When the going gets weird, the weird go pro. (Hunter Thompson)
For weeks, I’ve been reading New York Times stories that, as a military veteran of the anti-war movement for the past 35 years, really blow my mind. For one thing, President Trump is in a domestic, political war with what he and his allies call “the deep state” — a conspiratorial construction that comes out of the far left. To really understand the true weirdness of the moment, one has to appreciate what it means to feel like a Cassandra in the anti-war movement. Cassandra was a mythic Greek character who spurned the sexual advances of Apollo, who in this case was the Harvey Weinstein of Greek mythology. Cassandra was a serious person with serious things to say. The ego-bruised Apollo proceeded to get revenge by pulling strings as a god so that, in the future, Cassandra would have the power of truthful prophecy but — and this is the kicker — no one would pay any attention to her. Today we’d say her voice was marginalized, the condition the antiwar left has been relegated to in the United States since the Vietnam War.
[A recent conference on the immorality of drone warfare held by the Coalition For Peace Action in Princeton a block away from Albert Einstein’s house. In the 1930s, along with great minds like Sigmund Freud, Einstein tried futilely to figure out how to put the brakes on the rise of violence that led to World War Two. Photo by John Grant.]
Over the past few months President Donald Trump has unilaterally by Tweet and telephone begun to dismantle US military involvement in the Middle East. The irony is amazing, because in a general, overarching narrative sense, this is what the marginalized antiwar movement has been trying to do for decades. Of course, it’s an act of violence to do this by unannounced fiat after a debacle has been running full speed on empty for decades; sitting on his bed at dawn dictating to “his generals” with the grace and intelligence of the proverbial bull in a china shop is not prudent or compassionate foreign policy reform.
Peace and Justice is what drives the anti-war movement in its advocacy of alternatives to war and violence in places like the Middle East and SW Asia; the point is, in the long run, diplomacy is better than shock & awe bombing campaigns. On the other hand, Mr. Trump is driven by Power and Greed, often on a personal basis. If the anti-war left had had more say in US foreign policy, there would have been no invasion of Afghanistan or Iraq; the Taliban and Saddam Hussein would have had to survive — or perish — on their own. Despite what the war-mongers might say, no one can know how things would have turned out if a more thoughtful policy had been applied. Certainly, something should have been done to address the downing of the World Trade Towers. But such long-term-stupid debacles? There had to be a better, more constructive way.
Trump’s Middle East/SW Asia withdrawal is still a work in process. Who can really know what goes on under that wispy head of orange hair? Consistency is not the man’s strength, though it may be the source of some of his power to shock and confuse. The Times reported that Saudi Arabia is so troubled by the US pulling back militarily that it’s ready to open talks with Iran, theirs bitterest enemy. Until that story, talking seemed out of the question; so that may be a good outcome from Trump’s ending endless wars. The Saudis asked the governments of Pakistan and Iraq to intercede with Iran to open such talks. This comes at a time the royal government of Saudi Arabia realizes it must diversify from oil or lose much of its economic power. Prince and de-facto King Mohammed bin Salmon, of course, is internationally known as the cold-blooded butchering murderer of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, an accomplishment that should put him, at the very least, on the US sanctions list. Israel’s Netanhyahu also sees the writing on the wall and is savvy to the slippage of US military power in the region, to the point he’s met at least nine times with Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
This shifting is full of ironies. While Trump is pulling US troops out of the US debacles in Afghanistan and Syria, where he’s hanging the Kurds, a US ally, out to dry, he’s sending additional troops into Saudi Arabia. But that’s not inconsistent with Mr. Trump’s stated desire to end endless wars, because, he says, the rich Bedouins who control the Saudi peninsula with a bloody iron hand will be paying us for our troops. This would seem to be a Trump Doctrine of sorts. It doesn’t count as an “endless war” if our troops are mercenaries that don’t cost US taxpayers a dime and maybe can bring in a little profit. US soldiers as investment stooges.
Let’s be clear: President Trump is not an anti-war activist. All the ending of endless-wars stuff only makes sense if you subscribe to the idea that, with the ever-increasing domination of human activity by computers and the internet, we’re entering a brave new age where we can’t see the forest for the trees. Warfare is changing, and wars between huge armies seem to be a thing of past centuries. Future wars promise to be cyber wars involving hacking into communication systems and interfering with infrastructure, etc, in a globalized cyber world. Unfortunately, we can count on human fear and ingenuity to continue to come up with ever more creative ways to kill people and make their lives miserable. Since everybody is now a capitalist, future wars will be struggles over markets and innovation fought to a greater and greater extent in the nebulous, cloudy cyber world. In conjunction with cyber warfare, violence will be more quick and secret via special ops or paramilitary raids. Ever more sophisticated lethal drones and weaponry yet to be imagined based on robotics and artificial intelligence are inevitable. For instance, Fox News’ Sean Hannity is fine with Trump’s pulling back from the Middle East and has said he is four-score behind more and more lethal drones to assure America remains exceptional.
All this is going on in a world witnessing an amazing rise of authoritarianism, along with the rise of tribalism and religious identification. Suddenly it all begins to make sense. Vladimir Putin is the unquestioned, poker-faced master of this new world order that feels like it’s consuming us all as we’re individually bedazzled by the nifty-ness of it all. No wonder the narcissist gangster Trump adores Mr. Putin the way he does. It’s why he can so easily screw the Kurds without telling anyone, following a chummy, private telephone chat with Turkey’s despot Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It’s why he loves flagrant killers like Rodrigo Dutarte in the Phillipines and anti-democratic leaders like Viktor Orban in Hungary. It’s why he gets along with the preposterous Kim Jung Un in North Korea. The list continues to grow. A second term could seal the deal for the death of democracy in the land of Thomas Jefferson.
Some have suggested what Trump and Putin et al are working toward is a future of dominant nations not unlike the European colonial world of the 17th century into the 20th century. The autocrat’s dream is a 21st Century neo-colonialism or neo-imperialism centered on the cyber world where powerful nations carve up and exploit weaker nations. Call it a post-nation-state cyber manifest destiny where the narcissistic, big-swinging-dicks of the world cut deals with each other as to who gets what weak nation to dominate — not unlike gangsters in a Scorcese movie meeting over spaghetti and big cigars to carve up a city for their criminal syndicates.
President Trump didn’t dream up this new, new world order, and it has nothing to do with whatever malignant brilliance the man may have. Trump is a symptom of a larger dynamic that includes post-WWII US decline, a condition his leadership only makes worse. Some on the left may rejoice over his monkey-wrench-in-the-system reality. Some talking head recently observed that Donald Trump’s world before the White House was actually very small, and until he was surprisingly elevated to the White House, he could use his dark magic to prevail deal by deal, lying, cheating, grabbing women, refusing to pay for labor services, employing gangster tactics to crush lawsuits and making money out of bankruptcy. The White House, on the other hand, is an incredibly complex operation. It reminds me of The Peter Principle by Lawrence Peter, a 1969 management bestseller. Peter’s thesis was that it’s logical that in any organization one is promoted for his or her competence to a level of incompetence, at which point one remains un-promoted in position. Taken to its logical extreme, it meant the world was run largely by incompetents.
At times like this it’s nice to recall that great Marine General Smedley Butler who wrote in his little book “War Is a Racket” that in Central America and elsewhere he had been a gangster for the Brown Brothers Bank in New York. “I could have taught Al Capone a thing or two,” he wrote. Ponder a 21st century General Butler before the scales fell from his eyes, armed with sophisticated special-ops and drone operations and following orders from a Trump White House, killing and destroying things via cyber hacking, drones and anonymous special ops or paramilitary killers. It’s how Putin’s Russia took control of Crimea and the eastern part of Ukraine; the troops were clearly Russian, but they wore no insignia. Wink. Wink. Gee, we don’t have any idea who those guys are. Trump must sit home alone in his bedroom fondling his i-phone wishing so hard he can taste it that he could lie like a simpering Vladimir Putin and no one like the fake news NY Times would have the guts to call him on it. No doubt Mr. Trump also wishes he could send out low-crawling tough guys to poison fake-news reporters. In his desperate mind, he seems to be inching in that direction: The other day, one of his lawyers actually argued in court that if The President were to murder someone on 5th Avenue, no cop had the authority to stop him.
In order to establish the parameters of such an un-democratic world order — and to become a powerful, sociopathic leader in this new order — Trump has to clear the deck of all the “endless,” old-order wars like Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. That is, the wars dreamed up and prosecuted by what we on the left used to call the deep state — before Trump and Sean Hannity stole the term and the left was left without a conspiracy theory to flog.
Trump and Putin’s authoritarian world is a zero-sum place made up of winners or losers. It’s not personal: The Kurds are just losers in the new game. It’s unfortunate, because they’re nice people. But the Kurds didn’t help us at Normandy, something maybe they should have thought more about, then. It’s not our fault Turkey is a strong, ambitious power hungry to re-establish its Ottoman Empire and be a big-swinging-dick in the new, new world order. It’s time to lead or knuckle under to The Power.
If this malignant vision is real, it would seem a propitious moment for those who still hold a soft spot for democracy in the United States to keep their eyes on that prize and gird for the fight. It’s important to get the 2020 election right by being pragmatic, doing things to assure the integrity of the vote and by educating Americans about the effects of toxic corruption in the real world and in the social media world. A new dedication to the eternal verities, while ignoring the swarm phenomenon of our burgeoning i-phone world, would be a good place to start. Corruption is at such a saturation point that it may require an inoculation effect; that is, fighting the corruption disease by accepting a small dose of corruption in everyone as a pragmatic reality.
This may not do the Kurds and other elements deemed by the new colonialists as “losers” much good; they may just have to retreat and lick their wounds in preparation for another day when they’d be advised to avoid United Stares military aid like the plague. Meanwhile, it behooves us on the responsible left to do our best to help fashion a re-formed United States of America that turns its back on old or new colonial ambitions. Again, this involves wising up Americans via things like better critical thinking curricula in school that present arguments and facts on the rotten legacies of Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and the very idea of an Endless War. We can still have Veterans Day and all that, but the holiday’s meaning would shift so costly military debacles could be avoided in the future. Veterans For Peace and Full Disclosure have been honorably doing this for decades. Finally, let’s not forget there’s institutions like the United Nations and the World Court that need to be re-invigorated with a newly inspired mission. There’s no reason a future US president and congress couldn’t take up this cause and push for things like the international regulation of drone warfare and putting checks on ravenous nations preying on weak, succulent nations.
[Iraq veteran Essam Attia speaks to the attendees of the recent drone conference. He organizes creative protests complete with mock-up drones in places like the sidewalk near the United Nations in New York. At the conference, the point was made over and over that it’s a matter of time before lethal drones arrive in the airspace over communities like yours. Now’s the time to begin to regulate them. Photo by John Grant.]
Managing such a crazy world is complex, serious and dangerous business, especially in the 21st Century. The pragmatic anti-war left I’ve been part of for decades as one of its many Cassandras never advocated isolationism for the United States; what we wanted was to stop the bombings and to, instead, pursue non-violent means of solving problems; pure pacifism is a noble dream, but it’s a dream. The fact Donald Trump mouths some of these ideas doesn’t change the fact he’s a dangerous man who needs to be driven to ground by impeachment or election.
In the end, I’m hoping Trump’s malignant legacy is recognized across the land as so rotten it’ll be like rich compost out of which good things can grow and thrive.