Spin It to Win It: The High Cost of Trump’s Military “Strategy”

W.J. Astore

As the end of Trump’s first 100 days in office approaches, we can already see the novice commander-in-chief’s approach to military action.  The approach is to empower “his” generals.  And the results?  A triumph of image over substance.  “Spin it to win it” is the byword for Trump’s military “strategy.”

A few examples:

  1. The disastrous raid on Yemen that led to the death of a Navy SEAL as well as many civilians, including children, was spun by the Trump administration as a great success. At the same time, Trump pinned the death of the SEAL on his generals, saying “they” lost him.
  2. The launch of 59 expensive cruise missiles against a Syrian airfield did little to change the actions of the Assad government. Nor did it knockout the airfield.  Yet it was spun by Trump as a remarkable victory.  In his words, “We’ve just fired 59 missiles, all of which hit, by the way, unbelievable, from, you know, hundreds of miles away, all of which hit, amazing.  It’s so incredible.  It’s brilliant.  It’s genius.  Our technology, our equipment, is better than anybody by a factor of five.  I mean look, we have, in terms of technology, nobody can even come close to competing.”
  3. The use of the “mother of all bombs” (MOAB) in Afghanistan was seized upon by Trump as an example of his toughness and decisiveness vis-à-vis the Obama administration’s use of force. Yet Trump didn’t even know about the bomb until after it was used.  Nevertheless, he boasted “If you look at what’s happened over the last eight weeks [of my administration] and compare that really to what’s happened over the past eight years, you’ll see there’s a tremendous difference, tremendous difference.” Dropping MOAB, Trump claimed on scant evidence, “was another very, very successful mission.”
  4. The Trump administration lost track of an aircraft carrier battle group, saying it was on its way as a show of force against North Korea even as it was headed in the opposite direction. This blunder was chalked up to a miscommunication between the White House and Pentagon, even as allies such as South Korea and Japan expressed concern about the credibility of U.S. support at a time of rising tensions.

As Tom Engelhardt notes in his latest must-read piece at TomDispatch.com:

President Trump did one thing decisively.  He empowered a set of generals or retired generals — James “Mad Dog” Mattis as secretary of defense, H.R. McMaster as national security adviser, and John Kelly as secretary of homeland security — men already deeply implicated in America’s failing wars across the Greater Middle East. Not being a details guy himself, he’s then left them to do their damnedest. “What I do is I authorize my military,” he told reporters recently. “We have given them total authorization and that’s what they’re doing and, frankly, that’s why they’ve been so successful lately.”

Have the generals really been “so successful lately,” President Trump?  The facts suggest otherwise.  Meanwhile, Trump has not yet learned that generals always want more – they believe they can win if they just get more troops, more money, more weaponry.  They’ll support Trump as long as he keeps funneling more of everything their way – and as long as he keeps spinning their blunders and missteps as victories.

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Is this the face of “success” in Yemen?  A little girl dead?

For the moment, Trump’s generals may love him for his “spin it to win it” boosterism and his blank checks of support.  But beware, men wearing stars.  Trump has already shown he prefers to delegate responsibility as well as authority when things go bad (recall the failed raid on Yemen and the dead SEAL).

Trump may not be a micro-manager, but that’s because he doesn’t know anything.  He just wants to spin military action as a win – for Trump.  If the generals keep losing, Trump will turn on them.  The question is, will they turn on him?

More disturbing still: When failed military actions are spun as alt-fact “victories,” the violence isn’t done simply to facts: it’s done to innocent people around the world.  It’s no game when innocent children die in the false name of “winning.”

Sun Tzu, Steve Bannon, and the Trump White House “Warriors”

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Steve Bannon, self-professed student of the Art of War (Getty Images)

W.J. Astore

A favorite book of Steve Bannon’s is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.  A classic of military strategy, The Art of War was compiled during the Warring States period (403-221 BCE) in ancient Chinese history.  It was a time of intense civil warfare in China, a time when a cessation in fighting was merely a pause between the next round of battles among warlords.  It’s still widely read today for its insights into war, its clever stratagems and tactics, and its lessons into human nature and behavior.

Bannon, who served in the U.S. Navy, is an armchair strategist with an affinity for military history books.  He appears to believe in inevitable conflict between the Judeo-Christian West, which he favors due to its “enlightened” values, and the World of Islam, which he sees as retrograde and barbaric when compared to the West.  He sees the world as already being in a “warring states” period writ large, a realm of conflict marked by “holy war” to be mastered by warrior/scholars like himself.

Joining him in this belief is Donald Trump, who took great pains to recite the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” in his speech before Congress, as if using these words were a mark of personal courage on his part.  Trump has boasted about winning the “next” war, as if war during his presidency is inevitable.  And I suppose it is, with Trump at the helm and advisers like Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and Stephen Miller pursuing a bellicose hardline against Islam.

Be careful what you wish for, Trump and cronies, and be especially careful about declaring victory in wars before you’ve even fought them.  Here Sun Tzu has much to teach our “warriors” in the White House.

For one thing, Sun Tzu writes that a battle is best won without fighting at all.  Said Sun Tzu: “Fighting and winning a hundred wars is not the greatest good.  Winning without having to fight is.”  In other words, you set the stage so carefully that the enemy must surrender or face obliteration before the curtain is even raised on war.

Secondly, Sun Tzu warns about the folly of protracted wars, how they deplete the national budget and weaken a state, especially when support among the people is tepid.  Warfare, notes Sun Tzu, must be treated with the greatest caution, even as it is waged with great cunning.  Best of all is to outsmart the enemy; next best is to form alliances, to build a much bigger army than the enemy, which may force them to capitulate.  Worst of all is to get bogged down in long wars, especially in cities, which require expensive sieges that wear on both sides (just ask the Germans at Stalingrad about this).

Ultimately, Sun Tzu writes that by understanding oneself and one’s enemy, a skilled leader can engage in a hundred battles without ever being in serious danger.  But an unskilled leader who does not truly know his own nature or that of his enemies is one who is fated always to lose.  Trump, who fancies himself a great leader and who is ignorant of foreign nations and peoples, does not inspire confidence here, even as he promises the American people that we’re going to win so much, we’ll get bored with winning.

Sun Tzu puts great emphasis on careful planning and sober deliberation before launching attacks.  If the recent Yemen raid is any indicator, Trump is neither a careful planner nor a sober deliberator.  Indeed, Trump’s personal qualities expose him to being manipulated by a cunning enemy.  In listing the personal traits that are dangerous in a commander, Sun Tzu mentions “quick to anger” as well as “self-consciousness” or vanity.  One who’s quick to anger can be goaded by insults into making poor decisions; one who’s vain and self-conscious can be humiliated or manipulated into rash action.

Trump promises an American military that is so big and so strong that no country will dare attack us.  Yet Trump himself, surrounded by his “warrior” advisers, isn’t content to build a huge military while not using it.  Indeed, Trump is already using it, notably in Yemen, pursuing policies that are fated to perpetuate warfare around the globe.  And it’s hardly encouraging that, after the failed Yemen raid, Trump shifted the blame to his generals rather than taking it himself.

Remember what Sun Tzu warned about vanity as well as perpetual warfare, especially when your own people are increasingly divided?  Something tells me this lesson is lost on Trump, Bannon, and crew.  Embracing the stratagems of The Art of War, its emphasis on surprise, subterfuge, deception, and quick strikes, is not enough.  You must seek the wisdom at its core, which is very much against war except as a last resort.

Know thyself, said Sun Tzu, echoing the Greek philosopher Socrates.  Face yourself squarely, recognize your flaws, your vanity (“All is vanity,” say the Christian Bible, a book Trump professes to treasure), and be careful indeed in unleashing war.

Do Trump, Bannon, and company know themselves, admit to their flaws and vanities, and recognize that war, in all its perils and costs, should be a course of last resort?  So far, evidence is wanting.

Update (8/12/17): Bannon has said his concern about a civilizational conflict with Islam dates from his time in the Navy and a visit to Pakistan.  Apparently, however, his ship visited Hong Kong rather than Pakistan.  Bannon also recalls specific details of Iran — its resemblance to a “primeval” wasteland — that he apparently was not privy to.  All this is revealed in an article at The Intercept.  Either Bannon’s memory is faulty or he is an esteemed member of the “alternative fact” club, where you just make things up to fit your preconceived notions.

As Peter Maass at The Intercept notes: “It turns out that Bannon, who has drawn a large amount of criticism for his exclusionary stances on race, religion, and immigration, has also inaccurately described his military service, simultaneously creating an erroneous narrative of how he came to an incendiary anti-Muslim worldview that helps shape White House policy.”

Cynicism: It Defines Trump’s Words and Deeds

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He can read from a teleprompter without barking: presidential?

W.J. Astore

One word defines Trump and his cronies: cynicism.  His cabinet picks illustrate this; many of them are against the very agencies’ missions that they’re supposed to uphold, like public education, environmental protection, and decent health care.  He hires billionaires for his cabinet in the name of draining the swamp and championing the cause of the working classes.  Meanwhile, even as Trump poses as commander-in-chief, he ducks responsibility for the failed raid on Yemen, shifting it to “his” generals, whom he otherwise praises as super-capable and deeply respected.

Under Trump, Americans are witnessing the negation of idealism.  Some might say that America’s ideals such as liberty and freedom and democracy have been observed more in the breach than in practice (consider slavery, for example, or the treatment of Native Americans), but at least we had ideals.  They were imperfectly practiced, but with Trump ideals no longer matter.  It’s just cynicism, a naked grab for wealth and power.

Cynics don’t believe in much of anything, except perhaps their own perspicacity in seeing the world “as it is.”  If you don’t believe in anything, you can lash out at anything, without guilt.  And Trump is a lasher.  He attacks everything: “failed” generals, “murderous” Mexicans, “terrorist” Muslims, the “lying” press, unfair judges, even Rosie O’Donnell , beauty queens, and Nordstrom (!).  Anyone and everything can be attacked and vilified when you’re a cynic with no core beliefs other than your own rectitude.

Trump is not a leader, he’s a cynic.  A negator of meaning.  What’s amazing to me is that some in the media recently suggested he looked presidential just because he read a speech written by others off a teleprompter without barking or snarling.  Of course, cynicism is not unique to Trump; Hillary and the Democrats have their share, as Chris Hedges has noted.  Recall, for example, the silencing of anti-war protesters at the Democratic National Convention in July.  Trump just has less class, even trotting out a war widow while passing the buck on taking responsibility for her grief.

Why is cynicism so dangerous?  I recall watching a documentary on the Holocaust in which a witness to a massacre described the horrific events.  He ended with a cry against cynicism.  The negation of human life he’d witnessed had, at its core, the cynical belief that human life simply didn’t matter.  That people were just so much matter, just things to be exploited or disposed of as their “masters” decreed.

Cynicism, a denial of idealism, of higher meaning, and of humanity, was a propellant to, an accelerant of, the Holocaust.  We see cynicism in Trump’s reference to the dead Navy SEAL in the Yemen raid.  His service and death is celebrated as uniquely heroic and noble (“etched in eternity”), whereas the many Yemeni people killed, including several children, are forgotten.  They simply don’t count; they are beneath being noticed.

Cynicism is spreading in America, with Jewish tombstones being toppled over, with darker-skinned immigrants being shot and killed in the name of “taking back one’s country,” of certain Muslims being excluded solely on their country of origin.  Policies are being driven by cynicism – a cold calculus of profit and power.

To a cynic, all facts are “alternative,” which is to say a lie is judged the same way truth is, by the criterion of whether it advances one’s agenda and one’s power.  What’s “true” is what’s expedient.  To a cynic, facts are unimportant.  All that matters is what you can get people to believe, how you can manipulate them and get them to act to fulfill your agenda.

Cynicism is the enemy of idealism, of truth, of humanity.  Where it ends I truly hesitate to say.