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.

The Iraqi Surge and Alternative Facts

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An Alternative Fact

W.J. Astore

Donald Trump and Kellyanne Conway didn’t invent alternative facts.  The U.S. government has been peddling those for decades.  Consider the recent history of the Iraq War.  Recall that in 2002 it was a “slam dunk” case that Iraq had active programs to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  (We couldn’t allow the smoking gun to become a mushroom cloud, said Condoleezza Rice.) In 2003, President George W. Bush landed on an aircraft carrier and declared that major combat operations were over in Iraq – mission accomplished!  And in 2007, the “surge” orchestrated by General David Petraeus was sold as snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in Iraq.  All of those are “alternative facts.” All were contradicted by the facts on the ground.

Nowadays, most people admit Iraq had no active WMD programs in 2002 and that the mission wasn’t accomplished in 2003, but the success of the surge in 2007 is still being sold as truth, notes Danny Sjursen at TomDispatch.com.  Sjursen, who participated in the surge as a young Army lieutenant, notes that it did succeed in temporarily reducing sectarian violence in Iraq, but that was precisely the problem: it was temporary.  The surge was supposed to allow space for a stable and representative Iraqi government to emerge, but that never happened.

A short-term tactical success, the surge was a strategic failure in the long-term.  Partly this was because long-term success was never in American hands to achieve, and it certainly wasn’t attainable by U.S. military action alone.  In sum, the blood and treasure spilled in Iraq was for naught.  But that harsh truth hasn’t stopped the surge from becoming a myth of U.S. military triumph, one that led to another unsuccessful surge, this time in Afghanistan in 2009-10, also conducted by General Petraeus.

These surges sustain an alternative fact that the U.S. military can “win” messy insurgencies and sectarian/ethnic wars, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan or Libya or Yemen or elsewhere.  They contribute to hubris and the idea we can remake the world by using our military, a belief that President Trump and his bevy of generals (all veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan) seem to share and want to put into practice again.  This time, they promise to get it right.

The President and the Pentagon are currently considering sending several thousand more troops to Afghanistan.  This mini-surge is being advertised as America’s best chance of defeating terrorists in the AfPak region.  Even though previous, and much bigger, surges in Iraq and Afghanistan were failures, the alternative fact narrative of “successful” surges remains compelling, even authoritative, among U.S. national security experts.  They may grudgingly admit that, yes, those previous surges weren’t quite perfect, but we’ve learned from those – promise!

Prepare for more troop deployments and more surges, America.  And for more “victories” as alternative facts, as in lies.

Pentagon Spending: Up, Up, and Away!

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The Navy at flank speed, in pursuit of more money

W.J. Astore

Show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.  Under the Trump administration, what is valued is spending on military weaponry and wars.  The Pentagon is due to get a major boost under Trump, as reported by the Associated Press and FP: Foreign Policy:

Money train. It’s looking like it might be Christmas in February for the U.S. defense industry. The Pentagon has delivered a $30 billion wish list to Congress that would fund more ships, planes, helicopters, drones, and missiles, the AP reports.

And that might only be the beginning.

President Trump has already ordered the Pentagon to draft a “supplemental” budget for 2017 that would include billions more for the U.S. military on top of the $600 billion the Obama administration budgeted for… 

As FP’s Paul McLeary and Dan De Luce recently reported, there are proposals floating around for a defense budget as high as $640 billion for 2018, which would bust through congressionally-mandated spending caps that Democrats — and many Republicans — are happy to keep in place. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has been tasked with completing the supplemental request by March 1.

The Pentagon, which has never passed a financial audit and which has wasted more than two trillion dollars over the years (this figure came in 2001, when Donald Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense under Bush/Cheney), is due to be given even more money to spend, irrespective of past performance or future need.

Naturally, each military service is already posturing and clamoring for the extra money promised by Trump.  Consider the U.S. Navy, which, according to Vice Chief of Naval Operations Admiral William Moran, will be “Just Flat Out Out Of Money” without this supplemental funding boost from Congress.

According to the Navy and Marine Corps:

Five attack submarines would see their maintenance availabilities canceled this year and be put at risk of being decertified if no supplemental were passed out of Congress, Moran added, in addition to similar cuts to surface ship maintenance availabilities.

Assistant Commandant Gen. Glenn Walters said “we would stop flying in about July” without a supplemental. He clarified that forward forces would continue to operate, but for units training at home, “all training would cease without a supplemental, and that includes the parts money and the flying hour money.”

Even if the supplemental – which could total between $30 and $40 billion for all the armed services – is passed in a timely manner, the Navy and Marine Corps still face massive readiness issues that money can’t immediately address.

That last part is disturbing indeed.  Even with billions in additional funding, the Navy still faces “massive readiness issues.”

Well, here are a few radical suggestions for Trump and the Pentagon:

  1. If money is tight, why not re-prioritize?  If readiness is compromised, why not scale back the mission?
  2. Before boosting funding, why not force the Pentagon to pass a financial audit?
  3. If trillions of dollars have gone “missing” over the last decades (remember, a Republican Secretary of Defense made this claim), why not launch missions to find that money before spending billions of new money?

You don’t reform a bureaucracy that wastes money by giving them more money.  It’s like reforming an addict on drugs by giving him more money to spend on drugs. Until the Pentagon can account for its spending, its budget needs to be flatlined or cut.

The only way to force the Pentagon to think about “defense” spending is to limit its budget.  Throwing money at the Pentagon just ensures more of the same, only more: as in more weaponry, more wars, and more fraud, waste, and abuse.

Given the Pentagon’s track record over the last half-century, does anyone truly think that more money is a solution to anything?