Libya was bombed by the US government yesterday, but you wouldn’t know it because the media have been obsessed with the #TakeAKnee dispute between the president and the NFL. Trump may not even be aware that Libya was bombed under his authority, because he has put his trusty “Mad Dog” on a very long leash, in the hopes that he’ll be able to figure out how to clean up the mess in the Middle East.
I’ve picked on General James “Helluva Hoot to Shoot Some People” Mattis before, pointing out, among other things, the fact that he’s part of the revolving door of military officers and war profiteers. Was the Fallujah siege of 2004 a splendid show of US military prowess? I beg to differ. Perhaps it was for his moniker alone that General Mattis was called out of semi-retirement by Trump to serve as the Secretary of Defense. But rather than revisit my particular concerns about Mattis’ ability to solve the crises in the Middle East—or elsewhere—given the demonstrated failures of the US military since 2001, while he was running large parts of the show, I’d like to consider a more general question:
Should generals be diplomats?
Retired General Colin Powell was appointed US Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, and you may recall his colorful powerpoint presentation before the UN General Assembly in the run-up to the 2003 war on Iraq—yellow cake, aluminium tubes, mobile chemical laboratories (think: Breaking Bad). Powell did not convince very many of his colleagues at the UN that Iraq needed to be invaded in order to thwart Saddam Hussein’s allegedly imminent transfer of WMD (weapons of mass destruction) to Al Qaeda, but the US government went to war anyway. Why? Because the Bush administration wanted to, and UK Prime Minister Tony “Poodle” Blair had pledged that he was “absolutely” with Bush, “no matter what”. (See the Chilcot Report and its implications.) Even more important than having a tiny “coalition of the willing” was the congressional conferral on Bush of the 2002 AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force), giving him the liberty to wage war on Iraq as he saw fit and at a time of his choosing. The rest is history.
The Middle East is in shambles, and the same pundits and so-called foreign policy experts (including MIC revolving door retired military officers) are regularly trotted out to opine about the latest international crises: in Syria, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, and of course the never-ending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. How did Libya become a part of the War on Terror? That was Obama’s idea or, rather, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s. She and a few others managed to persuade Obama that “Gaddafi must go.” Obviously, Hillary Clinton is not a general, so I am not going to focus on her specific reasons for wanting to repeat, in Libya, the mistake she made in supporting the overthrow of the government of Iraq. As a matter of fact, Clinton has characterized the 2011 Libya intervention as an example of “smart power at its best”. Of course, she also believes that she lost the 2016 election because of misogyny and the Russians (not sure where antiwar voters fit in there), and (assuming she really wrote What Happened) that the point of Orwell’s 1984 was to bolster our trust in “leaders, the press, experts”. May HRC eventually retire from public life in peace.
People have wondered why the United States was at war for every single day of the eight years of Obama’s presidency. Some were disillusioned by Obama’s hawkish foreign policy and decision to normalize assassination, even of US citizens, using unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) or lethal drones. Others were naturally elated, and the antiwar voters whose support Obama had lost by 2012 were more than made up for by the gain in people impressed by the fact that he had hunted down and killed Osama bin Laden.
Trump, too, sounded to some voters like the least bellicose of the two viable presidential candidates, once the DNC had completed their coronation of Clinton. He railed against interventionism, nation building, and fighting wars abroad when our own infrastructure is crumbling. Sound familiar? Bush and Obama did more or less the same. No nationbuilding! the candidates cried. US Marines do not walk children to school!
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, occurred under Bush’s watch, and his subsequent policies appear to have been largely crafted by Vice President Cheney, former CEO of military contract behemoth Halliburton, along with a contingent of chomping-at-the-bit neocons, who had been scheming about invading various countries in the Middle East for years. Obama and Trump seemed, refreshingly to antiwar voters, not to be swamp denizens but outsiders, who would not fall prey to the Deep State war-making apparatus. So what happened?
Trump, even more so than Obama before him, has depended upon the expert opinions of military personnel in deciding what to do next. Surprise: decorated generals tend to think that more military resources should be poured into the Middle East and the war machine should be expanded to new, uncharted territories as well. That’s because, in the infamous words of George W. Bush: “Our best defense is a good offense.” (National Security Strategy of the United States of America 2002).
It would be difficult for anyone seriously to deny that military experts have been trained primarily to do one thing: destroy things, including people. The most ambitious of the lot rise in the ranks through obedience to their superior officers and their readiness and willingness to carry out deadly missions. Which is not to say that military officers do not also sometimes exhibit courage, early in their careers, before having been deemed important enough to watch war on a big screen far from the bloody fray.
Now imagine that you were a general called upon to advise Obama or Trump about what to do in Afghanistan or Iraq. Because you’re an ambition-driven human being, you’re probably not going to deny that those wars can be won. You’re highly unlikely to apologize for your abject failure to craft a winning strategy over the course of the past fifteen years. Instead, you’ll ask for more and better tools so that you can, at last, get the job done, which no one else, including you, were able to before. The excuse for your prior failure, then, becomes that you did not have enough missiles, planes, drones; or else your hands were tied, making it impossible for you to achieve victory because the president was too involved in short-leash micromanagement and had no idea what the battlefield is like. Or something along those lines.
The point of the military corps is to serve the foreign policy aims of the executive, but when the military is given a say in, or even allowed to determine, what those aims should be, then we should expect to see more death and destruction, not less. So there you have it: the explanation of why the US military budget was recently increased by $80 billion, bringing the total to $700 billion. After consulting closely with military experts, Trump asked for the increase, and Congress gave it to him, despite the fact that Democrats continue to claim that they are part of some sort of anti-Trump Resistance movement.
You might nonetheless suppose that the executive will still be constrained by the legislative branch, given the US Constitution. You would be wrong, as the Congress has left the crusty and arguably misinterpreted 2001 AUMF in place, forsaking yet again its responsibility, right, and duty to decide when and where the United States should go to war. (NB: if the 2001 AUMF had been sufficient to permit the president to bomb anywhere on the planet, then there would have been no need for the 2002 AUMF. QED)
Viewed from the outside, this massive increase in the US military budget looks like the biggest con job in history. The Pentagon, which incidentally has “lost track” of trillions of dollars, is never held accountable, and has done nothing but sow chaos throughout the Middle East, disrupting the lives of millions of persons by killing, maiming, and traumatizing them, in addition to directly causing a massive refugee crisis. Induction on Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Syria might lead a rational person to be wary about following the advice of military experts in crafting appropriate responses to tensions with Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Syria (Trump, like Obama before him, cannot seem to decide whether the enemy is ISIS or Assad!), possibly Russia, and who knows where the next hot bed of conflict requiring US intervention will be found! Yet Congress has been persuaded to believe, because its members believe that voters have been persuaded to believe, that not only does the US military deserve their support, but it should be given even more money than before.
The ultimate problem here is a colossal failure of strategic intelligence. Stated starkly: homicide is not a strategy but a tactic. Foreign policy involves resolving conflicts with other members of the international community. Your nation is said to have a problem with another nation, so you can talk it out with the source of the problem, attempt to craft some sort of compromise solution, or explain to other members of the international community why you are right and they are wrong, in the hope that those nations will be able to exert some helpful influence in resolving the dispute. The military is called in when all of that sort of work, formerly known as “diplomacy”, has failed. Unfortunately, the US foreign policy of the twenty-first century has become more and more lethal because civil servants continue to depend upon military experts (again, often with ties to military industry) for advice on how to proceed. But this is not purely a matter of mercenary corruption, though that does play a role. The military mindset is itself geared toward achieving victory, not to retreat or compromise, which can be perceived of, and is often painted as weak.
The approach since September 11, 2001, has been to attempt to erase the problem of factional terrorism, to raze from the face of the earth the evil terrorists, wherever they may be. There has been no motivation for anyone in the administration to take seriously questions of etiology because they know that they can use their trusty drone killing machine in even the remotest corners of the world to incinerate the alleged enemy, wherever he may be said to hide. Advocates of drone killing retort, of course, that radical jihadists are beyond the reach of reason, but that has been intoned reflexively of every enemy against whom missiles have ever been deployed.
In truth, a number of suicide and would-be suicide bombers have quite lucidly articulated the source of their outrage: it is US foreign policy itself, what from the receiving end of missiles looks just like a vicious war on Muslim people. Ask yourself sincerely: What would a vicious war on Muslim people look like? Now take a look at the Middle East. The answer to the question “Why do they hate us?” could not be clearer to anyone who has paid any attention to US foreign policy in recent decades. But so long as the words of jihadists themselves are ignored, and slogans such as “They hate us for our freedom” are mindlessly parroted as the explanation for what they do, the killing machine will continue on in high gear. When the killing machine fails to eradicate the problem, then the constraints will be loosened, as under Trump, generating even more “collateral damage”, which will be used to recruit more and more jihadists to the cause, thereby keeping the killing machine in perpetual motion.
No one being killed by US missiles today had a hand in the attacks of September 11, 2001. Some of the younger and younger jihadist recruits being eliminated have lived in countries under continuous bombing for as long as they can remember. Lots of other people have died as well. In 2011, Obama killed Anwar al-Awlaki’s sixteen-year-old son, Abdulrahman; in 2017, Trump killed Anwar al-Awlaki’s eight-year-old daughter—both were in Yemen. Surely the solution to the turmoil in the Middle East is not the annihilation of every Arabic-speaking person of color born abroad. All of them do have the potential to become terrorists one day, but none of them were born that way.
Even former directors of the CIA have acknowledged that “You cannot kill your way out of this.” (Unfortunately persons in positions of power tend not to arrive at such enlightened views until after they retire.) And yet that is the logical endpoint of an approach whose only real goal has been to eliminate potential threats to the US homeland. Kill them all before they have the chance to make it to US shores! It’s an offensive policy, in both senses of the word, for it values the lives of people in the United States above all other human lives. Now that the lethal scepter has been handed off to Trump, he has not changed anything so much as made patent what US foreign policy has been about all along. Make America Great Again! Even if it involves eliminating everyone else on the planet.