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Forbidden Questions: 24 Key Issues Ignored by the Washington Elite and the Media

Posted on May 9, 2017

By Andrew J. Bacevich / TomDispatch

  President Trump addresses Congress in February. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead / Wikimedia Commons)

Donald Trump’s election has elicited impassioned affirmations of a renewed commitment to unvarnished truth-telling from the prestige media.  The common theme:  you know you can’t trust him, but trust us to keep dogging him on your behalf.  The New York Times has even unveiled a portentous new promotional slogan: “The truth is now more important than ever.” For its part, the Washington Post grimly warns that “democracy dies in darkness,” and is offering itself as a source of illumination now that the rotund figure of the 45th president has produced the political equivalent of a total eclipse of the sun. Meanwhile, National Public Radio fundraising campaigns are sounding an increasingly panicky note: give, listener, lest you be personally responsible for the demise of the Republic that we are bravely fighting to save from extinction.

If only it were so.  How wonderful it would be if President Trump’s ascendancy had coincided with a revival of hard-hitting, deep-dive, no-holds-barred American journalism.  Alas, that’s hardly the case.  True, the big media outlets are demonstrating both energy and enterprise in exposing the ineptitude, inconsistency, and dubious ethical standards, as well as outright lies and fake news, that are already emerging as Trump era signatures. That said, pointing out that the president has (again) uttered a falsehood, claimed credit for a nonexistent achievement, or abandoned some position to which he had previously sworn fealty requires something less than the sleuthing talents of a Sherlock Holmes.  As for beating up on poor Sean Spicer for his latest sequence of gaffes—well, that’s more akin to sadism than reporting.

Apart from a commendable determination to discomfit Trump and members of his inner circle (select military figures excepted, at least for now), journalism remains pretty much what it was prior to November 8th of last year: personalities built up only to be torn down; fads and novelties discovered, celebrated, then mocked; “extraordinary” stories of ordinary people granted 15 seconds of fame only to once again be consigned to oblivion—all served with a side dish of that day’s quota of suffering, devastation, and carnage.  These remain journalism’s stock-in-trade.  As practiced in the United States, with certain honorable (and hence unprofitable) exceptions, journalism remains superficial, voyeuristic, and governed by the attention span of a two year old.

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As a result, all those editors, reporters, columnists, and talking heads who characterize their labors as “now more important than ever” ill-serve the public they profess to inform and enlighten.  Rather than clearing the air, they befog it further.  If anything, the media’s current obsession with Donald Trump—his every utterance or tweet treated as “breaking news!”—just provides one additional excuse for highlighting trivia, while slighting issues that deserve far more attention than they currently receive. 

To illustrate the point, let me cite some examples of national security issues that presently receive short shrift or are ignored altogether by those parts of the Fourth Estate said to help set the nation’s political agenda. To put it another way: Hey, Big Media, here are two dozen matters to which you’re not giving faintly adequate thought and attention.

1. Accomplishing the “mission”: Since the immediate aftermath of World War II, the United States has been committed to defending key allies in Europe and East Asia.  Not long thereafter, U.S. security guarantees were extended to the Middle East as well.  Under what circumstances can Americans expect nations in these regions to assume responsibility for managing their own affairs?  To put it another way, when (if ever) might U.S. forces actually come home?  And if it is incumbent upon the United States to police vast swaths of the planet in perpetuity, how should momentous changes in the international order—the rise of China, for example, or accelerating climate change—affect the U.S. approach to doing so?

2. American military supremacy: The United States military is undoubtedly the world’s finest.  It’s also far and away the most generously funded, with policymakers offering U.S. troops no shortage of opportunities to practice their craft.  So why doesn’t this great military ever win anything?  Or put another way, why in recent decades have those forces been unable to accomplish Washington’s stated wartime objectives?  Why has the now 15-year-old war on terror failed to result in even a single real success anywhere in the Greater Middle East?  Could it be that we’ve taken the wrong approach?  What should we be doing differently?

3. America’s empire of bases: The U.S. military today garrisons the planet in a fashion without historical precedent.  Successive administrations, regardless of party, justify and perpetuate this policy by insisting that positioning U.S. forces in distant lands fosters peace, stability, and security.  In the present century, however, perpetuating this practice has visibly had the opposite effect.  In the eyes of many of those called upon to “host” American bases, the permanent presence of such forces smacks of occupation.  They resist.  Why should U.S. policymakers expect otherwise?

4. Supporting the troops: In present-day America, expressing reverence for those who serve in uniform is something akin to a religious obligation.  Everyone professes to cherish America’s “warriors.”  Yet such bountiful, if superficial, expressions of regard camouflage a growing gap between those who serve and those who applaud from the sidelines. Our present-day military system, based on the misnamed All-Volunteer Force, is neither democratic nor effective.  Why has discussion and debate about its deficiencies not found a place among the nation’s political priorities? 

5. Prerogatives of the commander-in-chief: Are there any military actions that the president of the United States may not order on his own authority?  If so, what are they?  Bit by bit, decade by decade, Congress has abdicated its assigned role in authorizing war. Today, it merely rubberstamps what presidents decide to do (or simply stays mum).  Who does this deference to an imperial presidency benefit?  Have U.S. policies thereby become more prudent, enlightened, and successful?

6. Assassin-in-chief: A policy of assassination, secretly implemented under the aegis of the CIA during the early Cold War, yielded few substantive successes.  When the secrets were revealed, however, the U.S. government suffered considerable embarrassment, so much so that presidents foreswore politically motivated murder. After 9/11, however, Washington returned to the assassination business in a big way and on a global scale, using drones.  Today, the only secret is the sequence of names on the current presidential hit list, euphemistically known as the White House “disposition matrix.” But does assassination actually advance U.S. interests (or does it merely recruit replacements for the terrorists it liquidates)?  How can we measure its costs, whether direct or indirect?  What dangers and vulnerabilities does this practice invite?

7. The war formerly known as the “Global War on Terrorism”: What precisely is Washington’s present strategy for defeating violent jihadism?  What sequence of planned actions or steps is expected to yield success? If no such strategy exists, why is that the case?  How is it that the absence of strategy—not to mention an agreed upon definition of “success”—doesn’t even qualify for discussion here?

8. The campaign formerly known as Operation Enduring Freedom: The conflict commonly referred to as the Afghanistan War is now the longest in U.S. history—having lasted longer than the Civil War, World War I, and World War II combined. What is the Pentagon’s plan for concluding that conflict?  When might Americans expect it to end?  On what terms?

9. The Gulf: Americans once believed that their prosperity and way of life depended on having assured access to Persian Gulf oil.  Today, that is no longer the case.  The United States is once more an oil exporter. Available and accessible reserves of oil and natural gas in North America are far greater than was once believed. Yet the assumption that the Persian Gulf still qualifies as crucial to American national security persists in Washington. Why?

10. Hyping terrorism: Each year terrorist attacks kill far fewer Americans than do auto accidents, drug overdoses, or even lightning strikes.  Yet in the allocation of government resources, preventing terrorist attacks takes precedence over preventing all three of the others combined. Why is that?

11. Deaths that matter and deaths that don’t: Why do terrorist attacks that kill a handful of Europeans command infinitely more American attention than do terrorist attacks that kill far larger numbers of Arabs? A terrorist attack that kills citizens of France or Belgium elicits from the United States heartfelt expressions of sympathy and solidarity.  A terrorist attack that kills Egyptians or Iraqis elicits shrugs.  Why the difference?  To what extent does race provide the answer to that question?

12. Israeli nukes: What purpose is served by indulging the pretense that Israel does not have nuclear weapons?

13. Peace in the Holy Land: What purpose is served by indulging illusions that a “two-state solution” offers a plausible resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?  As remorselessly as white settlers once encroached upon territory inhabited by Native American tribes, Israeli settlers expand their presence in the occupied territories year by year.  As they do, the likelihood of creating a viable Palestinian state becomes ever more improbable. To pretend otherwise is the equivalent of thinking that one day President Trump might prefer the rusticity of Camp David to the glitz of Mar-a-Lago.


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