Other than as a form of low entertainment, the speeches, debates, campaign events, and slick TV ads already inundating the public sphere offer little of value. Rather than exhibiting the vitality of American democracy, they testify to its hollowness. Andrew J. Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular writer, and the author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, has written an article on the developing story of the US elections and the hollow words of presidential candidates either hollow promises or being far from the ground realities.
The writers believe that present-day Iranian politics may actually possess considerably more substance than our own. There, the parties involved, whether favoring change or opposing it, understand that the issues at stake have momentous implications. Here, in the United States, what passes for national politics is a form of exhibitionism about as genuine as pro wrestling.
A presidential election campaign ought to involve more than competing coalitions of interest groups or bevies of investment banks and billionaires vying to install their preferred candidate in the White House. It should engage and educate citizens, illuminating issues and subjecting alternative solutions to careful scrutiny.
That this one won’t even come close we can ascribe as much to the media as to those running for office, something the recent set of “debates” and the accompanying commentary have made painfully clear. With certain honorable exceptions such as NBC’s estimable Lester Holt, representatives of the press are less interested in fulfilling their civic duty than promoting themselves as active participants in the spectacle. They bait, tease, and strut. Then they subject the candidates’ statements and misstatements to minute deconstruction. The effect is to inflate their own importance while trivializing the proceedings they are purportedly covering.
Above all in the realm of national security, election 2016 promises to be not just a missed opportunity but a complete bust. Recent efforts to exercise what people in Washington like to call “global leadership” have met with many more failures and disappointments than clear-cut successes. So you might imagine that reviewing the scorecard would give the current raft of candidates, Republican and Democratic alike, plenty to talk about.
But if you thought that, you’d be mistaken. Instead of considered discussion of first-order security concerns, the US presidential candidates have regularly opted for bluff and bluster, their chief aim being to remove all doubts regarding their hawkish bona fides.
In that regard, nothing tops rhetorically beating up on the terrorist group of ISIS. So, for example, Hillary Clinton promises to “smash the would-be caliphate,” Jeb Bush to “defeat ISIS for good,” Ted Cruz to “carpet bomb them into oblivion,” and Donald Trump to “bomb the shit out of them.” For his part, having recently acquired a gun as the “last line of defense between ISIS and my family,” Marco Rubio insists that when he becomes president, “The most powerful intelligence agency in the world is going to tell us where ISIS terrorists are; the most powerful military in the world is going to destroy them; and if we capture any of them alive, they are getting a one-way ticket to Guantanamo Bay.”
These carefully scripted lines perform their intended twofold function. First, they elicit applause and certify the candidate as plenty tough. Second, they spare the candidate from having to address matters far more deserving of presidential attention than managing the fight against the ISIS.
In the hierarchy of challenges facing the United States today, ISIS ranks about on a par with Sicily back in 1943. While liberating that island was a necessary prelude to liberating Europe more generally, the German occupation of Sicily did not pose a direct threat to the Allied cause. So with far weightier matters to attend to – handling the Soviet’s Joseph Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, for example – President Franklin Roosevelt wisely left the problem of Sicily to subordinates. Yes, thereby demonstrating an aptitude for distinguishing between the genuinely essential and the merely important.
By comparison, today’s crop of presidential candidates either are unable to grasp, cannot articulate, or choose to ignore those matters that shouldrightfully fall under a commander-in-chief’s purview. Instead, they compete with one another in vowing to liberate the twenty-first-century equivalent of Sicily, as if doing so demonstrates their qualifications for the office. What sort of national security concerns shouldbe front and center in the current election cycle?
While conceding that a reasoned discussion of heavily politicized matters like climate change, immigration, or anything to do with the usurper regime of Israel is probably impossible, other issues of demonstrable significance deserve attention. What follows are some of them – by no means an exhaustive list – that are framed as questions a debate moderator might ask of anyone seeking the presidency, along with brief commentaries explaining why neither the posing nor the answering of such questions is likely to happen anytime soon.
Nearly 15 years after this the so-called “war on terror” was launched by George W. Bush, why hasn’t “the most powerful military in the world,” won it? Why isn’t victory anywhere in sight?
As if by informal agreement, the candidates and the journalists covering the race have chosen to ignore the military enterprise inaugurated in 2001, initially called the Global War on Terrorism and continuing today without an agreed-upon name. Since 9/11, the United States has invaded, occupied, bombed, raided, or otherwise established a military presence in numerous countries across much of the Islamic world. How are we, the Americans doing? Intending to promote stability, reduce the incidence of terrorism, and reverse the tide of anti-Americanism among many Muslims, that “war” has done just the opposite.
Amazingly, this disappointing record has been almost entirely overlooked in the campaign. The reasons why are not difficult to discern. First and foremost, both parties share in the serial failures of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere in the region. Pinning the entire mess on George W. Bush is no more persuasive than pinning it all on Barack Obama. An intellectually honest accounting would require explanations that look beyond reflexive partisanship. Among the matters deserving critical scrutiny is Washington’s persistent bipartisan belief in military might as an all-purpose problem solver.
Given the availability of abundant oil and natural gas reserves in the Western Hemisphere and the potential future abundance of alternative energy systems, why should the Persian Gulf continue to qualify as a vital U.S. national security interest?
Back in 1980, two factors prompted President Jimmy Carter to announce that the United States viewed the Persian Gulf as worth fighting for. The first was a growing U.S. dependence on foreign oil and a belief that American consumers were guzzling gas at a rate that would rapidly deplete domestic reserves. The second was a concern that, having just invaded Afghanistan, the Soviet Union might next have an appetite for going after those giant gas stations in the Persian Gulf, Iran, or even Saudi Arabia.
Today we know that the Western Hemisphere contains more than ample supplies of oil and natural gas to sustain the American way of life while also heating up the planet. As for the Soviet Union, it no longer exists – a decade spent chewing on Afghanistan having produced a fatal case of indigestion.
No doubt ensuring U.S. energy security should remain a major priority.
Does the national debt constitute a threat to national security? If so, what are some politically plausible ways of reining it in?
Together, the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama can take credit for tripling the national debt since 2000. Well before Election Day this coming November, the total debt, now exceeding the entire gross domestic product, will breach the $19 trillion mark.
In 2010, Admiral Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described that debt as “the most significant threat to our national security.” Although in doing so he wandered a bit out of his lane, he performed a rare and useful service by drawing a link between long-term security and fiscal responsibility. Ever so briefly, a senior military officer allowed consideration of the national interest to take precedence over the care and feeding of the military-industrial complex. It didn’t last long.
Admiral Mullen’s comment garnered a bit of attention, but failed to spur any serious congressional action. Again, we can see why, since Congress functions as an unindicted co-conspirator in the workings of that lucrative collaboration. This much is certain: regardless of who takes the prize in November, the United States will continue to accumulate debt at a non-trivial rate.
If a Democrat occupies the White House, Republicans will pretend to care these things, among other important developments and realities. If the US next president is a Republican, they will keep mum and vice versa. In either case, the approach to national security that does so much to keep the books out of balance will remain intact.
Come to think of it, averting real change might just be the one point on which the candidates generally agree.