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Stan Goff

Stan Goff

Posted: July 21, 2008 01:13 PM

Commanding-in-Chief


Catastrophe: n.

1. A great, often sudden calamity.
2. A complete failure; a fiasco: The food was cold, the guests quarreled--the whole dinner was a catastrophe.
3. The concluding action of a drama, especially a classical tragedy, following the climax and containing a resolution of the plot.
4. A sudden violent change in the earth's surface; a cataclysm.

[Greek katastroph, an overturning, ruin, conclusion, from katastrephein, to ruin, undo : kata-, cata- + strephein, to turn.]

For years now, I have been accused by sisters and brothers from right to left of being "catastrophist."

There is an energy crisis coming.

"Catastrophist."

The housing bubble will devastate the economy.

"What housing bubble, catastrophist?"

The war in Southwest Asia constitutes a strategic defeat of the United States government, now tied down in a two-front war.

... ... ...

On the first two, I can pretty much rest my case.

As to closing the case on that last assertion about the war, the main obstacle is a Chinese Wall of twittering ignorance that defines American culture. American culture is trained by media monopolies; and for them, the war is an entertainment commodity.

For the time being, the war-commodity serves best as background for that quadrennial personality contest that we call the general election. That's how this "commander-in-chief" issue is being used to bewilder the public about the war itself. In the seemingly endless horse-race analysis of the upcoming elections, we can't escape the ersatz erudition of public opinion-makers on the subject of whether John McCain or Barack Obama will make a more suitable Commander-in-Chief. Every echo-chamber is attuned. The blogosphere is abuzz. The blanket has been thrown over the war, but this commander-in-chief thing has become the media Big Ten top-model competition of public affairs.

What we generally hear from the chattering classes on this topic seems to be intentionally clueless, so I feel impelled to do some of my own chattering. I should warn you that my chatter on this matter is... well, catastrophist.

Before laying out the argument, there are some assumptions smuggled into the info-media drivel that need correcting.

First assumption: Military service makes one more suitable for the position of commander-in-chief. This one is universally attractive not simply on account of the American idealization of all things military, but because so many liberals latched onto the highly-gendered and ultimately irrelevant "chickenhawk" criticism of George W. Bush. This critique of Bush, even coming from the left that should have known better, implicitly accepts the assumption that military service translates into suitability to be a President... since Congress long ago ceded its war-making prerogative to the executive branch, making every US president now a de facto independent warlord.

There is the de jure command given in the Constitution; but then there is the reality that Congress has not only ceded the authority, they won't even cut the purse strings to an unpopular war like Iraq. So the position of commander-in-chief is not only real and powerful, it concentrates the consequential impact of military adventures on that one person.

Having military experience might afford that person some potential insight into the military; and having been involved in a war does provide the opportunity to learn something about war. I emphasize "potential," because it is not frequently actualized. Plenty of people can serve in the military, and even participate in one capacity or another in war, and still not have enough sense to pound sand. Conversely, plenty of people who have no military experience can attend to the strategic (read: politico-economic) goals of conflict, and delegate the tactical details to the lumpen-intelligentsia of the armed forces officer corps.

John McCain flew airplanes and dropped bombs. The only thing he commanded was an instrument panel. He did that 23 times in combat, before he was shot down and captured by the same Vietnamese he had been bombing. Before that, he was injured in a ship fire aboard the USS Forrestal. He had some harrowing (not synonymous with heroic) experiences, but there is no historical evidence that suffering automatically leads to increased intelligence or even empathy for others who suffer.

Ulysses Grant was a real commander of armed forces and a mediocre commander-in-chief who followed closely on the heels of Abraham Lincoln - a lawyer and career politician who had zero direct military experience... but who did win the bloodiest war in history at that time by directing Grant and others.

Franklin Roosevelt steered the US through the greatest military conflagration in history - with no military experience of his own - bobbing and weaving to let other nations take the brunt of the war, and positioning the US to climb onto the heap of 48 million bodies as the globe's newly predominant nation... a position the US has held to this day.

Not making any moral points here. Lincoln and Roosevelt were as ruthless and cynical as any chief executive. They succeeded, is all I'm saying, as commanders-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces.

The hoopla about McCain's suitability as commander-in-chief might make a bit more sense if he had spent a real career in the military and become a flag officer, I suppose. But Wesley Clark - a sycophant who rose through the ranks, like Colin Powell, as a successful bureaucrat - makes me hesitate to say even that.

The point is, the military is one arm of the state; and before a former military person can employ the military intelligently, he (they are all he's so far) has to get hold of the fact that military outcomes are determined not in the local, tactical context, but by strategic-political factors. This is why the general analysis of the tactical trends and dispositions in Iraq right now are both deceptive and self-deceptive. Commentators are either not at liberty to or capable of explaining the macrotrends that define the boundaries of political (and therefore military) action in Southwest Asia... and the world.

One of the better ideas embodied in the Constitution of the United States is the idea that civilian authority should be in firm control of the military. ("Civilian" is also supposed to imply a sovereign people, and in money-run elections reported by ruling class media, there is no sovereign people.)

The reason for that rule is that history taught past generations that military leaders who are successful in war are often brutal as well as stupid - a winning combination when the goal is simply to tear things up using a vast technological advantage.

It's the machismo... a synonym for brutal stupidity.

Military stewardship of nations has a disastrous historical record; which is why the media's focus on this aspect of the presidency is not only off the mark with regard to John McCain. His own "service" - the real or the idealized - is largely irrelevant.

The media focus also cops to the most dangerous accomplishment of the Bush administration: the publicly-accepted idea of a "global war on terror."

Smuggled assumption Two.

There is no such thing, of course. There is a war to control Southwest Asia and its strategic resources. The "global war on terror" (GWOT) is a legal pretext that apparently slipped right past all those fine lawyers in Congress.

What GWOT does is consolidate US executive control over both domestic and foreign policy, by redefining the entire planet as a battlefield. This "global battlespace" justifies actions that are only sanctioned by international law on the battlefield.

"The whole world" cannot be shoehorned into any definition of a "battlefield" embodied in international law on the issue of war. That's one of several reasons the US won't sign onto the International Criminal Court.

The GWOT is simply rhetorical cover for a naked political power-grab. And this suits a Democratic executive just as nicely as it does a Republican one... as Congress has demonstrated in its perpetuation by word and deed of the GWOT myth.

That is why - even though its not a sexy issue - debunking the GWOT assumption of a "global battlespace" is one of the most crucial debates we can have about the war... it goes way beyond just Iraq, and set the stage for Guantanamo, rendition, et al.

The lawyer running against McCain is play-acting at having missed this pretextual fiction, too; because he talks about winning this GWOT himself. That commits him whether he likes it or not.

That is why after he wins the Presidency, Barack Obama - our new commander-in-chief - will find himself becoming the Lyndon Johnson of Afghanistan... and the US will continue sending troops to die for control of strategic resources through his entire term.

Meanwhile, the world and the nation will grow poorer and meaner. It may even be during Obama's first term that the debt ledge, public and private, snaps off (catastrophically). As the ledge plummets into the abyss with all of us tumbling behind, so his popularity will plunge down with us as inexorably as Bush's has. The war didn't destroy Bush's ratings; losing it did.

Obama will not only be caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of Wall Street and a pissed-off public; he will be trying to win an unwinnable war in Afghanistan and Iraq. All he will do is shift the center of gravity from Iraq to Afghanistan, which is already shifting as the Taliban expands its power into the interstices of the current NATO occupation.

I know, I know. You've heard the media say Obama wants to leave Iraq. That's because they don't listen and don't want you to.

Obama has never called for a withdrawal from Iraq. He talks the al-Qaeda-babble just as enthusiastically as Dick Cheney, in fact, and has called for a permanent US occupation of Iraq, linguistically disguised as "overwatch" with Special Operations on call.

Any withdrawals (that is, troop draw-downs) remains contingent on "the Iraqis." This means the squabbling cliques inside the Green Zone, not most Iraqis.

The trigger for discontinuing the occupation, then, is the "government of Iraq" taking measures that they are unlikely to take, and over which the US has nearly no control... meaning these redeployment triggers will never be pulled.

This bait-and-switch worked for Bush, and it will work for Obama until our sheer exhaustion with the war and the domestic economic crisis force a change on the Obama administration.

Obama started his campaign for commander-in-chief with the easy - and false - critique that the Bush administration was killing the wrong people. It's not Iraqis we need to kill, but Afghans. His popular deception is not that Iraq is responsible for 9-11. His implication is that Afghanistan did 9-11 because bin Laden was there.

Again, not true, but why let that hold you back. The Taliban government of Afghanistan tried to give the US Osama bin Laden before 9-11. Since the US had invasion plans on the table, they didn't want to lose the bin Laden pretext, and they refused.

The attacks of 9-11-01 were conducted by 15 Saudis, one Egyptian, one Lebanese, and two citizens of the United Arab Emirates. No Afghans. No Iraqis.

Here is something that is true about Afghanistan though. Guerrilla war against outsiders has always succeeded there. And it is succeeding now against the US and NATO. The loss of a US perimeter base near the Pakistani border last week is just a foreshadowing of where the war there is headed. This is the war that Obama wants to fight?

Yet he seems to have trapped himself in it already. He says that Afghanistan is being lost because there are too many US troops tied down in Iraq.

Does he propose then that the current institutional trend lines in the military be maintained? More expensive recruitment and lower recruitment standards, falling morale, an unsustainable operations tempo, the reward of criminality and incompetence in the leadership, and reliance on $180,000-a-year mercenaries to take up the slack?

Obama claims that he is going to fight terrorism by attacking Afghans instead of Iraqis, as well as maintain an "overwatch" presence of tens of thousands of troops in Iraq. Where will the troops come from?

Well, he has stated that he wants to expand the ground forces by 93,000 (both Army and Marines).

Lyndon Johnson started out like this, nickel-diming, and eventually found himself with 500,000 American troops occupying Vietnam. Several years later, the last US troops were literally driven out of Vietnam at gunpoint. Johnson didn't run that war; the war ran him.

That's where Obama is headed right now; and for the record, that does not mean there is no difference between him and McCain, or that I am encouraging electoral abstinence. Those are red herrings.

It means the war has in many respects escaped the calculable control of the American state no matter who the President is.

Obama will be the next chief executive of the American state - a state by, for, and of the business class. That's the job description. That business class depends on the larger economy which is materially dependent on massive and unceasing throughputs of fossil hydrocarbons. That same economy has been overrun by rentier capitalists who have driven the global economy over a cliff.

Competitors are on the horizon, China, Russia, India, Brazil... but mostly Western Europe. The war is one central drama in a multiply-determined crisis that also includes immanent food shortages, water famines, radical climate shifts, and the general decay of inter-class stability.

Obama did not inherit Bush's war, except in the details. He inherited a business class's war that was inevitable (though not in its present form).

The United States was going to reposition its international military after the Cold War in any case; the old disposition for "containing" the Soviet Union was obsolete after all. And given the most obvious of considerations, the place to seek permanent and fully operational military bases abroad was in Southwest Asia. That's where the hydrocarbons are; and when you have the hydrocarbons, you have the competition on a nose ring.

Following through with this is Obama's job after the election. (We get to participate in the elections for which wealth-selected candidate will be the CEO; but we are not, alas, on the board of directors.)

Obama is a very smart guy - a genuine intellectual - who has jumped through a rare political window of opportunity, but there's a punji-pit on the other side.

Bush's approval numbers are abysmal in the face of a four-sided crisis: a bursting bubble of fictional value, skyrocketing fuel prices, an interminable unpopular war, and the collapse of ecosystems. Bush (ahistorically) gets all the blame. That's the window of opportunity.

Obama has also run a brilliant and even technically audacious campaign (his policy pronouncements are anything but audacious).

I suspect he is going to win, and win big.

In other circumstances, he might win to become a brilliant CEO for the business class, and even make enough of the rest of us comfortable enough to remain complacent. But he is inheriting problems that are already - as they have been for the Bush administration - supra-political, impermeable to intervention by the actually-existing political system in which we live. He is inheriting a complex and world-historic impasse for the world and the US state.

And he will be the commander-in-chief for the United States Armed Forces.

He has already committed himself to the emergent consensus of that system. Southwest Asia will be secured for the US, by military force if necessary; or there will be a phase shift in American economics and politics that will sideline the entire system (and consensus).

There is not a shred of evidence (except in the public's ever-hopeful imagination) that he intends to be anything more or less than other commanders-in-chief. Like the others, he will bend the military to the emergencies of empire - that is, secure the continuity of the existing system.

Maybe McCain will win, and none of this will matter to Obama. It will go the same way for McCain, and worse still if he elects to vicariously relive the pre-capture glory days by ordering bombing runs over Qom. He'd be the commander-in-chief. He can do that as commander-in-chief. And Congress will not stop him. Neither will we.

The "antiwar movement" has always been more an anti-Bush movement and an anti-defeat movement (nudged along by competing leftist cadres without their own popular bases); and it has shown no ability to employ anything except 60s-70s tactics and techniques, even though the ruling class has long ago adapted to them.

Neither Congress nor the people-at-large will stop McCain or Obama from war-mongering.

That's one reason there has been so much emotional investment in Obama's change rhetoric. A general election (a new king) is the current limit of our cultural imagination and the limit of our collective political will.

This in no way means the system will continue along. It simply means that these creatures of the system will not be the agents of its undoing. The weeds have been in the wheat for quite some time now, but pulling the weeds will kill the wheat. The harvest has to come before we can winnow and start fresh.

Making McCain out a devil does not make Obama a rescuing angel. Obamas's mature, articulate confidence is certainly reassuring after eight years of a Yalie frat-rat smirking in the foreground of serial disasters; but there is such a thing as misplaced confidence... even feigned confidence.

Obama's foreign policy is likely to be warmed-over Brzezinski-ism; and it was Brzezinski who was the architect of the conditions that put the Taliban in power in Afghanistan in the first place.

Brzezinski, prardoxically, is warning Obama of exactly what's been said here, citing the Soviet experience in Afghanistan.

"We have to be careful..." Brzezinski warns Obama,

"...not to overestimate the appeal of the democratic Afghan elite, because we run the risk that our military presence will gradually turn the Afghan population entirely against us.

"I realize that in an electoral campaign you don't want to antagonize large groups which are highly motivated. This is a very dangerous period of time with very unpredictable consequences. You have three countries [Iran, Israel and the U.S.] doing a kind of death dance on the basis of confusion, division and fear.

"If we end up with war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, [and] Iran at the same time, can anyone see a more damaging prospect for America's world role than that? That's the fundamental foreign policy dilemma at the back of this election. A four-front war would get us involved for years . . . It would be the end of American predominance."

In fact, a two-front war is already contributing to the same thing.

What's a commander-in-chief to do?

Welcome to GWOT world. Want that catastrophe with one lump or two?