Trump’s Wall and Its Meaning

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They’re so proud of Trump’s wall, though new sections proved surprisingly easy to cut through

W.J. Astore

I caught this snippet via the New York Times today:

Border wall funding: President Trump plans to divert $7.2 billion from the military for the construction of a wall on the southern border, two people familiar with the plans told The Times. Congress set aside $1.375 billion for it last month.”

Diverting money that’s been appropriated by Congress is an impeachable offense, but the Democrats will do little since they know Trump will spin their opposition as being pro-immigrant and anti-American, irrespective of the lies contained in that spin.

Trump was elected in part through his fear-mongering about immigrants (he spoke of murderers, rapists, gang members, even Muslim terrorists hidden within the “caravans” approaching America’s southern border).  “Build the wall” is a popular chant at his rallies, and Trump knows the issue still stirs up his base.

What’s it all about?  Recently I was reading “Shadow of the Silk Road,” by Colin Thubron.  This is what Thubron had to say about the Great Wall of China:

As a true bulwark the Wall was senseless.  Huns, Mongols, Manchus overswept it almost at will.  The Sinologist Owen Lattimore proposed that it was built to keep the Chinese in rather than the nomads out.  Perhaps, unwittingly, it was less a physical defence than a monstrous definition.  It separated civilisation from barbarism, light from darkness.  It was an act of shuddering denial: over there is not what we are.  And it was steeped in fear. [Emphasis in original.]

“Over there is not what we are”: Trump recognizes how “his” wall serves as a dividing line between the “good” people (Americans) versus the “bad hombres” (his term) seeking to “invade” America.  And it is, as Thubron says, both a monstrous definition and an act of shuddering denial.

Of course, the wall already exists, as Greg Grandin notes in his book, “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America.”  Trump merely wants to lengthen it, mostly in areas where a wall is redundant due to already forbidding terrain.

But the wall is not about protecting America from “hordes” of “invaders.”  It’s about defining America in retrograde ways, contrasting the alleged barbarism of brown-skinned people with the civilization of (mostly) White America.

Walls demarcate and divide.  They are also a denial of common humanity.  They pit us against them in battles over turf.  In short, they’re a perfect symbol for Trump’s vision of greatness.

Troop “Reduction” in Afghanistan!

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Photo that allegedly persuaded Trump that Afghanistan wasn’t a lost cause

W.J. Astore

Trump was elected president in 2016 partly because he railed against America’s wasteful wars.  So, what did his advisers talk him into?  A mini-surge of troops to Afghanistan.  I still recall the odd news of Trump being shown photos of Afghan women in skirts (vintage 1972) to convince him that westernization and modernization of Afghanistan was possible.

Several thousand additional U.S. troops were sent to Afghanistan in 2017, predictably achieving nothing of note.  A little more than two years later, we have another item of “big” news today, according to CNN:

The Trump Administration is preparing to announce a long-awaited reduction of US troops in Afghanistan, a senior administration official confirmed to CNN. There are between 12,000 and 13,000 US troops in the country right now, and the US has maintained a solid presence throughout the 18-year war in the area. This drawdown would remove up to 4,000 troops, with more possible reductions in the future, the official said. That matches the claim Trump made on Fox News Radio in August that his administration would take the number “down to 8,600.” The reduction comes at the same time the US is restarting peace talks with the Taliban, and some worry the troop drawdown could be seen as a concession to the terrorist group.

Where to begin with this CNN snippet?

  1.  The “reduction” is not a reduction but a return to previous troop levels at the end of the Obama administration.
  2. The U.S. “has maintained a solid presence”?  Good god.  You’d never know about all the bombing, droning, and killing the U.S. has done over the last 18+ years.  Or is that the “solid presence” we’ve been maintaining?
  3. The troop “drawdown” as a “concession” to the Taliban?  Guess what: The Taliban aren’t going anywhere, and they’re winning.  A few thousand U.S. troops, either as a “plus-up” or “drawdown,” have had and will have no impact on the reality on the ground.

Sometimes I don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or do both.  Perhaps my dad put it best: “We laugh to hide the tears.”

Update (12/17): Speaking of laughing to hide the tears, the Pentagon has responded to the systematic lying revealed by the so-called Afghan Papers.  It won’t surprise you the response consists of three artless dodges:

  1. We’re looking forward, not backward!
  2. This is all old news.
  3. Nothing to see here, move along.

I kid you not.

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?