There are some American traditions that really need to go away. Like Tom Brady (nearly) always winning the Super Bowl. Or, perhaps more importantly, our insane yet deeply entrenched notion that a new U.S. president earns his wings that first time he drops some bombs on the Middle East or in South Asia, just like the string of commanders in chief before him.
Even Donald Trump. Remember in April 2017 when the still newish 45th president — having seen grim video of a chemical attack in Syria on Fox News — decided to launch 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at an airstrip to send a message to dictator Bashar al-Assad (although Assad moved the actual planes, perhaps warned by Russia) and caused CNN foreign policy guru Fareed Zakaria to gush, “Donald Trump became president today.” Or even in fiction, when Aaron Sorkin’s American President speechified on how hard it is to be the leader of the free world as he frets that a retaliatory airstrike in Libya would kill some innocent janitor — right after (spoiler alert) he orders the obliteration of said janitor.
Joe Biden didn’t need to “become president today” — he did a good enough job of that on Jan. 20, when he took the oath to replace the dangerous driver of the Jan. 6 insurrection and immediately started unraveling some of Trump’s worst antidemocratic policies. And yet it took him just 36 days as commander in chief to carry out our warped initiation ritual into that fraternity of American presidents — by ordering a lethal airstrike on what the Pentagon said was a base in Syria for insurgents who’d attacked U.S. troops and contractors in nearby Iraq. I don’t know if a janitor was killed, but sources in Syria and its ally Russia say the death toll may have been in the high single digits, or perhaps more.
Sorkin may have whiffed later in his career with The Newsroom, but he was right to posit that it’s not easy to be the American president. I understand that the 46th president felt some pressure to respond to a recent attack blamed on a pro-Iranian militia, which killed a non-American contractor, and that history tells us that most average voters rally around a president’s decision to launch a military action, even the ones that don’t end well for our troops.
But I don’t understand what gives Biden — like his predecessors Trump, Barack Obama, and George W. Bush — either the legal or moral authority to unilaterally launch a military attack in Syria, when there’s been no declaration of war and the only authorization of military force is nearly 20 years old in response to the 9/11 attacks. (Neither, by the way, do some Democratic Biden allies in Congress.) More importantly, I don’t understand why Biden doesn’t seem to have a plan to end that “forever war” that dates to 2001, or the never-ending presence of U.S. troops in places like Iraq since 2003, when they toppled Saddam Hussein but never left, for ever-changing and increasingly muddled reasons. The national conversation shouldn’t be about what Biden needs to do to protect our troops in Iraq, but — in a world that increasingly looks nothing like 2003 — why in God’s name are they still over there?
The casual and arguably unconstitutional U.S. bombing inside Syria — coupled with a tepid and morally bankrupt response to another crisis in the region, the hard to dispute and now public intel that Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of a U.S.-based journalist — are strong signals that Biden won’t change the fundamental direction of unbridled, unfathomably expensive militarism that has been America’s go-to maneuver for generations. The truth is that America executing its foreign policy with Predator missiles — regardless of whether a Democrat or Republican is in office, with the U.S. spending more on weapons and troops than the next 10 nations combined — makes neither President Biden nor America look strong. Our bullying and too often deadly ways, in nations stretching from Africa to Pakistan, shows us to be morally weak — clinging to superpower status with brute force rather than the force of our now-on-life-support democratic ideals.
As a member of the cohort of baby boomers who grew in the shadow of the Vietnam War, the white-hot, inextinguishable torch of American militarism now passed to Biden has proved one of life’s great disappointments. Raised with massive antiwar marches and the folly of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia as exposed by the Pentagon Papers, I naively thought America would learn its lesson on a path toward a peaceful, noninterventionist Age of Aquarius. I never dreamed that we’d equate dropping bombs with “becoming president,” that someone like Obama could go from youth antinuclear activist to launching 10 times as many drone strikes as Bush, or that the always-lying Trump could promise to end the war in Afghanistan and then increase the number of civilians killed by airstrikes in that perpetual conflict by a whopping 330%.
Now I see Joe Biden walkin’ over that hill with Donald, Barack, and George.
All in all, Week 5 for the new administration was not the most encouraging. From the bomb drop over Syria to the realpolitik refusal to impose any direct sanctions on MBS for his role in the murder of that journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, to the failure to mount a challenge (despite past precedent) to the Senate parliamentarian blocking the best and quickest chance for a $15 minimum wage that Biden had promised in the 2020 election, POTUS 46 seemed to embrace timidity and the status quo.
To be clear, there are also good things happening — from Biden’s ability (unlike the former guy) to show empathy for struggling Americans, to real results on issues like increasing vaccinations. Even if the $15 minimum wage is not included, as seems likely, the president also deserves credit for his willingness to blow past GOP obstruction for badly needed $1.9 trillion on coronavirus-related relief. The new guy is 10 times better than Trump — but on some issues, as critics feared, offering just half the energy that a United States in crisis needs. It makes you wonder if progressives weren’t wrong to make a fuss when he told a 2019 fund-raiser that “nothing would fundamentally change.”
“There is a deep problem in our democracy when the Executive branch is willing to bend over backward to defer to arcane Senate rules to deny Americans a $15 wage but at the same time ride roughshod over Congressional rules (and) procedures to launch military strikes abroad,” California Democratic U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, an early backer of Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2020 race, wrote Saturday on Twitter.
Khanna left out the major letdown on Biden’s decision to protect the blood-soaked MBS from punishment, in the name of America’s increasingly indefensible alliance with Saudi Arabia. According to reports in the New York Times and elsewhere, the new president — who sure sounded tough on the Saudis during the 2020 campaign, calling the nation “a pariah” — was talked out of tough sanctions on the desert strongman, in what feels like a cowardly whiff on human rights.
The 78-year-old POTUS seems mired in 1990s groupthink on the strategic importance of the Persian Gulf. Those news reports citing White House sources on Biden’s backing-down cited counterterrorism — even though America’s real terrorist threat in 2021 comes from within, from right-wing extremists — and our shared regional concerns about Iran, even as the president looks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal that the Saudis helped undermine. Left unsaid were the even more tired reasons of oil — at a time when America is weaning itself off fossil fuels — and our historic alliance with Israel, which persists even as the Netanyahu government — not unlike that of MBS — increasingly becomes a pariah on human rights.
Of course, also left unsaid was how many of those unnamed advisers who pushed Biden not to offend the prince known to many as “Mister Bone Saw” were among his new hires with recent financial ties to defense contractors or their lobbyists and affiliated think tanks — including new Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin, who served on the board of directors of Raytheon, the defense industry behemoth that’s been doing business with the Saudis for decades. January brought the 60th anniversary of Dwight Eisenhower’s famed warning to the nation about the perils of the military-industrial complex, and while Biden surely didn’t “become president” when he ordered the airstrike in Syria, he did become the 12th president in a row to basically ignore Ike’s wise and prescient advice.
Indeed, in the six decades since Eisenhower’s farewell address, America’s insistence on massively outspending other industrialized nations on weapons has come at the same time that we’ve increasingly fallen behind on the things that matter more, like education, health care, or clean energy. You don’t need to be a Pentagon rocket scientist to do the math here. In recent years, the U.S. government wasted an astonishing $1.5 trillion (yes, with a “T”) on a dysfunctional aircraft called the F-35, at the same time we underfunded higher education and saddled the middle class with $1.7 trillion in college debt.
There’s a tiny part of me that still clings to the Kodachrome spirit of ‘69, and still believes that one day America will finally elect a president and a Congress that understands the toughness and moral courage of pursuing peace rather than shooting missiles at civilians from flying death robots, who will channel their inner Ike to wage war on climate change or poverty instead of against brown-skinned people halfway around the world. But after this jaded, aging baby boomer turned 62 in January, I can also pretty much guarantee you that I won’t live long enough to see it happen.
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