War: Missing from Public Response to Trump, but Urgent

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By Marc Pilisuk

The US air strikes in Syria last week were conducted without Congressional authorization. They foreshadow a dangerous military escalation in the Syrian civil war and have no legal justification. The excuse was retaliation against the barbaric use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians authorized by Bashar Al-Assad. But the rush to retaliate without even a full investigation of who was actually responsible is reminiscent of past blunders into unwarranted wars. Examples include the disastrous rush to invade Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction, or the escalation of the Vietnam War after the false claim of an attack upon a US ship in the Gulf of Tonkin. Days after the Syrian attack, an attack in Afghanistan dropped the largest, non-nuclear bomb ever used. This was followed by announced provocative military maneuvers and warnings to North Korea. Many of the resistance events since the start of the Trump administration focused upon pipelines, defunding family health services, deporting immigrants, denial of global warming, cuts to science funding. These issues have generated large protests and to criticism from the Democratic Party. This protest has contributed to Trump’s very low approval ratings. By contrast, dissent against the military posture has been minimal and acquiesce by the Democrats has been the norm. The timing of the recent military actions will surely be a factor in the proposed increase in military spending.

U.S. military spending is already beyond excessive and makes the world a more dangerous place. When Donald Trump filled his Cabinet with war-industry generals, one could anticipate problems. Now, his Administration intends to cut crucial social programs and slash entire agencies to fund military expansion.

Trump’s budget requests a 10% increase in military spending ($54 billion). This places military profiteering before public needs and puts future generations at risk. The United States already spends more on its military than the next seven countries combined. We already spend 54% of all discretionary funding on wars, weapons, military preparedness, and dealing with the long-term aftermaths of people injured, shocked and displaced. Trump’s proposed budget would slash social services that we depend on, while people have urgent needs for housing, healthcare, education, infrastructure, and clean energy that go unmet.

During the Obama administration, military approaches focused upon use of targeted drone warfare in Afghanistan and the Middle East, military alliances to contain and threaten Russia and China, and warnings to North Korea. All of these were criticized as failing, allegedly because they were too timid in scope to battle the “bad guys.”

Also during the Obama years, a number of American generals were raising the question of whether the military were being asked to confront an adversary that they did not understand, an adversary that proved to be indistinguishable from civilians and which seemed to grow in number with every attempt to strike at them militarily. There was a renewed sense among the more experienced players that after every decisive action comes the question, “And then what?”

The Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, Major General Michael K. Nagata was among those who questioned the value of military actions in the war on terror. General Taguba, and others like him, who question the military role in contemporary conflicts, are gone. Gone with them is the possibility of raising the alternative views of why the US is often despised.

The widespread belief throughout the Middle East is that Western colonial powers, particularly the U.S., have through modern history:

  • Exploited their natural resources;
  • Overthrown governments;
  • Created and supported repressive regimes more responsive to transnational corporations than to public needs;
  • Bombed mosques and medical facilities;
  • Assassinated journalists;
  • Tortured prisoners of war;
  • Disdained the culture, religion, and the historical contributions of their region;
  • Fanned anti-Arab hatred.

Recognition of the valid aspects of these beliefs and apology for them could open doorways for an end to Middle-Eastern violence, if that were the objective.

Failures of military efforts may have left the West with a need to enter to enter a new historical moment in which the overuse of military activities to promote geo-political interests could be coming to an end. This possibility was raised before when the advent of nuclear weapons clearly made the onset of a nuclear war unacceptably costly to both the initiators and the retaliators. Rather than follow up this opportunity with enforceable disarmament agreements we have come to risk the consequences of proliferation and to continue wars and threats, so far, below the threshold of total nuclear war.

Political leaders and media vie for who will mount the strongest denunciation — the most macho military responses — that will send more weapons into an unstable area and sacrifice lives of both civilians and soldiers on all sides. These military threats and actions are presented as courageous.

The military voices like those of General Taguda are now silent. Among the Trump military advisors, are those who believe that the World is a giant chessboard in which every nation must accommodate to the bullying of those for whom military superiority secures the advantages of transnational corporate interests. It is a world in which ordinary people the world over are pawns. They can be starved or killed with impunity and only noticed when a particularly gruesome incident needs to be paraded before us to assure public fear and loathing for the enemy du jour. Such demonization is coupled with the ability to generate fake crises as with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, or weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, or confrontations with the “bad” nuclear weapon developers.

Also under Obama, the neo-liberal consensus in foreign affairs operated under the assumption that the major objective of creating a world safe for corporate investors could be aided by the image of a US government committed to principles of human rights, to free elections, and to the stability promised by trade agreements. Such modest constraints appear to be dwindling under the Trump administration.

There does exist a complex and well-articulated field of non-violent conflict resolution – of peacemaking, peace building, and peacekeeping. It includes knowledge of mediation, arbitration negotiation, multi-track diplomacy and methods for reaching agreements, even among embittered antagonists. These methods have never been used to bring about a peace treaty to end the Korean War. Non-coercive methods are not part of the repertoire of the professional military. Such methods provide no massive contracts to weapons contractors or to their lobbyists. In a world in which wars are unending and unsuccessful, the warriors are obliged to ply their tricks to preserve the profession that defines and benefits them.

A major portion of the military budget is contracted to organizations whose task is “perception management.”  Their job is to bring to the media paid informants selected to present the “expert” views on threats from a dangerous world. They typically include selected retired military officials, paid foreign informants, and think tank representatives, none of whom reveal who pays them or how much. Wars are costly and people need to be sold on military actions. The large DOD budget includes contracts for public relations firm like Rendon and Lincoln companies. They select and amplify the voices of experts who sell war. Without public transparency, the Rendon Group has worked for clients in seventy-eight countries, including the Colombian army, the government of Indonesia, and Monsanto Chemical Company. Rendon was contracted by the CIA to campaign for the U.S.-installed government of Panama after the ousting of Manuel Noriega. Following his success there, Rendon orchestrated opposition to Saddam Hussein during the occupation of Kuwait. Rendon worked for the CIA to run a covert anti-Saddam campaign in Iraq, encouraging Iraqi army officers to defect. Rendon worked with the Iraqi National Congress (INC), even giving them their name. Rendon helped the CIA install Ahmed Chalabi as head of the organization. Chalabi is reported to have received $350,000 a month, channeled from the CIA, through the Rendon Group.

Another major PR firm, The Lincoln Group, states that its “expertise lies in providing insight to our clients in the markets they wish to reach and the ability to influence their target audience.” In November 2005, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Lincoln Group had covertly helped the Pentagon place “dozens” of pro–United States stories, written by the U.S. military, in Iraqi news outlets. Designed to mask any connection with the U.S. military, the Lincoln Group assisted in the translation and placement of the stories, while its Iraqi staff, posing as freelance reporters or advertising executives, delivered stories to Baghdad media outlets. The effort was directed by the U.S. military’s Information Operations Task Force in Baghdad, which had reportedly purchased an Iraqi newspaper and taken control of a radio station in order to “channel pro-American messages to the Iraqi public.”

The defense budget includes money for paying to place stories in newspapers, domestic as well as foreign. The inspector general, the Pentagon’s internal watchdog, conducted a review of three Lincoln Group contracts. The DOD report revealed that the Pentagon could not account for millions paid to the Lincoln Group for their propaganda program and that basic contracting rules were not followed. Nevertheless, an unclassified summary of results of the inspector general’s probe concluded that the contracts “complied with applicable laws and regulations in their use of a contractor to conduct Psychological Operations and their use of newspapers as a way to disseminate information.

Equipped with vast amounts of biased, selected and self- serving “intelligence,” the President’s strategic advisors are convened to select military and diplomatic responses to perceived threats. Sometimes Congress receives briefings and typically supports the moves of the strategic gamesters thus providing bi-partisan support. Presidents are provided with a script to tell us about how we will triumph, and media are embedded to show us the bombing and report on the terrors of the adversary. Here is where the Trump presidency is particularly worrisome. The sources of information have fewer constraints about truth. The President has little knowledge or concern over the views of other heads of state, little patience with moderating aggressive views, negligible compassion for those who will be casualties and no ability to deal with the enormity of the costs of war. The strategic game is now played by officials who welcome the advantages offered by the shock doctrine in which periods of major traumatic destruction provide opportunity to introduce drastic remedies. They misuse the concepts of game theory by a willingness to play the game of “chicken” in which bravado replaces reason and risks the destruction of both parties. They do not consider the unimaginable combined consequences of nuclear war  — blast, firestorm, radiation contamination of food and water and destruction of medical and transportation infrastructure. Nuclear weapons are now held by seventeen nations. As American warships move into the Korean peninsula and the isolated North Korean military regime refuses to be unilaterally defanged, we move closer to an exchange of hostilities. When bombs fly sane precautions disappear. Dangerous miscalculations regarding the potential start of nuclear war have occurred before. The time to protest war is now.

Marc Pilisuk, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, The University of California, 

Faculty, Saybrook University, Berkeley, CA, MPilisuk@saybrook.edu 

The Hidden Structure of Violence: Who Benefits From Global Violence and War by Marc Pilisuk and Jennifer Achord Rountree. New York, NY: New York Monthly Review, 2015. Released July 2015. Order the book here.

Peace Movements Worldwide (3 Volumes) by Marc Pilisuk and Michael Nagler (Eds). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-Clio, 2011.