Politics, et Cetera

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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

They Said It:

In this atmosphere of the breakdown of class society the psychology of the European mass man developed . . . The fall of protecting class walls transformed the slumbering majorities behind all parties into one great unorganized, structureless mass of furious individuals who had nothing in common except their vague apprehension that the hopes of party members were doomed, that, consequently, the most respected, articulate and representative members of the community were fools and that all the powers that be were not so much evil as they were equally stupid and fraudulent.

It was of no great consequence for the birth of this new terrifying negative solidarity that the unemployed worker hated the status quo and the powers that be in the form of the Social Democratic Party, the expropriated small property owner in the form of a centrist or rightist party, and former members of the middle and upper classes in the form of the traditional extreme right.  The number of this mass of generally dissatisfied and desperate men increased rapidly in Germany and Austria after the first World War, when inflation and unemployment added to the disrupting consequences of military defeat; they existed in great proportion in all the succession states, and they have supported the extreme movements in France and Italy since the second World War.

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951.



Last week, President Trump announced that he will send more troops to Afghanistan in an effort to subdue the perpetually unsubduable Afghan people.  The announcement – which was coupled with new, stronger language directed at the Taliban’s creators and ongoing supporters in the Pakistani government – was largely panned by critics on all sides.  Republican isolationists shrieked that Trump has betrayed them; he promised them a retreat from foreign conflicts and instead was intensifying the longest-running war in American history.  Republican hawks bemoaned the fact that Trump’s troop infusion was far smaller than they would like; his minimal intensification of the war effort reeked of Obama-ism, they lamented, a half measure designed to placate the generals but that will ultimately have no positive impact on the fight.  Democrats, meanwhile, did what Democrats generally have done in the age of Trump.  They responded by attacking him, attacking his language, attacking his hair, attacking his suit, attacking his kids, attacking his wife, attacking his voters, and, of course, attacking Confederate war monuments.  Those few on the Left who bothered to address the substance of the President’s plans for Afghanistan either nodded gently in agreement or criticized him for “not having a plan” for the war, as if that differentiates him in any way from the man who held the same office for the previous eight years.

In all the discussion, though, the question that mostly went unasked is that which we think is, by far, the most important.  Why the hell are we still in Afghanistan anyway?

As we said, this is the longest war in American history, now almost sixteen years old, with no end in sight.  When the war began, back in the Fall of 2001, the goals were to topple the Taliban, which was harboring the al Qaeda terrorists who conducted the attacks of 9/11 and to kill or capture said al Qaeda terrorists.  The first goal – i.e. “regime change” – was accomplished in a matter of weeks.  The one-eyed-sheik, Mullah Mohammad Omar, was deposed as the “Emir” of the country and his fanatical religious sect was sent scurrying back to the mountains before Christmas.  The second goal, obviously, proved more difficult, but within a matter of months, al Qaeda too was routed, its operatives either dead forced to hide away in secluded mountainous regions where they could do little or no damage to American interests.  Osama bin Laden himself, the mastermind of 9/11, the figurehead of the global Jihad, and the archetype Islamic warrior, was killed in his jammies, surrounded by his extensive collection of Playboy, Hustler, and Juggs magazines in May, 2011, just over two years into Barack Obama’s FIRST term.  All of which is to say that the “war” in Afghanistan has, by almost any definition, been over for a long, long time.

So again we ask, why the hell are we still there?

The answer to this question is important, and not just for what it tells us about “the American way of war” in the twenty-first century.  If anything, the question of America at war is secondary to what the Afghan farce tells us about the nation more broadly and about its current and long-term pathologies.

Put simply, the reason we are still in Afghanistan is because we don’t know what else to do.  We don’t want to be there.  We don’t like being there.  Our soldiers and officers are repeatedly murdered by their supposed allies, not to mention flabbergasted at the human rights violations and sexual assault in which these allies repeatedly engage.  Destroying the Taliban once and for all is a difficult, if not self-defeating mission.  And in any case, radical Islam – in the form of Sharia law – has already become so firmly established in the land that it is officially and ham-handedly enforced by the very government we support and defend.  Afghanistan is never going to be post-Nazi Germany or post-Tojo Japan or even South Korea.  Any victory in this God-forsaken “graveyard of empires” is and always will be hollow at best.

Yet, the simple fact of the matter is that we really have no other options.  If we leave and retreat into isolationism, that sends the signal to our allies in the long-running War on Terror that we are not reliable and they are, in our estimation, expendable.  If we get more aggressive, then we run the risk of getting even deeper into an already very muddy quagmire.  If we kill as many of the bad guys as possible and then bug out, supporting a puppet regime that kills any new bad guys that may arise, then we’re back to the strategy that got us unto the mess in the Islamic world in the first place, so-called “realism.”  Obama promised repeatedly to leave Afghanistan and even mocked those who said he couldn’t do it.  Trump promised throughout the campaign to leave Afghanistan, and now he’s sending more troops.  No one can end this war, in large part because no one knows how to end it.

None of this, we should note, is anything new.  This is a problem that has plagued three presidencies, spanning the full sixteen years since 9/11.  How do you deal with Islamist terrorists?  How do you deal with the people who embolden and encourage Islamist terrorists?  How do you address the problem of Islamist terrorism without completely destroying the non-terrorist Islamic people among whom the terrorists live?  How do you differentiate between Islamist terrorist and non-terrorist Islamists?  Does it matter?  How do you avoid creating a massive vacuum that is filled, in time, by an even larger and more potent threat, say the Islamist Mullahs of Iran?

On 9/11, the anniversary of which we will commemorate again in just two short weeks, al Qaeda unleashed upon the United States a form of warfare never before seen on these shores and never before contemplated with any seriousness.  But that’s not to say that the nation’s political, military, and intelligence forces were unused to dealing with Islam and its discontents.  Indeed, they had been dealing with Islam in a very serious and fundamental way for the entirety of the post-war period.  (And before that, the Brits had been dealing with it, off and on for decades.)  And all of the strategies employed between 1945 and 2001 proved useless, or worse, in defusing Islamic fervor.  The American intelligence-military complex tried coups and puppet governments.  The political class tried supporting like-minded allies in the region against Islamist hostility.  They all tried pitting one faction against the other or one ethnicity against the other.  They tried limited wars.  They tried running and hiding.  In short, they tried everything they could think of . . . and nothing worked.

In a series of essays dating from after 9/11 right up until the present day, more or less, the military historian and classicist Victor Davis Hanson has explained why it became necessary to take a new tack in American foreign policy after the attacks.  As Hanson put it, the “new” path of radical democratization of Islamic world “arose from a variety of causes, not the least as the reaction against the moral bankruptcy of both rightist realism and leftist appeasement.”  Hanson, who served as an informal adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney in the months before the invasion of Iraq, argued – more or less persuasively – that the Bush administration had chosen to try “democratize” the Middle East, not out of arrogance or Wilsonian megalomania, but out of desperation.  In a February 2005 essay, Hanson defended the democracy project in Afghanistan and Iraq as follows:

Democracy was not our first, but rather out last choice in the Middle East.  For decades we have promoted Cold War realpolitik and supported thugs whose merit was simply that they were not as bad as a murderous Saddam or Assad (true enough), while the Arab world has gone from kings and dictators to Soviet puppets, Pan-Arabists, Islamists, and theocrats.  Democracy in some sense is the last chance.  It alone offers constitutional guarantees of free speech, minority rights, and an independent judiciary – a framework, a system, a paradigm in which naturally savage humans, prone to all sorts of awful things, as the 20th century attests, can somehow get along.  Given the savagery of the modern Middle East that would say quite a lot.

When others in politics and academia criticized the efforts in the Islamic world, Davis held firm.  He conceded that it was fine to criticize the Bush administration policy, and it might even have been accurate and important to do so.  Nevertheless, the critics offered no other solution to the problem.  “I don’t know what we should call all of this,” Hanson wrote in response to the early disappointments in the halting democratization endeavor, “But so far, no foreign-policy expert has come up with a non-partisan and intellectually honest diagnosis.”  And nor, for that matter had they come up with an alternative.  In a particularly cutting piece, written in October 2005, Hanson responded to criticism leveled at the Bush policy by Zbigniew Brzezinski, the onetime national security adviser to Jimmy Carter.  Like most such critics, Brzezinski was perfectly comfortable calling what Bush did an “American Debacle,” but he never mentioned the catastrophes inherent in previous foreign policy doctrines, including the one that Brzezinski himself oversaw and implemented.  Hanson, kindly, reminded his readers:

[S]uch criticism comes from a high official of an administration that witnessed on its watch the Iranian-hostage debacle, the disastrous rescue mission, the tragicomic odyssey of the terminally ill shah, the first and last Western Olympic boycott, oil hikes even higher in real dollars than the present spikes, Communist infiltration into Central America, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Cambodian holocaust, a gloomy acceptance that perpetual parity with the Soviet Union was the hope of the day, the realism that cemented our ties with corrupt autocracies in the Middle East (Orwellian sales of F-15 warplanes to the Saudis minus their extras), and the hard-to-achieve simultaneous high unemployment, high inflation, and high interest rates. . . .

Longtime readers will know that we were not exactly fans of the Bush democratization efforts.  Indeed, we thought the whole business was nuts – and we didn’t hesitate to say so.  Nevertheless, even in retrospect, it’s hard to argue with Hanson’s reasoning.  George W. Bush didn’t enter the White House full of Wilsonian arrogance.  In fact, he ran on pledge to put an end to Clintonian “nation building” and to conduct American foreign policy with restraint and deliberation.  After 9/11, however, things changed, or at least they started to change.  And that change was cemented by the time he ordered the invasion of Iraq, eighteen months later.  He had to do something, after all.  And he had to do something other than what brought him – and the nation – to that wretched moment in the first place.  In short then, the “Bush Doctrine” wasn’t a conscious effort to spread American values to the world.  It was the last gasp of a desperate political class.

Now, it’s important to note that the post-9/11 denouement wasn’t the first time that the nation’s political class had been desperate for strategies that would save the nation and its people by ending a deep-rooted foreign affairs stalemate.  Longtime readers will also know that we have, in the past, discussed the immeasurable importance of the Central Intelligence Agency’s “Team B” undertaking in the late 1970s.  The nation’s military and intelligence apparatuses were, at that time, resigned to coexistence and, perhaps in time, eventual capitulation to the Soviet Union, which they viewed as “unbeatable.”  In the face of this official despondence, the Director of Central Intelligence decided that it was, perhaps, time to shake things up a bit.  We put it this way in February of 2015:

[I]n the 1970s, the United States, the last best hope of earth, was the second of the great superpowers, at least in the estimation of most of those who were paid to pay attention to such things.  The Soviets were ascendant.  Americans were scurrying home with their proverbial tail tucked between their legs.  The oil shocks of the early part of the decade had unnerved the Western elites, as had the decade-long debacle in Vietnam.  A lethargy of sorts had enveloped the “free world.”  The Russians were expanding their reach and their nuclear advantage.  The Middle East – then, as now, as always – was in flames.  The newly radicalized Iranians held more than four dozen American diplomats hostage and, in so doing, held the United States itself hostage.  Worst of all, of course, nuclear war seemed inevitable.  In short, the world was a gray and depressing place.

Indeed, at the end of the decade, the President of United States himself had all but thrown in the towel, declaring in a speech to the entire nation that “the symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us.  For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years . . . . What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action . . .” . . .

Team B, for those of you who may not be old enough to recall, was a CIA operation undertaken the 1976 at the request of then-Director of Central Intelligence George H.W. Bush.  Bush agreed to allow the Agency to engage in what was known as “competitive analysis” in advance of the 1977 National Intelligence Estimate on Soviet Strategic Objectives (the NIE, for short).  The CIA’s “Team A,” comprised of in-agency analysts was to put together its usual analysis, but this time, an additional analysis would be produced by “Team B,” which consisted of three groups of outside experts chosen for their knowledge, their distinction in their fields of study, and their general wariness of the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine that dominated American estimates of Soviet intentions.

Team B was headed by Richard Pipes, the eminent Russian historian and the father of our old friend, Daniel Pipes, the eminent Middle East historian.  In 1986, when the findings of Team B were still highly classified, the elder Pipes took to the pages of Commentary to explain what happened, why it happened, and why it all mattered.  Among other things, he wrote the following:

Team B’s report remains highly classified . . . and one can refer to it only in the most general terms.  The report charged that in estimating Soviet strategic objectives the CIA had consistently engaged in “mirror-imaging,” including insertions of un-proven assumptions about Soviet behavior, as well as surreptitious “net assessments.”. . .

We, on our part, concluded that the evidence indicated beyond reasonable doubt that the Soviet leadership did not subscribe to MAD but regarded nuclear weapons as tools of war whose proper employment, in offensive as well as defensive modes, promised victory.  Soviet nuclear strategy had to be seen in the context of “grand strategy.”  We also suggested procedures for the preparation of NIE’s that would ensure that such faults as we had identified would not recur: they essentially boiled down to the proposition that Soviet nuclear programs be interpreted in Soviet, not American, terms.

The rest, as they say, is history – and so, for that matter, is the Soviet Union.  The work done by Pipes and Team B shattered the foreign policy consensus and created, almost out of whole cloth, a new strategy for dealing with dreaded Red Menace.  When he took office, President Reagan adopted the principles of Team B, and in less than a decade, the Iron Curtain lay in ruins and the Soviet Union verged on collapse.

Now, one would assume that the strategy that worked so well in the 1970s would – or at least could – work again.  It could have worked in 2001 or 2002 to give President Bush options other than the “last desperate” one he eventually adopted.  Likewise, it could provide President Trump different options today, at least in theory.

The problem is that there will never be such a thing as “Team B” again.  It just won’t happen, largely for the same reason that we’re in this foreign policy mess in the first place, because our ruling class and its egos won’t allow it.  If, for example, you read the text from our Team B article closely, you might have discerned that a prime candidate to head a second Team B would be the son of the man who headed the first, our old friend Daniel Pipes.  Daniel, like his father, is an eminent scholar.  He has PhD in history from Harvard.  He reads Arabic.  He has been affiliated with renowned universities in the United States and Israel.  He has served five presidential administrations.  And he is universally considered one of the most erudite and original thinkers on Islam and Islamic affairs.

But neither Daniel nor anyone like him would ever be allowed to head anything like a Team B.  Simply by virtue of the fact that he is knowledgeable and outspoken about Islam and Islamism, Daniel Pipes has been deemed “unfit” by the partisan and ideological forces that dominate our ruling class.  The Southern Poverty Law Center – which fashions itself the arbiter of all things “hateful” and which has recently received sizeable donations from the likes of Apple and JP Morgan – has declared Daniel Pipes a threat to peaceful coexistence, an “anti-Muslim extremist.”  The SPLC’s assessment of Pipes’ “extremism” is, as you might expect, almost comical in its lack of rigor and actual analysis.  Nevertheless, with the apparent approval and support of folks like Tim Cook and Jamie Dimon, the SPLC has managed to make Pipes too toxic to be considered “worthy” to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Sadly, he’s hardly alone.  Name an expert on Islamism and terrorism who could offer a “competitive analysis” of current American policy toward the Islamic world – including Iraq and Afghanistan – and you can just about bet that the SPLC or some other ideologically motivated group will have deemed him or her unacceptable.  Because of the rise of identity-politics and “Orientalist”-based post-colonial, postmodern twaddle, the very idea of a competitive analysis would be dismissed immediately by partisans on both sides of our political class.

We cannot replicate Team B, and so we are stuck, stuck with the tired alternatives we’ve known for nearly four decades now.  We can’t go forward.  We can’t go back.  We’re stuck.  As we wrote back in 2015, in our “Team B” piece, our governing elites are not simply decadent.  “They are [also] lazy.  And self-absorbed.  They are intellectually stunted.  And obscenely arrogant.  They are shallow, narrow-minded, and vain.  And completely and utterly overmatched on the global stage.”

And that, we’re afraid, is a point that bears repeating, over and over again.

In a December 2015 essay, Victor Davis Hanson wrote, once again, about American desperation and its last, not first, choice to address its desperate circumstance.  To wit:

The more analysts try to figure out Donald Trump’s appeal, the more they sound baffled.  Pundits cite Trump’s verbal sloppiness and ridiculousness as proof that he must soon implode.  But Trump sees his daily bombast as an injection of outrage for a constituency now hooked on someone who finally voices their pent-up anger . . . .

The public no longer respects U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the IRS, the VA, or the GSA.  Even the once-hallowed Secret Service has become a near laughingstock of incompetency, corruption, and politicization.  Is the purpose of NASA really Muslim outreach, as NASA chief Charles Bolden suggested in 2010?

The world that we are told about by our government bears no resemblance to what we see and hear every day.  President Obama has exacerbated this current disconnect between the public and its officials.  In unserious fashion, he shares his selfies, parades his annual Final Four picks, and jets off to Los Angeles to appear on late-night talk shows, even as he hectors Americans in sermons about their Islamophobia, their carbon footprints, their immigration xenophobia, and their gun obsessions . . . .

The government reports that a record 94.4 million Americans are not in the labor force. That is almost a third of the country.  How can the same government declare that the official unemployment rate is only 5 percent?  Economists warn that a $20 trillion national debt cannot be serviced without major calamities once interest rates rise.  Yet even as interest rates are scheduled to go up, the government still borrows nearly $500 billion a year.  It calls that profligacy fiscal prudence, because the borrowing is below the usual $1 trillion a year. . . .

In short, millions of citizens think the nation is headed for a financial reckoning.  They feel threatened by radical Islamic terrorism.  They sense that cultural and social stability has disappeared.  And they know that expression of these worries can be a thought crime — hounded down by politicians, media, universities, and cultural institutions that do not enjoy broad public support and are not subject to the direct consequences of their own ideologies.

Amid these crises and the present absence of responsible leadership, if there were not a demagogic Donald Trump ranting and raving on the scene, the country would probably have to invent something like him.

Like the invasion of Iraq and the perpetually ongoing war for Afghanistan, the election of Donald Trump was an act of desperation.  The ruling class left the people of the country no choice.  The alternate strategies of the previous decades – vote Democrat or vote conventional Republican – proved inadequate.  And so the American voters had to do something outrageous and seeming senseless.  Or, to put it another way, the American voters took the advice of “Animal House’s” Otter, who declared that “this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part!”

When Chris Matthews or Nancy Pelosi; or even John McCain or Lindsay Graham starts spouting off about how terrible, horrible, no good, and very bad Donald Trump is, it is worth remembering that he is their creation.  We could not have arrived at this moment without them.  Professor Hanson calls Barack Obama Dr. Frankenstein to the “monster” that is Donald Trump.  And while we’ll buy that, we’ll add that Herr Doktor had a great deal of help in fashioning this beast.

We tried to be optimistic about the direction of the country for a couple of weeks last month, but our sunniness has dimmed somewhat since.  Watching the fascist-fascists and the anti-fascist fascists duke it out in the streets; listening to the mainstream press defend violence as long as it is directed against any of the 63 million people who voted for Donald Trump; reading the predictions that the markets may soon falter and that the economy may do so as well; patiently waiting for the Republicans who control both houses of Congress to something – anything! – about taxes or health care or any of a dozen other policy matters; and frankly, wincing as Donald Trump commits himself to a never-ending war in a godforsaken hell-hole, we’re concerned about the direction of the country.

It is important to remember that while Donald Trump represented a last, desperate attempt by voters to rein in and reform an appallingly self-absorbed and out-of-touch ruling class, that doesn’t mean that he’ll be successful.  Indeed, most such desperation shots fall short.  Certainly, the overwhelming majority of observers would say that the invasion and democratization of Iraq was an abject failure (although we’re not entirely sure we agree).  Likewise, most would say that there is no “victory” in sight in Afghanistan.  It is therefore not unreasonable to assume that the Donald Trump ploy will fail too.  We hope that doesn’t happen, though, not because we’re big Trump fans, but because we truly fear what could come next.

If Trump fails, our ruling class will declare victory.  It will assume that it beat back a threat and that it should therefore have the admiration of a grateful and compliant country class.  But that’s not going to happen.  If Trump is defeated, it will be because the pathologies extant in the ruling class were too severe for him to alleviate.  The country class will not take kindly to having its desperation mocked and flouted.  The tensions boiling over in the streets of Charlottesville and Berkeley will harden and then grow.  And heaven knows what nightmare will follow.

As we have noted before in these pages, another old friend of ours Angelo Codevilla, has predicted that the American country class’s revolutionary detestation of its ruling class has already grown too fierce to be assuaged by any superficial “reform” or cursory restoration of government of, by, and FOR the people.  If he is right, then Trump is not the ogre his critics insist, but the very best and most honorable leader we may see in some time.  Codevilla, we should note, is another of the intellectuals who helped the Reagan administration establish the creative strategy that resulted in the American victory in the Cold War and who is thus someone who knows about truly revolutionary change within the political system.  And so we take it to heart when he writes that “Donald Trump did not cause [the country class’s detestation of the ruling class] and is by no means its ultimate manifestation . . . T]his revolution’s sentiments will grow in volume and intensity, and are sure to empower politicians likely to make Americans nostalgic for Donald Trump’s moderation.”

Let’s hope he is, for once, wrong, and that our desperation shot finds it mark.

Copyright 2017. The Political Forum. 3350 Longview Ct., Lincoln NE  68506, tel. 402-261-3175, fax 402-261-3175. All rights reserved. Information contained herein is based on data obtained from recognized services, issuer reports or communications, or other sources believed to be reliable. However, such information has not been verified by us, and we do not make any representations as to its accuracy or completeness, and we are not responsible for typographical errors. Any statements nonfactual in nature constitute only current opinions which are subject to change without notice.