Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.
It’s been more than 15 years since the start of the Afghanistan War and already the horrors of the ground combat there and in Iraq appear at an increasingly “safe” distance in the American psyche. Sure, on sanctioned holidays and Marine Corps Marathons the visage of the wounded warrior is wheeled—or with advanced prosthetics, marched—out to serve as a sanitized reminder. But the really dark stuff, what they did and what they’ve seen, not to mention the consequent suicides, the often irrevocable psychological damage, are receding into the past—somewhere between “don’t go there” and “already forgot about that” on our mental bookshelf of American war experiences.
Peter Van Buren, who says his own life changed forever during a stint on behalf of the State Department during the so-called reconstruction period in Iraq, has published a book on the moral injuries of war. Van Buren, who wrote the viscerally arresting The Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent, about the human wreckage left behind by the evaporation of the manufacturing economy in the Midwest, has now written a wrenching alternative history of the Pacific War, one in which entire cities including Kyoto were firebombed by invading U.S. forces.
Hooper’s War is a series of flashbacks told through the eyes of Lt. Nate Hooper, who commands a unit as it makes its way across the countryside, eventually falling onto the blackened cinder hell that is Kyoto. It is also told through Sergeant Eichi Nakagawa on the Japanese side. Both meet because of one woman, and she decides their fates. Hooper lives to tell the tale: an aged veteran living out years of nagging regret, guilt, and the humanity he left smoldering, literally behind.
But Hooper is not an anti-war brief, nor an exercise in penance for American war crimes. Van Buren’s aim is to identify with the soldier, embracing his basic instincts for survival, petty motivations, biases, and moral flaws, along with his ability to transform, like Hooper, mid-stride. He writes like he was there, evoking the back-of-the-throat fear of the unknown, the sheer terror of losing every man around you, and following orders you know are wrong.
We talked to Van Buren, now retired from the government after a much-publicized break with the State Department. For him the past is present, as a new administration seems increasingly prepared to put more Americans into harm’s way any day now.
The American Conservative: Tell us why you took an alternate view of the Pacific War in WWII.
Van Buren: What I learned about moral injury, and what happens to people in war, I found spilled over historical lines. To go beyond the politics, I had to put people into the “Good War,” the one war that did not have all the political baggage of post-9/11 conflicts in it, and then to take another step back from reality into a fictional situation, to get away from the politics of using the atomic bomb. I wanted to talk about the murder of civilians, innocents, but I didn’t want to get into an undergraduate poli-sci discussion of why Harry Truman should have, or shouldn’t have used the atomic bomb on Japan.… So, the setting of WWII Japan is something familiar enough to the reader but without the complications that distract from my basic story.
TAC: What is moral injury?
Van Buren: The term is fairly new, especially outside of military circles, but the idea is as old as war, that people sent into conflict find their sense of right and wrong tested. When they violate deeply held convictions by doing something—such as killing in error—or failing to do something—such as not reporting a war crime—they suffer an injury to their core being. That’s moral injury.
Think Tim O’Brien’s iconic Vietnam War book The Things They Carried, or films like William Wyler’s 1946 The Best Years of Our Lives and Oliver Stone’s 1986 Platoon. As beings with a complex sense of right and wrong, it follows that that sense can be broken.
One Marine coming out of Iraq told me simply “My guilt will never go away. There is a part of me that doesn’t believe it should be allowed to go away, that this pain is fair.”
TAC: What was the most surprising thing you learned from the elderly Japanese you spoke with for this book?
Van Buren: Things were done in Japan that turned schoolboys and farmers and merchants from neutral persons to combatants. They became radicalized. I think that was something I knew intellectually but did not understand at a gut level, how easy it is to propagandize people, especially children. Japanese kids had been propagandized from their early childhood. These kids had been taught from the first day of kindergarten that it was their hemisphere in East Asia, and they were obligated to free it from western colonization. They were taught via movies and school lessons that the Japanese were superior to Koreans and Chinese, that that was the natural order of things. Even the Japanese version of religion was better, more pure.
Sound familiar in a post-9/11 world? It was never not part of their lives. It was very easy to take that as the natural state of things, that they were going to be part of a struggle of good versus evil. The Japanese government spent a decade getting its children ready for war. I look back at my childhood and, where we said the pledge of allegiance and did not ask questions of what your government was doing. You did not ask the hard questions of what what your country was doing.
Even today we see things like like “patriotism,” that look very much what these Japanese kids were being told. The demonization of the enemy. You can take what they were told then and you could pop it out of that context and into any other context of a the War on Terror. Change the nouns, and it would translate literally, word for word, from 1930s Japan to 1960s American to modern ISIS online sessions.
I also learned the extent that hunger played in Japan in the Second World War (during the Allied siege). People eating dogs and they were eating roots and parents were making choices about which of their children to feed. That story is not told in Western media at all.
TAC: In your last book, Ghosts of Tom Joad, you cast a glaring light on another very human experience—poverty and loss of identity—written through the eyes of regular Americans. How might Hooper compare to Tom Joad?
Van Buren: We find out that the main character in Hooper’s War is from the same town as the characters in Tom Joad. These stories are all connected. What happens to America at the hands and by the actions of their government is at the core of all of these stories. In Tom Joad the actions of the government destroy the midwestern way of life. In Hooper’s War there are young people who are sent off with the belief that the government is doing the right thing by them, sending them into war. That may be true in some macro sense, but the characters on the ground find nearly every situation morally ambiguous, and where there are no right or wrong answers and they are making split decisions that could harm the rest of their lives.
TAC: How did your own experience as a boomer-generation child inform this?
Van Buren: There is a lot of me in there I’m afraid, but it’s a much older me. I grew up in the gap between the patriotism that fueled the early Vietnam generation and the new patriotism that picked up during the first Gulf War. I was in the kind of neutral period where most of us didn’t feel compelled to join the military. I knew very little about the military. My dad served in a non-combatant role in Korea, my own grandfather was disabled and not a combatant in World War II. All of that changed for me when I went to Iraq in 2009, when I was embedded in the 10th Mountain Division there as a State Department diplomat. I knew so little about the military and war and what good and bad people do in these situations. I was suddenly exposed in so many different ways to things I never thought I would experience. I was mortared. I saw the aftermath of car bombs. Two soldiers in the units I worked with committed suicide. I saw what people were like making life and death decisions under enormous stress.
At the age of 50 I was experiencing so many things that changed me as a person and sensing things I had been totally ignorant of. It changed me. I’m in the book, I’m all through the book but not in an arrogant way, but in a sense that I’m the voice that is learning all these things alongside the main character, who also enters this story clueless about what is going on.
TAC: How did your Iraq experience inform your graphic, often unsettling portrayals of battlefield combat and the daily drudgery of war?
Van Buren: I was in a very unique role in Iraq. I had my little job to do working for the U.S/ Government, and I had reason to be there but it was a small part of what my Army unit was doing, which was shooting bad guys at night and doing real soldier stuff. I was a participant, I had a role, not like a journalist or some kind of war tourist, but I also was a third-party observer for a lot of things and I took advantage of that to learn everything I could. The soldiers were very nice to let me go along on missions that I had no official business being on and experience stuff that soldiers did. My eyes kept getting wider and wider. And I was looking at this stuff in utter shock. Not everyone gets that opportunity. At the same time I was personally, emotionally struck by the suicides, I was personally, emotionally struck by the devastation. There is always a lot of down time in military operations—hurry up and wait, right?—and so I talked to everyone I could, new guys and old vets alike. I hope my book does justice to the things they shared with me, because about 90 percent of what I read elsewhere is garbage, making everyone out to be either a hero or a baby killer, depending on the political needs for the day. Nothing is straightforward like that, nothing, not in any war.
TAC: What do you want readers to take away from this?
Van Buren: I think they will enjoy that it is a good story, a good story with a conscience. There are messages here, and philosophical points to be made there, but it is also a story you can still down and enjoy.
I also hope I am bringing this concept of moral injury to a wider audience, and to people who are not familiar with it—that moral injury is a cost of war. That it is about the suicides that take place every day, it is what their husbands and wives and brothers and sisters come home with. The next goal is to understand that there are implications of war forcing us to choose between morality and expediency. It never works when you step away from the moral positions. Whether on a macro level or among individual soldiers or whatever, it is never right when you abandon morality, when it is not at the core of what you are doing it will fail.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is managing editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC
WASHINGTON—The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and significant political capital trying to kill a brand-new law that would allow 9/11 survivors to sue the longstanding U.S. ally for its alleged connections to the terror attacks in domestic court. But the latest Saudi tactic—recruiting unaware American veterans to lobby their cause on Capitol Hill—crosses a line and may have run afoul of the law, say critics who have helped to expose the scheme in recent months.
“Lobbying by a foreign government is not necessarily illegal, but it is unethical and underhanded to use our nation’s heroes, our combat veterans, and turn them against the very families that you take an oath to protect,” charged Edward Vento, a Persian Gulf vet from Reno, Nev., who said he was asked “by a friend of a friend” to join a lobbying trip to Washington this winter. He declined.
According to records kept under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), multiple U.S. lobbying firms and individuals have disclosed contracts with the Saudi government to recruit veterans to spread the message on the Hill about the 2016 Justice Against State Sponsored Terrorism Act (JASTA) and its “unintended consequences,” including “potential liabilities arising for U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic personnel.”
Veterans contacted by TAC—even those who went on the fully paid trips to DC involving free hotel rooms (many at the now-legendary Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue), meals, and nights out on the town—say recruits in many cases were misinformed about what JASTA really does, and furthermore, not told at all that Saudi Arabia, the country that would currently have the most to lose if JASTA remains intact, was behind it all.
“I was blatantly lied to,” said Lorraine Barlett, a retired Army JAG officer, who said she was told “several entities” were paying for the trips she took. Barlett said the events were billed as “come support your local service members” in a notice passed along by a friend who was recruiting veterans in Augusta, Ga. She was not told Saudi Arabia was footing most if not all of the bills.
Dave Casler, an Iraq War vet from Sacramento, Calif., said something felt a bit off, but he went on a February trip anyway to “see what I could find out.” He called the experience “bat-shit crazy” with seemingly limitless funds for elaborate dinners and free booze. He told TAC the organizer of his trip, Jason Johns, told participants, unsolicited, that “this was not at all funded by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” Later, Casler recalled another coordinator, clearly intoxicated after a night of indulging, bragging that “the Kingdom” was behind it all.
Casler and others felt they were kept in the dark the whole time. “It’s multiple veterans on multiple trips who have said, ‘I wasn’t told the truth about who was paying for this,’” he said. “People don’t like being lied to or being used.” So far reporters have pieced together six or seven trips with 25–50 vets each.
9/11 Victims’ Families and Survivors United for Justice Against Terrorism—the main group pushing for JASTA legislation in hope of getting their day in court against Saudi Arabia—has formally asked the Department of Justice to investigate violations of FARA. The law, which monitors foreign lobbying, requires that American agents working on behalf of “foreign principles,” disclose all monies, missions, and materials associated with their work. The group claims there might have been hundreds of people lobbying on behalf of the Saudi Royal Family or government, including the volunteer veterans, who should have reported their activities. They said any materials given to volunteers or left with members of Congress did not disclose who paid for them. In short, they cite some 10 violations of U.S. code.
“They are going into these offices in Congress and none of them tell members of Congress that they are working on behalf of the Kingdom,” said Terry Strada, who heads the 9/11 Families organization and the Pass JASTA campaign. Her husband Thomas was a senior bond trader at Cantor Fitzgerald when he perished in the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers, leaving behind three children then aged 7, 4, and four days old.
“They had high-ranking, older vets, young vets, purple heart vets—all were misled. It’s one of the most disgusting things I’ve witnessed since 9/11.”
The complaint, sent to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, was dated March 29. When reached by TAC, the Department of Justice press office declined comment.
Meanwhile, the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington did not return a request for comment on this story. One of the Washington-based organizers for the trips, Scott Wheeler, whose FARA disclosure says his Capitol Media Group received some $365,000 from the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia to organize three veterans’ trips at a base fee of $30,000 each plus expenses to lobby against JASTA, spoke with TAC about the allegations by the 9/11 families and others.
“All of this is being turned into something that it is not,” he said. “We gave the material to the veterans to look at and they made their own determination. We did not tell them what to say. No one was misled. This is not a story.”
Wheeler, who is a veteran and longtime Republican media operative and journalist, said he never took the funds directly by the Saudi embassy, but via a Washington firm that recruited him. That firm, Qorvis MSLGroup, is one of over a dozen U.S. lobbying outfits currently on the Saudi payroll to the tune of $1.3 million a month, ostensibly to kill JASTA or at the very least render it harmless to the Kingdom. In 2004, according to reports at the time, the FBI raided Qorvis’s offices during an investigation of its lobbying campaign for Saudi Arabia, which was trying to burnish its image after 9/11.
Qorvis did not return a request for comment on this story. A spokesman for the firm told the Daily Caller, which broke the first story about this issue on February 7, that everything they were doing with the vets was “totally out in the open. This is totally transparent.” In a follow-up story on the DOJ complaint, Qorvis managing director Mike Petruzzello told Yahoo! News reporter Mike Isikoff that the veterans’ complaints that they did not know about Saudi Arabia’s backing of the project “rings hollow to me.”
Retired Air Force Col. George Risse of O’Fallon, Ill., told TAC that he was informed ahead of time that Saudi Arabia was footing the bill. The information led him to do more research on JASTA before he went to DC.
“My only concern was whether they were going to tell me what to say and they said absolutely not,” Risse said of his contacts. He ultimately went on a trip with Johns, a Purple Heart veteran and head of the No Man Left Behind Advocacy Group. Johns received a $100,000 fee from Qorvis to engage in outreach to the media, elected officials, and “influencers” against JASTA. (His memo to vets ahead of the February trip is here.)
“My experience has been they were very up front,” Risse said. “None of our allies thinks JASTA is a good idea.” Like others, he believes the trial lawyers are the only ones benefitting from it. As for Saudi Arabia being behind the trip, “I don’t consider that a problem as long as our interests are aligned.”
Do Saudis and Vets Have the Same Interests?
The Kingdom has been dogged by at least 9,000 lawsuits since 9/11 because survivors like Strada believe they can prove that elements of the government provided material support to the hijackers—15 out of 19 were Saudi—and that the state for years funded the spread the extremist ideology fueling al-Qaeda. While the U.S. government has held that there is “no smoking gun,” lawyers for the survivors believe they have identified enough evidence to let this play out in court, and the Saudis have done everything to avoid that day of reckoning.
In other words, say critics, this anti-JASTA campaign has nothing to do with troops, and everything to do with saving Saudi skins. “There are many layers of deception here, starting with giving veterans a false description of what JASTA is,” said Brian McGlinchey, who publishes the 28Pages.org website, which plumbed FARA records showing the big money trail from the Saudis to dozens of Americans working on their behalf. He has also reached out to veterans via social media to get their stories. “That U.S. veterans could be sued and hauled into foreign courts because of JASTA is just false on the face of it.”
According to Vento, the Reno veteran who declined to participate, recruiters have been setting up shop at trade shows and other events popular with veterans across the country in states as far flung from DC as Nevada, Oklahoma, and Colorado. The pitch is simple: Help your fellow service members. In one photo snapped of a booth at a trade show a banner declares, “Protect our troops from JASTA backlash.” Recruits were told that JASTA could result in service members being sued for war crimes. Leaders tell them the bill is a creature of trial lawyers looking to cash in—that it’s about money, not justice.
“You can see what they are doing—trying to turn [veterans] against the 9/11 families. You’re taking victims of terror and what is perceived as the nation’s heroes, and turning them against each other,” said Vento.
While JASTA passed both the House and Senate last year with large, bipartisan majorities, critics—even those who voted for it—worry the principle of state sovereign immunity is now at risk. JASTA now makes it easier for terrorism-related civil suits against foreign states in domestic courts whether or not they are not on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, which Saudi Arabia is not.
Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain, as well as a slew of skeptics from both sides of the aisle, warned of a backlash from other countries that could pass their own laws allowing them to drag the U.S. into court over perceived crimes. Barlett, the former Army lawyer, believes it is “a poorly written law” that could result in “a wing ding” of legislation by other countries in the future, “but there was no merit to the argument that it could hurt military servicemembers”—and she told that to Wheeler, the chief organizer of her two trips. She said the group continued to mislead the other veterans about the impact of the bill, which Wheeler strongly denies.
Barlett also charges that when she asked who was funding the trip, Wheeler would not give her a straight answer. She only found out the truth when the stories broke out in the news.
She said she is “embarrassed” for trusting her friend and going along. “Had I been told on the front end I would have never gone.”
Meanwhile, Tim Cord, speaking with McGlinchey for 28Pages.org, said his entire outlook changed when he was told about the Saudis. To him, their interests are not aligned.
“I’m sitting in the Trump hotel having the time of my life, and I get to the realization that, goddamn, I owe them now, and that is not a cool feeling to have. Not the Saudis, dude,” Tim Cord told McGlinchey.
A heated conversation has since ensued on Facebook, with veterans angered by the campaign arguing with those who felt their time in Washington was well spent—no matter who was paying.
“All efforts were made to be sure that the veterans knew up front that Saudi Arabia was funding the trips,” insisted Johns, a Purple Heart veteran who says he was never paid directly by the Saudis. He even disputes Casler’s recollection of events. “It is not true that I made any such unsolicited announcement about Saudi Arabia not funding the trip.”
He said his own concerns that JASTA would be harmful to the U.S. military led to his involvement in the campaign, and he doesn’t trust that bigger interests on the other side aren’t fueling these attacks on him and other vets involved. “I see trial lawyers in this.”
“Make no mistake, this has been and is all about the MONEY,” Johns wrote in an email, questioning why it’s “somehow scandalous and shady for an an ally, who has never been found culpable in the 9/11 attacks (is all conspiracy based allegations and scenarios) to facilitate honorable veterans speaking to Congress simply because our interests align?”
Vento says if it is a choice of between defending the 9/11 families or the Saudi Kingdom, the choice is clear. “I stand on the side of the 9/11 families. Period.”
Kelley Vlahos is a freelance reporter in Washington.
WASHINGTON—Many of President Donald Trump’s personal touchstones harken back to the 1980s, when he found his financial fortune and mojo as an American celebrity. So perhaps it’s no surprise that his style and flash—including his friends and his homes—reflect the glitz and hubris of the era often named after Trump’s self-proclaimed political hero and lodestar, Ronald Reagan.
This fealty to a certain image of Reagan is evident in Trump’s recent declarations about the military budget. Last week the president announced he would ask Congress for an “historic” $54 billion increase in defense spending over 2017 levels, “to rebuild the depleted military of the United States of America,” sending a message of “American strength, security and resolve” to the rest of the world.
The White House says the $54 billion would be a 10 percent hike over the spending caps put into place by Congress in 2011. But much of this rhetoric may be misleading. As White House budget director Mick Mulvaney later pointed out, Trump’s numbers would raise the defense budget to $603 billion, just 3 percent higher than the $584 billion spent by the end of fiscal year 2017 in September, and representing an increase of just slightly more than the current 2.5 percent rate of inflation.
That’s just one of a number of baseline assumptions, says Gordon Adams, a defense budget expert and former Office of Management and Budget official in the Clinton administration. To be sure, it’s complicated. For example, the caps imposed by the Budget Control Act in 2011 (which are supposed to trigger the infamous “sequestration” cuts) have been raised for three years to accommodate past congressional spending desires, and the Overseas Contingency Operations budget has raised spending well over the caps, too. That shifts the baseline around a bit.
“The amount of increase is in the eye of the beholder,” Gordon tells TAC. No kidding: the New York Times released a “fact check” and a chart, based on numbers from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, showing that in Reagan’s first year in office (1981), he increased the budget a whopping 25 percent, far above Trump’s “historic” hike.
Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, dismissed Trump’s plans as insufficient. McCain’s own budget plan calls for $640 billion in base defense spending in FY 2018, growing to over $740 billion in FY 2022.
“It did surprise me that he didn’t want more,” noted Dan Grazier, military budget analyst for the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), which advocates for reforming the Pentagon’s annual feeding frenzy. “When people on the Armed Services Committee are complaining that it isn’t enough, that’s a hopeful sign.”
Unlike Reagan, however, Trump is disinclined to raise the national debt in order to increase defense spending. And unlike the Obama era, Trump appears prepared to eschew previous deals with Democrats in order to raise the caps and send more dollars to the Pentagon. In years past, Democrats made agreements with Republicans to increase as much of the budget on the non-discretionary domestic side as they did on the military side, said Adams.
“The dollar-for-dollar adjustment was a function of the political balance,” he pointed out. “We don’t have that political balance anymore.”
Officials with knowledge of the president’s plan said that in order to pay for this “massive buildup,” there would be severe cuts—as much as 30 percent to the State Department’s foreign aid and diplomacy budgets, including major restructuring and even elimination of programs. The Environmental Protection Agency, a big target of Trump to begin with, would also take a 24 percent cut in its $8.1 billion budget, say sources.
The United States currently spends about $50 billion annually on the State Department and foreign assistance, a shadow of what the Pentagon spends each year.
“He ran on a platform of increasing the size, but not the cost of the military,” points out Ben Friedman, defense and homeland security fellow at the Cato Institute. “He’s fulfilling his campaign promises and he’s a Republican and this is a standard Republican position, not to raise deficit spending.”
But many suggest that this scenario, in which diplomacy and foreign assistance would have to be the sacrificial lamb, almost guarantees that Trump’s budget plan will get push back from Democrats—and even a few Republicans. Some have already called it dead on arrival. But with enough Republicans in the House and Senate willing to cut other areas of the budget to increase military outlays while staying under previous caps, State Department programs may be the first to take a hit. “They don’t have lobbyists hanging around on Capitol Hill to save those bucks,” said Adams. “That’s been true for decades.”
So far the details of how Trump plans to engage in this “rebuilding” of the military are thin. The Associated Press said the boost would go to big displays of power: new ships, aircraft, and fighters. During the campaign Trump borrowed heavily from Heritage Foundation white papers (not unlike Reagan once did) and has talked about increasing the size of the Navy from 274 to 350 ships, adding 60,000 soldiers to the Army, and allowing the Marines to expand to a wartime footing of 36 battalions. During a speech last week, he vowed to increase the current fleet of 10 aircraft carriers to a dozen.
Sources with knowledge of how these budgets work say it’s not how much is spent that matters—but how it’s spent. After all these showy, big-ticket items are paid for there will be very little money left in the president’s proposal for more immediate needs, like basic maintenance for existing ships, aircraft, and vehicles. Up to half of the current fleet of F-18 fighter planes have been grounded due to maintenance problems, for example. This might be fine if the F-35 joint strike fighter aircraft were off the ground, but with the replacement plane delayed, there are gaps in training and readiness, particularly for pilots.
Temptations of Power
Trump’s recent spending announcements, coupled with the general themes he’s hewed to during the campaign, appear to be part of an opening salvo in the coming budget fights with Congress. But there’s more to it. Trump seems to think Reagan’s own approach to facing down the Soviets and winning the Cold War—pouring money into the military industrial complex and turning around the nation’s patriotic malaise with soaring, muscular rhetoric—will work in 2017. If such a program can generate jobs and pump life into the economy, even better.
“Ronald Reagan made the argument that the only way to win the Cold War was peace through strength,” noted Gordon Adams. The phrase became a mainstay of GOP platforms with Reagan further explaining in 1983 that “to be prepared for war…is one of the most effective means of preserving peace.” Of course the now shopworn maxim has limits: as Andrew Bacevich has noted, it easily becomes “peace through war” because such a formidable posture “breeds the temptation to put that power to work.”
But Trump isn’t likely to be thinking in those terms. He is instead recalling Reagan psyching out the Russians and forcing the Soviet Union into a free fall that ended in its collapse a few years after the Gipper left office. Trump may similarly want to confront adversaries such as ISIS, Iran, North Korea, and China—and despite theories to the contrary, maybe even Putin’s Russia, too.
“Shades of Ronald Reagan—that is what I thought [when I heard his speech],” said Adams. “Because in a way this is a Reagan redux. Here we go again, as Reagan said himself, in the truest sense.”
But when Reagan came into office, the military really was in a bad state and had been—readiness and capability-wise, but especially culturally—since the end of the Vietnam War. There was a lot to do to bring it back to its proverbial glory. And unlike Trump’s vision, Reagan went into deficit spending to pay for it.
It’s “a funny irony,” says Adams. “We’re said to have ‘dismantled’ the military but it’s simply not true. The United States today has the biggest, baddest, most ready military in the world.” The military may be tired from repeated deployments and in need of the aforementioned maintenance and upgrades, but it isn’t “beleaguered,” critics of a new buildup say.
“I think he has a worldview that is not truly coherent; I guess people call it ‘Jacksonian,’” Cato’s Friedman suggested to TAC, noting that Trump’s foreign-policy positions seem to recall the seventh U.S. president, a man well prepared to defend the nation, but not interested in taking up messianic foreign adventures to spread American liberalism or seek global hegemony. “But it is militaristic. [Trump] has bragged about being militaristic. Speak loudly, carry a big stick.”
“I also think he has more of a worshipful attitude toward the military than most—until of course, [the military] conflicts with his own ego,” says Friedman.
Draining the Swamp?
Advocates of foreign-policy restraint can be pleased that Trump so far seems averse to starting wars and nation building. Yet for the military-industrial complex, staying home can also be very good news. Building up for war is just as good for business as fighting one, maybe even better.
“The whole system wants to get as much money as humanly possible,” said Grazier, who after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan retired from the Marine Corps as a captain, joined POGO in 2015. “There is a big, concerted effort not only to keep things as they are but to get more.”
That effort includes millions of dollars of political contributions and lobbying resources that big civilian contractors—including Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon—hope will start returning on investment as these budget battles begin. According to the Center for Responsible Politics, since 2009 these heavy hitters have contributed $42 million to political candidates, most of them perched on Congressional armed services and appropriations committees.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, for example, received $393,850 from defense interests in the 2016 election cycle, almost seven times as much as the country’s median household income. Sen. McCain, who has scoffed that Trump’s ideal military budget is too small, took $312,365 from defense interests in the last cycle.
These contributions to some of the most visible legislators represent just a small fraction of all the money flowing from defense interests—nearly $127 million in the last year alone, including 748 lobbyists representing 218 clients on Capitol Hill. It’s a swamp Trump seems unlikely to succeed in draining.
Few in Washington, besides POGO and their allies, are publicly making the case that overheated rhetoric will continue to drive irresponsible military spending. Still the president seems confident using 1980’s retro themes of bigger, bolder, and stronger, whether the spending is destined for Main Street USA or much farther away. He’ll deal with the costs—and the messy details—later.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, DC-based freelance reporter.
WASHINGTON—Despite questions about the ongoing war in Afghanistan, President Trump has so far chosen silence over substance. But perhaps it doesn’t matter, as an illuminating exchange that took place before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week all but guaranteed what his policy will be.
Trump’s approach to Afghanistan will no doubt involve more American troops, more aggressive activity on the ground, and a less definite schedule for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces. In other words, don’t expect a big shakeup of the status quo. Perhaps the most notable change is that the military won’t try to have it both ways, keeping soldiers in the country while telegraphing meaningless “timetables” for an exit.
This appears to be the result of letting those in uniform—or in the case of new Secretary of Defense James Mattis, the recently retired—make the tough calls. Mattis oversaw Afghanistan from 2010 to 2013 as the leader of U.S. Central Command, and he has already signaled he will not waver on the American commitment. The new homeland-security secretary, retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, commanded forces in Iraq and also lost his son, a Marine who died while serving his third tour in Afghanistan; he, too, obviously feels there is unfinished business there.
As for Congress, most members fall into one of two mindsets—unflinching resolve to increase the U.S. footprint, or resignation that there is no other way. And the president? While at first blush it might look like Trump only has the bandwidth for his oft-stated goal of “eradicating radical Islamic terrorism from the face of the earth,” his generals—with the help of the most hawkish senators on Capitol Hill—are making sure that Afghanistan is considered part of that fight.
So it did not escape notice when Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, packaged the mission as an urgent priority that ultimately Trump would have to embrace. Speaking to senators last week, Nicholson said staying in Afghanistan is part of our “enduring counterterrorism platform” (a phrase he repeated several times), which “is critically important to our national security” and “the homeland.”
Leaving the country now would be folly, Nicholson argued, because without the U.S. and NATO there to finish the mission, the population would inevitably fall into the hands of extremists, heightening the risk of a domestic terrorist attack. In the words of George W. Bush, “we will fight them over there so we do not have to face them in the United States of America.”
Indeed, there were reports in January that President-elect Trump had already spoken to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and promised to consider a bump-up in troops. That conversation was never confirmed by Trump’s people. Nor was it denied. The White House said Trump spoke to Ghani last week, the same day as the Nicholson hearing, and promised him continued American support for security but offered no clarity about troop numbers. Many believe it’s a fait accompli.
According to Nicholson, Afghanistan is “a stalemate,” with no fewer than 20 different terror groups operating there now. In addition to the well-known Taliban and al-Qaeda, there is also an Islamic State franchise, IS in Khorasan Province (ISKP), which has taken responsibility for a recent spate of ruthless suicide bombings in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Without a trace of irony, the general said that after 15 years of war in Afghanistan, the country now “has the greatest concentration of terrorist organizations in the world.”
Nicholson suggested a “few thousand” more troops would be needed to continue training, advising, and filling in where private contractors are now taking up the slack. Currently there are some 8,400 U.S. troops and 26,435 U.S. contractors in Afghanistan, a country of 30 million people. Most of these personnel are in training and advisory roles, while a much smaller number are special forces dedicated to counterterrorism. Nicholson said he believed the administration was “open to a discussion of an objectives-based approach.”
But the situation is a lot uglier and more complicated than the generals readily admit. Nicholson did not deny nor rebuke senators who raised Afghanistan’s notorious corruption issues. Other enormous obstacles to progress include Pakistan’s seeming lack of interest in controlling the flow of terrorists into Afghanistan, the growth of the opium industry feeding the terror groups there, and the total cost to American taxpayers, which has now reached three-quarters of a trillion dollars.
Interestingly, Nicholson also argued that both Iran and Russia were meddling in Afghanistan, deliberately undermining U.S. and NATO efforts there. According to Nicholson, Shia Iran is supporting Sunni Taliban in Afghanistan and recruiting Shia to fight for Bashar Assad (and ultimately against U.S.-backed forces) in Syria. Russia is allegedly “legitimizing” the Taliban by suggesting they are fighting ISIS in Afghanistan, while the Afghan government is not.
During these kinds of hearings, when faced with big brass with a chest full of medals and ribbons, lawmakers of most stripes appear to have one default setting: agree to a little more time. Victory is surely right around the corner, they reason, if only we hang in there and give the Afghans the tools to fight for their country.
And even if Trump does get cold feet over troop increases, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, just itching for a blood-on-the-Senate-floor fight with Trump, are practically begging the generals to ask for more troops.
At the hearing, McCain glowered when talking about President Obama’s initial plans for withdrawal (abandoned by the end of his term) and rules of engagement he said tied soldiers’ and Marines’ hands when it came to fighting the enemy. Now the need to stay the course is even greater, McCain said, “because of the incredible rules of engagement … because of the unwarranted reduction of forces led us on the predictable path today that was predicted—predicted!—by those of us who actually know about warfare.”
Critics were disheartened after last week’s hearing. “More troops?” asked retired Army Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, now a fellow at Defense Priorities. “How would the introduction of a few thousand troops reverse the stalemate that you claim we are under and have been for 16 years? What will these new troops do? How will they reverse the situation on the ground that is currently impossible to do?”
“Thus far the government of Afghanistan has shown an utter inability to govern,” he added. “Putting more U.S. troops in to accomplish anything will be like putting a fist in a bucket of water: wherever my fist goes, the water [insurgency] is displaced; as soon as I withdraw my hand, the water comes back.”
Every single measurement suggests that the current course is not working, but thanks to the power vacuums and weak leaders pockmarking the landscape, Nicholson is right about one thing: the very worst extremists could overrun if Afghanistan if U.S. and NATO abandon it now.
“The real issue for president Trump is whether he has the strategic patience to continue U.S. military involvement until you can come up with a negotiated solution,” said Lawrence Korb, who was an assistant defense secretary under the Reagan administration. “If he doesn’t, he is going to have to decide whether he is going to try to win militarily or engage in nation building—neither of which are plausible alternatives.”
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan (SIGAR) has in recent weeks rolled out some grim metrics about the lack of progress there. In the meantime, some Democratic senators, including Elizabeth Warren, attempted to draw attention to the price of staying but stopped far short of suggesting they’d stop a mini-surge of fresh troops.
“We are now paying $13 million every day in Afghanistan; more than 2,000 [U.S. soldiers] have made the ultimate sacrifice there; more than 8,400 American servicemembers are there today,” Warren reminded Nicholson. “Our military could not and should not be there forever.”
Beyond that, SIGAR reported in January that Afghan commanders continue to pocket the salaries of “ghost soldiers,” troops who exist on the books but not in reality and could number in the “tens of thousands.” Not surprisingly, only 63 percent of the country’s districts are under government control today, with 15 percent ceded to the Taliban last year. Afghan soldiers actually on the battlefield suffered 15,000 casualties in 2016, including more than 5,600 deaths.
Meanwhile as much as half of U.S.-purchased fuel for the military is being siphoned off somewhere. Corruption is still rampant in the government, too, with myriad examples of waste, fraud, and abuse associated with the $117 billion the U.S has invested for reconstruction there. Even though the U.S and NATO have promised more than $15 billion more, who has the confidence it will go where it’s needed?
Opium production is up, even though the U.S. has committed $8 billion to counternarcotics, according to SIGAR. As much as 60 percent of the Taliban’s funding is coming from poppy production and cultivation.
And the Afghan people? Some 3,498 civilians were killed in 2016, the highest number recorded since 2009. This included a ten-fold increase in ISIS related deaths and injuries, according to the United Nations.
Korb says asking for more troops “is what generals do,” even if they have to exaggerate the threat to the homeland. But Congress is falling down on its job to engage more rigorously. Legislators should question how many troops are needed and what exactly the end-game strategy is—beyond the usual platitudes about destroying the terrorists, helping the Afghans build their government, “working with Pakistan,” enabling a “peace and reconciliation process,” and blaming the Iranians and Russians for what doesn’t work.
SIGAR official John F. Sopko appeared to say it best, addressing the words of Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford last September. “Withdraw and the democratic government may well fall,” said Sopko. “Stay, and continue to do what we have been doing, and we may be faced with what General Dunford has described as a stalemate.”
Obama was willing to risk such a draw in Afghanistan for eight years. But will Trump? Or is something worse than a stalemate on the horizon?
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, DC-based freelance reporter.
Editor’s note: A reference to Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn has been removed from this piece. His resignation was announced shortly after it was posted.
WASHINGTON—Can a soldier get a fair trial if the man who is his commander-in-chief today has repeatedly condemned him as a traitor and a deserter and publicly suggested he be executed?
The defense team of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who is awaiting an April 18 court martial on charges that he deserted his Afghanistan post before he was kidnapped and spent five years in brutal Taliban captivity, has moved to dismiss the charges against him. They say their client couldn’t possibly get a fair trial with Donald Trump in the White House.
The videographic evidence is hard to ignore. The team has assembled a YouTube video consisting of 30 minutes of Trump predetermining Bergdahl’s guilt at no fewer than 65 campaign events and media appearances since 2014. Trump calls Bergdahl a “dirty rotten traitor” and a “deserter” countless times. Trump also claims that six U.S. military personnel died looking for him, which the Department of Defense has said is not true, and promises to not only review but alter the case once in office.
After at least 10 minutes of Trump calling Bergdahl a traitor and deserter, the video shifts its focus to capital punishment. Trump tells of the “good ol’ days” when they would take deserters and—here he mimicks a rifle shot—“bang!” Trump repeats this pantomime numerous times with small tweaks and embellishments for effect. He also says, “I would take that son of a bitch and drop him over the top” of Taliban territory from a plane.
“He’s a traitor, a no-good traitor, who should’ve been executed,” he says at a rally in Las Vegas.
“Before we bomb ISIS we drop Bergdahl right in the middle of it,” he says to another enthusiastic audience.
“I may have him flown back into that place, and boom, drop him … it’s cheaper than a bullet,” he says to another.
“I want to renegotiate that deal,” he says of the swap that was made for five of “the worst killers.” (At least four of the five Taliban swapped were political, moderate Taliban never accused of direct violence.)
“Send him back … I don’t want him,” he says to another rally, again to lusty cheers from the crowd. “Should we give him a parachute or not? I say no. Why waste a perfectly good parachute?”
Whatever one thinks of Bergdahl, that he was mentally unsound or a deserter or both (TAC has written extensively of the circumstances leading up to and following his disappearance in 2009), he has a constitutional right to due process. His chief defense counsel, Eugene R. Fidell, says Trump’s numerous statements, made consistently over the course of nearly two years to audiences across the country, deny him that right and also pose an “unlawful command influence,” which is prohibited in the court of military justice, even though Trump’s statements were made before he was elected president.
“The case really is unprecedented, and it poses a challenge for the military justice system. Mr. Trump can’t ignore—we can’t ignore—what he previously said like he just put on a clean shirt for the inauguration. There is history and history has consequences,” Fidell told TAC Monday.
“These weren’t generic comments, they were comments that focused specifically on [Bergdahl],” and they were never repudiated, he pointed out. “This is a person who successfully campaigned for the highest office of the country on that basis.”
Not only does it prejudice public opinion, but it prejudices the military jurors and officers who now call Donald Trump their commander-in-chief.
Lorraine Barlett, a retired Army Judge Advocate General (JAG), told TAC in an email that she “sadly agrees” with the Bergdahl team that his fair trial has been compromised:
In this political climate there well may be a case of “reverse” jury (panel) nullification, meaning, despite even a failure to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, there is likely to be a predisposition to find him guilty and HAMMER it home (call it the Trump factor, anti-Obama-ism, a backlash against the Chelsea Manning pardon, any number of possible reasons). And of course any comments by Trump concerning this case will almost certainly sway the outcome improperly—we call it “unlawful command influence.”
When asked about the motion to dismiss, a spokesman at Fort Bragg, where the general court martial is to be held starting April 18, told the New York Times that the military remained committed to “ensuring his ongoing legal proceeding’s fairness and impartiality.”
The government has five days to respond to the January 20 motion. If convicted on the charges, Bergdahl, 30, faces life in prison.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, DC-based freelance reporter.
Editor’s note: This article has been amended to reflect a change in the court-martial date, from February 5 to April 18.
WASHINGTON—There is much to learn about what Donald Trump’s foreign policy is going to look like, with one of the most anticipated issues being his approach to Israel. After eight years of the Obama administration, the relationship between the U.S. and its Middle East partner has frayed considerably over significant and seemingly insurmountable differences, those concerning the nuclear deal with Iran and the expanding settlements in the West Bank being the most consequential, if not existential.
Trump started off his campaign signaling he would be “neutral” on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but he has shifted considerably in recent weeks toward the views of the staunchest Zionists. This has included tapping a man considered to be to the right of conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as U.S. ambassador to Israel, choosing another pro-settlement Republican as his international business adviser, welcoming the heretofore marginalized Israeli ambassador into the bosom of his inner circle in Washington, and, just recently, appointing his son-in-law, who is reportedly behind bringing all these players into the fold, as a senior adviser.
Trump’s not-so-subtle slide toward the far right of the spectrum has alarmed more moderate—some would say Democratic—Jewish groups and establishment writers, who sense in this group a strong consensus against a two-state solution for Israeli Jews and Arab Palestinians. Collectively, there is more support here for expanded settlements in contested Palestinian territories, and for moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, than there has been at the levers of Washington power in a long time, if ever. If these forces have their way, an already fragile Middle East could be headed for a new regional conflagration, with the peace process turned back decades.
“It is concerning because this is an administration that seems to be backing away from a longstanding, bipartisan consensus in support of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a longstanding bipartisan U.S. foreign policy opposing actions that hurt the prospects of that two-state solution, including settlement expansion,” said Dylan Williams, vice president for government affairs for J Street—which, among other moderate stances, supports the Iran nuclear agreement.
The issue took center stage in December when, after the U.S. abstained from a UN Security Council vote calling for a halt to the settlements, Trump blasted off a series of tweets calling out the Obama administration for the nuke deal and for not vetoing the UN resolution, and then directly urging the Israeli people to “stay strong,” promising that “things will get better after Jan. 20.” This came less than a month after his senior aide Kellyanne Conway insisted that moving the embassy was “a big priority” for Trump.
“It’s definitely alarming,” said Williams. “Like so many of Trump’s tweets and remarks, it remains to be seen how much is rhetoric and how much he plans to put into action.” But a “reversal” on the two-state solution and the embassy, he added, “would be very dangerous for us, and especially for the Israeli people.”
Already, the wheels are turning. On the first day of the new congressional session, failed GOP presidential candidates Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, along with Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller, introduced legislation to declare Jerusalem the official capital of Israel and to move the embassy there from Tel Aviv. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wrote a letter to Trump warning him against the move, saying it would have “a disastrous impact” on the peace process. Going further, Jordan warned the incoming president that moving the embassy to Jerusalem would be a “red line” for Jordan and that there would be “catastrophic” consequences.
Trump’s pick for U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has only emboldened this ideological trajectory. Friedman is an Orthodox Jew and Long Island bankruptcy lawyer who co-chaired Trump’s Israel advisory committee on the campaign with longtime Trump business lawyer Jason Greenblatt, who is now special representative for international negotiations. Both men have close ties to Ivanka Trump’s husband, Jared Kushner, who reportedly helped “guide” Trump’s speech last year to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and whose appointment to the White House has been hailed as closing this powerful circle.
Friedman not only thinks the settlements are legal but has called the two-state solution an “illusion” and has promised backers on the campaign trail that Trump will do nothing to pressure Israel into negotiations. He is an active supporter of and donor to the conservative Beit El settlement in the West Bank. He has said J Street is “worse than Kapos,” referring to Jewish Nazi collaborators, and said the Anti-Defamation League critics of Trump sounded like “morons.”
Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., is reportedly frozen out of the Obama White House, but he has so far found a warm reception in this Trump confederacy. He has accused the Obama administration of colluding with the UN on the anti-settlement resolution and defended Steve Bannon and Breitbart News against charges of anti-Semitism. Dermer helped arrange for Netanyahu’s controversial speech before Congress in 2015. He has also called for the embassy move, and considers Friedman “an excellent choice” for ambassador.
For the ultra-conservative pro-Israel factions in Washington, these are welcome developments. The Republican Jewish Coalition readily endorsed Friedman.
AIPAC, however, after an embarrassing moment when Trump practically brought the house down criticizing Obama at its winter meeting in 2016, declined comment for this story. As did the American Enterprise Institute, the seat of the intellectual neoconservative policy movement in Washington. “I think these groups will embrace Trump,” guesses Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at Harvard University and coauthor of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. “The fact that Trump has been talking so starkly pro-Israel must be music to their ears.”
It’s a no-brainer for former UN ambassador and AEI scholar John Bolton, who spoke before the American Friends of Beit El last month in New York, assuring those assembled that Trump would likely move the embassy and stop U.S. opposition to the settlement. But the other prominent neoconservatives who served as President George W. Bush’s spear point on Middle East policy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are a different story. Many have reacted more tentatively, if not suspiciously, toward Trump on the Israeli issue, mostly because many of them headed “#NeverTrump” and other efforts to thwart his campaign in the first place.
“They have tended to be very pro-Israel and leaning toward the Netanyahu-Likud side of Israel politics. Most neocons have not said very much in public about a two-state solution. But they all have been very vocal in their opposition to Trump, from day one,” Walt tells TAC. “And that has yet to change.”
“I think they don’t trust his foreign policy, and are genuinely concerned about some of the anti-Semitic and racist elements embedded within the Trump movement,” Walt said.
Still they appear at least aware that he will be friendlier toward Israel’s interests, at least those interests espoused by Netanyahu and the conservative factions in the government.
Elliott Abrams, for example, is happy with the Friedman pick, and said so at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It seems very likely that under the Trump administration the United States will return to past practices and defend Israel again,” he wrote in Newsweek, referring to the settlement issue. “That would be a good start for 2017.”
Even Bill Kristol, possibly Trump’s worst critic from the right, has had a few positive words for Trump in recent days, mostly because he sees Obama’s approach to Israel as so abhorrent. “Trump will recalibrate the U.S.-Israel relationship, as he has said many times; he is much more friendly than the Obama administration has been,” he told MSNBC after the UN resolution vote.
Meanwhile, Jay Bergman, professor of Russian history at Central Connecticut State University and a contributor at the hard-right Jerusalem Post, accuses Jewish-American political interests like AIPAC of becoming too comfortable with the status quo and their access to the Washington establishment to fully endorse the radical moves that Trump and his coterie are talking about.
“The Zionist Organization of America trusts Trump, is pleased by his appointments generally, and its leaders probably find Trump’s populism preferable to the Democrats’ liberalism,” Bergman tells TAC. “Most of the others, including AIPAC, are led by Democrats who have come to value bipartisanship and the personal relations they have long enjoyed with the White House and the Congress much more than they do pursuing what they say is their sole objective, namely enhancing Israel’s security by strengthening support for it in the U.S.”
Unlike the J Street crowd, Bergman does not think that an embassy move or even a U.S. abandonment of the two-state solution would necessarily trigger a regional conflict. He believes the neighboring Arab states are more concerned about a nuclear Iran and would be more supportive of Trump’s efforts to undermine the deal spearheaded by the Obama administration.
“The Iran deal is easily the worst thing that Obama did in the last eight years,” Bergman insists. “Sunni Arabs are not dumb; they know Iran poses a far greater threat to them than Israel’s survival does, even though they can’t say so publicly.”
But no one—not Bergman on the right, J Street on the center-left, or Walt from his realist point of view—knows what Trump is really going to do, how much is bluster, or whether he will actively pursue Israel’s interests or merely pull back from a proactive negotiating role in the peace process and let both sides do their thing. Each option would have its own impact on U.S. security, and the tradeoffs are sure to spur debate in the first days of Trump’s new administration.
“We don’t have a clue yet; we don’t know how the machinery is going to work,” said Walt. “[His] was a populist campaign where he simply sold himself and hasn’t had to make decisions or choose between different options. Therefore it is hard to know which way this is going to go.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, DC-based freelance reporter.
President Lyman: All right, Colonel. Let’s sum it up, shall we? You’re suggesting what?
Colonel Casey: I’m not sure, Mr. President, just some possibilities, what we call, uh “capabilities” in military intelligence …
Lyman: You got something against the English language, Colonel?
Casey: No, Sir.
Lyman: Then speak it plainly, if you will.
Casey: I’m suggesting, Mr. President, there’s a military plot to take over the government. This may occur some time this coming Sunday.
Let’s be honest, what classic-movie fan hasn’t thought once or twice about the 1964 film Seven Days in May, a brilliantly paranoid gem exploring the anatomy of an American military coup during the Cold War, since President-elect Donald Trump started announcing his plans to nominate one recently retired general after another to the highest positions of his administration?
One could argue that many elements of the movie’s plot are present today: a military infrastructure bred and fed on decades of war is suddenly threatened by a peacetime posture, defense cuts, and a deal with a rival power that’s unpopular with many in the ranks. In the movie, one general, played forbiddingly by Burt Lancaster, believes it is his duty to right the wrongs of the civilian leadership (a peace deal with the Russians) and, thanks to the size and autonomy lavished upon the post-WWII military-industrial complex, can marshal the makings of an elaborate coup right under the noses of official Washington.
Getting from real-world Trump to celluloid Seven Days is, of course, a fun exercise in hyperbole. But critics say that movies like that exist for a reason—the nation was founded on the healthy fear that unbalanced power in the hands of the military could eventually lead to dictatorship, that the military as an institution is not wired for democratic policymaking, governing, or statecraft. Its coding, rather, is to defend, deter, or kill.
In a post-Kennedy world, where Vietnam was fast becoming much more than a few advisers dropped in to help the French, war seemed an inevitable reality directed from behind the curtain of the political and military establishment. Mixed in with paranoia over fascism and a growing cultural divide, you had the makings of a great movie (writer Rod Serling took great advantage).
Today’s reality is quite different, but no less vulnerable to political manipulations and constitutional crises. It is for that reason that some political scientists and former members of the military who spoke with TAC warn against an overreliance on recently retired “military men” at the top level of the new Trump administration. While they don’t believe we are on the brink of a military takeover, they are invariably concerned with the global optics, how a brass-heavy inner circle would influence decision-making, and whether that could pave the way for a darker turn in the future.
At question: Gen. James Mattis, picked to head the Department of Defense, who will need a congressional waiver to serve; Gen. John Kelly, selected to head of Department of Homeland Security; and retired General Mike Flynn, chosen as Trump’s national-security advisor. Trump has also tapped Montana Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke, a former Navy SEAL commander who served in the Iraq War, for the position of interior secretary.
Taken separately, nearly all engender enthusiastic respect for their skills and intellectual capabilities, especially Mattis, who by all reports is well-loved in the military community, particularly by veterans who fought under him in Iraq. Outside, he is described as a man of a forthright nature who is well-read, a good listener, and more than capable of handling the leviathan bureaucracy that is the Pentagon.
While Kelly evokes similar strains of confidence, there are rising questions over a retired four-star heading a domestic security post. And with Flynn comes a much cloudier picture: while he’s viewed as a brilliant tactician, there are growing doubts about his temperament and fitness, owing to his personal politics, as well as his reputation as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan and Iraq and as head of Defense Intelligence Agency. Unlike the others, he does not have to be confirmed by the Senate.
As a whole, experts say the problems posed by these selections are—unlike those posed by the fictional Gen. Mattoon Scott of Seven Days in May—more nuanced echos of alarm that could become full-on sirens for future administrations if left unchecked.
Loss of Civilian Control?
While these men are currently civilians, the fact they just retired from the military (where they served in combat commissions in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars) has evoked some powerful appeals to the long-held doctrine of civilian control of the military.
The commonly held idea is that the founders did not want to replicate England’s monarchical control of the military. Chuck Cushman, a veteran and now dean of academics at the National Defense University’s College of International Security Affairs, insists the American resistance to military control dates back even further. He points to Oliver Cromwell, the successful British commander who won the English Civil War for the Parliamentarians and subsequently brought about the execution of King Charles I. Cromwell’s culminating power led to the overthrow of the ruling party, and with help from his supporters he became “Lord Protector of England” in 1653, after which he led a brutal purge of Catholics across the British Isles.
“I blame Oliver Cromwell. He is why the founders were dedicated to building the [American] constitutional structure this way”—keeping powers diluted, with the president as commander-in-chief but Congress in charge of raising, governing, and supporting the country’s defenses and declaring war, said Cushman. George Washington could have been Cromwell, having just won the Revolution, but resigned his commission, knowing full well the history, Cushman insists. The “founders looked at each other and said, he is the only one among us who is strong enough to not fall into that trap. They built this structure to avoid that trap.”
So what of the “trap” today?
“[The country] is not at risk of a military coup; it is what I call the ‘velvet militarization’ of American foreign and national security policy over the next four years,” writes Gordon Adams, professor emeritus at American University’s School of International Service and co-editor of Mission Creep: The Militarization of U.S. Foreign Policy.
Military officers, he says, “view the world differently,” in the “structured, hierarchical, strategic and operational way” that “focuses on the uses of military force.” Meanwhile, civilian analysts, strategists, and diplomats focus on statecraft, broader strategy, nuance, and knowing when to set “one sticky problem aside to make progress on another,” opined Adams. Both are needed in balance for the president to navigate the shoals of today’s security policies.
The federal government has become increasingly militarized already. Trump’s sudden reliance on these men is swinging the pendulum further in that direction, risking “cementing in place ‘the military-industrial complex’ that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of,” Adams charged.
“It’s not automatically dangerous, but, boy, I can see the red lights are turning on my warning panels, saying we got to watch this,” said Cushman, who is more concerned about the lack of foreign-policy and national-security experience among Trump’s other nominees—and Trump himself, who may too easily defer to the “can do” generals more popular with the American public. “I don’t think it would be malicious, no one is going to wake up and say, ‘This is dictator day,’ but the [military guys] may just look around and say, ‘This is not being done correctly and I know what to do.’”
“So many people that Trump’s picking who are not retired generals are not experienced in government, and they are not going to have the weight. Are they capable of looking at General Mattis and saying, ‘I disagree’? You need need someone of similar heft and similar gravitas who can serve as a civilian counterweight to what might be a very military approach to problem solving,” said Cushman.
This would not be the first time a general served so close to the president in recent times. Colin Powell was still a commissioned lieutenant general in the Army when he served as Reagan’s national-security advisor from 1987 to 1989. He retired as a four-star in 1993 and served as President Bush’s secretary of state in 2001.
Michael Desch, professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, says he is less concerned about what Trump’s generals say about the future of civilian control of the military than he is about what it says about Trump’s attitude toward the non-military talent pool.
“What I’m uncomfortable with, is the implication that that we don’t have the depth in the civilian world, in national-security experience, to fill those positions,” Desch said. Moreover, the president-elect appears to reinforcing public opinion that the military is the only branch of government that can be trusted. “What does that say about the rest of us, that only the military can save us? Then we are in more trouble than I imagine.”
“There is a degree of being star-struck by generals, not just with Trump, but with America,” points out Sean McFate, a former paratrooper and National Defense University professor who believes the four-stars will be more easily confirmed by the Senate than anyone else. With Mattis, Trump gets to bolster his own lack of military and foreign-policy experience, and position someone in the Pentagon’s plush E-Ring who won’t be swallowed whole.
“[Trump] doesn’t want to get hoodwinked, and Mattis won’t get hoodwinked by the bureaucracy. This gives Trump street cred by association,” McFate offered.
That’s good for Trump, but McFate believes stacking his inner circle with combat generals makes for “horrible” foreign-policy optics. “These are all combat-veteran military men. They have spent the last decade and a half at war. It’s not impossible that other countries make look at this in a very threatening manner, particularly the appointment of Flynn, who once called Islamism ‘a vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people’ that ‘has to be excised.’”
Is Civilian Control Any Better?
Still, McFate, Desch, and others acknowledge that civilian policymakers haven’t exactly wrapped themselves in glory over the last 15 years, throwing into question whether the civilian-control doctrine, as Georgetown University professor Rosa Brooks puts it, “has become unmoored from its original purpose.”
For one thing, today’s U.S. military has elaborate internal checks and balances and a deeply ingrained respect for democracy and the rule of law. It’s difficult to imagine any active-duty general or group of officers, no matter how popular, persuading the troops to ignore or overturn the results of an election or a properly passed law. (That’s even truer for retired military officers. Technically, they are civilians. They can still give orders if they want to, but even the lowliest private is free to tell a retired general to take a hike, subject only to the constraints of courtesy.)
Brooks goes further, saying that in these modern times with blurred lines, when civilians are prosecuting wars and the military doing civilian work, “civilian control of the military” has “become a rule of aesthetics, not ethics, and its invocation is a soothing ritual that makes us feel better without accomplishing anything of value.”
“What bad things do we imagine would be more likely to happen if retired generals make up half of the next president’s cabinet?”
It was Colin Powell, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 1993, who unsuccessfully attempted to put some brakes on military force in Bosnia. He was outnumbered by President Clinton’s civilian national-security team. Later, as secretary of state, he admitted he was railroaded into using bad intelligence screened by Vice President Dick Cheney’s office to justify invading Iraq.
“I’m much more comfortable with General Mattis for secretary of defense than I would be with a Paul Wolfowitz or some other neoconservative who certainly would continue the same sort of policies that have unfortunately come to characterize our national security strategy for the last 20 years at least,” said Desch.
Sure, says McFate, “there are problems with civilian control as a sort of religious dogma,” with the the civilian drive to war in Iraq as the perfect example. But there must be a balance. “You don’t want to set a precedent that is going to haunt you in years to come.”
Still, as some remember, in Seven Days in May, it was Col. Jiggs Casey (played by Kirk Douglas)—not a civilian—who risked everything to drop the dime on a rogue general, thwarting a coup and saving country from constitutional crisis. If reality follows fiction, such courage will be welcome, whether the official exhibiting it has stripes on their sleeve or not.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, DC-based freelance reporter.
Surviving 9/11 victims, as well as the families and loved ones of those who died that day, say they have reams of evidence linking the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the al-Qaeda hijackers—and they want their day in court, which may result in billions of dollars in damages.
In addition, proponents say such a lawsuit would finally force accountability on the kingdom, which despite being a longtime ally of the U.S. had a role in the birth of Wahhabism, the extremist cornerstone of faith that inspired al-Qaeda in the first place. Funding for the spread of that strain of Islam across the Middle East and elsewhere has been traced to members of the House of Saud for decades. So has financing for terrorism.
Up until September, the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act (FSIA) appeared to preclude civil action in U.S. courts against a foreign government for acts of international terrorism unless strict requirements were met—the toughest being that the government in question had to be on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, which Saudi Arabia is not. There were also hurdles to pass under the Anti-Terrorism Act.
Nonetheless, some 9,000 civil lawsuits were filed on behalf of 9/11 victims. Those lawsuits have been locked in a back-and-forth battle between the victims and the Saudi defendants over whether the U.S. has jurisdiction, bouncing from the U.S. District Court of New York to the Second Circuit District of Appeals for over a decade. Sometimes the 9/11 victims have had the headwinds, other times the defendants, but there seemed to be no final word on whether these cases could go forward.
Until now. The Justice Against Terrorism Act (JASTA) passed with overwhelming bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate, and it became law in September when Congress overrode the president’s veto. It gives the plaintiffs their strongest tool yet to see these cases through to a long-awaited conclusion.
But is passing a law that chisels away the last vestiges of foreign-state immunity the best way to handle the grievances of the 9/11 loved ones? Will it spur reciprocal legislation by foreign governments, which may now feel emboldened to bring Washington to court for perceived crimes, like funding militia groups or rebels that have committed violent acts, a.k.a. “terrorism,” against their people?
Skepticism for the bill seems to come from all directions—particularly among the legal establishment, former diplomats, and administration officials. Even foreign leaders have weighed in, with French parliamentarian Pierre Lellouche saying JASTA “will cause a legal revolution in international law with major political consequences.”
President Barack Obama, whose administration lobbied Congress hard against JASTA, warned in his September veto message against taking the role of fighting international terrorism out of the hands of national-security officials and putting it into the judiciary’s lap. Specifically:
Removing sovereign immunity in U.S. courts from foreign governments that are not designated as state sponsors of terrorism, based solely on allegations that such foreign governments’ actions abroad had a connection to terrorism-related injuries on U.S. soil, threatens to undermine these longstanding principles that protect the United States, our forces, and our personnel.
Other critics, including a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Chas Freeman, have ridiculed JASTA as an empty political effort to placate the 9/11 victims and assuage anti-Saudi sentiment, noting that the final bill was massaged to put more restraints on damages and allow the State Department to put a “stay” on cases indefinitely if it can certify it is in “good faith discussions” with the defendant toward a resolution.
“I think it was a cheap, political shot,” Freeman told TAC, calling the Saudi lawsuits “a witch hunt.” “This is utterly irresponsible, and it brings great discredit to the United States and does nothing to help the people it is supposed to benefit, so what’s so good about it?”
Even so, he said, the new law brings the U.S. closer to the embrace of creeping international law. “There has been a trend toward breaking down sovereign immunity on human-rights issues and subjecting states to international court’s jurisdiction, and JASTA walks right into that,” Freeman claims.
In fact, in November, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, to which the U.S. is not a party, raised the possibility that members of the U.S. armed forces and the CIA could be indicted in that tribunal based on reports of detainee torture in Afghanistan and in secret overseas prisons.
In addition to creating “an open season for lawyers to go after foreign governments for compensation for actions they might or might not have been able to control,” says former CIA foreign-service officer and TAC contributor Phil Giraldi, JASTA “raises the specter of of the U.S. again being shown to hold double standards for itself and others as the federal government has consistently blocked any recourse to our courts for people we have tortured or renditions by citing state secrets privilege.” Therefore JASTA might further encourage targeted countries to “take reciprocal action against U.S. officers and government employees.”
But for the 9/11 loved ones and their lawyers supporting the bill, these are familiar arguments that just don’t ring true.
The Case for JASTA
Terry Strada’s kids were 7, 4, and 4 days old when her husband Thomas, a senior corporate bond trader at Cantor Fitzgerald, perished in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. She filed suit against the Saudi Royal Kingdom in 2002. Since 2009 she has worked on behalf of Pass JASTA, which represents thousands of 9/11 loved ones, with a core group of 25 who’ve traveled repeatedly to Washington to lobby Congress. It was not impulsive, she insists: the bill was rigorously deliberated over the course of seven years. It was crafted by members of Congress and their staffs, aired and vetted in at least three congressional hearings, and amended before passage.
“It’s a good bill that deserved to be passed,” she told TAC in an interview. “Families deserve justice, and we deserve the opportunity to hold the bankrollers accountable, and to stem the flow of money to terrorists in the future,” she added. She hopes JASTA will serve as a deterrent to terror financing, rather than a floodgate of litigation like the naysayers contend.
She said the 9/11 cases against Saudi Arabia were launched not only because 15 out of the 19 hijackers were Saudi, but because enough evidence has been uncovered to link the Royal Family to the hijackers and their supporters in al-Qaeda. She said the infamous 28 pages publicly released this summer are “only the tip of the iceberg.”
“Someday, if the lawsuits progress, we can get this all out in a courtroom,” she said. “That’s why the Saudis are fighting this so hard.”
“This law now requires the [Saudi] Kingdom to come in and defend itself against the civil allegations in the case after years of getting away with not doing so,” says attorney Robert Haefele, whose firm Motley Rice LLC represents at least 6,000 of the 9/11-related suits.
He disputes the notion that JASTA torpedoes the longstanding doctrine of sovereign immunity, pointing to exceptions to FSIA that already allow suits against foreign states, including some alleging state-sponsored terror, to proceed. JASTA would be one more exception—and an important one, signaling that the U.S. will not stand for covert funding of terrorist groups that cause injury and death on American soil.
“The claims that JASTA represents some kind of drastic departure from long-standing or sacrosanct notions of sovereignty rely largely on fear mongering and distorting the history of the principle,” challenged Haefele.
Writing for The National Interest, former Defense Department consultant Oleg Svet says JASTA “chips a small chunk away” from sovereign immunity, but he suggests the fear of retaliatory measures by other countries is “overblown”: “JASTA provides a legal pathway for potential American victims of terrorism, and, as importantly, sends a strong message to foreign governments considering whether or not to support anti-American militant groups in the future.”
Was the Final Bill Watered Down?
Indeed, the Saudi government is already working fast and furiously to upend the new law. According to reports, the kingdom has employed no fewer than 14 Washington firms—including the Clinton-linked Podesta Group—to keep the heat on Congress to tinker with it. But some suggest JASTA has already been watered down to the point it poses no threat.
In an article entitled “The Senate Killed JASTA, Then Passed It,” University of Texas law professor Steven Vladeck argued that in order to placate the bill’s critics, sponsor Sen. John Cornyn made it “much, much weaker.” Congress raised the bar for plaintiffs to prove a foreign state’s complicity in a terror attack, he notes. More significantly, as a result of deliberations with the State Department (which was very much against JASTA from the start), lawmakers included a “stay” amendment, allowing 180-day holds on cases with limitless extensions.
“The Cornyn substitute version of JASTA conveniently arms a judge who would rather not wade into a dispute with such thorny and fraught foreign-policy implications with an easy way to put that dispute on hold indefinitely,” Vladeck writes.
A spokeswoman for Cornyn’s office acknowledged to TAC that both Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) held up the legislation until changes were made. “This legislation has been pending really since 2009, and we’ve worked through it
with a number of members,” the spokesperson said, addressing “concerns that they have expressed along the way in order to modify the legislation and build the consensus that we now have achieved.”
Graham told reporters he was satisfied JASTA would help the victims pursue the justice they were seeking without making allies like Saudi Arabia more vulnerable. That May vote was unanimous, and the Senate voted 97-1 in September to override Obama’s veto. (The House voted 378-77 to override the veto.)
“As far as I’m concerned, the stay provision does not weaken the bill,” said Strada (of Pass JASTA), adding that the State Department had the ability to stay proceedings all along. “Here, we say it has to be done in good faith” and “in the light of day.”
She said the plaintiffs and the lawyers are happy with the final version and do not see the changes as an evisceration of its original intent. Similarly, Haefele acknowledges the bill was tightened to allay fears, but says it still gives victims the tools they need to bring their cases to court.
“If you had a stay and it could be indefinite, why would the president risk his one and only veto to override it?” Strada questioned. “There is something there.”
Are U.S. Military Forces Abroad Vulnerable Now?
Once the administration and the bill’s detractors exhausted all means to defeat the bill outright and it became law, a new narrative almost immediately emerged suggesting that members had sticker shock.
When pressed after the veto by reporters about whether JASTA would open doors to retaliatory measures against U.S. troops overseas, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested “it’s worth further discussion,” according to the The Hill, which also quoted House Speaker Paul Ryan as saying, “I would like to think there would be work done” to ensure troop protection.
This had been spurred by a letter to Cornyn from none other than Graham and Corker, who said they wanted to make changes during the lame-duck session in December. There were grumblings that the bill had never been debated on the House and Senate floors.
McConnell further expressed that “it seems to be a failure to communicate early about the potential consequences of a piece of legislation [that] was obviously very popular.”
This seems on its face to be disingenuous, considering that he and his Doubting Thomases in the Senate voted for the bill in May after the question about the vulnerability of the troops had been discussed and addressed.
Cornyn’s office makes that clear. In fact, the senator told reporters at the time that the way JASTA was written protects individuals and should not inspire reciprocal legislation overseas. “I do believe that there’s going to be some saber rattling, some threats, but I think that they are hollow,” Mr. Cornyn told the New York Times.
“In most cases when you read all these articles making these broad claims, nobody is sourcing where it is coming from. That is because they can’t. When you look at the language of the bill, it addresses the immunity of a foreign state, not the immunity of any individual,” said Haefele, because diplomats, consulate offices, and troops are protected under myriad international laws and treaties, including status-of-forces agreements and the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. “There is no risk.”
The critics “are wrong,” Strada said, “and it hurts to hear them says things like that. Congress would never vote 97 to 1 for anything that would put our troops at risk.”
Who Gets the Last Word?
Right now, the 9/11 families do, unless the senators make good on their threats to reopen the debate before the close of this Congress. (The chances of that appear slimmer by the day.) Meanwhile, Haefele and his team are shepherding some 6,000 of the cases forward together on a consolidated docket and an amended case is now headed back to the U.S. District Court.
At the same time, the U.S. State Department is allegedly working with Saudi officials to help “fix” the law. The Saudis threatened to release billions in U.S. assets in the event the law passed, and it is not clear whether they will follow through. We do know they could face billions of dollars in damages if the 9/11 plaintiffs ever win in court.
“We’re not even at the discovery stage yet. There is a substantial amount of evidence out there, a huge amount of evidence connecting the Kingdom to the 9/11 attacks,” said Haefele. “If not, why is the Kingdom so upset about this bill?”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, DC-based freelance reporter.
WASHINGTON—The documentary played over the large projection screen at the head of the room. From a distance it was like the chronology of any other military battle: A narrative with an auspicious beginning, unsung heroes, stubborn enemy, and a prize.
But in this case it was the intramural service fight in the Pentagon to get a particular tactical aircraft, the A-10, off the ground in the Pentagon. The prize was keeping the Air Force from retiring the plane after what seemed to be a 40-year effort to do so. The heroes were the guys who envisioned, built, and protected it from the boneyard all these years.
When Chuck Myers’ face first appeared on the screen there was a slight but palpable shift in the air hovering over the darkened conference room at the DC offices of the Project for Government Oversight. Myers was what Hollywood movies would call an irreplaceable member of the A-Team, known in this case as the “Fighter Mafia.” He passed away in May at age 91, and for some in the room earlier this month, it was the first time they’d seen his face since some of their previous conclaves there or at the Officers Club at Fort Myer.
There he was, a wizened WWII and Korean War combat flier, former test pilot, “bureaucratic guerilla warrior,” and A-10 godfather. Myers had done many, many rounds with the other services, particularly the Air Force, in defense of the close air support combat planes and lightweight fighters like the F-16 and F-18. He never retired from this mission. The film screened earlier this month, Against All Odds: The Story of the A-10, doesn’t capture all of the wonderful facets of Myers, but it provides a worthy entrance into the life of a man who long ago took the path of productive dissension within the military, and found comfort in his own skin doing so.
“He was a just a very dedicated person and he had enormous stamina. Physically and mentally, he was intense—I mean I talked to Chuck a maybe a week before he died, and this was before he had any sign of going into the hospital—and we were talking all about the military’s problems,” said James P. Stevenson, author of several books on fighter aircraft and the bureaucratic food fights around them. In The Pentagon Paradox: The Development of the F-18 Hornet, he introduces the Fighter Mafia, which also included math whiz and Pentagon analyst Tom Christie, aeronautics specialist Pierre Sprey, test pilot Col. Everest Riccioni, and strategist John Boyd, whose OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) Loop has made him a cult figure in a tightly bound community of scrappy Pentagon reformers.
“They had a moral compass that was always pointed at true north,” Stevenson added. “But with respect to spending taxpayers’ money, with respect to doing the best job to defend the United States, they are immovable. You could drop a million dollars in front of them and they would say, ‘get out of my way.’”
Two things appeared to motivate Myers and the rest of the Fighter Mafia crew, and they were not mutually exclusive: Keeping close air support programs like the A-10 alive, and keeping Pentagon procurement and acquisitions honest. They believe the “grunts on the ground,” need to be protected in combat, and they have always discerned, from the very beginning, an almost unholy alliance between the military bureaucracy and defense contractors to make costly planes and weapons systems at the expense of safety and tactical effectiveness. Not everyone agrees with them of course, and for some time the Air Force has been attempting to retire the A-10 (so far, unsuccessfully) in favor of its more all-purpose fighter, the F-35. But these guys have been rallying for the underdogs in such a methodical, relentless manner, that they have become unlikely icons of a much larger narrative.
“They are all superstars as far as I’m concerned,” Stevenson told TAC. Myers, he said, had a particular disdain for how the sausage was made, at one point likening contractors to prostitutes. “What is the difference between a prostitute and contractor?” he asked. “For one thing, a prostitute can do all the things contractors can’t deliver.”
For Myers, the fight for close air support for was born out of his own experience as an Army Forces fighter pilot during World War II. At the young age of 19 he flew B-25s in low-level attack missions against the Japanese. During the Korean War he flew F9F Panther jets for the Navy.
“From [WWII] on, Chuck always felt that the fighting guy on the ground was getting screwed and he was seeing the fighter pilots were being screwed from bad airplanes in the air. It was solidarity with the pilots and grunts—it was that simple,” offered Pierre Sprey.
Sprey was one of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s “whiz kids” who eventually became a self-described subversive in the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s systems analyses realm. Along with Christie and Boyd, he met Myers sometime around 1964, before Myers worked in the Pentagon.
“He was one of the earliest proponents of what we were doing with the lightweight fighter,” Sprey told TAC. He said in those early years, when Myers was working for Lockheed, he “had an interesting way of not becoming a complete shill.”
Of course, as a former test pilot, Myers was the only flier in the group, and brought with him access to an entire culture of experienced pilots and practical knowledge of air combat. Myers went to Navy Test Pilot School after Korea and graduated in 1954 in a class that included future astronaut John Glenn. He made his mark by setting the world record in 1960 for flying a Delta Dart 1,544 miles an hour, and later helped form the the Society of Experimental Test Pilots.
“He had an extraordinarily interesting group of test pilot friends with combat backgrounds,” Sprey recalled, all of whom were working either in the Pentagon or the aerospace industry at the time.
“He was full of endless war stories, all of which were true,” said Sprey, who recalled how, when selling his concepts, Myers would take people out on an aerobatic airplane on his 600-acre Flying M Stock Farm in Gordonsville, Va.
“He’d show them what the ground looked like from the sky, he’d show them how hard it was to see anything from an airplane,” he said, noting the many “convivial seminars” they’d have out on the working farm.
“I was always much more confrontational,” he added, “but Chuck had a nice way of reaching out to people and getting his points across.”
After he left private industry to start his own consulting business in the late 1960s, Myers had the opportunity to join the Pentagon ranks and make a real difference in the services’ thinking about close air support and mission-specific aircraft. He was offered the position of Director of Air Warfare in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD procurement) in 1973. With his comrade in arms Christie in the TacAir shop (systems analysis) in the OSD, they had the ear of the secretary and the ability to get things done.
“Chuck and I teamed up to keep close watch on budget preparation and execution processes, stepping in to restore funding when the Air Force and their allies” attempted to remove it from their lightweight fighter and the A-10 prototype (A-X) programs, Christie told TAC.
“Chuck was critical in these continuing fights,” he noted. “If he had not been in that position … during those critical years between late 1973 and 1975, I am convinced we would have seen the LWF bite the dust and the A-X go down the tubes. He had the complete trust of (then Secretary) Jim Schlesinger, which did not endear him to” the Air Force leadership or many of his colleagues.
“He was a pretty much a maverick,” but he had the ability to make allies and sell these programs inside the establishment, said Sprey. “Chuck was staunch on these concepts,” but “in his nice, non-confrontational way, he got people in R&D on board who would normally be against it.”
After Schlesinger left the “long knives” came out for the A-10 and the F-16, but by that time both programs were well on their way to reality. Myers also left his mark on the future F-18.
That was the mid-70s—a generation ago. But Myers and his “cabal” continued for four decades to protect the A-10 and help build better planes aligned with their core interests—which became more and more divergent from that of the services. Amazing advances in radar communications and weapons systems have made planes more technical, all-purpose, and complex—and more expensive. They like to point to the troubled F-35 as a prime example.
During this time, Myers embarked on many personal projects and worked with Air Force and Marine officers who follow the Fighter Mafia code and John Boyd’s philosophies. The group, now far from the Mad Men days, are tight as ever, meeting in Arlington in the shadow of the Pentagon, and, until his death, at Myers’ farm where he lived with his wife of many years, Sallie.
But now they have acolytes: Vietnam, Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan War veterans, as well as active duty and reserve officers and pilots. To see the reverence of the younger men and women in the room at the recent movie screening indicates that the message of that cabal has maintained its salience as the services fight over billions in defense dollars today.
“I don’t know anywhere else to go to find a group more dedicated to making things better,” Myers told this reporter a little more than three years ago.
“He was just a special person,” said Stevenson, who was bequeathed the gold watch Myers got from Convair when he beat the world record for a single-engine jet aircraft with the Delta Dart. The Air Force gave the official recognition to a service pilot who fell slightly short of Myers’ speed because during the Cold War, a uniformed officer made for a better story. Over the years, that watch had become a metaphor for hand-in-glove cynicism, where the military and the defense industry worked together to advance themselves, often at the expense of merit and the truth.
Chuck Myers “was primus inter pares,” said Stevenson, “first among equals.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, DC-based freelance reporter.
WASHINGTON—Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has asserted several times, and quite vociferously, that there will be “no American ground troops in Syria” if she is elected president in November.
While the definition of “ground troops” is flexible, there is a second reality that very few people are talking about in Washington today.
Not unlike the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—where private military contractors fed, trained, equipped, and protected U.S. military forces “on the ground” in unprecedented numbers—an escalation of hired security forces in a hot spot like Syria would likely boost the presence of U.S. “boots” without causing the political heartburn of putting more actual soldiers and Marines in harm’s way.
In fact, it may already be happening.
Over the summer, a no-bid contract was reportedly awarded to Six3 Intelligence Solutions, a company based in McLean, Va., which in 2014 was acquired by major defense-industry player CACI International. The $10 million award, according to an otherwise pedestrian Pentagon notice, was for “intelligence analysis services” to be performed “in Germany, Italy, and Syria.” It was probably the first sliver of proof that U.S. contractors are actually operating there, despite persistent evasions by military officials.
“I don’t know if there are any contractors in Syria but I suspect there are a lot. We just can’t sustain military operations today without the private sector. We are strategically dependent on the private sector,” said author Sean McFate, also an Army special-forces veteran and assistant professor at the National Defense University.
When asked about the Six3 contract—what it’s for, how many contractors would be in Syria working under it—Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. David S. Hylton said the Syria part of the notice was “a mistake” and has been since amended.
“The Performance Work Statement (PWS) for the contract states that ‘support is required at multiple locations to include fixed sites in Central Europe (Germany and Italy), possible future fixed sites in Eastern Europe (e.g., Bulgaria, Romania, Poland), in deployed contingency operations areas to include the Balkans, and other contingency areas,’” said Hylton. The contract is on on behalf of U.S. Army Europe and “intended to provide … intelligence analysis, operations and planning, security support, and information systems operation, maintenance and sustainment.”
“The PWS does not contain the word Syria, nor does it make any reference that would directly lead to Syria, e.g., the Levant, counter-ISIL, Assad,” Hylton added.
McFate said he was told by other reporters about the “error” in the notice. “I’ve been watching these things for 20 years—I’ve never seen a ‘mistake’ like this.”
The Pentagon did provide quarterly numbers on the private forces currently in Afghanistan and Iraq, but when asked how many, if any, contractors are in Syria at this time, officials did not respond.
Meanwhile the White House has authorized the deployment of 300 U.S. Special Operations Forces to Syria, 40 of which were reportedly sent to Northern Syria with Turkish troops and “vetted Syrian opposition forces” on an ISIS clearing mission in September.
“Operation Noble Lance,” as it has been dubbed, would continue the ongoing “advising, assisting and training” mission the U.S. has conducted with so-called moderate Syrian rebel forces and anti-ISIS Kurdish and Arab fighters, according to the Pentagon.
But it appears, according to The Hill, that we don’t really know how many troops are really there either, or even in Iraq right now.
Secretary of State Ash Carter announced the addition of 600 more troops to Iraq in September, bringing the official number there up to about 5,000. However, that doesn’t count the “temporary” forces that may drift in and out of the Area of Operations (AOR), and it certainly doesn’t include contractors, writes reporter Kristina Wong.
“The issue has become a sticking point, with critics pressing the Pentagon for more transparency,” said Wong, who was told there were upwards of 900 additional “temporary” troops on the ground in Iraq that “tend to run around.” There is no clue on how many temps are “running around” Syria at this time.
“Some worry that officials are hiding the deepening U.S. involvement in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” she added, quoting an Army colonel who cited “orders” for not giving out anything beyond the official “force management” figures.
“There’s been a decision made not to release that number,” said spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren, back in March. “The number that we release is our force management level. … I don’t have a reason for not releasing this number other than it’s the orders that I’m under.”
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr. tried to soften those words a bit later, saying the military wasn’t reluctant to release more, but has done things this way for 15 years.
If nailing down the number of troops is hard, the extent of the contractor force may never be known, particularly in Syria.
But if recent history is any indication, as the footprint grows, so will the private shadow army, said McFate. His book, The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What they Mean for World Order, argues that a global industry has been unleashed by the American reliance on the hired guns overseas since 9/11. It is unstoppable, partly because militaries like the U.S.’s have become so dependent on it. Private contractors also offer a cloak of deniability, and frankly, the ability to operate outside of institutional laws and boundaries.
“There is no oversight, no tracking mechanisms,” said McFate. “Obama pledged to hold this industry accountable, and did nothing about it—the lack of response is a story in itself.”
In fact, Foreign Policy writer Micah Zenko argued, the rise of the contractor to wage America’s military operations is Obama’s silent national-security legacy, with more dead contractors on his watch (1,540 as of March) and little or no transparency about who these contractors are and what they do.
He scoffed at Obama’s insistence that he has pursued a “light U.S. footprint” across these conflict zones. “Were it not for these contractors, Obama’s ‘light footprint’ would suddenly be two or three times as large,” Zenko wrote.
Neil Gordon, a contracting expert for the Project on Government Oversight, agrees. “It’s the classic dodge—here we are shrinking the size of the government when in reality it is all being made up by contractors.”
Meanwhile, McFate likes to describe it as a largely unregulated, Wild West atmosphere in which soldiers of fortune for both Uncle Sam and private corporations protecting interests intermingle in hot zones like Iraq.
“We have contractors and mercenaries all over Northern Iraq, operating out of Erbil, some doing oil protection, others training with Peshmerga, some are basically adventurists trying to do their own thing out there,” McFate said. “Erbil is sort of like that bar in Star Wars, the Mos Eisley Cantina; it’s on the edge of civilization, it’s full of weird people, and a lot of them are armed.”
CACI did not return a request for comment about its work in Syria or otherwise. We do know from a Bloomberg business snapshot that Six3 provides, in part, “identity intelligence and biometrics, forensics and analysis, counterintelligence operations support, HUMINT operations support, anti-terrorism and force protection, diplomatic security support, consulting and policy development, and analytic transformation.”
McFate, who after leaving the Army worked for DynCorp International—helping raise an army for Liberia in 2004 and other missions—has some idea of what they might be doing if they are indeed in the war zone. “They are probably conducting HUMINT, which means interrogation support,” he said, pointing out CACI’s role in the interrogations at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. (CACI has fought back against lawsuits, but its connection remains part of the sordid story.) “Or they are facilitating on-the-ground intelligence.”
In addition, no one knows how many contractors might be working for the CIA in Syria or anywhere else, because that information is classified.
We do know that the number of private military contractors in Iraq has soared since 2015. At the beginning of the year there were 250, according to CENTCOM data. (CENTCOM, which covers the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, is the only geographic command that currently releases such data.) As of July of this year there were 2,485.
In Afghanistan, where there are supposedly around 9,800 U.S. military left in the country, there were 26,435 contractors as of July, nearly three times as many “boots on the ground.” Of that number, 8,837 were listed as U.S. citizens, 5,774 as third-country nationals, and 11,824 as Afghans.
In Iraq, 1,605 of the contractors were American in July; 528 were third-party nationals, and 352 were Iraqis.
In addition to Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. deployed 13,774 contractors in “other CENTCOM locations.”
According to a report by Defense One earlier this year, there were an additional 5,800 contractors working in Iraq for other agencies, including the State Department, as of February.
Of course, not all contractors are hired guns. The majority in Iraq as of this summer, for example, were logistics and maintenance contractors, followed by translators, construction, transportation, and management, and then security professionals—of which there were 142. “Intelligence services” weren’t listed, but there were 62 people categorized under “other.”
But what the breakdown shows—and it is similar for Afghanistan—is that nearly every level of what we would consider military operations has been farmed out. “I think that is the model … all roads lead to contracting,” said McFate, “because ultimately, you have these very ambitious strategic objectives, and you have American people who want to achieve, but they don’t want to bleed.”
Choosing to use contractors to stave off the difficult decision to put troops in harm’s way “circumvents democratic accountability of the armed forces,” he charged.
Ironically, Russia has also been suspected of using private forces to advance the war against anti-Assad rebels in Syria. According to Mark Galeotti in War on the Rocks back in April, “Much of the confusion about the scale and nature of Russia’s direct commitment on the ground probably reflects the presence of both state and private forces, with each having their own deniable components.”
Sounds familiar, said McFate. “We launched this,” he said, calling it a global, “subterranean trend.”
“A lot of the insiders in Washington are in denial about this. They think private contracting ended with the wars, but they are deeply ignorant about what’s going on.”
The key is to watch how the next president deals with the pressure to get more involved in Syria come next year. Continue to keep an eye on the quarterly reports from DoD and press for the full story, he said, guessing the number of contractors would be rising steadily.
Contractors don’t count as “boots on the ground,” he reminded this reporter. “Americans don’t care about dead contractors the way they do about dead soldiers.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, DC-based freelance reporter.
WASHINGTON—After the June 28 attack that killed 45 people at Turkey’s Ataturk airport in Istanbul, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, never afraid to take his rhetoric up a notch, reiterated his call for torturing suspected terrorists. “We’re going to have to do things that are unthinkable almost,” he told a New Hampshire television reporter.
This came after he had suggested in March—before reversing himself—that families of terrorists might be tortured, too. Following a backlash in the press, Trump assured voters during the contentious Republican primaries that he would not ask anyone to break the law in order to torture. But he also said he would “strengthen the laws so that we can better compete” with the tactics of the Islamic State.
Then, just after the attack in Turkey, Trump said in an Ohio campaign appearance that eliminating practices like waterboarding—which President Obama did when he strengthened the ban on torture in 2009, and which Congress reinforced in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2016—was a sign of weakness: “Can you imagine [ISIS fighters] sitting around the table or wherever they’re eating their dinner, talking about the Americans don’t do waterboarding and yet we chop off heads? They probably think we’re weak, we’re stupid, we don’t know what we’re doing, we have no leadership. You know, you have to fight fire with fire.”
He told CNN around the same time that he intended to “change our law on, you know, the waterboarding thing,” in order to “be able to fight at least on an almost equal basis.”
On this front, the American people appear to be with Trump. In March, amid terrorism attacks in Europe, and with the San Bernardino massacre still fresh on everyone’s minds, two-thirds of respondents in a Reuters/Ipsos poll said that torturing suspects could be justified “to obtain information about terrorism.” Some 82 percent of Republicans agreed; 53 percent of Democrats, too. Only 15 percent of respondents said torture was never justified.
This follows years of similar polling in which Americans have signaled their approval of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including methods such as waterboarding. But it wasn’t always that way. In polling conducted in 2005, Americans had reservations about specific practices—including waterboarding—and disapproved in much greater numbers, according to Gallup.
“The public polling depends very heavily on the way the question is phrased,” says Katherine Hawkins, senior counsel at the Constitution Project, which has been on the forefront of the legal fight against detainee torture and abuse. Yet lately “there have been some polls that show pretty disturbingly high levels of support for torture.”
So the stage is set as the country prepares to turn the White House over to a new commander in chief in January. Trump clearly thinks that current events bolster his tough talk on the campaign trail. “I am the law-and-order candidate,” he insisted at one press event. He toggles easily between threats: ISIS terrorists, undocumented Hispanic criminals, lone gunmen picking off police in the streets. Trump will deal with them all with a swift blow of force. Strength, he has said numerous times, is the only language the enemy knows. And for ISIS, waterboarding is “not nearly tough enough, okay?”
If this is more than red meat for the base—if Trump is serious about turning back time to the days after 9/11, when White House lawyers wrote the infamous “torture memos” to help ensure government officials could not be charged with war crimes for the way they were interrogating detainees—then he better prepare for some real bureaucratic resistance, Beltway-style. He’ll find a much more complicated landscape in official Washington today, one filled with lawsuits, never-ending investigations, a number of high-level military and CIA officials wary of scrutiny, and political winds in the nation’s capital that appear—at least for now—to favor keeping things the way they are.
“You have serious players like [CIA Director] John Brennan saying that if they got orders to re-institute torture policies then they would refuse to follow them,” notes John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer who turned against waterboarding and paid the price. Kiriakou went to prison for two years for confirming to a journalist the name of an agent who was involved with torture. Today he is an outspoken critic of the CIA’s role in employing enhanced interrogation techniques during the War on Terror.
Brennan has said publicly that there will be no more waterboarding under his watch. Former CIA Director Michael Hayden has taken the same line, telling the media: “If any future president wants CIA to waterboard anybody, he better bring his own bucket, because CIA officers aren’t going to do it. Multiple investigations, grand juries, presidential condemnations, and congressional star chambers have a way of doing that to you.”
Also opposing a return to torture is former CIA Director David Petraeus, who ironically was a commander of the multinational forces in Iraq during the period in which Joint Special Operations Command was operating its own secret interrogation sites, including the infamous Camp Nama. Petraeus has pointed to blowback against the interrogation techniques used in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, techniques that went beyond what is sanctioned in the Army Field Manual, which bans “use of force, mental torture, threats, insults, or exposure to unpleasant and inhumane treatment of any kind.” (These restrictions were extended to the rest of the government, including the CIA, under President Obama’s 2009 Executive Order 13491, which requires that all U.S. policy and practice be consistent with these standards, as well as those outlined in other federal laws and under the Geneva Convention.)
“It is nonbiodegradable. It took place there. It is never going away,” Petraeus said of Abu Ghraib in 2014. “It’s always on the Internet and it causes problems to this day.” He has also stood squarely with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former POW, against waterboarding.
So has retired Marine Gen. James Jones, a former Marine Corps commandant, who came out against the practice for the first time after Trump repeated his desire to see it reinstituted. “There is such a thing as an illegal order, and I deeply believe in the Geneva Conventions,” he said at the Bipartisan Policy Center in late June.
Though he doesn’t trust the system, Kiriakou guesses that the security establishment is as wary of Trump’s exhortations on the campaign trail as he is himself. “Maybe they would refuse to [torture] for altruistic reasons, but more likely they would refuse to do it because they are students of history. They won’t want to have to take the fall.”
“Within the CIA, there are still many people who participated in and continue to defend the torture program—but there may at least be a sense that the risks of disclosure and investigation outweigh the benefits,” added the Constitution Project’s Hawkins.
The Senate, led in part by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, has engaged the CIA in a rigorous, years-long inquiry into the agency’s practices after the 9/11 attacks, culminating in a 6,700-page report completed in 2014. The 525-page executive summary—the only part of the report that has been released publicly—reveals a shocking degree of what could only be described as torture by the CIA. Furthermore, it concludes that such practices did not elicit any actionable intelligence that could not have been gleaned through other, less coercive means.
The summary describes beatings, sexual threats, intense waterboarding, black sites, and, yes, “rectal feeding.” The committee concluded that this was going on under the noses of Congress, the Justice Department, the White House, and cabinet heads. According to the report, the CIA lied to each of these authorities about what it was doing and about how ineffective enhanced interrogation techniques were overall.
The full report has yet to be made public, despite Freedom of Information Act requests. It was sent to all pertinent agency heads, including the White House and the CIA, but no one knows who, if anyone, has actually read the entire thing. This spring, it was reported that the CIA inspector general’s copy had been “mistakenly” destroyed. This came on the heels of a year-long fight between Feinstein and Brennan over the CIA’s spying on Senate computers, and counterattacks by the CIA that the committee had grabbed material out of the agency’s own files.
The back-and-forth may have sucked the life out of the real issue—torture—but Hawkins says the committee is still working on the fight, and groups like her own and the American Civil Liberties Union keep pushing for more of the report to be released.
“It was definitely helpful,” says Marcy Wheeler, an independent national-security journalist who runs the popular blog Emptywheel, in an email interview. “Even just the details, like introducing ‘rectal feeding,’ revealed new details about how sadistic and wanton the program was.” Yet so much more has been held back, including documents that might have implicated the presidency. “Without more transparency on that, we won’t really be able to prevent the return of torture,” she charges.
Still, the release of the summary emboldened bipartisan critics and sparked legislative action in the typically gridlocked Congress. Senator McCain said at the time of its release that the report confirmed much of what he always believed was American “torture” policy, but he was particularly enraged that the CIA was holding back on the plain truth, that enhanced interrogation techniques were never that effective.
“What might come as a surprise, not just to our enemies, but to many Americans, is how little these practices did to aid our efforts to bring 9/11 culprits to justice and to find and prevent terrorist attacks today and tomorrow,” he said in a Senate floor statement in December 2014. “That could be a real surprise, since it contradicts the many assurances provided by intelligence officials on the record and in private that enhanced interrogation techniques were indispensable in the war against terrorism.”
He and Senator Feinstein proposed, and easily passed, an amendment to the NDAA that limits all interrogation techniques by anyone in the U.S. government to what is already outlined in the Army Field Manual. It was signed by the president last year.
Without perpetrators actually being punished for torture, there is always a danger of it sneaking back into policy, warns Kiriakou. “I think everybody got a pass and I think we’re past the Bush torture program, I don’t think anyone is going to take the fall,” he says.
There have been incremental steps toward justice. Beyond the Senate’s torture report, more recently a federal court has allowed a landmark lawsuit to proceed against two psychologists who were contracted by the CIA to implement its torture program. The ACLU has brought the suit on behalf of two survivors of the program and the family of another man who died at a CIA black site.
The two former military psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, recently admitted in court filings that they administered techniques such as “walling”—grabbing someone by the collar and slamming him into a wall—facial and abdominal slaps, facial holds, sleep deprivation, and waterboarding to the CIA’s first high-profile detainee, Abu Zubaydah, whom we know from the Senate’s report was waterboarded a total of 83 times in one month. The men also admitted to confining him to a box the size of a coffin. This was the first time that individuals connected to the CIA program were forced to reveal their actions in court. They admit they were paid a total of $81 million by the agency for the work.
But those who follow the torture issue aren’t so naïve as to think the government has fully learned its lessons. Abuses continue. As Hawkins points out, Obama’s 2009 directive ended the CIA’s secret prisons overseas, otherwise known as black sites, but it did not legally address the practice of handing over prisoners to other countries for interrogation, which is known as rendition. “Under the Obama administration, transfers of detainees to countries with poor human-rights records have continued, largely under the radar,” she says. “There have been some attempts to obtain meaningful assurances of humane treatment and monitor compliance, but these have been uneven, and a future administration seeking torture loopholes could easily abandon them.”
Which brings us back to Trump’s vow to “strengthen the laws so that we can better compete” with ISIS’s brutal tactics. Right now, the letter of the law is against torture, and Congress does not seem inclined to loosen restrictions explicitly. But as we saw with the parsing of language during the Bush administration—i.e., the John Yoo memos—eager officials often see the law as pliable.
“Consider how few people realize that near-drowning was also used by CIA, dubbed ‘dousing,’ and achieved roughly the same effect” as waterboarding, says Wheeler. “They could do it pretty easily. Just name it something different.”
When asked about Hillary Clinton, who is known as a hawk in the realm of war and counterterrorism, Wheeler says the Democratic nominee would “be every bit as fond of covert operations—if not more so, because she knows more about past ones—as Trump. And those tend to lead to dark places and proxy horrors.”
“Will that include stuff called torture?” Wheeler asks. “Probably, though remotely distanced from U.S. actions.”
Kiriakou says he fails to see hope for much change on the horizon for counterterrorism policy overall: “I’ve always believed that the Obama military and national-security policy was just an extension of the Bush policy, and either Clinton or Trump will simply be a continuation of Obama.” But the CIA interrogation program the way he knew it in the early days following 9/11? That, he believes, might be a bridge too far for even the loudest chest-thumpers.
“I can’t help think that Trump is smarter than [his torture rhetoric], that he is just doing it to appeal to his base,” Kiriakou says. “He’s just too smart to reinstitute a failed and illegal policy.”
Only time, and the outcome of the election, will tell.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, DC-based freelance reporter.
According to evolving campaign lore, Donald Trump’s son called failed Republican candidate John Kasich ahead of Trump’s VP pick in July and told him he could be “the most powerful vice president” ever—in charge of foreign policy, and domestic too—if he agreed to come on board.
While Trump’s people have denied such a lavish entreaty ever occurred, it has become a powerful political meme: the Republican nominee’s lack of experience would force him to default to others, particularly on the international front, which is a never-ending series of flash points dotting Europe, Asia, and the Middle East like a child’s Lite Brite.
On the Democratic side there is no such concern—Hillary Clinton has plenty of experience as a senator and secretary of state, and was a “two-for-one” first lady who not only took part (unsuccessfully) in the domestic health-care debate, but passionately advocated (successfully) for the bombing campaigns in Bosnia and Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
So what of Trump and Clinton’s vice-presidential picks? For starters, they are both hawkish.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence was an apt pupil of Bush and Cheney during the neoconservative years, voting for the Iraq War in 2002 and serving as one of David Petraeus’s cheerleaders in favor of the 2007 surge. He has since supported every intervention his fellow Republicans did, even giving early praise to Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration for the 2011 intervention in Libya.
On the other side, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine is as far from the Bernie Sanders mold as they come: a centrist Democrat who supports a muscular, liberal-interventionist foreign policy, and who has been pushing for greater intervention in Syria, just like Hillary Clinton.
If veeps do matter—and as we saw with Dick Cheney, in many ways they can, bigtime—the non-interventionists can expect nothing but the status quo when it comes to war policy and the war machine at home for the next four years. Under the right conditions, Pence would help drag Trump to the right on war and defense, and Kaine would do nothing but bolster Clinton’s already hawkish views on a host of issues, including those involving Syria, Russia, the Middle East, and China.
If anything, Pence could end up having more influence in the White House, said Bonnie Kristian, a writer and fellow at Defense Priorities, in an interview with TAC. “With these two campaigns, I would predict that Pence would have more of a chance of playing a bigger role [in the presidency] than Tim Kaine does,” she offered. Pence could bring to bear a dozen years of experience as a pro-war congressman, including two years on the foreign-affairs committee. “He’s been a pretty typical Republican on foreign policy and has a lot of neoconservative impulses. I don’t think we could expect anything different,” she added.
For his part, Trump “has been all over the place” on foreign policy, she said, and while his talk about restraint and Iraq being a failure appeals to her and others who would like to see America’s overseas operations scaled back, his bench of close advisors is not encouraging. Walid Phares, Gen. Michael Flynn, Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani: along with Pence, all could fit like neat little pieces into the Bush-administration puzzle circa 2003, and none has ever expressed the same disregard for the Bush and Obama war policies as Trump has on the campaign trail.
“On one hand, [Trump] has referred to the war in Iraq and regime change as bad and nation-building as bad, but at the same time he has no ideological grounding,” said Jack Hunter, politics editor at Rare. If Trump leaves the policymaking up to others, including Pence, “that doesn’t bode well for those who think the last Republican administration was too hawkish and did not exhibit restraint.”
Pence, Kristian reminds us, gave a speech just last year at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in which he called for a massive increase in military spending. “It is imperative that conservatives again embrace America’s role as leader of the free world and the arsenal of democracy,” Pence said, predicting then that 2016 would be a “foreign-policy election.”
“He embraces wholeheartedly a future in which America polices the world—forever—refusing to reorient our foreign policy away from nation-building and toward restraint, diplomacy and free trade to ensure U.S. security,” Kristian wrote in The Hill back when Pence accepted his place on the Trump ticket in July. Since then, he has muted his support for Iraq (Trump has said Pence’s 2003 vote doesn’t matter, even calling it “a mistake”). Clearly the two men prefer to meet on the issue of Islamic threats and the promise of “rebuilding the military,” areas where they have been equally enthusiastic.
Meanwhile, former Bernie Sanders supporters should be rather underwhelmed with Kaine on national-security policy. On one hand, writers rush to point out that Kaine split with President Obama and Hillary Clinton just a few years ago, arguing the administration could not continue to use the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria. He also proposed legislation with Sen. John McCain to update the War Powers Act; the bill would have required the president to consult with Congress when starting a war, and Congress to vote on any war within seven days of military action. That would tighten the constitutional responsibilities of both branches, the senators said in 2013.
On the War Powers Act, Kaine gets points with constitutionalists like University of Texas law professor Steven Vladeck, who said Kaine’s effort “recognizes, as we all should, the broader problems with the War Powers Resolution as currently written—and with the contemporary separation of war powers between Congress and the executive branch.” But on the issue of the AUMF, Vladeck and others have not been so keen on Kaine.
Kaine has made two proposals relating to the AUMF, and both would leave the door open to extended overseas military combat operations—including air strikes, raids, and assassinations—without a specific declaration of war. The first directs the president to modify or repeal the 2001 AUMF “by September 2017”; the second, authored with Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, keeps the 2001 AUMF but updates the 2002 AUMF used to attack Iraq to include ISIS.
A revised AUMF is likely to do precisely what the Bush administration sought to do in the run-up to the Iraq War: codify a dangerous unilateral theory of preemptive war, and provide a veneer of legality for an open-ended conflict against an endlessly expanding list of targets.
While he might be applauded for trying to strengthen “the rule of law on foreign policy,” said Kristian, it’s not clear he wants to do it “to scale back these interventions.” As a member of both the armed-services and foreign-relations committees, he has already argued for greater intervention in Syria, calling for “humanitarian zones”—which, like “no-fly zones” and “no-bombing zones,” mean the U.S. better be ready to tangle with the Syrian president and Russia as well as ISIS.
Plus, when Kaine was running for his Senate seat in 2011, and Obama—with Clinton’s urging—was in the midst of a coalition bombing campaign in Libya, Kaine was much more noncommittal when it came to the War Powers Act, saying Obama had a “good rationale” for going in. When asked if he believed the War Powers Act legally bound the president to get congressional approval to continue operations there, he said, “I’m not a lawyer on that.”
If anything, Kaine will serve as a reliable backup to a president who is perfectly willing to use military force to promote “democracy” overseas. He neither softens Clinton’s edges on military and war, nor is necessary to sharpen them. “Does Tim Kaine change [any dynamic]? I don’t think so,” said Hunter, adding, “I can’t imagine he is as hawkish as her on foreign policy—she is the worst of the worst.”
So when it comes to veep picks, the value is in the eye of the beholder. “If you are a conservative and you don’t think Trump is hawkish enough, you will like it that Pence is there,” notes Hunter. On the other hand, if you like Trump’s attitude on the messes overseas—preferring diplomacy over destruction, as he said in his speech Wednesday—Pence might make you think twice, added Kristian. “I’m not sure Pence is going to further those inclinations, if indeed they do exist.”
To make it more complicated, the American public is unsure how it wants to proceed overseas anyway. While a majority favor airstrikes and sending in special-operations groups to fight ISIS in Syria, only a minority want to insert combat troops or even fund anti-Assad groups, according to an August poll. A slim majority—52 percent—want to establish no-fly zones. Yet only 31 percent want to see a deal that would keep Bashar Assad in power.
A tall order for any White House.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter.
In a seemingly full-throated promise to voters in Scranton, Pa. on Monday, Hillary Clinton said adding “American ground troops” in the war against ISIS in Syria “is off the table.”
But every message coming from her surrogates in the media and in the Washington defense establishment has been that she will “lean in” harder in Syria, and whether you want to call it “added ground troops” or something else, everyone in her orbit is calling for expanded U.S. intervention—including personnel and firepower—in the region, even at the risk of confrontation with Russia.
For weeks, a parade of high-stepping national-security officials—some barely out of government service—have been rattling their sabers passionately for a Hillary Clinton presidency. From Michael Vickers, a former intelligence official most celebrated for his promotion of hunt-to-kill operations in the War on Terror, to (Ret.) Gen. John Allen and ex-CIA Chief Mike Morrell, there is a growing backbench of Washington establishment macho men—and women—who testify to Clinton’s “run it up the gut” security chops, and more than one has noted her well-publicized break with President Obama on Syria. She, of course, having been more hawkish than the other from the start.
Her advisors say Syria will take top priority in her first days in office, and, in addition to ISIS, President Bashar Assad must go. So it is important to examine what a real Clinton Syria policy might look like despite her rhetoric on the campaign trail.
There are three things to look at:
1 . What Clinton’s shadow national-security team—specifically her likely defense secretary, Michele Flournoy, and the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), which was founded in anticipation of Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid—have said on the subject.
2 .What Clinton’s campaign and foreign-policy surrogates are saying.
3. The neoconservative refugees from the Republican Party who have thrown their influence behind Clinton.
Flournoy is no stranger to the national-security establishment. Harvard-educated, she went from the ivory tower to Bill Clinton’s first-term administration, where she served in strategic-policy roles in the Pentagon. During the Bush administration, she toiled in the National Defense University as an instructor and entered the think tank world before launching CNAS with Kurt Cambpell. With CNAS, she hoped to advance Clinton’s candidacy around the idea that the flagging war in Afghanistan could be turned around with the same counterinsurgency (COIN) policies that Gen. David Petraeus had “successfully” executed in Iraq.
When Obama won the Democratic nomination instead, the think tank deftly adjusted. Flournoy and Campbell eventually scooped up key posts in the Pentagon and State Department. She was the third-highest-ranking civilian in the Pentagon before leaving service in 2012. COIN withered on the vine as Afghanistan became a greater quagmire.
Flournoy took herself out of the running to replace retiring Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in 2014. Speculation abounds, but most believe she was keeping her powder dry for Clinton.
Flournoy now wears many hats, and one of them is as a national-security advisor to Clinton. And whatever she may have said to the contrary, the CNAS reports she helps to cultivate specifically advocate additional U.S. personnel in the region for combat purposes, in addition to new airstrikes and direct conflict with Assad forces as well as ISIS.
To be exact: “Military commanders on the ground should be authorized to conduct direct-action raids in Iraq and Syria in order to degrade ISIS’ ability to plot external attacks, and sufficient resources should be authorized to carry out and support these operations.” The report that sentence comes from, released in June, was written by a CNAS study group headed by Flournoy. It calls not for a “fundamental shift in current U.S. strategy,” but “some course corrections.” “Most importantly, it means a willingness to lean further forward in the types of military action the United States would take in this territory,” it explained.
While the emphasis is on arming and training local opposition forces (a strategy that was proposed but did not work so well in Afghanistan, and ultimately also Iraq), it calls for the creation of “no bomb zones” in opposition-held parts of Syria to protect them from pro-Assad airstrikes. This is in line Clinton’s public position, too, according to her campaign website.
But the CNAS strategy is much more explicit: While working with the coalition partners who will somehow emerge in 2017, the U.S. will add more boots on the ground. The report asserts at the start that this would not mean “conventional forces,” but then goes on to say the strategy would require “quick reaction forces, logistics, intelligence, force protection (e.g., base security), fire support, medical evacuation support and air support,” in addition to advisors and “counter network” personnel.
The report also calls for “an expanded campaign of intelligence collection, airstrikes, and direct-action raids” to “further degrade ISIS’ capabilities.” On the no-bombing zones, the report says the U.S. would retaliate against Assad assets if necessary. It acknowledges the risks of inflaming tensions with Russia, which is employing its own airstrikes on behalf of Assad, but there seems to be hope of a “power sharing” agreement down the road.
“Establishing a no-bombing zone would risk escalation with Russia, but this concern is manageable given that neither side wants to enter a direct conflict and the United States needs to exert some military pressure if it wishes to change Russian and regional calculus and empower more acceptable actors on the ground,” the report states.
When Defense One published a straightforward piece making many of these points, Flournoy was quick to respond, saying while she advocates all of the above regarding the no-bombing zones and airstrikes, she does “NOT advocate putting U.S. combat troops on the ground to take territory from Assad’s forces or remove Assad from power.”
Defense One appended Flournoy’s letter to the story, but it didn’t issue a correction. The piece’s author, Patrick Tucker, told The Intercept that “Strike weapons at standoff distance is troops.” He continued: “Those are military personnel. That is U.S. military power—at war with the Assad regime. There is just no way around it.”
Bottom line: the CNAS authors are calling for increased U.S. military operations in Syria. “I can’t think of another instance in which a U.S. presidential candidate was actually planning, via advisors who had drawn up detailed plans, a new war, to actually start an additional war that didn’t exist before,” said writer Gareth Porter, who recently penned “Hillary Clinton and Her Hawks.”
“That is even more dangerous and more reckless, because even the authors of the CNAS report acknowledge there is a serious risk of coming into direct conflict with Russian forces in Syria. It’s really quite an astonishing turn of events when you think about it,” Porter added.
But the CNAS report and Flournoy’s op-eds are pretty tame to what Clinton’s surrogates have been saying to the media more recently.
Reporting from the Democratic National Convention, the Telegraph got some choice quotes from Clinton advisor Jeremy Bash, a former Pentagon official who founded Beacon Strategies, a “strategic advisory firm” that includes Morell, career bureaucrat and Clintonista Leon Panetta, and Clinton media operative and fixer Phillipe Reines, among others.
Bash was unequivocal about Clinton’s Syria “reset,” which would focus not only on ISIS but also on bringing down President Bashar Assad. “A Clinton administration will not shrink from making clear to the world exactly what the Assad regime is,” he said in interview with The Telegraph. “It is a murderous regime that violates human rights; that has violated international law; used chemical weapons against his own people; has killed hundreds of thousands of people, including tens of thousands of children.”
It is no secret that Clinton has supported removing Assad from the start and had a famous break with President Obama over arming the opposition and establishing so-called no-fly zones. While the White House has focused more on pushing back ISIS’s advances in the region, Clinton and her advisors have made it clear they disagree and that the removal of Assad won’t be off the table.
Meanwhile, Morrell says he was “non-partisan” before endorsing Clinton this summer, but in reality he joined Beacon, which is run by longtime members of Clinton’s inner circle, after leaving the CIA in 2013 instead of going to a national-security think tank or an academic perch. That he suddenly became a Clinton champion out of a noble concern for the country, which is the lazy media narrative, is a bit hard to swallow.
Morrell told Charlie Rose in August (starting at the 30-minute mark) that U.S. policy should be to make Russians and Iranians “pay a price” for being there, including killing Russians “covertly” and helping to initiate the bombing of Syrian government buildings and installations to “scare” Assad before he is ultimately “transitioned out” of power. In July, Panetta all but said the same thing to CBS’s Margaret Brennan. He also hinted at the possibility of putting more U.S. troops on the ground:
I think the likelihood is that the next president is gonna have to consider adding additional special forces on the ground to try to assist those moderate forces that are taking on ISIS, and that are taking on Assad’s forces. And we have to increase our air strikes. We’ve got to do all of those things in order to put increasing pressure on ISIS but also on Assad. We can’t surrender one objective for the other. We’ve gotta continue to press on both fronts.
“I think the three of them [Bash, Morrell, and Panetta] provide a very clear window into the type of foreign policy one can expect under a Clinton administration,” says Christopher Coyne, an associate professor of economics at George Mason University who has written about military interventions. “A policy that entails a proactive use of the military to attempt to address a wide range of issues around the world.”
“I would say the majority of people in my circle will vote for Hillary.” So says Robert Kagan, one of the most influential neoconservatives in Washington, as well as an astute foreign-policy player who has positioned himself among both Republican and Democratic national-security literati as a grand strategy thinker. His last book, The World America Made, is an unabashed paean to American hegemony and interventionist posture, and his made-for-Barnes & Noble books are much admired by Obama. His wife is Bush-Obama State Department official Victoria Nuland, a potential secretary of state in a new Clinton administration. TAC’s Phil Giraldi has called Nuland “Hillary’s Hawk in Waiting,” blaming her interference in Ukraine for escalating a crisis with Russia in the region.
Kagan was recently featured in an article by Intercept writer Rania Khalek, who covered a recent “foreign policy professionals for Hillary fundraiser.” The event raised $25,000 for Clinton but also raised eyebrows about which members of Kagan’s “circle” would support her.
It’s not hard to start counting. Some of them, like Eliot Cohen, who supported the war in Iraq from his perch at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, have said Clinton is the “lesser evil.” Max Boot, a hardliner if there ever was one, took the step of declaring a break from Republicanism and his endorsement of Clinton in the Los Angeles Times, noting she would be more hawkish than Obama. Jamie Kirchick, another familiar neoconservative stalwart, recently penned an article endorsing Clinton entitled, “Hillary Clinton Is 2016’s Real Conservative—Not Donald Trump.”
Kagan is the most open about his common ground with Clinton, telling the New York Times in a 2014 interview that he is “comfortable” with her foreign policy. No doubt. He and his circle consider Obama’s foreign policy in Syria to be woefully passive. Regime change is again in the air, and Clinton’s left and right flanks are ready to see it through.
It is “something that might have been called neocon,” Kagan said of Clinton’s views, “but clearly her supporters are not going to call it that; they are going to call it something else.”
Whether additional U.S. forces on the ground will remain “off the table” will be an early test of rhetoric versus reality. They may just call that something else, too.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter.
The liberation last month of the Sunni city of Fallujah from a two-year ISIS stranglehold was celebrated as a rare victory by Iraqi forces and their U.S. backers amid a summer of bloody terror attacks across the Middle East and Europe.
But as the first “post-liberation” cameras broadcast images on June 26 from inside the city—fighters with their rifles raised in triumph, smiles and selfies all around as important-looking people (including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi) exited utility vehicles and gave interviews to reporters—something seemed off.
The city, for one, was ravaged. Most say it’s not as bad as Ramadi, but that city was completely destroyed during May’s liberation from ISIS, so that’s not saying much. Fallujah looks post-apocalyptic. Second, the only people in Fallujah right now are fighters. Shia fighters. And not just Iraqi forces, but non-uniformed Shiite militia raising their own flags in the city.
Meanwhile, everyone else—more than 80,000 Fallujans driven from their homes by ISIS and the ensuing battles—are languishing in sprawling desert refugee camps with not enough shelter or food or mattresses.
Worse, they are considered the lucky ones. According to reports, some 9,000 Fallujah men and boys are still being detained by Iraqi forces for suspected ISIS collusion, leaving tens of thousands of women and children to fend for themselves in the camps. Those camps are less than a hour away from Baghdad, but as recent reports indicate, the government is restricting Sunni access there, concerned that terrorists may slip through with the needy. Most would say they have cause for caution — an ISIS suicide bomber set off a truckload of explosives in a Baghdad market on July 3, killing close to 300 people.
So for now, it seems, the very people the U.S. helped to liberate are being abused all over again, stuck between a city now crawling with the celebratory Shia who despise them and a Shia- dominated—and some say pro-Iranian—capital city that wants them to stay as far away as possible.
This, says longtime foreign policy reporter Nancy Youssef, is nothing more than striking a match over a pool of gasoline. She and her Daily Beast colleague Jonathan Krohn reported that at least 50 men were killed by Shia paramilitary groups and hundreds more simply vanished. Claims of brutality by the government’s “Popular Mobilization Units,” which serve as an umbrella group of militias working with Baghdad, abound, and the finger-pointing has already begun.
“What I see is you’re laying the groundwork for the next iteration of an ongoing sectarian conflict,” Youssef told TAC in an interview. “The people didn’t trust ISIS and they don’t trust the Shia-led government.”
Youssef and Krohn referred to this report from the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, which said thousands of refugees from one village just outside Fallujah fell into a trap, approaching what appeared to be government forces only find members of the notorious Shia militia Kataaib Hezbollah—which was once considered a terror group by the U.S. but is now fighting to oust ISIS alongside the Iraqi government—waiting for them. The boys and men were separated from the women, and a large group of 900 men are still missing and now feared dead.
Kali Jessica Rubaii, of the Islah Reparations Project, a U.S.-based group established in 2008 to help funnel aid and resettle displaced Iraqis, said her organization is hearing the same stories from its people on the ground. “Reports of people being kidnapped, killed prima facia, and physically abused are widespread, and there is a sentiment among Fallujans that they are being abused because they are Sunni,” she told TAC.
“People feel they are ignored by the government. In reality I cannot say to what degree the Iraqi government is providing for displaced people from Fallujah,” she added. “People are trapped between the anvil and the hammer, between their own government and Daash [ISIS].”
Can Fallujah Ever Recover?
To watch young amputee Mustafa Ahmed swing from his crutches into a dirty tent in the middle of the desert—no clean water or food, no mattress to sleep on—is to see the failure of U.S. policy in Iraq.
According to a grim report on PBS Newshour by foreign correspondent Jane Arraf, Ahmed lost a kidney and his leg when he was a baby during an American airstrike in Fallujah in 2004. (She doesn’t say whether it was during the first Battle of Fallujah or the second.) Now a handsome yet serious-faced child of 12 or 13, he has fled his city on crutches for eight miles before becoming trapped in one of the desperate camps outside.
He told Arraf he once had a prosthetic leg, fitted for him in Oregon—likely as a form of restitution for being collateral damage. But he has since outgrown it. Now he doesn’t even have catheter tubes. He couldn’t even get one of the free mattresses being distributed by the Norwegian Refugee Council, one of the few aid groups on the ground there today.
“These last few weeks I’ve been shocked and heartbroken at how little humanitarian aid has been made available to Fallujah residents fleeing the Islamic State,” said Donna Mulhearn, an Australian human-rights activist who made several trips to Iraq before, during, and after the war. She listened to the parents and doctors who raised alarms about the growing number of horrific birth defects in post-war Fallujah in 2012. She held the babies. She wonders where they are now.
“Everyone knew the siege would occur and that there were around 85,000 civilians trapped and already starving,” she told TAC in an email. “Why were camps for those displaced not set up and resourced beforehand, or as the campaign was going on?”
There was a three-month siege before U.S. airstrikes aided the final routing of ISIS in mid-June. At least 30,000 Fallujans were trapped there with no food and used by ISIS as human shields until the very end, when they started pouring into the camps en masse. Rubaii, whose group is gathering supplies for the camps, said she has heard horror stories of people who were forced to eat garbage before fleeing Fallujah, of babies miscarried, and others shot and killed by Shia militias when the siege was over and the battles began. Reports are widespread that civilians were killed by ISIS while trying to escape.
One report suggests that Baghdad underestimated the number of people who would flee as the battle turned and more residents were able to escape. In mid-June, when the camps began overflowing, al-Abadi said the government would begin building 10 more camps, but as of this writing there are still only four, and they are overwhelmed with no electricity, running water, or sanitation.
When asked what kind of humanitarian response the military has promoted, Youssef, who reports the Pentagon, shrugged. “They say they are monitoring it,” she said. Meanwhile, the U.S. is sending 560 additional American troops to help the Iraqi government take Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, back from ISIS. But the Sunnis there are already wary that Shia paramilitary units working with the Iraqi government are coming to sack their city, too. “It’s heartbreaking because you know there is no end in sight,” Youssef said of the sectarian cycle of violence and mistrust.
The State Department, on the other hand, said it was sending $20 million in additional aid for the ground efforts there as part of a larger package to be announced “later this year.”
When asked about the reports of brutalization by Shia militias in a June 3 briefing, the State Department said they were “very concerned,” and that they were raising those concerns with the Iraqi government directly. “But the Iraqi government has made every commitment—or rather, committed to make every effort—to avoid civilian casualties and has issued clear instructions to Iraqi Security Forces [to give safe passage to Sunni], and we obviously support them in this position,” said spokesman Mark Toner. As for the “Iranian thumbprint” on the operations, he added, “Well, of course, we’re concerned about sectarian tensions and any actions that could heighten those tensions.”
Ben Irwin of the Preemptive Love Coalition, one of the few aid groups active in Fallujah from the start of the battle in May, said they’ve been delivering food, water, hygiene packs, and cooking stoves directly to families there. They do not get U.S. government assistance, nor do they seek it.
“It seems like every aspect of this response [to take back Fallujah] was overlooked, under-planned, or deployed too late,” he tells TAC. “Fallujah was held by ISIS for more than two years. Its families were starving for months. Officials knew this was coming. Why weren’t the camps already supplied, waiting in the desert beforehand? Why is the world scrambling to catch up, spending a pittance on the humanitarian response in Fallujah, compared to the massive amount of spending and planning that went into the military campaign?”
Fallujans were out of favor with the West from the start. A center of institutional and political support for Saddam Hussein, it was a hotbed of insurgency after the U.S. invasion, and after the killing of four U.S. contractors there in 2003, it became the target of two of the Iraq War’s major battles. The second leveled tens of thousands of the city’s mosques, homes, and public buildings.
Later, after the much-vaunted “Anbar Awakening” drove the al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) insurgency into hiding, Fallujah suffered like much of the Sunni province. Men who had helped fight the insurgency were promised work with the Iraqi police and military, but the work never came. Meanwhile, Gen. Ray Odierno left then-Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki with a parting gift of iris scans of former U.S.-sponsored “Sons of Iraq.” The Sunnis were marginalized, arrested, abused. When they tried to protest during the Arab Spring, they were shut down violently.
As a result, weakened Sunni Iraq was ripe for ISIS, which rose out of the ashes of AQI, and cities like Ramadi and Fallujah paid the price. Those who did not die in retributive attacks weren’t strong enough to kick ISIS out once the fighters started seizing property, executing rivals, and creating an atmosphere of paranoia and deceit.
“Maliki’s out-of-control campaign of terror against Fallujah ultimately led to the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and the rest is history,” charged Mulhearn, who fears that after this last siege, “the social fabric of Fallujah has been irreparably torn.”
Or is it? While the U.S. picked its horse in the race long ago, that doesn’t mean it should stand aside while the city falls prey to another hostile sectarian power play. If anything, further violence and abuse will only create conditions for another insurgency.
“This is where we will either sow the seeds of the next conflict or begin unmaking years of violence through our acts of love,” offered Irwin. “We can turn our backs on Fallujah—and consign its people to more violence, more instability, more terror. Or we can show up in the hard places and love anyway, treat Fallujah’s people with the dignity they deserve, and maybe start writing a new future together.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter.
WASHINGTON—Like all special interests in the nation’s capital, the defense industry is spending millions of dollars this election season to ensure a front-row spot at the federal trough—and in the case of the most powerful military-industrial contractors, a chance to influence the national-security policies that will keep production lines humming and profit margins growing.
Defense contractors took a keen interest in the Republican and Democratic primaries, backing candidates for reasons both ideological and commercial. How they will divide their dollars between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the general election remains to be seen, though there are reasons to think one of the major-party nominees will be especially receptive to industry support. For the military-industrial complex, however, the race for the White House is not the whole story—and in the ways that matter most, this year’s elections mean business as usual.
By April 30, the defense sector had given more than $1.6 million to the broad field of presidential candidates. Among all the 2016 hopefuls, Ted Cruz was the recipient of the most defense-industry dollars, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Cruz received a total of $343,000, followed—perhaps surprisingly—by Bernie Sanders with $323,000, and then Hillary Clinton with more than $273,000.
Sanders’s place at the top of the Democratic heap in terms of defense-sector support may seem odd for a man who attacked Clinton’s support for overseas military interventions. But it’s not so strange at all when one considers that the controversial F-35 Joint Strike Fighter—the most expensive aircraft in U.S. history, and more than a decade overdue—underwent development in Sanders’s home state of Vermont.
Lockheed, the maker of the F-35 and the biggest recipient of Pentagon contracts in 2015, gave Sanders $36,600 through March. He also got more money from Boeing than Clinton—nearly $46,000 in that period, according to Alexander Cohen of the Center for Public Integrity.
Meanwhile, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings, Donald Trump, by then already the presumptive Republican nominee, had received only $17,818 as of May. Republican dropouts Jeb Bush ($212,108) and Lindsey Graham ($135,925) filled out the top five this spring, under Cruz, Sanders, and Clinton.
While the total figure for defense corporations’ giving directly to presidential candidates was just $1.65 million as of the end of April, that number does not count the companies’ political action committees, which pour cash into presidential coffers and, even more so, those of congressional candidates and party committees. Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman have PACs that rank among the wealthiest in the industry. Lockheed’s PAC, which spread around over $1.6 million for federal candidates this spring, had given $10,000 to Cruz by the end of March. Northrop Grumman’s PAC, on the other hand, gave all of its $1.5 million as of March to House and Senate candidates—mostly Republicans.
Over and above ordinary PAC spending, the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision allows for unlimited contributions to super PACs from corporations. “Now [that special interests] can spend as much money as they want, I think you will find more lopsided contributions,” notes Pierre Sprey, a defense analyst and critic who spoke with TAC. “This is a huge sword hanging over the heads of the candidates.” And although Super PACs must ultimately disclose their donors to the FEC, issue-oriented nonprofits need not do so, and they too can be tools of defense-industry influence on public opinion. The overall picture of how defense dollars shape politics is shadowy—but what we can see is telling.
Now that the primaries are over, the question is whether defense dollars will favor Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. In recent cycles, Republican nominees have received more contributions from the sector than Democrats have. That might change this year, both because Trump has been slow to build a fundraising base among special interests—whose money he turned down during the primary season—and because Clinton has a candidate profile that seems like an especially good fit for military industries.
When asked this spring about the campaign by ABC’s Martha Raddatz, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said of Clinton, with classic understatement, “I think that she probably would be somewhat more hawkish than President Obama.”
As secretary of state, Clinton worked with Gates and David Petraeus, the director of the CIA at the time, to push for more aggressive intervention against the Assad government in Syria. She led the charge into Libya—now a roiling mess of dysfunction and a waystation for many Islamic fighters in the region. Clinton’s support for military intervention goes much farther back than that, however. History has her behind the scenes in her husband Bill Clinton’s administration, along with then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, pressing for an early bombing campaign in Bosnia in 1993.
“Hillary Clinton has been part of the Washington establishment for a quarter century. I think the defense contractors likely view her as a known quantity,” says Dan Grazier, retired Marine Corps captain, Iraq veteran, and now a senior military analyst at the Project for Government Oversight. “And she does have a hawkish reputation, which is obviously good for their bottom line.”
In a New York Times story titled “How Hillary Became a Hawk,” correspondent Mark Landler described the occasion when Gates and Pacific Commander Adm. Robert Willard were pushing for the USS George Washington to steer an aggressive course into the Yellow Sea after the North Koreans torpedoed a South Korean ship in 2010, killing 46 on board. “We’ve got to run it up the gut!” Clinton reportedly said in agreement, getting an admiring chuckle from her staff for the quick football analogy. Obama chose not to take her advice. Nor did he take it when she had recommended a year earlier that he approve Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request for 40,000 more troops in Afghanistan.
As Landler’s story makes clear, Clinton has had an unusually accommodating relationship with generals and top civilian brass. She has always been portrayed as a sympathetic partner, an enabler-in-waiting. To the wider national-security establishment, she is clearly “of the body.”
“She believes, like presidents going back to the Reagan or Kennedy years, in the importance of the military—in solving terrorism, in asserting American influence,” Vali Nasr, Clinton’s former advisor at the State Department, told Landler.
So she naturally ranks high with the military-industrial complex too. Not only does she represent the status quo—or something more than the status quo—with respect to military spending and operations, she has been favored by the political class to win from the beginning. “In that, the contractors probably view their contributions to her campaign as a safe bet,” Dan Grazier told TAC.
Trump, on the other hand, is an unknown quantity who until recently eschewed special-interest funding, and his take from the defense industry during the primaries was correspondingly paltry. But that may change.
After all, with billions at stake, defense companies have incentives to hedge their bets. According to the website Defense News, the Pentagon’s top 100 contractors brought in a total of $175.1 billion in 2015. Lockheed Martin was the largest single contractor for the U.S. government last year, raking in $36.2 billion in federal contracts, followed by Boeing at $16.6 billion, General Dynamics with $13.6 billion, Raytheon with $13.1 billion, and Northrop Grumman with $10.6 billion.
But if the defense industry has to “give a little to get a little”—or give a lot to get a lot—contributions to presidential candidates aren’t necessarily what deliver the most bang for the military-industrial buck.
The defense industry is in fact a relatively marginal player in the presidential contest, at least from what the visible paper trail shows. Hillary Clinton is far more reliant on resources from the securities and investment industry. The war machine doesn’t even crack her top-20 list of contributors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
That’s because the defense sector spends its money elsewhere. By putting their cash into Congress, defense industries can elect and influence legislators who will remain in Washington far longer than any president. Congress is where the action is: defense executives and their lobbyists work with the elected officials beholden to them to write bills, pad budgets, and shift contract work into specific legislators’ districts to ensure that projects will be funded and otherwise supported over the long haul.
“The arms manufacturers are putting a lot of money” into presidential candidates, says Pierre Sprey, “but it’s nothing compared to the day-in, day-out money they’re giving to Congress.” Simply put, Congress is a better investment.
“Congress can undo any administration decision that Boeing or Lockheed doesn’t like,” Sprey observes. “Defense contractors have enormous influence in shaping the secretary of defense’s decisions, but if the secretary happens to do something that displeases the industry, they will get Congress to undo that too, taking advantage of the broad leverage the companies have bought by spreading subcontracts across 48 states, by contributing generously to key committee congressmen, and by unleashing armies of lobbyists and paid-for think-tank pundits.”
Government watchdogs who spoke with TAC say that the defense contracting community focuses about as much of its attention on the authorizers—the Senate and House Armed Services Committees—as on the appropriators. That’s because the real payoff for defense contributions is in getting programs—weapon systems, vehicles, aircraft, ships, drones, nuclear armaments and all of the requisite technology—approved in the defense policy bills each year.
“As authorizers, they have a lot of capacity to at least start making the arguments [on behalf of defense contractors], even if they can’t necessarily put the money into the account,” says Mandy Smithberger, military-reform analyst for the Project for Government Oversight.
So far in the 2016 cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Government, the defense sector spent over $17 million, the vast majority going to House and Senate candidates and party committees. The split is pretty uneven—63 percent of the cash goes to Republicans, 36 percent to Democrats—largely because the Republicans are in charge of both the House and Senate.
The top of the list? Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), new chair of the House Armed Services Committee, who had received at least $308,000 as of April. According to the Center for Public Integrity’s Alexander Cohen, Thornberry—who has been in office 21 years—received a total of $933,415 from the largest 75 defense companies over his last decade on the committee.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, comes in third on the list, with $265,450 as of this writing. The next Republican after him is a top F-35 proponent, Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), chairman of the HASC Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, who raked in $181,950. He’s followed by Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), chair of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, with $166,700.
They may not all be household names, but to the defense sector they are veritable golden geese.
Cohen says the defense sector sprinkles plenty of green on members who sit on the joint House-Senate conference committee, too. This panel hashes out the final details of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), and its 48 members—34 of them from the HASC and SASC—got, in all, no less than $20.6 million in contributions from defense contractors and their employees between 2003 to 2014, four times as much as members of the Armed Services committees who were not appointed as conferees.
The HASC recently passed its 2017 NDAA, calling for a $583 billion hike in spending, including such line items as 11 more F-35s and a $2 billion boost to the Navy’s shipbuilding budget. According to an Associated Press report, the committee members calling for this $18 billion increase have received $10 million over the course of their careers from defense contractors who “would benefit from higher levels of military spending.” The House Appropriations Committee sent a lower budget figure, $575.5 billion, to the floor in May, but critics warn of tricky accounting: the House Appropriations plan uses wartime contingency funds to get around funding caps for baseline budgeting.
Defense contractors and their surrogates—who include not only lawmakers but also lobbyists and analysts from think tanks that represent the industry on Capitol Hill—say the big fight in 2017 will be getting rid of those spending caps, which were put into place under the Budget Control Act (BCA), the “sequester” of 2011.
“Absolutely,” says Dave Deptula, executive director of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, a nonprofit think tank that advances Air Force interests, including the F-35, in Washington. The BCA, he says, “is undercutting our capabilities and should be eliminated.” He contends that readiness and capital projects have been sacrificed under the caps. “What we did to our Air Force and our military writ large was what our enemies could only hope to achieve.”
Mandy Smithberger replies that industry backers like Deptula overstate the austerity imposed by the budget controls. Such friends of the industry, she contends, demand gold-plated programs that actually divert money away from less expensive and more capable alternatives.
“Lockheed’s investments [in Congress] have definitely paid off when it comes to F-35 in the defense bill every year,” says Smithberger. The company, which has contributed over $15 million to congressional races since 2006, ensures that the F-35 dollars keep coming by splitting up subcontracts—with each subcontractor responsible for making a different piece—across hundreds of congressional districts. Jobs in those districts are leverage for Lockheed Martin. “The F-35 is in 46 different states and 350 districts,” Smithburger says. “That is a lot of political support for one program.”
Even when the Department of Defense asks for something else, lawmakers in the pocket of contractors make sure the companies’ pet projects are funded anyway. And the corruption is getting worse.
“It used to be that members of congress would pork themselves up only for contracts that had a significant impact in their state or district,” says defense analyst and former GAO researcher Winslow Wheeler. “That day is long gone. Members squabble for ‘credit’ even for the tiniest level of spending in their political jurisdiction, to say nothing of going along with anything produced anywhere by anyone if there is the slightest prospect—always rewarded—of a contribution.”
Because of this entrenchment, little will change next year no matter who wins the White House, says Dan Grazier. “My natural cynicism is telling me there won’t be any difference between this year and the next.” That’s what the industry is counting on.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter.
It’s been two generations since “your number is up” meant anything but relief at the DMV or a one-way ticket to the pearly gates.
But for any man older than 65, it once meant something entirely different. It was your draft number, whether it be your birthday (Vietnam) or your district number (WWII). The information was pushed into a capsule no bigger than a cyanide pill, which was tossed into a fishbowl filled with hundreds or thousands of other tiny blue orbs. On “lottery day,” one capsule was plucked from the others. When a man’s number was “up,” he reported to the draft board and, if deemed fit for duty, was thrown into war.
Those were all the able-bodied men in a certain age range. Now imagine young women sitting in front of their televisions, or glued to their mobile devices, waiting to see if their numbers are up. It seems fantastical, 40 years after the draft was ended and with an all-volunteer force now filling the ranks for war. But the issue of whether to open the Selective Service to women—all men 18-25 are still required to register—is very much a debate on Capitol Hill today.
In fact, such a change could be included in the next major defense budget authorization bill.
Despite the unlikely nature of a draft, it is a salient issue that has split both Democrats and Republicans. It’s shaken their political sensibilities around and settled them down on either side in unlikely alliances. Presidential candidates have even had to address the question in primary debates.
In one corner, there are champions of women in the military, where the ranks have recently opened combat roles to female soldiers. For them, equality is a goal that cannot and should not be deterred by something as unpopular or archaic as the draft. If women want parity in the military, it starts here. It’s symbolic.
On the other side, there are two factions. One thinks women should not be in combat and therefore would overburden a draft board with deferments and disqualifications—a silly, bureaucratic nightmare born out of political correctness. The other school thinks the draft should be eliminated entirely, and lining up women to serve it, no matter how symbolic, is an anathema. Let the volunteer force—whether it be men or women—fight, if the country must defend itself.
Military historian Andrew Bacevich calls it a “tempest in a canteen cup,” and he is probably right: The draft was eliminated in 1973 for a reason. Despite the fact the Vietnam War was winding down, he writes, it was the conscription of tens of thousands of young men during that conflict that “spurred anti-war sentiment and benefited no one—apart perhaps from Canada, favored destination of many thousands of draft evaders.”
That may be, but how we came to be talking about opening the Selective Service to women today is significant in itself, and probably speaks about heightened tensions involving women in combat more than anything else.
It began when Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), an Iraq War veteran, first proposed an amendment in April opening the draft to women in the House National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The move came not as a symbol of women’s growing equality in the forces, mind you, but as a “gotcha,” according to Politico. He wanted to underscore the problematic nature of that newly enforced equality.
“In a marathon session to craft a new defense policy bill, the panel backed Rep. Duncan Hunter’s amendment by a 32-30 vote,” reporter Connor O’Brien wrote on April 28. But “by his own admission, however, the California Republican does not actually intend to include women in a draft and voted down his own amendment.” He opposed opening up all combat units to women and was clearly using the amendment to show that “colleagues have failed to fully account for the implications of the shift.”
“I’ve talked to coffeehouse liberals in San Francisco and conservative families who pray three times a day,” Hunter said during the markup of the NDAA. “And neither of those groups want their daughter to be drafted.”
He is right, of course, but he failed to note that there are also stalwart constituencies for drafting women, including the Pentagon brass. Both Army Chief of Staff Mark A. Milley and Marine Corps Commandant Robert Neller have said publicly that if women are in combat, women must be in the draft. While this may not sound like a rousing endorsement (the Marines, after all, were the last to come around to the changes), their backing has ignited support among the hawks on the Hill.
That includes head hawk Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is typically considered one of the the most pro-military (if not pro-war) members of Congress. He offered his own amendment drafting women for the Senate version of the NDAA on May 10.
“As women serve in more roles across the armed forces, I support the recommendation of the Army Chief of State and the Commandant of the Marine Corps that women should register for Selective Service,” McCain said in a statement to Roll Call on May 12. “It is the logical conclusion of the decision to open combat positions to women.”
He is joined by fellow hawk Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), who in February said that after hearing from military officials, she too was convinced that “it makes sense that … women would also register for the Selective Service.” Her colleague Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) expressed the same sentiment during a New Hampshire presidential primary debate. “I have no problem whatsoever with people of either gender serving in combat so long as the minimum requirements necessary to do the job are not compromised,” he said. Having gained access to combat, “I do believe that Selective Service should be opened up for both men and women in case a draft is ever instituted.” (He flip-flopped almost immediately.)
Now, these Republicans may be exhibiting the same kind of cynicism as their colleague Duncan: Everyone knows the draft itself is as unpopular as a skunk at a picnic, and that we will likely never see the likes of it again—so why not support opening the Selective Service to women on the merits of the idea, at least winning points with the millions of women who support it?
Or perhaps it is just a subtler form of the answer military writer Michael Yon gave TAC when we asked him.
“This is a no-brainer. If women wish to try out for Rangers, SEALS, Green Berets, they wish for equality,” said Yon, who served in special forces in the 1980s. “Draft them if needed. Put up or shut up.”
But such condescension isn’t likely to thwart the women who are already expressing an interest in “putting up,” and unlike Duncan, they aren’t bluffing. And they are backed by Democrats like Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who is usually on the other side of McCain when it comes to military issues.
“The fight for equality and treatment must also include equality in obligation. As we move towards a formalized role for women in combat arms, this is a necessary progression,” said Tyler Gately, a spokesperson for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), which “applauds” the House and Senate for taking up the issue.
“I’m in favor of drafting women. As a female veteran who voluntarily enlisted, I see the importance of civic duty and giving back to our country. Freedom is not free,” says IAVA member De’Cha LeVeau, in an email to TAC. “As women we must step up to the plate, per se. If we are expecting equality; this equality comes with added responsibility.”
Those who have been against women in combat from the beginning—and this fight has been ongoing for decades—have seen enormous changes over the last few years, including special-forces roles opening to both genders. In fact, after passing the grueling trials, three women were the first to earn their U.S. Army Ranger tabs last fall.
But critics insist women do not have the physical capacity to join their male counterparts on the front lines. To achieve parity, the warning goes, women will likely be held to different standards, and this will hurt unit cohesion and readiness. Many of these critics are also social conservatives who blame feminism and political correctness for the drive to include women in the combat ranks in the first place.
“Political correctness is dangerous, and the idea that we would draft our daughters, to forcibly bring them into the military and put them in close contact—I think is wrong, it is immoral, and if I am president, we ain’t doing it,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) charged in February, when he was still on the campaign trail.
Meanwhile, a contingent of military women backed by longtime critic Elaine Donnelly at the Center for Military Readiness, are standing firm against what they are calling Duncan’s folly.
“Military women average two to ten times men’s injuries—this means an even higher turnover where the physical demand and intensity is much, much greater, in combat units during war time,” said Jude Eden, an Iraq War Marine Corps veteran, who cited a nine-month study by the Marines released in September.
“Because of these greater liabilities, drafting women will result in more lives being lost unnecessarily when they’re actually replacing infantrymen in a national emergency,” said Eden, who has written extensively on the subject. “The draft isn’t to collect people for desk jobs to ‘free a man to fight,’ it’s to replace the men dying at the front of the fight.”
But there is also the question over whether not opening the draft to women is even legal. In 1981, several men filed lawsuits alleging that the Military Selective Service Act violates the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment because it requires only men, not women, to register. The Supreme Court upheld the act, but gave women’s exclusion from combat roles as the reason for doing so. The ruling may no longer apply now that all the barriers are down.
The wheels of the justice are already turning on the subject: The National Coalition of Men, which has launched a lawsuit similar to the one filed more than 30 years ago, won a recent victory. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said their challenge against the Selective Service could go forward, mainly because the changes in policy in Washington made it “ripe for adjudication.”
So why not just get rid of Selective Service altogether? There is a bipartisan group of lawmakers trying to do that, too.
“Not only will abolishing the Selective Service save the U.S. taxpayers money, it will remove an undue burden on our nation’s young people,” Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), said in a statement as he and others introduced a bill to end Selective Service in February. “We need to get rid of this mean-spirited and outdated system and trust that if the need should arise Americans—both male and female—will answer the call to defend our nation.”
After the initial dust up, the House Rules Committee ended up pulling Duncan’s draft amendment from the draft NDAA last week. But the Senate continues to contemplate it as final legislation goes forward, folly or no folly.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.
In no place in America are the abrupt changes in the nation’s security posture so keenly reflected in real estate and lifestyle than the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. In the decade after 9/11, it has grown into a sprawling, pretentious representation of the federal government’s growth, vices and prosperity, encompassing the wealthiest counties, the best schools, and some of the highest rates of income inequality in the country.
“People hate Washington but they don’t really know why,” says Mike Lofgren, a longtime Beltway inhabitant and arch critic of its culture. But show them what is underneath the dignified facades—particularly the greed and excess financed by the overgrown military-industrial complex—and the populist resentment recently harnessed by insurgent candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders just might have a concrete grievance that can drive real change.
For Lofgren, “Beltwayland” is perhaps best described as analogous to the Victorian novel the Picture of Dorian Gray—a rich, shimmering ecosystem in which all of the ugly, twisted aberrations are hidden away in an attic somewhere, or rather sadly, in the poverty-blighted wards and low income zip codes of “the DMV” (The District, Maryland, and Virginia).
Oscar Wilde might have seen a bit of his Victorian England in Washington’s self-indulgent elite, but unlike the gentry of Dorian Gray, men and women here see not leisure, but amassing personal wealth through workaholism, as a virtue of the ruling class. For them, a two-front war and Washington’s newly enlarged national-security state, much of which is hidden in plain sight, have ushered in a 21st-century gilded age only replicated in America’s few, most privileged enclaves. As Lofgren explains:
It is common knowledge that Wall Street and its inflated compensation packages have remade Manhattan into an exclusive playground for the rich, just as tech moguls have made San Francisco unaffordable for the middle class. It is less well known that the estimated $4 trillion spent since 9/11 on the war on terrorism and billions spent on political campaigns ($6 billion on the 2012 elections alone) have trickled down so extravagantly to the New Class settled around Washington’s Beltway that they have remade the landscape of our capital.
The perfect storm—hundreds of billions in federal procurement dollars flooding into the area after 9/11, along with the easing of corporate campaign fundraising thanks to the now infamous Citizens United decision—has deepened the trough for lawyers, lobbyists, consultants, developers and contractors.
“The federal government is a $3.6 trillion beast in the district’s backyard that keeps the lights burning and the paychecks printing from government office buildings on Capitol Hill down along the Dulles Toll Road to the tech consulting firms in Virginia,” wrote Derek Thompson in The Atlantic in 2011, when the area was growing at three times the rate of the rest of the country in its post-recession years.
“Uncle Sam directly employs one-sixth of the district’s workforce and indirectly pays for much more.” It is the “much more” that Lofgren likes to focus on, pointing out that government workers, who might enjoy more job security and pensions, actually have a cap on annual salaries and benefits. It’s the private class that has remade the landscape, the worst characterized by “the K Street lawyers, political consultants, Beltway fixers and war on terrorism profiteers who run a permanent shadow government in the nation’s capital,” he writes.
So where do they live? D.C. proper has transmogrified into an almost unrecognizable state with former badlands like the Navy Yard, U Street, Downtown, and Capitol Hill, joining the vanguards of wealth in old Georgetown, Northwest D.C. Just over the state line in Chevy Chase and Bethesda, Maryland, real estate and especially rents have skyrocketed as baby boomers with fat retirements have joined the yuppie migration to luxury living in urban centers.
Travel out of what Lofgren calls the Imperial City, over the Potomac River on I-395 into Virginia and there you will see the first of many rings of the military-industrial complex, with major defense contractors cheek by jowl with government satellite offices in Crystal City. Just beyond is what remains of the more modest post-WWII boom neighborhoods (which include, believe it or not, remnants of a once agrarian culture) in Arlington, Virginia.
These neighborhoods, especially those north of Route 50, are cluttered now with condos, single family ramblers, bungalows, Cape Cods, and brick box homes selling for $900,000 or more depending on the upgrades inside and out. Interspersed, like golden cohorts in a mouthful of well-maintained but otherwise white teeth, are blown-out, mostly neo-craftsman style rehabs, and completely new McMansions sometimes three times the size, looming often awkwardly, and squeezed into fenced-off, quarter-acre lots.
These formerly modest zip codes are inhabited by a boom of singles and families with enough money to finance home improvements in a building market that’s jacked up its prices to accommodate demand. This is not the sport for the faint of heart, but of a proto-elite with expanding incomes and guilt-free debt.
Further out, there are the rooted, old-money neighborhoods of North Arlington, McLean, and Potomac in Maryland, where the Washington establishment began migrating in the 1970s, and now overloaded with “the better heeled sort”—government executives, surgeons, politicians, venture capitalists, think tankers, lobbyists, and fundraisers who have made it. Just outside the Beltway are places like Great Falls, where the median home price is $1.3 million. In 2011, according to a Washington Post feature about the rewards of the contracting boom, 16 percent of Great Falls households were earning $500,000 or more a year and at least more than half made $250,000.
In his latest book, The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, Lofgren ponders this explosion of wealth, but goes well beyond the Beltway border into the exploding developments along the Dulles technology corridor, Tysons Corner, the newer “Mosaic District” supplanting a once desolate strip mall existence in Fairfax County, all the way out in the more rural, former Virginia Hunt country of Loudoun County. Here new “structures resemble the architecture of Loire Valley, Elizabethan England, or Renaissance Tuscany as imagined by Walt Disney, or Liberace.” He says even more than the strivers of Arlington, and the settled elite of the inner burbs, this metamorphosizing sprawl represents everything that is perverse about the last 15 years—the war machine, the big money politics, the hubris of the one-percent, and the brutality of losing, as professions that did not so easily escape the recession, left people unemployed, foreclosed, and priced out of an area they once called “home.”
“Loudoun is per capita the richest county in the country as well as one of the most Republican and is something of a world headquarters of the McMansion as a lifestyle statement,” Lofgren writes. Living in these totems of new wealth, he says are “executives of Beltway Bandit firms, totally dependent on the federal government for their livelihoods,” pretending “to lead the life of a free Jeffersonian squirearchy.”
Consider this: From 2009 to 2015, Virginia received $295 billion in federal contracting dollars. That’s more than the annual budgets of entire countries, including Saudi Arabia, Belgium, and Sweden. This has resulted in not only an exploding real estate market, but the wealthiest counties in the country, year over year.
Meanwhile, the spirit of competition has created a lifestyle of high-end consumption, helicopter parenting, over-achieving and stressed out kids, and a pampered millennial class pushing the poor out of entire neighborhoods in the DMV.
Lofgren takes particular aim at “The McMansion as symbol of the Deep State,” which he describes in his book as the Washington’s power elite, “the red thread that runs through the war on terrorism and the militarization of foreign policy, the financialization and deindustrialization of the American economy, the rise of the a plutocratic social structure that has given us the most unequal society in almost a century and the political dysfunction that has paralyzed day-to-day governance.”
If Lofgren sounds ticked off, it’s because he is. Living in the Fort Hunt area of Alexandria (close to the Potomac, near Mount Vernon and the Army’s Fort Belvoir) for more than three decades, he sees firsthand the razing of modest abodes once “good enough” for Washington’s commuter class. He worked on Capitol Hill before and after 9/11, and knows how the business of government changed along with national security and political trends. He has charted the disconnect with the rest of the country and the Republic as envisioned by the country’s founders, and senses that this Deep State is not working for us—but to sustain the power, privilege and lifestyle he sees right outside his window.
Sure, Washington is rich and greedy. It’s disdainful of “flyover country,” and is filled with the ugly people depicted in Mark Leibovich’s This Town in 2013. His Deep State, Lofgren explains, “is like that [book], but it’s more than that.”
“It’s not all about money—though the money comes to them,” he says. It’s about ideology. Liebovich “failed to improve our understanding of what is the ideological, the underlying structures that emanate from Washington and into the country. He depicts people leaving Capitol Hill and going into lobbying for corporations. But he leaves off what it means for the Average Joe. It means there is this seamless web of connections between the government and Wall Street that dictates the laws we live under.”
In Lofgren’s view, there appears to be no end to the madness, especially with the amount of money fueling the presidential election, the end of federal budget sequestration, and a renewed interest in building up U.S. defense interests overseas. And wealth inequality rates continue to be the starkest here than anywhere else, showing that the prosperity doesn’t trickle down to everyone.
“There is a lot more money and perverse incentives” to push for more war, more tax and economic policies that benefit this upper strata, sustaining the status quo culture in Washington, he says.
“The incentives are positive for those engineering it all because they will get the promotions, the jobs, the contracts,” Lofgren adds, “even though it might be hurting the broad mass of people everywhere else.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.
President Obama’s pick to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court is, perhaps surprisingly, a consensus candidate who up until now has enjoyed strong support from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. But constitutional scholars say behind Merrick Garland’s centrist profile is a pattern of reinforcing government and police powers that civil libertarians may find a bit difficult to live with.
“His record on the DC Circuit suggests he is highly deferential to administrative agencies and possibly overly pro-government when it comes to the rights of criminal defendants,” said George Mason University School of Law professor Ilya Somin. “These latter two issues are ones that divide both liberals and conservatives internally as much as they are a right-left divide.”
In other words, while both liberals and conservatives (including the late conservative icon, Scalia) may applaud Garland’s tendency to side with the government on national security and law enforcement powers, limited government types may have much less to celebrate with him on the bench.
“The guy is clearly in the pocket of the executive branch,” offered constitutional lawyer Bruce Fein, a bit more bluntly. “He hasn’t written anything that suggests he has ever dissented from this inclination, from being entrenched with the executive on all issues of foreign policy.” To think one can separate post 9/11 domestic surveillance and counterterrorism from foreign policy, Fein added, “is ridiculous.”
Through the lens of presidential politics, President Obama’s nomination of Garland is at best, a clever attempt to squeeze one last justice on the bench before he leaves office, at worst, the old story of the sacrificial lamb.
More astute observers have already settled on the latter, comparing the impeccably qualified Garland, who is the Chief Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, to Reagan nominee Robert Bork, then-D.C. Circuit chief, on President Reagan’s way out in 1987. After that dark hour in political theater, the verb “to Bork” has forever become synonymous with the full-on obliteration of a nominee by the opposing party in power.
Otherwise, conventional wisdom holds Garland up as a moderate liberal standard bearer with stalwart legal credentials—right out of “central casting,” as the Washington Post puts it—which includes Harvard Law, two clerkships—one with conservative federal circuit court judge Henry Friendly and the other with Supreme Court justice William Brennan—and a successful U.S. Justice Department career in which he prosecuted two of the most hated domestic terrorists in modern U.S. history—Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and the Ted Kaczynski, also known as “the Unabomber.”
Garland, 63, who has been on the D.C. Circuit—known for being one of the more conservative of the federal appeals courts in the system—for 19 years, is described as the embodiment of bipartisan judicial restraint. Long before now, he was embraced by Republicans as a “consensus pick.” Observers say he would occupy the middle in the mold of Justice Anthony Kennedy, and with his conciliatory temperament and centrist, case-by-case adjudication, could provide the level-headed swing vote on some of the most highly politicized cases to reach the court, said Steve Vladeck, law professor at American University.
But constitutional scholars who spoke with TAC, including Vladeck, warn against taking Garland’s “moderate” jurisprudence to mean that he would not defer to the executive branch, particularly on national security and criminal cases. Nearly two decades of rulings on federal law enforcement cases and more recently, a slew of Guantanamo Bay detainee rights issues, undergird that evaluation quite soundly, said Vladeck.
“Given his experience as a prosecutor—and a terrorism prosecutor, to boot—it stands to reason that Judge Garland would be relatively sympathetic to the government’s position vis-à-vis typical domestic surveillance and other terrorism-related law enforcement issues,” said Vladeck. As for Guantanamo, Vladeck supplied for a recent JustSecurity.org piece a litany of critical cases in which Garland has taken the government’s side on jurisdiction, detainees’ appeals, and their conditions of confinement.
Moreover, Vladeck wrote, “Judge Garland was the one Democratic appointee not to dissent” from a D.C. Circuit opinion “which held that detainees had no right to notice or a hearing before being transferred to countries in which they might credibly fear torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.”
According to New York Times writer Charlie Savage, who has been dissecting Garland’s time adjudicating appeals for Gitmo detainees, from 2010 to 2012, the “appeals court systematically turned back habeas corpus cases brought by detainees, instructing lower-court judges to use more government-friendly standards for interpreting ambiguous evidence,” Savage wrote.
“Judge Garland was not on the panels that developed the early key precedents, but he embraced and applied them without objection.”
One example has been particularly troubling for civil libertarians: in a 2011 case, Garland wrote an opinion “upholding the detention of an Afghan based on evidence the government was keeping secret at the time from the detainee’s lawyers.”
Vladeck points out that one could do worse than Garland if cloning the late Antonin Scalia’s conservative voice on the bench on matters such as Guantanamo and national security is the goal. With the exception of his dissent in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, in which Scalia wrote the dissent charging that the government could not indefinitely detain an American citizen at Gitmo without criminal charging him or suspending habeas, “his rulings in this area were as ‘pro-government’ (or, at least as anti-detainee) as they come.”
The larger point here, Vladeck adds, is that the Guantanamo cases are a lens into how we might view Garland’s approach to national security cases overall. In other words, don’t expect him to lead a reexamination of the court’s role in government surveillance, the state secrets privilege, or elements of the Patriot Act that the Supreme Court has already supported with broad majorities.
Fein says Garland’s approach to these issues is indicative of his long service for the government, as judges coming from this professional, even ideological, framework, are “creatures of the executive branch.” He expects Garland’s deference to the federal government to spill over to domestic law enforcement, particularly on issues that bolster the “permanent, neverending war.”
He then called Garland “just a boring, status quo, baffling pick from a president who allegedly wants criminal justice reform to be part of his legacy.”
Nevertheless, George Washington University Law School professor Jeffrey Rosen, also the president of the National Constitution Center, penned a sympathetic profile of Garland, whom he called a longtime friend and “the embodiment of bipartisan judicial restraint,” who “sincerely believes” that a judge “must put aside his personal views or preferences, and follow the law—not make it.”
Rosen allowed, however, that Garland’s career “has been defined by deference to decisions by administrative agencies,” and “rarely voting in favor of criminal defendants’ appeals for their convictions.”
This includes siding with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in refusing to redefine marijuana as a Schedule I drug with no medical use. In 2013, in Americans for Safe Access v. DEA, in which an injured veteran petitioned the court to make medical marijuana legal, Garland asked, “Don’t we have to defer to the agency? We‘re not scientists. They are.”
However, his record siding with the government isn’t as clear cut as critics might want to make it out to be, Rosen added. For example, as The Huffington Post pointed out in a piece on March 16, Garland wrote a 39-page rejection of the Bush administration’s attempt to make Chinese Uighurs scooped up in the War on Terror and sent to Gitmo, “enemy combatants.”
“It’s hard to conclusively say he’s a pro-detainee or anti-detainee judge,” Raha Wala of Human Rights First, told Jessica Schulberg of The Huffington Post.
Rosen also points out that Garland has been less sympathetic to the government on environmental cases, and is more ambiguous in how he would rule in Second Amendment cases that come before the court.
Despite that, Somin warns that Garland would also be “problematic in the same way as most liberal judges” who favor the government on issues of “federalism, property rights, Second Amendment rights, campaign finance restrictions on freedom of speech, and the like.” Rosen points out, however, when given the opportunity to strike at the heart of Citizens United, the D.C. Circuit, with Garland’s help, instead helped to bolster it, ending individual spending limits to political committees, paving the way for today’s Super PACs.
Somin said he “hastens to add that none of Garland’s positions here are ‘out of the mainstream,’ or prove that he is incompetent or a bad person. They also don’t don’t prove he would be worse than who (Donald) Trump or Hillary Clinton are likely to give us” if the nomination is put off until after the next president is sworn in January.
“That said,” Somin added, “these issues are legitimate concerns about his judicial philosophy that should be taken into consideration in the debate over what to do with this nomination.”
Bowe Bergdahl walked off.
In the court of public opinion, this is the central fact all can agree upon—-that a 24-year-old Army private first class who had been in Afghanistan fewer than two months walked off his outpost one day and vanished.
Everything that happened between Bergdahl’s walk-off and the present moment, where he stands trial for desertion and “misbehavior before the enemy,” has formed the basis of one of the most bizarre and dramatic tales of a missing soldier in recent memory. To say this case has become a political flashpoint is an understatement.
Enter Serial, the bi-weekly podcast series now devoted to chronicling the Bergdahl case. Fresh off an award-winning first season in which journalist Sarah Koening documented—and managed to reboot—the murder conviction of Adnan Syed, the team dives headlong into the Bergdahl rabbit hole.
Koenig attempts in her now-trademark style to solve the mystery of how Bergdahl went missing (and whether he is telling the truth) and how he was eventually rescued. She talks with Bergdahl’s platoon mates, his friends back home, military officials tasked with looking for him, psychologists, diplomats, and members of the Taliban who were present when he was taken hostage.
Most importantly, Serial’s second season incorporates 25 hours of phone conversations between Bergdahl and filmmaker Mark Boal (Zero Dark Thirty, The Hurt Locker), in which, among other things, Bergdahl describes how he was beaten, cut, starved, chained spread eagle to a bed, left in a 6-by-6-foot cage, and still managed to survive for five years. As one psychologist noted, you have to go back to the Vietnam era torture tactics to find any comparison.
Meanwhile, Koenig gives a wide berth and understanding to his fellow soldiers, who searched for Bergdahl for weeks with no respite. These aren’t the kind of red meat interviews paraded on Fox News and CNN, but rather a fair insight into how Bergdahl both flummoxed and alienated his comrades, before and after his disappearance.
Through one man’s story, Serial deftly exposes the failure of the counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine that was en vogue in Washington but frustrated soldiers on the ground at the time. It also underscores the unsustainable pressure put on the armed forces to recruit and rapidly deploy and redeploy personnel on two war fronts. Furthermore, it shows, sadly, that the mantra “leave no American behind” is little more than a comforting cliche; reality is much more cynical.
Critics of Bergdahl have called the episodes “pure propaganda,” while others have questioned the agenda, given Boal’s intention of making Bergdahl’s story into a Hollywood movie. But for those of us for whom details are coin of the realm, the podcasts are a revelation. Here are three key takeaways so far:
1. Bergdahl should have never been let into the Army.
For the first few episodes we meet Bergdahl—an Idaho native who was homeschooled, spent much of his childhood alone, and escaped to the embrace of surrogate family as soon as he turned 16. Socially awkward, he was still considered a top recruit during and after boot camp because he lived, breathed, and dreamed of the life of a soldier, of adventure. He was morally and ethically driven.
But for all the advantages of Bergdahl’s unequivocal approach, there were downsides: he could be tone-deaf; he interpreted slights and judgements by leadership as “dangerous” and life-threatening to his platoon, even as his fellow soldiers were shrugging them off. He wanted to be a hero, even envisioning himself as a “Jason Bourne” who only planned to march off the outpost to get the attention he felt was necessary to right the wrongs.
“The lives of the guys next to me were literally, from what I could see, were in danger of something going wrong and somebody being killed,” Bergdahl told Boal.
Then, in Episode 7 we are brought through the details of Bergdahl washing out of Coast Guard boot camp. He was found one night in the fetal position, shaking and crying. He was given a psychological discharge following a diagnosis of “adjustment disorder with depression.” Later in the podcasts, a psychologist calls his malady “schizotypal personality disorder.”
A waiver would have been necessary for Bergdahl to re-enlist, but he got one. According to Koenig, the Army never looked at the note that said a psychological evaluation would be required before a waiver was granted. Bergdahl was upfront about what happened at the USCG, but desperate for recruits in 2008, the Army didn’t seem to care.
“Someone too mentally troubled to make it through [Coast Guard] recruit training shouldn’t have been enlisted in the Army on a waiver,” Marine Corps veteran and journalist Carl Prine tells TAC. “The Army owns a lot of this problem because if he didn’t stalk off into Talibanistan, he would’ve done something equally puzzling and self-destructive and likely to compromise a mission later.”
2. COIN Failed Everyone
In Episode 2, we get the full sense of the search for Bergdahl which began immediately after he was found missing and continued for weeks, eventually engaging the entire brigade. “We were charging in these towns … going in with our guns blazing,” said soldier Jon Thurman.
Raids were conducted day and night. They were dangerous, as commanders were often “winging it” without a game plan, pulling into unfamiliar towns and villages. There were booby traps. MRAP vehicles were blown to bits. “It became apparent to us that the Taliban, and the Haqqani, knew we were pulling out all the stops to find him and were feeding false information into our informant networks, said Major Mike Waltz, who was in charge of a special forces team conducting raids at night based on intel—often not vetted—about Bergdahl.
“You got the most advanced military in the world throwing all this effort all this expertise and technology trying to find one person,” said Koenig. “It’s really something. But then they can’t find him, and then in some instances they are being played.”
She talked to (Ret.) Lt. Col. Jason Dempsey, Iraq and Afghanistan veteran and PhD who teaches at West Point. “You’ve got this great lumbering machine moving through and it can destroy anything face to face but it has no idea on the granular level what’s going on right below it,” he said, noting that the military could target and track networks but had no idea how they interacted with each other. That knowledge was what COIN strategy was supposed to buy, but they never got it.
“We rotated a few thousand dudes through every 7 to 12 months. There is no institutional knowledge—absolutely none. We were never there long enough to have … anyone fully engaged with Afghan politics.”
On the ground, in the platoon, COIN seemed to be playing out in a similar fashion. There were mixed messages about nation and trust-building, and there was a perception that soldiers’ hands were tied. Earlier reports that Bergdahl had turned against the war seem only half-right when you listen to the podcasts. He wanted a clearer mission, the ability to help the Afghans and kill the bad guys. This appears to be corroborated by his platoon mates. “Everybody was saying this is bullshit,” Bowe said during his interview, “this whole thing is stupid … what we’re doing here.”
3. Yes, We Leave Americans Behind
In Episode 5, we meet the officials back in the U.S. tasked with leading the intelligence and diplomatic effort to get Bergdahl back. It turns out it is incredibly difficult to get people marshalled to help get Americans out of captivity—whether they are military or civilian. After the two-month search inside Afghanistan was called off, the search continued in the bureaucracy. The two women in charge of the personnel recovery office at SOCOM in Tampa said their office was underfunded and undermanned. And many officials up the chain just didn’t care.
The fact that Bowe was taken to Pakistan made things very difficult, and there were a lot of well-meaning people doing the best they could. But they “had to fight complacency [and] malaise” about all hostages, not just Bergdahl, apparently having to do with “circumstances of capture.”
“I can’t begin to tell you the amount of time I’ve heard ‘why should I care. He did that to himself, or she did that herself,’” said one of the recovery officials, who, not speaking directly about Bowe, said their job included “selling” the idea that a specific person should be rescued. This challenge was tripled, “even cubed,” in Bergdahl’s case, because to a person, it was believed that he “walked off” if not deserted, said another official.
Lt. Col. Jason Amerine, a celebrated U.S. Army soldier who led the rescue mission for Bergdahl from the Pentagon and later testified about the dysfunction in hostage recovery, told Serial how disenchanted he had become with the human and bureaucratic ambivalence in all hostage cases.
“I was in uniform for 27 years, for me the notion of not leaving a soldier behind, you know that you, internalize that. And for me it just always a false assumption that America doesn’t leave Americans behind,” he said. “I’ve never been put in this ridiculous position before, of wait, there are these Americans that no one gives a f-ck about? Nobody is doing anything to get them home. Our greater bureaucracy is treating their families horribly, telling these families to shut up and wait.”
“To me it was bordering on criminal how we are treating our common citizens.”
The political sturm und drang in Washington involving several negotiated, then failed, swap agreements ahead of Bergdahl’s eventual release in June 2014, are surprisingly left unexplored in Episode 9, which otherwise excels at highlighting the late Richard Holbrooke’s early role in Taliban reconciliation and the frustrating diplomatic fits and starts that led to Bergdahl’s release. It would be interesting to hear how detractors like Sen. John McCain might have complicated his rescue (we know how much they would like to see him back behind bars today).
They might get their wish. If convicted on the charges, Bergdahl could face life in prison.
Whether Serial will change minds in the court of public opinion is uncertain, but it has gone a long way toward showing where Bergdahl had control of his complicated surroundings, and where they got the better of him. And it’s not over. The 10th episode is expected in mid-March.