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'A legacy of torture': Will the United States finally close its forever prison at Guantánamo?

Karen Greenberg: Confronting America's Forever Prison

In March 2007, Karen Greenberg reported on a visit she had made to the war-on-terror prison camp at the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and what it felt like to be distinctly offshore of American justice. She began that piece this way: “Several weeks ago, I took the infamous media tour of the facilities at Guantánamo. From the moment I arrived on a dilapidated Air Sunshine plane to the time I boarded it heading home, I had no doubt that I was on a foreign planet or, at the very least, visiting an impeccably constructed movie set. Along with two European colleagues, I was treated to two-days-plus of a military-tour schedule packed with site visits and interviews (none with actual prisoners) designed to ‘make transparent’ the base, its facilities, and its manifold contributions to our country’s national security.”

In my introduction to that piece, I wrote an initial paragraph that, I think, still catches the essence of American justice at Gitmo in those years:

'Once upon a time, our offshore prison at Guantánamo was the sort of place where even an American National Guardsman, only pretending to be a recalcitrant prisoner ‘extracted’ from a cell for training purposes, could be beaten almost senseless. This actually happened to 35-year-old ‘model soldier’ Sean Baker, who had been in Gulf War I and signed on again immediately after the World Trade Center went down. His unit was assigned to Guantánamo and he volunteered to be just such a ‘prisoner,’ donning the requisite orange uniform on January 24, 2003. As a result of his ‘extraction’ and brutal beating, he was left experiencing regular epileptic-style seizures 10 to 12 times a day. (And remember the Immediate Reaction Force team of MPs that seized him, on finally realizing that he wasn’t a genuine prisoner, broke off their assault before finishing the job.)'

Greenberg ended her report then this way: “Those who fail to reproduce the official narrative are not welcome back. ‘Tell it the wrong way and you won’t be back,’ one of our escorts warns me over lunch.”

You won’t be surprised to learn that she’s never been back. In addition to her early book on the nightmare that became Guantánamo, however, she’s returned to the subject at TomDispatch for years and here she is again, more than two decades after the first prisoner arrived there. Both of us can only hope that it finally is the last time. Tom

Guantánamo’s First 7,627 Days: Will America's Forever Prison Finally Close on Biden's Watch?

As of December 8, 2022, Guantánamo Bay detention facility — a prison offshore of American justice and built for those detained in this country’s never-ending Global War on Terror — has been open for nearly 21 years (or, to be precise, 7,627 days). Thirteen years ago, I published a book, The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo’s First 100 Days. It told the story of the military officers and staff who received the prison’s initial detainees at that U.S. naval base on the island of Cuba early in 2002. Like the hundreds of prisoners that followed, they would largely be held without charges or trial for years on end.

Ever since then, time and again, I’ve envisioned writing the story of its ultimate closure, its last days. Today, eyeing the moves made by the Biden administration, it seems reasonable to review the past record of that prison’s seemingly never-ending existence, the failure of three presidents to close it, and what if anything is new when it comes to one of the more striking scenes of ongoing injustice in American history.

The Beginning

When, in January 2002, those first planes landed at Guantánamo (which we came to know as Gitmo), the hooded, shackled, goggled, and diapered prisoners in them were described by the Pentagon as “the worst of the worst.” In truth, however, most of them were neither top leaders of al-Qaeda nor, in many cases, even members of that terrorist group. Initially housed at Camp X-Ray in open-air cages without plumbing, dressed in those now-iconic orange jumpsuits, the detainees descended into a void, with little or no prison policies to guide their captors. When Brigadier General Michael Lehnert, the man in charge of the early detention operation, asked Washington for guidelines and regulations to run the prison camp, Pentagon officials assured him that they were still on the drawing board, but that adhering in principle to the “spirit of the Geneva Conventions” was, at least, acceptable.

Those first 100 days left General Lehnert and his officers trying to provide some modicum of decency in an altogether indecent situation. For example, Lehnert and those close to him allowed one detainee to make a call to his wife after the birth of their child. They visited others in their cells, talked with them, and tried to create conditions that allowed for some sort of religious worship, while forbidding interrogations by officials from a variety of U.S. government agencies without a staff member in the interrogation hut as well. Against the wishes of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon, a lawyer working with the general even called in representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

By the end of March 2002, the U.S. had installed prefab prisons at Guantánamo in which those detainees could be all too crudely housed and had brought in a new team of officers to oversee the operation while pulling Lehnert and his crew out. The new leadership included people reporting directly to Rumsfeld as they put in place a brutal regime whose legacy has lasted, in all too many ways, to this day.

Despite General Lehnert’s efforts, in the nearly 21 years since its inception, Guantánamo has successfully left the codes of American law, military law, and international law in the dust, as it has morality itself in a brazen willingness to implement policies of unspeakable cruelty. That includes both physical mistreatment and the limbo of allowing prisoners to exist in a state of indefinite detention. Most of its detainees were held without any charges whatsoever, a concept so contrary to American democracy and legality that it’s hard to fathom how such a thing could happen, no less how it’s lasted these 7,627 days.

Bush’s Prison

As the 35 prisoners still in Guantánamo illustrate, no president has yet found a way to close that prison completely. George W. Bush, who opened it, did eventually acknowledge that it would be best to shut it down. As he put it to a German television audience in May 2006, “I very much would like to end Guantánamo. I very much would like to get people to a court.”

He was, however, anything but decisive on the subject. As he told a White House press conference that June, “I’d like to close Guantánamo, but I also recognize that we’re holding some people that are darn dangerous, and that we better have a plan to deal with them in our courts. And the best way to handle — in my judgment, handle these types of people is through our military courts.” That month the Supreme Court invalidated the ad hoc military tribunals that had by then been formed at Gitmo and, in the fall of 2006, Congress passed the Military Commissions Act, formally creating the courts Bush had imagined.

Pointing out that shuttering the prison was “not as easy a subject as some may think on the surface,” the president then began pursuing another approach — namely, releasing uncharged prisoners and returning them to their home countries or transferring them elsewhere. And his administration did, in the end, release about 540 of the 790 prisoners held there. Gitmo accepted its last prisoner in March 2008.

Meanwhile, a 2008 Supreme Court ruling granting detainees the right to challenge their detention by filing habeas corpus petitions in federal court opened a new path toward future freedom. Twenty-three of those detainee petitions were granted before Bush left office, but the prison, of course, remained open.

Obama’s Well-Intentioned but Failed Efforts

Barack Obama initially signaled his desire to close Guantánamo on the campaign trail and then, in one of his first acts as president, issued an executive order calling for it to be shut down within a year. “If any individuals covered by this order remain in detention at Guantánamo at the time of closure of those detention facilities,” it read, “they shall be returned to their home country, released, transferred to a third country, or transferred to another United States detention facility in a manner consistent with law and the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States.” With new energy, the Obama administration plunged ahead on the two fronts Bush had halfheartedly pursued: establishing military commissions and transferring certain prisoners directly to their home countries or others willing to accept them.

On Obama’s watch, a reformed version of the Guantánamo tribunals was authorized by the passage of the 2009 Military Commissions Act, resolving five cases, all with guilty pleas. In addition, his administration edged toward closure by transferring nearly 200 more prisoners to willing countries in a vigorous effort over the final year and a half of his presidency. Still, he encountered unanticipated opposition within Congress. Although the military commissions did start anew under Obama, so many years later, their trial of the five prisoners alleged to have been actual 9/11 co-conspirators has still not been scheduled.

In addition, under Obama, numerous habeas corpus petitions were filed in federal court, often falling victim to defeat in appellate courts. As Shayana Kadidal, the Center for Constitutional Rights’ senior managing attorney for Gitmo litigation, summed it up at Just Security: “By 2011, the then sharply conservative D.C. Circuit had rendered it more or less impossible for detainees to prevail on their habeas petitions.”

Obama’s team did seem to add a new possibility for aiding the closure process by transferring one detainee to federal court for trial on terrorism charges. In 2010, Ahmed Ghailani stood trial in New York City for participating in the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. He was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison on U.S. soil. But in the end, the trial proved fraught with problems, including the fact that the defendant was acquitted on 284 of 285 charges and so it would prove to be not just the first but the last such trial. In fact, in the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress included a ban on the transfer to the United States of any further Gitmo detainees for any reason whatsoever.

All told, though the Obama administration poured far more energy into the effort to close Gitmo than the Bush administration had, the president failed during his terms in office to do so. In his last year, Obama continued to push hard with the rallying cry, “Let’s go ahead and get this thing done!” He called for renewed federal trials on U.S. soil and prisoner incarceration in the United States, noting that Guantánamo was “contrary to our values” and “undermines our standing in the world” — not to mention the $450 million annual price tag for keeping it open.

He put the blame for failure squarely on the growing political divide in the country and openly worried about what it meant not to succeed. “I don’t want to pass this problem on to the next President, whoever it is,” he said. And, of course, we know just who he was.

Trump’s “Bad Dudes”

Not surprisingly, passing Guantánamo on to Donald Trump fulfilled whatever misgivings he had. Unlike Presidents Bush and Obama, Trump displayed no interest whatsoever in closing it. His instinct was to reaffirm its standing as a legal black hole. On the campaign trail in 2016, in fact, he swore that “we’re gonna load it up with some bad dudes, believe me, we’re gonna load it up.” On taking office, he almost instantly signed an executive order to keep Gitmo open.

Still, no new detainees were actually added during his term in office. In 2020, he even suggested it should house people infected with Covid, but as it turned out, expanding its activities was as elusive a goal for Trump as closing it had been for his predecessors.

While his threats of adding inmates amounted to naught, his presidency basically put that prison camp on pause. He even stopped the process of transferring five detainees cleared for release by the Obama team. Only one prisoner, Ahmed Muhammad Haza al-Darbi, who had pleaded guilty in 2014 in the military commissions, was released during Trump’s time in office. Meanwhile, the military commissions remained essentially stalled on his watch and Congress continued the ban on moving any of the detainees to the U.S.

Biden’s Gitmo

When Joe Biden entered office, 40 prisoners remained at Guantánamo Bay. In his first weeks, his aides called for a formal review of their cases and his spokesperson Jen Psaki announced the administration’s intention to close the prison camp before he left office. Having learned from Obama’s mistakes, however, Biden made no sweeping public promises.

His administration nonetheless put renewed energy into both transfers and trials. The military commissions have indeed ramped up in recent months. Pretrial hearings have recently been held in the four pending military tribunal cases. In addition, plea deals that would take the death penalty off the table are reportedly being negotiated for the five 9/11 defendants.

Three of the five detainees cleared for release by the Obama administration have finally been transferred to other countries, while all but three of the 27 prisoners not cleared when Biden took office have been greenlighted to go home or to a third country. In doing so, several previously blocked thresholds were crossed. As of early 2021, when the government cleared detainee Guled Hassan Duran, it signaled that, for the first time, there was a willingness to release even those who had been subjected to torture while held at CIA “black sites” in the early years after 9/11. The point was made even more strongly three months later when Mohammed al Qahtani, who experienced some of the worst treatment at American hands, was also finally released.

Meanwhile, in September 2022, President Biden appointed former State Department coordinator for counterterrorism and former ambassador to Kosovo, Tina Kaidanow, to oversee the transfer of prisoners cleared for release. While her position doesn’t replicate the formidable office of the Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure that Obama established and Trump nixed, it is a promising move. The job of arranging each prisoner transfer, assuring the security of the detainee, and assessing that the release will not pose a danger to the United States is challenging but achievable, as prior releases have demonstrated. All told, recidivism rates for Guantánamo detainees, as reported by the Director of National Intelligence, have been 18.5%, though only 7.1% for those released under Obama.

In the End…?

The last question, these 7,627 nightmarish days later, might be this: Are there any options for the final Gitmo prisoners? In 2017, military defense lawyers Jay Connell and Alka Pradhan, joined by researcher Margaux Lander, pointed out that, under international law, victims of “torture, and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” have the right to full rehabilitation. In addition to seeking the removal of the death penalty in their cases, the 9/11 defendants at Gitmo have reportedly asked for access to a torture rehabilitation program.

Pradhan, who represents 9/11 defendant Ammar al Baluchi has summed the situation up well:

'The United States has utterly failed to give these men either a fair trial or medical treatment for their torture in violation of their legal obligations. Most of the evidence in the 9/11 case is torture-derived, and the men are deteriorating quickly from the brain and other injuries inflicted by U.S. torture nearly 20 years ago. The Department of Defense has confirmed that they don’t currently have the ability to provide complex medical care at Guantanamo, so the most ethical solution is to transfer the men to locations where they can obtain the care they require.'

In fact, after all these years in prison, releasing those who might otherwise still stand trial and putting them in rehabilitation centers might indeed be a good idea.

There are many ways to address a wrong. Arguably, the greater its magnitude, the more leeway should be given for subsequent actions. As the Biden administration has taken steps towards closing Gitmo, perhaps the gesture of sending the defendants in the military commissions to rehabilitation programs is a good one.

For years, General Lehnert has told Congress, media outlets, and anyone who would listen that it remains imperative, however difficult, to finally shut the prison down. As he has written, "Closing Guantánamo is about reestablishing who we are as a nation.” It might not quite accomplish that, but it would certainly be a formidable step in that direction. After all, its legacy of torture, indefinite detention without charges or trials, and the reckless disregard for the rule of law will no doubt haunt us for years.

There is no way to fathom the harm caused by the torture, cruel treatment, legal limbo, injustice, and dehumanization that has become the definition of Guantánamo. But for the first time in all these years, its actual closure might realistically be on the horizon. One can always hope, right?

Living for politics or 'just living'?

Rebecca Gordon: Three Conversations about Politics

Since I turned 18, I doubt I’ve ever missed a vote. Certainly, though, I never missed a presidential election. In 1968, at age 24, for instance, already swept away by the anti-Vietnam War movement, I voted for antiwar Democrat Eugene McCarthy in the New York primary. Even though McCarthy would win the popular vote nationally in the Democratic primaries, he lost the nomination, in a distinctly controversial fashion, at the Democratic convention to former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, hardly an antiwar sort of guy. Still, in the election to come, I voted for him, only to see Republican Richard Nixon (of the notorious “Southern strategy” and later Watergate infamy) beat him nationally, become president, and later expand that American war in North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. (Note that Alabama segregationist governor George Wallace won more than 5% of New York State’s vote that year, a reminder with Nixon that there has long been a Trumpian quality to American politics.) And then, four years later, I would vote for George McGovern, again to end that war, only to watch Nixon win for the second time in a landslide (even in New York!). Sigh.

Still, to this day, I do go out and vote, although, on my way to the polls, I sometimes have to ask my wife whom I should vote for farther down the ticket. So, in my modest, haphazard fashion, I’ve participated in American politics, but never, like TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon, just back from the front lines of the recent midterm elections, in actual campaign work. Not since, as a child on Halloween, I took a donation container door to door in my apartment building for UNICEF, have I ever, as Gordon describes so vividly today, tried to directly convince anyone to do anything political in a campaign of any sort. (And given the recent midterms, as you’ll see when you read her piece today, thank heavens she, and so many other political activists like her, did so in a big-time way!) She has what she calls a “political vocation” and, given our present American world, the 2022 election season, and the 2024 version to come, thank goodness she, like so many others, does.

Still, I wouldn’t claim that I had no political vocation whatsoever. In my own fashion, here at TomDispatch, I’ve labored week after week, month after month, trying to put crucial information about how our world actually works and who is (and isn’t) responsible for that in front of anyone willing to read such pieces. And that, in its own fashion, has, I suppose, been my vocation, my version, you might say, of going out on the campaign trail — though what the reader does with anything I publish at this website is, of course, up to him or her. Now, if you want to think a little about what your own vocation in life might be, political or otherwise, check out Gordon. Tom

Living for Politics Or "Just Living"?

“Welcome back!” read my friend Allan’s email. “So happy to have you back and seeing that hard work paid off. Thank you for all that you do. Please don’t cook this evening. I am bringing you a Honduran dinner — tacos hondureños and baleadas, plus a bottle of wine.” The tacos were tasty indeed, but even more pleasing was my friend’s evident admiration for my recent political activities.

My partner and I had just returned from four months in Reno, working with UNITE-HERE, the hospitality industry union, on their 2022 midterm electoral campaign. It’s no exaggeration to say that, with the votes in Nevada’s mostly right-wing rural counties cancelling out those of Democratic-leaning Las Vegas, that union campaign in Reno saved the Senate from falling to the Republicans. Catherine Cortez Masto, the nation’s first Latina senator, won reelection by a mere 7,928 votes, out of a total of more than a million cast. It was her winning margin of 8,615 in Washoe County, home to Reno, that put her over the top.

Our friend was full of admiration for the two of us, but the people who truly deserved the credit were the hotel housekeepers, cooks, caterers, and casino workers who, for months, walked the Washoe County streets six days a week, knocking on doors in 105-degree heat and even stumping through an Election Day snowstorm. They endured having guns pulled on them, dogs sicced on them, and racist insults thrown at them, and still went out the next day to convince working-class voters in communities of color to mark their ballots for a candidate many had never heard of. My partner and I only played back-up roles in all of this; she, managing the logistics of housing, feeding, and supplying the canvassers, and I, working with maps and spreadsheets to figure out where to send the teams each day. It was, admittedly, necessary, if not exactly heroic, work.

“I’m not like the two of you,” Allan said when he stopped by with the promised dinner. “You do important work. I’m just living my life.”

“Not everybody,” I responded, “has a calling to politics.” And I think that’s true. I also wonder whether having politics as a vocation is entirely admirable.

Learning to Surf

That exchange with Allan got me thinking about the place of politics in my own life. I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in activism of one sort or another for most of my 70 years, but it’s been just good fortune or luck that I happened to stumble into a life with a calling, even one as peculiar as politics.

There are historical moments when large numbers of people “just living” perfectly good lives find themselves swept up in the breaking wave of a political movement. I’ve seen quite a few of those moments, starting with the struggle of Black people for civil rights when I was a teenager, and the movement to stop the Vietnam War in that same era. Much more recently, I’ve watched thousands of volunteers in Kansas angrily reject the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned a 50-year precedent protecting a woman’s right to end a pregnancy. Going door to door in a classic political field campaign, they defeated a proposed anti-abortion amendment to the Kansas constitution, while almost doubling the expected turnout for a midterm primary.

To some observers, in a red and landlocked state like Kansas, that wave of resistance seemed to come out of nowhere. It certainly surprised a lot of professionals, but the capacity to ride it didn’t, in fact, come out of nowhere. When given a choice, it turns out that a substantial majority of people in the middle of this country will vote in favor of women’s bodily autonomy. But many of them won’t do it without a push. To build such a successful electoral campaign required people who’d spent years honing the necessary skills in times when the political seas appeared almost unendurably flat.

Some of those skills, learned through repeated practice, were technical: crafting effective messages; targeting the right voters; navigating coalitions of organizations with sometimes overlapping, sometimes competing priorities. And some might be called “moral skills,” the cultivation of internal characteristics — patience, say, or hope — until they become second nature. The Greek philosopher Aristotle called those moral skills “virtues” and believed we acquire them just like any other skill — by practicing them until they become habits.

You could compare some of us with a political vocation to a surfer sitting on her board constantly scanning the sea ahead, hoping to discern the best waves as they form, hoping she’d practiced well enough to ride them. Like so many surfers of this sort, I’ve probably wiped out more often than I’ve successfully ridden the waves.

Character Flaws for Justice

“This is the year,” I told a different friend long ago, “that I want to develop character flaws.” She was understandably startled, not least because my character has never been what you might call spotless.

“Why would you want to do that?” she asked.

“Because I’m getting ready to work on a political campaign.” I was only half-joking. In fact, doing politics effectively requires habits that don’t come naturally to me — like keeping information close to my vest rather than sharing everything I know with all comers.

There’s a fine line, too, between sitting on information and telling lies. In fact, to do politics effectively, you must be willing to lie. This truth is often taken for granted by those involved. A recent New York Times article about a man who can’t stop lying referred to a study of people’s self-reported truthfulness. Writing about those who admit to lying frequently, reporter Ellen Barry says,

This ‘small group of prolific liars,’ as the researchers termed it, constituted around 5.3 percent of the population but told half the reported lies, an average of 15 per day. Some were in professions, like retail or politics, that compelled them to lie. But others lied in a way that had no clear rationale. [My emphasis added, of course.]

As Barry sees it, politics is self-evidently a profession that compels its practitioners to lie. And I tend to agree with her, though I’m less interested in the lies candidates tell voters to get elected than the ones organizers like me tell people to get them to join, stick with, or fund a campaign.

Often, we lie about whether we can win. As I’ve written previously, I worked on campaigns I was sure we were going to lose, but that I thought were worth fighting anyway. In 1995 and 1996, for instance, I helped build a field campaign to defeat California Proposition 209, which succeeded in outlawing affirmative action at every level of government. We didn’t have much of a chance, but we still built an army of volunteers statewide, in part by telling them that, though our opponents had the money, we had the people capable of engaging voters no one expected to participate.

So, we said we could win because we were thinking ahead. Proposition 209 represented a cynical effort (indeed, its authors called it the California Civil Rights Initiative) to harness white anxiety about what would soon be a nonwhite majority in California. We hoped that building a multi-racial coalition to fight this initiative, even if we lost, would prepare people for the struggles to come.

But did I really know we couldn’t win? At some point, I suppose I traded in one virtue — truthfulness — for another — hope. And then, to project confidence and encourage others to hope as well, I had to start believing my own lies (at least a bit).

The funny thing about hope, though, is that sometimes the lies you force yourself to believe turn out to be true. That’s what happened this year with the campaign in Nevada. You never have enough canvassers to talk to every voter, so you have to choose your main target groups. UNITE-HERE chose to target people of color in working-class neighborhoods who rarely or never participate in elections.

Voters in Nevada are unusual in that more than a third of them (37%) are registered to vote with a small party or have no party affiliation at all. This is the largest single group of voters in the state, and it included many of our targets. Registered Democrats have a 6% edge over Republicans in Nevada, but the question always is: Which way will the people in the mysterious middle vote — for us or them? During two weeks of early voting, I downloaded the statistics on the party affiliations of the voters in Washoe County, where I was working. Democrats were winning the mail-in ballots, but when it came to in-person voting, the Republicans were creaming us. It didn’t look good at all — except that the numbers of small-party or no-party voters dwarfed the consistent edge the Republicans held. Which way would they jump?

I typically kept those statistics to myself, since it wasn’t part of my job to look at them in the first place. In the upbeat daily briefing for our canvassing team leaders, I concentrated instead on reporting the crucial everyday numbers for us: How many doors did we knock on yesterday? How many conversations did we have with voters? How many supporters did we identify? Those numbers I could present with honest enthusiasm, pointing to improvements made, for instance, by working with individual canvassers on how to keep doors open and voters talking.

But the funny thing was this: the hope I was projecting turned out to be warranted. The strategy that failed in California in 1996 — bringing out unlikely voters in communities of workers and people of color — succeeded in Nevada in 2022. When we opened the mystery box, it turned out to contain voters for us.

One More Conversation

I once had a friend, Lauren, who, for years, had been a member of one of the political organizations that grew out of the 1960s radical group Students for a Democratic Society. She’d gone to meetings and demonstrations, collated newsletters, handed out flyers, and participated in a well-functioning system of collective childcare. One day, I asked her how the work was going.

“Oh,” she said. “I dropped out. I still spend every Wednesday night with Emma [the child whose care she had shared in that group], but I’m not doing political work anymore.”

“But why not?”

“I realized that everything about politics involves making people do things they don’t want to do and that’s not how I want to spend my life.”

Even now, years later, I can see her point. Whether it’s asking my fellow part-time university teachers to come to a union meeting, trying to get a stranger to accept a leaflet on the street, or convincing a potential voter to listen to me about why this election matters and should matter to them, my strange vocation often does involve attempting to get people to do things they don’t particularly want to do.

Of course, it’s because I do believe in whatever I’m trying to move them toward that I’m involved in such politics in the first place. Usually, it’s because I believe that my goal should be their goal, too, whether it’s racial or economic justice, women’s liberation, or just keeping the planet from burning up.

But that leads me to another character flaw politics requires. You could call it pride, or even arrogance; it’s the confidence that I know better than you what’s good for you. Oddly enough, it may turn out that it’s when I’m pushing the most selfish goals — when I’m working for something I myself need like a living wage or the right to control my own body — that my motives stand up best to my own scrutiny.

It’s then that I’m asking someone to participate in collective action for my own benefit, and what could be more honest than that?

Politics as a Vocation

Politics as a Vocation” was the title of a well-known lecture by German sociologist Max Weber. In it, he famously defined the state as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” Even when the use of force is delegated to some other institution — say, the police — Weber argued that citizens accept the “right” of the police to use violence because it comes from the state. That source of legitimacy is the only thing that separates a police force (so to speak) from any other violent gang.

For Weber, politics meant either leading a state or influencing its leaders. So if a state controls the legitimate use of force, then politics involves deciding how that force is to be deployed — under what conditions and for what purposes. It’s a heavy responsibility that, he claimed, people take on for one of only two reasons: either as a means to an end (which could be anything from personal wealth to ending poverty) or for its own sake — for the pleasure and feeling of prestige that power bestows.

“The decisive means for politics,” Weber wrote, “is violence.” If he was right, then my friend’s intuition that politics is about making people do things they don’t want to do may not have been so off the mark. Even the form of politics that appears to challenge Weber’s premise — the tradition of nonviolent action — involves a form of coercion. Those who willingly expose themselves to political violence are also trying to make people do something they don’t want to do by invoking empathy (and possibly feelings of guilt).

If, in some fashion, all politics really does involve coercion, can a political life possibly be a morally good one? I still think so, but it requires tempering a commitment to a cause with what Weber called the “ethic of responsibility” — a willingness not only to honestly examine our motives but to genuinely consider the likely results when we choose to act on them. It’s not enough to have good intentions. It’s crucial to strive as well for good — if imperfect — outcomes.

“Politics,” Weber said, “is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective.” But there’s another kind of life he also recommended, even if with a bit of a sneer, to those who don’t measure up to the demands of politics as a vocation. Such people “would have done better,” he observed, “in simply cultivating plain brotherliness in personal relations.”

And therein lies the greatest moral danger for those of us who feel that our vocation is indeed politics: a contempt for that plain “brotherliness” (or sisterliness) that makes ordinary human life bearable. There’s a saying attributed to Carlos Fonseca, one of the founders of Nicaragua’s revolutionary party, the Sandinistas: “A man [of course, it’s a man!] who is tired has a right to rest. But a man who rests does not have the right to be in the vanguard.”

And there it is, a fundamental disrespect for ordinary human life, including the need for rest, that tempts the activist to feel her calling makes her better than the people she’s called to serve.

In the end, if we do politics at all, it should be precisely so that people can have ordinary lives, ones not constrained and distorted by the kinds of injustice political activists try to end.

“I’m just living my life,” my friend Allan told me. In truth, his life is far more admirable than he believes. I’d say that he has a vocation for kindness every bit as heroic as any political calling. We’re not the only folks he feeds. The day before he visited us, he’d delivered dinner to another friend after her shoulder surgery. He spends little on himself, so he can send most of the money he earns to his family in Central America. During the worst of the pandemic shutdown, he regularly checked in on all the old folks he knows, startling my partner and me into realizing that we’ve lived long enough to fall into the category of elders to be looked after.

At the end of this long political season, back home from Nevada, I find that I’m full of admiration for the life my friend Allan is “just living.” As I wait for the next Trumpist wave to rise, may I remember that “just living” is the whole point of doing politics.

Unequal mercy: The West's approach to refugees

Helen Benedict, The Increasing Persecution of Refugees

There’s a reason — beyond all the obvious ones — that we should be more focused on refugees. Sadly enough, as journalist, novelist, and Columbia University Professor Helen Benedict makes clear in her first TomDispatch piece, such reasons are already anything but lacking. In fact, from the start, refugees in flight proved to be pure gold for Donald Trump and what became the Trumpublican Party. From the moment he first rode down Trump Tower’s golden escalator to declare to a crowd, many of whom his campaign had hired, that he was running for president, he was already smearing desperate refugees at our borders. (“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”) And he would never stop smearing people in wrenching flight from their homes as “animals” and their existence here as “American carnage.”

Sadly enough, this may be Donald Trump’s world, since, in the years to come, as this planet broils, ever more of humanity will be all too literally driven from their homes, like Pakistanis last July when one-third of their country was flooded. Brutal storms, staggering heat, you name it and it’s going to turn ever more of us into refugees. In fact, millions of people globally are already being displaced and, by 2050, it’s estimated that 1.2 billion human beings — yes, you read that right! — could become climate refugees.

As it happens, so many of us in this country are only here because our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, or great-great-grandparents fled nightmares in other countries. My own grandfather arrived here in the 1890s at age 16, alone, in the steerage of a ship, with the equivalent of 50 cents in his pocket. With that in mind, this seems like an all-too-reasonable moment to ignore the Trumpublicans and try to give a little thought to just how badly refugees are being treated globally — if, that is, they aren’t Ukrainians.

So, my suggestion: join Benedict, who’s been covering the global refugee crisis for years, including those fleeing from our all-American wars of this century. Most recently, she’s been reporting from Greece, where she met Syrian writer and refugee Eyad Awwadawnan. The two of them wrote the just-published book, Map of Hope and Sorrow: Stories of Refugees Trapped in Greece, about how refugees are being abused not only there, but all over the West. Today, she considers how differently Europe and the United States have been treating white, Christian Ukrainian refugees than those from anywhere else. If, to steal a phrase from President Joe Biden, how we deal with refugees reflects “who we are and who we want to be,” then, as Benedict makes clear, we need to do a whole lot better and — given the planet we’re on — soon. Tom

Unequal Mercy: The West's Approach to Refugees

Almost anyone would agree that war is horrifying and peaceful countries should do their best to help its victims. The widespread eagerness to welcome fleeing Ukrainians after Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded their country last February is a heartening example of such aid. But behind that altruism lies an ugly truth: most of the countries embracing Ukrainians are simultaneously persecuting equally desperate refugees from elsewhere.

Such unequal mercy would be no surprise from nations like Ukraine’s neighbors Hungary and Poland, controlled by nationalist parties that have rarely welcomed anyone not white and Christian. However, the same thing is happening in Western Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia, and here in the United States, the very democracies sworn to protect those fleeing war and persecution and that, in the case of America, sometimes turned those people into refugees in the first place. Our Global War on Terror alone has displaced an estimated 37 million people since we invaded Afghanistan in 2001.

One of the worst examples of this unequal mercy is taking place in Greece, a major gateway to Western Europe for anyone fleeing the Middle East or Africa. Between February and mid-April of this year, some 21,000 Ukrainians made it to Greece — more in three months than the total number of asylum seekers who entered the country in all of 2021. There, the Ukrainians were instantly granted temporary protection status, giving them access to medical care and jobs, subsidized housing and food allowances, schooling for their children, and Greek language classes for adults.

This is an admirable example of how all people who flee danger and war should be welcomed. But I’ve been visiting Greece for years now to research my new book, Map of Hope and Sorrow: Stories of Refugees Trapped in Greece, and I know a lot of refugees there who have found no such generosity. Most are Syrian, Afghan, or Iraqi, but some are Kurdish or Palestinian, while others come from African countries, including Cameroon, Eritrea, Gambia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and the Republic of Congo.

They, too, escaped war, violence, and other kinds of persecution. In fact, the Syrians, just like the Ukrainians, fled Putin’s bombs when he was helping Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, hold onto power. Yet unlike the Ukrainians, these refugees are forced to languish for years in inhumane, slum-like camps, while their children are denied schooling. They are routinely turned away from hospitals, doctors, or dentists, and are all too often treated with disrespect, even hatred, by landlords, employers, and regular citizens. That hurts. As my friend and co-author, the Syrian writer and refugee Eyad Awwadawnan, whom I first met in Greece, put it, “I think the world should do all it can for Ukrainian refugees, but we are getting a clear message from the Greek government that we are worth less than they are.”

Doomed to Helplessness

During my visits to Greece between 2018 and 2022, I witnessed many examples of its appalling treatment of refugees. At one point, in a camp on the Northern Aegean island of Samos, I found more than 3,000 people living in shipping containers or tents in and around an old military base, surrounded by piles of garbage swarming with rats. They had no potable water, the few toilets were broken, the food mostly inedible, and there was no security for women, children, LGBTQ+ people, or anyone else particularly vulnerable to bullying, assault, or rape. Thousands more asylum seekers were similarly trapped on other islands with nowhere to go and nothing to do, while yet others were locked up in Greek prisons for merely exercising their right to seek asylum. In our book, Eyad and I describe the way people are arrested and imprisoned simply for steering their boats to Greece, or for coming from the wrong country.

Since its New Democracy government took power in 2019, well into the anti-immigrant, Muslim-bashing administration of Donald Trump here in the United States, the Greek government has been ratcheting up its mistreatment of Middle Eastern and African refugees even further. One of its first acts was to evict everyone granted asylum from subsidized housing or camps, while also withdrawing all financial aid. In this way, they were flung into a homeless, jobless void — that is, into forced helplessness. Winning asylum is supposed to mean winning international protected status as a refugee, but in Greece it now means the opposite — getting no protection at all.

Then, in June 2021, just before the Taliban took over Afghanistan, the Greek Minister of Migration, Notis Mitarachi, announced that all new arrivals from Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Somalia, and Syria would be denied the chance to apply for asylum and deported to Turkey, which he deemed a “safe third country,” a legal term for a safe haven for asylum seekers. Yet as human rights groups have made clear, Turkey is anything but safe for those in flight from war or persecution. Not only does Turkey refuse to recognize Syrians as refugees, but it never signed onto the part of the U.N. 1951 Refugee Rights declaration banning refoulement, the term used for returning refugees to a country where they may be subjected to persecution. This means that Turkey can legally send refugees back to the nations they fled, no matter what dangers await them there.

Last April 16th, Greece upped its persecution even further by closing the housing it offers vulnerable people, such as victims of torture, trafficking, and rape, and sending them to live in camps where there is no security at all.

None of these policies apply to Ukrainians.

At sea, matters are even worse. The Greek authorities and Frontex, Europe’s border and coast guard agency, have been pushing refugees back out to sea instead of rescuing them. They have left families and children abandoned on flimsy rafts or inflatable boats, or on tiny islands without shelter or food. During the pandemic, Greece and Frontex treated some 40,000 refugees this way, causing at least 2,000 to drown — abuse that’s been well-documented by human rights groups. Yet Greece’s immigration minister has denied that any of this is happening.

No less shocking is the way Greece has criminalized the rescue of refugees at sea. Volunteers who go out to search for and rescue the capsized boats of desperate immigrants are being arrested and charged with human trafficking. Sara Mardini, a Syrian professional swimmer portrayed in Netflix’s new movie The Swimmers, is one of these. If convicted, she faces 20 years in prison.

Hard as it may be to grasp the idea of making it illegal to rescue drowning people, Greece is far from alone in engaging in such behavior. Just this month, Italy, Malta, and Cyprus banded together with that country to call for the European Union (EU) to take measures against civilian sea rescuers. Of course, the train drivers and airplane pilots who brought Ukrainians into the rest of Europe are never similarly targeted.

The Greek government has justified all this unequal mercy with chilling language, declaring Ukrainians “real refugees” and everyone else an “illegal migrant.” In just that spirit, last month, Greek authorities forced Afghans in a camp outside Athens to cede their housing to Ukrainians and instead live in filthy and derelict shipping containers.

That government has long claimed that it is not at fault for treating refugees so badly because it lacks the money and personnel to handle so many of them. But the minute those 21,000 Ukrainians arrived, the same officials suddenly found themselves able to help after all.

Greece is not entirely to blame for such violations of international law, because many of them are underwritten by the EU, which has been pumping money into the country to keep refugees out of Western Europe since 2016. Recently, for example, the EU paid $152 million to the Greek government to build five remote prisons for asylum seekers. I saw the prototype for them on the island of Samos: Camp Zervou, a collection of white metal shipping containers on a bare patch of land in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a double layer of hurricane fences topped with barbed wire and surveilled by closed-circuit cameras. It is hot, bare, and hideous. Such prisons will not, of course, hold Ukrainians.

Breaking Hearts and Laws

Greece is hardly the only country meting out all this unequal treatment. The persecution of non-white refugees seems to be on the rise not just in countries with far-right governments, but in those previously known for their liberality. Along with this persecution, of course, goes the same sort of racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric Donald Trump (not to speak of the Republican Party as a whole) continues to use about those crossing our own border.

Take the United Kingdom, for example. The new Conservative Party Prime Minister Rishi Sunak just offered France $74 million to increase its border security by 40% with the goal of arresting more “illegal migrants” and smugglers to stop them from crossing the English Channel. (An asylum seeker, by the way, is not an “illegal migrant.” The right to cross borders to seek asylum is enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention.) That same $74 million could have been put toward legal and humanitarian services for asylum seekers, helping them find safe ways to apply for protection in either France or the United Kingdom, and so depriving smugglers of business without throwing those refugees into even further danger.

Within France itself, while President Emmanuel Macron quarrels with the British over who is to blame for the rising number of refugees trying to cross the Channel, Jordan Bardella, the new leader of the country’s increasingly popular far-right party, has rested his entire platform on closing France’s borders to “drastically limit” immigration. He has made it clear that he’s talking about Muslims and Africans, not immigrants like his own Italian parents.

Meanwhile, in Italy, Giorgia Maloni, the new right-wing prime minister, has just issued a decree forbidding male refugees from getting off rescue boats or setting even one foot on Italian soil. Similarly, Sweden, once a bastion of progressive ideas, elected a new government this past September that cut its refugee quota from 5,000 people a year to 900, citing the white supremacist trope that non-white, non-Christian refugees will otherwise “replace” traditional Swedes.

I could go on: France, Greece, Italy, Malta, and Spain are fighting over who will (or won’t) take stranded boats of refugees, pushing those desperate seagoers from shore to shore like so much litter. The Danes are sending Syrians back to Syria, even after they’ve lived in Denmark for years. Australia is incarcerating asylum seekers under horrifying conditions in detention centers and on isolated islands. And Britain has locked thousands of refugees in warehouses, passed laws denying them basic services like health care and housing, and tried to implement a policy of forcibly deporting some of them to Rwanda.

Here in the U.S., we’re not doing much better. True, President Biden has managed to curtail some of the worst of Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, undoing the former president’s Muslim ban and raising the number of refugees allowed into the country every year, but his efforts have been inconsistent. Just this October, shortly before the Democrats barely held onto the Senate in the midterm elections, he expanded the Trumpian Title 42 border policy to include Venezuelans, who, only a week or so earlier, were being welcomed into the country. That policy uses Covid fears to force asylum seekers to stay in dangerous, sometimes deadly camps in Mexico, while rendering it virtually impossible for them to even apply for, let alone win, asylum in the U.S. (Biden originally promised to do away with Title 42 altogether, but the Supreme Court blocked his effort. After declaring that he would continue the fight, he now appears to have reversed course.)

Ukrainians are, however, exempted from this Mexican purgatory as a way of “recognizing the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine” (to quote the Department of Homeland Security). Some Afghans are similarly exempt, but only those who worked with the U.S. during our devastating 20-year war in their country. Everyone else is kept waiting for months or even years for their asylum decisions, many of them in detention, regardless of the humanitarian crises they also fled.

All the unequal mercies described here are not only breaking hearts, but laws. A little history: In 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt and the newly formed United Nations created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in reaction to the shocks of the Holocaust and the mistreatment of Jews seeking asylum. Three years later, the U.N. held a convention in Geneva to create a bill of refugee rights, which were ratified into law by 149 nations, including Australia, Britain, Canada, Greece, most of the rest of Europe, and the United States. (Some countries didn’t sign on until 1967.) The idea was to protect the dignity and freedom of human beings everywhere, while never again spurning refugees in the way that had sent so many Jews back to their deaths.

The Geneva Convention defined refugees as people forced to flee their countries because of “a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group” and who “cannot return home or [are] afraid to do so.” It gave them the right to international protection from discrimination and persecution; the right to housing, schooling, and the chance to work for a living; the right not to be criminalized for simply seeking asylum; and, most importantly, the right not to be subjected to refoulement — and be returned to the countries they had fled.

Thanks, in part, to that convention, when people are driven to flee their countries, they head for the safety and dignity they believe they will find in the West, a belief we are now betraying. To rectify this, the EU’s governing arm, the European Commission, must insist that Europe’s unequal treatment of refugees be replaced with humane, accessible processes that apply consistently to all asylum seekers, regardless of where they come from. The same should be done in Australia, Britain, and the United States. After all, the way we treat refugees today speaks volumes not only about how humanitarian we are, but about how we are likely to act in the future when climate change forces ever more people to flee their homes just to stay alive.

On the other hand, should we continue to favor white Christian refugees over everyone else, we will not only shred the promises and values enshrined in our democracies, but fertilize the poison of white supremacy already festering in the very heart of the West.

Paying for an overheating Earth: Whose planet are we on?

Stan Cox and Priti Gulati Cox: "We Have Not Yet Been Defeated"

Oxfam puts the matter all too strikingly: “The number of climate-related disasters has tripled in the last 30 years. Between 2006 and 2016, the rate of global sea-level rise was 2.5 times faster than it was for almost all of the 20th century. More than 20 million people a year are forced from their homes by climate change.” And, of course, that’s just to begin a rundown of what’s already becoming an endless list of unprecedented floods, fires, megadroughts, melting ice and rising sea levels, ever more devastating storms, and so on down a list that only gets longer by the year. And the human toll from all this, especially in the Global South, grows ever more horrifying.

Take, as an example, drought caused significantly by the overheating of this planet — and here, I’m not thinking about the 500-year record drought in Europe last summer, the heat of which is estimated to have been responsible for more than 20,000 deaths, or the 1,200-year record megadrought in the American West (now moving east), or the record-blazing temperatures in China for two months last summer. No, what’s on my mind are the climate-change-influenced droughts that have repeatedly struck the Horn of Africa after five seasons of failed rains, the latest of which is so severe that, in Somalia alone, hundreds of thousands of people (particularly starving children) could die in the resulting famine.

Yes, climate change is increasing the death toll in the rich industrial countries of the Global North, too. In 2021, for instance, the United States experienced 20 billion-dollar climate and weather disasters, the second largest group of them in its history. (You undoubtedly won’t be surprised to discover that the record — 22 — was set only the year before and will undoubtedly be broken again in the years to come.) From them came an estimated 688 direct or indirect deaths. And that is, of course, a horror, but still a relatively modest number compared to the 1,700 or more Pakistanis who died from this year’s singularly devastating summer floods alone, and if Africa’s famine turns out as expected, that number will be less than nothing by comparison.

Sadly, unlike the northern powers largely responsible for the greenhouse gases that created this growing set of disasters, as TomDispatch regulars Stan and Priti Gulati Cox explain today, the countries of the Global South can’t afford to pay for what’s happening to them. And at a time when the major fossil-fuel companies — housed, of course, largely in the Global North — are still raking in staggering profits off their oil and natural gas supplies, as that line straight out of my childhood went: there oughta be a law. Sadly, there isn’t, even though, when you think about it, those fossil-fuel companies could be considered the real terrorists of Planet Earth. Tom

Paying for an Overheating Earth: Whose Planet Are We On?

On October 29th, 75-year-old Saifullah Paracha, Guantánamo Bay’s oldest detainee, was finally released by U.S. authorities and flown home to his family in Karachi, Pakistan. He had been incarcerated for nearly two decades without either charges or a trial. His plane touched down in a land still reeling from this year’s cataclysmic monsoon floods that, in July, had covered an unparalleled one-third of that country. Even his own family’s neighborhood, the well-heeled Defense Housing Authority complex, had been thoroughly inundated with, as a reporter wrote at the time, “water gushing into houses.”

Having endured 19 years of suffering inflicted by the brute force of imperialism during America’s “Global War on Terror,” Paracha, along with all of Pakistan, will now suffer through the climatic devastation wrought by the invisible hand of economic imperialism. Indeed, even as his family members were embracing him for the first time since that fateful day in 2003 when he was seized in an FBI sting operation in Thailand, governments and corporations throughout the Global North were sharpening their knives, preparing to reassert their dominance as they do at every year’s U.N. climate conference — this one being COP27 in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt.

But delegates from climate-vulnerable, cash-poor countries like Pakistan and Egypt, along with members of climate-justice movements from across the planet, were also there. Tired of being pushed around, they had other plans.

A Breakthrough and an All-Too-Predictable Flop

At previous COPs, negotiations inside the hall were focused primarily on what’s come to be known as “climate mitigation” — that is, trying to keep future greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere — along with adaptation to climate disruptions, past, present, and future. For the first time in official negotiations, COP27 would also feature the demands of low-income, vulnerable countries eager to be compensated for the devastating impacts they, like flooded Pakistan, have already suffered or will suffer thanks to climate change. After all, the global overheating of the present moment was caused by greenhouse gases emitted during the past two centuries, chiefly by the large industrial societies of the global North. In the shorthand of those negotiations, such polluter-pays compensation is known as “loss and damage.”

At previous climate summits, the “haves” resisted the very idea of the have-nots demanding loss-and-damage compensation for two chief reasons: first, they preferred not to admit, even implicitly, that they had created the crisis now broiling and drowning communities across the Global South, and, second, they had no interest in shelling out the humongous sums that would then be required.

This year, however, the shocking death and destruction inflicted by the inundation of Pakistan and more recently of Nigeria stoked an already surging movement to put loss and damage on COP’s agenda for the first time. And thanks to unrelenting pressure from that climate-justice groundswell, COP27 did end with the United States, the European Union, and the rest of the rich world approving an agreement to “establish a fund for responding to loss and damage.” Echoing the thoughts of many, climate justice leader Jean Su tweeted that the deal was “a testament to the incredible mobilization of vulnerable countries and civil society. Much work still to be done, but a dam has broken.”

The euphoria that followed over the creation of a loss-and-damage fund was well justified. But, as Su noted, the struggle is far from over. In a correction to its story reporting on that agreement, the Washington Post made clear that, although the batter had now been mixed, the cake was anything but in the oven. The paper informed readers, “An earlier version of this article incorrectly said wealthy nations agreed to pay billions of dollars into a loss and damage fund. While they agreed to create a fund, its size and financing mechanism have yet to be worked out.” Those two remaining how-much and how-to-do-it questions are anything but trivial. In the loss-and-damage debate, in fact, they’re the main issues countries have been arguing over for many years without resolution of any sort.

If the world does commit sufficient (or even insufficient) funds to pay out on loss and damage (and that’s a truly big if ), vulnerable countries may finally have the means to begin recovering from the latest climate disasters. Tragically enough, however, there’s little question that, as ever greater amounts of carbon and methane continue to head for our atmosphere, whatever the affected populations may need now, it’s likely just a hint of the sort of compensation they’ll need in a future guaranteed to be full of ever-increasing numbers of disasters like the Pakistan floods.

And the reason for that isn’t complicated: COP27 negotiators failed to match their loss-and-damage breakthrough with any significant progress on reining in greenhouse gas emissions. Efforts to come to an agreement on phasing out the chief sources of those emissions — oil, gas, and coal — flopped, as they have at all previous COPs. The only thing the negotiators could manage was to repeat last year’s slippery pledge to pursue a “phase-down [not ‘-out’] of unabated [not ‘all’] coal [nor ‘coal, gas, and oil’] power.”

On the one hand, civil-society movements prevailed in the debate over loss and damage. On the other, energy imperialism remained all too alive and well in Egypt, as corporate interests and the governments that serve them extended their 27-year winning streak of blocking efforts to drive emissions down at the urgently required rate. Yeb Saño, who led Greenpeace’s COP27 delegation, told Phys.org, “It is scarcely credible that they have forgotten all about fossil fuels. Everywhere you look in Sharm el Sheikh you can see and hear the influence of the fossil fuel industry. They have shown up in record numbers to try and decouple climate action from a fossil fuel phaseout.”

How to Pay?

The World Bank estimates that the floods in Pakistan caused more than $30 billion in damage, while rehabilitation and reconstruction will cost another $16 billion. And that, says the bank, doesn’t even include funds that will be needed “to support Pakistan’s adaptation to climate change and overall resilience of the country to future climate shocks.” The floods seriously harmed an estimated 33 million people, displaced 8 million from their homes, and left more than 1,700 dead. According to the World Bank’s report, “Loss of household incomes, assets, rising food prices, and disease outbreaks are impacting the most vulnerable groups. Women have suffered notable losses of their livelihoods, particularly those associated with agriculture and livestock.” The disaster starkly illustrated the indisputable moral and humanitarian grounds for compelling the governments of rich countries to pay for the devastation their decades of fossil-fuel burning have caused.

For Pakistan in particular, America’s lavishly funded war-making and national-security industries are joined at the hip with the global climate emergency. While those forces are directly responsible for depriving Paracha and countless others of their freedom or lives, the greenhouse-gas emissions they generate have also contributed to the kind of devastation that he came home to when finally released. Furthermore, these industries have wasted trillions of dollars that could have been spent on preventing, adapting to, and compensating for ecological breakdown.

So far this fall, Washington has pledged $97 million (with an “m”) in flood-relief aid to Pakistan. Sounds like a lot of money, but it amounts to just one five-hundredth of the World Bank’s loss-and-damage estimate. In bleak contrast, from 2002 to 2010 alone, at the height of that Global War on Terror, the U.S. government provided Pakistan with $13 billion (with a “b”) in military aid.

To dodge blame and minimize their costs, the rich countries have been proposing a range of alternatives to simply paying loss-and-damage money to low-income ones as they should. Instead, they’d far prefer to have disaster-plagued governments finance their own climate-change recovery and adaptation by borrowing from banks in the North. In effect, rather than obtain relief-and-recovery funds directly from the North, countries like Pakistan would be obligated to make interest payments to banks in the North.

Fed up with having unbearable debt burdens thrust upon them time and time again, countries in the South are saying no thanks to the proposition that they go even deeper into debt. In response, the North has been tossing out other ideas. For instance, encouraging development banks like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund to release disaster-hit countries from their obligations to pay some portion of the money they already owe as interest on past debts and use it instead to support their own recovery and rebuilding. But countries in the South are saying, in effect, “Hey, for decades, you’ve used your power to saddle us with punishing, unjust debt. By all means, please do cancel that debt, but you’ve still got to pay us for the climate loss and damage you’ve caused.”

The rich countries have even floated the idea of taking a portion of the money they’ve previously earmarked for development aid and depositing it in a global fund that would pay damages to vulnerable countries suffering future climatic disasters. Note the key to all such “solutions”: no extra expense for the wealthy countries. What a sweet deal! It’s as if, domestically, the U.S. government started issuing smaller Social Security checks and used the money it “saved” that way to pay Medicare benefits.

The new COP27 loss-and-damage fund is supposed to prohibit such shell games, while also pulling climate finance out of the realms of imperialism, debt servitude, and what Oxfam calls the “disaster begging bowl.” What’s needed, says Oxfam, an organization focused on alleviating global poverty, is “a fair and automatic mechanism for financial support — rooted in the principle that those who have contributed most to the climate crisis pay for the damage it causes in countries least responsible and hardest hit.”

How Much and Where to Get It?

When confronted with numbers ending in “-illion,” as Americans were during the debates over the congressional spending bills of 2021 and 2022, it’s easy enough for your eyes to glaze over and miss the orders-of-magnitude differences among such figures. In an American world where the Pentagon budget alone is headed for $1 trillion sometime in this decade, it’s easy enough to forget, for example, that a million of those dollars is just one-millionth of a trillion of them. In response, in discussing the staggering sums needed to deal with our already desperately overheating planet and the amounts available to pay for loss and damage, we’ll now put everything in terms of billions of U.S. dollars.

High-emitting countries like ours have run up quite a climate tab. A June 2022 report from the V-20 group, which represents 55 of the world’s lowest-income, most climate-vulnerable economies, estimates that, from 2000 to 2019, their membership lost $525 billion thanks to climate disruption. That’s a huge blow to a staggeringly large set of countries whose gross domestic products add up to just $2,400 billion. But in the Global North, such sums and even far larger ones, while more than pocket change, are still easily affordable, as that Pentagon budget suggests.

By Oxfam’s reckoning, hundreds of billions of dollars could be raised for paying loss-and-damage by taxing fossil-fuel extraction, international cargo shipping, frequent flying, and other significantly carbon-producing activities. Progressive wealth taxes could net even more: $3,600 billion annually, according to the Climate Action Network (CAN), which also estimates that ending government subsidies to corporations (one-third of which go to fossil-fuel companies) could net $1,800 billion annually. Furthermore, cuts in military spending could free up a whopping $2,000 billion per year globally. The latter could be an especially juicy target. For instance, by CAN’s estimate, the United States’s fair share of payments owed to the Global South for climate mitigation and adaptation, plus loss-and-damage reparations, would come to roughly $1,600 billion over the next decade. And those 10 payments of $160 billion each could be covered if the Pentagon just ditched production of its most disastrously expensive jet fighter, the $1,700 billion F-35, and diverted the money toward climate assistance.

It’s always the government’s job to spend big when America faces a dire emergency, wherever the money comes from. In 2020-2021, Congress passed more than $3,000 billion in Covid relief — enough to pay our international climate tab, as estimated by CAN, for 19 years.

“Our Cause Is One”

Shortly after Saifullah Paracha’s return to Karachi in October, another family, in Sharm el Sheikh 2,340 miles away, had embarked on what reporter Jeff Shenker called “a desperate and possibly reckless mission” to save the life of one of their own: the British-Egyptian human-rights activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah, possibly Egypt’s most prominent political prisoner.

Abd el-Fattah, who has spent most of the last decade behind bars for speaking out against Egypt’s oppressive regime, had been on a partial hunger strike since April. After visiting him on November 18th, his family reported that he had broken his hunger strike “out of a desire to stay alive, but he would resume it if no progress was made regarding his freedom.” His sister Sanaa Seif told reporters inside the COP27 conference hall:

He’s not in prison for the Facebook post they charged him with. He’s in prison because he’s someone who makes people believe the world can be a better place. He’s someone trying to make the world a better place… There are tens of thousands of political prisoners in Egypt. There are more around the world. Climate activists get arrested, kidnapped in Latin America. We face the same kind of oppression, and our cause is one.

What is Guantánamo Bay but a place where the American empire has practiced its human-breaking tactics for 20 years without accountability offshore of any system of justice? What is the U.N. climate summit but a meeting place where the world’s elite have protected their power for 27 years and counting?

Living as a “forever prisoner” (as the Guardian dubbed Saifullah Paracha in 2018) was, he once said, “like being alive in your own grave.” Forever wars, forever prisoners, forever climate chaos, forever theft. That’s the world we live in, where governments like those of the United States and Egypt throw innocent Muslims like Saifullah Paracha and pro-democracy dissidents like Alaa Abd el-Fattah into prison for standing in the way of their forever-repressive interests.

Reporting on the struggle to free Abd el-Fattah, Shenker noted, “The phrase ‘We Have Not Yet Been Defeated’ became the unofficial slogan of COP27, a reference to the title of a book by Abd el-Fattah published in 2021, ‘You Have Not Yet Been Defeated.’” Could the perseverance and courage of people like Paracha, Abd el-Fattah, and the activists for climate justice and human rights — both those who attended the conference at Sharm el Sheik and countless others around the world — make it possible someday to drop the “Yet” and say simply, “We Have Not Been Defeated”?

Liberty and justice for some: The MAGAfication of the American republic

Clarence Lusane: The Decline of Democracy

Phew! In the recent midterms, election deniers running nationwide for the post of secretary of state to oversee future elections not only lost across the board but did even worse than losers running for other state posts. And that’s certainly something to be thankful for.

Still, think about this: if I had mentioned the phrase “election denier” after the 2018 midterms, you wouldn’t have had the slightest idea what I was talking about. Now — can there be any question? — it’s part of the language and our political universe. After all, there were almost 300 (yes, you read that right!) election deniers running for office in 2022. So, give Donald Trump credit. If he’s done nothing else — and he’s done all too much else — he’s certainly lodged that term in our brains and our politics for, assumedly, forever and a day.

In other words, you can be relieved that the Republicans wavered instead of (red) waving in the recent elections and only captured the House of Representatives by a relatively slim margin. Still, whatever happens with his latest bid for the White House, thanks to The Donald, there can be no question that we’re in a new, potentially far more ominous political world. Today, in his first TomDispatch piece, Clarence Lusane, author of the just-published book Twenty Dollars and Change: Harriet Tubman and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice and Democracy (next in line by my bedside for late night reading), considers just where, in the future, our former president might be taking us — or, put another way, how, win or lose personally, he intends to Trump us. There may be no more crucial question for this country than the one Lusane raises today. Yes, democracy does indeed seem to be on the decline, but is this really a prelude to a new all-American version of authoritarianism, or worse? Check him out and see what you think. Tom

Prelude to Authoritarianism? The MAGAfication of America

Just in case you didn’t notice, authoritarianism was on the ballot in the 2022 midterm elections. An unprecedented majority of candidates from one of the nation’s two major political parties were committed to undemocratic policies and outcomes. You would have to go back to the Democratic Party-dominated segregationist South of the 1950s to find such a sweeping array of authoritarian proclivities in an American election. While voters did stop some of the most high-profile election deniers, conspiracy theorists, and pro-Trump true believers from taking office, all too many won seats at the congressional, state, and local levels.

Count on one thing: this movement isn’t going away. It won’t be defeated in a single election cycle and don’t think the authoritarian threat isn’t real either. After all, it now forms the basis for the politics of the Republican Party and so is targeting every facet of public life. No one committed to constitutional democracy should rest easy while the network of right-wing activists, funders, media, judges, and political leaders work so tirelessly to gain yet more power and implement a thoroughly undemocratic agenda.

This deeply rooted movement has surged from the margins of our political system to become the defining core of the GOP. In the post-World War II era, from the McCarthyism of the 1950s to Barry Goldwater’s run for the presidency in 1964, from President Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy, President Ronald Reagan, and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in its current Trumpian iteration, Republicans have long targeted democratic norms as impediments to establishing a neoliberal, race-based version of all-American authoritarianism. And that movement has been far too weakly opposed by far too many Democratic Party leaders and even some progressives. Don’t think of this phenomenon as right-wing conservativism either, but as a more dangerous, even violent movement whose ultimate aim is to overthrow liberal democracy. The American version of this type of electoral authoritarianism, anchored in Christian nationalist populism, has at its historic core a white nationalist pushback against the struggle for racial justice.

Liberal Democracy for Some, Racial Authoritarianism for Others

Liberal democracy had failed generations of African Americans and other people of color, as, of course, it did Native Americans massacred or driven from their ancestral lands. It failed African Americans and Latinos forced to work on chain gangs or lynched (without the perpetrators suffering the slightest punishment). It failed Asian Americans who were brutally sent to internment camps during World War II and Asians often explicitly excluded from immigration rosters.

The benefits of liberal democracy — rule of law, government accountability, the separation of powers, and the like — that were extended to most whites existed alongside a racial authoritarianism that denied fundamental rights and protections to tens of millions of Americans. The Civil Rights reforms of the 1960s defeated the longstanding, all-too-legal regime of racist segregationists and undemocratic, even if sometimes constitutional, authority. For the first time since the end of the Reconstruction era, when there was a concerted effort to extend voting rights, offer financial assistance, and create educational opportunities for those newly freed from slavery, it appeared that the nation was again ready to reckon with its racial past and present.

Yet, all too sadly, the proponents of autocratic governance did anything but disappear. In the twenty-first century, their efforts are manifest in the governing style and ethos of the Republican Party, its base, and the extremist organizations that go with it, as well as the far-right media, think tanks, and foundations that accompany them. At every level, from local school boards and city councils to Congress and the White House, authoritarianism and its obligatory racism continue to drive the GOP political agenda.

The violent insurrection of January 6, 2021, was just the high (or, depending on your views, low) point in a long-planned, multi-dimensional, hyper-conservative, white nationalist coup attempt engineered by President Donald Trump, his supporters, and members of the Republican Party. It was neither the beginning nor the end of that effort, just its most violent public expression — to date, at least. After all, Trump’s efforts to delegitimize elections were first put on display when he claimed that Barack Obama had actually lost the popular vote and so stolen the 2012 election, that it had all been a “total sham.”

During the 2016 presidential debates, Trump alone stated that he would not commit himself to support any other candidate as the party’s nominee, since — a recurring theme for him — he could only lose if the election were rigged or someone cheated. He correctly grasped that there would be no consequences to such norm-breaking behavior and falsely stated that he had only lost the Iowa caucus to Senator Ted Cruz because “he stole it.” After losing the popular vote but winning the Electoral College in 2016, Trump incessantly complained that he would have won the popular vote, too, if the “millions” of illegal voters who cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton hadn’t been counted.

Donald Trump decisively lost the 2020 election to Joe Biden, 74.2 million to 81.2 million in the popular vote and 232 to 306 in the Electoral College, leaving only one path to victory (other than insurrection) — finding a way to discount millions of black votes in key swing-state cities. From birtherism and Islamophobia to anti-Black Lives Matter rhetoric, racism had propelled Trump’s ascendancy and his political future would be determined by the degree to which he and his allies could invalidate votes in the disproportionately Black cities of Atlanta, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia, and Latino and Native American votes in Arizona and Nevada.

The GOP effort to disqualify Black, Latino, and Native American votes was a plot to create an illegitimate government, an unholy scheme that took an inescapably violent turn and led to an outcome for which the former president has yet to be held accountable. Sadly enough, the forces of authoritarianism were anything but dispatched by their defeat on January 6th. If anything, they were emboldened by the failure so far to hold responsible most of the agents who maneuvered the event into motion.

Democracy, Authoritarianism, or Fascism?

The last decade has exposed a severely wounded American democratic experiment. Consider it Donald Trump’s contribution to have revealed how spectacularly the guardrails of liberal democracy can fail if the breaking of laws, rules, and norms goes unchallenged or is sacrificed on the altar of narrow political gains. The most mendacious, cruel, mentally unstable, thin-skinned, vengeful, incompetent, narcissistic, bigoted individual ever elected to the presidency was neither an accident, nor an aberration. He was the inevitable outcome of decades of Republican pandering to anti-democratic forces and white nationalist sentiments.

Scholars have long debated the distinction between fascism and authoritarianism. Fascist states create an all-engulfing power that rules over every facet of political and social life. Elections are abolished; mass arrests occur without habeas corpus; all opposition media are shut down; freedoms of speech and assembly are curtailed; courts, if allowed to exist at all, rubber-stamp undemocratic state policies; while the military or brown shirts of some sort enforce an unjust, arbitrary legal system. Political parties are outlawed and opponents are jailed, tortured, or killed. Political violence is normalized, or at least tolerated, by a significant portion of society. There is little pretense of constitutional adherence or the constitution is formally suspended.

On the other hand, authoritarian states acknowledge constitutional authority, even if they also regularly ignore it. Limited freedoms continue to exist. Elections are held, though generally with predetermined outcomes. Political enemies aren’t allowed to compete for power. Nationalist ideology diverts attention from the real levers and venues of that power. Political attacks against alien “others” are frequent, while public displays of racism and ethnocentrism are common. Most critically, some enjoy a degree of democratic norms while accepting that others are denied them completely. During the slave and Jim Crow eras in this country — periods of racial authoritarianism affecting millions of Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans — most whites in the South (and perhaps a majority outside of it) either tolerated or embraced the disavowal of democracy.

Under the right confluence of forces — a weakened system of checks and balances, populist rhetoric that taps into fears and perceived injustices, an anemic and divided opposition, deep social or racial divides, distrust of science and scientists, rampant anti-intellectualism, unpunished corporate and political malfeasance, and popularly accepted charges of mainstream media bias — a true authoritarian could indeed come to power in this country. And as history has shown, that could just be a prelude to full-blown fascism.

The warning signs could not be clearer.

While, in many ways, Trump’s administration was more of a kakistocracy — that is, “government by the worst and most unscrupulous people,” as scholar Norm Ornstein put it — from day one to the last nano-seconds of its tenure, his autocratic tendencies were all too often on display. His authoritarian appetites generated an unprecedented library of books issuing distress signals about the dangers to come.

Timothy Snyder’s 2017 bestseller On Tyranny was, for instance, a brief but remarkably astute early work on the subject. The Yale history professor provided a striking overview of tyranny meant to dispel myths about how autocrats or populists come to and stay in power. Although published in 2017, the work made no mention of Donald Trump. It was, however, clearly addressing the rise to power of his MAGA right and soberly warning the nation to stop him before it was too late.

As Snyder wrote of the institutions of our democracy, they “do not protect themselves… The mistake is to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions — even when that is exactly what they have announced that they will do.” He particularly cautioned against efforts to link the police and military to partisan politics, as Trump first did in 2020 when his administration had peaceful protesters attacked by the police and National Guard in Lafayette Square across from the White House so that the president could take a stroll to a local church. He similarly warned about letting private security forces, often with violent tendencies (as when Trump’s security team would eject demonstrators from his political rallies) gain quasi-official or official status.

The period 2015 to 2020 certainly represented the MAGAfication of the United States and launched this country on a potential path toward future authoritarian rule by the GOP.

The Vulnerabilities of Democracy

Journalists have also been indispensable in exposing the democratic vulnerabilities of the United States. The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen has, for instance, been prolific and laser-focused in calling out the hazards of creeping authoritarianism and of Trump’s “performing fascism.” She writes that while he may not himself have fully grasped the concept of fascism, “In his intuition, power is autocratic; it affirms the superiority of one nation and one race; it asserts total domination; and it mercilessly suppresses all opposition.”

While Trump is too lazy, self-interested, and intellectually undisciplined to be a coherent ideologue, he surrounded himself with and took counsel from those who were, including far-right zealots and Trump aides Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and Stephen Miller. Bannon functioned as Trump’s Goebbels-ish propagandist, having cut his white nationalist teeth as founder and executive chair of the extremist Breitbart News media operation. In 2018, he told a gathering of European far-right politicians, fascists, and neo-Nazis, “Let them call you racist. Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honor. Because every day, we get stronger and they get weaker.”

Someone who knows the former president better than most, his niece Mary Trump, all too tellingly wrote that her uncle “is an instinctive fascist who is limited by his inability to see beyond himself.” For her, there is no question the title fits. As she put it, “[A]rguing about whether or not to call Donald a fascist is the new version of the media’s years-long struggle to figure out if they should call his lies, lies. What’s more relevant now is whether the media — and the Democrats — will extend the label of fascism to the Republican Party itself.”

Mainstreaming Extremism and Democracy’s Decline

Given these developments, some scholars and researchers argue that the nation’s democratic descent may already have gone too far to be fully stopped. In its Democracy Report 2020: Autocratization Surges — Resistance Grows

✎ EditSign, the Varieties of Democracy (VDem) Project, which assesses the democratic health of nations globally, summarized the first three years of Trump’s presidency this way: “[Democracy] has eroded to a point that more often than not leads to full-blown autocracy.” Referring to its Liberal Democracy Index scale, it added, “The United States of America declines substantially on the LDI from 0.86 in 2010 to 0.73 in 2020, in part as a consequence of President Trump’s repeated attacks on the media, opposition politicians, and the substantial weakening of the legislature’s de facto checks and balances on executive power.”

These findings were echoed in The Global State of Democracy 2021, a report by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance that argued, “The United States, the bastion of global democracy, fell victim to authoritarian tendencies itself, and was knocked down a significant number of steps on the democratic scale.”

The failure of Donald Trump’s eternally “stolen election” coup attempt and the presidency of Joe Biden may have put off the further development of an authoritarian state, but don’t be fooled. Neither the failure of the January 6th insurrection nor the disappointments suffered in the midterm elections have deterred the ambitions of the GOP’s fanatics. The Republican takeover of the House of Representatives, however slim, will undoubtedly unleash a further tsunami of extremist actions not just against the Democrats, but the American people.

Purges of Democrats from House committees, McCarthyite-style hearings and investigations, and an all-out effort to rig the system to declare whoever emerges as the GOP’s 2024 presidential candidate the preemptive winner will mark their attempt to rule. Such actions will be duplicated — and worse — in states with Republican governors and legislatures, as officials there bend to the autocratic urges of their minority but fervent white base voters. They will be supported by a network of far-right media, donors, activists, and Trump-appointed judges and justices.

In response, defending the interests of working people, communities of color, LGBTQ individuals and families, and other vulnerable sectors of this society will mean alliances between progressives, liberals, and, in some instances, disaffected and distraught anti-Trump, pro-democracy Republicans. There are too many historical examples of authoritarian and fascist takeovers while the opposition remained split and in conflict not to form such political alliances. Nothing is more urgent at this moment than the complete political defeat of an anti-democratic movement that is, all too sadly, still on the march.

Green diplomacy: What if the United States and China cooperated on climate change?

Michael Klare, Can (Green) Diplomacy Save Us?

Once upon a time, the American government was into scientific problem-solving in a big way. I’m thinking of the World War II years when that government invested upwards of $2 billion (no small sum then) to gather together the greatest available scientific minds to develop a war-ending weapon, the atomic bomb. The Manhattan Project, as it came to be called, would employ more than 120,000 people and create that devastating weapon that would obliterate two Japanese cities and, to this day, leaves our world up for grabs.

Still, on a planet where, from flooding to megadrought, melting ice to rising sea levels, everything seems increasingly up for grabs, I sometimes wonder why, more than three-quarters of a century later, the country that created the atomic bomb (and is still willing to invest trillions of dollars in “modernizing” its nuclear arsenal) can no longer imagine a Manhattan Project to mitigate the overheating of this planet? It’s true that the United Nations regularly convenes top scientists at its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to assess “the state of scientific, technical and socio-economic knowledge on climate change, its impacts and future risks, and options for reducing the rate at which climate change is taking place.” And they do produce increasingly horrifying reports on what a disaster the fossil-fuelization of our planet is proving to be.

Despite that, neither this country, nor any other (as far as I know), has been willing to invest big time to come up with breakthrough ways of mitigating climate change in a world where greenhouse gas emissions only continue to rise. Consider it a sorry tale indeed that there is no twenty-first-century Manhattan Project in this country or, for that matter, anywhere else on Earth.

Today, TomDispatch regular Michael Klare takes a tiny bit of genuine good news — the U.S. and China, the globe’s two greatest carbon emitters, are again at least talking about climate change — and tries to imagine where those two governments could actually go if they truly decided to cooperate. All I would add to his thoughts is this: Isn’t it time to establish a Manhattan-Shanghai Project to find new ways to save this planet rather than blowing it to smithereens or overheating it beyond repair? Tom

What If the U.S. and China Really Cooperated on Climate Change? Imagining a Necessary Future

As President Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping arrived on the resort island of Bali, Indonesia, for their November 14th “summit,” relations between their two countries were on a hair-raising downward spiral, with tensions over Taiwan nearing the boiling point. Diplomats hoped, at best, for a modest reduction in tensions, which, to the relief of many, did occur. No policy breakthroughs were expected, however, and none were achieved. In one vital area, though, there was at least a glimmer of hope: the planet’s two largest greenhouse-gas emitters agreed to resume their languishing negotiations on joint efforts to overcome the climate crisis.

These talks have been an on-again, off-again proposition since President Barack Obama initiated them before the Paris climate summit of December 2015, at which delegates were to vote on a landmark measure to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (the maximum amount scientists believe this planet can absorb without catastrophic consequences). The U.S.-Chinese consultations continued after the adoption of the Paris climate accord, but were suspended in 2017 by that climate-change-denying president Donald Trump. They were relaunched by President Biden in 2021, only to be suspended again by an angry Chinese leadership in retaliation for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August 2nd visit to Taiwan, viewed in Beijing as a show of support for pro-independence forces on that island. But thanks to Biden’s intense lobbying in Bali, President Xi agreed to turn the interactive switch back on.

Behind that modest gesture there lies a far more momentous question: What if the two countries moved beyond simply talking and started working together to champion the radical lowering of global carbon emissions? What miracles might then be envisioned? To help find answers to that momentous question means revisiting the recent history of the U.S.-Chinese climate collaboration.

The Promise of Collaboration

In November 2014, based on extensive diplomatic groundwork, Presidents Obama and Xi met in Beijing and signed a statement pledging joint action to ensure the success of the forthcoming Paris summit. “The United States of America and the People’s Republic of China have a critical role to play in combating global climate change,” they affirmed. “The seriousness of the challenge calls upon the two sides to work constructively together for the common good.”

Obama then ordered Secretary of State John Kerry to collaborate with Chinese officials in persuading other attendees at that summit — officially, the 21st Conference of the Parties of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP21 — to agree on a firm commitment to honor the 1.5-degree limit. That joint effort, many observers believe, was instrumental in persuading reluctant participants like India and Russia to sign the Paris climate agreement.

“With our historic joint announcement with China last year,” Obama declared at that summit’s concluding session, “we showed it was possible to bridge the old divides… that had stymied global progress for so long. That accomplishment encouraged dozens and dozens of other nations to set their own ambitious climate targets.”

Obama also pointed out that any significant global progress along that path was dependent on continued cooperation between the two countries. “No nation, not even one as powerful as ours, can solve this challenge alone.”

Trump and the Perils of Non-Cooperation

That era of cooperation didn’t last long. Donald Trump, an ardent fan of fossil fuels, made no secret of his aversion to the Paris climate accord. He signaled his intent to exit from the agreement soon after taking office. “It is time to put Youngstown, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; and Pittsburgh, PA, along with many, many other locations within our great country, before Paris, France,” he said ominously in 2017 when announcing his decision.

With the U.S. absent from the scene, progress in implementing the Paris Agreement slowed to a crawl. Many countries that had been pressed by the U.S. and China to agree to ambitious emissions-reduction schedules began to opt out of those commitments in sync with Trump’s America. China, too, the greatest greenhouse gas emitter of this moment and the leading user of that dirtiest of fossil fuels, coal, felt far less pressure to honor its commitment, even on a rapidly heating planet.

No one knows what would have happened had Trump not been elected and those U.S.-China talks not been suspended, but in the absence of such collaboration, there was a steady rise in carbon emissions and temperatures across the planet. According to CO.2.Earth, emissions grew from 35.5 billion metric tons in 2016 to 36.4 billion tons in 2021, a 2.5% increase. Since such emissions are the leading contributor to the greenhouse-gas effect responsible for global warming, it should be no surprise that the past seven years have also proven the hottest on record, with much of the world experiencing record-breaking heatwaves, forest fires, droughts, and crop failures. We can be fairly certain, moreover, that in the absence of renewed U.S.-China climate cooperation, such disasters will become ever more frequent and severe.

On Again, Off Again

Overcoming this fearsome trend was one of Joe Biden’s principal campaign promises and, against strong Republican opposition, he has indeed endeavored to undo at least some of the damage wrought by Trump. It was symbolic indeed that he rejoined the Paris climate accord on his first day in office and ordered his cabinet to accelerate the government’s transition to clean energy. In August, he achieved a significant breakthrough when Congress approved the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which provides $369 billion in loans, grants, and tax credits for green-energy initiatives.

Biden also sought to reinvigorate Washington’s global-warming diplomacy and the stalled talks with China, naming John Kerry as his special envoy for climate action. Kerry, in turn, reestablished ties with his Chinese colleagues from his time as secretary of state. At last year’s COP26 gathering in Glasgow, Scotland, he persuaded them to join the U.S. in approving the “Glasgow Declaration,” a commitment to step up efforts to mitigate climate change.

However, in so many ways, Joe Biden and his foreign policy team are still caught up in the Cold War era and his administration has generally taken a far more antagonistic approach to China than Obama. Not surprisingly, then, the progress Kerry achieved with his Chinese counterparts at Glasgow largely evaporated as tensions over Taiwan only grew more heated. Biden was, for instance, the first president in memory to claim — four times — that U.S. military forces would defend that island in a crisis, were it to be attacked by China, essentially tossing aside Washington’s longstanding position of “strategic ambiguity” on the Taiwan question. In response, China’s leaders became ever more strident in claiming that the island belonged to them.

When Nancy Pelosi made that Taiwan visit in early August, the Chinese responded by firing ballistic missiles into the waters around the island and, in a fit of anger, terminated those bilateral climate-change talks. Now, thanks to Biden’s entreaties in Bali, the door seems again open for the two countries to collaborate on limiting global greenhouse gas emissions. At a moment of ever more devastating evidence of planetary heating, from a megadrought in the U.S. to “extreme heat” in China, the question is: What might any meaningful new collaborative effort involve?

Reasserting the Climate’s Centrality

In 2015, few of those in power doubted the overarching threat posed by climate change or the need to bring international diplomacy to bear to help overcome it. In Paris, Obama declared that “the growing threat of climate change could define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other.” What should give us hope, he continued, “is the fact that our nations share a sense of urgency about this challenge and a growing realization that it is within our power to do something about it.”

Since then, all too sadly, other challenges, including the growth of Cold War-style tensions with China, the Covid-19 pandemic, and Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, have come to “define the contours” of this century. In 2022, even as the results of the overheating of the planet become ever more obvious, few world leaders would contend that “it is within our power” to overcome the climate peril. So, the first (and perhaps most valuable) outcome of any renewed U.S.-China climate cooperation might simply be to place climate change at the top of the world’s agenda again and provide evidence that the major powers, working together, can successfully tackle the issue.

Such an effort might, for instance, start with a Washington-Beijing “climate summit,” presided over by presidents Biden and Xi and attended by high-level delegations from around the world. American and Chinese scientists could offer the latest bad news on the likely future trajectory of global warming, while identifying real-world goals to significantly reduce fossil-fuel use. This might, in turn, lead to the formation of multilateral working groups, hosted by U.S. and Chinese agencies and institutions, to meet regularly and implement the most promising strategies for halting the onrushing disaster.

Following the example set by Obama and Xi at COP21 in Paris, Biden and Xi would agree to play a pivotal role in the next Conference of the Parties, COP28, scheduled for December 2023 in the United Arab Emirates. Following the inconclusive outcome of COP27, recently convened at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, strong leadership will be required to ensure something significantly better at COP28. Among the goals those two leaders would need to pursue, the top priority should be the full implementation of the 2015 Paris accord with its commitment to a 1.5-degree maximum temperature increase, followed by a far greater effort by the wealthy nations to assist developing countries suffering from its effects.

There’s no way, however, that China and the U.S. will be able to exert a significant international influence on climate efforts if both countries — the former the leading emitter of greenhouse gasses at this moment and the latter the historic leader — don’t take far greater initiatives to lower their carbon emissions and shift to renewable sources of energy. The Inflation Reduction Act will indeed allow the White House to advance many new initiatives in this direction, while China is moving more swiftly than any other country to install added supplies of wind and solar energy. Nevertheless, both countries continue to rely on fossil fuels for a substantial share of their energy — China, for instance, remains the greatest user of coal, burning more of it than the rest of the world combined — and so both will need to agree on even more aggressive moves to reduce their carbon emissions if they hope to persuade other nations to do the same.

The Sino-American Fund for Clean Energy Transitions

In a better world, next on my list of possible outcomes from a reinvigorated U.S.-Chinese relationship would be joint efforts to help finance the global transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Although the cost of deploying renewables, especially wind and solar energy, has fallen dramatically in recent years, it remains substantial even for wealthy countries. For many developing nations, it remains an unaffordable option. This emerged as a major issue at COP27 in Egypt, where representatives from the Global South complained that the wealthy countries largely responsible for the overheating of the planet weren’t doing faintly enough (or, in many cases, anything), despite prior promises, to help them shoulder the costs of the increasingly devastating effects of climate change and the future greening of their countries.

Many of these complaints revolved around the Green Climate Fund, established at COP16 in Cancún. The developed countries agreed to provide $100 billion annually to that fund by 2020 to help developing nations bear the costs of transitioning to renewable energy. Although that amount is now widely viewed as wildly insufficient for such a transition — “all of the evidence suggests that we need trillions, not billions,” observed Baysa Naran, a manager at the research center Climate Policy Initiative — the Fund has never even come close to hitting that $100 billion target, leaving many in the Global South bitter as, with unprecedented flooding and staggering heat waves, climate change strikes home ever more horrifically there.

When the U.S. and China were working on the climate together at COP26 in Glasgow, filling the Green Climate Fund appeared genuinely imaginable. In their Glasgow Declaration of November 2021, John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, affirmed that “both countries recognize the importance of the commitment made by developed countries to the goal of mobilizing jointly $100b per year by 2020 and annually through 2025 to address the needs of developing countries [and] stress the importance of meeting that goal as soon as possible.”

Sadly enough, all too little came of that affirmation in the months that followed, as U.S.-China relations turned ever more antagonistic. Now, in the wake of Biden’s meeting with Xi and the resumption of their talks on climate change, it’s at least possible to imagine intensified bilateral efforts to advance that $100 billion objective — and even go far beyond it (though we can expect fierce resistance from the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives).

As my contribution to such thinking, let me suggest the formation of a Sino-American Fund for Green Energy Transitions — a grant- and loan-making institution jointly underwritten by the two countries with the primary purpose of financing renewable energy projects in the developing world. Decisions on such funding would be made by a board of directors, half from each country, with staff work performed by professionals drawn from around the world. The aim: to supplement the Green Climate Fund with additional hundreds of billions of dollars annually and so speed the global energy transition.

The Pathway to Peace and Survival

The leaders of the U.S. and China both recognize that global warming poses an extraordinary threat to the survival of their nations and that colossal efforts will be needed in the coming years to minimize the climate peril, while preparing for its most severe effects. “The climate crisis is the existential challenge of our time,” the Biden administration’s October 2022 National Security Strategy (NSS) states. “Without immediate global action to reduce emissions, scientists tell us we will soon exceed 1.5 degrees of warming, locking in further extreme heat and weather, rising sea levels, and catastrophic biodiversity loss.”

Despite that all-too-on-target assessment, the NSS portrays competition from China as an even greater threat to U.S. security — without citing any of the same sort of perilous outcomes — and proposes a massive mobilization of the nation’s economic, technological, and military resources to ensure American dominance of the Asia-Pacific region for decades to come. That strategy will, of course, require trillions of dollars in military expenditures, ensuring insufficient funding to tackle the climate crisis and exposing this country to an ever-increasing risk of war — possibly even a nuclear one — with China.

Given such dangers, perhaps the best outcome of renewed U.S.-China climate cooperation, or green diplomacy, might be increasing trust between the leaders of those two countries, allowing for a reduction in tensions and military expenditures. Indeed, such an approach constitutes the only practical strategy for saving us from the catastrophic consequences of both a U.S.-China conflict and unconstrained climate change.

Facing extremism: How terror came home after September 11th and what to make of it

Andrea Mazzarino: Facing Extremism, Up Close and Personal

Just how extreme is this country? Not quite as bad as many of us feared, it seems. Still, it’s certainly extreme enough, despite the host of election deniers who lost in the recent midterms. And that extremity can’t just be attributed to you-know-who announcing that He (and yes, I meant to capitalize that) was once again running (wildly, madly, sadly) for president, this time with an exclamation point attached to MAGA! In a seemingly never-ending, strangely low-energy address (despite that exclamation point), he assured future voters that, “in order to make America great and glorious again, I am tonight announcing my candidacy for president of the United States.”

Great and glorious indeed! Today, TomDispatch regular, co-founder of the invaluable Costs of War Project, and military spouse Andrea Mazzarino considers how extremism has indeed come home to roost in this country and how the Global War on Terror our leaders launched after the 9/11 attacks and then fought disastrously forever and a day has, in its own strange fashion, also helped lodge terror and divisiveness deep inside this country.

And yes, as she suggests, for part of that terror, you can thank disturbed former soldiers of those failed wars abroad who returned and joined all-too-well-armed extremist paramilitary groups. When it comes to such extremity, however, another factor should be thrown into the painful mix with those Mazzarino mentions: weaponry. After all, in these decades of armed madness abroad, arms have come home big time, too, and in an ever more devastating fashion.

Americans are armed today in a way that was once unimaginable. In fact, this is the only country on Earth where the number of weapons outnumbers the population — 120 guns for every 100 of us. Under those circumstances, you won’t be surprised to learn that the U.S. also has more killings, mass and otherwise, than other wealthy countries. And as a more extreme version of America settled in for the long run during the pandemic years, gun sales only soared. One in every five households purchased a weapon (or weaponry), 20 million guns annually in 2020 and 2021, including AR-15s of the sort used in the slaughter of schoolchildren in Uvalde, Texas. And as Mazzarino also points out, during the war on terror years, the Pentagon would arm our police departments to the teeth with military weaponry and other equipment, more than $7 billion worth by 2021, some directly off this country’s distant battlefields. So today, this increasingly divided land of ours is not only disturbed, but deeply weaponized.

And all of that should be the definition of extreme. Now, let Mazzarino tell you what such a strange version of extremity feels like up close and personal to one military spouse. Tom

How Terror Came Home and What to Make of It: My 10 Years as a Military Spouse in America's Post-9/11 World

Recently, an agent of the Department of Homeland Security called me and started asking questions about a childhood acquaintance being investigated for extremism. I put him off. My feelings about this were, to say the least, complex. As a military spouse of 10 years and someone who has long written about governmental abuses of power, I wanted to cooperate with efforts to root out hate. However, I also feared that my involvement might spark some kind of retaliation.

While I hadn’t seen the person under investigation for years, my memories of him and of some of the things he’d done scared me. For example, when we were young teens, he threatened to bury me alive over a disagreement. He even dug a hole to demonstrate his intent. I knew that if I were to cooperate with this investigation, my testimony would not be anonymous. As a mother of two children living on an isolated farm, that left me with misgivings.

There was also another consideration. A neighbor, herself a retired police officer, suggested that perhaps the investigation could be focused not just on him, but on me, too. “Maybe it’s because of stuff you’ve written,” she suggested, mentioning my deep involvement in Brown University’s Costs of War Project, which I co-founded as a way of dealing with this country’s nightmarish wars of this century.

Indeed, the American version of the twenty-first century, marked by our government’s devastating decision to respond to the September 11, 2001, attacks with a Global War on Terror — first in Afghanistan, then Iraq, and then in other countries across the Middle East — has had its grim effects at home as well. It’s caused us to turn on one another in confusing ways. After all, terror isn’t a place or a people. You can’t eradicate it with your military. Instead, as we learned over the last couple of decades, you end up turning those you don’t like into enemies in the bloodiest of counterinsurgency wars.

I’ve researched for years how those wars of ours also helped deepen our domestic inequalities and political divisions, but after all this time, the dynamics still seem mysterious to me. Nonetheless, I hope I can at least share a bit of what I’ve noticed happening in the conservative, privileged community I grew up in, as well as in the military community I married into.

Around the time I co-founded the Costs of War Project in the early 2010s, I fell in love with a career military officer. Our multitrillion-dollar wars were then in full swing. At home, the names of young Blacks killed by our police forces, ever more ominously armed off the country’s battlefields, were just seeping into wider public consciousness as was a right-wing political backlash against prosecutions of the police. Anti-government extremist militias like the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, some of whom would storm the Capitol on January 6, 2021, to try to violently block the certification of an elected president, were already seething about the supposed executive overreach of the Obama administration and that Black president’s alleged foreign birth. But back then, those guys all seemed — to me at least — very much a part of America’s fringe.

Back then, I also didn’t imagine that men in uniform would emerge as a central part of the leadership and membership of such extremist groups. Sadly, they did. As journalist Peter Maass pointed out recently, of the 897 individuals indicted so far for their involvement in the January 6th violence, 118 had backgrounds in the U.S. military and a number of them had fought in this country’s war on terror abroad. Nearly 30 police officers from a dozen different departments around the country similarly attended the rally that preceded the Capitol riot and several faced criminal charges.

What also sends chills down my spine is that federal law enforcement agencies turned their backs on the warning signs of all this. Had the FBI acted on information that extremist groups were planning violence on January 6th, it might not have happened.

A Nation Rich in Fear

If one thing captured the spirit of the post-9/11 moment for me, in retrospect, it was the creation of a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which has defined itself as a “whole-of-society endeavor, from every federal department and agency to every American across the nation.” Expenditures for that new department would total more than $1 trillion from 2002 through 2020, more than six times expenditures for similar activities at various government agencies during the previous 20 years.

With its hundreds of thousands of workers, DHS often seems susceptible to overusing its authority and ignoring real threats. Case in point: of the approximately 450 politically motivated violent attacks taking place on our soil in the past decade, the majority were perpetrated by far-right, homegrown violent extremists. Yet all too tellingly, the DHS has largely remained focused on foreign terrorist groups — and homegrown jihadist groups inspired by them — as the main threats to this country.

Thanks to the passage of the Patriot Act in 2001, federal authorities were also empowered to obtain the financial and Internet records of Americans, even if they weren’t part of an authorized investigation. In the process, the government violated the privacy of tens of thousands of citizens and non-citizens. Authorities at government agencies ranging from the FBI to the Pentagon secretly monitored the communications and activities of peace groups like the Quakers and Occupy Wall Street activists. Worse yet, in June 2013, Americans learned that the National Security Agency was collecting telephone records from tens of millions of us based on a secret court order.

Such practices only seemed to legitimate vigilantism on the part of Americans who took seriously the DHS’s mantra, “If you see something, say something.” Incidents of racial profiling directed towards people of Muslim and South Asian background spiked early in the post 9/11 war years and again (I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn!) after Donald Trump entered the White House in 2017.

Sometime before that, a relative visiting me noticed a darker-skinned man, a tourist, taking photos of historic buildings in my community, while speaking on his phone in Arabic. To my shame, she began questioning him, based on “a feeling that something was wrong.” In other words, well before the Donald put “fake news” in the contemporary American lexicon, feelings and not facts all too often seemed to rule the day.

“Is that the Russia?” or Dangers Near and Far

Terrorism was at once everywhere and nowhere for those who were supposed to be fighting that war on terror, including members of the military. In 2013, when my husband was on a months-long deployment at sea, another wife, whom I had texted about having a party for the crew on their return, texted me back a warning. I had, she claimed, jeopardized the safety of my husband and other crew members on his boat. After all, what if some foreign enemy intercepted our exchange and learned about the boat’s plans?

Four years later, in the shadow of Donald Trump’s presidency, it only got worse. A stressed-out, combat-traumatized commander, who took over the vessel to which my spouse was next assigned, emailed us wives weekly warnings against sending messages just like the one I had dispatched years earlier. He also ordered us not to email our husbands anything that could be imagined as negative, even if it reflected the realities of our lives: sick children, struggles with depression, financial troubles when we had to miss workdays to single parent. According to him, to upset our spouses in uniform was to jeopardize the security and wellbeing of the boat and indeed of America. He could read our e-mails and decide which ones made it to our loved ones. It was an extreme atmosphere to find myself in and I started to wonder: was I an asset or a threat to this country? Could my harmless words endanger lives?

One summer evening toward the end of another long deployment at sea, a fellow spouse tasked with disseminating confidential information about the boat our spouses were on arrived at my home unannounced. I was feeding my older toddler at the time. She whispered to me that our husbands’ boat was returning to port soon and swore me to silence because she didn’t want anyone beyond the command to know about the vessel’s movements. It was, she said, a matter of “operational security.” Then she took a glance out the window as though a foreign spy or terrorist might be listening.

“Oh! That’s great!” I replied to her news. Later, I tried to explain to my bewildered child what “operational security,” or keeping information about daddy’s whereabouts away from our country’s enemies, meant. He promptly pointed toward that same window and said, “Is it the Russia? Does the Russia live there?” (He’d overheard too many conversations at home about nuclear geopolitics.) The next day, pointing to a mischievous-looking ceramic garden gnome in a neighbor’s yard, he asked again, “Is that the Russia?”

It was not Russia, I assured him. But six years later, in a weary and anxious country that only recently gave The Donald a true body blow, I still wonder about the dangers of our American world in a way I once didn’t.

The 2020s and the Biggest-Loser-in-Chief

Eventually, my family and I settled into what will hopefully be our final stint of military life — an office job for my spouse and a home in rural Maryland. But somehow, in those Trump years, the once-distant dangers of our world seemed ever closer at hand.

This was the time, after all, when the president felt comfortable posting a meme of himself beating up a CNN journalist, while his Homeland Security officials detained peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland, Oregon. I soon began to wonder whether returning to something approximating normal civilian life was ever going to happen in this disturbed and disturbing land of ours.

Motorcyclists sporting confederate flags drove by on the rural highway in front of my house. Blue Lives Matter flags fluttered in a nearby town after the police murdered George Floyd. Even years after Trump left office, as the polls leading up to the midterm elections seemed to indicate a coming red wave, I wondered if I had been wrong to imagine that our fellow Americans would choose democracy over… well, who knew what?

As part of that election campaign, I wrote nearly 200 letters to Democratic voters in swing states urging them to get to the polls as I was planning to do. Remembering a trend my friends and I had started on social media in 2020, I considered posting a funny photograph of my sweet, excitable rooster, Windy, sitting next to piles of letters, with the caption, “Windy is vigilant about the state of our democracy! Are you?”

Then I thought twice about it, another sign of our times. It occurred to me that if I did participate in an investigation against an angry person in uniform, the one I had once known, I risked retaliation and — yes, I did think this at the time — what better target was there than our strange outdoor pet? On realizing that it was I who was now starting to think like some fear-crazed maniac, I forced myself to dismiss the thought.

Of course, that predicted red wave turned out to be, at worst, a ripple, while election denialism and voter intimidation seemed to collapse in a post-election heap. None of the most extreme MAGA candidates running for top election positions in swing states won. Was it possible that Americans had started to see the irony, not to say danger, of voting for public officials who attack the basic tenets of our democracy?

In the end, I told the guy investigating my childhood acquaintance that I couldn’t help him, feeling that I had nothing new to add for a crew with such sweeping powers of surveillance. To my relief, he simply wished me the best. The normal tenor of that conversation changed something in my thinking about the government and this moment of ours.

I found myself returning to an older (perhaps saner) view of our times, as well as the military and law enforcement. Yes, our disastrous wars of this century had brought home too many unnerved, disturbed, and damaged soldiers and small numbers of them became all too extreme, while over-armed police forces did indeed create problems for us.

However, it was also worth remembering that the military and the police are not monoliths. They aren’t “blue lives” or “the troops,” but individuals. They are part of all our lives, as fallible as they are potentially capable of helping us form a more perfect union instead of the chaos and cruelty that Donald Trump exemplifies. Were Americans — all of us from all walks of life — more willing to stand up to bigotry and extremism, we might still help change what’s happening here for the better.

Will climate change ever become the crucial issue in American elections?

Believe me, it’s strange to be an old man and feel like you’re living on a new planet. On November 7th, the day before the midterm elections, I took my usual afternoon walk in New York City and I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt! That was a first for me. And no wonder, since it was 76 degrees out — beautiful, but eerie. After all, that’s just not November weather.

By then, in fact, a distinctly unseasonal heat wave that, the previous week, had hit the country from the Great Plains to the Gulf Coast was spreading across the Eastern U.S. from Tallahassee, Florida (a record-tying 88 degrees) to Burlington, Vermont (a record 76 degrees). Temperatures ranged from 15 to 25 degrees above normal. And yet, in a sense, this was nothing new. The worst megadrought in 1,200 years has held the West and Southwest in its grip for what seems like eons now and has evidently been moving toward the middle of the country (with the Mississippi River becoming an increasingly dried-up mud puddle).

Meanwhile, Nicole, a rare November hurricane that formed in the Caribbean, would, sadly enough, spare Mar-a-Lago. However, a distraught Donald Trump, riding it out there (despite state evacuation orders), would react angrily to the political hurricane that clobbered Florida on November 8th when Ron DeSantis swept to a resounding victory amid chants of “two more years!” Meanwhile, thanks in part to already rising sea levels, Nicole would further erode Florida’s coastline in a telling fashion.

I know, I know, the real story last week was the changing political weather in this country: the angry Donald, Ron De-Sanctimonious, the Red Wave that proved barely a trickle; the surprising importance of abortion to the election campaign; the losses of so many Trumpian election deniers; those endless vote counts that left the Senate miraculously still in the hands of the Democrats and the House barely in those of… well, god knows who the Republicans really are anymore — all of it grabbed our attention big time and, given what’s at stake, why shouldn’t it have?

In a way, Nicole was nothing compared to the tropical storm of political news that swamped us during an election season in which so many Trumpists, including “Doc” Mehmet Oz and Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, suffered losses that shocked the former president. They also left some Republicans lambasting him for the first time — Liz Cheney aside — in years, even as he announced his next presidential run.

How our political world does change every now and then (even if only sort of) to the surprise of pollsters and political commentators alike. I mean who, in recent years, would have dared predict that, in the wake of the 2022 midterm elections, the Murdoch-owned tabloid, the New York Post, would mock Donald Trump on its front page? It featured him as an egg-shaped “Trumpty Dumpty” teetering at the edge of a wall with the headline “Don (who couldn’t build a wall) had a great fall — can all the GOP’s men put the party back together again?”

And yet, sadly enough, you could also say that, for all the hoopla, in certain ways our political system doesn’t change. At least, not faintly fast enough. In case you hadn’t noticed, for example, there was one issue that couldn’t loom more ominously in this all-American world of ours, that couldn’t be more crucial to our future lives, and that was missing in action during this election season. I’m thinking, of course, about climate change, the ominous overheating of this planet thanks to the greenhouse gasses that continue to spew into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels. This very year, it looks as if fossil-fuel emissions will once again rise to record levels. By the end of 2022, an estimated 36.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide (or more) will have headed for that atmosphere on a planet already feeling the heat, literally and figuratively, in a historic (or, under the circumstances, perhaps I mean a-historic) way.

Missing in Action in Election 2022

Honestly, how strange this election truly was, don’t you think? And not simply because of Donald Trump and the election-denying candidates he backed. When I consider this planet, the only one we humans have (at least as yet), I find it all too unnerving that climate change didn’t make it into the midterms in any significant, or even discernible, fashion.

I’m talking about the very planet on which the heat is increasing in an ever more striking way. Ice is melting from alpine heights to polar glaciers; rising sea levels are imperiling ever more coastal areas; previously unimaginable kinds of flooding are occurring from Pakistan to Nigeria; and record droughts have settled in across much of the northern hemisphere, while famine — actual starvation — is becoming a part of life in an increasingly parched horn of Africa. Meanwhile, more people are probably being driven from their homes and lives, not just by us humans but by nature itself, and are on the move than at any recent moment in our history.

Worse yet, we know enough — or perhaps I mean should know enough — to realize that life as we once experienced it (note the past tense!) is heading for the history books. In the worst sense imaginable, whether we care to notice or not, we all now find ourselves on a new planet. The scientists who follow this closely have been informing us of just that for years now, as has António Guterres, the head of the United Nations. Here’s the news in a nutshell: it’s only going to get precipitously (as in going off the edge of a cliff) worse, especially if humanity doesn’t take collective action in the coming years to bring the burning of fossil fuels under far greater control, while increasing the use of renewable energy sources significantly.

And all of that should help explain why, when it comes to those midterm elections, I’m left with a giant question mark that has nothing to do with Donald Trump. Given how obvious and ominous our global situation already is, why did climate change not grip American voters the way abortion did? (After all, there was a Supreme Court ruling against the Environmental Protection Agency regulating the release of greenhouse gasses, just as there was one against Roe v. Wade.)

Why was the possibility of our planet becoming ever less livable not at the top of the list of issues in the 2022 midterms? Why weren’t politicians spending their time discussing the subject? Why wasn’t it part of every stump speech, at least for the candidates who weren’t Trumpublicans?

It should be the issue of the moment, the week, the month, the year, the decade, the century, shouldn’t it? Admittedly, post-election, Nancy Pelosi did take out after Trump and crew on the issue of climate-change denial, as well she should have, but that was a rare moment indeed. And, to give him credit, Joe Biden has worked hard to pass significant climate legislation (even if, thanks in part to the war in Ukraine, his administration has also allowed fossil-fuel extraction to ramp up).

You want an election “issue”? Honestly, when you think about how an ever more overheated planet is going to affect our children and grandchildren, shouldn’t global warming have been right at the top of any list? And why wasn’t its absence considered the mystery of our times, perhaps of all times?

One much-commented-upon surprise of the midterm election season was the turnout of Generation Z voters in a non-presidential year and how significantly their votes skewed Democratic. And yes, we know from polling that Gen-Z voters did indeed have climate change on their minds in a way their elders evidently didn’t. We know that, for them, it was right up there with (or just behind) abortion, protecting democracy, and inflation. And that’s not nothing.

In fact, as Juan Cole wrote at his Informed Comment website, “According to a recent Blue Shield poll, some 75% of youth in America report that they have had panic attacks, depression, anxiety, stress, and/or feelings of being overwhelmed when considering the issue of climate change. Globally, many of these young people are even afraid to bring children into the world that is being produced by our high-carbon styles of life.”

Personally, I’m with them when it comes to anxiety. When I think about the world my children and grandchildren are now likely to inherit, it leaves me distinctly depressed, stressed, and — yes — overwhelmed. And when I think that, in 2022, global warming wasn’t a significant issue, not even for Trumpublicans to attack, those feelings only multiply.

Left in the Dust of History

I mean, forget the melting Alps in Switzerland or the melting glaciers in the Himalayas; forget the missing water supplies in parched, overheated Jordan, or the spring temperatures that soared to 120 degrees and above in India and Pakistan; ignore the 500-year record drought that engulfed Europe, drying up the Rhine and other rivers, and the soaring temperatures that, last summer, turned even China’s mighty Yangtze River into a giant mudflat; ignore the record melt of Greenland’s ice sheet this September or the coming total disappearance of summer sea ice in the Arctic (with an accompanying rise in global sea levels), and just think about a few basics in our own country, which has reportedly warmed 68% faster than the planet as a whole over the last half century. Approximately four decades ago, extreme weather disasters causing at least $1 billion in damage occurred in the United States on average once every four months. Now, it’s once every three weeks. Doesn’t that tell you something?

And what, I wonder, will it be like four decades from now when the Gen-Zers are at least somewhat closer to my age? Meanwhile, that western mega-drought continues, wildfires grow increasingly severe, coastal areas are battered ever more fiercely by storms that, crossing overheated waters, only grow ever stronger, seasons become hotter, and… but let me just stop there.

I mean, you get the idea, right? And count on one thing: someday, perhaps even in 2024, America’s elections are finally going to heat up, too — and I’m not just thinking about Humpty Trumpty or Ron DeSantis. Count on this, too: climate change on its present course ever upwards is going to become the true inflation of the future, as well as an issue, possibly the issue, in any election season. Republican weaponizing of it will end and how politicians respond to it will matter in their vote count (assuming, of course, that some version of American democracy is still in place in that perilous future of ours).

If you once rejected the very idea of climate change — yes, you Donald Trump and you Ron DeSantis! — you’ll be an object of bitter mockery and ridicule. If you supported billionaires who, flying on their own private jets, put striking amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, you’ll pay for it politically. If you urge that more coal, oil, or natural gas be produced, you won’t have a chance in any election season.

Whether we truly know it or not, whether we accept it or not, whether we paid the slightest attention to COP27, the recent U.N. climate meeting in Egypt, or not, trust me on one thing: the perilous heating of this planet is the topic that will, sooner or later, leave all others in the dust. New cold wars and hot wars will make no sense whatsoever in such a future. After all, we’re now on a tipping-point planet. Or rather, let me put it this way: either attention to climate change will leave all else in the dust or climate change itself will leave us all in the dust, and how truly sad that would be!

Corporate weapons heaven is Hell on Earth

William Hartung: A Hall of Shame of U.S. Weapons Sales

As retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and historian William Astore wrote recently at his Bracing Views blog, while the Republicans didn’t experience their expected “red tide” on November 8th, Donald Trump had a genuinely dismal night, and the Democrats lost (even if barely) control of the House of Representatives, there was still a clear election winner. It just wasn’t any of the crew being covered in the media. It was the military-industrial complex. In fact, you can always count on one thing: whatever congressional Democrats and Republicans won’t agree on in the next two years — and that, by definition, will be more or less everything else — they will agree on upping the Pentagon budget, which, even before this election, was projected to hit a trillion dollars by 2027 or so.

You can certainly ask what such sums — nearing $900 billion annually ($1.4 trillion, if you’re talking about the full national security state budget) — buy us. The answer has been disastrous, unwinnable wars that, in this century, have left parts of the planet in ever greater chaos. And however under the radar such conflicts have gone in 2022, some of them are indeed still underway in Africa and parts of the Middle East, even if ever more by proxy.

In fact, as Pentagon expert and TomDispatch regular William Hartung makes clear today, one of the ways this country’s military-industrial complex conducts its proxy conflicts, however indirectly, is by dominating the global arms trade. And there, too, so many of our congressional representatives on both sides of the aisle have put their stamp of approval not just on the arming of much of the planet, but the funding of major weapons-makers. It couldn’t be stranger (to me, anyway) how little such an over-the-top phenomenon is ever explored, except by experts like Hartung at places like TomDispatch. Tom

Corporate Weapons Heaven Is a Hell on Earth: Joe Biden, the National Security State, and Arms Sales

Here’s a seldom commented-upon reality of this century and this moment: the United States remains the number-one arms-exporting nation on the planet. Between 2017 and 2021, it grabbed 39% of the total global weapons market and there’s nothing new about that. It has, in fact, been the top arms dealer in every year but one for the past three decades. And it’s a remarkably lucrative business, earning American weapons makers tens of billions of dollars annually.

It would be one thing if it were simply a matter of money raked in by the industrial half of the military-industrial complex. Unfortunately, in these years, U.S.-supplied weaponry has also fueled conflicts, enabled human-rights violations, helped destabilize not just individual countries but whole regions, and made it significantly easier for repressive regimes to commit war crimes.

At first glance, it appeared that Joe Biden, on entering the White House, might take a different approach to arms sales. On the campaign trail in 2020, he had, for instance, labeled Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state and implied that the unbridled flow of U.S. weaponry to that kingdom would be reduced, if not terminated. He also bluntly assured voters that this country wouldn’t “check its values at the door to sell arms.”

Initially, Biden paused arms deals to that country and even suspended one bomb sale. Unfortunately, within eight months of his taking office, sales to the Saudi regime had resumed. In addition, the Biden team has offered arms to a number of other repressive regimes from Egypt and Nigeria to the Philippines. Such sales contrast strikingly with the president’s mantra of supporting “democracies over autocracies,” as well as his reasonable impulse to supply weapons to Ukraine to defend itself against Russia’s brutal invasion.

The last president who attempted to bring runaway U.S. weapons trafficking under some sort of control was Jimmy Carter. In 1976, he campaigned for the presidency on a platform based, in part, on promoting human rights globally and curbing the arms trade. And for a period as president, he did indeed suspend sales to repressive regimes, while, in that Cold War era, engaging in direct talks with the Soviet Union on reducing global arms sales. He also spoke out eloquently about the need to rein in the trade in death and destruction.

However, Zbigniew Brzezinski, his hardline national security advisor, waged a campaign inside his administration against the president’s efforts, arguing that arms sales were too valuable as a tool of Cold War influence to be sacrificed at the altar of human rights. And once that longtime ally, the Shah of Iran, was overthrown in 1978 and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, all talk of controlling the arms trade went out the window.

The Biden Record: Why Not Restraint?

What accounts for Joe Biden’s transformation from a president intent on controlling arms sales to a business-as-usual promoter of such weaponry globally? The root cause can be found in his administration’s adherence to a series of misguided notions about the value of arms sales. In a recent report I wrote for the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft on the U.S. approach to such exports, I lay out those notions fully, including lending a hand in stabilizing key regions, deterring Washington’s adversaries from engaging in aggression, building meaningful military-to-military relationships with current or potential partner nations, increasing this country’s political and diplomatic influence globally, and creating jobs here in the United States. In the Saudi case, Biden’s shift was tied to the dangerous notion that we needed to bolster the Kingdom’s supposedly crucial role in “containing Iran” — a policy that only increases the risk of war in the region — and the false promise that, in return, the Saudis would expand their oil output to help curb soaring gas prices here at home.

Such explanations are part of an all-encompassing belief in Washington that giving away or selling weaponry of every sort to foreign clients is a risk-free way of garnering yet more economic, political, and strategic influence globally. The positive spin advocates of the arms trade give to the government’s role as the world’s largest arms broker ignores the fact that, in too many cases, the risks — from fueling conflict and increasing domestic repression elsewhere to drawing the United States into unnecessary wars — far outweigh any possible benefits.

An Arms Clients Hall of Shame

There are numerous examples, both historically and in the present moment, of how this country’s arms sales have done more harm than good, but for now let’s just highlight four of them — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Nigeria, and the Philippines.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has spearheaded a horrifying and disastrous seven-and-a-half-year-long intervention in Yemen that has killed thousands of people through indiscriminate air strikes on civilian targets ranging from hospitals, water treatment plants, and factories to marketplaces, weddings, and even a funeral. In all, that conflict has caused an estimated nearly 400,000 deaths, in large part due to a Saudi-run air-and-sea blockade that has impeded importing food, medical supplies, and fuel. The overwhelming presence of U.S.-supplied aircraft, bombs, missiles, and other weaponry in that military campaign has led many Yemenis to view it as an American war on their country, spurring resentment and potentially damaging future relations throughout the region.

Unlike in Ukraine, where the Biden administration has helped a country defend itself against a foreign invasion through the provision of arms and intelligence, in Yemen it could help stop the killing tomorrow simply by cutting off arms, spare parts, and help in the maintenance of weapons systems. Such pressure would push the Saudi regime to definitively end its destructive air strikes and its devastating blockade of that country, while potentially encouraging the launching of good-faith negotiations to end the war there.

Egypt

When it comes to Egypt, the Biden administration has offered more than $6 billion in weaponry so far, including missiles, helicopters, and transport planes. All of that is going to the regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who is widely regarded as the most repressive leader in that country’s history. The el-Sisi government has gunned down demonstrators in the street, locked up thousands of political prisoners, and run a scorched earth counterinsurgency campaign in the northern Sinai desert that has killed innocent civilians and driven thousands of people from their homes.

Nor are such systematic human rights abuses counterbalanced by “strategic” benefits of any obvious sort. Quite the opposite. The el-Sisi regime has taken numerous positions contrary to Washington’s interests. These have included supporting the Assad regime in Syria, aiding rebel forces fighting the internationally recognized government in Libya, backing antidemocratic military leaders in Sudan, and building military ties with Russia through arms sales, military exercises, and a security agreement. Congressional representative Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) hammered home this point several years ago, saying, “In exchange for the favors that Egypt gets from the White House, they don’t actually do anything for us. This is not a situation where we are trading off human rights for something that advances the U.S. national interest. Egypt… contributes nothing to the goals of peace and security… [U.S. arms transfers] do absolutely nothing to benefit Egyptian security or ours.”

Nigeria

Last April, the United States offered attack helicopters worth $997 million to Nigeria, marking the latest stage in the warming of relations between the two countries that began early in the Trump years.

The Nigerian military, however, has committed torture on a massive scale while targeting thousands of civilians in an ongoing campaign against the terrorist group Boko Haram and its local offshoots. As Human Rights Watch has reported, there is a “reasonable basis to believe” that Nigerian security forces have committed crimes against humanity. Amnesty International reported that 10,000 civilians died between 2011 and 2020 from extreme neglect in prisons run by Nigeria’s military. And far from reducing terrorism, such conduct has further destabilized significant parts of the country, stoking opposition to the government and making it easier for terrorist groups to recruit and operate. Earlier this month the security situation in Nigeria had deteriorated so badly that the Biden administration ordered the family members of U.S. diplomats to leave Abuja, the capital, due to a “heightened risk of terrorist attack.”

The Philippines

U.S. arms transfers to the Philippines are of particular concern. The United States supplied or offered billions of dollars’ worth of small arms, attack helicopters, and other weapons systems to the regime of former president Rodrigo Duterte, a government notorious for murdering and imprisoning thousands of civilians, as well as key human rights and democracy activists, under the guise of fighting a “war on drugs.” The sales were made as part of Washington’s anti-China containment strategy, even though the Philippines offers little value on that front.

It remains to be seen whether the new president, Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., an ally of Duterte who took office in May 2022, will pursue different policies. But as Center for International Policy analyst John Edward Mariano pointed out recently, Amnesty International and other impartial analysts “predict continued human rights abuses and democratic backsliding.” In response to the situation in the Philippines, congressional representative Susan Wild (D-PA) has introduced the “Philippine Human Rights Act,” which would cut off military aid to the regime until it has taken concrete steps to prevent future human-rights abuses.

Companies Cash In

While the humanitarian consequences of U.S. arms sales may be devastating, if you happen to be a major weapons maker like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, or General Dynamics, the economic benefits are enormous. Weapons systems built by those four companies alone have figured in more than half of the $100 billion-plus in major arms offers made since President Biden took office.

While those firms prefer to pose as passive beneficiaries of carefully considered government policies, they continue to work overtime to loosen restrictions on weapons exports and expand the number of countries eligible for such equipment and training. To that end, those four giant firms alone routinely donate millions of dollars to key members of Congress, while employing 300 lobbyists, many of them drawn from the ranks of the Pentagon, Congress, and the National Security Council. Once on board, those retired generals, admirals, and other officials use their government contacts and inside knowledge of the arm-sales process to influence government policies and practices.

A particularly egregious and visible example of this was Raytheon’s effort to pressure Congress and the Trump administration to approve a sale of precision-guided munitions to the Saudis. A former Raytheon lobbyist, Charles Faulkner, worked inside the State Department to keep the Saudi arms pipeline open despite that country’s bombing of civilian targets in Yemen, and then Raytheon’s former CEO, Thomas Kennedy, even went so far as to directly lobby Senate Foreign Relations chairman Senator Robert Menendez over Saudi arms sales. (He was rebuffed.) But the most spectacular lobbyist for the Saudis was, of course, President Trump, who justified continuing arms sales to Riyadh after the regime’s 2018 murder of U.S. resident, Saudi journalist, and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi this way:

$110 billion will be spent on the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and many other great U.S. defense contractors. If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries — and very happy to acquire all this newfound business. It would be a wonderful gift to them directly from the United States!

In fact, neither Russia nor China would be able to replace the U.S. as Saudi Arabia’s primary arms supplier any time soon. The Kingdom is so reliant on American equipment that it might take a decade or more for it to rebuild its military around weapons supplied by another nation.

In reality, expansive as American arms sales to the Saudis are, that $110 billion figure was a typical case of Trumpian exaggeration. Actual sales during his term were less than one-third of that, and jobs tied to those sales in the U.S. were similarly far less than President Trump claimed. The figure he liked to throw around — 500,000 — was at least 12 times the actual one. Still, the damage done by the weaponry his administration rammed through Congress for the Saudis has been incalculable and can’t be measured by the dollar value of any particular sale.

The Raytheon lobbying campaign was extraordinary primarily because its details became public knowledge. But count on one thing: similar efforts by other military-industrial corporations surely take place behind closed doors on a regular basis. One precondition for reducing dangerous arms deals would have to be reducing the political power of the major weapons-producing companies.

Pushing Back Against America’s Arms Sales Addiction

In 2019, spurred by Saudi actions ranging from the war in Yemen to the Khashoggi murder, both houses of Congress voted down a specific deal for the first time — $1.5 billion in precision-guided bombs for Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern clients — only to have their actions vetoed by President Trump. Successful votes to end military support for Saudi Arabia under the War Powers Resolution met a similar fate.

The recent Saudi decision to side with Russia on reducing global oil output has reinvigorated such Congressional efforts. A new Yemen War Powers Resolution co-sponsored by Representatives Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Peter DeFazio (D-OR) has more than 100 backers in the House, while a parallel measure co-sponsored by Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has been proposed in the Senate. Meanwhile, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Robert Menendez (D-NJ) has called for a hold on most arms transfers to the Saudi regime, while Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA) are seeking a one-year suspension of Saudi sales as leverage to force that country to reverse its decision to warm relations with Russia and end its intervention in Yemen. Such efforts will face a far tougher road in a Republican-controlled Congress, so time is of the essence.

Success in reining in Washington’s arms-sales addiction will, at the very least, require a major campaign of public education. Too few Americans even know about their nation’s role as the world’s largest weapons trader, much less the devastating impact of the arms it transfers. But when asked, a majority of Americans are against arming repressive regimes like Saudi Arabia and consider arms sales to be “a hazard to U.S. security.”

Still, until there is greater public understanding of the humanitarian and security consequences of what the government is doing in our name, coupled with concerted pressure on the Biden administration, the national security state, and the weapons makers, the arms trade is likely to continue full speed ahead. If so, those companies will remain in weapons heaven, while so many people on this planet will find themselves in a hell on earth.

American democracy just staved off Trumpism. Will it last?

Andrew Bacevich: The Unasked Questions of 2022

Admittedly, it’s dangerous to quote yourself. Still, I wrote this line in June of election season 2016, a moment when only one politician in America, sporting an acronymic MAGA he had trademarked in the wake of Mitt Romney’s election loss in 2012, seemed to think that this country was no longer “great.” His winning fantasy was that he and he alone could make it great again. “Perhaps it would be better,” I said then, “to see Donald Trump as a symptom, not the problem itself, to think of him not as the Zika Virus but as the first infectious mosquito to hit the shores of this country.”

More than six years later, in the wake of another disastrous election, the Trumpification of America is indeed an eerie reality, leaving our country somewhere in the weeds (as is our planet, which has just experienced its hottest eight years on record). And count on one thing, there’s much more to come on every imaginable score. Our political system is in chaos and guaranteed, with the Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, to remain there or worse for at least the next two years and possibly much longer; our judicial system, thanks to the Trumpification (or perhaps McConnellization) of the Supreme Court, is increasingly a menace, not a solace; and our national security state, which eats our taxpayer dollars alive, is triumphant in every way except the one for which it was built. After all, war in this increasingly un-American century has proven a global disaster for this country and — as Vladimir Putin is proving right now — for whatever country has launched one, not to speak of the planet as well. As Peter Maass pointed out recently, increasing violence here at home has been fed, in part, by the unnerved and disturbed veterans of our disastrous foreign conflicts of this century.

TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, author of the must-read new book On Shedding an Obsolete Past: Bidding Farewell to the American Century suggests today that the very questions we’ve been asking about this country and the world are at best thoroughly out of date. It’s even possible that the very language we use is lacking when it comes to the crisis our country and world is plunging into, and you can thank, in part, the continuing Trumpification of America for that. Tom

Deaf to History’s Questions: A Tale of Two Elizabeths, One Joe, One Donald, and Us

Britons mourned the recent passing of Queen Elizabeth II, and understandably so. The outpouring of affection for their long-serving monarch was more than commendable, it was touching. Yet count me among those mystified that so many Americans also professed to care. With all due respect to Queen Latifah, we decided way back in 1776 that we’d had our fill of royalty.

Mere weeks after the death of Elizabeth II came the demise of another Elizabeth, better known as Liz, whose tenure as British prime minister shattered all previous records for brevity. Forty-four days after Her Majesty had asked her to form a government, Liz Truss announced her decision to step down. Cries of “No, Liz, stay on!” were muted indeed, while she herself seemed to feel a sense of relief that her moment at the pinnacle of British politics had ended so swiftly.

As a general rule, I no more care who resides at 10 Downing Street than who lives in Buckingham Palace, since neither bears more than the most marginal relevance to the well-being of the United States. Even so, I confess that I found the made-for-tabloids tale of Truss’s rise and fall riveting — not a Shakespearean tragedy perhaps but a compelling dramedy offering raw material — most memorably in the form of lettuce — sufficient to supply stand-up comics the world over.

That Truss was manifestly unsuited to serve as prime minister should count as the understatement of the month. Her perpetually wide-eyed look seemingly expressed her own amazement at having high office thrust upon her and gave the game away. Along with the entire Tory party leadership, she was, it seemed, in on the caper — a huge joke at the expense of the British people.

Here was so-called liberal democracy in action. And not just any democracy, mind you, but an ancient and hallowed one. In American political circles, the notion persists that our own system of government somehow derives from that of Great Britain, that despite the many historical and substantive differences between the way Washington and Westminster work, we both share the same political space.

We and they are exemplars, models of popular government for the rest of the world. We and they stand arm-in-arm against autocrats and authoritarians. The legitimacy of the British democratic system affirms the legitimacy of our own. To others around the world aspiring to liberty, it proclaims: This is how it’s done. Now, go and do likewise.

In this particular instance, passing the torch in that ostensibly great democracy occurred in a matter of days. Notably, however, the British people played no part whatsoever in deciding who should succeed Truss. Of course, neither had they played any role in installing her as prime minister in the first place. Roughly 172,000 dues-paying members of the Conservative Party had made that decision on their behalf. And when her government abruptly imploded, even party members found themselves consigned to the role of spectators. In a nation of some 46 million registered voters, a grand total of 357 Conservative members of parliament decided who would form the next government — the equivalent of the Democratic caucus in the House of Representatives deciding it had had enough of Joe Biden and choosing his successor.

British Conservatives dismissed out of hand suggestions that a general election might be in order, that ordinary Britons should have some say in who would govern them. They did so for the most understandable of reasons: opinion polls indicated that in any election the Tory party would suffer catastrophic losses. It turns out that, in the hierarchy of values to which members of Parliament adhere, self-preservation ranks first. Students of American politics should not find that surprising.

To be clear, all of this falls completely within the rules of the game. Were the situation reversed, Britain’s Labour Party would surely have done likewise.

In the United Kingdom, this is how democracy works. “The People” play the role allotted to them. That role expands or contracts to suit the convenience of those who actually call the shots. In practice, liberal democracy thereby becomes a euphemism for cynical manipulation. While the results may entertain, as the saga of Liz Truss surely did, they offer little to admire or emulate.

The entire spectacle should, however, give Americans food for thought. If extreme partisanship, greed, and hunger for power displace any recognizable conception of the common good, this is where we’re liable to end up.

Charles to the Rescue

But give the Brits this: when faced with a crisis at the heart of their politics, their politicians dealt with it expeditiously, even ruthlessly. In announcing economic policies to which their financial markets objected, Truss had seemingly forgotten whom she was actually working for. Because of that, she was promptly sacked and then just as quickly dispatched to the political wilderness.

Credit the sovereign with saving the day. Advised to invite Conservative MP Rishi Sunak to form a new government, Charles III did just that and then returned to Windsor or Balmoral or whichever royal property he and the queen consort are currently using.

Granted, the action by the new-to-the-job king was purely symbolic. Yet its importance can hardly be overestimated. Charles affirmed the legitimacy of what otherwise might have looked suspiciously like a bloodless coup engineered by panicky MPs less interested in governance than saving their own skins. He thereby more than earned his generous paycheck, just as his mother had over the course of seven decades when inviting pols of varying distinction to form governments.

Of course, little of this has anything to do with democratic practice per se. After all, no one elected Charles king, just as no one had elected his mum queen. And while Charles inherits the title “Defender of the Faith,” no one has ever looked to a British monarch to serve as a “Defender of Democracy.” The role of the monarch is to sustain a political order that keeps at bay the forces of anarchy, thereby enabling some version of representative government, however flawed, to survive.

By that measure, Britons have good cause to proclaim, “God Save the King.”

Still Legit?

All of which should invite us Americans to consider this long-taken-for-granted question: When it comes to the legitimacy of our own political system, how are we doing? Given the startling proliferation of illiberal and antidemocratic tendencies in the American polity, how should we rate the health of our own liberal democracy? Indeed, does the phrase “liberal democracy” even accurately describe what goes on in Washington and in several dozen state capitals?

That such a question has acquired genuine urgency speaks volumes about American politics in our time. Nor does that urgency derive entirely – perhaps not even primarily — from the malignant presence of Donald Trump on the national scene, regardless of what panicky reporting in mainstream media outlets may suggest.

On all matters related to Trump, our fellow citizens — those who are sentient anyway — tend to fall into two camps. In one are those who see the former president as a transformational figure, whether for good (Make America Great Again) or ill (paving the way for fascism). In the other are those who view him less as cause than effect, his lingering prominence stemming from pathologies he’s skillfully exploited but had little role in creating.

I happen to inhabit that second camp. I loathe Donald Trump. But I fear a political, intellectual, and cultural elite that appears incapable of responding effectively to the crisis presently engulfing the United States.

Innumerable writers (including me) have attempted to lay out the origins and scope of that crisis and propose antidotes. None in my estimation (myself again included) have fully succeeded. Or at least none have persuaded Americans as to the true source of our collective malaise and discontent.

The resulting void explains the inclination to view Trump as the root cause of the nation’s troubles — or alternatively as our last best hope of salvation. Yet despite the palpable hunger in some quarters to imagine him locked up and in others to return him to the White House, Trump is neither a demon nor a wizard. He is instead a physical manifestation of the collective fears and fantasies to which Americans of all political persuasions have in recent years become susceptible.

Should Trump regain the presidency in 2024 — admittedly, a dreadful prospect — the crisis gripping our country would undoubtedly deepen. But were a benign storm to sweep the Master of Mar-a-Lago into the vast ocean depths never to be seen again, that crisis would persist.

Factors contributing to that crisis are not difficult to identify. They include:

Collectively, these add up to a Bigger Truth that easily eclipses in importance the Big Lie that presently dominates so much of American political discourse. While obsessing over the false claim that Trump won reelection in 2020 may be understandable, it diverts attention from the real meaning of that Bigger Truth, namely that liberal democracy no longer describes the bizarrely elaborate, increasingly disfunctional system of governance that prevails in the United States.

Reducing the existing system to a single phrase is a daunting proposition. It is sui generis, mixing myth, greed, rank dishonesty, and a refusal to face the music. But this much is for sure: It’s anything but governance by elected representatives chosen by an informed electorate who deliberate and decide in the interests of the American people as a whole.

Siri, Where Are We?

In my estimation, Joe Biden is a man of goodwill but limited abilities. In ousting Donald Trump from the White House, he performed a vitally important service to the nation. But President Biden is not just very old. His entire outlook is as stale as a week-old bagel.

Biden clearly believes that he has a firm grasp on what our times require. He regularly insists that we have arrived at an “inflection point.” Drawing on the familiar narrative of the twentieth century, he believes that he has deciphered the meaning of that inflection point. His interpretation, shared by many others among the current crop of the Best and Brightest, centers on a conviction that a global competition between freedom and unfreedom, democracy and autocracy defines the overarching challenge of our time. It’s us against them — the United States (with accommodating allies holding Uncle Sam’s coat) pitted against China and Russia, the outcome of this competition guaranteed to determine the fate of humankind.

Forty years ago, dealing with the array of concerns that defined the late Cold War era — avoiding World War III, outcompeting the Soviets, and keeping the gas pumps from running dry — Biden might have been an effective president. Today, he’s as clueless as Liz Truss self-evidently was, spouting bromides and advocating for programs left over from the heyday of American liberalism.

As Biden stumbles wearily from one verbal gaffe to the next, he embodies the exhaustion of that earlier political era. If reinvigorating the American political order defines the urgent calling of our present moment, he hasn’t the least idea where to begin.

At the risk of violating the prevailing canons of political correctness, let me suggest that we turn for counsel to Russia. No, not Vladimir Putin, but Leo Tolstoy. In the conclusion to his novel War and Peace, Tolstoy wrote that “modern history, like a deaf man, answers questions no one has asked.” That pithy observation captures the essence of our own predicament: It’s the questions that go unasked that are likely to do us in.

Consider, for example, these: What if the vaunted “American way of life” doesn’t define the destiny of humankind? What if true freedom means something different than the conception promoted in Washington or New York, Hollywood or Silicon Valley? What if Biden’s inflection point — should it exist — doesn’t come with a Made-in-the-U.S.A. label?

The first step toward enlightenment is to ask the right questions. Joe Biden and the American political establishment seem remarkably blind to the need to do just that. So are the tens of millions of Americans, whether angry or simply baffled, who vainly stare at their smartphones in search of answers or who look at the results of the midterm elections and ask: Is that the best we can do?

As a nation, we are adrift in uncharted waters — and we can’t look to King Charles to save us.

Starting a war as the planet burns: The stupidest act in human history?

Rajan Menon: Our Global (Dis)Order and Climate Change

Someday, Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine may be rated as the stupidest act in human history. In case you hadn’t noticed (and if so, where the hell have you been living?), our planet’s in genuine crisis. Flooding, drought, melting ice sheets, and storms have only grown increasingly severe in recent years — and the way to take your mind off all that? Well, why not invade your neighbor and, as TomDispatch regular Rajan Menon makes clear today, pour yet more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere? Brilliant! Truly brilliant!

As that old song went: “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.” But what is it bad for? The answer, in a sense, is simple enough: so very much. And yet, call us all eerily hooked on war and preparations for more of it. And I’m not just thinking about the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, now destroying so much, killing so many, and creating staggering numbers of refugees. I’m thinking, for instance, about a recent story ABC News broke, indicating that the U.S. is now committed to building new facilities at Tindal Air Base in northern Australia that could house up to six B-52 nuclear bombers for a mere $100 million (a veritable steal!). From there, those planes would be able to reach China with their devastating payloads. Again, a brilliant decision to heighten the possibility of nuclear war (something that, if Vladimir Putin had done it, would have left Washington up in arms).

I mean, what better moment for the two greatest greenhouse gas emitters of today and, in the case of the U.S., the greatest in history not to communicate on the subject of global warming, while communicating oh-so-obviously with their weaponry. (The Chinese cut off climate talks with the U.S. last month.)

And as for that $100 million (no less the full billion going into building up American “defenses” across the northern part of Australia), what if the U.S. had given those funds to one of the poor countries that doesn’t have the necessary cash to begin financing its switch to non-greenhouse-gas-emitting energy? Not a chance, of course, and though United Nations head António Guterres has termed the sort of behavior now going on “collective suicide,” who’s paying the slightest attention to him?

Still, take a moment to pay a little attention to Menon, only recently back from Ukraine, who lays out just why that war qualifies right now as a true act of madness on Planet Earth. Tom

Fighting a War on the Wrong Planet: What Climate Change Should Have Taught Us

Washington’s vaunted “rules-based international order” has undergone a stress test following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and here’s the news so far: it hasn’t held up well. In fact, the disparate reactions to Vladimir Putin’s war have only highlighted stark global divisions, which reflect the unequal distribution of wealth and power. Such divisions have made it even harder for a multitude of sovereign states to find the minimal common ground needed to tackle the biggest global problems, especially climate change.

In fact, it’s now reasonable to ask whether an international community connected by a consensus of norms and rules, and capable of acting in concert against the direst threats to humankind, exists. Sadly, if the responses to the war in Ukraine are the standard by which we’re judging, things don’t look good.

The Myth of Universality

After Russia invaded, the United States and its allies rushed to punish it with a barrage of economic sanctions. They also sought to mobilize a global outcry by charging Putin with trashing what President Biden’s top foreign policy officials like to call the rules-based international order. Their effort has, at best, had minimal success.

Yes, there was that lopsided vote against Russia in the United Nations General Assembly, the March 2nd resolution on the invasion sponsored by 90 countries. One hundred and forty-one nations voted for it and only five against, while 35 abstained. Beyond that, in the “global south” at least, the response to Moscow’s assault has been tepid at best. None of the key countries there — Brazil, India, Indonesia, and South Africa, to mention four — even issued official statements castigating Russia. Some, including India and South Africa, along with 16 other African countries (and don’t forget China though it may not count as part of the global south), simply abstained from that U.N. resolution. And while Brazil, like Indonesia, voted yes, it also condemned “indiscriminate sanctions” against Russia.

None of those countries joined the United States and most of the rest of NATO in imposing sanctions on Russia, not even Turkey, a member of that alliance. In fact, Turkey, which last year imported 60 billion cubic meters of natural gas from Russia, has only further increased energy cooperation with Moscow, including raising its purchases of Russian oil to 200,000 barrels per day — more than twice what it bought in 2021. India, too, ramped up oil purchases from Russia, taking advantage of discounted prices from a Moscow squeezed by U.S. and NATO sanctions. Keep in mind that, before the war, Russia had accounted for just 1% of Indian oil imports. By early October, that number had reached 21%. Worse yet, India’s purchases of Russian coal — which emits far more carbon dioxide into the air than oil and natural gas — may increase to 40 million tons by 2035, five times the current amount.

Despite the risk of facing potential U.S. sanctions thanks to the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), India also stuck by its earlier decision to buy Russia’s most advanced air-defense system, the S-400. The Biden administration eventually threaded that needle by arranging a waiver for India, in part because it’s seen as a major future partner against China with which Washington has become increasingly preoccupied (as witnessed by the new National Security Strategy). The prime concern of the Indian leadership, however, has been to preserve its close ties with Russia, war or no war, given its fear of a growing alignment between that country and China, which India sees as its main adversary.

What’s more, since the invasion, China’s average monthly trade with Russia has surged by nearly two-thirds, Turkey’s has nearly doubled, and India’s has risen more than threefold, while Russian exports to Brazil have nearly doubled as well. This failure of much of the world to heed Washington’s clarion call to stand up for universal norms stems partly from pique at what’s seen as the West’s presumptuousness. On March 1st, when 20 countries, a number from the European Union, wrote Pakistan’s then-prime minister Imran Khan (who visited Putin soon after the war began), imploring him to support an upcoming General Assembly resolution censuring Russia, he all too typically replied: “What do you think of us? Are we your slaves… [Do you take for granted] that whatever you say we will do?” Had such a letter, he asked, been sent to India?

Similarly, Celso Amorim, who served as Brazil’s foreign minister for seven years during the presidency of Luis Inacio “Lula” de Silva (who will soon reclaim his former job), declared that condemning Russia would amount to obeying Washington’s diktat. For his part, Lula claimed Joe Biden and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky were partly to blame for the war. They hadn’t worked hard enough to avert it, he opined, by negotiating with Putin. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa blamed Putin’s actions on the way NATO had, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, provocatively expanded toward Russia’s border.

Many other countries simply preferred not to get sucked into a confrontation between Russia and the West. As they saw it, their chances of changing Putin’s mind were nil, given their lack of leverage, so why incur his displeasure? (After all, what was the West offering that might make choosing sides more palatable?) Besides, given their immediate daily struggles with energy prices, debt, food security, poverty, and climate change, a war in Europe seemed a distant affair, a distinctly secondary concern. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro typically suggested that he wasn’t about to join the sanctions regime because his country’s agriculture depended on imported Russian fertilizer.

Leaders in the global south were also struck by the contrast between the West’s urgency over Ukraine and its lack of similar fervor when it came to problems in their part of the world. There was, for instance, much commentary about the generosity and speed with which countries like Poland and Hungary (as well as the United States) embraced Ukrainian refugees, having largely shut the door on refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. In June, while not mentioning that particular example, India’s foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, highlighted such sentiments when, in response to a question about the European Union’s efforts to push his country to get tougher on Russia, he remarked that Europe “has to grow out of the mindset that [its] problems are the world’s problem, but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problem.” Given how “singularly silent” European countries had been “on many things which were happening, for example in Asia,” he added, “you could ask why anybody in Asia would trust Europe on anything at all?”

The West’s less-than-urgent response to two other problems aggravated by the Ukraine crisis that hit the world’s poor countries especially hard bore out Jaishankar’s point of view. The first was soaring food prices sure to worsen malnutrition, if not famine, in the global south. Already in May, the World Food Program warned that 47 million additional people (more than Ukraine’s total population) were going to face “acute food insecurity” thanks to a potential reduction in food exports from both Russia and Ukraine — and that was on top of the 193 million people in 53 countries who had already been in that predicament (or worse) in 2021.

A July deal brokered between Ukraine and Russia by the U.N. and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan did, in fact, ensure the resumption of food exports from both countries (though Russia briefly withdrew from it as October ended). Still, only a fifth of the added supply went to low-income and poor countries. While global food prices have fallen for six months straight now, another crisis cannot be ruled out as long as the war in Ukraine drags on.

The second problem was an increase in the cost of both borrowing money and of debt repayments following interest rate hikes by Western central banks seeking to tamp down inflation stoked by a war-induced spike in fuel prices. On average, interest rates in the poorest countries jumped by 5.7% — about twice as much as in the U.S. — increasing the cost of their further borrowing by 10% to 46%.

A more fundamental reason much of the global south wasn’t in a hurry to pillory Russia is that the West has repeatedly defenestrated the very values it declares to be universal. In 1999, for instance, NATO intervened in Kosovo, following Serbia’s repression of the Kosovars, even though it was not authorized to do so, as required, by a U.N. Security Council resolution (which China and Russia would have vetoed). The Security Council did approve the U.S. and European intervention in Libya in 2011 to protect civilians from the security forces of that country’s autocrat, Muammar Gadhafi. That campaign, however, quickly turned into one aimed at toppling his government by assisting the armed opposition and so would be widely criticized in the global south for creating ongoing chaos in that country. After 9/11, the United States offered classically contorted legal explanations for the way the Central Intelligence Agency violated the Convention Against Torture and the four 1949 Geneva Conventions in the name of wiping out terrorism.

Universal human rights, of course, occupy a prominent place in Washington’s narratives about that rules-based world order it so regularly promotes but in practice frequently ignores, notably in this century in the Middle East. Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was aimed at regime change against a country that posed no direct threat to Russia and therefore was indeed a violation of the U.N. Charter; but so, too, was the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, something few in the global south have forgotten.

The War and Climate Change

Worse yet, the divisions Vladimir Putin’s invasion has highlighted have only made it more difficult to take the necessary bold steps to combat the greatest danger all of us face on this planet: climate change. Even before the war, there was no consensus on who bore the most responsibility for the problem, who should make the biggest cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, or who should provide funds to countries that simply can’t afford the costs involved in shifting to green energy. Perhaps the only thing on which everyone agrees in this moment of global stress is that not enough has been done to meet the 2015 Paris climate accord target of ideally limiting the increase in global warming to 1.5 degrees Centigrade. That’s a valid conclusion. According to a U.N. report published this month, the planet’s warming will reach 2.4 degrees Centigrade by 2100. This is where things stood as the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference kicked off this month in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

As a start, the $100 billion per year that richer countries pledged to poor ones in 2009 to help move them away from hydrocarbon-based energy hasn’t been met in any year so far and recent disbursements, minimal as they have been, were largely in the form of loans, not grants. The resources the West will now have to spend just to cover Ukraine’s non-military needs for 2023 — $55 billion in budgetary assistance and infrastructure repairs alone, according to President Volodymyr Zelensky — plus soaring inflation and slower growth in Western economies thanks to the war make it doubtful that green commitments to poor countries will be fulfilled in the years to come. (Never mind the pledge, in advance of the November 2021 COP26 United Nations Climate Change Conference, that the $100 billion goal would be met in 2023.)

In the end, the surge in energy costs created by the war, in part because Russia’s natural gas supplies to Europe have been slashed, could prove the shot in the arm needed for some of the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide and methane to move more quickly toward wind and solar power. That seems especially possible because the price of clean energy technologies has declined so sharply in recent years. The cost of photovoltaic cells for solar power has, for instance, fallen by nearly 90% in the past decade; the cost for lithium-ion batteries, needed for rechargeable electric vehicles, by the same amount during the last 20 years. Optimism about a quicker greening of the planet, now a common refrain, could prove valid in the long run. However, when it comes to progress on climate change, the immediate implications of the war aren’t encouraging.

According to the International Energy Agency, if the Paris Agreement’s target for limiting global warming and its goal of “net zero” in global emissions by 2050 are to prove feasible, the building of additional fossil-fuel infrastructure must cease immediately. And that’s hardly what’s been happening since the war in Ukraine began. Instead, there has been what one expert calls “a gold rush to new fossil fuel infrastructure.” Following the drastic cuts in Russian gas exports to Europe, new liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities — more than 20 of them, worth billions of dollars — have either been planned or put on a fast track in Canada, Germany, Greece, Italy, and the Netherlands. The Group of Seven may even reverse its decision last May to stop public investment in overseas fossil-fuel projects by the end of this year, while its plan to “decarbonize” the energy sectors of member countries by 2035 may also fall by the wayside.

In June, Germany, desperate to replace that Russian natural gas, announced that mothballed coal-fired power plants, the dirtiest of greenhouse-gas producers, would be brought back online. The Federation of German Industry, which opposed shutting them down well before the war started, has indicated that it’s already switching to coal so that natural gas storage tanks can be filled before the winter cold sets in. India, too, has responded to higher energy prices with plans to boost coal production by almost 56 gigawatts through 2032, a 25% increase. Britain has scrapped its decision to prohibit, on environmental grounds, the development of the Jackdaw natural gas field in the North Sea and has already signed new contracts with Shell and other fossil-fuel companies. European countries have concluded several deals for LNG purchases, including with Azerbaijan, Egypt, Israel, the United States, and Qatar (which has demanded 20-year contracts). Then there’s Russia’s response to high energy prices, including a huge Arctic drilling project aimed at adding 100 million tons of oil a year to the global supply by 2035.

U.N. Secretary-General António Gutteres characterized this dash toward yet more hydrocarbon energy use as “madness.” Using a phrase long reserved for nuclear war, he suggested that such an unceasing addiction to fossil fuels could end in “mutually assured destruction.” He has a point: the U.N. Environment Program’s 2022 “Emissions Gap Report” released last month concluded that, in light of the emissions targets of so many states, Earth’s warming in the post-Industrial Revolution era could be in the range of 2.1 to 2.9 degrees Celsius by 2100. That’s nowhere near the Paris Agreement’s more ambitious benchmark of 1.5 degrees on a planet where the average temperature has already risen by 1.2 degrees.

As the Germany-based Perspectives on Climate Group details in a recent study, the Ukraine war has also had direct effects on climate change that will continue even after the fighting ends. As a start, the Paris Agreement doesn’t require countries to report emissions produced by their armed forces, but the war in Ukraine, likely to be a long-drawn-out affair, has already contributed to military carbon emissions in a big way, thanks to fossil-fuel-powered tanks, aircraft, and so much else. Even the rubble created by the bombardment of cities has released more carbon dioxide. So will Ukraine’s post-war reconstruction, which its prime minister estimated last month will cost close to $750 billion. And that may be an underestimate considering that the Russian army has taken its wrecking ball (or perhaps wrecking drones, missiles, and artillery) to everything from power plants and waterworks to schools, hospitals, and apartment buildings.

What International Community?

Leaders regularly implore “the international community” to act in various ways. If such appeals are to be more than verbiage, however, compelling evidence is needed that 195 countries share basic principles of some sort on climate change — that the world is more than the sum of its parts. Evidence is also needed that the most powerful countries on this planet can set aside their short-term interests long enough to act in a concerted fashion and decisively when faced with planet-threatening problems like climate change. The war in Ukraine offers no such evidence. For all the talk of a new dawn that followed the end of the Cold War, we seem stuck in our old ways — just when they need to change more than ever.

'Thank you for your service': The intolerable price veterans pay to feed America's addiction to war

Kelly Denton-Borhaug: What an American Addiction to War Means to Veterans

I felt it then. I feel far more certain of it now. My dad, who died in 1983, was a member of what came to be known as the Greatest Generation, those who served in World War II. In fact, he volunteered the day after Pearl Harbor (though he was then old enough that he might not have been drafted) and ended up in the U.S. Army Air Corps — there was no separate Air Force in those days — with the First Air Commandos fighting the Japanese in Burma.

And here was the strange thing: though he had souvenirs of that war in his closet, including an old mess kit, a duffle bag filled with papers, his major’s hat, and various wartime badges, and as a boy I was fascinated, he would never really talk about his time at war. The only exceptions were those sudden outbursts of anger because my mother had shopped at a nearby grocery store whose owners, he claimed, had been war profiteers, or later because I had gone to a Japanese restaurant or bought a German car (a Volkswagen). Mind you, I thought I knew all there was to know about his war experience because he used to take me to the war movies of the 1950s where we both watched Americans ever triumphant, ever satisfied, ever glorious — and he never said a word about them, which seemed to validate everything I saw on screen.

Now, I suspect he had returned from that war with some version of post-traumatic stress disorder, some disturbance deep inside that came out in indirect but harsh ways in the tough years (for him) of the 1950s. But who talked about such things then? No one in my world, that’s for sure. And that was “the good war” (as Studs Terkel labeled it, quote marks included, in his famed oral history of World War II).

When it comes to America’s bad wars of the last century and this one, however, we know a good deal more about what they’ve done to this country’s “warriors,” as TomDispatch regular, religion scholar, and author of And Then Your Soul is Gone: Moral Injury and U.S. War-Culture Kelly Denton-Borhaug makes all too clear today. Yes, in these years, Americans were in a rush to “thank” those who fought our distant wars, while life here went on almost as if they weren’t happening. But now we know that the price paid for the disasters in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere was far, far too high (even if you ignore the costs borne by Afghans, Iraqis, and so many others). With that in mind, as Veterans Day comes around once more, take a moment with Denton-Borhaug to consider the price our vets have paid for the decision to fight the Global War on Terror across significant parts of this planet forever and a day. Tom

The Intolerable Price You Pay: A Civilian Addresses American Veterans on Veterans Day

[Denton-Borhaug will give a version of this talk virtually to Veterans for Peace Chapter 102 at a Reclaim Armistice Day meeting at the Milwaukee City Hall Rotunda this Veteran’s Day.]

Dear Veterans,

I’m a civilian who, like many Americans, has strong ties to the U.S. Armed Forces. I never considered enlisting, but my father, uncles, cousins, and nephews did. As a child I baked cookies to send with letters to my cousin Steven who was serving in Vietnam. My family tree includes soldiers on both sides of the Civil War. Some years before my father died, he shared with me his experience of being drafted during the Korean War and, while on leave, traveling to Hiroshima, Japan. There, just a few short years after an American atomic bomb had devastated that city as World War II ended, he was haunted by seeing the dark shadows of the dead cast onto concrete by the nuclear blast.

As Americans, all of us are, in some sense, linked to the violence of war. But most of us have very little understanding of what it means to be touched by war. Still, since the events of September 11, 2001, as a scholar of religion, I’ve been trying to understand what I’ve come to call “U.S. war-culture.” For it was in the months after those terrible attacks more than 20 years ago that I awoke to the depth of our culture of war and our society’s pervasive militarization. Eventually, I saw how important truths about our country were concealed when we made the violence of war into something sacred. And most important of all, while trying to come to grips with this dissonant reality, I started listening to you, the veterans of our recent wars, and simply couldn’t stop.

Dismantling the Lies About and Justifications for Our Wars

The only proper response to 9/11, our political leaders assured us then, was war and nothing but war — “a necessary sacrifice,” a phrase they endlessly repeated. In the years that followed, in speeches and public spectacles, one particular image surfaced again and again. The lives — and especially injuries and deaths — of American soldiers were incessantly linked to the injuries inflicted on Jesus of Nazareth, and to his death on the cross. President George W. Bush, for example, milked this imagery in 2008:

This weekend, families across America are coming together to celebrate Easter… During this special and holy time of year, millions of Americans pause to remember a sacrifice that transcended the grave and redeemed the world… On Easter we hold in our hearts those who will be spending this holiday far from home — our troops… I deeply appreciate the sacrifice that they and their families are making… On Easter, we especially remember those who have given their lives for the cause of freedom. These brave individuals have lived out the words of the Gospel, 'Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.' [John 15:13 ]

The abusive exploitation of religion to bless violence covered the reality of war’s hideous destructiveness with a sacred sheen. And this justification for what quickly became known as the Global War on Terror troubled me, leaving me with many questions. I wondered: Is it true that we demonstrate what we most value in life by dying for it?

What about living for what we value most?

Biblical stories about the suffering and death of the distinctly nonviolent Jesus of Nazareth were shamelessly manipulated in those years to sacralize our wars and the religious among us largely failed to question such bizarre connections. Eventually, I began to understand that war cultures are by their nature death cults. The depth of the militarization of this country and the harshness of its wars abroad were concealed by converting death into something sacred. Meanwhile, the deaths of Afghans, Iraqis, and so many others in such conflicts were generally ignored. Tragically, religion proved an all-too-useful resource for such moral exploitation.

We civilians deceive ourselves by insisting that we’re a peaceful nation desiring the well-being of all peoples. In reality, the United States has built an empire of military bases (more than 750 at last count) on every continent but Antarctica. Our political leaders annually approve a military budget that’s apocalyptically high (and may reach a trillion dollars a year before the end of this decade). We spend more on our military than the next nine nations combined to finance the violence of war.

Our political leaders and many citizens insist that having such a staggering infrastructure of war is the only way Americans will be secure, while claiming that we’re anything but a warring people. Analysts of war-culture know better. As peace and conflict studies scholar Marc Pilisuk puts it: “Wars are products of a social order that plans for them and then accepts this planning as natural.”

Learning War Is Like Ingesting Poison

I’ve personally witnessed the confusion and conflicted responses of many veterans to this mystifying distortion of reality. How painful and destabilizing it must be to return from your military deployment to a society that insists on crassly celebrating and glorifying war, while so many of you had no choice but to absorb the terrible knowledge of what an atrocity it is. “War damages all who wage it,” chaplain Michael Lapsley wrote. “The United States has been infected by endless war.” Veterans viscerally carry the violence of war in their bodies. It’s as if you became “sin-eaters” who had to swallow the evil of the conflicts the United States waged in these years and then live with their consequences inside you.

Worse yet, most Americans refuse to face our national reality. Instead, they twist such truths into something else entirely. They distance themselves from you by labeling you “heroes” and the “spine of the nation.” They call war’s work of death the epitome of citizenship. They don’t want to know how often and how deeply you were afraid; how conflicted you were about life-and-death decisions you had to make when no good choice was available. They don’t want to hear, as one veteran said recently in my presence, that too often your lives “were dealt with carelessly.”

They also don’t want to hear about the military training that shaped you to deal carelessly with the lives of others, both combatants and civilians. Those are inconvenient details that get in the way of a national adulation of war (in a draft-less country where 99% of all citizens remain civilians). After all, war fever means good business for the weapons makers of the military-industrial complex. As Pentagon expert William Hartung recently put it, “The Biden administration has continued to arm reckless, repressive regimes” globally, while its military support for Ukraine lacks any diplomatic strategy for ending that war, instead “enabling a long, grinding conflict that will both vastly increase the humanitarian suffering in Ukraine and risk escalation to direct U.S.-Russian confrontation.”

Such complexities involving alternatives to Washington’s war-making urges are, of course, not part of the national conversation on Veterans Day. Instead, we are promised that war and this country’s warriors will somehow redeem us as a nation. The unimaginable losses to families, communities, infrastructure, and culture in the lands where such conflicts have been fought in this century are invisible to most citizens, while typical Veterans Day commemorations recast you as messianic redemptive figures who “have paid the price for our freedom.”

But to convert war-making into something sacred means fashioning a deceitful myth. Violence is not a harmless tool. It’s not a coat that a person wears and takes off without consequences. Violence instead brutalizes human beings to their core; chains people to the forces of dehumanization; and, over time, eats away at you like acid dripping into your very soul. That same dehumanization also undermines democracy, something you would never know from the way the United States glorifies its wars as foundational to what it means to be an American.

Silencing and Commodifying Veterans

Meanwhile, citizens rush to “thank you for your service.” You’re allowed to board airplanes first and given discounts at the nation’s amusement parks. Veterans Day only exacerbates your sickening commodification, as all those big box stores, other corporations, and financial institutions use you to try to increase their profits (like the bank in my town last year with its newspaper ad: “Freedom isn’t Free: Veterans Paid Our Way. Thank you. Embassy Bank”).

These dynamics silence the truths you carry within you. I’ve heard you say that you often find it impossible to tell the rest of us, even family members, what really happened. You struggle with feelings of alienation from civilian culture, unable to express your anger or describe your struggles with deep-seated shame, guilt, resentment, and disgust.

Your military service often left you with debilitating physical and psychological injuries and even deeper “moral injuries.” Veteran and author Michael Yandell struggles to describe this ruinous self-disintegration, writing “I despaired of myself, and of the very world.” Borne out of the crushing suffering that is the world of war, some of you experienced moral pain that grew to an intolerable level. There was no longer any world left that you could trust or believe in, no values anywhere, anymore. And yet, you represent such a small percentage of the population — less than 1% of us join the military — while disproportionately shouldering such a painful legacy from the last 20 years of American war-making across significant parts of the planet.

More often than not, the invisible wounds of returning veterans are shrouded in silence. For some of you, unbearable pain led to disastrous consequences, including self-harm, loss of relationships, isolation, and self-destructive risk-taking. At least one in three female members of the armed forces has experienced sexual assault or harassment from fellow service members. More than 17 of you veterans take your own lives every day. And you live with all of this, while so much of the rest of the nation fails to muster the will to see you, hear you, or face honestly the American addiction to war.

The truths about war that you might tell us are generally rejected and invalidated, cementing you into a heavy block of silence. Military chaplain Sean Levine describes how the U.S. must “deny the trauma of its warriors lest that trauma radically redefine our understanding of war.” He continues, “Blind patriotism has done inestimable damage to the souls of thousands of our returning warriors.”

If we civilians paid attention to your honesty, we would find ourselves slammed headlong into a conflict with a national culture that glorifies war, conceals the political and material interests of the titans of weaponry and war production, and successfully distracts us from the depth of its destruction. We civilians are complicit and so lurch away from facing the inevitable revulsion, sorrow, mourning, and guilt that always accompany the reality of war.

An Alternative for Veterans Day

Honestly, the only way forward is for you to tell — and us to compassionately take in — the unadulterated stories of war. One Vietnam veteran vividly described what war did to him this way:

I went to war when I was a little over twenty — not a child, but not yet an adult. When I arrived at the Cleveland airport after my tour of duty in Vietnam, I just sat down paralyzed with befuddled emotions. I didn’t even call my parents to tell them I was home. I was afraid my family would expect to see the person I was, and not accept the person I had become; that they would not forgive me for what I had done and not done in Vietnam. How could they when I couldn’t forgive myself? Like some toxic virus morphing in a Petri dish, the war infected my moral DNA. I came home no longer thinking with the same mind, seeing with the same eyes, hearing with the same ears.

When you speak out and tell truths this way, you exemplify the epitome of citizenship, as well as courage, vulnerability, and a commitment to hope. Such revelations show that the light of your conscience wasn’t quashed by war. Thích Nhất Hạnh, the Buddhist international peace activist, pointed the way forward for veterans and the rest of us alike when he wrote:

Veterans are the light at the tip of the candle, illuminating the way for the whole nation. If veterans can achieve awareness, transformation, understanding, and peace, they can share with the rest of society the realities of war.

The resulting trauma from war’s inevitable dehumanization is not yours alone. War-culture in this country leaves us with a residual collective trauma that weighs us all down and is only made worse by a national blindness to it.

As a civilian on Veterans Day, I hope to support the creation of spaces where your voices resoundingly are heard, and your faces seen. Together, we must determine how best to do the work of rehumanizing our world. Jack Saul, from the International Trauma Studies Program, reminds us that listening is “deeply humanizing” because it generates the healing power of empathy. Compassionate listening spaces “strengthen our connections to others and ourselves, and ultimately make society better.”

This Veterans Day I’m taking part in a “Community Healing Ceremony” through the Moral Injury Program in Philadelphia where I and other civilians will witness the strength of veterans offering testimony about the evil of war in their lives. Hearing your words will clarify my own understanding, vision, and resolve. Listening can be transformative, helping tear down the deceitful myths of war-culture, while building honesty and a willingness to see our world as it is.

Let me finish by thanking you, the veterans of our wars, for your truth-telling. Your contribution is invaluable in this embattled world of ours.

Tipping points and collective action: How to survive the future on a broiling planet

Frida Berrigan, Living in a Tipping-Point World

In her piece today, TomDispatch regular Frida Berrigan brings up a past I remember all too well. Indeed, I can still recall my teacher putting a radio on her desk when I was a schoolboy in the 1950s so we could hear what must have been CONELRAD broadcasting a nuclear alert — it was a test, of course — and we students, well trained, promptly “ducked and covered” (as the phrase went) by diving under our desks, hands over heads. As you might imagine, it wasn’t exactly a position that left you with a deep sense of confidence, should Russian nuclear weapons actually strike New York City, where I grew up.

Still, in some way, it certainly did focus my young mind on the apocalyptic dangers of our world. It made the “Cold War” seem both all too real and all too potentially overheated, even though I had never seen a nuclear weapon or met someone from the Soviet Union. What I wonder these days is: in a world where nuclear arsenals are far more terrifying than in the 1950s but none of us duck and cover anymore (despite the recent much-ridiculed New York City nuclear warning that Berrigan mentions), do most of us even think about such futures, much less try to protect ourselves from them? I doubt it.

And as for that other apocalyptic way our world could end — the one none of us knew about in my childhood (though a select few were already aware of it) — there are no duck-and-cover drills for it. I’m thinking, of course, about climate change.

Unfortunately, that second nightmare, unlike the first, isn’t just a future possibility. It’s already happening right before our eyes, whether we care to recognize it or not. You shouldn’t be able to miss it if you’re living beside the drying up Colorado or Mississippi rivers, or your California town burned to the ground in a devastating wildfire, or your home was wiped out by a hurricane beyond measure or disappeared in a flood of previously unknown magnitude.

Of course, once the heat drops for the winter, the fire season ends, or the latest round of flooding finally dries up, denial sets in again as we duck and cover not to protect ourselves, but to ignore what’s actually happening on this planet. Sadly, in a world in which the apocalyptic is becoming an everyday affair, all too many of us seem to be ducking and covering in just that fashion and it doesn’t matter whether, for instance, I’m talking about climate-denying Republican politicians or the voters far too willing to put them in office.

With all of that in mind, take a little time out in the open with Frida Berrigan. For at least a brief moment, no ducking and covering allowed. Tom

How to Survive Us – Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow on a Broiling Planet

When I was growing up, there was a parody of an old-fashioned public announcement tacked to the wall of our kitchen that I vividly remember. It had step-by-step instructions for what to do “in case of a nuclear bomb attack.” Step 6 was “bend over and place your head firmly between your legs”; step 7, “kiss your ass goodbye.”

That shouldn’t be surprising, since my parents, Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister, once-upon-a-time priest and nun, were well-known antinuclear activists. I was too young to be a part of the “duck-and-cover generation” who, at school, practiced hiding from a nuclear attack beneath their desks or heading for local bomb shelters in the basements of churches and town halls.

Born in 1974, I think of myself as a member of The Day After generation, who were instructed to watch that remarkably popular made-for-TV movie in 1983 and report on our observations and feelings. Dramatizing the life of people in a small town in Kansas after a full-scale nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States, it made a strong (if perhaps unintentional) case that dying in the initial blast would have been better than surviving and facing the nuclear winter and over-armed chaos that followed.

In this Ukraine War era, maybe we could label today’s kids as the Generation Fed Up With Grown Ups (Gen Fed Up). The members of Gen Z are “digital natives,” born with smartphones in their hands and instantly able to spot all the messy seams in, and agendas behind, poorly produced, un-informative Public Service Announcements like the New York City Emergency Management department’s much pilloried recent PSA about what to do in case of — yep, you guessed it! — a nuclear attack: get inside, stay inside, and stay tuned. (Sounds pretty close to the poster on my wall growing up, doesn’t it?)

Young people need real information and analysis, survival skills and resources. Generation Z and the younger Generation Alpha (I have some of both in my family) are growing up in a world torn apart by the selfishness and shortsightedness of earlier generations, including the impact of the never-ending production and “modernization” of nuclear weapons, not to speak of the climate upheaval gripping this planet and all the horrors that go with it, including sea level rise, megadrought, flooding, mass migration, starvation, and on and on and on…

Jornado del Muerto

The nuclear age began during World War II with the July 16, 1945, test of a six-kilogram plutonium weapon code-named Trinity in the Jornado Del Muerto Valley in New Mexico. No one bothered to tell the estimated 38,000 people who lived within 60 miles of that atomic test that it was about to take place or that there might be dangerous nuclear fallout following the blast. No one was evacuated. The area, whose Spanish name in translation means, appropriately enough, Journey of Death, was rich in indigenous culture and life, home to 19 American Indian pueblos, two Apache tribes, and some chapters of the Navajo Nation. Though hardly remembered today, they were the first nuclear casualties of our age.

That initial test was quickly evaluated as successful and, less than a month later, American war planners considered themselves ready for the ultimate “tests” — the atomic bombing of two Japanese cities, Hiroshima on August 6th and Nagasaki three days later. The initial blasts from those back-to-back bombs killed hundreds of thousands of people on the spot and immediately thereafter, and countless more from radiation sickness and cancer.

Fat Man and Little Boy, as those bombs were bizarrely code-named, should have signaled the end of nuclear war, even of all war. The incineration of so many civilians and the leveling of two major cities should have been motivation enough to put the cork in the deadly power of the atom and consign nuclear weapons to some museum of horrors alongside the guillotine, the rack, and other past devices of obscene torture.

But it would prove to be just the beginning of an arms race and a cheapening of life that goes on to this day. After all, this country continues to “modernize” its nuclear arsenal to the tune of trillions of dollars, while Vladimir Putin has threatened to use one or more of his vast store of “tactical” nukes, and the Chinese are rushing to catch up. I keep thinking about how 77 years of nuclear brinkmanship and impending doom has taken its global toll, even while making life more precarious and helping render this beautiful and complex planet a garbage can for forever radioactive waste. (Okay, okay, hyperbole alert… it’s not forever, just literally a million years.)

Some among the duck-and-cover generation feared that they wouldn’t live to see adulthood, that there would be no tomorrow. Not surprisingly, too many of them, when they grew up, came to treat the planet as if there indeed were no tomorrow. And you can see evidence of just that attitude any time you consider the “prosperity” of the second industrial revolution with its toxic sludge of fossil fuels, PCBs, asbestos, lead in paint and gas, and so many plastics. This polluting of our ground, water, and air was all, I suspect, spurred on by a nihilistic nuclearism.

It seems impossible to work so hard to shift from burning carbon to capturing solar or wind power if there’s a chance that it could all go up in a mushroom cloud tomorrow. But there have been some notable efforts from which to draw hope and inspiration as we keep living out those very tomorrows. As environmentalist and futurist Bill McKibben writes in his memoir The Flag, The Cross and The Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back on His Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What The Hell Happened, President Jimmy Carter tried to guide this country to a less carbon-dependent future — and it cost him the presidency. The Carter White House sought to mitigate the damage of the 1979 oil crisis with significant investments in solar power and other green technologies and cutting-edge conservation. Had such policies been allowed to take hold, as McKibben points out, “climate changes would have turned from an existential crisis to a manageable problem on a list of other problems.”

Can you imagine? We love Carter now for his folksy accessibility, moral stamina, and promotion of affordable housing through Habitat for Humanity, but as we doom-scroll the latest news about present and future climate catastrophes, we have to reach back through time to even imagine a healthier tomorrow. Sadly enough, with Carter, we might have been near a turning point, we might have had a chance… and then actor (and huckster) Ronald Reagan rode his 10-gallon cowboy hat into the White House, removed the rooftop solar panels the Carters had installed, instituted tax cuts for the very wealthy, and loosened regulations on every type of polluter. President Reagan did that in 1986, only a year or so after the last month of our era that the planet was cooler than average.

Tomorrow

1986 seems like just yesterday! Now what? How about tomorrow?

After all, here we are in 2022 about to hit eight billion strong on this planet of ours. And there is, of course, a tomorrow. Hotter and drier but dawning all the same. Wetter and windier but coming anyway.

I have three kids, ages 8, 10 and 15, and they anchor me in a troubling and strange, if still ultimately beautiful, reality. This world, however finite with its increasingly overwhelming problems, is still precious to me and worth a good fight. I can’t turn away from tomorrow. It’s not an abstraction. The headlines now seem to endlessly scream: we are at a potential tipping point in terms of the climate. Did I say a potential tipping point? I meant to make that plural. In fact, an article in the September 8th issue of the Guardian lists 16 of them in all. Sixteen! Imagine that!

Three of the biggest ones that climate scientists agree we’re close to tipping over are:

1. The collapse of Greenland’s ice cap, which will produce a huge rise in global sea levels.
2. The collapse of a key current in the north Atlantic Ocean, which will further disrupt rainfall and weather patterns throughout the world, severely curtailing global food production.
3. The melting of the Arctic’s carbon-rich permafrost, releasing staggering amounts of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere and so further broiling this planet. (Will it freeze again if we do the right thing? Not likely, as it seems as if that tipping point has already tipped.)

In the face of all of this, in the age of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Elon Musk, and the rest of the crew, how do you change political or corporate behavior to slow, if not reverse, global warming? More than three-quarters of a century of uncertain tomorrows has made the human race — particularly, of course, those in the developed/industrialized world — awful stewards of the future.

“So when we need collective action at the global level, probably more than ever since the second world war, to keep the planet stable, we have an all-time low in terms of our ability to collectively act together. Time is really running out very, very fast.” So said Johan Potsdam, a scientist with the Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. As he added tellingly, speaking of the global temperature ceiling set at the Paris climate accords in 2015 (and already considered out of date in the latest devastating United Nations report), “I must say, in my professional life as a climate scientist, this is a low point. The window for 1.5C is shutting as I speak, so it’s really tough.”

Dire predictions, reams of science, sober calls to act from climatologists and activists, not to speak of island and coastal communities already being displaced by a fast-warming world. Only recently, two young people from the climate movement Last Generation threw mashed potatoes at the glass covering a classic Claude Monet painting in a museum near Berlin in a bid to get attention, while activists from Just Stop Oil used tomato soup on the glass of Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in London in October. In neither case were the paintings themselves harmed; in both cases, they have my attention, for what that’s worth.

For striking numbers of climate refugees globally, the point has already tipped and, given their situations, they might like to have some tomato soup and mashed potatoes — to eat rather than to be flung as protest props. In the longer term, for their children and grandchildren, they need masses of people in the biggest greenhouse gas polluters — China and the United States top the list — to radically alter their lifestyles to help protect what’s left of this distinctly finite planet of ours.

Yesterday

Thomas Berrigan, my grandfather, was born in 1879. My grandmother Frida was born in 1886. While they missed the pre-industrial era by more than 100 years, their early lives in the United States were almost carbon-free. They hauled water, chopped wood, and largely ate from a meager garden. As poor people, their carbon footprint remained remarkably small, even as the pace and pollution of life in the United States and the industrialized West picked up.

My father, Philip Berrigan, born in 1923, was the youngest of six brothers. There could have been two more generations of Berrigans between his birth and mine in 1974, but there weren’t. I could have been a grandmother when I gave birth to my last child in 2014, but I wasn’t. So, in our own way, whether we meant to or not, we slowed down the march of generations and I’m grateful for the long perspective that gives me.

In her later years, my grandmother marveled at the ways in which a car could bring her back and forth to the city “all in one day.” More recently, her great-grandchildren have found that they could still go to school (after a fashion) thanks to computers during the Covid pandemic, communicating in real-time with teachers and classmates scattered elsewhere in our world.

It’s not likely that I’ll live until 2079, my grandfather’s 200th birthday, but his great-granddaughter, my daughter Madeline, will just be turning 65 then. If she has my mother’s longevity, she’ll be 86 when we hit the year 2100, That is the grim milestone (tombstone?) when climate scientists expect that we could reach a disastrous global average temperature of 2.1 to 2.9 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Unless. Unless something is done, many somethings are done to reverse greenhouse gas emissions. Otherwise, that spells disaster beyond measure for my children’s children.

When I look at old photos, I see my own face in my mother’s hollowed-out, age-spotted cheeks. And when I look at my daughter’s still chubby cheeks and the way her eyebrows arch, I see my own younger face (and that of my mother’s, too).

As far as I’m concerned, the year 2100 is my future, even though I won’t be here to struggle through it with my children and their children. In the meantime, we keep putting one foot in front of the other (walking is better for the environment anyway) and struggling somehow to deal with this beautiful, broken world of ours. One generation cedes to the next, doing its best to impart wisdom and offer lessons without really knowing what tools those who follow us will need to carve a better tomorrow out of a worsening today.

To go back to the beginning, while such a thing is still possible, if nuclear weapons, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, fossil fuels, and apocalyptic fear helped get us to this breaking point, we need something truly different now. We need not war, but peace; not new nukes, but next-generation-level diplomacy; not fossil fuels, but the greenest of powers imaginable. We need a world that Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Elon Musk, and their ilk can’t even imagine, a world where their kind of power is neither needed, nor celebrated.

We need gratitude, humility, and awe at the deep web of interconnection that undergirds the whole of nature. We need curiosity, joy in discovery, and celebration. And our kids (that Gen Fed Up) can help us access those powers, because they’re inherent in all children. So, no more ducking and covering, no more Day After, no more staying inside. Let us learn from Generation Z and Generation Alpha and change — and maybe survive.

Truth on trial: In a world of speed, will the courts go down?

Andy Kroll: Truth on Trial

Alice wouldn’t recognize America’s real-life tea party, which could hardly get madder (or so I say now). Instead of the Queen of Hearts — you know, the character in Alice in Wonderland who ordered the decapitation of the Mad Hatter — you’d have to start with…. hmmm, how would you even decide when the choices include Herschel Walker, Mehmet Oz, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Doug Mastriano, Kari Lake, Blake Masters, and… well, why even go on? You get it, don’t you? In fact, you couldn’t live in this country and not “get it” anymore.

Just for a moment — yes, right now — imagine that Walker, Oz, and Masters have actually made it into the U.S. Senate, that Sanders (and believe me, I don’t mean the all-too-sane Bernie), Lake, and Mastriano are the governors of Arkansas, Arizona, and Pennsylvania — and I haven’t even begun to mention potentially crucial state positions like Matthew DePerno as the Michigan attorney general or Jim Marchant (Nevada) and Kristina Karamo (Michigan) becoming secretaries of state, leaving them in possible control of future election ballot counts; and, mind you, all of the above is just to start down a list of the crew of Mad Hatters (or do I mean Mad Haters?) running for key posts in the increasingly (dis)United States of America.

Honestly, if you had told me about all this back in the days before computers, the Internet, or social media, when only birds tweeted and having your face in a book meant reading one, I would have laughed you out of the room. And I haven’t even mentioned something that once would have been beyond laughable and has, of course, already happened: the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. In fact, the only reason I can even imagine what it means to be a political reporter in this country today is because I know TomDispatch regular Andy Kroll, author of the new book on a country adrift in a universe of rumors, A Death on W Street: The Murder of Seth Rich and the Age of Conspiracy. Now, let him fill you in on what a total laggard the truth is in the world of American politics in 2022. Tom

Your Factoids Against Mine: In a World of Speed, Will the Courts Go Down?

For about a week in the summer of 2018, I caught an early-morning train from Washington, D.C., to the Albert V. Bryan federal courthouse in the suburb of Alexandria. Located a short drive from George Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon, that courthouse serves the Eastern District of Virginia. It has played host to a wide variety of closely watched cases, from terrorism trials and inscrutable cybersecurity matters to the government’s prosecution of whistleblowers Daniel Hale and Chelsea Manning.

The defendant whose trial I was covering was Paul Manafort, who had been the chairman of Donald Trump’s first presidential campaign. The special investigation led by former FBI director Robert Mueller probing Russian interference in the 2016 election had led to Manafort’s indictment on multiple charges of conspiracy, money laundering, and other financial crimes. He denied the allegations and decided to take his chances at trial, putting his future in the hands of 12 northern Virginia jurors.

The Eastern District — EDVA, as it’s better known — is notorious for its old-school rules. Unlike most legal venues, reporters and members of the public aren’t allowed to bring electronics of any kind into that courthouse. There are no lockers or storage units on-site. Each morning, I waited in line (along with half of the D.C. press corps) inside a small café across from the courthouse to pay $10 to store my phone and laptop underneath the cash register. Bereft of my devices, I was left to cover the Manafort case the way a reporter would have in the 1960s — with pen and paper, scrawling notes on a pad on my knee and later spending as much time deciphering those jottings as I did writing up the day’s events.

I’ll never forget the experience of covering that trial. Joining me in the courtroom gallery most days were a dozen or so self-described “trial tourists,” people who had taken a day off from work to sit in on the case. A few silver-haired retirees had traveled from other states to hear expert witnesses testify about Manafort’s money-laundering operation or his taste in lavish ostrich-skin coats and luxury real estate. But what stays with me most is the way that all the usual noise, chatter, tweets, and din of this bizarre American moment seemed to stop at the courthouse doors. Stepping into Room 900, I felt like some celestial being had pressed the “Mute” button on the outside world.

The jury would ultimately convict Manafort on eight counts of financial fraud. Afterward, one juror, a Donald Trump supporter, told Fox News that she had wanted to find Manafort innocent, “but he wasn’t. That’s the part of a juror,” she explained, “you have to have due diligence and deliberate and look at the evidence and come up with an informed and intelligent decision, which I did.”

I remember her comments because they seemed to confirm what I had observed covering the case — in that courtroom, it didn’t matter whose tweet got the most “likes” or whose video tallied the most views. It felt, strangely enough, like a refuge from the modern mania of social media and Trumpism, an old-fashioned bastion of facts, rationality, and truth.

My mind flashed back to Paul Manafort as I watched the two recent trials of Alex Jones, the prominent conspiracy theorist and founder of the website Infowars. He faced lawsuits in Texas and Connecticut filed by parents whose children had died in the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting. Jones had spent years spreading cruel lies about that mass killing, calling it a “hoax” and a “false flag” operation, while also accusing those parents of being “crisis actors” whose children were never actually killed.

In both cases, a judge had already ruled against Jones; the question before the two juries was how much he should pay to those Sandy Hook families. In the end, they would together award the families more than $1 billion in damages — money that Jones promptly claimed he didn’t have and couldn’t pay. The Jones trials also marked one of the few times that he faced any sort of accountability for his years of conspiracy theories. Unlike on his show or on social media, in court he couldn’t say whatever he wanted regardless of whether it was true. “You believe everything you say is true, but it isn’t,” Judge Maya Guerra Gamble admonished him. “That is what we’re doing here…Things must actually be true when you say them.”

The Loudest Voice in the Room

We live in an era when the truth can feel like whatever the loudest voices claim it is, whether the most extreme version of events or the one that feels right (even if it isn’t). I’ve covered scores, if not hundreds, of campaign rallies and stump speeches in my 15 years as a journalist. I tend to find my conversations with people in those crowds far more revealing than anything uttered by the candidate onstage, including, of course, that ultimate on-stager Donald Trump.

Lately, I’ve noticed a familiar refrain in those interviews. Once upon a time, rival politicians or competing media pundits normally agreed on at least a modest set of shared basic facts — humans are warming the planet to dangerous levels, say, or democracy works best when everyone participates — and then competed for votes based on how they interpreted and acted upon those facts.

Nowadays, though, rallygoers tell me that it’s ever harder to know what’s true and what’s false, to sift out right from wrong. Today’s politicians and pundits — particularly, though not exclusively, on the Trumpian right — seem not only to have their own opinions but their own “facts” to go with them. In their eyes, it’s increasingly difficult to know who’s being honest anymore. And the response, all too often, is a rhetorical and sometimes literal throwing up of the hands, an acceptance that no one can be trusted, that the facts are simply unknowable.

Surveys measuring the American public’s trust in its institutions capture this phenomenon strikingly. Trust in Congress, the presidency, the news media, and — once inconceivable — even the military is steadily eroding, as fear, suspicion, and resentment become the currency of American politics in this century. But if there was one institution that, until recent years, seemed to withstand this trend, it was the third branch of government, the judicial system.

Of all the institutions vital to American democracy, the courts have held remarkably steady, even during the turbulent years of Donald Trump’s presidency. This was, after all, a man who believed himself above the law, viewed the justice system as a tool to pardon his friends and punish his enemies, and lashed out whenever a judge constrained his executive actions. From one of Trump’s earliest moves as president — a ban on citizens of seven mostly Muslim countries entering the U.S. — to the 62 lawsuits that he and his supporters filed attempting to overturn the 2020 election results, the courts proved resilient in the face of unrelenting attacks.

An independent judiciary is more essential than ever when facts are under assault. As they did in the Manafort case I covered and the more recent Alex Jones trials, the courts can act as a firewall for the truth, a last resort for sifting real from fake, nonsense from reality.

There is, of course, a long and sordid history of courts dealing setbacks to the cause of progress. Look no further than the Supreme Court’s infamous decisions in Dred Scott v. Sandford, Plessy v. Ferguson, or far more recently Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted a key provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. But in a truth-challenged era, the courts long remained one of the last holdouts where people could trust that they would at least get a reasonably fair hearing based on the facts, whatever their views or politics.

Or at least that’s how it looked until recently.

According to Gallup, at any given moment over nearly the last five decades, somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of Americans claimed to have a “great deal” or at least a “fair amount” of trust in the judicial branch. As recently as 2019, 69% of those surveyed expressed confidence in the nation’s courts, including the Supreme Court. And yet in the three years since then — as Donald Trump (with a big helping hand from Mitch McConnell) stacked the Supreme Court — support has plummeted to a dismal 47% this year. At the same time, a record number of Americans (58%) said they disapproved of the Supreme Court’s performance, while just 40% approved.

That steep drop in trust has no doubt been shaped by recent controversies. At the top of that list is the decision by the Supreme Court’s conservative majority to overturn Roe v. Wade, a decades-old precedent to which many of the justices who struck it down had previously paid lip service as settled law.

But the dwindling faith in the courts isn’t purely a reflection of the decision to strike down Roe. It’s now all too common to see federal judges described in news stories and on TV as “Obama judges” or “Trump judges,” “Bush judges” or “Clinton judges,” as if that somehow will help the audience make sense of the decision in question. Not only does that moniker too often prove misleading, but it fuels the notion that judges are nothing more than “politicians in robes,” as the saying goes.

It’s one thing to critique the current crop of Supreme Court justices for decisions that fly in the face of longstanding precedents, especially when those same judges vowed to respect precedent during their confirmation hearings. But the trend toward describing all judges in political terms undoubtedly leaves the impression that the judicial system is little more than a dressed-up political body, just another place where the ever fiercer partisan battle lines and tribal loyalties come into play.

Admittedly, there have indeed been recent non-Supreme Court decisions, too, that seem to suggest former President Trump succeeded in creating a more political judicial system when he pushed through over 200 judicial confirmations — some of them deemed by the American Bar Association unqualified for the bench, nearly all of them deemed loyal to the conservative doctrine of originalism — in the hope that they would rule favorably for him. (“If it’s my judges, you know how they’re gonna decide,” was Trump’s classic comment during the 2016 presidential campaign.) In Florida, for instance, Trump-appointed Judge Aileen Cannon has handed down one mystifying ruling after another in the ongoing litigation over the ex-president’s refusal to hand over all the classified and non-classified documents he took with him to his Mar-a-Lago estate. But there are far more Trump-appointed judges who have reviewed and dismissed legal challenges to the 2020 election or presided fairly over the criminal prosecution of various January 6th rioters. “There was nothing patriotic about what happened that day — far from it,” Judge Timothy Kelly, a Trump appointee, said in August. “It was a national disgrace.”

The Speed of Truth

Thinking back to that courtroom in Alexandria in 2018, I learned a lesson: The truth moves slowly. Far more slowly than the velocity of a viral tweet or an infuriating Facebook post. The first story you encounter online about a major world event or a breaking-news story may not be the most accurate version of what happened, if it’s accurate at all. Truth takes time to reveal itself. That time can feel longer than ever in a world where we’ve become conditioned to believe that we can have all the facts at our fingerprints in an instant. Make us wait and we lose interest.

The five years I spent reporting for my just-published book, A Death on W Street: The Murder of Seth Rich and the Age of Conspiracy, put this lesson about truth into greater relief. The book chronicles one of the most searing truth crises of the last five years — the story of a young man, Seth Rich, whose death became a global conspiracy theory, a partisan talking point, and a Fox News rallying cry. The false and fantastical theories about Rich, a 27-year-old staffer for the Democratic Party who was gunned down on a Washington street in 2016, began spreading mere hours after his murder had been publicly announced. The amplification of those lies happened almost instantaneously, faster than anyone could keep track of them, let alone stop them.

When Rich’s family exhausted their options to correct the record through media interviews and other public statements, they decided their only remaining choice was to seek accountability in a court of law. The Riches sued Fox News and people in Fox’s orbit, and ultimately reached settlements that helped protect the truth and restore Seth’s reputation and memory.

But it took three years of litigation to achieve those outcomes in court. Put another way, it took three long years for the facts and realities of Rich’s life and death to catch up with the fantasies, memes, and conspiracy theories spread about him. Still, at least there remained a venue for Rich’s family to receive a fair hearing, a protected space for an honest accounting of what was true and what wasn’t.

And yet today, that space seems increasingly under threat.

At stake in this year’s midterm elections is control of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Much has been written about what a Republican majority might do with its newfound subpoena power should the GOP retake control of the House. But when it comes to the courts, the Senate is crucial, since it controls the judicial confirmation process, approving or blocking nominees to fill dozens of openings across the federal court system. If Mitch McConnell returns to his position as Senate majority leader, it’s a good bet that he’ll thwart President Biden’s attempts to fill those vacancies before the 2024 election.

And if that next presidential contest were to usher in a Republican president (especially you know who), McConnell and his fellow Republicans will again have the power to usher onto the federal bench the next generation of Samuel Alitos and Clarence Thomases. And then, watch out!

The Supreme Court excepted, the judicial system has largely stood firm in the face of a half-decade of Trumpian attacks and a surge in conspiratorial politics. Our judicial branch still remains a refuge for the facts. The question is: How much longer can they hold on?

Climate change and nuclear weapons: A race toward humanity's chemical obituary

Oddly enough, I’ve read obituaries with fascination from the time I was quite young. And yet, in all these years, I’ve never really reflected on that fact. I don’t know whether it was out of some indirect fascination with death and the end of it all or curiosity about the wholeness (or half-ness or brokenness) of an individual life in full. But here’s the odd thing: in all that time — put it down to the charm of youth or, later, perhaps a lingering sense of youthfulness or, at least, agelessness — I never really thought about my own obituary. Like so many of us when younger, I simply couldn’t imagine my own death. Against all reason, it seemed strangely inconceivable.

Now, at 78, I find that obituaries are again on my mind — and not just because people I knew are being featured in them all too often these days or for that other all-too-obvious reason, which I hardly need to spell out here. As a matter of fact, if you put my last name or yours into a search engine, you may be surprised at how many obituaries come up. It turns out, in fact, that Engelhardts have been dying for centuries now.

After all, the one obituary you can’t really have is your own; at least, not unless you decide to write it yourself or you’re so well known that a newspaper obit writer interviews you as one of the “pre-dead” while you’re still kicking. Of course, for the best known among us, such pieces, as at the New York Times, are prepared and written well in advance because the one thing we do know, whether we think about it or not, accept it or not, is that we all will indeed die.

Nuclear Winter or a Climate-Change-Induced Nuclear Summer?

Let’s not be shy. If there’s one word that comes to mind (mine anyway) at the moment, it’s madness. And no, believe it or not, I’m not even thinking about Donald Trump or the crazed crew of election deniers, QAnon conspiracy believers, and white nationalists who have become the essence of the Republican Party and may sweep to victory, at least in the House of Representatives, only days from now. And no, neither am I thinking about the Trumpist-leaning Supreme Court that might single-handedly (or perhaps hand in hand with all too many voters on November 8th) send us even further down the road to autocracy or at least to an eternally Republican-controlled mania-ocracy.

From the time we left our Neanderthal cousins in the dust, the story of humanity is tens of thousands of years old; and our history — you know, since we first began herding other creatures, raising crops, and arming ourselves to the teeth — is thousands of years old. In all those eons, we discovered so many things, both uplifting and down-thrusting. But perhaps, looking back (if, given our present circumstances, anyone’s even bothering), the most remarkable thing may be that we discovered — once quite purposely and once without at first even noticing that we’d done so — two different ways to do ourselves in. And, believe me, I’m using that word advisedly, given the Elizabethan moment that passed only recently, leaving so many of us watching a “news” spectacle that was her obituary and nothing else but that for what seemed like ever and a day. Now, of course, the former British queen is gone not just from our world but from that news cycle, too. Not a trace of her remains. Nothing, it seems, lasts long these days, Donald Trump aside. And if things continue to go ever wronger on this planet of ours — and I wouldn’t Truss (joke, joke) that they won’t — it’s possible that she could indeed prove to be the last queen.

As I’m sure you already know, those two discoveries I’m thinking about are nuclear weapons and climate change. Each of them should be on all our minds right now for reasons almost too obvious to enumerate. Our own president recently chatted privately with Democratic Party donors about the possibility that we might indeed face “Armageddon” (his word, not mine) for the first time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. That would be thanks to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the Russian president’s threat (“this is not a bluff“) to use nuclear weapons for, as he himself pointed out, the first time since the United States ended World War II by obliterating the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In a sense, however, whether Putin ever uses those “tactical” nuclear weapons or not, he has, in his own uniquely deplorable fashion, already nuked this planet. His decision to invade Ukraine and, after an eight-month disaster (including the especially dangerous occupation of a Ukrainian nuclear power plant), only increase the level of destruction, while evidently looking for no off-ramp whatsoever, has sent energy politics in the worst possible direction. Some desperate European countries have already turned back to coal power; militaries are burning ever more fossil fuels; gas prices have been soaring globally; and what modest attention was focused on the broiling of this planet and the very idea of the major powers cooperating to do anything about it now seems like a fantasy from some past universe.

It evidently doesn’t matter that a combination of fearsome monsoons and growing glacial melt flooded one-third of Pakistan in an unparalleled fashion; that record heat and drought was last summer’s reality across much of the northern hemisphere; that Hurricane Ian only recently leveled parts of Florida in what should have been, but given where we’re heading, won’t be a once-in-500-year fashion; that a mainstream website like Politico can now refer to our country as “the United States of Megadrought“; or that rivers from the Yangtze to the Mississippi are drying up in a historic manner. Worse yet, that’s just to start down a far longer list of climate horrors. And I almost forgot to mention that the giant fossil-fuel companies continue to live on another planet from the rest of us. Call it profit heaven.

Returning to the subject of obituaries, you could, of course, have written a group one for the approximately one billion sea creatures that died last summer, thanks to a record heat wave on Canada’s Pacific coast, or another based on the recent report that, since 1970, the population of fresh-water species on this planet has fallen by a startling 83%. In fact, if you’re in an obituary-writing mood and thinking of the pre-dead, don’t forget the emperor penguin. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, that classic creature is threatened with extinction by the end of this century thanks to the increasing loss of the sea ice it needs to exist on a fast-warming planet.

So, give the Vlad full credit. His invasion of Ukraine refocused the attention of the world on that other way we’ve come up with to do ourselves in: those nuclear weapons. In short, he’s helped take our minds off climate change at the worst possible moment (so far), even as his war only increases the level of greenhouse gases heading into the atmosphere. Well done, Mr. President!

I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn then that, according to a recent United Nations report, of the 193 nations which, in 2021, agreed to step up their efforts to fight climate change, only 26 have followed through so far (and even some of those in an anything but impressive fashion). In other words, our future — should we ever get there — will be blistering. The Earth is now on track to warm not by the 1.5 degrees Celsius the 2015 Paris climate accord made its ultimate temperature, but a potentially broiling 2.1 to 2.9 degrees Celsius by century’s end.

Even before the Ukraine war began, the powers that be were paying all too little attention to how we could do ourselves (and so many other species) in by overheating the planet. Worse yet, the major powers of the old Cold War were already “modernizing” their nuclear arsenals — in the case of the United States, to the tune of more than a trillion dollars over the coming decades. That will include a mere $100 billion to create a “next generation” intercontinental ballistic missile dubbed the LGM-35A Sentinel, undoubtedly because it’s meant to stand guard over hell on earth. Meanwhile, the rising power on the planet, China, is rushing to catch up. And now, with a war underway in Europe, “dirty bombs” and far worse are seemingly back on the playing fields of history.

Here, I suspect, is the strangest thing of all. We now know that we’re quite capable of doing something humanity once left to the gods — creating a genuinely apocalyptic future on this planet. With our weaponry, we already have the ability to induce a “nuclear winter” (in which up to five billion of us could starve to death) or, with greenhouse gases, to fry this planet in a long-term way via, to coin a new phrase, a climate-change-induced nuclear summer.

And that — don’t you think? — should already have been game-changing information.

And yet, despite the Greta Thunbergs of this world when it comes to climate change, these days, there are no significant equivalents to her or, say, 350.org or the Sunrise Movement when it comes to nukes. Worse yet, despite the growing green movement, the fact that we’re already in the process of making Earth an increasingly unlivable place seems not to have fazed so many of those in a position to run things, whether nationally or corporately. And that should stun us all.

An Ultimate Obit?

Give humanity credit. When it comes to our urge to destroy, we seem to see no limits, not even those of our own existence. I mean, if you really had the desire to write a communal obituary for us, one logical place to start might indeed be with the invasion of Ukraine at a time when the planet was already beginning to broil. Honestly, doesn’t it make you want to start writing obituaries not just for our individual selves, but for all of the pre-dead on a planet where the very idea of mass killings could, in our future, gain a new meaning?

And in that context, if you want to measure the madness of the moment, just imagine this: It’s quite possible that a political party largely taken over by that supreme narcissist, Donald Trump, the Me-Man of history, could win one or both houses of Congress in this country’s coming midterm elections and even the presidency again in 2024. Given that the U.S. is one of the planet’s two leading greenhouse gas emitters, that would, of course, help ensure a fossil-fuelized future hell. The Donald — like his authoritarian cohorts elsewhere — could be the ultimate god when it comes to our future destruction, not to speak of the future of so many other beings on this planet. Think of him and his crew as potentially the all-too-literal ultimate in (un)civilization.

After all these thousands of years — a long, long time for us but not for planet Earth — the question is: Should we aging types begin thinking not just about our own obituaries (“He was born on July 20, 1944, in New York City, on a planet engulfed in war….”) but humanity’s? (“Born in a cave with their Neanderthal and Denisovan cousins…”)

Everything, of course, ends, but it doesn’t have to end this way. Yes, my obituary is a given, but humanity’s should be so much less so. Whether that proves true or not is up to us. When it comes to all of this, the question is: Who will have the last word?

Inequality of life: One-third of the United States lives in poverty or teeters on the brink

Liz Theoharis: The Poverty of the Political Mind

Yep, in a world in which inflation and oil prices reached disastrous levels this year, the latest polls seem to indicate that the Republicans may be taking advantage of that reality — or do I mean un-reality? — just as the midterm elections loom. Forget the fact that, as a “conservative” British prime minister demonstrated strikingly just weeks ago, the political right has less than nothing to offer Americans, economically speaking.

Meanwhile, the Democrats seem to be relying on abortion to carry the day on November 8th. And — much as I support them on that issue — that’s too bad. Really it is! Senator Bernie Sanders is preparing to “blitz” the country during the final two election weekends, saying just that. And it’s true, the Democrats can’t let the acolytes of America’s very own potential autocrat (and you know just whom I mean) claim that they can offer an answer to this country’s economic problems. As Sanders put it earlier this month,

It would be political malpractice for Democrats to ignore the state of the economy and allow Republican lies and distortions to go unanswered… We have more income and wealth inequality than at any time in the modern history of this country, with three people owning more wealth than the bottom half of our nation. Is there one Republican prepared to raise taxes on billionaires, or do they want to make a bad situation worse by extending Trump’s tax breaks for the rich and repealing the estate tax?

He’s exactly right, of course. But tell that to America’s billionaires, including (again) you know who, and their party. In the meantime, if you want a sense of just what that inequality truly means for so many tens of millions of Americans, consider the latest piece on poverty in history’s richest nation by TomDispatch regular Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and author of We Cry Justice. There oughta be a law, don’t you think? Tom

The Quality (or Inequality) of Life: Assessing the True Extent of Poverty in the Richest Nation on Earth

Ours is an ever more unequal world, even if that subject is ever less attended to in this country. In his final book, Where Do We Go From Here?, Reverend Martin Luther King wrote tellingly, “The prescription for the cure rests with the accurate diagnosis of the disease. A people who began a national life inspired by a vision of a society of brotherhood can redeem itself. But redemption can come only through a humble acknowledgment of guilt and an honest knowledge of self.”

Neither exists in this country. Rather than an honest sense of self-awareness when it comes to poverty in the United States, policymakers in Washington and so many states continue to legislate as if inequality weren’t an emergency for tens, if not hundreds, of millions of us. When it comes to accurately diagnosing what ails America, let alone prescribing a cure, those with the power and resources to lift the load of poverty have fallen desperately short of the mark.

With the midterm elections almost upon us, issues like raising the minimum wage, expanding healthcare, and extending the Child Tax Credit (CTC) and Earned Income Tax Credit should be front and center. Instead, as the U.S. faces continued inflation, the likelihood of a global economic recession, and the possibility that Trumpists could seize control of one or both houses of Congress (and the legislatures of a number of states), few candidates bother to talk about poverty, food insecurity, or low wages. If anything, “poor” has become a four-letter word in today’s politics, following decades of trickle-down economics, neoliberalism, stagnant wages, tax cuts for the rich, and rising household debt.

The irony of this “attentional violence” towards the poor is that it happens despite the fact that one-third of the American electorate is poor or low-income. (In certain key places and races raise that figure to 40% or more.) After all, in 2020, there were over 85 million poor and low-income people eligible to vote. More than 50 million potential voters in this low-income electorate cast a ballot in the last presidential election, nearly a third of the votes cast. And they accounted for even higher percentages in key battleground states like Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin, where they turned out in significant numbers to cast ballots for living wages, debt relief, and an economic stimulus.

To address the problems of our surprisingly impoverished democracy, policymakers would have to take seriously the realities of those tens of millions of poor and low-income people, while protecting and expanding voting rights. After all, before the pandemic hit, there were 140 million of them: 65% of Latinx people (37.4 million), 60% of Black people (25.9 million), 41% of Asians (7.6 million), and 39.9% of White people (67 million) in the United States. Forty-five percent of our women and girls (73.5 million) experience poverty, 52% of our children (39 million), and 42% of our elders (20.8 million). In other words, poverty hurts people of all races, ages, genders, religions, and political parties.

Poverty on the Decline?

Given the breadth and depth of depravation, it should be surprising how little attention is being paid to the priorities of poor and low-income voters in these final weeks of election season 2022. Instead, some politicians are blaming inflation and the increasingly precarious economic position of so many on the modestly increasing paychecks of low-wage workers and pandemic economic stimulus/emergency programs. That narrative, of course, is wrong and obscures the dramatic effects in these years of Covid supply-chain disruptions, the war in Ukraine, and the price gouging of huge corporations extracting record profits from the poor. The few times poverty has hit the news this midterm election season, the headlines have suggested that it’s on the decline, not a significant concern to be urgently addressed by policy initiatives that will be on some ballots this November.

Case in point, in September, the Census Bureau released a report concluding that poverty nationwide had significantly decreased in 2021. Such lower numbers were attributed to an increase in government assistance during the pandemic, especially the enhanced Child Tax Credit implemented in the spring of 2021. No matter that there’s now proof positive such programs help lift the load of poverty, too few political candidates are campaigning to extend them this election season.

Similarly, in September, the Biden administration convened the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, hailed as the first of its kind in more than half a century. But while that gathering may have been a historic step forward, the policy solutions it backed were largely cut from the usual mold — with calls for increases in the funding of food programs, nutritional education, and further research. Missing was an analysis of why poverty and widening inequality exist in the first place and how those realities shape our food system and so much else. Instead, the issue of hunger remained siloed off from a wider investigation of our economy and the ways it’s currently producing massive economic despair, including hunger.

To be sure, we should celebrate the fact that, because of proactive public intervention, millions of people over the last year were lifted above income brackets that would, according to the Census Bureau, qualify them as poor. But in the spirit of Reverend King’s message about diagnosing social problems and prescribing solutions, if we were to look at the formulas for the most commonly accepted measurements of poverty, it quickly becomes apparent that they’re based on a startling underassessment of what people actual need to survive, no less lead decent lives. Indeed, a sea of people are living paycheck to paycheck and crisis to crisis, bobbing above and below the poverty line as we conventionally know it. By underestimating poverty from the start, we risk reading the 2021 Census report as a confirmation that it’s no longer a pressing issue and that the actions already taken by government are enough, rather than a baseline from which to build.

Last month, for example, although a report from the Department of Agriculture found that 90% of households were food secure in 2021, at least 53 million Americans still relied on food banks or community programs to keep themselves half-decently fed, a shocking number in a country as wealthy as ours. More than 20% of adults in the last 30 days have reported experiencing some form of food insecurity. In other words, we’re talking about a deep structural problem for which policymakers should make a commitment to the priorities of the poor.

An Accurate Diagnosis

If the political history of poverty had been recorded on the Richter scale, one decision in 1969 would have registered with earthshaking magnitude. That August 29th, the Bureau of the Budget delivered a dry, unfussy memo to every federal government agency instructing them to use a new formula for measuring poverty. This resulted in the creation of the first, and only, official poverty measure, or OPM, which has remained in place to this day with only a little tinkering here and there.

The seeds of that 1969 memo had been planted six years earlier when Mollie Orshansky, a statistician at the Social Security Administration, published a study on possible ways to measure poverty. Her math was fairly simple. To start with, she reached back to a 1955 Department of Agriculture (USDA) survey that found families generally spent about one-third of their income on food. Then, using a “low-cost” food plan from the Department of Agriculture, she estimated how much a low-income family of four would have to spend to meet its basic food needs and multiplied that number by three to arrive at $3,165 as a possible threshold income for those considered “poor.” It’s a formula that, with a few small changes, has been officially in use ever since.

Fast forward five decades, factor in the rate of inflation, and the official poverty threshold in 2021 was $12,880 per year for one person and $26,500 for a family of four — meaning that about 42 million Americans were considered below the official poverty line. From the beginning though, the OPM was grounded in a somewhat arbitrary and superficial understanding of human need. Orshansky’s formula may have appeared elegant in its simplicity, but by focusing primarily on access to food, it didn’t fully take into account other critical expenses like healthcare, housing, childcare, and education. As even Orshansky later admitted, it was also based on an austere assessment of how much was enough to meet a person’s needs.

As a result, the OPM fails to accurately capture how much of our population will move into and out of official poverty in their lifetimes. By studying OPM trends over the years, however, you can gain a wider view of just how chronically precarious so many of our lives are. And yet, look behind those numbers, and there are some big questions remaining about how we define poverty, which say much about who and what we value as a society. For the tools we use to measure quality of life are never truly objective or apolitical. In the end, they always turn out to be as much moral as statistical.

What level of human deprivation is acceptable to us? What resources does a person need to be well? These are questions that any society should ask itself.

Since 1969, much has changed, even if the OPM has remained untouched. The food prices it’s based on have skyrocketed beyond the rate of inflation, along with a whole host of other expenses like housing, prescription medicine, college tuition, gas, utilities, childcare, and more modern but increasingly essential costs, including Internet access and cell phones. Meanwhile, wage growth has essentially stagnated over the last four decades, even as productivity has continued to grow, meaning that today’s workers are making comparatively less than their parents’ generation even as they produce more for the economy.

Billionaires, on the other hand… well, don’t get me started!

The result of all of this? The official poverty measure fails to show us the ways in which a staggeringly large group of Americans are moving in and out of crisis during their lifetimes. After all, right above the 40 million Americans who officially live in poverty, there are at least 95-100 million who live in a state of chronic economic precarity, just one pay cut, health crisis, extreme storm, or eviction notice from falling below that poverty line.

The Census Bureau has, in fact, recognized the limitations of the OPM and, since 2011, has also been using a second yardstick, the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM). As my colleague and poverty-policy expert Shailly Gupta-Barnes writes, while factoring in updated out-of-pocket expenses the “SPM accounts for family income after taxes and transfers, and as such, it shows the antipoverty effects of some of the largest federal support programs.”

This is the measure that the Census Bureau and others have recently used to show that poverty is dropping and there’s no doubt that it’s an improvement over the OPM. But even the SPM is worryingly low based on today’s economy — $31,000 for a family of four in 2021. Indeed, research by the Poor People’s Campaign (which I co-chair with Bishop William Barber II) and the Institute for Policy Studies has shown that only when we increase the SPM by 200% do we begin to see a more accurate picture of what a stable life truly beyond the grueling reach of poverty might look like.

Volcker Shock 2.0?

Taking to heart Reverend King’s admonition about accurately assessing and acknowledging our problems, it’s important to highlight how the math behind the relatively good news on poverty from the 2021 census data relied on a temporary boost from the enhanced Child Tax Credit. Now that Congress has allowed the CTC and its life-saving payments to expire, expect the official 2022 poverty figures to rise. In fact, that decision is likely to prove especially dire, since the federal minimum wage is now at its lowest point in 66 years and the threat of recession is growing by the day.

Indeed, instead of building on the successes of pandemic-era antipoverty policies and so helping millions (a position that undoubtedly would still prove popular in the midterm elections), policymakers have acted in ways guaranteed to hit millions of people directly in their pocketbooks. In response to inflation, the Federal Reserve, for instance, has been pursuing aggressive interest rate hikes, whose main effect is to lower wages and therefore the purchasing power of lower and middle-income people. That decision should bring grimly to mind the austerity policies promoted by economist Paul Volcker in 1980 and the Volcker Shock that went with them.

It’s a cruel and dangerous path to take. A recent United Nations report suggests as much, warning that inflation-fighting policies like raising interest rates in the U.S. and other rich countries represent an “imprudent gamble” that threatens “worse damage than the financial crisis of 2008 and the Covid-19 shock in 2020.”

If the U.S. is to redeem itself with a vision of justice, it’s time for a deep and humble acknowledgment of the breadth and depth of poverty in the richest country in human history. Indeed, the only shock we need is one that would awaken our imaginations to the possibility of a world in which poverty no longer exists.

Writing on war and living in a world from Hell

Chris Hedges: My War Never Ends

War is, to say the least, nothing new. In his memorable first book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges began with a possible quote from Plato (“Only the dead have seen the end of war”). And it’s sadly true that, since Plato’s time, we’ve never seen its end. Our world, in fact, continues to be wracked by it — in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere — but especially, of course, in the region that, for so much of our history might have been considered the heartland of war: Europe. You would think that, after all these endless centuries, we might have a little more sense, but no such luck. Let me just say that — best guess — Plato would not have been surprised by the war in Ukraine.

I read that initial book of Hedges’ when it came out in 2002 and was both stunned and moved by it. Two decades later, even though you’re about to read his latest piece on war, I can’t resist letting his younger self introduce it. Here’s a passage from early in that initial account he wrote, after years of reporting on war for the New York Times, among other places:

War and conflict have marked most of my adult life. I began covering insurgencies in El Salvador, where I spent five years, then went on to Guatemala and Nicaragua and Colombia, through the first intifada in the West Bank and Gaza, the civil war in the Sudan and Yemen, the uprisings in Algeria and the Punjab, the fall of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, the Gulf War, the Kurdish rebellion in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq, the war in Bosnia, and finally to Kosovo. I have been in ambushes on desolate stretches of Central American roads, shot at in the marshes of southern Iraq, imprisoned in the Sudan, beaten by Saudi military police, deported from Libya and Iran, captured and held for a week by Iraqi Republican Guard during the Shiite rebellion following the Gulf War, strafed by Russian Mig–21s in Bosnia, fired upon by Serb snipers, and shelled for days in Sarajevo with deafening rounds of heavy artillery that threw out thousands of deadly bits of iron fragments. I have seen too much of violent death. I have tasted too much of my own fear. I have painful memories that lie buried and untouched most of the time. It is never easy when they surface.

Today, in his first piece in years for TomDispatch, Hedges, author of the new book The Greatest Evil Is War, who now has his own Substack where he writes regularly, returns in a deeply personal way to war in his time. Tom

Writing on War – And Living in a World from Hell

As this century began, I was writing War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, my reflections on two decades as a war correspondent, 15 of them with the New York Times, in Central America, the Middle East, Africa, Bosnia, and Kosovo. I worked in a small, sparsely furnished studio apartment on First Avenue in New York City. The room had a desk, chair, futon, and a couple of bookshelves — not enough to accommodate my extensive library, leaving piles of books stacked against the wall. The single window overlooked a back alley.

The super, who lived in the first-floor apartment, smoked prodigious amounts of weed, leaving the grimy lobby stinking of pot. When he found out I was writing a book, he suggested I chronicle his moment of glory during the six days of clashes known as the Stonewall Riots, triggered by a 1969 police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay club in Greenwich Village. He claimed he had thrown a trash can through the front window of a police cruiser.

It was a solitary life, broken by periodic visits to a small antique bookstore in the neighborhood that had a copy of the 1910-1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the last edition published for scholars. I couldn’t afford it, but the owner generously let me read entries from those 29 volumes written by the likes of Algernon Charles Swinburne, John Muir, T.H. Huxley, and Bertrand Russell. The entry for Catullus, several of whose poems I could recite from memory in Latin, read: “The greatest lyric poet of Rome.” I loved the certainty of that judgment — one that scholars today would not, I suspect, make, much less print.

There were days when I could not write. I would sit in despair, overcome by emotion, unable to cope with a sense of loss, of hurt, and the hundreds of violent images I carry within me. Writing about war was not cathartic. It was painful. I was forced to unwrap memories carefully swaddled in the cotton wool of forgetfulness. The advance on the book was modest: $25,000. Neither the publisher nor I expected many people to read it, especially with such an ungainly title. I wrote out of a sense of obligation, a belief that, given my deep familiarity with the culture of war, I should set it down. But I vowed, once done, never to willfully dredge up those memories again.

To the publisher’s surprise, the book exploded. Hundreds of thousands of copies were eventually sold. Big publishers, dollar signs in their eyes, dangled significant offers for another book on war. But I refused. I didn’t want to dilute what I had written or go through that experience again. I did not want to be ghettoized into writing about war for the rest of my life. I was done. To this day, I’m still unable to reread it.

The Open Wound of War

Yet it’s not true that I fled war. I fled my wars but would continue to write about other people’s wars. I know the wounds and scars. I know what’s often hidden. I know the anguish and guilt. It’s strangely comforting to be with others maimed by war. We don’t need words to communicate. Silence is enough.

I wanted to reach teenagers, the fodder of wars and the target of recruiters. I doubted many would read War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. I embarked on a text that would pose, and then answer, the most basic questions about war — all from military, medical, tactical, and psychological studies of combat. I operated on the assumption that the simplest and most obvious questions rarely get answered like: What happens to my body if I’m killed?

I hired a team of researchers, mostly graduate students at Columbia University’s School of Journalism, and, in 2003, we produced an inexpensive paperback — I fought the price down to $11 by giving away any future royalties — called What Every Person Should Know About War.

I worked closely on the book with Jack Wheeler, who had graduated from West Point in 1966 and then served in Vietnam, where 30 members of his class were killed. (Rick Atkinson’s The Long Gray Line: The American Journey of West Point’s Class of 1966 is the story of Jack’s class.) Jack went on to Yale Law School after he left the military and became a presidential aide to Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush, while chairing the drive to build the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

He struggled with what he called “the open wound of Vietnam” and severe depression. He was last seen on December 30, 2010, disoriented and wandering the streets of Wilmington, Delaware. The next day, his body was discovered as it was dumped from a garbage truck into the Cherry Island Landfill. The Delaware state medical examiner’s office said the cause of death was assault and “blunt force trauma.” Police ruled his death a homicide, a murder that would never be solved. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.

The idea for the book came from the work of Harold Roland Shapiro, a New York lawyer who, while representing a veteran disabled in World War I, investigated that conflict, discovering a huge disparity between its reality and the public perception of it. His book was, however, difficult to find. I had to get a copy from the Library of Congress. The medical descriptions of wounds, Shapiro wrote, rendered “all that I had read and heard previously as being either fiction, isolated reminiscence, vague generalization or deliberate propaganda.” He published his book, What Every Young Man Should Know About War, in 1937. Fearing it might inhibit recruitment, he agreed to remove it from circulation at the start of World War II. It never went back into print.

The military is remarkably good at studying itself (although such studies aren’t easy to obtain). It knows how to use operant conditioning — the same techniques used to train a dog — to turn young men and women into efficient killers. It skillfully employs the tools of science, technology, and psychology to increase the lethal force of combat units. It also knows how to sell war as adventure, as well as the true route to manhood, comradeship, and maturity.

The callous indifference to life, including the lives of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, leapt off the pages of the official documents. For example, the response to the question “What will happen if I am exposed to nuclear radiation but do not die immediately?” was answered in a passage from the Office of the Surgeon General’s Textbook of Military Medicine that read, in part:

Fatally irradiated soldiers should receive every possible palliative treatment, including narcotics, to prolong their utility and alleviate their physical and psychological distress. Depending on the amount of fatal radiation, such soldiers may have several weeks to live and to devote to the cause. Commanders and medical personnel should be familiar with estimating survival time based on onset of vomiting. Physicians should be prepared to give medications to alleviate diarrhea, and to prevent infection and other sequelae of radiation sickness in order to allow the soldier to serve as long as possible. The soldier must be allowed to make the full contribution to the war effort. He will already have made the ultimate sacrifice. He deserves a chance to strike back, and to do so while experiencing as little discomfort as possible.

Our book, as I hoped, turned up on Quaker anti-recruitment tables in high schools.

“I Am Sullied”

I was disgusted by the simplistic, often mendacious coverage of our post-9/11 war in Iraq, a country I had covered as the Middle East bureau chief for the New York Times. In 2007, I went to work with reporter Laila Al-Arian on a long investigative article in the Nation, “The Other War: Iraq Veterans Bear Witness,” that ended up in an expanded version as another book on war, Collateral Damage: America’s War Against Iraqi Civilians.

We spent hundreds of hours interviewing 50 American combat veterans of Iraq about atrocities they had witnessed or participated in. It was a damning indictment of the U.S. occupation with accounts of terrorizing and abusive house raids, withering suppressing fire routinely laid down in civilian areas to protect American convoys, indiscriminate shooting from patrols, the large kill radius of detonations and air strikes in populated areas, and the slaughter of whole families who approached military checkpoints too closely or too quickly. The reporting made headlines in newspapers across Europe but was largely ignored in the U.S., where the press was generally unwilling to confront the feel-good narrative about “liberating” the people of Iraq.

For the book’s epigraph, we used a June 4, 2005, suicide note left by Colonel Theodore “Ted” Westhusing for his commanders in Iraq. Westhusing (whom I was later told had read and recommended War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning) was the honor captain of his 1983 West Point class. He shot himself in the head with his 9mm Beretta service revolver. His suicide note — think of it as an epitaph for the global war on terror – read in part:

Thanks for telling me it was a good day until I briefed you. [Redacted name] — You are only interested in your career and provide no support to your staff — no msn [mission] support and you don’t care. I cannot support a msn that leads to corruption, human right abuses and liars. I am sullied — no more. I didn’t volunteer to support corrupt, money-grubbing contractors, nor work for commanders only interested in themselves. I came to serve honorably and feel dishonored.

The war in Ukraine raised the familiar bile, the revulsion at those who don’t go to war and yet revel in the mad destructive power of violence. Once again, by embracing a childish binary universe of good and evil from a distance, war was turned into a morality play, gripping the popular imagination. Following our humiliating defeat in Afghanistan and the debacles of Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, here was a conflict that could be sold to the public as restoring American virtue. Russian President Vladimir Putin, like Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein, instantly became the new Hitler. Ukraine, which most Americans undoubtedly couldn’t have found on a map, was suddenly the front line in the eternal fight for democracy and liberty.

The orgiastic celebration of violence took off.

The Ghosts of War

It’s impossible, under international law, to defend Russia’s war in Ukraine, as it is impossible to defend our invasion of Iraq. Preemptive war is a war crime, a criminal war of aggression. Still, putting the invasion of Ukraine in context was out of the question. Explaining — as Soviet specialists (including famed Cold War diplomat George F. Kennan) had — that expanding NATO into Central and Eastern Europe was a provocation to Russia was forbidden. Kennan had called it “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era” that would “send Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.”

In 1989, I had covered the revolutions in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Romania that signaled the coming collapse of the Soviet Union. I was acutely aware of the “cascade of assurances” given to Moscow that NATO, founded in 1949 to prevent Soviet expansion in Eastern and Central Europe, would not spread beyond the borders of a unified Germany. In fact, with the end of the Cold War, NATO should have been rendered obsolete.

I naively thought we would see the promised “peace dividend,” especially with the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev reaching out to form security and economic alliances with the West. In the early years of Vladimir Putin’s rule, even he lent the U.S. military a hand in its war on terror, seeing in it Russia’s own struggle to contain Islamic extremists spawned by its wars in Chechnya. He provided logistical support and resupply routes for American forces fighting in Afghanistan. But the pimps of war were having none of it. Washington would turn Russia into the enemy, with or without Moscow’s cooperation.

The newest holy crusade between angels and demons was launched.

War unleashes the poison of nationalism, with its twin evils of self-exaltation and bigotry. It creates an illusory sense of unity and purpose. The shameless cheerleaders who sold us the war in Iraq are once again on the airwaves beating the drums of war for Ukraine. As Edward Said once wrote about these courtiers to power:

Every single empire in its official discourse has said that it is not like all the others, that its circumstances are special, that it has a mission to enlighten, civilize, bring order and democracy, and that it uses force only as a last resort. And, sadder still, there always is a chorus of willing intellectuals to say calming words about benign or altruistic empires, as if one shouldn’t trust the evidence of one’s own eyes watching the destruction and the misery and death brought by the latest mission civilizatrice.

I was pulled back into the morass. I found myself writing for Scheerpost and my Substack site, columns condemning the bloodlusts Ukraine unleashed. The provision of more than $50 billion in weapons and aid to Ukraine not only means the Ukrainian government has no incentive to negotiate, but that it condemns hundreds of thousands of innocents to suffering and death. For perhaps the first time in my life, I found myself agreeing with Henry Kissinger, who at least understands realpolitik, including the danger of pushing Russia and China into an alliance against the U.S., while provoking a major nuclear power.

Greg Ruggiero, who runs City Lights Publishers, urged me to write a book on this new conflict. At first, I refused, not wanting to resurrect the ghosts of war. But looking back at my columns, articles, and talks since the publication of War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning in 2002, I was surprised at how often I had circled back to war.

I rarely wrote about myself or my experiences. I sought out those discarded as the human detritus of war, the physically and psychologically maimed like Tomas Young, a quadriplegic wounded in Iraq, whom I visited recently in Kansas City after he declared that he was ready to disconnect his feeding tube and die.

It made sense to put those pieces together to denounce the newest intoxication with industrial slaughter. I stripped the chapters down to war’s essence with titles like “The Act of Killing,” “Corpses” or “When the Bodies Come Home.”

The Greatest Evil Is War has just been published by Seven Stories Press.

This, I pray, will be my final foray into the subject.

What US Africa Command does not w​ant you to know

Nick Turse, Keeping an Eye on AFRICOM, Ten Years Later

Today’s Nick Turse piece on U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) plunged me into an all-American past that, in light of this planet’s chaotic present, had faded from my mind a bit. After all, TomDispatch began more than 20 years ago in the wake of the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001. In a sense, this site was my response to the way President George W. Bush and his top officials reacted to the destruction of the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon. They promptly went to war, officially against “terrorism,” but on a remarkably global scale.

It took next to no time for the president to bluntly label that effort, which began with the invasion of Afghanistan, “the Global War on Terror,” or GWOT. In fact, he and his top officials could hardly have been thinking more expansively about American military power and this planet then. Within five days (yes, five days!) of 9/11, Donald Rumsfeld, his secretary of defense, was already talking about dealing with al-Qaeda, then the most modest of terror outfits (run by a former U.S. ally), by launching, as he put it, “a large multi-headed effort that probably spans 60 countries, including the United States.” (Yes, 60 countries!)

More than two decades later, after disasters in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, the U.S. military and its various commands still occupy at least 750 bases on every continent except Antarctica, having, in the words of President Barack Obama, “pivoted” from the Middle East to Asia in more recent years (though American troops are still fighting in Syria and based in Iraq). Now, in an era when war has returned to Europe and a new Cold War with China is rapidly heating up, it’s easy to ignore the fact that, in its own fashion, this country still remains at war, or on the edge of war, not just in the Middle East but even in Africa where AFRICOM, created in 2007, was the last major effort in the Bush administration’s attempt to garrison the planet.

Sadly, in these years, all too few media outlets have paid enough attention to so much of this. As I wrote in introducing the 2012 piece on AFRICOM Turse reminds us about today:

Like a number of other TomDispatch writers, I believe that the U.S. military should not be responsible for Planet Earth; that it is not in our interest for the Pentagon to be dividing the globe, like a giant pie, into six 'slices' covering almost every inch of the planet: U.S. European Command, or EUCOM (for Europe and Russia), the U.S. Pacific Command, or PACOM (Asia), CENTCOM (the Greater Middle East and a touch of North Africa), NORTHCOM (North America), SOUTHCOM (South America and most of the Caribbean), and AFRICOM (almost all of Africa). Nor should the U.S. military be garrisoning the planet in the historically unprecedented way it does. This imperial role of ours has little or nothing to do with 'defense' and creates many possibilities for future blowback. Instead, it seems far more sensible to begin to shut down or cut back radically on our vast array of global bases and outposts (rather than, as in Africa, expanding them), and downsize our global mission in a major way. AFRICOM would obviously disagree…

In that context, let TomDispatch Managing Editor Nick Turse remind you of his own adventures with AFRICOM from 2012 to late last night, a command the U.S. military would have preferred that none of us pay any attention to when it came to the global spread of this country’s armed power. At this moment, his piece should be a telling reminder of just what a strange and unnerving American world of war and secrecy we’ve been plunged into since September 11, 2001. Tom

Getting to Yes: What U.S. Africa Command Doesn't Want You to Know

What’s the U.S. military doing in Africa? It’s an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, straight-jacketed in secrecy, and hogtied by red tape. Or at least it would be if it were up to the Pentagon.

Ten years ago, I embarked on a quest to answer that question at TomDispatch, chronicling a growing American military presence on that continent, a build-up of both logistical capabilities and outposts, and the possibility that far more was occurring out of sight. “Keep your eye on Africa,” I concluded. “The U.S. military is going to make news there for years to come.”

I knew I had a story when U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) failed to answer basic questions honestly. And the command’s reaction to the article told me that I also had a new beat.

Not long after publication, AFRICOM wrote a letter of complaint to my editor, Tom Engelhardt, attempting to discredit my investigation. (I responded point by point in a follow-up piece.) The command claimed the U.S. was doing little on that continent, had one measly base there, and was transparent about its operations. “I would encourage you and those who have interest in what we do to review our Website, www.AFRICOM.mil, and a new Defense Department Special Web Report on U.S. Africa Command at this link http://www.defense.gov/home/features/2012/0712_AFRICOM/,” wrote its director of public affairs Colonel Tom Davis.

A decade later, the link is dead; Davis is a functionary at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona; and I’m still keeping an eye on AFRICOM.

A few months ago, in fact, I revealed the existence of a previously unknown AFRICOM investigation of an airstrike in Nigeria that killed more than 160 civilians. A formerly secret 2017 Africa Command document I obtained called for an inquiry into that “U.S.-Nigerian” operation that was never disclosed to Congress, much less the public.

Since then, AFRICOM has steadfastly refused to offer a substantive comment on the strike or the investigation that followed and won’t even say if it will release relevant documents to members of Congress. Last month, citing my reporting, a group of lawmakers from the newly formed Protection of Civilians in Conflict Caucus called on Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to turn over the files on, and answer key questions about, the attack. The Pentagon has so far kept mum.

Has AFRICOM then, as Davis contended so long ago, been transparent? Is its website the go-to spot for information about U.S. military missions on that continent? Did its operations there remain few and innocuous? Or was I onto something?

A Kinder, Gentler Combatant Command

From its inception, according to its first commander, General William Ward, AFRICOM was intended “to be a different kind of command”: less hardcore, more Peace Corps. “AFRICOM’s focus is on war prevention,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Theresa Whelan said in 2007, “rather than warfighting.”

In 2012, Ward’s successor, General Carter Ham, told the House Armed Services Committee that “small teams” of American personnel were conducting “a wide range of engagements in support of U.S. security interests.” Years later, retired Army Brigadier General Don Bolduc, who served at AFRICOM from 2013 to 2015 and headed Special Operations Command Africa until 2017, would offer some clarity about those “engagements.” Between 2013 and 2017, he explained, American commandos saw combat in at least 13 African countries: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Somalia, South Sudan, and Tunisia. U.S. troops, he added, were killed or wounded in action in at least six of them.

Between 2015 and 2017, there were at least 10 unreported attacks on American troops in West Africa alone. A month after that January 2017 Nigerian air strike, in fact, U.S. Marines fought al-Qaeda militants in a battle that AFRICOM still won’t admit took place in Tunisia. That April, a U.S. commando reportedly killed a member of warlord Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army in the Central African Republic. The next month, during an advise, assist, and accompany mission, 38-year-old Navy SEAL Kyle Milliken was killed and two other Americans were wounded in a raid on a militant camp in Somalia. That same year, a Navy SEAL reportedly shot and killed a man outside a compound flying an Islamic State (ISIS) flag in Cameroon. And that October, AFRICOM was finally forced to abandon the fiction that U.S. troops weren’t at war on the continent after ISIS militants ambushed American troops in Niger, killing four and wounding two more. “We don’t know exactly where we’re at in the world, militarily, and what we’re doing,” said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, then a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, after meeting with Pentagon officials about the attack.

In the 2010s, I would, in fact, help reveal that the U.S. had conducted at least 36 named operations and activities in Africa — more than anywhere else on earth, including the Middle East. Among them were eight 127e programs, named for the budgetary authority that allows Special Operations forces to use foreign military units as surrogates in counterterrorism missions. More recently, I would report on 11 of those proxy programs employed in Africa, including one in Tunisia, code-named Obsidian Tower and never acknowledged by the Pentagon, and another with a notoriously abusive Cameroonian military unit connected to mass atrocities.

Five of those 127e programs were conducted in Somalia by U.S. commandos training, equipping, and directing troops from Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and Uganda as part of the fight against the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab. In 2018, 26-year-old Alex Conrad of the Army’s Special Forces was killed in an attack on a small U.S. military outpost in Somalia.

Such outposts have long been a point of contention between AFRICOM and me. “The U.S. maintains a surprising number of bases in Africa,” I wrote in that initial TomDispatch article in July 2012. Colonel Davis denied it. “Other than our base at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti,” he claimed, “we do not have military bases in Africa.” I had, he insisted, filed that article before AFRICOM could get me further outpost material. “If he had waited, we would have provided the information requested, which could have better informed his story.”

I had begun requesting information that May, called in additional questions in June and July, and then (as requested) put them in writing. I followed up on the 9th, mentioning my looming deadline and was told that AFRICOM headquarters might have some answers for me on the 10th. That day came and went, as did the 11th. TomDispatch finally published the piece on July 12th. “I respectfully submit that a vigorous free press cannot be held hostage, waiting for information that might never arrive,” I wrote Davis.

When I later followed up, Davis turned out to be on leave, but AFRICOM spokesperson Eric Elliott emailed in August to say: “Let me see what I can give you in response to your request for a complete list of facilities.”

Then, for weeks, AFRICOM went dark. A follow-up email in late October went unanswered. Another in early November elicited a response from spokesperson Dave Hecht, who said that he was handling the request and would provide an update by week’s end. I’m sure you won’t be shocked to learn that he didn’t. So, I followed up yet again. On November 16th, he finally responded: “All questions now have answers. I just need the boss to review before I can release. I hope to have them to you by mid next week.” Did I get them? What do you think?

In December, Hecht finally replied: “All questions have been answered but are still being reviewed for release. Hopefully this week I can send everything your way.” Did he? Hah!

In January 2013, I received answers to some questions of mine, but nothing about those bases. By then, Hecht, too, had disappeared and I was left dealing with AFRICOM’s Chief of Media Engagement, Benjamin Benson. When asked about my questions, he replied that public affairs couldn’t provide answers and I should instead file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

To recap, six months later, Benson recommended I start again. And in good faith, I did. In 2016, three and a half years later, I finally received a partial response to that FOIA request: one page of partially redacted — not to mention useless — information about (yep!) Camp Lemonnier and nothing else.

I would spend years investigating the bases Davis claimed didn’t exist. Using leaked secret documents, I shed light on a network of African drone bases integral to U.S. assassination programs on the continent as well as the existence of a secret network of National Security Agency eavesdropping outposts in Ethiopia. Using formerly secret documents, I revealed an even larger network of U.S. bases across Africa, again and again. I used little-noticed open-source information to highlight activities at those facilities, while helping expose murder and torture by local forces at a drone base in Cameroon built-up and frequented by Americans. I also spotlighted the construction of a $100 million drone base in Niger; a previously unreported outpost in Mali apparently overrun by militants after a 2012 coup there by a U.S.-trained officer; the expansion of a shadowy drone base in the Horn of Africa and its role in lethal strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; hundreds of drone strikes from Libya to Somalia and the resulting civilian casualties; and the flailing, failing U.S. war on terror all across Africa.

Not surprisingly, AFRICOM’s website never had much to say about such reporting, nor could you go there to find articles like:

“The AFRICOM Files: Pentagon Undercounts and Ignores Military Sexual Assault in Africa”

“Pentagon Document Shows U.S. Knew of ‘Credible’ Reports of Civilian Casualties After Its Attacks in Somalia”

“New Data Shows the U.S. Military Is Severely Undercounting Civilian Casualties in Somalia”

Pentagon Stands by Cameroon — Despite Forensic Analysis Showing Its Soldiers Executed Women and Children”

U.S. Troops in Africa Might be in Danger. Why Is the Military Trying to Hide It?

You Know You’re on Target When You’re Getting a Lot of Flak(s)

In the years since, a parade of AFRICOM press officials came and went, replying in a by-then-familiar fashion. “Nick, we’re not going to respond to any of your questions,” Lieutenant Commander Anthony Falvo, head of its public affairs branch, told me in October 2017. Did he, I asked, believe AFRICOM needn’t address questions from the press in general or only from me. “No, just you,” he replied. “We don’t consider you a legitimate journalist, really.” Then he hung up.

That same month, I was inadvertently ushered behind the closed doors of the AFRICOM public affairs office. While attempting to hang up on me, a member of the staff accidentally put me on speakerphone and suddenly I found myself listening in to the goings on, from banal banter to shrieking outbursts. And, believe me, it wasn’t pretty. While the command regularly claimed its personnel had the utmost respect for their local counterparts, I discovered, for example, that at least certain press officers appeared to have a remarkably low opinion of some of their African partners. At one point, Falvo asked if there was any “new intelligence” regarding military operations in Niger after the 2017 ambush that killed those four American soldiers. “You can’t put Nigeriens and intelligence in the same sentence,” replied someone in the office. Laughter followed and I published the sordid details. That very month, Anthony Falvo shipped off (literally ending up in the public affairs office of the USS Gerald Ford).

Today, a new coterie of AFRICOM public affairs personnel field questions, but Falvo’s successor, Deputy Director of Public Affairs John Manley, a genuine professional, seems to be on call whenever my questions are especially problematic. He swears this isn’t true, but I’m sure you won’t be shocked to learn that he fielded my queries for this article.

After Col. Tom Davis — who left AFRICOM to join Special Operations Command (where, in a private email, he called me a “turkey”) — failed to respond to my interview requests, I asked AFRICOM if his defer-and-deny system was the best way to inform the American public. “We are not going to comment on processes and procedures in place a decade ago or provide opinions on personnel who worked in the office at that time,” said Manley.

“Our responsibility is to provide timely, accurate, and transparent responses to queries received from all members of the media,” Manley told me. Yes, me, the reporter who’s been waiting since 2012 for answers about those U.S. bases. And by AFRICOM standards, maybe that’s not really so long, given its endless failures in quelling terrorism and promoting stability in places like Burkina Faso, Libya, and Somalia.

Still, I give Manley a lot of credit. He isn’t thin-skinned or afraid to talk and he does offer answers, although sometimes they seem so far-fetched that I can’t believe he uttered them with a straight face. Though he agreed to discuss his replies further, I doubted that badgering him would get either of us anywhere, so I’ll just let his last one stand as a digital monument to my 10-year relationship with AFRICOM. When I asked if the public affairs office had always been as forthcoming, forthright, and helpful with my queries as possible, he unleashed the perfect capstone to my decade-long dance with U.S. Africa Command by offering up just one lone word: “Yes.”

Supporting Ukraine 'for as long as it takes': Echoes of the war on terror?

Karen Greenberg, Is There an Off-Ramp from the Latest Forever War?

Thinking about the world of war explored today by TomDispatch regular Karen Greenberg, author most recently of Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump, a line from an old Pete Seeger song came to mind: “When will they ever learn?” It certainly could be applied in a major way to Vladimir Putin, who not only never learned but continues to be oh-so-painfully ignorant when it comes to Ukrainian resistance to his still-escalating war of aggression in that country.

Sadly enough, it could be applied to so many others on this planet as well, including of course government officials in the United States. Consider this: after 20 years of disastrous “forever wars” across the planet, the lesson drawn in Washington? You guessed it: to oversee the sharpest increases in Pentagon spending in decades and a rise in the U.S. national security budget to unprecedented levels — above such spending at the height of the Korean, Vietnam, or Cold Wars. Learn? Not us, it seems.

Or, thinking about the war in Ukraine, consider the latest suggestion from retired four-star U.S. Navy admiral and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander James Stavridis: that the U.S. and its NATO allies should impose a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine. I mean, what a good idea! Why not put the U.S. and NATO into direct fighting contact with the Russian military. How could anything possibly go wrong, taking that approach with the leader who has already threatened (“I’m not bluffing!“) to use tactical nuclear weapons there?

But some of us never learn, do we? I mean, Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine is both a nightmare and a crime against humanity, but don’t think we’re the good guys. Not after 20 years of the global war on terror, a disaster without which, by the way, Donald Trump (Make American Great Again!) would never have happened. Yes, Vladimir Putin seems irrationally determined to continue, even escalate, his war in Ukraine, but looking back on our forever wars, isn’t it strange how little this country was open to settling them?

With that in mind, consider with Greenberg what lessons — if either our leaders or the Russian president were rational creatures when it came to such endless wars — might be drawn from America’s Global War on Terror now. Tom

The Ukraine Moment: Lessons from the War on Terror

Ukraine is obviously a powder keg. With each passing day, in fact, the war there poses new threats to the world order. Only recently, Vladimir Putin’s Russia intensified its attacks on civilian targets in that beleaguered land, while threatening to use tactical nuclear weapons and adding Ukraine’s neighbor Belarus to its side on the battlefield. And don’t forget the Russian president’s decision to draft hundreds of thousands of additional civilians into his military, not to speak of the sham referendums he conducted to annex parts of Ukraine and the suspected cyberattack by a pro-Russian group that disrupted airline websites at hubs across the United States.

President Biden has repeatedly pledged not to enter the war. As he wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times last May (and has continued to signal): “So long as the United States or our allies are not attacked, we will not be directly engaged in this conflict, either by sending American troops to fight in Ukraine or by attacking Russian forces.” Washington has instead carved out a cautious but decidedly engaged response to the war there.

So far, that conflict has not posed a threat to this country and the Biden administration has held fast to the president’s commitment not to engage directly in that fight. But the war does continue to escalate, as do the taunts of an increasingly desperate Vladimir Putin. To date, the U.S. has pledged $15.2 billion in military assistance to Ukraine and its neighbors, an investment that has included arms, munitions, equipment, and training. The Biden administration had also imposed sanctions against more than 800 Russians as of June with additional ones announced in late September, while blocking oil and gas imports from that country.

At such a moment of ever-increasing international tension, however, it seems worthwhile to recall what lessons the United States learned (or at least should have learned) from its own wars of this century that fell under the rubric of the Global War on Terror, or GWOT.

Lessons Learned?

We certainly should have learned a great deal about ourselves over the course of the war on terror, the global conflicts that followed al-Qaeda’s devastating attacks of September 11, 2001.

We should have learned, for instance, that once a war starts, as the war on terror did when the administration of George W. Bush decided to invade Afghanistan, it can spread in a remarkable fashion — often without, at least initially, even being noticed — to areas far beyond the original battlefield. In the end, the war on terror would, in its own fashion, spread across the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa, with domestic versions of it lodging in both European countries and the United States in the form of aggressive terrorism prosecutions, anti-Muslim policing efforts, and, during the Trump administration, a “Muslim ban” against those trying to enter the U.S. from many largely Muslim countries.

In the process, we learned, or at least should have learned, that our government was willing to trade rights, liberties, and the law for a grim version of safety and security. The trade-off would, in the end, involve the indefinite detention of individuals (some to this very day) at that offshore prison of injustice, Guantánamo; torturing captives at CIA black sites around the world; launching “signature drone strikes” which regularly made no distinction between civilians and combatants; not to mention the warrentless surveillance that targeted the calls of staggering numbers of Americans. And all of this was done in the name of keeping ourselves safe, even if, in the end, it would help create an America in which ever less, including democracy, seems safe anymore.

Finally, we should have learned that once a major conflict begins, its end can be — to put the matter politely — elusive. In this way, it was no mistake that the war on terror, with us to this day in numerous ways, informally became known as our “forever war,” given the fact that, even today we’re not quite done with it. (U.S. troops are, for instance, still in Iraq and Syria.) According to the Costs of War Project at Brown University, that conflict has cost this country at least $8 trillion — with an additional estimated $2.2-$2.5 trillion needed to care for the veterans of the war between now and 2050.

Given all of this, there are, at least, three lessons to be taken from the war on terror, each sending a strong signal about how to reckon with Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

Beware Mission Creep

The war on terror was in large part defined by mission creep. What started as an incursion into Afghanistan to rout al-Qaeda and the perpetrators of 9/11 grew exponentially into a global set of conflicts, including a full-scale invasion of Iraq and the use (largely) of air power in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and other countries across Africa and the Middle East. This was all deemed possible thanks to a single joint resolution passed by Congress a week after the attacks of September 11th, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which included neither geographical areas nor specific adversaries other than those who conspired to bring about (or supported in some fashion) the 9/11 attacks. It was, in other words, so vague as to allow administration after administration to choose its enemies without again consulting Congress. (A separate 2002 authorization would launch the invasion of Iraq.)

The war in Ukraine similarly continues to widen. The 30 nations in NATO are largely lined up alongside that country against Russia. On October 11th, the Group of Seven, or G7, including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, pledged “financial, humanitarian, military, diplomatic, and legal support… for as long as it takes.” On that same day, the U.N. met to consider responses to Russia’s escalating missile and drone attacks on Ukrainian cities as well as its claim to have won a referendum supposedly greenlighting its annexation of four Ukrainian regions.

Meanwhile, the U.S. commitment to support Ukraine has grown ever more geographically extensive. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken explained during a visit to Kyiv in September, the American mission encompasses an effort “to bolster the security of Ukraine and 17 of its neighbors; including many of our NATO Allies, as well as other regional security partners potentially at risk of future Russian aggression.” Moreover, the United States has acted on an ever more global scale in its efforts to levy sanctions against Russia’s oligarchs, while warning of retribution (of an undefined sort) against any nation that provides a haven for them, as did China when it allowed a superyacht owned by a Russian oligarch to dock in Hong Kong’s harbor.

When it comes to Ukraine, the imperative of defining and limiting the scope of American involvement — whether in the areas of funding, weapons supplied, training, or even the deployment of U.S. troops near Ukraine or secret operatives in that country — couldn’t (in the light of GWOT) be more important. So far, Biden has at least kept his promise not to send U.S. troops to Ukraine. (In fact, just before the Russian invasion, he actually removed national guardsmen who had been stationed there in the late fall of 2021.)

It is perhaps a sign of restraint that the Biden administration has so publicly specified just what weaponry it’s providing to that country and which other countries it’s offering assistance to in the name of security concerns over the war. And in making decisions about which munitions and armaments to offer, the administration has insisted on deliberation and process rather than quick, ad-hoc acts. Still, as the GWOT taught us, mission creep is a danger and, as Putin’s Russia continues to expand its war in Ukraine, it’s important to keep a watchful eye on our expanding involvement, too.

Honor the Law

Notably, the war has been defined by Russia’s escalating abuses of international law and human rights. To begin with, that country violated international law with its unprovoked invasion, an act of straightforward aggression. Since then, reports of atrocities have mounted. An Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine issued a report last month to the U.N.’s Commissioner for Human Rights citing the use of explosives in civilian areas; evidence of torture, rape, and brutal executions; and the intentionally cruel treatment of those in custody. The massacre of civilians in the Ukrainian towns of Bucha and Izyum signaled Russia’s intent to continue its gruesome violations of the laws of war despite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s appeal to the U.N. for accountability.

That this is the road to lasting problems and an escalating threat environment is a lesson this country should have learned from its own war on terror in this century. The atrocities carried out by terrorist groups, including 9/11, led top officials in the Bush administration to calculate that, given the threat facing the country, it would be legitimate, even imperative, to ignore both domestic and international legal restraints. The greatest but hardly the only example of this was the willingness of the Central Intelligence Agency to use torture, which it relabeled “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding, exposure to extreme cold, sleep deprivation, and painful, prolonged forms of shackling at CIA black sites scattered around the world. That brutal program was finally laid out in 2014 in a nearly 600-page executive summary of a Senate investigation. Other illegal actions taken during the war on terror included setting up Guantánamo offshore of American justice and the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq based on a lie: that autocrat Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

When it comes to Ukraine, the war-on-terror experience should remind us of the importance of restraint and lawfulness, no matter the nature of the Russian threat or the cruel acts Putin has countenanced. “Russian forces were likely responsible for most casualties, but so too Ukrainian troops — albeit to a far lesser extent,” the U.N. commissioner for human rights said in a video message last spring. In August, Amnesty International issued a report which held that “Ukrainian forces have put civilians in harm’s way by establishing bases and operating weapons systems in populated residential areas, including in schools and hospitals.”

Plan for an Ending

Despite Vladimir Putin’s predictions that the war would end quickly with a Russian triumph and despite his continuing escalation of it, there has been no dearth of scenarios for such an ending. Early on, observers saw the possibility of a negotiated peace in which Ukraine would agree not to seek future membership in NATO, while Russia withdrew its troops and dropped its claims to Ukrainian territory (Crimea excepted). Soon thereafter, another scenario forecast “a new iron curtain” after Russian gains in eastern and southern Ukraine left “two antagonistic blocs staring each other down over a lengthy militarized border.” Others have predicted endless further escalation, including a possible Russian tactical nuclear strike in that country causing the West to retreat — or counter with its own nuclear gesture.

Only recently, almost eight months into the war, 66 nations at the U.N. General Assembly called for its end, while even retired American Admiral Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, “I think we need to back off [the war] a little bit and do everything we possibly can to try to get to the table to resolve this thing.” Others agree that the conflict should be ended sooner rather than later.

And for good reason! This country’s war on terror should be an apt reminder that planning for an ending is imperative, sooner rather than later. From the beginning, you might say, the forever war had no sense of an ending, since Congress’s authorization for the use of force lacked not only geographical but temporal limits of any sort. There was, in fact, no sense of what an end to hostilities might involve. Not even the killing of Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda, in 2011 was seen as ending anything, nor was the death of autocrat Saddam Hussein imagined as a conclusion of that American war. To this day, that 2001 authorization for war remains in place and one of the main symbols of the excesses of the war — Guantánamo Bay — remains open.

Right now, despite any calls by former warriors like Mullen or diplomats for an end to the war in Ukraine, it’s proving a distinctly elusive proposition not just for Vladimir Putin but for the U.S. and its NATO allies as well. As a senior administration official told the Washington Post recently, speaking of Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons and his draft of new Russian conscripts, “It’s definitely a sign that he’s doubling down, that we’re not close to the end, and not close to negotiations.”

In a speech delivered at the U.N. in late September, Secretary of State Antony Blinken caught the forever-war mood of the moment on all sides by expressing doubts about diplomacy as a cure-all for such a war. “As President Zelensky has said repeatedly,” Blinken told the Security Council, “diplomacy is the only way to end this war. But diplomacy cannot and must not be used as a cudgel to impose on Ukraine a settlement that cuts against the U.N. Charter, or rewards Russia for violating it.”

Given the lessons of the war on terror, casting doubt on the viability of future negotiations risks setting the stage for never-ending warfare of a distinctly unpredictable sort.

The Stakes

Though the war in Ukraine is taking place in a different context than the war on terror, with a different set of interests at stake and without the non-state actors of that American conflict, the reality is that it should have yielded instructive lessons for both sides. After all, America’s forever war harmed the fabric of our political life in ways almost too numerous to name, many of them related to the ever-expansive, extralegal, never-ending nature of that conflict. So imagine what this war could do to Russia, to Ukraine, and to our world.

The war in Ukraine offers Washington an opportunity to push the international community to choose a new scenario rather than one that will expand into a frighteningly unknown future. It gives the Biden administration a chance to choose law over lawlessness and emphasize a diplomatic resolution to that still-escalating crisis.

This time around, the need to exercise restraint, caution, and a deep respect for the law, while envisioning how the hostilities might actually end, could not be more important. The world of our children lies in the balance.

Disarming the lunatics: Will we ever ban the Bomb?

Robert Lipsyte, Bombs Away!

I remember two boys from the 1950s.

The first of them took the subway out to Ebbets Field as often as he could to see “his” team, the Brooklyn Dodgers. (When in the grandstands with his friends, he thought there was nothing funnier than to yell “Beer here!” as the fellow selling brew walked by — and then duck fast.) So many years later, I think he could still name the nine Dodger starters of that time from Roy Campanella behind the plate and Jackie Robinson at second base to right fielder Carl Furillo (known as “the Reading rifle” for his throwing arm). He’d probably put either Don Newcombe or Sandy Koufax on the mound. And in center field, of course, was the Duke (Duke Snider) who hit at least 40 home runs five years in a row, a record only otherwise reached in that century by Babe Ruth and Ralph Kiner. In 1957, he hit two in his final game in Brooklyn as his team prepared to head for the West Coast and become the Los Angeles Dodgers (the rats!).

The other little boy of those years spent time ducking and covering under his desk preparing for an event he only half-grasped, the potential nuclear destruction of his hometown, New York City, by our mortal Cold War enemy, the Russians. He went to the movies to see atomically irradiated giant ants invade Los Angeles (Them!), spaceships destroying whole planets (This Island Earth), and this world being turned into an atomic wasteland (On the Beach). He read post-apocalyptic novels like A Canticle for Leibowitz. Asleep at night, he dreamed about nuclear explosions and felt the heat of destruction broil his body. He read with a certain fascination about what Americans who had built their very own personal bomb shelters might do if the neighbors tried to squeeze in when facing impending nuclear doom. (Shoot ’em!)

Of course, that “he” was me. In the terms TomDispatch regular, author of SportsWorld: An American Dreamland, and former New York Times sports columnist Robert Lipsyte lays out today, those were my own two versions of the Big Bang. More than half a century later, strangely enough, I’ve disarmed one of them. (I no longer watch my formerly favorite team, the Mets.). The other, unfortunately, the potential nuking of this planet, I can’t do much about. I only wish I could. But as baseball’s World Series approaches, along with a world series of nightmares from hell in Ukraine, let Lipsyte tell you more. Tom

Home Runs First: How the Four-Bagger Leads to the Real Thing

The time has come to ban The Bomb.

Of course, all those nuclear ones in the arsenals of the “great” powers, but — since I’m a sportswriter by trade — let’s start with the home run. Call it a four-bagger, a dinger, a moon shot, or (in my childhood) a Ballantine blast for the beer that sponsored so much baseball. One thing is certain, though: the dream of the game-changing home run has shaped our approach to so much, from sports to geopolitics. Most significantly, it’s damaged our ability to solve problems through reason and diplomacy.

So, consider banning both The Bomb and the home run as the first crucial steps toward a safer, more peaceful world.

For 102 years now, since Babe Ruth first joined the Yankees, we’ve been heading for this moment when a frustrated American lunatic might potentially try to take this country hostage by threatening violent civil war, while a frustrated Russian lunatic tries to take the world hostage by threatening to annihilate it.

Saving both the country and the world by disarming the lunatics can only be accomplished via the careful little steps that no longer seem to be a priority either in the playbooks of baseball or in the arsenals of liberal democracy. Over the past decades, they’ve largely been discarded in favor of the idea of the big bang, be it for deterrence, intimidation, or, in two horrendous moments in 1945, actual big bangs that created the politics of mutually assured destruction as a forever possibility.

How did that happen? In sports, blame it on baseball, which gave up much of its original artistry for the triumphal explosion that now overrides all else, potentially wiping out both past mistakes and future hopes. To set a proper example, the home run should be canceled if the world is to be saved.

It’s easy enough. Just change the rulebooks so that a ball hit out of the park doesn’t count. It’s not even a ball or a strike, just nothing, another missing baseball. Get over it.

Bombs Away!

Getting rid of the home run will be a particularly hard sell in the glow of the round-tripper renaissance born by the extraordinary season of the New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge. It unfolded, handily enough, as the specters of both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin haunted the non-sports networks. By hitting 62 home runs in a single season, an American League record, Judge brought back the shock-and-awe thrill of it all in a creamy cloud of nostalgia that has briefly obscured the terror of the real bombs.

Judge’s record season also managed to obscure for the moment just how tawdry the very idea of a home-run record had become. After all, the major league home-run record is now 73, set in 2001 by Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants. Until Judge came along, that record, like Bonds himself, had been mired in a Trumpian or Putinesque sports version of disgrace and disgust, though ascribing sane motives to Bonds is far easier than to Trump or Putin, because Bonds is no lunatic.

In fact, he was a truly great player, apparently so maddened by the ascendence of rival hitters seemingly on performance-enhancing drugs that he, too, may have reached for chemical help. The runner-ups to him for the single-season record, Mark McGwire (70 dingers in 1998) and Sammy Sosa (66 in 1998), were also linked to steroid use.

Ironically, it was in 1998, a year stained by the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, that the McGwire-Sosa home run rivalry was credited with diverting the nation from the shame of the White House — and it could only do so because home-run records held such powerful magic.

The record for ultimate power without drugs demands respect. In that sense, the most impressive previous one was set at 61 in 1961 by Roger Maris. He was a Yankees outfielder and a thoughtful, decent player without much flair. Despite all those homers, he was no Bombardier, especially because he was playing alongside a charismatic superstar, Mickey Mantle, whom fans had long hoped would supplant the until-then-ultimate record of that ur-superstar Babe Ruth. Maris was never quite accepted as such after he broke Ruth’s 1927 60-homer mark.

Enter The Babe

In his time (and for decades thereafter), the Babe was Mr. Baseball and, in some ways, Mr. America, too, the very symbol of this country’s emerging power after World War I. His style of play — Bam! — was the one our leaders began to see themselves bringing to global dynamics. He was the face of the Roaring Twenties (unless you’d prefer that flying fascist Charles Lindbergh or that gangster-in-chief Al Capone).

Ruth had been a sensation, a metaphor for appetite, celebrity, food, sex, and victory. In 1920, his first year with the New York Yankees, the 25-year-old Ruth hit what was then a nearly inconceivable number of home runs: 54. Until that moment, 15 or so homers were usually enough to win the home-run title. An exception was 1919 when Ruth, then still a Boston Red Sox pitcher, hit 29.

The Babe appeared at a propitious moment for baseball. His achievements counteracted the negative effects of what came to be known as the Black Sox scandal in which members of the Chicago White Sox were accused of throwing the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds in a gambling scheme. There was gloom and soul searching. The national pastime fixed? The nation corrupted?

At least in the mythology of baseball, the emergence of Babe Ruth and the Yankees was credited with helping save the game itself and perhaps the pride of the nation as well. Through sheer power! Bam!

The Yankees would, in fact, get into the World Series in six of the next eight seasons as they developed into baseball’s powerhouse franchise. With all those homers in mind, they would come to be known as the Bronx Bombers. The United States went on to swing its own big bats in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan in 2001 and the Persian Gulf again in 2003, all en route to becoming, at least in the minds of its leaders and the Washington foreign-policy crew, the world’s leading superpower.

Time out. Are you finding this hyperbolic or, given the nature of baseball, not serious enough to put on the same page with those endless wars or the once all-American weaponry that has now become Vladimir Putin’s threat to the world? Babe Ruth, Roger Maris, Barry Bonds a key to our future? Not likely, huh? Well, just hang on to my theory that we’re in thrall to The Bomb (or do I mean enthralled by it?) and that, to survive, we’d better begin disarming — and keep reading.

Enter Aaron Judge

Enter Aaron Judge, a large, friendly, humble 30-year-old, an accomplished all-round player who’s considered “clean” or steroid-free.

On October 4th, in Toronto, in the first inning of the next-to-last game of the 2022 regular season, Judge, to his great relief and that of so many fans, hammered number 62. Mission accomplished! (Sadly, an apt enough phrase, given the way President George W. Bush featured it in reference to his 2003 invasion of Iraq — only to later regret it for obvious reasons and have it used again in 2018 by Donald Trump in reference to Syria, where U.S. troops remain to this day.)

At that moment, there was a new Bomber-in-Chief and might makes right was reaffirmed. No other sport, in fact, ever reinvented itself so thoroughly by focusing on one act — although football came close in 1906 when it legalized the forward pass. That, however, was an attempt to open up the game to prevent so many injuries from the brutal mass collisions of what was then essentially a rushing game. The year before, 19 young men had died and 159 had been seriously injured. President Theodore Roosevelt, a famous proponent of that supposedly manly game, demanded reforms to save it. The casualty rate soon dropped, but how well that all came out remains open to doubt, since the issue of traumatic brain injuries continues to plague football.

While football and baseball both became more dramatically exciting with their big bangs, in the process, baseball lost its brainy chess-like quality. Instead of eking out runs using cunning tactics like the sacrifice bunt, the hit-and-run play, or the delayed steal — all now categorized, whether nostalgically or derisively, as “small ball” — managers came to depend on their sluggers to muscle their way to victory, often at the last minute. As time went on and football, with its dramatic brutality, also often heightened at the last minute, became the dominant sport, the home run only gained more value as one of the best ways to lure in younger fans.

Power Is Sexy

The home run was once justified by the Nike slogan “Chicks dig the long ball,” a variant perhaps of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”

Trump and Putin, like most long-ball hitters (although not Aaron Judge), tend to strike out all too often and be forgiven for it because their fans believe that they’ll soon turn it all around with a home run. No wonder the term home run has become synonymous with having done the best job possible, nailing the deal, case, or diagnosis. In truth, the home run should have become the symbol of the quick fix that may not hold, the brass ring that diverts us from the pleasure of the process, the big club created to intimidate opponents into submission that so often turns them into resentful insurgents.

Which is where we are now. The Russians are in the deep muddy exactly because the Ukrainians knew how to play small ball. They found that they could take a hit-and-run approach with those Russian tanks on the outskirts of Kyiv as effectively as the Vietcong ever did with American ones (and you may remember who won that war).

At the same time, Trump’s Republicans and Putin’s Russians have depended on the long ball. The January 6th insurgency was an attempted walk-off blast to drive home the Big Lie that Trump had really won the election. Had it succeeded, he would have been an autocrat by coup. It was, however, thwarted by small ball: the incredible courage and discipline of the police and the defense of the nation by Democrats through the democratic process.

The invasion of Ukraine and the attempted seizure of its capital, Kyiv, ostensibly to save it from Western aggression as well as “militarism and Nazification,” was Putin’s shot at a home-run-style putsch. He had envisioned his invasion as a triumphant blitzkrieg ending in a quick Russian victory. The duration, relentlessness, and success of the Ukrainian response surprised the world, especially America, which (in its version of finesse) then used sanctions and military aid to support that beleaguered country.

The struggle continues as the Trump team threatens bloodshed in the streets and civil war if their criminal goals are legally blocked. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin continues to threaten an all-too-literal big-bang response to Ukrainian battlefield successes via his country’s vast arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons stationed just offstage — with the fear of escalation into full-scale mushroom clouds and, as our president put it, “Armageddon” lurking in our future.

Talk about a potential Big Bang!

What Can We Do?

Getting out the vote, especially in this time of voter suppression, requires small ball in its most passionate and precise form. Small ball was always about hard work, discipline, and dedication. Think of non-violent demonstrations during the Civil Rights era. So, practice your political version of the sacrifice bunt, while making sure that everyone is on the team, knows the play, and turns out.

Far be it from me to advise the Ukrainians, especially in the arts of the hit-and-run and the sacrifice. Material aid and back-channel diplomacy are, however, also examples of small ball in their way, but the terror of the Big Bang still looms over everything.

Admittedly, metaphor seems shallow and easy when so many lives are at stake, but at least when it comes to baseball, if not this planet, it would indeed be possible to ban the bomb and return to a sports version of a small-ball world. Unfortunately, sports rules don’t work globally, so banning the real bomb seems all too unlikely.

If we could do that, though, you could let the home run stay and who would care?

But, alas, what’s happening on this planet isn’t a game after all.

How to go from a win-win to a lose-lose world

Alfred McCoy, How to Go from a Win-Win to a Lose-Lose World

Governor Ron DeSantis — you know, the guy who sent those plane loads of immigrants flying from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, with Florida tax dollars — caught something of the spirit of our moment in the wake of the recent catastrophic landfall of Hurricane Ian. He called it “basically a 500-year flood event.” And it’s true enough, if you’re talking about the last 500 years. If, however, you’re talking about the future, the next decade or two, consider one thing guaranteed: Ian and potentially far worse — imagine the American equivalent of what recently happened in Pakistan where one-third of the country was flooded by record monsoon rains and glacial melt — is undoubtedly in the cards. You won’t have to wait another half a millennium for the next Ian to hit our shores.

It’s obvious that all too few Americans want to face this reality: that we’re truly in a new world in the worst sense imaginable when it comes to climate change. To me at least, the most striking thing about the days-on-end coverage of Ian and its path of destruction was how little the overheating of this planet was focused on. Yes, you could indeed now find individual stories in the mainstream media that dealt with the climate-change-intensified nature of such a storm. But for those of you who watched the TV news as I did, there was little sense that we are functionally in a new world.

Worse yet, if things go badly here this November — as they just did in Latin America’s biggest country, Brazil, where the climate-change-denying party of President Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian Trump, won the largest bloc of seats in both chambers of that country’s Congress — and again in November 2024, you might as well kiss this planet goodbye. Or put another way, in the context of the latest piece by TomDispatch regular Alfred McCoy, author of To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change, while the United States may be in a new Cold War in Eurasia, we, like the rest of humanity, are also in an increasingly hot war right here at home — and if you doubt that, just check out the megadrought-ridden American West. Tom

The New Cold War Heats Up Asia: China and the U.S. Face an Unprecedented Crisis

If the world is indeed entering a new Cold War, it bears little resemblance to the final years of that global conflict with its frequent summits between smiling leaders and its arms agreements aimed at de-escalating nuclear tensions. Instead, the world today seems more like the perilous first decade of that old Cold War, marked by bloody regional conflicts, threats of nuclear strikes, and the constant risk of superpower confrontation.

While world leaders debate the Ukraine crisis at the United Nations and news flashes from that battle zone become a part of our daily lives, the most dramatic and dangerous changes may be occurring at the other end of Eurasia, from the Indian Ocean to the Western Pacific. There, Beijing and Washington are forming rival coalitions as they maneuver over a possible war focused on the island of Taiwan and for dominance over a vast region that’s home to more than half of humanity.

And yet, despite the obvious dangers of another war, the crises there are little more than a distraction from a far more serious challenge facing humanity. With so many mesmerized by the conflict in Ukraine and the possibility of another over Taiwan, world leaders largely ignore the rising threat of climate change. It seems to matter little that, in recent months, we’ve been given unnerving previews of what’s to come. “Geopolitical divides are undermining… all forms of international cooperation,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres told world leaders at the General Assembly last month. “We cannot go on like this. Trust is crumbling, inequalities are exploding, our planet is burning.”

To take in the full import of such an undiplomatic warning from the planet’s senior diplomat, think of geopolitical conflict and climate change as two storm fronts — one a fast-moving thunderstorm, the other a slower tropical depression — whose convergence might well produce a cataclysm of unprecedented destructive power.

The Geopolitics of the Old Cold War

Although the rival power blocs in this new Cold War across Eurasia resemble those of the 1950s, there are subtle differences that make the current balance of powerless stable and potentially more prone to armed conflict.

Right after China’s communists captured Beijing in October 1949, their leader Mao Zedong forged a close alliance with the boss of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, that shook the world. With those two communist states dominating much of the vast Eurasian land mass, the Cold War was suddenly transformed from a regional into a global conflict.

In 1950, when that new communist alliance launched a meat-grinder war against the West on the Korean peninsula, Washington scrambled for a strategy to contain the spread of communist influence beyond an “Iron Curtain” stretching 5,000 miles across Eurasia. In January 1951, the National Security Council (NSC) compiled a top-secret report warning that “the United States is now in a war of survival,” which it was in danger of losing. Were actual combat to erupt in Europe, the 10 active U.S. army divisions there could be crushed by the Soviet Union’s 175 divisions. So, the NSC recommended that Washington increase its reliance on “strategic air power” to deliver its expanding “atomic stockpile.” In addition, it suggested Washington should match its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) commitment by building a “position of strength in the Far East, thus obtaining an active strategic base against Russia in the event of general war with the Soviets.”

With surprising speed, American diplomats implemented that strategy, signing treaties and mutual-defense pacts meant to encircle Eurasia with rings of steel, especially in the form of new air bases. After transforming the just-formed NATO into an expressly military alliance, Washington quickly negotiated five bilateral defense pacts along the edge of Asia with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Australia. To bolster that continent’s long southern flank, the Western alliance then forged two mutual-defense pacts: METO (the Middle East Treaty Organization) and SEATO (the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization). To complete its 360° encirclement of Eurasia, the U.S. formed NORAD (the North American Aerospace Command) with Canada, deploying a massive armada of missiles, bombers, and early-warning radar to check any future Soviet attacks across the Arctic.

Within a decade, the U.S. had constructed an aerial empire, subsuming the sovereignty of the dozens of allied nations and allowing U.S. Air Force jet fighters to fly their skies as if they were their own. This imperium of the clouds would be tethered to the earth by hundreds of U.S. air bases, home to 580 behemoth B-52 bombers, 4,500 jet fighters, and an armada of missiles that, by 1960, allowed the Air Force to claim nearly half the Pentagon’s swelling budget.

Although this defense architecture rested on the threat of thermonuclear war, it introduced a surprising element of geopolitical stability to the superpower confrontation of that era. As a start, it stretched Soviet defenses thin along a 12,000-mile frontier and so, strangely enough, reduced the threat that a single, concentrated point of confrontation could escalate into an atomic war. Indeed, during the 45 years of the Cold War, there would be just four moments when nuclear war threatened, all quickly defused: the Taiwan Straits crisis of 1958, the Berlin crisis of 1961, the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, and the Able Archer NATO exercise of 1983. With the Soviets effectively confined, Washington could inflict a maximum cost at a minimum price whenever its rival tried to break out of its geopolitical isolation, first with moderate success in Cuba and Angola and then with devastating effect in Afghanistan, precipitating the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The U.S. and China Face Off

Some 30 years after that Cold War ended, however, strategic gaps have appeared in Washington’s encirclement of Eurasia, particularly along the continent’s southern flank. Among other things, its strong Cold War-era position in the Middle East has weakened considerably. Once subordinated allies have become increasingly independent of Washington’s writ — notably, Turkey (forming an “axis of good” with Russia and Iran), Egypt (purchasing $2 billion in Russian jet fighters), and even Saudi Arabia (doing major oil deals with Moscow). Meanwhile, despite a trillion-dollar, decade-plus U.S. intervention there, Iraq is collapsing into failed-state status, while moving ever closer to Iran.

The most significant gap was, however, opened by Washington’s chaotic withdrawal from its disastrous 20-year war in Afghanistan, which critics quickly branded “Biden’s Afghan Blunder.” Yet that decision was more strategic than it first appeared. China had already been consolidating its dominance in Central Asia through multibillion-dollar development deals with nations around Afghanistan, like Pakistan, and even before that collapse in Kabul, geopolitical strangulation had forced the U.S. military to send any air support for its ground forces there on a 2,000-mile round-trip flight from the Persian Gulf. Now, a full year later, with the U.S. military facing serious challenges in both Ukraine and the Taiwan Strait, that once-controversial withdrawal seems almost strategically prescient.

At the western end of Eurasia, President Biden’s calibrated response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has not only repaired the damage done to NATO by Donald Trump’s attacks on the alliance but fostered a trans-Atlantic solidarity not seen since the coldest days of the Cold War. Apart from the joint effort to arm and train Ukraine’s military, there has been a fundamental, long-term shift in Europe’s energy imports with profound geopolitical implications. After the European Union (EU) reacted to Vladimir Putin’s invasion by banning imports of Russian coal and oil, while Moscow cut critical natural gas from its pipelines, the U.S. helped fill the breach by shipping 60% of its swelling natural gas exports to Europe.

To handle those fast-rising imports, the EU is spending countless billions on a crash program to build costly terminals for Liquified Natural Gas (LNG). To replace the 118 million tons of natural gas imported from Russia annually before the war, the EU is scrambling to double its current array of two-dozen LNG terminals, while simultaneously negotiating long-term contracts with producers in America, Australia, and Qatar to construct costly liquefication plants (like the $25-billion Driftwood project now underway in Louisiana). With stunning speed, such massive investments at both ends of the energy supply chain are ensuring that Europe’s economic ties to Russia will never again be as significant.

At the eastern end of Eurasia, on the other hand, an ongoing dangerous stand-off with China over Taiwan is complicating Washington’s efforts to rebuild its Cold War strategic bastion in the Pacific. Last October, Chinese President Xi Jinping insisted that the “historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland must be fulfilled,” while, in May, President Biden announced his intention “to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan.” During her controversial August visit to that island, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stated, “America’s determination to preserve democracy here in Taiwan… remains ironclad.” As China’s jets flood that island’s airspace and American warships steam defiantly through the Taiwan Strait, both powers have launched pell-mell naval construction programs. The U.S. Navy is aiming to have at least 321 manned vessels, while China, with the world’s largest shipbuilding capacity, plans a battle force of 425 ships by 2030.

In recent years, China has relentlessly expanded across Asia economically, while building the world’s largest trading bloc, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. In the future, Beijing may even have the means to slowly draw some of America’s allies into its sphere of influence. While Japan still sees the U.S. commitment to Taiwan as part of its own defense and South Korea has shed its usual ambiguity to issue a joint statement about “the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” other Asian allies like Australia and the Philippines have taken a more ambiguous position.

Should China launch an invasion of Taiwan — which, warns that island’s foreign minister, might well happen next year — the price of involvement for the U.S. could prove prohibitive. In a series of war game scenarios proposed by a Washington think tank last August, intervention to save Taiwan could cost the U.S. Navy at least 79% of its forces, meaning something like two aircraft carriers, dozens of surface ships, and hundreds of aircraft.

The increasing unreliability of some of Washington’s allies is amply evident along Eurasia’s southern tier. As part of its ongoing strategic realignment, in 2017 Washington ended its 50-year alliance with Pakistan via a Trump tweet condemning Islamabad’s “lies and deceit.” Following Tokyo’s lead, Washington then forged a naval-oriented entente called the “Quad” with three other Asia-Pacific democracies — Australia, India, and Japan.

India is clearly the keystone in this loose alliance by virtue of its strategic position and its growing navy of 150 warships, including nuclear submarines and an aircraft carrier now under construction. Yet New Delhi’s ad hoc alliance with those kindred democracies is proving ambiguous at best. It has indeed hosted most of the Quad’s annual joint naval maneuvers aimed at checking China in the Indian Ocean. However, it has also joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a key instrument for advancing Beijing’s Eurasian ambitions. Indeed, it was at that organization’s meeting in Uzbekistan last month that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi publicly rebuked Vladimir Putin over his Ukraine invasion.

Countering the American array of alliances, China is — through its naval expansion and economic development initiatives — challenging Washington’s once-dominant position in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific. Through its trillion-dollar infrastructure investments, Beijing is laying a steel grid of rails, roads, and pipelines across the breadth of Eurasia, matched by a string of 40 commercial ports it’s built or bought that now ring the coasts of Africa and Europe.

Already possessing the world’s largest (if not most powerful) navy, Beijing’s busy dockyards are constantly launching new warships and nuclear submarines. It also recently built its first major aircraft carrier. Moreover, it already has the second largest space network with more than 500 orbital satellites, while achieving a breakthrough in quantum cryptography by sending unhackable “entangled photon” messages more than 1,200 kilometers.

Reflecting its sharpening technological edge, according to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, China has developed sophisticated cyber and anti-satellite tactics to “counter a U.S. intervention during a regional military conflict.” And in July 2021, it conducted the world’s first “fractional orbital launch” of a hypersonic missile✎ EditSign that circled the globe at an unstoppable speed of 3,800 miles per hour before striking within 24 miles of its target — ample accuracy for the nuclear payload it could someday carry. In short, the only certainty in any future U.S.-China conflict over Taiwan would be unparalleled destruction as well as an unimaginable disruption of the global economy that would make the fighting in Ukraine seem like a border skirmish.

Environmental Cataclysm

And yet, stunningly enough, that’s not the worst news for Asia or the rest of the planet. The fast-building climate crisis poses a far greater threat. Last February, when the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report, Secretary-General António Guterres called it “a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.”

In just a decade or two, when global warming reaches 1.5° Celsius, storms and drought will ravage farmlands in even more devastating ways than at present, while reefs that protect coasts will decline by up to 90%, and the population exposed to coastal flooding will increase by at least 20%. The cumulative changes are, in fact, mounting so rapidly, the U.N. warned, that they could soon overwhelm the capacity of humanity and nature to adapt, potentially yielding a planet that might, sooner or later, prove relatively uninhabitable.

In the six months following the release of that doomsday report, weather disasters erupting in Asia would give frightening weight to those dire words. In Pakistan, annual monsoon rains, turbocharged by warming seas, unleashed unprecedented floods that covered an unparalleled one-third of the country, displacing 33 million people and killing 1,700. Those waters ravaging its agricultural heartland are not even expected to fully recede for another six months.

While Pakistan is drowning, neighboring Afghanistan is suffering a prolonged drought that has brought six million people to the brink of famine, while scorching the country’s eastern provinces with wildfires. Similarly, in India, temperatures this summer averaged 109° to 115° Fahrenheit in 15 provinces and remained at that intolerable level in some cities for a record 27 days.

This summer, China similarly experienced staggering weather extremes, as the country’s worst recorded drought turned stretches of the great Yangtze River into mudflats, hydropower failures shuttered factories, and temperatures hit record highs. In other parts of the country, however, heavy floods unleashed lethal landslides and rivers ran so high that they changed course. By 2050, the north China plain, now home to 400 million people, is expected to experience killer heatwaves and, by century’s end, could suffer weather extremes that would make it uninhabitable.

With world leaders now absorbed in military rivalries at both ends of Eurasia, once-promising international cooperation over climate change has virtually ceased. Only recently, in fact, China “suspended” all climate talks with the U.S. even though, as of 2020, those two powers were responsible for 44% of the world’s total carbon emissions.

Last November, just four months before the Ukraine war started, the two countries issued an historic declaration at the U.N.’s Glasgow Climate Change Conference recognizing the “urgency of the climate crisis” and stating that they were “committed to tackling it through their respective accelerated actions in the critical decade of the 2020s…to avoid catastrophic impacts.” To honor that commitment, China agreed to “phase down” (but not “phase out”) its reliance on coal starting in 2025, just as the U.S. promised “to reach 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035″ — neither exactly a dream response to the crisis. Now, with no climate communication at all, things look grim indeed.

Not surprisingly, the collision of those geopolitical and environmental tempests represents a mindboggling threat to the planet’s future, giving the very idea of a cold war turning into a hot war new meaning. Even if Beijing and Washington were to somehow avert armed conflict over Taiwan, the chill in their diplomatic relations is crippling the world’s already weak capacity to meet the challenge of climate change. Instead of the “win-win” that was the basis for effective U.S.-China relations for nearly 30 years, the world is faced with circumstances that can only be called “lose-lose” — or worse.

Green resource wars loom over global transition efforts

Cox and Cox – The New Great Game?

I’m anything but a mathematician. Still, the numbers should take anyone’s breath away. Last spring, South Asia experienced a staggering heatwave, with temperatures soaring daily and breaking records in parts of India and Pakistan. Worse yet, scientists have found that such heatwaves are now 30 times more likely to recur there than once upon a time, thanks to human-caused climate change. Similarly, this summer in the Northern hemisphere, Europe, China, and North America all had record-breaking droughts. The European one was the worst in at least 500 years; the ongoing drought in the American West is the worst in 1,200 years; the one in China simply broke all records. Major rivers dried up from the Rhine to the Colorado to the Yangtze, while people everywhere suffered.

And — if you don’t mind my using the word yet again — worst of all, a new scientific analysis of those droughts suggests that global warming has made them 20 times more likely to occur than was true a century ago. Mind you, with the continued staggering release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (only aggravated by the war in Ukraine), the global temperature is expected to rise yet more in the years to come, ensuring that such studies will have to be repeated and amended again and again.

Sigh… This means, of course, that the rush for some kind of green revolution seems beyond necessary and yet, as TomDispatch regular Stan and — a new author for this site — Priti Cox point out today, that’s easier said than done. As they suggest, trying to simply recreate a green equivalent of our present world, vehicle by vehicle, could prove but another formula for disaster. Tom

Are Green Resource Wars Looming? The Burden of Massive EV Batteries Will Be Borne by People and Ecosystems

Much of the excitement over the Inflation Reduction Act, which became law this summer, focused on the boost it should give to the sales of electric vehicles. Sadly, though, manufacturing and driving tens of millions of individual electric passenger cars won’t get us far enough down the road to ending greenhouse-gas emissions and stanching the overheating of this planet. Worse yet, the coming global race to electrify the personal vehicle is likely to exacerbate ecological degradation, geopolitical tensions, and military conflict.

The batteries that power electric vehicles are likely to be the source of much international competition and the heart of the problem lies in two of the metallic elements used to make their electrodes: cobalt and lithium. Most deposits of those metals lie outside the borders of the United States and will leave manufacturers here (and elsewhere) relying heavily on foreign supplies to electrify road travel on the scale now being envisioned.

Adventurers and Opportunists

In the battery business, the Democratic Republic of Congo is referred to as “the Saudi Arabia of cobalt.” For two decades, its cobalt — 80% of the world’s known reserves — has been highly prized for its role in mobile-phone manufacturing. Such cobalt mining has already taken a terrible human and ecological toll.

Now, the pressure to increase Congo’s cobalt output is intensifying on a staggering scale. Whereas a phone contains just thousandths of a gram of cobalt, an electric vehicle battery has pounds of the metal, and a quarter-billion such batteries will have to be manufactured to fully electrify the American passenger car fleet as it now exists.

Not surprisingly, the investment world is now converging on Congo’s capital, Kinshasa. In a remarkable series of articles late last year, the New York Times reported on how the cobalt rush in that country has been caught up “in a familiar cycle of exploitation, greed, and gamesmanship that often puts narrow national aspirations above all else.” The most intense rivalry is between China, which has, in recent years, been buying up cobalt-mining operations in Congo at a rapid clip, and the United States, now playing catch-up. Those two nations, wrote the Times, “have entered a new ‘Great Game’ of sorts,” a reference to the nineteenth-century confrontation between the Russian and British Empires over Afghanistan.

Fifteen of 19 cobalt mines in Congo are now under Chinese control. In and around those mines, the health and the safety of workers have been severely compromised, while local residents have been displaced from their homes. People sneaking into the area to collect leftover lumps of cobalt to sell are being shot at. The killing of one man by the Congolese military (at the urging of Chinese mine owners) spurred an uprising in his village, during which a protester was also shot and killed.

The Times further reported, “Troops with AK-47s were posted outside the mine this year, along with security guards hired from a company founded by Erik Prince.” Prince is notorious for having been the founder and boss of the mercenary contractor Blackwater, which committed atrocities during America’s “forever wars” of the 2000s. Among other mayhem, Blackwater mercenaries fired upon unarmed civilians in both Iraq and Afghanistan and were convicted of the killings and woundings that resulted. From 2014 to 2021, he was the chair of a China-based company, Frontier Services Group, that provided Blackwater-style services to mining companies in Congo.

Prince has joined what the Times calls “a wave of adventurers and opportunists who have filled a vacuum created by the departure of major American mining companies, and by the reluctance of other traditional Western firms to do business in a country with a reputation for labor abuses and bribery.”

Neo-Conquistadors

Forbes reported recently that 384 additional mines may be needed worldwide by 2035 to keep battery factories supplied with cobalt, lithium, and nickel. Even were there to be a rapid acceleration of the recycling of metals from old batteries, 336 new mines would still be needed. A battery-industry CEO told the magazine:

If you just look at Tesla’s ambition to produce 20 million electric vehicles a year in 2030, that alone will require close to two times the present global annual supply [of those minerals] and that’s before you include VW, Ford, GM, and the Chinese.

Currently, the bulk of the world’s lithium production occurs in Australia, Chile, and China, while there are vast unexploited reserves in the southern part of Bolivia where it joins Chile and Argentina in what’s come to be known as the “lithium triangle.” China owns lithium mines outright throughout that triangle and in Australia, and two-thirds of the world’s lithium processing is done in Chinese-owned facilities.

Lithium extraction and processing is not exactly a green business. In Chile’s Atacama Desert, for instance, where lithium mining requires vast evaporation ponds, a half million gallons of water are needed for every metric ton of lithium extracted. The process accounts for 65% of the total amount of water used in that region and causes extensive soil and water contamination, as well as air pollution.

While evidently uninterested in Mother Nature, Tesla’s electric car tycoon Elon Musk is intensely interested in vertically integrating lithium mining with electric battery and vehicle production on the Chinese model. Accordingly, he’s been trying for years to get his hands on Bolivia’s pristine lithium reserves. Until ousted in a 2020 coup, that country’s president Evo Morales stood in Musk’s way, pledging to “industrialize with dignity and sovereignty.”

When a Twitter user accused Musk of being complicit in the coup, the Tesla tycoon responded, “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.” (He later deleted the tweet.) As Vijay Prashad and Alejandro Bejarano observed at the time, “Musk’s admission, however intemperate, is at least honest… Earlier this year, Musk and his company revealed that they wanted to build a Tesla factory in Brazil, which would be supplied by lithium from Bolivia; when we wrote about that we called our report ‘Elon Musk Is Acting Like a Neo-Conquistador for South America’s Lithium.’”

Bolivia continues to seek to exploit its lithium resources while keeping them under national control. Without sufficient wealth and technical resources, however, its government has been obliged to solicit foreign capital, having narrowed the field of candidate companies to six — one American, one Russian, and four Chinese. By year’s end, it’s expected to select one or more of them to form a partnership with its state-owned firm, Yacimientos de Litios Bolivianos. No matter who gets the contract, friction among the three suitor nations could potentially kick off a Western Hemispheric version of the Great Game.

And whatever you do, don’t forget that Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, a lithium-rich land with centuries of bitter experience in hosting great powers, is another potential arena for rivalry and conflict. In fact, Soviet invaders first identified that country’s lithium resources four decades ago. During the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan in this century, geologists confirmed the existence of large deposits, and the Pentagon promptly labeled the country — you guessed it — a potential “Saudi Arabia of lithium.” According to the Asia-Pacific-based magazine The Diplomat, the lithium rush is now on there and “countries like China, Russia, and Iran have already revealed their intentions to develop ‘friendly relations’ with the Taliban,” as they compete for the chance to flaunt their generosity and “help” that country exploit its resources.

Don’t Look Down

The greatest potential for conflict over battery metals may not, in fact, be in Asia, Africa, or the Americas. It may not be on any continent at all. The most severe and potentially most destructive future battleground may lie far out in international waters, where polymetallic nodules — dense mineral lumps, often compared to potatoes in their size and shape — lie strewn in huge numbers across vast regions of the deep-ocean floor. They contain a host of metallic elements, including not only lithium and cobalt but also copper, another metal required in large amounts for battery manufacturing. According to a United Nations report, a single nodule field, the 1.7 million-square-mile Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the Pacific Ocean southeast of the Hawaiian Islands, contains more cobalt than all terrestrial resources combined.

A U.N. agency, the International Seabed Authority, issues exploration licenses to mining companies sponsored by national governments and intends to start authorizing nodule extraction in the CCZ as soon as next year. Mining methods for polymetallic nodules have not yet been fully developed or used on a large scale, but the metal hunters are advertising the process as being far less destructive than the terrestrial mining of cobalt and lithium. One can get the impression that it will be so gentle as not even to be mining as we’ve known it, but something more like running a vacuum cleaner along the seafloor.

Don’t believe it for a second. In just a small portion of the CCZ, scientists have identified more than 1,000 animal species and they suspect that at least another thousand are also living there, along with 100,000 microbial species. Virtually all of the creatures in the path of mining operations will, of course, be killed, and anything living on the surface of those nodules removed from the ecosystem. The nodule-harvesting machines, as large as wheat combines, will stir up towering clouds of sediment likely to drift for thousands of miles before finally settling onto, burying, and so killing yet more sea life.

To recap: In America, the Saudi Arabia of green greed, we now covet a couple of metals critically important to the electric-vehicle industry, cobalt and lithium, the reserves of which are concentrated in only a small number of nations. However, the ores can also be sucked straight off the seabed in humongous quantities in places far outside the jurisdiction of any nation. Environmentally, geopolitically, militarily, what could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, of course. Writing for the Center for International Maritime Security last year, U.S. Coast Guard Surface Warfare Officer Lieutenant Kyle Cregge argued that the Coast Guard and Navy should have a high-profile presence in seabed mining areas. He stressed that the 1980 Deep Seabed Hard Mineral Resource Act “claimed the right of the U.S. to mine the seabed in international waters, and specifically identifies the Coast Guard as responsible for enforcement.”

He did acknowledge that patrolling areas where deep-sea mining occurs could create some dicey situations. As he put it, “The Coast Guard will face the same problem the U.S. Navy does with its freedom of navigation operations in places like the South China Sea.” But by potentially putting their vessels in harm’s way, he wrote, “the services seek to reinforce the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as reflecting customary international law.” (Forget the fact that the U.S. has never signed onto the Law of the Sea treaty!) Cregge then predicted that, “[a]mong the most challenging in a future seabed competition would be China and Russia, states that have already used lawfare in the South China Sea and Arctic regions respectively to pursue their territorial gains.”

To make matters worse, seafloor mining might not only spark military conflict but also become an integral part of warfighting itself. Manabrata Guha, a researcher in war theory at the University of New South Wales, told Australia’s ABC television that data, including topographic or thermal maps of the seabed, obtained through exploration of the seafloor by mining operations projects, could be of great value to a nation’s armed forces. According to ABC:

Just 9 percent of the ocean floor is mapped in high resolution, compared to about 99 percent of the surface of Mars — a blind spot that affects both deep sea miners and military planners. This is all worth keeping in mind, because while the Pacific Ocean is set to be the sea with the most mining potential, it is also home to this century’s most consequential geopolitical tension: the rise of China, and the U.S.’s response to it.

The resource-rich South China Sea in particular, notes ABC, has long been a potential flashpoint between China and America. As Guha speculated, U.S. use of deep-sea data in the region “could be expanded beyond its battle-centric focus to also include attacks on civilian infrastructure, finance, and cultural systems.” He added, “The undersea domain provides another vector, another potential ‘hole’ that the Americans would look to penetrate,” thanks to the fact, as he pointed out, that the U.S. is 20 to 30 years ahead of China in undersea-mapping technology.

“You want to pick and choose where you hurt the adversary to such an extent that their whole system collapses,” he said. “That’s the idea of multi-domain warfare… the idea is to bring about systemic collapse.”

The Burden of the Big-Ass Truck

Systemic collapse? Really? Instead of devising technologies to take down other societies, in this increasingly heated moment, shouldn’t we be focusing on how to avoid our own systemic collapse?

A national fleet of battery-powered cars is unlikely to prove sustainable and could have catastrophic consequences globally. It’s time to consider an overhaul of the whole transportation system to move it away from a fixation on personal vehicles and toward walking, pedaling, and a truly effective nationwide public transportation system (as well as very local ones), which could indeed be run on electricity, while perhaps helping to avoid future disastrous resource wars.

Such a transformation, even were it to occur, would, of course, take a long time. During that period, electric vehicles will continue to be manufactured in quantity. So, for now, to reduce their impact on humanity and the Earth, America should aim to produce fewer and far smaller vehicles than are currently planned. After all, electrified versions of the big-ass trucks and SUVs of the present moment will also require bigger, heavier batteries (like the one in the F-150 Lightning pickup truck, which weighs 1,800 pounds and is the size of two mattresses). They will, of course, contain proportionally larger quantities of cobalt, lithium, and copper.

The true burden of a massive battery in an electric car or truck will be borne not just by the vehicle’s suspension system, but by the people and ecosystems unlucky enough to be in or near the global supply chain that will produce it. And those people may be among the first of millions to be imperiled by a new wave of geopolitical and military conflicts in what should be thought of as the world’s green sacrifice zones.

Taiwan: The world's other nuclear flashpoint

Michael Klare, As Ukraine Burns, the U.S. and China Play with Fire in Asia

I hope you were suitably cheered up when, on a recent trip to Asia, Vice President Kamala Harris assured American troops in Japan that, in response to China’s “disturbing behavior” in the East China and South China Seas and its “provocations across the Taiwan Strait,” Washington would never look away. After all, as she put it, “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait is an essential feature of a free and open Indo-Pacific.” Because of that, as she reassured those troops, “we will continue to fly, sail, and operate, undaunted and unafraid, wherever and whenever international law allows” — including in that very strait! That was exactly what two U.S. Navy guided-missile cruisers did as August ended in order, as White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby put it then, to send a “very clear message, very consistent message” to the People’s Republic of China.

Not only that, Washington will also continue to strengthen “unofficial ties” with the Republic of China (that’s the island of Taiwan)! And in all of this, Harris was just following in the footsteps of President Joe Biden who had only recently insisted once again that U.S. troops, possibly even those she was addressing, would indeed be sent to defend Taiwan from any attack by mainland China. So much for “strategic ambiguity,” once the term for this country’s policy in relation to Taiwan and mainland China.

Now, just to put this in context, let me bring up something truly strange: As it happens — who knows why? — the East China and South China Seas were never known as the East U.S. and South U.S. Seas, nor was the Taiwan Strait ever called the Strait of Los Angeles. How truly strange, don’t you think? And while I’m at it, let me just ask you a question: How would you feel if Chinese guided-missile cruisers were, in fact, regularly sailing along the west coast of our country? I know one thing for sure: Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and the rest of official Washington, not to speak of the top brass in the U.S. military, would go — not to put too weak a descriptor on it — completely bonkers were such a thing to happen and count on this: we would instantly be all too literally up in arms.

Mind you, it’s not that I’m in any way in favor of China attacking Taiwan, but neither do I think that, as TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, who has long followed this country’s ever-developing (and enveloping) policies in the Indo-Pacific region, makes chillingly clear today, this country should be ever more up in arms, so to speak, when it comes to Taiwan and China. Tom

The World’s Other Nuclear Flashpoint – Mounting Tensions Over Taiwan

Thanks to Vladimir Putin’s recent implicit threat to employ nuclear weapons if the U.S. and its NATO allies continue to arm Ukraine — “This is not a bluff,” he insisted on September 21st — the perils in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict once again hit the headlines. And it’s entirely possible, as ever more powerful U.S. weapons pour into Ukraine and Russian forces suffer yet more defeats, that the Russian president might indeed believe that the season for threats is ending and only the detonation of a nuclear weapon will convince the Western powers to back off. If so, the war in Ukraine could prove historic in the worst sense imaginable — the first conflict since World War II to lead to nuclear devastation.

But hold on! As it happens, Ukraine isn’t the only place on the planet where a nuclear conflagration could erupt in the near future. Sad to say, around the island of Taiwan — where U.S. and Chinese forces are engaging in ever more provocative military maneuvers — there is also an increasing risk that such moves by both sides could lead to nuclear escalation.

While neither American nor Chinese officials have explicitly threatened to use such weaponry, both sides have highlighted possible extreme outcomes there. When Joe Biden last spoke with Xi Jinping by telephone on July 29th, the Chinese president warned him against allowing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to visit the island (which she nonetheless did, four days later) or offering any further encouragement to “Taiwan independence forces” there. “Those who play with fire will perish by it,” he assured the American president, an ambiguous warning to be sure, but one that nevertheless left open the possible use of nuclear weapons.

As if to underscore that point, on September 4th, the day after Pelosi met with senior Taiwanese officials in Taipei, China fired 11 Dongfeng-15 (DF-15) ballistic missiles into the waters around that island. Many Western observers believe that the barrage was meant as a demonstration of Beijing’s ability to attack any U.S. naval vessels that might come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of a Chinese blockade or invasion of the island. And the DF-15, with a range of 600 miles, is believed capable of delivering not only a conventional payload, but also a nuclear one.

In the days that followed, China also sent nuclear-capable H-6 heavy bombers across the median line in the Taiwan Strait, a previously respected informal boundary between China and that island. Worse yet, state-owned media displayed images of Dongfeng-17 (DF-17) hypersonic ballistic missiles, also believed capable of carrying nuclear weapons, being moved into positions off Taiwan.

Washington has not overtly deployed nuclear-capable weaponry in such a brazen fashion near Chinese territory, but it certainly has sent aircraft carriers and guided-missile warships into the area, signaling its ability to launch attacks on the mainland should a war break out. While Pelosi was in Taiwan, for example, the Navy deployed the carrier USS Ronald Reagan with its flotilla of escort vessels in nearby waters. Military officials in both countries are all too aware that should such ships ever attack Chinese territory, those DF-15s and DF-17s would be let loose against them — and, if armed with nuclear warheads, would likely provoke a U.S. nuclear response.

The implicit message on both sides: a nuclear war might be possible. And although — unlike with Putin’s comments — the American media hasn’t highlighted the way Taiwan might trigger such a conflagration, the potential is all too ominously there.

“One China” and “Strategic Ambiguity”

In reality, there’s nothing new about the risk of nuclear war over Taiwan. In both the Taiwan Strait crises of 1954-1955 and 1958, the United States threatened to attack a then-nonnuclear China with such weaponry if it didn’t stop shelling the Taiwanese-controlled islands of Kinmen (Quemoy) and Mazu (Matsu), located off that country’s coast. At the time, Washington had no formal relations with the communist regime on the mainland and recognized the Republic of China (ROC) — as Taiwan calls itself — as the government of all China. In the end, however, U.S. leaders found it advantageous to recognize the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in place of the ROC and the risk of a nuclear conflict declined precipitously — until recently.

Credit the new, increasingly perilous situation to Washington’s changing views of Taiwan’s strategic value to America’s dominant position in the Pacific as it faces the challenge of China’s emergence as a great power. When the U.S. officially recognized the PRC in 1978, it severed its formal diplomatic and military relationship with the ROC, while “acknowledg[ing] the Chinese position that there is but one China and [that] Taiwan is part of China.” That stance — what came to be known as the “One China” policy — has, in fact, underwritten peaceful relations between the two countries (and Taiwan’s autonomy) ever since, by allowing Chinese leaders to believe that the island would, in time, join the mainland.

Taiwan’s safety and autonomy has also been preserved over the years by another key feature of U.S. policy, known as “strategic ambiguity.” It originated with the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, a measure passed in the wake of the U.S. decision to recognize the PRC as the legal government of all China. Under the act, still in effect, the U.S. is empowered to supply Taiwan with “defensive” arms, while maintaining only semi-official ties with its leadership. It also says that Washington would view any Chinese attempt to alter Taiwan’s status through violent means as a matter “of grave concern,” but without explicitly stating that the U.S. will come to Taiwan’s aid if that were to occur. Such official ambiguity helped keep the peace, in part by offering Taiwan’s leadership no guarantee that Washington would back them if they declared independence and China invaded, while giving the leaders of the People’s Republic no assurance that Washington would remain on the sidelines if they did.

Since 1980, both Democratic and Republican administrations have relied on such strategic ambiguity and the One China policy to guide their peaceful relations with the PRC. Over the years, there have been periods of spiking tensions between Washington and Beijing, with Taiwan’s status a persistent irritant, but never a fundamental breach in relations. And that — consider the irony, if you will — has allowed Taiwan to develop into a modern, prosperous quasi-state, while escaping involvement in a major-power confrontation (in part because it just didn’t figure prominently enough in U.S. strategic thinking).

From 1980 to 2001, America’s top foreign-policy officials were largely focused on defeating the Soviet Union, dealing with the end of the Cold War, and expanding global trade opportunities. Then, from September 11, 2001, to 2018, their attention was diverted to the Global War on Terror. In the early years of the Trump administration, however, senior military officials began switching their focus from the War on Terror to what they termed “great-power competition,” arguing that facing off against “near-peer” adversaries, namely China and Russia, should be the dominant theme in military planning. And only then did Taiwan acquire a different significance.

The Pentagon’s new strategic outlook was first spelled out in the National Defense Strategy of February 2018 in this way: “The central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition” with China and Russia. (And yes, the emphasis was in the original.) China, in particular, was identified as a vital threat to Washington’s continued global dominance. “As China continues its economic and military ascendance,” the document asserted, “it will continue to pursue a military modernization program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future.”

An ominous “new Cold War” era had begun.

Taiwan’s Strategic Significance Rises

To prevent China from achieving that most feared of all results, “Indo-Pacific regional hegemony,” Pentagon leaders devised a multipronged strategy, combining an enhanced U.S. military presence in the region with beefed-up, ever more militarized ties with America’s allies there. As that 2018 National Defense Strategy put it, “We will strengthen our alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific to a networked security architecture capable of deterring aggression, maintaining stability, and ensuring free access to common domains.” Initially, that “networked security architecture” was only to involve long-term allies like Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. Soon enough, however, Taiwan came to be viewed as a crucial part of such an architecture.

To grasp what this meant, imagine a map of the Western Pacific. In seeking to “contain” China, Washington was relying on a chain of island and peninsular allies stretching from South Korea and Japan to the Philippines and Australia. Japan’s southernmost islands, including Okinawa — the site of major American military bases (and a vigorous local anti-base movement) — do reach all the way into the Philippine Sea. Still, there remains a wide gap between them and Luzon, the northernmost Philippine island. Smack in the middle of that gap lies… yep, you guessed it, Taiwan.

In the view of the top American military and foreign policy officials, for the United States to successfully prevent China from becoming a major regional power, it would have to bottle up that country’s naval forces within what they began calling “the first island chain” — the string of nations stretching from Japan to the Philippines and Indonesia. For China to thrive, as they saw it, that nation’s navy would have to be able to send its ships past that line of islands and reach deep into the Pacific. You won’t be surprised to learn, then, that solidifying U.S. defenses along that very chain became a top Pentagon priority — and, in that context, Taiwan has, ominously enough, come to be viewed as a crucial piece in the strategic puzzle.

Last December, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner summed up the Pentagon’s new way of thinking about the island’s geopolitical role when he appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last December. “Taiwan,” he said, “is located at a critical node within the first island chain, anchoring a network of U.S. allies and partners that is critical to the region’s security and critical to the defense of vital U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific.”

This new perception of Taiwan’s “critical” significance has led senior policymakers in Washington to reconsider the basics, including their commitment to a One China policy and to strategic ambiguity. While still claiming that One China remains White House policy, President Biden has repeatedly insisted all too unambiguously that the U.S. has an obligation to defend Taiwan if attacked. When asked recently on Sixty Minutes whether “U.S. forces…would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion,” Biden said, without hesitation, “Yes.” The administration has also upgraded its diplomatic ties with the island and promised it billions of dollars’ worth of arms transfers and other forms of military assistance. In essence, such moves constitute a de facto abandonment of “One China” and its replacement with a “one China, one Taiwan” policy.

Not surprisingly, the Chinese authorities have reacted to such comments and the moves accompanying them with increasing apprehension and anger. As seen from Beijing, they represent the full-scale repudiation of multiple statements acknowledging Taiwan’s indivisible ties to the mainland, as well as a potential military threat of the first order should that island become a formal U.S. ally. For President Xi and his associates, this is simply intolerable.

“The repeated attempts by the Taiwan authorities to look for U.S. support for their independence agenda as well as the intention of some Americans to use Taiwan to contain China” are deeply troubling, President Xi told Biden during their telephone call in November 2021. “Such moves are extremely dangerous, just like playing with fire. Whoever plays with fire will get burned.”

Since then, Chinese officials have steadily escalated their rhetoric, threatening war in ever more explicit terms. “If the Taiwanese authorities, emboldened by the United States, keep going down the road for independence,” Qin Gang, China’s ambassador to the U.S., typically told NPR in January 2022, “it most likely will involve China and the United States, the two big countries, in military conflict.”

To demonstrate its seriousness, China has begun conducting regular air and naval exercises in the air and sea-space surrounding Taiwan. Such maneuvers usually involve the deployment of five or six warships and a dozen or more warplanes, as well as ever greater displays of firepower, clearly with the intention of intimidating the Taiwanese leadership. On August 5th, for example, the Chinese deployed 13 warships and 68 warplanes in areas around Taiwan and two days later, 14 ships and 66 planes.

Each time, the Taiwanese scramble their own aircraft and deploy coastal defense vessels in response. Accordingly, as China’s maneuvers grow in size and frequency, the risk of an accidental or unintended clash becomes ever more likely. The increasingly frequent deployment of U.S. warships to nearby waters only adds to this explosive mix. Every time an American naval vessel is sent through the Taiwan Strait — something that occurs almost once a month now — China scrambles its own air and sea defenses, producing a comparable risk of unintended violence.

This was true, for example, when the guided-missile cruisers USS Antietam and USS Chancellorsville sailed through that strait on August 28th. According to Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for the foreign ministry, China’s military “conducted security tracking and monitoring of the U.S. warships’ passage during their whole course and had all movements of the U.S. warships under control.”

No Barriers to Escalation?

If it weren’t for the seemingly never-ending war in Ukraine, the dangers of all of this might be far more apparent and deemed far more newsworthy. Unfortunately, at this point, there are no indications that either Beijing or Washington is prepared to scale back its provocative military maneuvers around Taiwan. That means an accidental or unintended clash could occur at any time, possibly triggering a full-scale conflict.

Imagine, then, what a decision by Taiwan to declare full independence or by the Biden administration to abandon the One China policy could mean. China would undoubtedly respond aggressively, perhaps with a naval blockade of the island or even a full-scale invasion. Given the increasingly evident lack of interest among the key parties in compromise, a violent outcome appears ever more likely.

However such a conflict erupts, it may prove difficult to contain the fighting at a “conventional” level. After all, both sides are wary of another war of attrition like the one unfolding in Ukraine and have instead shaped their military forces for rapid, firepower-intensive combat aimed at securing a decisive victory quickly. For Beijing, this could mean firing hundreds of ballistic missiles at U.S. ships and air bases in the region with the aim of eliminating any American capacity to attack its territory. For Washington, it might mean launching missiles at China’s key ports, air bases, radar stations, and command centers. In either case, the results could prove catastrophic. For the U.S., the loss of its carriers and other warships; for China, the loss of its very capacity to make war. Would leaders of the losing side accept such a situation without resorting to nuclear weapons? No one can say for sure, but the temptation to escalate would undoubtedly be great.

Unfortunately, at the moment, there are no U.S.-China negotiations under way to resolve the Taiwan question, to prevent unintended clashes in the Taiwan Strait, or to reduce the risk of nuclear escalation. In fact, China quite publicly cut off all discussion of bilateral issues, ranging from military affairs to climate change, in the wake of Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. So, it’s essential, despite the present focus on escalation risks in Ukraine, to recognize that avoiding a war over Taiwan is no less important — especially given the danger that such a conflict could prove of even greater destructiveness. That’s why it’s so critical that Washington and Beijing put aside their differences long enough to initiate talks focused on preventing such a catastrophe.

What you don’t have and why: The crushing of American socialism

Adam Hochschild: The Crushing of American Socialism

Consider it an irony first class. In 2017, Reality Winner, a former Air Force enlistee who had been working for a national security contractor at Fort Gordon, Georgia, would be prosecuted by the Trump Justice Department and sentenced to more than five years in prison for leaking one secret government document to The Intercept. Its subject? Under the circumstances, maybe you won’t be shocked to learn that it was about possible Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Winner was prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act, which had in previous years been used against leakers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. And let me just repeat that she was sent to prison for more than five years (and served more than four of them) for leaking a single secret document about the 2016 election.

As TomDispatch regular Adam Hochschild, author of the just-published American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis, points out, FBI agents used a warrant under that same Espionage Act to enter Donald Trump’s Florida estate where they found more than 300 classified government documents (and 48 folders that once contained such documents but were now empty). Put in the context of Winner, you would have to assume that our former president will now be a genuine loser, right? I mean, if one document gets you five years in prison, how many do hundreds get you? The answer, if you ask Reality Winner, now free and recently interviewed by NBC News, is perhaps none. Not surprisingly, she finds any comparison between herself and the former president “incredibly ironic.” Nonetheless, in her deep humanity, she is not urging that he be locked up like her.

In his piece today, Hochschild returns to that devastating 1917 act, passed in the midst of World War I, and to the crushing of the Socialist Party in America in that same era. He wonders in a telling fashion: How might the United States be different today if, a century ago, the leadership of this country had not acted both so ruthlessly and in such an eerily Trumpian way? Tom

What You Don’t Have and Why: The Never-Ending Impact of a Forgotten Blitzkrieg Against the American Left

Donald Trump has had the urge to crush many things, including the last election. So I must admit I found it eerily amusing that, when the FBI entered his estate at Mar-a-Lago recently, they did so under a warrant authorized by the Espionage Act of 1917. History certainly has a strange way of returning in our world and also of crushing alternatives. Whatever Trump did, that act has a sorry track record in both its own time and ours when it has been used, including by his administration, to silence the leakers of government information. And because my latest book, American Midnight: The Great War, A Violent Peace, and America’s Forgotten Crisis, is about the crushing of alternatives a century ago in this country, in the midst of all this, I couldn’t help thinking about a part of our history that The Donald would undoubtedly have been the first to crush, if he had the chance.

But let me start with a personal event closer to the present. While visiting Denmark recently, I developed an infection in my hand and wanted to see a doctor. The hotel in the provincial city where I was staying directed me to a local hospital. I was quickly shown into a consulting room, where a nurse questioned me and told me to wait. Only a few minutes passed before a physician entered the room, examined me, and said in excellent English, yes, indeed, I did need an antibiotic. He promptly swiveled in his chair, opened a cabinet behind him, took out a bottle of pills, handed it to me, and told me to take two a day for 10 days. When I thanked him and asked where I should go to pay for the consultation and the medicine, he responded simply, “We have no facilities for that.”

No facilities for that.

It’s a phrase that comes back to me every time I’m reminded how, in the world’s richest nation, we still don’t have full national health insurance. And that’s far from the only thing we’re missing. In a multitude of ways, we’re known for having a far weaker social safety net than many other wealthy countries and behind that lies a history in which the Espionage Act played a crucial role.

A Danish friend who visited with me recently was appalled to find hundreds of homeless people living in tent encampments in Berkeley and Oakland, California. And mind you, this is a progressive, prosperous state. The poor are even more likely to fall through the cracks (or chasms) in many other states.

Visitors from abroad are similarly astonished to discover that American families regularly pay astronomical college tuitions out of their own pockets. And it’s not only well-off European countries that do better in providing for their citizenry. The average Costa Rican, with one-sixth the annual per capita income of his or her North American counterpart, will live two years longer, thanks largely to that country’s comprehensive national health care system.

Why hasn’t our country done better, compared to so many others? There are certainly many reasons, not least among them the relentless, decades-long propaganda barrage from the American right, painting every proposed strengthening of public health and welfare — from unemployment insurance to Social Security to Medicare to Obamacare — as an ominous step down the road to socialism.

This is nonsense, of course, since the classic definition of socialism is public ownership of the means of production, an agenda item not on any imaginable American political horizon. In another sense, though, the charge is historically accurate because, both here and abroad, significant advances in health and welfare have often been spearheaded by socialist parties.

The globe’s first national healthcare system, in Imperial Germany, was, for example, muscled through the Reichstag by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1883 precisely to outflank the German socialists, who had long been advocating similar measures. Nor was it surprising that Britain’s National Health Service was installed by the Labour Party when it took power after the Second World War.

And in the United States, early in the last century, some of President Theodore Roosevelt’s modest moves to regulate business and break up trusts were, in fact, designed to steal a march on this country’s socialists, whom he feared, as he wrote to a friend, were “far more ominous than any populist or similar movement in times past.”

Back then — however surprising it may seem today — the American Socialist Party was indeed part of our political reality and, in 1904, it had come out in favor of compulsory national health insurance. A dozen years after that, New York Socialist Congressman Meyer London introduced a bill strikingly similar to the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act of more than a century later. In 1911, another socialist congressman, Victor Berger of Wisconsin, proposed a national old-age pension, a goal that wouldn’t be realized for another quarter of a century with the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935.

Socialism was never as strong a movement in the United States as in so many other countries. Still, once it was at least a force to be reckoned with. Socialists became mayors of cities as disparate as Milwaukee, Pasadena, Schenectady, and Toledo. Party members held more than 175 state and local offices in Oklahoma alone. People commonly point to 1912 as the party’s high-water mark. That year, its candidate for president, Eugene V. Debs, won 6% of the popular vote, even running ahead of the Republican candidate in several states.

Still, the true peak of American socialism’s popularity came a few years later. The charismatic Debs decided not to run again in 1916, mistakenly accepting President Woodrow Wilson’s implied promise to keep the United States out of the First World War — something most Socialists cared about passionately. In April 1917, Wilson infuriated them by bringing the country into what had been, until then, primarily a European conflict, while cracking down fiercely on dissidents who opposed his decision. That fall, however, the Socialists made impressive gains in municipal elections, winning more than 20% of the vote in 14 of the country’s larger cities — more than 30% in several of them — and 10 seats in the New York State Assembly.

During that campaign, Wilson was particularly dismayed by the party’s popularity in New York City, where Socialist lawyer Morris Hillquit was running for mayor. The president asked his conservative Texan attorney general, Thomas Gregory, what could be done about Hillquit’s “outrageous utterances” against the war. Gregory responded that he feared prosecuting Hillquit “would enable him to pose as a martyr and would be likely to increase his voting strength. I am having my representatives in New York City watch the situation rather carefully, and if a point is reached where he can be proceeded against it will give me a great deal of pleasure.” Hillquit lost, but did get 22% of the vote.

Jubilant Socialists knew that if they did equally well in the 1918 midterm elections, their national vote total could for the first time rise into the millions. For Wilson, whose Democrats controlled the House of Representatives by the narrowest of margins, the possibility of Socialists gaining the balance of power there was horrifying. And so, already at war in Europe, his administration in effect declared war on the Socialists at home as well, using as its primary tool Wilson’s sweeping criminalization of dissent, the new 1917 Espionage Act. The toll would be devastating.

The Government’s Axe Falls

Already the party’s most popular woman, the fiery Kansas-born orator Kate Richards O’Hare — known as Red Kate for her politics and her mass of red hair — had been sentenced to five years under the Espionage Act for speaking out against the war. Still free on appeal, O’Hare, who knew the hardships of farm life firsthand and had run for both the House and the Senate, continued to draw audiences in the thousands when she spoke in the prairie states. Before long, however, her appeal was denied and she was sent to the Jefferson City, Missouri, penitentiary, where she found herself in the adjoining cell to anarchist firebrand Emma Goldman. The two would become lifelong friends.

In 1918, the government went after Debs. The pretext was a speech he had given from a park bandstand in Canton, Ohio, following a state convention of his beleaguered party. “They have always taught you that it is your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command,” he told the crowd. “But in all the history of the world you, the people, never had a voice in declaring war.”

That was more than enough. Two weeks later, he was indicted and swiftly brought before a federal judge who just happened to be the former law firm partner of President Wilson’s secretary of war. At that trial, Debs spoke words that would long be quoted:

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest of the earth. I said then, I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

Spectators gasped as the judge pronounced sentence on the four-time presidential candidate: a fine of $10,000 and 10 years in prison. In the 1920 election, he would still be in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta when he received more than 900,000 votes for president.

The government didn’t merely prosecute luminaries like O’Hare and Debs however. It also went after rank-and-file party members, not to mention the former Socialist candidates for governor in Minnesota, New Jersey, and South Dakota, as well as state Socialist Party secretaries from at least four states and a former Socialist candidate for Congress from Oklahoma. Almost all of them would be sentenced under the Espionage Act for opposing the war or the draft.

Not faintly content with this, the Wilson administration would attack the Socialists on many other fronts as well. There were then more than 100 socialist dailies, weeklies, and monthlies and the Espionage Act gave Wilson’s postmaster general, segregationist Albert Burleson of Texas, the power to deem such publications “unmailable.” Before long, Burleson would bar from the mail virtually the entire socialist press, which, in the prewar years, had a combined circulation of two million. A few dailies, which did not need the Post Office to reach their readers, survived, but for most of them such a banning was a death blow.

The government crippled the socialist movement in many less formal ways as well. For instance, Burleson’s post office simply stopped delivering letters to and from the party’s Chicago headquarters and some of its state and local offices. The staff of a socialist paper in Milwaukee typically noticed that they were failing to receive business correspondence. Even their mail subscriptions to the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune were no longer arriving. Soon advertising income began to dry up. In the midst of this, Oscar Ameringer, a writer for the paper, called on a longtime supporter, a baker who had suddenly stopped buying ads. According to Ameringer, the man “slumped down in a chair, covered his eyes and, with tears streaming through his fingers, sobbed, ‘My God, I can’t help it…They told me if I didn’t take my advertising out they would refuse me… flour, sugar and coal.’”

Also taking their cues from the administration in that wartime assault were local politicians and vigilantes who attacked socialist speakers or denied them meeting halls. After progressives and labor union members staged an antiwar march on the Boston Common, for example, vigilantes raided the nearby Socialist Party office, smashed its doors and windows, and threw furniture, papers, and the suitcase of a traveling activist out the shattered windows onto a bonfire.

In January 1918, the mayor of Mitchell, South Dakota, ordered the party’s state convention broken up and all delegates expelled from town. One party leader was seized “on the streets by five unknown men and hustled into an automobile in which he was driven five miles from town,” a local newspaper reported. “There he was set out upon the prairie and… told to proceed afoot to his home in Parkston [an 18-mile walk] and warned not to return.”

The Big “What if?” Question

The Socialists were far from alone in suffering the wave of repression that swept the country in Wilson’s second term. Other targets included the labor movement, the country’s two small rival Communist parties, and thousands of radicals who had never become American citizens and were targeted for deportation. But among all the victims, no organization was more influential than the Socialist Party. And it never recovered.

When Debs took to the road again after finally being released from prison in 1921, he was often, at the last minute, denied venues he had booked. In Cleveland, the City Club canceled its invitation; in Los Angeles, the only place he could speak was at the city zoo. Still, he had an easier time than the socialist writer Upton Sinclair who, when he began giving a speech in San Pedro, California, in 1923, was arrested while reading the First Amendment aloud.

By the time Debs died in 1926, the party that had once elected 33 state legislators, 79 mayors, and well over 1,000 city council members and other municipal officials had closed most of its offices and was left with less than 10,000 members nationwide. Kate Richards O’Hare wrote to her friend Emma Goldman, who had been deported from the United States in 1919, that she felt herself a “sort of political orphan now with no place to lay my head.”

Despite their minority status, the Socialists had been a significant force in American politics before patriotic war hysteria brought on an era of repression. Until then, Republican and Democratic legislators had voted for early-twentieth-century reform measures like child labor laws and the income tax in part to stave off demands from the Socialist Party for bigger changes.

If that party had remained intact instead of being so ruthlessly crushed, what more might they have voted for? This remains one of the biggest “what ifs” in American history. If the Socialist Party hadn’t been so hobbled, might it at least have pushed the mainstream ones into creating the sort of stronger social safety net and national health insurance systems that people today take for granted in countries like Canada or Denmark? Without the Espionage Act, might Donald Trump have been left to rot at Mar-a-Lago in a world in which so much might have been different?

The last time you tried to pay a medical bill, might you, in fact, have been told, “We have no facilities for that”?

Noam Chomsky: 'Education and organization' are the 'only tools' to stop 'environmental destruction' and 'terminal war'

Chomsky and Barsamian: What Hope Is There?

As I was reading today’s interview between David Barsamian of Alternative Radio and the remarkable Noam Chomsky, now 93 years old and still so much in and of our world, I had a “memory” flash of sorts. I wondered what, in his twenties, Tom Engelhardt would have thought of this ever more extreme planet if, as in one of the sci-fi novels he then read so avidly, he had been transported more than half a century into the future to this very America. And you know exactly the country I mean.

Admittedly, that Tom didn’t consider 1960s America — above all, his country’s horrific war in Vietnam — anything to brag about. Still, how would he feel to find himself in a land where most of the members of one major party believe, based on nothing, that the last presidential election was quite literally “stolen”; a country increasingly filled with extremist militias; one that spent four years with a mad and maddening president with, it seems, every intention of facing off one more time against Joe Biden who, in 2024, will be 82 years old. We’re talking about a candidate who, were he to win — or even somehow claim a lost election as his — could turn the U.S. into a proto-fascist state? (Honestly, speaking of the past, why didn’t all those Big Macs and Wendy’s Burgers take him down?)

And that, of course, would just be an introduction to a planet on which — forget the war still going on in Ukraine amid increasing fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin might consider using nuclear weapons for the first time since Hiroshima and Nagasaki were taken out in 1945 — week by week, month by month, the news only gets worse. It matters little whether you’re speaking about record droughts, fires, floods, storms, melting ice, rising sea levels, you name it, since these days it seems as if no horror we might dream up couldn’t become reality.

In such a context, let me introduce the young Tom Engelhardt to the four horsemen of the apocalypse of the twenty-first century and leave it to Noam Chomsky, interviewed by the superb David Barsamian for their new book, Notes on Resistance, to tell us where, in such a world, hope might still lie. Tom

Optimism of the Will – And the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

[The following is excerpted in shortened form from Chapter 9 of Notes on Resistance by Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian, published by Haymarket Books.]

David Barsamian: What we are facing is often described as unprecedented — a pandemic, climate catastrophe and, always lurking off center stage, nuclear annihilation. Three of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

Noam Chomsky: I can add a fourth: the impending destruction of what remains of American democracy and the shift of the United States toward a deeply authoritarian, also proto-fascist, state, when the Republicans come back into office, which looks likely. So, that’s four horses.

And remember that the Republicans are the denialist party, committed to racing to climate destruction with abandon in the hands of the chief wrecker they now worship like a demigod. It’s bad news for the United States and for the world, given the power of this country.

Barsamian: The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance just issued the Global State of Democracy Report 2021. It says that the United States is a country where democracy is “backsliding.”

Chomsky: Very severely. The Republican Party is openly dedicated — it’s not even concealed — to undermining what remains of American democracy. They’re working very hard on it. Since the days of Richard Nixon, the Republicans have long understood that they’re fundamentally a minority party and not going to get votes by advertising their increasingly open commitment to the welfare of the ultrarich and the corporate sector. So, they’ve been long diverting attention to so-called cultural issues.

It began with Nixon’s Southern strategy. He realized that Democratic Party support for civil rights legislation, however limited, would lose them the southern Democrats, who were openly and overtly extreme racists. The Nixon administration capitalized on that with their Southern strategy, hinting, not so subtly, that the Republicans would become the party of white supremacy.

In subsequent years, they picked up other issues. It’s now the virtual definition of the party: so, let’s run on attacking Critical Race Theory — whatever that means! It’s a cover term, as their leading spokesmen have explained, for everything they can rally the public on: white supremacy, racism, misogyny, Christianity, anti-abortion rights.

Meanwhile, the leadership, with the aid of the right-wing Federalist Society, has been developing legal means — if you want to call it that — for the Republicans to ensure that, even as a minority party, they will be able to control the voting apparatus and the outcome of elections. They are exploiting radically undemocratic features built into the constitutional system and the structural advantages Republicans have as a party representing more scattered rural populations and the traditionally Christian, white nationalist population. Using such advantages, even with a minority of the vote, they should be able to maintain something like near-permanent power.

Actually, that permanence might not last long if Donald Trump, or a Trump clone, takes the presidency in 2024. It’s not likely then that the United States, not to speak of the world, will be able to escape the impact of the climate and environmental destruction they’re committed to accelerating.

Barsamian: We all saw what happened in Washington on January 6th. Do you see the possibility of civil unrest spreading? There are multiple militias across the country. Representative Paul Gosar of the great state of Arizona and Representative Lauren Boebert, of the great state of Colorado, among others, have made threatening statements inciting violence and hatred. The Internet is rife with conspiracy theories. What must we do?

Chomsky: It is very serious. In fact, maybe a third or so of Republicans think it may be necessary to use force to “save our country,” as they put it. “Save our country” has a clear meaning. If anyone didn’t understand it, Trump issued a call to people to mobilize to prevent the Democrats from swamping this country with criminals being let out of jails in other lands, lest they “replace” white Americans and carry out the destruction of America. The “great replacement” theory — that’s what “take away our country” means and it’s being used effectively by proto-fascist elements, Trump being the most extreme and most successful.

What can we do about it? The only tools available, like it or not, are education and organization. There’s no other way. It means trying to revive an authentic labor movement of the kind that, in the past, was in the forefront of moves toward social justice. It also means organizing other popular movements, carrying out educational efforts to combat the murderous anti-vaccine campaigns now going on, making sure that there are serious efforts to deal with the climate crisis, mobilizing against the bipartisan commitment to increase dangerous military spending and provocative actions against China, which could lead to a conflict nobody wants and end up in a terminal war.

You just have to keep working on this. There is no other way.

Barsamian: In the background is extreme inequality, which is off the charts. Why is the United States so unequal?

Chomsky: A lot of this has happened in the last 40 years as part of the neoliberal assault on America in which the Democrats, too, have participated, though not to the extent of the Republicans.

There is a fairly careful estimate of what’s called the transfer of wealth from the lower 90% of the population to the top 1% (actually, a fraction of them) during the four decades of this assault. A RAND Corporation study estimated it as close to $50 trillion. That’s not pennies — and it’s ongoing.

During the pandemic, the measures that were taken to save the economy from collapse led to the further enrichment of the very few. They also sort of maintained life for so many others, but the Republicans are busy trying to dismantle that part of the deal, leaving only the part that enriches the very few. That’s what they’re dedicated to.

Take ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. This goes back years. It’s an organization funded by almost the entire corporate sector, dedicated to hitting at the weak point in the constitutional system, the states. It’s very easy. It doesn’t take much to buy or impel legislative representatives at the state level, so ALEC has worked there to impose legislation that will foster the long-term efforts of those seeking to destroy democracy, increase radical inequality, and destroy the environment.

And one of the most important of those efforts is to get the states to legislate that they can’t even investigate — and certainly not punish — wage theft, which steals billions of dollars from workers every year by refusing to pay overtime as well as through other devices. There have been efforts to investigate it, but the business sector wants to stop them.

An analog at the national level is the attempt to ensure that the IRS not go after wealthy corporate tax cheats. At every level you can think of, this class war on the part of the masters, the corporate sector, the super-rich is raging with intensity. And they’re going to use every means they can to ensure that it goes on until they’ve succeeded in destroying not only American democracy, but the very possibility of survival as an organized society.

Barsamian: Corporate power seems unstoppable. The uber class of gazillionaires — Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk — are now flying into outer space. But I’m reminded of something that the novelist Ursula K. Le Guin said some years ago: “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable.” And then she added, “So did the divine right of kings.”

Chomsky: So did slavery. So did the principle that women are property, which lasted in the United States until the 1970s. So did laws against miscegenation so extreme that even the Nazis wouldn’t accept them, which lasted in the United States until the 1960s.

All kinds of horrors have existed. Over time, their power has been eroded but never completely eliminated. Slavery was abolished, but its remnants remain in new and vicious forms. It’s not slavery, but it’s horrifying enough. The idea that women are not persons has not only been formally overcome, but to a substantial extent in practice, too. Still, there’s plenty to do. The constitutional system was a step forward in the eighteenth century. Even the phrase “We the people” terrified the autocratic rulers of Europe, deeply concerned that the evils of democracy (what was then called republicanism) could spread and undermine civilized life. Well, it did spread — and civilized life continued, even improved.

So, yes, there are periods of regression and of progress, but the class war never ends, the masters never relent. They’re always looking for every opportunity and, if they’re the only participants in class struggle, we will indeed have regression. But they don’t have to be, any more than in the past.

Barsamian: In your Masters of Mankind book, you have an essay, “Can Civilization Survive Really Existing Capitalism?” You write, “Really existing capitalist democracy — RECD for short (pronounced ‘wrecked’)” is “radically incompatible” with democracy and add that “it seems to me unlikely that civilization can survive really existing capitalism and the sharply attenuated democracy that goes along with it. Could functioning democracy make a difference? Consideration of nonexistent systems can only be speculative, but I think there’s some reason to think so.” Tell me your reasons.

Chomsky: First of all, we live in this world, not in some world we would like to imagine. And in this world, if you simply think about the timescale for dealing with environmental destruction, it’s far shorter than the time that would be necessary to carry out the significant reshaping of our basic institutions. That doesn’t mean you have to abandon the attempt to do so. You should be doing that all the time — working on ways to raise consciousness, raise understanding, and build the rudiments of future institutions in the present society.

At the same time, the measures to save us from self-destruction will have to take place within the basic framework of existing institutions — some modification of them without fundamental change. And it can be done. We know how it can be done.

Meanwhile, work should continue on overcoming the problem of RECD, really existing capitalist democracy, which in its basic nature is a death sentence and also deeply inhuman in its fundamental properties. So, let’s work on that, and at the same time, ensure that we save the possibility of achieving it by overcoming the immediate and urgent crisis we face.

Barsamian: Talk about the importance of independent progressive media like Democracy Now! and Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. And may I say, Alternative Radio? Publishers like Verso, Haymarket, Monthly Review, City Lights, and The New Press. Magazines like Jacobin, The Nation, The Progressive, and In These Times. Online magazines like TomDispatch, The Intercept, and ScheerPost. Community radio stations like KGNU, WMNF, and KPFK. How important are they in countering the dominant corporate narrative?

Chomsky: What else is going to counter it? They are the ones holding up the hope that we’ll be able to find ways to counter these highly harmful, destructive developments we’re discussing.

The core method is, of course, education. People have to come to understand what’s happening in the world. That requires the means to disseminate information and analysis, opening up opportunities for discussion, which you’re not going to find, for the most part, in the mainstream. Maybe occasionally at the margins. A lot of what we’ve been talking about is not discussed at all, or only marginally within the major media. So, these conversations have to be brought to the public through such channels. There is no other way.

Actually, there is another way: organization. It is possible and, in fact, easy to conduct educational and cultural programs inside organizations. That was one of the major contributions of the labor movement when it was a vibrant, lively institution, and one of the main reasons why President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were so determined to destroy labor, as they both did. Their first moves were attacks on the labor movement.

There were educational and cultural programs that brought people together to think about the world, to understand it, and develop ideas. It takes organization to do that. Doing that alone, as an isolated person, is extremely difficult.

Despite the corporate effort to beat back the unions, there was a lively, independent labor press in the United States as late as the 1950s, reaching lots of people, condemning the “bought priesthood,” as they called it, of the mainstream press. It took a long time to destroy that.

There’s a history in the United States of a vibrant, progressive labor press that goes back to the nineteenth century, when it was a major phenomenon. That can and should be revived as part of the revival of a militant, functioning labor movement at the forefront of progress toward social justice. It happened before and it can happen again. And independent media are a critical element of this.

When I was a kid in the 1930s and early 1940s, I could read Izzy Stone in the Philadelphia Record. It wasn’t the major journal in Philadelphia, but it was there. In the late 1940s, I could read him in the New York newspaper PM, which was an independent journal. It made a huge difference.

Later, the only way to read Stone was to subscribe to his newsletter. That was the independent media in the 1950s. In the 1960s, it began to pick up a little bit with the magazine Ramparts, radio programs like Danny Schechter’s on WBCN in Boston, and others like it.

And today, this continues around the country. The ones you mentioned are forces for independence, for thinking.

Barsamian: There are multiple mentions of Antonio Gramsci in two of your most recent books, Consequences of Capitalism and Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal — specifically, of his comment, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Right now, though, the quote of his I’d like you to address is: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Talk about his relevance today and the meaning of that quote.

Chomsky: Gramsci was a leading left labor activist in Italy around the late teens, early 1920s. He was very active in organizing left worker collectives. In Italy, the fascist government took over in the early 1920s. One of its first acts was to send Gramsci to prison. During his trial, the prosecutor stated: we have to silence this voice. (This gets us back to the importance of independent media, of course.) So, he was sent to prison.

While there, he wrote his Prison Notebooks. He wasn’t silenced, though the public couldn’t read him. He continued the work he had begun and in that writing were the quotes you cited.

In the early 1930s, he wrote that the old world was collapsing, while the new world had not yet risen and that, in the interim, they were facing morbid symptoms. Mussolini was one, Hitler another. Nazi Germany almost conquered large parts of the world. We came very close to that. The Russians defeated Hitler. Otherwise, half the world would probably have been run by Nazi Germany. But it was very close. Morbid symptoms were visible everywhere.

The adage you quoted, “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,” which became famous, came from the period when he was still able to publish. In his spirit, we must look at the world reasonably, without illusions, understand it, decide how to act, and recognize that there are grim portents. There are very dangerous things happening. That’s pessimism of the intellect. At the same time, we need to recognize that there are ways out, real opportunities. So, we have optimism of the will, meaning, we dedicate ourselves to using all the opportunities available — and they do exist — while working to overcome the morbid symptoms and move toward a more just and decent world.

Barsamian: In these dark times, it’s difficult for many to feel that there’s a bright future ahead. You’re always asked, what gives you hope? And I have to ask you the same question.

Chomsky: One thing that gives me hope is that people are struggling hard under very severe circumstances, much more severe than we can imagine, all over the world to achieve rights and justice. They don’t give up hope, so we certainly can’t.

The other is that there’s simply no option. The alternative is to say, okay, I’ll help the worst to happen. That’s one choice. The other is to say, I’ll try to do the best I can, what the farmers in India are doing, what poor and miserable peasants in Honduras are doing, and many others like them around the world. I’ll do that as best I can. And maybe we can get to a decent world in which people can feel that they can live without shame. A better world.

That’s not much of a choice, so we should be able to easily make it.

Choosing life in a pro-violence society: Why Dobbs is a disaster

Andrea Mazzarino – Why Dobbs Is a Recipe for Disaster in the Military

The other day, a judge lifted a nearly 50-year-old injunction against a 150-year-old Arizona anti-abortion law. It allows that procedure only if a woman’s life is in jeopardy. A doctor who ignores it could face two to five years in jail. And so it goes (and goes and goes) in a country that’s still, in part at least, extremely Trumpian and a Supreme Court that could hardly be more so.

Strange, isn’t it, that the president who went out of his way to put three anti-abortion judges on the Supreme Court claimed in 1999, when he was still a real-estate magnate in New York City, that “I’m very pro-choice”? When running for president as a Republican, he would, of course, emphatically claim that “I am pro-life” (though the only accurate thing he could have said would have been “I am pro-Trump”).

When he began changing his stated beliefs to fit the new Donald Trump he was promoting as a possible president, he had this exchange:

'I know you’re opposed to abortion,’ CNN’s Jake Tapper said to him in a June 2015 interview.
‘Right,’ Trump replied. ‘I’m pro-choice.’
Mr. Tapper furrowed a brow. ‘You’re pro-choice or pro-life?’
‘I’m pro-life,’ Mr. Trump quickly corrected himself. ‘I’m sorry.’

A little more than a year after that, when asked about his thoughts on overturning Roe v. Wade, he assured his interviewer, Chris Wallace of Fox News, that it “will happen, automatically in my opinion,” because he was sure he would have the chance to nominate several justices to the Supreme Court. How sadly right he proved to be.

The three justices he did nominate (two put in place after Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell aborted history to do so) would be crucial to the Dobbs v. Jackson decision that would make Roe a matter of history. After news of that decision came out, the former president would insist that “the biggest WIN for LIFE in a generation, along with other decisions that have been announced recently, were only made possible because I delivered everything as promised, including nominating and getting three highly respected and strong Constitutionalists confirmed to the United States Supreme Court.” It mattered not at all that, in a CNN poll, 66% of Americans stood against the overturning of Roe (or that Republicans may pay for that decision in the November midterm elections).

Meanwhile, TomDispatch regular and co-founder of the Costs of War Project Andrea Mazzarino gives us a feeling for just what a disaster the Dobbs decision is likely to be for one community of Americans of which she’s a part: military spouses. And while you’re at it, prepare yourself. Given the Supreme Court Donald Trump willed us, there’s so much more to come. Tom

Choosing Life in a Pro-Violence Society: Post-Dobbs Abortion Access for Military Dependents Is in Question

In significant parts of this country, the Supreme Court’s June 2022 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade returned Americans to a half-century-old situation in which hundreds of thousands of women, faced with unwanted pregnancies, were once forced to resort to costly, potentially deadly underground abortions. My spouse’s employer, the Pentagon, recently announced that its own abortion policy, which allows military insurance to cover the procedure when a pregnancy results from rape or incest, or poses a threat to the mother’s life, still holds.

Sadly enough, this seems an all-too-hollow reassurance, given the reality that pregnant women in the military are, in many places, likely to face an uphill battle finding providers trained and — here’s the key, of course — willing to perform the procedure. The Supreme Court abortion ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health leaves it up to the states to determine whether to allow abortions. In doing so, it ensures that the access of military populations to that procedure will be so much more complicated, especially for spouses who need to seek off-base care, including ones like me who have chosen the military insurance option TRICARE Select that allows us to access almost exclusively civilian providers. America’s 2.6 million military dependents now live in a country where an ever-changing patchwork of state laws can make seeking an abortion costly, risky, and stressful in the extreme.

Any military spouse with young children in tow who’s had to relocate somewhere in this nation’s vast network of military bases can tell you that just caring for another person is challenging in itself. Upon learning you’re pregnant, you practically need a Ph.D. to locate a competent obstetrician who also accepts military insurance.

And even when you do, don’t discount the problems to come. After an ultrasound, my first provider in the military’s TRICARE Select healthcare program told me that my child was missing a foot. (In fact, he was just positioned with his back to the camera.) My second provider almost injured that same child by attempting to apply force during labor when his head was stuck against my hip bone.

And once you’ve actually had the child, you’re likely to find yourself bickering for hours with uninformed military insurance providers simply to get coverage for a breast pump so you can feed your baby and go to work. Your military-approved pediatrician may — or may not! — know anything about local TRICARE Select specialists who can help you address common family problems like deployment-related anxiety in kids. And childcare? This country’s childcare facilities are already stuffed to the gills and that’s even more true of military childcare centers. Typically enough, I fear, I was on wait lists for them for years without the faintest success.

Now, add the devastating Dobbs decision to that military reproductive healthcare landscape. Imagine that you want and need an abortion and rely on TRICARE Select, especially if you and your family are stationed in one of the 13 states that have near or total bans on the procedure. If you’re lucky enough to have the funds and social connections, you may be able to call in your babysitter to watch your older children and let your employer know that you’ve got to travel out of state for a medical procedure — as if they wouldn’t know what kind! Then you’ll spend what disposable income you have, if any — poverty and food insecurity being rampant in today’s military — to head out of state alone in hopes of getting access to an abortion.

You may want your partner to come with you. If he’s not deployed and assuming he supports your choice to seek an abortion, the two of you will face a barrier peculiar to military life: any service member who needs medical leave must request it through a commanding officer. To be sure, the Army and Air Force have issued directives to commanders not requiring soldiers to state why they’re requesting it. Still, it’s hard to imagine how a pro-life commanding officer wouldn’t see right through such a sudden request and deny it. This is one of the many reasons you may find yourself alone on your journey.

And oh, the places you’ll go! The nearest abortion clinic likely won’t be off base over on Main Street. The states with the most restrictive laws governing abortion also have among the highest concentrations of military bases. So military dependents and soldiers whose insurance or health conditions require them to go off base will likely have to travel across state lines (possibly many state lines) to get the services they need and, of course, do so on their own dime. And by the way, the anti-abortion states are also among those with the largest number of per capita troop hometowns, meaning that military personnel from them are unlikely to get access to care if they go home to be with family during a time when they undoubtedly need extra support.

In other words, in the military world, Dobbs is a recipe for disaster.

Military Health Insurance 101

For those unfamiliar with the military’s insurance system, let me make a key distinction. Military family members like myself get to choose between two main types of health insurance. The first, called TRICARE Prime, lets you access care in Department of Defense healthcare facilities military bases or posts. This is how active-duty troops typically get care as well. A case manager refers you to various primary and specialty-care providers as needed. With TRICARE Prime, you’d be using federal facilities, so you might, at least theoretically, have an easier time getting access to an abortion when, under a narrow set of conditions, the federal government is willing to cover such a procedure.

In my experience as a therapist listening to military spouses over the years, to seek healthcare at military facilities almost invariably involves conflicts of interest. Doctors there tend to treat you as though your concerns about your health or that of your children are remarkably insignificant compared to the needs of the troops. They tend to speak to spouses like me as if we were the only ones responsible for the health of our families, in the process essentially dumping such issues (and the services that go with them) onto the unpaid shoulders of us and us alone.

To offer an example, a mother I knew in Washington State was increasingly worried about her toddler’s rapidly declining weight, only to have that phenomenon dismissed by physicians at a military hospital as the result of poor parenting. In the end, her suspicion that her child was gravely ill turned out to be all-too-sadly correct. Another military wife I interviewed went to couples’ therapy on a military base to discuss how an upcoming move might impact their marriage. The counselor they saw, she told me, emphasized her spouse’s service to the country, suggesting that she prioritize his career over hers and complete the move.

Perhaps because of such conflicts of interest and the greater choice offered by civilian-based health plans, most military dependents (72% in 2020) choose the second military-authorized insurance program, TRICARE Select. There, you manage your own care by finding civilian doctors willing to accept the Select plan or you simply pay out of pocket for civilian providers, hoping for some reimbursement sooner or later. With this option, if you were faced with an unwanted pregnancy, you would be subject to any abortion restrictions in your surrounding area.

Keep in mind that specialty care like obstetric services is not likely to be easy to find when you’re looking for military providers in your community. A recent Pentagon evaluation of access to healthcare found that 49% of the people with TRICARE Select could not find a specialist in their community who accepted TRICARE patients, nor could 34% travel the necessary distance to reach an appropriate specialist. Meanwhile, 46% couldn’t access a specialist in a timely manner due to long wait lists. Worse yet, overall access to specialist care within 24 to 48 hours for TRICARE Select beneficiaries decreased significantly between 2016 and 2019 and continued to do so through the first half of 2021.

Lack of access is not an accident. Despite the monstrous size of the Pentagon budget in these years, the Department of Defense actually decreased its health expenditures for all medical programs relative to its overall spending between 2017 and 2020.

New Barriers to Treating Patients and Even Saving Lives

In such an environment, it’s hardly surprising that state abortion bans containing exceptions in cases when pregnancy threatens the parent’s life will not easily result in access to the procedure. For example, Tennessee, home to five military bases and with a per capita troop concentration about 10% greater than the national average, provides exceptions to its ban when a parent’s life is at risk. Here’s the catch: doctors need to be prepared to show evidence that the procedure is necessary to prevent the impairment of a parent’s major bodily functions were the pregnancy to continue — enough evidence that a team of prosecutors with its own expert medical witnesses could not convincingly argue otherwise in court. If not, a doctor could face felony charges and up to 15 years in prison.

Under such circumstances, if you were a doctor considering whether to terminate a life-threatening pregnancy for a patient, would you choose the patient or protect your ability to stay with your own family, avoiding the risk of prison? I’m not sure what I would do in such a situation.

There’s reason to believe that even military dependents not seeking abortions could end up struggling to get the pregnancy care they need because of the restrictions doctors will face when it comes to treating complicated pregnancies. For example, the drugs used to induce abortion by medication, misoprostol and mifepristone, are also the most effective ones for treating patients experiencing miscarriages. At the Cleveland Clinic Emergency Department, under Ohio’s new “heartbeat ban,” which makes it a felony to end a pregnancy after a fetal heartbeat has been detected, women could soon enough have to wait 24 hours before receiving treatment for miscarriages, since anything earlier might qualify as an illegal abortion. Thankfully, for the time being two judges have placed a pause on the ban.

Another troubling fallout from new state abortion bans is the way providers and their patients are now being left to handle exceptions when a pregnancy results from rape. Many abortion bans contain sexual assault reporting requirements that make it all but impossible for doctors to avoid serious liability. For example, Utah’s new abortion law permits the procedure in cases of rape, but for a doctor to perform it without risking criminal charges, he or she would need to report the rape to law enforcement. Similarly, in Wyoming (a state with just one abortion clinic that has two providers), the new exception in cases of rape does not specify how a client should prove that rape occurred, again leaving it up to doctors to decide how to treat patients and protect their own lives from devastating consequences.

The assaulting of civilian women by soldiers is not a widely studied subject, but accounts by activists and journalists suggest that it is a significant problem. What’s more, about 80% of rapes committed by soldiers are never officially reported because victims fear retaliation either from their rapist or others in their communities, including their own or their spouse’s commands. If the rapist happens to be their spouse, reporting the rape in order to obtain an abortion could mean that the family loses its sole source of income, since a convicted rapist would assumedly be discharged from duty. In addition, it’s widely known that people who report sexual assaults often face uninformed responses from law enforcement officers who doubt their stories or blame them for being attacked, only increasing the trauma of the situation.

Pro-Lifers, Their Pro-Violence Society, and a New Approach to Reproductive Rights

The pro-life activists and policies behind those cowardly laws belie the fact that much of what far-right Americans and their elected representatives support undermines human life. Look at the violence and poverty some of the same leaders who advocate abortion bans allow in a country whose politicians generally choose to sanction war and investments in weapons development over better social services. Look at the way a significant minority of the citizenry support elected officials who encourage violence against other Americans of differing political beliefs. Look at the way some of us would support the separating of parents and children at the end of life-saving journeys away from drug wars and poverty in their home countries.

Given such political headwinds, it’s worth remembering that a pregnant person is not a passive receptacle but a worker, whether for nine months or the rest of her life. If anyone should have the power to choose death, she should, because there is always a damn good, heart-wrenching reason for doing so.

I don’t know how many people realize this, but if Roe had not become the law of the land in 1973 to protect abortion rights, a different case might have taken its place. In the early 1970s, the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, took up the case of an Air Force nurse in Vietnam named Susan Struck who was told (as was the military’s policy at that time) that she would be discharged if she were to carry her pregnancy to term.

Captain Struck was a devout Catholic who wanted to keep her job and have that baby. Ginsburg argued that all government attempts to regulate reproduction constituted sex discrimination, whether it involved restricting pregnancies or abortions. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in 1972, but before that could happen, the military changed its policy, rendering the case moot. Had Ginsburg won that case before the Supreme Court, our legal system might have prioritized parents, not the state, as the ultimate decision-makers — heroes no longer navigating a landscape of red tape and indignities.

Last June, right after Roe was overturned, I contacted a fellow military spouse visibly pregnant with her first child. She told me how complicated her feelings were about showing up in Washington, D.C., to advocate for abortion rights just after the draft decision to overturn Roe was leaked this past May. Would people misunderstand her presence at that demonstration? About a year ago, she’d sought emergency care for a miscarriage, which she might not have been able to get had abortion rights already been taken away. Perhaps, in the absence of adequate care, she might have suffered complications that prevented her from becoming pregnant this time around. She did, however, attend that demonstration, convinced that advocacy was as important to self-care as any other act in this country.

Hers is a true pro-life position. It’s the position of someone who has for years moved from one military base to another. Loving both yourself and your baby is a struggle, not a campaign slogan. As a parent myself, I think that parenting is a journey many more pregnant people would happily embrace if the conditions in this country were significantly more humane. Right now, if you truly care about the lives of us all, it’s up to you (and me) to join women like my friend in her post-Roe advocacy.

Something is rotten in the United States Military

William Astore, Something Is Rotten in the U.S. Military

Here’s the curious thing: since at least the Vietnam War era of the 1960s and early 1970s, the United States has been almost continuously at war. Certain of those conflicts like the Vietnam War itself and those in Iraq and Afghanistan in this century are still remembered by many of us. Honestly, though, who remembers Grenada or Panama or the first Gulf War or even the struggle against ISIS, the endless (still ongoing) bombing of Somalia, and this country’s military adventures in Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and Northern Africa? And doubtless, I’m forgetting some conflicts myself. Oh, yes, what about the 1999 bombing of Serbia? So it goes, or at least has gone, for more than half a century.

As Stan Cox pointed out at TomDispatch recently, the U.S. military, as the largest institutional user of petroleum in the world today, now seems at war not just with other countries or terror movements of various sorts, but with the planet itself. And don’t forget those 750 bases our military occupies on every continent except Antarctica or the staggering Pentagon and national security budgets that have continued to fund all of the above (and so little else).

Russia has indeed invaded Ukraine, causing a harrowing nightmare all too near the heart of Europe. And China has indeed been dispatching warships, drones, and missiles menacingly close to Taiwan. Still, when it comes to militarizing the planet in these last decades, nothing compares to our own military. And looking back — as retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, historian, and TomDispatch regular William Astore, who also runs the Bracing Views blog, does today — tell me that it truly isn’t the story from hell.

Astore mentions a phrase that no one who lived through the Vietnam years is ever likely to forget: “the light at the end of the tunnel.” Even the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam used it about a conflict in which only darkness lay at the end of that very “tunnel.” As an image, it was, of course, supposed to offer hope in a war that seemed, like enough of our conflicts in the years that followed, to be going anything but our way. And these days, with such conflicts seemingly heading home in some bizarre fashion, who could doubt that, metaphorically speaking, all of us now find ourselves in some version of that same tunnel — with the light at its end perhaps the flames of an overheating planet. And with that in mind, let Astore explore the nature of the military that so many of your tax dollars have gone to support in these years. And then, be depressed, very depressed. Tom

Integrity Optional: Lies and Dishonor Plague America's War Machine

As a military professor for six years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in the 1990s, I often walked past the honor code prominently displayed for all cadets to see. Its message was simple and clear: they were not to tolerate lying, cheating, stealing, or similar dishonorable acts. Yet that’s exactly what the U.S. military and many of America’s senior civilian leaders have been doing from the Vietnam War era to this very day: lying and cooking the books, while cheating and stealing from the American people. And yet the most remarkable thing may be that no honor code turns out to apply to them, so they’ve suffered no consequences for their mendacity and malfeasance.

Where’s the “honor” in that?

It may surprise you to learn that “integrity first” is the primary core value of my former service, the U.S. Air Force. Considering the revelations of the Pentagon Papers, leaked by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971; the Afghan War papers, first revealed by the Washington Post in 2019; and the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, among other evidence of the lying and deception that led to the invasion and occupation of that country, you’ll excuse me for assuming that, for decades now when it comes to war, “integrity optional” has been the true core value of our senior military leaders and top government officials.

As a retired Air Force officer, let me tell you this: honor code or not, you can’t win a war with lies — America proved that in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq — nor can you build an honorable military with them. How could our high command not have reached such a conclusion themselves after all this time?

So Many Defeats, So Little Honesty

Like many other institutions, the U.S. military carries with it the seeds of its own destruction. After all, despite being funded in a fashion beyond compare and spreading its peculiar brand of destruction around the globe, its system of war hasn’t triumphed in a significant conflict since World War II (with the war in Korea remaining, almost three-quarters of a century later, in a painful and festering stalemate). Even the ending of the Cold War, allegedly won when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, only led to further wanton military adventurism and, finally, defeat at an unsustainable cost — more than $8 trillion — in Washington’s ill-fated Global War on Terror. And yet, years later, that military still has a stranglehold on the national budget.

So many defeats, so little honesty: that’s the catchphrase I’d use to characterize this country’s military record since 1945. Keeping the money flowing and the wars going proved far more important than integrity or, certainly, the truth. Yet when you sacrifice integrity and the truth in the cause of concealing defeat, you lose much more than a war or two. You lose honor — in the long run, an unsustainable price for any military to pay.

Or rather it should be unsustainable, yet the American people have continued to “support” their military, both by funding it astronomically and expressing seemingly eternal confidence in it — though, after all these years, trust in the military has dipped somewhat recently. Still, in all this time, no one in the senior ranks, civilian or military, has ever truly been called to account for losing wars prolonged by self-serving lies. In fact, too many of our losing generals have gone right through that infamous “revolving door” into the industrial part of the military-industrial complex — only to sometimes return to take top government positions.

Our military has, in fact, developed a narrative that’s proven remarkably effective in insulating it from accountability. It goes something like this: U.S. troops fought hard in [put the name of the country here], so don’t blame us. Indeed, you must support us, especially given all the casualties of our wars. They and the generals did their best, under the usual political constraints. On occasion, mistakes were made, but the military and the government had good and honorable intentions in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

Besides, were you there, Charlie? If you weren’t, then STFU, as the acronym goes, and be grateful for the security you take for granted, earned by America’s heroes while you were sitting on your fat ass safe at home.

It’s a narrative I’ve heard time and time again and it’s proven persuasive, partially because it requires the rest of us, in a conscription-free country, to do nothing and think nothing about that. Ignorance is strength, after all.

War Is Brutal

The reality of it all, however, is so much harsher than that. Senior military leaders have performed poorly. War crimes have been covered up. Wars fought in the name of helping others have produced horrendous civilian casualties and stunning numbers of refugees. Even as those wars were being lost, what President Dwight D. Eisenhower first labeled the military-industrial complex has enjoyed windfall profits and expanding power. Again, there’s been no accountability for failure. In fact, only whistleblowing truth-tellers like Chelsea Manning and Daniel Hale have been punished and jailed.

Ready for an even harsher reality? America is a nation being unmade by war, the very opposite of what most Americans are taught. Allow me to explain. As a country, we typically celebrate the lofty ideals and brave citizen-soldiers of the American Revolution. We similarly celebrate the Second American Revolution, otherwise known as the Civil War, for the elimination of slavery and reunification of the country; after which, we celebrate World War II, including the rise of the Greatest Generation, America as the arsenal of democracy, and our emergence as the global superpower.

By celebrating those three wars and essentially ignoring much of the rest of our history, we tend to view war itself as a positive and creative act. We see it as making America, as part of our unique exceptionalism. Not surprisingly, then, militarism in this country is impossible to imagine. We tend to see ourselves, in fact, as uniquely immune to it, even as war and military expenditures have come to dominate our foreign policy, bleeding into domestic policy as well.

If we as Americans continue to imagine war as a creative, positive, essential part of who we are, we’ll also continue to pursue it. Or rather, if we continue to lie to ourselves about war, it will persist.

It’s time for us to begin seeing it not as our making but our unmaking, potentially even our breaking — as democracy’s undoing as well as the brutal thing it truly is.

A retired U.S. military officer, educated by the system, I freely admit to having shared some of its flaws. When I was an Air Force engineer, for instance, I focused more on analysis and quantification than on synthesis and qualification. Reducing everything to numbers, I realize now, helps provide an illusion of clarity, even mastery. It becomes another form of lying, encouraging us to meddle in things we don’t understand.

This was certainly true of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, his “whiz kids,” and General William Westmoreland during the Vietnam War; nor had much changed when it came to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and General David Petraeus, among others, in the Afghan and Iraq War years. In both eras, our military leaders wielded metrics and swore they were winning even as those wars circled the drain.

And worse yet, they were never held accountable for those disasters or the blunders and lies that went with them (though the antiwar movement of the Vietnam era certainly tried). All these years later, with the Pentagon still ascendant in Washington, it should be obvious that something has truly gone rotten in our system.

Here’s the rub: as the military and one administration after another lied to the American people about those wars, they also lied to themselves, even though such conflicts produced plenty of internal “papers” that raised serious concerns about lack of progress. Robert McNamara typically knew that the situation in Vietnam was dire and the war essentially unwinnable. Yet he continued to issue rosy public reports of progress, while calling for more troops to pursue that illusive “light at the end of the tunnel.” Similarly, the Afghan War papers released by the Washington Post show that senior military and civilian leaders realized that war, too, was going poorly almost from the beginning, yet they reported the very opposite to the American people. So many corners were being “turned,” so much “progress” being made in official reports even as the military was building its own rhetorical coffin in that Afghan graveyard of empires.

Too bad wars aren’t won by “spin.” If they were, the U.S. military would be undefeated.

Two Books to Help Us See the Lies

Two recent books help us see that spin for what it was. In Because Our Fathers Lied, Craig McNamara, Robert’s son, reflects on his father’s dishonesty about the Vietnam War and the reasons for it. Loyalty was perhaps the lead one, he writes. McNamara suppressed his own serious misgivings out of misplaced loyalty to two presidents, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, while simultaneously preserving his own position of power in the government.

Robert McNamara would, in fact, later pen his own mea culpa, admitting how “terribly wrong” he’d been in urging the prosecution of that war. Yet Craig finds his father’s late confession of regret significantly less than forthright and fully honest. Robert McNamara fell back on historical ignorance about Vietnam as the key contributing factor in his unwise decision-making, but his son is blunt in accusing his dad of unalloyed dishonesty. Hence the title of his book, citing Rudyard Kipling’s pained confession of his own complicity in sending his son to die in the trenches of World War I: “If any question why we died/Tell them, because our fathers lied.”

The second book is Paths of Dissent: Soldiers Speak Out Against America’s Misguided Wars, edited by Andrew Bacevich and Danny Sjursen. In my view, the word “misguided” doesn’t quite capture the book’s powerful essence, since it gathers 15 remarkable essays by Americans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq and witnessed the patent dishonesty and folly of those wars. None dare speak of failure might be a subtheme of these essays, as initially highly motivated and well-trained troops became disillusioned by wars that went nowhere, even as their comrades often paid the ultimate price, being horribly wounded or dying in those conflicts driven by lies.

This is more than a work of dissent by disillusioned troops, however. It’s a call for the rest of us to act. Dissent, as West Point graduate and Army Captain Erik Edstrom reminds us, “is nothing short of a moral obligation” when immoral wars are driven by systemic dishonesty. Army Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis, who blew an early whistle on how poorly the Afghan War was going, writes of his “seething” anger “at the absurdity and unconcern for the lives of my fellow soldiers displayed by so many” of the Army’s senior leaders.

Former Marine Matthew Hoh, who resigned from the State Department in opposition to the Afghan “surge” ordered by President Barack Obama, speaks movingly of his own “guilt, regret, and shame” at having served in Afghanistan as a troop commander and wonders whether he can ever atone for it. Like Craig McNamara, Hoh warns of the dangers of misplaced loyalty. He remembers telling himself that he was best suited to lead his fellow Marines in war, no matter how misbegotten and dishonorable that conflict was. Yet he confesses that falling back on duty and being loyal to “his” Marines, while suppressing the infamies of the war itself, became “a washing of the hands, a self-absolution that ignores one’s complicity” in furthering a brutal conflict fed by lies.

As I read those essays, I came to see anew how this country’s senior leaders, military and civilian, consistently underestimated the brutalizing impact of war, which, in turn, leads me to the ultimate lie of war: that it is somehow good, or at least necessary — making all the lying (and killing) worth it, whether in the name of a victory to come or of duty, honor, and country. Yet there is no honor in lying, in keeping the truth hidden from the American people. Indeed, there is something distinctly dishonorable about waging wars kept viable only by lies, obfuscation, and propaganda.

An Epigram from Goethe

John Keegan, the esteemed military historian, cites an epigram from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as being essential to thinking about militaries and their wars. “Goods gone, something gone; honor gone, much gone; courage gone, all gone.”

The U.S. military has no shortage of goods, given its whopping expenditures on weaponry and equipment of all sorts; among the troops, it doesn’t lack for courage or fighting spirit, not yet, anyway. But it does lack honor, especially at the top. Much is gone when a military ceases to tell the truth to itself and especially to the people from whom its forces are drawn. And courage is wasted when in the service of lies.

Courage wasted: Is there a worst fate for a military establishment that prides itself on its members being all volunteers and is now having trouble filling its ranks?

Burning books (or rather book companies): A publisher's retrospective

No one listened better than Studs. For those of you old enough to remember, that’s Studs Terkel, of course. The most notable thing about him in person, though, was this: the greatest interviewer of his moment, perhaps of any moment, never stopped talking, except, of course, when he was listening to produce one of his memorable bestselling oral histories — he essentially created the form — ranging from Working and Hard Times to The Good War.

I still remember him calling my house. He was old, his hearing was going, and he couldn’t tell that my teenage son had rushed to answer the phone, hoping it was one of his friends. Instead, finding himself on with Studs talking a mile a minute, my son would begin yelling desperately, “Dad! Dad!”

With that — and a recent publishing disaster — in mind this morning, I took my little stepladder to the back of my tiny study, put it in front of my bookcase and climbed up until I could reach the second to the top shelf, the one that still has Studs’s old volumes lined up on it. Among others, I pulled down one of his later oral histories, Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith. In its acknowledgments, I found this: “Were it not for Tom Engelhardt, the nonpareil of editors, who was uncanny in cutting the fat from the lean (something I found impossible to do) and who gave this work much of its form, I’d still be in the woods.”

And that still makes me so proud. But let me rush to add that, in the years of his best-known work when I was at Pantheon Books (1976 to 1990), I was never his main editor. That honor was left to the remarkable André Schiffrin who started Studs, like so many other memorable authors, on his book career; ran that publishing house in his own unique way; found me in another life; and turned me into the editor he sensed I already naturally was.

For me, those were remarkable years. Even then, André was a genuinely rare figure in mainstream publishing — a man who wanted the world to change, a progressive who couldn’t have been a more adventurous publisher. In fact, I first met him in the midst of the Vietnam War, at a time when I was still an Asian-scholar-to-be and involved in organizing a group, the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, that had produced an antiwar book, The Indochina Story, that André had decided to publish.

In my years at Pantheon, he transformed me into a book editor and gave me the leeway to find works I thought might, in some modest fashion, help alter our world (or rather the way we thought about it) for the better. Those included, among others, the rediscovery of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s early-twentieth-century utopian masterpiece Herland; the publishing of Unforgettable Fire, Pictures Drawn by Atomic Bomb Survivors (not long before, in the early 1980s, an antinuclear movement in need of it would arise in this country); Nathan Huggins’s monumental Black Odyssey; Eduardo Galeano’s unique three-volume Memory of Fire history of the Americas; Eva Figes’s novel Light; John Berger’s Another Way of Telling; Orville Schell’s “Watch Out for the Foreign Guests!”: China Encounters the West; and even — my mother was a cartoonist — the Beginner’s comic book series, including Freud for Beginners, Marx for Beginners, Darwin for Beginners, and, of course, Art Spiegelman’s MAUS, to mention just a modest number of works I was responsible for ushering into existence here in America.

The Second Time Around

What a chance, in my own fashion and however modestly, to lend a hand in changing and improving our world. And then, in a flash, in 1990 it all came to an end. In those years, publishing was already in the process (still ongoing) of conglomerating into ever fewer monster operations. Si Newhouse, the owner of Condé Nast and no fan of progressive publishing, had by that time taken over Random House, the larger operation in which Pantheon was lodged and he would, in the end, get rid of André essentially because of his politics and the kind of books we published.

We editors and most of the rest of the staff quit in protest, claiming we had been “Newhoused.” (Writers like Barbara Ehrenreich and Kurt Vonnegut would join us in that protest.) The next thing I knew, I was out on the street, both literally and figuratively, and my life as a scrambling freelancer began. Yes, Pantheon still existed in name, but not the place I had known and loved. It was a bitter moment indeed, both personally and politically, watching as something so meaningful, not just to me but to so many readers, was obliterated in that fashion. It seemed like a publishing version of capitalism run amok.

And then, luck struck a second time. A few years later, one of my co-editors and friends at Pantheon, Sara Bershtel, launched a new publishing house, Metropolitan Books, at Henry Holt Publishers. It seemed like a miracle to me then. Suddenly, I found myself back in the heartland of mainstream publishing, a “consulting editor” left to do my damnedest, thanks to Sara (herself an inspired and inspiring editor). I was, so to speak, back in business.

And as at Pantheon, it would prove an unforgettable experience. I mean, honestly, where else in mainstream publishing would Steve Fraser and I have been able to spend years producing a line-up of books in a series we called, graphically enough, The American Empire Project? (Hey, it even has a Wikipedia entry!) In that same period, Sara would publish memorable book after memorable book like Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and Thomas Frank’s What‘s the Matter with Kansas?, some of which made it onto bestseller lists, while I was putting out volumes by authors whose names will be familiar indeed to the readers of TomDispatch, including Andrew Bacevich, James Carroll, Noam Chomsky, Michael Klare, Chalmers Johnson, Alfred McCoy, Jonathan Schell, and Nick Turse. And it felt comforting somehow to be back in a situation where I could at least ensure that books I thought might make some modest (or even immodest) difference in an ever more disturbed and disturbing America would see the light of day.

I’ve written elsewhere about the strange moment when, for instance, I first decided that I had to publish what became Chalmers Johnson’s remarkable, deeply insightful, and influential book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire on the future nightmares my country was then seeding into the rest of the planet. Think, for instance, of Osama bin Laden who, Johnson assured his readers well before 9/11 happened, we had hardly heard the last of. (Not surprisingly, only after 9/11 did that book become a bestseller!) Or consider Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, which I published in 2003. So many years later, its very title still sums up remarkably well the dilemma we face on a planet where what’s on the mind of top foreign policy officials in Washington these days is — god save us! — a new cold war with China. We’re talking, in other words, about a place where the two major greenhouse gas emitters on Planet Earth can’t agree on a thing or work together in any way.

The Second Time Around (Part 2)

But let me not linger on ancient history when, just the other day, it happened again. And by it I mean a new version of what happened to me at Pantheon Books. It’s true that because, in my later years, TomDispatch has become my life’s work, I hadn’t done anything for Metropolitan for a while (other, of course, than read with deep fascination the books Sara published). Still, just two weeks ago I was shocked to hear that, like Pantheon, Metropolitan, a similarly progressive publishing house in the mainstream world, was consigned to the waves; its staff laid off; and the house itself left in the publishing version of hell.

Initially, that act of Holt’s, the consigning of Metropolitan to nowhere land, was reported by the trade publication Publisher’s Weekly, but count on one thing: more is sure to come as that house’s authors learn the news and respond.

After all, like Pantheon, at the moment of its demise, it was a lively, deeply progressive operation, churning out powerful new titles — until, that is, it was essentially shut down when Sara, a miraculous publisher like André, was shown the door along with her staff. Bam! What did it matter that, thanks to her, Metropolitan still occupied a space filled by no other house in mainstream publishing? Nothing obviously, not to Holt, or assumedly Macmillan, the giant American publishing conglomerate of which it was a part, or the German Holtzbrinck Publishing Group that owns Macmillan.

How strange that we’re in a world where two such publishing houses, among the best and most politically challenging around, could find that there simply was no place for them as progressive publishers in the mainstream. André, who died in 2013, responded by launching an independent publishing house, The New Press, an admirable undertaking. In terms of the Dispatch Books I still put out from time to time, I find myself in a similar world, dealing with another adventurous independent publishing outfit, Haymarket Books.

Still, what an eerie mainstream we now inhabit, don’t we?

I mean, when it comes to what capitalism is doing on this planet of ours, book publishing is distinctly small (even if increasingly mashed) potatoes. After all, we’re talking about a world where giant fossil-fuel companies with still-soaring profits are all too willing to gaslight the public while quite literally burning the place up — or perhaps I mean flooding the place out. (Don’t you wonder sometimes what the CEOs of such companies are going to tell their grandchildren?)

So the consignment of Metropolitan Books to the trash heap of history is, you might say, a small matter indeed. Still, it’s painful to see what is and isn’t valued in this society of ours (and by whom). It’s painful to see who has the ability to cancel out so much else that should truly matter.

And believe me, just speaking personally, twice is twice too much. Imagine two publishing houses that let me essentially find, edit, and publish what I most cared about, what I thought was most needed, books at least some of which might otherwise never have made it into our world. (The proposal for MAUS, for instance, had been rejected by more or less every house in town before it even made it into my hands.)

Yes, two progressive publishing houses are a small thing indeed on this increasingly unnerving planet of ours. Still, think of this as the modern capitalist version of burning books, though as with those fossil-fuel companies, it is, in reality, more like burning the future. Think of us as increasingly damaged goods on an increasingly damaged planet.

In another world, these might be considered truly terrible acts. In ours, they simply happen, it seems, without much comment or commentary even though silence is ultimately the opposite of what any decent book or book publisher stands for.

You know, it suddenly occurs to me. Somebody should write a book about all this, don’t you think?

War on the Earth: The nightmare of military spending on an overheating planet

Stan Cox, A War on the Earth?

In so many ways, you still wouldn’t know it — not, that is, if you focused on the Pentagon budget or the economic growth paradigm that rules this country and our world — but this planet is in a crisis of a sort humanity has never before faced. Whether you’re considering heat in the American West, floods in Pakistan, the drying up of the Yangtze River in China, record drought in Europe, or the unparalleled warming of the Arctic, we are, as scientists have been pointing out (and ever more of us ordinary people have noted), in an increasingly “uncharted territory of destruction.” In the process, ever more climate “tipping points” stand in danger of being passed as the overheating of this planet becomes the stuff of everyday life.

And sadly, despite all that, Vladimir Putin’s Russia brutally invaded Ukraine, ensuring the release of yet more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as, among other things, various European countries were forced to turn to greater coal use. Meanwhile, the U.S. and China, the two largest greenhouse gas emitters, are now heading into what’s being called, without the slightest sense of irony, a “new cold war.” In the process, responding to House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s decision to visit Taiwan, China recently suspended planned climate talks between the two countries.

Today, TomDispatch regular Stan Cox, author of The Green New Deal and Beyond: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can, explores just what it means, in climate terms, for the U.S., no matter the administration, to pour ever more taxpayer dollars into the Pentagon and the rest of the national security state. Yes, it’s long been commonplace to claim that war is hell (and if you don’t believe that, just check out the nightmare in Ukraine right now). One thing should be ever clearer: sadly enough, that way of life is now all too literally the path to hell. Let Cox explain. Tom

The Nightmare of Military Spending on an Overheating Planet – A Big Carbon Bootprint and a Giant Sucking Sound in the National Budget

On October 1st, the U.S. military will start spending the more than $800 billion Congress is going to provide it with in fiscal year 2023. And that whopping sum will just be the beginning. According to the calculations of Pentagon expert William Hartung, funding for various intelligence agencies, the Department of Homeland Security, and work on nuclear weaponry at the Energy Department will add another $600 billion to what you, the American taxpayer, will be spending on national security.

That $1.4 trillion for a single year dwarfs Congress’s one-time provision of approximately $300 billion under the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) for what’s called “climate mitigation and adaptation.” And mind you, that sum is to be spent over a number of years. In contrast to the IRA, which was largely a climate bill (even if hardly the best version of one), this country’s military spending bills are distinctly anti-human, anti-climate, and anti-Earth. And count on this: Congress’s military appropriations will, in all too many ways, cancel out the benefits of its new climate spending.

Here are just the three most obvious ways our military is an enemy of climate mitigation. First, it produces huge quantities of greenhouse gases, while wreaking other kinds of ecological havoc. Second, when the Pentagon does take climate change seriously, its attention is almost never focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions but on preparing militarily for a climate-changed world, including the coming crisis of migration and future climate-induced armed conflicts globally. And third, our war machine wastes hundreds of billions of dollars annually that should instead be spent on climate mitigation, along with other urgent climate-related needs.

The Pentagon’s Carbon Bootprint

The U.S. military is this globe’s largest institutional consumer of petroleum fuels. As a result, it produces greenhouse gas emissions equal to about 60 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. Were the Pentagon a country, those figures would place it just below Ireland and Finland in a ranking of national carbon emissions. Or put another way, our military surpasses the total national emissions of Bulgaria, Croatia, and Slovenia combined.

A lot of those greenhouse gases flow from the construction, maintenance, and use of its 800 military bases and other facilities on 27 million acres across the United States and the world. The biggest source of emissions from actual military operations is undoubtedly the burning of jet fuel. A B-2 bomber, for instance, emits almost two tons of carbon dioxide when flying a mere 50 miles, while the Pentagon’s biggest boondoggle, the astronomically costly F-35 combat aircraft, will emit “only” one ton for every 50 miles it flies.

Those figures come from “Military- and Conflict-Related Emissions,” a June 2022 report by the Perspectives Climate Group in Germany. In it, the authors express regret for the optimism they had exhibited two decades earlier when it came to the reduction of global military greenhouse gas emissions and the role of the military in experimenting with new, clean forms of energy:

In the process of us writing this report and looking at our article written 20 years ago, the initial notion of assessing military activities… as potential ‘engines of progress’ for novel renewable technologies was shattered by the Iraq War, followed by the horror of yet another large-scale ground war, this time in Europe… All our attention should be directed towards achieving the 1.5° target [of global temperature rise beyond the preindustrial level set at the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015]. If we fail in this endeavor, the repercussions will be more deadly than all conflicts we have witnessed in the last decades.

In March, the Defense Department announced that its proposed budget for fiscal year 2023 would include a measly $3.1 billion for “addressing the climate crisis.” That amounts to less than 0.4% of the department’s total spending and, as it happens, two-thirds of that little sliver of funding will go not to climate mitigation itself but to protecting military facilities and activities against the future impact of climate change. Worse yet, only a tiny portion of the remainder would go toward reducing the greenhouse-gas emissions or other environmental damage the armed forces itself will produce.

In a 2021 Climate Adaptation Plan, the Pentagon claimed, however vaguely, that it was aiming for a future in which it could “operate under changing climate conditions, preserving operational capability, and enhancing the natural and manmade systems essential to the Department’s success.” It projected that “in worst-case scenarios, climate-change-related impacts could stress economic and social conditions that contribute to mass migration events or political crises, civil unrest, shifts in the regional balance of power, or even state failure. This may affect U.S. national interests directly or indirectly, and U.S. allies or partners may request U.S. assistance.”

Sadly enough, however, as far as the Pentagon is concerned, an overheated world will only open up further opportunities for the military. In a classic case of projection, its analysts warn that “malign actors may try to exploit regional instability exacerbated by the impacts of climate change to gain influence or for political or military advantage.” (Of course, Americans would never act in such a manner since, by definition, the Pentagon is a benign actor, but will have to respond accordingly.)

The CIA and other intelligence agencies seem to share the Pentagon’s vision of our hotter future as a growth opportunity. A 2021 climate risk assessment by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) paid special attention to the globe’s fastest-warming region, the Arctic. Did it draw the intelligence community’s interest because of the need to prevent a meltdown of the planet’s ice caps