By Andrew J. Bacevich
Donald Trump’s election has elicited impassioned affirmations of a renewed commitment to unvarnished truth-telling from the prestige media. The common theme: you know you can’t trust him, but trust us to keep dogging him on your behalf. The New York Times has even unveiled a portentous new promotional slogan: “The truth is now more important than ever.” For its part, the Washington Post grimly warns that “democracy dies in darkness,” and is offering itself as a source of illumination now that the rotund figure of the 45th president has produced the political equivalent of a total eclipse of the sun. Meanwhile, National Public Radio fundraising campaigns are sounding an increasingly panicky note: give, listener, lest you be personally responsible for the demise of the Republic that we are bravely fighting to save from extinction.
If only it were so. How wonderful it would be if President Trump’s ascendancy had coincided with a revival of hard-hitting, deep-dive, no-holds-barred American journalism. Alas, that’s hardly the case. True, the big media outlets are demonstrating both energy and enterprise in exposing the ineptitude, inconsistency, and dubious ethical standards, as well as outright lies and fake news, that are already emerging as Trump era signatures. That said, pointing out that the president has (again) uttered a falsehood, claimed credit for a nonexistent achievement, or abandoned some position to which he had previously sworn fealty requires something less than the sleuthing talents of a Sherlock Holmes. As for beating up on poor Sean Spicer for his latest sequence of gaffes — well, that’s more akin to sadism than reporting.
Apart from a commendable determination to discomfit Trump and members of his inner circle (select military figures excepted, at least for now), journalism remains pretty much what it was prior to November 8th of last year: personalities built up only to be torn down; fads and novelties discovered, celebrated, then mocked; “extraordinary” stories of ordinary people granted 15 seconds of fame only to once again be consigned to oblivion — all served with a side dish of that day’s quota of suffering, devastation, and carnage. These remain journalism’s stock-in-trade. As practiced in the United States, with certain honorable (and hence unprofitable) exceptions, journalism remains superficial, voyeuristic, and governed by the attention span of a two year old.
As a result, all those editors, reporters, columnists, and talking heads who characterize their labors as “now more important than ever” ill-serve the public they profess to inform and enlighten. Rather than clearing the air, they befog it further. If anything, the media’s current obsession with Donald Trump — his every utterance or tweet treated as “breaking news!” — just provides one additional excuse for highlighting trivia, while slighting issues that deserve far more attention than they currently receive.
To illustrate the point, let me cite some examples of national security issues that presently receive short shrift or are ignored altogether by those parts of the Fourth Estate said to help set the nation’s political agenda. To put it another way: Hey, Big Media, here are two dozen matters to which you’re not giving faintly adequate thought and attention.
1. Accomplishing the “mission”: Since the immediate aftermath of World War II, the United States has been committed to defending key allies in Europe and East Asia. Not long thereafter, U.S. security guarantees were extended to the Middle East as well. Under what circumstances can Americans expect nations in these regions to assume responsibility for managing their own affairs? To put it another way, when (if ever) might U.S. forces actually come home? And if it is incumbent upon the United States to police vast swaths of the planet in perpetuity, how should momentous changes in the international order — the rise of China, for example, or accelerating climate change — affect the U.S. approach to doing so?
2. American military supremacy: The United States military is undoubtedly the world’s finest. It’s also far and away the most generously funded, with policymakers offering U.S. troops no shortage of opportunities to practice their craft. So why doesn’t this great military ever win anything? Or put another way, why in recent decades have those forces been unable to accomplish Washington’s stated wartime objectives? Why has the now 15-year-old war on terror failed to result in even a single real success anywhere in the Greater Middle East? Could it be that we’ve taken the wrong approach? What should we be doing differently?
3. America’s empire of bases: The U.S. military today garrisons the planet in a fashion without historical precedent. Successive administrations, regardless of party, justify and perpetuate this policy by insisting that positioning U.S. forces in distant lands fosters peace, stability, and security. In the present century, however, perpetuating this practice has visibly had the opposite effect. In the eyes of many of those called upon to “host” American bases, the permanent presence of such forces smacks of occupation. They resist. Why should U.S. policymakers expect otherwise?
4. Supporting the troops: In present-day America, expressing reverence for those who serve in uniform is something akin to a religious obligation. Everyone professes to cherish America’s “warriors.” Yet such bountiful, if superficial, expressions of regard camouflage a growing gap between those who serve and those who applaud from the sidelines. Our present-day military system, based on the misnamed All-Volunteer Force, is neither democratic nor effective. Why has discussion and debate about its deficiencies not found a place among the nation’s political priorities?
5. Prerogatives of the commander-in-chief: Are there any military actions that the president of the United States may not order on his own authority? If so, what are they? Bit by bit, decade by decade, Congress has abdicated its assigned role in authorizing war. Today, it merely rubberstamps what presidents decide to do (or simply stays mum). Who does this deference to an imperial presidency benefit? Have U.S. policies thereby become more prudent, enlightened, and successful?
6. Assassin-in-chief: A policy of assassination, secretly implemented under the aegis of the CIA during the early Cold War, yielded few substantive successes. When the secrets were revealed, however, the U.S. government suffered considerable embarrassment, so much so that presidents foreswore politically motivated murder. After 9/11, however, Washington returned to the assassination business in a big way and on a global scale, using drones. Today, the only secret is the sequence of names on the current presidential hit list, euphemistically known as the White House “disposition matrix.” But does assassination actually advance U.S. interests (or does it merely recruit replacements for the terrorists it liquidates)? How can we measure its costs, whether direct or indirect? What dangers and vulnerabilities does this practice invite?
7. The war formerly known as the “Global War on Terrorism”: What precisely is Washington’s present strategy for defeating violent jihadism? What sequence of planned actions or steps is expected to yield success? If no such strategy exists, why is that the case? How is it that the absence of strategy — not to mention an agreed upon definition of “success” — doesn’t even qualify for discussion here?
8. The campaign formerly known as Operation Enduring Freedom: The conflict commonly referred to as the Afghanistan War is now the longest in U.S. history — having lasted longer than the Civil War, World War I, and World War II combined. What is the Pentagon’s plan for concluding that conflict? When might Americans expect it to end? On what terms?
9. The Gulf: Americans once believed that their prosperity and way of life depended on having assured access to Persian Gulf oil. Today, that is no longer the case. The United States is once more an oil exporter. Available and accessible reserves of oil and natural gas in North America are far greater than was once believed. Yet the assumption that the Persian Gulf still qualifies as crucial to American national security persists in Washington. Why?
10. Hyping terrorism: Each year terrorist attacks kill far fewer Americans than do auto accidents, drug overdoses, or even lightning strikes. Yet in the allocation of government resources, preventing terrorist attacks takes precedence over preventing all three of the others combined. Why is that?
11. Deaths that matter and deaths that don’t: Why do terrorist attacks that kill a handful of Europeans command infinitely more American attention than do terrorist attacks that kill far larger numbers of Arabs? A terrorist attack that kills citizens of France or Belgium elicits from the United States heartfelt expressions of sympathy and solidarity. A terrorist attack that kills Egyptians or Iraqis elicits shrugs. Why the difference? To what extent does race provide the answer to that question?
12. Israeli nukes: What purpose is served by indulging the pretense that Israel does not have nuclear weapons?
13. Peace in the Holy Land: What purpose is served by indulging illusions that a “two-state solution” offers a plausible resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? As remorselessly as white settlers once encroached upon territory inhabited by Native American tribes, Israeli settlers expand their presence in the occupied territories year by year. As they do, the likelihood of creating a viable Palestinian state becomes ever more improbable. To pretend otherwise is the equivalent of thinking that one day President Trump might prefer the rusticity of Camp David to the glitz of Mar-a-Lago.
14. Merchandizing death: When it comes to arms sales, there is no need to Make America Great Again. The U.S. ranks number one by a comfortable margin, with long-time allies Saudi Arabia and Israel leading recipients of those arms. Each year, the Saudis (per capita gross domestic product $20,000) purchase hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. weapons. Israel (per capita gross domestic product $38,000) gets several billion dollars worth of such weaponry annually courtesy of the American taxpayer. If the Saudis pay for U.S. arms, why shouldn’t the Israelis? They can certainly afford to do so.
15. Our friends the Saudis (I): Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on September 11, 2001, were Saudis. What does that fact signify?
16. Our friends the Saudis (II): If indeed Saudi Arabia and Iran are competing to determine which nation will enjoy the upper hand in the Persian Gulf, why should the United States favor Saudi Arabia? In what sense do Saudi values align more closely with American values than do Iranian ones?
17. Our friends the Pakistanis: Pakistan behaves like a rogue state. It is a nuclear weapons proliferator. It supports the Taliban. For years, it provided sanctuary to Osama bin Laden. Yet U.S. policymakers treat Pakistan as if it were an ally. Why? In what ways do U.S. and Pakistani interests or values coincide? If there are none, why not say so?
18. Free-loading Europeans: Why can’t Europe, “whole and free,” its population and economy considerably larger than Russia’s, defend itself? It’s altogether commendable that U.S. policymakers should express support for Polish independence and root for the Baltic republics. But how does it make sense for the United States to care more about the wellbeing of people living in Eastern Europe than do people living in Western Europe?
19. The mother of all “special relationships”: The United States and the United Kingdom have a “special relationship” dating from the days of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Apart from keeping the Public Broadcasting Service supplied with costume dramas and stories featuring eccentric detectives, what is the rationale for that partnership today? Why should U.S. relations with Great Britain, a fading power, be any more “special” than its relations with a rising power like India? Why should the bonds connecting Americans and Britons be any more intimate than those connecting Americans and Mexicans? Why does a republic now approaching the 241st anniversary of its independence still need a “mother country”?
20. The old nuclear disarmament razzmatazz: American presidents routinely cite their hope for the worldwide elimination of nuclear weapons. Yet the U.S. maintains nuclear strike forces on full alert, has embarked on a costly and comprehensive trillion-dollar modernization of its nuclear arsenal, and even refuses to adopt a no-first-use posture when it comes to nuclear war. The truth is that the United States will consider surrendering its nukes only after every other nation on the planet has done so first. How does American nuclear hypocrisy affect the prospects for global nuclear disarmament or even simply for the non-proliferation of such weaponry?
21. Double standards (I): American policymakers take it for granted that their country’s sphere of influence is global, which, in turn, provides the rationale for the deployment of U.S. military forces to scores of countries. Yet when it comes to nations like China, Russia, or Iran, Washington takes the position that spheres of influence are obsolete and a concept that should no longer be applicable to the practice of statecraft. So Chinese, Russian, and Iranian forces should remain where they belong — in China, Russia, and Iran. To stray beyond that constitutes a provocation, as well as a threat to global peace and order. Why should these other nations play by American rules? Why shouldn’t similar rules apply to the United States?
22. Double standards (II): Washington claims that it supports and upholds international law. Yet when international law gets in the way of what American policymakers want to do, they disregard it. They start wars, violate the sovereignty of other nations, and authorize agents of the United States to kidnap, imprison, torture, and kill. They do these things with impunity, only forced to reverse their actions on the rare occasions when U.S. courts find them illegal. Why should other powers treat international norms as sacrosanct since the United States does so only when convenient?
23. Double standards (III): The United States condemns the indiscriminate killing of civilians in wartime. Yet over the last three-quarters of a century, it killed civilians regularly and often on a massive scale. By what logic, since the 1940s, has the killing of Germans, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians, Afghans, and others by U.S. air power been any less reprehensible than the Syrian government’s use of “barrel bombs” to kill Syrians today? On what basis should Americans accept Pentagon claims that, when civilians are killed these days by U.S. forces, the acts are invariably accidental, whereas Syrian forces kill civilians intentionally and out of malice? Why exclude incompetence or the fog of war as explanations? And why, for instance, does the United States regularly gloss over or ignore altogether the noncombatants that Saudi forces (with U.S. assistance) are routinely killing in Yemen?
24. Moral obligations: When confronted with some egregious violation of human rights, members of the chattering classes frequently express an urge for the United States to “do something.” Holocaust analogies sprout like dandelions. Newspaper columnists recycle copy first used when Cambodians were slaughtering other Cambodians en masse or whenever Hutus and Tutsis went at it. Proponents of action — typically advocating military intervention — argue that the United States has a moral obligation to aid those victimized by injustice or cruelty anywhere on Earth. But what determines the pecking order of such moral obligations? Which comes first, a responsibility to redress the crimes of others or a responsibility to redress crimes committed by Americans? Who has a greater claim to U.S. assistance, Syrians suffering today under the boot of Bashar al-Assad or Iraqis, their country shattered by the U.S. invasion of 2003? Where do the Vietnamese fit into the queue? How about the Filipinos, brutally denied independence and forcibly incorporated into an American empire as the nineteenth century ended? Or African-Americans, whose ancestors were imported as slaves? Or, for that matter, dispossessed and disinherited Native Americans? Is there a statute of limitations that applies to moral obligations? And if not, shouldn’t those who have waited longest for justice or reparations receive priority attention?
Let me suggest that any one of these two dozen issues — none seriously covered, discussed, or debated in the American media or in the political mainstream — bears more directly on the wellbeing of the United States and our prospects for avoiding global conflict than anything Donald Trump may have said or done during his first 100 days as president. Collectively, they define the core of the national security challenges that presently confront this country, even as they languish on the periphery of American politics.
How much damage Donald Trump’s presidency wreaks before it ends remains to be seen. Yet he himself is a transient phenomenon. To allow his pratfalls and shenanigans to divert attention from matters sure to persist when he finally departs the stage is to make a grievous error. It may well be that, as the Times insists, the truth is now more important than ever. If so, finding the truth requires looking in the right places and asking the right questions.
Andrew J. Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, now out in paperback. His next book will be an interpretive history of the United States from the end of the Cold War to the election of Donald Trump.