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Tomgram: Andrew Bacevich, Bashing “Isolationists” While at War in the World

6:31 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: In early September, we first offered TomDispatch readers personalized, signed copies of Andrew Bacevich’s new book, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, in return for a $100 contribution to the site. Many of you took us up on that and we couldn’t be more appreciative. From Rachel Maddow in the New York Times Book Review to Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post, Moyers & Company to the Colbert Report, Bacevich’s book has since been hailed as a powerful, groundbreaking look at this country and its military. For any of you who meant to get an autographed copy via TomDispatch, the offer is still open -- check out our donation page for the details -- but only for one more week. Tom]

Hey, Private First Class Dorothy: when that next tornado hits Kansas, it’s slated to transport you not to Oz, but to somewhere in Africa, maybe Chad or Niger or Mauritania.  And that’s war, American-style, for you, or so reports the New York Times’s Eric Schmitt from Fort Riley, Kansas, where an Army brigade is gearing up for a series of complex future deployments to Africa. Here is the money paragraph of his report, if you want to understand Washington’s present orientation toward perpetual war: “But with the United States military out of Iraq and pulling out of Afghanistan, the Army is looking for new missions around the world. ‘As we reduce the rotational requirement to combat areas, we can use these forces to great effect in Africa,’ Gen. David M. Rodriguez, the head of the Africa Command, told Congress this year.”

In the view of our leaders these days, having extra troops on hand and keeping them in cold storage in this country is like having extra money around and stuffing it under your mattress or parking it in a local bank at next to no interest. Why would you do that when you could go out and play the market — or, in the case of the U.S. military, pivot toward Africa? So many “partnerships” to forge as you lend a helping hand to the counterterrorism struggle on — and the destabilization of — that continent using that brigade in Kansas, Special Operations forces like the ones recently sent on raids into Libya and Somalia, and the drones whose bases are spreading in the region.

In Washington, war and preparations for war remain the options of choice, no matter the traffic jam of U.S. military disasters in this century.  Despite all the recent talk about pivoting to Asia, preparations of every sort, not just at Ft. Riley, suggest that Africa may prove the actual pivot point for this country’s endless war policies in the coming decade, as TomDispatch has been reporting now for the last year or more.  In the meantime, Andrew Bacevich, author most recently of Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, offers a little primer on just how to cut any critics of the relentless American global mission impossible off at the knees. Just call them “isolationists” and go right on with your next operation.  It works like a dream. Tom

Always and Everywhere
The New York Times and the Enduring “Threat” of Isolationism
By Andrew J. Bacevich

The abiding defect of U.S. foreign policy? It’s isolationism, my friend. Purporting to steer clear of war, isolationism fosters it. Isolationism impedes the spread of democracy. It inhibits trade and therefore prosperity. It allows evildoers to get away with murder. Isolationists prevent the United States from accomplishing its providentially assigned global mission. Wean the American people from their persistent inclination to look inward and who knows what wonders our leaders will accomplish.

The United States has been at war for well over a decade now, with U.S. attacks and excursions in distant lands having become as commonplace as floods and forest fires. Yet during the recent debate over Syria, the absence of popular enthusiasm for opening up another active front evoked expressions of concern in Washington that Americans were once more turning their backs on the world.

As he was proclaiming the imperative of punishing the government of Bashar al-Assad, Secretary of State John Kerry also chided skeptical members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “this is not the time for armchair isolationism.”  Commentators keen to have a go at the Syrian autocrat wasted little time in expanding on Kerry’s theme.

Reflecting on “where isolationism leads,” Jennifer Rubin, the reliably bellicose Washington Post columnist, was quick to chime in, denouncing those hesitant to initiate another war as “infantile.” American isolationists, she insisted, were giving a green light to aggression. Any nation that counted on the United States for protection had now become a “sitting duck,” with “Eastern Europe [and] neighbors of Venezuela and Israel” among those left exposed and vulnerable.  News reports of Venezuelan troop movements threatening Brazil, Colombia, or Guyana were notably absent from the Post or any other media outlet, but no matter — you get the idea.

Military analyst Frederick Kagan was equally troubled.  Also writing in the Post, he worried that “the isolationist narrative is rapidly becoming dominant.”  His preferred narrative emphasized the need for ever greater military exertions, with Syria just the place to launch a new campaign.  For Bret Stephens, a columnist with the Wall Street Journal, the problem was the Republican Party.  Where had the hawks gone?  The Syria debate, he lamented, was “exposing the isolationist worm eating its way through the GOP apple.”

The Journal’s op-ed page also gave the redoubtable Norman Podhoretz, not only still alive but vigorously kicking, a chance to vent.  Unmasking President Obama as “a left-wing radical” intent on “reduc[ing] the country’s power and influence,” the unrepentant neoconservative accused the president of exploiting the “war-weariness of the American people and the rise of isolationist sentiment… on the left and right” to bring about “a greater diminution of American power than he probably envisaged even in his wildest radical dreams.”

Obama escalated the war in Afghanistan, “got” Osama bin Laden, toppled one Arab dictator in Libya, and bashed and bombed targets in Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, and elsewhere.  Even so, it turns out he is actually part of the isolationist conspiracy to destroy America!

Over at the New York Times, similar concerns, even if less hysterically expressed, prevailed.  According to Times columnist Roger Cohen, President Obama’s reluctance to pull the trigger showed that he had “deferred to a growing isolationism.”  Bill Keller concurred.  “America is again in a deep isolationist mood.”  In a column entitled, “Our New Isolationism,” he decried “the fears and defeatist slogans of knee-jerk isolationism” that were impeding military action.  (For Keller, the proper antidote to isolationism is amnesia.  As he put it, “Getting Syria right starts with getting over Iraq.”)

For his part, Times staff writer Sam Tanenhaus contributed a bizarre two-minute exercise in video agitprop — complete with faked scenes of the Japanese attacking Pearl Harbor — that slapped the isolationist label on anyone opposing entry into any war whatsoever, or tiring of a war gone awry, or proposing that America go it alone.

When the “New Isolationism” Was New 

Most of this, of course, qualifies as overheated malarkey.  As a characterization of U.S. policy at any time in memory, isolationism is a fiction.  Never really a tendency, it qualifies at most as a moment, referring to that period in the 1930s when large numbers of Americans balked at the prospect of entering another European war, the previous one having fallen well short of its “War To End All Wars” advance billing.

In fact, from the day of its founding down to the present, the United States has never turned its back on the world.  Isolationism owes its storied history to its value as a rhetorical device, deployed to discredit anyone opposing an action or commitment (usually involving military forces) that others happen to favor.  If I, a grandson of Lithuanian immigrants, favor deploying U.S. forces to Lithuania to keep that NATO ally out of Vladimir Putin’s clutches and you oppose that proposition, then you, sir or madam, are an “isolationist.”  Presumably, Jennifer Rubin will see things my way and lend her support to shoring up Lithuania’s vulnerable frontiers.

For this very reason, the term isolationism is not likely to disappear from American political discourse anytime soon.  It’s too useful.  Indeed, employ this verbal cudgel to castigate your opponents and your chances of gaining entrée to the nation’s most prestigious publications improve appreciably.  Warn about the revival of isolationism and your prospects of making the grade as a pundit or candidate for high office suddenly brighten.  This is the great thing about using isolationists as punching bags: it makes actual thought unnecessary.  All that’s required to posture as a font of wisdom is the brainless recycling of clichés, half-truths, and bromides.

No publication is more likely to welcome those clichés, half-truths, and bromides than the New York Times.  There, isolationism always looms remarkably large and is just around the corner.

In July 1942, the New York Times Magazine opened its pages to Vice President Henry A. Wallace, who sounded the alarm about the looming threat of what he styled a “new isolationism.”  This was in the midst of World War II, mind you.

After the previous world war, the vice president wrote, the United States had turned inward.  As summer follows spring, “the choice led up to this present war.”  Repeat the error, Wallace warned, and “the price will be more terrible and will be paid much sooner.”  The world was changing and it was long past time for Americans to get with the program.  “The airplane, the radio, and modern technology have bound the planet so closely together that what happens anywhere on the planet has a direct effect everywhere else.”  In a world that had “suddenly become so small,” he continued, “we cannot afford to resume the role of hermit.”

The implications for policy were self-evident:

“This time, then, we have only one real choice.  We must play a responsible part in the world — leading the way in world progress, fostering a healthy world trade, helping to protect the world’s peace.”

One month later, it was Archibald MacLeish’s turn.  On August 16, 1942, the Times magazine published a long essay of his under the title of — wouldn’t you know it — “The New Isolationism.”  For readers in need of coaching, Times editors inserted this seal of approval before the text: “There is great pertinence in the following article.”

A well-known poet, playwright, and literary gadfly, MacLeish was at the time serving as Librarian of Congress.  From this bully pulpit, he offered the reassuring news that “isolationism in America is dead.”  Unfortunately, like zombies, “old isolationists never really die: they merely dig in their toes in a new position.  And the new position, whatever name is given it, is isolation still.”

Fortunately, the American people were having none of it.  They had “recaptured the current of history and they propose to move with it; they don’t mean to be denied.” MacLeish’s fellow citizens knew what he knew: “that there is a stirring in our world…, a forward thrusting and overflowing human hope of the human will which must be given a channel or it will dig a channel itself.”  In effect, MacLeish was daring the isolationists, in whatever guise, to stand in the way of this forward thrusting and overflowing hopefulness.  Presumably, they would either drown or be crushed.

The end of World War II found the United States donning the mantle of global leadership, much as Wallace, MacLeish, and the Times had counseled.  World peace did not ensue.  Instead, a host of problems continued to afflict the planet, with isolationists time and again fingered as the culprits impeding their solution.

The Gift That Never Stops Giving

In June 1948, with a notable absence of creativity in drafting headlines, the Times once again found evidence of “the new isolationism.”  In an unsigned editorial, the paper charged that an American penchant for hermit-like behavior was “asserting itself again in a manner that is both distressing and baffling.”  With the Cold War fully joined and U.S. forces occupying Germany, Japan, and other countries, the Times worried that some Republicans in Congress appeared reluctant to fund the Marshall Plan.

From their offices in Manhattan, members of the Times editorial board detected in some quarters “a homesickness for the old days.”  It was incumbent upon Americans to understand that “the time is past when we could protect ourselves easily behind our barriers behind the seas.”  History was summoning the United States to lead the world: “The very success of our democracy has now imposed duties upon us which we must fulfill if that democracy is to survive.”  Those entertaining contrary views, the Times huffed, “do not speak for the American people.”

That very month, Josef Stalin announced that the Soviet Union was blockading Berlin.  The U.S. responded not by heading for the exits but by initiating a dramatic airlift.  Oh, and Congress fully funded the Marshall Plan.

Barely a year later, in August 1949, with Stalin having just lifted the Berlin Blockade, Times columnist Arthur Krock discerned another urge to disengage.  In a piece called “Chickens Usually Come Home,” he cited congressional reservations about the recently promulgated Truman Doctrine as evidence of, yes, a “new isolationism.”  As it happened, Congress duly appropriated the money President Truman was requesting to support Greece and Turkey against the threat of communism — as it would support similar requests to throw arms and money at other trouble spots like French Indochina.

Even so, in November of that year, the Times magazine published yet another warning about “the challenge of a new isolationism.”  The author was Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, then positioning himself for a White House run.  Like many another would-be candidate before and since, Stevenson took the preliminary step of signaling his opposition to the I-word.

World War II, he wrote, had “not only destroyed fascism abroad, but a lot of isolationist notions here at home.”  War and technological advance had “buried the whole ostrich of isolation.”  At least it should have.  Unfortunately, some Republicans hadn’t gotten the word.  They were “internationally minded in principle but not in practice.”  Stevenson feared that when the chips were down such head-in-the-sand inclinations might come roaring back.  This he was determined to resist.  “The eagle, not the ostrich,” he proclaimed, “is our national emblem.”

In August 1957, the Times magazine was at it once again, opening its pages to another Illinois Democrat, Senator Paul Douglas, for an essay familiarly entitled “A New Isolationism — Ripples or Tide?” Douglas claimed that “a new tide of isolationism is rising in the country.”  U.S. forces remained in Germany and Japan, along with Korea, where they had recently fought a major war.  Even so, the senator worried that “the internationalists are tiring rapidly now.”

Americans needed to fortify themselves by heeding the message of the Gospels: “Let the spirit of the Galilean enter our worldly and power-obsessed hearts.”  In other words, the senator’s prescription for American statecraft was an early version of What Would Jesus Do?  Was Jesus Christ an advocate of American global leadership?  Senator Douglas apparently thought so.

Then came Vietnam.  By May 1970, even Times-men were showing a little of that fatigue.  That month, star columnist James Reston pointed (yet again) to the “new isolationism.”  Yet in contrast to the paper’s scribblings on the subject over the previous three decades, Reston didn’t decry it as entirely irrational.  The war had proven to be a bummer and “the longer it goes on,” he wrote, “the harder it will be to get public support for American intervention.”  Washington, in other words, needed to end its misguided war if it had any hopes of repositioning itself to start the next one.

A Concept Growing Long in the Tooth

By 1980, the Times showed signs of recovering from its brief Vietnam funk.  In a review of Norman Podhoretz’s The Present Danger, for example, the noted critic Anatole Broyard extolled the author’s argument as “dispassionate,” “temperate,” and “almost commonsensical.”

The actual text was none of those things.  What the pugnacious Podhoretz called — get ready for it — “the new isolationism” was, in his words, “hard to distinguish from simple anti-Americanism.”  Isolationists — anyone who had opposed the Vietnam War on whatever grounds — believed that the United States was “a force for evil, a menace, a terror.”  Podhoretz detected a “psychological connection” between “anti-Americanism, isolationism, and the tendency to explain away or even apologize for anything the Soviet Union does, no matter how menacing.”  It wasn’t bad enough that isolationists hated their country, they were, it seems, commie symps to boot.

Fast forward a decade, and — less than three months after U.S. troops invaded Panama — Times columnist Flora Lewis sensed a resurgence of you-know-what.  In a February 1990 column, she described “a convergence of right and left” with both sides “arguing with increasing intensity that it’s time for the U.S. to get off the world.”  Right-wingers saw that world as too nasty to save; left-wingers, the United States as too nasty to save it.  “Both,” she concluded (of course), were “moving toward a new isolationism.”

Five months later, Saddam Hussein sent his troops into Kuwait.  Instead of getting off the world, President George H.W. Bush deployed U.S. combat forces to defend Saudi Arabia.  For Joshua Muravchik, however, merely defending that oil-rich kingdom wasn’t nearly good enough.  Indeed, here was a prime example of the “New Isolationism, Same Old Mistake,” as his Times op-ed was entitled.

The mistake was to flinch from instantly ejecting Saddam’s forces.  Although opponents of a war against Iraq did not “see themselves as isolationists, but as realists,” he considered this a distinction without a difference.  Muravchik, who made his living churning out foreign policy analysis for various Washington think tanks, favored “the principle of investing America’s power in the effort to fashion an environment congenial to our long-term safety.”  War, he firmly believed, offered the means to fashion that congenial environment.  Should America fail to act, he warned, “our abdication will encourage such threats to grow.”

Of course, the United States did act and the threats grew anyway.  In and around the Middle East, the environment continued to be thoroughly uncongenial.  Still, in Times-world, the American penchant for doing too little rather than too much remained the eternal problem, eternally “new.”  An op-ed by up-and-coming journalist James Traub appearing in the Times in December 1991, just months after a half-million U.S. troops had liberated Kuwait, was typical.  Assessing the contemporary political scene, Traub detected “a new wave of isolationism gathering force.”  Traub was undoubtedly establishing his bona fides.  (Soon after, he landed a job working for the paper.)

This time, according to Traub, the problem was the Democrats.  No longer “the party of Wilson or of John F. Kennedy,” Democrats, he lamented, “aspire[d] to be the party of middle-class frustrations — and if that entails turning your back on the world, so be it.”  The following year Democrats nominated as their presidential candidate Bill Clinton, who insisted that he would never under any circumstances turn his back on the world.  Even so, no sooner did Clinton win than Times columnist Leslie Gelb was predicting that the new president would “fall into the trap of isolationism and policy passivity.”

Get Me Rewrite!

Arthur Schlesinger defined the problem in broader terms.  The famous historian and Democratic Party insider had weighed in early on the matter with a much-noted essay that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly back in 1952.  He called it – you guessed it — “The New Isolationism.”

In June 1994, more than 40 years later, with the Cold War now finally won, Schlesinger was back for more with a Times op-ed that sounded the usual alarm.  “The Cold War produced the illusion that traditional isolationism was dead and buried,” he wrote, but of course — this is, after all, the Times — it was actually alive and kicking.  The passing of the Cold War had “weakened the incentives to internationalism” and was giving isolationists a new opening, even though in “a world of law requiring enforcement,” it was incumbent upon the United States to be the lead enforcer.

The warning resonated.  Although the Times does not normally give commencement addresses much attention, it made an exception for Madeleine Albright’s remarks to graduating seniors at Barnard College in May 1995.  The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations had detected what she called “a trend toward isolationism that is running stronger in America than at any time since the period between the two world wars,” and the American people were giving in to the temptation “to pull the covers up over our heads and pretend we do not notice, do not care, and are unaffected by events overseas.”  In other circumstances in another place, it might have seemed an odd claim, given that the United States had just wrapped up armed interventions in Somalia and Haiti and was on the verge of initiating a bombing campaign in the Balkans.

Still, Schlesinger had Albright’s back.  The July/August 1995 issue of Foreign Affairs prominently featured an article of his entitled “Back to the Womb?  Isolationism’s Renewed Threat,” with Times editors publishing a CliffsNotes version on the op-ed page a month earlier.  “The isolationist impulse has risen from the grave,” Schlesinger announced, “and it has taken the new form of unilateralism.” 

His complaint was no longer that the United States hesitated to act, but that it did not act in concert with others.  This “neo-isolationism,” he warned, introducing a new note into the tradition of isolationism-bashing for the first time in decades, “promises to prevent the most powerful nation on the planet from playing any role in enforcing the peace system.”  The isolationists were winning — this time through pure international belligerence.  Yet “as we return to the womb,” Schlesinger warned his fellow citizens, “we are surrendering a magnificent dream.”

Other Times contributors shared Schlesinger’s concern.  On January 30, 1996, the columnist Russell Baker chipped in with a piece called “The New Isolationism.”  For those slow on the uptake, Jessica Mathews, then a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, affirmed Baker’s concerns by publishing an identically titled column in the Washington Post a mere six days later.  Mathews reported “troubling signs that the turning inward that many feared would follow the Cold War’s end is indeed happening.”  With both the Times and the Post concurring, “the new isolationism” had seemingly reached pandemic proportions (as a title, if nothing else).

Did the “new” isolationism then pave the way for 9/11?  Was al-Qaeda inspired by an unwillingness on Washington’s part to insert itself into the Islamic world?

Unintended and unanticipated consequences stemming from prior U.S. interventions might have seemed to offer a better explanation.  But this much is for sure:  as far as the Times was concerned, even in the midst of George W. Bush’s Global War in Terror, the threat of isolationism persisted.

In January 2004, David M. Malone, president of the International Peace Academy, worried in a Times op-ed “that the United States is retracting into itself” — this despite the fact that U.S. forces were engaged in simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Among Americans, a concern about terrorism, he insisted, was breeding “a sense of self-obsession and indifference to the plight of others.”  “When Terrorists Win: Beware America’s New Isolationism,” blared the headline of Malone’s not-so-new piece.

Actually, Americans should beware those who conjure up phony warnings of a “new isolationism” to advance a particular agenda.  The essence of that agenda, whatever the particulars and however packaged, is this: If the United States just tries a little bit harder — one more intervention, one more shipment of arms to a beleaguered “ally,” one more line drawn in the sand — we will finally turn the corner and the bright uplands of peace and freedom will come into view.

This is a delusion, of course.  But if you write a piece exposing that delusion, don’t bother submitting it to the Times.

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University.  His new book is Breach of Trust:  How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country.

Copyright 2013 Andrew Bacevich

Dilip Hiro: The Mystery of Washington’s Waning Global Power

6:43 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The pentagon rendered to look like a toy.

Washington’s power is waning.

Among the curious spectacles of our moment, the strangeness of the Obama presidency hasn’t gotten its full due. After decades in which “the imperial presidency” was increasingly in the spotlight, after two terms of George W. Bush in which a literal cult of executive power – or to use the term of that moment, “the unitary executive” — took hold in the White House, and without any obvious diminution in the literal powers of the presidency, Barack Obama has managed to look like a bystander at his own funeral.

If I had to summarize these years, I would say that he entered the phone booth dressed as Superman and came out as Clark Kent. Today, TomDispatch regular Dilip Hiro, author most recently of the invaluable A Comprehensive Dictionary of the Middle East, points out that, as far as Obama’s foreign (and war) policy, it’s almost as if, when the American president speaks, no one in the Greater Middle East — not even our closest allies or client states — is listening. And true as it may be for that region, it seems, bizarrely enough, no less true in Washington where the president’s recent attempts to intervene in the Syrian civil war were rejected both by Congress (though without a final vote on the subject) and by the American people via opinion polls.

It should be puzzling just how little power the present executive is actually capable of wielding. He can go to the U.N. or Kansas City and make speeches (that themselves often enough implicitly cast him as a kind of interested observer of his own presidency), but nothing much that he says in Washington seems any longer to be seriously attended to. In the foreign policy arena, he is surrounded by a secretary of defense who ducks for cover, a secretary of state who wanders the world blowing off steam, and a national security advisor and U.N. ambassador who seem like blundering neophytes and whose basic ideological stance (in favor of American — aka “humanitarian” — interventions globally) has been rejected in this country by almost any constituency imaginable. Unlike previous presidents, he evidently has no one — no Brent Scowcroft, Jim Baker, or even Henry Kissinger — capable of working the corridors of power skillfully or bringing a policy home.

Domestically, who ever heard of a presidency already into its second term that, according to just about all observers, has only one significant achievement — Obamacare (whatever you think of it) — and clearly hasn’t a hope in hell of getting a second one? Just as he’s done in Syria, Obama will now be watching relatively helplessly as Republicans in Congress threaten to shut the government down and not raise the debt ceiling — and whatever happens, who expects him to be the key player in that onrushing spectacle? America’s waning power in the Greater Middle East is more than matched by Obama’s waned power in this country. In our lifetime, we’ve never seen a president — not even the impeached Clinton — so drained of power or influence. It’s a puzzle wrapped in an enigma swaddled by a pretzel. Go figure. Tom

A World in Which No One Is Listening to the Planet’s Sole Superpower

The Greater Middle East’s Greatest Rebuff to Uncle Sam

By Dilip Hiro

What if the sole superpower on the planet makes its will known — repeatedly — and finds that no one is listening? Barely a decade ago, that would have seemed like a conundrum from some fantasy Earth in an alternate dimension. Now, it is increasingly a plain description of political life on our globe, especially in the Greater Middle East.

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Tomgram: Peter Van Buren, What If Congress Says No on Syria?

7:57 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Cover of We Meant Well

Whistleblower Peter Van Buren brings his Iraq experience to the Syrian conflict.

Looked at one way at least, the president’s Syrian war proposal — itself an ever shifting target – couldn’t be more brain-dead. The idea that one country, on its own, has the right to missile and bomb another to resolve the question of a chemical attack and war crime should, on the face of it, seem strange to us, like the most random death-dealing response to an already horrific act. Certainly, if done, it would have an effect; it’s just that no one has any idea what that would be, though as with so many military-first acts of the U.S. government in recent years, it already has “This Can’t Turn Out Well” scrawled all over it.

If you believe in the cycles of history, the Obama administration’s Syrian policy should seem eerily cyclic. Last Sunday, after all, Secretary of State John Kerry proudly announced that the Saudis were “backing” an American strike plan (and might even be willing to pay for it). Shouldn’t this have fired some residual brain cells in Washington and produced a bit of a memory buzz? After all, in some twisted way, the present plan developed at the Pentagon, the White House, and an ever more militarized State Department brings us full circle to the moment in the early 1980s when this all began.

In the Syrian nightmare, we see an old alliance being reconstituted. Back then, the Reagan administration (spearheaded by the CIA) and the Saudis, as well as the Pakistanis, supported with money, training, and weaponry the most extreme and fundamentalist of the Afghan mujahedeen in their struggle against the Soviet Union. They were then called “freedom fighters” by the president. Their job, as Washington saw it, was to give the Soviets a bloody nose in their own special Vietnam (and so indeed they did). We know, of course, just where that propitious plan ended.

Now, the Saudis are, it seems, doing the same thing in Syria, once more funding and arming extreme fundamentalist forces and, however reluctantly, the U.S. is backing and being backed by them. As a result, if the Obama administration, with or without congressional agreement, were to launch an attack on Syria, it would functionally be fighting on the same side as, and advancing the fortunes of, al-Qaeda-cloned forces. It’s not exactly an ad man’s — more a Mad Men’s — dream and, if you think about it for a moment, can you doubt that the whole crazed project has “This Can’t Turn Out Well” scrawled all over it?

In the tragicomedy that is now American policy, it may be the president’s good fortune that a seemingly inadvertent comment by his secretary of state (who seems to be a paid staff member of The Daily Show) about how the Assad government could save itself by handing over its chemical weaponry within a week may provide him with an exit ramp. A funny thing happened on the labyrinthine road to Damascus: the Syrians quickly assented and Russian president Putin (clearly playing a smart hand and evidently having the time of his life) offered to help out.

It seems the American people are pitching in as well. Unlike the Obama administration and its congressional backers, opinion polls clearly show that, decades later, as another grim 9/11 of endless war planning passes, Americans have gotten the message. They don’t want to see Washington loose the missiles and drop the bombs. As TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren, the former State Department whistleblower and author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, notes, the question is whether, at this late date, Congress is finally capable of responding as well — or whether it will even have the chance. Tom

Giving New Meaning to the Day After 9/11
Why Saying No to Syria Matters (and it’s not about Syria)
By Peter Van Buren

Once again, we find ourselves at the day after 9/11, and this time America stands alone. Alone not only in our abandonment even by our closest ally, Great Britain, but in facing a crossroads no less significant than the one we woke up to on September 12, 2001. The past 12 years have not been good ones. Our leaders consistently let the missiles and bombs fly, resorting to military force and legal abominations in what passed for a foreign policy, and then acted surprised as they looked up at the sky from an ever-deeper hole.

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Andrew Bacevich: Drama from Obama

5:43 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here

Here is the strangeness of our moment: the U.S. has no rival on the planet. Its global military stance is historically unparalleled and largely uncontested. And yet somehow, in crucial areas of the world, Washington’s power to do anything is significantly, visibly lessening. Consider this: In 1990, in the very last days of the Cold War, our former ally in the Persian Gulf, Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein (whom we supported in major ways when he was using chemical weapons against Iranian troops in the mid-1980s), invaded Kuwait. He may even have thought that he had gotten a green light from Washington to do so.

Bacevich cover

Andrew Bacevich’s latest.

President George H.W. Bush then formed what he called a “grand coalition” of 30 nations (his son, when president, would use the phrase “coalition of the willing”), got the backing of Congress, drove Saddam’s troops out of Kuwait, and invaded Iraq. Other countries, including the Gulf States, Japan, and Germany, were even willing to shoulder a significant part of the financial burden of the build-up to war and the actual campaign. Twenty-two years later, preparing to launch a far more limited missile and possibly air assault on Syrian military facilities, President Obama tried to do the same. His officials even resurrected the term “coalition of the willing.” He instead found himself in a coalition of one — and a half, if you count French President Hollande, two-and-a-half, if you count the Saudis. Much of the rest of the world proved to be a “coalition of the unwilling.“ This could certainly be taken as a measure of waning American power in the Greater Middle East and, for that matter, Europe over the last two decades.

Think of this Obama moment as one in which the chickens have literally come home to roost — and by chickens I mean everything from the manipulations that led us into a “slam dunk” war in Iraq to the recent NSA revelations of Edward Snowden, which have left enough of the planet ticked off to make the formation of an American-sponsored coalition of anything that much harder. Today, Andrew Bacevich catches the strangeness of how all this is playing out domestically in the onrushing Syrian congressional debate (or perhaps “debate”). For the last 12 years, it has also played out in a military-first set of global initiatives that have turned what used to be called “foreign policy” into a kind of permanent war policy run by an ever more engorged national security state. The pressures on the actual military have been striking. In Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, his new book published this Tuesday, Bacevich lays out the ways in which that military has essentially been abandoned by a public that heaps endless praise on “the troops,” but leaves them to fend for themselves as something ever less like a citizen’s army and ever more like a foreign legion. Tom

The Hill to the Rescue on Syria?
Don’t Hold Your Breath
By Andrew J. Bacevich

Sometimes history happens at the moment when no one is looking. On weekends in late August, the president of the United States ought to be playing golf or loafing at Camp David, not making headlines. Yet Barack Obama chose Labor Day weekend to unveil arguably the most consequential foreign policy shift of his presidency.

In an announcement that surprised virtually everyone, the president told his countrymen and the world that he was putting on hold the much anticipated U.S. attack against Syria. Obama hadn’t, he assured us, changed his mind about the need and justification for punishing the Syrian government for its probable use of chemical weapons against its own citizens. In fact, only days before administration officials had been claiming that, if necessary, the U.S. would “go it alone” in punishing Bashar al-Assad’s regime for its bad behavior. Now, however, Obama announced that, as the chief executive of “the world’s oldest constitutional democracy,” he had decided to seek Congressional authorization before proceeding.

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Tom Engelhardt, Alone and Delusional on Planet Earth

6:00 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

And Then There Was One 

Delusional Thinking in the Age of the Single Superpower
By Tom Engelhardt

Tattered American Flag

Tom Engelhardt on the madness of the world’s lone superpower.

In an increasingly phantasmagorical world, here’s my present fantasy of choice: someone from General Keith Alexander’s outfit, the National Security Agency, tracks down H.G. Wells’s time machine in the attic of an old house in London. Britain’s subservient Government Communications Headquarters, its version of the NSA, is paid off and the contraption is flown to Fort Meade, Maryland, where it’s put back in working order. Alexander then revs it up and heads not into the future like Wells to see how our world ends, but into the past to offer a warning to Americans about what’s to come.

He arrives in Washington on October 23, 1962, in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a day after President Kennedy has addressed the American people on national television to tell them that this planet might not be theirs — or anyone else’s — for long. (“We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth, but neither will we shrink from the risk at any time it must be faced.”) Greeted with amazement by the Washington elite, Alexander, too, goes on television and informs the same public that, in 2013, the major enemy of the United States will no longer be the Soviet Union, but an outfit called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and that the headquarters of our country’s preeminent foe will be found somewhere in the rural backlands of… Yemen.

Yes, Yemen, a place most Americans, then and now, would be challenged to find on a world map. I guarantee you one thing: had such an announcement actually been made that day, most Americans would undoubtedly have dropped to their knees and thanked God for His blessings on the American nation. Though even then a nonbeliever, I would undoubtedly have been among them. After all, the 18-year-old Tom Engelhardt, on hearing Kennedy’s address, genuinely feared that he and the few pathetic dreams of a future he had been able to conjure up were toast.

Had Alexander added that, in the face of AQAP and similar minor jihadist enemies scattered in the backlands of parts of the planet, the U.S. had built up its military, intelligence, and surveillance powers beyond anything ever conceived of in the Cold War or possibly in the history of the planet, Americans of that time would undoubtedly have considered him delusional and committed him to an asylum.

Such, however, is our world more than two decades after Eastern Europe was liberated, the Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War definitively ended, and the Soviet Union disappeared.

Why Orwell Was Wrong

Now, let me mention another fantasy connected to the two-superpower Cold War era: George Orwell’s 1948 vision of the world of 1984 (or thereabouts, since the inhabitants of his novel of that title were unsure just what year they were living in). When the revelations of NSA contractor Edward Snowden began to hit the news and we suddenly found ourselves knee-deep in stories about Prism, XKeyscore, and other Big Brother-ish programs that make up the massive global surveillance network the National Security Agency has been building, I had a brilliant idea — reread 1984.

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Michael Klare: A Future in Arms

8:39 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

A mid-air refueling of a fighter plane

Stratotankers, like the one shown here refueling a jet, were recently sold to the Israeli military.

Imagine for a moment that in 2010, China’s leaders had announced a long-term, up to $60 billion arms deal with an extreme Islamic fundamentalist regime in the Middle East, one that was notoriously repressive to women and a well-known supporter of the Taliban.  Imagine as well that the first $30 billion part of that deal, involving 84 advanced jet fighters, was sealed in 2011, and that, since then, the sales have never stopped: several kinds of helicopters, artillery, armored personnel carriers, upgraded tanks, surface-to-air missile systems, even possibly a litoral combat vessel, among other purchases.  Then include one more piece of information in the mix.  In 2013, China added in “an advanced class of precision ‘standoff munitions’” — missiles that could be fired from those previously purchased advanced jet fighters.

Given all this, we would know what to think.  It would be just the sort of thing you might expect from an unscrupulous, retrograde communist regime with no values whatsoever, one willing above all else to keep the production lines of its weapons makers humming.  Washington would long ago have denounced such dealings in no uncertain terms.  In fact, such a scenario is utterly fantastic and essentially unimaginable — for China.  But it happens to be a perfectly accurate description of the lucrative relationship that American arms makers and the Pentagon have with Saudi Arabia, a country Washington has promoted and sold weaponry to as if there were no tomorrow.

And that’s just to dip a toe into the strange world of the global arms “trade,” though in recent years it’s become something closer to a U.S. monopoly in straightforward dollar terms.  Now, TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, author of The Race for What’s Left and an expert on energy and also on that bizarre “trade,” offers a glimpse into its latest grim set of wrinkles — new sales that might signal a twenty-first-century revival of the Cold War. Tom

The Cold War Redux? 
Are Washington, Moscow, and Beijing Using the Global Arms Trade to Create a New Cold War? 
By Michael T. Klare

Did Washington just give Israel the green light for a future attack on Iran via an arms deal?  Did Russia just signal its further support for Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime via an arms deal?  Are the Russians, the Chinese, and the Americans all heightening regional tensions in Asia via arms deals?  Is it possible that we’re witnessing the beginnings of a new Cold War in two key regions of the planet — and that the harbingers of this unnerving development are arms deals?

International weapons sales have proved to be a thriving global business in economically tough times.  According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), such sales reached an impressive $85 billion in 2011, nearly double the figure for 2010.  This surge in military spending reflected efforts by major Middle Eastern powers to bolster their armories with modern jets, tanks, and missiles — a process constantly encouraged by the leading arms manufacturing countries (especially the U.S. and Russia) as it helps keep domestic production lines humming.  However, this familiar if always troubling pattern may soon be overshadowed by a more ominous development in the global arms trade: the revival of far more targeted Cold War-style weapons sales aimed at undermining rivals and destabilizing regional power balances.  The result, inevitably, will be a more precarious world.

Arms sales have always served multiple functions.  Valuable trade commodities, weapons can prove immensely lucrative for companies that specialize in making such products.  Between 2008 and 2011, for example, U.S. firms sold $146 billion worth of military hardware to foreign countries, according to the latest CRS figures.  Crucially, such sales help ensure that domestic production lines remain profitable even when government acquisitions slow down at home.  But arms sales have also served as valuable tools of foreign policy — as enticements for the formation of alliances, expressions of ongoing support, and a way to lure new allies over to one’s side.  Powerful nations, seeking additional allies, use such sales to win the allegiance of weaker states; weaker states, seeking to bolster their defenses, look to arms deals as a way to build ties with stronger countries, or even to play one suitor off another in pursuit of the most sophisticated arms available.

Throughout the Cold War, both superpowers employed weapons transfers as a form of competition, offering advanced arms to entice regional powers to defect from each other’s alliance systems or to counter offers made by the other side.  Egypt, for example, was convinced to join the Soviet sphere in 1955 when provided with arms the West had refused to deliver.  In the late 1970s, it moved back into the American camp after Washington anted up far better weapons systems.

In those years, the Americans and the Soviets also used arms transfers to bolster key allies in areas of strategic confrontation like the Middle East.  Washington armed Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iran when it was still ruled by the Shah; Russia armed Iraq and Syria. These transfers played a critical role in Cold War diplomacy and sometimes helped tilt the scales in favor of decisions to go to war.  In the Yom Kippur War of 1973, for example, Egypt, emboldened by an expanded arsenal of Soviet antitank missiles, attacked Israeli forces in the Negev desert.

In the wake of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, the commercial aspect of arms sales came to the fore.  Both Washington and Moscow were, by then, far more interested in keeping their military production lines running than in jousting for advantage abroad, so emphasis was placed on scoring contracts from those with the means to pay — mainly the major oil producers of the Middle East and Latin America and the economically expansive “tigers” of Asia.  Between 2008 and 2011, the CRS ranked the leading purchasers of conventional arms in the developing world this way: Saudi Arabia, India, the United Arab Emirates, Brazil, Egypt, and Venezuela.  Together, these six countries ordered $117 billion in new weaponry.

Arms Sales Take a New Path

Only recently has some version of great power dueling and competition started up again, and in the early months of 2013 it seems to be gaining momentum.  Several recent developments highlight this trend:

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