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General News    H4'ed 10/31/19

Tomgram: Andrew Bacevich, Why Those "Endless Wars" Must Never End

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Here's the strange thing for the self-proclaimed greatest power in history, the very one that, in this century, has been fighting a series of unending wars across significant parts of the planet: if you exclude Operation Urgent Fury, the triumphant invasion of the island Grenada in 1983, and Operation Just Cause, the largely unopposed invasion of Panama in 1989, Washington's last truly successful war ended 74 years ago in August 1945 with the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japanese cities. Every war of even modest significance since -- and they've been piling up -- from the Korean and Vietnam wars to the ones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Libya, and elsewhere in this century (and the last as well, in the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq) has either ended badly (Vietnam) or not at all (see above).

And if that seems a little strange for the greatest power in history, here's something hardly less so: the reputations of so many of the men and women who promoted or directed those failing wars and the generals who commanded them remain remarkably intact. And that's in a Washington that still promotes more of the same -- with the exception of our bizarre president, notes TomDispatchregular Andrew Bacevich, author of the soon-to-be-published, aptly titled book, The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory. These days, it seems, you can't lose a reputation fighting a losing war for the United States. If you want proof of that, just check out the photo that Guardian columnist Julian Borger recently highlighted. It's a smile-a-thon of self-satisfaction that happens to include former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (think: Vietnam, Cambodia), former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice (think: the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq), and former CIA director and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (think: America's twenty-first-century forever wars), among others. All three are still admired and have kept their reps in Washington, which should tell you what you need to know about what passes for American foreign policy and the top officials of the national security state in 2019.

While Donald Trump tends to refer pejoratively to that state within a state as "the deep state," I prefer to think of it as the shallow state, not just because in these years so much of it is in plain sight, but because its thinking is anything but deep, as Bacevich suggests today. Tom

False Security
Donald Trump and the Ten Commandments (Plus One) of the National Security State
By Andrew Bacevich

Let us stipulate at the outset that Donald Trump is a vulgar and dishonest fraud without a principled bone in his corpulent frame. Yet history is nothing if not a tale overflowing with irony. Despite his massive shortcomings, President Trump appears intent on recalibrating America's role in the world. Initiating a long-overdue process of aligning U.S. policy with actually existing global conditions just may prove to be his providentially anointed function. Go figure.

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

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

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

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

The Decalogue Plus One

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

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

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

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

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

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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