With Syria, the Senate Neocons Are at It Again

U.S. Army soldiers from the 1-320 Field Artillery Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, watch helicopters at Combat Outpost Terra Nova
A scene from America’s endless war in Afghanistan (Council on Foreign Relations)

Ronald Enzweiler

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.

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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.

Trump’s Impeachment

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Happier days for Trump

W.J. Astore

President Donald Trump, it now seems clear, pressured the Ukrainian president to investigate a political rival, Joe Biden.  He exerted this pressure by withholding military aid to Ukraine approved by Congress, and by calling Ukraine’s president and asking him for a “favor,” the said favor being the investigation of Biden and his son, Hunter.  The White House apparently acted to “lock down” transcripts of the phone call, but a whistleblower came forward backed by an inspector general.

And my first reaction was: Can Trump be impeached for stupidity?

Joe Biden is a weak candidate for the presidency.  It’s questionable whether he’ll win the nomination next year.  Why bother going after him in such an egregiously illegal way when Biden is very likely to implode as a candidate on his own?

I can’t answer that question, but I can guess.  Trump, to put it mildly, has never been a public servant, and I include his term as president in this statement.  Trump is always about himself; the world revolves around him, or so he thinks.  He has no conception of following laws simply because he believes he is above them.  Furthermore, Biden may be a weak rival, but rival he is nonetheless.  And Trump, operating from his experience in the take-no-prisoners world of New York real estate, casino management, and similar escapades, knows what to do with a rival: you search for any edge you can get, including pressuring those who are dependent on you to dig up dirt on said rival.

Put bluntly, in this case Trump simply did what he regularly does.  The only difference is that a whistleblower wouldn’t play the game of “nothing to see here, move along.”

If only Trump had done what he promised as a candidate.  If only he’d acted to drain the swamp; if only he’d worked hard to end America’s forever wars; if only he’d truly put America first by rebuilding our country’s infrastructure and cutting taxes for workers.  Instead, he hired the swamp; he refueled those forever wars; he abandoned infrastructure along with meaningful tax cuts for workers.

Trump lacks integrity.  In short, he’s just another self-interested politician.  More than this, however, is Trump’s complete lack of respect for the law.  It’s time for him to go.

Update (9/27/19)

A few comments in passing:

1. Investigating Trump, on credible charges, is not an example of Trump Derangement Syndrome.
2. Saying that Biden is also corrupt, or that Democrats are corrupt, in no way exonerates Trump. For my money, let’s prosecute all corruption everywhere.
3. Often, the cover-up is worse than the crime. That may well be the case here.
4. Trump, as is his wont, is making matters worse, suggesting the whistleblower’s sources acted like spies and suggesting execution would be appropriate. (Please don’t say he was vague; we all know what he meant.)
5. Readers of this blog know that I voted third party in 2016. If you examine my articles, you’ll find I’m critical of both Democrats and Republicans.
6. Justice should not be partisan, even as it’s inevitably influenced by it.
7. I don’t care if the Republican-controlled Senate chooses not to convict Trump. Our lawmakers will have to go on the record, as they should, History will render the final verdict.
8. I don’t know if impeachment will make Trump stronger or weaker, and I don’t care. What it will do, assuming the evidence is sufficient, is to make justice in America stronger. No man should be above the law.

Of Premature Withdrawals, Forever Wars, and the U.S. Military

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Remember these generals?  The “adults in the room” for Trump?  How well did that work out?

W.J. Astore

As the Trump administration prepares to deploy more U.S. troops to serve the needs of Saudi Arabia, I got to thinking about America’s forever wars in the Middle East and Central Asia.  Back on August 17th, I clipped an article from the New York Times entitled “Debate Flares Over Afghanistan as Trump Considers Troop Withdrawal.”  I noted the usual “arguments” presented by U.S. military leaders and chickenhawks of both parties.  That withdrawals would constitute a “retreat” that would be “premature” and “reckless.”  That U.S. troops had to remain to counter “an enduring terrorist threat.”  That the Taliban enemy had perfected “weasel language” that would allow them to win any peace treaty.  Making his usual appearance was General (retired) David Petraeus, who warned ominously that a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan “would be even more ill-advised and risky than the Obama administration’s disengagement from Iraq.”  Petraeus, of course, has argued for a generational commitment to Afghanistan that could last as long as seventy years.

A few points to make here:

1.  A U.S. withdrawal wouldn’t be “premature.”  Rather, it’s at least seventeen years overdue.

2.  Terrorist threats are nothing new (I was reading about them on active duty in 1985).  Moreover, they are often fed by the presence of U.S. troops and bases as well as by “kinetic” actions, i.e. killing people, especially innocent civilians.

3.  It’s funny that the Taliban can’t be trusted for its “weasel” language, whereas Americans always negotiate in good faith.

4.  Why is Petraeus, a man who disgraced himself by illegally sharing classified information with his mistress, always the go-to guy for advice on any military situation?

Speaking of “premature withdrawals,” Tom Engelhardt noted how these same “arguments” were used to support the Iraq War in 2010.  The war song always remains the same: any military withdrawal is “premature” without total U.S. victory (whatever that may mean).

I swear if the U.S. military had had its way, U.S. forces would still be in Vietnam, and generals would still be arguing that withdrawal from Southeast Asia is “premature.”

In 2016, then-Candidate Trump deplored America’s dumb and costly wars, yet as President he now embraces the same tired tactics of the generals and their neo-con enablers.  All these men have a great fear of premature withdrawal — are they confusing it with premature ejaculation?

Even as America’s leaders boast about having the world’s greatest and most powerful military, their actions betray fears of defeat, of a lack of potency, and a concern they’re being played (i.e. those “weasel” words).  And indeed they are losing, they are showcasing their own impotence, they are being played, as long as these disastrous wars persist.

After the Mueller Report, Should Trump Be Impeached?

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French Ambassador Araud: Like Louis XIV, Trump believes he is the state.

W.J. Astore

The redacted Mueller Report is out, and there’s plenty of evidence that President Trump attempted to obstruct the investigation, which he saw as a partisan “witch hunt.” Indeed, Trump was saved by his aides, who refused to follow his orders to impede the investigation and to fire Robert Mueller.  Predictably, Republicans still support Trump, whereas prominent Democrats like Elizabeth Warren are calling for impeachment.

Should Trump be impeached?  No, I don’t think so.

I’m no fan of Trump.  I think he disqualified himself as a candidate in 2016 when he said he’d issue illegal orders to the U.S. military, which his generals would be obliged to follow.  Trump is not a public servant; in fact, he’s not much of a leader, period.  His basic instinct is to divide and conquer.  He looks for toadies and yes-men.  He cares little for anyone but himself and his immediate family.  He’s a master of regressive politics, a fomenter of discord.  His idea of justice is everything for Trump.

In sum, I don’t reject impeachment because I favor Trump.  I reject impeachment since the process will consume Congress and the country.

We have much higher priorities to address in America.  People are hurting.  Congress should focus (for once!) on helping ordinary people, not chasing Trump down various rabbit holes.

The outgoing French ambassador to the U.S. put it well in a recent interview.  Comparing Trump to Louis XIV, Ambassador Araud said “You have an old king, a bit whimsical, unpredictable, uninformed, but he wants to be the one deciding.”  Part of his act is to humiliate his subordinates as a way of showing his “mastery” of them.  He saves his admiration for other “strong men” like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un.  That’s who Trump is.

Trump’s an awful president.  But impeachment won’t kill him — it will likely make him stronger.  Put differently, Trump has already been convicted in the court of public opinion.  Even some of his followers recognize that Trump’s a con man who can’t be trusted.  The point is not to remove him via impeachment, but to defeat him in 2020 by offering a progressive vision rather than a regressive one.

Focus on helping the American people, Congress.  Leave the “old king” to his ignorance and whimsies.

Trump and North Korea

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All aboard the “peace train”?

W.J. Astore

This week Trump is off to Vietnam to meet with Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea.  Revealingly, the bar is already being set very low for what may be accomplished at this meeting.  Trump’s original goal was denuclearization, meaning that North Korea would have to give up its nuclear weapons program and remove whatever atomic bombs or warheads it has.  But North Korea isn’t stupid.  They know what happened to Qaddafi when he got rid of his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Libya.  For North Korea, nuclear WMD is a sort of insurance policy — a rational arsenal to deter the U.S. from launching a regime-change war.

Coming out of the last summit in Singapore between these men, Trump essentially declared “peace in our time,” even though North Korea has yet to make any significant changes in its nuclear weapons program.  Again, why should North Korea surrender its weapons?

If Ronald Reagan’s motto was “trust — but verify” with the Soviet Union, Trump’s motto with North Korea is simply “trust.”  It’s encouraging that Trump is no longer threatening to bring nuclear fire and fury to the North Koreans, and that Kim Jong-un is no longer approving launches of missiles in the general direction of Hawaii.  But is there any treaty being negotiated with substantive details of verification?  Do the North Koreans truly have any intent to give up their nuclear weapons?  I’d say the answer to both questions is no.

Interestingly, at the request of the Trump administration, the Japanese government has nominated Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize for his attempted rapprochement with North Korea.  Perhaps Trump’s peculiar brand of diplomacy may ease tensions with North Korea.  Detente may be followed by a negotiated settlement and an end to the rancor produced by the Korean War.  Such an ending would indeed be prize-worthy.

Trump’s quixotic efforts seem more vanity project than a well-considered project for peace.  Yet perhaps a vain wannabe dictator like Trump has an edge in understanding a vain and very real dictator like Kim Jong-un.  Trump, after all, did speak of a special bond he has with Kim, one that’s akin to falling in love.  And doesn’t love conquer all?

Trump, sadly, is probably being played by North Korea.  But who cares if lives are saved?  Facing possible famine, the North Korean people could surely use food and other aid.  Let’s hope the U.S. is able to give them some in exchange for promises, however vague, of denuclearization, however defined.

At this point, I’m tired of thinking of countries and national egos.  I’d rather think of saving lives.  Why not start in North Korea?

The U.S. Military: Overfunded, Overhyped, and Always Over There

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Don’t blame “our” troops (Shutterstock image)

W.J. Astore

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.

America’s post-9/11 crop of generals like Mattis, H.R. McMasterJohn Kelly, and especially Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus have been much celebrated here in the mainstream media. And in their dress uniforms shimmering with colorful ribbons, badges, and medals, they certainly looked the part of victors.

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.

For the rest of my article, please visit TomDispatch.com.

Trump Questions NATO: The Horror!

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Trump at a NATO meeting.  Looking to go his own way?

W.J. Astore

News that President Trump has considered withdrawing from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has drawn great consternation and criticism in the mainstream media.  According to the New York Times, “Mr. Trump’s national security team, including Jim Mattis, then the defense secretary, and John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, scrambled to keep American strategy on track without mention of a withdrawal that would drastically reduce Washington’s influence in Europe and could embolden Russia for decades.”  On NBC News today, an op-ed suggests that “Trump’s reported desire to leave NATO is a belated Christmas present for Putin.”  In both cases, there’s more than a hint that Trump is favoring Russia and Putin while possibly endangering European allies.

Twenty years ago, I was a major at the Air Force Academy, and we hosted a symposium on coalition warfare during which the future of NATO was discussed.  This was a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.  There were quite a few senior officers at that symposium who, like Trump today, were willing to question the continued relevance of NATO.  One of the “roundtables” specifically addressed the future of NATO.  Its chair was retired General James P. McCarthy, USAF, and its panel consisted of retired Generals Andrew L. Goodpaster, USA; Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley; and John A. Shaud, USAF.

With another officer, I wrote an “executive summary” of this symposium and what these retired generals said about NATO back in 1998.  Here’s what I wrote two decades ago:

The value of America’s most successful and most enduring alliance, NATO, has been called into question since the end of the Cold War, a confrontation many credit it with winning.  But, like many successful alliances after the common foe has been vanquished, NATO’s long-time raison d’être has seemingly evaporated.  That the alliance has managed not just to survive but thrive has baffled many observers.  The four former high-ranking NATO generals who made up this panel shared a common view of the continued high value of the alliance to America’s foreign policy interests.  However, their views diverged on several key issues that face NATO in the years ahead.

General McCarthy opened the discussion … [suggesting] that advancing the causes of peace, prosperity, and security remain NATO’s central task, made more difficult today because of the expansion of NATO’s membership.  Yet NATO continues to be important on the continent to discourage temptations to revert to old insecurities.  General Shaud echoed Goodpaster’s view of NATO’s essential role, saying if NATO did not exist, we would have to invent it.

On the effects of expansion, Shaud stated that NATO needed to expand, both in membership to include Eastern Europe and in mission to include conflict prevention and “out of area” operations.  Goodpaster quoted the late Secretary General Manfred Woerner, “It’s either out of area or out of business.”  He then raised a provocative question: Should NATO’s mission expand to include not just nations but peoples?  General Farrar-Hockley expanded on NATO’s continuing value, noting that during the Cold War, member countries came not to seek advantage for themselves over other members but came to put alliance interests and views first.

The sensitive issue of the effects of NATO’s expansion on Russia brought out disagreement among the panel members.  Farrar-Hockley took the position that to forego expansion because of Russian concerns would be to grant Russia a continuing fiefdom in Eastern Europe.  Russia has nothing to fear from NATO, and besides, it can do nothing to prevent expansion.  If the Soviet Union was an anemic tiger, Russia is more like a circus tiger that may growl but won’t bite.  Goodpaster suggested that NATO could have followed a different path that would not have antagonized Russia.  In the early post-Cold War years, the Soviet Union may have been open to an “overarching relationship” encompassing peaceful relations.  But as NATO developed partnerships with Eastern European countries, it chose not to pursue this approach with Russia.  Partnership for Peace itself could have been done differently by providing a more equal forum analogous to the new European-Atlantic Partnership Council.  Goodpaster asked rhetorically if NATO is a defensive alliance or a collective security alliance, but answered that NATO is what the times require.  It is ultimately a forum for solidarity in Europe, an organization in which different peoples have come to respect and trust one another.  Shaud took a middle view, saying NATO should ensure Russia does not become isolated; continuing dialogue is necessary.  He noted that earlier panels had pointed out Russia’s historical concerns about encirclement, suggesting that Russia’s views on expansion are not ephemeral concerns but rather enduring issues.

Policy Implications

One of the more pressing questions NATO faces today is expansion, the possible inclusion of former Soviet states.  Russian leaders believe, perhaps with some justification, that NATO is directed at them.  It is not that NATO has aggressive intentions, but that former Soviet satellites seek security in NATO’s orbit, thereby tending further to isolate Russia from the West.  The possibilities are ominous—the rise of a new demagogue in Russia in the absence of effective leadership, or alternatively chaos resulting from the implosion of an ungovernable, ineffective state.  How should the United States and NATO manage this sensitive relationship?  Can Russia be brought back from the brink on which it now stands through inclusion in Western institutions?  Or should NATO gather the flock against the impending storm, expanding to Russia’s very doorstep to take in all states desiring inclusion?  If NATO continues to expand, what will become of the cohesion that has been the hallmark of the most successful alliance in modern history?  If NATO stops expanding, what will become of non-members if crisis erupts in regions formerly controlled by the Soviet Union?  Whatever course of action NATO adopts, communication and openness must be its bywords; secrecy and exclusion will reap only suspicion and mistrust.

Again, this was written 20 years ago.  But I’d like to make a few points about this discussion:

  1. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO was no longer needed in Europe in the sense of its original purpose.
  2. Senior leaders disagreed on whether NATO expansion would serve the peace in Europe. Like General Goodpaster, some believed expansion would isolate and perhaps antagonize Russia, while others believed this was a risk worth taking in efforts to contain possible Russian aggression or turmoil.
  3. There was consensus that NATO was worth preserving in some form, but at other times during the symposium, concerns were expressed about equity, i.e. burden-sharing, and the perceived unfairness of the U.S. paying much more that its fair share to keep the alliance functioning.

In short, a generation ago military experts questioned whether NATO had outlived its purpose.  They asked whether the U.S. was paying too high a price, and they wondered whether NATO expansion would alienate Russia.  These were reasonable questions then, and they remain reasonable today.

Trump is not some “Russian agent” or Putin stooge for questioning whether the U.S. still needs to be in NATO.  In this case, he’s shown a willingness to think outside the NATO box.  After all, how long should NATO last?  Don’t all alliances eventually come to an end?  Or is NATO to exist forever?

Personally, I don’t think a precipitous withdrawal from NATO would be in the best interests of the U.S.  But surely there’s something to be said for building a new agreement or alliance in Europe that would be less driven by military concerns, less dependent on American money and weaponry and troops, and more inclusive toward Russia.