The State of the Empire

Veni, Vidi, Tweeti (I Came, I Saw, I Tweeted)

Originally posted at TomDispatch.

What dreamers they were! They imagined a kind of global power that would leave even Rome at its Augustan height in the shade. They imagined a world made for one, a planet that could be swallowed by a single great power. No, not just great, but beyond anything ever seen before – one that would build (as itsNational Security Strategy put it in 2002) a military “beyond challenge.” Let’s be clear on that: no future power, or even bloc of powers, would ever be allowed to challenge it again.

And, in retrospect, can you completely blame them? I mean, it seemed so obvious then that we – the United States of America – were the best and the last. We had, after all, outclassed and outlasted every imperial power since the beginning of time. Even that other menacing superpower of the Cold War era, the Soviet Union, the “Evil Empire” that refused to stand down for almost half a century, had gone up in a puff of smoke.

Imagine that moment so many years later and consider the crew of neoconservatives who, under the aegis of George W. Bush, the son of the man who had “won” the Cold War, came to power in January 2001. Not surprisingly, on viewing the planet, they could see nothing – not a single damn thing – in their way. There was a desperately weakened and impoverished Russia (still with its nuclear arsenal more or less intact) that, as far as they were concerned, had been mollycoddled by President Bill Clinton’s administration. There was a Communist-gone-capitalist China focused on its own growth and little else. And there were a set of other potential enemies, “rogue powers” as they were dubbed, so pathetic that not one of them could, under any circumstances, be called “great.”

In 2002, in fact, three of them – Iraq, Iran, and North Korea – had to be cobbled together into an “axis of evil” to create a faintly adequate enemy, a minimalist excuse for the Bush administration to act preemptively. It couldn’t have been more obvious then that all three of them would go down before the unprecedented military and economic power of us (even if, as it happened, two of them didn’t).

It was as clear as glass that the world – the whole shebang – was there for the taking. And it couldn’t have been headier, even after a tiny Islamist terror outfit hijacked four American jets and took out New York’s World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. As President Bush would put it in an address at West Point in 2002, “America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge, thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.” In other words, jihadists aside, it was all over. From now on, there would be an arms race of one and it was obvious who that one would be. The National Security Strategy of that year put the same thought this way: “Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States.” Again, anywhere on the planet ever.

Look at more or less any document from the period and you’ll sense that they weren’t shy about touting the unprecedented greatness of a future global Pax Americana. Take, for instance, columnist Charles Krauthammer who, in February 2001, six months before the terror attacks of September 11th, wrote a piece swooning over the new Bush administration’s “unilateralism” to come and the “Bush Doctrine” which would go with it. In the process, he gave that administration a green light to put the pathetic Russians in their nuclear place and summed the situation up this way: “America is no mere international citizen. It is the dominant power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome. Accordingly, America is in a position to reshape norms, alter expectations, and create new realities. How? By unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will.”

“How Did USA’s Oil Get Under Iraq’s Sand?”

And soon enough after September 11th, those unapologetic, implacable demonstrations of will did, in fact, begin – first in Afghanistan and then, a year and a half later, in Iraq. Goaded by Osama bin Laden, the new Rome went into action.

Of course, in 2019 we have the benefit of hindsight, which Charles Krauthammer, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and the rest of that crew didn’t have as they applied their Roman-style vision of an imperial America to the actual world. It should be added, however, that the millions of people who hit the streets globally to protest the coming invasion of Iraq in the winter of 2003 – “How did USA’s oil get under Iraq’s sand?” said a typical protest sign (which Donald Trump would have understood in his own way) – had a far better sense of the world than did their American rulers-to-be. Like the Soviets before them, in fact, they would grievously confuse military power with power on this planet.

More than 17 years later, the U.S. military remains stuck in Afghanistan, bedeviled in Iraq, and floundering across much of the Greater Middle East and Africa on a planet with a resurgent Russia, and an impressively rising China. One-third of the former axis of evil, Iran, is, remarkably enough, still in Washington’s gunsights, while another third (North Korea) sits uncomfortably in a presidential bear hug. It’s no exaggeration to say that none of the dreams of a new Rome were ever faintly fulfilled. In fact, if you want to think about what’s been truly exceptional in these years, it might be this: never in history has such a great power, at its height, seemed quite so incapable of effectively applying force, military or otherwise, to achieve its imperial ends or bring its targets to heel.

And yet, wrong as they may have been on such subjects, don’t sell Krauthammer and the rest of that neocon crew short. They were, in their own way, also prophets, at least domestically speaking. After all, Rome, like the United States, had been an imperial republic. That republic was replaced, as its empire grew, by autocratic rule, first by the self-anointed emperor Augustus and then by his successors. Arguably, 18 years after Krauthammer wrote that column, the American republic might be heading down the same path. After all, so many years later, the neocons, triumphantly risen yet again in Washington (both in the administration and as its critics), finally have their Caesar.

Hail, Donald J. Trump, we who are about to read your latest tweet salute you!

A Rogue State of One

Let’s note some other passing parallels between the new Rome and the old one. As a start, it’s certainly accurate to say that our new American Caesar has much gall (divided into at least three parts). Admittedly, he’s no Augustus, the first of a line of emperors, but more likely a Nero, fiddling while, in his case, the world quite literally burns. Still, he could certainly say of campaign 2016 and what followed: Veni, Vidi, Tweeti (I came, I saw, I tweeted). And don’t forget the classic line that might someday be applied to his presidency, “Et tu, Mueller?” – or depending on who turns on him, you can fill in your name of choice.

One day, it might also be said that, in a country in which executive power has become ever more imperial (as has the power of the Senate’s majority leader), blowback from imperial acts abroad has had a significant, if largely hidden, hand in crippling the American republic, as was once true of Rome. In fact, it seems clear enough that the first republican institution to go was the citizen’s army. In the wake of the Vietnam War, the draft was thrown out and replaced by an “all-volunteer” force, one which would, as it came to fight on ever more distant battlefields, morph into a home-grown version of an imperial police force or foreign legion. With it went the staggering sums that, in this century, would be invested – if that’s even the word for it – in what’s still called “defense,” as well as in a vast empire of bases abroad and the national security state, a rising locus of power at home. And then, of course, there were the never-ending wars across much of the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa that went with all of that. Meanwhile, so much else, domestically speaking, was put on the equivalent of austerity rations. And all of that, in turn, helped provoke the crisis that brought Donald Trump to power and might, in the end, even sink the American system as we’ve known it.

The Donald’s victory in the 2016 election was always a sign of a deep disturbance at the heart of an increasingly unequal and unfair system of wealth and power. But it was those trillions of dollars – The Donald claimsseven trillion of them – that the neocons began sinking into America’s “infinite” wars, which cost Americans big time in ways they hardly tracked or noticed. Those trillions didn’t go into shoring up American infrastructure or health care or education or job-training programs or anything else that might have mattered to most people here, even as untold tax dollars – one estimate: $15,000 per middle-class family per year – went into the pockets of the rich. And some of those dollars, in turn, poured back into the American political system (with a helping hand from the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens Uniteddecision) and, in the end, helped put the first billionaire in the Oval Office. By the 2020 election campaign, we may achieve another all-American first: two or even three of the candidates could be billionaires.

All of this not only gave Americans a visibly unhinged president – think of him, in axis-of-evil terms, as a rogue state of one – but an increasingly unhinged country. You can feel so much of this in President Trump’s confused and confusing attempts to both end American wars and ratchet them up, 17-and-a-half – he always claims “almost 19” – years after the invasion of Afghanistan. You can feel it in his gut-level urge to attack the “deep state” and yet fund it beyond its wildest dreams. You can feel it in his attempts to create a corps of “my generals” and then fire them all. You can feel the unhinged nature of events in a world in which, after so many years of war, America’s enemies still seem to have the formula for staying afloat, no matter what Washington does. The Taliban in Afghanistan is on the rise; al-Shabaab in Somalia, is still going strong; the Houthis in Yemen remain functional in a sea of horror and starvation; ISIS, now without its caliphate, has from Syria to the PhilippinesAfrica to Afghanistan, become a distinctly global brand; al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula thrives, while terror groups more generally continue to spread.

You can feel it in the president’s confused and confusing explanations for his urges to withdraw American troops in days or four months or whenever from Syria and do the same or maybe not exactly in Afghanistan. (As he said in his State of the Union address, American troops would both withdraw and “focus” on “counterterrorism” in that country.) You can feel it in the way, after so many years of visible failure, the neocons are once again riding high in Washington, ascendant both in his administration and as critics of its global and military policies.

These days, who even remembers that classic early Cold War question – who lost China? – that rattled American domestic politics for years, or later, the similar one about Vietnam? Still, if Donald Trump ever truly does withdraw American forces from Afghanistan (undoubtedly leaving this country’s allies in a Vietnam-style ditch), count on foreign policy establishmentarians in Washington and pundits around the country to ask an updated version of the same question: Did Donald Trump lose Afghanistan?

But no matter what happens, don’t make the mistake of blaming him. It’s true that he tweeted endlessly while the world burned, but he won’t be the one who “lost” Afghanistan. It was “lost” in the grisly dreams of the neocons as the century began and it’s never truly been found again.

Of course, we no more know what’s going to happen in the years ahead than the neocons did in 2001. If history has taught us anything, it’s that prediction is the diciest of human predilections. Still, think of this piece as an obituary of sorts. You know, the kind major newspapers write about those still living and then continually update until death finally occurs.

Think of it not as an obituary for a single loopy president, a man who, with his “great, great wall,” has indeed been an opiate of the masses (for his famed base, at least) in the midst of an opioid crisis hitting them hard. Yes, Donald J. Trump, reality TV star and bankruptee, he of the golden letters, was elevated to a strange version of power by a troubled republic showing signs of wear and tear. It was a republic feeling the pressure of all that money flowing into only half-noticed distant wars and into the pockets of billionaires and corporate entities in a way that turned the very idea of democracy into a bad joke.

Someday, if people ask the obvious question – not who lost Afghanistan, but who lost America? – keep all those failed imperial wars and the national security state that went with them in mind when you try to answer. Cumulatively, they had a far more disruptive role than is now imagined in toppling the dominos that sent us all careening on a path to nowhere here at home. And keep in mind that, whatever Donald Trump does, the Caesarian die was cast early in this century as the neocons crossed their own Rubicon.

Hail, Caesar, we who are about to die salute you!

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs TomDispatch.comand is a fellow of the Type Media Center. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books).

[Note: A bow of thanks to Jonathan Cobb whose sharp thoughts are an invaluable resource for me – and another to the late, great Chalmers Johnson who was already writing about such subjects as this century began! Tom]

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlandsseries) Frostlands, 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 and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2019 Tom Engelhardt

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Losing Wars

Turning Victory Into Defeat

Originally posted at TomDispatch.

Think of it as a reverse miracle. Seventeen years of American war in this century waged by a military considered beyond compare on a planet that, back in 2001, was almost without enemies. How, then, was it possible, month after month, year after year, to turn the promise of eternal victory so repetitiously into the reality of defeat (and spreading terror movements)? As I read retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and historian William Astore’s latest piece on the subject, I must admit that I felt a certain sense of awe. In fact, I wondered whether, historically speaking, this might not be a one-of-a-kind situation.

Had there ever been an imperial power at the ostensible height of its glory that proved quite so incapable of effectively applying its military and political force globally to achieve its aims? At their height, the Roman Empire, China’s various imperial dynasties, and Europe’s colonial powers, however brutally, generally proved quite capable of impressing their wills and desires on those beyond their borders, even on relatively distant parts of the planet (at least for a time). In fact, in the Cold War years – think of Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, or Chile on the first 9/11 (September 11, 1973) – the U.S. proved no less capable, often in similarly brutal ways. And yet, from Afghanistan to Libya, Iraq to Somalia, Syria to Yemen, despite the endless application of U.S. power, the killing of tens of thousands of people (including key figures in various terror movements), the displacement of millions, the rubblization of whole cities, and the creation of a series of partially or fully failed states, nowhere, as TomDispatch regular Astore points out today, has U.S. power succeeded in successfully imposing its will, even as its wars only multiplied.

And here’s another thing I’ve come to wonder about: How did the hearts-and-minds moxie of the leftist national liberation movements of the previous century that decolonized much of the planet get transferred to the extreme Islamist groups of this one? Like the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (the “Vietcong”) and similar groups in the twentieth century, al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Taliban, and other terror outfits regularly suffer extreme casualties and yet somehow maintain their grip on the hearts and minds of significant numbers of people in riven, increasingly ruined lands. They can, it seems, even attract random Americans and Europeans into the fold. It’s a strange and unexpected phenomenon, a grim success story that hasn’t been faced in a serious way here.

I suspect that these two puzzles – how the self-acknowledged greatest power of all time failed to deliver and the extremist resistance to it, against all odds, did – may have to be left to future historians to fully unravel. In the meantime, check out Astore’s striking account of how the U.S. military has repeatedly turned promised victory into dismal defeat in these years. No question about it, it’s a tale for the history books. ~ Tom

The U.S. Military’s Lost WarsOverfunded, Overhyped, and Always Over There

By William J. Astore

One of the finest military memoirs of any generation is Defeat Into Victory, British Field Marshal Sir William Slim’s perceptive account of World War II’s torturous Burma campaign, which ended in a resounding victory over Japan. When America’s generals write their memoirs about their never-ending war on terror, they’d do well to choose a different title: Victory Into Defeat. That would certainly be more appropriate than those on already published accounts like Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez’s Wiser in Battle: A Soldier’s Story (2008), or General Stanley McChrystal’s My Share of the Task (2013).

Think about it. America’s Afghan War began in 2001 with what was essentially a punitive raid against the Taliban, part of which was mythologized last year in 12 Strong, a Hollywood film with a cavalry charge that echoed the best of John Wayne. That victory, however, quickly turned first into quagmire and then, despite various “surges” and a seemingly endless series of U.S. commanders (17 so far), into a growing sense of inevitable defeat. Today, a resurgent Taliban exercises increasing influence over the hearts, minds, and territory of the Afghan people. The Trump administration’s response so far has been a mini-surge of several thousand troops, an increase in air and dronestrikes, and an attempt to suppress accurate reports from the Pentagon’s special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction about America’s losing effort there.

Turn now to the invasion of Iraq: in May 2003, President George W. Bush cockily announced “Mission Accomplished” from the deck of an aircraft carrier, only to see victory in Baghdad degenerate into insurgency and a quagmire conflict that established conditions for the rise of the Islamic State. Gains in stability during a surge of U.S. forces orchestrated by General David Petraeus in 2007 and hailed in Washington as a fabulous success story proved fragile and reversible. An ignominious U.S. troop withdrawal in 2011 was followed in 2014 by the collapse of that country’s American-trained and armed military in the face of modest numbers of Islamic State militants. A recommitment of U.S. troops and air power brought Stalingrad-style devastation to cities like Mosul and Ramadi, largely reduced to rubble, while up to 1.3 million children were displaced from their homes. All in all, not exactly the face of victory.

Nor, as it happened, was the Obama administration’s Libyan intervention of 2011. “We came, we saw, he died,” boasted a jubilant Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the time. The “he” was Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s autocratic ruler whose reign of terror looked less horrible after that country collapsed into a failed state, while spreading both terror groups and weaponry throughout the region. That, in turn, led to wider and more costly U.S. interventions in Africa, including the infamous loss of four Green Berets to an ISIS franchise in Niger in 2017.

“We don’t win [wars] anymore,” said candidate Donald Trump in 2016 and he wasn’t wrong about that. In fact, that remarkable record of repeatedly turning initially advertised victory into something approximating defeat would be one reason candidate Trump could boast that he knew more about military matters than America’s generals. Yet for all his talk of winning, victories (large or small) have proved no less elusive for him as commander-in-chief. Recall the botched raid in Yemen early in 2017 that resulted in the death of a Navy SEAL and many Yemeni innocents, which Trump blamed on his generals. Recall the president’s “beautiful” cruise missile attack against Syria in April of that same year, which resolved nothing. Or recall the way he recently “fired” retired general Jim Mattis (just after he resigned as secretary of defense) supposedly because he couldn’t bring the Afghan War to a victorious close.

The question is: What’s made America’s leaders, civilian and military, quite so proficient when it comes to turning victories into defeats? And what does that tell us about them and their wars?

A Sustained Record of Losing

During World War II, British civilians called the “Yanks” who would form the backbone of the Normandy invasion in June 1944 (the one that contributed to Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender less than a year later) “overpaid, oversexed, and over here.” What can be said of today’s Yanks? Perhaps that they’re overfunded, overhyped, and always over there – “there” being unpromising places like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia.

Let’s start with always over there. As Nick Turse recently reported forTomDispatch, U.S. forces remain deployed on approximately 800 foreign bases across the globe. (No one knows the exact number, Turse notes, possibly not even the Pentagon.) The cost: somewhere to the north of $100 billion a year simply to sustain that global “footprint.” At the same time, U.S. forces are engaged in an open-ended war on terror in 80 countries, a sprawling commitment that has cost nearly $6 trillion since the 9/11 attacks (as documented by the Costs of War Project at Brown University). This prodigious and prodigal global presence has not been lost on America’s Tweeter-in-Chief, who opined that the country’s military “cannot continue to be the policeman of the world.” Showing his usual sensitivity to others, he noted as well that “we are in countries most people haven’t even heard about. Frankly, it’s ridiculous.”

Yet Trump’s inconsistent calls to downsize Washington’s foreign commitments, including vows to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria and halve the number in Afghanistan, have encountered serious pushback from Washington’s bevy of war hawks like Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and his own national security advisor, John Bolton. Contrary to the president’s tweets, U.S. troops in Syria are now destined to remain there for at least months, if not years, according to Bolton. Meanwhile, Trump-promised troop withdrawals from Afghanistan may be delayed considerably in the (lost) cause of keeping the Taliban – clearly winning and having nothing but time – off-balance. What matters most, as retired General David Petraeus argued in 2017, is showing resolve, no matter how disappointing the results. For him, as for so many in the Pentagon high command, it’s perfectly acceptable for Americans to face a “generational struggle” in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) that could, he hinted, persist for as long as America’s ongoing commitment to South Korea – that is, almost 70 years.

Turning to overfunded, the unofficial motto of the Pentagon budgetary process might be “aim high” and in this they have succeeded admirably. For example, President Trump denounced a proposed Pentagon budget of $733 billion for fiscal year 2020 as “crazy” high. Then he demonstrated his art-of-the-deal skills by suggesting a modest cut to $700 billion, only to compromise with his national security chiefs on a new figure: $750 billion. That eternal flood of money into the Pentagon’s coffers – no matter the political party in power – ensures one thing: that no one in that five-sided building needs to think hard about the disastrous direction of U.S. strategy or the grim results of its wars. The only hard thinking is devoted to how to spend the gigabucks pouring in (and keep more coming).

Instead of getting the most bang for the buck, the Pentagon now gets the most bucks for the least bang. To justify them, America’s defense experts are placing their bets not only on their failing generational war on terror, but also on a revived cold war (now uncapitalized) with China and Russia. Such rivals are no longer simply to be “deterred,” to use a commonplace word from the old (capitalized) Cold War; they must now be “overmatched,” a new Pentagon buzzword that translates into unquestionable military superiority (including newly “usable” nuclear weapons) that may well bring the world closer to annihilation.

Finally, there’s overhyped. Washington leaders of all stripes love to boast of a military that’s “second to none,” of a fighting force that’s the “finest” in history. Recently, Vice President Mike Pence reminded the troops that they are “the best of us.” Indeed you could argue that “support our troops” has become a new American mantra, a national motto as ubiquitous as (and synonymous with) “In God we trust.” But if America’s military truly is the finest fighting force since forever, someone should explain just why it’s failed to produce clear and enduring victories of any significance since World War II.

Despite endless deployments, bottomless funding, and breathless hype, the U.S. military loses – it’s politely called a “stalemate” – with remarkable consistency. America’s privates and lieutenants, the grunts at the bottom, are hardly to blame. The fish, as they say, rots from the head, which in this case means America’s most senior officers. Yet, according to them, often in testimony before Congress, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere, that military is always making progress. Victory, so they claim, is invariably around the next corner, which they’re constantly turning or getting ready to turn.

America’s post-9/11 crop of generals like Mattis, H.R. McMasterJohn Kelly, and especially Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus have been much celebrated here in the mainstream media. And in their dress uniforms shimmering with colorful ribbons, badges, and medals, they certainly looked the part of victors.

Indeed, when three of them were still in Donald Trump’s administration, thepro-war mainstream media unabashedly saluted them as the “adults in the room,” allegedly curbing the worst of the president’s mad impulses. Yet consider the withering critique of veteran reporter William Arkin who recently resigned from NBC News to protest the media’s reflexive support of America’s wars and the warriors who have overseen them. “I find it disheartening,” he wrote, “that we do not report the failures of the generals and national security leaders. I find it shocking that we essentially condone continued American bumbling in the Middle East and now Africa through our ho-hum reporting.” NBC News, he concluded in his letter of resignation, has been “emulating the national security state itself – busy and profitable. No wars won but the ball is kept in play.”

Arkin couldn’t be more on target. Moreover, self-styled triumphalist warriors and a cheeringly complicit media are hardly the ideal tools with which to fix a tottering republic, one allegedly founded on the principle of rule by informed citizens, not the national security state.

Can America Turn Defeat Into Victory?

Like Field Marshal Slim and his coalition army in Burma, America must find a way to turn defeat into victory. Here’s the rub: Slim and his forgotten army knew that they were fighting a war of survival against a ruthless Japanese enemy. Under his results-oriented leadership, his forces proved willing to make the sacrifices necessary for victory. In the U.S. case, however, no such sacrifices would matter as there’s no way to win thoroughly misbegotten wars by finding the right general or defining a new strategy or throwing more money at the Pentagon. The only way to win such wars is by ending them and, at some gut level, candidate Trump seemed to recognize this. On occasion as president, he has indeed questioned both the high cost and disastrous results of those wars, but so far he has been more interventionist than isolationist, greatly expanding air and drone strikes across the Greater Middle East as well as committing, at the urging of “his” generals, more troops to Afghanistan and Syria.

Endless war for any purpose other than the literal preservation of the republic isn’t a measure of fortitude or toughness or foresight; however, it is the path to national suicide. And the “war on terror” has proven to be the very definition of endless war.

A quick recap: what started in 2001 as a punitive raid and blossomed into endless war against the Taliban and later other terrorist organizations in Afghanistan shows no sign of abating; a war to rid Saddam Hussein of (nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction cratered in 2003 when none were found, the Iraqis did not greet their “liberators” with flowers, and no preparations had been made to stabilize an increasingly ethnically riven country after a massively destructive invasion; a shortsighted operation to overthrow a bothersome dictator in Libya in 2011 led to the spread of death, destruction, and weaponry throughout the region; efforts in Syria to train“moderate” Islamic forces to counter extremists and overthrow the country’s autocratic ruler Bashar al-Assad only aggravated a preexisting civil war. These and similar interventions are already lost causes. There is no way for better leaders, cleverer tactics, or booming defense budgets to win them today.

In the future, the surest way to turn defeat into victory would be to avoid such needless wars. On the other hand, a surefire way to defeat is to persist in them out of fear, greed, opportunism, careerism, or similar motives. These are lessons America’s gung-ho defense experts have little incentive to absorb, let alone act upon – and because they won’t, we must.

A retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and professor of history, William 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, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, 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 and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2019 William J. Astore

About Trump on Syria

Why Trump Doesn’t Always Get It Wrong on the Middle East

Must one talk of Donald Trump? One must and not just because of the power of his position as US president, but because the nature of his foreign policy is misunderstood.

I was answering questions about the future of the Middle East at a meeting of Independent subscribers on Tuesday evening when there was a predictable question about the impact of Trump on the region.

I had the impression, perhaps unfairly, that the person who made this very reasonable and important query was expecting a reply that would be a blend of denunciation and derision.

This is usually the automatic reaction to all Trump foreign policy initiatives by the media across the world as soon as they read his latest tweet. It does not matter if the subject is Canada or Afghanistan, the reaction is one of instant condemnation and often this response is more than justified – but not always.

The exceptions are important but Trump does not get credit for them because of the knee-jerk hostility which rules out any possibility that Trump may be right and his vast array of critics wrong.

North Korea, Russia and Syria are good examples of the positive side of Trump foreign policy, however unorthodox its expression.

He may not have got as far as he wanted through talks with Kim Jong-un, but war in the Korean peninsula is certainly less likely than it was in pre-Trump times. Any contact between Trump and Vladimir Putin is portrayed by most news outlets as a hideous act of betrayal of the west. But Russia has a nuclear arsenal capable of blowing up the world several times over, so it is surely unwise to refuse to talk to, and treat as a pariah, the Russian leader who could press the nuclear button?

Trump’s sudden decision in December to pull US troops out of Syria was condemned by everybody from the most liberal Democrats to the most belligerent Republicans. They all jumped on to their moral high horses, but none proffered an alternative policy and happily pretended that the status quo was sustainable – though it is not.

The US is a bit player in Syria where the Kurdish-led forces it backs have largely defeated Isis. “Oh no they haven’t,” shouts the Washington foreign policy establishment, but Isis used to rule eight million people in a powerful state stretching from the outskirts of Baghdad to the Mediterranean. It now controls only part of a single small town, Hajin, in the depths of eastern Syria. The jihadis are never going to run up the white flag, but if this is not defeat it is something very close to it.

Other US objectives in Syria, such as curtailing Iranian influence and weakening Bashar al-Assad, are not attainable and are simply an excuse for continuing a war of extraordinary ferocity and destructiveness. The Washington establishment, which is itself a child of the Cold War against the Soviet Union, seems quite happy to contemplate this and denounces Trump for breaking the logjam.

What is needed is for the US, as it withdraws, to keep Turkey from launching an onslaught against the Syrian Kurds, and this can only be done – if it is to be done at all – by allowing the Kurds to do a deal with Damascus and for Syrian troops to return to the Syrian-Turkish border.

It may not turn out that way, but Trump’s approach is more realistic than those who dismiss it as dangerous idiocy. For all his verbal belligerency, Trump is a genuine isolationist who has yet to start a war anywhere. It is an achievement not to be underrated.

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

Reality of NATO

Trump Derangement Syndrome and the NATO Fetish of the Progressive Left

We’ve got NATO on our mind today because we learned this morning that the mere suggestion this obsolete relic of the Cold War should be abandoned tends to trigger an absolutely virulent outburst of Trump Derangement Syndrome in the mainstream media.

As it happened we were appearing on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” to promote our new book called, PEAK TRUMP: The Undrainable Swamp and the Fantasy of MAGA.

So long as we were talking about the folly of Trump-O-Nomics and the Donald’s rookie mistake in embracing an egregious stock market bubble that is destined to crash and a failing, geriatric business cycle that at age 115 months has “recession ahead” written all over its forehead, our host, Mika Brzezinski, was happy to nod approvingly.

But when we veered off into approval of the Donald’s efforts to rein in the Empire and make peace with the Russkies, it was an altogether different matter. We no more than launched the thought of it than Mika was sputtering in disbelief – as if we had committed a grotesque sacrilege in public:

STOCKMAN: Beyond that – beyond that, trump tried to do the right thick with America first. He’s been stymied at every turn of the road. He was right. They wouldn’t let him do it. He was right. NATO is obsolete. We should get rid of it. Everybody went after him for he’s trying to do the right thing in Korea and yet they keep coming after him on the basis of the status quo, which has been wrong for last 60 years. So on the one hand, his economic policy is a failure. On the other hand, his effort to rein in the empires I call it and get to something we can afford is being stymied. And then he’s filled the swamp with $100 billion more for the Pentagon that is doesn’t need. That’s the deep end of the swamp.”

BRZEZINSKI: “David, David, hold on a second, hold on, hold on. You did a lot.”

STOCKMAN: “Yes.”

BRZEZINSKI: “I just want to like hone in on one – are you saying we should pull out of NATO?” [crosstalk]

STOCKMAN: “Sure. NATO is obsolete.”

BRZEZINSKI: “What?”

STOCKMAN: “NATO is obsolete. It was only set up to stop the Soviet Union and 50,000 tanks on the Warsaw front. That ended 25 years ago. We don’t need NATO. Europe can take care of itself. Russia’s a pint-sized economy, 7 percent of size of U.S. economy. NATO, US GDP combined is $36 trillion, Russia’s $1.5 trillion. You think the Europeans can’t handle it? Germany spends 1 percent only of GDP on defense. If they really thought that the Russians were heading through the Brandenburg Gate, they would be providing for their own defense. They’re not pacifists.

So if you wonder why we insist that a fiscal calamity is barreling down the pike – just consider the implications of this exchange. MSNBC is ground zero for the so-called progressive Left. Yet it has become so deranged by the Donald and convinced that he was elected not because the electorate rejected its threadbare agenda, but because Putin and the Russkies threw the election to him, that it has become a full-fledged champion of the War Party.

As we have explained elsewhere, the cost of Empire is now nearing $1 trillion per year when you count foreign aid and security assistance, homeland security, the $200 billion Veterans budget and debt service on past wars. Add that to $2.5 trillion of entitlements that neither party will touch and what will soon by $1 trillion per year of interest expense and you have nothing less than a Fiscal Doomsday machine.

That is, spending that will be pushing 25-30% of GDP and a revenue base that amounts to less than 17% of GDP. Literally, the nation’s fiscal accounts are being drawn and quartered by the dual menace of the Welfare State and Warfare State.

Yet with respect to the latter, the last time we checked the old Soviet Union slithered off the pages of history 28 years ago. Shortly thereafter the 50,000 Red Army tanks, which had been arrayed menacingly (and unbeknownst to the CIA, largely without spare fuel) behind the Iron Curtain, were mostly melted down for scrap by the destitute statelets of the Warsaw Pact (Poland, Rumania, Bulgaria, Albania etc.) and 14 ex-Soviet Republics (like Belarus, Moldova, Tajikistan, Ukraine, etc.)

What was left of the Soviet Empire was the rump state of Russia – shorn of much of its industrial base and with an aging population of just 140 million compared to the 425 million souls who had been incarcerated in Stalin’s dystopia.

So, yes, there was every reason to declare “mission accomplished” and disband NATO because the much exaggerated conventional military threat of the Soviet Union had literally vanished from the face of the earth. At that point, NATO was, in fact, pointless.

Post-Soviet states: 1. Armenia 2. Azerbaijan 3. Belarus 4. Estonia 5. Georgia 6.Kazakhstan 7. Kyrgyzstan 8. Latvia 9. Lithuania 10. Moldova 11. Russia 12. Tajikistan 13. Turkmenistan 14. Ukraine 15. Uzbekistan

So when President George Bush the Elder, who was no wimpy Yale pacifist, promised Gorbachev in 1989 that in return for his acquiescence to the reunification of Germany that NATO would no move ” a single inch to the east”, he wasn’t exactly selling the “free world” (as they called it) down the drain.

In fact, as the above map unfolded, the 77-Years War that had incepted in August 1914 was finally over. If you want to count bodies, 150 million were killed by all the depredations which germinated in the Great War, its foolish aftermath at Versailles, and the march of history into the second world war and cold war which followed inexorably thereupon.

To wit, upwards of 8% of the human race was wiped-out during that span. The toll encompassed the madness of trench warfare during 1914-1918; the murderous regimes of Soviet and Nazi totalitarianism that rose from the ashes of the Great War and Versailles; and then the carnage of WWII and all the lesser (unnecessary) wars and invasions of the Cold War including Korea and Vietnam.

So finally the time had come for Washington to lead the world into a golden age of peace, disarmament and prosperous commerce among the nations.

Yet there was a virulent threat to peace still lurking on the Potomac after the 77 Years War ended. The great general and president, Dwight Eisenhower, had called it the “military-industrial complex” in his farewell address.

But that memorable phrase had been abbreviated by his speechwriters, who deleted the word “congressional” in a gesture of comity to the legislative branch. So restore Ike’s deleted reference to the legislative pork barrels and Sunday afternoon warriors of Capitol Hill and toss in the legions of beltway busybodies that constituted the civilian branches of the cold war armada (CIA, State, AID, NED etc.) and the circle would have been complete.

It constituted the most awesome machine of warfare and imperial hegemony since the Roman legions bestrode most of the civilized world.

In a word, the real threat to world peace circa 1991 was that Pax Americanawould not go away quietly into the good night.

In fact, during the past 27 years Imperial Washington has lost all memory that peace was ever possible at the end of the cold war. Today it is as feckless, misguided and bloodthirsty as were Berlin, Paris, St. Petersburg, Vienna and London in August 1914.

Needless to say, there is no peace on earth today for reasons mainly rooted in Imperial Washington – not Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, Tehran, Damascus, Mosul or Raqqah. The former has become a global menace owing to what didn’t happen in 1991.

What needed to happen back in 1991 was for Bush the Elder to declare “mission accomplished” and slash the Pentagon budget from $600 billion to $250 billion.

So doing he should have demobilized the military-industrial complex by putting a moratorium on all new weapons development, procurement and export sales; dissolved NATO and dismantled the far-flung network of US military bases; slashed the US standing armed forces from 1.5 million to a few hundred thousand; and organized and led a world disarmament and peace campaign, as did his Republican predecessors during the 1920s.

Unfortunately, George H.W. Bush was not a man of peace, vision or even mediocre intelligence. He was the malleable tool of the War Party, and it was he who single-handedly blew the peace when he plunged America into a petty argument between the impetuous dictator of Iraq and the greedy Emir of Kuwait that was none of our business.

By contrast, even though liberal historians have reviled Warren G. Harding as some kind of dumbkopf politician, he well understood that the Great War had been for naught, and that to insure it never happened again the nations of the world needed to rid themselves of their huge navies and standing armies.

To that end, he achieved the largest global disarmament agreement ever made during the Washington Naval conference of 1921, which halted the construction of new battleships for more than a decade.

And while he was at it, President Harding also pardoned Eugene Debs. He thereby gave witness to the truth that the intrepid socialist candidate for president and vehement antiwar protester, who Wilson had thrown in prison for exercising his first amendment right to speak against US entry into a pointless European war, had been right all along.

In short, Warren G. Harding knew the war was over, and the folly of Wilson’s 1917 plunge into Europe’s bloodbath should not be repeated at all hazards.

The Unforgiveable Sins 0f George H.W. Bush

Not George H.W. Bush. The man should never be forgiven for enabling the likes of Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Robert Gates and their neocon pack of jackals to come to power – even if he did denounce them in his bumbling old age.

Even more to the point, by opting not for peace but for war and oil in the Persian Gulf in 1991 he opened the gates to an unnecessary confrontation with Islam. In turn, that nurtured the rise of jihadist terrorism that would not haunt the world today – save for forces unleashed by George H.W. Bush’s petulant quarrel with Saddam Hussein.

We will address more fully on another occasion the 45-year-old error that holds the Persian Gulf is an American Lake and that energy security requires it be patrolled by the Fifth Fleet. As history proves, the real answer to high oil prices everywhere and always is high oil prices and the wonders they work to rebalance the global energy market.

But first it is well to remember that there was no plausible threat anywhere on the planet to the safety and security of the citizens of Springfield MA, Lincoln NE or Spokane WA when the cold war ended.

But rather than dismantling the NATO machinery, virtually the opposite happened. NATO has been expanded to 29 countries including such powers as Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and now the statelet of Montenegro that has a military half the size of the police force of Philadelphia.

In the context of this relentless and pointless NATO expansion to the very borders of the shrunken Russian state, Washington not only sponsored and funded the overthrow of Ukraine’s constitutionally elected government in February 2014. But once it had unleashed a devastating civil war, it relentlessly blocked the obvious alternative to the bloodshed that has claimed 10,000 civilian and military casualties.

That is, it’s partition of its population among the Russian speaking provinces in the Donbas and Crimea and Ukrainians in the west. After all, partition was accomplished peacefully in the artificial state of Czechoslovakia and at the insistence of NATO bombers in the short-lived nation of Yugoslavia.

Had not the Donald been stopped cold by the hail of hysteria which emanated from the War Party and their dutiful stenographers in the main stream media, the next step after his historic meeting with Putin in Helsinki would have been to take up where George H.W. Bush faltered in 1991.

That is, on the dismantlement and interment of NATO and the reopening of Europe to peaceful commerce among all the nation’s that had been artificially separated by the now long departed Iron Curtain.

The fact is, Washington doesn’t need its budget-busting $720 billion defense budget to defend Europe from Russia, nor should it be endlessly haranguing those nations to waste more of their own money on defense than they already are.

That’s because there is absolutely no reason to believe that Russia wants to attack Germany or any other country in Europe. Indeed, the very idea is just plain madness.

As shown by the table below, the NATO-28 (excluding the US) are now actually spending $250 billion per year on defense (2017). That’s 4X Russia’s entire military budget of $61 billion.

Likewise, the GDP of Russia is but $1.5 trillion compared to $18 trillion for the NATO-28. So is Cool Hand Vlad so completely foolish and reckless as to think that he could invade and occupy territories that have an economy 13X bigger than that of Russia?

Actually, it’s far more ludicrous than that. The rump of Russia today is a giant hydrocarbon province attached to some wheat fields, timber lands and mineral deposits – all dependent upon an aging work force afflicted with an undue fondness for Vodka etc.

What that means is that Russia must export its commodities big time or die. In fact, during 2017 Russian exports totaled $357 billion or 26% of its GDP. And 55% of that went to Europe!

Moreover, when you breakdown Russian exports it is plain to see that the industrial maw of Europe is the port of first call for its vast tonnages of exported commodities. These included $173 billion of oil and gas and $60 billion of iron, steel, aluminum, precious metals, forest products, fertilizers, grains and copper, among others.

Finally, the table on defense spending by country below speaks for itself as to the purported Russian threat. If the German government really feared that Russian tanks would be soon rolling through the Brandenburg Gates, it would have more than 20 operational tanks, and it would spend far more than $40.6 billion or 1.2% of GDP to defend itself.

And the same is even more true of the former Warsaw pact countries that are located cheek-by-jowl on Russia’s border. Yet Romania spends the tiny sum of $2.8 billion or 1.2% of GDP on its military.

Likewise, the figure for Hungary, which learned all about Soviet-style invasions in 1956, spends only $1.2 billion or barely 1.0% of GDP. And besides that, its intrepid leader, Viktor Orban, doesn’t even support NATO’s ridiculous sanctions on Putin’s cronies and allies.

And as for the allegedly threatened Baltic states, their combined defense budgets are less than $1.5 billion, representing a minuscule 1.7% of combined GDP; and Bulgaria, fast upon the Russian Lake called the Black Sea, spends only $660 million or 1.4% of its GDP.

In short, European policy action on the defense spending front trumps all the hot air that wafts from NATO’s spanking new Brussels headquarters. Their governments and parliaments positively do not think they are threatened by the Russian Bear because they aren’t.

What would help a lot, therefore, is for the Great Disrupter to forget about his unfortunate infatuation with the idea that bigger is always better, and do what no other American politician in thrall to the Warfare State has been unable to do since 1991 when the Soviet Union vanished.

That is, declare “mission accomplished” with respect to NATO and disband it forthwith.

You could call it a Mercy Killing. Indeed, a couple more NATO summits at which they are browbeat to waste ever more money on defense, and the Europeans themselves may well start begging for exactly that.

Then again, could you imagine how loudly the progressive left would be screaming if the Donald even entertained the thought deep beneath his bedraggled Orange Comb-Over?

David Stockman was a two-term Congressman from Michigan. He was also the Director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan. After leaving the White House, Stockman had a 20-year career on Wall Street. He’s the author of three books, The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution FailedThe Great Deformation: The Corruption of Capitalism in America andTRUMPED! A Nation on the Brink of Ruin… And How to Bring It Back. He also is founder of David Stockman’s Contra Corner and David Stockman’s Bubble Finance Trader.

R

Our Real Rulers

Just in case anyone was unaware of it: Under the global corporatist system today, our real rulers have now gathered in Davos to plan our future. Forget about politicians. They will be told what to do.

Exactly as Karl Marx predicted over a century and a half ago, if anyone cares to make the observation.

So enjoy the system as more and more of the world’s wealth goes to the three dozen moguls who own more than half of the world’s population, some four billion people.

It was easy for the British to create mass poverty in India under a colonialist system. It takes real talent to turn the USA into a third-world failed state. But corporate capitalism has done it.

Just as well own up to it, America!