Andrew J. Bacevich – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Sun, 25 Oct 2020 05:20:57 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Can America escape the cave of Trump’s Quirky Isolationism? Mon, 19 Oct 2020 04:01:40 +0000 ( ) – The so-called Age of Trump is also an age of instantly forgotten bestselling books, especially ones purporting to provide the inside scoop on what goes on within Donald Trump’s haphazard and continuously shifting orbit. With metronomic regularity, such gossipy volumes appear, make a splash, and almost as quickly vanish, leaving a mark no more lasting than a trout breaking the surface in a pond.

Remember when Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House was all the rage? It’s now available in hardcover for $0.99 from online used booksellers. James Comey’s Higher Loyaltyalso sells for a penny less than a buck.

An additional forty-six cents will get you Omarosa Manigault Newman’s “insider’s account” of her short-lived tenure in that very White House. For the same price, you can acquire Sean Spicer’s memoir as Trump’s press secretary, Anthony Scaramucci’s rendering of his tumultuous 11-day stint as White House communications director, and Corey Lewandowski’s “inside story” of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Bibliophiles intent on assembling a complete library of Trumpiana will not have long to wait before the tell-all accounts of John Bolton, Michael Cohen, Mary Trump, and that journalistic amaneusis Bob Woodward will surely be available at similar bargain basement prices.

All that said, even in these dismal times genuinely important books do occasionally make their appearance. My friend and colleague Stephen Wertheim is about to publish one. It’s called Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacyand if you’ll forgive me for being direct, you really ought to read it. Let me explain why.

The “Turn”

Wertheim and I are co-founders of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a small Washington, D.C.-based think tank. That Quincy refers to John Quincy Adams who, as secretary of state nearly two centuries ago, warned his fellow citizens against venturing abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.” Were the United States to do so, Adams predicted, its defining trait — its very essence — “would insensibly change from liberty to force.” By resorting to force, America “might become the dictatress of the world,” he wrote, but “she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.” While his gendered punchline might rankle contemporary sensibilities, it remains apt.

A privileged man of his times, Adams took it for granted that a WASP male elite was meant to run the country. Women were to occupy their own separate sphere. And while he would eventually become an ardent opponent of slavery, in 1821 race did not rank high on his agenda either. His immediate priority as secretary of state was to situate the young republic globally so that Americans might enjoy both safety and prosperity. That meant avoiding unnecessary trouble. We had already had our revolution. In his view, it wasn’t this country’s purpose to promote revolution elsewhere or to dictate history’s future course.

Adams was to secretaries of state what Tom Brady is to NFL quarterbacks: the Greatest Of All Time. As the consensus GOAT in the estimation of diplomatic historians, he brought to maturity a pragmatic tradition of statecraft originated by a prior generation of New Englanders and various slaveholding Virginians with names like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison. That tradition emphasized opportunistically ruthless expansionism on this continent, avid commercial engagement, and the avoidance of great power rivalries abroad. Adhering to such a template, the United States had, by the beginning of the twentieth century, become the wealthiest, most secure nation on the planet — at which point Europeans spoiled the party.

The disastrous consequences of one European world war fought between 1914 and 1918 and the onset of a second in 1939 rendered that pragmatic tradition untenable — so at least a subsequent generation of WASPs concluded. This is where Wertheim takes up the story. Prompted by the German army’s lightning victory in the battle of France in May and June 1940, members of that WASP elite set about creating — and promoting — an alternative policy paradigm, one he describes as pursuing “dominance in the name of internationalism,” with U.S. military supremacy deemed “the prerequisite of a decent world.”

The new elite that devised this paradigm did not consist of lawyers from Massachusetts or planters from Virginia. Its key members held tenured positions at Yale and Princeton, wrote columns for leading New York newspapers, staffed Henry Luce’s Time-Life press empire, and distributed philanthropic largesse to fund worthy causes (grasping the baton of global primacy being anything but least among them). Most importantly, just about every member of this Eastern establishment cadre was also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). As such, they had a direct line to the State Department, which in those days actually played a large role in formulating basic foreign policy.

While Tomorrow, The World is not a long book — fewer than 200 pages of text — it is a tour de force. In it, Wertheim describes the new narrative framework that the foreign-policy elite formulated in the months following the fall of France. He shows how Americans with an antipathy for war now found themselves castigated as “isolationists,” a derogatory term created to suggest provincialism or selfishness. Those favoring armed intervention, meanwhile, became “internationalists,” a term connoting enlightenment and generosity. Even today, members of the foreign-policy establishment pledge undying fealty to the same narrative framework, which still warns against the bugaboo of “isolationism” that threatens to prevent high-minded policymakers from exercising “global leadership.”

Wertheim persuasively describes the “turn” toward militarized globalism engineered from above by that self-selected, unelected crew. Crucially, their efforts achieved success prior to Pearl Harbor. The Japanese attack of December 7, 1941, may have thrust the United States into the ongoing world war, but the essential transformation of policy had already occurred, even if ordinary Americans had yet to be notified as to what it meant. Its future implications — permanently high levels of military spending, a vast network of foreign bases stretching across the globe, a penchant for armed intervention abroad, a sprawling “national security” apparatus, and a politically subversive arms industry — would only become apparent in the years ahead.

While Wertheim is not the first to expose isolationism as a carefully constructed myth, he does so with devastating effect. Most of all, he helps his readers understand that “so long as the phantom of isolationism is held to be the most grievous sin, all is permitted.”

Contained within that all is a cavalcade of forceful actions and grotesque miscalculations, successes and failures, notable achievements and immense tragedies both during World War II and in the decades that followed. While beyond the scope of Wertheim’s book, casting the Cold War as a de facto extension of the war against Nazi Germany, with Soviet dictator Josef Stalin as a stand-in for Adolf Hitler, represented an equally significant triumph for the foreign policy establishment.

At the outset of World War II, ominous changes in the global distribution of power prompted a basic reorientation of U.S. policy. Today, fundamental alterations in the global distribution of power — did someone say “the rise of China”? — are once again occurring right before our eyes. Yet the foreign-policy establishment’s response is simply to double down.

So, even now, staggering levels of military spending, a vast network of foreign bases, a penchant for armed intervention abroad, a sprawling “national security” apparatus, and a politically subversive arms industry remain the taken-for-granted signatures of U.S. policy. And even now, the establishment employs the specter of isolationism as a convenient mechanism for self-forgiveness and expedient amnesia, as well as a means to enforce discipline.

Frozen Compass

The fall of France was indeed an epic disaster. Yet implicit in Tomorrow, The World is this question: If the disaster that befell Europe in 1940 could prompt the United States to abandon a hitherto successfulpolicy paradigm, then why have the serial disasters befalling the nation in the present century not produced a comparable willingness to reexamine an approach to policy that is obviously failing today?

To pose that question is to posit an equivalence between the French army’s sudden collapse in the face of the Wehrmacht’s assault and the accumulation of U.S. military disappointments dating from 9/11. From a tactical or operational perspective, many will find such a comparison unpersuasive. After all, the present-day armed forces of the United States have not succumbed to outright defeat, nor is the government of the United States petitioning for a cessation of hostilities as the French authorities did in 1940.

Yet what matters in war are political outcomes. Time and again since 9/11, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, or lesser theaters of conflict, the United States has failed to achieve the political purposes for which it went to war. From a strategic and political perspective, therefore, the comparison with France is instructive, even if failure need not entail abject surrender.

The French people and other supporters of the 1930s European status quo (including Americans who bothered to pay attention) were counting on that country’s soldiers to thwart further Nazi aggression once and for all. Defeat came as a profound shock. Similarly, after the Cold War, most Americans (and various beneficiaries of a supposed Pax Americana) counted on U.S. troops to maintain an agreeable and orderly global status quo. Instead, the profound shock of 9/11 induced Washington to embark upon what became a series of “endless wars” that U.S. forces proved incapable of bringing to a successful conclusion.

Crucially, however, no reevaluation of U.S. policy comparable to the “turn” that Wertheim describes has occurred. An exceedingly generous reading of President Trump’s promise to put “America First” might credit him with attempting such a turn. In practice, however, his incompetence and inconsistency, not to mention his naked dishonesty, produced a series of bizarre and random zigzags. Threats of “fire and fury” alternated with expressions of high regard for dictators (“we fell in love”). Troop withdrawals were announced and then modified or forgotten. Trump abandoned a global environmental agreement, massively rolled back environmental regulations domestically, and then took credit for providing Americans with “the very cleanest air and cleanest water on the planet.” Little of this was to be taken seriously.

Trump’s legacy as a statesman will undoubtedly amount to the diplomatic equivalent of Mulligan stew. Examine the contents closely enough and you’ll be able to find just about anything. Yet taken as a whole, the concoction falls well short of being nutritious, much less appetizing.

On the eve of the upcoming presidential election, the entire national security apparatus and its supporters assume that Trump’s departure from office will restore some version of normalcy. Every component of that apparatus from the Pentagon and the State Department to the CIA and the Council on Foreign Relations to the editorial boards of the New York Times and Washington Post yearns for that moment.

To a very considerable degree, a Biden presidency will satisfy that yearning. Nothing if not a creature of the establishment, Biden himself will conform to its requirements. For proof, look no further than his vote in favor of invading Iraq in 2003. (No isolationist he.) Count on a Biden administration, therefore, to perpetuate the entire obsolete retinue of standard practices.

As Peter Beinart puts it, “When it comes to defense, a Biden presidency is likely to look very much like an Obama presidency, and that’s going to look not so different from a Trump presidency when you really look at the numbers.” Biden will increase the Pentagon budget, keep U.S. troops in the Middle East, and get tough with China. The United States will remain the world’s number-one arms merchant, accelerate efforts to militarize outer space, and continue the ongoing modernization of the entire U.S. nuclear strike force. Biden will stack his team with CFR notables looking for jobs on the “inside.”

Above all, Biden will recite with practiced sincerity the mantras of American exceptionalism as a summons to exercise global leadership. “The triumph of democracy and liberalism over fascism and autocracy created the free world. But this contest does not just define our past. It will define our future, as well.” Those uplifting sentiments are, of course, his from a recent Foreign Affairs essay.

So if you liked U.S. national security policy before Trump mucked things up, then Biden is probably your kind of guy. Install him in the Oval Office and the mindless pursuit of “dominance in the name of internationalism” will resume. And the United States will revert to the policies that prevailed during the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama — policies, we should note, that paved the way for Donald Trump to win the White House.

The Voices That Count

What explains the persistence of this pattern despite an abundance of evidence showing that it’s not working to the benefit of the American people? Why is it so difficult to shed a policy paradigm that dates from Hitler’s assault on France, now a full 80 years in the past?

I hope that in a subsequent book Stephen Wertheim will address that essential question. In the meantime, however, allow me to make a stab at offering the most preliminary of answers.

Setting aside factors like bureaucratic inertia and the machinations of the military-industrial complex — the Pentagon, arms manufacturers, and their advocates in Congress share an obvious interest in discovering new “threats” — one likely explanation relates to a policy elite increasingly unable to distinguish between self-interest and the national interest. As secretary of state, John Quincy Adams never confused the two. His latter-day successors have done far less well.

As an actual basis for policy, the turn that Stephen Wertheim describes in Tomorrow, The World has proven to be nowhere near as enlightened or farseeing as its architects imagined or its latter day proponents still purport to believe it to be. The paradigm produced in 1940-1941 was, at best, merely serviceable. It responded to the nightmarish needs of that moment. It justified U.S. participation in efforts to defeat Nazi Germany, a necessary undertaking.

After 1945, except as a device for affirming the authority of foreign-policy elites, the pursuit of “dominance in the name of internationalism” proved to be problematic. Yet even as conditions changed, basic U.S. policy stayed the same: high levels of military spending, a network of foreign bases, a penchant for armed intervention abroad, a sprawling “national security” apparatus, and a politically subversive arms industry. Even after the Cold War and 9/11, these remain remarkably sacrosanct.

My own retrospective judgment of the Cold War tends toward an attitude of: well, I guess it could have been worse. When it comes to the U.S. response to 9/11, however, it’s difficult to imagine what worse could have been.

Within the present-day foreign-policy establishment, however, a different interpretation prevails: the long, twilight struggle of the Cold War ended in a world historic victory, unsullied by any unfortunate post-9/11 missteps. The effect of this perspective is to affirm the wisdom of American statecraft now eight decades old and therefore justify its perpetuation long after both Hitler and Stalin, not to mention Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, are dead and gone.

This paradigm persists for one reason only: it ensures that statecraft will remain a realm that resolutely excludes the popular will. Elites decide, while the job of ordinary Americans is to foot the bill. In that regard, the allocation of privileges and obligations now 80 years old still prevails today.

Only by genuinely democratizing the formulation of foreign policy will real change become possible. The turn in U.S. policy described in Tomorrow, The World came from the top. The turn needed today will have to come from below and will require Americans to rid themselves of their habit of deference when it comes to determining what this nation’s role in the world will be. Those on top will do all in their power to avert any such loss of status.

The United States today suffers from illnesses both literal and metaphorical. Restoring the nation to good health and repairing our democracy must necessarily rate as paramount concerns. While Americans cannot ignore the world beyond their borders, the last thing they need is to embark upon a fresh round of searching for distant monsters to destroy. Heeding the counsel of John Quincy Adams might just offer an essential first step toward recovery.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.

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 2020 Andrew Bacevich

Generals to the End: Patton and Westmoreland walk into a Bar . . . Fri, 11 Sep 2020 04:01:23 +0000 ( ) – I’ve written a fair number of pieces for TomDispatch, but this one is a bit different — some might even say strange — so Tom asked me to introduce it myself.

By almost any measure, we Americans are living through trying times. As a nation, we are long accustomed to being history’s spoiled child. Now, it seems our luck may be running out.

What’s the preeminent symbol of this extraordinary moment? A pandemic that has killed more than 190,000 of our fellow citizens? High unemployment and massive economic uncertainty? Wildfires and hurricanes that displace hundreds of thousands? Schools struggling just to open their doors? A long overdue reckoning with American racism? A white nationalist backlash? A political system corrupted by money and mired in dysfunction?

Take your pick. I suggest though that there’s at least one more item to add to that list: a national security establishment that has lost its way and is no longer able to distinguish between myth and reality.

According to myth: We’re Number 1! Planet Earth’s unquestioned maximum leader. The reality is somewhat different. Despite exorbitant sums spent by the Pentagon year after year, the American brand of global leadership looks increasingly tarnished, if not ready for the junk heap.

The other day, I stumbled across a striking claim by General James McConville, the chief of staff of the United States Army. You’ll find his here’s-what-we-stand-for statement prominently displayed on the Army’s website: “Winning Matters. We win with our People doing the right things the right way. When we send the U.S. Army somewhere, we don’t go to participate, we don’t go to try hard, we go to win. There is no second place or honorable mention in combat.

Now, I understand the need for leaders to make a positive case for their organization. In Garry Trudeau’s comic strip Doonesbury, the president of Walden College can be counted on to put a positive spin on an institution that ranks at the very bottom of the academic universe. He does know, however, that Walden is not Princeton. It serves no purpose to pretend otherwise.

So “win”? Please. The present-day United States Army rarely wins and it serves no purpose to pretend otherwise.

No doubt soldiers “try hard.” They are always out there bravely fighting someone, somewhere, and getting ready to fight somewhere else. The problem isn’t want of effort, it’s outcomes. And for that, senior military leaders like General McConville must bear at least some responsibility.

Now, it may be that when the general meets privately with his fellow four-stars to discuss how things are going, they ruminate over the lack of meaningful success in places like Afghanistan and Iraq despite endless years of effort. Maybe they even feel some sense of remorse. But if they do, they keep such critical thoughts under wraps. My guess is that they choose to ignore the recent past in favor of conjuring up future wars more to their liking — imaginary wars rather than real ones. And that qualifies as professional malpractice.

And as a long-ago soldier of no particular distinction, I’m haunted by this pattern of malpractice and the breezily dishonest posturing that sustains it. To illustrate the scope of this dishonesty and its implications, I’ve conjured up a conversation between three senior army officers — World War II’s hard-driving George Patton (a Trump favorite), Vietnam War commander (and “light at the end of the tunnel” guy) William Westmoreland, and a present-day general of my own invention. Listen in as they engage one another on the imperative of, and difficulty of, learning what war has to teach us all. Andrew


It’s only mid-afternoon and Army Lieutenant General Victor Constant has already had a bad day.1 Soon after he arrived at the office at 0700, the Chief2 had called. “Come see me. We need to talk.”

The call was not unexpected. Any day now, POTUS3 will announce the next four-star to command the war effort in Afghanistan — how many have there been? — and Constant felt certain that he’d be tapped for the job. He’d certainly earned it. Multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and, worse still, at the Pentagon. If anyone deserved that fourth star, he did.

Unfortunately, the Chief sees things differently. “Time’s up, Vic. I need you to retire.” Thirty-three years of service and this is what you get: your walking papers, with maybe a medal thrown in.

Constant returns to his office, then abruptly tells his staff that he needs some personal time. A 10-minute drive and he’s at the O-Club, where the bar is just opening. “Barkeep,” he growls. “Bourbon. Double. Rocks.” On the job long enough to have seen more than a few senior officers get the axe, the bartender quietly complies.

Constant has some thinking to do. For the first time in his adult life, he’s about to become unemployed. His alimony payments and college tuition bills are already killing him. When he and Sally have to move out of quarters,4 she’s going to expect that fancy house in McLean or Potomac that he had hinted at when they were dating. But where’s the money going to come from?

He needs a plan. “Barkeep. Another.” Lost in thought, Constant doesn’t notice that he’s no longer alone. Two soldiers — one boisterous, the other melancholy — have arrived and are occupying adjacent bar stools.

The first of them smells of horses. To judge by his jodhpurs and riding crop, he’s just returned from playing polo. He has thinning gray hair, small uneven teeth, a high-pitched voice, and a grin that says: I know things you never will, you dumb sonofabitch. He exudes arrogance and charisma. He is George S. Patton. He orders whiskey with a beer chaser.

The second wears Vietnam-era jungle fatigues, starched. His jump boots glisten.5 On his ballcap, which he carefully sets aside, are four embroidered silver stars. He is impeccably groomed and manicured. The nametape over his breast pocket reads: WESTMORELAND. He exudes the resentment of someone who has been treated unfairly — or thinks he has.

“Westy! Damned if you still don’t look like TIME’s Man of the Year back in ’65! Ease up, man! Have a drink. What’ll it be?”

“Just water for me, General. It’s a bit early in the day.”

“Shit. Water? You think my guys beat the Nazis by filling their canteens with water?”

Westmoreland sniffs. “Alcohol consumption does not correlate with battlefield performance — although my troops did not suffer from a shortage of drink. They never suffered from shortages of anything.”

Patton guffaws. “But you lost! That’s the point, ain’t it? You lost!”

The bickering draws Victor Constant out of his reverie. “Gentlemen, please.”

“Who are you, bucko?” asks Patton.

“I am Lieutenant General Victor Constant, U.S. Army. To my friends, I’m VC.”

“VC!” Westy nearly falls off of his stool. “My army has generals named after the Vietcong?”

Patton intervenes. “Well, VC, tell us old timers what you’re famous for and why you’re here, drinking in uniform during duty hours.

“Well, sir, first of all, I’m a warrior. I commanded a company in combat, then a battalion, then a brigade, then a division. But I’m here now because the chief just told me that I need to retire. That came as a bit of a blow. I don’t know what Sally is going to say.” He stares at his drink.

Patton snorts. “Well, my young friend, sounds like you’ve seen plenty of action. All that fighting translates into how many wins?”

“Wins?” VC doesn’t quite grasp the question.

“Wins,” Patton says again. “You know, victories. The enemy surrenders. Their flag comes down and ours goes up. The troops go home to a heroes’ welcome. Polo resumes.”

Westy interjects. “Wins? Are you that out of touch, George? The answer is: none. These so-called warriors haven’t won anything.”

“With all due respect, sir, I don’t think that’s fair. Everyone agrees that, back in ’91, Operation Desert Storm was a historic victory. I know. I was there, fresh out of West Point.”

Patton smirks. “Then why did you have to go back and do it again in 2003? And why has your army been stuck in Iraq ever since? Not to mention Syria! And don’t get me started on Afghanistan or Somalia! The truth is your record isn’t any better than Westy’s.”

“Now, see here, George. You’re being unreasonable. We never lost a fight in Vietnam.” He pauses and corrects himself. “Well, maybe not never, but very rarely.”

“Rarely lost a fight!” Patton roars. “What does that have to do with anything? That’s like you and your thing with body counts! Dammit, Westy, don’t you know anything about war?”

VC ventures an opinion. “General Westmoreland, sir, I’m going to have to agree with General Patton on this one. You picked the wrong metric to measure progress. We don’t do body counts anymore.”

“Well, what’s your metric, sonny?”

VC squirms and falls silent.

His hackles up, Westy continues. “First of all, the whole body-count business was the fault of the politicians. We knew exactly how to defeat North Vietnam. Invade the country, destroy the NVA,6 occupy Hanoi. Just like World War II: Mission accomplished. Not complicated.”

He pauses to take a breath. “But LBJ and that arrogant fool McNamara7 wouldn’t let us. They imposed limits. They wouldn’t even mobilize the reserves. They set restrictions on where we could go, what we could attack. General Patton here had none of those problems in ’44-’45. And then the press turned on us. And the smartass college kids who should have been fighting communists started protesting. Nothing like it before or since — the home front collaborating with the enemy.”

Westy changes his mind about having a drink. “Give me a gin martini,” he barks. “Straight up. Twist of lemon. And give VC here” — his voice drips with contempt — “another of whatever he’s having.”

The bartender, who has been eavesdropping while pretending to polish glassware, grabs a bottle and pours.

“Hearts and minds, Westy, hearts and minds.” Patton taunts, obviously enjoying himself.

“Yes, hearts and minds. Don’t you think, George, that we understood the importance of winning over the South Vietnamese? But after Diem’s assassination,8 the Republic of Vietnam consisted of little more than a flag. After D-Day, you didn’t need to create France. You just needed to kick out the Germans and hand matters over to De Gaulle.”9

Westmoreland is becoming increasingly animated. “And you fought alongside the Brits. We were shackled to a Vietnamese army that was miserably led and not eager to fight either.”

“Monty was a horse’s ass,”10 Patton interjects, apropos of nothing.

“The point is,” Westmoreland continues, “liberating Europe was politically simple. Defending South Vietnam came with complications you could never havedreamed of. Did the New York Times pester you about killing civilians? All you had to do to keep the press on your side was not to get caught slapping your own soldiers.”

“That was an isolated incident and I apologized,” Patton replies, with a tight smile. “But the fact is, Westy, all your talk about ‘firepower and mobility’ didn’t work. ‘Search and destroy’? Hell, you damn near destroyed the whole U.S. Army. And the war ended with the North Vietnamese sitting in Saigon.”

“Ho Chi Minh City,” Victor Constant offers by way of correction.

“Oh, shut up,” Patton and Westmoreland respond simultaneously.

Patton leans menacingly toward Victor Constant and looks him right in the eye. “Have you seen my movie, son?”11

“Yes, of course, sir. Several times.”

“Then you should understand what war is all about. You ‘hold onto him by the nose’ and you ‘kick him in the ass.’ That’s what I said in the movie. Why is that so hard to understand? How is it that my soldiers could defeat those Hun bastards and you and your crew can’t manage to take care of a few thousand ‘militants’ who don’t have tanks or an air force or even decent uniforms, for God’s sake?”

“Hearts and minds, George, hearts and minds.”

“What’s that supposed to mean, Westy?”

“Your kick-them-in-the-ass approach isn’t good enough these days. You studied Clausewitz — war is politics with guns. Now, I’ll give you this much: in Vietnam, we never got the politics right. We couldn’t solve the puzzle of making war work politically. Maybe there wasn’t a solution. Maybe the war was already lost the day I showed up. So we just killed to no purpose. That’s a failure I took to my grave.”

A bead of perspiration is forming on Westmoreland’s lip. “But these guys” — he nods toward Constant — “now, we’ve got a generation of generals who think they’ve seen a lot of war but don’t know squat about politics — and don’t even want to know. And we’ve got a generation of politicians who don’t know squat about war, but keep doling out the money. There’s no dialogue, no strategy, no connecting war and politics.”

Victor Constant is mystified. Dialogue? He rouses himself to defend his service. “Gentlemen, let me remind you that the United States Army today is far and away the world’s finest military force. No one else comes close.”

Westy just presses on. “So what has your experience in war taught you? What have you learned?”

Patton repeats the question. “What have you learned, Mr. Warrior? Tell us.”

Learned? After several drinks, Victor Constant is not at his best. “Well, I’ve learned a lot. The whole army has.”

He struggles to recall recent PowerPoint briefings that he’s dozed through. Random phrases come to mind. “Leap-ahead technology. Dominant maneuver in an ever-enlarging battlespace. Simultaneous and sequential operations. Artificial Intelligence. Quantum computing. Remote sensing. Machine learning. Big data analytics. 5G technology. High-fidelity, multi-domain training.”

However dimly, VC realizes he’s babbling. He pauses to catch his breath. “It’s all coming, if they’ll just give us the money.”

Patton stares at him silently. Victor Constant senses thatit’s time to go home.

“Can I call you a taxi?” Westmoreland asks.

“No, sir, thank you.” With as much dignity as he can muster, Victor Constant straightens his tie, finds his headgear, and walks unsteadily toward the door.

What have I learned? What did they even mean? He was a general officer in the best army in the world. Maybe the best army ever. Wasn’t that enough? He needed to ask Sally.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.

Copyright 2020 Andrew Bacevich

1 Victor Constant is the name of the ski slope at the United States Military Academy, called such in memory of a cadet ski instructor killed in an accident during World War II. To my knowledge, there is no officer bearing that name in the U.S. Army. Return to story.

2 The chief of staff, U.S. Army. Return to story.

3 The president of the United States. Return to story.

4 Many of the army’s most senior officers are housed at government-owned quarters at Fort Myers, Virginia, and Fort McNair in Washington. Return to story.

5 Beginning in World War II, U.S. Army paratroopers sported a distinctive style of black leather boot, more fashionable than standard army issue. After the war, Westmoreland attended jump school and commanded the 101st Airborne Division. Return to story.

6 Shorthand for the North Vietnamese army. Return to story.

7 Lyndon Johnson served as U.S. president from November 1963 to January 1969. Robert Strange McNamara filled the post of defense secretary from 1961 to 1968. Return to story.

8 The November 1963 assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem destroyed whatever slight political legitimacy the Republic of Vietnam had possessed. Return to story.

9 Charles De Gaulle was the leader of the Free French during World War II. Return to story.

10 Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, the senior British commander in the European Theater of Operations in World War II, had a low opinion of American officers from U.S. Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower on down. Return to story.

11 “Patton” (1970), starring George C. Scott. Return to story.

How Biden could Turn it all around in Two weeks if he Wins Fri, 14 Aug 2020 04:02:51 +0000 ( – Assume Joe Biden wins the presidency. Assume as well that he genuinely intends to repair the damage our country has sustained since we declared ourselves history’s “Indispensable Nation,” compounded by the traumatic events of 2020 that demolished whatever remnants of that claim survived. Assume, that is, that this aging career politician and creature of the Washington establishment really intends to salvage something of value from all that has been lost.

If he seriously intends to be more than a relic of pre-Trump liberal centrism, how exactly should President Biden go about making his mark?

Here, free of charge, Joe, is an action plan that will get you from Election Night through your first two weeks in office. Follow this plan and by your 100th day in the White House observers will be comparing you to at least one President Roosevelt, if not both.

On Election Night (or whatever date you are declared the winner): Close down your Twitter account. Part of your job, Joe, is to restore some semblance of dignity to the office of the presidency. Twitter and similar social media platforms are a principal source of the coarseness and malice that today permeate American politics. Remove yourself from that ugliness. Your predecessor transformed a presidency that had acquired imperial pretensions into an office best described as a cesspool of grotesque demagoguery. One of your central tasks will be to model a genuine alternative: a presidency appropriate for a constitutional republic, where reason, candor, and a commitment to the common good really do prevail over partisan name-calling. That’s a lot to ask for, but returning to a more traditional conception of the Bully Pulpit would certainly be a place to start.

During the transition: Direct your press secretary to announce that on January 20th there will be no ritzy Inaugural balls. Take your cues from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inauguration for his fourth term in office, a distinctly low-key event. After all, in January 1945, the nation was still at war; victory had not yet arrived; celebration could wait. Our present-day multifaceted crisis bears at least some comparison to that World War II moment. So, as you plan your own inauguration, ditch the glitz. A secondary benefit: you won’t have to hit up wealthy donors for the dough to pay for the party. And with no party, you won’t have to worry about inaugural festivities triggering another spike in Covid-19 infections.

In addition to selecting a cabinet and ignoring your predecessor’s bleating, the main focus of your transition period has to be policy planning. When you take office, the coronavirus pandemic will still be with us: that’s a given. Even if optimistic predictions of an effective vaccine becoming available by early 2021 were to pan out, we won’t be out of the woods. Not faintly. So your number-one priority during the transition must be to do what Trump never came close to doing: devise a concrete national strategy for limiting the spread of the virus along with a blueprint for prompt and comprehensive vaccine distribution when one is ready.

That said, it would also be prudent to engage in quiet contingency planning to lay out possible courses of action should your predecessor refuse to acknowledge his defeat (“rigged election!”) or leave the White House.

On January 20th, the big day arrives.

Noon, Eastern Standard Time: With the chief justice of the Supreme Court presiding, take the oath of office in the East Room of the White House in the presence of Vice President Kamala Harris and your immediate family. No inaugural address, no parade, no festivities whatsoever. Make like you’re George Washington: he wasn’t into making a fuss. When the ceremony ends, have lunch and get down to work.

That afternoon: Issue an executive order directing the formation of a National Commission on Reconciliation and Reparations, or NCRR. Recruit Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates or another scholar of comparable stature to head the effort. While likely to be a lengthy and contentious endeavor, the NCRR will provide a point of departure for addressing the persistence of American racism by taking on this overarching question: What does justice require?

That evening: Speak to the nation from the Oval Office. Make it brief. Your address will set the tone for your administration. The nation has its hands full with concurrent crises. The moment calls for humility and hard work, not triumphalism. Don’t overpromise. Consider Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address as a model. Curb your inclination to blather. Abe only needed 701 words. See if you can better that.

Day 2: In a letter to House and Senate leaders, unveil the details of your coronavirus strategy, which must include: 1) a national plan to curb the existing Covid-19 outbreak and prevent future ones; 2) a nationwide approach to vaccine distribution; 3) a strategy for averting and, if needed, curbing the outbreak of comparable diseases; 4) adequate funding of key government pandemic relief and prevention facilities and activities. In the process, identify near-term and longer-term funding requirements that will require congressional action.

Day 3: Issue an executive order reversing the announced withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Accords. Describe this as just an initial down payment on the $2 trillion Green New Deal you promised Americans during the election campaign. Joe, if you can make meaningful progress toward curbing climate change, future generations will put you on Mount Rushmore in place of one of those slaveholders.

Day 4: Send a personal message to the German chancellor, the British prime minister, and the presidents of China, France, and Russia, declaring your intention to recommit the United States to the Iran nuclear deal that Donald Trump ditched in 2018. Quietly initiate the process of opening a back channel to the Iranian leadership. (I’ve got colleagues who might be able to lend a hand in laying the groundwork. Let me know if the Quincy Institute can be of help.)That same day, on your first visit as president to the White House press room, casually mention that the United States will henceforth adhere to a policy of no-first-use regarding its nuclear weapons. Simultaneously, tell the Pentagon to stop work on “modernizing” the U.S. nuclear arsenal. That’s $2 trillion that can be better spent elsewhere. No first use will flush “fire and fury like the world has never seen” down the toilet. Generals, weapons contractors, and aging Cold Warriors will tell you that you’re taking a great risk. Ignore them and you will substantially reduce the possibility of nuclear war.

Day 5: Issue an executive order suspending any further work on your predecessor’s border “wall.” At the same time, announce your intention to form a non-partisan task force to recommend policies related to border security and immigration, whether legal or otherwise. Ask former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro to chair that task force, with a report due prior to the 100th day of your presidency.

Day 6: Accompanied by Secretary of State Elizabeth Warren, visit the State Department for an all-hands-on-deck meeting. Let it be known that your administration will reserve all senior diplomatic appointments for seasoned Foreign Service officers. No more selling of ambassadorships to campaign contributors or old friends hoping to acquire an honorific title. Make clear your intention to revitalize American diplomacy, recognizing that the principal threats to our wellbeing are transnational and not susceptible to military solutions. The Pentagon can’t do much to alleviate pandemics, environmental degradation, and climate change. Those true national security crises will require collaborative action. Also use this occasion to announce the formation of a non-partisan task force that will recommend ways to reform and re-professionalize the Foreign Service. Top-flight diplomacy requires top-drawer diplomats. Ask former Ambassadors Chas Freeman and Thomas Pickering, both savvy global thinkers and seasoned diplomats, to co-chair that effort, with instructions to report back by July 11th, the birthday of John Quincy Adams, our greatest secretary of state.

Day 7: Begin your morning by inviting General Mark Milley to the Oval Office for a one-on-one meeting. Ask him to tender his immediate resignation as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Milley’sparticipation in the infamous Lafayette Square stunt, even if unwitting, renders him unfit for further employment. Later that same day, visit the remaining chiefs in the Pentagon. Explain your intention to commence a wholesale reevaluation of the U.S. military’s global posture — command structure, bases, budgets, priorities, and above all emerging threats. Ask for their forthright assistance in this endeavor, making it clear that anyone obstructing the process will be gone.

Day 8: Call on Ruth Bader Ginsberg in her chambers at the Supreme Court. Invite her to retire now that the Senate is in Democratic hands. Offer private assurances that her successor will be a) liberal; b) a woman; c) a person of color; and d) a distinguished jurist.

Day 9: Do what your predecessor vowed to do, but didn’t: end America’s endless wars. At your first full-fledged cabinet meeting, charge your new Defense Secretary James Webb with providing a detailed schedule for a deliberate, but comprehensive withdrawal (no ifs, ands, or buts) of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, with a completion date by the end of your first year in office.

Day 10: Visit Mexico City. Engage in a trilateral discussion with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. At day’s end, sign the Declaration of Tenochtitlan affirming a common commitment to democracy, the rule of law, human rights, economic growth, and continental security. Your predecessors have taken Mexico and Canada for granted. You will correct that oversight. In fact, no two countries on the planet are of greater importance to the wellbeing of the American people.

Day 11: Invite China’s president Xi Jinping for an informal meeting at Camp David at a date of his choosing. As you know, Joe, the United States and China are hurtling toward a new Cold War. Reversing the momentum of events will prove difficult indeed. This will require considerable personal diplomacy on your part. Given the need for the planet’s two major economic powers to cooperate on lowering greenhouse gasses globally, nothing is more important than this. Start now.

Day 12: Announce plans to visit NATO headquarters in the near future. Begin quiet consultations with European members of the alliance to nudge them toward taking responsibility for their own security. Let them know that before the year is out you intend to make public a 10-year timetable for withdrawing all U.S. forces from Europe. That will concentrate minds in London, Paris, Berlin, and elsewhere in the alliance.

Day 13: Convene a meeting of the best minds in tech (which, by the way, does not necessarily mean the wealthiest tech tycoons). Pick their brains on the issue of privacy. This challenge will extend beyond your presidency. You can at least highlight the problem.

Day 14: You’re 78, the oldest man ever to walk into the Oval Office as president. Be smart. Take a day totally off to recharge your batteries. You have a long way to go.

Joe, you’re a bit long in the tooth for the duties you’re about to assume. Keep in mind the adage that applies to all us old folks: time is fleeting. We never know how much we have left, so seize the moment. No offense, but your days (like mine) are numbered.

Good luck. I’ll be pulling for you.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book is The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.

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 2020 Andrew Bacevich



Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Thom Hartmann: “How Would Biden Handle COVID? (w/ Dr. Howard Koh)”

Martin Luther King’s Giant Triplets: Racism, Yes, But What About Militarism and Materialism? Wed, 24 Jun 2020 04:03:26 +0000 ( – In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, Americans are finally — or is it once again? — confronting the racism that afflicts this country and extends into just about every corner of our national life. Something fundamental just might be happening.

Yet to state the obvious, we’ve been here before. Mass protests in response to racial inequality and discrimination, including police brutality, have been anything but unknown in the United States. Much the same can be said of riots targeting black Americans, fomented and exploited by white racists, often actively or passively abetted by local law enforcement officials. If Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, formerly known as H. Rap Brown, was correct in calling violence “as American as cherry pie,” then race-related urban unrest is the apple-filled equivalent.

The optimists among us believe that “this time is different.” I hope events will prove them right. Yet recalling expectations that Barack Obama’s election in 2008 signaled the dawn of a “post-racial America,” I see no reason to expect it to be so. A yawning gap, I fear, separates hope from reality.

Let me suggest, however, that the nation’s current preoccupation with race, as honorable and necessary as it may be, falls well short of adequately responding to the situation confronting Americans as they enter the third decade of the twenty-first century. Racism is a massive problem, but hardly our only one. Indeed, as Martin Luther King sought to remind us many years ago, there are at least two others of comparable magnitude.

MLK Defines the Problem

In April 1967, at New York City’s Riverside Church, Dr. King delivered a sermon that offered a profound diagnosis of the illnesses afflicting the nation. His analysis remains as timely today as it was then, perhaps more so.

Americans remember King primarily as a great civil rights leader and indeed he was that. In his Riverside Church address, however, he turned to matters that went far beyond race. In an immediate sense, his focus was the ongoing Vietnam War, which he denounced as “madness” that “must cease.” Yet King also used the occasion to summon the nation to “undergo a radical revolution of values” that would transform the United States “from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.” Only through such a revolution, he declared, would we be able to overcome “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.”

The challenge confronting Americans was to dismantle what King referred to as the “edifice” that produced and sustained each of those giant triplets. Today’s protesters, crusading journalists, and engaged intellectuals make no bones about their determination to eliminate the first of those giant triplets. Yet they generally treat the other two as, at best, mere afterthoughts, while the edifice itself, resting on a perverse understanding of freedom, goes almost entirely ignored.

I’m not suggesting that members of the grand coalition of Americans today fervently campaigning against racism favor extreme materialism. Many of them merely accept its reality and move on. Nor am I suggesting that they consciously endorse militarism, although in confusing “support” for the troops with genuine patriotism some of them do so implicitly. What I am suggesting is that those calling for fundamental change will go badly astray if they ignore Dr. King’s insistence that each of the giant triplets is intimately tied to the other two.

Defund the Pentagon?

The protests triggered by the recent murders of George Floyd and other black Americans have produced widespread demands to “defund the police.” Those demands don’t come out of nowhere. While “reform” programs undertaken in innumerable American cities over the course of many years have demonstrably enhanced police firepower, they have done little, if anything, to repair relations between police departments and communities of color.

As an aging middle-class white male, I don’t fear cops. I respect the fact that theirs is a tough job, which I would not want. Yet I realize that my attitude is one more expression of white privilege, which black men, regardless of their age and economic status, can ill afford to indulge. So I fully accept the need for radical changes in policing — that’s what “defund” appears to imply — if American cities are ever to have law enforcement agencies that are effective, humane, and themselves law-abiding.

What I can’t fathom is why a similar logic doesn’t apply to the armed forces that we employ to police huge chunks of the world beyond our borders. If Americans have reason to question the nation’s increasingly militarized approach to law enforcement, then shouldn’t they have equal reason to question this country’s thoroughly militarized approach to statecraft?

Consider this: on an annual basis, police officers in the United States kill approximately 1,000 Americans, with blacks two-and-a-half times more likely than whites to be victimized. Those are appalling figures, indicative of basic policy gone fundamentally awry. So the outpouring of protest over the police and demands for change are understandable and justified.

Still, the question must be asked: Why have the nation’s post-9/11 wars not prompted similar expressions of outrage? The unjustified killing of black Americans rightly finds thousands upon thousands of protesters flooding the streets of major cities. Yet the loss of thousands of American soldiers and the physical and psychological wounds sustained by tens of thousands more in foolhardy wars elicits, at best, shrugs. Throw in the hundreds of thousands of non-American lives taken in those military campaigns and the trillions of taxpayer dollars they have consumed and you have a catastrophe that easily exceeds in scale the myriad race-related protests and riots that have roiled American cities in the recent past.

With their eyes fixed on elections that are now just months away, politicians of all stripes spare no effort to show that they “get it” on the issue of race and policing. Race may well play a large role in determining who wins the White House this November and which party controls Congress. It should. Yet while the election’s final outcome may be uncertain, this much is not: neither the American propensity for war, nor the bloated size of the Pentagon budget, nor the dubious habit of maintaining a sprawling network of military bases across much of the planet will receive serious scrutiny during the political season now underway. Militarism will escape unscathed.

At Riverside Church, King described the U.S. government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” So it unquestionably remains, perpetrating immeasurably more violence than any other great power and with remarkably little to show in return. Why, then, except on the easily ignored fringes of American politics, are there no demands to “defund” the Pentagon?

King considered the Vietnam War an abomination. At that time, more than a few Americans agreed with him and vigorously demonstrated against the conflict’s continuation. That today’s demonstrators have seemingly chosen to file away our post-9/11 military misadventures under the heading of regrettable but forgettable is itself an abomination. While their sensitivity to racism is admirable, their indifference to war is nothing short of disheartening.

In 1967, Dr. King warned that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” During the intervening decades, his charge has lost none of its sting or aptness.

America’s National Signature

Given their size and duration, the protests occurring in the wake of the murder of George Floyd have been remarkably peaceful. That said, some of them did, early on, include rioters who resorted to looting. Smashing windows and ransacking stores, they walked off not with milk and bread for the hungry, but with shopping bags filled with high-end swag — designer shoes and sneakers, purses, clothing, and jewelry lifted from stores like Prada and Alexander McQueen. Also stolen were smart phones, handguns, even automobiles. In-store surveillance systems recorded scenes reminiscent of Black Friday doorbuster sales, though without anyone bothering to pass through a checkout counter. Some looters quickly attempted to monetize their hauls by offering to sell purloined items online.

Certain right-wing commentators wasted no time in using the looting to tar the protest movement as little more than an expression of nihilism. Tucker Carlson of Fox News was particularly emphatic on this point. Americans taking to the streets in response to George Floyd’s murder, he said, “reject society itself.”

“Reason and process and precedent mean nothing to them. They use violence to get what they want immediately. People like this don’t bother to work. They don’t volunteer or pay taxes to help other people. They live for themselves. They do exactly what they feel like doing… On television, hour by hour, we watch these people — criminal mobs — destroy what the rest of us have built…”

To explain such selfish and destructive misconduct, Carlson had an answer readily at hand:

“The ideologues will tell you that the problem is race relations, or capitalism, or police brutality, or global warming. But only on the surface. The real cause is deeper than that and it’s far darker. What you’re watching is the ancient battle between those who have a stake in society, and would like to preserve it, and those who don’t, and seek to destroy it.”

This is vile, hateful stuff, and entirely wrong — except perhaps on one point. In attributing the looting to a deeper cause, Carlson was onto something, even if his effort to pinpoint that cause was wildly off the mark.

I won’t try to unravel the specific motives of those who saw an opportunity in the protests against racism to help themselves to goods that were not theirs. How much was righteous anger turned to rage and how much cynical opportunism is beyond my ability to know.

This much, however, can be said for certain: the grab-all-you-can-get impulse so vividly on display was as all-American as fireworks on the Fourth of July. Those looters, after all, merely wanted more stuff. What could be more American than that? In this country, after all, stuff carries with it the possibility of personal fulfillment, of achieving some version of happiness or status.

The looters that Tucker Carlson targeted with his ire were doing anything but “rejecting society itself.” They were merely helping themselves to what this society today has on offer for those with sufficient cash and credit cards in their wallets. In a sense, they were treating themselves to a tiny sip of what passes these days for the American Dream.

With the exception of cloistered nuns, hippies, and other vanishing breeds, virtually all Americans have been conditioned to buy into the proposition that stuff correlates with the good life. Unconvinced? Check out the videos from last year’s Black Friday and then consider the intense, if unsurprising, interest of economists and journalists in tracking the latest consumer spending trends. At least until Covid-19 came along, consumer spending served as the authoritative measure of the nation’s overall health.

The primary civic obligation of U.S. citizens today is not to vote or pay taxes. And it’s certainly not to defend the country, a task offloaded onto those who can be enticed to enlist (with minorities vastly overrepresented) in the so-called All-Volunteer Military. No, the primary obligation of citizenship is to spend.

Ours is not a nation of mystics, philosophers, poets, artisans, or Thomas Jefferson’s yeomen farmers. We are now a nation of citizen-consumers, held in thrall to the extreme materialism that Dr. King decried. This, not a commitment to liberty or democracy, has become our true national signature and our chief contribution to late modernity.

Tearing Down the Edifice

At Riverside Church, King reminded his listeners that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which he had helped to found a decade earlier, had chosen this as its motto: “To save the soul of America.” The soul of a nation corrupted by racism, militarism, and extreme materialism represented King’s ultimate concern. Vietnam, he said, was “but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.”

In a tone-deaf editorial criticizing his Riverside Church sermon, the New York Times chastised King for “fusing two public problems” — racism and the Vietnam War — “that are distinct and separate.” Yet part of King’s genius lay in his ability to recognize the interconnectedness of matters that Times editors, as oblivious to deeper maladies then as they are today, wish to keep separate. King sought to tear down the edifice that sustained all three of those giant triplets. Indeed, it is all but certain that, were he alive now, he would call similar attention to a fourth related factor: climate change denial. The refusal to treat seriously the threat posed by climate change underwrites the persistence of racism, militarism, and extreme materialism.

During the course of his sermon, King quoted this sentence from the statement of a group that called itself the Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” Regarding race, it appears that the great majority of Americans have now rejected such silence. This is good. It remains an open question, however, when their silent acceptance of militarism, materialism, and the abuse of Planet Earth will end.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book is The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.

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 2020 Andrew Bacevich


From WW II Victory to Trump’s ‘America First’: Is our anti-Nazi Resolve Foundering? Wed, 06 May 2020 04:02:09 +0000 ( ) – The 75th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender in May 1945 ought to prompt thoughtful reflection. For Americans, V-E Day, as it was then commonly called, marked the beginning of “our times.” The Covid-19 pandemic may signal that our times are now coming to an end.

Tom Engelhardt, editor and proprietor of TomDispatch, was born less than a year prior to V-E Day. I was born less than two years after its counterpart V-J Day, marking the surrender of Imperial Japan in August 1945.

Tom is a New Yorker, born and bred. I was born and raised in the Midwest.

Tom is Jewish, although non-observant. I am a mostly observant Catholic.

Tom is a progressive who as a young man protested against the Vietnam War. I am, so I persist in claiming, a conservative. As a young man, I served in Vietnam.

Yet let me suggest that these various differences matter less than the fact that we both came of age in the shadow of World War II — or more specifically in a time when the specter of Nazi Germany haunted the American intellectual landscape. Over the years, that haunting would become the underlying rationale for the U.S. exercise of global power, with consequences that undermined the nation’s capacity to deal with the menace that it now faces.

Tom and I both belong to what came to be known as the Baby Boom generation (though including him means ever so slightly backing up the official generational start date). As a group, Boomers are generally associated with having had a pampered upbringing before embarking upon a rebellious youth (Tom more than I), and then as adults helping ourselves to more than our fair share of all that life, liberty, and happiness had on offer. Now, preparing to exit the stage, we Boomers are passing on to those who follow us a badly damaged planet and a nation increasingly divided, adrift, and quite literally sick. A Greatest Generation we are not.

How did all this happen? Let me suggest that, to unpack American history during the decades when we Baby Boomers sashayed across the world stage, you have to begin with World War II, or more specifically, with how that war ended and became enshrined in American memory.

Of course, we Boomers never experienced the war directly. Our parents did. Tom’s father and both of my parents served in World War II. Yet neither were we Boomers ever truly able to put that war behind us. For better or worse, members of our generation remain the children of V-E Day, when — so we tell ourselves — evil was finally vanquished and good prevailed.

Never Forget

For Tom, for me, and for our contemporaries, World War II as history and as metaphor centers specifically on the Nazis and their handiwork: swastikas, mammoth staged rallies, the Gestapo and the SS, the cowardice of surrender at Munich, the lightning offensive campaigns known as blitzkrieg, London burning, the Warsaw Ghetto, slave labor, and, of course, a vast network of death camps leading to the Holocaust, all documented in film, photographs, archives, and eyewitness accounts.

And then there was der Führer himself, Adolf Hitler, the subject of a fascination that, over the decades, proved bottomless and more than slightly disturbing. (If your local library ever reopens, compare the number of books about Hitler to those about Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini or wartime Japanese emperor Hirohito.) Seventy-five years after his death, Hitler remains among us, the supreme villain routinely pressed into service by politicians and media pundits alike intent on raising the alarm about some imminent danger. If ever there were a man for all seasons, it is Adolf Hitler.

Hitler’s centrality helps explain why Americans typically date the opening of World War II to September 1939 when the Wehrmacht invaded Poland. Only in December 1941 did the United States (belatedly) join the conflict, the Imperial Japanese Navy’s attack on Pearl Harbor and other American installations in the Pacific forcing Washington’s hand. In fact, however, a full decade earlier Japan had already set out to create what it would eventually call its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. In September 1931, its forces invaded then Chinese-controlled Manchuria, an undertaking that soon enough morphed into a very large and brutal armed conflict with China proper in which the United States participated on a proxy basis. (Remember the Flying Tigers?) In other words, World War II actually began in Asia rather than Europe, with the first shots fired years before the Nazi attack on Poland.

Yet launching the narrative in September 1939 has the effect of keeping the primary focus on Germany. From a moral perspective, there are ample reasons for doing this: Even in a century of horrendous crimes — the Armenian genocide, Stalin’s extermination of Ukraine’s kulaks, and Mao Zedong’s murderous campaign against his own people — the sheer unadulterated evil of the Nazi regime stands apart.

From a political perspective, however, intense preoccupation with one example of iniquity, however horrific, induces a skewed perspective. So it proved to be with the United States during the decades that followed V-E Day. Subsumed within the advertised purposes of postwar U.S. policy, whether called “defense,” “deterrence,” “containment,” “liberation,” or “the protection of human rights,” has been this transcendent theme: “Never Again.” That is, never again will the United States ignore or appease or fail to confront a regime that compares to — or even vaguely resembles — Nazi Germany. Never again will it slumber until rudely awakened by a Pearl Harbor-like surprise. Never again will it allow its capacity for projecting power against distant threats to dissipate. Never again will it fail to lead.

Of all Donald Trump’s myriad deficiencies, large and small, this may be the one that his establishment critics find most difficult to stomach: his resurrection of “America First” as a primary principle of statecraft suggests a de facto nullification of “Never Again.”

To Trump’s critics, it hardly matters that “America First” in no way describes actual administration policy. After all, more than three years into the Trump presidency, our endless wars persist (and in some cases have even intensified); the nation’s various alliances and its empire of overseas bases remain intact; U.S. troops are still present in something like 140 countries; Pentagon and national security state spending continues to increase astronomically. Even so, the president does appear oblivious to the historical antecedent — that is, the imperative of standing ready to deal with the next Hitler — that finds concrete expression in these several manifestations of U.S. national security policy. No one has ever accused Donald Trump of possessing a profound grasp of history. Yet here his apparent cluelessness is especially telling.

Not least among the unofficial duties of any president is to serve as the authoritative curator of public memory. Through speeches, proclamations, and the laying of wreaths, presidents tell us what we should remember and how. Through their silence, they give us permission to forget the parts of our past that we prefer to forget. Himself born barely a year after V-E Day, Donald Trump seems to have forgotten World War II.

New Signs for a New Time?

Yet let’s consider this admittedly uncongenial possibility: perhaps Trump is onto something. What if V-E Day is no more relevant to the present than the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812? What if, as a basis for policy, “Never Again” is today just as outmoded as “America First”? What if clinging to the canonical lessons of the war against Hitler impedes efforts to repair our nation and our planet?

An abiding problem with “Never Again” is that U.S. policymakers have never applied it to the United States. Since V-E Day, individuals and regimes deemed in Washington to be the spawn of Hitler and the Nazis have provided justification for successive administrations to accumulate arms, impose punishments, underwrite coups and assassination plots, and, of course, wage war endlessly. Beginning with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and China’s Mao Zedong, the list of malefactors that U.S. officials and militant journalists have likened to Hitler is a long one. They’ve ranged from North Korea’s Kim Il Sung in the 1950s to Cuba’s Fidel Castro in the 1960s to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the 1990s. And just to bring things up to date, let’s not overlook the ayatollahs governing present-day Iran.

Two decades after V-E Day, a succession of presidents deployed lessons ostensibly derived from the war against Hitler to justify the Vietnam War. John F. Kennedy described South Vietnam as “the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia, the Keystone of the arch, the finger in the dike.” Failing to defend that country would allow “the red tide of Communism,” as he put it, to sweep across the region much as appeasers had allowed the Nazi tide to sweep across Europe. “Everything I knew about history,” Lyndon Johnson reflected, “told me that if I got out of Vietnam and let Ho Chi Minh run through the streets of Saigon, then I’d be doing exactly what [Neville] Chamberlain did in World War II,” a reference, of course, to the Munich Agreement with Hitler, which that British prime minister so infamously labeled “peace in our time.” Even as late as 1972, Richard Nixon was assuring the public that “an American defeat” in Vietnam “would encourage this kind of aggression all over the world.”

Vietnam provides but one example among many of how viewing problems through the lens of World War II in Europe has obscured real situations and actual stakes on this planet. In short, the promiscuous use of the Hitler analogy has produced deeply flawed policy decisions, while also deceiving the American people. This has inhibited our ability to see the world as it actually is.

Overall, the approach to statecraft that grew out of V-E Day defined the ultimate purpose of U.S. policy in terms of resisting evil. That, in turn, provided all the justification needed for building up American military capabilities beyond compare and engaging in military action on a planetary scale.

In Washington, policymakers have shown little inclination to consider the possibility that the United States itself might be guilty of doing evil. In effect, the virtuous intentions implicit in “Never Again” inoculated the United States against the virus to which ordinary nations were susceptible. V-E Day seemingly affirmed that America was anything but ordinary.

Here, then, we arrive at one explanation for the predicament in which the United States now finds itself. In a recent article in the New York Times, journalist Katrin Bennhold wondered how it could be that, when it came to dealing with Covid-19, “the country that defeated fascism in Europe 75 years ago” now finds itself “doing a worse job protecting its citizens than many autocracies and democracies” globally.

Yet it might just be that events that occurred 75 years ago in Europe no longer have much bearing on the present. The country that defeated Hitler’s version of fascism (albeit with considerable help from others) has since allowed its preoccupation with fascists, quasi-fascists, and other ne’er-do-wells to serve as an excuse for letting other things slip, particularly here in the homeland.

The United States is fully capable of protecting its citizens. Yet what the present pandemic drives home is this: doing so, while also creating an environment in which all citizens can flourish, is going to require a radical revision of what we still, however inaccurately, call “national security” priorities. This does not mean turning a blind eye to mass murder. Yet the militarization of U.S. policy that occurred in the wake of V-E Day has for too long distracted attention from more pressing matters, not least among them creating a way of life that is equitable and sustainable. This perversion of priorities must now cease.

So, yes, let’s mark this V-E Day anniversary with all due solemnity. Yet 75 years after the collapse of the Third Reich, the challenge facing the United States is not “Never Again.” It’s “What Now?”

For the moment at least, Tom and I are still around. Yet “our times” — the period that began when World War II ended — have run their course. The “new times” upon which the nation has now embarked will pose their own distinctive challenges, as the Covid-19 pandemic makes unmistakably clear. Addressing those challenges will require leaders able to free themselves from a past that has become increasingly irrelevant.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book is The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.

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 2020 Andrew Bacevich



Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Guardian News: “Armed protesters enter Michigan’s state capitol demanding end to coronavirus lockdown”

US Nat’l Security State Tilted at War on Terror Windmills when Real Threats — Climate and Pandemic — were at Home Fri, 27 Mar 2020 04:03:43 +0000 ( – Americans are facing “A Spring Unlike Any Before.” So warned a front-page headline in the March 13th New York Times.

That headline, however hyperbolic, was all too apt. The coming of spring has always promised relief from the discomforts of winter. Yet, far too often, it also brings its own calamities and afflictions.

According to the poet T.S. Eliot, “April is the cruelest month.” Yet while April has certainly delivered its share of cataclysms, March and May haven’t lagged far behind. In fact, cruelty has seldom been a respecter of seasons. The infamous influenza epidemic of 1918, frequently cited as a possible analogue to our current crisis, began in the spring of that year, but lasted well into 1919.

That said, something about the coronavirus pandemic does seem to set this particular spring apart. At one level, that something is the collective panic now sweeping virtually the entire country. President Trump’s grotesque ineptitude and tone-deafness have only fed that panic. And in their eagerness to hold Trump himself responsible for the pandemic, as if he were the bat that first transmitted the disease to a human being, his critics magnify further a growing sense of events spinning out of control.

Yet to heap the blame for this crisis on Trump alone (though he certainly deserves plenty of blame) is to miss its deeper significance. Deferred for far too long, Judgment Day may at long last have arrived for the national security state.

Origins of a Colossus

That state within a state’s origins date from the early days of the Cold War. Its ostensible purpose has been to keep Americans safe and so, by extension, to guarantee our freedoms. From the 1950s through the 1980s, keeping us safe provided a seemingly adequate justification for maintaining a sprawling military establishment along with a panoply of “intelligence” agencies — the CIA, the DIA, the NRO, the NSA — all engaged in secret activities hidden from public view. From time to time, the scope, prerogatives, and actions of that conglomeration of agencies attracted brief critical attention — the Cuban Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, the Vietnam War of the 1960s and early 1970s, and the Iran-Contra affair during the presidency of Ronald Reagan being prime examples. Yet at no time did such failures come anywhere close to jeopardizing its existence.

Indeed, even when the implosion of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War removed the original justification for its creation, the entire apparatus persisted. With the Soviet Empire gone, Russia in a state of disarray, and communism having lost its appeal as an alternative to democratic capitalism, the managers of the national security state wasted no time in identifying new threats and new missions.

The new threats included autocrats like Panama’s Manuel Noriega and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, once deemed valuable American assets, but now, their usefulness gone, classified as dangers to be eliminated. Prominent among the new missions was a sudden urge to repair broken places like the Balkans, Haiti, and Somalia, with American power deployed under the aegis of “humanitarian intervention” and pursuant to a “responsibility to protect.” In this way, in the first decade of the post-Cold War era, the national security state kept itself busy. While the results achieved, to put it politely, were mixed at best, the costs incurred appeared tolerable. In sum, the entire apparatus remained impervious to serious scrutiny.

During that decade, however, both the organs of national security and the American public began taking increased notice of what was called “anti-American terrorism” — and not without reason. In 1993, Islamic fundamentalists detonated a bomb in a parking garage of New York’s World Trade Center. In 1996, terrorists obliterated an apartment building used to house U.S. military personnel in Saudi Arabia. Two years later, the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were blown up and, in 2000, suicide bombers nearly sank the USS Cole, a Navy destroyer making a port call in Aden at the tip of the Arabian peninsula. To each of these increasingly brazen attacks, all occurring during the administration of President Bill Clinton, the national security state responded ineffectually.

Then, of course, came September 11, 2001. Orchestrated by Osama bin Laden and carried out by 19 suicidal al-Qaeda operatives, this act of mass murder inflicted incalculable harm on the United States. In its wake, it became common to say that “9/11 changed everything.”

In fact, however, remarkably little changed. Despite its 17 intelligence agencies, the national security state failed utterly to anticipate and thwart that devastating attack on the nation’s political and financial capitals. Yet apart from minor adjustments — primarily expanding surveillance efforts at home and abroad — those outfits mostly kept doing what they had been doing, even as their leaders evaded accountability. After Pearl Harbor, at least, one admiral and one general were fired. After 9/11, no one lost his or her job. At the upper echelons of the national security state, the wagons were circled and a consensus quickly formed: no one had screwed up.

Once President George W. Bush identified an “Axis of Evil” (Iraq, Iran, and North Korea), three nations that had had nothing whatsoever to do with the 9/11 attacks, as the primary target for his administration’s “Global War on Terrorism,” it became clear that no wholesale reevaluation of national security policy was going to occur. The Pentagon and the Intelligence Community, along with their sprawling support network of profit-minded contractors, could breathe easy. All of them would get ever more money. That went without saying. Meanwhile, the underlying premise of U.S. policy since the immediate aftermath of World War II — that projecting hard power globally would keep Americans safe — remained sacrosanct.

Viewed from this perspective, the sequence of events that followed was probably overdetermined. In late 2001, U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan, overthrew the Taliban regime, and set out to install a political order more agreeable to Washington. In early 2003, with the mission in Afghanistan still anything but complete, U.S. forces set out to do the same in Iraq. Both of those undertakings have dragged on, in one fashion or another, without coming remotely close to success. Today, the military undertaking launched in 2001 continues, even if it no longer has a name or an agreed-upon purpose.

Nonetheless, at the upper echelons of the national security state, the consensus forged after 9/11 remains firmly in place: no one screws up. In Washington, the conviction that projecting hard power keeps Americans safe likewise remains sacrosanct.

In the nearly two decades since 9/11, willingness to challenge this paradigm has rarely extended beyond non-conforming publications like TomDispatch. Until Donald Trump came along, rare was the ambitious politician of either political party who dared say aloud what Trump himself has repeatedly said — that, as he calls them, the “ridiculous endless wars” launched in response to 9/11 represent the height of folly.

Astonishingly enough, within the political establishment that point has still not sunk in. So, in 2020, as in 2016, the likely Democratic nominee for president will be someone who vigorously supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Imagine, if you will, Democrats in 1880 nominating not a former union general (as they did) but a former confederate who, 20 years before, had advocated secession. Back then, some sins were unforgivable. Today, politicians of both parties practice self-absolution and get away with it.

The Real Threat

Note, however, the parallel narrative that has unfolded alongside those post-9/11 wars. Taken seriously, that narrative exposes the utter irrelevance of the national security state as currently constituted. The coronavirus pandemic will doubtless prove to be a significant learning experience. Here is one lesson that Americans cannot afford to overlook.

Presidents now routinely request and Congress routinely appropriates more than a trillion dollars annually to satisfy the national security state’s supposed needs. Even so, Americans today do not feel safe and, to a degree without precedent, they are being denied the exercise of basic everyday freedoms. Judged by this standard, the apparatus created to keep them safe and free has failed. In the face of a pandemic, nature’s version of an act of true terror, that failure, the consequences of which Americans will suffer through for months to come, should be seen as definitive.

But wait, some will object: Don’t we find ourselves in uncharted waters? Is this really the moment to rush to judgment? In fact, judgment is long overdue.

While the menace posed by the coronavirus may differ in scope, it does not differ substantively from the myriad other perils that Americans have endured since the national security state wandered off on its quixotic quest to pacify Afghanistan and Iraq and purge the planet of terrorists. Since 9/11, a partial roster of those perils would include: Hurricane Katrina (2005), Hurricane Sandy (2012), Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria (2017), and massive wildfires that have devastated vast stretches of the West Coast on virtually an annual basis. The cumulative cost of such events exceeds a half-trillion dollars. Together, they have taken the lives of several thousand more people than were lost in the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Earlier generations might have written all of these off as acts of God. Today, we know better. As with blaming Trump, blaming God won’t do. Human activities, ranging from the hubristic reengineering of rivers like the Mississippi to the effects of climate change stemming from the use of fossil fuels, have substantially exacerbated such “natural” catastrophes.

And unlike faraway autocrats or terrorist organizations, such phenomena, from extreme-weather events to pandemics, directly and immediately threaten the safety and wellbeing of the American people. Don’t tell the Central Intelligence Agency or the Joint Chiefs of Staff but the principal threats to our collective wellbeing are right here where we live.

Apart from modest belated efforts at mitigation, the existing national security state is about as pertinent to addressing such threats as President Trump’s cheery expectations that the coronavirus will simply evaporate once warmer weather appears. Terror has indeed arrived on our shores and it has nothing to do with al-Qaeda or ISIS or Iranian-backed militias. Americans are terrorized because it has now become apparent that our government, whether out of negligence or stupidity, has left them exposed to dangers that truly put life and liberty at risk. As it happens, all these years in which the national security state has been preoccupied with projecting hard power abroad have left us naked and vulnerable right here at home.

Protecting Americans where they live ought to be the national security priority of our time. The existing national security state is incapable of fulfilling that imperative, while its leaders, fixated on waging distant wars, have yet to even accept that they have a responsibility to do so.

Worst of all, even in this election year, no one on the national political scene appears to recognize the danger now fully at hand.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book is The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.

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 2020 Andrew Bacevich


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

From 2 weeks ago: 2 American Troops, 1 British Soldier Killed In Attack On Iraq Military Base | NBC Nightly News

The Age of Trump and Pseudo America: Phonying Up our Key Institutions Mon, 24 Feb 2020 05:01:51 +0000 ( – The impeachment of the president of the United States! Surely such a mega-historic event would reverberate for weeks or months, leaving in its wake no end of consequences, large and small. Wouldn’t it? Shouldn’t it?

Truth to tell, the word historic does get tossed around rather loosely these days. Just about anything that happens at the White House, for example, is deemed historic. Watch the cable news networks and you’ll hear the term employed regularly to describe everything from Oval Office addresses to Rose Garden pronouncements to press conferences in which foreign dignitaries listen passively while their presidential host pontificates about subjects that have nothing to do with them and everything to do with him.

Of course, almost all of these are carefully scripted performances that are devoid of authenticity. In short, they’re fraudulent. The politicians who participate in such performances know that it’s all a sham. So, too, do the reporters and commentators paid to “interpret” the news. So, too, does any semi-attentive, semi-informed citizen.

Yet on it goes, day in, day out, as politicians, journalists, and ordinary folk collaborate in manufacturing, propagating, and consuming a vast panoply of staged incidents, which together comprise what Americans choose to treat as the very stuff of contemporary history. “Pseudo-events” was the term that historian Daniel Boorstin coined to describe them in his classic 1961 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. The accumulation of such incidents creates a make-believe world. As Boorstin put it, they give rise to a “thicket of unreality that stands between us and the facts of life.”

As substitutes for reality, pseudo-events, he claimed, breed “extravagant expectations” that can never be met, with disappointment, confusion, and anger among the inevitable results. Writing decades before the advent of CNN, Fox News, Google, Facebook, and Twitter, Boorstin observed that “we are deceived and obstructed by the very machines we make to enlarge our vision.” So it was back then during the presidency of John F. Kennedy, a master of pseudo-events in the still relatively early days of television. And so our world remains today during the presidency of Donald Trump who achieved high office by unmasking the extravagant post-Cold War/sole superpower/indispensable nation/end of history expectations of the political class, only to weave his own in their place.

As Trump so skillfully demonstrates, even as they deceive, pseudo-events also seduce, inducing what Boorstin referred to as a form of “national self-hypnosis.” With enough wishful thinking, reality becomes entirely optional. So the thousands of Trump loyalists attending MAGA rallies implicitly attest as they count on their hero to make their dreams come true and their nightmares go away.

Yet when it comes to extravagant expectations, few pseudo-events can match the recently completed presidential impeachment and trial. Even before his inauguration, the multitudes who despise Donald Trump longed to see him thrown out of office. To ensure the survival of the Republic, Trump’s removal needed to happen. And when the impeachment process did finally begin to unfold, feverish reporters and commentators could find little else to talk about. With the integrity of the Constitution itself said to be at stake, the enduringly historic significance of each day’s developments appeared self-evident. Or so we were told anyway.

Yet while all parties involved dutifully recited their prescribed lines — no one with greater relish than Donald Trump himself — the final outcome was never in doubt. The Republican Senate was no more likely to convict the president than he was to play golf without cheating. So no sooner did the Senate let Trump off the hook than the fever broke. In an instant, the farcical nature of the entire process became blindingly apparent. Rarely has the gap between hype and actual historical substance been so vast.

The effort to oust the president from office had unleashed a tidal wave of angst, anxiety, anger, and hope. Yet a mere handful of weeks after its conclusion, the impeachment of Donald Trump retains about as much salience as the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, which concluded in 1868.

What does the instantaneous deflation of this ostensibly historic event signify? Among other things, it shows that we still live in the world of pseudo-events that Boorstin described nearly 60 years ago. The American susceptibility to contrived and scripted versions of reality persists, revealing an emptiness at the core of our national politics. Arguably, in our age of social media, that emptiness is greater still. To look past the pseudo-events staged to capture our attention is to confront a void.

Pseudo-events Gone Wrong

Yet in this dismal situation, flickering bits of truth occasionally do appear in moments when pseudo-events inadvertently expose realities they are meant to conceal. Boorstin posited that “pseudo-events produce more pseudo-events.” While that might be broadly correct, let me offer a caveat: given the right conditions, pseudo-events can also be self-subverting, their cumulative absurdity undermining their cumulative authority. Every now and then, in other words, we get the sneaking suspicion that much of what in Washington gets advertised as historic just might be a load of bullshit.

As it happens, the season of Trump’s impeachment offered three encouraging instances of a prominent pseudo-event being exposed as delightfully bogus: the Iowa Caucus, the State of the Union Address, and the National Prayer Breakfast.

According to custom, every four years the Iowa Caucus initiates what is said to be a fair, methodical, and democratic process of selecting the presidential nominees of the two principal political parties. According to custom and in accordance with a constitutional requirement, the State of the Union Address offers presidents an annual opportunity to appear before Congress and the American people to assess the nation’s condition and describe administration plans for the year ahead. Pursuant to a tradition dating from the early years of the Cold War, the National Prayer Breakfast, held annually in Washington, invites members of the political establishment to bear witness to the assertion that we remain a people “under God,” united in all our wondrous diversity by a shared faith in the Almighty.

This year all three went haywire, each in a different way, but together hinting at the vulnerability of other pseudo-events assumed to be fixed and permanent. By offering a peek at previously hidden truths, the trio of usually forgettable events just might merit celebration.

First, on February 3rd, came the long-awaited Iowa Caucus. Commentators grasping for something to write about in advance of caucus night entertained themselves by lamenting the fact that the Hawkeye State is too darn white, implying, in effect, that Iowans aren’t sufficiently American. As it happened, the problem turned out to be not a lack of diversity, but a staggering lack of competence, as the state’s Democratic Party thoroughly botched the one and only event that allows Iowa to claim a modicum of national political significance. To tally caucus results, it employed an ill-tested and deficient smartphone app created by party insiders who were clearly out of their depth.

The result was an epic cockup, a pseudo-event exposed as political burlesque. The people of Iowa had spoken — the people defined in this instance as registered Democrats who bothered to show up — but no one quite knew what they had said. By the time the counting and recounting were over, the results no longer mattered. Iowa was supposed to set in motion an orderly sorting-out process for the party and its candidates. Instead, it sowed confusion and then more confusion. Yet in doing so, the foul-up in Iowa suggested that maybe, just maybe, the entire process of selecting presidential candidates is in need of a complete overhaul, with the present quadrennial circus replaced by an approach that might yield an outcome more expeditiously, while wasting less money and, yes, also taking diversity into account.

Next, on February 4th, came the State of the Union Address. Resplendent with ritual and ceremony, this event certainly deserves an honored place in the pseudo-event Hall of Fame. This year’s performance was no exception. President Trump bragged shamelessly about his administration’s many accomplishments, planted compliant live mannequins in the gallery of the House of Representatives to curry favor with various constituencies — hatemongering radio host Rush Limbaugh received the Medal of Freedom from the First Lady! — even as he otherwise kept pretty much to the model employed by every president since Ronald Reagan. It was, in other words, a pseudo-event par excellence.

The sole revelatory moment came just after Trump finished speaking. In an endearing and entirely salutary gesture, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, standing behind the president, promptly rendered her verdict on the entire occasion. Like a thoroughly miffed schoolteacher rejecting unsatisfactory homework from a delinquent pupil, she tore the text of Trump’s remarks in two. In effect, Pelosi thereby announced that the entire evening had consisted of pure, unadulterated nonsense, as indeed it had and as has every other State of the Union Address in recent memory.

Blessings upon Speaker Pelosi. Next year, we must hope that she will skip the occasion entirely as not worthy of her time. Other members of Congress, preferably from both parties, may then follow her example, finding better things to do. Within a few years, presidents could find themselves speaking in an empty chamber. The networks will then lose interest. At that juncture, the practice that prevailed from the early days of the Republic until the administration of Woodrow Wilson might be restored: every year or so, presidents can simply send a letter to Congress ruminating about the state of the nation, with members choosing to attend to or ignore it as it pleases them. And the nation’s calendar will therefore be purged altogether of one prominent pseudo-event.

The National Prayer Breakfast, which occurred on February 6th, completes our trifecta of recent pseudo-events gone unexpectedly awry. Here the credit belongs entirely to President Trump who used his time at the dais during this nominally religious event as an opportunity to whine about the “terrible ordeal” he had just endured at the hands of “some very dishonest and corrupt people.” Alluding specifically to Pelosi (and perhaps with Mitt Romney also in mind), Trump denounced his critics as hypocrites. “I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong,” he said. “Nor do I like people who say, ‘I pray for you,’ when they know that that’s not so.”

Jesus might have forgiven his tormentors, but Donald Trump, a self-described Christian, is not given to following the Lord’s example. So instead of an occasion for faux displays of brotherly ecumenism, this year’s National Prayer Breakfast became one more exhibition of petty partisanship — relieving the rest of us (and the media) of any further need to pretend that it ever possessed anything approximating a serious religious motivation.

So if only in an ironic sense, the first week of February 2020 did end up qualifying as a genuinely historic occasion. Granted, those who claim the authority to instruct the rest of us on what deserves that encomium missed its true significance. They had wasted no time in moving on to the next pseudo-event, this one in New Hampshire. Yet over the course of a handful of days, Americans had been granted a glimpse of the reality that pseudo-events are designed to camouflage.

A few more such glimpses and something like “the facts of life” to which Boorstin alluded so long ago might become impossible to hide any longer. Imagine: No more bullshit. In these dark and discouraging times, aren’t we at least entitled to such a hope?

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book is The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.

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 2020 Andrew Bacevich



Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Nancy Pelosi: Trump’s Comments At National Prayer Breakfast Were ‘So Inappropriate’ | MSNBC

The Miseries of being a Hyper-Power: How America Squandered its Cold War Victory Wed, 08 Jan 2020 05:01:19 +0000 ( – Thirty years ago this month, President George H.W. Bush appeared before a joint session of Congress to deliver his first State of the Union Address, the first post-Cold War observance of this annual ritual. Just weeks before, the Berlin Wall had fallen. That event, the president declared, “marks the beginning of a new era in the world’s affairs.” The Cold War, that “long twilight struggle” (as President John F. Kennedy so famously described it), had just come to an abrupt end. A new day was dawning. President Bush seized the opportunity to explain just what that dawning signified.

“There are singular moments in history, dates that divide all that goes before from all that comes after,” the president said. The end of World War II had been just such a moment. In the decades that followed, 1945 provided “the common frame of reference, the compass points of the postwar era we’ve relied upon to understand ourselves.” Yet the hopeful developments of the year just concluded — Bush referred to them collectively as “the Revolution of ’89” — had initiated “a new era in the world’s affairs.”

While many things were certain to change, the president felt sure that one element of continuity would persist: the United States would determine history’s onward course. “America, not just the nation but an idea,” he emphasized, is and was sure to remain “alive in the minds of people everywhere.”

“As this new world takes shape, America stands at the center of a widening circle of freedom — today, tomorrow, and into the next century. Our nation is the enduring dream of every immigrant who ever set foot on these shores and the millions still struggling to be free. This nation, this idea called America, was and always will be a new world — our new world.”

Bush had never shown himself to be a particularly original or imaginative thinker. Even so, during a long career in public service, he had at least mastered the art of packaging sentiments deemed appropriate for just about any occasion. The imagery he employed in this instance — America occupying the center of freedom’s widening circle — did not stake out a new claim devised for fresh circumstances. That history centered on what Americans professed or did expressed a hallowed proposition, one with which his listeners were both familiar and comfortable. Indeed, Bush’s description of America as a perpetually self-renewing enterprise engaged in perfecting freedom summarized the essence of the nation’s self-assigned purpose.

In his remarks to Congress, the president was asserting a prerogative that his predecessors had long ago appropriated: interpreting the zeitgeist in such a way as to merge past, present, and future into a seamless, self-congratulatory, and reassuring narrative of American power. He was describing history precisely as Americans — or at least privileged Americans — wished to see it. He was, in other words, speaking a language in which he was fluent: the idiom of the ruling class.

As the year 1990 began, duty — destiny, even — was summoning members of that ruling class to lead not just this country, but the planet itself and not just for a decade or two, or even for an “era,” but forever and a day. In January 1990, the way ahead for the last superpower on planet Earth — the Soviet Union would officially implode in 1991 but its fate already seemed obvious enough — was clear indeed.

So, How’d We Do?

Thirty years later, perhaps it’s time to assess just how well the United States has fulfilled the expectations President Bush articulated in 1990. Personally, I would rate the results somewhere between deeply disappointing and flat-out abysmal.

Bush’s “circle of freedom” invoked a planet divided between the free and the unfree. During the Cold War, this distinction had proven useful even if it was never particularly accurate. Today, it retains no value whatsoever as a description of the actually existing world, even though in Washington it persists, as does the conviction that the U.S. has a unique responsibility to expand that circle.

Encouraged by ambitious politicians and ideologically driven commentators, many (though not all) Americans bought into a militarized, Manichean, vastly oversimplified conception of the Cold War. Having misconstrued its meaning, they misconstrued the implications of its passing, leaving them ill-prepared to see through the claptrap in President Bush’s 1990 State of the Union Address.

Bush depicted the “Revolution of ‘89” as a transformative moment in world history. In fact, the legacy of that moment has proven far more modest than he imagined. As a turning point in the history of the modern world, the end of the Cold War ranks slightly above the invention of the machine gun (1884), but well below the fall of Russia’s Romanov dynasty (1917) or the discovery of penicillin (1928). Among the factors shaping the world in which we now live, the outcome of the Cold War barely registers.

Fairness obliges me to acknowledge two exceptions to that broad claim, one pertaining to Europe and the other to the United States.

First, the end of the Cold War led almost immediately to a Europe made “whole and free” thanks to the collapse of the Soviet empire. Yet while Poles, Lithuanians, the former citizens of the German Democratic Republic, and other Eastern Europeans are certainly better off today than they were under the Kremlin’s boot, Europe itself plays a significantly diminished role in world affairs. In healing its divisions, it shrank, losing political clout. Meanwhile, in very short order, new cleavages erupted in the Balkans, Spain, and even the United Kingdom, with the emergence of a populist right calling into question Europe’s assumed commitment to multicultural liberalism.

In many respects, the Cold War began as an argument over who would determine Europe’s destiny. In 1989, our side won that argument. Yet, by then, the payoff to which the United States laid claim had largely been depleted. Europe’s traditional great powers were no longer especially great. After several centuries in which global politics had centered on that continent, Europe had suddenly slipped to the periphery. In practice, “whole and free” turned out to mean “preoccupied and anemic,” with Europeans now engaging in their own acts of folly. Three decades after the “Revolution of ’89,” Europe remains an attractive tourist destination. Yet, from a geopolitical perspective, the action has long since moved elsewhere.

The second exception to the Cold War’s less than momentous results relates to U.S. attitudes toward military power. For the first time in its history, the onset of the Cold War had prompted the United States to create and maintain a powerful peacetime military establishment. The principal mission of that military was to defend, deter, and contain. While it would fight bitter wars in Korea and Vietnam, its advertised aim was to avert armed conflicts or, at least, keep them from getting out of hand. In that spirit, the billboard at the entrance to the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command, the Pentagon’s principal Cold War nuclear strike force (which possessed the means to extinguish humankind), reassuringly announced that “peace is our profession.”

When the Cold War ended, however, despite the absence of any real threats to U.S. security, Washington policymakers decided to maintain the mightiest armed forces on the planet in perpetuity. Negligible debate preceded this decision, which even today remains minimally controversial. That the United States should retain military capabilities far greater than those of any other nation or even combination of numerous other nations seemed eminently sensible.

In appearance or configuration, the post-Cold War military differed little from what it had looked like between the 1950s and 1989. Yet the armed forces of the United States now took on a radically different, far more ambitious mission: to impose order and spread American values globally, while eliminating obstacles deemed to impede those efforts. During the Cold War, policymakers had placed a premium on holding U.S. forces in readiness. Now, the idea was to put “the troops” to work. Power projection became the name of the game.

Just a month prior to his State of the Union Address, President Bush himself had given this approach a test run, ordering U.S. forces to intervene in Panama, overthrow the existing government there, and install in its place one expected to be more compliant. The president now neatly summarized the outcome of that action in three crisp sentences. “One year ago,” he announced, “the people of Panama lived in fear, under the thumb of a dictator. Today democracy is restored; Panama is free. Operation Just Cause has achieved its objective.”

Mission accomplished: end of story. Here, it seemed, was a template for further application globally.

As it happened, however, Operation Just Cause proved to be the exception rather than the rule. Intervention in Panama did inaugurate a period of unprecedented American military activism. In the years that followed, U.S. forces invaded, occupied, bombed, or raided an astonishing array of countries. Rarely, however, was the outcome as tidy as it had been in Panama, where the fighting lasted a mere five days. Untidy and protracted conflicts proved more typical of the post-Cold War U.S. experience, with the Afghanistan War, a futile undertaking now in its 19th year, a notable example. The present-day U.S. military qualifies by any measure as highly professional, much more so than its Cold War predecessor. Yet the purpose of today’s professionals is not to preserve peace but to fight unending wars in distant places.

Intoxicated by a post-Cold War belief in its own omnipotence, the United States allowed itself to be drawn into a long series of armed conflicts, almost all of them yielding unintended consequences and imposing greater than anticipated costs. Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. forces have destroyed many targets and killed many people. Only rarely, however, have they succeeded in accomplishing their assigned political purposes. From a military perspective — except perhaps in the eyes of the military-industrial complex — the legacy of the “Revolution of ‘89” turned out to be almost entirely negative.

A Broken Compass

So, contrary to President Bush’s prediction, the fall of the Berlin Wall did not inaugurate a “new era in world affairs” governed by “this idea called America.” It did, however, accelerate Europe’s drift toward geopolitical insignificance and induced in Washington a sharp turn toward reckless militarism — neither of which qualifies as cause for celebration.

Yet today, 30 years after Bush’s 1990 State of the Union, a “new era of world affairs” is indeed upon us, even if it bears scant resemblance to the order Bush expectedto emerge. If his “idea called America” did not shape the contours of this new age, then what has?

Answer: all the things post-Cold War Washington policy elites misunderstood or relegated to the status of afterthought. Here are three examples of key factors that actuallyshaped the present era. Notably, each had its point of origin prior to the end of the Cold War. Each came to maturity while U.S. policymakers, hypnotized by the “Revolution of ’89,” were busily trying to reap the benefits they fancied to be this country’s for the taking. Each far surpasses in significance the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The “Rise” of China: The China that we know today emerged from reforms instituted by Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping, which transformed the People’s Republic into an economic powerhouse. No nation in history, including the United States, has ever come close to matching China’s spectacular ascent. In just three decades, its per capita gross domestic product skyrocketed from $156 in 1978 to $9,771 in 2017.

The post-Cold War assumption common among American elites that economic development would necessarily prompt political liberalization turned out to be wishful thinking. In Beijing today, the Communist Party remains firmly in control. Meanwhile, as illustrated by its “Belt and Road” initiative, China has begun to assert itself globally, while simultaneously enhancing the capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army. In all of this, the United States — apart from borrowing from China to pay for an abundance of its imported products (now well over a half-trillion dollars of them annually) — has figured as little more than a bystander. As China radically alters the balance of power in twenty-first-century East Asia, the outcome of the Cold War has no more relevance than does Napoleon’s late-eighteenth-century expedition to Egypt.

A Resurgence of Religious Extremism: Like the poor, religious fanatics will always be with us. They come in all stripes: Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims. Yet implicit in the American idea that lay at the heart of Bush’s State of the Union Address was an expectation of modernity removing religion from politics. That the global advance of secularization would lead to the privatization of faith was accepted as a given in elite circles. After all, the end of the Cold War ostensibly left little to fight about. With the collapse of communism and the triumph of democratic capitalism, all the really big questions had been settled. That religiously inspired political violence would become a crucial factor in global politics therefore seemed inconceivable.

Yet a full decade before the “Revolution of ’89,” events were already shredding that expectation. In November 1979, radical Islamists shocked the House of Saud by seizing the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Although local security forces regained control after a bloody gun battle, the Saudi royal family resolved to prevent any recurrence of such a disaster by demonstrating beyond the shadow of a doubt its own fealty to the teachings of Allah. It did so by expending staggering sums throughout the Ummah to promote a puritanical form of Islam known as Wahhabism.

In effect, Saudi Arabia became the principal underwriter of what would morph into Islamist terror. For Osama bin Laden and his militant followers, the American idea to which President Bush paid tribute that January in 1990 was blasphemous, intolerable, and a justification for war. Lulled by a belief that the end of the Cold War had yielded a definitive victory, the entire U.S. national security apparatus would be caught unawares in September 2001 when religious warriors assaulted New York and Washington. Nor was the political establishment prepared for the appearance of violence perpetrated by domestic religious extremists. During the Cold War, it had become fashionable to declare God dead. That verdict turned out to be premature.

The Assault on Nature: From its inception, the American idea so lavishly praised by President Bush in 1990 had allowed, even fostered, the exploitation of the natural world based on a belief in Planet Earth’s infinite capacity to absorb punishment. During the Cold War, critics like Rachel Carson, author of the pioneering environmental book Silent Spring, had warned against just such an assumption. While their warnings received respectful hearings, they elicited only modest corrective action.

Then, in 1988, a year prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, in testimony before Congress, NASA scientist James Hansen issued a far more alarming warning: human activity, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, was inducing profound changes in the global climate with potentially catastrophic consequences. (Of course, a prestigious scientific advisory committee had offered just such a warning to President Lyndon Johnson more than two decades earlier, predicting the early twenty-first-century effects of climate change, to no effect whatsoever.)

To put it mildly, President Bush and other members of the political establishment did not welcome Hansen’s analysis. After all, to take him seriously meant admitting to the necessity of modifying a way of life centered on self-indulgence, rather than self-restraint. At some level, perpetuating the American penchant for material consumption and personal mobility had described the ultimate purpose of the Cold War. Bush could no more tell Americans to settle for less than he could imagine a world order in which the United States no longer occupied “the center of a widening circle of freedom.”

Some things were sacrosanct. As he put it on another occasion, “The American way of life is not up for negotiations. Period.”

So while President Bush was not an outright climate-change denier, he temporized. Talk took precedence over action. He thereby set a pattern to which his successors would adhere, at least until the Trump years. To thwart communism during the Cold War, Americans might have been willing to “pay any price, bear any burden.” Not so when it came to climate change. The Cold War itself had seemingly exhausted the nation’s capacity for collective sacrifice. So, on several fronts, the assault on nature continues and is even gaining greater momentum.

In sum, from our present vantage point, it becomes apparent that the “Revolution of ‘89” did not initiate a new era of history. At most, the events of that year fostered various unhelpful illusions that impeded our capacity to recognize and respond to the forces of change that actually matter.

Restoring the American compass to working order won’t occur until we recognize those illusions for what they are. Step one might be to revise what “this idea called America” truly signifies.

Andrew Bacevich, aTomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute of Responsible Statecraft. His new book The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory has just been published.

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 2020 Andrew Bacevich


Featured Photo: “President George W. Bush and King Abdullah bin Abdul Al-Aziz walk the red carpet at Riyadh-King Khaled International Airport after the President arrived Monday, Jan. 14, 2008, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on the final stop of his Mideast visit. White House photo by Eric Draper

Too Inept to end the fruitless US Forever Wars: Trump v. the National Security State Fri, 01 Nov 2019 04:02:34 +0000 ( – Let us stipulate at the outset that Donald Trump is a vulgar and dishonest fraud without a principled bone in his corpulent frame. Yet history is nothing if not a tale overflowing with irony. Despite his massive shortcomings, President Trump appears intent on recalibrating America’s role in the world. Initiating a long-overdue process of aligning U.S. policy with actually existing global conditions just may prove to be his providentially anointed function. Go figure.

The Valhalla of the Indispensable Nation is a capacious place, even if it celebrates mostly white and mostly male diversity. Recall that in the eighteenth century, it was a slaveholding planter from Virginia who secured American independence. In the nineteenth, an ambitious homespun lawyer from Illinois destroyed slavery, thereby clearing the way for his country to become a capitalist behemoth. In the middle third of the twentieth century, a crippled Hudson River grandee delivered the United States to the summit of global power. In that century’s difficult later decades, a washed-up movie actor declared that it was “morning in America” and so, however briefly, it seemed to be. Now, in the twenty-first century, to inaugurate the next phase of the American story, history has seemingly designated as its agent a New York real estate developer, casino bankruptee, and reality TV star.

In all likelihood, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan would balk at having Donald Trump classified as their peer. Yet, however preposterously, in our present moment of considerable crisis, he has succeeded them as the nation’s Great Helmsman, albeit one with few ideas about what course to set. Yet somehow Trump has concluded that our existing course has the United States headed toward the rocks. He just might be right.

“Great nations do not fight endless wars.” So the president announced in his 2019 State of the Union Address. Implicit in such a seemingly innocuous statement was a genuinely radical proposition, as laden with portent as Lincoln’s declaration in 1858 that a house divided cannot stand. Donald Trump appears determined to overturn the prevailing national security paradigm, even if he is largely clueless about what should replace it.

Much as Southerners correctly discerned the import of Lincoln’s veiled threat, so, too, have Trump’s many critics within the national security apparatus grasped the implications of his insistence that “endless wars” must indeed end. In the unlikely event that he ever delivers on his campaign promise to end the conflicts he inherited, all the claims, assumptions, and practices that together define the U.S. national security praxis will become subject to reexamination. Tug hard enough on this one dangling thread — the wars that drag on and on — and the entire fabric may well unravel.

The Decalogue Plus One

In other words, to acknowledge the folly of this country’s endless wars will necessarily call into question the habits that people in and around Washington see as the essence of “American global leadership.” Prominent among these are: (1) positioning U.S. forces in hundreds of bases abroad; (2) partitioning the whole planet into several contiguous regional military commands; (3) conferring security guarantees on dozens of nations, regardless of their ability to defend themselves or the values to which they subscribe; (4) maintaining the capability to project power to the remotest corners of the earth; (5) keeping in instant readiness a “triad” of nuclear strike forces; (6) endlessly searching for “breakthrough technologies” that will eliminate war’s inherent risks and uncertainties; (7) unquestioningly absorbing the costs of maintaining a sprawling national security bureaucracy; (8) turning a blind eye to the corrupting influence of the military-industrial complex; and easily outpacing all other nations, friend and foe alike, in (9) weapons sales and (10) overall military spending.

Complementing this Decalogue, inscribed not on two tablets but in thousands of pages of stupefyingly bureaucratic prose, is an unwritten eleventh commandment: Thou shalt not prevent the commander-in-chief from doing what he deems necessary. Call it all D+1. In theory, the Constitution endows Congress with the authority to prevent any president from initiating, prolonging, or expanding a war. In practice, Congress has habitually deferred to an increasingly imperial presidency and treated the war-powers provisions of the Constitution as non-binding.

This Decalogue-plus-one has been with us for decades. It first emerged during the early phases of the Cold War. Its godfathers included such distinguished (if today largely forgotten) figures as Paul Nitze, principal author of a famously unhinged policy paper known as NSC-68, and General Curtis LeMay, who transformed the Strategic Air Command into a “cocked weapon” capable of obliterating humankind.

During the 1960s, better-dead-than-Red began to fall from favor and a doctrine of “flexible response” became all the rage. In those years, as an approach to waging, and therefore perpetuating the Cold War, D+1 achieved maturity. At that very juncture, the search for fresh thinking to justify existing policies vaulted the likes of Robert McNamara and Maxwell Taylor into positions of authority as secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Vietnam War put the American military establishment’s capacity for flexibility to the test. That test did not go well, with Secretary McNamara and General Taylor prominent among the officials whose reputations did not survive. Remarkably, however, amid the carnage of that war, D+1 did survive all but unscathed. Vietnam was surely a debacle, but as long as the Cold War persisted, asking first-order questions about the basic organization of “national security” appeared just too risky. So the Decalogue emerged with hardly a scratch. Notwithstanding the disappointing presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, so, too, did the Eleventh Commandment.

More striking still, even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, D+1 persisted. Thirty years ago this month when the Cold War ended, everyone agreed that a new era of global affairs was dawning. The Soviet Union, the threat that had prompted the creation of the Decalogue, had vanished. Yet without missing a beat, a new generation of Nitzes and LeMays, McNamaras and Taylors devised an altogether different rationale for preserving their predecessors’ handiwork.

That new rationale was nothing if not expansive. During the Cold War, the overarching purpose of D+1 had been to avert the ultimate disaster of Armageddon. Its revised purpose was to promote the ultimate goal of remaking the world in America’s image. With a “sole superpower” now presiding over the international order, D+1 offered a recipe for simultaneously cementing permanent U.S. primacy and securing the universal triumph of American values. So, at least, members of an intoxicated foreign policy elite persuaded themselves.

Yet in the wake of the Cold War came not peace and harmony but unprecedented U.S. military activism. Here was the common theme of the otherwise disparate presidencies of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. During the quarter-century that elapsed between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the election of Donald Trump, the United States intervened in or attacked Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Sudan, Afghanistan (again), Iraq (again), Libya, Somalia (again), Yemen, Syria, several West African nations, and, briefly, Pakistan. And given a presidential preference for employing Special Operations forces on highly classified missions, that list is almost surely incomplete. Simply put, reticence regarding the use of force vanished.

As for the Eleventh Commandment, it now achieved a status comparable to the doctrine of papal infallibility. After 9/11, Congress quickly passed an open-ended Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), empowering the president “to take action to deter and prevent acts of international terrorism against the United States.” Of course, “terrorism,” as we are frequently reminded by the likes of Benjamin Netanyahu, Vladimir Putin, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan is very much in the eyes of the beholder. In effect, Congress had simply handed the commander-in-chief a blank check.

That AUMF became law on September 18, 2001, following a unanimous vote in the Senate and with only a single member dissenting in the House of Representatives. In the 18 years since, it has shown both remarkable durability and elasticity. Best illustrating its durability have been the wars launched under its auspices. Best illustrating its elasticity was Barack Obama’s “disposition matrix,” a secret procedure devised by his administration empowering him to order the killing of just about anyone anywhere on the planet deemed to pose a threat to the United States. All of this transpired with the cool deliberation and thorough consultation that was an Obama signature. Acting pursuant to the provisions of that AUMF, in other words, Obama codified assassination as an integral component of U.S. policy. In Washington, war thereby became a permanent undertaking that recognized no boundaries.

In or Out? Old or New?

Read the papers or watch cable news and you might conclude that the pivotal issue of our moment is the fate of Syria’s Kurds, with the United States military deemed uniquely responsible for ensuring their wellbeing. Yet while such a conclusion may play well with our troubled consciences — and troubled they certainly should be — it is radically misleading.

True enough, Trump’s abrupt abandonment of the Kurds qualifies as cruel, callous, and immoral. It also ranks as only the latest in a long string of such American betrayals, as various Native American tribes, Chinese Nationalists, Cuban exiles, South Vietnamese, and prior generations of Kurds (among others) can testify. So Trump has not exactly broken with past precedent.

More to the point, the matter at hand relates less to the Kurds than to a far larger question: Should the United States perpetuate the military enterprise commonly but misleadingly referred to as the “global war on terrorism?” Or should the United States recognize that this so-called GWOT has failed and consider a different approach to policy? Given that the GWOT represents D+1 applied to the Greater Middle East, “different” implies a wholesale reexamination of basic national security policy. It’s that prospect that worries the foreign policy establishment.

With the GWOT’s 20th anniversary now within hailing distance, we are in a position to evaluate just what that war has actually achieved. Honest differences of opinion may be possible, but in my judgment the results rank somewhere between disappointing and catastrophic. This much is certain: we have not won and victory is nowhere in sight.

Granted, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein is gone, as is Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, both of them guilty of terrible crimes (although innocent of any direct involvement in 9/11). For the moment at least, the repressive Taliban do not rule in Kabul. And Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are dead. Proponents of the GWOT and of D+1 can point to these as positive achievements.

Yet widen the aperture slightly and the outcome appears less impressive. George W. Bush’s much-ballyhooed Freedom Agenda came to naught. Regime change in Kabul, Baghdad, and Tripoli produced not liberal democracy but chronic instability, pervasive corruption, and endemic violence. In Afghanistan, the Taliban never admitted defeat and today threaten the Western-installed Afghan government. Rather than affirming American military mastery and benign intentions, the reckless and illegal invasion of Iraq, advertised under the banner of Operation Iraqi Freedom, became a gift to our adversaries. If anyone can be said to have won the Iraq War, that honor must surely belong to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Worse still, by upending the existing regional order, U.S. forces created a power vacuum that facilitated the emergence of new terrorist movements like ISIS.

America’s ongoing post-9/11 wars deserve to be called “endless” because, despite contributing to hundreds of thousands of deaths and squandering trillions of dollars over the course of many years, the United States has come nowhere close to fulfilling its declared political aims. The plight of the Kurds in Syria offers a small but telling illustration of the magnitude of that failure.

Now the president of the United States, acting pursuant to the authority granted him by the Eleventh Commandment, says he wants to call it quits. It’s like Adam in the Garden of Eden: the one thing he’s forbidden to do, he does — or in Trump’s case makes a show of intending to do at least.

In response, in a show of near-unanimity Democratic and Republican defenders of the Decalogue Plus One insist that President Trump may not do what he declares himself intent on doing. Recall that George W. Bush’s doctrine of preventive war — sometimes disguised as “anticipatory self-defense” — elicited only modest opposition at best, largely along partisan lines. Much the same can be said of Barack Obama’s self-appointment as assassin-in-chief. But Donald Trump’s declared intention to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria as a preliminary step toward reducing our regional military presence has elicited bipartisan condemnation expressed in the strongest terms.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, typically the president’s most stalwart defender, took to the pages of the Washington Post to denounce Trump’s decision in no uncertain terms. Riddled with half-truths and hyperbole, his op-ed qualifies as a model of “fake news.” Yet credit McConnell with this much: he understands that, in the dispute between Trump and the foreign policy establishment, the fate of Syria’s Kurds rates as no more than incidental.

The real issue, according to McConnell, is preserving “the post-World War II international system” that, he asserts, “has sustained an unprecedented era of peace, prosperity, and technological development.” Furthermore, having created that system, the United States remains “its indispensable nation,” a phrase introduced by Madeleine Albright and Bill Clinton in the early 1990s. Preserving that system’s benefits requires keeping faith with the Kurds, maintaining the U.S. military presence throughout the Middle East, and above all preserving the established framework of national security policy. In short, compliance with the Decalogue is mandatory. Even (or especially) presidents must obey.

Now, if you believe that the world we live in today does not differ in any significant way from the one that existed in the wake of World War II, McConnell’s argument might just possess some merit. Yet back then, the American economy led the pack in every conceivable measure. America’s European allies had been ravaged by war and desperately needed U.S. assistance. Both they and the defeated Axis powers, Germany and Japan, appeared vulnerable to the siren song of Communism.

To some observers, the Soviet Union appeared intent on taking over the world. China was poor, weak, backward, and divided. Imperial powers like Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands still clung to the illusion that they could keep a lid on demands for national self-determination in South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Nuclear weapons offered a source of reassurance rather than concern — apart from the United States no one had them. Finally, that a climate crisis attributable to human activity might one day cause grievous harm on a planetary scale was literally beyond imagining.

Time has rendered every bit of this inoperative. McConnell’s “post-World War II international system” is now a fantasy about as relevant to contemporary reality as belief in the tooth fairy.

In what may be the sole redeeming feature of his otherwise abysmal presidency, Trump appears determined to blow the whistle on this charade. Sadly, his efforts do not extend much beyond making noise. Even the troop withdrawals that he announces with such fanfare tend to result in little more than repositioning within the region rather than redeployment back to the United States. Worse still, the motly band of mediocrities who surround the president consists almost entirely of believers in D+1. In his impulsive and ignorant way, Trump wants change; they oppose it.

As a result, diplomatic initiatives that might actually open a pathway to ending endless wars — negotiating the restoration of normal diplomatic relations with Tehran, for example, or curtailing weapons sales (and giveaways) to nations that use U.S.-manufactured arms to create mayhem, or demonstrating leadership by declaring a no-first-use policy on nuclear weapons — don’t even qualify for discussion. So Trump is left to flail about on his own, haplessly posing legitimate questions that he is incapable of answering.

The fears of the Decalogue’s defenders are not misplaced: Syria is the loose tip of a dangling thread. Give that thread a good yank and the entire moth-eaten fabric of U.S. national security policy just might become undone. Yet it will take someone with greater determination, consistency, and strength of character than Donald Trump to perform this necessary task.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His newest book The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory will be published in January.

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 Andrew Bacevich



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