Dread and Melancholy

It seems there’s more to this place than surfers and movie stars. But you can’t talk about it. That was something to think about in the evenings at the beach, back in 1981, sitting by the window, sipping scotch and watching the winter sun set behind Malibu across the bay. Not that the place was that cool – it was a shabby old walk-up apartment on a side street just above the beach, not on it, with orange shag carpet and a kind of Gidget beach-bum feel. That was somehow appropriate, or seemed so at the time.

But the landlord was strange – a young fellow with two or three PhD’s who worked over in Santa Monica at the Rand Corporation. He didn’t talk much about his work – he was an expert on game theory and would mutter something about spending his days working out all possible scenarios involving global thermonuclear war – all the ways it could start and all the ways it might play out and what would happen next. But he really couldn’t talk about it. He’d just look away and sort of smile, a little embarrassed by it all. That was unnerving. There are some things you’re not supposed to know, and maybe you don’t really want to know them – but the monthly rent was more than reasonable so there was no need to know more. Those first few years in Manhattan Beach were just fine.

Of course people always want to know more, and things had a way of slipping out of Rand Corporation – like the Pentagon Papers – so thanks to Daniel Ellsberg we found out that in 1967 Robert McNamara had commissioned a history of our policy involvement in Vietnam, and how things would have to work out. They all knew the whole thing was a lost cause from the get-go. Ellsberg worked on that study and in late 1971 he grabbed his copy and drove up here to West Hollywood to a copy place and ran off full copies for the New York Times and the Washington Post – he’d had enough of all the press-on-to-victory happy talk.

Ellsberg met the New York Times reporter, Neil Sheehan, over on the Santa Monica Pier and handed the thing to him and the rest is history. There are some things you’re not supposed to know, but you really ought to know – like knowing that your government is flat-out lying to you, and asking that you and your friends go off and die for something that was never going to work out, and that they knew all along was never going to work out.

Now the government knows better, except that’s not even slightly true:

A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.

The documents were generated by a federal project examining the root failures of the longest armed conflict in U.S. history. They include more than 2,000 pages of previously unpublished notes of interviews with people who played a direct role in the war, from generals and diplomats to aid workers and Afghan officials

The U.S. government tried to shield the identities of the vast majority of those interviewed for the project and conceal nearly all of their remarks. The Post won release of the documents under the Freedom of Information Act after a three-year legal battle.

So there was no mysterious meeting in the fog late at night on the Santa Monica Pier like in some Raymond Chandler novel – the Freedom of Information Act worked just fine – or maybe it worked too well:

With a bluntness rarely expressed in public, the interviews lay bare pent-up complaints, frustrations and confessions, along with second-guessing and backbiting.

“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan – we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015. He added: “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”

“If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction… 2,400 lives lost,” Lute added, blaming the deaths of U.S. military personnel on bureaucratic breakdowns among Congress, the Pentagon and the State Department. “Who will say this was in vain?”

No one will, but someone should:

Since 2001, more than 775,000 U.S. troops have deployed to Afghanistan, many repeatedly. Of those, 2,300 died there and 20,589 were wounded in action, according to Defense Department figures.

With most speaking on the assumption that their remarks would not become public, U.S. officials acknowledged that their warfighting strategies were fatally flawed and that Washington wasted enormous sums of money trying to remake Afghanistan into a modern nation.

The interviews also highlight the U.S. government’s botched attempts to curtail runaway corruption, build a competent Afghan army and police force, and put a dent in Afghanistan’s thriving opium trade.

There’s much more, but Slate’s Fred Kaplan sums things up:

Written by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, an agency created by Congress in 2008 to investigate waste and fraud, the report, titled “Lessons Learned,” is the most thorough official critique of an ongoing American war since the Vietnam War review commissioned in 1967 by then–Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

The “Afghanistan Papers,” as the Post dubs the report, is narrower in scope than McNamara’s project; the latter delved into the entire history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and incorporated top-secret memos and other documents from throughout the national security bureaucracy. Still, the new report resonates with the same dread and melancholy about a war built on ignorance, lies, and counterproductive policies.

But maybe it all comes down to one thing:

Central to the current war effort – and to its failure – was corruption. It was central because the Afghan government couldn’t defeat the Taliban insurgents, or win the support of its people, as long as it was corrupt from top to bottom. The United States failed because the billions of dollars we poured into the country only made Afghanistan’s corruption worse.

Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, told the investigators in a 2016 interview, “You just cannot put those amounts of money into a very fragile state and society, and not have it fuel corruption.” He added that the same thing happened in Iraq, where corruption is “pandemic and deeply rooted” and where “it’s hard to see how a better political order can ever be established.”

But, curiously, we only have ourselves to blame for that:

A big problem, Crocker said, was a perennial “American urge,” when intervening in a foreign conflict, to “start fixing everything as fast as we can.” We pour in billions of dollars, which wind up in the hands of the powerful – the report estimates that 40 percent of U.S. aid to Afghanistan was pocketed by officials, gangsters, or the insurgents themselves – who become more corrupt still.

The U.S. military dedicated enormous effort to training the Afghan special forces. Those forces “can clear an area” of insurgents, Crocker said. The problem is that they would then turn the area over to the Afghan police, who couldn’t hold on to it, “not because they’re outgunned or outmanned” but rather “because they are useless as a security force” – and they’re useless “because they are corrupt down to the patrol level.”

So we met the enemy, and Kaplan argues that the enemy was us:

The way we fight insurgents in countries with fragile states and societies tends to strengthen our enemy – and, to the people struggling to survive in those countries, we become the enemy. Until this is recognized and remedied, it’s better not to intervene in the first place.

Or maybe the problem is no more than what Kevin Drum notes here:

It’s unbelievable that we’re still in Afghanistan a full generation after we first invaded. Unfortunately, no one has the guts to simply pull out and accept the fact that they will then become the president that lost Afghanistan. So they keep on pretending to fight. And that’s the biggest lie of all.

Perhaps so, but Andrew Bacevich says it’s a bit more complicated than that:

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has imported into the American military lexicon a new rationale for U.S. military actions in the Middle East. It’s called “mowing the lawn,” but it has nothing to do with keeping the grass trimmed. “To mow the lawn,” Esper recently remarked to reporters, “means, every now and then” giving your adversary a good, swift kick in the shins. “You have to do these things,” he explained, “so that a threat doesn’t grow, doesn’t resurge.”

You mow the lawn not to eliminate a threat but to manage it.

That’s the job, but there are problems with that:

Esper’s endorsement of this concept is striking for two reasons. First, his boss does not accept war as inevitable and permanent. In speeches and at rallies, President Trump routinely promises to “end endless wars.” Mowing the lawn as a tactic for dealing with Islamic State and similar entities concedes that America’s wars in the Middle East won’t be ending anytime soon. Commander in chief Trump insists that a decisive victory over these adversaries is not only achievable, but also that he himself will deliver it. Now his Pentagon chief in effect acknowledges that nothing approximating victory is in the cards.

There is, of course, nothing remarkable about this president and his principal subordinates reading off radically different scripts. In this case, however, the contrast, and Esper’s embrace of lawn mowing as a de facto military doctrine, is troubling. It implies that the United States has no alternative but to persist on the course it embarked on after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

In that regard, mowing the lawn constitutes a tacit admission of strategic bankruptcy.

In fact, this makes no sense:

Employing American forces to mow the lawn in perpetuity across large swaths of the Middle East does not enhance U.S. security. It merely adds to an already enormous body count and consumes vast sums of money while diverting attention from matters of far more pressing concern, such as climate change and changing power relations in East Asia.

Half a century ago, critics of the Vietnam War urged U.S. policymakers to “declare victory and go home.” The advice remains no less pertinent today.

It’s just like old times, unless it isn’t:

Waging open-ended war in the Middle East serves chiefly to perpetuate anti-American terrorism, which in any event does not pose a proximate threat to vital U.S. national security interests. Exercising the choice to terminate a misguided military enterprise dating from Sept. 11 offers a first step toward returning national security policy to a sound footing.

U.S. forces have better things to do than to mow lawns in distant and inhospitable climes.

He may know a bit about that:

Andrew J. Bacevich Jr. is an American historian specializing in international relations, security studies, American foreign policy, and American diplomatic and military history. He is a Professor Emeritus of International Relations and History at the Boston University Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies. He is also a retired career officer in the Armor Branch of the United States Army, retiring with the rank of colonel. He is a former director of Boston University’s Center for International Relations (from 1998 to 2005), now part of the Pardee School of Global Studies.

Bacevich has been “a persistent, vocal critic of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, calling the conflict a catastrophic failure.” In March 2007, he described George W. Bush’s endorsement of such “preventive wars” as “immoral, illicit, and imprudent.” His son, Andrew John Bacevich, also an Army officer, died fighting in the Iraq War in May 2007.

And his new book The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory will be published in January.

Andrew Bacevich knows a few things. And it’s better to know than to not know. Unless you hate what you were just told:

FBI officials had sufficient reason to open the investigation into links between Russia and Trump campaign aides in 2016 and acted without political bias, a long-awaited report said on Monday, but it concluded that the inquiry was a rushed and dysfunctional process marked by serious errors in documents related to one wiretap.

No! This cannot be! This reports said THE OPPOSITE of what it says right there on the pages:

The exhaustive report by the Justice Department’s independent inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, faced an immediate challenge. Attorney General William P. Barr sought to undermine the key finding that investigators had an adequate basis to open the inquiry, known as Crossfire Hurricane.

“The inspector general’s report now makes clear that the FBI launched an intrusive investigation of a U.S. presidential campaign on the thinnest of suspicions that, in my view, were insufficient to justify the steps taken,” Mr. Barr, a close ally of President Trump who has begun his own re-investigation of the Russia inquiry, said in a statement.

Attorney General Barr has been traveling the world – to Italy and Australia and Britain – to ask each country to help him prove that the CIA and NSA and all our intelligence services and his own FBI all hate Trump and commit treason every single day trying to bring him down. The Brits were stunned, but this is about defending Trump.

But this was a balanced report:

Mr. Horowitz stressed that the standard for opening an FBI investigation was low – echoing the sort of criticism that civil libertarians have made for years. He also exonerated former FBI leaders, broadly rejecting Mr. Trump’s accusations that they engaged in a politicized conspiracy to sabotage him.

“We did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced” officials’ decision to open the investigation, the report said.

So, the FBI had been sloppy with one Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court warrant regarding Carter Page – there were no other FISA warrants – but that was something useful:

By puncturing conspiracy theories promoted by Mr. Trump and his allies, yet sharply criticizing law enforcement actions that have not been the subject of public debate, Mr. Horowitz’s mixed findings offered a basis for both critics and allies of Mr. Trump to claim vindication.

Although any claim of vindications was a bit harder on the Trump side:

The report also rebuffed other conservative claims that the FBI spied on the Trump campaign as part of a politicized plot. It confirmed that the FBI opened the inquiry in July 2016 as stolen Democratic emails spilled out and investigators learned that a Trump campaign aide bragged that he had been told that Russia had information that could damage Hillary Clinton. Investigators did not open the inquiry based on a notorious dossier of opposition research from Christopher Steele, a former British spy whose research was funded by Democrats, Mr. Horowitz found.

Nor did the FBI send informants or undercover agents to meet with campaign officials before opening Crossfire Hurricane, place any informants inside the campaign or ask the informants it did rely on to “report on the Trump campaign,” as Mr. Trump’s allies have insinuated.

But that didn’t matter:

In comments after Mr. Horowitz’s report was made public, Mr. Trump nevertheless reprised his attacks on the Russia investigation as an attempted coup and a conspiracy. He claimed – in opposition to the report’s findings – that it showed “an attempted overthrow, and a lot of people were in on it and they got caught, they got caught red-handed.”

He base will believe that. He also tweeted out, over the weekend, that he was “the greatest president of all time” and they’ll believe that too. But others are more grounded:

James B. Comey, the FBI director who oversaw the opening of the Russia investigation and whom Mr. Trump abruptly fired nearly a year later, lauded Mr. Horowitz’s findings and called on “those who attacked the FBI” to acknowledge they were wrong.

“The allegation of a criminal conspiracy was nonsense,” Mr. Comey, citing Mr. Horowitz’s findings, wrote in an op-ed article in The Washington Post. “There was no illegal wiretapping, there were no informants inserted into the campaign, there was no ‘spying’ on the Trump campaign.”

That’s what the report from Barr’s handpicked investigator said, but that’s not what Trump says that the report said. And we’re winning in Vietnam. And we’re winning in Afghanistan. And so on and so forth.

Max Boot is not happy about this:

On March 4, 2017, two days after then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions had recused himself from overseeing the FBI investigation of alleged collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, President Trump tweeted: “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”

There was, of course, zero evidence of President Barack Obama wiretapping Trump, but when this initial allegation did not check out, the president and his supporters simply concocted ever more outlandish conspiracy theories in an attempt to show that he was the victim of a political spying operation by the “deep state.” Trump regularly alleged that he was the victim of “The Greatest Witch Hunt In American History!” and he named as his persecutors “Robert Mueller & his band of 18 Angry Democrats … Crooked Hillary Clinton, Lyin’ & Leakin’ James Comey, Lisa Page and her Psycho lover, Peter S, Andy McCabe, the beautiful Ohr family, Fusion GPS, and many more.”

And it was all nonsense. It seemed so then. Now all of that is certified nonsense, but only to the majority of Americans:

If there were any justice in the world, we would never hear any of the deep state conspiracy theories ever again. But, of course, Trump and his supporters will not be stymied by the lack of factual support for their charges – any more than those who believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was not a lone gunman or that the moon landing was faked will be compelled to recant by a lack of evidence. Trump predictably claimed after the report’s release that it was “far worse than I ever thought possible” and his highly partisan attorney general, William P. Barr, just as predictably opined that the whole FBI investigation was unjustified. Who needs facts when you have conspiracy theories?

Kevin Drum sees that too:

Carter Page is a goofball who never had any actual influence with the Trump campaign. On the contrary: he was nothing more than one of the five names that Trump hurriedly came up with after promising to reveal his “foreign policy team” in early 2016, at a time when no one in the foreign policy community with a room-temperature IQ wanted anything to do with Trump. The FBI could have ordered a mob hit on Page and it would have had zero effect on Trump and his presidential campaign.

But that doesn’t matter. Page was one of Trump’s five names, and the FBI badly mishandled its application for a FISA warrant to wiretap Page…

So it doesn’t matter that Page was a negligible part of the whole FBI investigation. The conservative goal, after all, is merely to manufacture doubt about it.

And now they can. On prime time Fox News, it’s unlikely that true believers will hear anything about this report aside from the fact that the FBI relied partly on the Steele dossier in order to justify a wiretap on a member of Trump’s foreign policy team. They will hear nothing about this being evidence mostly of broad FBI mendacity and incompetence, not anti-Trump animus.

And then there’s everyone else:

They’ll rely on normal news sources which, like the New York Times, will report honestly about the Page warrant being a massive screw-up. A week from now, when the dust has settled, all they’ll remember is that there was a report that suggested… something. Wasn’t there something about a wiretap? And a dossier that turned out not to be true? Or something like that?

And with that, the conspiracy theory will live on forever in conservative lore, alongside the Benghazi “stand down” order, the IRS’s jihad against tea party groups, and Hillary Clinton’s erasure of 33,000 incriminating emails.

Fred Kaplan said that there’s a dread and melancholy about a war built on ignorance, lies, and counterproductive policies. But one can generalize from that. There’s a dread and melancholy about America now.

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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