The expression “self-licking ice cream cone” was first used in 1992 to describe a hidebound bureaucracy at NASA. Yet, as an image, it’s even more apt for America’s military-industrial complex, an institution far vaster than NASA and thoroughly dedicated to working for its own perpetuation and little else.
Thinking about that led me to another phrase based on America’s seemingly endless string of victory-less wars: the self-defeating military. The U.S., after all, hasn’t won a major conflict since World War II, when it was aided by a grand alliance that included Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s godless communists. And yet here’s the wonder of it all: despite such a woeful 75-year military record, including both the Korean and Vietnam wars of the last century and the never-ending war on terror of this one, the Pentagon’s coffers are overflowing with taxpayer dollars. What gives?
Americans profess to love “their” troops, but what are they getting in return for all that affection (and money)? Very little, it seems. And that shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s been paying the slightest attention, since the present military establishment has been designed less to protect this country than to protect itself, its privileges, and its power. That rarely discussed reality has, in turn, contributed to practices and mindsets that make it a force truly effective at only one thing: defeating any conceivable enemy in Washington as it continues to win massive budgets and the cultural authority to match. That it loses most everywhere else is, it seems, just part of the bargain.
The list of recent debacles should be as obvious as it is alarming: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen (and points around and in between). And even if it’s a reality rarely focused on in the mainstream media, none of this has been a secret to the senior officers who run that military. Look at the Pentagon Papers from the Vietnam War era or the Afghanistan Papers recently revealed by the Washington Post. In both cases, prominent U.S. military leaders admitted to fundamental flaws in their war-making practices, including the lack of a coherent strategy, a thorough misunderstanding of the nature and skills of their enemies, and the total absence of any real progress in achieving victory, no matter the cost.
Of course, such honest appraisals of this country’s actual war-making prowess were made in secret, while military spokespeople and American commanders laid down a public smokescreen to hide the worst aspects of those wars from the American people. As they talked grimly (and secretly) among themselves about losing, they spoke enthusiastically (and openly) to Congress and the public about winning. In case you hadn’t noticed, in places like Afghanistan and Iraq that military was, year after endless year, making “progress” and “turning corners.” Such “happy talk” (a mixture of lies and self-deception) may have served to keep the money flowing and weapons sales booming, but it also kept the body bags coming in (and civilians dying in distant lands) — and for nothing, or at least nothing by any reasonable definition of “national security.”
Curiously, despite the obvious disparity between the military’s lies and reality, the American people, or at least their representatives in Congress, have largely bought those lies in bulk and at astronomical prices. Yet this country’s refusal to face the facts of defeat has only ensured ever more disastrous military interventions. The result: a self-defeating military, engorged with money, lurching toward yet more defeats even as it looks over its shoulder at an increasingly falsified past.
The Future Is What It Used to Be
Long ago, New York Yankee catcher and later manager Yogi Berra summed up what was to come this way: “The future ain’t what it used to be.” And it wasn’t. We used to dream, for example, of flying cars, personal jetpacks, liberating robots, and oodles of leisure time. We even dreamed of mind-bending trips to Jupiter, as in Stanley Kubrick’s epic film "2001: A Space Odyssey." Like so much else we imagined, those dreams haven’t exactly panned out.
Yet here’s an exception to Berra’s wisdom: strangely enough, for the U.S. military, the future is predictably just what it used to be. After all, the latest futuristic vision of America’s military leaders is — hold onto your Kevlar helmets — a “new” cold war with its former communist rivals Russia and China. And let’s add in one other aspect of that military’s future vision: wars, as they see it, are going to be fought and settled with modernized (and ever more expensive) versions of the same old weapons systems that carried us through much of the mid-twentieth century: ever more pricey aircraft carriers, tanks, and top of the line jet fighters and bombers with — hey! — maybe a few thoroughly destabilizing tactical nukes thrown in, along with plenty of updated missiles carried by planes of an ever more “stealthy” and far more expensive variety. Think: the F-35 fighter, the most expensive weapons system in history (so far) and the B-21 bomber.
For such a future, of course, today’s military hardly needs to change at all, or so our generals and admirals argue. For example, yet more ships will, of course, be needed. The Navy high command is already clamoring for 355 of them, while complaining that the record-setting $738 billion Pentagon budget for 2020 is too “tight” to support such a fleet.
Not to be outdone when it comes to complaints about “tight” budgets, the Air Force is arguing vociferously that it needs yet more billions to build a “fleet” of planes that can wage two major wars at once. Meanwhile, the Army is typically lobbying for a new armored personnel carrier (to replace the M2 Bradley) that’s so esoteric insiders joke it will have to be made of “unobtainium.”
In short, no matter how much money the Trump administration and Congress throw at the Pentagon, it’s a guarantee that the military high command will only complain that more is needed, including for nuclear weapons to the tune of possibly $1.7 trillion over 30 years. But doubling down on more of the same, after a record 75 years of non-victories (not to speak of outright losses), is more than stubbornness, more than grift. It’s obdurate stupidity.
Why, then, does it persist? The answer would have to be because this country doesn’t hold its failing military leaders accountable. Instead, it applauds them and promotes them, rewarding them when they retire with six-figure pensions, often augmented by cushy jobs with major defense contractors. Given such a system, why should America’s generals and admirals speak truth to power? They are power and they’ll keep harsh and unflattering truths to themselves, thank you very much, unless they’re leaked by heroes like Daniel Ellsberg during the Vietnam War and Chelsea Manning during the Iraq War, or pried from them via a lawsuit like the one by the Washington Post that recently led to those Afghanistan Papers.
My Polish mother-in-law taught me a phrase that translates as, “Don’t say nothin’ to nobody.” When it comes to America’s wars and their true progress and prospects, consider that the official dictum of Pentagon spokespeople. Yet even as America’s wars sink into Vietnam-style quagmires, the money keeps flowing, especially to high-cost weapons programs.
Consider my old service, the Air Force. As one defense news site put it, “Congressional appropriators gave the Air Force [and Lockheed Martin] a holiday gift in the 2019 spending agreement... $1.87 billion for 20 additional F-35s and associated spare parts.” The new total just for 2020 is “98 aircraft -- 62 F-35As, 16 F-35Bs, and 20 F-35Cs -- at the whopping cost of $9.3 billion, crowning the F-35 as the biggest Pentagon procurement program ever.” And that’s not all. The Air Force (and Northrop Grumman) got another gift as well: $3 billion more to be put into its new, redundant, B-21 stealth bomber. Even much-beleaguered Boeing, responsible for the disastrous 737 MAX program, got a gift: nearly a billion dollars for the revamped F-15EX fighter, a much-modified version of a plane that first flew in the early 1970s. Yet, despite those gifts, Air Force officials continue to claim with straight faces that the service is getting the “short straw” in today’s budgetary battles in the Pentagon.
What does this all mean? One obvious answer would be: the only truly winning battles for the Pentagon are the ones for our taxpayer dollars.
“Dopes and Babies” Galore
I can’t claim that I ever traveled in the circles of generals and admirals, though I met a few during my military career. Still, no one can question that our commanders are dedicated. The only question is: dedication to what exactly — to the Constitution and the American people or to their own service branch, with an eye toward a comfortable and profitable retirement? Certainly, loyalty to service (and the conformity that goes with it), rather than out-of-the-box thinking in those endlessly losing wars, helped most of them win promotion to flag rank.
Perhaps this is one reason why, back in July 2017, the military’s current commander-in-chief, Donald Trump, reportedly railed at his top national security people in a windowless Pentagon room known as “the Tank.” He called them -- including then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, Jr. — “a bunch of dopes and babies.” As the president put it, America’s senior military leaders don’t win anymore and, as he made clear, nothing is worse than being a loser. He added, “I want to win. We don’t win any wars anymore... We spend $7 trillion, everybody else got the oil and we’re not winning anymore.” (And, please note, that hasn’t changed a whit in the year and a half since that moment.)
Sure, Trump threw a typical tantrum, but his comments about losing at a strikingly high cost were (and remain) absolutely on the mark, not that he had any idea how to turn America’s losing wars and their losing commanders into winners. In many ways, his “strategy” has proven remarkably like those of the two previous presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Send more troops to the Middle East. Drone and bomb ever more, not just in Afghanistan and Iraq but even in places like Somalia and Libya. Prolong our commitment to “loser” wars like the Afghan one, even while talking ceaselessly about ending them and bringing the troops home. And continue to “rebuild” that same military, empowering those same “dopes and babies,” with yet more taxpayer dollars.
The results have been all-too predictable. America’s generals and admirals have so much money that they don’t ever have to make truly tough choices. They hardly have to think. The Air Force, for example, just keeps planning for and purchasing more ultra-expensive stealth fighters and bombers to fight a future Cold War that we allegedly won 30 years ago. Meanwhile, actual future “national security” threats like climate-related catastrophes or pandemics go largely unaddressed. Who cares about them when this country will clearly have the most stealth fighters and bombers in the world?
For the Pentagon, the future is the past and the past, the future. Why should military leaders have to think when the president and Congress keep rewarding them for lies and failures of every sort?
Trump believes America doesn’t win anymore because we're not ruthless enough. Take the oil, dammit! The real reason: because America’s wars are unwinnable from the git-go (something the last 18 years should have proved in no uncertain way) and — irony of all ironies — completely unnecessary from the standpoint of true national defense. There is no way for the U.S. military to win “hearts and minds” across the Greater Middle East and Africa with salvos of Hellfire missiles. In fact, there’s only one way to “win” such wars: end them. And there’s only one way to keep winning: by avoiding future ones.
With a system that couldn’t work better (in Washington), America’s military refuses to admit this. Instead, our generals just keep saluting smartly while lying in public (the details of which we’ll find out about only when the next set of “papers” is released someday). In the meantime, when it comes to demanding and getting tax dollars, they couldn’t be more skilled. In that sense, and that alone, they are the ultimate winners.
“Dopes and babies,” Mister President? No, just men who are genuinely skilled in the art of the deal. Small wonder America’s leader is upset. For when it comes to the military-industrial complex and its power and prerogatives, even Trump has met his match. He’s been out-conned. And if the rest of us remain silent on the subject, then so have we.
This article was republished with permission from TomDispatch.
William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), is a TomDispatch regular. He has taught at the Air Force Academy, the Naval Postgraduate School, and the Pennsylvania College of Technology. His personal blog is BracingViews.com.
Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.
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Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 1952; President Barack Obama, at NATO Headquarters, Brussels, 2014.
President Trump's latest comments criticizing NATO and the ensuing media reaction obscure the fact that Americans have long held dissenting opinions on the U.S. relationship to European security.
As has happened all too often throughout the Trump era, the heat of escalating rhetoric on the part of the 45th President and his committed adversaries has distracted from the more substantive foreign policy debate.
Today, the U.S-European security relationship has never been more sacrosanct, at least in the mind's eye of the national security establishment and their allies in the mainstream press. Yet historically, the range of debate and criticism of this ostensibly sacred pact has been far more open than nostalgia or the modern commentariat may suggest.
Throughout American involvement in NATO, the nation's national security elites, members of Congress, commentators, and, yes, presidents, too, have all challenged the contours of commitment to the organization and its members at one time or another. Furthermore, they did so when Western countries faced a significantly larger Soviet military deployed deep into the heart of Central Europe.
During the early Cold War, the nature of American involvement in the alliance and its commitment to staff Europe with a permanent garrison were not seen as beyond question, even by American officials in positions of authority. In fact, American Cold War architects sold an American garrison in Europe as a temporary measure meant to shore up allies still licking their wounds from the Second World War. In congressional testimony concerning the ratification of the NATO treaty, Sen. Bourke B. Hickenlooper (R-Iowa) pressed Secretary of State Dean Acheson on if he thought the treaty meant that the U.S. would leave "substantial numbers of troops over there." An indignant Acheson responded, "[t]he answer to that question, Senator, is a clear and absolute 'No.'"
Even as Acheson's assurances to Congress proved hollow, NATO's first commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, while supportive of NATO's legal mechanisms of collective security, believed that America's garrison and material aid were temporary. Eisenhower warned that if "in 10 years, all American troops stationed in Europe for national defense purposes have not been returned to the United States, then this whole project will have failed."
In Congress, the extent of American military involvement remained a persistent issue for the Republican Right. Be they principled noninterventionists or Asia First unilateralists, the extent of American troop presence in Europe remained a contested issue. Retired Army officer Bonner Fellers, writing in a July 1949 issue of Human Events, a conservative magazine, summed up the widely agreed-upon position of these dissenters. While Fellers believed that the NATO treaty had "enormous psychological value," as it served as a "symbol of unity" and deterrence, he did not think that that should translate into a massive and permanent military garrison in Western Europe.
Fellers revisited the issue two years later in an article for Human Events, which was read into the Congressional Record. Rather than see the American European garrison as a deterrent, Fellers asserted that it could be viewed as a provocation and argued that the "presence of our forces on the Rhine gives Stalin a visible symbol, a unifying agent which tends to enlist the support of all Russians behind the Kremlin."
It is important to note that Fellers was hardly a dove. Instead, he was a committed anti-communist who loathed the Soviet Union and supported a nuclear deterrence on the cheap, a Fortress America 2.0. Yet, he, like many within the Republican Right, did not allow their ideological priors to automatically dictate a desire for endless security commitments to Western Europe.
On Capitol Hill, Fellers's views were common and supported by conservative Republicans who saw an American military garrison as an expensive handout to allies whose rebuilt economies could shoulder their defense, all while providing little deterrent effect. In 1953, speaking on the issue of America's military mission in Europe, Rep. Lawrence H. Smith (R-Wis.) asked rhetorically, "[w]here is the threat of military aggression?"
According to Smith, after returning from a fact-finding mission in Europe, his subcommittee on Europe reported that "there was no fear of communism in the hearts and the minds of the people there." The sentiments espoused by Fellers and Smith persisted in pockets of the Republican Right throughout the early Cold War despite the ideological demands of the era.
During the final decades of the Cold War, opposition to the presence of an American military garrison in Western Europe and the continuation of military aid emanated primarily from the left wing of the Democratic Party as a new generation of Democrats took office and sought to rein military spending and commitments. On Capitol Hill, Democrats attempted to force American troop level cuts in Europe in the House in 1988, and the Senate in 1990.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the horseshoe of opposition to maintaining the status quo thickened as a body of conservative Republicans joined progressive Democrats in opposing NATO expansion, first in 1994 and then in 1999. While both votes failed, and the United States maintained a sizeable garrison in Europe, the opposition to outdated Cold War paradigms remained and flowed freely, untainted by the scurrilous charge of echoing "Putin talking points."
Indeed, even as late as November 2016, President Obama mirrored the sentiments of then President-elect Donald Trump in stating that “[i]f Greece can meet this NATO commitment, all our NATO allies should be able to do so."
This latest fervor has, as all too often now, completely ignored these historical debates around American foreign policy commitments, creating in their passions an ahistorical sense of policy inevitability. If Americans past and present, from presidents on down, could question the contours of American security commitments and did so in far more perilous times, then so should we.
Last month, Foreign Policy published a report that stirred the debate on U.S. Middle East policy. It claimed “the Biden administration is reconsidering its priorities” in Syria and may conduct “a full withdrawal of U.S. troops.” Now, legacy media is debating the future of American involvement in Syria.
Missing from this discussion is the suffering that involvement has caused.
Writing for the New York Times, retired general Kenneth McKenzie warns “it’s not time for our troops to leave” Syria. Mere talk of a withdrawal (let alone actually withdrawing), he argues, is “seriously damaging to U.S. interests.” It “gives hope to Tehran” that Iran might rival American influence in the Middle East — which is bad, supposedly. Why Iran has less of a right to influence its own region than people thousands of miles away is unclear.
McKenzie also argues that American troops must remain to “secure the prisons holding ISIS fighters.” Without boots on the ground, militants might escape and the Islamist group could “rejuvenate itself.” McKenzie doesn’t believe the Syrian government could prevent prison breaks on its own, or even with Russian and Iranian support.
This argument is highly speculative. If the Americans leave, imprisoned ISIS fighters might escape. And, if enough do, they might rebuild their organization into a force too formidable for Syrian forces to handle. Multiple unlikely contingencies must materialize to even warrant taking this reasoning seriously.
But McKenzie’s claim suffers a more fundamental problem. It confuses the cause for the antidote. Everyone from Noam Chomsky to Rand Paul knows American intervention created the conditions that allowed ISIS to grow. Bombing Arab nations to smithereens, toppling their leaders, and starving governments through sanctions and outright theft generated a power vacuum. As did deploying troops indefinitely, which prevented states like Syria from maintaining territorial integrity and establishing the mechanisms for self-governance.
McKenzie believes the Syrian government is simply too weak to quell the increasingly small threat an ISIS in retreat poses. Assuming he’s correct, it’s worth asking why that’s the case. The facts again point to American intervention.
Nearly 13 years into its ongoing civil war, Syria is in tatters. Once a middle-income nation with respectable living standards, it’s now the poorest country on Earth. More than 90% of Syrians live below the international poverty line of $1.90 per day. Their paychecks are worthless, with the Syrian pound losing virtually all of its relative value since the war began.
It’s not all America’s fault. The Syrian government undoubtedly bears significant blame for the humanitarian crisis. But American sanctions hamstring it from improving matters. The infamous Caesar Act targets anyone who "engages in a significant transaction" with the Syrian government. Signed into law by Donald Trump, this heinous policy effectively precludes the international community from helping Syria rebuild.
A bipartisan but overwhelmingly Democratic coalition of lawmakers recently voted against slapping new sanctions on Syria. Unfortunately, for every one of them, there were 12 supporters of the legislation. Dubbed the Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act, it would extend the sunset of the Caesar sanctions by eight years. The bill would also expand the list of proscribed transactions.
But there’s more. Years ago, with America’s blessing, Turkish-backed militias stole capital from over 1,000 factories in the city of Aleppo alone. This assault on the productive forces of Syria’s industrial hub left its economy in tatters. But that’s not all the United States and its allies stole. America’s occupying troops routinely commandeer Syrian wheat and petroleum. Trump admitted as much, saying that soldiers “were staying in Syria to secure oil resources.”
The Syrian state is starving. More American intervention isn’t what Syria needs. It needs the United States’ boot off of its neck.
In these discussions of states and militants, we mustn’t lose sight of what matters most: the people. American militarism in Syria has wrought dire human costs. It has helped to plunge Syrians into the depths of unimaginable despair. Over 80% of them are food-insecure and a similar proportion lack sustained access to electricity. Many enjoy just one hour of it per day. Without electricity, you can’t refrigerate food and it rots. That causes shortages. People have taken to eating out of the garbage.
McKenzie seems to care little about this immense suffering. And why would he? His job as a general was to project American military might, whatever the costs, a position he apparently continues as a guest writer for The New York Times.