America’s Endless Wars … and Profits

The Pentagon Has Won the War That Matters

Originally posted at TomDispatch.

In June, Austin “Scott” Miller, the special-ops general chosen to be the 17th U.S. commander in Afghanistan, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Like so many of the generals who had preceded him, he suggested that he saw evidence of “progress” in the Afghan war, even if he refused to “guarantee you a timeline or an end date.” Smart move, general!

As it happens, just over a week ago, he got a dose, up close and personal, of what the Afghan version of “progress” really means. He was visiting key American allies in the southern province of Kandahar when the “insider” attack of all insider attacks occurred. In the sort of event that’s been going onsince at least 2010, an ostensible ally, in this case a local member of the Afghan security forces who had evidently joined the Taliban, turned his gun on Kandahar’s chief of police (a crucial powerbroker in the region), the local intelligence chief, and the provincial governor, killing the first two and wounding the third. In the process, he ensured that, with local leadership literally down the tubes, elections in Kandahar would be postponed for at least a week. Three Americans, including a brigadier general, were also wounded in the attack. (In 2014, an American major general was killed in just such an insider strike.) In one of the rarest acts for an American commander in memory, General Miller reportedly drew his sidearm as the bullets began to fly, but was himself untouched. Still, it was a striking reminder that, 17 years after the U.S. invaded that country, the Taliban are again riding high and represent the only forces making “progress” or “turning corners” in that country.

In a conflict with no end in sight that is now not only the longest in American history but more than four times as long as World War II, the “finest fighting force that the world has ever known” hasn’t been able to discover a hint of victory anywhere. And that’s something that could be said as well of the rest of its war on terror across the Greater Middle East and ever-expanding regions of Africa. Today, TomDispatch regular retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Astore suggests that no great military stays at war for 17 years unless it is, in some sense, victorious. As a result, in his latest post, he explores just where, in our increasingly upside-down American world, evidence of such triumph might be found. ~ Tom

Why American Leaders Persist in Waging Losing Wars

By William J. Astore

As America enters the 18th year of its war in Afghanistan and its 16th in Iraq, the war on terror continues in Yemen, Syria, and parts of Africa, including Libya, Niger, and Somalia. Meanwhile, the Trump administration threatens yet more war, this time with Iran. (And given these last years, just how do you imagine that’s likely to turn out?) Honestly, isn’t it time Americans gave a little more thought to why their leaders persist in waging losing wars across significant parts of the planet? So consider the rest of this piece my attempt to do just that.

Let’s face it: profits and power should be classified as perennial reasons why U.S. leaders persist in waging such conflicts. War may be a racket, as General Smedley Butler claimed long ago, but who cares these days since business is booming? And let’s add to such profits a few other all-American motivations. Start with the fact that, in some curious sense, war is in the American bloodstream. As former New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges once put it, “War is a force that gives us meaning.” Historically, we Americans are a violent people who have invested much in a self-image of toughness now being displayed across the “global battlespace.” (Hence all the talk in this country not about our soldiers but about our “warriors.”) As the bumper stickers I see regularly where I live say: “God, guns, & guts made America free.” To make the world freer, why not export all three?

Add in, as well, the issue of political credibility. No president wants to appear weak and in the United States of the last many decades, pulling back from a war has been the definition of weakness. No one – certainly not Donald Trump – wants to be known as the president who “lost” Afghanistan or Iraq. As was true of Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon in the Vietnam years, so in this century fear of electoral defeat has helped prolong the country’s hopeless wars. Generals, too, have their own fears of defeat, fears that drive them to escalate conflicts (call it the urge to surge) and even to advocate for the use of nuclear weapons, as General William Westmoreland did in 1968during the Vietnam War.

Washington’s own deeply embedded illusions and deceptions also serve to generate and perpetuate its wars. Lauding our troops as “freedom fighters” for peace and prosperity, presidents like George W. Bush have waged a set of brutal wars in the name of spreading democracy and a better way of life. The trouble is: incessant war doesn’t spread democracy – though in the twenty-first century we’ve learned that it does spread terror groups – it kills it. At the same time, our leaders, military and civilian, have given us a false picture of the nature of the wars they’re fighting. They continue to present the U.S. military and its vaunted “smart” weaponry as a precision surgical instrument capable of targeting and destroying the cancer of terrorism, especially of the radical Islamic variety. Despite the hoopla about them, however, those precision instruments of war turn out to be blunt indeed, leading to the widespread killing of innocents, the massive displacement of people across America’s war zones, and floods of refugees who have, in turn, helped spark the rise of the populist right in lands otherwise still at peace.

Lurking behind the incessant warfare of this century is another belief, particularly ascendant in the Trump White House: that big militaries and expensive weaponry represent “investments” in a better future – as if the Pentagon were the Bank of America or Wall Street. Steroidal military spending continues to be sold as a key to creating jobs and maintaining America’s competitive edge, as if war were America’s primary business. (And perhaps it is!)

Those who facilitate enormous military budgets and frequent conflicts abroad still earn special praise here. Consider, for example, Senator John McCain’srapturous final sendoff, including the way arms maker Lockheed Martin lauded him as an American hero supposedly tough and demanding when it came to military contractors. (And if you believe that, you’ll believe anything.)

Put all of this together and what you’re likely to come up with is the American version of George Orwell’s famed formulation in his novel 1984: “war is peace.”

The War the Pentagon Knew How to Win

Twenty years ago, when I was a major on active duty in the U.S. Air Force, a major concern was the possible corroding of civil-military relations – in particular, a growing gap between the military and the civilians who were supposed to control them. I’m a clipper of newspaper articles and I saved some from that long-gone era. “Sharp divergence found in views of military and civilians,” reported the New York Times in September 1999. “Civilians, military seen growing apart,” noted the Washington Post a month later. Such pieces were picking up on trends already noted by distinguished military commentators like Thomas Ricks and Richard Kohn. In July 1997, for instance, Ricks had written an influential Atlantic article, “The Widening Gap between the Military and Society.” In 1999, Kohn gave a lecture at the Air Force Academy titled “The Erosion of Civilian Control of the Military in the United States Today.”

A generation ago, such commentators worried that the all-volunteer military was becoming an increasingly conservative and partisan institution filled with generals and admirals contemptuous of civilians, notably then-President Bill Clinton. At the time, according to one study, 64% of military officers identified as Republicans, only 8% as Democrats and, when it came to the highest levels of command, that figure for Republicans was in the stratosphere, approaching 90%. Kohn quoted a West Point graduate as saying, “We’re in danger of developing our own in-house Soviet-style military, one in which if you’re not in ‘the party,’ you don’t get ahead.” In a similar fashion, 67% of military officers self-identified as politically conservative, only 4% as liberal.

In a 1998 article for the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings, Ricks noted that “the ratio of conservatives to liberals in the military” had gone from “about 4 to 1 in 1976, which is about where I would expect a culturally conservative, hierarchical institution like the U.S. military to be, to 23 to 1 in 1996.” This “creeping politicization of the officer corps,” Ricks concluded, was creating a less professional military, one in the process of becoming “its own interest group.” That could lead, he cautioned, to an erosion of military effectiveness if officers were promoted based on their political leanings rather than their combat skills.

How has the civil-military relationship changed in the last two decades? Despite bending on social issues (gays in the military, women in more combat roles), today’s military is arguably neither more liberal nor less partisan than it was in the Clinton years. It certainly hasn’t returned to its citizen-soldier roots via a draft. Change, if it’s come, has been on the civilian side of the divide as Americans have grown both more militarized and more partisan (without any greater urge to sign up and serve). In this century, the civil-military divide of a generation ago has been bridged by endless celebrations of that military as “the best of us” (as Vice President Mike Pence recently put it).

Such expressions, now commonplace, of boundless faith in and thankfulnessfor the military are undoubtedly driven in part by guilt over neither serving, nor undoubtedly even truly caring. Typically, Pence didn’t serve and neither did Donald Trump (those pesky “heel spurs”). As retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich put it in 2007: “To assuage uneasy consciences, the many who do not serve [in the all-volunteer military] proclaim their high regard for the few who do. This has vaulted America’s fighting men and women to the top of the nation’s moral hierarchy. The character and charisma long ago associated with the pioneer or the small farmer – or carried in the 1960s by Dr. King and the civil-rights movement – has now come to rest upon the soldier.” This elevation of “our” troops as America’s moral heroes feeds a Pentagon imperative that seeks to isolate the military from criticism and its commanders from accountability for wars gone horribly wrong.

Paradoxically, Americans have become both too detached from their military and too deferential to it. We now love to applaud that military, which, the pollsters tell us, enjoys a significantly higher degree of trust and approval from the public than the presidency, Congress, the media, the Catholic church, or the Supreme Court. What that military needs, however, in this era of endless war is not loud cheers, but tough love.

As a retired military man, I do think our troops deserve a measure of esteem. There’s a selfless ethic to the military that should seem admirable in this age of selfies and selfishness. That said, the military does not deserve the deference of the present moment, nor the constant adulation it gets in endless ceremonies at any ballpark or sporting arena. Indeed, deference and adulation, the balm of military dictatorships, should be poison to the military of a democracy.

With U.S. forces endlessly fighting ill-begotten wars, whether in Vietnam in the 1960s or in Iraq and Afghanistan four decades later, it’s easy to lose sight of where the Pentagon continues to maintain a truly winning record: right here in the U.S.A. Today, whatever’s happening on the country’s distant battlefields, the idea that ever more inflated military spending is an investment in making America great again reigns supreme – as it has, with little interruption, since the 1980s and the era of President Ronald Reagan.

The military’s purpose should be, as Richard Kohn put it long ago, “to defend society, not to define it. The latter is militarism.” With that in mind, think of the way various retired military men lined up behind Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016, including a classically unhinged performance by retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn (he of the “lock her up” chants) for Trump at the Republican convention and a shout-out of a speech by retired General John Allen for Clinton at the Democratic one. America’s presidential candidates, it seemed, needed to be anointed by retired generals, setting a dangerous precedent for future civil-military relations.

A Letter From My Senator

A few months back, I wrote a note to one of my senators to complain about America’s endless wars and received a signed reply via email. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that it was a canned response, but no less telling for that. My senator began by praising American troops as “tough, smart, and courageous, and they make huge sacrifices to keep our families safe. We owe them all a true debt of gratitude for their service.” OK, I got an instant warm and fuzzy feeling, but seeking applause wasn’t exactly the purpose of my note.

My senator then expressed support for counterterror operations, for, that is, “conducting limited, targeted operations designed to deter violent extremists that pose a credible threat to America’s national security, including al-Qaeda and its affiliates, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), localized extremist groups, and homegrown terrorists.” My senator then added a caveat, suggesting that the military should obey “the law of armed conflict” and that the authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) that Congress hastily approved in the aftermath of 9/11 should not be interpreted as an “open-ended mandate” for perpetual war.

Finally, my senator voiced support for diplomacy as well as military action, writing, “I believe that our foreign policy should be smart, tough, and pragmatic, using every tool in the toolbox – including defense, diplomacy, and development – to advance U.S. security and economic interests around the world.” The conclusion: “robust” diplomacy must be combined with a “strong” military.

Now, can you guess the name and party affiliation of that senator? Could it have been Lindsey Graham or Jeff Flake, Republicans who favor a beyond-strong military and endlessly aggressive counterterror operations? Of course, from that little critical comment on the AUMF, you’ve probably already figured out that my senator is a Democrat. But did you guess that my military-praising, counterterror-waging representative was Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts?

Full disclosure: I like Warren and have made small contributions to her campaign. And her letter did stipulate that she believed “military action should always be a last resort.” Still, nowhere in it was there any critique of, or even passingly critical commentary about, the U.S. military, or the still-spreading war on terror, or the never-ending Afghan War, or the wastefulness of Pentagon spending, or the devastation wrought in these years by the last superpower on this planet. Everything was anodyne and safe – and this from a senator who’s been pilloried by the right as a flaming liberal and caricatured as yet another socialist out to destroy America.

I know what you’re thinking: What choice does Warren have but to play it safe? She can’t go on record criticizing the military. (She’s already gotten in enough trouble in my home state for daring to criticize the police.) If she doesn’t support a “strong” U.S. military presence globally, how could she remain a viable presidential candidate in 2020?

And I would agree with you, but with this little addendum: Isn’t that proof that the Pentagon has won its most important war, the one that captured – to steal a phrase from another losing war – the “hearts and minds” of America? In this country in 2018, as in 2017, 2016, and so on, the U.S. military and its leaders dictate what is acceptable for us to say and do when it comes to our prodigal pursuit of weapons and wars.

So, while it’s true that the military establishment failed to win those “hearts and minds” in Vietnam or more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, they sure as hell didn’t fail to win them here. In Homeland, U.S.A., in fact, victory has been achieved and, judging by the latest Pentagon budgets, it couldn’t be more overwhelming.

If you ask – and few Americans do these days – why this country’s losing wars persist, the answer should be, at least in part: because there’s no accountability. The losers in those wars have seized control of our national narrative. They now define how the military is seen (as an investment, a boon, a good and great thing); they now shape how we view our wars abroad (as regrettable perhaps, but necessary and also a sign of national toughness); they now assign all serious criticism of the Pentagon to what they might term the defeatist fringe.

In their hearts, America’s self-professed warriors know they’re right. But the wrongs they’ve committed, and continue to commit, in our name will not be truly righted until Americans begin to reject the madness of rampant militarism, bloated militaries, and endless wars.

A retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and professor of history, Astore is a TomDispatch regular. His personal blog is Bracing Views.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, and John Feffer’s dystopian novel Splinterlands.

Copyright 2018 William J. Astore

Advertisements

Khashoggi’s Last Column

Jamal Khashoggi: What the Arab world needs most is free expression


Jamal Khashoggi (Illustration by Alex Fine for The Washington Post)
October 17

A note from Karen Attiah, Global Opinions editor

I received this column from Jamal Khashoggi’s translator and assistant the day after Jamal was reported missing in Istanbul. The Post held off publishing it because we hoped Jamal would come back to us so that he and I could edit it together. Now I have to accept: That is not going to happen. This is the last piece of his I will edit for The Post. This column perfectly captures his commitment and passion for freedom in the Arab world. A freedom he apparently gave his life for. I will be forever grateful he chose The Post as his final journalistic home one year ago and gave us the chance to work together.

I was recently online looking at the 2018 “Freedom in the World” reportpublished by Freedom House and came to a grave realization. There is only one country in the Arab world that has been classified as “free.” That nation is TunisiaJordanMorocco and Kuwait come second, with a classification of “partly free.” The rest of the countries in the Arab world are classified as “not free.”

As a result, Arabs living in these countries are either uninformed or misinformed. They are unable to adequately address, much less publicly discuss, matters that affect the region and their day-to-day lives. A state-run narrative dominates the public psyche, and while many do not believe it, a large majority of the population falls victim to this false narrative. Sadly, this situation is unlikely to change.

The Arab world was ripe with hope during the spring of 2011. Journalists, academics and the general population were brimming with expectations of a bright and free Arab society within their respective countries. They expected to be emancipated from the hegemony of their governments and the consistent interventions and censorship of information. These expectations were quickly shattered; these societies either fell back to the old status quo or faced even harsher conditions than before.

My dear friend, the prominent Saudi writer Saleh al-Shehi, wrote one of the most famous columns ever published in the Saudi press. He unfortunately is now serving an unwarranted five-year prison sentence for supposed comments contrary to the Saudi establishment. The Egyptian government’s seizure of the entire print run of a newspaper, al-Masry al Youm, did not enrage or provoke a reaction from colleagues. These actions no longer carry the consequence of a backlash from the international community. Instead, these actions may trigger condemnation quickly followed by silence.

As a result, Arab governments have been given free rein to continue silencing the media at an increasing rate. There was a time when journalists believed the Internet would liberate information from the censorship and control associated with print media. But these governments, whose very existence relies on the control of information, have aggressively blocked the Internet. They have also arrested local reporters and pressured advertisers to harm the revenue of specific publications.

There are a few oases that continue to embody the spirit of the Arab Spring. Qatar’s government continues to support international news coverage, in contrast to its neighbors’ efforts to uphold the control of information to support the “old Arab order.” Even in Tunisia and Kuwait, where the press is considered at least “partly free,” the media focuses on domestic issues but not issues faced by the greater Arab world. They are hesitant to provide a platform for journalists from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Yemen. Even Lebanon, the Arab world’s crown jewel when it comes to press freedom, has fallen victim to the polarization and influence of pro-Iran Hezbollah.

The Arab world is facing its own version of an Iron Curtain, imposed not by external actors but through domestic forces vying for power. During the Cold War, Radio Free Europe, which grew over the years into a critical institution, played an important role in fostering and sustaining the hope of freedom. Arabs need something similar. In 1967, the New York Times and The Post took joint ownership of the International Herald Tribune newspaper, which went on to become a platform for voices from around the world.

My publication, The Post, has taken the initiative to translate many of my pieces and publish them in Arabic. For that, I am grateful. Arabs need to read in their own language so they can understand and discuss the various aspects and complications of democracy in the United States and the West. If an Egyptian reads an article exposing the actual cost of a construction project in Washington, then he or she would be able to better understand the implications of similar projects in his or her community.

The Arab world needs a modern version of the old transnational media so citizens can be informed about global events. More important, we need to provide a platform for Arab voices. We suffer from poverty, mismanagement and poor education. Through the creation of an independent international forum, isolated from the influence of nationalist governments spreading hate through propaganda, ordinary people in the Arab world would be able to address the structural problems their societies face.

R

Sweet Home Mississippi (a novel)

Sweet Home Mississippi by Eddie J. Girdner
One could get a kick out of reading this book, although it would probably piss off some southerners.
It is available on Amazon.
on October 20, 2015
A progressive’s nightmare down in the south whereby he gets his only chance of employment ,tells the tale of how narrow minded people are on many facets of life economically,socially and politically in the so called first world .Racism and crapitalism exist side by side in ol sweet home mississipi. The book ends in a shocking but ironic twist that no one can run from home sweet home. A refreshing slap on the face of the harsh realities of how hard is it for a progressive mind in a closed society, the author’s wittiness and humor tingles just the right notes! A must read!

Privatising the War in Afghanistan?

How soon will this happen, I wonder?

Of course, Prince’s sister is the Secretary of Education. (Betsy Devos)

Afghan Govt Says No To ‘Private and Profit Driven’ War

The NSC made it clear that as a sovereign nation, we will consider all legal options against those who try to privatize war on our land.

Thumbnail

The Afghan Office of the National Security Council (NSC) on Thursday stated government would consider all legal options against anyone who tries to privatize the war in Afghanistan.

This comes on the back of a campaign by the founder and former CEO of Blackwater security company, Erik Prince, who for the past few weeks has been promoting the idea of privatizing the war in the country – by using contractors opposed to foreign troops.

In their statement on Thursday, the NSC rejected outright the notion and said “in no manner does the government of Afghanistan condone this destructive and divisive debate.”

The NSC said the debate around privatizing the Afghan war would “add new foreign and unaccountable elements to our fight.

“This idea violates the principle that Afghans determine their own future. Afghan security and defense forces, under the framework of all applicable laws of the country, have the primary responsibility and authority for safeguarding the noble values of Islam, our national sovereignty, and the independence and territorial integrity of our beloved country and people.”

The NSC emphasized the war on terrorism is led – and will continue to be led – by Afghan national security and defense forces with the support of its international allies.

“Under no circumstances will the Afghan government and people allow the counterterrorism fight to become a private, for-profit business.

“In no manner does the government of Afghanistan condone this destructive and divisive debate. As a sovereign nation, we will consider all legal options against those who try to privatize war on our land.

“The protection of our Islamic values, our national way of life, and our citizens are this government’s most sacred responsibility,”

The NSC’s message was clear that under no circumstances would government allow the war to become a profit-making scenario nor would government allow Afghanistan’s “struggle to be cheapened by the prospect of profits.”

Prince has meanwhile held numerous interviews with the media over the past few weeks and just late last month he spoke to TOLOnews about his plans to privatize the war.

He said his forces could change the situation in the country within six months.

Defending his plan, he said: “Well, I would say six months after the program is fully ramped up, you have a very different situation on the ground, I will commit to that,” said Prince.

In an earlier interview this year, with the UK’s Independent, Prince again pitched his plan, while last month he told The Hill in an interview that it was not accurate to call it a privatization. “It’s really a rationalization,” he said.

“You have 15,000 US troops, you have 30,000 contractors there already. This plan brings both of those numbers way down 2,000 active duty, 6,000 contractors, that’s it,” he continued.

His plan however has been met by resistance from a number of circles and on August 28, US Defense Secretary James Mattis said “it is probably not a wise idea”.

“When Americans put their nation’s credibility on the line, privatizing it is probably not a wise idea,” Mattis said.

Prince’s plans appear to include 3,600 “contracted veteran mentors” from Blackwater who would be deployed to Afghanistan – 36 for each Afghan unit and for two to four years at a time.

“I would use contracted veteran mentors from the US and from NATO, the same countries over here now,” Prince told TOLOnews.

He also stated that the contractors would be equipped with airpower, weapons and would be joined by NATO and Afghan forces on every mission.

“They provide leadership, intelligence, communications, medicals and logistics expertise to their Afghan counterparts and go with them in the field all the time to make sure their Afghan counterparts are paid and fed, that they are well led, that they have a communications plan, all those essential elements of soldiering don’t break down,” he said.

He stated that Afghans would be in the lead of this mission all the time, under Afghan rules of engagement and under Afghan rule of law.

“If one of these contractors I am recommending, does an evil act, intentionally injures a child or something like that, they could be held accountable under the uniform code of military justice here in Kabul, investigated, trialed, incarcerated back in their home country. We have a clear path for accountability,” he said.

Prince meanwhile turned to the media, especially television, after the Trump administration rejected his strategy – touting his plans to outlets around the world.

But the US does not see the need for the war to be privatized. Senior officials said last month that their current course of action under the South Asia Strategy is paying dividends – especially as there are indications that the Taliban could come to the peace talks tables.

It is widely believed by Afghan government leaders, the international community and regional neighbors that there is no military solution to this war and that the only way peace can be achieved is by getting the Taliban to the talks tables.

Prince however recently told the Associated Press that although he had not spoken directly to President Donald Trump at the strategy, he had been told the president showed interest.

WHO IS PRINCE?

Prince is an American businessman and former US Navy SEAL best known for founding the government services and security company Blackwater USA, now known as Academi.

He founded Blackwater Worldwide in 1997 after buying 6,000 acres of the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina and set up a school for special operations.

Between the years 1997 to 2010, Blackwater was awarded $2 billion in US government security contracts, more than $1.6 billion of which were unclassified federal contracts and an unknown amount of classified work.

For nine years – between 2001 and 2010, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) allegedly awarded his company up to $600 million in classified contracts and it became the largest of the US State Department’s three private security companies.

Blackwater however came under increasing criticism after the Nisour Square massacre in September 2007, in which Blackwater employees opened fire in a crowded square in Baghdad, killing 17 Iraqi civilians and seriously wounding 20 more.

Three Blackwater guards were convicted in October 2014 of 14 manslaughter charges, and another of murder, in a US court.

The criticism continued unabated after former president Barack Obama took office in 2009 – criticism that Prince said stems from politics.

Prince has since been hired by the crown prince of Abu Dhabi where he was task to assemble an 800-member force of foreign troops for the UAE. He has also trained 2,000 Somalis or anti-piracy oprations in the Gulf of Aden.

The list of Prince’s accomplishments and involvement in foreign governments is lengthy and questions have often been raised over his business dealings.

However Prince has been a Donald Trump supporter and although it is believed he had no formal role in Trump’s transistion, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is investigating a Januarly 11, 2017, meeting in the Seychelles at which Prince presented himself as Trump’s unofficial representative.

CLICK HERE for full interview last month with TOLOnew’s Lotfullah Najafizada

Trump on US Wars

This is one place where Trump got it right. But the President has little power over the US deep state, the bedrock of the US global empire. The Empire must be maintained, regardless of the cost.

Could Trump Take Down the American Empire?

More than any other presidency in modern history, Donald Trump’s has been a veritable sociopolitical wrecking ball, deliberately stoking conflict by playing to xenophobic and racist currents in American society and debasing its political discourse. That fact has been widely discussed. But Trump’s attacks on the system of the global U.S. military presence and commitments have gotten far less notice.

He has complained bitterly, both in public and in private meetings with aides, about the suite of permanent wars that the Pentagon has been fighting for many years across the Greater Middle East and Africa, as well as about deployments and commitments to South Korea and NATO. This has resulted in an unprecedented struggle between a sitting president and the national security state over a global US military empire that has been sacrosanct in American politics since early in the Cold War.

And now Bob Woodward’s “Fear: Trump in the White House” has provided dramatic new details about that struggle.

Trump’s Advisers Take Him Into ‘the Tank’

Trump had entered the White House with a clear commitment to ending US military interventions, based on a worldview in which fighting wars in the pursuit of military dominance has no place. In the last speech of his “victory tour” in December 2016, Trump vowed, “We will stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we knew nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved with.” Instead of investing in wars, he said, he would invest in rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure.

In a meeting with his national security team in the summer of 2017, in which Secretary of Defense James Mattis recommended new military measures against Islamic State affiliates in North Africa, Trump expressed his frustration with the unending wars. “You guys want me to send troops everywhere,” Trump said, according to a Washington Post report. “What’s the justification?”

Mattis replied, “Sir, we’re doing it to prevent a bomb from going off in Times Square,” to which Trump angrily retorted that the same argument could be made about virtually any country on the planet.

Trump had even given ambassadors the power to call a temporary halt to drone strikes, according to the Post story, causing further consternation at the Pentagon.

Trump’s national security team became so alarmed about his questioning of US military engagements and forward deployment of troops that they felt something had to be done to turn him around. Mattis proposed to take Trump away from the White House into “the Tank” at the Pentagon, where the Joint Chiefs of Staff held their meetings, hoping to drive home their arguments more effectively.

It was there, on July 20, 2017, that Mattis, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other senior officials sought to impress on Trump the vital importance of maintaining existing US worldwide military commitments and deployments. Mattis used the standard Bush and Obama administration rhetoric of globalism, according to the meeting notes provided to Woodward. He asserted that the “rules-based, international democratic order”—the term used to describe the global structure of US military and military power—had brought security and prosperity. Tillerson, ignoring decades of US destabilizing wars in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, chimed in, saying, “This is what has kept the peace for 70 years.”

Trump said nothing, according to Woodward’s account, but simply shook his head in disagreement. He eventually steered the discussion to an issue that was particularly irritating to him: US military and economic relations with South Korea. “We spend $3.5 billion a year to have troops in South Korea,” Trump complained. “I don’t know why they’re there. … Let’s bring them all home!”

At that, Trump’s chief of staff at the time, Reince Priebus, recognizing that the national security team’s effort to get control of Trump’s opposition to their wars and troop deployments had been an utter failure, called a halt to the meeting.

In September 2017, even as Trump threatened in tweets to destroy North Korea, he was privately hammering aides over the US troop presence in South Korea and repeatedly expressing a determination to remove them, Woodward’s account reveals.

Those Trump complaints prompted H.R. McMaster, then the national security adviser, to call for a National Security Council meeting on the issue on Jan. 19. Trump again demanded, “What do we get by maintaining a massive military presence in the Korean peninsula?” And he linked that question to the broader issue of the United States paying for the defense of other states in Asia, the Middle East and NATO.

Mattis portrayed the troop presence in South Korea as a great security bargain. “Forward-positioned troops provide the least costly means of achieving our security objectives,” he said, “and withdrawal would lead our allies to lose all confidence in us.” The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, argued that South Korea was reimbursing the United States $800 million a year out of the total cost of $2 billion, thus subsidizing the United States for something it would do in its own interests anyway.

But such arguments made no impression on Trump, who saw no value in having troops abroad at a time when the United States itself was crumbling. “We have [spent] $7 trillion in the Middle East,” Trump said at the end of the meeting. “We can’t even muster $1 trillion for domestic infrastructure.”

Trump’s belief that US troops should be pulled out of South Korea was reinforced by the unexpected political-diplomatic developments in North and South Korea in early 2018. Trump responded positively to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s offer of a summit meeting and signaled his readiness to negotiate with Kim on an agreement that would both denuclearize North Korea and bring peace to the Korean peninsula.

Before the Singapore summit with Kim, Trump ordered the Pentagon to develop options for drawing down those US troops. That idea was viewed by the news media and most of the national security elite as completely unacceptable, but it has long been well known among military and intelligence specialists on Korea that US troops are not needed—either to deter North Korea or to defend against an attack across the DMZ.

Trump’s willingness to practice personal diplomacy with Kim and to envision the end or serious attenuation of the US troop deployment in South Korea was undoubtedly driven in part by his ego, but it could not have happened without his rejection of the ideology of national security that had dominated Washington elites for generations.

Fights Over Syria and Afghanistan

Trump was impatient to end all three major wars he had inherited from Barack Obama: Afghanistan and the wars against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Woodward recounts how Trump lectured McMaster, Porter, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner in July 2017 on their return from a golf weekend about how tired he was of those wars. “We should just declare victory, end the wars and bring our troops home,” he told them, repeating—probably unconsciously—the same political tactic that had been urged by Vermont Sen. George Aiken in 1966 for ending the US war in Vietnam.

Even after a massively destructive U.S.-NATO bombing campaign forced Islamic State to abandon its capital in the city of Raqqa, Syria, in October 2017, Trump’s national security team insisted on keeping US troops in Syria indefinitely. In a mid-November briefing for reporters at the Pentagon, Mattis declared that preventing the return of Islamic State was a “longer-term objective” of the US military, and that US forces would remain in Syria to help establish conditions for a diplomatic solution. “We’re not going to walk away before the Geneva process has traction,” Mattis said.

But Mattis and Tillerson had not changed Trump’s mind about Syria. In early April 2018, the Pentagon gave Trump a paper that focused almost entirely on different options for remaining in Syria, treating full withdrawal as a clearly unacceptable option. In a tense meeting, Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Dunford warned that complete withdrawal would allow Iran and Russia to fill the vacuum—as though Trump shared their assumption that such an outcome was unthinkable. Instead Trump told them he wanted US troops to wrap the war with Islamic State in six months, according to a CNN account from Pentagon sources. And when Mattis and other officials warned that the timeline was too short, “Trump responded by telling his team to just get it done.”

A few days later, Trump declared publicly, “We’re coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now. Very soon we’re coming out.”

After John Bolton entered the White House as national security adviser in April, however, he persuaded Trump to view Syria in the context of the administration’s vendetta against Iran—at least for the time being. Bolton declared this week that US troops would not leave Syria as long as Iranian troops serve outside Iranian borders. But Mattis contradicted Bolton, saying the troops remained in Syria to defeat Islamic State and that the commitment was “not open-ended.”

Trump had been calling for an end to the war in Afghanistan for years before his election, and he felt passionate about getting out. And Woodward reveals that the NSC’s chief of staff, retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, supported the idea of US withdrawal. When the National Security Council met in July 2017 to discuss Afghanistan, Trump interrupted McMaster’s initial presentation to explained why the war was “a disaster”: Nonexistent “ghost soldiers” in the Afghan army were being used to rip off the United States, as corrupt Afghan leaders milked the war and US assistance to make money. When Tillerson tried to place Afghanistan in a “regional context,” Trump responded, “But how many more deaths? How many more lost limbs? How much longer are we going to be there?”

The Pentagon and McMaster nevertheless pressed on with a plan to increase the US military presence. At a climactic meeting in mid-August on Afghanistan, according to the account in Woodward’s book, McMaster told Trump he had no choice but to step up the war by adding 4,000 troops. The reason? It was necessary to prevent al-Qaida or Islamic State from using Afghan territory to launch terror attacks on the United States or Europe.

Trump retorted angrily that the generals were “the architects of this mess” and that they have were “making it worse,” by asking him to add more troops to “something I don’t believe in.” Then Trump folded his arms and declared, “I want to get out. And you’re telling me the answer is to get deeper in.”

Mattis spelled out the argument in terms that he hoped would finally get to Trump. He warned that what had happened to Obama when he withdrew forces from Iraq prematurely would happen to Trump if he didn’t go along with the Pentagon’s proposed new strategy.

“I still think you’re wrong” [about the war], Trump said, [it] “hasn’t gotten us anything.” But he went along with Mattis and announced that he had been convinced to go against his own “instincts” by approving the 4,000-troop increase.

He was being cowed by the same fear of being accused of responsibility for possible future consequences of defeat in a war—a fear that had led Lyndon Johnson to abandon his own strong resistance to a full-scale US intervention in Vietnam in mid-1965 and Barack Obama to accept a major escalation in Afghanistan that he had argued against in White House meetings.

Trump announced a new strategy in which there would be no arbitrary timelines for withdrawal as there had been under Obama and no restrictions on commanders’ use of drones and conventional airstrikes. But since then, all accounts have agreed that the war is being lost to the Taliban, and Trump will certainly be forced to revisit the policy as the evidence of failure creates new political pressures on the administration.

Trump’s economic worldview, which some have called mercantilist, poses economic dangers to the United States. And given Trump’s multiple serious personal and political failings—including his adoption of a policy of regime change in Iran urged on him by Bolton and by Trump’s extremist Zionist campaign donor Sheldon Adelson—he may finally give up his resistance to the multiple permanent US wars.

But Trump’s unorthodox approach has already emboldened him to challenge the essential logic of the US military empire more than any previous president. And the final years of his administration will certainly bring further struggles over the issues on which he has jousted repeatedly with those in charge of the empire.

Gareth Porter, an investigative historian and journalist specializing in US national security policy, received the UK-based Gellhorn Prize for journalism for 2011 for articles on the U.S. war in Afghanistan. His new book is Manufactured Crisis: the Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare. He can be contacted atporter.gareth50@gmail.com.

Reprinted from TruthDig with the author’s permission.

Situation in Syria

With Isis Defeated, Trump Is Now Targeting Iran
The shadowy figures of Kurdish fighters can be just made out on film as they ambush and kill three pro-Turkish fighters in a night time attack in Afrin in northern Syria. The Kurdish enclave was invaded and occupied by the Turkish army and their Syrian armed opposition allies earlier in the year. Sporadic guerrilla warfare has been going on ever since.

This skirmish took place a few days after an attack on a military parade by gunmen a thousand miles away from Afrin in Ahvaz in southwest Iran that killed 25 people. Film shows soldiers and civilians running in panic as they are sprayed with bullets, leaving 25 dead, including 11 conscripts and a four-year-old child. The killings were claimed by both Isis and Arab separatists from the province of Khuzestan whom the Iranians accused of acting as catspaws for the US, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

These incidents matter because they may be the harbinger of the next round of confrontations, crises and wars engulfing the Middle East. The most recent phase of conflict in the region saw the rise and fall of Isis and failed campaigns to overthrow the governments of Syria and Iraq. But Isis, which three years ago ruled a de facto state with a population of five or six million, has been largely crushed and confined to desert hideouts. President Bashar al-Assad – whose fall was confidently predicted after the uprising in 2011 – is firmly in power, as is the Iraqi government that suffered calamitous defeats at the time of the Isis capture of Mosul in 2014.

But the round of conflicts just ending may soon be replaced by another with different players and different issues. The guerrilla action in Afrin is a single episode in the escalating confrontation between Turkey and the Kurds in northern Syria which will involve the US and Russia. The Middle East is always dangerous because, like the Balkans before 1914, it is full of complex but ferocious conflicts that draw in the great powers. The risk is always there but is more dangerous under President Trump because he and his administration view the Middle East through a paranoid prism in which they everywhere see the hidden hand of Iran. President George W Bush and Tony Blair had similar tunnel vision during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 when they blamed everything that went wrong on a remnant of Saddam Hussein supporters.

The exaggeration of “the Iranian threat” by the Trump administration this week at the UN General Assembly in New York was very like what was being said about Iraq fifteen years earlier. The National Security Advisor John Bolton threatened that “the murderous regime and its supporters will face significant consequences if they do not change their behaviour. We are watching, and we will come after you.” The US military intervention in Syria, previously targeting Isis, will in future be directed against Iranian influence.

US policy in Syria and Iraq has been likened to playing chess while mistaking the knight for the bishop and thinking that castles move diagonally. The US has decided to retain a military force in northeast Syria in order to thwart Iranian ambitions, but the country most affected by this is not Iran but Turkey. The US can only stay in this part of Syria in alliance with the Syrian Kurds, whose de facto state, which they call Rojava, Turkey is pledged to eliminate.

Turkey has been nibbling its way into northern Syria over the past two years and is now deploying troops in Idlib province in cooperation with the Russians. A shaky alliance with Turkey as a leading Nato military power is one of the biggest Russian gains of its military intervention in Syria which it will go a long way to preserve. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is now threatening to extend the Turkey advance east of the Euphrates river in order to slice up the Kurdish statelet.

This would mean the extinction of the last remaining gain of the Syrian uprising of 2011. Rojava was the unexpected creation of the Syrian Kurds and their YPG militia that allied themselves with the US against Isis during the siege of Kurdish city of Kobani in 2014. They provide the ground troops and the US the airpower.

The US-backed Kurds are greatly overextended, holding a swathe of northeast Syria, half of whose population are Arabs hostile to Kurdish rule. It is not a place where American troops can stay forever without becoming somebody’s target. Prolonged US presence invites disaster as with the American ground operations in Lebanon in 1982-84, Somalia in 1992-95 and in Iraq in 2003-11. “There will always be people in the Middle East who think that the best way to get rid of the Americans is to kill some of them,” noted one observer with long experience of region.

Denunciations of Iran as the root of all evil by Trump, Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and UN ambassador Nikki Haley are simple minded to the point of idiocy. Haley responded to the Ahvaz massacre by telling the government to “look in the mirror”. Bolton last year promised the exiled Iranian opposition group, the very weird cult-like Mojahedin-e Khalq, that by 2019 they would be ruling Iran. This week he was saying that there would be “hell to pay” if Iran stood in the way of the US.

The blood-curdling rhetoric may be arrogant and puerile but should be taken seriously because it reflects the same attitude of mind that preceded past US interventions in the Middle East: the enemy is demonised and underestimated at the same time. There is credulity towards self-interested exiled groups who claimed that US intervention would be easy (Iraqi opposition groups were privately cynical in 2003 about how far they were misleading the Americans on this score). Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE have an interest in luring the US into fighting Iran, though they are not intending to do much fighting themselves.

The twists and turns of US policy in the Middle East has in the past mystified knowledgeable observers who attribute bizarre actions by the White House to stupidity and ignorance of local conditions. But US policy was often more rational than it looked – so long as one understood that it was determined by American domestic politics and the main purpose was to persuade the US voter, particularly in the run up to important elections, that their president had not mired them in a bloody and unsuccessful war.

The reputation of every US President since the 1970s, with the exception of President George Bush senior, has been damaged to a greater or lesser degree by conflict in the Middle East or North Africa. There is Jimmy Carter (Iran), Ronald Reagan (Lebanon, Irangate), Bill Clinton (Somalia), George W Bush (Iraq, Afghanistan), Barack Obama (Syria, Libya). It would be surprising if Trump turns out to be an exception to the rule.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)