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What Happens When a Few Volunteer and the Rest Just Watch: The American Military System Dissected

In Democracy, Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, Politics, War on April 12, 2018 at 9:35 am

By Andrew J. Bacevich

http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/176409/tomgram%3A_andrew_bacevich%2C_creating_a_perpetual_war_machine/#more

The purpose of all wars, is peace. So observed St. Augustine early in the first millennium A.D. Far be it from me to disagree with the esteemed Bishop of Hippo, but his crisply formulated aphorism just might require a bit of updating.

I’m not a saint or even a bishop, merely an interested observer of this nation’s ongoing military misadventures early in the third millennium A.D. From my vantage point, I might suggest the following amendment to Augustine’s dictum: Any war failing to yield peace is purposeless and, if purposeless, both wrong and stupid.

War is evil. Large-scale, state-sanctioned violence is justified only when all other means of achieving genuinely essential objectives have been exhausted or are otherwise unavailable. A nation should go to war only when it has to — and even then, ending the conflict as expeditiously as possible should be an imperative.

Some might take issue with these propositions, President Trump’s latest national security adviser doubtless among them. Yet most observers — even, I’m guessing, most high-ranking U.S. military officers — would endorse them. How is it then that peace has essentially vanished as a U.S. policy objective? Why has war joined death and taxes in that select category of things that Americans have come to accept as unavoidable?

The United States has taken Thucydides’s famed Melian Dialogue and turned it inside out. Centuries before Augustine, the great Athenian historian wrote, “The strong do what they will, while the weak suffer what they must.” Strength confers choice; weakness restricts it. That’s the way the world works, so at least Thucydides believed. Yet the inverted Melian Dialogue that prevails in present-day Washington seemingly goes like this: strength imposes obligations and limits choice. In other words, we gotta keep doing what we’ve been doing, no matter what.

Making such a situation all the more puzzling is the might and majesty of America’s armed forces. By common consent, the United States today has the world’s best military. By some estimates, it may be the best in recorded history. It’s certainly the most expensive and hardest working on the planet.

Yet in the post-Cold War era when the relative strength of U.S. forces reached its zenith, our well-endowed, well-trained, well-equipped, and highly disciplined troops have proven unable to accomplish any of the core tasks to which they’ve been assigned. This has been especially true since 9/11.

We send the troops off to war, but they don’t achieve peace. Instead, America’s wars and skirmishes simply drag on, seemingly without end. We just keep doing what we’ve been doing, a circumstance that both Augustine and Thucydides would undoubtedly have found baffling.

Prosecuting War, Averting Peace

How to explain this paradox of a superb military that never gets the job done? Let me suggest that the problem lies with the present-day American military system, the principles to which the nation adheres in raising, organizing, supporting, and employing its armed forces. By its very existence, a military system expresses an implicit contract between the state, the people, and the military itself.

Here, as I see it, are the principles — seven in all — that define the prevailing military system of the United States.

First, we define military service as entirely voluntary. In the U.S., there is no link between citizenship and military service. It’s up to you as an individual to decide if you want to take up arms in the service of your country.

If you choose to do so, that’s okay. If you choose otherwise, that’s okay, too. Either way, your decision is of no more significance than whether you root for the Yankees or the Mets.

Second, while non-serving citizens are encouraged to “support the troops,” we avoid stipulating how this civic function is to be performed.

In practice, there are many ways of doing so, some substantive, others merely symbolic. Most citizens opt for the latter. This means that they cheer when invited to do so. Cheering is easy and painless. It can even make you feel good about yourself.

Third, when it comes to providing the troops with actual support, we expect Congress to do the heavy lifting. Our elected representatives fulfill that role by routinely ponying up vast sums of money for what is misleadingly called a defense budget. In some instances, Congress appropriates even more money than the Pentagon asks for, as was the case this year.

Meanwhile, under the terms of our military system, attention to how this money actually gets spent by our yet-to-be-audited Pentagon tends to be — to put the matter politely — spotty. Only rarely does the Congress insert itself forcefully into matters relating to what U.S. forces scattered around the world are actually doing.

Yes, there are periodic hearings, with questions posed and testimony offered. But unless there is some partisan advantage to be gained, oversight tends to be, at best, pro forma. As a result, those charged with implementing national security policy — another Orwellian phrase — enjoy very considerable latitude.

Fourth, under the terms of our military system, this latitude applies in spades to the chief executive. The commander-in-chief occupies the apex of our military system. The president may bring to office very little expertise pertinent to war or the art of statecraft, yet his authority regarding such matters is essentially unlimited.

Consider, if you will, the sobering fact that our military system empowers the president to order a nuclear attack, should he see the need — or feel the impulse — to do so. He need not obtain congressional consent. He certainly doesn’t need to check with the American people.

Since Harry Truman ordered the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, presidents have not exercised this option, for which we should all be grateful. Yet on more occasions than you can count, they have ordered military actions, large and small, on their own authority or after only the most perfunctory consultation with Congress. When Donald Trump, for instance, threatened North Korea’s Kim Jong-un with “fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen,” he gave no hint that he would even consider asking for prior congressional authorization to do so. Trump’s words were certainly inflammatory. Yet were he to act on those words, he would merely be exercising a prerogative enjoyed by his predecessors going back to Truman himself.

The Constitution invests in Congress the authority to declare war. The relevant language is unambiguous. In practice, as countless commentators have noted, that provision has long been a dead letter. This, too, forms an essential part of our present military system.

Fifth, under the terms of that system, there’s no need to defray the costs of military actions undertaken in our name. Supporting the troops does not require citizens to pay anything extra for what the U.S. military is doing out there wherever it may be. The troops are asked to sacrifice; for the rest of us, sacrifice is anathema.

Indeed, in recent years, presidents who take the nation to war or perpetuate wars they inherit never even consider pressing Congress to increase our taxes accordingly. On the contrary, they advocate tax cuts, especially for the wealthiest among us, which lead directly to massive deficits.

Sixth, pursuant to the terms of our military system, the armed services have been designed not to defend the country but to project military power on a global basis. For the Department of Defense actually defending the United States qualifies as an afterthought, trailing well behind other priorities such as trying to pacify Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province or jousting with militant groups in Somalia. The United States Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps are all designed to fight elsewhere, relying on a constellation of perhaps 800 bases around the world to facilitate the conduct of military campaigns “out there,” wherever “there” may happen to be. They are, in other words, expeditionary forces.

Reflect for a moment on the way the Pentagon divvies the world up into gigantic swathes of territory and then assigns a military command to exercise jurisdiction over each of them: European Command, Africa Command, Central Command, Southern Command, Northern Command, and Pacific Command. With the polar icecap continuing to melt, a U.S. Arctic Command is almost surely next on the docket. Nor is the Pentagon’s mania for creating new headquarters confined to terra firma. We already have U.S. Cyber Command. Can U.S. Galactic Command be far behind?

No other nation adheres to this practice. Nor would the United States permit any nation to do so. Imagine the outcry in Washington if President Xi Jinping had the temerity to create a “PRC Latin America Command,” headed by a four-star Chinese general charged with maintaining order and stability from Mexico to Argentina.

Seventh (and last), our military system invests great confidence in something called the military profession.

The legal profession exists to implement the rule of law. We hope that the result is some approximation of justice. The medical profession exists to repair our bodily ailments. We hope that health and longevity will result. The military profession exists to master war. With military professionals in charge, it’s our hope that America’s wars will conclude quickly and successfully with peace the result.

To put it another way, we look to the military profession to avert the danger of long, costly, and inconclusive wars. History suggests that these sap the collective strength of a nation and can bring about its premature decline. We count on military professionals to forestall that prospect.

Our military system assigns the immediate direction of war to our most senior professionals, individuals who have ascended step by step to the very top of the military hierarchy. We expect three- and four-star generals and admirals to possess the skills needed to make war politically purposeful. This expectation provides the rationale for the status they enjoy and the many entitlements they are accorded.

America, the (Formerly) Indispensable

Now, the nation that has created this military system is not some “shithole country,” to use a phrase made famous by President Trump. We are, or at least claim to be, a democratic republic in which all power ultimately derives from the people. We believe in — indeed, are certain that we exemplify — freedom, even as we continually modify the meaning of that term.

In the aggregate, we are very rich. Since the latter part of the nineteenth century we have taken it for granted that the United States ought to be the richest country on the planet, notwithstanding the fact that large numbers of ordinary Americans are themselves anything but rich. Indeed, as a corollary to our military system, we count on these less affluent Americans to volunteer for military service in disproportionate numbers. Offered sufficient incentives, they do so.

Finally, since 1945 the United States has occupied the preeminent place in the global order, a position affirmed with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in 1991. Indeed, we have come to believe that American primacy reflects the will of God or of some cosmic authority.

From the early years of the Cold War, we have come to believe that the freedom, material abundance, and primacy we cherish all depend upon the exercise of “global leadership.” In practice, that seemingly benign term has been a euphemism for unquestioned military superiority and the self-assigned right to put our military to work as we please wherever we please. Back in the 1990s, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said it best: “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future.”

Other countries might design their military establishments to protect certain vital interests. As Albright’s remark suggests, American designs have been far more ambitious.

Here, then, is a question: How do the principles and attitudes that undergird our military system actually suit twenty-first-century America? And if they don’t, what are the implications of clinging to such a system? Finally, what alternative principles might form a more reasonable basis for raising, organizing, supporting, and employing our armed forces?

Spoiler alert: Let me acknowledge right now that I consider our present-day military system irredeemably flawed and deeply harmful. For proof we need look no further than the conduct of our post-9/11 wars, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

These myriad undertakings of the last nearly 17 years have subjected our military system to a comprehensive real-world examination. Collectively, they have rendered a judgment on that system. And the judgment is negative. Put to the test, the American military system has failed.

And the cost so far? Trillions of dollars expended (with trillions more to come), thousands of American lives lost, tens of thousands of Americans grievously damaged, and even greater numbers of non-Americans killed, injured, and displaced.

One thing is certain: our wars have not brought about peace by even the loosest definition of the word.

A Military Report Card

There are many possible explanations for why our recent military record has been so dismal. One crucial explanation — perhaps the most important of all — relates to those seven principles that undergird our military system.

Let me review them in reverse order.

Principle 7, the military profession: Tally up the number of three- and four-star generals who have commanded the Afghan War since 2001. It’s roughly a dozen. None of them has succeeded in bringing it to a successful conclusion. Nor does any such happy ending seem likely to be in the offing anytime soon. The senior officers we expect to master war have demonstrated no such mastery.

The generals who followed one another in presiding over that war are undoubtedly estimable, well-intentioned men, but they have not accomplished the job for which they were hired. Imagine if you contracted with a dozen different plumbers — each highly regarded — to fix a leaking sink in your kitchen and you ended up with a flooded basement. You might begin to think that there’s something amiss in the way that plumbers are trained and licensed. Similarly, perhaps it’s time to reexamine our approach to identifying and developing very senior military officers.

Or alternatively, consider this possibility: Perhaps our theory of war as an enterprise where superior generalship determines the outcome is flawed. Perhaps war cannot be fully mastered, by generals or anyone else.

It might just be that war is inherently unmanageable. Take it from Winston Churchill, America’s favorite confronter of evil. “The statesman who yields to war fever,” Churchill wrote, “must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.”

If Churchill is right, perhaps our expectations that senior military professionals will tame war — control the uncontrollable — are misplaced. Perhaps our military system should put greater emphasis on avoiding war altogether or at least classifying it as an option to be exercised with great trepidation, rather than as the political equivalent of a handy-dandy, multi-functional Swiss Army knife.

Principle 6, organizing our forces to emphasize global power projection: Reflect for a moment on the emerging security issues of our time. The rise of China is one example. A petulant and over-armed Russia offers a second. Throw in climate change and mushrooming cyber-threats and you have a daunting set of problems. It’s by no means impertinent to wonder about the relevance of the current military establishment to these challenges.

Every year the United States spends hundreds of billions of dollars to maintain and enhance the lethality of a force configured for conventional power projection and to sustain the global network of bases that goes with it. For almost two decades, that force has been engaged in a futile war of attrition with radical Islamists that has now spread across much of the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa.

I don’t know about you, but I worry more about the implications of China’s rise and Russian misbehavior than I do about Islamic terrorism. And I worry more about changing weather patterns here in New England or somebody shutting down the electrical grid in my home town than I do about what Beijing and Moscow may be cooking up. Bluntly put, our existing military system finds us focused on the wrong problem set.

We need a military system that accurately prioritizes actual and emerging threats. The existing system does not. This suggests the need for radically reconfigured armed services, with the hallowed traditions of George Patton, John Paul Jones, Billy Mitchell, and Chesty Puller honorably but permanently retired.

Principle 5, paying — or not paying — for America’s wars: If you want it, you should be willing to pay for it. That hoary axiom ought to guide our military system as much as it should our personal lives. Saddling Millennials or members of Generation Z with the cost of paying for wars mostly conceived and mismanaged by my fellow Baby Boomers strikes me as downright unseemly.

One might expect the young to raise quite a ruckus over such an obvious injustice. In recent weeks, we’ve witnessed their righteous anger over the absence of effective gun controls in this country. That they aren’t comparably incensed about the misuse of guns by their own contemporaries deployed to distant lands represents a real puzzle, especially since they’re the ones who will ultimately be stuck with the bill.

Principles 4 and 3, the role of Congress and the authority of the commander-in-chief: Whatever rationale may once have existed for allowing the commander-in-chief to circumvent the Constitution’s plainly specified allocation of war powers to Congress should long since have lapsed. Well before Donald Trump became president, a responsible Congress would have reasserted its authority to declare war. That Trump sits in the Oval Office and now takes advice from the likes of John Bolton invests this matter with great urgency.

Surely President Trump’s bellicose volatility drives home the point that it’s past time for Congress to assert itself in providing responsible oversight regarding all aspects of U.S. military policy. Were it to do so, the chances of fixing the defects permeating our present military system would improve appreciably.

Of course, the likelihood of that happening is nil until the money changers are expelled from the temple. And that won’t occur until Americans who are not beholden to the military-industrial complex and its various subsidiaries rise up, purge the Congress of its own set of complexes, and install in office people willing to do their duty. And that brings us back to…

Principles 2 and 1, the existing relationship between the American people and their military and our reliance on a so-called all-volunteer force: Here we come to the heart of the matter.

I submit that the relationship between the American people and their military is shot through with hypocrisy. It is, in fact, nothing short of fraudulent. Worse still, most of us know it, even if we are loath to fess up. In practice, the informal mandate to “support the troops” has produced an elaborate charade. It’s theater, as phony as Donald Trump’s professed love for DACA recipients.

If Americans were genuinely committed to supporting the troops, they would pay a great deal more attention to what President Trump and his twenty-first-century predecessors have tasked those troops to accomplish — with what results and at what cost. Of course, that would imply doing more than cheering and waving the flag on cue. Ultimately, the existence of the all-volunteer force obviates any need for such an effort. It provides Americans with an ample excuse for ignoring our endless wars and allowing our flawed military system to escape serious scrutiny.

Having outsourced responsibility for defending the country to people few of us actually know, we’ve ended up with a military system that is unfair, undemocratic, hugely expensive, and largely ineffective, not to mention increasingly irrelevant to the threats coming our way. The perpetuation of that system finds us mired in precisely the sort of long, costly, inconclusive wars that sap the collective strength of a nation and may bring about its premature decline.

The root cause of our predicament is the all-volunteer force. Only when we ordinary citizens conclude that we have an obligation to contribute to the country’s defense will it become possible to devise a set of principles for raising, organizing, supporting, and employing U.S. forces that align with our professed values and our actual security requirements.

If Stormy Daniels can figure out when an existing contract has outlived its purpose, so can the rest of us.

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North Korea’s definition of ‘denuclearization’ is very different from Trump’s

In Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, Politics, War on April 10, 2018 at 10:37 pm

By Anna Fifield, April 9, Washington Post
SEOUL — The White House is gearing up for President Trump to discuss denuclearization with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at their much anticipated summit next month. But what does “denuclearization” mean?

It depends on whom you are asking. To some in Washington, “the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” as Trump tweeted late last month, means Kim handing over his nuclear weapons and missile systems and allowing international inspectors to check that the regime is keeping its word.

To Pyongyang, it means something very, very different. It means mutual steps to get rid of nuclear weapons, including requiring the United States to take down the nuclear umbrella it has put up over South Korea and Japan.

That is a difference in definition that could toll a death knell for the summit before it even starts.

“The danger is entering into negotiations with unrealistic expectations that Kim is just going to hand over the keys to his nuclear kingdom. He won’t,” said Vipin Narang, an expert on nuclear nonproliferation at MIT.

A U.S. soldier takes part in a Vigilant air combat exercise in South Korea last December. (Photo by Kim Hong-Ji-Pool/Getty Images) (Pool/Getty Images)
At the very least, Kim would agree to relinquish his weapons only if the United States agreed to end its military alliance with South Korea, in place since the 1950-53 Korean War, Narang said. He would also likely insist the United States end its commitment to “extended deterrence” in South Korea and Japan — its threat of nuclear retaliation if its allies in Asia come under attack from North Korea.

North Korea has for decades viewed the American military presence in South Korea as part of a “hostile policy” aimed at bringing about its collapse. As part of its efforts to help the Kim family maintain its totalitarian grip on the state, it has kept alive the memories of the Korean War, when the United States waged a devastating bombing campaign that flattened most of the North.

“The surest way for the summit to end in disaster is if President Trump enters with the false belief that denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula means Kim Jong Un unilaterally surrendering his nuclear weapons,” Narang said.

North Korea confirms to White House that it is willing to talk about denuclearization

Indeed, North Korea laid this out very clearly in the middle of 2016, calling Washington’s insistence that it dismantle its nuclear program first an “absurd precondition” for entering talks. Instead it listed five conditions of its own. Among them, Pyongyang demanded the United States declare it will not launch American nuclear weapons from South Korean soil.

North Korea has said nothing to suggest it has dropped its demands. Some South Korean analysts advising President Moon Jae-in ahead of his own summit with Kim, to be held at the end of this month, say Kim knows insisting on them is unrealistic.

Instead, he might ask for other concessions, perhaps a reduction in the American military presence on the peninsula, said Koh Yu-hwan, professor of North Korean studies at Dongkuk University and one of Moon’s advisers.

President Trump said he would be meeting with North Korea’s leadership “in May or early June,” and that there will be “great respect paid by both parties.” (Photo: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
The United States military has about 28,000 troops stationed in South Korea and has built a huge base south of Seoul partly to get out of range of North Korea’s conventional artillery.

The Pentagon agreed to postpone annual spring exercises with the South Korean military until after the Winter Olympics that were held in February.

The exercises appear, however, to be much more low-key this year. The field training exercises, called Foal Eagle, involve 11,500 American troops, down from 15,000 last year. The Ssangyong amphibious landing exercises, which lasted for two weeks last time, continued for only one week this year, ending on Sunday.

All of this appears designed to create the right environment for the inter-Korean summit to be held on April 27 in the “peace village” on the border between the North and South and then Kim’s summit with Trump the following month.

[Could North Korea’s missile test lead to talks? Some see a slight opening. ]

Many in Washington seem to have another misguided assumption about those talks, analysts here say.

Trump has said that Kim is suddenly interested in talking with the outside world because of the U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign against the North Korean leader.

He is at least partly right, say analysts ranging from those who would engage to those who would invade, but that is not the full story.

The other part is the fact that Kim, a 34-year-old who has consistently defied low expectations over the past six years, is feeling more confident than ever.

“Kim Jong Un seems to feel secure domestically, and he has nuclear weapons now, so he feels like he’s entitled to be treated like a world leader,” said Kim Seok-hyang, a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul and an adviser to the South Korean president about his own summit. ­

“Kim Jong Un is ready,” she said after Kim met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. “Now his dreams are coming true.”

There is no doubt, analysts say, Kim is talking because he is worried about the effect of crippling sanctions, led by the United States, on the North Korean economy.

“Maximum pressure is having an impact,” said Lim Eul-Chul of Kyungnam University’s Graduate School of North Korean Studies, using Trump’s preferred phrase for his approach.

Kim-Xi meeting presents a new challenge for Trump on North Korea

But rather than “maximum pressure,” it is more like “optimum pressure,” said John Delury, an international relations professor at Yonsei University in Seoul.

“The pressure is real and has increased, and I do think that it has frustrated Kim Jong Un’s ambitions,” he said, referring to Kim’s “simultaneous push” policy of developing the nuclear program and the economy at the same time.

“He’s done with the first half of his plan,” Delury said. “He feels confident that he can keep doing what he’s doing.”

Indeed, at the end of November, the last time it tested a missile, North Korea declared it had built a new intercontinental ballistic missile “tipped with ­super-large heavy warhead” that marked “the completion of the rocket weaponry system development.”

Delury said the United States should want Kim to feel confident going into these talks, rather than feeling cornered. “We have him in a good spot right now,” Delury said.

Lim agreed the North Korean leader, having declared success with his nuclear efforts, was now feeling strong and ready to deal with the economic side of his “simultaneous push”

“Kim Jong Un decided to go to the negotiating table because he judged that once he became a nuclear power,” Lim said, “the U.S. would be much more interested in talking to him.”

Whether he is feeling confident enough to strike a deal remains to be seen.

 

As Old Wars Still Rage Pentagon Plans New “Long War” with China and Russia

In Cost, Justice, Peace, Politics, War on April 8, 2018 at 10:40 pm

April 7, 2018 Michael Klare TOMDISPATCH

It looks as if a 21st century version of the Cold War (with dangerous new twists) has begun and hardly anyone has noticed. Even while the disastrous U.S. wars against terror still rage, the Pentagon has committed itself and the nation to a new three-front “long war” against China and Russia.

Think of it as the most momentous military planning on Earth right now. Who’s even paying attention, given the eternal changing of the guard at the White House, as well as the latest in tweets, sexual revelations, and investigations of every sort? And yet it increasingly looks as if, thanks to current Pentagon planning, a twenty-first-century version of the Cold War (with dangerous new twists) has begun and hardly anyone has even noticed.

In 2006, when the Department of Defense spelled out its future security role, it saw only one overriding mission: its “Long War” against international terrorism. “With its allies and partners, the United States must be prepared to wage this war in many locations simultaneously and for some years to come,” the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review explained that year. Twelve years later, the Pentagon has officially announced that that long war is drawing to a close — even though at least seven counterinsurgency conflicts still rage across the Greater Middle East and Africa — and a new long war has begun, a permanent campaign to contain China and Russia in Eurasia.

“Great power competition, not terrorism, has emerged as the central challenge to U.S. security and prosperity,” claimed Pentagon Comptroller David Norquist while releasing the Pentagon’s $686 billion budget request in January. “It is increasingly apparent that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian values and, in the process, replace the free and open order that has enabled global security and prosperity since World War II.”

Of course, just how committed President Trump is to the preservation of that “free and open order” remains questionable given his determination to scuttle international treaties and ignite a global trade war. Similarly, whether China and Russia truly seek to undermine the existing world order or simply make it less American-centric is a question that deserves close attention, just not today. The reason is simple enough. The screaming headline you should have seen in any paper (but haven’t) is this: the U.S. military has made up its mind about the future. It has committed itself and the nation to a three-front geopolitical struggle to resist Chinese and Russian advances in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.

Important as this strategic shift may be, you won’t hear about it from the president, a man lacking the attention span necessary for such long-range strategic thinking and one who views Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping as “frenemies” rather than die-hard adversaries. To fully appreciate the momentous changes occurring in U.S. military planning, it’s necessary to take a deep dive into the world of Pentagon scripture: budget documents and the annual “posture statements” of regional commanders already overseeing the implementation of that just-born three-front strategy.

The New Geopolitical Chessboard

This renewed emphasis on China and Russia in U.S. military planning reflects the way top military officials are now reassessing the global strategic equation, a process that began long before Donald Trump entered the White House. Although after 9/11, senior commanders fully embraced the “long war against terror” approach to the world, their enthusiasm for endless counterterror operations leading essentially nowhere in remote and sometimes strategically unimportant places began to wane in recent years as they watched China and Russia modernizing their military forces and using them to intimidate neighbors.

While the long war against terror did fuel a vast, ongoing expansion of the Pentagon’s Special Operations Forces (SOF) — now a secretive army of 70,000 nestled inside the larger military establishment — it provided surprisingly little purpose or real work for the military’s “heavy metal” units: the Army’s tank brigades, the Navy’s carrier battle groups, the Air Force’s bomber squadrons, and so forth. Yes, the Air Force in particular has played a major supporting role in recent operations in Iraq and Syria, but the regular military has largely been sidelined there and elsewhere by lightly equipped SOF forces and drones. Planning for a “real war” against a “peer competitor” (one with forces and weaponry resembling our own) was until recently given far lower priority than the country’s never-ending conflicts across the Greater Middle East and Africa. This alarmed and even angered those in the regular military whose moment, it seems, has now finally arrived.

“Today, we are emerging from a period of strategic atrophy, aware that our competitive military advantage has been eroding,” the Pentagon’s new National Defense Strategy declares. “We are facing increased global disorder, characterized by decline in the long-standing rules-based international order” — a decline officially attributed for the first time not to al-Qaeda and ISIS, but to the aggressive behavior of China and Russia. Iran and North Korea are also identified as major threats, but of a distinctly secondary nature compared to the menace posed by the two great-power competitors.

Unsurprisingly enough, this shift will require not only greater spending on costly, high-tech military hardware but also a redrawing of the global strategic map to favor the regular military. During the long war on terror, geography and boundaries appeared less important, given that terrorist cells seemed capable of operating anyplace where order was breaking down. The U.S. military, convinced that it had to be equally agile, readied itself to deploy (often Special Operations forces) to remote battlefields across the planet, borders be damned.

On the new geopolitical map, however, America faces well-armed adversaries with every intention of protecting their borders, so U.S. forces are now being arrayed along an updated version of an older, more familiar three-front line of confrontation. In Asia, the U.S. and its key allies (South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and Australia) are to face China across a line extending from the Korean peninsula to the waters of the East and South China Seas and the Indian Ocean. In Europe, the U.S. and its NATO allies will do the same for Russia on a front extending from Scandinavia and the Baltic Republics south to Romania and then east across the Black Sea to the Caucasus. Between these two theaters of contention lies the ever-turbulent Greater Middle East, with the United States and its two crucial allies there, Israel and Saudi Arabia, facing a Russian foothold in Syria and an increasingly assertive Iran, itself drawing closer to China and Russia. From the Pentagon’s perspective, this is to be the defining strategic global map for the foreseeable future. Expect most upcoming major military investments and initiatives to focus on bolstering U.S. naval, air, and ground strength on its side of these lines, as well as on targeting Sino-Russian vulnerabilities across them.

There’s no better way to appreciate the dynamics of this altered strategic outlook than to dip into the annual “posture statements” of the heads of the Pentagon’s “unified combatant commands,” or combined Army/Navy/Air Force/Marine Corps headquarters, covering the territories surrounding China and Russia: Pacific Command (PACOM), with responsibility for all U.S. forces in Asia; European Command (EUCOM), covering U.S. forces from Scandinavia to the Caucasus; and Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees the Middle East and Central Asia where so many of the country’s counterterror wars are still underway.

The senior commanders of these meta-organizations are the most powerful U.S. officials in their “areas of responsibility” (AORs), exercising far more clout than any American ambassador stationed in the region (and often local heads of state as well). That makes their statements and the shopping lists of weaponry that invariably go with them of real significance for anyone who wants to grasp the Pentagon’s vision of America’s global military future.

The Indo-Pacific Front

Commanding PACOM is Admiral Harry Harris Jr., a long-time naval aviator. In his annual posture statement, delivered to the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 15th, Harris painted a grim picture of America’s strategic position in the Asia-Pacific region. In addition to the dangers posed by a nuclear-armed North Korea, he argued, China was emerging as a formidable threat to America’s vital interests. “The People’s Liberation Army’s rapid evolution into a modern, high-tech fighting force continues to be both impressive and concerning,” he asserted. “PLA capabilities are progressing faster than any other nation in the world, benefitting from robust resourcing and prioritization.”

Most threatening, in his view, is Chinese progress in developing intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) and advanced warships. Such missiles, he explained, could strike U.S. bases in Japan or on the island of Guam, while the expanding Chinese navy could challenge the U.S. Navy in seas off China’s coast and someday perhaps America’s command of the western Pacific. “If this [shipbuilding] program continues,” he said, “China will surpass Russia as the world’s second largest navy by 2020, when measured in terms of submarines and frigate-class ships or larger.”

To counter such developments and contain Chinese influence requires, of course, spending yet more taxpayer dollars on advanced weapons systems, especially precision-guided missiles. Admiral Harris called for vastly increasing investment in such weaponry in order to overpower current and future Chinese capabilities and ensure U.S. military dominance of China’s air and sea space. “In order to deter potential adversaries in the Indo-Pacific,” he declared, “we must build a more lethal force by investing in critical capabilities and harnessing innovation.”

His budgetary wish list was impressive. Above all, he spoke with great enthusiasm about new generations of aircraft and missiles — what are called, in Pentagonese, “anti-access/area-denial” systems — capable of striking Chinese IRBM batteries and other weapons systems intended to keep American forces safely away from Chinese territory. He also hinted that he wouldn’t mind having new nuclear-armed missiles for this purpose — missiles, he suggested, that could be launched from ships and planes and so would skirt the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, to which the U.S. is a signatory and which bans land-based intermediate-range nuclear missiles. (To give you a feel for the arcane language of Pentagon nuclear cognoscenti, here’s how he put it: “We must continue to expand Intermediate Nuclear Force Treaty-compliant theater strike capabilities to effectively counter adversary anti-access/area-denial [A2/AD] capabilities and force preservation tactics.”)

Finally, to further strengthen the U.S. defense line in the region, Harris called for enhanced military ties with various allies and partners, including Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia. PACOM’s goal, he stated, is to “maintain a network of like-minded allies and partners to cultivate principled security networks, which reinforce the free and open international order.” Ideally, he added, this network will eventually encompass India, further extending the encirclement of China.

The European Theater

A similarly embattled future, even if populated by different actors in a different landscape, was offered by Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of EUCOM, in testimony before the Senate Committee on Armed Services on March 8th. For him, Russia is the other China. As he put it in a bone-chilling description, “Russia seeks to change the international order, fracture NATO, and undermine U.S. leadership in order to protect its regime, reassert dominance over its neighbors, and achieve greater influence around the globe… Russia has demonstrated its willingness and capability to intervene in countries along its periphery and to project power — especially in the Middle East.”

This, needless to say, is not the outlook we’re hearing from President Trump, who has long appeared reluctant to criticize Vladimir Putin or paint Russia as a full-fledged adversary. For American military and intelligence officials, however, Russia unquestionably poses the preeminent threat to U.S. security interests in Europe. It is now being spoken of in a fashion that should bring back memories of the Cold War era. “Our highest strategic priority,” Scaparrotti insisted, “is to deter Russia from engaging in further aggression and exercising malign influence over our allies and partners. [To this end,] we are… updating our operational plans to provide military response options to defend our European allies against Russian aggression.”

The cutting edge of EUCOM’s anti-Russian drive is the European Deterrence Initiative (EDI), a project President Obama initiated in 2014 following the Russian seizure of Crimea. Originally known as the European Reassurance Initiative, the EDI is intended to bolster U.S. and NATO forces deployed in the “front-line states” — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland — facing Russia on NATO’s “Eastern Front.” According to the Pentagon wish list submitted in February, some $6.5 billion are to be allocated to the EDI in 2019. Most of those funds will be used to stockpile munitions in the front-line states, enhance Air Force basing infrastructure, conduct increased joint military exercises with allied forces, and rotate additional U.S.-based forces into the region. In addition, some $200 million will be devoted to a Pentagon “advise, train, and equip” mission in Ukraine.

Like his counterpart in the Pacific theater, General Scaparrotti also turns out to have an expensive wish list of future weaponry, including advanced planes, missiles, and other high-tech weapons that, he claims, will counter modernizing Russian forces. In addition, recognizing Russia’s proficiency in cyberwarfare, he’s calling for a substantial investment in cyber technology and, like Admiral Harris, he cryptically hinted at the need for increased investment in nuclear forces of a sort that might be “usable” on a future European battlefield.

Between East and West: Central Command

Overseeing a startling range of war-on-terror conflicts in the vast, increasingly unstable region stretching from PACOM’s western boundary to EUCOM’s eastern one is the U.S. Central Command. For most of its modern history, CENTCOM has been focused on counterterrorism and the wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan in particular. Now, however, even as the previous long war continues, the Command is already beginning to position itself for a new Cold War-revisited version of perpetual struggle, a plan — to resurrect a dated term — to contain both China and Russia in the Greater Middle East.

In recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, CENTCOM commander Army General Joseph Votel concentrated on the status of U.S. operations against ISIS in Syria and against the Taliban in Afghanistan, but he also affirmed that the containment of China and Russia has become an integral part of CENTCOM’s future strategic mission: “The recently published National Defense Strategy rightly identifies the resurgence of great power competition as our principal national security challenge and we see the effects of that competition throughout the region.”

Through its support of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and its efforts to gain influence with other key actors in the region, Russia, Votel claimed, is playing an increasingly conspicuous role in Centcom’s AOR. China is also seeking to enhance its geopolitical clout both economically and through a small but growing military presence. Of particular concern, Votel asserted, is the Chinese-managed port at Gwadar in Pakistan on the Indian Ocean and a new Chinese base in Djibouti on the Red Sea, across from Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Such facilities, he claimed, contribute to China’s “military posture and force projection” in CENTCOM’s AOR and are signals of a challenging future for the U.S. military.

Under such circumstances, Votel testified, it is incumbent upon CENTCOM to join PACOM and EUCOM in resisting Chinese and Russian assertiveness. “We have to be prepared to address these threats, not just in the areas in which they reside, but the areas in which they have influence.” Without providing any details, he went on to say, “We have developed… very good plans and processes for how we will do that.”

What that means is unclear at best, but despite Donald Trump’s campaign talk about a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria once ISIS and the Taliban are defeated, it seems increasingly clear that the U.S. military is preparing to station its forces in those (and possibly other) countries across CENTCOM’s region of responsibility indefinitely, fighting terrorism, of course, but also ensuring that there will be a permanent U.S. military presence in areas that could see intensifying geopolitical competition among the major powers.

An Invitation to Disaster

In relatively swift fashion, American military leaders have followed up their claim that the U.S. is in a new long war by sketching the outlines of a containment line that would stretch from the Korean Peninsula around Asia across the Middle East into parts of the former Soviet Union in Eastern Europe and finally to the Scandinavian countries. Under their plan, American military forces — reinforced by the armies of trusted allies — should garrison every segment of this line, a grandiose scheme to block hypothetical advances of Chinese and Russian influence that, in its global reach, should stagger the imagination. Much of future history could be shaped by such an outsized effort.

Questions for the future include whether this is either a sound strategic policy or truly sustainable. Attempting to contain China and Russia in such a manner will undoubtedly provoke countermoves, some undoubtedly difficult to resist, including cyber attacks and various kinds of economic warfare. And if you imagined that a war on terror across huge swaths of the planet represented a significant global overreach for a single power, just wait. Maintaining large and heavily-equipped forces on three extended fronts will also prove exceedingly costly and will certainly conflict with domestic spending priorities and possibly provoke a divisive debate over the reinstatement of the draft.

However, the real question — unasked in Washington at the moment — is: Why pursue such a policy in the first place? Are there not other ways to manage the rise of China and Russia’s provocative behavior? What appears particularly worrisome about this three-front strategy is its immense capacity for confrontation, miscalculation, escalation, and finally actual war rather than simply grandiose war planning.

At multiple points along this globe-spanning line — the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, Syria, the South China Sea, and the East China Sea, to name just a few — forces from the U.S. and China or Russia are already in significant contact, often jostling for position in a potentially hostile manner. At any moment, one of these encounters could provoke a firefight leading to unintended escalation and, in the end, possibly all-out combat. From there, almost anything could happen, even the use of nuclear weapons. Clearly, officials in Washington should be thinking hard before committing Americans to a strategy that will make this increasingly likely and could turn what is still long-war planning into an actual long war with deadly consequences.

[Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left. A documentary movie version of his book Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @mklare1. Copyright 2018 Michael Klare. Reprinted with permission. May not be reprinted without permission from Tom Dispatch. Portside thanks TomDispatch for sending this article to us.]

How Memphis Gave Up on Dr. King’s Dream

In Democracy, Human rights, Justice, Politics, Race on April 6, 2018 at 6:43 am

By Wendi C. Thomas, New York Times, March 30, 2018
MEMPHIS — The 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4 should have been an opportunity for the nation — and especially those who live in the city where he was killed — to reckon with the issue that he died fighting for: the right of workers to earn a living wage.

But for that reckoning to happen, we must acknowledge that the economic system and political structures that perpetuated poverty then are still in force now. And that the people who keep workers poor still too often get a pass.

In the last years of his life, with Jim Crow in retreat, Dr. King turned to what he labeled the three evils — poverty, militarism and racism — that kept black people in bondage. In 1968, he was planning the Poor People’s Campaign when black ministers invited him to Memphis to show support for about 1,300 black sanitation workers who had gone on strike after years of low wages and poor working conditions.

Henry Loeb III, anti-union and pro-segregation, was the city’s mayor. Born in 1920 in Memphis, he graduated from Phillips Academy and Brown, then served in the military during World War II before returning to Memphis to join his family’s laundry business, which was founded in 1887.

According to the historian Mantri Sivananda, whose 2002 Ph.D. dissertation focused on Loeb, the company’s records from 1900 to 1925 showed that wages “were not revised according to the increasing cost of living.” Loeb’s Laundry, which fought off a 1945 strike, continued to keep the wages of its hundreds of workers — most of whom were black women — low. By 1968, the company boasted that it was the South’s oldest and largest laundry business, with more than 60 locations.

Henry Loeb, who was sworn in for his second term as Memphis mayor shortly before sanitation workers went on strike.CreditGrey Villet/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty ImagesA 1961 federal wage survey of the laundry industry noted that of four regions nationwide, wages were lowest in the South. And of the 27 metropolitan areas surveyed, average hourly wages were lowest in Memphis. Over the years, the Loebs bought out much of their competition, and their policies most likely played a role in depressing the entire region’s wages in the laundry industry.

In 1956, before Loeb became mayor, he was a city commissioner, where he ran the Public Works division. When it came to fixing sidewalks and paving roads in white neighborhoods, Loeb spent liberally. But he skimped on the Sanitation Department, forcing the garbagemen to work with obsolete, dangerous machinery.

Loeb served two nonconsecutive terms as mayor, between which his brother bought his share of the laundry business. He ran as a fiscal conservative, promising to balance the city’s budget even if it cost workers their jobs. He balked at appointing blacks to any important city government jobs and resisted attempts to integrate public schools. But it was in Loeb’s second term that he set in motion events that still stain the city’s psyche. On Feb. 1, 1968, just a month after he took the oath of office, a dilapidated garbage truck malfunctioned, crushing two sanitation workers to death.

Angry about their co-workers’ needless deaths, fed up with the poor pay and demanding union recognition, black sanitation workers went on strike on Feb. 12. On March 18, Dr. King came to Memphis to encourage the strikers and their supporters, preaching to a full house at Mason Temple. Ten days later, Dr. King tried to lead a march to City Hall. But it deteriorated into looting and police violence. Then on April 4, during Dr. King’s third trip to Memphis on behalf of the workers, he was shot while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

Because Loeb refused to negotiate with the strikers or recognize their union, Time magazine blamed him for creating the conditions that brought Dr. King to town to meet his death. The strike would be settled on April 16, with an agreement that acknowledged the workers’ union and raised their wages.
Image

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, right, leading a march in Memphis for the sanitation workers on March 28.CreditSam Melhorn, The Commercial Appeal, via Associated Press
Just eight months later, Mayor Loeb’s brother, William, continued the family’s antagonism toward organized labor. When laundry plant workers scheduled a vote on joining the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s Laundry and Dry Cleaning International Union, William Loeb gathered them in the cafeteria. If they brought in a union, he told them, he’d close the plant and get out of the laundry business altogether.

That threat, the National Labor Relations Board later ruled, constituted an unfair labor practice. The board ordered the laundry to post a notice that read, in part: “We will respect the rights of our employees to self-organization, to form, join or assist any labor organization.”

By then, the Loebs owned dozens of laundries, often paired with convenience stores and barbecue restaurants on the same site, all reliant on low-wage labor. Over the next 20 years, as the family closed those businesses, they sold the properties and used the proceeds to upgrade to better lots. Today, Loeb Properties — run by two of Mayor Loeb’s nephews, Robert and Louis Loeb — is an empire, managing more than two million square feet of commercial, retail, industrial and residential property in and around Memphis, much of it in the city’s most expensive shopping strips. The company’s management team consists of 13 employees, all of them white.

Today, the city of Memphis is 64 percent black and 30 percent white. Memphis is the poorest large metropolitan area in the country, yet business leaders manage to spin underpaid workers as a plus, not a shame. As recently as last year, the Chamber of Commerce website noted that Memphis offers a “work force at wage rates that are lower than most other parts of the country.” Since 1968, high school and college graduation rates have soared for black residents, but median black household income remains stubbornly half that of white households.

Capitalism, Dr. King said in Chicago in 1967, was “built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor.” The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice, he continued, “cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.”

Police officers confronted striking sanitation workers in downtown Memphis.CreditBettmann Archive, via Getty Images
In a statement, Robert Loeb claimed that his father, William, had put black entrepreneurs in business as franchisees of Loeb’s Barbecue restaurants, something he called “unheard-of in Memphis at that time.” His father, he said, had “endeavored to be part of the solution,” while his brother, the mayor, “steadfastly remained part of the problem.”

Yet Memphis today is a stark reminder of how much of Dr. King’s dream we’ve ignored. And in a way, Loeb Properties is an example of how little has changed. Instead of radical redistribution, we have yet another generation of Loebs poised to profit from low-wage labor. And local government is helping them do just that: Last year, Loeb Properties received a $6.1 million tax incentive to build a boutique hotel.

The project will create 65 jobs, 45 of which will be in housekeeping and food service and will have an average base pay of less than $20,000 a year. Economic vitality for the Loebs means hardship for these hotel workers, most of whom are likely to be African-American, since the city is nearly two-thirds black. Every time I see a Loeb Properties “For Lease” sign — and there are dozens across the city — I remember those underpaid black laundresses. And I am angry for the hotel workers who will be underpaid.

Is it any wonder that the black-white wealth gap has only widened since the Great Recession? Or that the income gap in the Memphis region has barely budged? Or that campaigns such as Fight for $15, which has raised wages for millions of workers but has stalled in many places, are necessary? Or that the new Poor People’s Campaign is as urgently needed today as the one Dr. King was planning just before he was killed?

It was Dr. King who said: “Many white Americans of good will have never connected bigotry with economic exploitation. They have deplored prejudice but tolerated or ignored economic injustice.” What have we done with Dr. King’s sacrifice? Too little.

Inequality is created and maintained by those who benefit from the labor of underpaid workers. Those people have names. Their names should be known.

Wendi C. Thomas, a former columnist for The Commercial Appeal of Memphis, is the editor and publisher of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a news project focused on economic justice.

The Word That Could Help the World Avoid Nuclear War

In Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, Politics, War on April 4, 2018 at 10:18 pm

By Jeffrey Lewisa, New York Times, April 4, 2018
There has been a lot of talk lately about Kim Jong-un’s willingness to discuss the “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula. It’s a cumbersome word and one that has given rise to more than a few misunderstandings.

Many people, including President Trump, seem to hear “denuclearization” and imagine a promise by Mr. Kim to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, recently acquired at great cost. But the term means more than the North’s disarmament. It imposes obligations on the United States, too — even if Americans don’t want to hear that part.

The word “denuclearization” is more or less native to the Korean Peninsula. This wasn’t the term experts used to talk about the elimination of nuclear weapons programs in South Africa, Iraq or Libya. In those contexts, the word was almost always “disarmament.”

So why have diplomats this time chosen the far more complicated word “denuclearization”? Because the situation is, well, far more complicated.

The term itself is a relic from the 1990s, the moment in which the ongoing crisis over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions began. At the end of the Cold War, the only nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula were American. The problem, from an American perspective, was that North Korea wanted to acquire nuclear weapons capabilities of its own. Ultimately, President George H.W. Bush’s administration chose to withdraw American nuclear weapons from South Korea as part of an effort to seek a diplomatic solution to the North’s nuclear ambitions. For a moment, it seemed like it would work: After the 1991 withdrawal of American nuclear weapons, South Korea and North Korea signed in 1992 a joint declaration on “the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

“Denuclearization” was conveniently abstract. That allowed it to capture different aspects of what James Baker, Mr. Bush’s secretary of state, called “the nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula.” It covered at the same time the nuclear weapons that the United States withdrew from South Korea, the so-called “nuclear umbrella” of extended deterrence provided by the United States, and North Korea’s own nuclear weapons ambitions. It was a shapeless, ill-fitting word. But the alternatives — “disarmament” or “nonproliferation” — were just too narrow. Diplomats couldn’t squeeze everything that mattered into them.

Today, of course, things are very different than they were in 1992. There are no American nuclear weapons in South Korea (although the North Koreans don’t believe that, and some South Korean politicians have called for their return). More important, North Korea has moved in fits and starts to build a nuclear weapons capability that may be as large as 60 nuclear weapons, including a small number that can strike the United States.

But diplomats rarely throw phrases away, even once they are outdated. During the 2000s, “denuclearization” stuck around because the Joint Declaration was North Korea’s only written commitment to abandoning its nuclear weapons after Pyongyang withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003. And so even as the situation has changed, many American policymakers have repurposed “denuclearization” as a synonym for North Korea’s disarmament.

But that’s not what it means — and that’s not how Mr. Kim sees it.

In his meeting last week with President Xi Jinping of China, Mr. Kim reportedly committed to denuclearization. But when he does so, he is not offering to abandon the bomb, at least not without very big changes like the withdrawal of American troops from the Korean Peninsula and the signing of a peace treaty. He is terrified of ending up like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qaddafi, two dictators who abandoned their weapons programs only to be forced from office.

When Mr. Kim says that the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was his father’s dying wish, he’s repeating a line that his father used, too. It’s a nice thing to say, but it can’t happen outside of a comprehensive settlement that ensures the Kim family’s rule in perpetuity. Rather than agreeing to disarm, Mr. Kim is saying he is willing to engage in a process, headed toward an ambiguous goal.

How will Mr. Trump react when he figures this out? Already there are reports that members of the White House staff are uncomfortable with the idea that he might travel to Pyongyang, because they understand that any discussion of denuclearization between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim might well lead the president to accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, if only tacitly.

The idea of learning to stop worrying and love Kim Jong-un’s bomb is not something that Washington will eagerly embrace. But we are where we are. North Korea’s disarmament is unlikely, except in the broader context of inter-Korean reconciliation and a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War. (Even then, it seems like a long shot.) And if Washington can’t persuade Mr. Kim to abandon his weapons, the United States and North Korea, as well as Japan and South Korea, still share an interest in reducing tensions and working to make sure we all don’t stumble into a nuclear war. Mr. Kim is not wrong about these things.

Disarmament is the simpler term, but it elides the complexity of the current situation. If the term “denuclearization” merely reduces the problem of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions to a small challenge in the big context of a settlement of Korea’s division, then it is the right one.
Jeffrey Lewis (@ArmsControlWonk) is director of the East Asia nonproliferation program at the Middlebury Center of International Studies at Monterey in California and a columnist for Foreign Policy.

What is socialism?

In Climate change, Cost, Democracy, Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nuclear abolition, Peace, Politics, Public Health, Race on March 27, 2018 at 10:12 am

By Tom Mayer, Peace Train Column for Friday March 23, 2018

Many people understand that socialism is a possible alternative to capitalism in the modern world, but few know what socialism really means. The nature of an economic system depends upon which social class controls the means of production. Power over the means of production enables the controlling class to govern the entire economic system.

Three basic economic systems (each with many variations) are possible in a modern technologically advanced society: capitalism, state collectivism, and socialism. Under capitalism the owners of productive property (i.e. capitalists) control the means of production. Capitalism is the economic system that currently exists in most parts of the world. Under state collectivism the government bureaucracy controls the means of production. State collectivism was the economic system of Communist countries like the Soviet Union and is often mistaken for socialism. Under socialism working people collectively control the means of production. Although some societies have adopted a few socialist institutions (e.g. economic planning, free health care, cooperative banks) there has never been a full-fledged socialist society in the modern world.

Socialism has five principal goals. (1) Sustainability: the economic system must be organized to sustain human life on our planet for the indefinite future. (2) Equality: the economic system must move towards complete economic equality. All forms of work are equally valued. Complete equality is the long term goal, but limited inequality based upon differential contributions to the economy exists initially. (3) Comprehensive Democracy: all major economic and political decisions are made through genuine democratic processes. (4) Personal Security: all fundamental personal needs are guaranteed by society. This guarantee includes food, clothing, shelter, health care, education, child care, elder care, etc. The levels at which personal needs are guaranteed increase as the socialist economic system matures. (5) Solidarity: a spirit of mutual support, cooperation, and friendship is created among all people. Socialist solidarity contrasts with the egoism and competitiveness fostered by capitalism.

What social institutions can achieve these five socialist goals? Socialists have different views on this subject, particularly on the issue of whether socialism should use markets. Here are some of the institutions proposed by socialists: (a) a democratic state that invites maximum participation and frequent circulation of political officials; (b) democratic and self-governing councils of workers and consumers; (c) jobs balanced for difficulty and desirability by workers councils (hazardous and unpleasant work being divided among all competent adults); (d) compensation according to effort as determined by fellow workers; (e) democratic and participatory economic planning in which workers councils have a major part; (f) use of computers and extensive feedback to reach a feasible and sustainable economic plan.

Building socialism in the context of a capitalist society involves a three prong strategy: (i) consciousness raising – developing socialist consciousness within the capitalist public; (ii) institution building – creating socialist institutions based upon cooperation, equality, and rational planning within capitalist society (e.g. workers cooperatives, strong labor unions, environmental regulation); (iii) political organizing – establishing an effective political party committed to socialism that contests for power within the capitalist political system.

Gang of Four: Senators Call for Tillerson to Enter into Arms Control Talks with the Kremlin

In Democracy, Justice, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, Politics, War on March 24, 2018 at 9:57 pm

By Gilbert Doctorow and Ray McGovern

In a sad commentary on the parlous state of the U.S. media, a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson from four United States Senators dated March 8 calling for opening arms control talks with the Kremlin ASAP is nowhere to be found in mainstream newspapers a day after its release on the Senate home page of one of the authors, Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). Nothing in the New York Times. Nothing in the Washington Post. And so, it is left to alternative media to bring to the attention of its readership a major development in domestic politics, a significant change in what its own senior politicians are saying should be done about Russia that was brought to our attention by …..the Russian mainstream media including the agency RIA Novosti, RBK, Tass within hours of initial posting.

What we have is, first, a genuine man bites dog story. Two of the senators who penned the letter, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), have in recent months been among the most vociferous promoters of the unproven allegations of Trump collusion with the Russians. Now they are putting aside for the moment their attacks on Trump and members of his entourage who dared shake hands or share a joke with a Russian ambassador. They are openly calling upon the Secretary of State to send U.S. personnel to negotiate with Putin’s minions over our survival on this planet.

The authors were in a tough spot explaining their new marching orders for State. And they have done their best to impose consistency on what is patently a new policy direction holding great promise for sanity to be restored in U.S.-Russian relations.

First, they cover their backsides by the lengthy recitation of Russia’s bad deeds, including alleged election meddling in the 2016 presidential election, violation of international law in Ukraine and the like.

Secondly, they make the proposed arms talks look like a walk down the Rose Garden, with the Russians being told what to do from a position of strength. The objective is focused on inserting two of Russia’s latest weapons systems described by Vladimir Putin in his March 1 speech into the framework of the START treaty as it comes up for renewal. That and to resolve issues over alleged Russian violation of the Intermediate Range Missiles convention.

However, buried in this mumbo jumbo is that reference to Putin’s speech and the new weapons systems he described, which actually numbered six among them several never heard about before inside the Beltway and looking pretty ominous. So, one may conclude that Putin’s intended “shock and awe” speech did have some effect in DC, even if so far no one is saying so, and even if so far, our leading newspapers have called time out till they can decide how to deal with the unwelcome news.

Wittingly or not, the Gang of Four has just opened a breach in the wall of contempt and loathing for Putin and Russia that has been building in Washington for months if not years now. The immediate task is for word of this development to go out to the broad public and for the relics of our once formidable arms negotiations teams to be brought out of mothballs to face Russian counterparts who have been waiting keenly for this moment.

Democratic Fissures

The unusual way in which the letter was made public — and the evident uncertainty on the part of the mainstream media as to how to play it — reflects widening fissures among Democrats.

Even among the most rabid fans of Hillary Clinton (and haters of President Trump) there is a growing sense that, for example, Congressman Adam “trust-me-the-Russians-hacked-our election” Schiff (D-Calif.) may not be able to deliver anything beyond the “trust me.” And many are beginning to question whether the sainted Special Counsel, Robert Mueller may not be able to come up with much more than click-bait farms in St. Petersburg and dirt to put dubious characters like Paul Manafort in jail on charges unrelated to Russiagate. (After all, Mueller has already been at it a very long time.)

And what would that mean for the re-election prospects of candidates like the superannuated Democratic-machine product Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), whose prospects are already waning?

Not to be ruled out is the possibility that the four senators may also be motivated by a new appreciation of the dangers of blaming everything on Russia, with the possible result of U.S.-Russia relations falling into a state of complete disrepair. The key question is whether President Putin can be de-demonized. That will depend on the mainstream media, which, alas, is not accustomed to reassessing and silencing the bellicose drums — even in the face of new realities like the petering out of Russiagate and Putin’s entirely credible declaration of strategic parity.

Gang of Four Letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson

As posted on the website of Senator Merkley

March 8, 2018

The Honorable Rex W. Tillerson
Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
Washington, DC

Dear Secretary Tillerson:

We write to urge the State Department to convene the next U.S.-Russia Strategic Dialogue as soon as possible.

A U.S.-Russia Strategic Dialogue is more urgent following President Putin’s public address on March 1st when he referred to several new nuclear weapons Russia is reportedly developing including a cruise missile and a nuclear underwater drone, which are not currently limited by the New START treaty, and would be destabilizing if deployed. There is no doubt we have significant disagreements with Russia, including Russia’s brazen interference in the 2016 U.S. elections; continued violation of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF); invasion of Ukraine and illegal annexation of Crimea; and destabilizing actions in Syria. However, it is due to these policy rifts, not in spite of them, that the United States should urgently engage with Russia to avoid miscalculation and reduce the likelihood of conflict.

First, we encourage the administration to propose alternative solutions to address Russia’s violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov admitted to the existence of this ground launched cruise missile (GLCM), but contended that the system was INF Treaty compliant.

Senior officials from the United States and Russia have said that the INF Treaty plays an “important role in the existing system of international security.” As such, we urge the State Department to resolve Russia’s violation through existing INF Treaty provisions or new mutually acceptable means.

Second, we urge the United States to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The Trump administration’s own 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) references Russia’s robust nuclear modernization program as a main justification behind the U.S. need to recapitalize its three legs of the nuclear triad. An extension of New START would verifiably lock-in the Treaty’s Central Limits – and with it – the reductions in strategic forces Russia has made.

The New START Treaty, which entered into force in 2011, provides transparency and predictability into the size and location of Russia’s strategic nuclear delivery systems, warheads, and facilities. New START’s robust verification architecture involves thousands of data exchanges and regular on-site inspections.The United States confirmed in February that Russia met New START’s Central Treaty Limits and it stated that “implementation of the New START Treaty enhances the safety and security of the United States.” These same Central Treaty Limits could also govern two of the new types of nuclear weapons referenced by President Putin on March 1st – a case the United States can argue through the Treaty’s Biannual Consultative Commission (BCC).

Lastly, as the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review notes, Russia maintains a numerical advantage to the United States in the number of non-strategic nuclear weapons. The Senate, in its Resolution of Ratification on New START in 2010, took stock of this imbalance and called upon the United States to commence negotiations that would “secure and reduce tactical nuclear weapons in a verifiable manner.” Attempts by the Obama administration to negotiate an agreement on this class of weapons met resistance from Russia. However, even absent the political space for a formal agreement or binding treaty with Russia, we urge the State Department to discuss ways to enhance transparency on non-strategic nuclear weapons.

Extending New START, resolving Russia’s INF violation, and enhancing transparency measures relating to non-strategic nuclear weapons will also help quiet growing calls from many countries that the United States is not upholding its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations. The Treaty’s three mutually reinforcing pillars: non-proliferation, peaceful uses of the atom, and disarmament can only be advanced through U.S. leadership on all three.

There is no guarantee that we can make progress with Russia on these issues. However, even at the height of Cold War tensions, the United States and the Soviet Union were able to engage on matters of strategic stability. Leaders from both countries believed, as we should today, that the incredible destructive force of nuclear weapons is reason enough to make any and all efforts to lessen the chance that they can never be used again.

Sincerely,

Senators Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont)

Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book, Does the United States Have a Future?was published in October 2017. Both paperback and e-book versions are available for purchase on http://www.amazon.com and all affiliated Amazon websites worldwide.

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He served in Army and CIA intelligence analysis for 30 years and, after retiring, co-founded Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

 

On Seeing America’s Wars Whole: Six Questions for A.G. Sulzberger of NY Times

In Cost, Democracy, Human rights, Justice, Peace, Politics, War on March 22, 2018 at 9:00 am

By Andrew J. Bacevich

http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/176400/tomgram%3A_andrew_bacevich%2C_a_memo_to_the_publisher_of_the_new_york_times/#more

March 20, 2018

Dear Mr. Sulzberger:

Congratulations on assuming the reins of this nation’s — and arguably, the world’s — most influential publication. It’s the family business, of course, so your appointment to succeed your father doesn’t exactly qualify as a surprise. Even so, the responsibility for guiding the fortunes of a great institution must weigh heavily on you, especially when the media landscape is changing so rapidly and radically.

Undoubtedly, you’re already getting plenty of advice on how to run the paper, probably more than you want or need. Still, with your indulgence, I’d like to offer an outsider’s perspective on “the news that’s fit to print.” The famous motto of the Times insists that the paper is committed to publishing “all” such news — an admirable aspiration even if an impossibility. In practice, what readers like me get on a daily basis is “all the news that Times editors deem worthy of print.”

Of course, within that somewhat more restrictive universe of news, not all stories are equal. Some appear on the front page above the fold. Others are consigned to page A17 on Saturday morning.

And some topics receive more attention than others. In recent years, comprehensive coverage of issues touching on diversity, sexuality, and the status of women has become a Times hallmark. When it comes to Donald Trump, “comprehensive” can’t do justice to the attention he receives. At the Times (and more than a few other media outlets), he has induced a form of mania, with his daily effusion of taunts, insults, preposterous assertions, bogus claims, and decisions made, then immediately renounced, all reported in masochistic detail. Throw in salacious revelations from Trump’s colorful past and leaks from the ongoing Mueller investigation of his campaign and our 45th president has become for the Times something akin to a Great White Whale, albeit with a comb-over and a preference for baggy suits.

In the meantime, other issues of equal or even greater importance — I would put climate change in this category — receive no more than sporadic or irregular coverage. And, of course, some topics simply don’t make the cut at all, like just about anything short of a school shooting that happens in that vast expanse west of the Hudson that Saul Steinberg years ago so memorably depicted for the New Yorker.

The point of this admittedly unsolicited memo is not to urge the Times to open a bureau in Terre Haute or in the rapidly melting Arctic. Nor am I implying that the paper should tone down its efforts to dismantle the hetero-normative order, empower women, and promote equality for transgender persons. Yet I do want to suggest that obsessing about this administration’s stupefying tomfoolery finds the Times overlooking one particular issue that predates and transcends the Trump Moment. That issue is the normalization of armed conflict, with your writers, editors, and editorial board having tacitly accepted that, for the United States, war has become a permanent condition.

Let me stipulate that the Times does devote an impressive number of column-inches to the myriad U.S. military activities around the planet. Stories about deployments, firefights, airstrikes, sieges, and casualties abound. Readers can count on the Times to convey the latest White House or Pentagon pronouncements about the briefly visible light at the end of some very long tunnel. And features describing the plight of veterans back from the war zone also appear with appropriate and commendable frequency.

So anyone reading the Times for a week or a month will have absorbed the essential facts of the case, including the following:

* Over 6,000 days after it began, America’s war in Afghanistan continues, with Times correspondents providing regular and regularly repetitive updates;

* In the seven-year-long civil war that has engulfed Syria, the ever-shifting cast of belligerents now includes at least 2,000 (some sources say 4,000) U.S. special operators, the rationale for their presence changing from week to week, even as plans to keep U.S. troops in Syria indefinitely take shape;

* In Iraq, now liberated from ISIS, itself a byproduct of U.S. invasion and occupation, U.S. troops are now poised to stay on, more or less as they did in West Germany in 1945 and in South Korea after 1953;

* On the Arabian Peninsula, U.S. forces have partnered with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud in brutalizing Yemen, thereby creating a vast humanitarian disaster despite the absence of discernible U.S. interests at stake;

* In the military equivalent of whacking self-sown weeds, American drones routinely attack Libyan militant groups that owe their existence to the chaos created in 2011 when the United States impulsively participated in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi;

* More than a quarter-century after American troops entered Somalia to feed the starving, the U.S. military mission continues, presently in the form of recurring airstrikes;

* Elsewhere in Africa, the latest theater to offer opportunities for road-testing the most recent counterterrorism techniques, the U.S. military footprint is rapidly expanding, all but devoid of congressional (or possibly any other kind of) oversight;

* From the Levant to South Asia, a flood of American-manufactured weaponry continues to flow unabated, to the delight of the military-industrial complex, but with little evidence that the arms we sell or give away are contributing to regional peace and stability;

*Amid this endless spiral of undeclared American wars and conflicts, Congress stands by passively, only rousing itself as needed to appropriate money that ensures the unimpeded continuation of all of the above;

*Meanwhile, President Trump, though assessing all of this military hyperactivity as misbegotten — “Seven trillion dollars. What a mistake.” — is effectively perpetuating and even ramping up the policies pioneered by his predecessors.

This conglomeration of circumstances, I submit, invites attention to several first-order questions to which the Times appears stubbornly oblivious. These questions are by no means original with me. Indeed, Mr. Sulzberger (may I call you A.G.?), if you’ve kept up with TomDispatch — if you haven’t, you really should — you will already have encountered several of them. Yet in the higher reaches of mainstream journalism they remain sadly neglected, with disastrous practical and moral implications.

The key point is that when it comes to recent American wars, the Times offers coverage without perspective. “All the news” is shallow and redundant. Lots of dots, few connections.

To put it another way, what’s missing is any sort of Big Picture. The Times would never depict Russian military actions in the Crimea, eastern Ukraine, and Syria, along with its cyber-provocations, as somehow unrelated to one another. Yet it devotes remarkably little energy to identifying any links between what U.S. forces today are doing in Niger and what they are doing in Afghanistan; between U.S. drone attacks that target this group of “terrorists” and those that target some other group; or, more fundamentally, between what we thought we were doing as far back as the 1980s when Washington supported Saddam Hussein and what we imagine we’re doing today in the various Muslim-majority nations in which the U.S. military is present, whether welcome or not.

Crudely put, the central question that goes not only unanswered but unasked is this: What the hell is going on? Allow me to deconstruct that in ways that might resonate with Times correspondents:

What exactly should we call the enterprise in which U.S. forces have been engaged all these years? The term that George W. Bush introduced back in 2001, “Global War on Terrorism,” fell out of favor long ago. Nothing has appeared to replace it. A project that today finds U.S. forces mired in open-ended hostilities across a broad expanse of Muslim-majority nations does, I suggest, deserve a name, even if the commander-in-chief consigns most of those countries to “shithole” status. A while back, I proposed “War for the Greater Middle East,” but that didn’t catch on. Surely, the president or perhaps one of his many generals could come up with something better, some phrase that conveys a sense of purpose, scope, stakes, or location. The paper of record should insist that whatever it is the troops out there may be doing, their exertions ought to have a descriptive name.

What is our overall objective in waging that no-name war? After 9/11, George W. Bush vowed at various times to eliminate terrorism, liberate the oppressed, spread freedom and democracy, advance the cause of women’s rights across the Islamic world, and even end evil itself. Today, such aims seem like so many fantasies. So what is it we’re trying to accomplish? What will we settle for? Without a readily identifiable objective, how will anyone know when to raise that “Mission Accomplished” banner (again) and let the troops come home?

By extension, what exactly is the strategy for bringing our no-name war to a successful conclusion? A strategy is a kind of roadmap aimed at identifying resources, defining enemies (as well as friends), and describing a sequence of steps that will lead to some approximation of victory. It should offer a vision that gets us from where we are to where we want to be. Yet when it comes to waging its no-name war, Washington today has no strategy worthy of the name. This fact should outrage the American people and embarrass the national security establishment. It should also attract the curiosity of the New York Times.

Roughly speaking, in what year, decade, or century might this war end? Even if only approximately, it would help to know — and the American people deserve to know — when the front page of the Times might possibly carry a headline reading “Peace Secured” or “Hostilities Ended” or even merely “It’s Over.” On the other hand, if it’s unrealistic to expect the ever-morphing, ever-spreading no-name war to end at all, then shouldn’t someone say so, allowing citizens to chew on the implications of that prospect? Who better to reveal this secret hidden in plain sight than the newspaper over which you preside?

What can we expect the no-name war to cost? Although the president’s estimate of $7 trillion may be a trifle premature, it’s not wrong. It may even end up being on the low side. What that money might otherwise have paid for — including infrastructure, education, scientific and medical research, and possibly making amends for all the havoc wreaked by our ill-considered military endeavors — certainly merits detailed discussion. Here’s a way to start just such a discussion: Imagine a running tally of sunk and projected cumulative costs featured on the front page of the Times every morning. Just two numbers: the first a tabulation of what the Pentagon has already spent pursuant to all U.S. military interventions, large and small, since 9/11; the second, a projection of what the final bill might look like decades from now when the last of this generation’s war vets passes on.

Finally, what are the implications of saddling future generations with this financial burden? With the sole exception of the very brief Gulf War of 1990-1991, the no-name war is the only substantial armed conflict in American history where the generation in whose name it was waged resolutely refused to pay for it — indeed, happily accepted tax cuts when increases were very much in order. With astonishingly few exceptions, politicians endorsed this arrangement. One might think that enterprising reporters would want to investigate the various factors that foster such irresponsibility.

So that’s my take. I’m sure, A.G., that journalists in your employ could sharpen my questions and devise more of their own. But here’s a small proposition: just for a single day, confine Donald Trump to page A17 and give our no-name war the attention that the Times normally reserves for the president it loathes.

I’m not a newspaperman, but I’m reminded of that wonderful 1940 Hitchcock movie Foreign Correspondent. I expect you’ve seen it. Europe is stumbling toward war and Mr. Powers, head honcho at the fictitious New York Globe, is tired of getting the same-old same-old from the people he has on the scene. “I don’t want any more economists, sages, or oracles bombinating over our cables,” he rages. “I want a reporter. Somebody who doesn’t know the difference between an ism and a kangaroo.”

His rant requires deciphering. What Powers wants is someone with the combination of guts and naiveté to pose questions that more seasoned journalists trapped in a defective narrative of their own creation simply overlook.

So he pulls the decidedly unseasoned and spectacularly uninformed John Jones off the police beat, renames him Huntley Haverstock, sets him up with an expense account, and sends him off to take a fresh look at what gives in Europe. Haverstock proceeds to unearth the big truths to which his more sophisticated colleagues have become blind. Almost singlehandedly he alerts the American people to the dangers just ahead — and he also gets the girl. Terrific movie (even if, given Hitchcock’s well-documented mistreatment of women, it may be politically incorrect to say so).

Anyway, A.G., we need you to do something approximating what Mr. Powers did, but in real life. Good luck. I’m in your corner.

Andrew J. Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History and other books.

U.S.-Russia Nuclear Arms Racing: Still Crazy After All These Years

In Environment, Nuclear abolition, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, Politics, Public Health, War on March 20, 2018 at 1:00 am

By Andrew Lichterman and John Burroughs, truthdig, March 26, 2018
President Vladimir Putin’s major address on March 1 to Russia’s Federal Assembly was candid about the economic and social challenges facing Russians. What attracted attention in the United States, however, was a detailed description, complete with video animations, of an array of new nuclear weapons delivery systems, including a nuclear-powered cruise missile and an underwater drone.

A month earlier, on Feb. 2, the Trump administration released its Nuclear Posture Review. The review’s assessment of prospects for U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control is grim. It proposes two new capabilities, both aimed at Russia, a low-yield warhead deployed on submarine-launched missiles, and a sea-based, nuclear-armed cruise missile. It also endorses existing plans to sustain and upgrade existing nuclear forces and infrastructure to the tune of well over a trillion dollars over the next three decades.

While not as sensational as the weapons described by Putin, the Pentagon’s proposals manifest a commitment to an increasing and long-term reliance on nuclear arms. The review also lowers the threshold for use of nuclear weapons, emphasizing the role of such weapons in responding to “non-nuclear strategic attacks,” notably cyberattacks. The recommendation for increased nuclear weapons spending comes at a time when Congress has approved a budget deal providing for military spending of $700 billion in 2018 and $716 billion in 2019, figures well above those in play just last year.

For most Americans, the emergence of a renewed nuclear arms race with Russia comes as a surprise. Since the end of the Cold War, public discussion about nuclear weapons in the U.S. has been dominated by purported threats of nuclear weapons in the hands of nonstate actors or regional adversaries. In 2010, President Barack Obama proclaimed: “Today, the threat of global nuclear war has passed, but the danger of nuclear proliferation endures. …” As recently as 2013, the Defense Department declared the most pressing nuclear dangers to be proliferation and “nuclear terrorism.”

The crisis precipitated by the 2014 overthrow of Ukraine’s government and Russia’s annexation of Crimea was, for the U.S. public, the first intimation that great-power nuclear arsenals still pose catastrophic dangers. For the first time since the Cold War, Russian and American nuclear-armed forces were conducting exercises and patrols in the same region, while each backed opposing factions in a civil war. As the Ukraine confrontation settled into a tense stalemate, it disappeared from the front pages along with the dangers posed by the immense nuclear arsenals still deployed by the U.S. and Russia. Donald Trump’s ascendance, featuring disturbingly misinformed campaign comments and then his profoundly alarming confrontation with North Korea, brought nuclear weapons back into mainstream public discussion—but U.S. and Russian nuclear forces still remained in the background, out of focus.

Origins of the Current Confrontation

Despite appearances, plans for new Russian nuclear weapon systems are not a response to the Nuclear Posture Review or to Trump’s casual rhetoric about U.S. nuclear might. The causes of the resurgent confrontation between the two countries that possess over 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons extend back decades, to decisions made in the early 1990s. The disintegration of the Soviet Union also marked the end of the Cold War—a titanic, half-century confrontation for which no formal settlement ever was negotiated, only a series of piecemeal arms control measures and political agreements. The spirit and in some cases the letter of this partial Cold War settlement was ignored by the U.S. and its NATO allies.

Instead of engaging Russia as a partner in a new, potentially more cooperative order, they instead took every opportunity to exploit the political and economic weakness of the post-Soviet states. Despite assurances from Western governments that NATO would not be expanded to the East, the military alliance now includes not only many of Russia’s former Warsaw Pact allies but also the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Even today, NATO membership for Georgia remains on the table, and an effort at some point to include Ukraine is not out of the question.

NATO’s expansion eastward proceeded in tandem with the economic subordination of former Warsaw Pact countries. It was driven as well by the interests of Western arms makers seeking new markets for their wares, and new rationales for endless high-tech weapons development in a post-Cold War world. For them, the confrontational aspect of NATO expansion was and continues to be an opportunity, not a risk.

Confident that Russia no longer presented a significant military challenge, both Republican and Democratic administrations squandered the crucial post-Cold War opportunity to eliminate the existential threat to humanity posed by huge nuclear arsenals. Beginning in the mid-1990s, when Russian economic and military power was at its nadir, the United States embarked on a long-term effort to modernize its nuclear weapons, as well as the laboratories and factories that sustain them. U.S. military spending began to climb out of its brief post-Cold War trough at the same time, with the U.S. developing and deploying an array of powerful, accurate conventional armaments and stealthy delivery systems. Many of these were battle-tested in the wars that the U.S. has been conducting continuously since 1991. These conventional systems, which could destroy some targets previously only vulnerable to nuclear weapons, were seen as a strategic threat by both China and Russia.

Meanwhile, the U.S. nuclear weapons modernization program was applying incremental upgrades to warheads and delivery systems. Perhaps most important of these was an upgrade of submarine-launched ballistic missile warheads beginning in 2009 that increased their capability to destroy hardened targets like missile silos and command centers. Long-time observers of U.S. nuclear weapons programs characterized the changes as “revolutionary new technologies that will vastly increase the targeting capability of the U.S. ballistic missile arsenal.” They concluded: “This increase in capability is astonishing—boosting the overall killing power of existing U.S. ballistic missile forces by a factor of roughly three—and it creates exactly what one would expect to see, if a nuclear-armed state were planning to have the capacity to fight and win a nuclear war by disarming enemies with a surprise first strike.”

Despite its unparalleled conventional military dominance in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the U.S. government failed to seize the opportunity to pursue elimination of nuclear weapons or at least the reduction of arsenals to very low levels. Informal agreements in the early 1990s took entire categories of tactical nuclear weapons out of service, but still left large numbers of operational nuclear weapons deployed. Although negotiations continued throughout the 1990s, no new bilateral arms control treaty entered into force. Subsequently, the Russia-U.S. nuclear arms agreements completed during the Bush and Obama administrations did little to change the fundamental character of either country’s nuclear arsenal, leaving in place forces still capable of ending human civilization in short order.

In an early sign of an emerging U.S. rejection of multilateral approaches to arms control, in 1999 the Senate refused to approve ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). In 2000, Russia ratified the treaty. Since then it has periodically stressed that U.S. ratification is essential to advancing nuclear disarmament and global security. A commitment to complete negotiation of the CTBT had been central to a 1995 decision to extend indefinitely the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The current Nuclear Posture Review says that the U.S. will not ratify the CTBT, and does not rule out resumption of nuclear explosive testing.

U.S. Withdrawal From the ABM Treaty

In late 2001, the Bush administration announced that the U.S. was withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which since 1971 had placed stringent limits on U.S. and Russian missile defenses. Just a year and a half earlier, the U.S. under the Clinton administration, Russia, and other participating states had agreed to a commitment in an NPT review outcome document to “preserving and strengthening the [ABM Treaty] as a cornerstone of strategic stability and as a basis for further reductions of strategic offensive weapons.”

In his 2018 annual presidential address, Putin characterized the ABM Treaty in similar fashion, stating that Russia saw it as “the cornerstone of the international security system.” Together with U.S.-Russia agreements limiting nuclear arms, said Putin, “the ABM Treaty not only created an atmosphere of trust but also prevented either party from recklessly using nuclear weapons, which would have endangered humankind, because the limited number of ballistic missile defense systems made the potential aggressor vulnerable to a response strike.” As Putin said, and as former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov elaborated, Russia made strenuous attempts to dissuade the U.S. from ending the ABM Treaty, and subsequently sought to make new arrangements limiting missile defenses, all to no avail.

Putin portrayed the continuing development and ever wider deployment of U.S. ballistic missile defense systems in the wake of the U.S. termination of the ABM Treaty as a growing threat: “However, in light of the plans to build a global anti-ballistic missile system, which are still being carried out today, all agreements signed within the framework of New START are now gradually being devaluated, because while the number of carriers and weapons is being reduced, one of the parties, namely, the U.S., is permitting constant, uncontrolled growth of the number of anti-ballistic missiles, improving their quality, and creating new missile launching areas. If we do not do something, eventually this will result in the complete devaluation of Russia’s nuclear potential.”

U.S. officials over the years have maintained that U.S. missile defenses pose no threat to Russia’s nuclear forces due to their large number of deliverable warheads. But the Russians have some reason for concern. Together with U.S. nuclear warhead upgrades that put Russia’s missile silos and command centers at risk, unlimited development of ballistic missile defense systems, despite the technical challenges, in the long run perhaps could threaten Russia’s primarily land-based nuclear forces. Even moderately effective missile defenses that could significantly limit a depleted second strike would complicate an already dangerous strategic calculus, perhaps raising incentives on both sides to strike first and harder in a crisis.

U.S. development and deployment of missile defenses already have had deleterious effects on nuclear arms control. Following the conclusion in 2010 of negotiations on New START, which yielded modest reductions in deployed long-range, “strategic” nuclear weapons, Russia refused engagement on the ambitious follow-on program of bilateral nuclear arms reductions—to include non-strategic nuclear arms and, for the first time, verified dismantlement of warheads—proposed by the Obama administration. As Russian representatives repeatedly explained, concerns motivating its position included U.S. missile defense programs and development of U.S. conventional long-range strike capabilities. The Russian position was deplorable, but it was also predictable.

Russia’s Plans for New Nuclear Weapons Systems

It is against this background that Putin announced the development of Russia’s new nuclear weapons delivery systems. All of the new systems were framed as means to evade existing missile defenses, which are designed primarily to target ballistic missiles that follow a high-arcing, non-maneuvering flight path. These include a new, very long-range, multiple warhead missile that could take unconventional flight paths; a hypersonic, maneuvering air-launched cruise missile; and a gliding, maneuverable hypersonic delivery vehicle with a non-ballistic flight path. Similar hypersonic technologies, it should be noted, are being researched or are under development by both the U.S. and China.

Two more exotic systems that caught the attention of both specialists and the general media are nuclear-powered cruise missiles that are claimed to have unlimited range and nuclear-powered “unmanned underwater vehicles.” Putin characterized the unmanned submersible vehicles as suitable for attacking a range of targets, including “coastal fortifications and infrastructure,” and stated that the “the tests that were conducted enabled us to begin developing a new type of strategic weapon that would carry massive nuclear ordnance.” Although similar concepts had been explored by the U.S. and the Soviet Union (and in the case of a nuclear-armed torpedo designed to destroy shore installations, even briefly deployed by the Soviet Union), they struck many observers as outlandish.

Detonating a “massive nuclear ordnance” at harbor level would devastate any harbor city, and would mobilize immense amounts of radioactive debris into the atmosphere. A nuclear-powered cruise missile likely would leave a trail of radioactive contamination in its wake, and would be dangerous even to flight test (what happens, for example, at the end of the test?). Some speculated that they might be “Potemkin village” weapons, propaganda creations intended to underscore the Russian leadership’s displeasure with U.S. policies or ersatz chips to be bargained away in some future round of arms control negotiations.

Aside from arguable marginal scenarios, the use of nuclear arms of any type would violate international humanitarian law. That law requires the use of violence in war to be necessary, proportionate, and discriminate, with effects on both civilian populations and the natural environment part of the assessment. The U.S. Nuclear Posture Review asserts in passing that “the conduct of nuclear operations would adhere” to those requirements. On the contrary, above all, nuclear weapons cannot be used in compliance with the requirement of discrimination, because their massive and uncontrollable effects—blast, heat, short- and long-term radiation, and, in urban areas, firestorms—make it impossible to distinguish between military targets and civilian populations and infrastructure.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was negotiated in 2017 by 122 states, not including, however, any nuclear-armed states. Its preamble “considers” that use of nuclear weapons would violate international humanitarian law and “reaffirms” that such use “would also be abhorrent to the principles of humanity and the dictates of public conscience”—factors with legal as well as moral value.

As the treaty’s reference to “principles of humanity” suggests, in many circumstances, certainly in attacks on cities, use of nuclear weapons goes so far beyond the boundaries of warfare that it likely would constitute not only violations of international humanitarian law but also crimes against humanity as most recently defined in the Statute of the International Criminal Court. Use of a submersible drone carrying “massive nuclear ordnance” and of the radiation-trailing nuclear-powered cruise missile are examples—not the only ones—of this extreme deviation from the normal conduct of warfare. They likely would only be used in general nuclear war, and in this sense are true “doomsday” weapons. Even designing them is an implicit acknowledgement that once nuclear weapons are used, even in “limited” fashion, escalation may be difficult or impossible to control.

Erosion of International Law

There is another extremely important component of international law that Putin’s speech and the Nuclear Posture Review blatantly disregard. That is the obligation under Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.” According to a unanimous conclusion of the International Court of Justice in its 1996 Advisory Opinion, “Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons,” the obligation requires states “to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects.” The obligation was reinforced by an NPT review conference “unequivocal undertaking … to accomplish the total elimination” of nuclear arsenals. It was to be implemented in part through fulfillment of another review conference commitment, diminishing the role of nuclear weapons in order to minimize the risk of their use and to facilitate disarmament.

The Russian and U.S. plans for new nuclear weapons systems—and the lack of negotiations about them—plainly violate the obligation regarding “cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date,” as well as the commitment to reduce the role of nuclear weapons. The U.S. expansion of the circumstances in which nuclear weapons might be used additionally violates that commitment.

Moreover, the clear intent of both Russia and the U.S. to maintain large, diversified nuclear forces for decades to come betrays a lack of good faith in relation to the obligation to negotiate the elimination of nuclear arsenals. In the case of the United States, the Nuclear Posture Review fails to identify any concrete steps to pursue on nuclear arms control and disarmament. As to the U.S.-Russian relationship, emphasis is placed upon a claimed Russian violation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. The review does not even endorse extension of New START for five years when it expires in 2021, a step which Russia has supported. Additionally, in his speech Putin said: “Let us sit down at the negotiating table and devise together a new and relevant system of international security and sustainable development for human civilization.” Rhetoric perhaps, but why not test it?

Whether or not Russia’s program to develop nuclear-powered cruise missiles and underwater drones delivering massive nuclear warheads are “real,” even the fact that one of the world’s two leading nuclear-armed states is willing to threaten to build them is a worrisome development. It is a definitive marker that what opportunity there was in the post-Cold War period to eliminate humankind’s self-created mechanism of annihilation on a civilization scale was missed. We are in a new, far more dangerous age, and must discover anew the urgency of nuclear disarmament, and again take the first tentative steps that might lead us there.

Both Russia’s program and the Nuclear Posture Review display a kind of contempt for treaty obligations and for international law generally, underscoring an observation by the International Court of Justice in its 1996 opinion that today seems prophetic: “In the long run, international law, and with it the stability of the international order which it is intended to govern, are bound to suffer from the continuing difference of views with regard to the legal status of weapons as deadly as nuclear weapons.”

Twenty-two years later, the corrosive effect on international law and the stability of the international order of nuclear weapons and differing views regarding who is entitled to have them is evident. Nuclear weapons and the threat of their proliferation has been used as a stalking horse for the geopolitical agendas of the world’s most powerful states. It has sparked an unlawful war based on questionable intelligence. In the confrontation between the United States and North Korea, it has brought us again to the brink of war between nuclear-armed countries.

As the court concluded: “It is consequently important to put an end to this state of affairs: the long-promised complete nuclear disarmament appears to be the most appropriate means of achieving that result.”

The interests of the world’s populations and their governments are as far apart as they have been in a long time. This reflects the growing disparities in wealth and power between those who rule and the rest of us, and the erosion of what democracy had been achieved. Extreme nationalist elements are ascendant worldwide, their common characteristic being a politics that redirects the emotions evoked by those developments—fear, resentment, and a pervasive sense of loss—against vulnerable minorities at home and enemies abroad. Authoritarian nationalists are in power in Russia and in several ex-Warsaw Pact NATO states, and also hold the presidency and constitute a substantial, perhaps dominant, portion of the majority party in the Congress of the United States.

The revanchist intentions of Russia’s government and ruling oligarchs have been exaggerated in the U.S. press due to the peculiar entanglement of U.S.-Russia relations with domestic partisan politics in this moment. This does not mean, however, that no such aims exist. Neither the elites nor the general populations of Eastern Europe see renewed Russian dominance as an attractive option, and authoritarian nationalist governments in front-line NATO states have their own reasons for whipping up fear of a resurgent Russia. Beyond Europe, there are other regions where encounters between U.S. and Russian policies and deployed forces could go awry, from Syria to the border most forget Russia shares with North Korea. With a U.S. government that appears adrift at the top but that still possesses a formidable and well-organized military, this is a combustible mix, with ample opportunities for each side to misjudge the intentions, and the fears, of the other.

The Nuclear Dilemma

The Korea crisis, and the recent hopeful signs regarding its resolution, should be taken as both an urgent warning and as an opportunity to rethink the meaning of nuclear weapons. We will never know how close to disaster we have come in recent months, and still may come. As that danger grew, discussion of the immeasurable horrors of a full-scale warfare between two large modern militaries in densely populated Northeast Asia—even if nuclear weapons were not used—grew more concrete. A full-scale war between Russia and the United States would dwarf our worst imaginings about war between the U.S. and its regional allies and North Korea.

In thinking about the deeper nature of our nuclear dilemma, it is significant that South Korea has taken the lead in seeking—and, as it looks now, achieving—a diplomatic breakthrough with its North Korean counterparts that could end the immediate crisis, and that might lead eventually to a more lasting peace on the peninsula. As was the case for Europeans during the Cold War, South Koreans found themselves trapped between nuclear-armed adversaries, one an ally. And as was the case of NATO countries hosting U.S. nuclear missiles, they faced the possibility that a nuclear war could be fought on their soil without their own government’s consent. This raises a question seldom asked by inhabitants of nuclear-armed countries: Whose nuclear weapons are they, really? Whose interests do they protect?

This question then leads naturally to others. As E.P. Thompson, a founder of European Nuclear Disarmament, asked in 1981 in “A Letter to America,” “Is nuclear war preferable to being overcome by the enemy? Are the deaths of fifteen or twenty million and the utter destruction of the country preferable to an occupation which might offer the possibility, after some years, of resurgence and recuperation?” and finally, “Are we ourselves prepared to endorse the use of such weapons against the innocent, the children and the aged, of an ‘enemy’?” The people of every nuclear-armed country should be asking these questions today.

There are other lessons we should have learned by now. No system or country is immune to corruption, or collapse. No country can guarantee that a class of leaders will not rise to power who are shortsighted and self-serving, and who place their own welfare above that of their people, or of humanity itself. No system or “way of life” is so perfect that its preservation merits risking humanity’s future, and thinking it to be so is a form of madness. Recent events may have sharpened our focus on these realities, but they have been true all along. Nuclear weapons are unsafe in any hands.

The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography

In Democracy, Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nuclear abolition, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, Politics, Public Health, War on March 19, 2018 at 11:13 am

by PAUL STREET
https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/03/16/the-obama-presidency-gets-some-early-high-historiography/

Julian Zelizer, ed., The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, March 13, 2018).

The Old Over the New

Professional historians are a conservative crew (with a nice number of great exceptions) for the most part – in a “liberal” and Democratic Party kind of way. Part of this has to with their mental wiring. As the leading psychologists and “time perception” theorists Phillip Zimbrano and Rosemary Sword have written, “people who focus primarily on the past value the old over the new; the familiar over the novel, and the cautionary, conservative approach over the daring, more liberal or riskier one.”

No wonder, perhaps, that received the ringing endorsement of 227 U.S. historians, including (remarkably enough) a number who identified as leftists, who signed practically hero-worshipping “Historians for Obama” letter in the spring of 2008. The previous year, the New Yorker’s Larissa MacFarquhar penned a memorable portrait of Obama titled “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?” “In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly,” MacFarquhar wrote after extensive interviews with the candidate: “Obama is deeply conservative. There are moments when he sounds almost Burkean…It’s not just that he thinks revolutions are unlikely: he values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good” (emphasis added).

MacFarquhar cited as an example of this reactionary sentiment Obama’s reluctance to embrace single-payer health insurance on the Canadian model, which he told her would “so disruptive that people feel like suddenly what they’ve known for most of their lives is thrown by the wayside.” Obama told MacFarquhar that “we’ve got all these legacy systems in place, and managing the transition, as well as adjusting the culture to a different system, would be difficult to pull off. So we may need a system that’s not so disruptive that people feel like suddenly what they’ve known for most of their lives is thrown by the wayside.” So what if large popular majorities in the U.S. had long favored the single-payer model? So what if single payer would let people keep the doctors of their choice, only throwing away the protection pay off to the private insurance mafia? So what if “the legacy systems” Obama defended included corporate insurance and pharmaceutical oligopolies that regularly threw millions of American lives by the wayside of market calculation, causing enormous disruptive harm and death for the populace?

Left Warnings

The MacFarquhar piece was just one of numerous and widely available indications well before the 2008 election that an Obama presidency would never stray far, if at all, from the policy and political preferences of those atop the nation’s reigning corporate, financial, and imperial power structures – or from the nation’s attachment to objectively racist and white-supremacist social and institutional structures and practices. MacFarquhar’s findings were already very well understood by a number of writers and activists on the Left (the present writer included), who began warning pro-left-progressives and liberals about Obama’s basically wealth- and power-friendly, right-wing essence as early as June of 2003. The Black political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. caught the pseudo-progressive bourgeois-neoliberal essence of Obama as early as January of 1996, right after Obama first won election to the Illinois legislature:

“In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program — the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics, as in Haiti and wherever else the International Monetary Fund has sway.”

A decade later, progressive journalist Ken Silverstein wrote a retrospectively predictive report titled “Obama, Inc.” for Harpers’ Magazine. “It’s not always clear what Obama’s financial backers want,” Silverstein observed, “but it seems safe to conclude that his campaign contributors are not interested merely in clean government and political reform…On condition of anonymity,” Silverstein added, “one Washington lobbyist I spoke with was willing to point out the obvious: that big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn’t see him as a ‘player.’ The lobbyist added: ‘What’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?’”

That was precisely the centrist, Big Business-, Empire,- and white-friendly Barack Obama that I observed and occasionally even had to deal with as an anti-poverty and civil rights policy researcher and advocate in Chicago and Illinois during the late 1990s and early 21st century. By the time Obama emerged as a strong candidate to become what I fully expected to be the United States’ first technically Black president in 2007 and 2008, I, myself a onetime and future historian, had already gone through many of state (1996-2005) and U.S. (2005-2009) senator Obama’s speeches, talks, votes, campaign finance records, policy actions, and writings (key primary sources telling us what to expect from a President Obama) to produce a considerable number of critical essays and a book – bearing the over-neutral title Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics – warning liberals and progressives of just how painfully little they should expect from an Obama White House.

Obama’s past and coming service to Big Business was only one of the things I hopelessly asked intellectuals and activists to reflect upon. I also detailed and predicted (in a chapter titled “How ‘Antiwar’? Obama, Iraq, and the Audacity of Empire”) both Obama’s past and coming military imperialism and (in a chapter titled “How ‘Black’ is Obama? Color, Class, Generation and the Perverse Racial Politics of the Post-Civil Rights Era”) Obama’s ironic past and coming service to institutional racism, including racist mass incarceration.

Among my forewarnings was the prediction that a president Obama’s abject fealty to the nation’s reigning financial institutions and corporations and the military-industrial complex would combine with his skin color and party affiliation to spark an ugly white-nationalist and reactionary, capitalist-manipulated fake- populist upsurge that would fill the angry popular vacuum left by his cooptation of left, more genuinely populist progressive forces even while he governed in accord to the needs and values of the wealthy Few – the top 1 percent that Democratic contender John Edwards had railed against in Iowa and New Hampshire.

A Blunt Lesson About Power

With no small help from the Great Recession that broke out on the eve of the 2008 elections, my warnings were born out by Obama’s continuation and expansion of the extravagant federal bailouts of the financial parasites who recklessly caused the economic crisis and the rise of the Tea Party and the vicious, proto-fascistic white-nationalist Trump phenomenon. Obama’s “dollar value” would become abundantly clear in early 2009, when he told a frightened group of Wall Street executives that “I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you…I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.” For the banking elite, who had destroyed untold millions of jobs, the Pulitzer Prize-winner author Ron Suskind wrote, there was “Nothing to worry about. Whereas [President Franklin Delano] Roosevelt had [during the Great Depression] pushed for tough, viciously opposed reforms of Wall Street and famously said ‘I welcome their hate,’ Obama was saying ‘How can I help?’” As one leading banker told Suskind, “The sense of everyone after the meeting was relief. The president had us at a moment of real vulnerability. At that point, he could have ordered us to do just about anything and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t – he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.”

It was a critical moment. With Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and an angry, “pitchfork”-wielding populace at the gates, an actually progressive President Obama could have rallied the populace to push back against the nation’s concentrated wealth and power structures by moving ahead aggressively with a number of policies: a stimulus with major public works jobs programs; a real (single-payer) health insurance reform; the serious disciplining and even break-up or nationalization of the leading financial institutions; massive federal housing assistance and mortgage relief; and passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have re-legalized union organizing in the U.S.

No such policy initiatives issued from the White House, which opted instead to give the U.S. populace what William Greider memorably called “a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t.” Americans:

“watched Washington rush to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it. ‘Where’s my bailout,’ became the rueful punch line at lunch counters and construction sites nationwide. Then to deepen the insult, people watched as establishment forces re-launched their campaign for ‘entitlement reform’ – a euphemism for whacking Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid.”

Americans also watched as Obama moved on to pass a health insurance reform (the so-called Affordable Care Act) that only the big insurance and drug companies could love, kicking the popular alternative (single payer “Medicare for All”) to the curb while rushing to pass a program drafted by the Republican Heritage Foundation and first carried out in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney.

As Obama later explained to some of his rich friends at an event called The Wall Street Journal CEO Council a month after trouncing Romney’s bid to unseat him: “When you go to other countries, the political divisions are so much more stark and wider. Here in America, the difference between Democrats and Republicans–we’re fighting inside the 40-yard lines…People call me a socialist sometimes. But no, you’ve got to meet real socialists. (Laughter.) You’ll have a sense of what a socialist is. (Laughter.) I’m talking about lowering the corporate tax rate. My health care reform is based on the private marketplace.”

A year and a half before this tender ruling class moment, the American people watched Obama offer the Republicans bigger cuts in Social Security and Medicare than they asked for as part of his “Grand Bargain” offered during the elite-manufactured debt-ceiling crisis. It was at that point that hundreds of thousands of mostly younger Americans had received enough of Obama’s “blunt lesson about power” to join the Occupy Wall Street Movement, which sought progressive change through direct action and social movement-building rather than corporate-captive electoral politics.

We will never know how far Occupy might have gone since it was shut down by a federally coordinated campaign of repression that joined the Obama administration and hundreds of mostly Democratic city governments in the infiltration, surveillance, smearing, takedown and eviction of the short lived movement – this even as the Democrats stole some of Occupy’s rhetoric for use against Romney and the Republicans in 2012.

Then came Obama’s insistent but failed championing of the highly unpopular arch-global-corporatist and authoritarian Trans Pacific Partnership – so widely hated that even the uber-neoliberal Wall Street candidate Hillary Clinton had to pretend to be against it in 2016.

Along the way, Obama would continue his nasty bourgeois habit of lecturing poor Black people on their personal and cultural responsibility for their privation. He told young Black Americans to respect “law and order” as a newly exposed epidemic of racist police murders sparked mass civil rights protests and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Obama undertook no significant or major programs specifically targeting Black needs and racism, eliciting criticism even from petit-bourgeois centrist Obama fans like Ta-Nehesi Coates.

The great U.S.-American imperial military-machine stayed “set on kill” (Allan Nairn) under Obama, with disastrous consequences in Libya and across much of Africa (where Obama dramatically increased the Pentagon’s presence) and the Middle East. Obama’s dramatically expanded and personally directed drone war helped spread jihad across a much broader stretch of geography than had George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

A Professional Class Obama-JFK Love Letter

I was not the only Left writer to have raised alarms about Obama long before this dismal, dollar-drenched denouement. Warnings came from numerous other portsiders, including John Pilger, Bruce Dixon, Glen Ford, Pam Martens, Alexander Cockburn, Noam Chomsky, Doug Henwood, Arun Gupta, Juan Santos, and many others.

The “Historians for Obama” knew better than Left writers and activists working with real-time primary sources and experiences. The Obamanist historians’ April 2008 love letter was embarrassing. It dripped with ardor for Obama – a former Harvard Law Review Editor and “constitutional lawyer” (adjunct law professor, actually) – as an embodiment of academic and professional class “meritocracy.” It praised Obama for possessing an “acute awareness of the inequalities of race and class” and the means “to speak beyond them.” It childishly proclaimed that, as president, Obama would, “begin the process of healing what ails our society and ensuring that the U.S. plays a beneficial role in the world.” It was revealingly loaded with creepy historical lust for both Obama and his great historical likeness (the historians approvingly sensed) – the corporate-imperialist and reckless, Third World-attacking Cold Warrior John F. Kennedy:

“But it is his qualities of mind and temperament that really separate Obama from the rest of the pack. He is a gifted writer and orator who speaks forcefully but without animus. Not since John F. Kennedy has a Democrat candidate for president showed the same combination of charisma and thoughtfulness – or provided Americans with a symbolic opportunity to break with a tradition of bigotry older than the nation itself. Like Kennedy, he also inspires young people who see him as a great exception in a political world that seems mired in cynicism and corruption.”

“Tell it,” I wrote to one signatory at the time. “to the descendants of the victims of Kennedy’s military escalation in Vietnam, his terror attacks on Cuba, and the right-wing dictators he supported in Latin America.”

“The Most Impressive Resume Imaginable”

How interesting, now to read a new collection of essays written by elite U.S. historians under the editorship of Princeton historian Julius Zelizer: The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment (Princeton University Press. 2018). All but 3 of the volume’s 17 contributors are established historians at elite United States universities (the only exceptions are a Princeton sociologist, a University of Virginia law professor, and a Princeton-minted post-doctoral fellow). Five of the contributors are employed by Princeton University, the volume’s publisher.

The essayists range from slightly left-of-center to liberal centrist, consistent with the narrow but standard partisan and ideological profile of the liberal arts and social sciences professoriate. The volume’s editor, Princeton historian Julian Zelizer, reports that nearly all the contributors were in “a state of shock” when Trump triumphed over Hillary Clinton, who Zelizer revealingly calls (reflecting the meritocratic ideology of the professional class) “someone with one of the most impressive resume’s imaginable” – a curious description of a terrible and monstrous candidate who professor Reed quite rightly described in the summer of 2016 as a “lying neoliberal warmonger.” I would be somewhat surprised to learn that any of the contributors is not a registered Democrat.

Seven Thumbs Up and Three Neutral

Despite their shared political and upper-echelon academic ground, however, the top-drawer professors are not without differences on how to assess Obama’s presidential record and legacy. Seven of the essayists write about the Obama presidency with liberal and even in some cases leftish approval:

+ Princeton sociologist Paul Starr thinks that Obama can be shown to have “made significant progress in mitigating and reducing inequality” when tax policy, health care policy, and government transfer payments for the poor are factored in – an achievement for which Starr thinks Obama has not received proper “political credit.”

+ University of California at Davis historian Eric Rauchway says that Obama deserves admiration for “avert[ing] an economic crisis of comparable severity to the Great Depression.”

+ Princeton historian Meg Jacobs gives Obama lukewarm but nonetheless undeserved approval for “bold[ly]” using direct executive actions to “fight against global warming.”

+ Imperialist University of Texas historian Jeremi Suri foolishly hails Barack the Drone King and Libya-Wrecker Obama for advancing “a liberal internationalist agenda that resisted the use of military force.” Tell it to the people of Bola Bulk, professor Suri!

+ University of Cambridge historian Gary Gerstle lauds Obama for overcoming a “hostile political environment” to “superintend…an economic recovery much more robust than what Europe achieved.” Gerstle also hails Obama for bringing “a half-century campaign for national health insurance to successful conclusion” and (above all) for advancing “a vision of civic nationalism [that] inspired millions of young nonwhites to believe that they could find opportunity and liberty, and democracy, in America.” Gerstle reasonably and positively contrasts Obama’s multicultural and cross-racial “civic nationalism” with the GOP and Trump’s horrifying “racial nationalism,” rooted in the longstanding “belief that American is a land meant for whites, or Europeans, and their descendants.”

+ Georgetown historian and Dissent editor Michael Kazin offers ironic praise to president Obama for sparking a resurgence of “the Left” – with the curious exception of the antiwar movement – by failing to deliver on candidate Obama’s progressive-sounding campaign rhetoric and imagery. (The key developments Kazin mentions are the rise of the Occupy Movement, the emergence of Black Lives Matter, and the 2015-16 Bernie Sanders campaign.) At the same time, Kazin dismisses those who would “ignore, or quickly disparage, reforms that Obama and a Democratic Congress managed to enact during the first two years of his administration” – the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank “regulation of high finance.”

+ Rutgers historian Timothy Stewart-Winter acclaims Obama as “The Gay Rights President” for “major civil rights accomplishments on military service and marriage equality.”

Three of the essays are neutral on the Obama record:

+ Zelizer’s opening two contributions, which split the blame between Obama’s poor political strategy and a hostile political environment fueled by Republican intransigence in explaining Obama’s failure to turn policy victories into political gains for the Democratic Party. The title of Zelizer’s second essay tells much of the story: “Tea-Partied: President Obama’s Encounter with the Conservative-Industrial Complex.”

+ University of Virginia history and law professor Risa Goluboff and University of Virginia law professor Richard Schragger note commonsensically that the U.S. Supreme Court under Obama was not “Obama’s court.” They are relieved that the high court did not undertake a deep conservative transformation during Obama’s presidency. They rightly note that the Republican U.S. Senate’s “refusal to consider [Merrick] Garland [Obama’s 2016 Supreme Court nominee] was unprecedented and a significant breach of constitutional norms.”

Seven Thumbs Down

The seven remaining contributors are more critical of Obama’s presidential record:

+ University of Pennsylvania history professor Jonathan Zimmerman properly criticizes Obama’s “Race to the Top” schools program for advancing the same neoliberal and teacher-bashing standardized test-based education agenda promoted by George W. Bush and embodied in the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act.

+ University of California at Davis historian Kathryn Olmsted rightly assails Obama’s “surprising” program of “targeted kills of suspected terrorists” – just “one of several hardline Bush administration counterterrorism polices that Obama chose to continue.” Olmsted notes that Obama insidiously acted “to normalize his predecessor’s [criminal and terrorist ‘counterterrorism’] practices and make them legal…Under Obama’s leadership,” Olmsted reminds us, “American liberals embraced exactly the sort of national security policies that they had condemned in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.”

+ Princeton historian Jacob Dlamini criticizes Obama for violating African sovereignty and African wishes by joining England and France in recklessly pursuing regime change in Libya. Dlamini also notes that Obama deepened and expanded the United States’ lethal military presence in Africa while doing nothing to fulfill hopes that the president (famously the son of a Kenyan national) would develop a special and positive relationship with Africa.

+ New York University historian Thomas Sugrue notes that Obama’s “too cautious” urban policy left metropolitan America’s core inequalities and related harsh race-class segregation untouched thanks largely to the president’s excessive attachment to “market-based solutions.” Sugrue finds this unsurprising since Obama “was a product of the bipartisan neoliberalism of the 1990s, too enamored of market-based solutions and public-private partnerships to fight for a more vigorous public sector.” (Thank you, Thomas Sugrue).

+ University of Michigan historian Matthew Lassiter traces the “resilience of the [Nixon-Reagan] war on drugs” under Obama. Lassiter finds that Obama’s drug policies “reflec[ed] the bipartisan [and failed] consensus that the criminal justice system should ultimately regulate the illicit drug market and the parallel refusal to acknowledge that prohibition itself creates the context for violence and crime, whether by traffickers or law enforcement, both domestically and internationally.”

+ University of Texas historian Peniel Joseph concludes that “Obama’s election, with its lofty and inspiring rhetoric about hope and change, represents an opportunity found and frustratingly lost for advocates of criminal justice reform” – for people who hoped that the first Black president would undertake substantive steps to roll back racist mass incarceration and felony-marking. Joseph blames Obama’s “dream big but go slow” approach, which “contradict[ed] his audacious and successful presidential campaign.” Joseph thinks Obama’s weak performance on the “the new Jim Crow” (racist mass incarceration and criminal branding) was consistent with Obama’s famous March 2008 race speech in Philadelphia, where the future president alarmingly found “moral equivalency in black anger over slavery and white supremacy with white resentment against affirmative action and perceptions of black entitlement.”

+ Southern Methodist University U.S. History Fellow Sarah Coleman finds that Barack “Deporter-in-Chief” Obama “ended his two terms with few successes and a mixed legacy in immigration and refugee policy.”

Assessing the Assessment

The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment will not find very many readers outside “higher education.” It’s a smooth little vitae-booster unlikely to gather much attention beyond a small circle of incestuous and self-referential “experts.” A riveting page-turner it is not.

Zelizer really should have included a short contribution from a labor historian – Georgetown’s Joseph McCartin, for example – on the experience of American workers and unions under Obama. This conspicuous omission reflects, perhaps, he disfavor in which serious class analysis has fallen in the history profession. So does the absence of serious attention to the ruling-class composition (not to mention conduct) of Obama’s administration – a topic that was analyzed in brilliant historical and social science fashion in a remarkable book by the Dutch political scientists Bastiaan Van Apeldoorn and Nana de Graaff: American Grand Strategy and Corporate Elite Networks: The Open Door since the End of the Cold War (Routledge, 2015).

(Class isn’t sexy in higher education anymore. It gets dismissed far too quickly there these days.)

Neither the editor Zelizer nor any of his contributors show the slightest awareness that many writers on the Left (this reviewer included) predicted both the (not) “surprisingly” conservative” trajectory of the Obama presidency quite early on and the results of that presidency (including divergent insurgencies both left and right).

Goluboff and Schragger are wrong to see Obama in 2008 as a “Harvard-trained lawyer [who] thought social change [was] more likely to come from the grassroots.’’ Obama shed that belief before he went to Harvard. That abandonment was part of why he left community organizing and applied to the top law school in the first place. The primary sources are very clear on that.

Gerstle is wrong to see Obama’s Affordable Care Act as a successful culmination of “a half-century campaign for national health insurance.” The real U.S. national health insurance dream has always been for a single-payer system, Medicare for All, without corporate profiteering. Obama failed even to include a partial public option in his reform measure.

Olmsted would be less surprised by Obama’s murderous “counterterrorism” if she had closely read candidate Obama’s foreign policy writings and speeches – key primary sources that were absurdly ignored by Obama’s bamboozled progressive and antiwar fans in 2007 and 2008. We should think of Obama’s targeted assassination record as just plain terrorist, not counterterrorist, consistent with Noam Chomsky’s 2015 description of Obama’s drone program as “the most extreme global terrorist campaign the world has yet seen.”

Kazin is on flimsy ground to see a resurgent Left without an antiwar movement under Obama. No Left worth its salt can emerge without coming into conscious confrontation with the U.S. global military empire, a great source of inequality, authoritarianism, and oppression at home and abroad.

At the same time, Kazin owes an apology to the left business and political commentator Doug Henwood for not citing or perhaps even knowing about the silver lining Henwood attached to his warnings on Obama’s coming presidency in March of 2008. My June 2008 Obama book neared its conclusion with a brilliant quotation from Henwood on the ironic left potential of a neoliberal Obama presidency. Mass disillusionment with Obama’s ideologically foreordained failure to deliver on his lofty, expectation-raising promises of “a better world – more peaceful, egalitarian, and humane,” might help drive ordinary Americans to the left, Henwood wrote (“Would You Like Change with That?” Left Business Observer, no. 117, March 2008). It’s one thing to observe a phenomenon after it occurred; it’s another and more difficult thing to predict that phenomenon in advance.

Finally, Zelizer fails to understand that Obama’s Left-predicted (I again say) presidential neoliberalism is no small part of why the president got so effectively “Tea Partied.” If Obama had seized the moment provided by the Great Recession, the Iraq fiasco, and the Democratic Party takeover of Congress to pursue the progressive and even social-democratic agenda favored by most Americans, thing might well have proceeded in a different, more leftward and democratic direction.

The onetime and short-lived Obama backer Dr. Cornel West reflected years ago on how Obama “posed as a progressive and turned out to be a counterfeit. We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a national security presidency…a brown-faced Clinton: another opportunist.” Nobody in Zelizer’s collection seems to possess the elementary honesty to speak so plainly and honestly about what all-too predictably happened, with advance assistance from at least 227 American academic historians, under the Obama presidency, whose “blunt lesson about [ruling-class] power” is no small part of why Trump “shockingly” sits in the White House.

Credit is due, though, to Starr, for some instructive reflections on how inequality is mis-measured, to Gerstle for highly relevant reflections on the longstanding and living tension between “civic” and “racial” nationalism, and to the seven historians who had the courage to point out highly unpleasant facts about the presidency of Obama, whose legacy is being undeservedly enhanced by the almost unfathomable awfulness of Orange Satan – the Tangerine Caligula who fills the White House with a stench smelled around the world.