Friday, June 01, 2018

Pompeo and Circumstance

During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump claimed repeatedly that Iraq was one of the biggest disasters in American history, and that he would declare victory in Afghanistan and send the troops home. I've written previously about how Trump benefited from the "war fatigue" developed since 2001. 

By the summer of 2017 Trump's behavior as Commander in Chief erased any hope that he might actually make good on what sounded like promises to minimize America's war posture, and instead he actually escalated militarism as the nation's foreign policy of choice. Unfortunately Washington Democrats continue to talk "resistance" to Trump while continuing to aid and abet him when it comes to military spending. 

But it gets worse: now that Trump has decided to surround himself with the hawkish Mike Pompeo and John Bolton as chief national security advisers, and has Gina Haspel now leading the CIA, he's guaranteed that the "neoconservative" policies that gave us Afghanistan and Iraq will continue to prevail. 

Neoconservativism in American foreign policy after 9/11 became a toxic mix of ultra-nationalism and the assertion of the right to launch preemptive military strikes in any place at any time. The true neo-con views any anger and/or aggression aimed at the United States not as the "unintended consequences of the US government's international activities" (what the CIA calls "Blowback"), but as irrational hatred of our freedoms. In the neo-con fantasy, the world is essentially a clash between the forces of civilization and barbarism, with the US always the archetypal symbol of the former. 

From 2001 - 2008 George W. Bush was the front man for neoconservatives, repeatedly renouncing any attempts to see the events of September 11, 2001 and anti-American terror in general as responses to America's global behavior. We're now in a bizarre situation where Bush himself is having second thoughts about "why they hate us" at the same time Trump (probably due to a mixture of incompetence and ignorance) is doubling down on neo-con principles. 

Context: Bush talks to Bono

If you can believe it, former President George W. Bush now hosts an annual "Forum on Leadership." According to the Bush Presidential Center, the Forum is designed to "develop, recognize, and celebrate leadership by bringing together leading voices for in-depth discussions on today's pressing issues." My initial reaction was that Harvey Weinstein should be hosting a Forum on Feminism if a Forum on Leadership can be hosted by a man whose "leadership" produced two failed wars, an ill-defined "War on Terror" featuring tortured interpretations of the Constitution that justified literal torture, tax policies that exploded the deficit and increased inequality, the Hurricane Katrina botched rescue and recovery mission, taxpayer bailouts of big banks and other "too big to fail" institutions, and the worst economic collapse since the 1930s. That record is not exactly an argument for ending presidential term limits. 

Every year the Forum on Leadership will feature the presentation of the "George W. Bush Medal For Distinguished Leadership" to an individual who "has inspired others to action, and who has demonstrated a sustained commitment to improving the lives of others." The first recipient was none other than Bono, the lead singer of the rock band U2, who was recognized for his anti-poverty and anti-AIDS work. United Kingdom writers George Monbiot and Harry Browne have written blistering critiques of Bono's brand of activism, claiming that the practical consequences of the Irish crooner's  cozying up to power are (1) the silencing of  the very people he is trying to help, (2) aiding the attempts of the rich and powerful to brand themselves as grand humanitarians, and (3) shielding the power brokers from having to take responsibility for their own policies that create the very problems they purport to be trying to solve. 
Bush and Bono: Distinguished Leaders?
After presenting Bono with the Medal, Bush sat down for a televised (on C-Span) conversation with him,  moderated by the president's former White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten. I watched it so you don't have to. Before a by-invitation-only crowd at the Bush Center, Mr. Bush and Mr. Bono talked about how they became friends and how they worked together to provide relief to Africans. Bono told the audience that thanks to Mr. Bush, American taxpayers are AIDS activists. The two almost seemed to envision themselves as Winston Churchill and Albert Schweitzer reflecting on their heroic efforts to save Western values and rescue the African continent from the scourge of poverty and disease. But the level of delusion made it look and sound more like Nixon and Elvis in the oval office. 
Bush and Bono 1.0: Nixon and Elvis
The conversation did include one statement by President Bush that made me experience shock, anger, and hope at the same time. The statement was: 

"I was worried about the security of the country after 9/11. We spent a lot of time worrying about that. A lot. And one of the things you have to do is address why is it that people would come and kill our citizens. And it's one thing to respond, and we did. Forcefully. But the other thing is to think about the long term causes. And I was telling this to Bono earlier--that the AIDS issue is not only a moral issue for a great nation, it's a national security issue. So think about those orphans that were there and, what happens if  nobody shows up to help. You know the big, rich nations of the world said 'it's not our problem. Let them figure it out.' And then all of a sudden a group of people show up and said, 'we're your new family--we care for you'--that's before they instruct them on how put a suicide vest on. And so it's in our national security interest. SEE THE LESSON OF 911 IS: HOW OTHERS LIVE MATTERS TO OUR NATIONAL SECURITY. "

Why does that statement provoke shock, anger, and hope? 

SHOCK:  Mr. Bush and his administration spent years after 9/11 insisting that anti-American terrorism was the result of "them" hating "us" because of our freedoms. I've written previously about how Mr. Bush's framing of 9/11 ("Freedom and Fear are at War") made it almost impossible to imagine America's opponents as motivated by anything other than irrational hatred. So to hear him now, 17 years later, admit that the issue is not so simple is shocking. 

ANGER: Imagine if, in the weeks and months after 9/11, President Bush had said, "How others live matters to our national security." Suppose at the time he had had the political courage to state other obvious truisms: Our foreign policy globally and in the Middle East provokes widespread anger; the poor people of the world have as many reasons to be suspicious of us as they do to like us, etc. If the leader of the United States had the courage to state the obvious, we probably could have prevented the loss of thousands of lives and the dislocation of perhaps millions more. Not to mention the number of military families in this country that will forever be pained by the experience of having loved ones suffer as a result of vaguely defined combat missions. 

HOPE:  Who knows, if George Bush is now able to state the obvious, maybe it will start a trend among other elected officials. I won't hold my breath waiting for that to happen, but if someone who spent his entire presidency denying that "how others live" had anything to do with national security can change, maybe anything is possible. 

Pompeo and Circumstance

With candidate Trump seeming to run in opposition to the so-called neocon foreign policy that ruled the Bush administration, and with George Bush himself now evolving toward a more nuanced view of America's foes, this should have been a good time to rethink the dominant foreign policy choices of the last 17 years. Those choices, under Bush AND Obama, wrecked lives, cost trillions of dollars, expanded the power of the President to launch "preemptive" wars, made continuous drone bombings a centerpiece of US policy, declared war against whistle blowers, undermined whatever moral authority the United States once had in the world, turned local police forces into branches of the military, and reduced the United States Constitution from its status as the Supreme Law of the Land to a "nice idea." 

No one expected Donald Trump to be a peacenik. and I am fully aware that what he said on the campaign trail (like most of what he says today) was worth about as much as a degree from Trump University. Still, at some level he has to know that Mike Pompeo and John Bolton represent the exact opposite of what he ran on, and that their appointment to high level positions greatly increases the chances of another military quagmire in the Middle East or somewhere else in the world. 

During Mr. Pompeo's recent confirmation hearings for Secretary of State, Senator Rand Paul was the only legislator who engaged in any meaningful dialogue with him about the neoconservative principles still guiding American foreign policy. Senator Paul ultimately caved and did vote to confirm Pompeo, claiming that in a private conversation Pompeo told him he agreed that Iraq was a mistake. Sure. 

Anyone who's been to a college graduation has heard "Pomp and Circumstance." The phrase actually comes from Shakespeare's Othello, as part of a lament about leaving the battlefield. Othello says: 

O farewell,
Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th' ear-piercing fife;
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!

Perhaps the Trump Administration will announce an intention to rename the tune "Pompeo and Circumstance," with the "shrill Trump" not saying "farewell" but "Hello" to the pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war.