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Defense intellectuals, Pentagon officials (military and civilian), and the Obama administration are busy, the 2016 budget prepared and awaiting approval, implementing the continued elaboration of US unilateral world hegemony, as though this immodest goal were still possible in a changing global structure of multipolar power centers. Ambition feeds a voracious appetite for conquest. For the moment, Ukraine is at center stage, in reality, a dress rehearsal for taking on Russia, disgracing Putin, vastly expanding the geography of market fundamentalism, and even then, not satisfied, tipping the military-strategic balance against China, the real Enemy in Obama’s wet-dreams. Who needs McCain and the literal revisiting of the Cold War at its most intense, when Obama and the Democratic party are equal to the task of permanent war, massive “defense” spending, and the obsession with hegemony?
The Cold War never ended, not even, for that matter, gone underground; rather, its permanence was set in stone through systemic pressures toward market expansion, ideological exceptionalism, and the militarization of advanced capitalism—a triad of American national-structural characteristics the US was loath to give up or even modify (assuming either was possible and still be—to use Obama’s phrase, for other purposes—who we are). Penetration, ideology, militarism, all, when tightly integrated, bespeak strength interlaced, however, with fear—else why the constant emphasis on force, the muscularity of response (overkill), being ever vigilant? To the systemic/structural characteristics, then, must be added the psychological composite of ethnocentrism and xenophobia, in which fear of the stranger, the Other, the Enemy at the Gates (inherited from falling-domino theory) falls naturally into place with the erection of defensive walls to reinforce the all-important dichotomy of We and They in international politics (and its domestic counterpart, an ingrained permanent McCarthyism, most recently found in the campaign of mass surveillance).
Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are par for the course, and now Syria and continued pressure exerted on Iran, along with covert operations worldwide as somehow necessary testimony to America’s power and greatness lest it be attacked or taken advantage of through displaying signs of presumed weakness. This need to show strength at every moment results in aggressive acts and long-term strategies not thought of in that light, but rather the peculiar mix of self-preservation and humanitarianism, wholly innocent of villainy. Democracy equals capitalism, freedom equals the acquisition of wealth, virtue equals success (as against those who remain behind, self-evidently their own fault), while militarism is the capstone to this lexicon of deceit, making all things possible. Militarism is nobility of mind and purpose, that which expresses the genius of a God-fearing people for whom the world’s treasures are laid open (primarily for the benefit of its financial-industrial-military upper groups).
In modern times, to know a nation, look to its defense budget. Helene Cooper’s New York Times article, “Obama’s Defense Budget Aims Higher, and at Overseas Conflicts,” (Feb. 2), outlines its provisions: “a base defense budget of $534 billion in 2016,” which explicitly rules out “mandatory across-the-board reductions known as sequestration.” Ah, to be selective on where the funding goes (and break through the ceiling), such as $51B for “operations in the conflicts in Iraq and Syria” and “the continued American military presence in Afghanistan.” More than a half-trillion for starters, and still the administration’s cry that the result “will be a military that continues to be capable of defeating any adversary but is too small for protracted foreign occupations.” Questionable, in light of forces on the scene (or the euphemism “in country”). Whether or not the base defense budget includes the following, monies can always be found for worthwhile projects and defense contractors. Cooper writes: “ But the budget also demonstrates a Defense Department that remains determined to invest in ambitious next-generation capabilities and big-ticket items, including ships, submarines, bombers and other aircraft. The Pentagon is also seeking funding for more F-35 fighter jets, built by Lockheed Martin Corp.”
So much for an implied posture of relative disengagement (too small for protracted foreign operations). Ever-readiness on a global basis has its rewards—ISIS, Ukraine, Ebola, Defense officials hope, “will lead to a broad acceptance that the United States must continue to invest heavily in defense unless it is going to retreat globally.” As the Pentagon said on the budget release: “’The geopolitical events of the past year only reinforce the need to resource DoD at the president’s requested funding level as opposed to current law. [Sequestration] would be irresponsible and dangerous, resulting in a force too small and ill equipped to respond TO THE FULL RANGE OF POTENTIAL THREATS TO THE NATION.” (caps., mine) DoD, the tail wagging the dog, itself on a liberal leash, held by the Nobel Peace laureate.
Budgets are all well and good, but let’s look at what lies behind them, the immediate focus of attention being on Ukraine, this, I shall argue, merely code for a broader geopolitical strategy: confrontation with both Russia and China to restore America’s global position as the unilateral superpower in shaping the world political-structural architecture on behalf of US monopoly capital and its ideological influence in preserving the ground rules of market fundamentalism, austerity, and the silencing of dissent. Ukraine, then, is small potatoes, except as the proxy battleground for global stabilization on counterrevolutionary lines. Within the last week, there has been a growing chorus, administration-orchestrated, echoed on cue by leading newspapers, NYT and the Washington Post, and a Report of defense intellectuals, former officials, notably, Kissinger, and military gurus, calling for “non-lethal” assistance to the Kiev government against a lustful Russia poised to take over all of Ukraine.
In this atmosphere, anything can happen. (Non-lethal is a term capable of infinite stretching.) First, we look at Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt’s NYT article, “U.S. Considers Supplying Arms to Ukraine Forces, Officials Say,” (Feb 2), an excellent source describing the drumbeat toward escalation of some kind short of war vis-à-vis Russia. They report that Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO military commander, and “an array of administration and military officials” are calling for support of “Kiev’s beleaguered forces.” Because of “a series of striking reversals that Ukraine’s forces have suffered in recent weeks,” Obama is “taking a fresh look” at military assistance. The cast of characters is familiar: Kerry, to Kiev, for “new discussions about providing lethal assistance”; ditto, Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Rice, “now prepared to reconsider the issue.” Note, “lethal,” though non-lethal aid remains in the public-relations limelight.
The reasoning is tortuous: full military aid (the reporters call it “the provision of defensive weapons” ) could “tempt” Putin “to raise the stakes”—so don’t go that way; yet nothing seems to help, leaving no alternative. “But the failure of economic sanctions,” they write, “to dissuade Russia from sending in heavy weapons and military personnel to eastern Ukraine is pushing the issue of defensive weapons back into discussion.” Then, the breath of fresh air for military outreach, the Report “by eight former senior American officials” receiving widespread Executive and Congressional attention, urging the US “to send $3 billion in defensive arms and equipment to Ukraine, including anti-armor missiles, “ etc. Other luminaries joining the report include Michele Flournoy, a leading choice for defense secretary if Hillary is elected.
The Report could not be clearer: “’The West needs to bolster deterrence in Ukraine by raising the risks and costs to Russia of any renewed major offensive. That requires providing direct military assistance—in far larger amounts than provided to date and including lethal defensive arms.” Charging that Russia “has repeatedly violated” the Minsk agreement (last September) which called for a cease-fire in Ukraine, removal of foreign forces, and establishing “monitoring arrangement to ensure that the border between Ukraine and Russia would be respected,” US officials are silent as the tomb on Kievian bombardment of civilian centers in eastern Ukraine, or the proposed integration of Ukraine into the EU that would allow for NATO forces on the Russian border. One does not have to deny all Russian involvement in Ukraine to see that Putin’s position, hardly that of conquering the country, is for a federal system that would call for language rights and economic safeguards in the eastern provinces. Yet on all issues Kiev has proven to be adamant, encouraged by the US and EU, on non-negotiation either with the provinces or Russia, as meanwhile neo-Nazis are still prominent in the Ukrainian government and integration with NATO forces a desired goal.
My New York Times Comment on the Gordon-Schmitt article, same date, follows:
The report to be issued today has a roster of Cold Warriors and corresponding recommendations worthy of the 1950s. The US unmistakably seeks confrontation with Russia (and beyond, China) to maintain what in fact it has already lost in, now, a multipolar world structure: unilateral global hegemony.
Use of the term “defensive” is laughably hypocritical. Why not be frank: arm the Kiev government to the teeth, place large NATO forces on the Russian border, tighten still further the sanctions regime on Russia–all of which is occurring or soon will. Disregard the neo-Nazi leadership base of Ukraine.
Disregard prior US intervention in facilitating the coup. Disregard the West’s (led by the US) attempt to isolate, contain, and ultimately dismember Russia. For what? Market fundamentalism, IMF-World Bank austerity measures? Militarization of world capitalism (again, US-led) is moving on the slippery slope of nuclear war as if Thanatos were in the saddle.
However, The Times, in an editorial, “Mr. Putin Resumes His War in Ukraine,” (Feb. 2), further wades into the discussion, both sharply punitive about military aid, yet conciliatory in recognizing the need for a federal solution there. Citing a Russian economy “staggering under the twinned onslaught of low oil prices and sanctions,” it suggested that this was driving Putin to sharply increase Russia’s support “for the rebels” in eastern Ukraine, a situation, because of “the eruption of fighting in recent weeks,” that requires giving “Ukraine the means to resist Mr. Putin—in money and arms.” For The Times, “Certainly the United States and Europe should increase their aid to Ukraine and explore ways to expand existing sanctions against Russia,” Breedlove and Kerry in support. Yet because “sanctions and diplomacy” have not stopped “Russian aggression,” the US and its allies must “take a new look at what would bring Russia to a serious negotiation.” And here it concedes that Putin “has no interest in annexing eastern Ukraine” [something the Report does not concede], and rather “seeks a Ukrainian federation in which the pro-Russian provinces would have relative autonomy, along with assurances that Ukraine will not move to join NATO.”
This, The Times believed has definite “potential for negotiations,” and went on to say: “Tempting as it is to focus on punishing Mr. Putin, the greater objective must be to end the fighting so that Ukraine can finally undertake the arduous task of reforming [market fundamentalism?] and reviving its economy. Toward that end, the West must make clear to Mr. Putin that if a federation is his goal, the United States and its allies will actively use their good offices with Kiev to seek a workable arrangement.” If, finally, we see a more constructive attitude, it is already falling on deaf ears at the White House and in Congress.
My New York Times Comment on the editorial, same date, follows:
Thataway NYT, let’s expand existing sanctions against Russia. The Kievian government is simon-pure; Putin is a psychopathic dictator. Who’s kidding whom here? You speak of casualties, yet imprecise to a journalistic fault. Let’s have a clearer breakdown. But more, do you think Kiev would even discuss an arrangement of true federalism with respect to the eastern provinces?
Your course is one of war. USG has been maneuvering into that situation for some time. Have you forgotten the COUP, or do you deny its existence? Have you forgotten Victoria Nuland and her plans/activities, or do you deny that too? Is Russia wrong in its concern that NATO seeks troops at its borders?
Demonizing Putin is surely great fun, or has it become an addiction (in the same way The Times for decades was obsessed with Fidel)? Before jumping into the fire that is Ukraine, ask yourself: Are the sanctions against Russia warranted? What of the neo-Nazis who were and are prominent in Kiev? Is confronting Russia part of a broader geopolitical strategy that also includes confronting China? And why, confrontation in the first place?
Unilateral US superpower-dom, in a changing world, is no longer possible. To then seek to enforce it, at the risk of global nuclear war, is irresponsible if not also suicidal. Start peeling away the layers of policy, including the war on terror, and see what is before our noses: an alarming re-activation of a Cold War that indeed never fully subsided.
The Washington Post chimed in with its own editorial, “Raise the stakes for Russia to deter its aggression in Ukraine,” (Feb. 2), which treats Putin as impervious to negotiations (in any case, what’s to negotiate, in the Post’s view?), even though “well after the recent crash of the ruble and predictions by his ministers of a sharp and painful recession.” Hence, the bugle sounds: “Economic measures are still worth adopting, as they may influence Russian behavior or weaken the Putin regime in the longer term.” (Regime change here peeps out undisguised.) But for now, it continues, the US and EU allies “must consider how to stop the ongoing military aggression in Ukraine and deter Mr. Putin from further adventures [implicitly, all of Ukraine in his cross-hairs]. The clear answer is DIRECT MILITARY SUPPORT to the Ukrainian army.” (my caps.) Then the much-vaunted Report, Strobe Talbott of Brookings mentioned for good measure, plus added detail: $1B immediately for military assistance, $2B to follow over the next two years, with the hope that, the example set, “military aid from European NATO members such as Britain and Poland” would be forthcoming.
The West means business (in both senses, with financial-commercial penetration defining a security zone of capitalist enterprise that would be sure to follow): “No one, including Ukraine’s democratic government [?!] believes Ukraine can win a war against Russia. But defensive weapons could blunt Mr. Putin’s offensive and raise its cost in a way that might deter him.” And NATO has Ukraine’s back; in essence, a perceived weakness would invite aggression even beyond Ukraine. The Report minces no words: “If the United States and NATO do not adequately support Ukraine, Moscow may well conclude that the kinds of tactics it has employed over the past year can be applied elsewhere [the reference is to NATO members Latvia and Estonia].”
Finally, the Post’s Walter Pincus, an authoritative voice on defense policy (i.e., close to the actors and the action), has a penetrating article, “Seeking a strategy-driven defense budget for challenges facing U.S.,” (Feb. 2), which brings several other expected faces into the discussion. (Washington seems infested with war mongers, as though a condition of acceptance and sanity.) McCain, now chairman of Senate Armed Services, is a veritable tiger, calling for strategy-driven, as opposed to reactive (which he charges Obama with holding) policies, in order to envision and implement longer-term hegemonic goals. On Jan. 21, he said—simple, direct, war-provoking: “We must have a strategy based on a clear-eyed assessment of the threats we face and a budget that provides the resources necessary to confront them.” I interpret that as an universal state of conflict, and McCain right away called hearings titled “Global Challenges and U.S. National Security Strategy,” in which a blue-ribbon panel of Cold Warriors appeared: Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security advisers; Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, and Madeleine Albright, former secretaries of state; and assorted admirals and generals.
No one could agree on an overall strategy, itself disguising dire consequences of carrying the logic of defense policy to its conclusion, and simultaneously implying both universal threats and a permanent-war doctrine. (This is also standard White House wisdom.) Complexity is the theme of the day, melding with obfuscation to offer myriad opportunities for intervention and regime change—a gung-ho, hair-trigger set of mental traits ideally suited to what has become the expansive nature of militarism in America, which in turn fortifies the militarization of capitalism as the vehicle for conducting and rationalizing expansion.
Pincus writes, “All recognized that today’s threats—although far less dangerous than the Cold War’s potential nuclear exchanges—are more complex.” Somehow putting nuclear annihilation aside (itself an unwarranted assumption) thereby makes all seemingly lesser risks acceptable. Today, power politics short of nuclear war appears to Cold Warriors as transcending earlier times—perhaps therefore the license for intervention, regime change, drone assassination. Kissinger: “’The United States has not faced a more diverse and complex array of crises since the end of the Second World War.’” Henry can always be relied upon to sound the tocsin. A totalization of readiness and war-making would seem to follow. Economic and military power is not enough, “’any new strategy,’” he states, must “’include also psychological contests and asymmetric wars.” The reason for this, Pincus helps us to understand, is “because the existing order of nation states is being challenged, as well as the relationships between regions.” Strategy-driven, not reactive, which cannot go far enough or see all the dangers ahead.
Indeed, the more complex the international setting, the more innovative and daring the strategy and the weaponry to support it. Pincus gives the last word to Robert Work, Deputy Defense Secretary, who was speaking, while McCain conducted his hearings, before the Center for a New American Security, the cherry on the whipped cream complementing the other’s grand show of single-voiced bipartisan support for what has become the National Security State. He announced: “’We don’t face a single monolithic or implacable adversary as we did in the Cold War. We face multiple potential competitors, from small regional states like North Korea and Iran, to large advanced states like Russia and China, to non-state adversaries and actors [e.g., ISIS] with advanced capabilities. Each of these are [sic] probably going to require a different approach.’” And a different strategy—hence, one size doesn’t fit all, making it necessary to empower the military to act on all contingencies and, consequently, assign it a greater role in national policy and the requisite funding. (Mine, not Pincus)
Thus, Work observes, “we’re not going to be able to pick out one specific strategy that will be good for all potential adversaries and all potential capabilities. It has to be much more innovative and agile.’” When one hears words like “innovative” and “agile,” especially in the context of a pervasive terror, adversaries lurking everywhere, wanting to do us harm, time to run for cover. Deputy Secretary Work does not let us down, presenting a wish-list (actually not, for already available and to hand) that would do Strangelove and Herman Kahn proud (even Obama and McCain); for as Pincus summarizes, the response “requires investment in nuclear weapons, space-control capabilities, sensors, communications, cybertechnology, munitions and missile defense. He also referred to technology investments in unmanned undersea vehicles, high-speed strike weapons and aeronautics.” To which Pincus quaintly adds, “This is why there is an increase in the defense budget, from high-tech to low-tech and everything in between.”
Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.