Peter Van Buren: Five Questions You Probably Won’t Hear in the Presidential Debates

By Peter Van Buren, who blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during the Iraqi reconstruction in We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. He writes about current events at We Meant Well. His latest book is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent. His next work will be a novel, Hooper’s War. Originally published at TomDispatch

The nuances of foreign policy do not feature heavily in the ongoing presidential campaign. Every candidate intends to “destroy” the Islamic State; each has concerns about Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korea, and China; every one of them will defend Israel; and no one wants to talk much about anything else — except, in the case of the Republicans, who rattle their sabers against Iran.

In that light, here’s a little trip down memory lane: in October 2012, I considered five critical foreign policy questions — they form the section headings below — that were not being discussed by then-candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Romney today is a sideshow act for the current Republican circus, and Obama has started packing up his tent at the White House and producing his own foreign policy obituary.

And sadly, those five questions of 2012 remain as pertinent and unraised today as they were four years ago. Unlike then, however, answers may be at hand, and believe me, that’s not good news.  Now, let’s consider them four years later, one by one. 

Is there an endgame for the global war on terror?

That was the first question I asked back in 2012. In the ensuing years, no such endgame has either been proposed or found, and these days no one’s even talking about looking for one. Instead, a state of perpetual conflict in the Greater Middle East and Africa has become so much the norm that most of us don’t even notice.

In 2012, I wrote, “The current president, elected on the promise of change, altered very little when it came to George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror (other than dropping the name). That jewel-in-the-crown of Bush-era offshore imprisonment, Guantanamo, still houses over 160 prisoners held without trial. While the U.S. pulled its troops out of Iraq… the war in Afghanistan stumbles on. Drone strikes and other forms of conflict continue in the same places Bush tormented: Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan (and it’s clear that northern Mali is heading our way).”

Well, candidates of 2016? Guantanamo remains open for business, with 91 men still left. Five others were expeditiously traded away by executive decision to retrieve runaway American soldier Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan, but somehow President Obama feels he can’t release most of the others without lots of approvals by… well, someone. The Republicans running for president are howling to expand Gitmo, and the two Democratic candidates are in favor of whatever sort of not-a-plan plan Obama has been pushing around his plate for eight years.

Iraq took a bad bounce when the same president who withdrew U.S. troops in 2011 let loose the planes and drones and started putting those boots back on that same old ground in 2014. It didn’t take long for the U.S. to morph that conflict from a rescue mission to a training mission to bombing to Special Operations forces in ongoing contact with the enemy, and not just in Iraq, but Syria, too. No candidate has said that s/he will pull out.

As for the war in Afghanistan, it now features an indefinite, “generational” American troop commitment. Think of that country as the third rail of campaign 2016 — no candidate dares touch it for fear of instant electrocution, though (since the American public seems to have forgotten the place) by whom exactly is unclear. There’s still plenty of fighting going on in Yemen — albeit now mostly via America’s well-armed proxies the Saudis — and Africa is more militarized than ever.

As for the most common “American” someone in what used to be called the third world is likely to encounter, it’s no longer a diplomat, a missionary, a tourist, or even a soldier — it’s a drone. The United States claims the right to fly into any nation’s airspace and kill anyone it wishes. Add it all together and when it comes to that war on terror across significant parts of the globe, the once-reluctant heir to the Bush legacy leaves behind a twenty-first century mechanism for perpetual war and eternal assassination missions. And no candidate in either party is willing to even suggest that such a situation needs to end.

In 2012, I also wrote, “Washington seems able to come up with nothing more than a whack-a-mole strategy for ridding itself of the scourge of terror, an endless succession of killings of ‘al-Qaeda Number 3’ guys. Counterterrorism tsar John Brennan, Obama’s drone-meister, has put it this way: ‘We’re not going to rest until al-Qaeda the organization is destroyed and is eliminated from areas in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Africa, and other areas.’”

Four years later, whack-a-mole seems to still be as polite a way as possible of categorizing America’s strategy. In 2013, the top whacker John Brennan got an upgrade to director of the CIA, but strangely — despite so many drones sent off, Special Operations teams sent in, and bombers let loose — the moles keep burrowing and he’s gotten none of the rest he was seeking in 2012. Al-Qaeda is still around, but more significantly, the Islamic State (IS) has replaced that outfit as the signature terrorist organization for the 2016 election.

And speaking of IS, the 2011 war in Libya, midwifed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, led to the elimination of autocrat Muammar Qaddafi, which in turn led to chaos, which in turn led to the spread of IS there big time, which appears on its way to leading to a new American war in Libya seeking the kind of stability that, for all his terrors, Qaddafi had indeed brought to that country during his 34 years in power and the U.S. military will never find.

So an end to the Global War on Terror? Nope.

Do today’s foreign policy challenges mean that it’s time to retire the Constitution?

In 2012 I wrote, “Starting on September 12, 2001, challenges, threats, and risks abroad have been used to justify abandoning core beliefs enshrined in the Bill of Rights. That bill, we are told, can’t accommodate terror threats to the Homeland.”

At the time, however, our concerns about unconstitutionality were mostly based on limited information from early whistleblowers like Tom Drake and Bill Binney, and what some then called conspiracy theories. That was before National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden confirmed our worst nightmares in June 2013 by leaking a trove of NSA documents about the overwhelming American surveillance state. Snowden summed it up this way: “You see programs and policies that were publicly justified on the basis of preventing terrorism — which we all want — in fact being used for very different purposes.”

Now, here’s the strange thing: since Rand Paul dropped out of the 2016 presidential race, no candidate seems to find it worth his or her while to discuss protecting the Bill of Rights or the Constitution from the national security state. (Only the Second Amendment, it turns out, is still sacred.) And speaking of rights, things had already grown so extreme by 2013 that Attorney General Eric Holder felt forced to publicly insist that the government did not plan to torture or kill Edward Snowden, should he end up in its hands. Given the tone of this election, someone may want to update that promise.

In 2012, of course, the Obama administration had only managed to put two whistleblowers in jail for violating the Espionage Act. Since then, such prosecutions have grown almost commonplace, with five more convictions (including that of Chelsea Manning) and with whatever penalties short of torture and murder are planned for Edward Snowden still pending. No one then mentioned the use of the draconian World War I-era Espionage Act, but that wasn’t surprising. Its moment was still coming.

Four years later, still not a peep out of any candidate about the uses of that act, once aimed at spying for foreign powers in wartime, or a serious discussion of government surveillance and the loss of privacy in American life. (And we just learned that the Pentagon’s spy drones have been released over “the homeland,” too, but don’t expect to hear anything about that or its implications either.) Of course, Snowden has come up in the debates of both parties. He has been labeled a traitor as part of the blood sport that the Republican debates have devolved into, and denounced as a thief by Hillary Clinton, while Bernie Sanders gave him credit for “educating the American people” but still thought he deserved prison time.

If the question in 2012 was: “Candidates, have we walked away from the Constitution? If so, shouldn’t we publish some sort of notice or bulletin?” In 2016, the answer seems to be: “Yes, we’ve walked away, and accept that or else… you traitor!”

What do we want from the Middle East?

In 2012, considering the wreckage of the post-9/11 policies of two administrations in the Middle East, I wondered what the goal of America’s presence there could possibly be. Washington had just ended its war in Iraq, walked away from the chaos in Libya, and yet continued to launch a seemingly never-ending series of drone strikes in the region. “Is it all about oil?” I asked. “Israel? Old-fashioned hegemony and containment? History suggests that we should make up our mind on what America’s goals in the Middle East might actually be. No cheating now — having no policy is a policy of its own.”

Four years later, Washington is desperately trying to destroy an Islamic State “caliphate” that wasn’t even on its radar in 2012. Of course, that brings up the question of whether IS can be militarily destroyed at all, as we watch its spread to places as far-flung as Afghanistan, Yemen, and Libya. And then there’s the question no one would have thought to ask back then: If we destroy that movement in Iraq and Syria, will another even more brutish group simply take its place, as the Islamic State did with al-Qaeda in Iraq? No candidate this time around even seems to grasp that these groups aren’t just problems in themselves, but symptoms of a broader Sunni-Shi’ite problem.

In the meantime, the one broad policy consensus to emerge is that we shouldn’t hesitate to unleash our air power and Special Operations forces and, with the help of local proxies, wreck as much stuff as possible. America has welcomed all comers to take their best shots in Syria and Iraq in the name of fighting the Islamic State. The ongoing effort to bomb it away has resulted in the destruction of cities that were still in decent shape in 2012, like Ramadi, Kobane, Homs, and evidently at some future moment Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, “in order to save” them. Four American presidents have made war in the region without success, and whoever follows Obama into the Oval Office will be number five. No questions asked.

What is your plan to right-size our military and what about downsizing the global mission?

Plan? Right-size? Here’s the reality four years after I asked that question: Absolutely no candidate, including the most progressive one, is talking about cutting or in any way seriously curtailing the U.S. military.

Not surprisingly, in response to the ongoing question of the year, “So how will you pay for that?” (in other words, any project being discussed from massive border security and mass deportations to free public college tuition), no candidate has said: “Let’s spend less than 54% of our discretionary budget on defense.”

Call me sentimental, but as I wrote in 2012, I’d still like to know from the candidates, “What will you do to right-size the military and downsize its global mission? Secondly, did this country’s founders really intend for the president to have unchecked personal war-making powers?”

Such questions would at least provide a little comic relief, as all the candidates except Bernie Sanders lock horns to see who will be the one to increase the defense budget the most.

Since no one outside our borders buys American exceptionalism anymore, what’s next? What is America’s point these days?

In 2012, I laid out the reality of twenty-first-century America this way: “We keep the old myth alive that America is a special, good place, the most ‘exceptional’ of places in fact, but in our foreign policy we’re more like some mean old man, reduced to feeling good about himself by yelling at the kids to get off the lawn (or simply taking potshots at them). Now, who we are and what we are abroad seems so much grimmer… America the Exceptional, has, it seems, run its course. Saber rattling… feels angry, unproductive, and without any doubt unbelievably expensive.”

Yet in 2016 most of the candidates are still barking about America the Exceptional despite another four years of rust on the chrome. Donald Trump may be the exceptional exception in that he appears to think America’s exceptional greatness is still to come, though quite soon under his guidance.

The question for the candidates in 2012 was and in 2016 remains “Who exactly are we in the world and who do you want us to be? Are you ready to promote a policy of fighting to be planetary top dog — and we all know where that leads — or can we find a place in the global community? Without resorting to the usual ‘shining city on a hill’ metaphors, can you tell us your vision for America in the world?”

The answer is a resounding no.

See You Again in 2020

The candidates have made it clear that the struggle against terror is a forever war, the U.S. military can never be big enough, bombing and missiling the Greater Middle East is now the American Way of Life, and the Constitution is indeed a pain and should get the hell out of the way.

Above all, no politician dares or cares to tell us anything but what they think we want to hear: America is exceptional, military power can solve problems, the U.S. military isn’t big enough, and it is necessary to give up our freedoms to protect our freedoms. Are we, in the perhaps slightly exaggerated words of one foreign commentator, now just a “nation of idiots, incapable of doing anything except conducting military operations against primitive countries”?

Bookmark this page. I’ll be back before the 2020 elections to see how we’re doing.

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  1. Teddy

    A grim picture of American politics indeed – one constitutionally-guaranteed right marks the line of a partisan divide and the only presidential candidate who remembers that the other ones even exist is a fringe politician whose claim to relevancy is his father. What happened to “Land of the Free”?

    1. pretzelattack

      stopping the war on terror? makes way too much money, and such a great excuse for so many things.

  2. pretzelattack

    seems to me a realistic attitude to mitigating climate change and a pro peace policy in the middle east go hand in hand. you can’t justify the oil based foreign policy that has wrecked the middle east and cost us so much, if you really want to move on from a fossil fuel based economy as quickly as we need to.

    1. Praedor

      That’s what I want to see from our “leadership” (I puked in my mouth even typing that with quotation marks). I want to see this country RUN away from oil, oil, oil and instead go full-bore into alternative energy. I want to get to a point where the attitude is “Oh, Saudi Arabia is falling into chaos again? Shame. Sucks to be them”, and leave it at that. In other words, WHO CARES what primitive territories in the Middle East are doing to each other and themselves? We don’t need to come running with our carriers and bombers and drones to secure anything because we just don’t need it anymore. LET Russia plow in if it wants the trouble of dealing with 13th century primitives. The upside would be that Israel also becomes totally irrelevant. Who CARES if Israel ceases to exist or is getting attacked. They serve no value to US “foreign policy” because we don’t give a crap about ME oil. Lots of good things come from moving as much into alternative energy sources (including truly modern nuclear and, someday, fusion – supposedly). We could simply quit worrying about oil country’s trials and tribulations.

    2. nowhere

      Agreed, and this is part of the nexus that will make both of these changes so difficult; they are inextricably linked.

  3. DakotabornKansan

    Tell us your vision for America in the world!!!

    “Why, lies are like a sticky juice overspreading the world, a living, growing flypaper to catch and gum the wings of every human soul … And the little helpless buzzings of honest, liberal, kindly people, aren’t they like the thin little noise flies make when they’re caught?” – John Dos Passos, One Man’s Initiation: 1917

    I weep and despair for civilization.

  4. equote

    Keep in mind that the media is about entertainment with the objective to sell advertising. The good of the country the world, and humanity is not an issue, elections, are now about money.

  5. 3.14e-9

    Re #2, Bernie Sanders indeed has spoken out against using terrorism as an excuse to undermine constitutional rights. I’ve heard him say it more than once. Can’t remember where or when, but a quick search turned up the following links:

    Bernie Sanders Shreds The Republicans Candidates For Promising To Undermine The Constitution, interview with Andrea Mitchell 12/16/2015 [found on PoliticsUSA]

    Strong speech in favor of protecting the right to privacy and Bill of Rights in general. Technically as a senator and not a presidential candidate, but he was officially running:

  6. John Merryman

    I wish that once, when someone gets asked, “Are we at war with Islam?” They would reply; No. Doesn’t anyone actually read the news? Islam is involved in a major civil war with itself and we are basically hecklers on the sidelines, throwing bottles at them and whine when one gets thrown back.
    Islam was one of the most successful political and social movements for its first 700 years, coasted on that for the next 700, had lots of oil money poured into its most fundamentalist and reactionary sectors for the last 100 and is in a real mess. But all we do is whine about how they don’t like us. GROW UP!

    1. James Levy

      It’s the reification of Islam that drives me nuts. Trump was stupid enough to say that “Islam hates us.” Huh? Islam? Might he mean Muslims? But that’s just crazy; millions of Muslims obviously don’t hate us, and some of them even look to us for help against the most reactionary and stupid elements in their own societies and cultures (help which, in order to appease or best buddies in Saudi Arabia, we often promise but never deliver). But, no, “Islam” hates us. This from a guy who has a better than even chance of being elected President of the United States (oh, but don’t worry the Clinton haters tell me, he’s lying about everything and you can’t take him seriously, but vote for him BECAUSE HILLARY). As Dakotabornkansan says up the stream, you just feel like weeping.

      1. MikeNY

        You’re both right, but what really gets me is the utter and absolute lack of self-reflection, the Hollywood narrative of pure good versus pure evil.

        We, of course, are pure good.

        1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

          We look at what we have done and, ask ourselves, what is our ‘message?’

          Is what Trump is saying different from that ‘message?’

          We have to remember that that ‘message’ has been already delivered with prematurely ended lives.

  7. Keith

    The war on terror continually creates more terrorists.

    Accidentally bombed innocents tend to ensure all their close friends and family become radicalized.

    I suppose it just increases exponentially until everyone is a terrorist and then it can stop.

    A ponzi scheme.

  8. Clive

    BBC is showing an abysmal documentary about Obama’s presidency at the moment. Honestly, I could weep. He whines and whines, then some beltway flunky comes on and tries to excuse all the failings (the above article documents them comprehensively).

    Obama comes across like The Little Engine that Would if Only it Wasn’t for Congress, Those Terrible Republican Hold-Outs, Russia, Iran, China, The High Price of Oil, The Low Price of Oil, Wall Street, Europe, The Mess Left by Bush, Only Ever Being Able to Find Odd Socks in the Draw (etc. etc. etc.)

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      It’s the socks that kill me. I’ll give him that one. Who says there is no such thing as magic?

  9. Brooklin Bridge

    Good article, a nice summary of where we are.

    It has been difficult watching Bernie thread the needle on where he can and can’t cross the line, difficult sometimes to wonder if he even sees that line or if his choice isn’t actually the establishment one in some instances.

    […]no candidate seems to find it worth his or her while to discuss protecting the Bill of Rights or the Constitution from the national security state.

    That one, for instance, has been disappointing in that it seems to beg for elaboration during some of the debates, as a way to distinguish himself (on the side of humanity) from Hillary, yet gets complete silence except for Bernie’s powerful insistence that the 99% are getting shafted economically. Strong as that is, it doesn’t speak to all of the horrific abuses, such as warrentless assassinations or the effective disappearance of the right of Habeas Corpus, or the unconstitutional and truly ominous degree of data gathering and analysis on innocent citizens going on under Obama.

    A few months before the campaign began in earnest, Counterpunch ran a bunch of articles perhaps overly negative – in the sense of ganging up – on Bernie; 1) His promise to support Hillary if nominated, 2) Letting himself be used, wittingly or not, as a sheep herder for Hillary 3) His tacit support (or lack of clear rejection) of American foreign policy in the middle east. Those articles did seem a bit over the top, as in a counterproductive effort to play to a cynical audience, but in other ways they raised legitimate issues (largely before the campaign started) that have been on peoples minds and that may have -at least one wonders- prevented Sanders from as compelling a confrontation with Clinton as might have been possible.

    Of course it’s easy to strategize from the rear, but this article again raises those questions. As to being the lessor by many country miles of any of the evils flying around our political stage, there was never any question. Even Chris Hedges (somewhat ungraciously) gave him that.

    As Gaius and Lambert have pointed out, Sanders is far from done, now is the time where he closes in on Clinton and unfortunately also the time when the media takes his name as a deeper state secret than HIllary’s top-most secret emails. The one single exception to that breathtakingly synchronized policy of silence on the part of all media, is for idiot pundits to claim that it’s over for Sanders and that he should now be helping Clinton to take the fight to the Republicans. Even Obama is getting in on the act.

    1. diptherio

      Bernie Sanders gave [Snowden] credit for “educating the American people” but still thought he deserved prison time.

      Enough reason there for me to turn my back on Bernie as well. Thinks whistleblowers deserve prison time, really? What about the people who were (and still are) violating the constitution, the people that Snowden exposed? Shouldn’t they be doing some prison time, Bernie? Jeezus. This is just too much. F Bernie. This is why candidate politics is a dead-end street, every time — you CANNOT depend on politicians, ever. Bernie’s been one most of his adult life, so why should we be surprised?

      1. TedWa

        No he never said Snowden deserved jail time. I saw that question asked. He said Snowden had committed crimes and deserved his day in court and that was all. It was in 1 of the townhalls. My immediate sense of what he said and the way he said it was that if he was President he would pardon him. I shouldn’t have to tell you, but don’t believe everything you read.

        1. MaroonBulldog

          Snowden deserves his day in court …. as a criminal defendant, do you mean? With life and liberty in jeopardy? That’s the only kind of day in the only kind of court awaiting him, under a Bernie presidency or any other; and so, whatever the words Bernie may seem to have said, that’s what they mean.

          1. TedWa

            Would a jury of his peers convict him knowing that he exposed what the government was doing behind our backs? Would you?

      2. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        Between Sanders and Jill Stein, many prefer the latter, but she is, alas, less electable.

        Now that it seems the path is getting less clear, after Ohio and this past Tuesday, it’s important to believe it is still possible for Bernie to get the nomination.

        1. Brooklin Bridge

          I’m making that point as clear as possible to friends and acquaintances. Word of mouth may be literally the only way to do so.

      3. FluffytheObeseCat

        “Enough reason there for me to turn my back on Bernie”

        Conrad Black is Canada’s Donald Trump. Or would have been, if they hadn’t jailed his ass and derailed his progress towards monarchy some years back. Be careful of giving him too much credit for publishing an intermittently sensible essay in his paper.

        He was very careful to refrain from insulting the Donald. He was quite honest about his expectations and his reading of our current situation seemed sharp & accurate. That however, is the end of it.

        Black’s pronouncement that 90% of Americans won’t accept Sanders’ “Marxist” prescriptions for solving our problems displays a stunning ignorance of how labile our society is, and how little our young resemble the sad-assed cult-followers of the Baby Boom era.

        And as mentioned above, he lied about Sander’s words — with the same splendid disregard for truth as the Donald.

        1. Stephen Gardner

          Excellent point. The Conrad Black essay was an excellent example of antisocialist propaganda. Things are really bad but even an exponent of socialism lite like Bernie is unacceptable because Marx.

    2. TedWa

      It was really aggravating to me that questions came up about Bernie’s loyalties when he is running totally on small donations and refuses money from super-pacs and Wall St. Sheepdog? Hell no, never. But these pundits that have unjustly disparaged Bernie may have created a sheepdog effect in that many Bernie voters will not vote for HRC and may well vote for Trump, the only other candidate not taking money from Wall St. The anti-Wall St and corporate money in politics sentiments are strong in this country and that’s why both are the choice of the silent and angry majority. Personally, I want to see either party destroyed by a win by Sanders or Trump. If it can’t be Sanders – then guess who. I don’t want Trump and Bernie is going to get my monthly contributions to the very end. I really hope he wins.

      1. Robert Coutinho

        Hey, there’s a good idea (snark–in case you missed it)! Instead of putting in someone beholden to billionaires; let’s put in the billionaire himself!

        1. TedWa

          It’s either going to have to get worse before it gets better – or, the worst is over and it will get better. What do you think?

  10. John Wright

    I have suggested before on Dean Baker’s Beat the Press that a way to handle USA foreign terrorism threat is to treat it as a condition that cannot be solved/eliminated.

    My suggestion is to have a US government grant, at no cost, a “Death by Foreign Terrorist” life insurance policy to all US citizens.

    Imagine if HBS educated MBA George W Bush had announced after 9-11, “In the future, if any US citizen is killed by a certified (by a government panel) foreign terrorist on US soil, their estate would receive 10 million dollars, free of US Federal taxes”.

    If this had been made retroactive to 9-11 to all the people killed directly or indirectly, the initial payout would have been roughly 30 billion dollars.

    Spy agencies, including the CIA and NSA were awarded $52.6 billion per WaPo on Feb 2, 2015, this did not include $23 billion for military intelligence programs.

    If this roughly $75 billion total spend were reduced by half, the USA would have about 37.5 billion EVERY year to cover terrorism death claims.

    And the military budget could have been left untouched.

    With this insurance policy in place, and the restriction that there was no coverage on non-US soil, American business adventures in foreign countries would have gotten more risky, perhaps preserving American jobs.

    Assuming the “Death by Foreign Terrorist on US soil” life insurance policy were handled by a wise insuring agency, who would not spend a vast fortune attempting to minimize its potential loss by conducting foreign military and surveillance operations costing trillions of dollars, the USA would have tremendous resources available for infrastructure repair, free/reduced tuition at public universities, and public health improvement.

    This could still be done.

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      A good bet too. Death by terrorist is apparently less likely, by far, than being struck by lightening. That said, there is something about the optics of turning such events into a state sponsored lottery that – while granted is TRULY American in every possible respect – still jars.

  11. Benedict@Large

    The simple fact is that more and more of our politics is becoming off limits to the general population. As this article well shows, foreign policy has probably been off limits the longest, where we Americans are not even informed anymore of what’s going on in that sphere but for the occasional, “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

    Now with the Clinton ascendency, economics is more and more entering the realm of off limits. We’re being told everything social has to go; that we can’t afford it, but no one is saying why a government that can print at will its own money can’t ever not afford anything.

    We are being left with whether we like the people next door (probably not) as our politics. In other words, we are being left with nothing but the scraps to claw over.

    Oh, and that we are exceptional.

    1. James Levy

      Joan Didion among others pointed out that after 9/11 the American people in general wanted to talk and they wanted to learn; the political class wanted to act, which meant stifling talk, learning, or thought. It was media and government that stampeded us into the Global War on Terror, and the anthrax attack(?) that quieted the populace and ended any chance at informed debate. We were at war! We were under attack! We needed Jack Bauer and FOX News to torture us some of them evil ragheads and Keep Us Safe (TM).

      Was this organized propaganda? Yes, illegally directed at us, not some real or mythical enemy. Was it “for our own good”? No, it was not. Did they have the precedent of FDR lying to us about aid to Britain and what our Navy was doing in the Atlantic in the eight months before Pearl Harbor to ram down our throats? Yes, but in retrospect that, like Lincoln’s unconstitutional actions, was bad, not good–because actions that in the short-term may look inviting have long-term implications that can prove deadly. The North faced no existential crisis in 1862 (although the Union did), the US did not face an existential crisis in 1941, nor did it after 9/11. The enemies in each case were too weak to threaten the destruction of the United States (the Cuban Missile Crisis was an existential threat, however, so they can occur, and Kennedy did a good job of extricating us from it without resort to total craziness and a heightened Cold War). However, the people in charge tend to exaggerate every threat, have little historical knowledge and less sound judgment, and are certain beyond any doubt that they know better than the people do and have not only a right but an obligation to lie to us at the drop of a hat “for our own good.” The results we see around us.

      1. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

        It’s nice to posit that the guiding dynamic is well-meaning people in positions of power thinking about hard problems and how to solve them. Yes they do some of that. But my view (and Occam’s) is that our nation’s operating system now has but a single top-level command line: “How to Profit?”. All actions then simply derive down that system path.

        C;//Need oil to make profit? Goto: Make war
        C://Need people to make war to make profit? Goto: Make war narrative
        C://Need more profit making war machinery? Goto: Purchase politician and pass free trade bill

        I think we turned a corner with Reagan, when America adopted the philosophy “just give business everything they want at every turn and it will eventually be kind of good for people too”. Every society chooses a balance between Capital and Labor and we have pegged the needle on the Capital side of the dial for several decades.
        The article asks “What is America’s point these days?” and I don’t even think you need a word to answer that question: $
        It’s a very powerful point and has many benefits, but better Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness for 99% of the citizens is just a possible side-effect of how the operating system computes, it is not the problem being solved for.

  12. McWatt

    I’ve got one more question to ask at the Republican debate:

    Raise your hand if you believe the earth is only four thousand years old and dinosaur bones were inserted
    in the fossil record by the devil to test our faith?

  13. susan the other

    I appreciate these questions even if they are pointless. They all want the same answer. The global answer (pun intended). And we like the subject because war is our national passtime. A better question, because it breaks away from this endless circle of discussions about the confusing results of not recognizing the problem, is to ask our dear candidates about preservation of the environment. War has always been fought for the gains. Nobody fights for the losses. Funny that war has become so efficient and devastating that it virtually wipes out the gains. As in nuclear winter, etc. But to discuss something as basic as dividing up the world’s resources equitably could preclude war altogether. When little George dragged us into Iraq he told us exactly what was up: I’m not going to let a loose cannon like Saddam control something so critical as world oil supplies. And here we still are. Where is the statesmanship? And where, for god’s sake, are the republicans on global warming??

    1. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

      I think they realized long ago that the purpose of war is no longer to get spoils, the war making itself IS the spoils.

      1. MaroonBulldog

        Karl Marx wrote some journalistic dispatches in 1851, or thereabouts, in which he argued that the British Empire was a losing economic proposition for Britain as a wholes society, but it was a winning economic proposition for the ruling classes within that society, whose members dervied their careers and captured the economic benefits of the money Britain spent on maintaining the empire. (Contrary to Lenin’s thesis in “Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism” which seems un-Marxian in this respect–Lenin thought imperialism enriched the metropolis as a whole and so delayed the day of revolution). Instead of taxing the people at home, and transferring the wealth directly upward to people at home, the British Empire cycled the boodle through distant places like India, the better to conceal the domestic fraud, oppression, and exploitation that was taking place. In short, exploiting peoples abroad was not the independent aim of policy, but was the instrument of the policy to exploit the people at home.

        The American Military-Industrial Complex, the whole administrative procurement state, works along the same lines: it is a transfer of wealth in the form of useful resources, from taxpayers and consumers, and people in need, to, well, the merchants of death in American society. America’s empire abroad, which might ironically be called “pax americana” (ironic, because there is no pax) exists because America’s merchants of death need a place to dump the only final product their fraud produces, and to keep dumping it, as their economy demands that it be constantly produced. The fraud depends, then, on provoking some unspeakable indignity by persons in “faraway places with strange sounding names” to justify raining death down upon them. When in truth, raining death upon them was the foreordained object of the exercise, and the unspeakable indignity was provoked, if it occurred at all.

        Why does America need to control world oil supplies, and so control the MIddle East? Because the American war machine runs on world oil supplies: oil not only powers the engines of war, it also powers the factories that manufacture the engines of war, and the extractive industries the mine the resources consumed in their manufacture. America needs to go to war … so it can control the supply of oil … so it can go to war … so it can control the supply of oil … so it can go to war …. ad infinitum, ad absurdum, ad nauseam.

        Remember Adam Smith, who made the point: governments don’t raise taxes so they can raise armies; governments raise armies so they can raise taxes. Actually, they raise armies so they can raise taxes so they can raise armies so they can raise taxes …. but I repeat myself.

        So the complete cycle comes to be understood: foreign wars serve a domestic purpose–the enrichment of purveyors of war, and their maintenance as a ruling class in the domestic society.

        1. susan the other

          Of course I agree with all of this above – but I also think that since we know it takes lots of energy to run a military, we think it might be prudent to control that energy so nobody else can get it. China perhaps. The Wolfowitz doctrine. Unfortunately none of this looks very prudent. Compared to actual solutions for the planet. I keep remembering a Russian movie I saw (in Germany, not here) entitled Papa Luna in 2000. About how controlling all the tinpot dictators around the Caspian protecting their oil interests was a circus, pure lunacy. That social chaos has existed for a century there and nobody has been able to channel it into something better. So since we are on the brink of a climate disaster there is no time to lose. Maybe. War and the climate are now closely linked whether we see it or not. And the kicker? War pollution is absolutely devastating to the planet/climate.

  14. meeps

    While I agree with the concerns raised in this article, it’s simply false to say that no candidate in 2012 or 2016 was trying to tackle these issues.

    In 2012, Jill Stein campaigned to stop the “endless wars for oil.” At that time, she held that drone killings were a major problem. She decried the notion the US should be the world police and wanted to end US military aid to Israel. She’d have cut military spending by half in 2012 with the express intention of redirecting the expenditure toward student loan debt relief, Health Care for All and the Green New Deal. These are the policy positions of the 2016 campaign, too. In addition to being progressive on both foreign and domestic policy, the Green Party is the only party that doesn’t take corporate money and is INTERNATIONAL in scope. If people don’t want to take the Green Party or their candidates seriously, that is their prerogative. But don’t deny its/their existence.

    President Obama supported a trillion dollar investment in the US nuclear and weapons program. How much war does the US need to wage just to use up old inventory? Gross.

    1. MaroonBulldog

      “President Obama supported a trillion dollar investment in the US nuclear and weapons program.”

      Resources consumed to devise and procure nuclear weapons do not amount to “investment” in my book–I would call such expenditures a waste. But then, I’m not the president, so I labor under no compulsion to lie when characterizing such things.

  15. TheCatSaid

    Important post–thank you to Peter Van Buren.

    Regarding several of these questions, the live broadcast on TheRealNews of today’s conference on the influence of Israel had many outstanding presentations touching on these topics.

    (E.g., Jim Lobe on the origins & development of neoconservatism–amazingly clear, succinct analysis; Palestinian activist Tareq Radi sharing information about what approaches they have found to be successful in the initially hostile organizing environment of George Mason University; and many more).

    Transcript and video will be posted online.

  16. John Wright

    Perhaps none other than Hermann Goering cynically stated the power of leaders to influence the population into going to war.

    “Why, of course, the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter
    in Germany.”

    “That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship. The people can always be brought to the bidding
    of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

    Hermann Goering, a Nazi official second in command to Hitler, as quoted in Nuremberg Diary by Gustave Gilbert (1947)

    And that was published almost 70 years ago.

    1. MaroonBulldog

      “Exiled Thucydides knew
      All that a speech can say
      About Democracy,
      And what dictators do,
      The elderly rubbish they talk
      To an apathetic grave;
      Analysed all in his book,
      The enlightenment driven away,
      The habit-forming pain,
      Mismanagement and grief:
      We must suffer them all again.”

      W. H. Auden, “September 1, 1939”

      Who is our modern Pericles? Was it President George W. Bush, who conflated the United States Government with the Savior of the World in his 9/11 speech that plagiarized the Gospel According to John? (“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”).

        1. Stephen Gardner

          I think he left out the best part:
          “Accurate scholarship can
          Unearth the whole offence
          From Luther until now
          That has driven a culture mad,
          Find what occurred at Linz,
          What huge imago made
          A psychopathic god:
          I and the public know
          What all schoolchildren learn,
          Those to whom evil is done
          Do evil in return.”

          This strikes me as the explanation for not just WWII but also Israeli behavior in Palestine. Those to to whom is done do evil in return. . .

  17. Fiver

    As noted in my comment on a previous piece:

    we appear to have arrived at something resembling a short-term US detente in that portion of the War on Terror that involves Syria. This tentative working arrangement affords a crucial opportunity for the US to begin to re-orient itself away from the pathological ideology that has driven its actions since the collapse of the Soviet counter-weight, the event which gave birth to the soaring imaginations of the neocons, neoliberals, universalist imperialists, militarists, global banks and the entire cast of titans of asymmetric power enabled by what Toffler aptly termed the Third Wave (or Industrial Revolution) to consider the world – all of it, the entire Village – subject to an English-speaking, America-centred, fantastically corrupted, increasingly fascist corporate regime.

    If this opportunity is not taken, if the US post-Obama cannot bear to live with the notion of shared power and responsibility, of acknowledging and respecting core elements of other nations’ sovereignty, including their legitimate interests (note: if TPP dies, look back to now and ask what China demanded for its considerable trouble) well then, it will come to war almost certainly aimed at taking out one or both of the last 2 ‘Islamic’ nations standing.

    Just maybe the balance among TPTB in Washington and Wall Street has finally sensed danger . If not:

    I saw an excellent documentary on the Khmer Empire and the crowning achievement of its civilization – an enormous expanse that, completed, was a combined water control & irrigation engineering project, a major city, and a temple construction program like no other, producing the spectacular Angkor Wat among many others. The entire complex depended on ingenious hydraulic engineering and construction techniques it took hundreds of years to perfect.

    At peak, Khmer civilization worked like one huge, well-oiled machine. Then something happened. According to this doc, it is believed they were hit by a weather event they had not imagined – an extended drier period. In response, the ‘leadership’ dug a relief canal from one of their enormous reservoirs straight through the city. The weather, though, reverted, and subsequent torrential rains and flood so rapidly eroded the bottom of this quick-fix canal its level was well below grade for the entire irrigation/drinking system and in one fell swoop they were done – a civilization on a par with anything else in the world at the time, or prior, abandoned or even forgot the fundamental understanding of their world that had guided them in building it in precisely the way they had. Or the King and the temple elite knowingly took a risk on a cheap canal to fix a problem those gigantic reservoirs had been built to fix forever. They could’ve stopped building temples and started hauling water – but they didn’t.

    Just maybe some sort of consciousness has developed in TPTB in Washington and New York that has finally apprehended that the trajectory was and is dangerously close to disaster and enough political maturity existed to avoid a more serious engagement nobody could control. It would be quite an achievement now for the US, for Obama, and for Dems if this opportunity is genuinely seized rather than allowing the neocons, the permanent war machine et al to have back at it for the promised second 15 of ‘the thirty year war on terror’ as soon as Obama’s gone. How they knew it would be 30 years only a couple days in ought to tell us something.

    Fingers crossed.

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