According to FP: Foreign Policy, these are the top five stories in U.S. foreign policy in 2019. I’ve inserted quick comments at the end in bold:
1. U.S. and Turkey Lock Horns Over Syria.
“U.S. support to the Syrian Democratic Forces has long angered Turkey, a NATO ally which views the Kurdish-led group as a terrorist threat … But in a fateful October phone call, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeated his longtime threat to launch a cross-border invasion. This time Trump capitulated, moving a handful of U.S. troops so the Turks could begin the assault against the Kurds … Hundreds have been killed and roughly 200,000 people were displaced.”
Comment: Syria is not a vital U.S. interest. U.S. forces shouldn’t be there. And who are these “democratic forces” of Syria?
2. Trump Impeached Over Ukraine Scandal.
“Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine into investigating a Democratic rival this year led to the third impeachment of a U.S. president in history, thrusting Washington’s national security apparatus into the spotlight.”
Comment: The U.S. shouldn’t be meddling in Ukraine. And we shouldn’t be sending more weapons there. I sure as hell don’t want my taxpayer dollars going to weapons for Ukraine.
3. North Korea Talks Sputter and Stall.
“The historic nuclear talks between Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un in 2018 offered hope that the two countries could de-escalate tensions and prevent a nuclear confrontation. Talks stalled after the Singapore Summit in June 2018. While both sides made significant verbal commitments in 2019, the year saw a gradual deterioration of bilateral relations.”
Comment: North Korea isn’t giving up its nuclear weapons. The North Koreans saw what happened to Gaddafi in Libya when he gave up his WMD. Plus nuclear weapons and missiles are a prestige project for Kim Jong-un, who’s played Trump like a fiddle.
4. Iran Strikes Back.
“Tensions between Iran and the United States skyrocketed in 2019, as the U.S. maximum pressure campaign took effect and Tehran lashed out against harsh U.S. sanctions. (Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal in 2018.) … Attacks have ceased in recent weeks as Tehran launched a brutal crackdown on the worst political unrest the country has seen since the Islamic Revolution 40 years ago. But U.S. officials are bracing for another devastating strike in the region, this time perhaps targeting the region’s critical sources of drinking water.”
Comment: Harsh U.S. sanctions are an act of war — or at least we’d see them that way if the roles were reversed. And why is Iran always seen as the aggressor capable of launching “devastating” strikes?
5. Venezuela Crisis Simmers.
“Venezuela’s Russia-backed leader Nicolás Maduro clung to power this year despite an economic collapse, nationwide blackouts and fierce opposition from Juan Guaidó, who declared himself Venezuela’s interim president in January with support from the West. Tensions threatened to boil over in May, when Guaidó tried and failed to ignite an uprising. The attempted coup was seen as an embarrassing failure by the United States and particularly National Security Advisor John Bolton, reportedly the architect of multiple attempts to unseat Maduro. In addition to harsh sanctions, the United States went so far as to draw up military options, but never took any action.”
Comment: Looks like Bolton takes the fall for inept U.S. meddling in Venezuela. Guess what? It’s all about the oil — and the money.
Of course, FP: Foreign Policy missed the biggest story of 2019: Consistent, extensive, and persistent lying by U.S. leaders about the course of the Afghan War, as revealed by the “Afghan Papers” published by the Washington Post.
Readers — what do you think about this list? In the holiday spirit, I see much naughtiness here, and no niceness. Santa won’t be pleased.
This past weekend, General Mark Milley, Chairman of the JCS, said U.S. troops would remain in Syria for another few years, ostensibly to prevent an ISIS resurgence, and that troops would also continue to fight the Afghan War for several years to come. This should have been been big news, but in an America now distracted by a public impeachment circus, endless wars are greeted with a collective shrug within the media.
Thomas Paine would not have been happy. Famously outspoken for writing “Common Sense” at the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, Paine had some choice words about war and empire that Americans would do well to read and heed today.
“If there is a sin superior to every other,” Paine wrote, “it is that of willful and offensive war … he who is the author of a war, lets loose the whole contagion of Hell, and opens a vein that bleeds a nation to death.”
Paine then wrote that “We leave it to England and Indians [allied with England] to boast of these honors; we feel no thirst for such savage glory; a nobler flame, a purer spirit animates America.”
Imagine an America today that felt no thirst for the savage glory of war!
Paine supported only defensive wars, for Freedom and against Tyranny, as he put it. Remind me how keeping troops in Syria to secure oil is a just war for freedom? Remind me how prolonging the Afghan War (now in its 18th year) by several more years is necessary for America’s defense and in the cause of freedom?
Paine further had choice words for empires that were foolish enough to wage ruinous wars far from home. Naturally, he had Britain most in mind:
“If ever a nation was mad and foolish, blind to its own interest and bent on its own destruction, it is Britain … Bless’d with all the commerce she could wish for, and furnished by a vast extension of dominion with the means of civilizing both the eastern and western world, she has made no other use of both than proudly to idolize her own ‘Thunder,’ and rip up the bowels of whole countries for what she could get; –like Alexander she has made war her sport, and inflicted misery for prodagality [sic] sake.”
Making war our sport while idolizing our “thunderous” military — isn’t that an apt description of much of U.S. foreign policy for the past few decades?
But Paine wasn’t finished. He made a dire prediction:
“All countries have sooner or later been called to their reckoning; the proudest empires have sunk when the balance was struck; and Britain, like an individual penitent, must undergo her day of sorrow, and the sooner it happens to her the better.”
No empire lasts forever — certainly not one that engages in endless and largely pointless wars. Paine warned Britain about the high costs of war with America and how British forces were fated to lose, and he was right.
In a country that supposedly respects and even worships its Founders, isn’t it time Americans listened to Thomas Paine on the horrors of war and the perils of empires blinded by power and greed?
End the wars, America. Bring our troops home. And restore freedom to our land.
(Quotations from Paine are from “The American Crisis” as published in Thomas Paine: Collected Writings, Library of America, pp. 108, 165-66, written originally in 1777 and 1778)
The current brouhaha in the U.S. Senate (and the larger neocon community) over President Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria is a repeat performance of the passion play that the same actors performed earlier this year when Trump first announced his intention to make good on his campaign promise to get our country out of its endless wars. In the leading role for the neocons last time, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made a speech on the Senate floor on January 19, 2019 excoriating Trump for doing what he told the electorate he would do if he was elected president.
Having been an interloper in our country’s national security state, I know how things work in Washington and the tactics the pro-war political establishment uses to sell the public on its interventionist foreign policy and endless wars. I wrote a book (When Will We Ever Learn?) on this subject based on my personal experiences.
As this drama plays out again, I’ve excerpted passages from my book that reveal the modus operandi the neocons used last time for overruling President Trump in determining U.S. military policy. My critique of Senator McConnell’s speech is as pertinent now in exposing the fallacious thinking underlying the neocons’ current “stay forever” battle cry for Syria as it was in the brawl Trump lost to the neocons earlier this year when he wanted to bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan after 18 years. Let’s hope the president learned from that defeat.
It’s now “game on” in round two of this battle. The same players are back. Senator McConnell is even using the word “precipitous” again. Get your popcorn out and let’s see who wins this round in this heavyweight bout.
We’ve already seen [earlier in my book] how the national security state sandbagged a Democrat president in his role as Commander-in-Chief in the conduct of the Afghan war. Let’s now see how Washington elites are trying to sandbag a Republican president in his attempt to end this 18-year long war – despite President Trump’s vow in his presidential campaign and strong public support in the polls for getting all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan.
The neocon foreign policy establishment used three of its most prominent members to maintain their control over national security matters: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell; President of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Richard Haass; and James Dobbins, Senior Fellow at the Rand Corporation. Mr. Dobbins was the lead author of the 15-page Rand Report dated January 7, 2019, Consequences of a Precipitous U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan. (Take note of the word “precipitous” in this title.)
For those who don’t recognize the name, Rand Corporation is a charter member of the national security state insiders’ club. Military history buffs might recall Rand wrote the Pentagon Papers for the DoD in the late 1960s. They were the War State’s obvious go-to think-tank for this important assignment on Afghan war policy.
First, let’s see what Senator McConnell had to say about President Trump’s decision to start pulling U.S troops out of Afghanistan and Syria. Below are remarks Senator McConnell made on the Senate floor on January 31, 2019.
“Simply put, while it is tempting to retreat to the comfort and security of our own shores, there is still a great deal of work to be done,” McConnell said. “And we know that left untended these conflicts will reverberate in our own cities.”
The United States is not the “world’s policeman,” it is the “leader of the free world” and must continue to lead a global coalition against terrorism and stand by allies engaged in the fight. He also stressed the importance of coordination between the White House and Congress to “develop long-term strategies in both nations, including a thorough accounting of the risks of withdrawing too hastily.”
“My amendment would acknowledge the plain fact that al-Qaeda, ISIS, and their affiliates in Syria and Afghanistan continue to pose a serious threat to our nation.” McConnell said his amendment “would recognize the danger of a precipitous withdrawal from either conflict and highlights the need for diplomatic engagement and political solutions to the underlying conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan.”
Notice the word “precipitous” in the Leader’s remarks. Do you think it’s a coincidence that the title of the Rand Report is Consequences of a Precipitous U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan? Obviously, Mitch got the memo from neocon headquarters.
He even got in the “we’re not the world’s policeman” line. In Washington-speak, this is called “a non-denial denial.” It translates to: “I’m really doing what I say I am not doing, but I can’t admit it, or you would catch on to how duplicitous I am.” I’ve hung around with Washington swamp creatures too long to know that this professed denial is really an affirmation.
The line “we know that left untended these conflicts will reverberate in our own cities” is also classic neocon-speak. It’s meant to scare the public. But what it really does is reveal the flawed logic in their interventionist foreign policy doctrine. The U.S. builds military bases around the world, starts wars, deposes governments, and occupies other countries – this is the interventionist foreign policy Senator McConnell champions as the head neocon in the U.S. Senate. But the local nationals affected by this U.S. militarism don’t like a foreign power meddling in their part of the world, changing their governments, and interfering with their way of life. (Who would?)
The obvious way to avoid blowback “in our cities” is for the U.S. to stop intervening in centuries-old ethnic, religious and territorial disputes in other parts of the world. Not realizing this cause and effect (or simply ignoring it), Senator McConnell’s solution is to “stay the course.” In neocon-speak, this means sending in more troops, intensifying bombing, and increasing extrajudicial drone killings. These actions only worsen the conflicts, causing the U.S. to sink deeper into quagmires.
Predictably, Senator McConnell’s amendment passed the Senate on a 63-28 non-binding vote, proving that bipartisanship isn’t dead in Washington when it comes to authorizing endless wars. This vote just shows how out of touch our elected officials are with the electorate as well as the power of the pro-military and pro-war lobby in Washington.
The other character on the neocon’s tag-team to undercut the President on his Afghan exit plan is Richard Haass, CFR President. Mr. Haass was a senior State Department official in the first term of the Bush administration when the Iraq war began. He’s one of several media savvy spokespersons for the national security state who apparently was charged with getting the word out on the Rand Report and endorsing its conclusion.
On the day after the report came out, Mr. Haass tweeted to his 150,000 followers:
“This report has it right: winning is not an option in Afghanistan (nor is peace) but losing (and renewed terrorism) is if we pull out U.S. forces any time soon. We should stay with smaller numbers and reduced level of activity.” Twitter, January 18, 2019.
In sum, even though there’s no chance of winning, America needs to keep fighting. How do they sell this nonsense?
This was a three-step process. First, the “let’s stay in Afghanistan forever” doctrine was composed by Mr. Dobbins in the Rand Report. It was next preached by CFR President Haass. And finally, it was ordained by Senate Majority Leader McConnell in his speech on the Senate floor with the hallelujah chorus being the 63 “yes” votes for his resolution.
Picking up the trio’s “let’s stay in Afghanistan forever” cue, guest op-eds and editorial board columns appeared in the usual pro-War State newspapers advocating the neocon position. Media talking heads – as semiofficial spokespersons for the Washington national security state – echoed the neocons’ talking points on this issue.
This modius operandi for keeping the national security state in charge of foreign and military policy – and its untouchable $1-trillion-plus/year War State budget– has been going on since the Kennedy presidency. Michael Swanson documents how this takeover evolved in his book War State. Most times, the story being sold (e.g., keep U.S. troops in Syria; stay in NATO after it became obsolete; continue the DoD’s $300-billion unworkable missile-defense program) is a front for the national security state’s real objectives (e.g., maintain U.S. influence in the Middle East to keep Israel’s supporters happy; keep the Cold War alive with Russia as an adversary; and fund make-work projects for defense contractors).
This duplicity is how business is done in Washington. It’s an insiders’ game where what’s good for the American people and U.S. national security is, at best, a secondary consideration. Among the Washington ruling class, what counts most is retaining power by keeping big donors happy. And if that means endless wars, so be it.
Mr. Enzweiler, who served in the US Air Force in the 1970s, has lived and worked extensively in the Middle East, serving seven years (2007-2014) as a field-level civilian advisor for the US government in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now retired, he has written a book (When Will We Ever Learn?) that critiques US foreign and military policy.
After calling for all U.S. troops to be pulled out of Syria, President Trump is now in favor of keeping a “small…stabilizing force” there. What a shame. Trump is the ultimate flip-flopper, bowing to the neo-cons and the Washington establishment whenever it’s expedient for him to do so.
What, exactly, is America’s national security interest in Syria? Trump says these U.S. troops will help to prevent a resurgence of ISIS, but surely Syria, Turkey, Russia, and other countries in the region have more incentive — and far more capability — to keep the Islamic State down and out. But let’s say the Islamic State did make a comeback in Syria after all U.S. troops left. In that case, couldn’t U.S. troops just redeploy there? Why are “boots on the ground” needed in perpetuity in Syria to monitor the dead carcass of ISIS?
Once the U.S. commits troops to a region or country, they seem to linger — and linger. In rare cases when troops finally are withdrawn and something bad happens, you instantly hear how it’s the fault of those who called for troop withdrawals, as if U.S. troops bring stability wherever they go.
It’s a strange belief. The U.S. celebrates its troops as warriors, trains them in kinetic operations, outfits them with the most destructive technologies, and then deploys them to bring stability and peace to regions those troops barely understand. For a different vision of the “stability” American troops bring, one might ask the peoples of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, to name only three recent examples.
It’s high time, America, that we bring the troops home. Our national defense is not advanced by worldwide troop deployments in the name of “stability.” Trump once seemed to recognize this, however fleetingly, as a candidate. As president, however, he’s become yet another pawn of U.S. military interventionists and neo-cons. As Trump would say, sad.
In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I discuss how and why the U.S. military has a sustained record of turning victory (however fleeting) into defeat. What follows is an excerpt from my article.
A Sustained Record of Losing
During World War II, British civilians called the “Yanks” who would form the backbone of the Normandy invasion in June 1944 (the one that contributed to Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender less than a year later) “overpaid, oversexed, and over here.” What can be said of today’s Yanks? Perhaps that they’re overfunded, overhyped, and always over there — “there” being unpromising places like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia.
Let’s start with always over there. As Nick Turse recently reported for TomDispatch, U.S. forces remain deployed on approximately 800 foreign bases across the globe. (No one knows the exact number, Turse notes, possibly not even the Pentagon.) The cost: somewhere to the north of $100 billion a year simply to sustain that global “footprint.” At the same time, U.S. forces are engaged in an open-ended war on terror in 80 countries, a sprawling commitment that has cost nearly $6 trillion since the 9/11 attacks (as documented by the Costs of War Project at Brown University). This prodigious and prodigal global presence has not been lost on America’s Tweeter-in-Chief, who opined that the country’s military “cannot continue to be the policeman of the world.” Showing his usual sensitivity to others, he noted as well that “we are in countries most people haven’t even heard about. Frankly, it’s ridiculous.”
Yet Trump’s inconsistent calls to downsize Washington’s foreign commitments, including vows to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria and halve the number in Afghanistan, have encountered serious pushback from Washington’s bevy of war hawks like Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and his own national security advisor, John Bolton. Contrary to the president’s tweets, U.S. troops in Syria are now destined to remain there for at least months, if not years, according to Bolton. Meanwhile, Trump-promised troop withdrawals from Afghanistan may be delayed considerably in the (lost) cause of keeping the Taliban — clearly winning and having nothing but time — off-balance. What matters most, as retired General David Petraeus argued in 2017, is showing resolve, no matter how disappointing the results. For him, as for so many in the Pentagon high command, it’s perfectly acceptable for Americans to face a “generational struggle” in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) that could, he hinted, persist for as long as America’s ongoing commitment to South Korea — that is, almost 70 years.
Turning to overfunded, the unofficial motto of the Pentagon budgetary process might be “aim high” and in this they have succeeded admirably. For example, President Trump denounced a proposed Pentagon budget of $733 billion for fiscal year 2020 as “crazy” high. Then he demonstrated his art-of-the-deal skills by suggesting a modest cut to $700 billion, only to compromise with his national security chiefs on a new figure: $750 billion. That eternal flood of money into the Pentagon’s coffers — no matter the political party in power — ensures one thing: that no one in that five-sided building needs to think hard about the disastrous direction of U.S. strategy or the grim results of its wars. The only hard thinking is devoted to how to spend the gigabucks pouring in (and keep more coming).
Instead of getting the most bang for the buck, the Pentagon now gets the most bucks for the least bang. To justify them, America’s defense experts are placing their bets not only on their failing generational war on terror, but also on a revived cold war (now uncapitalized) with China and Russia. Such rivals are no longer simply to be “deterred,” to use a commonplace word from the old (capitalized) Cold War; they must now be “overmatched,” a new Pentagon buzzword that translates into unquestionable military superiority (including newly “usable” nuclear weapons) that may well bring the world closer to annihilation.
Finally, there’s overhyped. Washington leaders of all stripes love to boast of a military that’s “second to none,” of a fighting force that’s the “finest” in history. Recently, Vice President Mike Pence reminded the troops that they are “the best of us.” Indeed you could argue that “support our troops” has become a new American mantra, a national motto as ubiquitous as (and synonymous with) “In God we trust.” But if America’s military truly is the finest fighting force since forever, someone should explain just why it’s failed to produce clear and enduring victories of any significance since World War II.
Despite endless deployments, bottomless funding, and breathless hype, the U.S. military loses — it’s politely called a “stalemate” — with remarkable consistency. America’s privates and lieutenants, the grunts at the bottom, are hardly to blame. The fish, as they say, rots from the head, which in this case means America’s most senior officers. Yet, according to them, often in testimony before Congress, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere, that military is always making progress. Victory, so they claim, is invariably around the next corner, which they’re constantly turning or getting ready to turn.
Indeed, when three of them were still in Donald Trump’s administration, the pro-war mainstream media unabashedly saluted them as the “adults in the room,” allegedly curbing the worst of the president’s mad impulses. Yet consider the withering critique of veteran reporter William Arkin who recently resigned from NBC News to protest the media’s reflexive support of America’s wars and the warriors who have overseen them. “I find it disheartening,” he wrote, “that we do not report the failures of the generals and national security leaders. I find it shocking that we essentially condone continued American bumbling in the Middle East and now Africa through our ho-hum reporting.” NBC News, he concluded in his letter of resignation, has been “emulating the national security state itself — busy and profitable. No wars won but the ball is kept in play.”
Arkin couldn’t be more on target. Moreover, self-styled triumphalist warriors and a cheeringly complicit media are hardly the ideal tools with which to fix a tottering republic, one allegedly founded on the principle of rule by informed citizens, not the national security state.
Perhaps the most blatant example of the bankruptcy of conventional wisdom at the Pentagon came from retired General David Petraeus in an interview with PBS reporter Judy Woodruff in June of 2017. Petraeus spoke of a “sustainable, sustained commitment” to Afghanistan and the need for a “generational struggle” with Islamic terrorists who are located there. Comparing Afghanistan to the U.S. commitment to South Korea, he hinted U.S. troops might be there for 60 or more years (though he backtracked on the 60-year figure when challenged by Woodruff).
Here’s a telling excerpt from his interview:
We need to recognize that we went there [Afghanistan] for a reason and we stayed for a reason, to ensure that Afghanistan is not once again a sanctuary for al-Qaida or other transnational extremists, the way it was when the 9/11 attacks were planned there.
That’s why we need to stay. We also have a very useful platform there for the regional counterterrorist effort. And, of course, we have greatly reduced the capabilities of al-Qaida’s senior leaders in that region, including, of course, taking out Osama bin Laden.
But this is a generational struggle. This is not something that is going to be won in a few years. We’re not going to take a hill, plant a flag, go home to a victory parade. And we need to be there for the long haul, but in a way that is, again, sustainable.
These statements are so wrongheaded it’s hard to know where to begin to correct them:
The U.S. military went into Afghanistan to punish the Taliban after 9/11. Punishment was administered and the Taliban overthrown in 2001, after which the U.S. military should have left. The decision to stay was foolish and disastrous. Extending a disastrous occupation is only aggravating the folly.
“Transnational extremists”: According to the U.S. military, the Af-Pak region has exploded with terrorist elements, and indeed Petraeus and his fellow generals count twenty or more factions in Afghanistan. In sum, rather than weakening Islamic extremism in the area, U.S. military action has served to strengthen it.
“A very useful platform”: The U.S. has spent roughly a trillion dollars on its eighteen-year-old war in the Af-Pak region. The results? The Taliban has increased its hold over Afghan territory and Islamic extremism has flourished. How is this “very useful” to the United States?
A “long haul” that’s “sustainable”: What exactly is “sustainable” about a war you’ve been fighting — and losing — for nearly two decades? Leaving aside the dead and maimed troops, how is a trillion dollars a “sustainable” price for a lost war?
No “victory parade.” At least Petraeus is right here, though I wouldn’t put it past Trump to have a military parade to celebrate some sort of “victory” somewhere.
It appears President Trump is finally fed up, suggesting a withdrawal of troops from Syria as well as a force drawdown in Afghanistan. But it appears Trump is already caving to pressure from the Pentagon and the usual neo-con suspects, e.g. National Security Adviser John Bolton suggests U.S. troops won’t withdraw from Syria without a guarantee from Turkey not to attack America’s Kurdish allies, which, according to the New York Times, may extend America’s troop commitment by “months or years.”
Trump needs to realize that, if it were up to the Pentagon, America today would still be fighting the Vietnam War, rather than working closely with Vietnam as a partner in efforts to counterbalance China.
The Pentagon’s conventional wisdom is that U.S. troops, once committed, must never leave a region. Victory or defeat doesn’t matter. What matters is “sustaining” a “sustainable” commitment. Hence troops are still in Iraq, still in Afghanistan, still in Syria, still in 800+ bases around the world, because any withdrawal is couched as surrender, a display of weakness, so says America’s military “experts.”
The U.S. doesn’t need a “sustainable, sustained commitment” to the Middle East or Central Asia or anywhere else for that matter, other than right here in the USA. We need a sustainable, sustained commitment to a better health care system. To better roads, bridges, airports. To affordable education. To tax cuts that actually help the middle class.
When it comes to “generational struggles,” David Petraeus, let’s fight for a better America, not for sustaining troops in lost causes around the world.
Good news: President Trump is withdrawing troops from Syria and Afghanistan. While the President’s stated reason for the Syrian withdrawal — that Isis is totally defeated in the region — is dubious, it’s hard to tell how the presence of a couple of thousand U.S. troops is either needed or desirable for counter-terror operations there. In Afghanistan, Trump has ordered the withdrawal of seven thousand U.S. troops, or roughly half the force there. One can only hope he’ll withdraw the remaining troops by the end of 2019.
Trump’s moves are consistent with his campaign promises about ending costly troop deployments and wasteful overseas wars. Despite this, he’s being castigated by Republicans and Democrats for putting America at risk by leaving Syria and preparing to leave Afghanistan. Ostensibly, the U.S. has two major political parties, but they often act together as a single war party. Trump knows this and is unafraid (so far) to confront them.
Indeed, it’s possible Trump won in 2016 because he outspokenly denounced the waste of America’s wars. Evidence suggests that pro-Trump sentiment in rural areas especially was driven in part by people who agreed with his anti-war critique: by people who’d either served in these wars or whose sons/daughters had served.
Compare this to the Clintons and mainstream Democrats (and Republicans), who’ve worked hard to suppress anti-war forces, the McGovernite wing of the party, so to speak. Recall that it was Hillary the Hawk who warmly and proudly embraced Henry Kissinger in 2016, and look where that got her.
Adding further intrigue and disruption is Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s announcement of his resignation, effective in February 2019. I never thought Mattis was the right candidate to serve as America’s civilian Secretary of Defense; Trump apparently sees him as too conventional in outlook (almost a Democrat, Trump has said). Mattis has disagreed with Trump’s boorish treatment of America’s allies, especially of NATO, and there’s no doubt that Trump has been crude, rude, and socially unacceptable, as we used to say as teenagers. But that is Trump’s prerogative. The Americans who elected him, after all, knew they weren’t getting a glad-handing soft-talking diplomat.
Finally, Trump is still fighting for five billion dollars to extend the wall along the southern border with Mexico. He’s threatening to shutdown the government for a very long time and (at least partially) to own the blame. It’s a waste of money, of course, though $5 billion is a drop in the bucket when you consider the Pentagon’s budget of roughly $716 billion.
I’m a huge Trump critic (I was very critical of Obama as well), but I give him credit for taking unpopular stances even as he tries to honor campaign promises. Pulling ground troops out of Syria and Afghanistan is the right thing to do. The wall is a ridiculous boondoggle, but even here, Trump is willing to fight for it. Would that Democratic leadership show similar resolve over issues like affordable health care, a living wage, and climate change.
Bring the troops home, Mister President. End the wars and reinvest in America. If you do these things, it’s likely you’ll be reelected in 2020. It pains me to write that, because I’m no fan of Trump’s mendacity and greed, among his many other faults, but I think it’s true.
Once again, the U.S. military has launched Tomahawk cruise missiles against Syria, as well as a new weapon called the JASSM-ER, described as “a stealthy long-range air-fired cruise missile.” According to FP: Foreign Policy, the latter weapon is “likely being closely watched in Tokyo, where military officials are considering purchasing the missile to give the country’s military a long-range strike capability against North Korean targets, Japan Times reports.” In short, the U.S. military demonstrated a new weapon for an ally and potential client while striking a country (Syria) that has no way of striking back directly at the U.S.
April 16/18: JASSM-ER makes its combat debut The USAF has fired Lockheed Martin’s AGM-158B Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile Extended Range (JASSM-ER) missile in combat for the first time. 19 such missiles were launched from two B-1B Lancer bombers during last weekend’s sortie against Syrian chemical weapon research and storage facilities, and were joined by 57 Tomahawk missiles launched from US naval assets, as well as Storm Shadow and SCALP missiles from British and French warplanes. While Russian sources in Syria claim that Russian and Syrian air defenses managed to down 71 or the total 105 cruise missiles launched during the Friday night operation—claims Washington refutes—a report on the mission by the Aviationist reckon the newer missiles—in particular the JASSM-ER, SCALP and Storm Shadow—would have been highly effective against their targets.
One thing is certain: business is booming yet again for Lockheed Martin.
Technology shapes thought even as it becomes a substitute for it. It amazes me, for example, how the U.S. military threw technology at the “problem” of Vietnam in an attempt to “win” that war. Everything short of nuclear weapons was unleashed on Southeast Asia, yet those brave people refused to surrender. U.S. Presidents from Kennedy to Nixon were always sending messages through airpower and other forms of destructive technology, but the Vietnamese couldn’t have cared less about those “messages.” They had one goal: expel the invader, unify the country, and they stuck to it despite all the high explosive, napalm, defoliants, electronic fences, and everything else inflicted upon them.
Americans tend to see technology as a panacea. Even deadly technology. So, for example, what’s the proposed solution to gun violence in the USA? According to the NRA and our president, it’s more guns. What’s the solution to violence in Syria? According to the military and our president, it’s more bombs and missiles. One clear winner emerges here: those who produce the guns, bombs, and missiles.
Tomahawks and drones and similar weapons are all about action at a distance. They incur no risk of harm to U.S. troops. As a result, America’s leaders use them liberally to send “signals” and to add to the body count. They strike because they can and because it’s relatively easy. Action serves as a substitute for thought. The only strategy is to keep blowing things up.
The U.S. strategy, such as it is, is defined and driven by Tomahawks and drones and related weaponry. These weapons make possible “global reach, global power,” but they do not facilitate global thinking. Promising decision or at least quick results, they lead only to more bodies and deeper quagmires.
The U.S. keeps getting bogged down in wars in part because of the faith the government places in technology. So much is invested in military weaponry that it becomes a substitute for thought.
But there are no missions accomplished: there is only more destruction.
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.
The term “collateral damage” is a terrifying euphemism. The U.S. military didn’t invent it, but it sure has embraced it. The dictionary definition is “unintended civilian casualties or damage in a war,” which is about as anodyne a description as one could imagine.
In common usage, “collateral” is something we put up to secure a loan, so it often has a positive meaning. (No worries: I have lots of collateral.) “Damage” is a neutral-sounding word: the book was damaged in shipping. Storm damage. And we also speak of “damages” when we sue someone. In sum, “collateral” and “damage” are impersonal and imprecise words.
Let’s think personally and precisely. What is “collateral damage” in the “war on terror”? Bodies blown to bits. Blood everywhere. Skin burnt and melted by Willy Peter (White Phosphorous). Eviscerated children. Rotting corpses.
The military has a colorful saying: “Don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining.” Maybe we need a new saying: “Don’t murder my child and tell me it’s collateral damage.”
In his latest mini-essay introduction at TomDispatch.com, Tom Engelhardt notes how “collateral damage” has become a central and defining reality of America’s endless war on terror. The main article (Burning Raqqa) by Laura Gottesdiener details U.S.-led air strikes in Syria that go horribly wrong:
By the beginning of May, the Abdos’ neighborhood was under almost daily bombardment by the U.S.-led coalition forces. On May 3rd, coalition warplanes reportedly launched up to 30 airstrikes across Tabqa’s first, second, and third neighborhoods, striking homes and a fruit market and reportedly killing at least six civilians. The following night, another round of coalition airstrikes battered the first and third neighborhoods, reportedly killing at least seven civilians, including women and children. Separate airstrikes that same night near the city’s center reportedly killed another six to 12 civilians.
On May 7th, multiple bombs reportedly dropped by the U.S.-led coalition struck the building where Muhammed and Salam had taken shelter, killing them and their 12-year-old grandson. Three days later, the Syrian Democratic Forces announced that they had fully seized control of Tabqa and the dam. The militia and its U.S. advisers quickly set their sights east to the upcoming offensive in Raqqa.
But for the Abdo family, the tragedy continued. Muhammed and Salam’s bodies were buried beneath the collapsed apartment building. It took 15 days before Wassim’s brother Rashid could secure the heavy machinery required to extract them.
“Nobody could approach the corpses because of the disfigurement that had occurred and the smell emanating from them as a result of being left under the rubble for such a long period of time in the hot weather,” Wassim told me in a recent interview.
That same day their bodies were finally recovered. On May 23rd, his parents and nephew were buried in the Tabqa cemetery.
Specifics such as these are generally not reported by the U.S. military or in the U.S. media. Instead, we get headlines about militants or terrorists being killed, along with snippets about collateral damage, “regrettable” but framed as unavoidable.
Tell that to the families of the dead.
George Orwell famously noted the political uses of language and the insidiousness of euphemisms. As I wrote a year ago, words about war matter. Dishonest words contribute to dishonest wars. They lead to death, dismemberment, and devastation. That’s not “collateral” — that’s a defining and terrifying reality.