This is an Andy Rooney moment for me, but did you ever notice how Americans tend to favor either humongous trophy houses (McMansions), or closet-like tiny houses? Did you ever notice how so many Americans tend to be either very fat or super fit? Crusading evangelicals or militant atheists? Faithful believers in creationism or fervid followers of science? Proud “cave man” carnivores or proselytizing vegans? Coffee fiends or caffeine avoiders? Lushes or teetotalers? Materialists and hoarders or declutterers and minimalists?
The list of opposites, of extremes, goes on. Heck, why not include Obama supporters or Trump followers? Obama is urbane, sophisticated, cerebral, “no drama.” A devoted family man with one very successful marriage. The Donald? Well, let’s just say he’s very different than our sitting president. And I’m not talking skin color.
A good friend of mine once complained about his fellow Americans that he didn’t necessarily mind their extremism. What he did mind was their efforts to convert him to whatever extreme causes they believed in. Rodney King famously asked, Can’t we all just get along? My friend’s cry was more plaintive: Can’t you all just leave me alone?
As Trump crawls closer to power, America risks devolving even more into a society where the byword is “My way or the highway.” Where the national motto is no longer “In God we trust” or the older “E pluribus unum” (out of many, one) but instead “America: love it or leave it.”
I once read a great rejoinder to the “America: love it or leave it” sentiment. I first saw it in a bicycle repair book. The author simply added this coda: “Or change it.”
Extremism in the pursuit of your own selfish definition of “liberty” can indeed be a vice, America. We need to reject a black/white, love/hate, on/off, Manichean view of each other and the world. Moderation as a way of pursuing a more inclusive and compassionate world can indeed be a virtue.
That doesn’t mean one submits supinely to injustice. That doesn’t mean one surrenders meekly to tyrants. What it does mean is a rejection of a “shoot first, ask questions later” approach to life and each other. We have enough polarization already in America, and we certainly have enough death.
Superman used to say he fought for truth, justice, and the American way. There was a sense, a few generations ago, that those words were not laughable. That they meant something. We need to get back to those times.
My wife, who knows how to cut to the chase, pointed out a big aspect of Trump’s appeal to me this morning: “Trump is the anti-Obama.”
Think about it. When it comes to their personal qualities, it would be hard to envision two men who are such polar opposites. Consider Obama. He’s cool. Rational. Analytical. A thinker. He’s also polite, cautious, and considerate. He’s a skilled writer and a poised, often inspirational, speaker. He’s at pains to broadcast a message of inclusiveness. He’s all about diversity and tolerance and embracing those who are different. He’s also by all accounts a loyal family man, a loving husband and father, with a strong marriage.
Consider Trump. Everything I just said about Obama is the opposite for Trump. Trump is emotional. Flamboyant. Given to knee-jerk responses. A man of action. He appears to be impolite, impetuous, and inconsiderate. Near as I can tell, Trump’s books are ghost-written, and his speaking style is bombastic and inflammatory rather than poised and inspirational. Promoting divisiveness rather than inclusiveness, his message of “making America great again” is read by some of his supporters as making America white-male-dominated again. Hardly a loyal family man, he’s on his third marriage, the previous two ending acrimoniously, and if you credit his boasts caught on tape he was trying to cheat on his current wife while they were still newlyweds.
Now, which one of these men is more desirable as a role model? The loyal husband and family man, the one who embraces diversity and brings people together? Or the disloyal husband, the one who boasts of sexual encounters, who objectifies women, the one who rejects tolerance for rhetoric that drives intolerance?
It’s sobering to see self-styled conservative or evangelical Christians, who claim they are all about family values and the sanctity of marriage, twisting their professed beliefs to embrace Trump and reject Obama. Certainly, in some cases racism is involved here, a sense that Obama is “not one of us,” whereas Trump, with all his glaring flaws of character and behavior, is accepted as the imperfect guy who’s “just like me” (or perhaps just like a black sheep of the family).
Here’s another way of looking at it if you’re a “Star Trek” fan: Trump is Captain Kirk to Obama’s Mr. Spock. In his coolly logical manner, Obama has often been compared to Mr. Spock. And Trump as Captain Kirk: it seems to work, since Kirk was a man of action, often emotional, a womanizer, sometimes intemperate.
But this is to insult Captain Kirk. More than anything, Kirk was a leader: a man who brought a diverse crew together and made them better. Yes, he could be intemperate, but he had a capacity for personal growth. Smart, tough, and experienced, Kirk was a ladies’ man, but he wasn’t married and never forced himself on women (with the notable exception of “The Enemy Within” episode, in which Kirk is split in two, his hyper-aggressive twin given to attacking women for his own pleasure).
In Trump you’re not getting Captain Kirk, America. You’re getting a one-dimensional “evil” Kirk, or perhaps a Khan Noonien Singh, another “Star Trek” character (played memorably by Ricardo Montalbán), a tyrant and ruthless dictator, a man who believes it’s the right of the strong to take or do whatever they want. (So-called Alpha Male behavior, according to one of Trump’s sons, though I prefer a different A-term: Asshole Male.)
Some of Trump’s success, at least initially, came from the fact he was a powerful contrast to Obama, the anti-Obama, if you will. And the “anti-” was more than symbolic, considering how Trump drove the birther movement and its false narrative of how Obama was illegitimate as president. And I can understand after eight years the desire among many for a “Captain Kirk” after two terms of “Mr. Spock.”
But Trump is much more Khan than Kirk. He’d embrace Khan’s motto that “Such [superior] men [like me] dare take what they want.” But a man who believes in his own inherent superiority — that his might will make right — is not a leader. He’s a tyrant. And tyranny is the very opposite of democracy.
The language of war fascinates me. I was reading President Obama’s response to Donald Trump on whether Obama “gets it” when it comes to the threat of terrorism and came across this passage:
“Someone [Donald Trump] seriously thinks that we don’t know who we are fighting? If there is anyone out there who thinks we are confused about who our enemies are — that would come as a surprise to the thousands of terrorists who we have taken off the battlefield.”
That’s such a curious phrase: “terrorists who we have taken off the battlefield.” As if the United States has simply evacuated them or relocated them instead of killing them.
I think the distancing effect of air power has something to do with this euphemistic language. The U.S. military “takes people off the battlefield” rather than killing them, blowing them up, and so on. Obama’s personality may also play a role: a rational person, he’s been compared to the Vulcan Mr. Spock from “Star Trek” in his coolly logical approach to war.
Perhaps that coolly rational side, and not his preference to avoid terms like “radical Islamic terrorism,” is what gets Obama into trouble. Many Americans would prefer more directness, more passion, even though such directness and passion is often the approach of posturing chickenhawks. Consider the language of Bush/Cheney and all their blustering about “wanted, dead or alive” and “the axis of evil“ and “you’re either for us or against us.” Bush/Cheney talked as if they had just walked off a Western movie set after a gunfight, but both avoided the Vietnam War when they were young men, with Cheney famously saying he had other, more important things to do with his life. (Bush flew in the Texas Air National Guard, apparently gaining a slot after his father pulled some political strings.)
So, what should Obama have said in place of “we’ve taken them off the battlefield”?
Why not be honest and say something like this? “I’m well into the eighth and final year of my administration, during which I’ve approved drone strikes and air raids that have killed thousands of suspected and confirmed terrorists. Sure, we’ve often missed some targets, killing innocent people instead, but hey — war is hell. I’ve approved Pentagon budgets that each year approach $750 billion, I’ve overseen the U.S. dominance of the international trade in weapons, I continue to oversee an empire of roughly 700 overseas U.S. bases. Some have even called me the assassin in chief, and they’re right about that, because under my command deadly drone strikes have increased dramatically. Meanwhile, we’ve already made some 12,000 air strikes against ISIS/ISIL. So don’t tell me, Mr. Trump, that I don’t know who the enemy is. Don’t tell me I’m not willing to murder terrorists whenever and wherever we find them, even when they’re U.S. citizens and teenagers. Don’t tell me I don’t get it.”
Those words would be honest – though they’d really just scratch the surface of the Obama-led efforts to secure the “Homeland.” But instead Obama speaks of “taking” terrorists “off the battlefield,” cloaking his administration’s violent actions in a euphemistic phrase that would be consistent with angels from on high coming down to lift terrorists off the battlefield to some idyllic oasis.
Odd, isn’t it, that so few Americans criticize Obama for his murderous actions in overseas wars, but so many will criticize him for not bragging and boasting about it.
Well, if America is looking for a braggart, someone willing to boast about himself, they have their man in Donald Trump. If they’re looking for a new assassin in chief, they have their woman in Hillary Clinton. And if they’re looking for fresh ideas, a new strategy, a way to end our seemingly endless wars, they’re simply out of luck this election season, unless you go to a third-party candidate like Jill Stein.
In these over-heated times, the chances of a third-party challenge with substance are somewhere between nada and nil. In the United States in 2016, war and weapons sales and imperial expansion will continue to find a way, even as our leaders cloak their violent actions using the most anodyne phrases.
The FP: Foreign Policy feed that I receive had two items that grabbed my attention this morning. The first involves the war in Afghanistan. In short, there’s no end in sight. Unlike in the Vietnam War, no one is seeing any lights at the end of tunnels. Nevertheless, U.S. and NATO leaders vow to keep supporting Afghan forces as they continue to lose territory to a resurgent Taliban that had basically given up in 2001.
Here’s the latest from FP (co-authored by Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley):
NATO’s not done in Afghanistan. It looks like the United States and NATO are going to stick it out in Afghanistan for at least a few more years, as the Afghan army continues to battle a resurgent Taliban with no end in sight. Following a NATO meeting in Brussels this week, British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon told reporters that U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter “told us the troop numbers and the dispositions are being looked at again,” as President Barack Obama weighs whether to draw the U.S. presence in Afghanistan down from 9,800 to 5,000 by the end of this year. NATO says it’s in, at least through the end of next year. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the allies are abandoning their plans to pull back to Kabul by the end of this year, and “will have what we call a flexible regional approach, meaning that we will continue to be of course in Kabul but also out in the different regions.”
That’s significant. So are comments by an anonymous NATO diplomat who told the AP that the alliance will most likely come up with the $5 billion needed to fund the current number of Afghan security forces through 2020. The longest of the Long Wars grinds on.
Put bluntly, U.S. and NATO leaders continue to reinforce failure in Afghanistan. Their strategy, such as it is, is simply more of what hasn’t worked over the last fifteen years. Apparently, forever war is sustainable to the U.S. and NATO. No one seems to be asking whether the cost is sustainable to the Afghan people.
The second item involves American aid to Israel, which is primarily military aid. Here’s how the folks at FP put it:
Israel: After much back and forth sparring, the U.S. and Israel appear to be nearing an agreement on a U.S. military aid package. Israeli officials had been hoping that the Obama administration would agree to a memorandum of understanding (MOU) promising $40 billion in aid over a decade — an increase of $10 billion over the last MOU. So far, the U.S. has been discussing a deal in the range of $35-37 billion. Other questions about the aid remain up in the air such as whether the final package will include money for missile defense and how much of the money Israel will be able to spend among its own defense contractors versus American companies.
There you have it: the “sparring” between Israel and the U.S. is about whether Israel will get a huge chunk of America aid, or a gargantuan chunk of aid. Meanwhile, the U.S. government seems to have no influence over the Israeli government. Netanyahu does pretty much what he wants to do, even as he thumbs his nose at Obama.
The “punishment” for Netanyahu’s intractability – well, there is none. As a punch-drunk American heavyweight boxer staggers about the ring, a sneering Israeli lightweight launches punch after punch, taunt after taunt. And after absorbing the punishment the heavyweight simply throws in the towel and agrees to the lightweight’s terms.
Of course, none of this will change under President Hillary Clinton. If anything, Clinton will pursue the Afghan War with more vigor and ladle even more “aid” to Israel. Under President Trump, who knows? All bets are truly off since Trump changes his positions as often as most men change their underwear. (For example, Trump first affirmed neutrality in negotiating between the Israelis and Palestinians, then pledged one-sided support for Israel in a speech to AIPAC.)
Well, my dad always said, the more things change, the more they remain the same. In these two cases, he was right – yet again.
What does Hillary Clinton stand for? It’s a serious question. Sure, she’s given a lot of speeches, but without saying much. I’ve watched the debates and have listened to her speak, and the best I can come up with is this:
She’s continuing the legacy of Obama. For example, Obamacare will be extended to cover all Americans.
She’s going to break the glass ceiling that has blocked a woman from being president.
She loves Israel and will support whatever the Israeli government wants.
She’s going to work to raise the minimum wage for workers — $12.00 is the goal.
She’s going to work against the TPP (after she was initially for it).
She’s against the Keystone Pipeline (after initially supporting it).
She’s fully for equality for the LGBT community (after initially being against it).
She’s for an aggressive U.S. military posture and fully supports enormous defense budgets.
She’s not going to do dumb things like that scary Donald Trump.
She’s got a lot of experience in government. The length of her resume alone qualifies her to be president.
That’s the gist of her message as far as I’ve been able to discern. Of course, there are other messages for her followers. Surely Hillary will support reproductive rights, to include access to abortion. Surely she will appoint justices to the Supreme Court that are somewhere to the left of Antonin Scalia. Such considerations shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.
But a new path for our country? Fresh ideas? They’re not coming from Hillary. Important issues like campaign finance reform, reforming banks and other powerful financial institutions, reducing income inequality in the United States, and similar issues of reform and fairness are dead on arrival if she’s elected president.
Also, Hillary’s embrace of Henry Kissinger as well as neo-conservative principles in foreign policy ensures a continuation of wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and locations throughout the Greater Middle East. (When I first typed that, I unconsciously wrote, Greater Military East, because America’s engagement with the region is almost exclusively conducted in military terms, via bombing, drone strikes, and special ops raids).
The Clinton Campaign’s strategy of being fuzzy about specifics while vilifying her chief opponent (admittedly not difficult to do if your opponent is Trump) reminds me of a book I read many, many moons ago: “The Selling of the President 1968,” by Joe McGinniss. What I recall from that book was the cynical process of triangulation and secrecy as well as the tight control of “the message” by Candidate Nixon and his cronies, the cagey and sleazy way Nixon and his campaign refused to engage honestly with the American people. His campaign in 1968 foreshadowed the crimes of Nixon and his administration to come, most infamously Watergate. At the root was an attitude of privilege, superiority, and entitlement, a sense that Nixon had paid his dues and deserved to be president. Dammit, it was HIS turn. And look at the length of his resume!
Much can be said about comparing Hillary to “Tricky Dick.” Long political careers tainted by scandal. High negative ratings. A tendency by each to see vast right wing (or left wing) conspiracies, and therefore to compensate by surrounding themselves with trusted operatives, sycophants, and strap-hangers. A desire to appear tough, whether it’s about standing up to terrorists or communists.
After eight years of “No drama Obama,” perhaps the American people prefer a return to the paranoid style of politics of Richard Nixon — and Hillary Clinton. A style that’s economical with the truth, led by a person who believes himself — or herself — to be the smartest and toughest person in the room.
But I already saw how that ended in 1974; I’m not voting for a repeat, even if the dramatic lead this time around is female.
At Salon.com, Patrick Smith has a telling article on the Obama administration’s foreign policy. He details the way in which style has triumphed over substance, and how tightly the Obama administration controls the narrative in the mainstream media. Essentially, Smith provides more evidence of the way in which reporters and journalists serve as stenographers to the powerful.
Many journalists, notes Smith, are twenty-somethings who attempt to provide coverage of foreign affairs from inside the Washington Beltway. Under such conditions, even a diligent reporter has to rely far too heavily on official mouthpieces at the Pentagon, State Department, and similar governmental agencies. Those reporters who buck the system risk losing access; in short, they risk losing their privileges — and their jobs. Most end up conforming.
This is nothing new to anyone familiar with Stephen Colbert’s famous take-down of insider journalists at the Washington Correspondents’ Dinner in 2006. As Colbert said a decade ago:
But, listen, let’s review the rules. Here’s how it works. The President makes decisions. He’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put ’em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know, fiction!
Along with that critique, Smith is excellent on critiquing the fundamental unoriginality, the militarized banality, of much of Obama’s foreign policy. As Smith notes:
There can be no radical shift in American conduct abroad, of course, until goals and purposes are addressed very forthrightly. This means taking on, in explicit fashion, our inherited tropes—our claims to exceptionalism and universalism—as well as the hegemonic ambitions the Pentagon shares with American corporations. It is a question, as noted in a previous column, of techne and telos, two words from ancient Greek. You can change the former—your method, your means—all you like, but it will matter little until you alter your telos, your aims, the ideal you strive for …
What is the new [Obama administration] narrative, then? May we know, please? I address the question to Ben Rhodes, David Samuels and Samuels’ editors at the Times Magazine. All this palaver about a brilliant foreign policy innovator and not one word about his masterstroke innovation, a reimagined frame for American conduct abroad?
The lapse is a symptom of the above-noted problem: style without substance, form without content. We cannot count even the openings to Iran and Cuba as any great departures, given Washington’s behavior since. There is no new narrative, only a new way of telling the old narrative.
Just so. Consider recent events. More U.S. “advisers” (troops) to Iraq. More foreign weapons sales. The commitment of ABM missiles to Romania. Sending B-52s (a symbol of the Cold War) to strike at ISIS. More talk of the dangers of a resurgent Russia. And (of course) more talk of enlarging the Pentagon and feeding it more money.
Yes, the Obama administration has been more reluctant than Bush/Cheney to commit big battalions of the regular army to overseas invasions and wars, but otherwise the foreign policy song has remained pretty much the same. Obama just prefers a smaller stage presence or “footprint,” as defined by Washington as drones and special ops, together with privatized militaries and extensive weapons sales, rather than big battalions.
That’s hardly a new narrative in U.S. foreign policy — precisely the point of Smith’s telling critique.
(This is part 2 of 2 of an essay dealing with lying, politics, and war, inspired by Hannah Arendt’s writings on The Pentagon Papers. For part 1, click here.)
After the Vietnam War, the U.S. government oversaw the creation of a post-democratic military, one that was less tied to the people, meaning that the government had even less cause to tell the truth about war. Unsurprisingly, then, the hubris witnessed in Vietnam was repeated with Iraq, together with an even more sweeping ability to deny or disregard facts, as showcased best in a statement by Karl Rove in 2004. The actions of the Bush/Cheney Administration, Rove suggested, bypassed the fact- or “reality-based” community of lesser humans precisely because their premises (the need to revolutionize the Middle East and to win the War on Terror through violence) were irrefutable and their motives unimpeachable. In Rove’s words:
We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
So it was that the Bush/Cheney administration manufactured its own “facts” to create its own “reality,” as the Downing Street Memo revealed (according to a senior British official, U.S. intelligence was “fixed” in 2002 to justify a predetermined decision to invade Iraq in 2003). Dubious intelligence about yellowcake uranium from Africa and mobile biological weapons production facilities in Iraq (both later proved false) became “slam dunk” proof that Iraq had active programs of WMD development. These lies were then cited to justify a rapid invasion. That there were no active WMD programs in Iraq meant there could be no true “mission accomplished” moment to the war – a fact George W. Bush lampooned by pretending to “search” for WMD at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2004. In this case, lies and self-deception coalesced in a wincing performance before chuckling Washington insiders that recalled the worst of vaudeville, except that Americans and Iraqis were dying for these lies.
Subsequent policy decisions in post-invasion Iraq didn’t fit the facts on the ground because those facts were simply denied. Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in July 2003 he didn’t do quagmires even as Iraq was becoming one for U.S. forces. Two years later, then-Vice President Cheney claimed the Iraq insurgency was “in the last throes” even as insurgent attacks began to accelerate. Lies and deception, to include self-deception, doomed the U.S. government to quagmire in Iraq, just as it had in Vietnam forty years earlier. Similar lies continue to bedevil U.S. efforts in Iraq today, as well as in Afghanistan and many other places.
Even as official lies and deception spread, whistleblowers who stepped forward were gagged and squashed. Chelsea Manning, Stephen Kim, and John Kiriakou were imprisoned; Edward Snowden was forced into permanent exile in Russia. Meanwhile, officials who toed the government line, who agreed to dissemble, were rewarded. Whether under Bush or Obama, government officials quickly learned that supporting the party line, no matter how fanciful, was and is rewarded – but that truth-telling would be punished severely.
Lying and Self-Deception Today
How are U.S. officials doing at truth-telling today? Consider the war in Afghanistan. Now in its 15th year, regress, not progress, is the reality on the ground. The Taliban controls more territory than ever, the drug trade is exploding, and Afghan forces remain unreliable. Yet the U.S. government continues to present the Afghan war as winnable and the situation as steadily improving.
Similarly, consider the war on terror, nowadays prosecuted mainly by drones and special ops. Even as the U.S. government boasts of terrorists killed and plots prevented, radical Islam as represented by ISIS and the like continues to spread. Indeed, as terrorism expert David Kilcullen recently admitted, ISIS didn’t exist until U.S. actions destabilized and radicalized Iraq after 2003. More than anything, U.S. intervention and blundering in Iraq created ISIS, just as ongoing drone strikes and special ops raids contribute to radicalization in the Islamic world.
Today’s generation of “best and brightest” problem-solvers believes U.S. forces cannot withdraw from Afghanistan without the Afghan government collapsing, hence the misleading statements about progress being made in that war. Radical Islamic terrorists, they believe, must be utterly destroyed by military means, hence deceptive statements about drone strikes and special ops raids as eliminating terrorism.
Accompanying lies and deception about progress being made in wars is image manipulation. Military action inoculates the Washington establishment, from President Obama on down, from (most) charges of being soft on terror (just as military action against North Vietnam inoculated John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson against charges of being soft on communism). It also stokes the insatiable hunger of the military-industrial complex for bottomless resources and incessant action, a complex that the current crop of Republican and Democratic candidates for president (Bernie Sanders excepted) have vowed to feed and expand.
Whether in Vietnam, Iraq, or in the war on terror today, lying and self-deception have led to wrongheaded action and wrongful lessons. So, for example, rather than facing the quagmire of Afghanistan and extricating itself from it, Washington speaks of a generational war and staying the course until ultimate victory. Instead of seeing the often counterproductive nature of violent military strikes against radical Islam, Washington calls for more U.S. troops, more bombing, more “shock and awe,” the approach that bred the Islamic State in the first place.
One thing is certain: The U.S. desperately needs leaders whose judgment is informed by uncomfortable truths. Comfortable lies have been tried before, and look what they produced: lots of dead people, lost wars, and a crippling of America’s ability to govern itself as a democracy.
More than ever, hard facts are at a premium in U.S. politics. But the higher premium is the exorbitant costs we pay as a people, and the pain we inflict on others, when we allow leaders to make lies and deception the foundation of U.S. foreign policy.