National Defense versus Global (In)Security

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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.

Business as Usual at the Pentagon

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It keeps spinning and spinning …

W.J. Astore

The revolving door between major defense contractors and the Pentagon is spinning ever more rapidly, notes FP: Foreign Policy.  Here’s a telling report from last week:

McCain says enough, but does he mean it? During a hearing Thursday to vet several Trump administration nominees for top Pentagon jobs, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he was tired of seeing defense industry executives go to work in the Pentagon.

But he indicated he’ll support the Mark Esper, chief lobbyist for for Raytheon — the fourth largest defense contractor in the United States — for secretary of the Army, telling Esper his concerns “grew out of early consultations I had with the administration about potential nominations, including yours.” McCain added that “it was then that I decided I couldn’t support further nominees with that background, beyond those we had already discussed.”

Lots of defense industry execs already at work. But at least one more will soon pass through McCain’s Senate Armed Services Committee, however. At some point in the coming weeks, John C. Rood, senior vice president for Lockheed Martin International will testify for the under secretary of defense for policy job, the third highest position in the Defense Department.

The Senate has already approved former Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan to be deputy defense secretary — the second highest position in the Pentagon — and Ellen Lord, the former chief executive officer of Textron Systems, to be undersecretary of defense for acquisition.

In short, there are no fresh thinkers at the Pentagon: just men and women drawn mainly from the corporate world or from the ranks of military retirees (or both).  They’re hired because they know the system — but also because they believe in it.  They’re not going to rock the boat.  They believe in “staying the course.”

The result is a system with no new ideas.  Consider Afghanistan.  Sixteen years after the initial invasion after 9/11, American forces are still bogged down there.  As FP: Foreign Policy reports today, we finally have an official number for the latest mini-surge orchestrated by retired Generals John Kelly and James Mattis:

We have a surge number. After months of tapdancing around exactly how many more U.S. troops are are heading to Afghanistan, Monday’s request asks for $1.2 billion to support an additional 3,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Somehow, a few thousand extra U.S. troops are supposed to reverse the growth of the Taliban while improving Afghan security forces and reining in Afghan governmental corruption.  In short, sixteen years’ experience has meant nothing to U.S. decision makers.

It puts me to mind of a great description of military thinking from C.S. Forester’s “The General,” a remarkable novel about British generalship in World War I (and one of General John Kelly’s favorite books).  Here’s what Forester had to say about the persistence of military folly among the generals planning major offensives in that war:

“In some ways it was like the debate of a group of savages as to how to extract a screw from a piece of wood. Accustomed only to nails, they had made one effort to pull out the screw by main force, and now that it had failed they were devising methods of applying more force still, of obtaining more efficient pincers, of using levers and fulcrums so that more men could bring their strength to bear. They could hardly be blamed for not guessing that by rotating the screw it would come out after the exertion of far less effort; it would be a notion so different from anything they had ever encountered that they would laugh at the man who suggested it.”

Forester goes on to write that:

“The Generals round the table were not men who were easily discouraged–men of that sort did not last long in command in France. Now that the first shock of disappointment had been faced they were prepared to make a fresh effort, and to go on making those efforts as long as their strength lasted.”

That’s the U.S. military in Afghanistan in a nutshell: fresh efforts, but no fresh thinking.  How could it not be so?  The same generals are in charge, men like Mattis and Kelly, who led previous “surges,” backed by civilian leaders drawn from private military contractors, whose main priority it is to spend this year’s massive defense budget while ensuring next year’s budget will be even more massive.

There’s no incentive in the system for fresh thinking, and certainly none for saving money.  Instead, it’s all about showing “resolve,” even if resolve in this case means hammering and pulling away at so many screws.  And this even makes a weird sort of sense, for there’s a lot of profit to be made in the name of  developing better pincers and levers and fulcrums to tackle “screws” like Afghanistan.

With the Pentagon, Trump Has Morphed Into Hillary Clinton

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More alike than we knew?

W.J. Astore

Candidate Trump occasionally said unconventional things about the Pentagon and America’s wars.  He attacked the Pentagon for wasteful spending; cost overruns on the F-35 jet fighter were a favorite target.  He attacked the Iraq and Afghan wars as wasteful, asserting they’d cost trillions of dollars without aiding the U.S. in any measurable way.  He argued for friendlier relations with Russia, a détente of sort compared to the policies followed by the Obama administration.  Naturally, even as he declaimed against America’s wasteful wars and costly weaponry, he promised to fund the military generously.  Finally, he wasn’t afraid to take America’s generals to task, asserting he knew more than they did about war and foreign policy.

President Trump is a different man.  “His” generals have brought him under control.  Criticism of the F-35 has gone away.  Trump, even if reluctantly, has embraced the Afghan war and the Pentagon’s open-ended commitment to it.  Russian détente has taken a back seat to tough talk and sanctions (not that Trump had much of a choice, considering his campaign is under investigation for possible collusion with Russia).  More than anything, Trump has tacitly admitted “his” generals know far more than he does.  Mattis controls the Pentagon and the National Security State.  Kelly, as White House Chief of Staff, does his best to control Trump.  McMaster, as National Security Adviser, increasingly controls what Trump knows and when he knows it with respect to security policy.

In short, the generals have won.  Consider the fates of Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and John Bolton.  Bannon was eased out; Gorka was fired; and Bolton, according to today’s FP: Foreign Policy report, “has been shut out of the White House under the new leadership of chief of staff John Kelly. FP’s Dan De Luce writes that several sources confirm Bolton’s regular meetings with Trump are a thing of the past, and he has been unable to deliver a plan he devised to get Washington out of the deal it signed with Tehran to halt that country’s nuclear program.”

I’m no fan of Bannon-Gorka-Bolton, but they did represent a challenge to the U.S. military and the neo-con orthodoxy that rules Washington.

Trump is now firmly under the U.S. military’s control, even as he continues to feed the beast with more money and influence.  His only way out is to starve the beast — to cut its funding by cutting its mission.  Fat chance of that happening anytime soon, with generals like Mattis, Kelly, and McMaster in charge.

Most in the mainstream media see this in a positive light.  We read about how Trump’s generals are the adults in the room, a moderating influence on Trump’s ill-informed impetuosity.  There may even be some truth to this.  But here’s the rub: President Trump, at least on national security policy, has ironically morphed into Hillary Clinton.  He’s become a conventional hawk with no new ideas, when as a candidate he had the temerity to criticize America’s wasteful weaponry and disastrous imperial policies.

As Trump himself might tweet, “Sad.”

Trump and the Afghan War

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A slice of life in Afghanistan (Photo by Anna M.)

W.J. Astore

A concept that you learn quickly in the military is that you can delegate authority but not responsibility.  The buck stops with the guy or gal in charge, and when it’s policy at the national level, that guy is the commander-in-chief, currently Donald Trump.  Yet when it comes to the Afghan war, it appears Trump may be seeking to evade responsibility even as he delegates the specifics of strategy and troop levels to his “civilian” Secretary of Defense, retired General James Mattis.

That’s the news out of Washington: that Trump has delegated to Mattis the decision as to how many additional U.S. troops should be sent to Afghanistan, and what strategy they should employ in a war that Mattis admits the U.S. military is “not winning.”

Think about that. After nearly 16 years and a trillion dollars spent, the U.S. is “not winning” in Afghanistan, which is, to put it honestly, an admission of defeat.  “Not winning” means we’re losing, yet how likely is it that the U.S. military, effectively under the command of retired General Mattis, is going to shift gears completely and withdraw?

Mattis testified to Congress that the Taliban “had a good year last year” and that “winning,” which we’re currently not doing, is a scenario in which U.S. forces, working with Afghan forces, are able to provide local security after several years of “frequent skirmishing” with the Taliban and other insurgent forces.

Yes — that’s the definition of “winning.”  A long-term U.S. commitment of more troops and more money with continued internecine warfare in Afghanistan.

In the near-term, Mattis will likely send more troops (“trainers” and “advisers”) and more money, promising that this time American training and methods will work, that this time corruption will be curtailed, that this time the Taliban will be neutralized (I doubt Mattis is foolish enough to promise “victory”).  Trump will rubber-stamp Mattis’s decision, which gives him the ability to blame his generals if and when the Afghan war takes yet another turn that is contrary to U.S. imperatives.  (Recall how Trump blamed his generals for losing the Navy SEAL in the bungled raid on Yemen.)

As a candidate, Trump deplored the waste of America’s wars and suggested he would try to end them.  As president, Trump is kowtowing to the Pentagon, ensuring these wars will continue.  Worst of all, even as he delegates authority, he is evading responsibility.

It’s a recipe for incessant warfare, yet more suffering, and the continued erosion of democracy in America.

An Afterthought: Let’s suppose for a moment that Trump actually wanted to end the Afghan war.  It would require considerable political capital to take on the national security state — capital that Trump currently doesn’t have, embroiled as he is in controversy (lawsuits!) and ongoing investigations.  This is hardly ever remarked upon in the media: the fact that Trump, who ran on a platform that was often quite critical of conventional wisdom and wasteful wars, has little latitude to act on this platform (assuming he’d want to) when he’s constantly under attack in the media as a Putin stooge, or worse.  Some would say he has only himself to blame here, but it goes deeper than that, I think.

Update (6/16/17): Surprise!  News out of the Pentagon today suggests that another 4000 or so U.S. troops will be sent as a mini-surge to help train and advise Afghan forces.  And so the “stalemate” in Afghanistan will continue.

As I wrote back in February for TomDispatch.com:

That a few thousand troops could somehow reverse the present situation and ensure progress toward victory is obviously a fantasy of the first order, one that barely papers over the reality of these last years: that Washington has been losing the war in Afghanistan and will continue to do so, no matter how it fiddles with troop levels.

Update 2 (6/16/17): Editorial title at the New York TimesAfghanistan Is Trump’s War Now.  It reflects a major flaw and a fatal conceit — that Afghanistan is a war and not a country or a people, that it only matters as a war (at least to Americans), and that somehow Trump now owns it.  Recall that before Americans wage war, it’s supposed to require a Congressional declaration.  Wars are not supposed to be owned by presidents and waged at their whim.  WTF, America?

Update 3 (6/17/17): Watching retired General David Petraeus last night on PBS was a grim experience.  He spoke of a generational war  in Afghanistan and a U.S. commitment that might come to rival our time in South Korea, i.e. 60+ years.  Most revealing of all was the language he used.  He spoke of achieving “a sustainable, sustained commitment” to Afghanistan.  4000 additional troops are part of that “sustainable, sustained commitment.”

There was the usual talk of regional stability, of maintaining a base against terrorism, and so on.  But what the Petraeus interview revealed was the total bankruptcy of American strategy and thinking, encapsulated so well by the concept of a “generational war” modulated by a “sustainable, sustained commitment.”

Update 4 (6/17/17):  Good god.  At Fox News, retired General Jack Keane is calling for an additional 10,000 to 20,000 troops to change the momentum in the Afghan war.  These troops will somehow change the “absolute disgrace” of the war (he mainly blamed President Obama for refusing to make the necessary commitment to win the war).

These generals never ask the question: Why are our “enemies” doing just fine without U.S. troops and billions of dollars in heavy equipment and air power?  Whether in Vietnam or Afghanistan or elsewhere, the answer for these generals is always more: more U.S. troops, more firepower, more aid to our “allies.”

If these generals were investors, they’d keep funneling money to Bernie Madoff even after his fund had been revealed as a Ponzi scheme.  After all, the initial returns were promising, and if we keep sending more money, this time, maybe this time, it won’t all be stolen …

American TV and Movies: Superheroes, Cops, and the Military

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A still from the new CBS Series, “SEAL Team”

W.J. Astore

Americans are being taught powerful lessons when they watch TV and go to the movies.  Place your faith in superheroes, (mostly) men of action, those who operate outside the boundaries of rules and laws, whether natural or human.  Defer to the police and their amazing investigative powers (witness all those CSI shows).  Trust the military and revel in their dedication and their clever technologies.  Mister, we could use a show like “All in the Family” again.

On HBO this week, Bill Maher had a compelling segment on the proliferation of superhero shows and movies, including a takedown of Donald Trump as “Orange Sphincter.”  The takedown was warranted in the sense that Trump often boasts he is the only man capable of doing something, like reforming health care or solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or bringing back great manufacturing jobs to America (apparently by selling $110 billion in weaponry to the Saudis).  Cop shows have been around forever, of course, but they’ve experienced a revival in these times of homegrown terrorism and Homeland Security, even as violent crime itself is mostly on the decline.

Finally, glitzy military shows are hitting their stride this season (no shows critical of the military, even comedies such as MASH, are allowed).  As the New York Times recently noted:

One of the most pressing questions for TV executives after President Trump’s election: How would the occupant of the White House affect what showed up on the air? One trend that has emerged is the rise of shows with military themes. NBC is betting big on a drama called “The Brave,” which is getting the coveted 10 p.m. time slot after “The Voice” on Mondays. The show will center on a group of undercover military specialists. The CW will introduce a drama this fall called “Valor,” about a group of highly trained helicopter pilots. They will go on missions and apparently get mixed up in messy intraunit romances.  CBS will debut a drama called “SEAL Team.” Executives at the network feel this show has the best chance of being a hit. It stars David Boreanaz, who had leading roles in “Angel” and “Bones.”

Just what we need: More military shows featuring SEALs and helicopter pilots and covert operatives, killing various bad guys in the name of democracy and righteousness.

Popular culture holds a mirror up to society, reflecting how we see ourselves.  But it’s more than that: It also shapes how we think.  It suggests what is possible and what isn’t.   By showcasing superheroes and cops and troops, it drives home the idea that these are the people and constructs with agency in our society.  The little people, ordinary Americans like you and me, are demoted in such constructs as bystanders, as supernumeraries.  Our main role is to acquiesce, to cheer the “heroes” as they go about their business.

I know that TV and movie executives typically play it safe.  They’d say they’re giving the people what they want in the name of making money.  They’d say it’s not their job to challenge the powerful in the name of the powerless.  The people want superheroes and heroic cops and heroic troops, so that’s what we’ll give them.  And because that’s what we can easily sell to corporations as advertising time.

But, again, it’s more complicated than that.  The networks themselves are owned by corporations, some of which also own military contractors.  Movies about superheroes and the military often lean heavily on the Pentagon for hardware and advice.  Again, it’s not that TV and movies are distorted reflections of society (though they are that).  They also establish boundaries.  To use fancy academic talk, they are hegemonic.  They empower one reality while diminishing or denying the possibility of other realities.

Any chance we’ll be seeing lots of blockbuster movies and high-budget TV series about peacemakers, whistle blowers, dissidents, activists, and other crusaders for justice and equity?  How about a movie featuring “Disarmament Man” as a hero: he eliminates weapons of mass destruction!  Starting in the USA!  Or a TV show featuring a bad-ass Mother Nature: she administers stern discipline to corporate polluters and frackers, while teaching her children the perils of global warming.  Or a “justice league” of pissed-off Native Americans, who band together to evict all the illegal immigrants to their lands over the last 500 years.

Readers, what movie or TV series would you most like to see?  Have some fun in the comments section, and thanks.

Base World: The Pentagon’s Profligate and Prodigious Presence

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USAF personnel train at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.  Because we won World War II.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Elizabeth Baker)

W.J. Astore

As President Trump heads off on an overseas trip, trailing Washington scandals in his wake, it’s worth reminding ourselves of America’s prodigious global presence and the profligate expense at which it comes.  As David Vine notes in his latest article for TomDispatch.com, the USA has something like 800 military bases overseas, which must be garrisoned and maintained at a cost of roughly $150 billion each and every year.  What exactly are we getting for this colossal global footprint?

Come to think of it, why do we need 800 overseas bases?  Our aircraft carriers are basically mobile American bases, and much of our weaponry (Tomahawk cruise missiles, long-range bombers, and Reaper drones, for example) obviates the need for physical bases in foreign lands.

Of course, there are many reasons why these bases persist.  One is the influence they give us (or that we think they give us) in places like Turkey and South Korea, for example.  Second is the fear American officials have of losing their leading roles on the world stage, i.e. the concern that, if we abandon “our” bases, other countries will take them over, and we will be shunted aside, losing our starring role in world affairs.

Indeed, you could say Americans are the divos and divas of the world stage, elbowing our way into operatic tragedy after operatic tragedy.

Third (always a consideration) is money.  There’s so much money to be made from these bases, and so many U.S. contractors involved in making it.  And fourth is intelligence.  Americans think these bases are essential to gathering intelligence, even as our “intelligence” routinely proves wrong or incomplete.

I spent three years in Britain at U.S. bases there (“Little Americas”), and could have been assigned to U.S. bases in Iceland and Turkey, but the latter never materialized.  It’s funny: When you’re in the military, you never give much thought to why we have bases in faraway places.  You just take it for granted; it’s the status quo for us.

(As an aside, think of the irony here of Trump’s border wall with Mexico.  Even as Americans are everywhere in the world, thrusting our way into foreign countries with our militarized bases, we boast of building walls to keep other peoples out of “Fortress USA.”  Only “exceptional” U.S. officials could see no contradiction here.)

Select foreign bases have some value, but the U.S. has far too many at far too high a cost.  We’d do well to stop investing in them and to start closing them.  American bases in Turkey, South Korea, Japan, and elsewhere are not the key to our security.  Our security begins right here at home.

Remember that saying, “Yankee go home”?  Why don’t we?

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Yankee go home.  Why not?

Trump Is Hurting the Pentagon!  (By Giving It Too Much Money)

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Throwing money at the Pentagon is never a good idea

W.J. Astore

Anyone who’s been in the military knows what happens as the end of a fiscal year approaches: wild spending.  Any money that’s left in your budget must be spent, if only to justify next year’s budgetary appropriation.  Woe to any unit with leftover money!  Not only is there no incentive to economize at the Pentagon: there’s a negative incentive to save money, and a positive one to spend as much as possible within your yearly allotment, while complaining to anyone within earshot that you never have enough.

Trump has already promised to enlarge Pentagon funding by 10% next year, or roughly $54 billion.  According to Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, Trump’s budget is all about “hard-power,” a signal to “our allies and our potential adversaries that this is a strong-power administration.”  At $54 billion, that is indeed a very expensive signal.

Forget about the global fight against ISIS: The big focus at the Pentagon is now going to be on spending that windfall of taxpayers’ dollars.  And, unlike the ISIS fight, which is expected to last for at least another generation, the “fight” to spend lots of money quickly is one that the Pentagon will surely win.  Believe me, the military-industrial-Congressional complex knows how to spend.

Want to make the Pentagon a better, more effective, place?  Cut its budget by 10%.  And keep cutting, year by year, while downsizing its mission.  Force it to economize – force it to think.

Let me give you a few examples.  How does the stealthy, super-expensive, F-35 jet fighter contribute to the war on terror?  It doesn’t.  Does the U.S. Navy really need more super-expensive aircraft carriers?  No, it doesn’t.  Do U.S. nuclear forces really need to be modernized and expanded at a cost of nearly a trillion dollars over the next few decades?  No, they don’t.  More F-35s, more carriers, and more nukes are not going “to make America great again.”  What they will do is consume enormous amounts of money for little real gain.

Throwing cash at the Pentagon is not the way to greater security: it’s a guarantee of frivolous military wish lists and “more of the same, only more” thinking.  In case you haven’t noticed, the Pentagon’s record since 9/11/2001 is more than a little mixed; some would say it’s been piss-poor.  Why is this?  One thing is certain: shortage of money hasn’t been the problem.

Want to send a signal about “hard-power,” President Trump?  Go hard on the Pentagon by cutting its budget.  Spend the savings on alternative energy development and similar investments in American infrastructure.  That’s the best way to put America first.