Sometimes when I look at the increasingly bizarre, never-ending campaign for the White House and the staggering fundraising that goes with it, I think to myself: if we were in Kabul, Afghanistan, we would know what this was. We would recognize warlord politics. We would understand that (Bernie Sanders aside) politicians running for the presidency now need patrons -- modern-day Medicis who can fund the super PACs that are increasingly the heart and soul of a process leading to the first $10 billion election. Those billionaire funders are, of course, America’s warlords. In his book No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes, reporter Anand Gopal offers a riveting up close and personal look at how the process works far from home. One of the Afghans he follows is a remarkable woman who, under the patronage of just such a warlord, finds herself a senator in the Afghan Parliament.
In our system, the candidates now first test their “electability” not with voters in primaries, but with a tiny coterie of the super-rich. In the case of the Koch brothers, for instance, they literally audition for support. In twenty-first-century America, these should undoubtedly be considered the real primaries and what happens starting in Iowa and New Hampshire early next year should be thought of as the secondaries. The increasingly fierce contests for money are America’s new electoral reality, the one the Supreme Court let loose on the land with its 2010 Citizens United decision that freed the voice of money to overwhelm the many voices of this country. The process of fundraising has only gained momentum since then and yet this new form of electoral politics is a system still in formation, like molten lava only now beginning to cool and settle into its future shape.
To give credit where it’s due, Donald Trump has kept that lava hot in ways that, under other circumstances, would be amusing indeed. After all, he’s the definition of an American warlord -- and he’s also running for the presidency. It’s an unexpected wrinkle in the coalescence of a genuinely plutocratic electoral system. In other words, The Donald would like to send himself and, as TomDispatch regular Nomi Prins points out today, his money directly to the Oval Office in January 2017, while mocking those helpless peons of the political class who need to turn to people like him to be in the big time. Despite some public discussion of Trump's many bankruptcies, Mr. Art of the Deal has had remarkably free sailing when it comes to what it might mean to put a billionaire in the White House. Conflicts of interest? Don’t even think about it! Prins, author of All the Presidents' Bankers: The Hidden Alliances That Drive American Power, shifts the focus to where it should be -- on The Donald’s finances and the conflicts that make the man and would be part and parcel of any Trump presidency. Tom
The Donald’s Finances and the Art of Ignoring Conflicts and Contradictions
By Nomi Prins
The 2016 election campaign is certainly a billionaire’s playground when it comes to “establishment candidates” like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush who cater to mega-donors and use their money to try to rally party bases. The only genuine exception to the rule this time around has been Bernie Sanders, who has built a solid grassroots following and funding machine, while shunning what he calls “the billionaire class” that fuels the super PACs.
Donald Trump, like Ross Perot back in the 1992 and 1996 elections, has played quite a different trick on the money-saturated American political system. He has removed the billionaire as middleman between citizen plebeians and political elites, and created a true .00001% candidate, because he’s... well, a financial elite unto himself, however conveniently posed as the country’s straight-talking “everyman.”
Despite his I-can-buy-but-can’t-be-bought swagger, Trump’s persona has been carefully constructed to deflect even the most obvious questions of conflict of interest that his wealth and deal-making history should bring up. He claims that he would govern (or dictate) as he is, no apologies or bullshit. But would he?
[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Remember that two new books, signed and personalized for you, are still on offer from TomDispatch in return for a contribution to this website of $100 (or more), Greg Grandin’s Kissinger’s Shadow, a stunning reappraisal of Henry the K’s role in making our mess of a twenty-first-century world (called “a tour de force” by Andrew Bacevich), and David Vine’s powerful look at how America garrisons the planet, Base Nation. If you want a sense of each book, read Grandin’s recent TomDispatch post and Vine’s as well. Then check our donation page for the details. Tom]
Three Exceptional Facts About America
It’s Safe to Be Paranoid in the U.S.
By Tom Engelhardt
Given the cluttered landscape of the last 14 years, can you even faintly remember the moment when the Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War ended in a stunned silence of shock and triumph in Washington, Eastern Europe was freed, Germany unified, and the Soviet Union vanished from the face of the Earth? At that epochal moment, six centuries of imperial rivalries ended. Only one mighty power was left.
There hadn’t been a moment like it in historical memory: a single “hyperpower” with a military force beyond compare looming over a planet without rivals. Under the circumstances, what couldn’t Washington hope for? The eternal domination of the Middle East and all that oil? A planetary Pax Americana for generations to come? Why not? After all, not even the Romans and the British at the height of their empires had experienced a world quite like this one.
Now, leap a quarter of a century to the present and note the rising tide of paranoia in this country and the litany of predictions of doom and disaster. Consider the extremity of fear and gloom in the party of Ronald “It’s Morning Again in America” Reagan in what are called “debates” among its presidential candidates, and it’s hard not to imagine that we aren't at the precipice of the decline and fall of just about everything. The American Century? So much sawdust on the floor of history.
If, however, you look at the country that its top politicians can now hardly mention without defensively wielding the words “exceptional” or “indispensable,” the truly exceptional thing is this: as a great power, the United States still stands alone on planet Earth and Americans can exhibit all the paranoia they want in remarkable safety and security.
Here, then, are three exceptional facts of our moment.
Exceptional Fact #1: Failure Is Success, or the U.S. Remains the Sole Superpower
If you were to isolate the single most striking, if little discussed, aspect of American foreign policy in the first 15 years of this century, it might be that Washington’s inability to apply its power successfully just about anywhere confirms that very power; in other words, failure is a marker of success. Let me explain.
[Note to TomDispatch Readers: With today’s tour de force (or do I mean, in the grimmest sense, farce) of a piece on Henry Kissinger’s “contribution” to an increasingly chaotic world in the Greater Middle East, Greg Grandin demonstrates the power also to be found in his new book, Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman. As I’m a great fan of his writing, it’s a pleasure to be able to offer TD readers a signed, personalized copy of that book, which Mark Danner aptly calls “essential and most timely,” in return for a contribution of $100 (or more) to this website. You get to reconsider Henry the K’s world, which is also ours, and TomDispatch gets another of the funding infusions that really do keep us rolling along. Check out our donation page for the details, where, by the way, David Vine’s superb book on how we garrison the planet, Base Nation, is also still available. Tom]
Why do I always seem to be writing about Henry Kissinger?
I once listened to the man who helped prolong the Vietnam War for half a decade declare that its “tragedy” lay in the fact “that the faith of Americans in each other became destroyed in the process.” I later took to the (web)pages of the New York Times to suggest that perhaps “the pain endured by millions of survivors in Vietnam who lost family, the pain of millions who were wounded, of millions who were killed, of millions driven from their homes into slums and [refugee] camps reeking of squalor” was a greater tragedy.
Then there was that book review for the Daily Beast on the forgotten genocide in Bangladesh. Wouldn’t you know that Kissinger was completely wrapped up in it? He and his boss President Richard Nixon, in fact, conspired to support “Pakistan’s fiercely anti-communist Muslim military ruler in the face of his 1971 mass murder of mostly Hindu Bengalis who were seeking political autonomy and, ultimately, their own independent nation.” Frightening as it may seem, during this episode Nixon proved to be the voice of reason as Kissinger apparently pushed to escalate the conflict into a showdown with the Soviets.
Earlier this year, in the pages of The Nation, I found myself writing yet again about the former national security adviser and secretary of state, this time for his role in Rory Kennedy’s Oscar-nominated documentary, Last Days in Vietnam:
“Kissinger -- architect of the secret, murderous bombing of neighboring Cambodia and top adviser to a president who resigned rather than face impeachment -- is given carte blanche to craft his own self-serving version of history and to champion another former boss, President Ford, as a humanitarian.”
Of course, Kissinger’s name and handiwork also show up in my book on American war crimes in Vietnam, Kill Anything That Moves. And here I am again writing about the man, an activity that’s starting to look almost obsessive, so let me explain. One day in the early 2000s, I found myself on a street in New York City watching as Kissinger was hustled away amid a sea of roiling vitriol. “War criminal,” shouted the protesters. “You’ve got blood on your hands, Henry.” It wasn’t quite clear whose blood they were referring to. It might have been that of Cambodians. Unless it was Vietnamese. Or Laotians. Or Chileans. Or Bangladeshis. Or East Timorese. From one corner of the world to another, Kissinger seems to have had a hand in a remarkable number of untoward acts of state.
And as TomDispatch regular Greg Grandin suggests today, that’s only the beginning of a grim list of nations. Just as the United States was extricating itself from its long debacle in Indochina, Grandin points out, it was embarking on what would become another festering fiasco. If George W. Bush blew a hole through the Greater Middle East, Henry Kissinger lit the fuse. Today, we’re still dealing with the hellacious fallout of Kissinger’s in-office foreign policy machinations and out-of-office wise-man advice as the Greater Middle East hemorrhages lives and refugees.
This revelation and a raft of others figure in Grandin’s latest book, Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman, which paints a stunning portrait of that consummate political chameleon and offers answers about how and why the world is so destabilized and why so much of it can be traced, at least in part, to the United States and its senior statesman, Henry the K. Andrew Bacevich calls Grandin’s book a “tour de force” and Publisher’s Weekly says ardent Kissinger foes will be “enthralled,” so pick up a copy after you’re done reading about the CEO emeritus of Debacle, Inc. Nick Turse
How Henry Kissinger Helped Create Our “Proliferated” World
By Greg Grandin
The only person Henry Kissinger flattered more than President Richard Nixon was Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran. In the early 1970s, the Shah, sitting atop an enormous reserve of increasingly expensive oil and a key figure in Nixon and Kissinger’s move into the Middle East, wanted to be dealt with as a serious person. He expected his country to be treated with the same respect Washington showed other key Cold War allies like West Germany and Great Britain. As Nixon’s national security adviser and, after 1973, secretary of state, Kissinger’s job was to pump up the Shah, to make him feel like he truly was the “king of kings.”
It was an impressive effort: a front-page New York Times story about a “new way of war” with the bylines of six reporters, and two more and a team of researchers cited at the end of the piece. “They have plotted deadly missions from secret bases in the badlands of Somalia. In Afghanistan, they have engaged in combat so intimate that they have emerged soaked in blood that was not their own. On clandestine raids in the dead of the night, their weapons of choice have ranged from customized carbines to primeval tomahawks.” So began the Times investigation of SEAL Team 6, its nonstop missions, its weaponry, its culture, the stresses and strains its “warriors” have experienced in recent years, and even some of the accusations leveled against them. (“Afghan villagers and a British commander accused SEALs of indiscriminately killing men in one hamlet.”)
For all the secrecy surrounding SEAL Team 6, it has been the public face of America’s Special Operations forces and so has garnered massive attention, especially, of course, after some of its members killed Osama bin Laden on a raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011. It even won a starring role in the Oscar-winning Hollywood film Zero Dark Thirty, produced with CIA help, about the tracking down of bin Laden. As a unit, however, SEAL Team 6 is “roughly 300 assault troops, called operators, and 1,500 support personnel”; in other words, more or less a drop in the bucket when it comes to America’s Special Operations forces. And its story, however nonstop and dramatic, is similarly a drop in the bucket when it comes to the flood of special operations actions in these years.
While SEAL Team 6 has received extensive coverage, what could be considered the military story of the twenty-first century, the massive, ongoing expansion of a secret force (functionally the president’s private army) cocooned inside the U.S. military -- now at almost 70,000 personnel and growing -- has gotten next to none. Keep in mind that such a force is already larger than the active-duty militaries of Australia, Chile, Cuba, Hungary, the Netherlands, Nigeria, and South Africa, among a bevy of other countries. If those 70,000 personnel engaging in operations across the planet -- even their most mundane acts enveloped in a blanket of secrecy -- have created, as the Times suggests, a new way of war in and out of Washington’s war zones, it has gone largely unreported in the American media.
Thanks to Nick Turse (and Andrew Bacevich), however, TomDispatch has been the exception to this seemingly ironclad rule. Since 2011, when he found special operations units deployed to 120 countries annually, Turse has continued to chart their expanding global role in 2012, 2014, and this year. He has also tried, as today, to assess just how successful this new way of war that melds the soldier and the spy, the counterinsurgent and the guerrilla, the drone assassin and the “man-hunter” has been. Imagine for a moment the resources that the media would apply to such an analogous Russian or Chinese force, if its units covertly trained “friendly” militaries or went into action yearly in at least two-thirds of the countries on the planet. Tom
U.S. Special Ops Forces Deployed in 135 Nations
2015 Proves to Be Record-Breaking Year for the Military’s Secret Military
By Nick Turse
You can find them in dusty, sunbaked badlands, moist tropical forests, and the salty spray of third-world littorals. Standing in judgement, buffeted by the rotor wash of a helicopter or sweltering beneath the relentless desert sun, they instruct, yell, and cajole as skinnier men playact under their watchful eyes. In many places, more than their particular brand of camouflage, better boots, and designer gear sets them apart. Their days are scented by stale sweat and gunpowder; their nights are spent in rustic locales or third-world bars.
These men -- and they are mostly men -- belong to an exclusive military fraternity that traces its heritage back to the birth of the nation. Typically, they’ve spent the better part of a decade as more conventional soldiers, sailors, marines, or airmen before making the cut. They’ve probably been deployed overseas four to 10 times. The officers are generally approaching their mid-thirties; the enlisted men, their late twenties. They’ve had more schooling than most in the military. They’re likely to be married with a couple of kids. And day after day, they carry out shadowy missions over much of the planet: sometimes covert raids, more often hush-hush training exercises from Chad to Uganda, Bahrain to Saudi Arabia, Albania to Romania, Bangladesh to Sri Lanka, Belize to Uruguay. They belong to the Special Operations forces (SOF), America’s most elite troops -- Army Green Berets and Navy SEALs, among others -- and odds are, if you throw a dart at a world map or stop a spinning globe with your index finger and don’t hit water, they’ve been there sometime in 2015.
They’ve run the most profitable companies in history and, to put it bluntly, they are destroying the planet. In the past, given an American obsession with terrorists, I’ve called them “terrarists.” I’m referring, of course, to the CEOs of the Big Energy companies, who in these years have strained to find new ways to exploit every imaginable reservoir of fossil fuels on the planet and put them into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide emissions. One thing is certain: just as the top executives running tobacco companies, the lead industry, and asbestos outfits once did, they know what their drive for mega-profits means for the rest of us -- check out the fire season in western North America this year -- and our children and grandchildren. If you think the world is experiencing major refugee flows right now, just wait until the droughts grow more extreme and the flooding of coastal areas increases.
As I wrote back in 2013:
“With all three industries, the negative results conveniently arrived years, sometimes decades, after exposure and so were hard to connect to it. Each of these industries knew that the relationship existed. Each used that time-disconnect as protection. One difference: if you were a tobacco, lead, or asbestos exec, you might be able to ensure that your children and grandchildren weren’t exposed to your product. In the long run, that’s not a choice when it comes to fossil fuels and CO2, as we all live on the same planet (though it's also true that the well-off in the temperate zones are unlikely to be the first to suffer).”
Remarkably enough, as Richard Krushnic and Jonathan King make clear today, the profits pursued by a second set of CEOs are similarly linked in the most intimate ways to the potential destruction of the planet (at least as a habitable environment for humanity and many other species) and the potential deaths of tens of millions of people. These are the executives who run the companies that develop, maintain, and modernize our nuclear arsenal and, as with the energy companies, use their lobbyists and their cash to push constantly in Washington for more of the same. Someday, looking back, historians (if they still exist) will undoubtedly consider the activities of both groups as examples of the ultimate in criminality. Tom
Imagine for a moment a genuine absurdity: somewhere in the United States, the highly profitable operations of a set of corporations were based on the possibility that sooner or later your neighborhood would be destroyed and you and all your neighbors annihilated. And not just you and your neighbors, but others and their neighbors across the planet. What would we think of such companies, of such a project, of the mega-profits made off it?
In fact, such companies do exist. They service the American nuclear weapons industry and the Pentagon’s vast arsenal of potentially world-destroying weaponry. They make massive profits doing so, live comfortable lives in our neighborhoods, and play an active role in Washington politics. Most Americans know little or nothing about their activities and the media seldom bother to report on them or their profits, even though the work they do is in the service of an apocalyptic future almost beyond imagining.