Monday Musings About America

warrior
It’s an odd thing to see a pagan warrior of ancient Greece used as a symbol of Christianity, but what matters here is the idea Christianity is synonymous with warrior violence

W.J. Astore

It’s amazing how often America’s politicians dismiss proposals that would benefit workers as “too expensive” (such as a higher minimum wage, or more affordable college education, or single-payer health care) versus how much they’re willing to approve for new weapons and wars.  With little debate, this year’s “defense” budget will be roughly $750 billion, although the real number exceeds a trillion dollars, as Bill Hartung notes here for TomDispatch.  Meanwhile, spending on education, infrastructure improvements, and so on withers.

It’s almost as if the impoverishment of America’s workers is deliberate (some would say it is).  Four decades ago, I remember reading Crane Brinton’s “The Anatomy of Revolution” in AP Modern European History.  Brinton noted how rising expectations among the lower orders can lead to revolutionary fervor.  But if you keep people down, keep them busy working two or three jobs, keep them distracted with “circuses” like unending sports coverage and Trump’s every twitch and tweet, you can control them.

Thus the establishment sees a true populist politician like Bernie Sanders as the real enemy.  Bernie raises hopes; he wants to help workers; but that’s not the point of the American system.  So, Bernie must be dismissed as “crazy,” or marginalized as a dangerous socialist, even though he’s just an old-fashioned New Dealer who wants government to work for the people.

Related to keeping people under control (by keeping them divided, distracted, and downtrodden) is to keep them fearful.  A foreign bogeyman is always helpful here, hence the demonization of Vladimir Putin.  An old friend of mine sent me an article this past weekend about Putin’s strategy in reviving Russia.  I confess I don’t follow Russia and Putin that closely.  But it strikes me that Putin has played a weak hand well, whereas U.S. leaders have played a strong hand poorly.

In the article I noted the following quote by Putin:

[we] need to build our home and make it strong and well protected … The wolf knows how to eat … and is not about to listen to anyone … How quickly all the pathos of the need to fight for human rights and democracy is laid aside the moment the need to realize one’s own interests come to the fore.

Putin’s words are from a decade ago, when the U.S. still talked about fighting for “human rights and democracy.”  Under Trump, “one’s own interests” are naked again in U.S. foreign policy under men like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo.  Is this progress?

Overall, Russia has learned (or been forced) to limit its foreign burdens, whereas the U.S. is continuing to expand its “global reach.”  Russia learned from the Cold War and is spending far less on its military, whereas the U.S. continues to spend more and more.  It’s ironic indeed if Russia is the country cashing in on its peace dividend, even as the U.S. still seems to believe that peace is impossible and that war pays.

I wonder if Russia (joined by China) spends just enough on its military to present a threat to the U.S. for those who are so eager to see and exaggerate it.  For example, China builds an aircraft carrier, or Russia builds a nuclear cruise missile, not because they’re planning unprovoked attacks against the U.S., but as a stimulus to America’s military-industrial complex.  Because America’s reaction is always eminently predictable.  The national security state seizes on any move by China or Russia as dangerous, destabilizing, and as justification for yet more military spending.  The result is a hollowing out of the U.S. (poorer education, fewer factories, weaker economy, collapsing infrastructure), even as China and Russia grow comparatively stronger by spending more money in non-military sectors.

There are complicated forces at work here.  Of course, Ike’s military-industrial-Congressional complex is always involved.  But there’s also a weird addiction to militarism and violence in the USA.  War, gun violence, and other forms of killing have become the background noise to our lives, so much so that we barely perceive the latest mass killing, or the latest overseas bombing gone wrong.  (I’d also add here the violence we’re doing to our environment, our earth, our true “homeland.”)

I mentioned violence to my old friend, and he sent me this note:

On violence and American cultural DNA one place to start is Richard Slotkin’s trilogy, Regeneration Through Violence, The Fatal Environment, and Gunfighter Nation… The gist of what I have gotten about Slotkin’s thesis is that America’s frontier past trained settlers to think of violence (against natives and against each other) as forms of rebirth both for the individual and for the community.

My friend’s comment about violence and rebirth made me think of the film “Birth of a Nation” (1915) and the infamous scene of the KKK riding to the rescue.  We in America have this notion that, in one form or another, a heavily armed cavalry will ride to the rescue and save us (from savage Indians, violent immigrants, etc.).  In a strange way, Trump’s campaign tapped this notion of rebirth through violence.  Think of his threats against immigrants – and his promises to build a wall to keep them out – and his threats to torture terrorists and even to kill their families.

Trump tapped a rich seam of redemption through violence in the USA, this yearning for some sort of violent apocalypse followed by a “second coming,” notably in conservative evangelical circles.  For when you look at “end times” scenarios in evangelical settings, peaceful bliss is not the focus.  Suffering of the unredeemed is what it’s all about.  Christ is not bringing peace but a sword to smite all the evildoers.

For people who suffer toil and trouble daily, such apocalyptic visions are a powerful distraction and may serve as a potent reactionary tonic.  Why fight for Bernie’s political revolution when Christ’s return is imminent?

That’s enough musing for one Monday morning.  Readers, what say you?

Collusion Takes Many Forms

W.J. Astore

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words:

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The supposed big news here is that Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, didn’t know about President Trump’s invitation to Vladimir Putin to visit the White House this fall.

The real story is in plain sight: all the corporate sponsors of the Aspen Security Forum, including Lockheed Martin, the nation’s leading weapons maker.  I like the way the logo for Lockheed Martin hovers just above Dan Coats’s head.  Who works for whom here?

(Other military contractors with prominent logos included Symantec, which specializes in cybersecurity, and MITRE, which technically is a not-for-profit corporation that works mainly with the Department of Defense; I worked with MITRE engineers when I was in the Air Force.)

The other obvious story: the mainstream media’s cozy relationship to those in power.  Andrea Mitchell’s interview with Coats is downright chummy.  It’s all very polite and non-confrontational, with Mitchell hinting we all should be very concerned and nervous about Trump negotiating alone with Putin.

Perhaps so, perhaps not.  But I am concerned about all those cozy relationships within and across the national security state, and the way our media eagerly joins in on the fun.  Collusion takes many forms; let’s not focus so tightly on alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia that we miss what’s in clear sight in photos and videos such as this.

Update (7/22/18): Is the mainstream media focusing on cozy relationships and possible collusion among the various players at Aspen?  You know, the military-industrial complex, the government and its seventeen intelligence agencies, universities and think tanks and the media, i.e. the usual suspects?  Of course not.  At ABC News, they’re focusing on whether Dan Coats’s chuckle and off-the-cuff remarks about Putin’s proposed visit to the White House were disrespectful to Trump.  And there you have it.

Trump Treason?

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Trump gets a soccer ball from Putin.  A win-win?

W.J. Astore

America’s MAGA President, Donald Trump, has generated enormous criticism for his news conference with Vladimir Putin.  Typical of this is James Fallows at The Atlantic, who wrote that “Never before have I seen an American president consistently, repeatedly, publicly, and shockingly advance the interests of another country over those of his own government and people.”  A “national nightmare,” opined The Washington Post.  A “train wreck,” said NBC News, that made Russians “gleeful.”

Is Trump advancing the interests of Russia?  Is this an example of high crimes and misdemeanors, perhaps even rising to treason?

Methinks not.  Trump, if he is advancing Russian interests, is doing so indirectly.  Because only one thing matters to Trump: his own interests.  With Trump, it really is all about him.

Consider the accusations of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.  Trump is never going to side with his intelligence agencies on this issue.  He thinks that, by doing so, he’d be admitting that maybe he didn’t win fair and square over “Crooked Hillary.”  He refuses to countenance Russian meddling, not because he’s a Putin stooge, but rather because he’s an egomaniac.  He’ll admit to nothing that diminishes, however slightly, his victory — and his ego.

Russia doesn’t matter to Trump.  Indeed, America doesn’t matter to Trump.  With Trump, it’s really all about him.  Recall how he visited the CIA and boasted about himself while standing before the wall that commemorates fallen CIA officers.  Recall how he declared the military would follow his orders regardless of their legality.  He rashly accuses Democrats of not caring about the troops or border security whenever they oppose his policies.  He does best with foreign leaders, like the Saudis and Israelis, who are at pains to flatter him.  He apparently can’t stand Angela Merkel because she doesn’t play the flattery game.

Trump lives in his own reality, a narcissistic swirl of fabrications, falsehoods, and lies.  He’s happiest when he’s commanding the scene, when people are kowtowing to him, when he can boast about himself and advertise his businesses (during this latest trip, he went to a Trump golf course in Scotland and waxed about its “magical” qualities).

In short, Trump is not treasonous.  He simply has no concept of public service.  He has no capacity to serve any cause other than himself.

Readers, what do you think of the treason accusations against Trump?

Refighting the Cold War

superman
I thought the USA already won?

W.J. Astore

Within the U.S. “defense” establishment there’s an eagerness to refight the Cold War with Russia and China, notes Michael Klare at TomDispatch.com.  The “long war” on terror, although still festering, is not enough to justify enormous defense budgets and traditional weapon systems like aircraft carriers, bomber and fighter jets, and tanks and artillery.  But hyping the Russian and Chinese threats, as Defense Secretary James Mattis is doing, is a proven method of ensuring future military growth along well-trodden avenues.

Hence an article at Fox News that I saw this morning.  Its title: “Here’s why Russia would lose a second Cold War — and would be unwise to start one.”  The article happily predicts the demise of Russia if that country dares to challenge the U.S. in a Cold War-like binge of military spending.  Bring it on, Russia and China, our defense hawks are effectively saying.  But recall what happened when George W. Bush said “Bring it on” in the context of the Iraq insurgency.

Our military leaders envision Russian and Chinese threats that directly challenge America’s conventional and nuclear supremacy.  They then hype these alleged threats in the toughest war of all: budgetary battles at the Pentagon and in Congress.  The Navy wants more ships, the Air Force wants more planes, the Army wants more soldiers and more weapons — and all of these are more easily justified when you face “peer” enemies instead of guerrillas and terrorists whose heaviest weapons are usually RPGs and IEDs.

Yet Russia and China aren’t stupid.  Why should they challenge the U.S. in hyper-expensive areas like aircraft-carrier-building or ultra-modern “stealth” bombers when they can easily assert influence in unconventional and asymmetric ways?  The Russians, for example, have proven adept at exploiting social media to exacerbate political divisions within the U.S., and the Chinese too are quite skilled at cyberwar.  More than anything, however, the Chinese can exploit their financial and economic clout, their growing dominance of manufacturing and trade, as the U.S. continues to hollow itself out financially in a race for conventional and nuclear dominance in which its main rival is its own distorted reflection.

In essence, then, America’s “new” National Defense Strategy under Trump is a return to the Reagan era, circa 1980, with its much-hyped military buildup.   Yet again the U.S. is investing in military hardware, but China and Russia are investing more in software, so to speak.  It makes me think of the days of IBM versus Bill Gates. Bill Gates’ genius was recognizing the future was in the software, the operating systems, not in the hardware as IBM believed.

But the U.S. is being led by hardware guys.  A hardware guy all the way, Donald Trump is all about bigger missiles and massive bombs. Indeed, later this year he wants a parade of military hardware down Pennsylvania Avenue.  It’s as if we’re living in 1975 — time to review the troops, comrade general.

Who knew the triumphant “new world order” of 1991 would become a quarter-century later a sad and tragic quest by the USA to refight the very Cold War we claimed back then to have won?  Isn’t it easy to envision Trump boasting like an old-style Soviet leader of how, under his “very stable genius” leadership, “America is turning out missiles like sausages”?

A Curious Aspect of Air Power

Crash Site
Crash site of Israeli F-16 Fighter Jet

W.J. Astore

Over the past several days, Russia and Israel have lost fighter jets over Syria.  This shouldn’t come as a surprise to those countries.  When jets attack people on the ground, those people tend to fire back (if they have weapons at hand), and sometimes they even hit their targets.

What is interesting is the Russian and Israeli reaction, which was in essence identical: immediate escalation.  More air attacks.  More bombs.  All justified as “reprisal” raids that are couched in terms of self-defense.

The mentality goes something like this: How dare you little people on the ground have the temerity to fire back at us and actually hit our planes?  For that you must be punished with more air attacks and more bombs until you stop firing at and hitting our planes.

I think this reaction is linked to the imagery of jet aircraft as a symbol of technological superiority, a marker of power, potency, and prowess.  Losing a jet over Syrian lands isn’t just seen as a mundane loss of military equipment in combat: it’s seen as a loss of potency by the attacker.  This “loss” necessitates a bigger show of force so as to punish the enemy while regaining that sense of inviolate power from the skies that advanced countries like Russia, Israel, and the USA believe they are entitled to, simply by being “advanced” countries, as measured by military hardware like sophisticated jets.

Air power is a tricky thing.  Students of the American involvement in the Vietnam War may recall that in 1965 U.S. Marine units were initially sent in to guard air bases from attack.  Of course, their mission quickly escalated from static defense to “active” defense to “taking the fight to the enemy,” i.e. full-scale, offensive, military operations.

Today, U.S. ground troops are similarly involved in places like the Middle East and Africa, helping to establish and protect air and drone bases.  Yet, as history teaches us, those missions often expand quickly to aggressive military operations on the ground, often in the name of “securing” those very air bases.  Air attacks may lead to ground operations, which lead to more air attacks in support of the ground ops, which lead to air planes being shot down and then reprisal attacks …

Air power, as I’ve written before, is neither cheap nor surgical nor decisive.  It also often creates its own escalatory dynamic, which is what we’re witnessing now in the skies over Syria.  Israeli jets, Russian jets, American jets, all attempting through force to alter the facts on the ground, but all instead creating conditions that are likely to generate more violence, more instability, and more war.

Curious indeed.

Are We the New “Evil Empire”?

russian bear
A common depiction of Russia as a hyper-aggressive bear.  But what is the United States?

W.J. Astore

In a recent article at TomDispatch.com, I argued that the United States, after defeating the former Soviet Union in the Cold War, seized upon its moment of “victory” and, in a fit of hubris, embraced an increasingly imperial and authoritarian destiny that echoed in many ways the worst attributes of the USSR.  You can read the entire article here.  What follows is an excerpt that details some of the ways the U.S. has come to echo or mirror certain features associated with the USSR, the “Evil Empire” of the Reagan years.

Also, for a podcast in which I discuss my article with Burt Cohen, follow this link or this address: http://keepingdemocracyalive.com/just-hacking-weve-become-like-soviets/

When I was a young lieutenant in the Air Force, in 1986 if memory serves, I attended a secret briefing on the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan was president, and we had no clue that we were living through the waning years of the Cold War. Back then, believing that I should know my enemy, I was reading a lot about the Soviets in “open sources,” you know, books, magazines and newspapers.

The “secret” briefing I attended revealed little that was new to me. (Classified information is often overhyped.) I certainly heard no audacious predictions of a Soviet collapse in five years, though the Soviet Union would indeed implode in 1991. Like nearly everyone at the time, the briefers assumed the USSR would be our arch enemy for decades to come and it went without saying that the Berlin Wall was a permanent fixture in a divided Europe, a forever symbol of ruthless communist oppression.

Little did we know that, three years later, the Soviet military would stand aside as East Germans tore down that wall. And who then would have believed that a man might be elected president of the United States a generation later on the promise of building a “big, fat, beautiful wall” on our shared border with Mexico?

I wasn’t allowed to take notes during that briefing, but I remember the impression I was left with—that the USSR was deeply authoritarian, a grim surveillance state with an economy dependent on global weapons sales; that it was intent on nuclear domination; that it was imperialist and expansionist; that it persecuted its critics and dissidents; and that it had serious internal problems carefully suppressed in the cause of world mastery, including rampant alcohol and drug abuse, bad health care and declining longevity (notably for men), a poisoned environment, and an extensive prison system featuring gulags.

All of this was exacerbated by festering sores overseas, especially a costly and stalemated war in Afghanistan and client-states that absorbed its resources (think: Cuba) while offering little in return.

This list of Soviet problems, vintage 1986, should have a familiar ring to it, since it sounds uncannily like a description of what’s wrong with the United States today.

In case you think that’s an over-the-top statement, let’s take that list from the briefing—eight points in all—one item at a time.

1. An authoritarian, surveillance state. The last time the U.S. Congress formally declared war was in 1941. Since then, American presidents have embarked on foreign wars and interventions ever more often with ever less oversight from Congress. Power continues to grow and coalesce in the executive branch, strengthening an imperial presidency enhanced by staggering technologies of surveillance, greatly expanded in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Indeed, America now has 17 intelligence agencies with a combined yearly budget of $80 billion. Unsurprisingly, Americans are surveilled more than ever, allegedly for our safety even if such a system breeds meekness and stifles dissent.

2. An economy dependent on global weapons sales. The United States continues to dominate the global arms trade in a striking fashion. It was no mistake that a centerpiece of Pres. Trump’s recent trip was a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. On the same trip, he told the Emir of Qatar that he was in the Middle East to facilitate “the purchase of lots of beautiful military equipment.” Now more than ever, beautiful weaponry made in the U.S.A. is a significant driver of domestic economic growth as well as of the country’s foreign policy.

3. Bent on nuclear domination. Continuing the policies of Pres. Barack Obama, the Trump administration envisions a massive modernization of America’s nuclear arsenal, to the tune of at least a trillion dollars over the next generation. Much like an old-guard Soviet premier, Trump has boasted that America will always remain at “the top of the pack” when it comes to nuclear weapons.

4. Imperialist and expansionist. Historians speak of America’s “informal” empire, by which they mean the U.S. is less hands-on than past imperial powers like the Romans and the British. But there’s nothing informal or hands-off about America’s 800 overseas military bases or the fact that its Special Operations forces are being deployed in 130 or more countries yearly.

When the U.S. military speaks of global reach, global power, and full-spectrum dominance, this is traditional imperialism cloaked in banal catchphrases. Put differently, Soviet imperialism, which American leaders always professed to fear, never had a reach of this sort.

 5. Persecutes critics and dissidents. Whether it’s been the use of the Patriot Act under George W. Bush’s presidency, the persecution of whistleblowers using the World War I-era Espionage Act under the Obama administration, or the vilification of the media by the new Trump administration, the United States is far less tolerant of dissent today than it was prior to the Soviet collapse.

As Homeland Security Secretary and retired four-star Marine Gen. John Kelly recently put it, speaking of news stories about the Trump administration based on anonymous intelligence sources, such leaks are “darn close to treason.” Add to such an atmosphere Trump’s attacks on the media as the “enemy” of the people and on critical news stories as “fake” and you have an environment ripe for the future suppression of dissent.

In the Soviet Union, political opponents were often threatened with jail or worse, and those threats were regularly enforced by men wearing military or secret police uniforms. In that context, let’s not forget the “lock her up!” chants led by retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn at the Republican National Convention and aimed at Donald Trump’s political opponent of that moment, Hillary Clinton.

Gary, Indiana. Lotzman/Flickr photo

6. Internal problems like drug abuse, inadequate health care and a poisoned environment. Alcoholism is still rife in Russia and environmental damage widespread, but consider the United States today. An opioid crisis is killing more than 30,000 people a year. Lead poisoning in places like Flint, Michigan, and New Orleans is causing irreparable harm to the young. The disposal of wastewater from fracking operations is generating earthquakes in Ohio and Oklahoma.

Even as environmental hazards proliferate, the Trump administration is gutting the Environmental Protection Agency. As health crises grow more serious, the Trump administration, abetted by a Republican-led Congress, is attempting to cut health-care coverage and benefits, as well as the funding that might protect Americans from deadly pathogens. Disturbingly, as with the Soviet Union in the era of its collapse, life expectancy among white men is declining, mainly due to drug abuse, suicide and other despair-driven problems.

7. Extensive prison systems. As a percentage of its population, no country imprisons more of its own people than the United States. While more than two million of their fellow citizens languish in prisons, Americans continue to see their nation as a beacon of freedom, ignoring Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In addition, the country now has a president who believes in torture, who has called for the murder of terrorists’ families, and who wants to refill Guantánamo with prisoners. It also has an attorney general who wants to make prison terms for low-level drug offenders ever more draconian.

8. Stalemated wars. You have to hand it to the Soviets. They did at least exhibit a learning curve in their disastrous war in Afghanistan and so the Red Army finally left that country in 1989 after a decade of high casualties and frustration, even if its troops returned to a land on the verge of implosion. U.S. forces, on the other hand, have been in Afghanistan for 16 years, with the Taliban growing ever stronger, yet its military’s response has once again been to call for investing more money and sending in more troops to reverse the “stalemate” there.

Meanwhile, after 14 years, Iraq War 3.0 festers, bringing devastation to places like Mosul, even as its destabilizing results continue to manifest themselves in Syria and indeed throughout the greater Middle East. Despite or rather because of these disastrous results, U.S. leaders continue to over-deploy U.S. Special Operations forces, contributing to exhaustion and higher suicide rates in the ranks.

In light of these eight points, that lighthearted Beatles tune and relic of the Cold War, “Back in the USSR,” takes on a new, and far harsher, meaning.

To read the rest of this article, go to TomDispatch.com.  Thank you.

Trump Consumes All the Oxygen in Washington

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Comey and Trump: Back in the news

W.J. Astore

Another day, another Trump scandal, this one stemming from a memo written by the former FBI director, James Comey, in the aftermath of a private conversation he had with the President.  According to the Comey memo, the president urged him to drop the FBI’s investigation into Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia, using these words: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.  He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

Obstruction of justice?  Impeachable offense?  That’s debatable.  But the alleged conversation obviously takes on heightened meaning after Trump fired Comey, in part because of frustration with the FBI’s investigation into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the election.

It’s unclear if any crimes were committed here.  What is clear is that Trump is a poor manager of himself as well as his staff.  Flynn, with his dodgy record, should never have been hired.  Furthermore, the president should not have gone out on a limb to defend him, cajoling the FBI director, in so many words, to go easy on my guy.

Perhaps Trump’s biggest flaw is his combination of boastfulness, lack of judgment, and his ego-driven need to take charge.  He reminds me of an Air Force saying: “He’s all Mach and no compass heading.”  He’ll break the sound barrier while moving in the opposite direction to sound governance.

I wrote back in March of 2016 that candidate Trump had disqualified himself from the presidency by boasting about how America’s generals would follow his orders irrespective of their legality.  My main point was that Trump had no understanding of his Constitutional responsibilities, nor did he seem to care much about learning them.  If Comey’s memo is accurate, I think it’s another instance of Trump either not knowing or not caring about propriety, about the rule of law.

Trump’s experience in life is as a CEO of a family business.  Everyone has always worked for him; in essence, he’s been King Trump.  Even though he’s now president, he still acts like a king, making up his own rules as he goes along, not knowing a rule book already exists.

Will Trump survive his first term?  As Yoda might say, Difficult to see — always in motion the future.  One thing is certain: Trump continues to consume all the oxygen in Washington, extinguishing any hope of real progress or effective governance at the federal level.