Inevitable Adjustments

Sometimes it’s fine being the crazy old uncle who lives in Hollywood, the one whose college years were the last four years of the sixties, when the entire culture shifted, lurching away from the conformist and stifling fifties – to long hair and free love and the Revolution and Woodstock and the rest. We ain’t gonna study war no more either – as if anyone had any say about that – and yes, much of this was only lurching toward an alternative conformity, but at least the music was great. It was a fine time, but all that is long gone now, save for the hippie vans still parked at the end of Rose Avenue in Venice Beach, with the thumping drum circles most afternoons. Hey, someone took that California Dreamin’ song seriously. Haight-Ashbury up in foggy San Francisco didn’t work out – things got real nasty there real fast – but perpetually mellow Venice Beach was here for that crowd, and they never left. California was the answer, and for those of us who had to go about the business of actually working for a living, and having some sort of career, there was Hollywood – crass and commercial, but notoriously liberal. Even if you worked in aerospace, at one of the spy-satellite factories down in South Bay, or in a sealed room at the Rand Corporation headquarters in Santa Monica, planning the next nuclear war, you could still live in Hollywood. After all, when Daniel Ellsberg snatched those Pentagon Papers he made copies for the New York Times and the Washington Post and the others right here in Hollywood, at a copy center just down the street. The whole counterculture era lives on here, more or less, and the crazy old uncle can tell tales.

But everyone, except for those bearded old men in tie-dye at the end of Rose Avenue, makes adjustments. The second father-in-law was an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan years, so it was tea with Frank Carlucci and the generals at the Pentagon now and then, and saying the right thing, or mostly remaining silent. That was fine. Very Important People appreciate the silence of others, but those days passed too. That marriage ended and there was this nice apartment just off the Sunset Strip that was available and that was that. Hollywood is home now – the last stop, so to speak. It’s where the sixties came to rest, and where one becomes a historical reference for the young folks in the family.

That role is, however, sometime hard to maintain. West Point, on the first day of June, 1990, was pretty cool – the nephew’s graduation. The setting is stunning, high on the bluffs on the west side of the Hudson, just up the river from New York City, and the cadets were fine young men and women – open and honest and invariably polite, and damned smart, and above all else, honorable. Maybe it was time to rethink that sixties stuff. The civilian fools got us into that mess in Vietnam, and Westmoreland and a few other generals had gotten everything wrong, but these kids were fine. And then there was the graduation speaker – Colin Powell saying the appropriate nice things about all the new Second Lieutenants, but then adding something odd, a kind of sixties thing. He told them all that the Cold War was over, so a giant army at the ready at all times was kind of pointless. It wasn’t that we’d study war no more, it’s just that there would be more studying war and far less waging war – we’d run out of enemies. He assured the graduates there would be plenty of honorable and useful and amazing things for them to do, but they’d be in the background from his point forward. It’s a good thing they we’re listening carefully. Only the crazy old uncle from Hollywood smiled. America had finally gotten to where it was supposed to be.

Powell was wrong of course. The family’s new officer was soon off to Kuwait, to help toss Saddam Hussein out of there, and after various postings here and there, liaison work in Istanbul and such, it was Iraq again – many tours at higher and higher levels – and then Kabul. The kid is a full-bird Colonel now, heading off to the Pentagon in a month or two, for two years there. All the sixties antiwar stuff didn’t accomplish much. There are always new enemies, even if we have to create some of them ourselves. Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, anyone?

Things do repeat themselves however. It’s just short of twenty-four years, and the cycle begins again:

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel plans to shrink the United States Army to its smallest force since before the World War II buildup and eliminate an entire class of Air Force attack jets in a new spending proposal that officials describe as the first Pentagon budget to aggressively push the military off the war footing adopted after the terror attacks of 2001.

The proposal, released on Monday, takes into account the fiscal reality of government austerity and the political reality of a president who pledged to end two costly and exhausting land wars. A result, the officials argue, will be a military capable of defeating any adversary, but too small for protracted foreign occupations.

There are a couple of things going on here. Protracted foreign occupations have done us no good at all, creating nothing but seething resentment, and although we have all sorts of new enemies, and always will, none of them seem particularly interested in a full-scale land war. That’s not how things are done now. Our tanks – most of the time now – have nothing to blast and roll over and smash – they’re just targets of two guys with a homemade explosive device and a cell phone to set it off. There will be no dogfights at thirty-thousand feet either. The bad guys don’t have airplanes. They don’t need them. Tanks and planes and all the rest are useful for quick in-and-out operations, but the real wars now will be endless small but nasty attacks over years and years and years, or cyber warfare:

Not long after the uprising in Syria turned bloody, late in the spring of 2011, the Pentagon and the National Security Agency developed a battle plan that featured a sophisticated cyberattack on the Syrian military and President Bashar al-Assad’s command structure.

The Syrian military’s ability to launch airstrikes was a particular target, along with missile production facilities. “It would essentially turn the lights out for Assad,” said one former official familiar with the planning.

For President Obama, who has been adamantly opposed to direct American intervention in a worsening crisis in Syria, such methods would seem to be an obvious, low-cost, low-casualty alternative. But after briefings on variants of the plans, most of which are part of traditional strikes as well, he has so far turned them down, according to officials familiar with the administration’s long-running internal debate.

There’s a reason he was worried:

The considerations that led Mr. Obama to hesitate about using the offensive cyber-weapons his administration has spent billions helping develop, in large part with hopes that they can reduce the need for more-traditional military attacks, reflect larger concerns about a new and untested tactic with the potential to transform the nature of warfare. It is a transformation analogous to what happened when the airplane was first used in combat in World War I, a century ago.

The Obama administration has been engaged in a largely secret debate about whether cyber-arms should be used like ordinary weapons, whether they should be rarely used covert tools or whether they ought to be reserved for extraordinarily rare use against the most sophisticated, hard-to-reach targets. And looming over the issue is the question of retaliation: whether such an attack on Syria’s air power, its electric grid or its leadership would prompt Syrian, Iranian or Russian retaliation in the United States.

The administration and the Pentagon are dealing with the world as it is now. Troop levels and new and advanced jets and tanks aren’t the issue any longer:

Under Mr. Hagel’s proposals, the entire fleet of Air Force A-10 attack aircraft would be eliminated. The aircraft was designed to destroy Soviet tanks in case of an invasion of Western Europe, and the capabilities are deemed less relevant today. The budget plan does sustain money for the controversial F-35 warplane, which has been extremely expensive and has run into costly delays.

In addition, the budget proposal calls for retiring the famed U-2 spy plane in favor of the remotely piloted Global Hawk.

The Navy would be allowed to purchase two destroyers and two attack submarines every year. But 11 cruisers will be ordered into reduced operating status during modernization.

Although consideration was given to retiring an aircraft carrier, the Navy will keep its fleet of 11 – for now. The George Washington would be brought in for overhaul and nuclear refueling – a lengthy process that could be terminated in future years under tighter budgets.

Yes, a second issue here is the Republicans’ demand for full austerity, for government at all levels spending as little as possible, and their success in making that so. Sometimes you get what you want, and discover that it wasn’t what you wanted. Drones are cheaper than piloted aircraft anyway, and more effective most of time, in this new world. But as Paul Whitefield notes, that’s hard for some Republicans to swallow:

Here’s how Hagel described the $496-billion budget plan: “This is a time for reality. This is a budget that recognizes the reality of the magnitude of our fiscal challenges, the dangerous world we live in, and the American military’s unique and indispensable role in the security of this country and in today’s volatile world.”

And here’s how just one of the undoubtedly thousands of critics who are waiting to pounce on this plan reacted. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told Fox News: “It’s all being sacrificed … on the altar of entitlements. This president cannot take on mandatory spending, so all we’ve done in the Congress – and this president – is basically cut discretionary spending.”

Yep: We have to kill other people before we take care of our own!

But perhaps a little perspective is in order before we go blaming Obama for abandoning the country to the communist wolves (or whoever the enemy is) in favor of stuff like, you know, feeding hungry people and providing healthcare and Social Security to seniors and the like.

Here’s that perspective:

In 2013, the U.S. spent $682 billion on its military, or about 4.4% of GDP. That was 39% of world military spending.

Our closest, uh, pursuer? China – you know, the place that makes all those iPhones and iPads and TV sets we love – spent $166 billion, or about 2% of GDP, which was 9.5% of world military spending.

Oh yeah, and the evil Russkies? $90.7 billion, 4.4% of GDP, or 5.2% of world military spending.

After that came Britain, France and Japan – none of which, I feel confident in saying, is likely to launch a military strike against us in the foreseeable future.

So what are we really talking about here? Just how unsafe will America be spending “only” $496 billion?

Whitefield comes down here:

I see the need for a military. Given the way the world works, I even see the need for us to be the biggest military guy on the block. And I understand that, in some ways, military spending is government welfare for the wealthy: It provides rich contracts to companies in the defense industry, which in turn provide high-paying jobs to plenty of people.

But let’s not go all Chicken Little over this downsized military option. We still have the biggest stick, and at $496 billion, or $600 billion, or even $300 billion, that won’t change.

We’ve seen the limits of U.S. military power in the last decade or so. And we know the financial problems we’re having.

So why not try a little John Lennon, and give peace a chance?

Yeah, it’s the sixties all over again – that Lennon song was a big hit in 1969 – and in 2012, Obama did mention that once again warfare has changed:

President Barack Obama mocked Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney on Monday for his repeated attack over the size of the Navy, which he has said proves the president doesn’t prioritize national defense.

“You mention the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets,” Obama said during the final presidential debate. “We have these things called aircraft carriers and planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.”

Republicans would do well to remember that final presidential debate. You want sensible spending? Stop talking about 1916, or June 1944, for that matter. You’ll get sensible spending, and Ed Kilgore says there’s no real danger here anyway:

The specific policy change behind the numbers is the abandonment of the assumption that the U.S. must be at every moment be prepared to wage two major land wars simultaneously on different continents. That is not to say that we’d be helpless and have to surrender our Priceless Heritage of Freedom if such big threats emerged; that’s why God made supplemental appropriations bills and why we still maintain the capability of reviving conscription.

And Zack Beauchamp points out the obvious:

There are certainly some distinctively 21st century security challenges: climate change, most importantly, but also transnational terrorism and nuclear-armed rogue states. But these aren’t the sorts of threats large armies are good at solving. Climate change is a political/humanitarian problem, not something that Army artillery shells can pummel into oblivion. America’s track record in using ground invasions to address terrorism and rogue states since 9/11 has been pretty shoddy, to say the least.

Indeed, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars point to the real virtue of Hagel’s plan. Since 9/11, we’ve overspent massively on defense and homeland security – arguably playing into al-Qaeda’s hands.

Yes, if you hate America, and you’re with the terrorists, urge ever-increasing massive spending on the military, on more and more troops with nothing to do and more fancy new gizmos we can’t find a way to use, and screw everything else – roads, bridges, schools, Medicare and Social security and all the rest. Go ahead, make us a third-world country, but this plan calls for building up the types of forces we used to kill Osama bin Laden. What’s the problem with that? Make the inevitable adjustments.

It’s time to get used to the new world, where our current secretary of state, John Kerry, is one of those sixties antiwar guys, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran who once sat in front of Congress and told them that THAT war was really stupid – he’d been there. Stop it, now. How do you ask someone to be the last man who dies for a mistake? Make the inevitable adjustments.

Those adjustments took a few more years, but they were inevitable, and, as Patrick Smith writes, Kerry knows all about that:

The past year’s agenda is littered with failures – Syria (Kerry’s diplomacy just reached a dead end), the famous “pivot to Asia” (driftwood floating somewhere in the Pacific), Ukraine (Putin again trumps Washington). But this list goes straight to the point: Kerry appears to be managing America’s relations abroad at precisely the moment it comes clear that Washington must surrender the pre-eminence it has exploited without much inhibition since the Spanish–American War in 1898.

So in failure there lies buried a certain success. Each time Kerry encounters the limits of American power, he goes some way to redefining America’s place on the planet in what we can call our post–Exceptionalist era. Of necessity this comes to a more modest but more constructive, less imposing and less disruptive presence. In failure success, and in retreat (as conservative critics, empire builders, and militarists see it) we find advances.

Unlike the neoconservatives, who imagined a New American Century of our firm but fair dominance over all the world, through either intimidation or the actual use of massive force – both military matters – Kerry has made the necessary adjustments to this actual century, not the imaginary one:

Kerry’s efforts to restart talks between Israel and Palestinians – some Palestinians – are tritely advertised as his “signature” issue. Many were the commentators who warned that Kerry would break his pick trying to induce a settlement, and they are proven right. Talks continue, but it is evident now they are a wash.

Yet it is in Israel that Kerry has achieved his clearest success-that-looks-like-failure. He has brought light and air to a relationship that has been cloistered, untouchable, mired, and on auto pilot for decades. He has opened a door, then: Across the threshold, America will be better off, Israel will be better off, Palestinians will be better off, and the Middle East will be, too.

Smith covers the minute details of how Kerry pulled that off, step by step, but what is more interesting is how this was received:

The reaction was strong, predictably. Conservatives accused him of anti-Semitism, dealing Israel out of existence, indulging a “messianic” streak, knowing better than Israel what is good for it. Three members of Netanyahu’s cabinet mounted frontal attacks.

I predicted in this space last summer that a renovation in U.S.–Israeli relations was due. It is far from accomplished, but this is what it looks like for now. Something abrupt had to push the process in motion. Kerry did the deed waiting to be done.

He did some other important things, too. Most immediately, he re-asserted control over American policy in the region. As the Middle East evolves post–Arab Spring and as Iran seeks to open, the only alternative was to allow Israel’s standing hostilities and its givenness to military solutions over diplomacy to limit Washington’s alternatives.

The honest talk, fresh and direct, was key. By way of it he insisted on a key distinction that is often blurred. While making clear his support for the Israeli project, he insisted that this does not compute to acquiescing to Israel’s behavior in the occupied territories and its evident lack of genuine interest in a comprehensive settlement.

One cannot imagine a previous secretary of state pulling this off, but in my view Kerry got his timing just right. He tapped a liberally flowing undercurrent. One already detects a distinct turn in the comments of prominent Israel watchers, and they follow that distinction Kerry insisted upon.

It’s a matter of making adjustments, even if instinctually:

Kerry’s first year raises a question of intent. Obviously he did not intend for the current round of Mideast talks to fail when he started them last July. He did not intend to give Russia the lead on the Syria question, or Iran the initiative in getting talks going on its nuclear program. But in the latter two cases, recognition of other poles of power has resulted.

As to the Mideast, Kerry has accomplished something I had judged possible only in principle. He has shaken loose a policy badly in need of shaking and given a stale conversation a new sound.

It had to be done:

Who can imagine that failure-as-success was Kerry’s purpose when he set out a year ago? But the big messes, such as the coup Washington sanctioned in Egypt, now a god-awful crisis, are cases wherein old policies, in the American century mold, ran the full course. Then you get success as failure, not the other way around.

Make the inevitable adjustments. It’ll look like failure, to some, but making no adjustments at all assures failure every single time. That’s what all of us irritatingly pretentious young people were saying to the old farts back in the sixties. That’s what Colin Powell was saying on that sunny afternoon at West Point all those years ago. That’s what Chuck Hegel is saying now.

Hey, someone has to explain the sixties. Why not the crazy uncle here in Hollywood?

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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