the military (and don’t we still want that?), you need to hire true civilians. Men and women whose identities haven’t been forged in armories. Independent thinkers and patriots with some history of dissent.

How about someone like Daniel Ellsberg for Secretary of Defense? And, since global warming is a huge threat to the U.S., how about Bill McKibben for Homeland Security?

After all, whether they’re in or out of uniform, the U.S. government already has plenty of generals.

The MYOB Foreign Policy

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Listen to my parents, America!

W.J. Astore

My parents taught me a lot of common sense sayings.  You’ve probably heard this one: mind your own business, or MYOB.  Most people have enough problems of their own; it’s not a good idea to compound one’s problems by messing around with other people’s lives.

What’s common sense for individuals is also common sense for nations.  Think of the USA.  We’ve got plenty of problems: crumbling infrastructure, inefficient and inadequate health care, too many people in too many prisons, social divides based on race and sex and class, drug and alcohol abuse, not enough decent-paying jobs, huge budgetary deficits, the list goes on.  Yet instead of looking inwards to address our problems, too often we look outwards and interfere in the lives of others.  How can we solve other people’s problems when we can’t solve our own?

Consider our nation’s foreign policy, which is basically driven by our military.  We have a global array of military bases, somewhere around 700.  We spend roughly $700 billion a year on national “defense” and wars, ensuring that we have “global reach, global power.”  To what end?  Our nation’s first president, George Washington, famously warned us to avoid foreign entanglements.  The nation’s great experiment in republican democracy, Washington knew, could easily be compromised by unwise alliances and costly wars.

This is not an argument for isolationism.  The USA, involved as it is in the global economy, could never be isolationist.  With all those military bases, and all those U.S. military units deployed around the world, we could never turn completely inwards, pretending as if the rest of the world didn’t exist.

No – not isolationism.  Rather a policy of MYOB.  Don’t intervene when it’s not our business.  And especially don’t intervene using the U.S. military.  Why?  Because U.S. troops are not charitable or social workers.

The U.S. military is supposed to be for national defense.  It’s not an international charity.  Even military aid is somewhat questionable.  And if you profit from it, as in weapons sales, it smacks of mercenary motives.

As a good friend of mine put it:

I have become rather isolationist myself in my old age.  The way I see it, we have the natural resources and (hopefully) the intellectual capital to be largely self-sufficient.  We should enter the international marketplace as a self-reliant vendor of goods and services, ready to trade fairly with those who are of a similar mind.  The rest can pound sand (no pun intended).  Charity begins at home, and we should know by now that our ideology, while “ideal” for America, is not deployable or even beneficial to other countries steeped in ancient cultures of a different nature.

My friend then added the following caveat:

The remaining challenge is how you protect basic human rights, where you can.  That is something I feel we have an obligation to attempt to do, but don’t know how to do so without crossing other lines.  Perhaps that is how Mother Teresa became St. Teresa of Calcutta.

That’s an excellent question.  Again, my response is that U.S. troops are not social workers.  Charity and social work is best left to people like Saint (Mother) Teresa.  Soldiers may be necessary to protect aid convoys and the like, but military intervention in the name of humanitarianism often ends in disaster, e.g. Somalia.  And of course “humanitarian” motives are often used as a cloak to disguise other, far less noble, designs.

Again, the U.S. military is never going to be a do-nothing, isolationist, military.  The USA itself will never return to isolationism.  What we need to do is to recognize our limitations, realize that other countries and peoples often don’t want our help, or that they’d be better off without our often heavy-handed approach when we do intervene.

We need, in short, to take care of our own business here in the USA, and to let other peoples and nations take care of theirs.  Listen to my parents, America: MYOB.

Provoking Wars: Is that what U.S. Foreign Policy Is About?

Send in the heavily-armed carriers.  It's about peace!
Send in the heavily-armed carriers. It’s about peace!

b. traven and W.J. Astore

Are America’s foreign policy leaders mad?  It’s a serious question.  Consider last week’s dispatch of 300 military trainers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade to Western Ukraine, a country involved in a contentious jousting match with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.  Or consider this week’s deployment of an aircraft carrier battle group off the coast of Yemen, ostensibly to interdict weapons shipments from Iran, shipments that may not even exist.

These moves have more serious possible repercussions than the usual stupid moves our government makes. They can lead to real war with Russia and Iran. Look at today’s headline in the New York Times: “Putin Bolsters His Forces Near Ukraine.”  Putin may be provoked into an invasion of Ukraine because U.S. meddling has been so blatant (he also knows that when it comes to war in Ukraine, NATO is largely a toothless tiger). The Iranians may renege on the nuclear agreement and deliver extensive military support to the Houthis while directly engaging the House of Saud. In both situations, it’s easy to predict what Obama will do.  Just what John McCain and the neo-cons want him to do.  Bombs away.

It’s a clear case of global reach, global power–and global stupidity.  You’d think massive bungling and endemic corruption in never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would have taught us something, but the U.S. insists on getting involved in sensitive regional conflicts that could easily spiral out of control.

And when the U.S. chooses to get involved, it’s not with diplomacy.  It’s all about military power.  Yet as much as America professes to love its military, its power is a blunt (and deadly) instrument.  It exacerbates tensions rather than alleviating them.  U.S. military meddling in Ukraine and Yemen promises more conflict, not less.

And perhaps that’s by design.  Consider the reality of America’s ever-burgeoning military budget.  As Dan Froomkin notes, that budget still exceeds the combined defense budgets of the next seven highest spenders (four of those countries—Saudi Arabia, France, the UK, and Germany—are U.S. allies; China and Russia, the only rivals on the list, spend far less than the U.S.).  As the U.S. continues to spend hog-wild on its military, small wonder it remains the go-to option for “diplomacy” around the globe.

Democratic or Republican administration, Obama or Bush, the one constant is global war.  The U.S. is already waging illegal “low intensity” war with drones and special operations across the globe.  (It’s worth pointing out that “low intensity” doesn’t feel low when Hellfire missiles are raining down on your neighborhood or when Special Forces are raiding your village and hauling away your neighbors–or you.)  So why not add another serving of war to an already full plate by meddling in Ukraine?  Sadly, the faction the U.S. seems to favor the most has its share of outright fascists.  But they’re “our” fascists, so who cares if they vote to honor Nazi collaborators and perpetrators of the Holocaust?

Russia, predictably, is antagonized by U.S. meddling.  They see it as the decades-old Anglo-British effort to encircle and isolate Russia and cut them off from their access to the Mediterranean by denying them their Black Sea Fleet base in the Crimea.  To add insult to injury, the essentially Russian population of Eastern Ukraine will be marginalized by the coup regime the U.S. helped to install.  Well, there’s nothing like a new Cold War with Russia to push “defense” spending to even higher levels.

If the U.S. fails to rouse the Soviet bear from slumber, perhaps we can provoke a war with Iran.  So let’s continue to send billions of dollars in weaponry to the Saudis so they can continue to bomb and dominate Shia factions in Yemen.  Heck, let’s send an aircraft carrier task force to show how serious we are about “peace.”  (Let’s hope the U.S. Navy doesn’t blunder and shoot down an Iranian commercial aircraft, as it did in 1988, killing 290 innocent passengers and crew.)

Provocation—that’s when U.S. leaders deploy the military to meddle in Ukraine, in Yemen, and elsewhere across the globe.  Yet men like Bush and Obama continue to sell the military, not as provocateurs, but as peace-bringers.  As diplomats in uniform.  They just happen to carry assault rifles and use Hellfire missiles rather than briefcases and pens.

Saddest of all is that things are only going to get worse.  We’ve witnessed how America’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning President morphed into its assassin-in-chief, approving “signature strikes” to snuff out evil-doers everywhere.  Now look who’s running to replace him in 2016: Hillary the Hun on the Democratic side, and all those little chickenhawk Republicans clucking that they’re to the right of Hillary.

If you’re reading this and have money, we advise you to invest in “defense” stocks.  With all these provocations in the works, the staff here at The Contrary Perspective are bullish on prospects for more weapons–and more war.

The Pentagon Wins Wars! Budgetary Wars, That Is

The Pentagon of Power
The Pentagon of Power

W.J. Astore

The Pentagon brass and bureaucrats can’t win foreign wars, but they sure as hell kick ass in domestic budgetary wars. That point is clear from Mattea Kramer’s new article at TomDispatch.com. Allowing the Pentagon a largely untouchable second budget to fund the ongoing military occupation of Afghanistan is an invitation both to prolong that war and for exercises in money-changing. Masters at budgetary sleight of hand, the military spins any reduction, no matter how small, in apocalyptic terms, as we saw with claims that cuts in the end strength of the US Army would reduce it to 1940 levels, i.e. the somnolent peacetime days just before Pearl Harbor.

Any cut to military spending is spun as “appeasement,” as recklessly endangering our security vis-a-vis the exaggerated threats of the day, usually China or Russia or both. Yet the true “threat” that the Pentagon sees is not so much China or Russia (they can be handled) but cuts to their privileges and power. The Pentagon still maintains an unimaginably top-heavy bureaucracy that continues to throw pallets of money into the afterburners of costly weapons programs like the F-35 jet fighter.

Here is Kramer’s full text, courtesy of TomDispatch. Isn’t it nice to know that in lean times the Pentagon continues to live off the fat of the land?

The Pentagon’s Phony Budget War: Or How the U.S. Military Avoided Budget Cuts, Lied About Doing So, Then Asked for Billions More

By Mattea Kramer

Washington is pushing the panic button, claiming austerity is hollowing out our armed forces and our national security is at risk. That was the message Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel delivered last week when he announced that the Army would shrink to levels not seen since before World War II. Headlines about this crisis followed in papers like the New York Times and members of Congress issued statements swearing that they would never allow our security to be held hostage to the budget-cutting process.

Yet a careful look at budget figures for the U.S. military — a bureaucratic juggernaut accounting for 57% of the federal discretionary budget and nearly 40% of all military spending on this planet — shows that such claims have been largely fictional. Despite cries of doom since the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration surfaced in Washington in 2011, the Pentagon has seen few actual reductions, and there is no indication that will change any time soon.

This piece of potentially explosive news has, however, gone missing in action — and the “news” that replaced it could prove to be one of the great bait-and-switch stories of our time.

The Pentagon Cries Wolf, Round One

As sequestration first approached, the Pentagon issued deafening cries of despair. Looming cuts would “inflict lasting damage on our national defense and hurt the very men and women who protect this country,” said Secretary Hagel in December 2012.

Sequestration went into effect in March 2013 and was slated to slice $54.6 billion from the Pentagon’s $550 billion larger-than-the-economy-of-Sweden budget. But Congress didn’t have the stomach for it, so lawmakers knocked the cuts down to $37 billion. (Domestic programs like Head Start and cancer research received no such special dispensation.)

By law, the cuts were to be applied across the board. But that, too, didn’t go as planned. The Pentagon was able to do something hardly recognizable as a cut at all. Having the luxury of unspent funds from previous budgets — known obscurely as “prior year unobligated balances” — officials reallocated some of the cuts to those funds instead.

In the end, the Pentagon shaved about 5.7%, or $31 billion, from its 2013 budget. And just how painful did that turn out to be? Frank Kendall, who serves as the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, has acknowledged that the Pentagon “cried wolf.” Those cuts caused no substantial damage, he admitted.

And that’s not where the story ends — it’s where it begins.

Sequestration, the Phony Budget War, Round Two

A $54.6 billion slice was supposed to come out of the Pentagon budget in 2014. If that had actually happened, it would have amounted to around 10% of its budget. But after the hubbub over the supposedly devastating cuts of 2013, lawmakers set about softening the blow.

And this time they did a much better job.

In December 2013, a budget deal was brokered by Republican Congressman Paul Ryan and Democratic Senator Patty Murray. In it they agreed to reduce sequestration. Cuts for the Pentagon soon shrank to $34 billion for 2014.

And that was just a start.

All the cuts discussed so far pertain to what’s called the Pentagon’s “base” budget — its regular peacetime budget. That, however, doesn’t represent all of its funding. It gets a whole different budget for making war, and for the 13th year, the U.S. is making war in Afghanistan. For that part of the budget, which falls into the Washington category of “Overseas Contingency Operations” (OCO), the Pentagon is getting an additional $85 billion in 2014.

And this is where something funny happens.

That war funding isn’t subject to caps or cuts or any restrictions at all. So imagine for a moment that you’re an official at the Pentagon — or the White House — and you’re committed to sparing the military from downsizing. Your budget has two parts: one that’s subject to caps and cuts, and one that isn’t. What do you do? When you hit a ceiling in the former, you stuff extra cash into the latter.

It takes a fine-toothed comb to discover how this is done. Todd Harrison, senior fellow for defense studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, found that the Pentagon was stashing an estimated extra $20 billion worth of non-war funding in the “operation and maintenance” accounts of its proposed 2014 war budget. And since all federal agencies work in concert with the White House to craft their budget proposals, it’s safe to say that the Obama administration was in on the game.

Add the December budget deal to this $20 billion switcheroo and the sequester cuts for 2014 were now down to $14 billion, hardly a devastating sum given the roughly $550 billion in previously projected funding.

And the story’s still not over.

When it was time to write the Pentagon budget into law, appropriators in Congress wanted in on the fun. As Winslow Wheeler of the Project on Government Oversight discovered, lawmakers added a $10.8 billion slush fund to the war budget.

All told, that leaves $3.4 billion — a cut of less than 1% from Pentagon funding this year. It’s hard to imagine that anyone in the sprawling bureaucracy of the Defense Department will even notice. Nonetheless, last week Secretary Hagel insisted that “[s]equestration requires cuts so deep, so abrupt, so quickly that… the only way to implement [them] is to sharply reduce spending on our readiness and modernization, which would almost certainly result in a hollow force.”

Yet this less than 1% cut comes from a budget that, at last count, was the size of the next 10 largest military budgets on the planet combined. If you can find a threat to our national security in this story, your sleuthing powers are greater than mine. Meanwhile, in the non-military part of the budget, sequestration has brought cuts that actually matter to everything from public education to the justice system.

Cashing in on the “Cuts,” Round Three and Beyond

After two years of uproar over mostly phantom cuts, 2015 isn’t likely to bring austerity to the Pentagon either. Last December’s budget deal already reduced the cuts projected for 2015, and President Obama is now asking for something he’s calling the “Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative.” It would deliver an extra $26 billion to the Pentagon next year. And that still leaves the war budget for officials to use as a cash cow.

And the president is proposing significant growth in military spending further down the road. In his 2015 budget plan, he’s asking Congress to approve an additional $115 billion in extra Pentagon funds for the years 2016-2019.

My guess is he’ll claim that our national security requires it after the years of austerity.

Mattea Kramer is a TomDispatch regular and Research Director at National Priorities Project, which is a 2014 nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. She is also the lead author of the book A People’s Guide to the Federal Budget.

Copyright 2014 Mattea Kramer