Trump Consumes All the Oxygen in Washington

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Comey and Trump: Back in the news

W.J. Astore

Another day, another Trump scandal, this one stemming from a memo written by the former FBI director, James Comey, in the aftermath of a private conversation he had with the President.  According to the Comey memo, the president urged him to drop the FBI’s investigation into Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia, using these words: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.  He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

Obstruction of justice?  Impeachable offense?  That’s debatable.  But the alleged conversation obviously takes on heightened meaning after Trump fired Comey, in part because of frustration with the FBI’s investigation into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the election.

It’s unclear if any crimes were committed here.  What is clear is that Trump is a poor manager of himself as well as his staff.  Flynn, with his dodgy record, should never have been hired.  Furthermore, the president should not have gone out on a limb to defend him, cajoling the FBI director, in so many words, to go easy on my guy.

Perhaps Trump’s biggest flaw is his combination of boastfulness, lack of judgment, and his ego-driven need to take charge.  He reminds me of an Air Force saying: “He’s all Mach and no compass heading.”  He’ll break the sound barrier while moving in the opposite direction to sound governance.

I wrote back in March of 2016 that candidate Trump had disqualified himself from the presidency by boasting about how America’s generals would follow his orders irrespective of their legality.  My main point was that Trump had no understanding of his Constitutional responsibilities, nor did he seem to care much about learning them.  If Comey’s memo is accurate, I think it’s another instance of Trump either not knowing or not caring about propriety, about the rule of law.

Trump’s experience in life is as a CEO of a family business.  Everyone has always worked for him; in essence, he’s been King Trump.  Even though he’s now president, he still acts like a king, making up his own rules as he goes along, not knowing a rule book already exists.

Will Trump survive his first term?  As Yoda might say, Difficult to see — always in motion the future.  One thing is certain: Trump continues to consume all the oxygen in Washington, extinguishing any hope of real progress or effective governance at the federal level.

Trump Shares Classified Material with Russia — Duck and Cover!

W.J. Astore

U.S. media outlets have been consumed by the story today that President Trump improperly or unwisely shared classified material on ISIS with the Russians, material that apparently came from Israel.  For its part, the Trump administration denies the charge that information was improperly or unwisely shared.

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Today, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster defends Trump’s decision to share classified information with the Russians

A couple of comments.  First, the president has broad powers of declassification and the discretion to share sensitive secrets with others.  Sharing classified information with the Russians, an ally of a sort in the struggle against ISIS, is not necessarily a bad idea. Trump seems to have decided it was a way to strengthen relations and build trust at high levels with the Russian government, a defensible position, in my view.

Second, I’ll repeat here what I said about classification and the Hillary Clinton email scandal: Far too much information is classified by the U.S. government.  Classification is vastly overused by our government to conceal many sins, blunders, nefarious designs, and who knows what else.  There’s nothing sacred about secrecy; indeed, a democracy should prefer transparency, rather than stamping everything “secret” or “top secret” and thereby keeping nearly all Americans in the dark.

Obviously, I’m not privy to the exact nature of the intelligence shared, the sensitivity and vulnerability of the source(s) and collection methods, and so on.  I’m not an intelligence trade-craft expert.  So far, Israeli operatives seem unconcerned, but whether their blase attitude is feigned or not is unknown.

Americans elected Trump because he promised to do things differently.  He campaigned on the idea of being unorthodox; indeed, he is unorthodox.  Surely no one should be surprised when he decides to speak in the clear to Russian government officials on matters concerning ISIS and terrorism.

Repeat after me, America: Secrecy is not sacred.  Transparency is desirable.  So too is building trust with rivals as well as friends.  Trump has his faults, major ones I believe, but this current controversy is a tempest in a teapot.

The Only Way to Win America’s Wars Is to End Them

W.J. Astore

Today, I saw another article on why America is losing its wars in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.  The gist of this and similar articles is that America’s wars are winnable.  That is, if we bomb more, or send more troops, or change our strategy, or alter our ROE (rules of engagement), or give more latitude to the generals, or use all the weapons at our disposal (to include nukes?), and so on, these wars will prove tractable and even winnable.  This jibes with President Trump’s promises about America winning again, everywhere, especially in wars.

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Sorry: The Missions Are Never Going to be “Accomplished”

Nonsense.  The U.S. military hasn’t won these wars since the wars themselves are unwinnable by U.S. military action.  Indeed, U.S. military action only makes them worse.

Consider Iraq.  Our invasion in 2003 and our toppling of Saddam kicked off a regional, religious, ethnic, and otherwise complicated civil war that is simply unwinnable by American troops.  Indeed, the presence of (and blunders made by) American troops in Iraq helped to produce ISIS, much-hyped as the current bane of American existence.

Consider Afghanistan.  Our invasion in 2001 toppled the Taliban, at least for a moment, but did not produce peace as various Afghan factions and tribes jostled for power.  Over time, the U.S. and NATO presence in the country produced instability rather than stability even as the Taliban proved both resilient and resurgent.  U.S. and NATO forces have simply become yet another faction in the Afghan power game, but unless we want to stay there permanently, we are not going to “win” by any reasonable definition of that word.

You could say the same of the U.S. military’s involvement in similar conflicts like Yemen or Syria (look at the mess we made of Libya).  We can kill a lot of “terrorists” and drop a lot of bombs, spreading our share of chaos, but we aren’t going to win, not in the sense of these wars ending on terms that enhance U.S. national security.

This hard reality is one that the U.S. military explains away by using jargon.  Military men talk of generational wars, of long wars, of fourth generation warfare, of gray zones, of military operations other than war (which has its own acronym, MOOTW), and so on. A friend of mine, an Air Force captain, once quipped: “You study long, you study wrong.” You can say something similar of war: “You wage war for long, you wage it wrong.”  This is especially true for a democracy.

America’s wars today are unwinnable.  They are unwinnable not only because they are not ours to win: they aren’t even ours.   We refuse to take ownership of them.  At the most fundamental level, we recognize they are not vital to us, since we don’t bother to unify as a country to declare war and to wage it.  Most Americans ignore them because we can ignore them.  The Afghans, the Iraqis, the Syrians, and so on don’t have the luxury of ignoring them.

Trump, with all his talk of winning, isn’t going to change this.  The more he expands the U.S. military, the more he leans on “his” generals for advice, the more he’s going to fail. Our new commander-in-chief needs to learn one lesson: The only way to win America’s wars is to end them.

American Kleptocracy under Trump

W.J. Astore

Seven years ago, I wrote an article for TomDispatch.com on American kleptocracy.  At the time, it seemed a bit of a stretch.  Sure, America was (and is) plutocratic.  But kleptocratic?  Like a third-world dictatorship in which family members of the ruler enrich themselves while being appointed to government offices for which they’re eminently unqualified?  Surely not!  But here we are, in 2017, with Trump as president and his son-in-law Jared Kushner seemingly running everything and with daughter Ivanka the “First Daughter” and pseudo-First Lady.  I didn’t see that one coming.

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Jared and Ivanka: Good at looking good

Anyway, here’s my original article, unedited, from 2010.

American Kleptocracy
How Fears of Socialism and Fascism Hide Naked Theft 

By William J. Astore

Kleptocracy — now, there’s a word I was taught to associate with corrupt and exploitative governments that steal ruthlessly and relentlessly from the people.  It’s a word, in fact, that’s usually applied to flawed or failed governments in Africa, Latin America, or the nether regions of Asia.  Such governments are typically led by autocratic strong men who shower themselves and their cronies with all the fruits of extracted wealth, whether stolen from the people or squeezed from their country’s natural resources.  It’s not a word you’re likely to see associated with a mature republic like the United States led by disinterested public servants and regulated by more-or-less transparent principles and processes.

In fact, when Americans today wish to critique or condemn their government, the typical epithets used are “socialism” or “fascism.”  When my conservative friends are upset, they send me emails with links to material about “ObamaCare” and the like.  These generally warn of a future socialist takeover of the private realm by an intrusive, power-hungry government.  When my progressive friends are upset, they send me emails with links pointing to an incipient fascist takeover of our public and private realms, led by that same intrusive, power-hungry government (and, I admit it, I’m hardly innocent when it comes to such “what if” scenarios).

What if, however, instead of looking at where our government might be headed, we took a closer look at where we are — at the power-brokers who run or influence our government, at those who are profiting and prospering from it?  These are, after all, the “winners” in our American world in terms of the power they wield and the wealth they acquire.  And shouldn’t we be looking as well at those Americans who are losing — their jobs, their money, their homes, their healthcare, their access to a better way of life — and asking why?

If we were to take an honest look at America’s blasted landscape of “losers” and the far shinier, spiffier world of “winners,” we’d have to admit that it wasn’t signs of onrushing socialism or fascism that stood out, but of staggeringly self-aggrandizing greed and theft right in the here and now.  We’d notice our public coffers being emptied to benefit major corporations and financial institutions working in close alliance with, and passing on remarkable sums of money to, the representatives of “the people.”  We’d see, in a word, kleptocracy on a scale to dazzle.  We would suddenly see an almost magical disappearing act being performed, largely without comment, right before our eyes.

Of Red Herrings and Missing Pallets of Money

Think of socialism and fascism as the red herrings of this moment or, if you’re an old time movie fan, as Hitchcockian MacGuffins  — in other words, riveting distractions.  Conservatives and tea partiers fear invasive government regulation and excessive taxation, while railing against government takeovers — even as corporate lobbyists write our public healthcare bills to favor private interests.  Similarly, progressives rail against an emergent proto-fascist corps of private guns-for-hire, warrantless wiretapping, and the potential government-approved assassination of U.S. citizens, all sanctioned by a perpetual, and apparently open-ended, state of war.

Yet, if this is socialism, why are private health insurers the government’s go-to guys for healthcare coverage?  If this is fascism, why haven’t the secret police rounded up tea partiers and progressive critics as well and sent them to the lager or the gulag?

Consider this: America is not now, nor has it often been, a hotbed of political radicalism.  We have no substantial socialist or workers’ party.  (Unless you’re deluded, please don’t count the corporate-friendly “Democrat” party here.)  We have no substantial fascist party.  (Unless you’re deluded, please don’t count the cartoonish “tea partiers” here; these predominantly white, graying, and fairly affluent Americans seem most worried that the jackbooted thugs will be coming for them.)

What drives America today is, in fact, business — just as was true in the days of Calvin Coolidge.  But it’s not the fair-minded “free enterprise” system touted in those freshly revised Texas guidelines for American history textbooks; rather, it’s a rigged system of crony capitalism that increasingly ends in what, if we were looking at some other country, we would recognize as an unabashed kleptocracy.

Recall, if you care to, those pallets stacked with hundreds of millions of dollars that the Bush administration sent to Iraq and which, Houdini-like, simply disappeared.  Think of the ever-rising cost of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, now in excess of a trillion dollars, and just whose pockets are full, thanks to them.

If you want to know the true state of our government and where it’s heading, follow the money (if you can) and remain vigilant: our kleptocratic Houdinis are hard at work, seeking to make yet more money vanish from your pockets — and reappear in theirs.

From Each According to His Gullibility — To Each According to His Greed

Never has the old adage my father used to repeat to me — “the rich get richer and the poor poorer” — seemed fresher or truer.  If you want confirmation of just where we are today, for instance, consider this passage from a recent piece by Tony Judt:

In 2005, 21.2 percent of U.S. national income accrued to just 1 percent of earners.  Contrast 1968, when the CEO of General Motors took home, in pay and benefits, about sixty-six times the amount paid to a typical GM worker.  Today the CEO of Wal-Mart earns nine hundred times the wages of his average employee.  Indeed, the wealth of the Wal-Mart founder’s family in 2005 was estimated at about the same ($90 billion) as that of the bottom 40 percent of the U.S. population: 120 million people.

Wealth concentration is only one aspect of our increasingly kleptocratic system.  War profiteering by corporations (however well disguised as heartfelt support for our heroic warfighters) is another.  Meanwhile, retired senior military officers typically line up to cash in on the kleptocratic equivalent of welfare, peddling their “expertise” in return for impressive corporate and Pentagon payouts that supplement their six-figure pensions.  Even that putative champion of the Carhartt-wearing common folk, Sarah Palin, pocketed a cool $12 million last year without putting the slightest dent in her populist bona fides.

Based on such stories, now legion, perhaps we should rewrite George Orwell’s famous tagline from Animal Farm as: All animals are equal, but a few are so much more equal than others.

And who are those “more equal” citizens?  Certainly, major corporations, which now enjoy a kind of political citizenship and the largesse of a federal government eager to rescue them from their financial mistakes, especially when they’re judged “too big to fail.”  In raiding the U.S. Treasury, big banks and investment firms, shamelessly ready to jack up executive pay and bonuses even after accepting billions in taxpayer-funded bailouts, arguably outgun militarized multinationals in the conquest of the public realm and the extraction of our wealth for their benefit.

Such kleptocratic outfits are, of course, abetted by thousands of lobbyists and by politicians who thrive off corporate campaign contributions.  Indeed, many of our more prominent public servants have proved expert at spinning through the revolving door into the private sector.  Even ex-politicians who prefer to be seen as sympathetic to the little guy like former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt eagerly cash in.

I’m Shocked, Shocked, to Find Profiteering Going on Here

An old Roman maxim enjoins us to “let justice be done, though the heavens fall.”  Within our kleptocracy, the prevailing attitude is an insouciant “We’ll get ours, though the heavens fall.”  This mindset marks the decline of our polity.  A spirit of shared sacrifice, dismissed as hopelessly naïve, has been replaced by a form of tribalized privatization in which insiders find ways to profit no matter what.

Is it any surprise then that, in seeking to export our form of government to Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ve produced not two model democracies, but two emerging kleptocracies, fueled respectively by oil and opium?

When we confront corruption in Iraq or Afghanistan, are we not like the police chief in the classic movie Casablanca who is shocked, shocked to find gambling going on at Rick’s Café, even as he accepts his winnings?

Why then do we bother to feign shock when Iraqi and Afghan elites, a tiny minority, seek to enrich themselves at the expense of the majority?

Shouldn’t we be flattered?  Imitation, after all, is the sincerest form of flattery.  Isn’t it?

Trump Is Hurting the Pentagon!  (By Giving It Too Much Money)

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Throwing money at the Pentagon is never a good idea

W.J. Astore

Anyone who’s been in the military knows what happens as the end of a fiscal year approaches: wild spending.  Any money that’s left in your budget must be spent, if only to justify next year’s budgetary appropriation.  Woe to any unit with leftover money!  Not only is there no incentive to economize at the Pentagon: there’s a negative incentive to save money, and a positive one to spend as much as possible within your yearly allotment, while complaining to anyone within earshot that you never have enough.

Trump has already promised to enlarge Pentagon funding by 10% next year, or roughly $54 billion.  According to Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, Trump’s budget is all about “hard-power,” a signal to “our allies and our potential adversaries that this is a strong-power administration.”  At $54 billion, that is indeed a very expensive signal.

Forget about the global fight against ISIS: The big focus at the Pentagon is now going to be on spending that windfall of taxpayers’ dollars.  And, unlike the ISIS fight, which is expected to last for at least another generation, the “fight” to spend lots of money quickly is one that the Pentagon will surely win.  Believe me, the military-industrial-Congressional complex knows how to spend.

Want to make the Pentagon a better, more effective, place?  Cut its budget by 10%.  And keep cutting, year by year, while downsizing its mission.  Force it to economize – force it to think.

Let me give you a few examples.  How does the stealthy, super-expensive, F-35 jet fighter contribute to the war on terror?  It doesn’t.  Does the U.S. Navy really need more super-expensive aircraft carriers?  No, it doesn’t.  Do U.S. nuclear forces really need to be modernized and expanded at a cost of nearly a trillion dollars over the next few decades?  No, they don’t.  More F-35s, more carriers, and more nukes are not going “to make America great again.”  What they will do is consume enormous amounts of money for little real gain.

Throwing cash at the Pentagon is not the way to greater security: it’s a guarantee of frivolous military wish lists and “more of the same, only more” thinking.  In case you haven’t noticed, the Pentagon’s record since 9/11/2001 is more than a little mixed; some would say it’s been piss-poor.  Why is this?  One thing is certain: shortage of money hasn’t been the problem.

Want to send a signal about “hard-power,” President Trump?  Go hard on the Pentagon by cutting its budget.  Spend the savings on alternative energy development and similar investments in American infrastructure.  That’s the best way to put America first.

The Deeply Disturbing Trump-Merkel Press Conference

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Trump, in his own militarized world

W.J. Astore

Yesterday’s Trump-Merkel Press Conference was disturbing on several levels.  Worst of all was the scene of a German Chancellor listening to an American president boast about how strong his military is, and how much stronger it soon will be. Not that long ago in historical terms, Germany was a country that stressed military dominance. Two lost world wars cured Germany of its militarism. American militarism has taken its place.

As Trump responded to questions, again and again he returned to the U.S. military, vowing that he’s going to strengthen it from its “depleted” condition, perhaps to a level of power that “we’ve never seen before.”

America as a country is “very strong, very strong,” said Trump, a “very powerful company/country,” and soon the U.S. military would be “stronger,” and “perhaps far stronger than ever before.”  Naturally, the president added that he hoped he wouldn’t have to use that “far stronger” military, even as the U.S. military garrisons the globe at more than 700 bases while launching ongoing attacks against “radical Islamic terrorism” (Trump loves enunciating those three words) in places like Yemen.

Merkel and Trump hold a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington
She’s right to be worried …

This coming year, Trump is enlarging the military with a fresh influx of $54 billion.  “My generals,” as Trump likes to refer to James Mattis and John Kelly and Company, support him in part because he’s boosting military spending.  But will they continue to support Trump and his advisers like Steve Bannon when the President uses that “much stronger” military in unwise ways?

When you forge a bigger hammer, you tend not to leave it unused in the tool shed.  No — you look for bigger nails to strike.  As Trump noted at the press conference, he’s not an isolationist.  “Fake news,” he said.

That Trump, with his “far stronger” military, is not an isolationist is disturbing “real” news indeed.  Small wonder that the German Chancellor looked discomfited; her country has seen it all before.

What price military dominance?  Perhaps Chancellor Merkel could explain that to President Trump, if only he’d listen.

Trump: Yet Another War President?

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Yet another war president?

W.J. Astore

Is Donald Trump going to be yet another American war president?  Come to think of it, is there any other kind?

This is no accident.  Tom Engelhardt has an insightful article at TomDispatch today about how Trump the blowhard is a product of blowback from America’s failed wars, notably Iraq.  There’s much truth in this insight, since it’s hard to imagine demagogue Trump’s rise to power in a pacific climate.  Trump arose in a climate of fear: fear of the Other, especially of the terrorist variety, but also of any group that can be marginalized and vilified.  Think of Mexicans and the infamous Wall, for example.

In a separate post, Engelhardt noted the recent death of Marilyn Young, an historian who found herself specializing in America’s wars, notably Vietnam.  He cited a New York Times obituary on Young that highlighted her attentiveness to America’s wars and their continuity.

Since her childhood, Young noted, America had been at war: “the wars were not really limited and were never cold and in many places have not ended — in Latin America, in Africa, in East, South and Southeast Asia.”

She confessed that:

“I find that I have spent most of my life as a teacher and scholar thinking and writing about war.  I moved from war to war, from the War of 1898 and U.S. participation in the Boxer Expedition and the Chinese civil war, to the Vietnam War, back to the Korean War, then further back to World War II and forward to the wars of the 20th and early 21st centuries.”

“Initially, I wrote about all these as if war and peace were discrete: prewar, war, peace or postwar,” she said. “Over time, this progression of wars has looked to me less like a progression than a continuation: as if between one war and the next, the country was on hold.”

As George Orwell wrote in 1984, all that matters is for a state of war to exist (whether declared or, nowadays in the USA, undeclared).  A war mentality is the driver for autocratic excesses of all sorts.  It serves to focus the attention of people to various perceived enemies, whether from without or from within.  It promotes simplified thinking and generates fear, and fear is the mind-killer.  “Us and Them,” as Pink Floyd sang.

Aggravating simplistic and hateful “us and them” thinking in the USA is the lack of a major political party dedicated to peace.  In the USA, we have two war parties.  Trump knew this and readily exploited (and continues to exploit) it.  He knows the modern Democratic Party won’t seriously challenge the war rhetoric that drove and drives America’s new militarized reality.

Why?  Because the Democrats nurtured it.  Recall that in 2004 John Kerry “reported for duty” by saluting the Democratic National Convention.  Barack Obama in 2008 quickly morphed from a “hope and change” liberal to a drone-wielding assassin-in-chief while pursuing his “good” war in Afghanistan.  Hillary Clinton in 2016 proudly embraced Henry Kissinger and projected a harsh exterior as a hardheaded hawk.  “We came, we saw, he died,” she famously chuckled about Libya and the death of Qaddafi.  Even Bernie Sanders, with all his dreams, said little about cutting the Pentagon’s budget.

You can go back further and tag other recent Democratic presidents, such as LBJ during the Vietnam War or JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Candidate Kennedy wantonly exaggerated the “missile gap” in nuclear capability between the US and USSR (JFK had it backwards; it was the US that had clear superiority).  Jimmy Carter took a different approach, but he too soon learned his lesson, ordering a huge military buildup (overseen by the Reagan Administration) and declaring the “Carter Doctrine” to safeguard Persian Gulf oil supplies as a vital US interest.  That policy contributed in its own way to America’s recent disasters in the Greater Middle East.

Did Jimmy Carter, then, lead to Donald Trump?  Indirectly, yes.  America’s insatiable hunger for global resources (especially oil) and its desire for global power bred the conditions under which blowback came to America’s shores.  Blowback helped to generate the fear and confused desires for revenge that Trump tapped with great success in his campaign.

Today, America’s state of incessant warfare is consuming its democracy, yet President Trump’s answer is to call for more military spending, more violent attacks overseas, and more walls at home, all in a vain quest to “win” again.  Small wonder then that he’s ramping up military spending while ordering more attacks.

Trump knows what got him to the Oval Office, and it wasn’t his keen intelligence or gentlemanly charm or skill at diplomacy.  Recall that his favorite generals, George Patton and Douglas MacArthur, were all about “winning” even as they both wanted to wage the wrong wars (Patton was ready to take on the Soviets in 1945; MacArthur wanted to cross the Yalu River and invade China during the Korean War).

Will Trump, like his favorite World War II generals, seek to wage the wrong wars?  Will he recognize that fighting the wrong war is a loss even when you “win”?  Does he want to be a “war president,” and, if so, who will stop him?