The USA and Israel as Big and Little Prussia

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Co-joined Twins?

W.J. Astore

As a kid, I was a big admirer of Israel.*  I kept a scrapbook on the Yom Kippur War in 1973.  Back then, Israel was America’s plucky ally, David against Goliath, helping to keep the Soviet bear at bay, or so it seemed to me.

Through a kid’s eyes, Israel in 1973 was an island seemingly surrounded by a sea of well-armed enemies: Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia. Outnumbered and outgunned.  And now look at today’s reality: Egypt and Iraq have been neutralized.  Syria is devastated.  Jordan is wisely (sort of) neutral.  The Saudis are a quasi-ally.  Outside of the more-or-less manageable threat of terrorism (Hamas and Hezbollah), Israel’s chief enemy today appears to be itself.

What I mean by that is this: Israel, which over the last 70 years has fought several wars for its survival, is now a regional superpower.  Yet the mindset of David versus Goliath persists, even though Goliath is hobbled and defeated.  Meanwhile, as Israel combats terrorism and the legacies of West Bank occupation and isolation of the Gaza Strip, the government prosecutes policies that are considered illiberal and dangerous by many Jewish critics within Israel itself.

A similar David-Goliath mindset exists in the USA, but with far less cause.  Bizarrely, the world’s military superpower envisions itself as being surrounded by enemies.  Its response is something like Israel’s, as if the USA is Israel writ large.  Both countries seek total military dominance over their perceived enemies and rivals; both are led by strong men dogged by claims of corruption; both glorify their militaries; both appear to be spoiling for war with Iran.

Interestingly, both are also obsessed with demographic “enemies within”: many Israelis fear growing Arab/Muslim influence within; many Americans fear minorities will soon constitute the majority (estimates say non-whites will outnumber whites in the year 2045, but some Americans – like Laura Ingraham on Fox News – feel it’s already happened).  The result: the ruling administrations of both countries have doubled down on security and identity politics.  Israel has made Arabs second-class citizens, a form of apartheid; Trump & Co. has vilified immigrants (especially Mexicans) as rapists and murderers.  Both are building walls to keep the “enemy” without.  Both see massive military spending (and nuclear weapons) as the ultimate guarantors of peace.

Israel is little Prussia; the USA is big Prussia.  And like Prussia (and Germany) of the past, they pose as the aggrieved party, surrounded by enemies, hemmed in and oppressed.  It’s never wrong to be strong – that’s their guiding motto.  And by strength they mean hardness: military strength, police strength, the strength of superior weapons technology, embraced by leaders willing to kill or torture or imprison others in the name of preserving a “democratic” way of life.

It’s a mindset conducive to authoritarianism, to militarism, to nationalism, even to kleptocracy disguised as essential spending on national security.  At its root is fear, which generates a “no compromise” attitude toward the Other (whether Palestinian “terrorists” or immigrant “killers” and “animals”).  As the Palestinian activist Bassam Aramin put it in an interview in The Sun (October 2016):

“I think our main enemy is the Israelis’ fear.  It’s part of their consciousness.  When they talk about security, the Holocaust is always in the background.  If I throw a stone at an armored tank, they interpret it as the beginning of a new Holocaust.”

Fear is the mind-killer.  It enables perpetual warfare and a police state – and lots of profit and power to those who facilitate the same.

The original Prussia became consumed by militarism and nationalism and collapsed after two devastating world wars.  What will happen to today’s Big and Little Prussia?  Perhaps a war against Iran, timed to coincide with the 2020 presidential campaign season in the USA?  Such an unnecessary and likely disastrous war can’t be ruled out.

Consider the dynamic between the current leaders of the USA and Israel, each egging the other one on to be tougher, less compromising, more Prussian.  A pacific future is not in the cards for these military “superpowers.”  Not when they’re so busy emulating Prussia.

*Why are Americans, generally speaking, supporters and admirers of Israel?  So much so that politicians ostentatiously wear co-joined US/Israel flag lapel pins?  For several reasons:

1.   The US media is generally pro-Israel.  Meanwhile, the Arab world is often synonymous with terrorism in our media.

2.  Israelis seem more like Americans.  What I mean is this: Israeli spokespeople wear western dress and speak English with a faint accent.  Until recently, Arab spokespeople on TV looked and dressed “foreign” and spoke English with a heavier accent.

3.  The power of pro-Israeli political lobbies such as AIPAC and fear among politicians that criticism of Israel will be construed (and demonized) as anti-Semitism.

4.  The Holocaust.

5.  The Evangelical Context: I remember listening to a talk show on the radio, soon after the Yom Kippur War, in the mid-1970s.  The speaker predicted the Second Coming was near.  That got my attention!  Why was that?  Because, this person said, Israel had gained control over Jerusalem in apparent fulfillment of Biblical prophecy.  Fast forward forty years to today and you hear basically the same evangelical predictions about the Second Coming of Christ being imminent as Israel expands its hegemony over the “holy land” in Palestine.

One cannot underrate the importance of (selective) Biblical prophecy as advanced by fundamentalist Christians nestled within today’s Republican Party.  These evangelicals couldn’t care less about Trump’s sins and transgressions.  Their eyes are on the prize: Armageddon and Christ’s return, which they link to Israel’s domination of the region – which will lead to more wars, a brutal future seen as inevitable, even desirable.

Prussia Without the Victories: Kaiser Trump’s Cabinet of Generals

Trump holds a rally with supporters at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi, Michigan, U.S.
Kaiser Trump is surrounding himself with generals

W.J. Astore

In my latest article at TomDispatch.com, “All the President’s Generals,” I examine Trump’s affection for retired military generals to fill America’s most senior civilian positions related to national defense.  I urge you to read the entire article at TomDispatch.com; here I wish to focus on the quartet of generals/warriors Trump is empowering as part of his drive to “win” again.  Trump seems most pleased that “his” generals are allegedly cut from the same cloth as George S. Patton and Douglas MacArthur, two of America’s most anti-democratic generals.

Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us.  Like Prussia in the age of Frederick the Great, America is increasingly becoming a colossal military establishment with a state attached to it. Unlike Prussia, our colossus is not producing any meaningful victories.  And no one, I think, would confuse the educated and enlightened Frederick with America’s angry and undisciplined Tweeter-in-chief.

Too Many Generals Spoil the Democracy (from TomDispatch.com)

General officers, by the way, have come to resemble a self-replicating organism.  The grooming process, favoring homogeneity as it does, is partly to blame. Disruptive creativity and a reputation for outspokenness can mark one as not being a “team player.”  Political skills and conformity are valued more highly.  It’s a mistake, then, to assume that America’s generals are the best and the brightest. “The curated and the calculating” is perhaps a more accurate description.

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at Trump’s chosen threesome, starting with General Mattis.  He has his virtues: a distinguished career in the Marine Corps, a sensible stance against torture, a dedication to all ranks within the military.  Yet like so many high-ranking military retirees — take General Mark Welsh of the Air Force, for example — Mattis quickly cashed in on his career, reputation, and continuing influence via the military-industrial complex.  Despite a six-figure pension, he joined corporate boards, notably that of military-industrial powerhouse General Dynamics where he quickly earned or acquired nearly $1.5 million in salary and stock options.  Mattis is also on the board at Theranos, a deeply troubled company that failed to deliver on promises to develop effective blood-testing technologies for the military.

And then, of course, there was his long military career, itself a distinctly mixed bag.  As head of U.S. Central Command under President Obama, for instance, his hawkish stance toward Iran led to his removal and forced retirement in 2013.  Almost a decade earlier in 2004, the aggressive tactics he oversaw in Iraq as commanding general of the 1st Marine Division during the Battle of Fallujah have been characterized by some as war crimes.  For Trump, however, none of this matters.  Mattis, much like General Patton (in the president-elect’s view), is a man who “plays no games.”

And Mattis seems like the voice of reason and moderation compared to Flynn, whose hatred of Islam is as virulent as it is transparent.  Like Trump, Flynn is a fan of tweeting, perhaps his most infamous being “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.”  A brusque man convinced of his own rectitude, who has a reputation for not playing well with others, Flynn was forced from his position as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014, after which he became a harsh critic of the Obama administration.

In his brief retirement, Flynn served as a paid lobbyist to a Turkish businessman with close ties to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, while running a business consultancy that is due to profit by providing surveillance drones to patrol the U.S.-Mexican border.  Rising to prominence during the Trump campaign, he led the chant against Hillary Clinton (“Lock her up!”) at the Republican National Convention in July.  (His son recently helped spread the false rumor that Clinton was involved in a child sex trafficking ring involving a Washington, D.C., pizzeria.)  Flynn, who sees Islam as a political conspiracy rather than a legitimate religion, is an angry warrior, a dyed-in-the-wool crusader.  That Trump sees such a figure as qualified to serve as the nation’s senior civilian security adviser speaks volumes about the president-elect and the crusading militarism that is likely to be forthcoming from his administration.

Serving in a supporting capacity to Flynn as chief of staff of the National Security Council (NSC) is yet another high-ranking military man (and early supporter of Trump’s presidential run), Army retired Lieutenant General Keith Kellogg.  Almost a generation older than Flynn, Kellogg served as chief operations officer for the ill-fated Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, which badly mismanaged the U.S. military’s occupation of the country after the fall of Baghdad in 2003.  Like most retired generals, Kellogg has profited from close links to defense-related industries, including CACI International, Oracle Corporation (Homeland Security Division), and Cubic, where he was senior vice president for ground combat programs.  It’s hard to see fresh ideas coming from the NSC with long-serving military diehards like Flynn and Kellogg ruling the roost.

General John Kelly, the last of the quartet and soon to be head of the Department of Homeland Security, is yet another long-serving Marine with a reputation for bluntness.  He opposed efforts by the Obama administration to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, claiming that the remaining detainees were “all bad boys,” both guilty and dangerous.  He also ran afoul of the administration by criticizing efforts to open combat positions to qualified servicewomen, claiming such efforts were “agenda-driven” and would lead to lower standards and decreased military combat effectiveness.  Despite these views, or perhaps because of them, Kelly, who served as senior military assistant to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and has been well vetted by the system, is likely to be confirmed with little real debate.

Of Coups and Crusades

Collectively, the team of Mattis, Flynn, and Kelly could not be more symbolic of the ongoing process of subversion of civilian control of the military.  With Trump holding their reins, these self-styled warriors will soon take charge of the highest civilian positions overseeing the military of the world’s sole superpower.  Don’t think of this, however, as a “Seven Days in May” scenario in which a hard-headed general mounts a coup against an allegedly soft-hearted president.  It’s far worse.  Who needs a coup when generals are essentially to be given free rein by a president-elect who fancies himself a military expert because, as a teenager, he spent a few years at a military-themed boarding school?

In all of this, Trump represents just the next (giant) step in an ongoing process.  His warrior-steeds, his “dream team” of generals, highlight America’s striking twenty-first-century embrace of militarism.

Read the entire article at TomDispatch.com.  Many thanks.