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.
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:
Threat inflation: terrorism, North Korea, Iran, etc.
The Complex itself and its profligate, prodigal, and anti-democratic nature.
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,
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.
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?
President Donald Trump has a disturbing way of talking about the U.S. military. Consider the following Trump quotation about the recent attack on U.S. troops in Niger:
“I have generals that are great generals,” Trump said. “I gave them authority to do what’s right so that we win. My generals and my military, they have decision-making ability. As far as the incident that we’re talking about [in Niger], I’ve been seeing it just like you’ve been seeing it. I’ve been getting reports.” [emphasis added]
For Trump, it’s not the American people’s military, it’s “my” military. Generals are not Congressionally-appointed officers, they’re “my” generals. Trump has a fundamental misunderstanding of his role as commander-in-chief, as well as the role of the U.S. military. He sees himself as the big boss of “his” military, with generals as his personal employees whom he can order around and fire at will.
And by “order around,” I mean the issuance of orders regardless of their legality, a point Trump made back in March of 2016, in response to a debate question by Bret Baier:
BAIER: Mr. Trump, just yesterday, almost 100 foreign policy experts signed on to an open letter refusing to support you, saying your embracing expansive use of torture is inexcusable. General Michael Hayden, former CIA director, NSA director, and other experts have said that when you asked the U.S. military to carry out some of your campaign promises, specifically targeting terrorists’ families, and also the use of interrogation methods more extreme than waterboarding, the military will refuse because they’ve been trained to turn down and refuse illegal orders.
So what would you do, as commander-in-chief, if the U.S. military refused to carry out those orders?
TRUMP: They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me.
BAIER: But they’re illegal.
TRUMP: And — and — and — I’m a leader. I’m a leader. I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.
As I wrote then, Trump’s fundamental misunderstanding of leadership, and especially his boasts about the military obeying his orders irrespective of their legality, disqualified him as a presidential candidate. Of course, Trump’s dictatorial statements didn’t deter his determined fans. Indeed, they elected him because they wanted a Strong Man, not because they feared one.
So here we are, with a dictator wannabe as president, treating the U.S. military as if it’s his personal Praetorian Guard. If the Republic isn’t dead, its heartbeat is fading fast. Meanwhile, the sordid and corrupt Empire of Trump – just by its endurance – grows ever stronger.
It seems Americans can’t rally support for something without declaring a “war” on it. The war on poverty. On drugs. On gangs and crime. On terror. And these wars have become open-ended, or “generational” in Pentagon-speak, with a dynamic of crisis-surge-“progress”-new crisis-new surge-repeat that sustains large bureaucracies and huge government spending.
To these “wars” we must add a new one, notes Michael Klare at TomDispatch.com: the climate change war. As Texas and Florida were being clobbered by powerful hurricanes, the U.S. military and Homeland Security took the lead role in responding to these disasters, notes Klare. Yet, even as the U.S. National Security State was mobilized to respond, identifying and seeking to mitigate a root cause of this “war” — the role global warming plays in exacerbating these storms — was and is very much forbidden by the Trump administration.
This is nothing new. As with so many other wars, the U.S. military is deployed to address symptoms rather than root causes. Worse than that, we often deny our own role in creating or worsening those root causes.
With respect to climate change, we Americans have made our choice. We’ve come to believe the advertising slogans that “we can have it all.” We’ve dismissed the dangers of wanton fossil fuel consumption, and indeed wanton materialism in general. Corporations have worked hard to persuade us that global warming might just be a hoax, or at the very least dodgy science. Many of us have willingly bought the message that coal is “clean,” that fracking along with new pipelines are safe and create jobs, even though it’s clean(er) energy like wind and solar that is the better job-creator.
Those are facts that lead me to a different “war” in America, the one being waged against truth. Basic truths are denied (e.g. that human activity contributes to global warming) in the interests of profits enjoyed by powerful industries. But denial in “war” is not a path to victory (except for the profiteers). Denial is a path only to generational conflict, one that is sure to lead to more disasters and end only in defeat.
So, two things are most definitely certain: the climate change war will be generational. And, much like that other generational war — the war on terror — our military won’t win it. For no one wins a war against Mother Nature — not when we’re going out of our way to piss her off.
Candidate Trump occasionally said unconventional things about the Pentagon and America’s wars. He attacked the Pentagon for wasteful spending; cost overruns on the F-35 jet fighter were a favorite target. He attacked the Iraq and Afghan wars as wasteful, asserting they’d cost trillions of dollars without aiding the U.S. in any measurable way. He argued for friendlier relations with Russia, a détente of sort compared to the policies followed by the Obama administration. Naturally, even as he declaimed against America’s wasteful wars and costly weaponry, he promised to fund the military generously. Finally, he wasn’t afraid to take America’s generals to task, asserting he knew more than they did about war and foreign policy.
President Trump is a different man. “His” generals have brought him under control. Criticism of the F-35 has gone away. Trump, even if reluctantly, has embraced the Afghan war and the Pentagon’s open-ended commitment to it. Russian détente has taken a back seat to tough talk and sanctions (not that Trump had much of a choice, considering his campaign is under investigation for possible collusion with Russia). More than anything, Trump has tacitly admitted “his” generals know far more than he does. Mattis controls the Pentagon and the National Security State. Kelly, as White House Chief of Staff, does his best to control Trump. McMaster, as National Security Adviser, increasingly controls what Trump knows and when he knows it with respect to security policy.
In short, the generals have won. Consider the fates of Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and John Bolton. Bannon was eased out; Gorka was fired; and Bolton, according to today’s FP: Foreign Policy report, “has been shut out of the White House under the new leadership of chief of staff John Kelly. FP’s Dan De Luce writes that several sources confirm Bolton’s regular meetings with Trump are a thing of the past, and he has been unable to deliver a plan he devised to get Washington out of the deal it signed with Tehran to halt that country’s nuclear program.”
I’m no fan of Bannon-Gorka-Bolton, but they did represent a challenge to the U.S. military and the neo-con orthodoxy that rules Washington.
Trump is now firmly under the U.S. military’s control, even as he continues to feed the beast with more money and influence. His only way out is to starve the beast — to cut its funding by cutting its mission. Fat chance of that happening anytime soon, with generals like Mattis, Kelly, and McMaster in charge.
Most in the mainstream media see this in a positive light. We read about how Trump’s generals are the adults in the room, a moderating influence on Trump’s ill-informed impetuosity. There may even be some truth to this. But here’s the rub: President Trump, at least on national security policy, has ironically morphed into Hillary Clinton. He’s become a conventional hawk with no new ideas, when as a candidate he had the temerity to criticize America’s wasteful weaponry and disastrous imperial policies.
As a private citizen and presidential candidate, Donald Trump railed against the Afghan war. A waste, he said. Americans should withdraw, he said. But in last night’s speech, Trump went against his own instincts (so he said) and went with the failed policies of his predecessors. The war will continue, no timetable set, no troop levels determined, with conditions on the ground dictating America’s actions, according to the president.
What caught my attention, beyond the usual paeans of praise to America’s “warriors” and “warfighters,” was the specious reasoning to justify the continuation of the war. Trump gave three reasons, so let’s take them one at a time:
“First, our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifices of lives …”
It’s piss-poor reasoning to argue that, because a lot of people have sacrificed and died in a war, the war should continue (with more people dying) to justify those previous sacrifices. By this logic, the more who die, the more we should keep fighting, meaning more dead, meaning more fighting, and so on. Where is the honor and “worthy” outcome here?
“Second, the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable. 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in our history, was planned and directed from Afghanistan because that country was ruled by a government that gave comfort and shelter to terrorists. A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and al Qaeda, would instantly fill, just as happened before September 11th.”
Actually, the consequences of an American withdrawal are both unpredictable and (most probably) acceptable. Sure, terrorist organizations may gain impetus from an American withdrawal. It’s also possible that a notoriously corrupt Afghan government might finally negotiate with the Taliban and other organizations, and that regional power brokers like Pakistan and Iran, who have their own interests in regional stability, might broker a settlement that Americans could live with.
Trump further argued that a rapid U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 led to “hard-won gains slip[ping] back into the hands of terrorist enemies. Our soldiers watched as cities they had fought for, and bled to liberate, and won, were occupied by a terrorist group called ISIS.” The truth is far more complex. The prolonged U.S. occupation of Iraq helped to create ISIS in the first place, and failed American efforts to create and train reliable Iraqi security forces contributed to easy ISIS victories after U.S. forces left in 2011.
“Third and finally, I concluded that the security threats we face in Afghanistan and the broader region are immense. Today, 20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan — the highest concentration in any region anywhere in the world.”
Isn’t it remarkable that, after sixteen years of sustained effort by the U.S. military, the Af-Pak region is now home to 20+ terrorist organizations? The “highest concentration” in the world? Is this not an admission of the utter failure of U.S. policy and actions since 2001? How is this failure to be rectified by yet more U.S. attacks?
Trump said the new American goal is to kill terrorists. This is not a strategy. It’s a perpetual and deadly game of Whac-A-Mole. That’s what Trump’s vaunted new strategy boils down to, despite the talk of economic pressure and working with Pakistan and India and other regional powers.
On Afghanistan, Trump should have listened to his instincts and withdrawn. Instead, he listened to “his” generals. With Trump, the generals won this round. What they can’t win, however, is the war.