A scary situation

Since it’s Halloween, everyone’s focused on spooky things.  Here’s a spooky thought: the U.S. national security strategy is “insolvent:”

Too few resources are chasing too many ongoing operations, forward presence commitments, and potential conflicts. U.S. military leaders have been unanimous in warning that they do not have enough troops, equipment, or funding to execute the national defense strategy. … There aren’t enough available dollars to sustain the current U.S. military strategy, which aims to simultaneously keep American global posture intact, conduct an ongoing military campaign against ISIL, sustain a global counterterrorism effort in its 16th year, and be ready for multiple contingencies against highly capable regional challengers.

Much like Maverick from the movie Top Gun, whose ego was accused of “writing checks your body can’t cash,” the United States after World War Two extended its umbrella of protection across the world, underwriting the security of what became known as the “free world.”  While that may have been appropriate (debatable) at a time when our economy represented nearly half of the world’s Gross Domestic Product, it is untenable now that our government borrows 10 to 20 percent of its annual budget, and rising interest rates make servicing the debt one of the fastest-growing Federal expenditures.

Russia.  China.  Iran.  North Korea.  Islamic terrorism.  Border security.  It’s essential the U.S. prioritize the threats (and in the case of Russia, perhaps take action to live less in conflict with other great powers).  Trump was right on the campaign trail to say that many of our allies (*cough* Europe *cough*) need to shoulder a greater portion of the burden of their own defense.  When we’re playing Twister with our national power to try to cover U.S. interests, it makes no sense to be subsidizing others at the same time.

Our current global posture is in many ways a bluff… and our potential adversaries know it.  That creates both uncertainty and potential adventurism.  It’s time our stated objectives and our commitment to maintaining them were brought back into balance.

But instead of just spending more on the military, maybe we should stop writing so many checks.

“[America} goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.  She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.  She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” – John Quincy Adams. 1821



Never forget September 11, 2001

Sixteen years.  That’s how long it’s been since the worst terrorist attack in American history.  A total of 2,996 people dead or never accounted for.  Symbols of American power struck without warning: both World Trade center towers and the Pentagon.  The actions of informed passengers on a fourth plane likely averted a strike on the White House or Congress.

An entire generation had horrifying visions of previously unimaginable events happening in their own nation, with memories firmly etched into their minds.

They say time heals all wounds. And for the families of those lost that day I hope there is some measure of truth in it. But there is a flip side: such events fade in the public consciousness, such that they no longer inform or shape how the nation acts. To quote the opening of the movie “The Fellowship of the Ring,”

“…some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend, legend became myth…” (click “continue reading” below to continue)

Continue reading

Back to Bagram?

It seems the President has been swayed by his military advisors (both in and out of uniform) that it’s time to “surge” in Afghanistan again:

…shortly after my inauguration, I directed Secretary of Defense Mattis and my national security team to undertake a comprehensive review of all strategic options in Afghanistan and South Asia. My original instinct was to pull out. And historically, I like following my instincts.

But all my life I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office, in other words, when you’re president of the United States. So I studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every conceivable angle. After many meetings, over many months, we held our final meeting last Friday at Camp David with my cabinet and generals to complete our strategy.

I arrived at three fundamental conclusion about America’s core interests in Afghanistan. First, our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifices of lives. The men and women who serve our nation in combat deserve a plan for victory. They deserve the tools they need and the trust they have earned to fight and to win.

Second, the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable. 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in our history, was planned and directed from Afghanistan because that country was ruled by a government that gave comfort and shelter to terrorists.

A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum for terrorists, including ISIS and Al Qaeda, would instantly fill just as happened before Sept. 11. And as we know, in 2011, America hastily and mistakenly withdrew from Iraq. As a result, our hard-won gains slipped back into the hands of terrorist enemies. Our soldiers watched as cities they had fought for and bled to liberate, and won, were occupied by a terrorist group called ISIS. The vacuum we created by leaving too soon gave safe haven for ISIS to spread, to grow, recruit and launch attacks. We cannot repeat in Afghanistan the mistake our leaders made in Iraq.

Third, and finally, I concluded that the security threats we face in Afghanistan and the broader region are immense. Today, 20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the highest concentration in any region anywhere in the world.

For its part, Pakistan often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence and terror. The threat is worse because Pakistan and India are two nuclear-armed states whose tense relations threaten to spiral into conflict….

Surging troops (particularly only 4,000 more) is not a strategy.  Killing individual terrorists is not a strategy.  These are but tactics.   What is the desired end state?  It’s proven to be extremely difficult to build a competent, effective Afghan government and army.  Only when those exist is there any chance of us offloading this burden without creating the vacuum Trump references.  So why isn’t there more emphasis on that?  I’m not just talking about training troops (who have a tendency to run away — even when training in the U.S.!).  I’m talking about identifying real leaders, people Afghans are willing to rally around, that provide another pole of power besides the Taliban.  We may not like the leaders we find; they’re hardly likely to be Jeffersonian types.  But if they are committed to fighting the return of the Taliban and ensure Afghanistan doesn’t return to being a terror sanctuary, that should count most.

I really wish our leaders would pick up a book series I’ve recently been reading.  It’s written by a disaffected former U.S. Army Lt. Colonel who pulls no punches about the flawed premises under which we’ve operated since 9/11.  It’s not easy to read — using a science fiction story as allegory he frequently and graphically lays bare the moral quandaries of this type of war.  But as distasteful as some of his recommended approaches might be, one has to wonder if letting this festering sore drag on for 16 years is far worse.  Respect for U.S. power has waned, even as our forces have worn down from years of constant use.  Maybe it’s time we simply left, and made clear that any nation from which a future attack is launched against will find us, in Kratman’s title quote, making “A Desert Called Peace.”  There are easy ways to do so without “boots on the ground.”  And in the meantime, we should be hardening our borders and entry processes into America immediately.  It’s already long overdue.

Half-measures haven’t gotten us anywhere.  We’re too forceful to be loved, but not forceful enough to be feared.  Sooner or later we’re going to have to choose one or the other.

War without end

One of the pervasive problems that can be traced back to increasing disregard for the rule of law is the perpetual state of warfare and “emergency” in which the United States has existed for decades:

…preparing for war—even engaging in war—without asking why war is necessary has arguably become part of our national psyche. In a large sense, the United States has been at war for so long that, collectively, its citizens and leaders have become uncomfortable with, if not frightened by, the very idea of peace. After decades of being at war, we have come to the point where we can’t live without it.

As the distance between soldiers and civilians has grown, Americans have become less troubled with the idea of permanent war. As early as 1995, the historian Michael Sherry documented the militarization of American life, a decades-long trajectory originating before World War II in which “war defined much of the American imagination” and “the fear of war penetrated” American society. Though Sherry ended on a guardedly hopeful note—that Americans might “drift away from their militarized past”—more recent critics, like Bacevich, have denounced our society’s increasingly comfortable relationship with war. Extending Sherry’s analysis beyond the events of September 11, Bacevich persuasively maintains that the seduction of war overpowers rational thinking on the possibilities and, more importantly, limitations of military power abroad. Instead, we instinctively equate American superiority with military superiority…

Given the experience of American wars since 1945, perhaps we should reconsider how well U.S. military efforts solve overseas problems. More serious consideration of what’s attainable from our wielding of power might compel us to challenge our notions of the advantages war supposedly offers.

While it’s true America’s schizophrenic tendencies toward both fearing the world and desiring to remake it in its own image contribute heavily to this permanent war footing, a lack of constraint on our leaders is an equally important ingredient.  The Constitution clearly states the method by which the Republic is to go to war: via a declaration of such by Congress.  It has been so long since this was actually done (1941, to be exact) that most people today have no expectation of the President actually seeking such a declaration.  Oh, sure, there are the occasional figleaf “Authorizations for Use of Military Force” in which the legislative branch essentially hands the current sitting emperor President a blank check to go kill people somewhere else on the planet.  Sometimes even that doesn’t occur.  The question of war or peace is the most serious one any nation can face.  Rather than entrusting power to a single individual the Founders placed it in the hands of the people’s representative body, where it was to be deliberated, not just rubber-stamped.  If Congress were doing even part of its job, we wouldn’t have a President admitting 12 months into another new series of combat operations that there’s essentially no strategy – that we’re just winging it!  If a war is necessary, it certainly deserves more focus and attention than that!

Aside from the Cold War nuclear standoff, America hasn’t faced an existential threat since 1941.  Americans don’t consciously think about that, but they instinctively realize it.  That’s why World War II is sometimes called the ‘good war’ (i.e. we knew what was at stake), while all the conflicts since — with the telling exception of Desert Storm — have had considerably less public support.  That public has failed, however, to hold its leaders accountable for the profligate way they spend American blood and treasure abroad.  Sure, there were protests about the Iraq war — but they were motivated (and financed) largely by those seeking partisan advantage, not by a grassroots sense that this was an unnecessary foreign adventure.

Sadly, that is our track record over the last 70-plus years: a series of unnecessary foreign adventures.  Because the people refuse to demand a less bellicose footing, the powerful interests that are served by war continue to hold sway.  War remains, as Smedley Butler wrote, “a racket,” where the well-connected reap the benefits, the State continues to grow in power, and everyone else pays the piper.  Considering our porous borders and inability (or unwillingness) to control physical access to our country, the Orwellian term “Defense Department” (wherein we account for more than a third of all military spending in the world) has to be one of history’s biggest misnomers.  We, the people, need to demand better.

Something to consider, as our leaders continue to poke the Russian bear and twist the Chinese dragon’s tail, all while doubling down yet again in a Middle East that is the world’s largest geopolitical quicksand bog…

“Why has America stopped winning wars?”

This is a worthwhile read from Atlantic magazine:

…From 1846 to 1945, the United States had a minuscule peacetime army but won almost every major campaign. After World War II, Washington constructed the most expensive military machine that ever existed and endured seven decades of martial frustration.

Indeed, power is part of the reason the United States loses. After 1945, America’s newfound strength created a constant temptation to use force (emphasis added), and projected U.S. forces into distant conflicts. But Washington chose an unfortunate moment to discover its inner interventionist. The nature of global warfare changed in ways that made military campaigns ugly at best and unwinnable at worst…

America’s material strength has another curse. For a global hegemon like the United States, each war is just one of many competing security commitments around the world. For the enemy, however, the conflict is a life-and-death contest that occupies its entire attention. It’s limited war for Americans, and total war for those fighting Americans. The United States has more power; its foes have more willpower.

Two thoughts:

1) All the material advantages in the world can be useless if there is not a coherent strategy that aligns means and ways with ends.  In nearly all of the recent conflicts that have turned sour, it is difficult to identify a comprehensible–and achievable–goal that could serve as an endpoint toward which our resources could logically be used.  Regardless whether a conflict is a massive conventional struggle of state against state, or the now-more-common issue of fighting various non-state or quasi-state actors (i.e. ISIS), unless you know–and can articulate–what your desired end state is, you’ll never get there.

2) The recent escalations of tension with both Russia and China are both unnecessary (another result of America’s interventionist attitudes since 1945), and if we aren’t careful, could prove a disastrous temptation.  After the frustrations of fighting Viet Cong, then Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and now ISIS, no doubt many yearn for the “simpler” times of industrialized warfare between functioning nation-states.  Frustrations aside, all one need do is look at the costs of the Second World War and the Cold War versus our long national nightmares in Iraq and Afghanistan to realize that, as Billy Joel put it, “the good old days weren’t always good…”  Let’s hope nobody provokes World War III while quoting Han Solo: “bring it on; I prefer a straight up fight to all this sneaking around.”

What America REALLY needs to do is realize it is not omniscient, nor omnipotent, and that our continued delusions of remaking the world in our image have only led to us becoming more like the rest of the world (including importing large quantities of refugees from our various wars of choice), and squandering all that once made us unique.  Our poor choices have cost us much respect and prestige, not to mention considerable blood, treasure and the rise of ever-increasing government power (remember: “War is the health of the State”).  Instead of following the 1990s view of the hawkish first female Secretary of State, Madeline Albright (“What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”), we should recall the council of the Greek historian Thucydides: “Of all the manifestations of power, restraint impresses men the most.”

“Fighting” fire with fire

Several recent developments have called to mind the old question of whether “the ends justify the means.”  I believe in this day of popular TV shows like “24,” (a show, incidentally, that I refuse to watch) this is a question that isn’t asked nearly often enough.

Yesterday, the hoopla was over the Senate’s release of their ‘investigation’ into CIA interrogation methods.  I note it’s interesting that, six years into the current administration, the report just happens finally to be released on the day when Jonathan “Americans are stupid” Gruber was being grilled by a panel in the House of Representatives.  If you think this was a coincidence, you’ve not been paying attention to the “dense pack” strategy of scandal releases that obscure just how low Washington has sunk.  It is also the latest example of how “Blame Bush” is still this administration’s default get-out-of-jail-free card (never mind that much of what they blame him for has continued, or accelerated, under the current regime).

Suffice to say, our ‘government’ is all political theater and no substance whatsoever.  Which is why unelected bureaucrats of various stripes are now the real power.

Many of those unelected decision makers reside in the intelligence community which, by its very nature, is a paradox: to serve its function requires a certain level of secrecy and anonymity.  But for it to serve a free society, there must be limits and accountability.  Our nation has wrestled with this since cementing the national security state apparatus in place following World War II, and over time it seems the ‘balance’ has skewed ever farther towards latitude — particularly after 9/11.

I’m not going to debate the exact content of the Senate report, because it’s compromised by partisan hype.  That said, I don’t think there can be any doubt at this point that our government has engaged in behavior over the last 13 years that would have horrified earlier generations of Americans.  Let’s face it: if we’re now all but publicly strip-searching Americans at TSA checkpoints, what do you THINK we’re doing to non-Americans who become “of interest?”  Most of the arguments made by those who favor wide latitude in ‘interrogation’ are emotional, not rational ones.  Ignoring the evidence that torture rarely yields good information, there is something visceral about the public’s desire to treat our adversaries, real and imagined, with abuse that we can rationalize.  “Heck yeah, waterboard those so-and-sos,” goes the rallying cry of the “24” viewer demographic… never once questioning whether our public servants might occasionally round up the wrong people, or have bad information themselves.  (To think they don’t is to ascribe a level of perfection to our government that is dangerously naive.)

The same dynamic applies to law enforcement as well–we support levels of force against others for various petty offenses that we would never want turned on us.

We’ve forgotten the teaching: Do unto others as you would have done unto you.  Speaking only for myself, I certainly would not want to be on the receiving end of these “enhanced interrogation methods.” If I were, whether innocent or not to start with, I would forevermore be the enemy of those who applied them to me (God is still working on me about the whole ‘forgiveness’ thing in some areas…)In short, it’s tragically myopic for former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld to ask whether we are creating terrorists faster than we can kill them, while running torture centers that are hardening those already disposed to hate us, and quite possibly making new enemies of those who are the victims of bad information or circumstances (not to mention their friends and families…).

The ends alone do not justify the means.  The moment we accept that, we have become something far different than the ideal America portrayed in Schoolhouse Rock.  An America founded on the principle that “all men are created equal” by God should not decide that some can be treated less humanely than others.  One does not successfully fight barbarism by becoming barbaric, or crime by behaving in a criminal fashion.  This may be the greatest challenge of the various wars-without-end (including the War on Drugs) in which we’ve found ourselves.

It is not just government falling prey to this temptation of expediency, either.  Advocates across the political spectrum are trading truth and standards for whatever immediate political gain they believe can be had by cutting corners.  This is how you get advocacy theater masquerading as journalism, as with the recent Rolling Stone piece about the University of Virginia, or the ridiculously unfounded claims in a biography that are excused because she’s been annointed the “voice of her generation.”  Even as the details of the original story unravel, there is a chorus attacking those looking into it, as though somehow certain allegations are automatically above reproach.  Worse, some actually take the position that details don’t matter — that the ‘central narrative’ is true simply because it has been asserted.  This reminds me of the infamous “fake but accurate” summary retort when it was discovered Dan Rather’s hit piece on then-President George W. Bush’s former service in the National Guard turned out to be based on a falsified memorandum.  Whatever happened to admitting you’re wrong, and seeking to do better next time?

This is not just a problem on “the left.” The behavior may or may not be more prevalent there, but as partisanship has increased, both sides have become more likely to take the lower road to advantage.  Politics are now viewed as a war for power that has become far too concentrated, and the old saying is that truth is the first casualty of war.  It should be clear we no longer live in a culture that values dispasionate objectivity, truth, or compliance with a standard (such as the Constitution, for instance) that is larger than the whims and passions of the moment.  And we wonder why the nation is falling apart at the seams?

To those in the trenches: remember that if you choose to fight fire with fire, you’re mostly doubling your chances of getting burned.  It’s easy to be emotional and respond from your gut.  Be better than that.

The source of freedom

This post is not likely to be popular.  Confronting uncomfortable truths rarely is.  So before anyone jumps on my case about somehow diminishing Veterans Day, I’m going to do something I almost never do here, and that’s tell you something about me.

I’m a veteran.  Of more than 20 years.  Of more than a couple trips overseas.  Given all the ‘hero tributes’ I routinely see on November 11, then, maybe this is the day for me to speak my peace.  I don’t pretend to speak for every veteran — we’re not the faceless mass of conformity Hollywood likes to portray.  But what I have to say is this:

Stop thanking me for your freedom.

There are several reasons I say this.  First is a realistic assessment of what I’ve actually done.  Alone in our actions, we in uniform do not create freedom.  At our best, we can create conditions in which a people can choose to be free and self-governing.  At our worst, a military/security apparatus is one of the greatest threats to freedom — something the Founders well understood.  It’s like the old story of Benjamin Franklin:  A woman is supposed to have asked him what the Constitutional Convention accomplished.  He is said to have replied “we have given you a Republic — if you can keep it.”  Whether anecdotal or not, the tale tells a truth: we are ALL responsible for freedom, not just some of us.  The main trouble I have with these holidays since 9/11 is that it further separates the soldiery from the citizenry, assigning the former the “active” part in defending freedom, and only a passive role to the latter.  If that model is accepted, it’s fatal to any free society.

The second reason I say this is that far too many of our overseas adventures have had only a marginal relationship at best with actually protecting America.  Sure, they’re all sold that wayLook closer, though.  Was our security enhanced by removing Saddam Hussein?  As despicable a leader as he was, is ISIS really an improvement, for Iraq or for us?  Consider how close we came to actively toppling Assad in Syria — how much MORE would that have aided the latest threat du jour?  Americans are always so concerned about the emergence of a threat that we fail to see how our own actions are perceived by others as threats… and thus become self-fulfilling prophecies of a sort.  Even worse, we have short memories and never ask whether our past actions achieved anything beyond setting up tomorrow’s problems.

But the primary reason I say this is that I am no longer convinced we live in a ‘free country.’  Sure, we don’t see the trappings of totalitarianism run amok — nobody’s goose-stepping down Pennsylvania Avenue or holding Nuremberg-type rallies in Times Square.  Yet.  But evil rarely reappears in an easily recognizable form — it’s too subtle for that.  Ask yourself: in a free society

– Do police routinely seize your property simply because they can?  (Even if they don’t bother charging you with a crime)

– Do communities seize your home for whatever reason they (and the politically well-connected) deem fit… because they can?

– Do laws apply more stringently to “the little people” than “the big fish” whose misdeeds cause far more damage to the nation?

– Do leaders privately flaunt how they passed controversial bills through a ‘lack of transparency’ and despite ‘the stupidity of the American voter?’  (After all, ve know vats best for us you!)

– Do nine unelected people get to torture repeatedly the plain meaning of the highest law of the land to suit whatever the prevailing political whims of the day are?

– Does the chief executive threaten for months to unilaterally ignore established law, even though the clear majority of the electorate opposes such an action on this issue?

– Does the government collaborate with or coerce major companies to assist in creating a surveillance state?

– Does the government threaten, if you decide you’re paying too much tax and decide to emigrate elsewhere, to confiscate a huge chunk of your estate?

Why did I compile such a list on a day like this?  Because these issues have at least one thing in common: THERE IS NOTHING THE MILITARY CAN DO ABOUT THEM (at least, not in a way any lover of freedom would want).  While veterans swear to uphold the Constitution against “all enemies, foreign and domestic,” the reality is we are focused on the former.  THE CITIZENS have to be vigilant and energetic about identifying and marginalizing the latter.

In this, we have failed as an electorate.  For decades we have complained about government inefficiency, ineptitude and corruption, all while asking that same government to do more for us.  Does it not occur to anyone that the more you ask of your government, the more it will demand of you?  Instead of our first instinct being to employ government force (“…there oughta be a law…”), find ways to fix issues as individuals and communities who organize voluntarily.

That is, of course, the main problem.  Most people don’t want to invest the time and energy it takes to be free agents.  They’d rather somebody else do the heavy lifting, even if it means higher taxes to hire people who give a questionable return on investment.  But to the extent you depend on others to do things for you, you are not free.  When Tocqueville traveled through America in the early 1800s, this is what he observed:

…Americans naturally formed groups when they wanted to hold a celebration, found a church, build a school, distribute books or do almost anything else. “Finally, if they want to proclaim a truth or propagate some feeling …they form an association. In every case, at the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government … in the United States you are sure to find an association.”

So.  If you want to thank me, and other veterans on this day:

– Stop demanding the government do things you are capable of doing for yourself.  Only then do you have any chance of being “free.”

– Stop reflexively supporting every military action our leaders propose overseas.  There are times we have to fight.  And there are times certain interests choose to have us fight.  As citizens, you have to discern between the two, and not just rubber stamp every war that’s offered.  And sometimes, the best way to “support the troops” is to demand they stay home.

– Stop electing people you believe are “the lesser of two evils,” and start finding people you can honestly vote FOR, because they seek to be the public’s servant, not its master.  If you want to hold Congress in the same high esteem you apparently hold the military, you’re the ones who have to fix it.

– Hold your leaders accountable.  Show up en masse to let them know when they are out of line.  If necessary, refuse to comply with unconstitutional or immoral legislation.  Take a stand.  It might cost you something, yes.  Freedom usually does.

We will never remain the “land of the free and the home of the brave” solely because of the choices of less than 1 percent of AmericansThe other 99 percent have to be in the struggle as well.

Do you really WANT to be free, America?  Or do you just hope for a tolerable master, and content yourself with complaining when you don’t get one?   The freedom of our children and all future generations depends on how each of us, uniform or not, answer those questions.