By Madelyn Hoffman and Ryan Swan
From the Old Cold War to the War on Terror
The four and half decades following World War II were characterized by intense competition with the Soviet Union, which saw the cultivation of weaponry capable of ending all life on earth multiple times over. Massive resources were poured into nuclear weapons and sophisticated delivery systems, before the Kennedy Administration’s Flexible Response Strategy shifted focus to development of advanced conventional capabilities to enable more “credible” military threats. President George H. W. Bush promised these enormous Cold War military investitures would yield a “peace dividend,” realizable upon the dissolution of the Soviet apparatus. However, this high-priced peace was to be short-lived.
The Clinton Administration quickly began to preoccupy itself with transnational organizations in the Middle East (whom the Central Intelligence Agency had provided with extensive funding during the Soviet-backed government’s control of Afghanistan). It undertook bombings in Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998 and, by the time the Bush Administration came to power, a new national security paradigm centered around transnational actors – dubbed “terrorist organizations” – was reaching maturity. 9/11 solidified this with President Bush proclaiming the “war on terror” to begin with al Qaida, but “not [to] end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”
This opened-ended objective, given near carte blanche authorization by the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), introduced the war in Afghanistan, an expansive complex of military and clandestine operations spanning more than 70 countries and revamped national security infrastructure, including introduction of the Patriot Act and creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the National Counterterrorism Center and the Director of National Intelligence.
Together with the 2003 invasion of Iraq – perhaps the gravest war crime of the new millennium, the US counterterrorism paradigm has consumed the 21st century with perpetual American force employment against an expansive list of self-identified threats. The toll has been severe in terms of human life (240 thousand civilians and 15 thousand US armed service members between 2003 and 2018 just in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan – not to mention innumerable more lost and affected lives in other regions scourged by US operations) and financial costs (Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs estimates expenditures for post-9/11 wars between fiscal years 2001 and 2019 to be $5.9 trillion, with an additional $808 billion predicted over the next four years; the long term healthcare costs of the veterans of just Afghanistan and Iraq are expected to increase the tab by another $1.8 trillion over the coming years).
What has the United States gained during the past nearly 20 years of continual war – a war that former vice-president Dick Cheney predicted back in 2001 “would not end in our lifetimes?” US militarism has led to the destruction of ancient cities throughout the Middle East and South Asia. This militarism has resulted in the creation of the largest number of refugees worldwide since the end of World War II, many from nations experiencing conflict as the result of US aggression.
Millions of people took to the streets in 2002 and 2003 to oppose the invasion of Iraq, knowing full well that the invasion was based on lies and the violation of international law. The creation of a coalition for the operation of “shock and awe” set off a chain of events that leave us almost twenty years later wondering how to stop the on-going cycle of violence. Those who protested in opposition to these wars knew that the use of military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, in addition to being illegal, immoral and unjustified, was of suspect strategic calculus given the illogic of ending “terror” through war – itself an act of state-sponsored “terror.”
Retired General Wesley Clark publicized the strategy of the Project for a New American Century described in their late 20th century publication “Rebuilding America’s Defenses.” He discussed what he was told by his superiors shortly after 9/11. He reported that there were plans to replace the governments of seven countries within five years – Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and finishing off with Iran.
The absurdity of this strategy was evidenced on February 26, 2021 when the Biden administration bombed Syria (a country the U.S. is in illegally and against the will of the Syrian people) in retaliation for, as stated in the official explanation, an Iranian bombing of a US military base in Iraq (another country the US is in illegally and against the will of the Iraqi people), an action that the Iranians said was in retaliation for the illegal assassination of General Soliemani of Iran while he was in Iraq.
From the War on Terror to the New Cold War
For all its overt focus on the Middle East counterterrorism wars, the Bush Administration also quietly went about needling newly Putin-controlled Russia. In 2002, it unilaterally withdrew from the landmark Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to act upon a reinvigorated Reagan-era interest in extravagant (albeit operationally dubious) missile defense concepts, markedly increasing spending in this area. The claim that this new missile defense program, with installations in former Soviet bloc nations, was directed at Iran and North Korea was but a thinly veiled challenge directed at Russia and China, which viewed these systems as a direct threat. Furthermore, the Administration indulged its appetite for (selective) democracy promotion, lavishing funds on movements in Georgia and Ukraine directed against pro-Russian leaders and floating the idea of possible North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) membership.
The Obama Administration picked right up where its predecessors left off, only this time in less discrete fashion with unabashed enthusiasm for pro-Western regime change in Ukraine and the proclaimed “pivot to Asia” policy. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) was concluded in 2011, but President Obama’s Nobel Prize-wining “Prague Vision” for a world without nuclear weapons translated in practice into the introduction of a trillion dollar nuclear modernization program, contributing in no small measure to renewed nuclear tensions with Russia and China. The stated goal of this so-called modernization program is to create an arsenal both larger and more powerful than what existed at the height of the first Cold War, at a time when the world should be headed in the opposite direction. While loudly advertising the (unrealized) objective of winding down the post-9/11 wars, the Administration effectively cemented the foundation for a return to Cold War-like rivalry with Russia, and now China.
The Trump Administration then officially announced the paradigmatic shift with its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review boldly proclaiming the “return of major power competition.” Established arms control frameworks were liquidated and plans for arms racing in the old nuclear and new high tech domains was openly shared. Just two months into office, the Biden Administration is making clear its maintenance of the charted course toward increasingly adversarial relations with Russia and China. This was as predictable as it is dangerous. During the 2020 presidential campaign, candidate Biden criticized Donald Trump for not being tough enough on China. In addition, steady referral to alleged “Russian meddling in U.S. elections” obscures the fact that the US is the global champion in such matters and deliberately adds to the tension between the two countries. Biden’s calling Putin a “killer” without agreeing to any ensuing diplomatic discussions reflects poorly on his intentions and does nothing to de-escalate the tension.
A new Cold War with attendant arms racing in traditional and novel domains only needlessly increases the risk of confrontation (either intentional or inadvertent) involving the use of calamitous weapons capabilities (e.g., nuclear, large-scale cyber, etc.). It advances strategically suspect goals. War is not fightable between major powers without incursion of drastic costs. These costs far outweigh any possible benefits gained. Such an arms race also fails to yield durable strategic advantages – particularly between economically well-matched adversaries, like the US and China. It also results in tremendous economic waste (allocation of finite state resources to dangerous and useless means at a time when funding is desperately needed for provision of basic social services, infrastructure improvements, public health measures, and more).
In observing the impact of the US permanent war economy on the global and domestic population, the anti-war, pro-peace and justice movement in the United States proposes the following ways of stopping these endless wars:
- The US government can cut the military budget by 75% as proposed by the Green Party’s presidential candidate, Howie Hawkins. Even with such a cut in the budget, the U.S. would still spend more on its military budget than the next 8 countries combined. These cuts should include shutting down of many of the more than 800 U.S. military bases operating overseas. With a military budget currently at approximately $740 billion, such a cut would free up $555 billion to spend on programs to help our communities in such possible areas as public education, single-payer healthcare, fighting against climate change, rebuilding roads and bridges, tuition-free college, an end to student loan debt, and a continuation of the moratorium on rents and evictions, especially during the on-going pandemic.
- The US government and the Russian government should lead the rest of the nuclear weapons possessing countries toward signing and ratifying the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which became law at the end of January 2021. Over 120 countries initially supported conclusion of the Treaty and 52 have now signed and ratified it, leading to its entry into legal force. There is no good reason for the US to reject this Treaty. It works in conjunction with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to accomplish abolition of nuclear weapons, something the majority of the world’s population understands is a threat to all humanity and life on earth.
- The US needs to honor the wishes of the people of Iraq and Afghanistan and withdraw its troops from both countries immediately.
- The US must not only stop selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, but it must make sure that the Saudi government stops the bombing of Yemen, which many international humanitarian organizations consider to be the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today. Additionally, the U.S. and its proxies, including Saudi Arabia, must withdraw their troops from Syria, where the troops are neither wanted nor needed.
- The US must also withdraw its support for the Israeli government until their brutal occupation of Palestine is ended and the practice of continuing to annex more Palestinian land ends. In addition, the creation of a nuclear weapons free Middle East could help, as it would subject Israeli nuclear weapons to international scrutiny.
In conclusion, the post-9/11 world is in dire need of redirection away from increased militarization and confrontation and more toward peace and recovery from a global pandemic. The expenditure of trillions of dollars on war and preparation for war, not only by the US, but by all who are at risk due to heightened tensions and US unilateral imposition of economic sanctions, needs to stop. Funds need to be removed from weapons development and other aggressive ends and instead used to reclaim that long-lost and much needed “peace dividend.”
For more information about these and other issues, please view the UN Green Party Peace Action Committee’s March 18th webinar titled “Post-9/11: A Twenty Year Retrospective” (the video begins at about 2 minutes in).
Madelyn Hoffman is co-chair of the Green Party USA’s Peace Action Committee and was the Green Party of New Jersey’s candidate for U.S. Senate in 2018 and 2020. She was the director of NJ Peace Action (formerly NJ SANE founded in 1957) from 2000 to 2018.
Ryan R. Swan serves as California Representative on the Peace Action Committee of the Green Party of the United States. He holds a J.D. from the UCLA School of Law and an M.Phil. in international relations and politics from Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He is an incoming researcher in arms control and emerging technologies at the Bonn International Center for Conversion in Germany.
By Haig Hovaness
The government of Saudi Arabia is using munitions sold by U.S. weapons makers to prosecute a brutal campaign against a faction in the Yemen civil war. The weapons in question are laser-guided bombs manufactured by a subsidiary of Raytheon, one of the top weapons makers in the U.S.
GBU-12 Paveway II bomb
The precision guidance capabilities of these bombs are irrelevant to the destruction they wreak on civilians if they are used indiscriminately. The bomb does not choose its aim point. It will accurately strike a school bus, a hospital, or an apartment building if that is where it is aimed, The Saudi military and its Gulf allies have used such high-tech weaponry indiscriminately to inflict death and injury on thousands of innocent Yemeni civilians.
The Saudi government is an oil-rich tyranny heavily influenced by the fundamentalist Wahabi sect of Islam. Saudi Arabia is a nation in which women’s rights activists are arrested and tortured. It is a country with no national elections and no synagogues. Its authoritarian absolute monarchy and intolerant clergy are anathema to American values, yet the U.S. eagerly sells weapons to this regime. We sell them because weapons makers like Raytheon welcome profits from blood money.
The prime directive motivating Raytheon, and all other corporate weapons merchants, is maximizing shareholder value. They have no interest in promoting peace or minimizing human suffering. Indeed, the more their weapons are consumed with devastating effects, the greater their profits. Their corporate hands are stained with the blood of countless victims of the indiscriminate use of their weapons. Maximizing weapons sales is accomplished by influencing the U.S. and foreign governments to adopt policies resulting in stockpiling and use of weapons of war.
There is a clear chain of political influence reaching from the boardrooms of companies like Raytheon through the well-paid lobbying firms of the Washington beltway into the campaign financing of powerful congressional representatives and the career advancement of government officials who authorize arms purchases. This primary mechanism of influence is augmented by extensive subsidies to supposedly independent defense experts at numerous think tanks and academic institutions. These experts provide intellectual respectability to the feeding frenzy of the weapons makers at the enormous trough of the U.S. defense budget.
Raytheon, like other arms makers, publicly asserts that it has no role in shaping foreign policy. Meanwhile its lobbyists privately tie crucial votes in Congress to the promise of large campaign contributions and participate in revolving door career maneuvers that place industry advocates in powerful government positions. This duplicity is so common that it has been normalized as a permanent feature of the U.S. Military-Industrial Complex. The improper influence has become so egregious that a Raytheon lobbyist, Mark Esper, was appointed Secretary of Defense in the Trump administration, and Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, sits on the Raytheon board of directors. With control of both houses of Congress and the Executive branch, Raytheon has nothing to fear from U.S. government oversight over its lavish funding. But there is something that Raytheon would fear: investor activism.
Senior corporate executives are increasingly compensated by stock grants and stock options. Thus, anything that depresses the stock price of their companies directly affects their earnings. This explains the widespread practice of companies buying back their own stock to boost stock prices instead of reinvesting their profits in productive business capabilities. In the past, investors were reluctant to punish companies for socially irresponsible behavior because the conventional economic wisdom was that nothing should interfere with market forces. Motivated only by profit, weapons makers have used campaign contributions to engineer steady increases in U.S. defense spending for decades, with utter indifference to the damage inflicted by the ill-advised use of their weaponry. But the winds of change are reshaping the priorities of investors.
After the sharp recession of 2008, the magic of the marketplace was partially discredited because unchecked exploitation of deregulated mortgage markets had led to a global financial collapse. Moreover, the looming danger of climate change led economists and investors to add consideration of “externalities,” factors not directly reflected on a corporation’s income statement, to the evaluation of investments. The result has been the growth of socially responsible investing, a practice that balances the profitability of an investment with the associated impacts on society. Initially, the focus of this movement has been on hydrocarbon and mining companies, but there is no reason why this new calculus of investment valuation could not be extended to the arms makers.
I submit that a divestment campaign targeting Raytheon Corporation would be the most direct and efficient means of halting this company’s improper manipulation of U.S. foreign policy and reducing the carnage caused by the indiscriminate use of its weapons in war zones like Yemen. The divestiture of large amounts of Raytheon stock by major public pension funds, academic endowments, and mutual funds, would significantly depress the company’s stock price and lead Raytheon management to heed the following demands:
- Halt all campaign contributions to elected officials.
- Halt all contributions to policy organizations advocating aggressive military action.
- Halt the marketing of weapons to regimes engaged in human rights violations
- Redirect lobbying funds to foreign aid efforts aimed at relief for war refugees
Although Raytheon is not the only weapons maker engaging in corrupt and harmful practices endangering lives and undermining peace, it is a prominent example of such misconduct, and effective concentrated action against it would send a powerful message to other corporate giants in the Military Industrial Complex, such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, and Northrop Grumman. For too long, the invisible hand of marketplace power has kept the U.S. government on the path of war. It is time for investors to use their economic power to turn arms makers away from being political advocates and enablers of war and limit them to functioning as responsible guardians of peace.
A dangerous delusion has taken hold in US political and media circles regarding the prospect of a war with China. In order to avoid the calamitous outcome that would ensue from such a war, the public should be aware of the historic and technical facts that argue against such folly. The following discussion will provide this information and explain the perverse incentives motivating US business, political, military, and media elites in their efforts to present China as a hostile power that must be confronted militarily.
China emerged as a powerful modern state after a long period of suffering at the hands of exploitative foreign powers (1840-1945) followed by a bitter civil war (1937-1949), and a major war against the US in Korea (1950-1953). Adding to the challenges of repeated warfare were the internal political turmoil of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Only after the death of Mao in 1976 did China adopt a political system that enabled rapid modernization and economic growth, resulting in China’s emergence as a major world power.
Unlike the United States, which has not experienced the suffering of war on its own soil since 1865, the Chinese have a long history of episodic bloody conflict, external and internal, covering the last century, including border wars with Russia, India, and Vietnam. China is not a nation that backs down from war if its vital interests are threatened.
The large and rapidly growing Chinese economy, which is on course to surpass the GDP of the United States within the next 10 years, has enabled China to modernize its armed forces. China has a small but potent nuclear deterrent, a Navy with more ships than the US, and a large, well-equipped standing army double the size of that of the US. Although the US military has many high-tech advantages, such as stealth technology and naval aviation, the Chinese have developed offsetting advanced weapons systems, such as precision-guided ballistic missiles capable of sinking warships.
Chinese DF-26 “Carrier Killer” missiles – Est. unit Cost: $10 million
China views the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland as the most important unfinished business of the restoration of China to its historic position as the dominant power in Asia. US support of Taiwan, the break-away state established by the defeated faction in the Chinese Civil war, is a major point of contention between the two nations, and a possible cause of armed conflict. The other likely cause of conflict is territorial claims over the waters of the South China Sea, an area encompassing strategic waterways and rich with natural resources. Forcible attempts by the US to block Chinese unification with Taiwan or occupy islands claimed by China in the South China Sea would likely trigger a war. What would this war look like?
The Realities of War with China
Americans have grown accustomed to swift initial victory in warfare against weak adversaries, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, but the US has not fought a war with a peer power armed with equivalent weaponry since 1945. Thus, the US risks encountering serious unfavorable technical and operational surprises should it undertake a war with China. Although military planners make estimates of adversary capabilities in simulations and exercises, the test of combat is the final determinant of outcomes. No one in the US military knows if the Chinese missiles designed to sink US aircraft carriers can do so in a shooting war, and no one knows if the complex logistics infrastructure required by US high-tech weapons deployed in the Western Pacific can survive in a high-tempo combat environment. Why, then would US leaders contemplate such a war?
USS Nimitz Aircraft Carrier – Est. cost: $13 Billion
There have been many historical instances of outdated military thinking leading to catastrophe. Perhaps the most terrible is that of WWI, a conflict that resulted in far more carnage than political and military leaders expected. On the eve of WWI, there was enthusiasm on all sides for what was expected to be a short and decisive war. The opposing generals had clever plans for swiftly defeating their adversaries. What they failed to understand was the radical transformation of the battlefield that advances in antipersonnel weaponry would cause. The devastating effects of massed artillery and machine gun fire would result in infantry casualties in the millions and a bloody, exhausting war of attrition that left deep scars in European politics and created the conditions for WWII.
What is known about a potential war with China is that the logistical constraints imposed by geography overwhelmingly favor the Chinese in a war fought off their coast against an adversary from other side of the Pacific. In such a war, the US would be heavily reliant on a small number of Western Pacific bases such as Guam and Okinawa. These bases are likely to be attacked and destroyed in the early days of hostilities, leaving US naval forces stranded with uncertain prospects of support from nervous Asian allies. Long-range stealth bombers flying from the US could inflict some damage on China, but the sortie rate (the number of strike missions flown) would be too low to be decisive.
The Chinese, on the other hand, could swarm Taiwan and the South China Sea with naval and aviation assets, absorbing heavy losses and still sweep US forces out of the theater. At that point, escalation to a nuclear exchange would be the only remaining military option for the US, but the relatively small Chinese nuclear force would still be capable of destroying dozens of US cities, an unacceptable outcome for any sane US President.
The general public is poorly informed regarding the characteristics of modern missile warfare. Despite decades of costly efforts to develop missile interceptors, the US has not been able to overcome the basic problem of missile defense. The defender must protect all vulnerable assets with costly systems that can intercept a high percentage of incoming missiles, but the attacker can make concentrated attacks selectively, using surprise, decoys, and overwhelming numbers, to score precise hits that damage or destroy targets. (This imbalance was demonstrated recently in successful missile attacks on Saudi petroleum facilities and US airbases in Iraq.) The US simply lacks the resources to put an impenetrable missile defense umbrella over every vulnerable ship, airbase, and supply depot in the Western Pacific, and the Chinese have a lot of missiles to throw against these targets.
The damage to the US from defeat in a war with China would be far-reaching. Apart from the military casualties and material losses, the economic impact of disrupting trade and communications in Asia would be enormous, probably triggering a global recession. The diplomatic impact would likely be the destruction of long-standing US alliances with other Asian powers, including India, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philipines, and the Southeast Asian nations
The US Military has conducted many simulations of an armed conflict with China involving Taiwan and the South China Sea, and China wins (at a heavy cost) in most of these exercises, mainly because of geographical and logistical advantages. If war with China is a losing proposition from an analytical perspective, what sustains the delusion?
The Latin expression “Cui Bono” (To whom is it a benefit?) is the name of a method that has been used since ancient times to analyze motives behind political actions. Consider who benefits from sustaining the propaganda delusion of war with China:
Defense Contractors benefit from the incessant arms purchases associated with preparations for war. Because the Chinese can afford to steadily modernize their armed forces, the US defense industry can successfully market new weapons to counter actual and perceived advantages in Chinese weaponry. The US defense industry has enormous political influence because of large campaign donations and support for institutions and academics promoting bellicose foreign policies.
Military Professionals benefit from improved opportunities for command and promotion in growing organizations, such as the newly established Space Force. More surface ships and aircraft squadrons require more officers and commanders. New high-tech weapons projects require military managers who can look forward to high-salaried jobs with defense contractors after taking early retirement.
Politicians benefit from Xenophobia and war fever, particularly if there is a racist component involved. In WWII, the US had no compunction in putting Japanese Americans into internment camps, while German Americans were left unmolested. By depicting the Chinese as totalitarian Communists bent on world domination, politicians can easily whip up war fever among a large segment of the electorate. President Trump has already begun building up anti-Chinese sentiment by referring to COVID-19 as the “China Virus.”
Media Corporations benefit by generating Internet clicks and TV ratings from an audience excited by wars and rumors of wars. Danger and violence sell, and tensions threatening a major war are a sure winner for elevating viewership. The concentration of US media power in a handful of major corporations makes it easier for governments and arms makers to influence “news” coverage in a bellicose manner. Government-friendly US media companies now routinely employ ex-military and former intelligence agency personnel as commentators on foreign affairs, thus strengthening what is effectively a pro-war propaganda collaboration with the national security establishment.
The above players are engaged in an alliance of convenience to promote a war that cannot be waged successfully. Nevertheless, by keeping the danger of this delusional war before the public, they succeed in selling costly weapons, advancing military careers, winning elections, and earning media profits.
The rational arguments against the US engaging in a war with China are overwhelming, and it is only the power of the US political/media propaganda apparatus that has given this idea public credibility. Perverse incentives motivate arms makers, politicians, the military, and media leaders to sustain this delusion and run the risk of the accidental or intentional outbreak of a war which would have ruinous consequences for the US. Citizens should act to persuade their leaders to stop the drum beat of war before a propaganda delusion turns into a military disaster.
September 3, 2020
By Haig Hovaness
In the early 20th century, the development of mass communications propaganda enhanced the ability of governments to secure public support for waging war. In America, WWI was “sold” to the public by a carefully planned public relations campaign directed by early pioneers of opinion manipulation, such as Edward Bernays. In 1928 Bernays published a definitive book, “Propaganda,” on the new science of influencing the public. In this book, he declares the purpose of this science bluntly:
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.
Soon thereafter European dictators, like Hitler and Mussolini, used the tools of propaganda to rise to power and launch a terrible war. What the early students of propaganda did not foresee was that a time would come when the mechanisms of propaganda would no longer be subservient to the national objectives of powerful leaders but would become a dominant influence on the conduct of nations. This inversion of policy and propaganda is a fundamental reason why America’s “War on Terror” has become detached from rational policy objectives and serves as a kind of theater of cruelty for the amusement of the public, much like the bloody spectacles of the ancient Roman arena. In short, propaganda, which was invented as a tool to serve powerful leaders now dictates the actions of the leaders. Americans have become trapped in a world in which the propaganda of inciting irrational fear and hostility has become self-perpetuating, leading to an endless public spectacle called a war.
The German military theorist Clausewitz called war “a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means.” By this he meant that after exhausting the resources of diplomacy nations may turn to war, but war should serve a nation’s interests. Today’s American War on Terror defies logical connection to any sound national interests. America’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq are widely considered disastrous failures, and our military interventions in Libya, Syria and several other troubled nations have spread chaos and anarchy. These military adventures do, however, entertain the public. The evidence for this entertainment mechanism is the repeating patterns of the propaganda spectacles that are presented. Here are some examples:
Humiliating the captives – Guantanamo
In ancient Rome the parading of defeated captives was a part of the marches of triumph that celebrated victorious military campaigns. The triumphal procession would include caged or shackled captives, whose humiliation excited and pleased the Roman crowds. The US imprisoned suspected terrorists at Guantanamo, a military base in Cuba, presumed to be outside the legal jurisdiction of US Courts. Pictures of the shackled kneeling prisoners were widely publicized, as were descriptions of the harsh conditions of confinement and interrogation at Guantanamo. This pleased a public hungry for revenge after the shock of the 9/11 attacks. The crucial distinction between the practice of the Romans and the US in the display of captives is that the Romans did so after securing strategic triumphs like the conquest of Gaul. There has been no equivalent triumph in the open-ended US global War on Terror. It is widely believed that the abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo and other sites has helped recruit Islamist militants worldwide. Even as a legal stratagem for punishing accused terrorists, Guantanamo has been a failure, since the maltreatment of the prisoners renders their prosecution untenable, leaving many of these prisoners in a legal limbo, possibly for the remainder of their lives.
Although President Obama campaigned on a promise to close the Guantanamo prison, he was unable to persuade Congress to do this. I believe the only credible explanation for this recalcitrance was the desire to maintain the public propaganda benefit of ritual humiliation of (suspected) terrorists: propaganda driving irrational policy.
Brandishing the weaponry – Shock, Awe, and MOAB
A U.S. aircraft dropped a GBU-43 Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb, also known as a MOAB or ‘mother of all bombs’, on an area in the Achin district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, on April 13, 2017. The MOAB is a ten-ton bomb, the largest conventional weapon in the US arsenal. The dropping of this bomb had no effect whatever on the strategic situation of the US military intervention in Afghanistan, now in its 19th year. America lacks the military resources to fully suppress the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan which controls about two-thirds of the population and continues to inflict defeats on the US-backed Afghan government. The bomb did have significant propaganda value, however, because the images and videos of the effects of this weapon were widely reported.
The great danger of reliance on super weapon propaganda is that leaders may come to believe it. The use of super weapons to bolster public morale in a losing war was notable in WWII Germany. The German V1 cruise missile and V2 ballistic missile were revolutionary pilotless bombs that Hitler mistakenly believed would win the war. President Trump has boasted that he could win the war in Afghanistan by killing millions of Afghans, presumably with indiscriminate use of advanced American weaponry. Our super-weapons pose a greater threat to us than to our enemies: propaganda driving irrational policy.
Killing the Supervillains – Bin Laden, Al Baghdadi, and Soleimani
In Orwell’s prescient dystopian novel, “1984,” a key tool of state propaganda is focusing public rage on an archvillain who is responsible for all the evils of the nation’s enemy. In the novel, there is a daily assembly in which members of the public witness a video depiction of Emmanuel Goldstein, the leader of the enemy state. For two minutes, the audience is whipped into a frenzy of hatred that sustains their war fervor. In America’s War on Terror, a succession of supervillains has served a powerful propaganda purpose: Bin-Laden, Al-Baghdadi, and most recently Soleimani have been killed to symbolically defeat an ill-defined adversary power (terrorism). Yet the endless war continues.
From a strategic perspective, the killings of Bin-Laden and Al-Baghdadi, founders of Al Qaeda and ISIS, were irrelevant because these leaders had fled into hiding and no longer commanded significant forces. Killing Soleimani, the Iranian general aiding anti-American forces in the Mideast, was a strategic disaster because it brought the US and Iran to the brink of a full-scale war and persuaded the Iraqi parliament to request the departure of the remaining US troops in Iraq. Nonetheless, Trump is milking the propaganda value of the Soleimani assassination at political rallies, irrespective of the negative consequences for the US position in the Mideast: propaganda driving irrational policy.
The failures of US foreign policy in the global War on Terror have become so conspicuous that there is growing organized criticism of this reign of misrule. Recently the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft was formed by support from wealthy activists from opposite ends of the political spectrum (Charles Koch and George Soros). The first paragraph of the institute’s charter addresses the problem succinctly:
The foreign policy of the United States has become detached from any defensible conception of U.S. interests and from a decent respect for the rights and dignity of humankind. Political leaders have increasingly deployed the military in a costly, counterproductive, and indiscriminate manner, normalizing war and treating armed dominance as an end in itself.
I assert that a main reason why military conflict has become an end in itself is that the propaganda associated with the War on Terror is out of control and is now dictating irrational and counterproductive actions. War propaganda, once a servant of American politicians, has now become a master. Taming this monstrous former servant will be a crucial challenge for American democracy.