Here’s the strange thing. In 2016, Donald Trump campaigned vociferously to end America’s forever wars and yet, as he fruitlessly fights departing the White House four years later, he’s probably going to leave more troops (and air power) garrisoned across the Greater Middle East and Africa than were there when he first arrived. American soldiers are still in Syria, still in Iraq, and still in Afghanistan. And in his last moments, he’s still talking about removing some — but not all — of them. In 2019 (the last period for which we have figures), the U.S. dropped a record number of bombs on Afghanistan. Similarly, in the first seven months of 2020, there were more U.S. air strikes in Somalia than during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama years combined (and Kenya might be next). No matter that, in each case, the president invariably claimed that the U.S. military was heading out the door. As it turned out, he proved the easiest president imaginable for the officials of the national security state to bulldoze, bully, or sneak around. Think of him as the classic sucker-born-every-minute when it came to this country’s forever wars.
And here’s an even stranger thing. Hardly noticed in the hubbub, oil well by oil well, suppressed environmental regulation by suppressed environmental regulation, he’s become ever more committed to making forever war on the planet itself.
What a “wartime” president Donald Trump has, in fact, proved to be!
Now, in his own chaotic fashion, whether he thinks so or not, he’s going to turn over both versions of forever war to Joe Biden. In that context, TomDispatch regular Danny Sjursen, author most recently of Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War, considers the national security state’s forever-war system that captured The Donald and now seems about to become part of the Biden years. God save us, if it truly does turn out to be a forever system. Tom
What President Biden Won’t Touch
Foreign Policy, Sacred Cows, and the U.S. Military
In this mystifying moment, the post-electoral sentiments of most Americans can be summed up either as “Ding dong! The witch is dead!” or “We got robbed!” Both are problematic, not because the two candidates were intellectually indistinguishable or ethically equivalent, but because each jingle is laden with a dubious assumption: that President Donald Trump’s demise would provide either decisive deliverance or prove an utter disaster.
While there were indeed areas where his ability to cause disastrous harm lent truth to such a belief — race relations, climate change, and the courts come to mind — in others, it was distinctly (to use a dangerous phrase) overkill. Nowhere was that more true than with America’s expeditionary version of militarism, its forever wars of this century, and the venal system that continues to feed it.
For nearly two years, We the People were coached to believe that the 2020 election would mean everything, that November 3rd would be democracy’s ultimate judgment day. What if, however, when it comes to issues of war, peace, and empire, “Decision 2020” proves barely meaningful? After all, in the election campaign just past, Donald Trump’s sweeping war-peace rhetoric and Joe Biden’s hedging aside, neither nuclear-code aspirant bothered to broach the most uncomfortable questions about America’s uniquely intrusive global role. Neither dared dissent from normative notions about America’s posture and policy “over there,” nor challenge the essence of the war-state, a sacred cow if ever there was one.
That blessed bovine has enshrined permanent policies that seem beyond challenge: Uncle Sam’s right and duty to forward deploy troops just about anywhere on the planet; garrison the globe; carry out aerial assassinations; and unilaterally implement starvation sanctions. Likewise the systemic structures that implement and incentivize such rogue-state behavior are never questioned, especially the existence of a sprawling military-industrial complex that has infiltrated every aspect of public life, while stealing money that might have improved America’s infrastructure or wellbeing. It has engorged itself at the taxpayer’s expense, while peddling American blood money — and blood — on absurd foreign adventures and autocratic allies, even as it corrupted nearly every prominent public paymaster and policymaker.
This election season, neither Democrats nor Republicans challenged the cultural components justifying the great game, which is evidence of one thing: empires come home, folks, even if the troops never seem to.
The Company He Keeps
As the election neared, it became impolite to play the canary in American militarism’s coal mine or risk raising Biden’s record — or probable prospects — on minor matters like war and peace. After all, his opponent was a monster, so noting the holes in Biden’s block of Swiss cheese presumably amounted to useful idiocy — if not sinister collusion — when it came to Trump’s reelection. Doing so was a surefire way to jettison professional opportunities and find yourself permanently uninvited to the coolest Beltway cocktail parties or interviews on cable TV.
George Orwell warned of the dangers of such “intellectual cowardice” more than 70 years ago in a proposed preface to his classic novel Animal Farm. “At any given moment,” he wrote, “there is an orthodoxy… that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it… Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness.”
And that’s precisely what progressive paragon Cornel West warned against seven months ago after his man, Senator Bernie Sanders — briefly, the Democratic frontrunner — suddenly proved a dead candidate walking. “Vote for Biden, but don’t lie about who he really is,” the stalwart scholar suggested. It seems just enough Americans did the former (phew!), but mainstream media makers and consumers mostly forgot about the salient second part of his sentiment.
With the electoral outcome now apparent — if not yet accepted in Trump World — perhaps such politeness (and the policing that goes with it) will fade away, ushering in a renaissance of fourth estate oppositional truth-telling. In that way — in my dreams at least — persistently energized progressives might send President Joe Biden down dovish alternative avenues, perhaps even landing some appointments in an executive branch that now drives foreign policy (though, if I’m honest, I’m hardly hopeful on either count).
One look at Uncle Joe’s inbound nieces and nephews brings to mind Aesop’s fabled moral: “You are judged by the company you keep.”
One thing is already far too clear: Biden’s shadow national security team will be a distinctly status-quo squad. To know where future policymakers might head, it always helps to know where they came from. And when it comes to Biden’s foreign policy crew, including a striking number of women and a fair number of Obama administration and Clinton 2016 campaign retreads — they were mostly in Trump-era holding patterns in the connected worlds of strategic consulting and hawkish think tanking.
In fact, the national security bio of the archetypal Biden bro (or sis) would go something like this: she (he) sprang from an Ivy League school, became a congressional staffer, got appointed to a mid-tier role on Barack Obama’s national security council, consulted for WestExec Advisors (an Obama alumni-founded outfit linking tech firms and the Department of Defense), was a fellow at the Center for New American Security (CNAS), had some defense contractor ties, and married someone who’s also in the game.
It helps as well to follow the money. In other words, how did the Biden bunch make it and who pays the outfits that have been paying them in the Trump years? None of this is a secret: their two most common think-tank homes — CNAS and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) — are the second- and sixth-highest recipients, respectively, of U.S. government and defense-contractor funding. The top donors to CNAS are Northrop Grumman, Boeing, and the Department of Defense. Most CSIS largesse comes from Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon.
How the inevitable conflicts of interest play out is hardly better concealed. To take just one example, in 2016, Michèle Flournoy, CNAS co-founder, ex-Pentagon official, and “odds-on favorite” to become Biden’s secretary of defense, exchanged emails with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) ambassador in Washington. She pitched a project whereby CNAS analysts would, well, analyze whether Washington should maintain drone-sales restrictions in a non-binding multilateral “missile technology control“ agreement. The UAE’s autocratic government then paid CNAS $250,000 to draft a report that (you won’t be surprised to learn) argued for amending the agreement to allow that country to purchase American-manufactured drones.
Which is just what Flournoy and company’s supposed nemeses in the Trump administration then did this very July past. Again, no surprise. American drones seem to have a way of ending up in the hands of Gulf theocracies — states with abhorrent human rights records that use such planes to surveil and brutally bomb Yemeni civilians.
If it’s too much to claim that a future defense secretary Flournoy would be the UAE’s (wo)man in Washington, you at least have to wonder. Worse still, with those think-tank, security-consulting, and defense-industry ties of hers, she’s anything but alone among Biden’s top prospects. Just consider a few other abridged resumes:
• Tony Blinken, frontrunner for national security adviser: CSIS; WestExec (which he co-founded with Flournoy); and CNN analyst.
• Jake Sullivan, a shoo-in for a “senior post in a potential administration”: the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (“peace,” in this case, being funded by 10 military agencies and defense contractors) and Macro Advisory Partners, a strategic consultancy run by former British spy chiefs.
• Avril Haines, a top contender for CIA director or director of national intelligence: CNAS-the Brookings Institution; WestExec; and Palantir Technologies, a controversial, CIA-seeded, NSA-linked data-mining firm.
• Kathleen Hicks, probable deputy secretary of defense: CSIS and the Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded research and development center that lobbies on defense issues.
An extra note about Hicks: she’s the head of Biden’s Department of Defense transition team and also a senior vice president at CSIS. There, she hosts that think tank’s “Defense 2020” podcast. In case anyone’s still wondering where CSIS’s bread is buttered, here’s how Hicks opens each episode:
“This podcast is made possible by contributions from BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and the Thales Group.”
In other words, given what we already know about Joe Biden’s previous gut-driven policies that pass for “middle of the road” in this anything but middling country of ours, the experiences and affiliations of his “A-Team” don’t bode well for systemic-change seekers. Remember, this is a president-elect who assured rich donors that “nothing would fundamentally change” if he were elected. Should he indeed stock his national security team with such a conflicts-of-interest-ridden crowd, consider America’s sacred cows of foreign policy all but saved.
Biden’s outfit is headed for office, it seems, to right the Titanic, not rock the boat.
Off The Table: A Paradigm Shift
In this context, join me in thinking about what won’t be on the next presidential menu when it comes to the militarization of American foreign policy.
Don’t expect major changes when it comes to:
• One-sided support for Israel that enables permanent Palestinian oppression and foments undying ire across the Greater Middle East. Tony Blinken put it this way: as president, Joe Biden “would not tie military assistance to Israel to things like annexation [of all or large portions of the occupied West Bank] or other decisions by the Israeli government with which we might disagree.”
• Unapologetic support for various Gulf State autocracies and theocracies that, as they cynically collude with Israel, will only continue to heighten tensions with Iran and facilitate yet more grim war crimes in Yemen. Beyond Michèle Flournoy’s professional connections with the UAE, Gulf kingdoms generously fund the very think tanks that so many Biden prospects have populated. Saudi Arabia, for example, offers annual donations to Brookings and the Rand Corporation; the UAE, $1 million for a new CSIS office building; and Qatar, $14.8 million to Brookings.
• America’s historically unprecedented and provocative expeditionary military posture globally, including at least 800 bases in 80 countries, seems likely to be altered only in marginal ways. As Jake Sullivan put it in a June CSIS interview: “I’m not arguing for getting out of every base in the Middle East. There is a military posture dimension to this as a reduced footprint.”
Above all, it’s obvious that the Biden bunch has no desire to slow down, no less halt, the “revolving door” that connects national security work in the government and jobs or security consulting positions in the defense industry. The same goes for the think tanks that the arms producers amply fund to justify the whole circus.
In such a context, count on this: the militarization of American society and the “thank-you-for-your-service” fetishization of American soldiers will continue to thrive, exhibit A being the way Biden now closes almost any speech with “May God protect our troops.”
All of this makes for a rather discouraging portrait of an old man’s coming administration. Still, consider it a version of truth in advertising. Joe and company are likely to continue to be who they’ve always been and who they continue to say they are. After all, transformational presidencies and unexpected pivots are historically rare phenomena. Expecting the moon from a man mostly offering MoonPies almost guarantees disappointment.
Obama Encore or Worse?
Don’t misunderstand me: a Biden presidency will certainly leave some maneuvering room at the margins of national security strategy. Think nuclear treaties with the Russians (which the Trump administration had been systematically tearing up) and the possible thawing of at least some of the tensions with Tehran.
Nor should even the most cynical among us underestimate the significance of having a president who actually accepts the reality of climate change and the need to switch to alternative energy sources as quickly as possible. Noam Chomsky’s bold assertion that the human species couldn’t endure a second Trump term, thanks to the environmental catastrophe, nuclear brinksmanship, and pandemic negligence he represents, was anything but hyperbole. Yet recall that he was also crystal clear about the need “for an organized public” to demand change and “impose pressures” on the new administration the moment the new president is inaugurated.
Yet, in the coming Biden years, there is also a danger that empowered Democrats in an imperial presidency (when it comes to foreign policy) will actually escalate a two-front New Cold War with China and Russia. And there’s always the worry that the ascension of a more genteel emperor could co-opt — or at least quiet — a growing movement of anti-Trumpers, including the vets of this country’s forever wars who are increasingly dressing in antiwar clothing.
What seems certain is that, as ever, salvation won’t spring from the top. Don’t count on Status-quo Joe to slaughter Washington’s sacred cows of foreign policy or on his national security team to topple the golden calves of American empire. In fact, the defense industry seems bullish on Biden. As Raytheon CEO Gregory Hayes recently put it, “Obviously, there is a concern that defense spending will go way down if there is a Biden administration, but frankly I think that’s ridiculous.” Or consider retired Marine Corps major general turned defense consultant Arnold Punaro who recently said of Biden’s coming tenure, “I think the industry will have, when it comes to national security, a very positive view.”
Given the evidence that business-as-usual will continue in the Biden years, perhaps it’s time to take that advice from Cornel West, absorb the truth about Biden’s future national security squad, and act accordingly. There’s no top-down salvation on the agenda — not from Joe or his crew of consummate insiders. Pressure and change will flow from the grassroots or it won’t come at all.