For the U.S. Military, the World Is Not Enough

W.J. Astore

In physics, I learned about Newton’s three laws.  But his (fictional and humorous) fourth law may be the most important of all

Somewhere, I don’t remember where, I came across a humorous variant of Newton’s three laws of motion, proposing a fourth law, as follows:

“Newton’s Fourth Law: Don’t start no shit, won’t be no shit.”

Imagine if the U.S. government/military had followed this “4th law.”  No Vietnam war.  No Afghan war.  No Iraq war.  No Libya.  No Syria.  And so forth.  Trillions of dollars saved, along with millions of lives.

There’s an unbounded and restless quality to U.S. ambitions that reminds me of Germany’s Second Reich under the Kaiser.  Before World War I, Germany was known as the “restless Reich,” contesting for its imperial place in the sun.  A relative latecomer to European imperialism, Germany wanted to enlarge its global span of control — it wanted to be a “world power” like Great Britain and France.  Those global ambitions got Germany two world wars and utter devastation.

Meet the new “restless Reich”: the United States.  Indeed, for the Pentagon and America’s national security state, being a world power isn’t enough.  Not only must the land, sea, and air be dominated, but space and cyberspace as well.  America’s leaders act as if any backsliding in any region of the world is a sign of weakness, tantamount to appeasement vis-à-vis Russia, China, terrorists, and so on.

The result is that it’s very easy for rivals to pluck the U.S. eagle and make it screech. Russia and China can spend relatively little on missiles or jets or ships, and America’s military-industrial complex is guaranteed to scream in response. China has two aircraft carriers! Russia has new missiles!  American supremacy is not compromised by such weapons, but that has never stopped threat inflation in America (recall the fictional “bomber” and “missile” gaps during the Cold War). 

Threat inflation is now global, meaning scaremongering is global.  Even at America’s border with Mexico, a caravan of a few thousand impoverished and desperate people requires the deployment of more than 5800 combat-ready troops to stop this “invasion,” or so the Trump administration argues.

The United States is bankrupting itself in the name of global strength and full-spectrum dominance.  Dwight D. Eisenhower was right when he said that only Americans can truly hurt America. That’s what our leaders are doing with this global scaremongering.

As Army Major Danny Sjursen noted recently at TomDispatch.com, the United States has transformed the entire planet into a militarized zone, slicing and dicing it into various military commands overseen by generals planning for the next war(s).  Sjursen notes a sobering reality:

With Pentagon budgets reaching record levels — some $717 billion for 2019 — Washington has stayed the course, while beginning to plan for more expansive future conflicts across the globe. Today, not a single square inch of this ever-warming planet of ours escapes the reach of U.S. militarization.

Think of these developments as establishing a potential formula for perpetual conflict that just might lead the United States into a truly cataclysmic war it neither needs nor can meaningfully win.

To avert such a cataclysmic war, we’d do well to channel Newton’s (fictitious) Fourth Law: Don’t start no shit, won’t be no shit.  

The Biggest National Security Threats

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Trump, surrounded by the military, vows to give it more (and more!) money

W.J. Astore

Today at 2PM, the Trump administration releases its National Security Strategy.  It’s already making news because Trump is dropping climate change (added by the Obama administration) as a threat.  Instead, Trump is placing new emphasis on economic competitiveness and border security (“Build the wall!”), which are two corporate-friendly policies (read: boondoggles).

I’d like to cite two threats that Trump won’t mention in his national security strategy.  These two threats are perhaps the biggest ones America faces, and they are related.  The first is threat inflation, and the second is the U.S. military itself, as in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s military-industrial-Congressional complex.

Threat inflation is a huge problem in America.  The threat of terrorism is vastly inflated, as is the threat from North Korea.  If we wanted to focus on what threatens Americans, we’d be redoubling efforts to help those with opioid addictions even as we work to cut deaths by guns and in road accidents.  Roughly 120,000 Americans are dying each year from opioid overdoses, road accidents, and shootings.  How many are dying from terrorism or from attacks by North Korea?

North Korea is a weak regional power led by an immature dictator who is desperate to keep his grip on power.  Kim Jong-un knows that any use of nuclear weapons by North Korea would end in his death and the annihilation of his country.  He also knows that nuclear weapons serve as a deterrent and a symbol of prestige domestically and internationally.  Does he need to be deterred?  Yes.  Should Americans cower in fear?  Of course not.

Cyberwar is certainly a threat–just look at Russian meddling in our last presidential election.  China and Russia are nuclear powers and rivals that bear close watching, but they are not enemies.  Indeed, since the end of the Cold War the United States hasn’t faced serious peer enemies.  We should have been cashing in our “peace dividends” for the last 25 years.  Why haven’t we?

Enter the military-industrial-Congressional complex.  Ike warned us about it in 1961.  He warned about its misplaced power, its persistence, and its anti-democratic nature.  Ike, a retired five-star general who led the allied armies on the Western Front in World War II against the Nazis, knew of what he spoke.  He knew the Complex exaggerated threats, such as missile or bomber “gaps” (which didn’t exist) vis-a-vis the Soviet Union.  Ike knew the military, its corporate feeders and enablers, and Congress always wanted one thing: more.  He did his best to control the military, but once he left office, it was the Complex that took control, leading America into a disastrous war in Vietnam, the first of many “wars of choice” that ended in American defeats, but which proved highly profitable to the Complex itself.

Those endless wars that feed the Complex persist today.  Elements of the U.S. military are deployed to 149 countries and 800 foreign bases at a budgetary cost of $700 billion (that’s just for the “defense” budget).  Spending so much money on the military represents a tremendous opportunity cost–for that money, Americans could have free health care and college tuition, but who wants good health and a sound education, right?

Ike recognized the opportunity cost of “defense” spending in 1953 in this famous speech:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

What Ike said.  The point is not that Ike was a perfect man (look at the Iran coup, also in 1953), but he sure as hell was a sound and at times a penetrating thinker, a mature man who knew the awful burdens of war.

And now we have Trump, the opposite of Ike, an unsound and shallow thinker, an immature man who knows nothing of the awfulness of war.  Add Trump himself–his immaturity, his bellicosity, his ignorance, and his denial of reality–as a threat to our national security.

So, a quick summary of three big threats that won’t make Trump’s “strategy” today:

  1. Threat inflation: terrorism, North Korea, Iran, etc.
  2. The Complex itself and its profligate, prodigal, and anti-democratic nature.
  3. Trump.

And add back one more: climate change/global warming.  Because flooding, fires, droughts, famines, etc., exacerbated by global warming, are already creating security challenges, which will only grow worse over the next half-century.  Denying that reality, or calling it “fake news,” won’t change Mother Nature; she has her own implacable ways,

Terrorism and Threat Inflation: Fear Is the Mind-Killer

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W.J. Astore

Over the last ten years in the United States, more than 280,000 Americans (more than 300,000 by some counts) have died because of guns.  Over that same period, roughly 350,000 Americans have died on the roads in vehicular accidents.  That’s roughly 630,000 Americans dying every decade either in road accidents or by gunshots, which is roughly the number of Americans who died in the horrible carnage of the U.S. Civil War from 1861 to 1865, America’s bloodiest war.

In other words, at the hands of guns and vehicles, Americans suffer the equivalent of a civil war-like bloodletting each and every decade.  Is it time to declare war on guns and cars?  (And now roughly 30,000 people each year are dying from drug overdoses related to the abuse of prescription painkillers and other opiates.)

The U.S. media and our leaders prefer to fixate on radical Islamic terrorism, which has accounted for 24 deaths over the same period.  Indeed, by the numbers the White supremacist threat to America is twice as serious as threats from ISIS or other external radical groups.

According to the Washington Times,

“In the 14 years since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, nearly twice as many people have been killed in the United States by white supremacists and anti-government radicals than by Muslim jihadis, according to a new study.”

“White supremacists and anti-government radicals have killed 48 Americans … versus 26 killings by Muslim radicals, according to a count by New America, a Washington research center.”

“New America program associate David Sterman said the study shows that white supremacy and anti-government idealists are a major problem, that their growth rate needs to be addressed and that there is an ‘ignored threat’ woven in the fabric of American society.”

Given these numbers and realities, why are America’s leaders so fixated on hyping the threat of radical Islamic terrorists?  Shouldn’t we be focusing on saving lives on our roads? Reducing gun accidents and gun crimes and suicide by guns? On reducing hate-filled radicalism within our own country?

We should be, but we’re not.  Our leaders prefer threat inflation: They believe in making political hay while the foreign terrorist threat shines.  So presidential candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio predictably call for a war on terrorism, for military “boots on the ground” in Syria and Iraq, and (of course) for higher military spending and more surveillance, in the name of protecting America.  Threat inflation knows no political party, of course, with Hillary Clinton joining the chorus of the tough-talkers against terror.

Threat inflation sells.  And threat inflation pays.  This is an important theme in Tom Engelhardt’s latest tour de force at TomDispatch.com, “The National Security State’s Incestuous Relationship with the Islamic State.”  As Engelhardt notes, threat inflation drives a dance of death even as it eliminates grey zones — opportunities for dialog, diplomacy, compromise, forms of accommodation.  It enforces a black and white world of crusaders and jihadists bent on killing one another in the name of righteousness.

Here is how Engelhardt puts it:

the officials of [the U.S. national] security state have bet the farm on the preeminence of the terrorist “threat,” which has, not so surprisingly, left them eerily reliant on the Islamic State and other such organizations for the perpetuation of their way of life, their career opportunities, their growing powers, and their relative freedom to infringe on basic rights, as well as for that comfortably all-embracing blanket of secrecy that envelops their activities.  Note that, as with so many developments in our world which have caught them by surprise, the officials who run our vast surveillance network and its staggering ranks of intelligence operatives and analysts seemingly hadn’t a clue about the IS plot against Paris (even though intelligence officials in at least one other country evidently did).  Nonetheless, whether they see actual threats coming or not, they need Paris-style alarms and nightmares, just as they need local “plots,” even ones semi-engineered by FBI informers or created online by lone idiots, not lone wolves. Otherwise, why would the media keep prattling on about terrorism or presidential candidates keep humming the terror tune, and how, then, would public panic levels remain reasonably high on the subject when so many other dangers are more pressing in American life?

The relationship between that ever-more powerful shadow government in Washington and the Islamic terrorists of our planet is both mutually reinforcing and unnervingly incestuous.

Of course, Engelhardt knows that terrorism must be fought.  The point is not to lose our collective heads over the (much exaggerated) threat of it.  To cite Frank Herbert’s insight in Dune, “Fear is the mind-killer.”  Yet our media and leaders seem determined to hype fear so as to kill our minds.

As our media and politicians stoke our fear by exaggerating the threat posed by terrorism, ask yourself to what purpose are they attacking your minds.

Hint: It certainly isn’t about keeping you safe.

The USA Takes the Gold Medal in Threat Inflation

The USA Takes the Gold! (In Threat Inflation.)
The USA Takes the Gold! (In Threat Inflation)

W.J. Astore

Did you know an Iranian “fleet” is approaching American shores?  I’m talking about a destroyer and a supply ship.  Sound the alarm!  General quarters!

Juan Cole at Informed Comment has an amusing story on our media’s latest manifestation of what he terms Iranian “Derangement Syndrome.”  Two years ago, I wrote about our amazing capacity for threat inflation when it comes to Iran.

This is nothing new, of course.  Threat inflation is a perennial theme in American history.  Non-existent bomber gaps. Missile gaps.  A vast overestimation of the Soviet threat even as the Soviet Union was beginning to collapse.   All employed to sustain high “defense” spending for the military-industrial-Congressional complex.

Let’s face it: Citing the deployment of an Iranian “fleet” as a potential threat to the USA is like citing the Jamaican bobsled team as a threat to win all the gold medals at the Winter Olympics.

Once again, America is the odds-on favorite to win the gold medal in our favorite Olympian event of threat inflation.  USA!  USA!

Fresh Thinking on U.S. National Security Policy

More Athens, Less Sparta
More Athens, Less Sparta

Here, as promised, is what I hope is some fresh thinking.  I also posted this at Huffington Post.

Currently, so-called “fresh” thinking on national security from the Obama administration includes the pivot to Asia, more emphasis on cyberwar and drones, continued expansion of Special Forces, a withdrawal from Afghanistan in super-slow motion, and intervention (sending arms at minimum; troops possibly to follow) in Syria. “Defense” budgets are to remain high, with each service getting its usual assortment of high-priced weapons (most notoriously, the $400 billion devoted to procure the F-35 joint strike fighter for the Air Force, Navy, and Marines).

In other words, it’s pretty much business as usual at the Pentagon.

How about some truly fresh thinking on national security? Here are five ideas that are more visionary than anything our sclerotic and self-absorbed bureaucracy will ever produce:

1. Eliminate nuclear weapons in U.S. military arsenals by the year 2025.

The U.S. remains the only country ever to use nuclear weapons (Hiroshima and Nagasaki). It would send a powerful message to the world if we took the lead in eliminating nuclear weapons from the planet. And we can afford to take this risk. Why? Precisely because of our enormous conventional (non-nuclear) military might. Such a bold step would also help to restore our moral standing in the world.

2. Get out of Afghanistan now.

If the Afghan National Army (ANA) isn’t ready to take charge after a decade of U.S. training and scores of billions of dollars, it never will be. The U.S. effort to train the ANA was always a case of putting the cart before the horse, since you can hardly create a national army where there is no nation. It’s time to cut our losses and leave.

3. Define a new “Good Neighbor” Policy.

Remember when FDR declared a “Good Neighbor” policy to improve relations with Latin American countries? Yes, it was eight decades ago. It’s high time that we reach out again to our immediate neighbors, even the “bad boy” ones like Cuba and Venezuela, rather than wasting resources in faraway places like Afghanistan.

4. Renew the Monroe Doctrine — With A Twist.

Remember the Monroe Doctrine? In the early 19th century, we said “hands off our hemisphere” to the other major powers of the world. Backed up by the power of Britain’s Royal Navy, we helped to keep foreign meddling in the Americas to a minimum (we, of course, filled the gap and did plenty of meddling of our own).

Related to (3) above, we need a new Monroe Doctrine, one in which we vow to keep our hands off of other hemispheres.

It’s time to come home, America. We’ve got plenty of problems to fix here. The kind that can’t be fixed by buying more ultra-expensive jet fighters, unwanted main battle tanks, and superfluous nuclear attack submarines.

5. Put an end to threat inflation. In other words, grow up.

Do we have to react like Chicken Little to every threat, real or unreal? China has a stealth fighter! So? We’ve had them for four decades. China has an aircraft carrier (Russian-built)! And they’re building another one! So? We have 10 carrier task forces and 90 years’ experience operating them. Indeed, our Navy must be ecstatic: Finally a problem we understand!

These are not “threats,” unless you’re trying to justify business as usual at the Pentagon and among major defense contractors.

The same goes for terrorist attacks, whether successful or failed. How long are we supposed to doff our shoes at airport security checkpoints because of the inept “shoe bomber”? Another 10 years? Twenty? Forever?

Most Americans know the world is a dangerous place. But the greatest danger isn’t Chinese stealth fighters or the occasional terrorist attack (however tragic for the victims). The greatest danger is the ongoing erosion of our rights as citizens as we continue to expand the militarization of our society in the name of “safety” and “patriotism.”

America is slowly being turned into an enormous prison in which we meekly acquiesce to being monitored and even “locked down” (for our own safety, naturally). This is not the nation of John Wayne and Gary Cooper that I admired in countless westerns I watched as a boy.

Well, there are my five steps to a better national security policy. As a bonus step (and an obvious one), the U.S. must close Gitmo. The prison there is a blot on our nation’s moral standing in the world, and a cause célèbre for would-be terrorists everywhere.

Finally, and perhaps most of all, we need to change our mentality. We need a much broader definition of what “national security” really means. It’s not about having the biggest military or 16 intelligence agencies or expensive weapons. It’s about living a life worth living in which we respect others.

After all, the U.S. is supposed to be a shining city on a hill, not a bristling citadel on a hill.

Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached atwjastore@gmail.com.