interesting times

The Establishment Will Never Say No to a War

A U.S. Army convoy in northern Syria. Photo: Sebastian Backhaus/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The question before us is a relatively simple one: What would be the criteria for removing our remaining troops from the Iraqi, Syrian, and more general Middle Eastern conflicts? Or, for that matter, from Afghanistan, where we have been trapped for more than 17 long years of still open-ended occupation?

If the answer to that question is that only when each of these countries is a healthy pro-American democracy, and Islamist terrorism has ceased to be an “enduring” threat to the West, then the answer, as the old Bob Mankoff joke has it, is “How about never — is never good for you?”

Or consider what a shocked Lieutenant General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. of the Marines, the incoming commander of Central Command opined after hearing the news of Trump’s withdrawal of 7,000 troops from Afghanistan yesterday: “If we left precipitously right now, I do not believe [the Afghan forces] would be able to successfully defend their country. I don’t know how long it’s going to take. I think that one of the things that would actually provide the most damage to them would be if we put a timeline on it and we said we were going out at a certain point in time.”

Get that? After 17 years, we’ve gotten nowhere, like every single occupier before us. But for that reason, we have to stay. These commanders have been singing this tune year after year for 17 years of occupation, and secretaries of Defense have kept agreeing with them. Trump gave them one last surge of troops — violating his own campaign promise — and we got nowhere one more time. It is getting close to insane.

Neoconservatism, it seems, never dies. It just mutates constantly to find new ways to intervene, to perpetuate forever wars, to send more young Americans to die in countries that don’t want them amid populations that try to kill them. If you want the most recent proof of that, look at Yemen, where the Saudi policy of mass civilian deaths in a Sunni war on Shiites is backed by American arms and U.S. It’s also backed by American troops on the ground — in a secret war conducted by Green Berets that was concealed from Congress. There is no conceivable threat to the U.S. from the Houthi rebels in Yemen; and there was no prior congressional approval. Did you even know we had ground troops deployed there?

The same for liberal internationalism, which also never seems to die, however many catastrophes it spawns. There’s always an impending “massacre” somewhere to justify intervention, which is why we have been dutifully told that withdrawing from Syria would lead to a “slaughter” of the Kurds. Remember the massacre that gave Hillary Clinton a chance to launch another Middle Eastern war in Libya? How many more innocents were slaughtered after we toppled Qaddafi than those in danger before? And all because Clinton refused to learn a single thing from Iraq. (If Clinton had actually won in 2016, we would probably have far more troops occupying Syria today, and be digging in for the long haul, and we’d probably have even more troops in yet another doomed surge in Afghanistan. That goes some way to explaining why Clinton has a massive 31/62 negative approval rating in the latest, Democrat-friendly Quinnipiac poll, much worse than even Trump.)

So it was not surprising that the usual suspects — the people who brought you the Iraq War — blanketed the mainstream media these past couple of days with the usual threats and bluffs and bluster, and that the mainstream media amplified their message. Jake Tapper reported yesterday that “senior officials across the administration agree that the president’s decision-by-tweet will recklessly put American and allied lives in danger around the world, take the pressure off of ISIS allowing them to reconstitute, and hand a strategic victory to our Syrian, Iranian, and Russian adversaries … It’s a mistake of colossal proportions and the president fails to see how it will endanger our country.”

Sorry, but I also fail to see how it will endanger the United States. I’ve heard these arguments so many times before — and I used them myself, to my eternal shame, before the Iraq catastrophe. But unlike most of the authors of that catastrophe, I learned my lesson. I simply do not believe that the West has the knowledge, the will, or the ability to shape the extremely complicated and endlessly vicious politics of the Middle East. And I defy anyone to show otherwise. It’s an unwinnable game of whack-a-mole. If we haven’t learned that by now, after spending $6 trillion so far in this forever war on terror, and wreaking chaos and havoc across the region, we never will. Of course, there is a moral case for not destroying a country and then walking away. But ending a conflict that began in 2003? Isn’t 15 years enough? That’s three times as long as the war against Hitler.

And what if the Syrian nightmare does become owned by Russia? Getting another imperial power to live with that albatross seems to me rather shrewd, does it not? (I’d be happy to see Russian troops reoccupy Afghanistan for that matter. An occupation of that imperial graveyard might do to Putin’s regime what it did to the Soviet Union.) And why, oh why, do we care if Iran wants to champion Shiite forces in Syria and Iraq? The U.S. has no national interest in the outcome of a Sunni-Shiite war, as long as neither side wins. We did very well by staying out of the Iran-Iraq war all those years ago, did we not? And when we did get involved, via Iran-Contra, it was a disaster.

As for Israel — which is, of course, the real motivation for most neoconservative dreams of controlling the Middle East — it can surely defend itself at this point. Israel has massive military, technological, intelligence, and economic advantages over its neighbors, and, unlike Iran, also has nuclear weapons, refuses to admit it, and will not sign (again unlike Iran) the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. And the Israelis need U.S. troops to occupy the Middle East permanently as well? Why? It’s high time the U.S. called their bluff.

But Washington never learns this lesson, cannot relinquish the imperial temptation, even as it has bankrupted us, killed and maimed thousands of young Americans, and turned us into a country that commits war crimes. If you want to understand why we have a resurgence of populism and why a patently unfit person like Trump became president, it’s because most Americans know when their government refuses to do what its people want.

And it’s worth pointing out that in the last three consecutive presidential elections, the winners explicitly vowed to get us out of Iraq and/or Afghanistan — let alone Syria — and defeated their interventionist opponents. Obama was elected and reelected to end the Iraq occupation, and was then sucked back in by the exact same arguments we are hearing today. Trump was even more adamant in ending imperial overreach, but after two years, guess what? We are still in Syria and we have more troops in Afghanistan (and are currently conducting an air campaign there as ferocious as any in the past) and we have — more than ever before — jumped into the eternal Sunni-Shiite war by supporting the Saudi royal dictatorship. In the Syrian case, there is no constitutional defense at all: no congressional authorization whatever. And if there had been a congressional vote to start a new war in Syria, does anyone believe it would have passed?

But what’s astonishing this time is how the Democrats and much of the liberal Establishment now supports an unending occupation of yet another Middle Eastern country. David Sanger’s New York Times “analysis” is a perfect distillation of such thinking. It contains not a sentence about the costs of long-term occupation of the Middle East or the endless failures in Afghanistan. It reads as if the Iraq War never happened. It even regards non-interventionism as “a contrarian’s view of American military power.” That’s how impenetrable the Establishment bubble is! Then Sanger actually repackages the George W. Bush doctrine that “we fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them here,” as if it were the key lessoned learned from the Iraq War! Here’s Sanger’s actual paraphrase: “deployed forces are key to stopping terrorists before they reach American shores.” Just let that sink in. According to the New York Times, the lesson of the Iraq War is that we need to intervene more in the Middle East, not less. Seriously.

The Syrian occupation is not a minor thing. The Washington Post reported a week ago, long before Trump’s tweet, that “US troops will now stay in Syria indefinitely, controlling a third of the country, and facing peril on many fronts.” A third of an entire country! How many Americans knew or know this? Very, very few. I didn’t. And this was not designed to fight ISIS. It was explicitly defended as part of a long-term pushback on Iranian and Russian influence in the region. It seems to me that this kind of shift in rationale — again with no congressional approval — is almost a definition of mission creep. We should not be asking why Trump has decided to nip this in the bud, following his clear and popular mandate to get us out of the region. We should be asking how on earth did the Establishment find a way to occupy yet another Middle Eastern country without any democratic buy-in at all. At least there was a congressional debate before the Iraq War and a robust public discussion. This time, they have launched a new war, occupied a third of another country, changed the rationale so they stay for ever, and tried to hide it!

The resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is the icing on this blood-drenched cake. Yes, Mattis was a vital obstacle to some of Trump’s criminal and impulsive tendencies. In his resignation letter, he cited the need to sustain alliances across the world, and the need to constrain Russia. Fair enough. But it is telling, is it not, that he didn’t resign when Trump told NATO that Article 5 was effectively void; he didn’t resign when Trump launched his bizarre love-in with Kim Jong-un; he didn’t quit after the disastrous G7 meeting this year, or after the staggering Helsinki press conference; he didn’t quit when Trump openly tried to break up the European Union; he didn’t quit when Trump moved to change his plans on transgender troops by fiat; he didn’t resign when his Afghan surge failed yet again; and he didn’t resign when Trump ordered 5,000 troops to the Mexican border as a political stunt. He quit when he was told to end a failing, forever war and an indefinite occupation of yet another country. That’s the red line: any retrenchment of the ever-expanding American empire.

Yes, Trump’s foreign policy is a chaotic, incoherent, dangerous mess. Yes, he is clearly and manifestly unfit for office, and should have been removed a long time ago. Charting a new course in a war should never be done without proper consultation with allies and the top brass. (Trump did, of course, consult with Netanyahu and Erdogan.) U.S. troops, fighting these unwinnable wars, deserve to hear of a change in course from their commanders, not Twitter. There are always debates to be had over the specific timing and pace of withdrawal. I’m alarmed by the absence of any adviser who doesn’t want a war with Iran, and predicted that at some point, the wannabe tyrant would throw all the sane people out of the nest. There is no defense of this deranged form of decision-making from a clearly psychologically disturbed person.

But I find Trump’s persistence in following his electoral mandate against so much Establishment pressure in this particular respect to be rather admirable. There comes a point when a president has to say no to the neo-imperial blob, to cut bait in wars that have become ends in themselves, generating the very problems they were launched to resolve. There is never a good time to do this. There wasn’t in Vietnam and there isn’t in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Sometimes, you just have to do it. I wish Obama had been able to. But he got trapped in agonizing rationalizations of the indefensible, paid too much respect to the architects of failure (not to speak of torture), and thereby failed after eight long years to fulfill his core campaign promise to disengage from these quagmires. Maybe it takes an impulsive, dangerous nutjob like Trump to finally do it, to end the wars the American people want to end. And that, I think, is less an indictment of him than of those who let this madness go on for so long.

The First Step Act Lives Up to Its Name

I want to take a moment to absorb a truly miraculous defeat for tribalism and polarization this week. Yesterday, criminal-justice reform was passed into law thanks to a bipartisan coalition. The racial injustice that has victimized far too many, that has brutalized many more, that has needlessly pulled families apart and led to terrible cruelty has taken a long and overdue hit. It isn’t as expansive as I’d prefer, but it’s encouraging that its name is the First Step Act, implying there will be a Second.

Its reach is also limited to federal prisons and jails, which hold a fraction of those imprisoned in state facilities, where 87 percent of prisoners are held. But the hope is that it signals a key turning point against mass incarceration and that this will filter down to the states. Whatever the strange motivations that brought Jared Kushner into an alliance with Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, they did manage to force Mitch McConnell to let some small measure of justice be passed. They deserve real credit. And yes, president Trump’s rhetoric on crime has often been atrocious, inflammatory, and downright racist. But paradoxically, his endorsement of the bill is thereby more important. He can legitimize this kind of law with Trump loyalists, which shifts the Overton window more profoundly than anyone else could have. Republicans in statehouses can use Trump as a way to do the right thing. I see no reason not to praise Trump occasionally when he does the right thing.

But in a Congress that can effectively accomplish nothing, it’s a big deal. Skeptics are right to urge vigilance and further steps. But no one can deny how impactful this could be for many previously demonized and marginalized people, especially African-American men and their families. Here’s one simple provision in the law, for example: a ban on solitary confinement, i.e. torture, for juveniles. I’d support a ban on all such confinement for all prisoners, whatever age, as long as their safety can be assured. Solitary is brutally inhuman, it destroys people’s psyches, and leaves permanent indelible trauma. If one young person is now free from this, it was worth passing. Ditto the retroactive abolition of the crack-cocaine disparity, one of the most pernicious and racist elements of the war on drugs. It was never sufficient to end this double standard going forward without also seeking justice for those jailed in the past.  We cannot undo the damage, but we can end its perpetuation.

The law also begins to treat prisoners as human beings again. Better job-training; an expansion of the early release credit program for good behavior; options other than incarceration for nonviolent offenders as they near the end of their sentences; the relaxation of mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses (with the understandable exception of fentanyl dealers, who are effectively murdering tens of thousands of people); a tightening of standards for auditors of prison rape; an expansion of programs for treatment of heroin and opioid addiction that allows for methadone use in prison. These are no-brainers for a civilized society that wants to give people second chances. And I’m still a little gobsmacked by who said the following: “We’re investing in the men and women who want to turn their lives around once they’re released from prison, and we’re investing in so doing in stronger and more viable communities.” That’s Senator John Cornyn!

I’d favor an end to all nonviolent drug offenses. The revolution in cannabis laws — still ongoing despite Jeff Sessions’s two-year-long opposition — is a start. I’d like to see a much bigger shift in the opioid crisis away from punishment and illegality in favor of medical counseling, housing, controlled opiate usage, and health care. Twenty-five years for a three-strikes-and-you’re-out law is better than life imprisonment, but still too high. Ultimately, real reform will have to come from prosecutors in the states whose sentencing has been a huge part of the problem. But this is also a reason that we should be glad for this law. It sends a signal. More may hear it. And some of this immense human damage can be undone.

Save Us From Christmas
I have long tried to find something in Donald Trump that I could admire. It’s a Christian duty, after all, to see the face of God in everyone. But I’ve failed. I seriously cannot find a single redeeming characteristic in him. Every value I hold he proudly displays contempt for. I can see the rationale behind a few of his policies — like the Wall or slowing immigration or keeping China honest in trade — but I am hard pressed to find any virtue in his actual character.

And then, this week, I did find, at least, one small soupçon of mutual sympathy. His cancellation of the White House Christmas party for the press because he couldn’t bear standing for three or more hours shaking hands with those who hate him is, to my mind, completely understandable. The party itself is gross — a vast display of hypocrisy, access, elitism, and bullshit. I’ve never gone, I hasten to say. And maybe there was some frisson in going to one in the Obama administration and watching Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly scarf the nibbly things. But I managed without.

In fact, I’ve managed without Christmas for most of my adult life. My grinchitude is total. I send and display no cards and give and receive no gifts. I haven’t spent Christmas with my family since the late 1980s (but, yes, I have gone to the in-laws in recent years and done my best to grit it out). My apartment is Yule-free. No tree, no wreaths, no lights, no nothing. I tend to go somewhere sunny and tropical in the dreaded week — Miami, say, or, last year, the Dominican Republic — so the kind of Christmas I grew up with is furthest from my mind. Next week, however, I will be home, writing and reading without the usual distractions, and may make some weed cookies and binge some streaming movies.

I’m lucky in as much as I have the freedom to do my best to escape the totalitarianism of good cheer and bullshit. If I had children, I’d change my ways for their sake. But the season still penetrates, of course. It was almost a month ago when I naïvely walked into a Starbucks and was assaulted by “The Little Drummer Boy.” And this was one area where Hitch and I found common ground. He saw this time of year as a kind of commercial one-party state: “As in such dismal banana republics, the dreary, sinister thing is that the official propaganda is inescapable. You go to a train station or an airport, and the image and the music of the Dear Leader are everywhere. You go to a more private place, such as a doctor’s office or a store or a restaurant, and the identical tinny, maddening, repetitive ululations are to be heard.” The command to be of good cheer is an assault to my right to my own mood, which, during these holidays, tends to be dark.

Yes, I go to Mass. Unlike Hitch, there is for me a core religious element to the season. But it’s so wrapped up in paganism and materialism and waste that the value of one Mass is swamped by everything else. But also, unlike Hitch, I have genuine childhood trauma from this time of year. I’ll spare you the details, but it’s so buried in my psyche that I simply can’t shake it. It’s an achievement for me not to have a serious depressive episode this coming week, and it’s taken a lot of therapy for me to get even there. And the thing is, I’m not alone in this at all. Christmas has been the occasion of family fights, marital tension, and domestic violence for countless people. And yet the entire society compels us to relive these traumas not just for a few days, but for weeks on end. And there is very little refuge from it.

So here’s a toast to all of you who will find these coming days difficult and stressful, to all who have to undergo this ordeal once more, to all those who will feel wretched or sad or particularly lonely when the entire culture is telling you to be jolly and merry. It will be over soon. A new year beckons. And we will soon have maybe 320 days or so before the next round of psycho-drama begins.

See you then!