The Madness of King Trump I

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Mad King Trump, promising a new American Armada

W.J. Astore

At TomDispatch.com today, Rebecca Gordon writes about “American carnage” resulting from forever wars across the globe.  Her article references King George III, the “mad king” of Britain during the American Revolution, which raises an interesting point.  In Britain today, there’s a Royal Navy and a Royal Air Force, but there is no Royal Army.  That’s because the British acted to limit the authority of the monarchy, notably in the aftermath of the disastrous English Civil War and the rise of Cromwell in the 17th century.  Royal armies, the British learned, can be powerful forces for suppression of the rights of citizens.

In the 18th century, America’s founders tapped into a commonly held fear of royal armies to motivate fence-straddling colonists to rebel against King George III.  The colonists, as Gordon notes, accused the king in the Declaration of Independence of making “the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.”

Thus it was when the colonists gained their independence, they acted to keep America’s standing army as small as possible while subjecting it firmly to civilian control.  America wanted no “royal” army, no class of aristocrats whose identity resided in that army, and certainly no leader who postured and posed as a military commander, as kings of that age typically did.

What America has witnessed since the end of World War II is the emergence of a large standing military that is increasingly identified with our president as a quasi-monarch “commander-in-chief.”  And like monarchs of the past, U.S. presidents now dress up in military uniforms, strutting about as if they literally are “the king” of their military.  (Trump, for example, talks of “my” generals.) Meanwhile, a U.S. president has, with the paramilitary CIA, his own private military augmented by a newly empowered military within the military, Special Operations Command, whose operations are often so highly classified as to be beyond effective civilian oversight.

America has regressed to the pre-revolutionary 17th century, when monarchs fought long wars against other monarchs, often in religious/confessional conflicts which were also motivated by money, power, resources, and similar concerns and which lasted for decades or even centuries.  These wars, often involving mercenaries and warrior-corporations, ran out of control and eventually came to bankrupt states, leading to an “enlightenment” witnessed at the creation of the United States, whose founders tried to rein in the tyranny of monarchs and their wasteful forever wars.

Sadly, America is no longer “enlightened.”  King Trump is a mix of Mad King George III and France’s imperious and vainglorious Louis XIV (“I am the state”), but without George’s or Louis’s interest in science and wider forms of knowledge.  And, much like royal courtiers of the past, King Trump’s courtiers are often “aristocratic” generals or slithering sycophants.

Consider a Trump courtier who’s been getting a lot of press lately: Sebastian Gorka.  He’s embraced the idea of a war against radical Islamic terrorism, tracing that war to jihadist flaws within Islam.  This virulent disease within Islam, Gorka and likeminded advisers to Trump argue, must and can be wiped out by American-led military action.  Much like Catholic King Philip II, who launched the Spanish Armada to extirpate the heresy of English Protestantism under Queen Elizabeth I, Trump and Gorka and Crew seek to unleash the American armada against the heresy of radical jihadist Islam.

King Trump I is about to escalate what he and his courtiers see as a religious/civilizational war.  Donning a military cap and flight jacket, Trump promises quick victories against a dastardly enemy.  Even as he pursues his wars, the U.S. military will continue to expand, as will paramilitaries and warrior-corporations.  Even as victory proves as elusive as the fighting is enervating to domestic concerns, Mad King Trump will persist.  America must win.  For he is the state.

Under Trump, as with mad King George III, big changes are ahead.  Just not the ones these monarchs imagined for themselves and their empires.

The Indispensable Nation?

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With Trump’s election, it’s a bull market at the Pentagon

W.J. Astore

In two recent speeches, President Obama has repeated the conceit that the United States is “the indispensable nation.”  Apparently, that means the U.S. must lead “the free world,” with a none-too-subtle corollary that other “free” nations must follow.  Yet the conceit of indispensability gets the U.S. into serious trouble.  It facilitates interventionism and meddling, and when the U.S. intervenes and meddles, it’s almost always in military ways, often disastrously (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya are just three recent examples).

This is hardly surprising.  The U.S. military has roughly 800 bases worldwide.  Its aircraft carriers are essentially mobile American bases, bristling with weapons and munitions.  The U.S. spends roughly $600 billion a year maintaining this military and empire, even as it continues to dominate the world’s arms trade.  This heavy investment in weaponry and war-making, abetted by a mentality that celebrates “global reach, global power,” is a strange way to define your nation as being “indispensable.”

How did America come to invest so much of itself in military weaponry and incessant wars?  One reason is the quest for total safety.  As one of my friends put it:

It [the notion of total safety] must be a post-1941 thing [after the shocking sneak attack on Pearl Harbor]. I think in both cases (1917 [U.S. entry into World War I] and 1941 and maybe 2001) the question Americans have asked is how to keep an evil “over there” somehow from affecting us. In all three cases, I think the answer was neutrality until neutrality no longer seemed to offer safety. My guess is that the idea that total safety required global involvement comes from c.1948, fears of the USSR’s globalism, atomic paranoia, and the desire to protect and preserve the new American affluence. Thus NSC-68 gets passed with nary a whisper of opposition.

What is NSC-68?  We must turn the clock back to 1950, the Cold War, and the Truman Administration, as detailed here by The History Channel:

According to the [National Security Council’s] report, the United States should vigorously pursue a policy of “containing” Soviet expansion. NSC-68 recommended that the United States embark on rapid military expansion of conventional forces and the nuclear arsenal, including the development of the new hydrogen bomb. In addition, massive increases in military aid to U.S. allies were necessary as well as more effective use of “covert” means to achieve U.S. goals. The price of these measures was estimated to be about $50 billion; at the time the report was issued, America was spending just $13 billion on defense.

Under President Trump, we’re likely to see a new version of NSC-68, another expansion of the U.S. military (and U.S. militarism), along with covert action by a newly empowered CIA, this time in the name of containing and defeating radical Islam rather than godless communism.

Defense company stocks are already soaring at the prospect of much higher military spending under Trump, notes William Hartung today at TomDispatch.com.  Trump is difficult to predict, so Hartung takes him at his word in this passage:

A window into Trump’s thinking [on defense] can be found in a speech he gave in Philadelphia in early September. Drawing heavily on a military spending blueprint created by Washington’s right-wing Heritage Foundation, Trump called for tens of thousands of additional troops, a Navy of 350 ships (the current goal is 308), a significantly larger Air Force, an anti-missile, space-based Star Wars-style program of Reaganesque proportions, and an acceleration of the Pentagon’s $1 trillion “modernization” program for the nuclear arsenal (now considered a three-decade-long project).

Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimates that, if Trump faithfully follows the Heritage Foundation’s proposal, he could add more than $900 billion to the Pentagon’s budget over the next decade. 

In other words, Obama’s America, the “indispensable nation,” is likely under Trump to channel enormous resources into more weapons even as Trump’s military advisers, men like retired general Mike Flynn, posture for a no-holds-barred crusade against “the cancer” of radical Islam around the globe.

Here’s a harsh truth: America has allowed its arsenal of democracy of World War II fame to become simply an arsenal.  A nation that fought in the name of democracy in two world wars has become one that wages endless wars driven by a crusader’s righteousness.

Remind me: What is so “indispensable” about that?

The Attack in Nice, France

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W.J. Astore

In Nice, France, 84 people were killed by a maniac who drove a truck into a crowd on Bastille Day (French Independence Day).  The driver, identified as Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, was a French-Tunisian with a criminal record but with no known terrorist links.

Much remains unknown about this attack.  Was the driver acting alone?  Was he “radicalized,” killing for a political/religious purpose?  Was he working with a terrorist sect, or perhaps he sympathized with one?  We should be careful not to jump to conclusions.

I want to make one rather obvious point: It’s easy to politicize such horrendous attacks. It’s easy to say things like: “It’s all the fault of radical Islam!  The West is at war with radical Islam!  Muslim immigrants are to blame!”  And so on. Before reaching any conclusions, let’s gather all the evidence.

There’s a natural tendency to resort to the rhetoric of warfare here.  Politicians are especially prone to this.  And if you don’t agree with them, they dismiss you as naive or delusional — or worse.

The problem with warfare rhetoric is that it answers questions before they’re even asked. It imposes solutions before you even fully understand the problem.  For example, if it’s a “war,” the inevitable solution is more militarization.  More surveillance.  More police. More weapons.  Perhaps more military strikes as well.

But what if more military strikes actually aggravate the problem?  What if more police, more surveillance, more raids combine to abridge the freedoms that France fought for, the very freedoms which the French celebrate each year on Bastille Day?

Liberty, equality, and fraternity are noble goals.  They need always to be nourished and protected, not just from terrorists and other criminals, but from those in authority who may overreact in the name of protecting the people.

U.S. Foreign Policy: Too Much Captain Kirk–and William Shatner

Fire those phasers, America!
Fire those phasers, America!

W.J. Astore

Much of our foreign policy is driven by fear–fear that if we don’t act, whether in the Middle East or Africa or elsewhere–the bad people there will thrive, after which they’ll come for us in the good old USA.  Most of us will recall George W. Bush’s saying, “We’ll fight them over there so that we don’t have to fight them here.”  But what if constantly fighting them “over there” is a guarantee of blowback right here in Homeland USA?

As one of my conservative friends (Yes – I have them!) says, “If they (the enemy) stay over there, I’ll airlift knives, forks, and condiments to them.”

Well, we’ll never know unless we try.  Call the cavalry home, America.  Send in the cutlery and condiments. And let’s see what happens.

OK, call me an isolationist.  All these American machinations in and deployments to the Middle East and Africa – paraphrasing Otto von Bismarck, to me they aren’t worth the bones of a single Pennsylvanian grenadier.  Isn’t the Middle East of today roughly the equivalent to the Balkans of c.1910?  Except for the oil, why bother with Iraq and Iran?  Radical Islam is no picnic, but a direct threat to the USA?  Come on.  If we leave, my bet is radical Islam will burn itself out.

Our constant interventions in the Middle East merely fan the flames of radicalism there, except when we throw fuel on the fire by sending lots of weapons or burning a Koran or wiping out (accidently, of course) another convoy of civilians with Hellfire missiles.  If we’re the enemy’s “Great Satan,” let’s leave and see how they do in a paradise without the US serpent in it.

The problem is that our foreign policy “experts” are subservient to national and international (corporate and financial) interests (among others), and those interests, along with their own hubris, make it impossible for them to order strategic withdrawals, much less imagine them.

Put briefly, our experts see the world as a stage (or as a staging area for military forces), upon which the USA must play the leading role.  They believe that if we don’t occupy that stage, and dominate it, some other country will, e.g. China will take over Africa.

The US military, meanwhile, favors “proactive,” forward-leaning, can-do, spirit.  The mentality is: We must act, or someone else will.  And our way of acting is necessarily a military way, since that is what our nation favors–and funds.

For my fellow “Star Trek” fans, the U.S. government is like the aggressive, action-driven Captain Kirk (even better: the bombastic, scene-hogging William Shatner), but without Mr. Spock or Dr. McCoy at his side to provide cool logic or warm compassion.  So all we get is warp drive and phasers (or lots of histrionic overacting and scene-stealing, a la Shatner).

We can do better, America.  Let’s start by calling the cavalry home.  Cutlery and condiments to the fore!

Why the American Military Is Doomed

General Flynn (FP: Foreign Policy)
General Flynn (FP: Foreign Policy)

W.J. Astore

Is the U.S. military doomed?  I’d say yes.  But it’s not because our troops are uncommitted, our weapons are bad, and our tactics are flawed.  Rather it’s because of the conventional wisdom in Washington and the Pentagon that continues to commit our troops to unnecessary and unwinnable wars.

This conventional wisdom is perhaps best summed up in a speech by retired Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn, the ex-chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).  It’s worth reading the speech in full, not because it’s especially original or insightful, but because it’s so unreflective and representative of Washington’s collective wisdom.

Here are General Flynn’s main points as I see them:

1. The American public must be committed to an open-ended ideological war “for decades.”

2. That war is against “grotesque” Islamic extremists who “hate our ideals” and who are “committed to the destruction of freedom and the American way of life.”

3. To win the war, America must be ready to use “overwhelming power” to defeat or deter the enemy, even if the U.S. must act alone.

4. Special Operations Forces (SOF) must be “well resourced” for this war, meaning they must be expanded even further and given even more money and latitude.

5.  The model for this ideological war against extremist Islam is Ronald Reagan’s war against communism.

That is General Flynn’s strategic vision.  It’s a vision widely shared within the Pentagon.  And it’s a vision that dooms America to defeat.

Why?  Mainly because radical Islam is a political/religious/social phenomenon.  It is not amenable to military solutions.  Indeed, the more America makes it into THE enemy, the more legitimacy organizations like ISIS gain within their communities and across the Muslim World.

Military force is a blunt instrument, even when it’s applied by the Special Ops community.  Expanding the American SOF presence throughout the world is a recipe for more blowback, not more victories.  Consider how well we’ve done so far in Afghanistan or Libya or Yemen.  Or for that matter Iraq.  Can anyone say that U.S. military intervention has produced stability in these countries?  Has it contributed to the defeat of radical Islam?  Indeed, in destabilizing Iraq and Libya and Yemen, has the U.S. not contributed to the spread of Islamic extremism?

Military professionals like General Flynn really know only one solution: “overwhelming power” applied “for decades.” And if you don’t accept their solution, they dismiss you as misguided (at best) or as arguing for “Retreat, retrenchment, and disarmament,” which “are historically a recipe for disaster,” according to General Flynn.

Well, I’m not aware of anyone seriously arguing for disarmament (fat chance of that happening in the USA!).  I’m not aware of anyone arguing for “retreat,” as if this was the Chosin Reservoir in the Korean War.  I’m not aware of anyone seriously working toward “retrenchment”; indeed, the SOF community keeps expanding, already mounting operations in 105 countries around the world in FY2015 (i.e., since October 2014).  It’s easy to bayonet a straw man, general.

I have a few words for the general: Committing the American military to an ideological war “for decades” against radical Islam is pure folly.  Chances are you won’t hammer it into non-existence: your blows will just spread it further, while wasting the energies of America and the lives of its troops.

Stop looking to Reagan and the collapse of communism for lessons and start looking at the actual results over the last 20-30 years of American meddling in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen.  And tell me: Is this what “victory” looks like?  You want to double down on “overwhelming power” applied “for decades” as defending American “ideals” and “way of life”?

Which “ideals” are those, exactly?  A permanent state of war in which military men are deferred to as the heroes and sages of the moment?

No thanks.