On War, Trump Has Largely Been an Appeaser

W.J. Astore

For all his tough-guy posturing and his attempts to pose like Winston Churchill, President Trump has largely been an appeaser to the military-industrial complex and its insatiable appetite for wars and weapons sales.

Trump, frowning (he thinks) like Churchill

Yes, it’s good news that Trump is withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, though roughly 2500 troops will remain in each country when Joe Biden takes office in January. In short, Trump isn’t ending these wars; he’s merely reducing the number of boots on the ground. His Acting Defense Secretary, Chris Miller, described it as a “repositioning of forces from those two countries.”

Repositioning! Perish the thought that the U.S. military might retreat or even withdraw. The answer is to “reposition” those deck chairs on the USS Titanic and its imperial wars, never mind the sinking feeling you may be experiencing.

Meanwhile, Trump recently announced more weapons sales to the United Arab Emirates, including F-35 fighter-bombers and Reaper drones, worth $23 billion to U.S. weapons manufacturers. When it comes to empowering merchants of death, the United States is indeed number one.

Throughout his four years of office, Trump courted the Pentagon and the Complex by throwing money at it. He hired Complex functionaries like General (retired) James Mattis and General H.R. McMaster and Raytheon lobbyist Mark Esper to run things for him. The result was predictable: more of the same, such that Trump never kept his campaign promise to end America’s wasteful wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

Perhaps this was because Trump didn’t want to be blamed if things went south (as they probably will) if he’d ordered all U.S. troops out of these countries. Trump, like most Americans, hates to be labeled a loser. But what he needed to be reminded of was that these countries were never ours to win to begin with. The answer to “Who lost Afghanistan?” is not the president who finally “repositions” all U.S. troops from that country. The answer is Bush/Cheney, Obama/Biden, Trump/Pence, and, assuming they keep the war going in Afghanistan (and elsewhere), Biden/Harris.

Fighting needless and wasteful wars on the periphery of empire makes sense only to weapons makers and warmongers. Ditto making massive weapons sales, especially to unstable areas. The “Made in America” label used to be seen proudly on everything from clothing and shoes to engines and steel; now it’s affixed mainly to weapons and wars.

Before he took office, Trump promised a new approach, an America First approach, that would end the folly of perpetual wars that cost trillions of dollars. In this he failed. Because when it came to the Pentagon and to weapons makers, Trump chose appeasement rather than confrontation.

William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, is a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals.

A Typical Democratic Official on the Pentagon and War

Jeh Johnson with Biden and Obama, 2013 (White House photo)

W.J. Astore

Jeh Johnson, formerly homeland security secretary under President Obama, showed how a typical Democratic official approaches the Pentagon and war as he spoke on ABC’s This Week on Sunday (11/15).  For Johnson, the Pentagon “is typically an island of stability” in the U.S. government, but President Trump was destabilizing that island because of recent changes to Pentagon personnel.  Trump’s changes could be driven by his desire to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, speculated Johnson, which was not a good thing:

“If he [Trump] wants troops out of Afghanistan, as I know most Americans do, we have to do it in a way that makes sense, in an orderly manner, and that comports with battlefield reality … in trying to strike a deal, you don’t unilaterally surrender your greatest point of leverage by unilaterally withdrawing troops before the Afghan government and the Taliban have stuck a deal. So this is very concerning and if I were in the Biden transition team right now, I’d be very focused … on restoring stability in our national security.”

We can’t surrender our “leverage,” those thousands of U.S. troops that remain in harm’s way in an unnecessary war that was won and then lost almost two decades ago, because it’s that “leverage” that will compel the Taliban, who have already won the war, to strike a deal with an Afghan government that exists mainly because the U.S. government props it up.  Makes sense to me.

By the way, only “most Americans” want our troops to come home?  Where are all the other Americans who want them to stay there indefinitely?  Within the Washington Beltway, I’d wager.

The Afghan war has always struck me as nonsensical.  Yes, some kind of response to the 9/11 attacks was needed, and initial U.S. military strikes in 2001-02 succeeded in toppling the Taliban, in the sense they saw no reason to stand and fight against withering fire.  At that moment, the U.S. military should have declared victory and left.  Instead, the Bush/Cheney administration decided on its own disastrous occupation, extended another eight years by Obama/Biden, even though we knew full well the extent of the Soviet disaster in Afghanistan in the 1980s. 

The Afghan war has lasted so long that I’ve been writing articles against it for more than a decade.  You’d think any sensible and sane Democrat would love to see U.S. troops withdrawn and the war finally come to an end.  Not so.  The war must continue in the name of “leverage” and “stability.”

I like Johnson’s truly absurdist reference to “battlefield reality,” which, if we’re being real for a moment, reflects a Taliban victory.  Unless the U.S. wants to occupy Afghanistan forever, with hundreds of thousands of troops, that victory is not about to be reversed.  And what kind of “victory” would that be? 

“Stability” is not preserved by fighting unwinnable wars on the imperial periphery, unless you’re talking about the stability of Pentagon finances and corporate profits.  Johnson’s wiki bio does mention he’s on the boards of Lockheed Martin Corporation and U.S. Steel, which certainly hints at a conflict of interest when it comes to offering advice on ending wars.

In the meantime, we probably shouldn’t tell our troops, whom we’re supposed to love and support, that we’re keeping them in Afghanistan for “leverage” until the “battlefield reality” is more in our favor.  That’s truly a recipe for endless war in a place that well deserves its reputation as the graveyard of empires.

Finally, a reminder to Democrats: your Pentagon is an island of stability, and your troops are creating the leverage that allows democracy to flourish everywhere.  If this makes sense to you, and if this is the guiding philosophy of Joe Biden’s national security team, we’re truly in deep trouble.

Bonus Lesson: The Pentagon is an “island” of government only if that island is roughly the size of Pangaea.

William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, is a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals.

Trump: Loser?

Truly shameless

W.J. Astore

I’ve been thinking that Donald Trump is going to lose on November 3rd.

Why? It’s just a feeling, but I think enough Americans are tiring of his act to tip the scales to Joe Biden, which in my view is not a lot to celebrate.

Senator Joseph McCarthy had his run of malicious lies and denunciations in the alleged cause of anti-communism, but the American people tired of him. They came to reject a man with no sense of decency — a man of no shame. Trump is also indecent and shameless — and reckless with his accusations. These qualities endear him to his closest followers, but over time they lose their appeal to those who aren’t as enamored with the man-child.

Today we learned Trump released his own video of his interview on “60 Minutes.” I chuckled when I read his description of his performance:

“Watch [Stahl’s] constant interruptions [and] anger. Compare my full, flowing and ‘magnificently brilliant’ answers,” Trump tweeted along with the link to the interview.

“Magnificently brilliant”: you have to hand it to Trump. What modesty! The “very stable genius” strikes again.

Readers of Bracing Views know I like to cite my father and one of his favorite sayings: An empty barrel makes the most noise. I think enough Americans are tiring of that noise, and enough have recognized the emptiness of the man, to throw the election to Biden. Which, again, is not a lot to celebrate.

Readers, what do you think on this eve before the last debate? Any predictions?

Four Big Reasons Not to Vote for Trump

Trump, keeping his promise about American carnage

W.J. Astore

Back in May of 2016, I wrote an article on two big reasons not to vote for Donald Trump. Those reasons, his denial of climate change and his cavalier approach to nuclear weapons, remain valid. But I’d like to add two more that we were unaware of in 2016: his total inability to bring people together, i.e. his divide and rule approach to everything; and his murderously incompetent response to Covid-19.

If there are any lukewarm Trump supporters reading this, I hope you join me in voting your conscience, which in my case meant rejecting both Trump and Biden for candidates I believe in (in my case, Tulsi Gabbard and Bernie Sanders).

Don’t vote for a man-child, Donald Trump, who’s golfing and tweeting while the planet burns; who has no idea what nuclear weapons can do, but who threatens to use them while bragging about the size of his nuclear button; who dismisses Covid-19 as just another virus that will magically disappear; and who is so eager to divide us in the cause of enriching himself and his family.

Here’s what I wrote in May of 2016:

Nuclear proliferation and global warming are two big issues that Donald Trump is wrong about.  They’re also the two biggest threats to our planet. Nuclear war followed by nuclear winter could end most life on earth within a matter of weeks or months.  Global warming/climate change, though not as immediate a threat as nuclear war and its fallout, is inexorably leading to a more dangerous and less hospitable planet for our children and their children.

What does “The Donald” believe?  On nuclear proliferation, which only makes nuclear war more likely, Trump is essentially agnostic and even in favor of other nations joining the nuclear club, nations like Japan, South Korea, even Saudi Arabia.  When all countries should be earnestly working to reduce and then eliminate nuclear stockpiles, Trump is advocating their expansion.  (An aside: recall in a previous debate that Trump had no idea what America’s nuclear triad is; add intellectual sloth to his many sins.)

On global warming, Trump is essentially a skeptic on whether it exists (“hoax” and “con job” are expressions of choice), even as he seeks to protect his resorts from its effects. Along with this rank hypocrisy, Trump is advocating an energy plan that is vintage 1980, calling for more burning of fossil fuels, more drilling and digging, more pipelines, as if fossil fuel consumption was totally benign to the environment and to human health.

Along with his tyrannical and fascist tendencies, Trump is wrong on two of the biggest issues facing our planet today.  His ignorance and recklessness render him totally unfit to be president.

Monday Musings, October Surprise Edition

My vote for 2020 is in …

W.J. Astore

The real October surprise is that there is no surprise. Trump or Biden will win, meaning Wall Street, Big Finance, and the Military-Industrial Complex win. (Biden is on record as saying he would increase defense spending!) All you “little people,” whether you’re for Trump or Biden: you lose.

My dad, born in 1917 and a survivor of the Great Depression, used to remind me you need three things in life: A roof over your head, three square meals, and clothes to keep you warm. (Nowadays, given the high cost of getting sick, I’d add health care coverage.) How sad is it that America may soon face a massive eviction crisis, and is already seeing people hungry in the streets, even as Wall Street booms? (Yes, I know America has had trouble housing and feeding people for decades — and it’s only getting worse.)

Amy Coney Barrett was picked for one reason, and one reason alone: Her mentors and handlers know how she will vote in the future. So much for judicial independence.

When you think about it, there shouldn’t be “liberal” or “conservative” justices. Each justice should interpret the law based on her understanding of it informed by her conscience. If this were true, justices would be more or less unpredictable in their rulings. But the justices are hopelessly politicized, rendering “justice” politicized as well.

Speaking of justice, Amy Coney Barrett is a friend of corporations; she’s also uncertain whether global warming even exists. Does this sound like a person with a strong conscience, someone who will fight for equality under the law?

What does it mean that the U.S. military is still at war in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but that few Members of Congress even attempt to exercise oversight of the same, let alone make an attempt to end these wars?

I got my ballot this weekend. Faced with a choice of voting for Biden and Harris versus Trump and Pence, I wrote in Tulsi Gabbard and Bernie Sanders, in that order. It’s the only way I couldn’t waste my vote.

Tulsi would make a great president. Young, insightful, smart, she’s taken a critical stance against the military-industrial complex and wants to end America’s awful regime-change wars. Bernie would make a terrific vice president. Seasoned, dedicated, he could focus on domestic policy while Tulsi remakes U.S. foreign policy. Imagine if Bernie really could advance his essential policies: Medicare for all, a $15 minimum wage, free college education, relief of student debt, and so on. Gabbard and Sanders are the closest candidates to my positions, so I voted for them.

There are still plenty of good people in the USA, but callousness and cruelty are on the rise. Who knew that as the Covid-19 death toll soars past 200,000 to approach possibly as high as 400,000 by the new year, so many people would just shrug collectively and then consider voting for a man who so disastrously mismanaged the pandemic response? Trump — what a loser!

Speaking of Trump, is he even our president? As near as I can tell, he’s spent most of his presidential days golfing, tweeting, attending rallies, signing statements and holding them up like a child, and traveling to and from his various resorts. America’s next authoritarian autocrat will be far less lazy and spoiled — and far more dangerous to the world.

Struggling to Vote in Trump Land

Long lines for early voting in Georgia. A few voters waited up to ten hours to cast a ballot

M. Davout

Whenever I teach Introduction to American Government, a course for freshman, I give a lecture on the notorious Bush v. Gore 2000 presidential election and use the Florida recount story to teach a basic lesson about U.S. politics: elections are not an exact science because vote totals in any given election are always only approximations. In the period leading up to the 2000 fiasco, in typical nationwide elections upwards of a million votes were tossed as uncountable for various reasons.

The reasons for the imprecision of election tallies are several but the three that I highlight to my students are: (1) the wide variation across jurisdictions in the kind, quality and age of voting technology and in the reliable application of procedures and standards (as evidenced in 2000 in the faulty punch hole devices in South Florida that resulted in many thousands of uncounted ballots); (2) the amateur status of poll workers (an hour or two of “training” qualified me to serve at a polling station during my graduate school days); and (3) the partisanship of election officials (as notoriously exemplified in 2018 by Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s contested “oversight” of the close election that resulted in his election as Georgia governor). Since 2000, many states adopted computerized voting systems in what turned out to be the false expectation that precision in voting tallies could be achieved through digitization.

We have gotten past presidential elections only approximately right and we can expect this upcoming one to be no more than approximately right. And given the unprecedented number of requests for absentee ballots, state and county switches to mail-in balloting systems during this pandemic, slow-downs in mail delivery engineered by Trump’s postmaster general, and Trump’s unrelenting campaign to de-legitimize absentee and mail-in ballots, the likelihood is that the tally of uncounted ballots will be higher than ever this November. As a longtime absentee ballot voter, my recent experience with both the local election board and local mail delivery service does not give me confidence.

I mailed my absentee ballot request for the November 3 election in mid-August and was still waiting for a ballot in late September. I emailed the local election board and was told that they couldn’t find my paper ballot request (curiously, my wife’s request, which had been dropped off in a separate envelope with mine, was processed). I was instructed to file another request, this time electronically, which I immediately did. Notified by email that my absentee ballot was mailed October 1, I am still waiting for its arrival two weeks later. Meanwhile, I did receive an absentee ballot by mail but it was my neighbor’s and this botched delivery only increased my unease.        

When I think of the many voters across the country who might encounter similar problems and have less time and energy than I have to follow up on undelivered or delayed absentee ballots, I begin to wonder if the imprecision of November’s tallies will be on such a scale as to change the outcome. And, if not change it, then leave it open to dispute, a dispute to be settled by a Supreme Court with justices who are increasingly conservative and in three cases beholden to the man who nominated them.  It’s what Trump is counting on for “victory.”

M. Davout, a professor of political science, teaches in the Deep South.

The Election Without a Future

Their vision for the future is stuck in the past

W.J. Astore

Isn’t it remarkable that Joe Biden and Donald Trump have no compelling vision of a future America?

Both Biden and Trump are retrograde candidates. Biden talks of restoration. He wants to restore comity and decency. To turn the clock back to a mythical time of bipartisan accord. A time when Americans sought to help other Americans. Trump, of course, is about division and carnage but he has his own vision of restoration. Trumps appeals to the America of the 1950s, before the Civil Rights movement, before the Vietnam War protests, before the Women’s Liberation movement, before Roe v. Wade was the law of the land, and (taking it back even further, to the Roaring Twenties, perhaps), before FDR’s New Deal.

It tells us something that Biden and Trump are so past-oriented. It suggests our best days are behind us, that we know, on some level, the future is in the crapper, what with extreme weather, anti-social technologies, forever wars, pandemics, exploding deficits, and the ever-growing gap between the richest few and poorest many.

The America I grew up in was future-oriented. Space travel would be routine. We’d have a moonbase; we’d have journeyed to Mars and Jupiter; we’d have flying cars; we’d have rewarding work, with more leisure time; we’d live longer, healthier, richer lives. That was a vision of the new millennium, but here we are, twenty years into it, and our political candidates look desperately (Biden) or maniacally (Trump) to pasts that never really existed.

A saying attributed to Yogi Berra is that the future ain’t what it used to be. Now it seems we have no future. Just one day after another, chasing our tails and calling it “progress.”

Why is this? Perhaps it’s because certain powerful forces in American society like things just the way they are. They’d rather have us fighting over which past is more comfortable to us than have us reaching for a new future without them in charge. That’s one big reason we have two presidential candidates in their seventies with their gear shifts locked permanently in reverse.

Biden and Trump both want us peering closely into the rear view mirror (even as Trump’s is more distorted) when we should be looking ahead through the windshield. Put differently, Biden is comity without change, and Trump is American carnage on steroids. Considering both, it’s an election without a future.

Monday Musings: On Russia, Helplessness, and Polls

W.J. Astore

A few items for this Monday:

1. A strategic analyst wrote to me about how America can improve relations with Russia. The gist of my response was this:

I totally agree on ending the “new” cold war. But the military-industrial complex (MIC) seems determined to use threat inflation to justify high Pentagon budgets. Meanwhile, establishment Democrats think they can use Trump’s alleged softness toward Russia against him. Hardline policies rule the day.

What is to be done? First, I suppose, is recognizing the vital importance of domestic politics — and profit and power — vis-a-vis our foreign relations with Russia. As long as the MIC keeps exaggerating the Russian threat, and as long as the Democrats keep exaggerating the Russian threat to the election while alleging Trump is a Putin-puppet, there’s little we can do. We simply need to work to change the narrative.

2. So many Americans have a sense of learned powerlessness. We simply think there’s nothing we can do to effect change. As I wrote to a friend this weekend: Lots of people have lost faith in government. But they’ve lost faith in collective action as well. They just don’t think they can do anything to fight corruption and a rigged system.

They feel powerless — then a Messiah-like candidate comes along offering hope and change. (In a strange way, Trump is the yang to Obama’s yin.) Trump said he’d drain the swamp — but it proved fetid and fertile land for his long con. His supporters just love the guy even as he hurts them — but at least he makes them feel good, empowered, liberated from the libtards …

A true confidence man, Trump poses as a helper. He’s going to drain the swamp, make things better, make us (you) great again. Turn back the clock — when America was America, men were men, women were women.

Interestingly, Trump has no vision for the future. His vision is relentlessly retrograde. The only way we can be great “again” is by rejecting change and today’s “kids” who support BLM, LGBTQ, and so on.

A new wrinkle is the reactionary and authoritarian “blue lives matter” narrative. Who could have guessed that American activism would culminate in societal militarization and the glorification of police forces?

I’ve seen a few of these on cars and trucks — and I live in an allegedly strong Democratic state

3. Recent polling suggests Joe Biden has a lead of up to 14%. Don’t believe it. As I wrote to a friend: My sense is that this election will be very close. Many people support Trump but they keep that support quiet. And his people show up to vote. Maybe twice if they follow Trump’s advice. Plus, of course, it’s the electoral college that matters, not the popular vote. And there’s still a lot that can happen in the next month.

Readers, what are your musings for this Monday?

Nature Cannot Be Fooled — Nor Conned

W.J. Astore

News that President Trump has COVID-19 and must be hospitalized highlights Richard Feynman’s famous observation that, whether you’re dealing with technology or science or medicine, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled. Many Republicans have been proud to act carelessly, refusing to wear masks or even claiming the virus is a hoax. Trump, for example, enjoyed making fun of Joe Biden and his propensity for mask-wearing; he further claimed the virus would simply disappear.

Trump’s illness is a sobering reminder — and we shouldn’t have needed one — to take medical warnings seriously.

Here’s what I wrote back in March:

The Coronavirus Is Immune to Lies

richard-feynman-1
Richard Feynman

W.J. Astore

Investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, physicist Richard Feynman reached a famous conclusion: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

The COVID-19 virus is not going to be fooled with lies.  It’s not going to be fooled by a denial of medical science.  You can’t “spin” the virus away with false information and happy talk.  And this is precisely why President Trump (and indeed many other politicians) is uniquely unqualified to handle this crisis.

Trump is the man who sold us a fake university.  Trump is the man who’s lied roughly 13 times a day since becoming president.  Trump is a fantasist, a fabulist, a con man, a used car salesman, a huckster, an entertainer, take your pick.  And he’s good at it.  It’s a skill that got him to the White House.  But it’s not a skill that works against the coronavirus.

The other day, I was listening to an interview with Noam Chomsky, and he made the point that Trump is a master propagandist.  His skill is his shamelessness and sheer extent of his lying.  Trump floods the market with lies, so much so that many people, and especially those sympathetic to him, lose the ability to tell truth from lies, fact from fiction.  Politically, this helps Trump; but in meeting this medical crisis, it’s a skill that may cost America tens of thousands of lives, and, in worst-case scenarios, perhaps a million or more.

Living by the light of lies is a surefire way to get burned.  Last night, I was reading Norman Mailer and came across this invaluable insight:

“Fascism is not a way of life but a murderous mode of deadening reality by smothering it with lies.”

The more lies we tell, the more we open ourselves to fascism.  Mailer uses the word meretricious, which combines vulgarity with falseness and insincerity, and he proceeds to denounce our culture, our art, as sickening us because of its ugly dishonesty.  (And Mailer was saying this in the early 1960s!)

Again, lies will not defeat COVID-19; they will only speed its spread through America.  Lies will only kill us while smothering democracy.

Feynman was right: “Nature cannot be fooled.”  So too was Mailer: As a leader, if you think you can deaden the reality of a pandemic with lies, you’re not thinking at all.  You’re acting murderously instead.

Update (3/25): Our Dear Leader has decreed America will be open for business again by Easter. Don’t worry: the final decision will be based “on facts.”

They really felt they needed to add that coda: based on facts. And they did, because most of the Trump presidency has been based on lies.

Maybe my title should have been “The Coronavirus Feeds on Lies.” And we are giving it plenty to feed on.

Patriotic History Is An Oxymoron

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I tackle Trump’s call for “patriotic” U.S. history. If normal history is “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” think of Trump’s history as all good and with none of the bad and ugly. It would make for a boring movie, and for boring history as well. Of course, this argument over “patriotic” history is yet another front in Trump’s Kulturkamp, or culture war, in America.

Yet isn’t ironic that Trump, who says he seeks to celebrate America’s greatness, ran in 2016 as a declinist candidate? “Make America Great Again” was his motto: the again suggesting an America that had to be put right, which apparently Trump has done, since his 2020 motto is “Keep America Great.”

A lot of historians will be spilling much ink in the coming decades on Trump and his administration. I have a feeling most of it will not be judged as “patriotic” by Trump’s standard.

Nuking History (from TomDispatch)

There goes our history

Aggravating such essential collective madness in this moment (and the president’s fiery and furious fascination with such weaponry) is Trump’s recent cynical call for what might be thought of as the nuking of our history: the installation of a truly “patriotic” education in our schools (in other words, a history that would obliterate everything but his version of American greatness). That would, of course, include not just the legacy of slavery and other dark chapters in our past, but our continued willingness to build weaponry that has the instant capacity to end it all in a matter of hours.

As a history professor, I can tell you that such a version of our past would be totally antithetical to sound learning in this or any world. History must, by definition, be critical of the world we’ve created. It must be tough-minded and grapple with our actions (and inactions), crimes and all, if we are ever to grow morally stronger as a country or a people.

History that only focuses on the supposedly good bits, however defined, is like your annoying friend’s Facebook page — the one that shows photo after photo of smiling faces, gourmet meals, exclusive parties, puppies, ice cream, and rainbows, that features a flurry of status updates reducible to “I’m having the time of my life.” We know perfectly well, of course, that no one’s life is really like that — and neither is any country’s history.

History should, of course, be about understanding ourselves as we really are, our strengths and weaknesses, triumphs, tragedies, and transgressions. It would even have to include an honest accounting of how this country got one Donald J. Trump, a failed casino owner and celebrity pitchman, as president at a moment when most of its leaders were still claiming that it was the most exceptional country in the history of the universe. I’ll give you a hint: we got him because he represented a side of America that was indeed exceptional, just not in any way that was ever morally just or democratically sound.

Jingoistic history says, “My country, right or wrong, but my country.” Trump wants to push this a goosestep further to “My country and my leader, always right.” That’s fascism, not “patriotic” history, and we need to recognize that and reject it.

Read the rest of my article for TomDispatch here.