Islamophobia in the Trump Administration

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Let us remember the service and sacrifice of Muslim-Americans

W.J. Astore

Lately, Ben Carson at Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has been criticized in the news for wanting taxpayers to fund a dining set that costs $31,000.  (He’s tried to shift the blame to his wife.)  We seem to forget a far more disturbing aspect of Carson’s behavior: his Islamophobia.  Remember his anti-Muslim comments as a presidential candidate?  Remember he said that no Muslim-American should ever serve as president?

Back then, I heard from a fellow Air Force officer, a Muslim-American, originally from Iraq, who served proudly in our armed forces.  He said Ben Carson’s comment brought him to tears — that a candidate for a major political party would insist on a religious test that would bar all Muslims from serving this country as president.

Yet for his Islamophobic position, which was contrary to the U.S. Constitution that forbids any religious test for political office, Ben Carson was rewarded by the Trump administration and appointed Secretary at HUD.

Don’t focus on his pricey dining set, America: Focus on his ignorance and his prejudice against millions of patriotic Americans, who just happen to be Muslim.  And remember how he was rewarded for this.

This episode came back to me when I read TomDispatch today.  A U.S. Navy veteran, Nate Terani, recalls his own personal nightmares of being targeted as a Muslim-American by a Trump administration that leans increasingly toward Islamophobia.  As Tom Engelhardt notes in his introduction to Terani’s article, Trump has “tapped the [CIA’s] previous director, Mike Pompeo, a notorious Tea Party Islamophobe and Iranophobe, to replace Twitter-fired Rex Tillerson as secretary of state. Now, another key post is evidently about to be up for grabs. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster is reportedly almost out the door as the president openly considers a replacement for him, possibly former Bush-era ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton. He’s another major Iranophobe, who has called for launching military operations against that country for years … [Combine this with] the potential return of torture, the possible refilling of Guantanamo with new prisoners, the intensification of war across the Greater Middle East with a new focus on Iran, and the entrenchment of particularly extreme forms of Islamophobia” and you truly have a recipe for a nightmarish America.

There is no room in America for prejudice based on religious belief (or lack thereof).  Religious wars are nightmares of our past; we must not allow the haters to bring them back into our present or our future.

America’s Phony Wars and the National Defense Strategy

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U.S. troops and outposts and flags are everywhere, but for whose interests, and at what cost?

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I address America’s real wars overseas and contrast them with the phony war in the so-called Homeland.  What I mean by “phony” is the lack of national mobilization for, and even interest in, these overseas wars.  These wars exist and persist; they are both ever-spreading and never-ending; yet few Americans outside of the military and the Washington beltway crowd have any stake in them.  Except when U.S. troops die or a spectacular bomb is used, the mainstream media rarely covers them.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has defined a new National Defense Strategy (NDS) that has only expanded America’s list of enemies and rivals.  A quick summary:

  1. Conventional conflict against peer enemies, e.g. Russia and China.
  2. Conventional conflict against “rogue” states, e.g. North Korea and Iran.
  3. Unconventional (anti-terror) operations, e.g. Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Niger, etc.

If that’s not enough, the Pentagon also seeks extended nuclear supremacy (at a cost of at least $1.2 trillion over the next few decades) and full-spectrum dominance for space and cyber as well as land, sea, and air.  As U.S. “defense” budgets continue to grow, there’s really no sense of limits, monetary or otherwise.  Rising budgets feed endless war, and vice-versa.  It’s a fail-safe recipe for imperial over-stretch and the decline if not collapse of America.

What follows is an excerpt from my latest article; you can read the entire article here at TomDispatch.com.

America’s New (Phony) National Defense Strategy

Even phony wars need enemies.  In fact, they may need them more (and more of them) than real wars do.  No surprise then that the Trump administration’s recently announced National Defense Strategy (NDS) offers a laundry list of such enemies.  China and Russia top it as “revisionist powers” looking to reverse America’s putative victory over Communism in the Cold War.  “Rogue” powers like North Korea and Iran are singled out as especially dangerous because of their nuclear ambitions.  (The United States, of course, doesn’t have a “rogue” bone in its body, even if it is now devoting at least $1.2 trillion to building a new generation of more usable nuclear weapons.)  Nor does the NDS neglect Washington’s need to hammer away at global terrorists until the end of time or to extend “full-spectrum dominance” not just to the traditional realms of combat (land, sea, and air) but also to space and cyberspace.

Amid such a plethora of enemies, only one thing is missing in America’s new defense strategy, the very thing that’s been missing all these years, that makes twenty-first-century American war so phony: any sense of national mobilization and shared sacrifice (or its opposite, antiwar resistance).  If the United States truly faces all these existential threats to our democracy and our way of life, what are we doing frittering away more than $45 billion annually in a quagmire war in Afghanistan?  What are we doing spending staggering sums on exotic weaponry like the F-35 jet fighter (total projected program cost: $1.45 trillion) when we have far more pressing national needs to deal with?

Like so much else in Washington in these years, the NDS doesn’t represent a strategy for real war, only a call for more of the same raised to a higher power.  That mainly means more money for the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, and related “defense” agencies, facilitating more blitz attacks on various enemies overseas.  The formula — serial blitzkrieg abroad, serial sitzkrieg in the homeland — adds up to victory, but only for the military-industrial complex.

Of Military Parades and Super Bowls

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Trump, inspired by the French, wants his own military parade

W.J. Astore

News that President Trump favors a military parade in Washington D.C., perhaps to coincide with Veterans Day in November, has drawn criticism, and rightly so.  The president has a juvenile fascination with parades and other forms of pomp and circumstance, but more than anything I’m guessing he relishes the thought of posing as “The Leader,” reviewing and saluting “his” troops and generals as they pass in review.  If only “Cadet Bone Spurs,” the telling nickname that Tammy Duckworth has pegged him with, could don a military uniform for the occasion — his fantasy would be complete.

The idea of a military parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, complete with tanks and jets (and maybe some big missiles and bombs too?), sounds radical.  But is it really that different from other militarized celebrations that America has been witnessing and applauding since 9/11?

Consider this year’s Super Bowl.  It was played in a domed stadium, yet there was the obligatory military flyover (featuring A-10 attack planes, which the Air Force ironically wants to get rid of).  Fifteen Medal of Honor recipients were celebrated on the field, with one (a Marine) performing the coin toss for the game.  A video link showed U.S. troops watching from overseas.  In past years, troops featured were usually in combat zones like Iraq and Afghanistan.  This year the troops were in South Korea, perhaps because NBC wanted a link to the forthcoming Olympic games, hopefully not because the Trump administration is foreshadowing a “bloody nose” strike against North Korea that would turn that region into a combat zone.

Such patriotic (read: militarized) hoopla has become standard, not just at the Super Bowl and other NFL events, but at many other sporting events.  At last year’s U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York, prior to the men’s final played on 9/10, there was a ceremony to mark the 9/11 attacks, complete with the usual jumbo-sized U.S. flag, with uniformed troops joined by officer cadets from West Point, climaxed by a military flyover.  The ceremony was timed for maximum TV exposure.

As a retired military officer, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve saluted the colors and sung the National Anthem.  I have no objection to military color guards and proud renditions of our anthem.  It’s all the other hoopla — the flyovers, the video links, the gigantic flags, the increasing size of military contingents on playing fields and tennis courts and elsewhere — that I find so exaggerated.  It’s as if I sat down to watch a football game or a tennis match and a military parade broke out instead.

Give President Trump his due: he knows his audience.  His supporters will revel in a military parade in Washington.  So too will Trump.  The rest of us?  Why should we complain: we’ve been watching over-the-top military celebrations for nearly two decades.  A big parade down Pennsylvania Avenue is the logical culmination of all this, especially with Trump in charge.

Like many other aspects of American culture, Trump is just bringing our love of the military into higher relief.  Don’t blame him (or only him) if you don’t like what you see.

Our Enemy, Ourselves

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I suggest how America can pursue a wiser, more peaceful, course.  This is exactly what our leaders are not doing (and haven’t been doing for decades), as I document in the first half of my article, which I’m sharing here.  Bottom line: perpetual war doesn’t produce perpetual peace.  Nor does it make us safer.

Whether the rationale is the need to wage a war on terror involving 76 countries or renewed preparations for a struggle against peer competitors Russia and China (as Defense Secretary James Mattis suggested recently while introducing America’s new National Defense Strategy), the U.S. military is engaged globally.  A network of 800 military bases spread across 172 countries helps enable its wars and interventions.  By the count of the Pentagon, at the end of the last fiscal year about 291,000 personnel (including reserves and Department of Defense civilians) were deployed in 183 countries worldwide, which is the functional definition of a military uncontained.  Lady Liberty may temporarily close when the U.S. government grinds to a halt, but the country’s foreign military commitments, especially its wars, just keep humming along.

As a student of history, I was warned to avoid the notion of inevitability.  Still, given such data points and others like them, is there anything more predictable in this country’s future than incessant warfare without a true victory in sight?  Indeed, the last clear-cut American victory, the last true “mission accomplished” moment in a war of any significance, came in 1945 with the end of World War II.

Yet the lack of clear victories since then seems to faze no one in Washington.  In this century, presidents have regularly boasted that the U.S. military is the finest fighting force in human history, while no less regularly demanding that the most powerful military in today’s world be “rebuilt” and funded at ever more staggering levels.  Indeed, while on the campaign trail, Donald Trump promised he’d invest so much in the military that it would become “so big and so strong and so great, and it will be so powerful that I don’t think we’re ever going to have to use it.”

As soon as he took office, however, he promptly appointed a set of generals to key positions in his government, stored the mothballs, and went back to war.  Here, then, is a brief rundown of the first year of his presidency in war terms.

In 2017, Afghanistan saw a mini-surge of roughly 4,000 additional U.S. troops (with more to come), a major spike in air strikes, and an onslaught of munitions of all sorts, including MOAB (the mother of all bombs), the never-before-used largest non-nuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal, as well as precision weapons fired by B-52s against suspected Taliban drug laboratories.  By the Air Force’s own count, 4,361 weapons were “released” in Afghanistan in 2017 compared to 1,337 in 2016.  Despite this commitment of warriors and weapons, the Afghan war remains — according to American commanders putting the best possible light on the situation — “stalemated,” with that country’s capital Kabul currently under siege.

How about Operation Inherent Resolve against the Islamic State?  U.S.-led coalition forces have launched more than 10,000 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria since Donald Trump became president, unleashing 39,577 weapons in 2017. (The figure for 2016 was 30,743.)  The “caliphate” is now gone and ISIS deflated but not defeated, since you can’t extinguish an ideology solely with bombs.  Meanwhile, along the Syrian-Turkish border a new conflict seems to be heating up between American-backed Kurdish forces and NATO ally Turkey.

Yet another strife-riven country, Yemen, witnessed a sixfold increase in U.S. airstrikes against al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (from 21 in 2016 to more than 131 in 2017).  In Somalia, which has also seen a rise in such strikes against al-Shabaab militants, U.S. forces on the ground have reached numbers not seen since the Black Hawk Down incident of 1993.  In each of these countries, there are yet more ruins, yet more civilian casualties, and yet more displaced people.

Finally, we come to North Korea.  Though no real shots have yet been fired, rhetorical shots by two less-than-stable leaders, “Little Rocket Man” Kim Jong-un and “dotard” Donald Trump, raise the possibility of a regional bloodbath.  Trump, seemingly favoring military solutions to North Korea’s nuclear program even as his administration touts a new generation of more usable nuclear warheads, has been remarkably successful in moving the world’s doomsday clock ever closer to midnight.

Clearly, his “great” and “powerful” military has hardly been standing idly on the sidelines looking “big” and “strong.”  More than ever, in fact, it seems to be lashing out across the Greater Middle East and Africa.  Seventeen years after the 9/11 attacks began the Global War on Terror, all of this represents an eerily familiar attempt by the U.S. military to kill its way to victory, whether against the Taliban, ISIS, or other terrorist organizations.

This kinetic reality should surprise no one.  Once you invest so much in your military — not just financially but also culturally (by continually celebrating it in a fashion which has come to seem like a quasi-faith) — it’s natural to want to put it to use.  This has been true of all recent administrations, Democratic and Republican alike, as reflected in the infamous question Madeleine Albright posed to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell in 1992: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”

With the very word “peace” rarely in Washington’s political vocabulary, America’s never-ending version of war seems as inevitable as anything is likely to be in history.  Significant contingents of U.S. troops and contractors remain an enduring presence in Iraq and there are now 2,000 U.S. Special Operations forces and other personnel in Syria for the long haul.  They are ostensibly engaged in training and stability operations.  In Washington, however, the urge for regime change in both Syria and Iran remains strong — in the case of Iran implacably so.  If past is prologue, then considering previous regime-change operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the future looks grim indeed.

Despite the dismal record of the last decade and a half, our civilian leaders continue to insist that this country must have a military not only second to none but globally dominant.  And few here wonder what such a quest for total dominance, the desire for absolute power, could do to this country.  Two centuries ago, however, writing to Thomas Jefferson, John Adams couldn’t have been clearer on the subject.  Power, he said, “must never be trusted without a check.”

The question today for the American people: How is the dominant military power of which U.S. leaders so casually boast to be checked? How is the country’s almost total reliance on the military in foreign affairs to be reined in? How can the plans of the profiteers and arms makers to keep the good times rolling be brought under control?

As a start, consider one of Donald Trump’s favorite generals, Douglas MacArthur, speaking to the Sperry Rand Corporation in 1957:

“Our swollen budgets constantly have been misrepresented to the public. Our government has kept us in a perpetual state of fear — kept us in a continuous stampede of patriotic fervor — with the cry of grave national emergency. Always there has been some terrible evil at home or some monstrous foreign power that was going to gobble us up if we did not blindly rally behind it by furnishing the exorbitant funds demanded. Yet, in retrospect, these disasters seem never to have happened, seem never to have been quite real.”

No peacenik MacArthur.  Other famed generals like Smedley Butler and Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke out with far more vigor against the corruptions of war and the perils to a democracy of an ever more powerful military, though such sentiments are seldom heard in this country today.  Instead, America’s leaders insist that other people judge us by our words, our stated good intentions, not our murderous deeds and their results.

For ten suggestions (plus a bonus) on how the U.S. can pursue a wiser, and far less bellicose, course, please read the rest of my article here at TomDispatch.com. 

Get the Widow on the Set: Trump’s State of the Union Address

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I felt like this, only worse

W.J. Astore

Last night’s State of the Union address was disturbing on many levels.  Republicans applauded when President Trump touted the elimination of the individual mandate for purchasing health care insurance — so it’s a good thing people have no health insurance?  Wait until they go to the emergency room for an appendectomy and leave with a bill for $20,000.  Republicans applauded as well when Trump touted the American prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.  So it’s a good thing our President is vowing to send more “terrorists” to an offshore U.S. military prison?

I could go on and on, but what was most disturbing to me was the use of people in the audience as props for Trump’s positions.  A brave soldier who won the Bronze Star for valor was celebrated to support America’s wars overseas.  Parents whose daughters were killed by illegal immigrants were used to support Trump’s policies on immigration.  A family whose son suffered grievous, ultimately deadly, wounds in North Korea was used to support Trump’s bellicose policies toward Kim Jong-un and his regime, as was a courageous North Korean defector.

It reminded me of the Don Henley song, “Dirty Laundry” and its lines: Can we film the operation?/Is the head dead yet?/You know the boys in the newsroom got a running bet/get the widow on the set/we need dirty laundry. 

The shameless exploitation of other people’s grief is something I can’t stand.  It’s sordid and cynical and dirty.  There are many other things I could say about Trump’s State of the Union address, but my overall feeling was one of exploitation.  After his speech, I felt dirty.

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,

Trump, His Generals, and the Road to Authoritarianism

W.J. Astore

An article yesterday at NBC focusing on Trump and “his” generals got me to thinking on this subject again.  Its author, Suzanne Garment, suggests that Trump likes generals as obedient alpha males.  They lend him credibility without directly threatening his delicate ego.  And there’s truth in this.

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Trump and his generals.  Mattis and Kelly flanking Trump.  From the NBC article.

But I want to focus on other reasons for Trump’s preference for generals in high positions.  A year ago, I wrote an article for TomDispatch.com on “All the President’s Generals.”  That article focused mainly on the potential impact of these generals on America’s foreign policy and domestic culture.  As I wrote last December:

Collectively, the team of Mattis, Flynn, and Kelly could not be more symbolic of the ongoing process of subversion of civilian control of the military.  With Trump holding their reins, these self-styled warriors will soon take charge of the highest civilian positions overseeing the military of the world’s sole superpower.  Don’t think of this, however, as a “Seven Days in May” scenario in which a hard-headed general mounts a coup against an allegedly soft-hearted president.  It’s far worse.  Who needs a coup when generals are essentially to be given free rein by a president-elect who fancies himself a military expert because, as a teenager, he spent a few years at a military-themed boarding school?

In all of this, Trump represents just the next (giant) step in an ongoing process.  His warrior-steeds, his “dream team” of generals, highlight America’s striking twenty-first-century embrace of militarism.

I continue to think this is true.  Trump is empowering further military adventurism, even as he reinforces military-style solutions to problems.  But there are other reasons for Trump’s tight and eager embrace of the military.

Basically, by embracing the military and elevating it (while feeding it lots of money), Trump has neutralized it as a rival to his power.  Indeed, he is borrowing from the military’s authority and standing within our culture to bolster his own.

Recall how Candidate Trump was often quite critical of the U.S. military.  He knew more than the generals, he said.  Their wars he often called wasteful follies.  He was going to win (or end) these wars, he claimed, and hinted that quite a few “loser” generals might be on the receiving end of his infamous “You’re fired” line.

You hear none of this today. Trump is at pains to praise the military and his generals. He says they’re on a winning path, even in Afghanistan (because of Trump’s decisions, naturally).  He rewards them with record budgets and unalloyed praise.

And it’s working.  The military (and the larger national security state) is content with Trump.  He’s letting them have their way, which is another way of saying Trump is having his way.

In American society today, there aren’t too many power centers that truly can challenge Trump.  The media he’s diminished with all his attacks (“Fake news!”).  A Republican Congress remains quietly subservient.  Trump is stacking the judiciary with conservative judges to his liking.  The Democratic Party remains feckless and divided.  Bankers and corporations?  Trump has hired the former and given a huge gift to the latter in the latest Republican tax cut for the richest.

When you think about it, the one power center that could challenge Trump is the military-industrial complex: America’s fourth branch of government.  Yet by hiring so many of its generals and by praising it while passing loads of moola its way, Trump has co-opted its authority and power, attaching it to himself in his role as commander-in-chief.

Trump’s last hurdle may be the Robert Mueller investigation into Russian meddling and possible complicity or obstruction by Trump.  If Trump gets past this (perhaps even by firing Mueller), is there anyone left with the balls, the sand, the spine, the guts, the moxie (choose your favorite measure of fortitude) and the authority to stop his ambition and designs as an authoritarian leader?