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Tomgram: Danny Sjursen, Three Administrations, One Standard Playbook

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

In a Washington politically riven in ways not seen since the pre-Civil War era, take hope. Despite everything you've read, bipartisanship is not dead. On one issue, congressional Democrats and Republicans, as well as Donald Trump, all speak with a single resounding voice, with, in fact, unmatched unanimity and fervor as they stretch hands across the aisle in a spirit of cooperation. Perhaps you've already guessed, but I'm referring to the Pentagon budget. By staggering majorities, both houses of Congress just passed an almost $700 billion defense bill, more money than even President Trump had requested and he's already happily signed it.

And Americans generally seem to partake of the same spirit. After all, while esteem for other American institutions like, uh, Congress has fallen radically in these years, the U.S. military hasn't lost a step. Last June, for instance, Gallup's pollsters found that public confidence in U.S. institutions generally had dropped to a dismal 32%, but a soaring 73% of Americans had the highest possible confidence in the military, which means that Donald Trump's decision to surround himself with three generals as secretary of defense, White House chief of staff, and national security adviser was undoubtedly a popular one. In a similar vein, it's striking that America's war on terror, now entering its 17th dismal year and still expanding, and the military that wages it remain essentially beyond criticism or protest. It hardly seems to matter that, in this century of constant warfare across significant parts of the planet, that military has yet to bring home a real victory of any sort.

Who cares? That military is, by now, a distinctly Teflon outfit to which no criticism sticks, even through it and the rest of the national security state swallow stunning amounts of taxpayer dollars as if there were no tomorrow, while the Pentagon experiences cost overruns of every kind for its weapons systems, has proven incapable of auditing itself (ever!), and recently couldn't even account for 44,000 (yes, 44,000!) of its troops deployed somewhere in the imperium, though who knows where. No wonder Donald Trump, a man of no fixed beliefs (except about himself), but with a finely tuned sense of what might be popular with his base, has loosed that military from many of the already modest bounds within which it's fought its largely losing wars of these last years, and seems to be leaving its generals (and the CIA) to do their escalatory damnedest from Afghanistan to Niger, Syria to Somalia.

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With all of this in mind, as another year in which permanent war is the barely noticed background hum of American life, I asked TomDispatch regular U.S. Army Major Danny Sjursen, author of Ghost Riders of Baghdad, to assess American war in 2017 and consider just where we're headed. Tom

America's Wars
Yet More of More of the Same?
By Danny Sjursen

I remember the day President Obama let me down.

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It was December 1, 2009, and as soon as the young president took the podium at West Point and -- calm and cool as ever -- announced a new troop surge in Afghanistan, I knew. There wasn't a doubt in my mind. In that instant, George W. Bush's wars had become Barack Obama's.

But where Bush had seemed, however foolishly, to believe his own rhetoric about America's glorious military mission in the world, you always sensed that Obama's heart just wasn't in it. He'd been steamrolled by ambitious generals who pioneered generational warfare and hawkish cabinet members like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Bush-holdover Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Then again, what choice did he have, given the way he'd run his presidential campaign on the idea that Afghanistan was a "war of necessity" and so the foil for Iraq, the "dumb war"? Now he was stuck with that landlocked, inhospitable little war, come what may. As we all know (and as I had little doubt then), it didn't work out. Not at all.

Like many other idealistic Americans, I'd bet big on Obama. The madness and futility of my own 15 months in Iraq as a scout platoon leader -- you know, one of those "warriors" you're obligated to thank endlessly for his service -- had forever soured me on nation-building crusades in faraway lands. And the young, inspiring senator from Illinois seemed to have some authentic anti-war chops. Unlike Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden, he was untarnished by the October 2002 Iraq War resolution vote that gave the Bush administration the right to shock and awe the hell out of Saddam Hussein. Looking back, I suppose I should have known better. Obama had only been a state senator with an essentially nonexistent record on foreign policy when he first criticized Operation Iraqi Freedom. Still, after so many years of Bush's messianic adventures, anyone seemed preferable.

That was more than eight years ago and somehow the United States military is still slogging along in Iraq and Afghanistan. What's more, Bush's wars have only expanded in breadth, if not in depth, to Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Niger, among other places. Yes, ISIS as a "caliphate" has been defeated. As a now-global franchise, however, anything but, and victory -- whatever that might mean at this point -- couldn't be further off as our next president, Donald Trump, approaches his one year mark in office and he and "his" military only ratchet up those wars further.

Good Instincts?

The Trump-Clinton election fiasco of 2016 was, to say the least, disturbing. And while I was no fan of Mr. Trump's language, demeanor, or (however vague) policies, when it came to our wars he did seem to demonstrate some redeeming qualities. Running against Hillary the hawk presented him with genuine opportunities. She, after all, had been wrong about every major foreign policy decision for more than a decade. Iraq? She voted for it. Afghanistan? She wanted another "surge." Libya? She was all in and had a fine chuckle when autocrat Muammar Gaddafi was killed.

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Mr. Trump, on the other hand, while visibly ill informed and anything but polished on such subjects, occasionally sounded strangely rational and ready to topple more than a few sacred cows of the foreign policy establishment. He called both the Iraq and Afghan wars "stupid," criticized the poorly planned and executed Libyan operation that had indeed loosed chaos and weaponry from Gaddafi's looted arsenals across North Africa, and had even questioned whether military escalation, supposedly to balance Russian moves in Eastern Europe, was necessary. Whether he really believed any of that stuff or was just being an effective attack dog by pouncing on Hillary's grim record we may never know.

What already seems clear, however, is that Trump's version of global strategy -- to the extent that he even has one -- is turning out to be yet more of more of the same. He did, of course, quickly surround himself with three generals from America's losing wars clearly convinced that they could "surge" their way out of anything. More troublesome yet, it seems to have registered on him that military escalation, air strikes of various sorts, special operations raids, and general bellicosity all look "presidential" and so play well with the American people.

In constant need of positive reinforcement, Trump has seemed to revel in the role of war president. When he simply led a round of applause for a widow whose husband had died in a botched raid in Yemen early in his presidency, CNN commentator Van Jones typically gushed that he "just became president of the United States, period." After he ordered the launching of a few dozen cruise missiles targeting one of Bashar al-Assad's air bases in Syria, even Washington Post columnist and CNN host Fareed Zakaria lauded him for acting "presidential." War sells, as does fear, especially in the America of 2017, a country filled with outsized fears of Islamic terrorism that no one knows how to stoke better than Donald Trump. So expect more, much more, of each next year.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("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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