Why can’t the USA count votes? The USA is becoming the epitome of crooked elections.



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

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.


Syria Update

Washington’s Influence in Syria is Nowhere to be Found

Yet we’re still there, threatening Assad as though we won the war.

A poster of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad hangs in front of a shop in the old city of Damascus. By serkan senturk/shutterstock

DAMASCUS—Syria’s capital looks a bit like Washington, D.C.: imposing government buildings, heavy traffic, busy streets, and imperious officials. Public edifices are surrounded by concrete walls. The main difference may be the ubiquitous regime propaganda: you can’t miss images of President Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez, whereas President Trump’s visage is missing from Washington.

Also unusual are the ubiquitous checkpoints. They’re there to prevent terrorism via car bombs. Although the threat of terrorism scares most Americans, it actually offers a form of relief to Damascus residents. Until recently insurgents controlled some suburbs, from which they fired artillery and mortars into the city. Today those neighborhoods, just a few minutes away, are wrecked and empty. It may be the peace of the grave, but at least it is peace.

On a recent trip to Syria, I found similar situations in Homs and Aleppo. The damage was greater and more extensive—entire neighborhoods in the latter are just rubble—but other areas of the cities were recovering. The government rules without an overwhelming public security presence. The war is over and they have won.

The last area under insurgent control, surrounding Idlib, faces an imminent offensive by the Syrian military backed by Russian airstrikes. Washington has warned the Assad regime against using chemical weapons but otherwise won’t intervene. The humanitarian consequences could be severe, but Damascus is widely expected to prevail.

If so, only lands in the north, where U.S. forces are cooperating with Kurdish militias, and in the southeast near the Iraqi border, the site of another American base, remain outside of Syrian government control. President Donald Trump said he wanted to keep America out of the Syrian conflict and remain only long enough to defeat the Islamic State. But the administration recently announced what sounds like a plan for an essentially permanent, though lawless—without any congressional authorization—presence in Syria.

According to Washington, there are two primary objectives. One is to force Assad from power, presumably through some political settlement negotiated with Moscow. The other is to force Iran to withdraw its forces, also apparently with the assistance of Russia. These are quixotic, bizarre plans. The Syrian Civil War is over. The government won. The U.S. can’t force Syria, Russia, or Iran to do anything. America’s intervention in Syria is entirely misguided.

Syria is a humanitarian tragedy, of course. But that is no reason for the U.S. to risk sacrificing its own peoples’ lives and wealth in another lengthy, brutal conflict. Washington has been entangled in Afghanistan for 17 years and Iraq for 15 with no ends in sight. There is little that it can do in Syria, absent becoming just another active participant in a complicated, multi-sided battle with multiple bad actors. President Assad was one of them and deserved to fall, but ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra (an al-Qaeda affiliate), and a gaggle of other radical groups were even worse, murderous totalitarians that brutalized those they rule and threatened those who believe differently, including Americans.

In contrast, Syrian rebel “moderates” were largely irrelevant and ineffective. They never appeared to be real contenders for power and routinely cooperated with the radicals, often surrendering personnel and (U.S.-supplied) materiel.

Nor was ousting Assad likely to end the humanitarian crisis. Overthrowing him would have merely led to the next conflict over who would succeed him. In countries from Iran to Nicaragua, diverse coalitions defenestrated long-ruling dictators only to see the most vicious authoritarians among them take control. There is no reason to believe Syria would have been any different. Alawites, Christians, and other minorities saw Washington’s previous production in Iraq and didn’t like the ending. For understandable reasons these groups saw Assad as their best protection.

In any case, today Washington’s ability to influence events in Syria is only a little above nil. U.S. forces occupy part of that sovereign nation without the slightest legal authority. And the Assad government is more secure today than at any point during the last seven years. Why would it give way now? American policy actually gives the regime a plausible excuse to its own people for a slow recovery.

In fact, the administration said it will not support reconstruction in government-controlled areas. The theory, apparently, is that people will rise up and throw off their Assad-imposed chains in disgust. That is unlikely, given the fact that Damascus triumphed against a plethora of well-armed and funded opponents. Anyway, disgruntled Syrians are more likely to target Washington with their disgust, having felt punished by the U.S. for not making political choices that aren’t actually empowered to make.

Nor could Moscow displace Assad even if it wished to do so. His government controls the ground. At most, Russia could withhold air support in a conflict that has largely ended. And having invested so much, the Putin government is unlikely to risk its ties with Damascus. Relations are close: pictures of Assad and Putin together are common, the two countries share an airfield near the coast, and I saw truckloads of armed Russian soldiers driving about. The belief that Moscow would, or even could, force Iran from Syria is even more fanciful: Tehran has long has been allied with Syria and has far more at stake there than does Washington.

Indeed, America’s position is beyond arrogant. Washington is in Syria illegally. In contrast, Iran, like Russia, has been invited in by the legally legitimate (however brutal) Syrian government. Whatever the tensions between Moscow and Tehran, the former has no way of pushing out the latter. And given U.S. policy toward Russia, why would the latter do Washington any favors?

Moreover, the administration apparently imagines that the U.S. can use the Kurds to limit the access of Iranian forces to Syria, as if Tehran was unaware of airplanes. Worse, Kurdish forces know that Washington will not protect them, from Turkey or likely anyone else. So they have little reason to take great risks for America. Indeed, Damascus is engaged in negotiations with Kurdish officials. A Syrian takeover along the Turkish border might satisfy Ankara and finally end Turkey’s invasion, which is designed to prevent the creation of an autonomous Kurdish state.

Given the inevitable failure of the administration’s plans, how long will Washington continue its illegal military occupation of another country? The problem is not just wasted time, effort, and money. America’s role creates a serious risk of wider conflict.

U.S. forces are taking aggressive, confrontational positions within a war zone, forcibly occupying another nation’s territory. Washington is daring Damascus and its allies to take a shot at the foreign invaders. Simple error or misjudgment could land Washington in a violent conflict with Syrian, Iranian, and/or Russian forces.

Perhaps worse, the U.S. remains at odds with its NATO ally Turkey. Washington has positioned American military personnel between the Turkish military and Kurdish militias, having promised what it has no authority to do: force the Kurds away from their home territory along the border. Earlier this year, the threat of violent collision appeared real when the Pentagon promised to defend its positions and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to deliver an “Ottoman slap” to the U.S.

The Syrian civil war was and remains a tragedy. Unfortunately, the Trump administration appears to share the belief of the Obama and Bush administrations that it can transform the Middle East in America’s image. But Washington’s record when it attempts that is not just bad: it is catastrophically awful.

It’s time to say no more. Social engineering doesn’t work at home. It has worse results when attempted overseas. President Donald Trump has a unique opportunity to change the course of U.S. foreign policy for the better. It is time to bring home America’s troops and leave at least one foreign problem, Syria, to others.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.

Chomsky on Trump

Noam Chomsky: The Me First Doctrine

Z Communications Daily Commentary

President Trump’s sudden cancellation of the upcoming denuclearization summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is just the latest example of Trump’s wildly erratic approach to foreign policy.

While Trump’s domestic policies seem to be guided by clear objectives — increasing corporate profits, undoing every policy made by the Obama administration, and appeasing Trump’s anti-immigrant base — the imperatives driving US foreign policy under Trump remain something of a mystery.

In this exclusive interview, renowned linguist and public intellectual Noam Chomsky sheds light on the realities and dangers of foreign relations in the age of “gangster capitalism” and the decline of the US as a superpower.

C. J. Polychroniou: Noam, Donald Trump rose to power with “America First” as the key slogan of his election campaign. However, looking at what his administration has done so far on both the domestic and international front, it is hard to see how his policies are contributing to the well-being and security of the United States. With that in mind, can you decode for us what Trump’s “America First” policy may be about with regard to international relations?

Noam Chomsky: It is only natural to expect that policies will be designed for the benefit of the designers and their actual — not pretended — constituency, and that the well-being and security of the society will be incidental. And that is what we commonly discover. We might recall, for example, the frank comments on the Monroe Doctrine by Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State, Robert Lansing: “In its advocacy of the Monroe Doctrine the United States considers its own interests. The integrity of other American nations is an incident, not an end. While this may seem based on selfishness alone, the author of the Doctrine had no higher or more generous motive in its declaration.” The observation generalizes in international affairs, and much the same logic holds within the society.

There is nothing essentially new about “America First,” and “America” does not mean America, but rather the designers and their actual constituency.

A typical illustration is the policy achievement of which the Trump-Ryan-McConnell administration is most proud: the tax bill — what Joseph Stiglitz accurately called “The US Donor Relief Act of 2017.” It contributes very directly to the well-being of their actual constituency: private wealth and corporate power. It benefits the actual constituency indirectly by the standard Republican technique (since Reagan) of blowing up the deficit as a pretext for undermining social programs, which are the Republicans’ next targets. The bill is thus of real benefit to its actual constituency and severely harms the general population.

Turning to international affairs, in Trumpian lingo, “America First” means “me first” and damn the consequences for the country or the world. The “me first” doctrine has an immediate corollary: it’s necessary to keep the base in line with fake promises and fiery rhetoric, while not alienating the actual constituency. It also follows that it’s important to do the opposite of whatever was done by Obama. Trump is often called “unpredictable,” but his actions are highly predictable on these simple principles.

His most important decision, by far, was to pull out of the Paris negotiations on climate change and to tear to shreds efforts to prevent environmental catastrophe — a threat that is extremely severe, and not remote. All completely predictable on the basic principles just mentioned.

The decision benefits the actual constituency: the energy corporations, the automotive industry (most of it), and others who pursue the imperative of short-term profit. Consider perhaps the most-respected and “moderate” member of the Trump team, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, kicked out because he was too soft-hearted. We now know that ExxonMobil scientists were in the lead in the 1970s in recognizing the dire threat of global warming — facts surely known to the CEO, who presided over efforts to maximize the threat and to fund denialism of what the management knew was true — all to fill some overstuffed pockets with more dollars before we say “goodbye” to organized human life, not in the distant future.

It’s hard to find a word in the language to describe such behavior.

The decision also appeals to the pretended constituency: the voting base. Half of Republicans deny that global warming is taking place, and of the rest, a bare majority think that humans may have a role in it. It’s doubtful that anything comparable exists elsewhere.

And, of course, the decision reverses an Obama initiative, thus keeping to high principles.

One cannot overemphasize the astonishing fact that the most powerful country in world history refuses to join the world in doing at least something — in some cases a lot — about this existential threat to organized human life (and to the species that are disappearing as the Sixth Extinction proceeds on its lethal course). And beyond that, is devoting its efforts to accelerating the race to disaster. And no less astonishing is the failure to highlight, even to discuss this extraordinary situation. Considering what is at stake, it is hard to find a historical parallel.

The same hold pretty much on other policies, though sometimes with more elite opposition. Take Obama’s Iran deal — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). That, of course, has to go, on pretexts too ludicrous to discuss, and always ignoring the fact that while Iran has been adhering to the agreement, the US has been violating it all along by acting to block Iran’s reintegration into the global economy, particularly the global financial system, and to undermine “the normalisation of trade and economic relations with Iran.” All in violation of the JCPOA, but of no concern, on the prevailing tacit assumption that “the indispensable nation” stands above the law.

A considerable majority of Republicans have always opposed the deal, though in this case, Republican elites are often more realistic. The business world does not appear to have supported even the earlier sanctions regime — one of those interesting cases where state policy diverges from the interests of the actual constituency, much like Cuba policy. The decision harms the welfare and security of the general population, and might have truly horrendous consequences, but that is scarcely a consideration.

The Trump team is working hard to maximize the likely disastrous effects. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made his first major speech at the ultra-reactionary Heritage Foundation, focusing on Iran, with demands so extreme that the goal must be to ensure that they are instantly rejected. Among them, that Iran withdraw its forces from Syria and end its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and more generally, end its campaign “to dominate the Middle East” — newspeak for Iran’s unwillingness to retreat into a shell and allow the US its traditional right to dominate the Middle East (and any other place it can) by force, with no impediments. Pompeo also warned the Europeans to join the US jihad, or else.

There is some merit in Trump’s posturing about how the JCPOA should be improved. It definitely can be. In particular, it can be extended to establishing a Nuclear Weapons-free Zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East, with serious inspections, which would eliminate any alleged threat of eventual Iranian nuclear programs. To achieve that goal should be quite straightforward. There is no need to obtain Iran’s acquiescence. Iran has long been in the forefront of those calling for establishment of a NWFZ, particularly as the spokesperson for G-77 — the former non-aligned countries — which strongly advocates this development. The Arab states, with Egypt in the lead, initiated this proposal and have strongly urged that it be implemented. There is overwhelming international support. The matter regularly comes up in the review sessions of the Non-proliferation Treaty, with full agreement — almost. One country regularly blocks the effort, most recently Obama in 2015. The reason is not obscure: Israel’s nuclear weapons systems must not be subject even to inspection, let alone steps toward dismantlement.

It is important to add that the US and UK have a special responsibility to work to establish a Middle East NWFZ. They are committed to this goal by Security Council Resolution 687 — a commitment that takes on even greater force because it is this Resolution to which they appealed when seeking desperately to create some legal pretext for their criminal invasion of Iraq in 2003.

But all of this is unmentionable, so we can put it aside.

The Trump decision has infuriated much of the world, with the usual exceptions. In particular, it has infuriated European allies. Whether they will be willing to stand up against the global bully is unclear; it is a frightening prospect. If Europe does not proceed with the JCPOA, as the Trump wreckers hope, that might encourage Iranian hardliners to develop “nuclear capability” — a capacity to produce nuclear weapons if they ever decide to, which many non-nuclear states have. That might provide a green light for those who have been itching to bomb Iran for a long time, among them the new National Security Adviser John Bolton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Case by case, we find much the same, sometimes with further complexities.

Trump’s view of world affairs seems to assign very little role to diplomacy, as evidenced by the desolation of the State Department under his administration. What’s your own understanding and explanation for Trump’s aversion to diplomacy?

His position makes good sense. In confronting adversaries — for Trump, most of the world, apart from a few favored dictatorships (and the increasingly reactionary Israeli client) — it is only reasonable to play one’s strong card. The US is militarily strong — in fact, overwhelming in military strength. Trump’s increase in the vastly inflated military budget amounts to about 80 percent of the total Russian military budget, which is declining. But increasingly under Trump, the US is diplomatically weak and isolated. So why bother with diplomacy?

Incidentally, this is by no means a completely new departure. As its global power declined from its peak in the 1940s, the US has increasingly disregarded international institutions. During the years of its overwhelming global dominance, when the UN could be counted on to stay in line and serve as a weapon against adversaries, the UN was highly respected by elite opinion and Russia was berated for constantly saying “no.” As other industrial countries reconstructed from wartime devastation and decolonization proceeded on its agonizing course, the UN lost its allure. By the 1980s, respected intellectuals were pondering the strange cultural-psychological defect that was causing the world to be out of step. The US cast its first Security Council veto in 1970, and quickly gained the lead in doing so. It is the only country to have gone so far as to veto a Security Council resolution calling on all states to observe international law — mentioning no one, but it was understood that it was a response to Washington’s rejection of World Court orders to end its “unlawful use of force” (aka international terrorism) against Nicaragua and to pay substantial reparations. The US rarely ratifies international conventions, and when it does, it is typically with crucial reservations, effectively exempting itself: the genocide and torture conventions, and many others.

Rather generally, while Trump is carrying defiance of world opinion to new extremes, he can claim predecessors.

Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem (something which many of his predecessors had actually promised of doing but never carried out when in office) has created havoc in the Middle East, just as expected, although the administration has justified this decision as part of the need to “secure peace” in the region. First, what were the motives behind this decision? Second, can this move be regarded as legal according to norms and principles of international law? And, thirdly, can this decision be undone by future US presidents?

The motive was hardly concealed, and follows from the usual Trump principles. The move is strongly supported by Trump’s Evangelical base — by now, the major popular support for Israel as more liberal sectors, as elsewhere in the world, are coming to oppose Israel’s violence, repression and flagrant violations of international law. The move is also a gift to major Republican Party donors like Sheldon Adelson and Paul Singer. This decision, too, isolates the US in the world scene, harming the country in the longer term, but that is irrelevant. The US vetoed an otherwise unanimous Security Council resolution condemning the move, which is in violation of numerous [UN Security Council] resolutions on Jerusalem since 1968. The decision can be reversed.

The Gaza massacre in the aftermath of the Trump administration decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem exposed not only the historical insensitivity of the Trump gang to the plight of the Palestinian people under Israeli occupation (as well as its unconscionable ignorance of Muslim culture and history), but also the brutality of the Israeli state and, equally important, the cowardice, once again, of the so-called international community. Your thoughts or reactions to all of the above?

All correct, except that reference to the “Trump gang” is too narrow. Few are aware of the extent of Israeli brutality. Just to take one pertinent example, few are aware that just as the recent nonviolent demonstrations were beginning, leading to the Gaza massacre when Israel responded with military force, Hamas leadership approached Israel with a call for a long-term cease-fire (“hudna”). Israel, of course, rejected it, as it invariably does, rarely even giving reasons, though after the murderous Operation Protective Edge in 2014, an Israeli defense official explained that Israel does not respond “because there was no reason to conduct a dialogue with a bruised and beaten movement.” In short: We have overwhelming military force, you are defenseless, we can smash your society to bits any time we like, so why on earth should we call for an end to violence, abandoning our virtual monopoly?

The North Korea nuclear saga has become a key global issue featuring the “rocket man” and America’s “dotard.” Do you see any prospects for a lasting peace between North and South Korea?

One possibility, advanced by China with broad international support, including North Korea intermittently, has been a double freeze: North Korea would freeze its development of nuclear weapons and missiles, and the US would cease its threatening military maneuvers on North Korea’s borders, including menacing flights by the most advanced nuclear capable bombers — no laughing matter in a country that was flattened by merciless US bombing, even destruction of major dams (a serious war crime), within easy memory. The option has been rejected by the US.

A double freeze could have opened the way to further negotiations, perhaps reaching as far as what was achieved in 2005. Under international pressure, the Bush administration turned to negotiations, which achieved substantial success. North Korea agreed to abandon “all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs” and allow international inspections — phrases worth re-reading in the light of constant misrepresentation. In return, the US was to provide a light-water reactor for medical use, issue a non-aggression pledge, and join in an agreement that the two sides would “respect each other’s sovereignty, exist peacefully together and take steps to normalize relations.”

At once, the Bush administration broke the agreement. It renewed the threat of force, froze North Korean funds in foreign banks and disbanded the consortium that was to provide North Korea with a light-water reactor. Bruce Cumings, the leading US Korea scholar, writes that “the sanctions were specifically designed to destroy the September pledges [and] to head off an accommodation between Washington and Pyongyang.”

That path could be pursued again.

On April 27, North and South Korea signed a historic document, the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula. It’s worth reading carefully. In the Declaration, the two Koreas “affirmed the principle of determining the destiny of the Korean nation on their own accord [repeat: on their own accord] … to completely cease all hostile acts against each other in every domain [to] … actively cooperate to establish a permanent and solid peace regime on the Korean Peninsula … to carry out disarmament in a phased manner, [in order to achieve] the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula … to strengthen the positive momentum towards continuous advancement of inter-Korean relations as well as peace, prosperity and unification of the Korean Peninsula.” They further “agreed to actively seek the support and cooperation of the [international] community [meaning, the US] for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Furthermore, as Korea specialist Chung-in Moon reviews in Foreign Affairs, the two sides did not just make high-level commitments. They also laid out specific timetables for implementing them and took concrete steps that would have immediate effects in facilitating cooperation and preventing conflict — something quite new and very significant.

The import of the Declaration is clear. The US should back off and allow the two Koreas to achieve peace, disarmament, unification and complete denuclearization. We should accept the call for support and cooperation in this endeavor by the two parts of the Korean nation to determine its destiny “on their own accord.”

To put it more simply, the Declaration is a polite letter saying, “Dear Mr. Trump, declare victory if you want to prance around in public, but please go away and let us move towards peace, disarmament and unification without disrupting the process.”

US analysts have been clear and frank about the real nature of the North Korean threat. New York Times foreign affairs commentator Max Fisher writes that North Korea “has achieved what no country has since China developed its own program a half-century ago: a nuclear deterrent against the United States,” and Trump’s threats and sanctions have not succeeded “to stall or reverse those gains.” Clearly, we must act to prevent anyone from deterring our resort to force and violence.

It’s worth noting that Iran poses a problem rather like that of North Korea. Among specialists, across the political spectrum, few would disagree with the conclusion of the respected and properly conservative International Institute of Strategic Studies in 2010 that “Iran’s nuclear program and its willingness to keep open the possibility of developing nuclear weapons is a central part of its deterrent strategy.” US intelligence concurs. Again, that is intolerable to the two rogue states that demand the right to rampage freely in the region, as they regularly do.

If Trump and his advisers have any sense, they will seize the opportunity and accept the plea of the two Koreas.

Unfortunately, expecting some sense may be too hopeful. The egregious hawk John Bolton, who has been just as publicly eager to bomb North Korea as Iran, went out of his way to bring up a model that he surely knew would infuriate and antagonize North Korea — the “Libya model”: You give up your deterrent, and then we will destroy you, ending with a brutal murder applauded with a vulgar joke by Hillary Clinton. Then Vice President Mike Pence chimed in saying it’s not a mere threat but “more of a fact” that “this will only end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jong Un doesn’t make a deal.”

Along with threatening military maneuvers at the North Korean borders, this is just the way to move negotiations forward. Predictably, there was a harsh verbal North Korean response, though coupled with some crucial actions: North Korea reported that it had just destroyed its key nuclear weapons testing site, setting off explosions to collapse underground tunnels. Trump responded a few hours later by cancelling the planned summit meeting in Singapore with Kim Jong Un.

This not the end, however, and perhaps those who understand that Trump might register an ill-deserved triumph may prevail.

Israel’s prime minister, the irrevocable Bibi Netanyahu, has been driven for years by the idea of “regime change” in Tehran. Do you think this is a realistic objective now that Tel Aviv has a “real friend” in the White House?

I don’t think so, and I doubt that Israeli strategists do either. An invasion of Iran is most unlikely. If the US and Israel attack, it’s likely to be from a safe distance — missiles mainly — and aimed at specific targets, though there might be Special Forces operations. We might recall that the US and Israel have already committed what the Pentagon describes as an “act of war” against Iran, justifying a military response from the target — namely, the cyberwar attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.

Europe’s key leaders seem to be distancing themselves with ever greater frequency from Washington’s policies on global affairs. Do you think we may be at the start of a new era between European and American relations? This is something which many had expected to happen from the time of Charles de Gaulle all the way up to the reign of Mikhail Gorbachev, but perhaps the time has finally come. So, your take on this? Is the era of US hegemony and obedience to Washington’s dictates nearing its end?

From the early postwar years, there was considerable concern in planning circles in Washington that Europe might move to become a “third force” in global affairs, a neutralist bloc. De Gaulle was indeed the leading proponent of this conception, and a version was revived by Gorbachev in his call for a “Common European Home” of cooperation and interchange from the Atlantic to the Urals, in which both NATO and the Warsaw Pact would be dismantled in favor of a pan-European security system. The idea was dismissed by the US in favor of expanding NATO, over the strong objections of George Kennan and other statesmen who warned, accurately enough, that this “policy error of historic proportions” would lead to rising and very ominous tensions on the Russian border. NATO’s mission today, historian Richard Sakwa writes, is “to manage the risks created by its existence.”

As to whether Europe today might move in an independent direction, I’m skeptical. Despite Trump’s moves to diminish and isolate America, and to alienate allies, and despite the exit of America’s major advocate (Britain) from the European Union, I suspect that Europe will be unwilling to pose a serious challenge to Washington. Europe faces too many internal problems, and despite Trump, the US still remains unmatched as a global power, with means of violence and coercion that it is not reluctant to use, as the world knows all too well.

But a lot remains uncertain. As the business press observes, The United States’ “ability to impose financial sanctions around the world depends on the willingness of China and Europe to comply — and that may be waning.” In the case of China, it has been waning rapidly. China has been moving to establish an international currency regime and trading system independent of the US. Trump’s effort to destroy the Iran nuclear deal has infuriated the Europeans, who reacted at once by agreeing to invoke rules to shield European Union companies from US sanctions, to permit the European Investment Bank to finance business in Iran, and to encourage European countries to explore transfers to Iran’s central bank, bypassing the US-dominated international financial system. These “blocking mechanisms” were last invoked in 1996, when Clinton sought to curb European investment in Cuba, Iran and Libya. Clinton backed down. But the world has changed.

It’s possible that Trump may succeed in creating a diminished America, hiding in fear behind walls, isolated and marginalized — though retaining plenty of guns to kill one another and a fearsome capacity to destroy at will.

C.J. Polychroniou is a political economist/political scientist who has taught and worked in universities and research centers in Europe and the United States. His main research interests are in European economic integration, globalization, the political economy of the United States and the deconstruction of neoliberalism’s politico-economic project. He is a regular contributor to Truthout as well as a member of Truthout’s Public Intellectual Project. He has published several books and his articles have appeared in a variety of journals, magazines, newspapers and popular news websites. Many of his publications have been translated into several foreign languages, including Croatian, French, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Turkish. He is the author of Optimism Over Despair: Noam Chomsky On Capitalism, Empire, and Social Change, an anthology of interviews with Chomsky originally published at Truthout and collected by Haymarket Books.

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