Trump wants to increase funding for the least effective federal department

Sam Smith – Before the debate begins over Trump’s plan to increase spending by the Defense Department it is worth noting that the Pentagon is about the least effective agency in the federal government. Since World War II it has fought only one clearly effective war – the invasion of Grenada in 1983,a Caribbean island with a population of about 91,000. Even in this case, however, the The United Nations General Assembly, subsequently voted 108 to 9 that the invasion was a “a flagrant violation of international law”.

Some might add the overthrow of Panama’s Noriega to this exceedingly short list but as Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St Clair pointed out, “The US put the bankers back in power after the invasion. Noriega’s involvement in drug trafficking had been trivial compared to theirs… The greatest irony of all is that, under the US-installed successor to Noriega, Guillermo Endara, Panama became the province of the Cali cartel, which rushed in after the Medellin cartel was evicted along with Noriega. By the early 1990s, Panama’s role in the Latin American drug trade and its transmission routes to the US had become more crucial than ever.”

The rise of boutique warfare

Sam Smith

As a general rule, I like to have a little time to get ready for the next global crisis. Stuff like deciding which side I’m on, how to pronounce the participants’ names and so forth. While I know some people get turned on by rapid developments, and it does save Wolf Blitzer from having to spend so much on Viagra, but for others it’s a bit like turning into the wrong movie theater auditorium and finding huge pink and orange monsters leaping at you when you expected to find a reflective Judy Dench.

I know sometimes – as with 9/11 – it can be a little difficult to forecast these things, but I gather, just for example, that Hillary Clinton was stirring up the Ukraine thing back when she was Secretary of State and the CIA was secretly encouraging various protests in Venezuela. They forgot to tell us.

Even George Bush gave us more days to think about invading Iraq. And there was a time – way back in the early 1940s- when a president actually went to Congress and got it to declare war before we found ourselves involved in a major international conflict. But observing the constitutional requirement went out of style and our presidents increasingly acted like the people we were supposed to be horrified by.

The Vietnam disaster was a real blow: Nearly 60,000 American deaths for reasons no one could adequately explain. But the cutback in deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan didn’t work either. In part, a younger generation had come to see war as an electronic game to play rather than a reality in which to perish.

Now Barack Obama sits on a sofa watching David Letterman as he decides during commercials which wedding in Pakistan to disrupt with drones, The front line and the Iron Curtain have disappeared – instead, and unnoted in the media, we now have troops in 150 countries. Meanwhile the State Department and CIA search for surrogate victims – aka protestors – to bring down regimes it doesn’t like. And even the Pentagon is adapting.

William Hartung of the Center for international Policy notes:

“Secretary of Defense Hagel said that we should no longer size U.S. military forces to engage in ‘prolonged conflicts’ like those in Iraq and Afghanistan. In doing so, he was essentially acknowledging the fact that spending trillions of dollars and losing thousands of lives in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not made anyone safer. The majority of Americans understand this, and won’t support similar interventions any time soon.”

The downside of the rise in boutique warfare is that we no longer know which battles we’re about to enter and nobody asks us what we think about it. And so the same crowd that invented such screw-ups as Obamacare and Common Core gets to endanger America’s future however and whenever it wants.

On the plus side, boutique warfare can result in far fewer deaths. But given the nearly one hundred percent failure in judgment of those who have chosen our conflicts over the past half century, you really don’t want Hillary Clinton and Zig Brzezinski helping to create a potentially disasterous conflict with Russia without at least a few public opinions, say, from real Ukraine experts.

Iraq, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Libya, Syria, Ukraine.

They sound more like destinations for the British empire in its final days rather than displays of American exceptionalism.

The problem with boutique warfare is not only that it is bad strategy, unconstitutional and has the potential to explode into far more serious conflict, it is designed by those who have an extraordinary record of error.

They are, thus, not only dumb but dumb and dangerous, and that’s a deadly combination.

War as office politics

Sam Smith

Watching Wolf Blitzer shortly before Obama launched his Libyan Whatever It Is, it occurred to me that two of the most profound commentaries on American politics these days are The Office and Parks & Recreation. Someone was trying to explain to Blitzer how there was going to be a bifurcated military operation, with one loyal to the rules of the UN and NATO and the other apparently serving whatever the White House wanted on a particular day. The headquarters for these two operations would be separate and the question politely implied was: how are we going to prevent these two operations from killing each other?

I tried to remember another time when anyone had even suggested such a masochistic military maze, but then I realized these are no ordinary times. These are times when thought is merely a choice of trendy abstractions, where purpose is just a slogan, and all policy must be filtered, twisted and often disappeared into an institutional swamp that no one really understands.

To a Washington operative these days, having two poorly coordinated and potentially conflicting military operations is no different that having an energy secretary and an energy czar. After all, you need one for the Constitution and the other for the White House.

Or in the Parks & Recreation version:

Leslie: Please remember, this is a government project. So, we need to refrain from corporate promotion and religious items. Who’d like to start?

Man: I think we should put in the Bible.

Leslie: Great.

But then Leslie, most White House czars and cabinet secretaries aren’t as well equipped with deadly weapons as the military, where directive confusion can not only prove controversial but fatal.

A few days ago, Charles Krauthhammer attempted an update:

“Let’s see how that paper multilateralism is doing. The Arab League is already reversing itself, criticizing the use of force it had just authorized. . . Russia’s Vladimir Putin is already calling the Libya operation a medieval crusade. China is calling for a cease-fire in place. . . As of this writing, Britain wanted the operation to be led by NATO. France adamantly disagreed, citing Arab sensibilities. Germany wanted no part of anything, going so far as to pull four of its ships from NATO command in the Mediterranean. France and Germany walked out of a NATO meeting on Monday, while Norway had planes in Crete ready to go but refused to let them fly until it had some idea who is running the operation. And Turkey, whose prime minister four months ago proudly accepted the Gadhafi International Prize for Human Rights, has been particularly resistant to the Libya operation from the beginning. And as for the United States, who knows what American policy is? Administration officials insist we are not trying to bring down Gadhafi, even as the president insists that he must go. Although on Tuesday Obama did add “unless he changes his approach.”

We keep trying to describe these things in terms of politics, policy and grand intellectual schemes. And it drives us away from a simpler but uglier truth: we are all trapped in a gigantic Parks & Recreation Department and all politics has become office politics.

Which is why one of the more profound analyses of the Libyan situation was this from the British Guardian:

“One observer of Anglo-American military adventures over the last 20 years tried to make light of the impasse. “It’s a bit like a barn dance,” the source said of the efforts to decide whether and how NATO would run the operation. “Half of the people can’t dance, a couple are drunk and then there’s always the characters at the back with their hands up various skirts.”

The little green men

Sam Smith

According to the Washington Post, “The Marine Corps’ top general suggested Tuesday that allowing gays to serve openly in the military could result in more casualties because their presence on the battlefield would pose “a distraction.”

||||| “When your life hangs on the line,” said Gen. James F. Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, “you don’t want anything distracting. . . . Mistakes and inattention or distractions cost Marines’ lives.” In an interview with newspaper and wire service reporters at the Pentagon, Amos was vague when pressed to clarify how the presence of gays would distract Marines during a firefight. But he cited a recent Defense Department survey in which a large percentage of Marine combat veterans predicted that repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law would harm “unit cohesion” and their tight-knit training for war. “So the Marines came back and they said, “Look, anything that’s going to break or potentially break that focus and cause any kind of distraction may have an effect on cohesion,” he said. |||||

One of the things I have always suspected about Marines is that more than a few have substantial masculine insecurity that they hide under the cover of military bravado. Certainly the amount of time and effort they spend trying to impress other men, rather than women, seems curious.

I’m not the first to have noticed this, although it has yet made the mainstream coverage of the gays in the military issue. For example, writes the Midwest Book Review, in The Masculine Marine: Homoeroticism in the U.S. Marine Corps, “Steven Zeeland elicits astonishingly candid responses from a diverse sampling of Marines to questions about aspects of this rarely documented subculture. Their answers shed light on homoerotic bonding among Marines, hazing and institutional violence, sexual stereotypes of Marines in gay culture, how gay Marines reconcile their sexual identity with the ethos of ‘hard’ Marine supermasculinity, Marines in all-male pornography, how Marines feel about being viewed as sex objects, and male attitudes about women in the Marine Corps.”

In the book, Zeeland even quotes gays  complaining about the homosexual skill of Marines and what disappointing partners they are. Which, when you include their divorce rate, makes them sound like bi-sexual losers.

In the Coast Guard, we were also involved in activities that involved some risk, but the cultural and verbal treatment of this risk was markedly different from the Marine mythology. In fact, braggadocio made you suspect.

As I once wrote: “The sea seems determined to force men to fight it with their bare hands. It is a teacher of humility, an enforcer of respect, a revealer of fraud. It is indifferent to paper distinctions between men, without regard for fine words, and contemptuous of the niceties of society. Those who live with the sea will probably always be a bit different and those who go to sea in ships and boats as small as the Coast Guard’s especially so. As Joseph Conrad put it, ‘Of all the living creatures upon land and sea, it is ships alone that cannot be taken in by barren pretenses.'”

Which may help to explain why we used to call the Marines “the little green men.”

General Amos’ confession – which it was – more than an argument – that gays on the battlefield would be a distraction for Marines is, I suppose, something worth dealing with if true. But the best resolution would be therapy and not continued governmental denial. After all, if Marines can’t keep their eyes on the enemy shooting at them instead of the gay nearby, they really do have a problem.

The metaphor spill

Sam Smith – The establishment is struggling to gain metaphorical control over the BP oil spill. It feels entitled to control metaphors just as much as it does oil drilling policy and doesn’t it like when the non-establishment comes up with its own. Thus Chris Matthews goes berserk when anyone refers to the present government as a “regime” and others get hysterical when someone calls something ‘fascistic” or “Nazi-like.” Curiously, these are the same establishment people who regularly refer to critics as “conspiracy theorists” or “wing nuts.”

As a writer, I like metaphors even if I’m never quite sure when they stop and similes pick up. I don’t even mind people who dislike metaphors, such as Jack Nicholson, who said once, “People who speak in metaphors should shampoo my crotch.”

But what I don’t like is the elite using bad metaphors. For example, even Eugene Robinson, in an otherwise fine column on the oil crisis, fell for the “war” image, arguing, along with Obama and many others, that we need to treat the BP spill as we would a military battle.

In fact, wars are carried out in the name of virtue but almost inevitably leave both sides in worst shape than when they started. Wars destroy the environment, kill large numbers of people, and take decades to recover from. The last thing we need in the Gulf right now is a war.

A happier allusion would be to a serious medical operation. The first task is to get the patient in good enough shape so that long term recovery can take place. And, along the way, you want to avoid something called iatrogenic medicine, where the cure does the patient harm.

This is, in many ways, the opposite of a war, and a far better way to think about the oil spill.

Unfortunately, our political and media elite are infatuated with the military – even if they were never part of it. And for men in power, the metaphor has a comforting masculine ring to it. (Having you ever wondered why there is not a psychiatric term for those who become sexually aroused at the thought of sending others to their death in battle?)

If, in fact, we were to send our military into the Gulf like we sent it into Iraq, things would soon be ten times worse than they are right now.

And you may not need a metaphor at all. After all, the BP disaster is what we will be using as a metaphor in endless commentaries and political campaigns well into the future.

As for me, when I see stories about the disaster, it reminds me of that great oil spill back in April 2010. Remember that one? Sadly, it looks like there’s a metaphor that will hold up for some time yet.