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?
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.
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.
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:
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO was no longer needed in Europe in the sense of its original purpose.
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.
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.
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.
If you’re of a certain age, you probably remember environmental commercials featuring Woodsy the “anti-pollution owl” with the motto: “Give a hoot! Don’t pollute!”
Under the Trump administration, we need to modify that motto: “Don’t give a hoot. Pollute!”
That’s the message of Trump’s new plan for powerplant emissions. According to the EPA, this new plan may result in as many as 1,630 additional premature deaths annually by 2030, as reported by Bloomberg:
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says its proposal to relax greenhouse gas limits on power plants will cause as many as 1,630 additional premature deaths annually by 2030 from heart and lung disease — an estimate independent experts say may be low.
The projection is contained in a 289-page technical document accompanying the agency’s proposal to replace the Obama-era Clean Power Plan that was released Tuesday.
The new rule would give states more leeway to set limits on greenhouse gas emissions from their power sectors — even though, by the agency’s own admission, that will result in higher levels of particulate matter and ozone being emitted by coal plants than would have occurred under President Barack Obama’s plan. That pollution is linked with respiratory infections, asthma and impaired lung function.
As my wife pointed out to me, Trump & friends aren’t worried about smog and pollution and respiratory discomfort. They don’t live downwind from coal-fired plants. Trump can always escape to one of his many resorts and golf courses around the world.
How cynical and callous do you have to be to suggest changes to environmental regulations that you know will kill lots of Americans in the future?
Making America great again? No — It’s making America polluted again. Woodsy the Owl is not happy, America.
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.
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:
Conventional conflict against peer enemies, e.g. Russia and China.
Conventional conflict against “rogue” states, e.g. North Korea and Iran.
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.