Friday, June 24, 2011


By Ivan G. Goldman

One thing we didn’t hear in the president’s Afghanistan speech is the fact that when he took office there were 32,000 U.S. troops there. He’d already more than doubled their number before the surge. His speech was a masterful costume designed to cover up his nakedness.

We “will bring home a total of 33,000 troops by next summer, fully recovering the surge I announced at West Point,” he said. Exactly. But not recovering the approximately 35,000 troops he added in his first escalation. The speech was a deft bait and switch, using the old debating trick of debating a fact that’s beside the point. In the photo above, notice the middle finger of the soldier in the foreground. An eloquent response to U.S. strategy as it translates on the ground. He was photographed in Iraq, but the sentiment encompasses Afghanistan too, the other morass of choice.

A more germane point than the one Obama tried to make is that he escalated the war in Afghanistan before the "surge" and will sustain that escalation. And the real point is that the war is pointless. The speech had nothing to do with formulating any kind of rational policy because there isn't any. The 65,000 troops that will be stuck in the graveyard of empires at the end of his term (after that the number becomes really murky) will be ordered to tell Afghans over and over that we won’t quit, we won’t let them down. But of course we will pretty much quit eventually, we will let them down, just as they’ve let us down. They failed to welcome our occupation. Imagine that.

We’ll let them down mostly by not quite leaving. Not exactly. The oligarchs who run our war policy from stations inside and outside the government are against leaving any of our war theaters. We’re still in Japan, Korea, Germany, etc., etc. And we’re building permanent bases in Iraq and Afghanistan as we speak. We will leave these places only when we get a president who has the courage to lead us out, because it takes far more courage to take out the trash than it does to let it sit there for the next president.

So our soldiers and Marines patrolling these villages, under orders to lie and say we’re really committed to Afghanistan's welfare, will know that what they're saying makes no sense at all and isn't true. Bin Laden is dead. Al Qaeda is in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, and elsewhere. The 9/11 attacks were launched mostly from cells in Germany, not Afghanistan. We have a broken infrastructure and Americans lack jobs and die for lack of medical care. We have no good reason to try to remake Afghanistan into Nebraska. The villagers know this too. They know they're being lied to. We know it, and the president knows it.

So it was a clever speech, but cowardly and ultimately untrue.

Monday, May 30, 2011


By Ivan G. Goldman
The policy of never-ending war and occupation waged in the name of the American people is not without consequences.

Friday, April 29, 2011


By Ivan G. Goldman

“I heard he was a terrible student, terrible. How does a bad student go to Columbia and then to Harvard?”

--Donald Trump in an Associated Press interview

It’s at that point where the interviewer is supposed to stop the interviewee and ask him, “You hear? Hear from where? What is your source?” News isn’t unsubstantiated rumor and it isn’t gossip. Also, interviewers who know what they’re doing take into account what’s known about the person making the comment.

You don’t treat the statements of a habitual liar the same as those of a source that’s been one hundred percent credible in the past. Trump is, in fact, a habitual liar. When he’s caught he goes on to another lie and stops talking about the last lie.

Here’s something else he said about President Obama in an interview last month: “The reason I have a little doubt, just a little, is because he grew up and nobody knew him. You know? When you interview people, if ever I got the nomination, if I ever decide to run, you can go back and interview people from my kindergarten and they remember me. No one ever comes forward. Nobody knows who he is until later in his life. It’s very strange. The whole thing is very strange.”

How can such comments be taken seriously by a responsible news media? They can’t. At the very least a real interviewer would have to ask Trump the nature of his effort to find people who knew Obama when he was a child because in fact there are hundreds of people who have come forward to share their memories.

If Trump actually looked for them, he’s an awfully bad investigator. If he didn’t look – and very clearly he didn’t – why isn’t he directly challenged on it? Evidently when you don’t grow up in exclusive circles surrounded by fabulous wealth – as was Trump -- then “nobody” knows you, and there's no reason to question the reliability of the conclusion.

News media need to understand their mission, and it's not to treat garbage with the same seriousness as the results of a competent study. When they behave otherwise we need to hold their feet to the fire. Also, it's worth asking why Trump, thanks to a long history of this kind of behavior, leads Republican polls for the presidential nomination. Partly because he’s enabled by an incompetent, unscrupulous news media. Partly because this is the kind of guy so many Republican voters are looking for. Eventually they’ll settle down and find a smoother liar. That may or may not be an improvement.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


By Ivan G. Goldman

Eight NATO troops and a contractor, probably all Americans, according to the British press, were shot to death today by an Afghan pilot at the Kabul airport.

These ghastly murders are made even worse by the fact that they won’t be reported properly. They won’t be brought into their rightful context by NATO, the Pentagon, or the “journalists” in charge of delivering our information. Repetitious stories of Afghan police and soldiers turning on our troops are reported as isolated incidents even though they’ve become almost routine, part of a pattern that tells us a great deal about our mission over there.

We've learned to forget about finding stories that place these events alongside questions about why these NATO troops must serve in Afghanistan in the first place. The mission, after all, ended nearly ten years ago, when Osama Bin Laden escaped across the border into Pakistan. The present mission, which is to make Afghanistan into a kind of Asian Nebraska, is so excruciatingly stupid it defies serious analysis.

Meanwhile, here are some events I Googled up in a hurry. I assure you there are more to be found:

*Oct 3, 2009, An Afghan soldier on guard at a joint base with U.S. troops shot dead two U.S. servicemen and wounded two others as they slept.

*July 23, 2010, Two U.S. contractors were killed and one U.S. soldier wounded in a shootout with Afghan soldiers during a training exercise.

*July 25, 2010, an Afghan soldier shot a rocket-propelled grenade into a building, killing three British soldiers.

*August 25, 2010 An Afghan police recruit killed three Spanish soldiers.

*March 23, 2011, an Afghan soldier shot and killed two U.S. soldiers and fled.

*January 20, 2011, An Italian soldier was shot to death earlier in the week by an Afghan soldier, not by insurgents as originally reported, NATO said.

*April 20, 2011, An Afghan policeman shot and killed two Americans soldiers.

If I can find this stuff on my laptop in California, where are The New York Times, Reuters, the AP, CNN, and all those other news organizations with casts of thousands? Why aren’t they adding two and two and asking questions about the total sum?

If you seek fairness, a battle zone is one of the worst places to look, but beyond the elementary unfairness of sending troops to fight in a war because we don't have the gumption to end it, there's a nagging murder factor in Afghanistan, making it astronomically unfair to send troops into this pit of betrayal.

I suppose I could be cruel and suggest that supporters of our perpetual Afghan war consider doing a one-year tour themselves, not out on patrol, just hanging around with Afghan police officers and soldiers back behind the lines to help them with the worthy cause of propping up the regime of our crooked, crazy Pashtun pal Hamid Karzai. They'd find there’s lots to do around a military base in Afghanistan. Growing eyes in the back of your head, for example.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


Posted on Apr 13, 2011

By E.J. Dionne, Jr.

President Obama has finally decided to take his own side in the philosophical struggle that is the true engine of this nation’s budget debate.

After months of mixed signals about what he was willing to fight for, Obama finally laid out his purposes and his principles. His approach has difficulties of its own, and much will depend on execution. But the president was unequivocal in arguing that the roots of our fiscal problems lie in the tax cuts of the last decade that we could not afford. And he raised the stakes in our politics to something more fundamental than dry numbers on a page or computer screen.

“We are rugged individualists, a self-reliant people with a healthy skepticism of too much government,” he declared. “But there has always been another thread running throughout our history—a belief that we are all connected; and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation. We believe, in the words of our first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, that through government, we should do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves.”

There are at least four things to like about his approach. First, without mentioning Rep. Paul Ryan by name, he called out Ryan’s truly reactionary budget proposal for what it is: an effort to slash government programs, in large part to preserve and expand tax cuts for the wealthy. “That’s not right,” he said, “and it’s not going to happen as long as I’m president.”

Second, he was willing to speak plainly about raising taxes, and he insisted correctly on restoring the Clinton-era tax rates for the wealthy. Tax reform, which he also proposed, is a fine idea, though there is ample reason for skepticism as to how much revenue it can produce. It would be far better to return to all of the Clinton tax rates and then build tax reform on that base, in particular through higher taxes on investment income.

Third, he was right to focus on the need to cut security spending. Any serious effort to reduce the deficit cannot exempt defense. It’s laughable for Republicans to criticize defense cuts and then be utterly unwilling to increase taxes to pay for the defense they claim we need.

Finally, he was eloquent in defending Medicare and Medicaid. He proposed saving money by building on last year’s heath reform law. There are two ways to reduce the government’s heath care expenses. One is Ryan’s path, which, Obama said, “lowers the government’s health care bills by asking seniors and poor families to pay them instead.” The alternative, which the president rightly embraced, “lowers the government’s health care bills by reducing the cost of health care itself.”

But a good speech is only a first step. For his allies, the president’s negotiating method has been, well, petrifying: concede, concede and concede again—and then compromise from an already heavily compromised position. That’s why his promised cuts in domestic spending straight out of the box are worrying.

This problem will be even worse if the Obama plan comes to be defined as the “left” pole in the negotiation. It’s not. A truly progressive budget would include more revenue raised in more progressive ways. And contrary to what you might hear on Fox News, the established media wisdom on budget issues is center-right, and Ryan’s extreme budget has pushed the perceived center still further right, aggravating the tendency to locate Obama’s plan far to the left of where it is.

And there is something fundamentally wrong about making the deficit the central issue in our politics. Here’s a little secret: The deficit is actually not a hard problem. Only the taxophobia that Republicans have created and Democrats cower before has made this so complicated. Yes, health care costs are also a big deal. But they are a challenge for the whole economy and too many conservatives demagogue all serious efforts to grapple with them (see “death panels”).

For all that, there was a bigness about Obama’s speech that was a relief after his recent sojourn as a sideline judge. “We believe that in order to preserve our own freedoms and pursue our own happiness, we can’t just think about ourselves,” he said. “We have to think about the country that made those liberties possible. We have to think about our fellow citizens with whom we share a community.” Obama is back on the field, and this is where he needs to stay.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

Tuesday, April 05, 2011


By Ivan G. Goldman

The civil war in Libya is particularly attractive to the media because thanks to the simple terrain there, the conflict is very much like a football game. The two sides advance and retreat on a level that’s easy to digest. The situation is nothing like the one in Afghanistan, with its tangled zones of control and where Americans are routinely crippled and killed in a war no one wants to think about anymore and no one in power has the guts to end.

With the owners’ lockout threatening the next NFL season, Libyan developments are viewed as a particularly apt filler. The fact that Khadafy is a maniac makes the story that much better.

And speaking of crazy tyrants, Donald Trump has learned that if he occasionally hints he might run for president, he reaps tremendous publicity for his reality TV show, and it’s all free. But now that he’s joined the birther crowd he’s going to have a hard time out-sensationalizing his most recent pronouncements. Maybe he’ll have to publicly consider opting for a sex change. He’ll just have to decide whether he’s more interested in running for president or ratings, although these days the two missions are remarkably similar. Look for Charlie to decide he wants to be somebody’s running mate so he can lead us from chaos.

We’re also being told that Sheen’s traveling one-man tantrum show is somehow improving. But no one asks just who are the people making these pronouncements? If they’re dumb enough to purchase a ticket to one of these hideous events they’re probably about as sensible as snails in heat.

As stupid stories maintain their position at center stage, America quietly returns to Hoover economics, along with the UK and other panicked countries operated by floundering politicians trying to explain why they’re plunging us into deeper mud without admitting that they’re basically just doing what global corporations tell them to do.

At least we’re not stuck with British Prime Minister David Cameron, who, following Hoover’s program to a T, is fiercely digging a deep, deep grave for his nation’s economy with the help of the “Liberal” Nick Clegg. The program is to cut government spending wherever it threatens to pull the country out of the morass. So Cameron/Clegg cripple public education as they prop up the immensely wealthy in hopes they’ll buy an apple from the makeshift corner stands set up by desperate citizens that have no serious education to fall back on.

Allow me to mention down here at the bottom of this column that the Republicans in Congress have introduced a measure to kill Medicare. In ten years’ time their program would dole out some small sum to the elderly that they could present as a sort of coupon to private insurance companies. It’s rather an important story, don’t you think? So the news media gatekeepers don’t know what to do with it because Libya, football, and Charlie Sheen beat the hell out of it ratings-wise.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


By Ivan G. Goldman

“We’re broke.”

The House speaker says it, the Wisconsin governor says it. In fact, Republicans and their Blue Dog pals use these two words as an excuse for everything from depriving babies of their formula to punishing NPR for occasionally reporting facts. Once they get a slogan working for them, these people stay with it. After all, repeating slogans is so much easier than making sense.

And this time, oddly enough, the slogan is true. Government’s broke, along with at least half our citizens and most of the world. But just how did government get so broke? Well, let’s look at Medicare, for example.

The Republican-Blue Dog Coalition passed a Medicare prescription bill that made it illegal for government purchasing agents to bargain with drug companies. They publish their prices, government pays them. But wait, the same drug companies sell their wares for half-price in Canada and still make a profit. That meant the government must be prevented from making an end-run at the border and re-importing drugs from Canada. So the drug companies that wrote the legislation made that illegal. Their excuse for this was so impossibly stupid I can’t bear to repeat it. Let’s just say it makes sense if you accept the proposition that Canada is an undeveloped country whose products are probably swarming with rat feces.

Some other things that wrecked our finances: Two useless, multi-trillion-dollar wars. In one of them we continue raining billions of dollars on the bandits in the Afghan government and they divvy up the loot with the enemy, so we end up paying both sides. How can anyone as smart as Obama be so frightfully dumb? Meanwhile we keep raising the Pentagon allotment even though we’ve been the only superpower for two decades.

Our pals in Washington cut taxes for super-wealthy folks and made sure they stayed cut, no matter what. At the same time the banks were deregulated and they promptly created packages of worthless mortgages. They managed to sell them by paying off the ratings agencies. When their whole stinking garbage heap collapsed they got away clean. No one went to jail, but millions of homeowners who bought at the wrong time lost their life savings. Because the value of real estate dived, so did property taxes, putting unsustainable strain on local and state governments.

See a pattern? The formula is simple.

1. Perverted thieves pass laws that prevent us from putting locks on the doors.

2. They burglarize us.

3. They complain that “we” are broke.

4. They find patsies that include schoolchildren, disabled people, and organized labor and make them pay the price.

This isn’t Egypt. Not yet. But give the Egyptian demonstrators credit for not only knowing they were getting screwed but also knowing who was screwing them and why they were so broke.

Monday, February 07, 2011


By Ivan G. Goldman

Petitions to impose term limits circle the Web like mindless birds. Maybe you’ve seen them, maybe you’ve even signed them, which doesn’t make you mindless. It just means you probably haven’t thought this thing through.

We’re frustrated that government doesn’t seem to work in behalf of the people anymore. Health care works for insurance and drug companies, and foreign policy is crafted in favor of global corporations that see America as a farm field growing them dollars. When they’ve picked them all off the stalks they’ll just move on to another field. We also continue fighting wars that few of us believe in, but we can’t seem to get them stopped.

We don’t even have an energy policy.

Extended political terms for office-holders won’t solve any of this. Stopping them from taking bribes would sure help though. The bribes I’m talking about are often legal because the lawmakers made them so. They come in many forms -- not just campaign contributions. They’re jobs, financial opportunities, you name it. Shut down one source of income and twelve more pop up. Here are some you might know about:

* A congressman sponsors a Medicare prescription bill and the very next year goes to work for the corporations that wrote his legislation.

* The federal budget director quits and goes straight to Citi, which pays his salary, bonuses, stock options, and other perks with some of the billions it got from the government in zero-interest loans.

* The wife of a Supreme Court justice openly hangs a red light outside her home and invites in weasels desiring her favors. The justice-pimp fails to recuse himself from any of the cases involving her clients.

* In Los Angeles the mayor recently agreed to rent a huge swath of valuable real estate to a corporation that wants to build a football stadium there. Terms of the lease? The corporation pays a dollar a year. Oh, one more thing. The city’s convention center sits on part of the property. The mayor promises to tear down part of the building and put it on the other side to make room for the stadium. He’ll borrow $350 million to get that done. Incidentally, an NFL team plays about 10 home games a year. The rest of the time the land will be a closed-off, concrete wasteland. Last year he closed down summer school. Lack of funds, he said.

People are so desperate for a cure to these ills that they sign silly petitions, figuring any change has got to be for the better. Not so. Some changes make things worse. California already has term limits and it has one of the worst Legislatures around. The lobbyists who run the capital have no term limits, and their superior knowledge and experience give them even more leverage over legislators still trying to find the restrooms.

Why worry about how long politicians stay on the job? We could change them every month and still be in the same mess. Let’s stop the bribery. Then if we get a good office-holder, let’s hang on to her.

Friday, February 04, 2011


By Ivan G. Goldman

No, Social Security isn’t doomed. That’s just junk put out there by an army of reactionary Rasputins who want all New Deal programs rolled back so we can go back to the good old days when John D. Rockefeller and Herbert Hoover had everything under control.

If we fail to tinker with it, Social Security would run out by about 2041. But why would we be that dumb? We’ve tinkered with the program since its inception. Social Security is a live, successful entity that evolves with our society. Goofballs on the right want us to think the sky is falling so we should go live in caves. But if we didn’t look for ways to make things better, physicians would still be bleeding patients.

The Rasputins tell us we have to reduce benefits, make the retirement age much higher, or do both because they don’t want us to notice that Social Security taxes top out after you’ve made $106,800. Corporate kingpins making $20 million annually pay no more into the program than your average pharmacist. But the Meg Whitmans and Robert Rubins of the world don’t make their serious money in salary anyway because it’s too easy to tax at the maximum rate of 35 percent. They go for stock options and other accounting tricks that allow them to pay no Social Security or Medicare taxes on their earnings and a maximum rate of only 15 percent in income tax.

Incidentally, the maximum tax rate during the Eisenhower and Kennedy years was 91 percent, but that was before politicians began altering campaign financing regulations into a witches’ brew that allowed them to take much bigger tips from wealthy contributors. As these tips got bigger, the tax rates got much, much lower for the wealthiest 1 percent. And it's not over yet. Today’s youth believe Social Security won’t be there for them. That’s not solely based on the belief that America will go broke. It also rests on the savvy understanding that we’re getting screwed, and based on their experience, young citizens see no reason to believe it will stop. After all, it’s all they’ve ever known.

Meanwhile we have polluted air and water, crumbling bridges, no high-speed trains, anemic schools, and an obscenely structured medical care system that even with the new reforms will provide maximum profits to insurance and pharmaceutical suckfish. And now they’re coming for our Social Security. Not long before he died George Carlin, probably the best political scientist we’ve produced in the last century, predicted they’ll get it. Maybe they will. But if we understand it a little better we can make it a lot harder for them. There’s no reason capital gains have to be treated so much better than wages and there’s no good reason to top out Social Security taxes at absurdly low levels.

Obama’s deficit commission recommended that we raise the retirement age to 69 and apply means testing. The Rasputins know that if we turn Social Security into a welfare system it will lose its popularity and eventually they can starve it out, making it a fond memory, like justice and fair play.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Cow Most Sacred: Why Military Spending Remains Untouchable (Guest Post)

Ivan G. Goldman

[Astute analysis of Pentagon's place in our society by Andrew J. Bacevich, retired Army colonel and professor of history and international relations at Boston University]

By Andrew J. Bacevich

In defense circles, “cutting” the Pentagon budget has once again become a topic of conversation. Americans should not confuse that talk with reality. Any cuts exacted will at most reduce the rate of growth. The essential facts remain: U.S. military outlays today equal that of every other nation on the planet combined, a situation without precedent in modern history.

The Pentagon presently spends more in constant dollars than it did at any time during the Cold War -- this despite the absence of anything remotely approximating what national security experts like to call a “peer competitor.” Evil Empire? It exists only in the fevered imaginations of those who quiver at the prospect of China adding a rust-bucket Russian aircraft carrier to its fleet or who take seriously the ravings of radical Islamists promising from deep inside their caves to unite theUmma in a new caliphate.

What are Americans getting for their money? Sadly, not much. Despite extraordinary expenditures (not to mention exertions and sacrifices by U.S. forces), the return on investment is, to be generous, unimpressive. The chief lesson to emerge from the battlefields of the post-9/11 era is this: The Pentagon possesses next to no ability to translate “military supremacy” into meaningful victory.

Washington knows how to start wars and how to prolong them, but is clueless when it comes to ending them. Iraq, the latest addition to the roster of America’s forgotten wars, stands as exhibit A. Each bomb that blows up in Baghdad or some other Iraqi city, splattering blood all over the streets, testifies to the manifest absurdity of judging “the surge” as the epic feat of arms celebrated by the Petraeus lobby.

The problems are strategic as well as operational. Old Cold War-era expectations that projecting U.S. power will enhance American clout and standing no longer apply, especially in the Islamic world. There, American military activities are instead fostering instability and inciting anti-Americanism. For Exhibit B, see the deepening morass that Washington refers to as AfPak or the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater of operations.

Add to that the mountain of evidence showing that Pentagon, Inc. is a miserably managed enterprise: hide-bound, bloated, slow-moving, and prone to wasting resources on a prodigious scale -- nowhere more so than in weapons procurement and the outsourcing of previously military functions to “contractors.” When it comes to national security, effectiveness (what works) should rightly take precedence over efficiency (at what cost?) as the overriding measure of merit. Yet beyond a certain level, inefficiency undermines effectiveness, with the Pentagon stubbornly and habitually exceeding that level. By comparison, Detroit’s much-maligned Big Three offer models of well-run enterprises.

Impregnable Defenses

All of this takes place against the backdrop of mounting problems at home: stubbornly high unemployment, trillion-dollar federal deficits, massive and mounting debt, and domestic needs like education, infrastructure, and employment crying out for attention.

Yet the defense budget -- a misnomer since for Pentagon, Inc. defense per se figures as an afterthought -- remains a sacred cow. Why is that?

The answer lies first in understanding the defenses arrayed around that cow to ensure that it remains untouched and untouchable. Exemplifying what the military likes to call a “defense in depth,” that protective shield consists of four distinct but mutually supporting layers.

Institutional Self-Interest: Victory in World War II produced not peace, but an atmosphere of permanent national security crisis. As never before in U.S. history, threats to the nation’s existence seemed omnipresent, an attitude first born in the late 1940s that still persists today. In Washington, fear -- partly genuine, partly contrived -- triggered a powerful response.

One result was the emergence of the national security state, an array of institutions that depended on (and therefore strove to perpetuate) this atmosphere of crisis to justify their existence, status, prerogatives, and budgetary claims. In addition, a permanent arms industry arose, which soon became a major source of jobs and corporate profits. Politicians of both parties were quick to identify the advantages of aligning with this “military-industrial complex,” as President Eisenhower described it.

Allied with (and feeding off of) this vast apparatus that transformed tax dollars into appropriations, corporate profits, campaign contributions, and votes was an intellectual axis of sorts -- government-supported laboratories, university research institutes, publications, think tanks, and lobbying firms (many staffed by former or would-be senior officials) -- devoted to identifying (or conjuring up) ostensible national security challenges and alarms, always assumed to be serious and getting worse, and then devising responses to them.

The upshot: within Washington, the voices carrying weight in any national security “debate” all share a predisposition for sustaining very high levels of military spending for reasons having increasingly little to do with the well-being of the country.

Strategic Inertia: In a 1948 State Department document, diplomat George F. Kennan offered this observation: “We have about 50 percent of the world's wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population.” The challenge facing American policymakers, he continued, was “to devise a pattern of relationships that will permit us to maintain this disparity.” Here we have a description of American purposes that is far more candid than all of the rhetoric about promoting freedom and democracy, seeking world peace, or exercising global leadership.

The end of World War II found the United States in a spectacularly privileged position. Not for nothing do Americans remember the immediate postwar era as a Golden Age of middle-class prosperity. Policymakers since Kennan’s time have sought to preserve that globally privileged position. The effort has been a largely futile one.

By 1950 at the latest, those policymakers (with Kennan by then a notable dissenter) had concluded that the possession and deployment of military power held the key to preserving America’s exalted status. The presence of U.S. forces abroad and a demonstrated willingness to intervene, whether overtly or covertly, just about anywhere on the planet would promote stability, ensure U.S. access to markets and resources, and generally serve to enhance the country’s influence in the eyes of friend and foe alike -- this was the idea, at least.

In postwar Europe and postwar Japan, this formula achieved considerable success. Elsewhere -- notably in Korea, Vietnam, Latin America, and (especially after 1980) in the so-called Greater Middle East -- it either produced mixed results or failed catastrophically. Certainly, the events of the post-9/11 era provide little reason to believe that this presence/power-projection paradigm will provide an antidote to the threat posed by violent anti-Western jihadism. If anything, adherence to it is exacerbating the problem by creating ever greater anti-American animus.

One might think that the manifest shortcomings of the presence/power-projection approach -- trillions expended in Iraq for what? -- might stimulate present-day Washington to pose some first-order questions about basic U.S. national security strategy. A certain amount of introspection would seem to be called for. Could, for example, the effort to sustain what remains of America’s privileged status benefit from another approach?

Yet there are few indications that our political leaders, the senior-most echelons of the officer corps, or those who shape opinion outside of government are capable of seriously entertaining any such debate. Whether through ignorance, arrogance, or a lack of imagination, the preexisting strategic paradigm stubbornly persists; so, too, as if by default do the high levels of military spending that the strategy entails.

Cultural Dissonance: The rise of the Tea Party movement should disabuse any American of the thought that the cleavages produced by the “culture wars” have healed. The cultural upheaval touched off by the 1960s and centered on Vietnam remains unfinished business in this country.

Among other things, the sixties destroyed an American consensus, forged during World War II, about the meaning of patriotism. During the so-called Good War, love of country implied, even required, deference to the state, shown most clearly in the willingness of individuals to accept the government’s authority to mandate military service. GI’s, the vast majority of them draftees, were the embodiment of American patriotism, risking life and limb to defend the country.

The GI of World War II had been an American Everyman. Those soldiers both represented and reflected the values of the nation from which they came (a perception affirmed by the ironic fact that the military adhered to prevailing standards of racial segregation). It was “our army” because that army was “us.”

With Vietnam, things became more complicated. The war’s supporters argued that the World War II tradition still applied: patriotism required deference to the commands of the state. Opponents of the war, especially those facing the prospect of conscription, insisted otherwise. They revived the distinction, formulated a generation earlier by the radical journalist Randolph Bourne, that distinguished between the country and the state. Real patriots, the ones who most truly loved their country, were those who opposed state policies they regarded as misguided, illegal, or immoral.

In many respects, the soldiers who fought the Vietnam War found themselves caught uncomfortably in the center of this dispute. Was the soldier who died in Vietnam a martyr, a tragic figure, or a sap? Who deserved greater admiration: the soldier who fought bravely and uncomplainingly or the one who served and then turned against the war? Or was the war resister -- the one who never served at all -- the real hero?

War’s end left these matters disconcertingly unresolved. President Richard Nixon’s 1971 decision to kill the draft in favor of an All-Volunteer Force, predicated on the notion that the country might be better served with a military that was no longer “us,” only complicated things further. So, too, did the trends in American politics where bona fide war heroes (George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John Kerry, and John McCain) routinely lost to opponents whose military credentials were non-existent or exceedingly slight (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama), yet who demonstrated once in office a remarkable propensity for expending American blood (none belonging to members of their own families) in places like Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It was all more than a little unseemly.

Patriotism, once a simple concept, had become both confusing and contentious. What obligations, if any, did patriotism impose? And if the answer was none -- the option Americans seemed increasingly to prefer -- then was patriotism itself still a viable proposition?

Wanting to answer that question in the affirmative -- to distract attention from the fact that patriotism had become little more than an excuse for fireworks displays and taking the occasional day off from work -- people and politicians alike found a way to do so by exalting those Americans actually choosing to serve in uniform. The thinking went this way: soldiers offer living proof that America is a place still worth dying for, that patriotism (at least in some quarters) remains alive and well; by common consent, therefore, soldiers are the nation’s “best,” committed to “something bigger than self” in a land otherwise increasingly absorbed in pursuing a material and narcissistic definition of self-fulfillment.

In effect, soldiers offer much-needed assurance that old-fashioned values still survive, even if confined to a small and unrepresentative segment of American society. Rather than Everyman, today’s warrior has ascended to the status of icon, deemed morally superior to the nation for which he or she fights, the repository of virtues that prop up, however precariously, the nation’s increasingly sketchy claim to singularity.

Politically, therefore, “supporting the troops” has become a categorical imperative across the political spectrum. In theory, such support might find expression in a determination to protect those troops from abuse, and so translate into wariness about committing soldiers to unnecessary or unnecessarily costly wars. In practice, however, “supporting the troops” has found expression in an insistence upon providing the Pentagon with open-ended drawing rights on the nation’s treasury, thereby creating massive barriers to any proposal to affect more than symbolic reductions in military spending.

Misremembered History: The duopoly of American politics no longer allows for a principled anti-interventionist position. Both parties are war parties. They differ mainly in the rationale they devise to argue for interventionism. The Republicans tout liberty; the Democrats emphasize human rights. The results tend to be the same: a penchant for activism that sustains a never-ending demand for high levels of military outlays.

American politics once nourished a lively anti-interventionist tradition. Leading proponents included luminaries such as George Washington and John Quincy Adams. That tradition found its basis not in principled pacifism, a position that has never attracted widespread support in this country, but in pragmatic realism. What happened to that realist tradition? Simply put, World War II killed it -- or at least discredited it. In the intense and divisive debate that occurred in 1939-1941, the anti-interventionists lost, their cause thereafter tarred with the label “isolationism.”

The passage of time has transformed World War II from a massive tragedy into a morality tale, one that casts opponents of intervention as blackguards. Whether explicitly or implicitly, the debate over how the United States should respond to some ostensible threat -- Iraq in 2003, Iran today -- replays the debate finally ended by the events of December 7, 1941. To express skepticism about the necessity and prudence of using military power is to invite the charge of being an appeaser or an isolationist. Few politicians or individuals aspiring to power will risk the consequences of being tagged with that label.

In this sense, American politics remains stuck in the 1930s -- always discovering a new Hitler, always privileging Churchillian rhetoric -- even though the circumstances in which we live today bear scant resemblance to that earlier time. There was only one Hitler and he’s long dead. As for Churchill, his achievements and legacy are far more mixed than his battalions of defenders are willing to acknowledge. And if any one figure deserves particular credit for demolishing Hitler’s Reich and winning World War II, it’s Josef Stalin, a dictator as vile and murderous as Hitler himself.

Until Americans accept these facts, until they come to a more nuanced view of World War II that takes fully into account the political and moral implications of the U.S. alliance with the Soviet Union and the U.S. campaign of obliteration bombing directed against Germany and Japan, the mythic version of “the Good War” will continue to provide glib justifications for continuing to dodge that perennial question: How much is enough?

Like concentric security barriers arrayed around the Pentagon, these four factors -- institutional self-interest, strategic inertia, cultural dissonance, and misremembered history -- insulate the military budget from serious scrutiny. For advocates of a militarized approach to policy, they provide invaluable assets, to be defended at all costs.

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His most recent book is Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast audio interview in which Bacevich discusses the money that pours into the national security budget, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.

Copyright 2011 Andrew Bacevich

Saturday, January 08, 2011


By Ivan G. Goldman

Last April Gov. Jan Brewer signed loony legislation making Arizona the third state to allow people to carry a concealed weapon without requiring a permit. Proponents claimed this would make everyone safer.

No operator’s license, no sanity test, no rules.

Before the last election Sarah Palin's Facebook page carried a map featuring 20 gun sights, one for each of the Democrats targeted this year by her political action committee. The committee also circulated a matching poster. One of those targeted was Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, shot in the skull today by one of those lone gunmen enabled by Brewer, Palin, and other lesser lights of their ilk. The geek shooter was aided and supported by the wide-open gun laws demanded and secured by the cowardly gun freaks who dictate our laws on firearms, such as they are.

Brewer said she was shocked, saddened, etc. by the events at a Tucson shopping center. Apparently her brain is unable to process two thoughts simultaneously, so she’s unable to see any connection between the maniacal wide-open gun legislation she so joyously celebrated and this event. House Speaker John Boehner, another friend of gun crazies, issued a statement saying he was “horrified” by the shooting. As I write there are six confirmed deaths and 13 confirmed wounded, Giffords among the latter.

When Lee Oswald assassinated John Kennedy in 1963 he got off three shots with a bolt action rifle. Automatic and semi-automatic weapons were much harder to get in those days, but now you can find them at any gun show, and the gun shows are protected from any meaningful supervision. Although selling fully automatic weapons remains illegal, sleazy geeks behind the tables at those "shows" will gladly show you how to easily convert their semi-automatic weapons to fire on full automatic.

If you’re not familiar with such weapons, a semi-automatic requires you to pull the trigger for each shot. When you press the trigger on an automatic it will pour out rounds until you run out of ammo. And if you have spare magazines you can quickly slip in another clip and resume murdering innocents. Such weapons have nothing to do with hunting. They are designed to kill lots of people.

The bolt action weapon used by Oswald required the shooter to manually reload the chamber for each shot by pulling back the bolt. Guns are getting much better, but people aren’t, and gun laws are much, much worse. In fact, our Roberts Supreme Court told us in a landmark ruling against the city of Chicago, that it’s unconstitutional for a local government to ban firearms.

Possibly this new bloody spectacle will spark sanity in our gun laws, but we’ve already had dozens and dozens of students gunned down by crazies inside their schools, and if those very preventable tragedies can’t make a difference, it’s difficult to see why this one would do the trick. Gun loons still sit on the Supreme Court, and politicians know that they can support gun insanity at no cost, but if they oppose it they will be handing a ton of money and votes to their opponents.

At this point we don’t know the details, but with so many wounded we can assume some of the Tucson victims will be crippled physically, and more than a few will be badly injured emotionally. Those flesh wounds from the old cowboy movies are rarer in real life. Bullets shatter bones, create blood poisoning, and ruin organs, making them never quite work the way they used to. I doubt any of the Tucson victims or their families will be celebrating the laws, unique among the civilized nations, that guarantee crazies in our republic the right to own and carry these terrible weapons.