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Making Sense of the Deportation Debate

 Border Patrol
Photo by AdobeStock/sherryvsmith

This piece is reprinted with permission by TomDispatch.

Ever since he rode a Trump Tower escalator into the presidential race in June 2015 and swore to build his “great wall” and stop Mexican “rapists” from entering the country, undocumented immigrants have been the focus of Donald Trump’s ire. Now that he’s in the Oval Office, the news has been grim. A drumbeat of frightening headlines and panicked social media posts have highlighted his incendiary language, his plans and executive orders when it comes to immigrants, and the early acts of the Border Patrol and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents when it comes to round-ups and deportations. The temperature has soared on the deportation debate, so if you think we’re in a completely unprecedented moment when it comes to immigration and immigrants, you’re in good company.

Trump has repeatedly claimed that immigrants, especially undocumented ones, are flooding the United States, causing crime waves, and depleting social service budgets.  Never mind that the number of such immigrants has been in steady decline since 2008, that immigrant crime rates are lower than citizen crime rates, that the undocumented have no access to most social welfare programs, and that crime figures, too, have generally been on the decline in recent years.

The media has played its own role in fanning the flames.  Since Donald Trump entered the Oval Office, news reports have proliferated about rising raids, arrests, detentions, and deportations.  These suggest that something new, terrifying, and distinctly Trumpian -- something we’ve simply never seen before -- is underway, including mass sweeps to deport individuals who would have been protected under the previous administration.

The numbers tell a different story.  A Washington Post scare headline typically read: “ICE Immigration Arrests of Noncriminals Double Under Trump.”  While accurate, it was nonetheless misleading.  Non-criminal immigration arrests did indeed jump from 2,500 in the first three months of 2016 to 5,500 during the same period in 2017, while criminal arrests also rose, bringing the total to 21,000.  Only 16,000 were arrested during the same months in 2016.  The article, however, ignores the fact that 2016 was the all-time low year for arrests under President Obama.  In the first three months of 2014, for example, 29,000 were arrested, far more than Trump’s three-month “record.” 

And even though arrests went up during Trump’s first three months in office, deportations actually went down, mostly due to the fact that the number of immigrants crossing the border declined.

To those who have been following deportation politics in this country, Trump’s policies, as they are now unfolding, have an eerie resonance.  They seem to be growing directly out of policies first instituted in the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.  True, President Obama liked to talk about “our tradition of welcoming immigrants,” while our new president has tossed such liberal humanitarian rhetoric in the garbage can, instead playing up a harsh nativism.  Still, the fact is that two Democratic presidents laid the groundwork for Trump’s developing policies.

It was, after all, President Clinton who oversaw the draconian “Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act” of 1996.  It drastically increased all levels of immigration “enforcement,” expanding the Border Patrol, criminalizing numerous types of low-level immigration violations, and facilitating and expanding deportation procedures.  (A similar emphasis on casting blame on individuals for structural and systemic problems was also at the heart of Clinton’s welfare reform of that same year.)

In many ways, Donald Trump is only reiterating, with more bombast, ideas and policies pioneered under Clinton, that then became a basic part of Barack Obama’s approach to immigration. Those policies drew directly on racist tough-on-crime and anti-terrorism police tactics that also helped foment white racial fears.

Anecdotally speaking, there have already been numerous cases of detention and deportation that appear to go far beyond what was occurring in the Obama years.  But a closer look at those cases and at the numbers suggests surprisingly more continuity than change.  Both the mainstream media and social media have highlighted what appear to be extreme cases of the arrest of DACA (“deferred action for childhood arrivals”) youth, also known as “Dreamers,” as well as of individuals appearing for routine check-ins with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, or other arbitrary detentions and deportations.  Most of these cases, however, have been far more in line with Obama-era policies than readers of such news might imagine.  Then, too, “low-priority immigrants” were swept up surprisingly often in what the New York Times in 2014 called “the net of deportation.”

Obama’s Legacy: A Three-Part System

At first glance, President Obama’s legacy on immigration enforcement appears contradictory indeed.  He claimed to be a humanitarian who sought to deport only “felons, not families,” while granting relief from deportation to hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants.  At the same time, he was dubbed the “deporter-in-chief” for a reason.  He oversaw historic rises in deportation rates.

To grasp the contradictory nature of his policies, it’s necessary to explore three geographically different policy realms when it comes to the undocumented: interior enforcement, border enforcement, and the Mexican Southern Border Program.  In the area of interior enforcement, Obama created several protection and priority programs for undocumented immigrants already in the country that did indeed shield whole groups of people from deportation.  Immigrant rights supporters who emphasize the humanitarian nature of what Obama did focus on such protections, while downplaying the two border prongs of his policies.  Yet, though not much attended to, even the humanitarian programs incorporated a darker side, criminalizing and targeting those not eligible for them. 

When it came to interior enforcement, President Obama called on ICE to exercise “prosecutorial discretion.”  Immigrants who were parents, students, hard-working, had close family and community ties, or served in the military, he suggested, should be granted relief from deportation. 

In the process, however, he offered a language of innocence versus criminality and the illusion that, when it came to immigrants, the notion of criminality was self-evident and universally agreed upon.  By dividing them into felons versus families, he actually contributed to the criminalization of large groups of immigrants and so fed directly into Trump’s future rhetoric.  He also drew on Bill Clinton’s “tough on crime” policies in ways that linked the criminalization of people of color with the deportation of “criminal” immigrants (also overwhelmingly people of color).

As immigration scholars Alan Aja and Alejandra Marchevsky explain:

“The criminalization of immigrants in part resulted from more aggressive policing of communities of color. In the 1980s and '90s, law enforcement agencies across the nation implemented broken windows and stop-and-frisk strategies, claiming that mass arrests for low-level offenses would prevent more serious crime. As the immigrants who lived in these communities fell victim to racialized policing and mass incarceration, the federal government’s rosters of the criminal immigrant exploded.”

Once criminalized, they then fell into a separate-and-unequal immigration enforcement system in which due process was eliminated and deportation, the ultimate draconian penalty, could be implemented regardless of the seriousness of the “crime.”  Worse yet, the ever harsher over-policing of communities of color and the expansion of mass incarceration produced, Aja and Marchevsky point out, “a reservoir of immigrants with criminal records, creating an endless chain of detentions and deportations.”

As Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, has made strikingly clear, all of this -- the redefinition of minor crimes as felonies, the increasing pressure on those charged to plea bargain, and measures that then excluded felons from public housing, employment, welfare rolls, voting booths, and other aspects of society -- relegated a significant number of black men to a permanent underclass. Undocumented immigrants were also caught in this web, with some special twists.

In the wake of Clinton’s 1996 immigration law, for instance, convictions of just about any sort, including the most minor crimes, became grounds for deportation -- even retroactively.  So a long-ago violation that resulted in probation and community service, or a small fine, now became evidence of an immigrant’s “criminal” status from which deportation naturally followed.

And there was another new catch-22 category as well: so-called immigration crimes. Those with a record of illegal reentry and those who engaged in what was termed “immigration fraud” were automatically re-categorized as “criminals” under President Obama’s priority enforcement policy.  “Illegal reentry” is, in fact, the most curious of crimes, since it distinguishes between those who succeed in entering the country without inspection on their first try and those who are caught and only succeed on a subsequent try.  “Immigration fraud,” a broad category, includes common practices like using a false social security number in order to work.

Obama’s interior deportation scheme relied heavily on this expansive notion of the criminality of the undocumented, who might otherwise have qualified as people trying to get by as best they could.  Now, President Trump is extending that criminalization further by ruling that anybody convicted of, charged with, or even suspected of a crime constitutes a priority for deportation.  In the process, he’s expanded the concept of the “criminal” even as he’s built directly on the Clinton-Obama legacy.

At the Border and Beyond

What earned President Obama the moniker of “deporter-in-chief,” however, was his policy towards border enforcement, since it was there that the number of deportees rose most sharply.  This was in part because he prioritized “recent border crossers” for deportation; everyone, that is, who had crossed without authorization, which essentially meant everyone apprehended in the border region, was now criminalized.  Under previous administrations, most of those caught there had been granted what was called “voluntary departure.”  In other words, they were returned to the Mexican side of the border without legal sanction.  During the Clinton and Bush administrations, more than a million people a year were returned to Mexico in this manner without being transformed into criminals and so were not included in the usual deportation figures.

In the Obama years, those apprehended at the border began to be formally charged and fingerprinted before being issued a deportation order.  In this way, they were redefined as “criminals,” and if they were caught attempting a second border crossing, as criminal “repeat immigration offenders.”  It also meant that formal deportations began to skyrocket, although the numbers crossing the border, those apprehended at the border, and those sent back to Mexico were all beginning to fall.

Soon enough, immigration crimes came to rival drug crimes in the federal court system.  Obama became the deporter-in-chief not because he deported more people than previous administrations, but because he criminalized more of those he deported. This, then, was how he managed to protect many from deportation, while also racking up deportation statistics far beyond those of his predecessors.  In fact, the situations of many of those caught at the border proved remarkably similar to those being granted prosecutorial discretion in the interior.  They had family, including children, in the United States, or jobs and strong community ties, or had lived in the country for years.  Because they had left and tried to return, however, they were redefined as criminals. 

Finally, one aspect of immigration enforcement under the Obama administration generally goes unmentioned: the president’s role in pressuring Mexico into collaborating by arresting and deporting Central Americans heading north (including families and unaccompanied children) before they reached the border with the United States.  In 2014, under growing pressure from Washington, the Mexican government implemented the Southern Border Program.  While U.S. law was being repeatedly updated to provide humanitarian treatment to families and children apprehended at the border, when the Mexicans got to them first, they simply deported them.

In 2014, only 3% of the minors apprehended in the U.S. were deported; in Mexico, the figure was 77%, or 18,269.  As one report summed up the situation: “The United States is outsourcing its border enforcement to Mexico.”  As in the United States, so Mexico’s increasing militarization and repression on its southern border did not actually slow the flow of migrants. It merely made the voyage far more dangerous, while giving ever more power to smugglers and gangs that now prey upon Central American migrants desperately trying to evade Mexican border controls.

Immigrants, Criminalization, and the Labor Market

Long before Donald Trump entered the Oval Office, this “tough on crime” approach to immigration fit into a broader pattern of the criminalization of people of color that fed the prison-industrial complex, made the U.S. the globe’s leading incarcerator, and encouraged the proliferation of private prisons.  It helped justify the increasing militarization of the police in those years and the over-policing of communities of color.  It also fed a national sense of insecurity that contributed to political passivity, disempowerment, and the kind of nativism that Trump has thrived on.

Criminalization plays a role as well in the country’s growing economic inequality.  It justifies both high rates of unemployment and low wages among people of color, while warehousing those whose labor has become superfluous. And it plays a particular role when it comes to immigrants and the labor market.

Immigrants actually experience significantly higher labor force participation and lower unemployment rates than the native-born, making them an exception among people of color.  However, they earn less ($681 week) than do native-born workers ($837 a week), according to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures for 2015.  For employers in recent years, the criminalization of the already unstable status of immigrants (and their inability generally to access social services), makes them a uniquely exploitable and so desirable work force.  They tend to be hired to do jobs so dismal, arduous, or dangerous that they fail to attract native-born workers.  Anthropologist Nicholas de Genova has suggested that the very “deportability” of undocumented immigrants makes them desirable to such employers.

Meanwhile, the criminalization of people of color and of immigrants in particular lent a distinct helping hand to Donald Trump in his campaign for president, even as it helped the prison-industrial complex and the police justify ever-increasing budgets and employment.

The Trump administration’s multipronged approach to immigration relies on and promotes the criminalization of immigrants.  Whether halting the entry of refugees or persons with visas from particular countries, hiring thousands of new ICE and Border Patrol agents, promising to build a “great, great wall,” denying federal money to sanctuary cities, or publishing lists of crimes committed by immigrants, Trump’s immigration policies follow in the footsteps but also intensify those of his predecessors and continue to create fear, justify exploitation, and rationalize authoritarianism.

Aviva Chomsky is professor of history and coordinator of Latin American studies at Salem State University in Massachusetts and a TomDispatch regular. Her most recent book is Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, as well as John Feffer's dystopian novel Splinterlands, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt's Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2017 Aviva Chomsky

Forbidden Questions?

Washington DC
Photo by AdobeStock/Celso Diniz

This piece is reprinted with permission by TomDispatch.

Donald Trump's election has elicited impassioned affirmations of a renewed commitment to unvarnished truth-telling from the prestige media.  The common theme:  you know you can’t trust him, but trust us to keep dogging him on your behalf.  The New York Times has even unveiled a portentous new promotional slogan: “The truth is now more important than ever.” For its part, the Washington Post grimly warns that “democracy dies in darkness,” and is offering itself as a source of illumination now that the rotund figure of the 45th president has produced the political equivalent of a total eclipse of the sun. Meanwhile, National Public Radio fundraising campaigns are sounding an increasingly panicky note: give, listener, lest you be personally responsible for the demise of the Republic that we are bravely fighting to save from extinction.

If only it were so.  How wonderful it would be if President Trump’s ascendancy had coincided with a revival of hard-hitting, deep-dive, no-holds-barred American journalism.  Alas, that’s hardly the case.  True, the big media outlets are demonstrating both energy and enterprise in exposing the ineptitude, inconsistency, and dubious ethical standards, as well as outright lies and fake news, that are already emerging as Trump era signatures.  That said, pointing out that the president has (again) uttered a falsehood, claimed credit for a nonexistent achievement, or abandoned some position to which he had previously sworn fealty requires something less than the sleuthing talents of a Sherlock Holmes.  As for beating up on poor Sean Spicer for his latest sequence of gaffes — well, that’s more akin to sadism than reporting.

Apart from a commendable determination to discomfit Trump and members of his inner circle (select military figures excepted, at least for now), journalism remains pretty much what it was prior to November 8th of last year: personalities built up only to be torn down; fads and novelties discovered, celebrated, then mocked; “extraordinary” stories of ordinary people granted 15 seconds of fame only to once again be consigned to oblivion — all served with a side dish of that day’s quota of suffering, devastation, and carnage.  These remain journalism’s stock-in-trade.  As practiced in the United States, with certain honorable (and hence unprofitable) exceptions, journalism remains superficial, voyeuristic, and governed by the attention span of a two year old.

As a result, all those editors, reporters, columnists, and talking heads who characterize their labors as “now more important than ever” ill-serve the public they profess to inform and enlighten.  Rather than clearing the air, they befog it further.  If anything, the media’s current obsession with Donald Trump — his every utterance or tweet treated as “breaking news!” — just provides one additional excuse for highlighting trivia, while slighting issues that deserve far more attention than they currently receive. 

To illustrate the point, let me cite some examples of national security issues that presently receive short shrift or are ignored altogether by those parts of the Fourth Estate said to help set the nation’s political agenda. To put it another way: Hey, Big Media, here are two dozen matters to which you’re not giving faintly adequate thought and attention.

1. Accomplishing the “mission”: Since the immediate aftermath of World War II, the United States has been committed to defending key allies in Europe and East Asia.  Not long thereafter, U.S. security guarantees were extended to the Middle East as well.  Under what circumstances can Americans expect nations in these regions to assume responsibility for managing their own affairs?  To put it another way, when (if ever) might U.S. forces actually come home?  And if it is incumbent upon the United States to police vast swaths of the planet in perpetuity, how should momentous changes in the international order — the rise of China, for example, or accelerating climate change — affect the U.S. approach to doing so?

2. American military supremacy: The United States military is undoubtedly the world’s finest.  It’s also far and away the most generously funded, with policymakers offering U.S. troops no shortage of opportunities to practice their craft.  So why doesn’t this great military ever win anything?  Or put another way, why in recent decades have those forces been unable to accomplish Washington’s stated wartime objectives?  Why has the now 15-year-old war on terror failed to result in even a single real success anywhere in the Greater Middle East?  Could it be that we’ve taken the wrong approach?  What should we be doing differently?

3. America’s empire of bases: The U.S. military today garrisons the planet in a fashion without historical precedent.  Successive administrations, regardless of party, justify and perpetuate this policy by insisting that positioning U.S. forces in distant lands fosters peace, stability, and security.  In the present century, however, perpetuating this practice has visibly had the opposite effect.  In the eyes of many of those called upon to “host” American bases, the permanent presence of such forces smacks of occupation.  They resist.  Why should U.S. policymakers expect otherwise?

4. Supporting the troops: In present-day America, expressing reverence for those who serve in uniform is something akin to a religious obligation.  Everyone professes to cherish America’s “warriors.”  Yet such bountiful, if superficial, expressions of regard camouflage a growing gap between those who serve and those who applaud from the sidelines. Our present-day military system, based on the misnamed All-Volunteer Force, is neither democratic nor effective.  Why has discussion and debate about its deficiencies not found a place among the nation’s political priorities? 

5. Prerogatives of the commander-in-chief: Are there any military actions that the president of the United States may not order on his own authority?  If so, what are they?  Bit by bit, decade by decade, Congress has abdicated its assigned role in authorizing war. Today, it merely rubberstamps what presidents decide to do (or simply stays mum).  Who does this deference to an imperial presidency benefit?  Have U.S. policies thereby become more prudent, enlightened, and successful?

6. Assassin-in-chief: A policy of assassination, secretly implemented under the aegis of the CIA during the early Cold War, yielded few substantive successes.  When the secrets were revealed, however, the U.S. government suffered considerable embarrassment, so much so that presidents foreswore politically motivated murder. After 9/11, however, Washington returned to the assassination business in a big way and on a global scale, using drones.  Today, the only secret is the sequence of names on the current presidential hit list, euphemistically known as the White House “disposition matrix.” But does assassination actually advance U.S. interests (or does it merely recruit replacements for the terrorists it liquidates)?  How can we measure its costs, whether direct or indirect?  What dangers and vulnerabilities does this practice invite?

7. The war formerly known as the “Global War on Terrorism”: What precisely is Washington’s present strategy for defeating violent jihadism?  What sequence of planned actions or steps is expected to yield success? If no such strategy exists, why is that the case?  How is it that the absence of strategy — not to mention an agreed upon definition of “success” — doesn’t even qualify for discussion here?

8. The campaign formerly known as Operation Enduring Freedom: The conflict commonly referred to as the Afghanistan War is now the longest in U.S. history — having lasted longer than the Civil War, World War I, and World War II combined. What is the Pentagon’s plan for concluding that conflict?  When might Americans expect it to end?  On what terms?

9. The Gulf: Americans once believed that their prosperity and way of life depended on having assured access to Persian Gulf oil.  Today, that is no longer the case.  The United States is once more an oil exporter. Available and accessible reserves of oil and natural gas in North America are far greater than was once believed. Yet the assumption that the Persian Gulf still qualifies as crucial to American national security persists in Washington. Why?

10. Hyping terrorism: Each year terrorist attacks kill far fewer Americans than do auto accidentsdrug overdoses, or even lightning strikes.  Yet in the allocation of government resources, preventing terrorist attacks takes precedence over preventing all three of the others combined. Why is that?

11. Deaths that matter and deaths that don’t: Why do terrorist attacks that kill a handful of Europeans command infinitely more American attention than do terrorist attacks that kill far larger numbers of Arabs? A terrorist attack that kills citizens of France or Belgium elicits from the United States heartfelt expressions of sympathy and solidarity.  A terrorist attack that kills Egyptians or Iraqis elicits shrugs.  Why the difference?  To what extent does race provide the answer to that question?

12. Israeli nukes: What purpose is served by indulging the pretense that Israel does not have nuclear weapons?

13. Peace in the Holy Land: What purpose is served by indulging illusions that a “two-state solution” offers a plausible resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?  As remorselessly as white settlers once encroached upon territory inhabited by Native American tribes, Israeli settlers expand their presence in the occupied territories year by year.  As they do, the likelihood of creating a viable Palestinian state becomes ever more improbable. To pretend otherwise is the equivalent of thinking that one day President Trump might prefer the rusticity of Camp David to the glitz of Mar-a-Lago.

14. Merchandizing death: When it comes to arms sales, there is no need to Make America Great Again.  The U.S. ranks number one by a comfortable margin, with long-time allies Saudi Arabia and Israel leading recipients of those arms.  Each year, the Saudis (per capita gross domestic product $20,000) purchase hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. weapons.  Israel (per capita gross domestic product $38,000) gets several billion dollars worth of such weaponry annually courtesy of the American taxpayer.  If the Saudis pay for U.S. arms, why shouldn’t the Israelis? They can certainly afford to do so.

15. Our friends the Saudis (I): Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on September 11, 2001, were Saudis.  What does that fact signify?

16. Our friends the Saudis (II): If indeed Saudi Arabia and Iran are competing to determine which nation will enjoy the upper hand in the Persian Gulf, why should the United States favor Saudi Arabia?  In what sense do Saudi values align more closely with American values than do Iranian ones?

17. Our friends the Pakistanis: Pakistan behaves like a rogue state.  It is a nuclear weapons proliferator.  It supports the Taliban.  For years, it provided sanctuary to Osama bin Laden.  Yet U.S. policymakers treat Pakistan as if it were an ally.  Why?  In what ways do U.S. and Pakistani interests or values coincide?  If there are none, why not say so? 

18. Free-loading Europeans: Why can’t Europe, “whole and free,” its population and economy considerably larger than Russia’s, defend itself?  It’s altogether commendable that U.S. policymakers should express support for Polish independence and root for the Baltic republics.  But how does it make sense for the United States to care more about the wellbeing of people living in Eastern Europe than do people living in Western Europe?

19. The mother of all “special relationships”: The United States and the United Kingdom have a “special relationship” dating from the days of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.  Apart from keeping the Public Broadcasting Service supplied with costume dramas and stories featuring eccentric detectives, what is the rationale for that partnership today?  Why should U.S. relations with Great Britain, a fading power, be any more “special” than its relations with a rising power like India?  Why should the bonds connecting Americans and Britons be any more intimate than those connecting Americans and Mexicans?  Why does a republic now approaching the 241st anniversary of its independence still need a “mother country”?

20. The old nuclear disarmament razzmatazz: American presidents routinely cite their hope for the worldwide elimination of nuclear weapons.  Yet the U.S. maintains nuclear strike forces on full alert, has embarked on a costly and comprehensive trillion-dollar modernization of its nuclear arsenal, and even refuses to adopt a no-first-use posture when it comes to nuclear war.  The truth is that the United States will consider surrendering its nukes only after every other nation on the planet has done so first.  How does American nuclear hypocrisy affect the prospects for global nuclear disarmament or even simply for the non-proliferation of such weaponry?

21. Double standards (I): American policymakers take it for granted that their country’s sphere of influence is global, which, in turn, provides the rationale for the deployment of U.S. military forces to scores of countries.  Yet when it comes to nations like China, Russia, or Iran, Washington takes the position that spheres of influence are obsolete and a concept that should no longer be applicable to the practice of statecraft.  So Chinese, Russian, and Iranian forces should remain where they belong — in China, Russia, and Iran.  To stray beyond that constitutes a provocation, as well as a threat to global peace and order.  Why should these other nations play by American rules?  Why shouldn’t similar rules apply to the United States?

22. Double standards (II): Washington claims that it supports and upholds international law.  Yet when international law gets in the way of what American policymakers want to do, they disregard it.  They start wars, violate the sovereignty of other nations, and authorize agents of the United States to kidnap, imprison, torture, and kill.  They do these things with impunity, only forced to reverse their actions on the rare occasions when U.S. courts find them illegal.  Why should other powers treat international norms as sacrosanct since the United States does so only when convenient? 

23. Double standards (III): The United States condemns the indiscriminate killing of civilians in wartime.  Yet over the last three-quarters of a century, it killed civilians regularly and often on a massive scale.  By what logic, since the 1940s, has the killing of Germans, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians, Afghans, and others by U.S. air power been any less reprehensible than the Syrian government’s use of “barrel bombs” to kill Syrians today?  On what basis should Americans accept Pentagon claims that, when civilians are killed these days by U.S. forces, the acts are invariably accidental, whereas Syrian forces kill civilians intentionally and out of malice?  Why exclude incompetence or the fog of war as explanations?  And why, for instance, does the United States regularly gloss over or ignore altogether the noncombatants that Saudi forces (with U.S. assistance) are routinely killing in Yemen?

24. Moral obligations: When confronted with some egregious violation of human rights, members of the chattering classes frequently express an urge for the United States to “do something.”  Holocaust analogies sprout like dandelions.  Newspaper columnists recycle copy first used when Cambodians were slaughtering other Cambodians en masse or whenever Hutus and Tutsis went at it.  Proponents of action — typically advocating military intervention — argue that the United States has a moral obligation to aid those victimized by injustice or cruelty anywhere on Earth.  But what determines the pecking order of such moral obligations?  Which comes first, a responsibility to redress the crimes of others or a responsibility to redress crimes committed by Americans?  Who has a greater claim to U.S. assistance, Syrians suffering today under the boot of Bashar al-Assad or Iraqis, their country shattered by the U.S. invasion of 2003?  Where do the Vietnamese fit into the queue?  How about the Filipinos, brutally denied independence and forcibly incorporated into an American empire as the nineteenth century ended?  Or African-Americans, whose ancestors were imported as slaves?  Or, for that matter, dispossessed and disinherited Native Americans?  Is there a statute of limitations that applies to moral obligations?  And if not, shouldn’t those who have waited longest for justice or reparations receive priority attention?

Let me suggest that any one of these two dozen issues — none seriously covered, discussed, or debated in the American media or in the political mainstream — bears more directly on the wellbeing of the United States and our prospects for avoiding global conflict than anything Donald Trump may have said or done during his first 100 days as president.  Collectively, they define the core of the national security challenges that presently confront this country, even as they languish on the periphery of American politics.

How much damage Donald Trump’s presidency wreaks before it ends remains to be seen.  Yet he himself is a transient phenomenon.  To allow his pratfalls and shenanigans to divert attention from matters sure to persist when he finally departs the stage is to make a grievous error.  It may well be that, as the Times insists, the truth is now more important than ever.  If so, finding the truth requires looking in the right places and asking the right questions.

Andrew J. Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military Historynow out in paperbackHis next book will be an interpretive history of the United States from the end of the Cold War to the election of Donald Trump.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, as well as John Feffer's dystopian novel Splinterlands, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt's Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2017 Andrew J. Bacevich

How to Lose the Next War in the Middle East

 Middle East
Photo by Adobe Stock/veneratio

This piece is reprinted with permission by TomDispatch.

Make no mistake: after 15 years of losing wars, spreading terror movements, and multiplying failed states across the Greater Middle East, America will fight the next versions of our ongoing wars. Not that we ever really stopped.  Sure, Washington traded in George W. Bush’s expansive, almost messianic attitude toward his Global War on Terror for Barack Obama’s more precise, deliberate, even cautious approach to an unnamed version of the same war for hegemony in the Greater Middle East.  Sure, in the process kitted-up 19 year-olds from Iowa became less ubiquitous features on Baghdad’s and Kabul’s busy boulevards, even if that distinction was lost on the real-life targets of America’s wars — and the bystanders (call them “collateral damage”) scurrying across digital drone display screens.

It’s hardly a brilliant observation to point out that, more than 15 years later, the entire region is a remarkable mess.  So much worse off than Washington found it, even if all of that mess can’t simply be blamed on the United States — at least not directly.  It’s too late now, as the Trump administration is discovering, to retreat behind two oceans and cover our collective eyes.  And yet, acts that might still do some modest amount of good (resettling refugees, sending aid, brokering truces, anything within reason to limit suffering) don’t seem to be on any American agenda.

So, after 16 years of inconclusive or catastrophic regional campaigns, maybe it’s time to stop dreaming about how to make things better in the Greater Middle East and try instead to imagine how to make things worse (since that’s the path we often seem to take anyway). Here, then, is a little thought experiment for you: what if Washington actually wanted to lose? How might the U.S. government go about accomplishing that? Let me offer a quick (and inevitably incomplete) to-do list on the subject:

As a start, you would drop an enlarged, conventional army into Iraq and/or Syria. This would offer a giant red, white, and blue target for all those angry, young radicalized men just dying (pardon the pun) to extinguish some new “crusader” force.  It would serve as an effective religious-nationalist rallying cry (and target) throughout the region.

Then you would create a news-magnet of a ban (or at least the appearance of one) on immigrants and visitors of every sort from predominantly Muslim countries coming to the United States.  It’s hardly an accident that ISIS has taken to calling the president’s proposed executive order to do just that “the blessed ban” and praising Donald Trump as the “best caller to Islam.”  Such actions only confirm the extremist narrative: that Muslims are unwelcome in and incompatible with the West, that liberal plurality is a neo-imperial scam.

Finally, you would feed the common perception in the region that Washington’s support for Israel and assorted Arab autocrats is unconditional.  To do so, you would go out of your way to hold fawning public meetings with military strongmen like Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and suggest that, when it came to Israel, you were considering changing American policy when it comes to a two-state solution and the illegal Israeli settlements in Palestine.  Such policies would feed another ISIS narrative: U.S. support for illiberal despots and the failure of the Arab Spring is proof that practicing Muslims and peaceful Islamists will never successfully gain power through the democratic process.

Key to such a losing strategy would be doing anything you could to reinforce ISIS’s twisted narrative of an end-of-days battle between Islam and Christendom, a virtuous East versus a depraved West, an authentic Caliphate against hypocritical democracies.  In what amounts to a war of ideas, pursuing such policies would all but hand victory to ISIS and other jihadi extremist groups.  And so you would have successfully created a strategy for losing eternally in the Greater Middle East.  And if that was the desired outcome in Washington, well, congratulations all around, but of course we all know that it wasn’t.

Let’s take these three points in such a losing strategy one by one. (Of course "losing" is itself a contested term, but for our purposes, consider the U.S. to have lost as long as its military spins its wheels in a never-ending quagmire, while gradually empowering various local "adversaries.")

Just a Few Thousand More Troops Will Get It Done...

There are already thousands of American soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Syria, to say nothing of the even more numerous troops and sailors stationed on bases in Kuwait, Bahrain, Turkey, and other states ringing America’s Middle Eastern battlefields.  Still, if you want to mainline into the fastest way to lose the next phase of the war on terror, just blindly acquiesce in the inevitable requests of your commanders for yet more troops and planes needed to finish the job in Syria ( and Iraq, and Afghanistan, and Yemen, and so on).

Let’s play this out.  First, the worst (and most plausible) case: U.S. ground forces get sucked into an ever more complex, multi-faceted civil war — deeper and deeper still, until one day they wake up in a world that looks like Baghdad, 2007, all over again.

Or, lest we be accused of defeatism, consider the best case: those endlessly fortified and reinforced American forces wipe the floor with ISIS and just maybe manage to engineer the toppling of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime as well.  It’s V-Day in the Middle East!  And then what?  What happens the day after? When and to whom do American troops turn over power? 

  • The Kurds? That’s a nonstarter for Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, all countries with significant Kurdish minorities.
  • The Saudis? Don’t count on it.  They’re busy bombing Houthi Shias in Yemen (with U.S.-supplied ordnance) and grappling with the diversification of their oil-based economy in a world in which fossil fuels are struggling.
  • Russia? Fat chance. Bombing “terrorists”? Yes. Propping up an autocratic client to secure basing rights? Sure. Temporary transactional alliances of convenience in the region? Absolutely. But long-term nation-building in the heart of the Middle East? It’s just not the style of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a country with its own shaky petro-economy.
  • So maybe leave Assad in power and turn the country back over to what’s left of his minority, Alawite-dominated regime? That, undoubtedly, is the road to hell.  After all, it was his murderous, barrel-bombing, child-gassing acts that all but caused the civil war in the first place.  You can be sure that, sooner or later, Syria’s majority Sunni population and its separatist Kurds would simply rebel again, while (as the last 15 years should have taught us) an even uglier set of extremists rose to the surface.

Keep in mind as well that, when it comes to the U.S. military, the Iraqi and Afghan “surges” of 2007 and 2009 offered proof positive that more ground troops aren’t a cure-all in such situations.  They are a formula for expending prodigious amounts of money and significant amounts of blood, while only further alienating local populations.  Meanwhile, unleashing manned and drone aircraft strikes, which occasionally kill large numbers of civilians, only add to the ISIS narrative.

Every mass casualty civilian bombing or drone strike incident just detracts further from American regional credibility.  While both air strikes and artillery barrages may hasten the offensive progress of America’s Kurdish, Iraqi, and Syrian allies, that benefit needs to be weighed against the moral and propaganda costs of those dead women and children.  For proof, see the errant bombing strike on an apartment building in Mosul last month.  After all, those hundred-plus civilians are just as dead as Assad’s recent victims and just as many angry, grieving family members and friends have been left behind.

In other words, any of the familiar U.S. strategies, including focusing all efforts on ISIS or toppling Assad, or a bit of both, won’t add up to a real policy for the region.  No matter how the Syrian civil war shakes out, Washington will need a genuine “what next” plan.  Unfortunately, if the chosen course predictably relies heavily on the military lever to shape Syria’s shattered society, America’s presence and actions will only (as in the past) aggravate the crisis and help rejuvenate its many adversaries.

“The Blessed Ban”

The Trump administration’s proposed “travel ban” quickly became fodder for left-versus-right vitriol in the U.S.  Here’s a rundown on what it’s likely to mean when it comes to foreign policy and the “next” war.  First, soaring domestic fears over jihadi terror attacks in this country and the possible role of migrants and refugees in stoking them represent a potentially catastrophic over-reaction to a modest threat.  Annually, from 2005 to 2015, terrorists killed an average of just seven Americans on U.S. soil.  You are approximately 18,000 times more likely to die in some sort of accident than from such an attack.  In addition, according to a study by the conservative Cato Institute, from 1975 to 2015 citizens of the countries included in Trump’s first ban (including Iraq and Syria) killed precisely zero people in the United States.  Nor has any refugee conducted a fatal domestic attack here.  Finally, despite candidate and President Trump’s calls for “extreme vetting” of Muslim refugees, the government already has a complex, two-year vetting process for such refugees which is remarkably “extreme.” 

Those are the facts.  What truly matters, however, is the effect of such a ban on the war of ideas in the Middle East.  In short, it’s manna from heaven for ISIS’s storyline in which Americans are alleged to hate all Muslims. It tells you everything you need to know that, within days of the administration’s announcement of its first ban, ISIS had taken to labeling it “blessed,” just as al-Qaeda once extolled George W. Bush’s 2003 “blessed invasion” of Iraq. Even Senator John McCain, a well-known hawk, worried that Trump’s executive order would “probably give ISIS some more propaganda.” 

Remember, while ISIS loves to claim responsibility for every attack in the West perpetrated by lost, disenfranchised, identity-seeking extremist youths, that doesn’t mean the organization actually directs them. The vast majority of these killers are self-radicalized citizens, not refugees or immigrants. One of the most effective — and tragic — ways to lose this war is to prove the jihadis right. 

The Hypocrisy Trap

Another way to feed the ISIS narrative is to bolster perceptions of diplomatic insincerity. Americans tend to be some of the least self-aware citizens on the planet. (Is it a coincidence that ours is about the only population left still questioning the existence of climate change?) Among the rare things that Democrats and Republicans agree on, however, is that America is a perennial force for good, in fact the force for good on Earth. As it happens, the rest of the world begs to differ. In Gallup global polls, the United States has, in fact, been identified as the number one threat to world peace!  However uncomfortable that may be, it matters.

One reason many Middle Easterners, in particular, believe this to be so stems from Washington’s longstanding support for regional autocrats.  In fiscal year 2017, Egypt’s military dictator and Jordan’s king will receive $1.46 and $1 billion respectively in U.S. foreign aid — nearly 7% of its total assistance budget.  After leading a coup to overturn Egypt’s elected government, General Sisi was officially persona non grata in the White House (though President Obama reinstated $1.3 billion in military aid in 2015).  Sisi’s recent visit to the Trump White House changed all that as, in a joint press conference, the president swore that he was “very much behind” Egypt and that Sisi himself had “done a fantastic job.”  In another indicator of future policy, the State Department dropped existing human rights conditions for the multibillion-dollar sale of F-16s to Bahrain's monarchy.  All of this might be of mild interest, if it weren’t for the way it bolstered ISIS claims that democracy is just an “idol,” and the democratic process a fraud that American presidents simply ignore.

Then there’s Israel, already the object of deep hatred in the region, and now clearly about to receive a blank check of support from the Trump administration.  The role that Israeli leaders already play in American domestic politics is certainly striking to Arab audiences. Consider how unprecedented it was in 2015 to see Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticize a sitting president before a joint session of Congress in an Israeli election year and receive multiple, bipartisan standing ovations.  Even so, none of this prevented the Obama administration, domestically labeled “weak on Israel,” from negotiating a record $38 billion military aid deal with that country. 

While violent Palestinian fighters are far from blameless, for 40 years Israel has increasingly created facts on the ground meant to preclude a viable Palestinian state.  Netanyahu and his predecessors increased illegal settlements in the Palestinian territories, built an exclusion wall, and further divided the West Bank by constructing a network of roads meant only for the Israeli military and Jewish settlers.

Although most world leaders, publics, and the United Nations see the Jewish settlements on the West Bank as a major impediment to peace, the current U.S. ambassador to Israel was once the president of a fundraising group supporting just such an Israeli settlement.  The notion that he could be an honest broker in peace talks borders on the farcical.

All of this, of course, matters when it comes to Washington’s unending wars in the region.  Even Secretary of Defense James Mattis, soon after leaving the helm of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), recognized that he “paid a military security price every day as a commander of CENTCOM because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel.”  So, you want to lose?  Keep feeding the ISIS narrative on democracy and Israel just as the Trump administration is doing, even as it sends more troops into the region and heightens bombing and drone raids from Syria to Yemen.

Send in the Cavalry...

If the next phase of the generational struggle for the Middle East is once again to be essentially a military one, while the Trump administration feeds every negative American stereotype in the region, then it’s hard to see a future of anything but defeat. A combination of widespread American ignorance and the intellectual solace of simplistic models lead many here to ascribe jihadist terrorism to some grand, ethereal hatred of “Christendom.” 

The reality is far more discomfiting. Consider, for instance, a document from “ancient” history: Osama bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa against the United States.  At that time, he described three tangible motives for jihad: U.S. occupation of Islam’s holiest lands in the Middle East, U.S. attacks on and sanctions against Iraq, and American support for Israel’s “occupation” of Jerusalem.  If ISIS and al-Qaeda’s center of gravity is not their fighting force but their ideology (as I believe it is), then the last thing Washington should want to do is substantiate any of these three visions of American motivation — unless, of course, the goal is to lose the war on terror across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa. 

In that case, the solution is obvious: Washington should indeed insert more troops and set up yet more bases in the region, maintain unqualified support for right-wing Israeli governments and assorted Arab autocrats, and do its best to ban Muslim refugees from America.  That, after all, represents the royal road to affirming al-Qaeda’s, and now ISIS’s, overarching narratives. It’s a formula — already well used in the last 15 years — for playing directly into the enemy’s hands and adhering to its playbook, for creating yet more failed states and terror groups throughout the region.

When it comes to Syria in particular, there are some shockingly unexamined contradictions at the heart of Washington’s reactions to its war there.  President Trump, for instance, recently spoke emotionally about the “beautiful babies cruelly murdered” in Idlib, Syria.  Yet, the administration’s executive order on travel bans any Syrian refugees — including beautiful babies — from entering this country.  If few Americans recognize the incongruity or hypocrisy of this, you can bet that isn’t true in the Arab world.

For ISIS, today’s struggle in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere is part of an unremitting, apocalyptic holy war between Islam and the West.  That narrative is demonstrably false.  The current generation of jihadis sprang from tangible grievances and perceived humiliations perpetrated by recent Western policies.  There was nothing “eternal” about it.  The first recorded suicide bombings in the Middle East didn’t erupt until the early 1980s.  So forget the thousand-year struggle or even, in Western terms, the “clash of civilizations.”  It took America’s military-first policies in the region to generate what has now become perpetual war with spreading terror insurgencies. 

Want a formula for forever war? Send in the cavalry... again.

Major Danny Sjursen, a TomDispatch regular, is a U.S. Army strategist and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. He lives with his wife and four sons near Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, as well as John Feffer's dystopian novel Splinterlands, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt's Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2017 Danny Sjursen

Prepare, Pursue, Prevail!

 Votel
Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Defense

This piece is reprinted with permission by TomDispatch.

By way of explaining his eight failed marriages, the American bandleader Artie Shaw once remarked, “I am an incurable optimist.” In reality, Artie was an incurable narcissist. Utterly devoid of self-awareness, he never looked back, only forward.

So, too, with the incurable optimists who manage present-day American wars.  What matters is not past mistakes but future opportunities.  This describes the view of General Joseph Votel, current head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM).  Since its creation in 1983, CENTCOM has emerged as the ne plus ultra of the Pentagon’s several regional commands, the place where the action is always hot and heavy.  Votel is the latest in a long train of four-star generals to preside over that action.

The title of this essay (exclamation point included) captures in a single phrase the “strategic approach” that Votel has devised for CENTCOM.  That approach, according to the command’s website, is “proactive in nature and endeavors to set in motion tangible actions in a purposeful, consistent, and continuous manner.” 

This strategic approach forms but one element in General Votel’s multifaceted (if murky) “command narrative,” which he promulgated last year upon taking the helm at CENTCOM headquarters in Tampa, Florida.  Other components include a “culture,” a “vision,” a “mission,” and “priorities.”  CENTCOM’s culture emphasizes “persistent excellence,” as the command “strives to understand and help others to comprehend, with granularity and clarity, the complexities of our region.”  The vision, indistinguishable from the mission except perhaps for those possessing advanced degrees in hermeneutics, seeks to provide “a more stable and prosperous region with increasingly effective governance, improved security, and trans-regional cooperation.”  Toward that estimable end, CENTCOM’s priorities include forging partnerships with other nations “based upon shared values,” “actively counter[ing] the malign influence” of hostile regimes, and “degrading and defeating violent extremist organizations and their networks.”

At present, CENTCOM is busily implementing the several components of Votel’s command narrative across an “area of responsibility” (AOR) consisting of 20 nations, among them Iran, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.  As the CENTCOM website puts it, without batting a digital eyelash, that AOR “spans more than 4 million square miles and is populated by more than 550 million people from 22 ethnic groups, speaking 18 languages with hundreds of dialects and confessing multiple religions which transect national borders.”

According to the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, an AOR is the “geographical area associated with a combatant command within which a geographic combatant commander has authority to plan and conduct operations.” Yet this anodyne definition fails to capture the spirit of the enterprise in which General Votel is engaged. 

One imagines that there must be another Department of Defense Dictionary, kept under lock-and-key in the Pentagon, that dispenses with the bland language and penchant for deceptive euphemisms. That dictionary would define an AOR as “a vast expanse within which the United States seeks to impose order without exercising sovereignty.”  An AOR combines aspects of colony, protectorate, and contested imperial frontier. In that sense, the term represents the latest incarnation of the informal empire that American elites have pursued in various forms ever since U.S. forces “liberated” Cuba in 1898. 

To say that a military officer presiding over an AOR plans and conducts operations is a bit like saying that Jeff Bezos sells books.  It’s a small truth that evades a larger one.  To command CENTCOM is to function as a proconsul, to inhabit as a co-equal the rarified realm of kings, presidents, and prime ministers.  CENTCOM commanders shape the future of their AOR -- or at least fancy that they do.

Sustaining expectations of shaping the future requires a suitably accommodating version of the past.  For CENTCOM, history is a record of events selected and arranged to demonstrate progress.  By testifying to the achievements of previous CENTCOM commanders, history thereby validates Votel’s own efforts to carry on their work.  Not for nothing, therefore, does the command’s website include this highly sanitized account of its recent past:

“In the wake of 9-11, the international community found Saddam Hussein's continued lack of cooperation with United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions regarding weapons of mass destruction unacceptable. Hussein's continued recalcitrance led the UNSC to authorize the use of force by a U.S.-led coalition. Operation Iraqi Freedom began 19 March 2003. 

“Following the defeat of both the Taliban regime in Afghanistan (9 November 2001) and Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq (8 April 2003), CENTCOM has continued to provide security to the new freely-elected governments in those countries, conducting counterinsurgency operations and assisting host nation security forces to provide for their own defense.”

Setbacks, disappointments, miscalculations, humiliations: you won’t hear about them from CENTCOM.  Like Broadway’s Annie, down at headquarters in Tampa they’re “just thinkin' about tomorrow,” which “clears away the cobwebs, and the sorrow, till there's none!”

(Give the Vietnam War the CENTCOM treatment and you would end up with something like this: “Responding to unprovoked North Vietnamese attacks and acting at the behest of the international community, a U.S.-led coalition arrived to provide security to the freely-elected South Vietnamese government, conducting counterinsurgency operations and assisting host nation security forces to provide for their own defense.”)

In fact, the U.N. Security Council did not authorize the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  Indeed, efforts by George W. Bush’s administration to secure such an authorization failed abysmally, collapsing in a welter of half-truths and outright falsehoods.  What much of the international community found unacceptable, more so even than Saddam’s obstreperousness, was Bush’s insistence that he was going to have his war regardless of what others might think.  As for celebrating the “defeat” of the Taliban and of Saddam, that’s the equivalent of declaring “game over” when the whistle sounds ending the first quarter of a football game.

More to the point, to claim that, in the years since, CENTCOM “has continued to provide security to the new freely-elected governments” of Afghanistan and Iraq whitewashes history in ways that would cause the most shameless purveyor of alt-facts on Fox News to blush.  The incontestable truth is that Afghans and Iraqis have not known security since U.S. forces, under the direction of General Votel’s various predecessors, arrived on the scene.  Rather than providing security, CENTCOM has undermined it.

CENTCOM Headquarters (Where It’s Always Groundhog Day)

Even so, as the current steward of CENTCOM’s culture, vision, mission, strategic approach, and priorities, General Votel remains undaunted.  In his view, everything that happened prior to his assuming ownership of the CENTCOM AOR is irrelevant.  What matters is what will happen from now on -- in Washington-speak, “going forward.”  As with Artie Shaw, serial disappointments leave intact the conviction that persistence will ultimately produce a happy ending.  

Earlier this month, Votel provided a progress report to the Senate Armed Services Committee and outlined his expectations for future success.  In a city that now competes for the title of Comedy Central, few paid serious attention to what the CENTCOM commander had to say.  Yet his presentation was, in its own way, emblematic of how, in the Age of Trump, U.S. national security policy has become fully divorced from reality. 

General Votel began by inventorying the various “drivers of instability” afflicting his AOR.  That list, unsurprisingly enough, turned out to be a long one, including ethnic and sectarian divisions, economic underdevelopment, an absence of opportunity for young people “susceptible to unrest [and] radical ideologies,” civil wars, humanitarian crises, large refugee populations, and “competition among outside actors, including Russia and China, seeking to promote their interests and supplant U.S. influence in the region.”  Not qualifying for mention as destabilizing factors, however, were the presence and activities of U.S. military forces, their footprint dwarfing that of Russia and China.

Indeed, the balance of Votel’s 64-page written statement argued, in effect, that U.S. military activities are the key to fixing all that ails the CENTCOM AOR.  After making a brief but obligatory bow to the fact that “a solely military response is not sufficient” to address the region’s problems, he proceeded to describe at length the military response (and only the military response) that will do just that. 

Unfortunately for General Votel, length does not necessarily correlate with substance.  Once upon a time, American military professionals prized brevity and directness in their writing.  Not so the present generation of generals who are given to logorrhea.  Consider just this bit of cliché-ridden drivel -- I could quote vast passages of it -- that Votel inflicted on members of the United States Senate.  “In a region beset by myriad challenges,” he reported,

“we must always be on the look-out for opportunities to seize the initiative to support our objectives and goals. Pursuing opportunities means that we are proactive -- we don’t wait for problems to be presented; we look for ways to get ahead of them. It also means that we have to become comfortable with transparency and flat communications -- our ability to understand our AOR better than anyone else gives us the advantage of knowing where opportunities exist.  Pursuing opportunities also means we have to take risk -- by delegating authority and responsibility to the right level, by trusting our partners, and being willing to trust our best instincts in order to move faster than our adversaries.”

In third-tier business schools, bromides of this sort might pass for “best practices.”  But my guess is that George C. Marshall or Dwight D. Eisenhower would award the author of that paragraph an F and return him to staff college for further instruction.

Frothy verbiage aside, what exactly does General Votel propose?  The answer -- for those with sufficient patience to wade through the entire 64 pages -- reduces to this: persist.  In concrete terms, that means keeping on killing and enabling our “allies” to do the same until the other side is finally exhausted and gives up.  In other words, it’s the movie Groundhog Day transposed from Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to Tampa and then to Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries where the bodies continue to pile up.

True, the document Votel presented to Congress is superficially comprehensive, with sections touting everything from “Building Partner Capacity” (“we must be forward-leaning and empower our partners to meet internal security challenges”) to creating a “Global Engagement Center” (“The best way to defeat an idea is to present a better, more appealing idea”).  Strip away the fluff, however, and what’s left is nothing more than a call to keep doing what CENTCOM has been doing for years now.

To see what all this really means, practically speaking, just check out CENTCOM press releases for the week of March 5th through 10th.  The titles alone suffice to describe a situation where every day is like the one that preceded it:

March 5: Military airstrikes continue against ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq

March 6: Military airstrikes continue against ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq

March 7: Military airstrikes continue against ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq

March 8: Military airstrikes continue against ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq

March 9: Military airstrikes continue against ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq

March 10: Military airstrikes continue against ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq

As the good nuns used to tell me back in parochial school, actions speak louder than words.  What the CENTCOM commander says matters less than what CENTCOM forces do.  What they are doing is waging an endless war of attrition.

Ludendorff Would Have Approved

“Punch a hole and let the rest follow.” 

During the First World War, that aphorism, attributed to General Erich Ludendorff, captured the essence of the German army’s understanding of strategy, rooted in the conviction that violence perpetrated on a sufficient scale over a sufficient period of time will ultimately render a politically purposeless war purposeful.  The formula didn’t work for Germany in Ludendorff’s day and yielded even more disastrous results when Hitler revived it two decades later.

Of course, U.S. military commanders today don’t make crude references to punching holes.  They employ language that suggests discrimination, deliberation, precision, and control as the qualities that define the American way of war.  They steer clear of using terms like attrition.  Yet differences in vocabulary notwithstanding, the U.S. military’s present-day MO bears a considerable resemblance to the approach that Ludendorff took fully a century ago.  And for the last decade and a half, U.S. forces operating in the CENTCOM AOR have been no more successful than were German forces on the Western Front in achieving the purposes that ostensibly made war necessary.

To divert attention from this disturbing fact, General Votel offers Congress and by extension the American people a 64-page piece of propaganda.  Whether he himself is deluded or dishonest is difficult to say, just as it remains difficult to say whether General William Westmoreland was deluded or dishonest when he assured Congress in November 1967 that victory in Vietnam was in sight.  “With 1968,” Westmoreland promised, “a new phase is now starting.  We have reached an important point when the end begins now to come into view.”

Westmoreland was dead wrong, as the enemy’s 1968 Tet Offensive soon demonstrated.  That a comparable disaster, no doubt different in form, will expose Votel’s own light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel assessment as equally fraudulent is a possibility, even if one to which American political and military leaders appear to be oblivious.  This much is certain: in the CENTCOM AOR the end is not even remotely in view.

What are we to make of this charade of proconsuls parading through Washington to render false or misleading reports on the status of the American empire’s outer precincts?

Perhaps the time has come to look elsewhere for advice and counsel.  Whether generals like Votel are deluded or dishonest is ultimately beside the point.  More relevant is the fact that the views they express -- and that inexplicably continue to carry weight in Washington -- are essentially of no value.  So many years later, no reason exists to believe that they know what they are doing.

To reground U.S. national security policy in something that approximates reality would require listening to new voices, offering views long deemed heretical. 

Let me nonetheless offer you an example:

“Fifteen years after launching a worldwide effort to defeat and destroy terrorist organizations, the United States finds itself locked in a pathologically recursive loop; we fight to prevent attacks and defend our values, only to incite further violence against ourselves and allies while destabilizing already chaotic regions..."

That is not the judgment of some lefty from Cambridge or San Francisco, but of Major John Q. Bolton, a veteran of both the Iraq and Afghan Wars.  Within that brief passage is more wisdom than in all of General Votel’s 64 pages of blather.

I submit that Bolton’s grasp of our predicament is infinitely superior to Votel’s.  The contrast between the two is striking.  The officer who wears no stars dares to say what is true; the officer wearing four stars obfuscates.  If the four-stars abandon obfuscation for truth, then and only then will they deserve our respectful attention.  In the meantime, it’s like looking to Artie Shaw for marriage counseling. 

Andrew J. Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is the author most recently of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, John Feffer's dystopian novel Splinterlands, as well as Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2017 Andrew J. Bacevich

The Surge Delusion

This piece is reprinted with permission by TomDispatch.

The other day, I found myself flipping through old photos from my time in Iraq.  One in particular from October 2006 stood out. I see my 23-year-old self, along with my platoon. We’re still at Camp Buerhing in Kuwait, posing in front of our squadron logo splashed across a huge concrete barrier. It was a tradition by then, three and a half years after the invasion of neighboring Iraq, for every Army, Marine, and even Air Force battalion at that camp to proudly paint its unit emblem on one of those large, ubiquitous barricades.

The Surge Delusion
Photo courtesy Danny Sjursen

Gazing at that photo, it’s hard for me to believe that it was taken a decade ago.  Those were Iraq’s bad old days, just before General David Petraeus’s fabled “surge” campaign that has since become the stuff of legend, a defining event for American military professionals.  The term has permanently entered the martial lexicon and now it’s everywhere.  We soldiers stay late at work because we need to “surge” on the latest PowerPoint presentation.  To inject extra effort into anything (no matter how mundane) is to “surge.”  Nor is the term’s use limited to the military vernacular.  Within the first few weeks of the Trump administration, the Wall Street Journal, for instance, reported on a deportation "surge."

For many career soldiers, the surge era (2007-2011) provides a kind of vindication for all those years of effort and seeming failure, a brief window into what might have been and a proof certain of the enduring utility of force.  When it comes to that long-gone surge, senior leaders still talk the talk on its alleged success as though reciting scripture.  Take retired general, surge architect, and former CIA Director Petraeus.  As recently as 2013, he wrote a Foreign Policy piece entitled “How We Won in Iraq.”  Now “win” is a bold word indeed.  Yet few in our American world would think to question its accuracy.  After all, Petraeus was a general, and in an era when Americans have little or no faith in other public institutions, polls show nearly everyone trusts the military.  Of course, no one asks whether this is healthy for the republic.  No matter, the surge’s success is, by now, a given among Washington’s policy elite.

Recently, for instance, I listened to a podcast of a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) panel discussion that promoted a common set of myths about the glories of the surge. What I heard should be shocking, but it’s not.  The group peddled a common myth about the surge’s inherent wisdom that may soon become far more dangerous in the “go big” military era of Donald Trump.

CFR’s three guests — retired General Raymond Odierno, former commander of Multinational Forces in Iraq and now a senior adviser to JPMorgan Chase; Meghan O’Sullivan, former deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush; and Christopher Kojm, former senior adviser to the Iraq Study Group — had remarkably similar views. No dissenting voices were included.  All three had been enthusiastic promoters of the surge in 2006-2007 and continue to market the myth of its success.  While recognizing the unmistakable failure of the post-surge American effort in Iraq, each still firmly believes in the inherent validity of that “strategy.”  I listened for more than an hour waiting for a single dissenting thought.  The silence was deafening.

Establishing the Bona Fides of Victory in Washington, If Not Iraq

With the madness of the 24-hour news cycle pin-balling us from one Trump “crisis” to another, who has time for honest reflection about that surge on its 10th anniversary?  Few even remember the controversy, turmoil, and drama of those days, but believe me, it’s something I’ll never forget. I led a scout platoon in Baghdad and my unit was a few months into a nasty deployment when we first heard the term “surge.”  Iraq was by then falling apart and violence was at an all-time high with insurgents killing scores of Americans each month.  The nascent central government, supported by the Bush administration, was in turmoil and, to top it all off, the Sunni and Shia were already fighting a civil war in the streets.

In November 2006, just a month into our deployment, Democrats won control over both houses of Congress in what was interpreted as a negative referendum on that war.  A humbler, more reticent or reflective president might have backed off, cut his losses, and begun a withdrawal from that country, but not George W. Bush.  He doubled down, announcing in January 2007 an infusion of 30,000 additional troops and a new "strategy" for victory, a temporary surge that would provide time, space, and security for the new Iraqi government to reconcile the country’s warring ethnic groups and factions, while incorporating minority groups into the largely Shiite, Baghdad-based power structure.

Soon after, my unit along with nearly every other American already in theater received word that our tours had been extended by three months — 15 months in all, which then seemed like an eternity.  I sat against a wall and chain-smoked nearly a pack of cigarettes before passing the word on to my platoon.  And so it began.

Less than nine months later, the administration paraded General Petraeus, decked out in full dress uniform, at congressional hearings to plug the strategy, sell the surge, and warn against a premature withdrawal from Iraq.  What a selling job it proved to be.  It established the bona fides of victory in Washington, if not Iraq.

The man was compelling and over the next three years violence did, in fact, drop.  The additional troops and “new” counterinsurgency tactics were, however, only part of the story.  In an orgy of killing in Baghdad and many other cities, the two main sects ethnically cleansed neighborhoods, expelling each other into a series of highly segregated enclaves.  The capital, for instance, essentially became a Shiite city.  In a sense, the civil war had, momentarily at least, run its course.

In addition, the U.S. military had successfully, though again only temporarily, convinced many previously rebellious Sunni tribes to switch sides in exchange for money, support, and help in getting rid of the overly fundamentalist and brutal terror outfit, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).  For the time being, AQI seemed to the tribal leaders like a bigger threat than the Shiites in Baghdad.  For this, the Sunnis briefly bet on the U.S. without ever fully trusting or accepting Shiite-Baghdad’s suzerainty.  Think of this as a tactical pause — not that the surge’s architects and supporters saw (or see) it that way.

Which brings us back to that CFR panel.  The most essential assumption of all three speakers was this: the U.S. needed to establish “security first” in Iraq before that country’s government, set in place by the American occupation, could begin to make political progress. They still don’t seem to understand that, whatever the bright hopes of surge enthusiasts at the time, no true political settlement was ever likely, with or without the surge. 

America’s man in Baghdad, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, was already in the process of becoming a sectarian strongman, hell-bent on alienating the country’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities.  Even 60,000 or 90,000 more American troops couldn’t have solved that problem because the surge was incapable of addressing, and barely pretended to face, the true conundrum of the invasion and occupation: any American-directed version of Iraqi “democracy” would invariably usher in Shia-majority dominance over a largely synthetic state.  The real question no surge cheerleaders publicly asked (or ask to this day) was whether an invading foreign entity was even capable of imposing an inclusive political settlement there. To assume that the United States could have done so smacks of a faith-based as opposed to reality-based worldview — another version of a deep and abiding belief in American exceptionalism.

A Surge Believer as National Security Adviser?

Sadly, that panel still epitomizes respectable thought on the Iraq surge and what followed from it.  Here’s the problem: Republican (and some Democratic) policymakers, along with supposedly "outside the box" military commanders, confused new tactics with an effective strategy, which, in the wake of the disastrous decision to invade, may have been a contradiction in terms.  Add in an additional myth — that the U.S. military turned on a dime in 2007, empowering a set of truly creative, open-minded thinkers, who brought America to the edge of victory — and you have the makings of the surge legend.

While surge-era generals like Petraeus and Odierno and younger colonels like John Nagl and Peter Mansoor were intelligent, competent officers, when it came to Iraq their strategic insights and worldview remained surprisingly narrow and conventional.  Their bedrock belief was that somewhere in the Iraqi chaos there just had to be an American military solution.  Enamored with the magical efficacy of counterinsurgency tactics, they bet wrong on the capacity of the U.S. government or its military to transform the chaotic, unmovable facts on the ground in Iraq.

This might matter little today if senior officers who led the Army and Marine Corps during the surge hadn’t found their way into key positions in the Trump administration.  To take one example, new National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster is something of a legendary figure in the U.S. Army.  A hero of the First Gulf War of 1991, he taught history at West Point, commanded a regiment in Iraq in the post-invasion years, fought national-level corruption in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011, and recently led the Army Capabilities Integration Center — the organization charged with developing the Army’s future concepts and force modernization.

A classic soldier-scholar with a doctorate in history, he authored a well-regarded book on the Vietnam War.  I count myself among his many admirers.  Nonetheless, his elevation to a policy-making position should raise troubling questions, since he, too, is a surge admirer. In 2005-2006, then-Colonel McMaster commanded the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Tal Afar, Iraq, a city wracked by insurgency and riven with sectarian divisions.  According to surge lore, he oversaw a miracle turnaround of the situation in that dangerous city, previewing the Petraeus surge to come.

It’s a story that briefs well and McMaster’s unit did indeed achieve some notable successes during its one-year deployment, but — and this is a big “but” — those gains proved fleeting.  The Sunnis of that city were never reconciled with the Shiite-dominated Baghdad government nor were their grievances addressed, so violence returned.  In 2014, just three years after the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq, Tal Afar became one of the first Iraqi cities conquered by the militants of the new Islamic State.

Remember that the whole purpose of the surge had been to provide time and space for Iraqi national reconciliation. That never truly occurred — not in Tal Afar or elsewhere.  McMaster’s own academic expert, Army reservist Ahmed Hashim, recognized the essential issue back in 2006: “The problem is, what happens when this unit leaves? It’s only a one-year vision, and then we rotate out.”

The Real-World Costs of Strategic Failure

Difficult as it is to predict the future, there’s something ominous about seeing Generals H.R. McMaster, James Mattis, and John Kelly, all holdovers of sorts from the surge generation, take key positions in Donald Trump’s administration where they will once again face surge-like issues and dilemmas in the Greater Middle East.  The question is: Has their thinking on such problems developed since the surge era?

Keep in mind that a surprising number of military officers and policymakers still subscribe to the idea that just a little more effort, a couple of more years, a few thousand extra troops, a bit more political gumption, and it might all have spelled victory in Iraq. Such would’ve-could’ve-should’ve apologetics are, of course, historically dangerous.  The German Wehrmacht carefully cultivated a similar “stab-in-the-back” myth to explain that it was the politicians, not the army, that had actually lost World War I.  A decade later, many of those disgruntled German military professionals embraced the bellicose language of a certain well-known fascist demagogue.

In less drastic but still detrimental fashion, in the years after 1973, the new all-volunteer U.S. Army grew increasingly estranged from the civilian population.  This was, in part, because many veteran officers blamed America’s defeat in Vietnam on home-front antiwar protestors who were (gasp!) simply exercising their constitutional rights.  Perhaps in place of self-serving, vindicating myths, an honest, critical, and realistic assessment of the past would better advance future strategy and operations.

Those Council on Foreign Relations panelists, the vast majority of my fellow military officers (in my experience), and a surprisingly bipartisan array of congressional representatives still perpetuate — and seemingly believe — not only the surge myth, but the stale, discredited ideologies at its root: American exceptionalism, this country’s supposed status as the globe’s "indispensable" nation, and the magical capabilities of our high-tech military.

Ironically, U.S. military doctrine purports to value "critical" and "creative" thinking.  Unfortunately, that emphasis hardly fits with the realities of promotion and command selection.  A recent empirical analysis by faculty from West Point’s Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership concluded that “promotion and command boards may actually penalize officers for their conceptual ability.”  In other words, more intelligent, educated, and skeptical officers – those with “higher cognitive ability,” according to the study — don't fare so well in the competitive promotion game.

Which helps explain much, since truly critical thinkers would have challenged the various myths surrounding the surge and the unbalanced tactics that inspired the legend.  The defense establishment has just given President Trump the “preliminary draft” for the “comprehensive strategy” he requested to beat ISIS.  What will you bet that their suggestions are still infused with surge thinking?

Colonel Dale Eikemeier and Arthur Lykke Jr. have suggested that effective strategy involves the balancing of ends (desired outcomes), ways (methods), and means (available resources), while limiting risk.  At least retrospectively, it boggles the mind that, in 2006-2007, a plurality of political and military thinkers presumed Washington could successfully achieve such an equilibrium in Iraq by military means.  As they defined them at the time, their desired outcomes were outrageous: halt a brutal sectarian civil war, defeat a nationalist-Islamist insurgency, facilitate a political settlement in an ethno-religiously divided synthetic state, and restore essential civil services.  In what universe did policymakers expect our means — a finite professional (non-conscripted) army in an alien land with help from the State Department (whose staff globally is about the size of one army division) — to achieve such wildly inflated ambitions?

As for ways, the outrageous size disparity between that military and an undersized diplomatic corps ensured that either American methods would be almost purely military in nature or require that soldiers transform themselves into diplomats, social workers, and city councilmen. (In those days, it was called “nation building.”)  Armed with eternal, can-do optimism, the Army tried a bit of both.

The band-aid momentarily stemmed the bleeding, but proved predictably incapable of healing the wound.  In the process, the military’s sacrifice was substantial (960 dead in the surge’s first year alone), but the long-term results were negligible. The shocking imbalance between the three strategic “legs of the stool” (ends, ways, and means) guaranteed an unacceptable level of risk. American troops and Iraqi civilians bore the brunt of that peril. No surprise there. Still, it boggles the mind how few dissenting voices emerged from our military and political ranks at the time. Even more frightening is the continuing resonance of the surge myth 10 years later in the face of overwhelming evidence of Iraq’s turmoil and the ineffectiveness of foreign nation-building more generally. (See: Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya.)

Memory is a tricky thing. As historian Dale Andrade wrote, “No matter how the war in Iraq ends, it seems likely that it will soon replace Vietnam as the military’s new touchstone for lessons learned.”  Under the circumstances, that’s scary.  Just as the military and public misunderstood Vietnam, too many contemporary officers and politicians rely on a mythical rendering of the ongoing Iraq War.  That memory will, in turn, deeply influence what Americans learn from the enduring campaigns in the Middle East and so tragically shape future U.S. military strategy.

Now, look at that photo of mine one more time and consider the real-world costs of strategic failure.  Four of those men are dead; one is paralyzed; and three of the others were wounded.  That was 10 years ago, and as for the Middle East, it’s worse than we found it. Thought about a certain way, in the end it wasn’t the U.S. military, but various terror groups that surged most effectively.

Call me a skeptic, but my sense is that those painted concrete barriers in the Kuwaiti desert will one day serve as so many American ziggurats, monuments to a profound failure of the imagination. Let’s hope the Council on Foreign Relations invites some genuinely creative, dissenting voices to its 20th anniversary panel commemorating the famous Iraq surge. But I won’t hold my breath.

Major Danny Sjursen, a TomDispatch regular, is a U.S. Army strategist and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.  He lives with his wife and four sons near Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. 

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Command and General Staff College, Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, John Feffer's dystopian novel Splinterlands, as well as Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2017 Danny Sjursen

American Carnage

 American Carnage

Photo by iStock/BasSlabbers

This piece is reprinted with permission by TomDispatch.

In his inaugural address, President Trump described a dark and dismal United States, a country overrun by criminal gangs and drugs, a nation stained with the blood seeping from bullet-ridden corpses left at scenes of “American carnage.” It was more than a little jarring.

Certainly, drug gangs and universally accessible semi-automatic weapons do not contribute to a better life for most people in this country. When I hear the words “American carnage,” however, the first thing I think of is not an endless string of murders taking place in those mysterious “inner cities” that exist only in the fevered mind of Donald Trump. The phrase instead evokes the non-imaginary deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in real cities and rural areas outside the United States. It evokes the conversion of millions of ordinary people into homeless refugees. It reminds me of the places where American wars seem never to end, where new conflicts seem to take up just as the old ones are in danger of petering out. These sites of carnage are the cities and towns, mountains and deserts of Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, and other places that we don’t even find out about unless we go looking. They are the places where the United States fights its endless wars.

During the 2016 election campaign, Donald Trump often sounded like a pre-World War II-style America First isolationist, someone who thought the United States should avoid foreign military entanglements. Today, he seems more like a man with a uniform fetish. He’s referred to his latest efforts to round up undocumented immigrants in this country as “a military operation.” He’s similarly stocked his cabinet with one general still on active duty, various retired generals, and other military veterans. His pick for secretary of the interior, Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke, served 23 years as a Navy SEAL.

Clearly, these days Trump enjoys the company of military men. He’s more ambivalent about what the military actually does. On the campaign trail, he railed against the folly that was -- and is -- the (second) Iraq War, maintaining with questionable accuracy that he was “totally against” it from the beginning. It’s not clear, however, just where Trump thinks the folly lies -- in invading Iraq in the first place or in failing to “keep” Iraq’s oil afterward.  It was a criticism he reprised when he introduced Mike Pompeo as his choice to run the CIA. “Mike,” he explained, “if we kept the oil, you probably wouldn’t have ISIS because that’s where they made their money in the first place.” Not to worry, however, since as he also suggested to Pompeo, “Maybe we’ll have another chance.” Maybe the wrong people had just fought the wrong Iraq war, and Donald Trump’s version will be bigger, better, and even more full of win!

Perhaps Trump’s objection is simply to wars we don’t win. As February ended, he invited the National Governors Association to share his nostalgia for the good old days when “everybody used to say ‘we haven’t lost a war’ -- we never lost a war -- you remember.”  Now, according to the president, “We never win a war. We never win. And we don’t fight to win. We don’t fight to win. So we either got to win, or don’t fight it at all.”

The question is, which would Trump prefer: Winning or not fighting at all? There’s probably more than a hint of an answer in his oft-repeated campaign promise that we’re “going to win so much” we’ll “get tired of winning.” If his fetish for winning -- whether it’s trade wars or shooting wars -- makes you feel a little too exposed to his sexual imagination, you’re probably right. In one of his riffs on the subject, he told his audience that they would soon be pleading they had “a headache” to get him to stop winning so much -- as if they were 1950s housewives trying to avoid their bedroom duty. But daddy Trump knows best:

“And I'm going to say, ‘No, we have to make America great again.’ You're gonna say, ‘Please.’ I said, ‘Nope, nope. We're gonna keep winning.’”

There’s more than a hint of where we’re headed in Trump’s recent announcement that he’ll be asking Congress for a nearly 10% increase in military spending, an additional annual $54 billion for the Pentagon as part of what he calls his “public safety and national security budget.” You don’t spend that kind of money on toys unless you intend to play with them. 

Trump explained his reasoning, in his trademark idiolect, his unique mangling of syntax and diction:

“This is a landmark event, a message to the world, in these dangerous times of American strength, security, and resolve. We must ensure that our courageous servicemen and women have the tools they need to deter war and when called upon to fight in our name only do one thing, win. We have to win.”

So it does look like the new president intends to keep on making war into the eternal future. But it’s worth remembering that our forever wars didn’t begin with Donald J. Trump, not by a long shot.

The Forever Wars

Joe Haldeman’s 1974 novel, The Forever War, which won the three major science fiction prizes, a Hugo, a Nebula, and a Locus, was about a soldier involved in a war between human beings and the Taurans, an alien race. Because of the stretching of time when traveling at near light-speed (as Einstein predicted), while soldiers like Haldeman’s hero passed a few years at a time at a front many light-years from home, the Earth they’d left behind experienced the conflict as lasting centuries. Published just after the end of the Vietnam War -- fought for what seemed to many Americans like centuries in a land light-years away -- The Forever War was clearly a reflection of Haldeman’s own experience in Vietnam and his return to an unrecognizable United States, all transposed to space.

In 1965, Haldeman had been drafted into that brutal conflict, probably one of those that Donald Trump thinks we didn’t “fight to win.” It certainly seemed like a forever war while it lasted, especially if you included the French colonial war that preceded it. But it did finally end, decisively, with an American loss (although, in a sense, it’s still being fought out by the thousands of Vietnam veterans who live on the streets of our country).

After the attacks of 9/11 and George W. Bush’s declaration of a Global War on Terror, some people found the title of Haldeman’s novel a useful shorthand for what seemed to be an era of permanent war. It gave us a way of describing then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s vision of a new kind of war against an enemy located, as he told NBC’s Meet the Press on September 30, 2001, “not just in Afghanistan. It is in 50 or 60 countries and it simply has to be liquidated. It has to end. It has to go out of business.”

More than 15 years later, after a decade and a half of forever war in the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa, al-Qaeda and the Taliban are still in business, along with a set of new enemies, including Boko Haram in Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon; al-Shabaab in Somalia; and ISIS, which, if we are to believe the president and his cronies, is pretty much everywhere, including Mexico. In a war against a tactic (terrorism) or an emotion (terror), it’s hardly surprising that our enemies have just kept proliferating, and with them, the wars. It’s as if Washington were constantly bringing jets, drones, artillery, and firepower of every sort to bear on a new set of Taurans in another galaxy.

Decades before Haldeman’s Forever War, George Orwell gave us an unforgettable portrait of a society controlled by stoking permanent hatred for a rotating cast of enemies. In 1984, the countries of the world have coalesced into three super-nations -- Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia. Winston Smith, the novel’s protagonist, recalls that, since his childhood, “war had been literally continuous, though strictly speaking it had not always been the same war.” Smith joins thousands of other citizens of Oceania in their celebration of Hate Week and observes the slick substitution of one enemy for another on the sixth day of that week:

“...when the great orgasm was quivering to its climax and the general hatred of Eurasia had boiled up into such delirium that if the crowd could have got their hands on the two thousand Eurasian war-criminals who were to be publicly hanged on the last day of the proceedings, they would unquestionably have torn them to pieces -- at just this moment it had been announced that Oceania was not after all at war with Eurasia. Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Eurasia was an ally.”

Except that there is no actual announcement. Rather, the Party spokesman makes the substitution in mid-oration:

“The speech had been proceeding for perhaps twenty minutes when a messenger hurried onto the platform and a scrap of paper was slipped into the speaker’s hand. He unrolled and read it without pausing in his speech. Nothing altered in his voice or manner, or in the content of what he was saying, but suddenly the names were different. Without words said, a wave of understanding rippled through the crowd. Oceania was at war with Eastasia!

And it had always been thus. “Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.”

1984 is, of course, a novel. In our perfectly real country, human memories work better than they do in Orwell’s Oceania. Or do they? The United States is at war with Iraq. The United States has always been at war with Iraq. Except, of course, when the United States sided with Iraq in its vicious, generation-destroying conflict with Iran in the 1980s. Who today remembers Ronald Reagan’s “tilt toward Iraq” and against Iran? They’re so confusing, those two four-letter countries that start with “I.” Who can keep them straight, even now that we’ve tilted back toward what’s left of Iraq -- Trump has even removed it from his latest version of his Muslim ban list -- and threateningly against Iran?

Many Americans do seem to adapt to a revolving enemies list as easily as the citizens of Oceania. Every few years, I ask my college students where the terrorists who flew the planes on 9/11 came from. At the height of the (second and still unfinished) Iraq War, when many of them had brothers, sisters, lovers, even fathers fighting there, my students were certain the attackers had all been Iraqis. A few years later, when the “real men” were trying to gin up a new opportunity to “go to Tehran,” my students were just as sure the terrorists had been from Iran. I haven’t asked in a couple of years now. I wonder whether today I’d hear that they were from Syria, or maybe that new country, the Islamic State?

I don’t blame my students for not knowing that the 9/11 attackers included 15 Saudis, two men from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), one Egyptian, and one Lebanese. It’s not a fact that’s much trumpeted anymore. You certainly wouldn’t guess it from where our military aid and American-made weaponry goes. After Afghanistan ($3.67 billion) and Israel ($3.1 billion), Egypt is the next largest recipient of that aid at $1.31 billion in 2015.

Of course, military aid to other countries is a windfall for U.S. arms manufacturers. Like food money and other forms of foreign aid from Washington, the countries receiving it are often obligated to spend it on American products.  In other words, much military “aid” is actually a back-door subsidy to companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Being wealthy oil states, the Saudis and the UAE, of course, don’t need subsidies. They buy their U.S. arms with their own money -- $3.3 billion and $1.3 billion worth of purchases respectively in 2015. And they’re putting that weaponry to use, with U.S. connivance and -- yes, it should make your head spin in an Orwellian fashion -- occasional support from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, by taking sides in a civil war in Yemen. U.S.-made fighter planes and cluster bombs have put more than seven million Yemenis in imminent danger of starvation.

War Without End, When Did You Begin?

When did our forever war begin? When did we start to think of the president as commander-in-chief first, and executor of the laws passed by Congress only a distant second?

Was it after 9/11? Was it during that first Iraq war that spanned a few months of 1990 and 1991? Or was it even earlier, during the glorious invasion of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983, codenamed Operation Urgent Fury? That was the first time the military intentionally -- and successfully -- kept the press sequestered from the action for the first 48 hours of that short-lived war. They did the same thing in 1989, with the under-reported invasion of Panama, when somewhere between 500 and 3,500 Panamanians died so that the United States could kidnap and try an erstwhile ally and CIA asset, the unsavory dictator of that country, Manuel Noriega.

Or was it even earlier? The Cold War was certainly a kind of forever war, one that began before World War II ended, as the United States used its atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to, as we now say, “send a message” to the Soviet Union.  And it didn’t end until that empire imploded in 1991.

Maybe it began when Congress first abdicated its constitutional right and authority to declare war and allowed the executive branch to usurp that power. The Korean War (1950-1953) was never declared. Nor were the Vietnam War, the Grenada invasion, the Panama invasion, the Afghan War, the first and second Iraq wars, the Libyan war, or any of the wars we’re presently involved in. Instead of outright declarations, we’ve had weasely, after-the-fact congressional approvals, or Authorizations for the Use of Military Force, that fall short of actual declarations of war.  

The framers of the Constitution understood how important it was to place the awesome responsibility for declaring war in the hands of the legislative branch -- of, that is, a deliberative body elected by the people -- leaving the decision on war neither to the president nor the military. Indeed, one of the charges listed against King George III in the Declaration of Independence was: “He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.”

Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and the others who met in the stifling heat of that 1776 Philadelphia summer, close enough to battle to hear the boom of British cannons, decided they could no longer abide a king who allowed the military to dominate a duly constituted civil government. For all their many faults, they were brave men who, even with war upon them, recognized the danger of a government controlled by those whose sole business is war.

Since 9/11, this country has experienced at least 15 years of permanent war in distant lands.  Washington is now a war capital. The president is, first and foremost, the commander-in-chief. The power of the expanding military (as well as paramilitary intelligence services and drone assassination forces, not to mention for-profit military contractors of all sorts) is emphatically in presidential hands. Those hands, much discussed in the 2016 election campaign, are now Donald Trump’s and, as he indicated in his recent address to Congress, he seems hell-bent on restoring the military to the superiority it enjoyed under King George. That is a danger of the first order.

Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches in the philosophy department at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes. Her previous books include Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States and Letters from Nicaragua.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, John Feffer's dystopian novel Splinterlands, as well as Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2017 Rebecca Gordon

To the Women of America and the World: A Warning and a Rallying Cry From Poland

 Black Monday
Photo courtesy Agnieszka Morcinek / Agencja Gazeta

An international strike of and for the women of the 99%, A Day Without a Woman, will take place on March 8, 2017.

We, the women of Poland, have watched the emergence of the biggest threat to American democracy in the person of Donald Trump with a sickening feeling of familiarity. As we near March 8th, the day of our international strike against the curtailing of women’s rights, we wish to share with you what is at stake, from the perspective of a country where an Alt Right government has been in power for over a year. Dear Women of America and the world, your fears are well founded. But you are not alone.

March 8th will be our second stand against the toxic relationship our current government is trying to force Polish women into. Our first strike was Black Monday, in October of last year, when we flooded the streets under black umbrellas in defense of our reproductive rights. Much like Donald Trump, who on his first day in office imposed the global gag rule on NGOs bringing reproductive support to women, the Polish government began its tenure with an attempt to criminalize the few exceptions to our already rigorous anti-abortion law. We could not and did not allow this proposal to pass.

Since that time, we have seen that a government’s playbook that begins with an attack on women’s rights goes on to write nationalism and the demonization of immigrants into the history books of schoolchildren. We have witnessed that a presidency which begins by passing the reins of a woman’s life into the hands of authorities, goes on to remove protection from endangered natural environments. It has also been our experience that when a man who has been elected to represent an entire nation turns his back on women, he quickly goes on to do the same with the media and the courts. When a bully wields major political power, the consequences are what we see in Poland today — a crippled constitutional court, an education system plunged into chaos, a country smothered in smog, where primeval forests and urban trees are recklessly cut down, where independent media is weakened by economic sanctions and the public media turned into a government propaganda machine. What started with a stab at our reproductive rights has gone on to attack much of what we as a modern society hold dear. These changes took place in Poland very quickly. It may be the same in America.

Indeed, it may soon be the same in many parts of the world. We recognize that the politics and economic policies of the West have passed the limit of social tolerance for income disparity and the corruption. Changes are now inevitable and it is certain that we all face a period of turbulent transformation. But we must not allow for fascism and other mistakes of the past to be put forward as solutions to the challenges of today. It is our unshakable conviction that women’s rights are human rights. And a future built on democracy, which means a respect for all human rights, is the only one that we will participate in.

Twenty-eight years ago, our massive Solidarity movement brought democracy to Poland after decades of Communist occupation. On March 8th, A Day Without a Woman, inspired by our Black Monday, we will strike again in international solidarity, to defend those values.

We will strike with you as women of the 99%. As the mothers, the wives, the sisters, the daughters and the leaders of the revolution for an inclusive, sustainable future for all: one where the remarkable connectivity of technology can spread wisdom and cooperation more quickly and farther than false truths and hatred. A world where the value of human beings is based on what they know, what they can do and how they contribute, not on their gender, the place of their birth or the name of their god. A society, where it is the invisible hand of democratic values that lifts citizens up into equality for all. We strike against the trampling of human rights, hard won by brave men and women of the past, in the name of a new progress. We stand together to take active part in the forming of a new balance, which will emerge from today’s crises on both sides of the Atlantic.

To bring home the impact of our global coming together, we propose to take a roll call. Let us see for ourselves, and let others see, just how huge a force our movement really is. Count yourself in — regardless of whether you are in a big city or a small town, whether you live in Europe, North America, South America, Africa or Asia, whether you are able to participate in public demonstrations or not. If you support the concept of a new, interconnected future based on democratic equality for all then please, get your number.

The counter below will give you a unique id number in the global movement of women for democracy. Use it! Show it on March 8th and anytime when you need to call out injustice, protest abuse, applaud cooperation, or when you need to call for help. Show it online and wherever you can do so and remain safe. Use it to build support and rally for a future that we can all be proud of. And get your number so that you do not feel alone. Because you’re not.

www.CountMeIn.pl

Sincerely,

Kongres Kobiet – Poland's Congress of Women

International Women’s Strike – Poland

Lilja Ólafsdóttir, one of the organizers of Iceland’s original Women’s Strike in 1975, a member of Redstockings

Gudrún Hallgríms­­dóttir, one of the organizers of Iceland’s original Women’s Strike in 1975, a member of Redstockings

Guðrún Jónsdóttir, a participant in Iceland’s original Women’s Strike in 1975, currently an activist in Stigamot, and Icelandic organization dedicated to fighting the sexual abuse of women

Wysokie Obcasy - Poland’s weekly women’s issues magazine

Gazeta Wyborcza - Poland’s largest liberal daily newspaper