Post Script: This posting ended up completely different than what I had envisioned when I began to write it. Once I started writing, one thought or concept led to another and than another and before long, almost 4000 words materialized. As this is my blog and not an essay contest I see no reason to parse this down into something tighter or more concise. After all, I don’t write too much anymore so why not post a mini-tome? In any case, brevity has never been my strong suit.
More importantly, this has absolutely nothing to do with living in China. As I wrote in the “Prologue” section: “At times this blog may go off on tangents, rants and observations that may offend some readers… If you don’t like what I have to say, switch channels!”
This missive is strictly my personal rantings, grievances and beefs about American foreign policy that have built up over many years, viewed through the lens of the already, in progress, presidential race. After all, we can expect to hear of lot from both candidates about who will instill a more muscular and aggressive foreign policy which will in essence continue the disastrous policies that have utterly failed us since since 1947 when George Kennan penned what became known as the “Policy of Containment” that charted the course of American actions throughout the Cold War. Kennan later regarded his “containment” idea as applied was the wrong approach and eventually called the post Cold War NATO enlargement a “strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions”
If you don’t want to read, in essence, a screed against American foreign policy, if you’re the type who says, “America, love it or leave it,” save your breath; I did just that! Just move along, there’s nothing here for you to see. In any case: “My blog; my rules.”
“Slim Pickens for President”
In 1968, when I was eleven years old, I saw bumper stickers (remember bumper stickers?) that read: “Slim Pickens for president.” I recall not quite understanding what that meant. I knew who Slim Pickens was. He was the, now iconic, actor who played Major T.J. “King” Kong the B-52 pilot who famously rode the H-bomb, bucking bronco style, at the end of “Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” By the way, this movie is as fresh, hysterically funny and still relevant as when it premiered in it’s early 1964 release, delayed from its December,1963 release because of the JFK assassination. It was decided, the public wasn’t in the mood for a movie of such black humor so soon after JFK’s death. But I digress (which I will probably do a lot of in this posting; may as well get used to it now.)
There also was another bumper sticker around at that time that read: “Pat Paulsen for president” (remember Pat Paulsen?) and he was in fact running for president, as a joke. So, in the semi “concrete thinking” of an eleven year old, I conflated Slim Pickens, running for president, along side Pat Paulsen’s joke effort although I was certain that I hadn’t read or saw anything that suggested Pickens was actually running. It wasn’t until a few years later when my abstract thinking fully kicked in, that I realized the actual joke of: “slim pickings for president,” which was, in fact, the reality of the presidential campaign in 1968. A choice between Hubert Humphrey (“the Hube” I recall Hunter S. Thompson saying of Humphrey) and Richard Nixon (“Tricky-Dick” as he was unaffectionately known by everyone as). The vice-president of the most unpopular man in America who couldn’t or wouldn’t repudiate the war in Vietnam, that “poster child” for wars gone bad (until the fourth Gulf War, that is) versus a man who built his political career on anti-communist paranoia and who, as Woody Allen would later joke, whenever he went out, the White House staff would count the silverware. Slim pickings, indeed!
Fast forward 48 years…
100 years ago – that’s in “political time”, which is actually three months in real time- I entertained the notion of voting for Donald Trump, under the well-worn concept that “even a broken clock is right, twice a day.” Though most everything he has said is guanophrenic-crazy, amid that rancid pile were to be found ideas that resonated with me. Among them, what goes on between Ukraine and Russia is none of our business and furthermore, NATO is obsolete. I happen to agree with these positions although I’m also certain that Trump hasn’t given these ideas any measured and considerate thought and couldn’t given a reasoned explanation for why he holds (held?) such views, nor would he even care that he would be accused on not knowing why he favored such a position.
Far more intelligent and perspicacious scholars of the Cold War than myself have long pointed out how America squandered the “peace dividend” brought about by the collapse of the Soviet Union (remember the “USSR”?) way back in 1991. We now fully understand just how the Pentagon made sure that the gravy-train of tax-payer money would not be halted by the inconvenient demise of the Soviet empire; but that’s another story. During that time-period, President “Shrub the First” (G.H.W. Bush) assured the Russians that if they allowed German unification, along with the “release” of other captive nations in eastern Europe, NATO wouldn’t move “an inch” closer to Russia. In 1996, Bill Clinton, facing re-election didn’t want to look like a foreign-policy wimp and expanded NATO eastward despite previous American promises to the Russians we wouldn’t. Now, the buffer states- the “Iron Curtain”- that provided the Russians with a security zone protecting “Mother Russia” from yet another invasion (real or imagined) from the west, was suddenly gone and now they were once again, facing a potential threat (imagined, but perception does become reality) on their western border. If you know your history, you know that Russia is utterly paranoid about being invaded from, well, the west. “Peace-loving” Western Europe invaded Russia four times in five generations, in 1812, 1854, 1914 and 1941. As the old saying goes: “Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean someone isn’t out to get you.” So if you think Russia’s xenophobia is misplaced; you would be incorrect, sir.
In fact, NATO has largely absorbed most of the countries that made up the now-defunct Warsaw Pact. Instead of the Soviet States of Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine along with a compliant Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia (now, the Czech Republic), Russia now faces these countries as NATO military bases, right on their doorstep. Bush was right, NATO didn’t move “an inch closer” to Russia, rather, it moved hundreds of miles closer. Let us not forget how NATO inserted itself into the breakup of Yugoslavia, bombing the hell out of Russia’s traditional allies, the Serbians, who were attempting to create their own, ethnically pure state, using “standardized methods”, if you know what I mean and I think you do. Then again, in 1999, NATO intervened in Kosovo, once more attacking Russia’s Serbian allies (once again, in defense of Muslims; one’s irony meter can simply explode reading about the US intervention in the Balkans in the 1990’s to, in effect, defend Islam. Again though, that’s another story.
Why am I rehashing history? Because NATO (read: America) to the Russians, is an ever-present, looming existential threat to their existence and stokes their ever-present paranoia, that the west, once more, is stoking the war machine to invade. Yes, that proposition is preposterous. Just as preposterous as the belief of many American politicians that Russia is bound and determined to restore its communist empire or any reasonable facsimile thereof.
Let us go back to 2014. America backed a coup in Ukraine (Obama admitted as much) working with right-wing extremists ousting democratically elected President Viktor Yanuyovch. Yes, he ran an oppressive, kleptocracy (“shocking, just shocking!”) but, so what? Many countries have oppressive governments that don’t seem to bother our government and we leave them alone to oppress as they see fit (see Saudi Arabia). And really, does America have the slightest clue about Ukrainian-Russian relations and the ten centuries of history between these two countries? If Nikita Khrushchev hadn’t rashly handed back Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 supposedly as a sop to the Ukrainians whose Tatars suffered grievously, under Joseph Stalin, so as to curry favor in his fight for political control, after Stalin’s death, the Crimea would still be in Russia’s hands. At the time though, Ukraine was a Soviet State so what difference did it make that Crimea was returned, on paper, to the Ukrainians? It would be no different than if Washington “magnanimously” handed “back” Pearl Harbor to Hawaii.
In any case, Russia’s Black Sea fleet has been based in Crimea at Sevastopol since it was founded by Prince Potemkin in the 1780’s. Did Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 presage their desire to absorb all of Ukraine back into a “greater Russia” or was it, more likely, a defensive move to ensure that their 200 year plus, naval base at Sevastopol remain a Russian base rather than another American military outpost in case Ukraine was absorbed into NATO like some of the other former Soviet States? As it is, U.S. warships now, routinely carry out exercises in the Black Sea. Russian warplanes follow closely and on occasion buzz American warships. When this happens the American media breathlessly reports on these “Russian provocations.” “Russian provocations,” really? Look at a map, people! Imagine if Russian warships carried out naval exercises in the Florida Straits or the Gulf of Mexico. Would the Pentagon stand by watching in bemusement or would it scramble a passel of F-15s to follow them? When that obvious response would happen, would CNN then, breathlessly report American fighter plane harassment of innocent Russian warships carrying out maneuvers? More likely Fox News/CNN would report on this Russian encroachment in our very own “backyard swimming pool” no less, as an example of Putin’s plan to invade America. How, is what we’re doing in their “swimming pool” any different? Oh, right. I forgot; America’s foreign policy credo: “Don’t do as we do, do as we tell you.”
How many of you have heard of Article 5 of the NATO Charter? Essentially, an attack on any member is considered an attack on the other member-states and therefore, the other states will assist the state attacked. Ergo, if Russia, for any reason, did invade one of the Baltic states, even if provoked to do so, we are obliged to consider it, in effect, an attack on the United States, and we must, therefore, respond accordingly. Are we all, prepared to go to war to restore the sovereignty of a state that was a part of Russia for many decades of the 20th century? How exactly, did any of us suffer when these states or, for that matter, Ukraine were under the yoke of Russian domination? I personally, don’t recall losing any sleep over it at anytime in my life. Yet we could end up in a nuclear exchange over insuring the political integrity of Lithuania. Can you even find it on a map? Yes, it’s too bad that these states live in a neighborhood with a seemingly, constantly threatening bully as their neighbor. Just ask the Mexicans, Cubans and the Central and South Americans what that must feel like!
In any case, exactly why does America think it has any right to mediate, negotiate and otherwise interfere in any dispute between Russia and Ukraine? Shouldn’t the Europeans pick up the cudgel on this one? Why are they nowhere to be found? A casual glance at a map shows they should be much more worried than we are, yet what do we hear from the Germans, French and Brits, et al? Crickets! Oh right, somehow it’s all on Uncle Sam to deal with, as the self-appointed policeman of planet Earth arrogating unto ourselves the role of neighborhood cop no matter where the neighborhood is.
On a macro level, there are far too many “Mickey Mouse” countries who we have “mutual aid” treaties that obligate us to come to their defense, in case of attack. This encourages them to stir the pot with powerful neighbors in distant places where the U.S arguably has no strategic interests at stake other than our so-called “credibility.” You should read up on our hassle with China in its kerfuffle with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoals in the South China Sea (“the what shoals in the what sea?”) and you’ll realize how we can so easily allow ourselves to get dragged into that regional squabble of which we have absolutely nothing at stake. Truly a case of “the tail wagging the dog.”
Why is it that America is utterly incapable of seeing things through the eyes of other countries? Obviously, we operate in our own best interests but other countries do the exact same thing. Then, we throw a hissy-fit when they act just like we do. Imagine how America would respond if the Mexican government was deposed with Russia’s help and a new, Mexican government was installed that was favorably inclined to allowing Russia to, oh, let’s say, park some Russian battalions just on the other side of the Rio Grande. Exactly how many seconds would the United States put up with that? Yet, we do exactly that in the former Soviet States and Russia responds exactly as we or anyone else would, and then we accuse the Russians of bullying and committing provocations even though we are to them, a clear and present threat to their western and southern borders with our military bases and talk about providing arms to the Ukrainians and worse. There are also plenty of American politicians in both parties that are calling for Ukraine to join NATO.
Which brings me to Hilary Clinton. She is a saber-rattling hawk on Ukraine as well as ensuring that America’s power is projected all over the globe no matter what, no matter where. She has been a loud voice in the “let’s arm Ukraine” crowd as well as considering the possibility of extending membership in NATO. She’s a firm believer in NATO’s mission (which is to defend Europe against a threat that disappeared some twenty-five years ago.) I just can’t see any evidence that Russia is threatening any country with invasion. There’s only one major power, I can think of, that has invaded all over the place in the name of a variety of doctrines, all of them more reaching than the previous. Anyone interested, should read up on the “Carter Doctrine” as well as the “Bush Doctrine” (“Shrub the second,” that is) to get a sense of America’s determination to insinuate itself wherever and whenever its strategic interests are invoked as well as how they’ve morphed, for the worse, in the last thirty years. Also, someone please show me some evidence that Putin is trying to gin up war with the west or is even attempting to reincorporate any country into a new Russian empire. Putin isn’t Hitler (which Hillary accused him of acting like in 2014.) He’s a completely rational actor who is a strong nationalist who is putting his country’s interests first. Somehow, our politicians seem to think that he should be putting America’s interests ahead of Russia’s.
Ukraine, as I mentioned is complicated. Anyone who argues that Putin’s Russia is the sole provocateur attempting to sew unrest and discord to weaken and then overthrow the government in Kiev better be prepared to discuss, among other things, the large Russian minority population in the eastern region that has suffered at the hands of Kiev. The two Donbas provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk that have been autonomous since 1991 may or may not like to reunite with Russia or secede and that has resulted in attacks by Kiev along with their extremist allies in the area. We really want to jump into this fracas and pick sides? Allow me to opine: America has a terrible track record when it comes to choosing up sides. There are many other convoluted issues between these two countries that are completely outside the grasp of foreign interlopers. In other words, Ukraine is a complicated mess of competing interests that at the end of the day, we have no business inserting ourselves in, because, as usual, Americans have absolutely no idea of the nature of long-standing conflicts such as those that have been roiling such places like Ukraine for centuries. We only have to look at the Middle-East to see how well our attempts at reshaping it more to our liking worked out. Remember the “geniuses” in the Bush administration who proclaimed there was no Sunni/Shia divide in Iraq and therefore when we entered as “liberators” all factions would clasp everyone elses hands in one big, American-sponsored display of kumbaya? You remember the Sunnis and Shias, right? The two Muslim sects that have been at each others throats since the seventh century, which somehow the Bushies seemed to miss in their briefings prior to our invasion. Although Bush himself didn’t make that claim, for a good reason. He didn’t even know there was a difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
Sadly, Americans still have this Reaganesque picture of: we wear white hats- ergo, we’re the “good guys.” “They” wear black hats- ergo, they’re the “bad guys.” Even more sadly, it seems we still haven’t learned the lessons of Vietnam (remember “Vietnam”?).
Circling back to where I began, you can see why, when Trump mentioned that we have no business in trying to sort out any of the above, that would resonate with me. He has since then (of course) back-tracked on his position that NATO is obsolete, rather, he says we shouldn’t be defending any country that isn’t paying its fair share, whatever that’s supposed to mean. The fact about Trump is, he knows absolutely nothing of any of the above. If he were to actually become president, I suspect he would simply become a ward of the “deep state” guardians who would ensure the continuity of U.S. policy. (owing to the fact that he is a blank palette on all matters and would rely on “the experts” like Obama, unfortunately did) that has ruled U.S. foreign policy since the beginning of the Cold War and to which Hillary Clinton is a firm acolyte of.
When the Soviet Union ended in 1991 with a whimper instead of a “bang”- along with the U.S.- like we all expected during the Cold War, I was immensely relieved. I had, after all, gone through “drop-drills” in the 1960’s, as if getting under your desk at school would allow you to survive the effects of a hydrogen bomb blast!
On graduation day in 1969, at the end of sixth grade, the graduates were allowed to wear silly hats. I hung a bunch of signs on mine and whatever I wrote is long forgotten, except for the one sign that I copied from memory (remember memory?). I lived in Westwood Village which was dominated by its neighbor, UCLA which, at the time, was a hotbed of radical thinking, and anti Vietnam war fervor (I marched in the November, 1969 Vietnam war Moratorium to the newly built Federal Building on Wilshire Blvd, first obtaining a note from my mom to be excused from school that day). I spent a lot of time hanging out at the L.A. Free Press bookstore (remember the L.A. Free Press?) and they were selling a poster (remember posters?) that listed seven things to do in case of a nuclear attack. After taking the six previous measures, item seven read: “Then kiss your ass goodbye.” I wrote these seven handy tips on one of the signs that adorned my hat. I will never forget her reaction, when I asked my 6th teacher, Mrs. Brown (who forgets these names!) to read it. When she got to item seven she said sternly: “I don’t think that’s funny. Take that sign off.” I don’t remember if I did, but being eleven, I probably bowed to adult authority and did so.
So here we are, twenty-five years after I thought that we had dodged the bullet of a nuclear exchange with the Russians. Now again, we hear the drumbeat of war, once again, with the Russians. This time, our politicians seem prepared to do what politicians from another era wouldn’t do. Engage the Russians in their backyard over disputes that mean less to us now then when the Cold War seemed to be a life-death struggle. Eisenhower didn’t lift a finger over Hungary in 1956. Kennedy allowed the Berlin Wall to be built and resisted the efforts of his top military brass to attack Cuba during the Missile Crisis. LBJ didn’t do anything for the Czechs in 1968. Yet our politicians today, including Hilary Clinton are posturing and suggesting things like arming Ukrainians or having them join NATO. Some suggest we put troops in that region. What could possibly go wrong?
When John McCain fatuously declared to the Georgian president in 2008: “Today, We are all Georgians,” when Russia attacked, because Georgia had been trying to keep the pro-Moscow province of South Ossetia from breaking away, I breathed a sigh of relief that he hadn’t ended up being our president. Had he been, he may have intervened on the side of Georgia and none of us would be alive today. Who even remembers or even cares about that little dust-up which could have ended all of civilization had the wrong person been in the White House?
Ironically, living in China has afforded me some comfort, however cold. If the U.S. stumbles into a war with Russia and the worse happens, at least I won’t be instantly incinerated. The same can’t be said of my friends, family and the rest of America. Probably I’d die, along with the rest of civilization in the expected “nuclear winter” that would follow a nuclear exchange. Still, I’d rather be here. Who knows? Perhaps this part of the world will survive a Russian-American war. Yes, ironically, living in a “communist” country may afford me safety in a war between Russia and America. Who’d have thunk?
Why am I so worried about such an event? Well, to quote Major T.J. Kong from his famous speech to his crew as they embarked on such an event: “Heck, I reckon you wouldn’t even be human beings if you didn’t have some pretty strong personal feelings about nuclear combat.” Yes, I have very strong feelings about “nuclear combat.” None for me, please!
I don’t believe Clinton would start a war but we’ve seen time and again what happens when misperceptions, miscalculations, assumptions, confirmation bias and group-think lead to wrong conclusions with disastrous outcomes. Along with this, I suspect that if elected, she’ll have a need to show that, just because she’s a woman doesn’t mean she can’t “play” in the same violent arena that is and always has been, the purview of men. That’s a scary, volatile recipe for finding ourselves on the brink. That “witch’s brew” of toxic thinking has never served us well and yet, we never learn from its predictable results no matter how often it ends up being the same simple formula of “lather: rinse: repeat: lather: rinse: repeat…” However, the longer we repeat this seemingly insane cycle, the more it begins to looks like a feature, rather than a bug of U.S. doctrine. “Permanent war” is, after all good, for the Pentagon, the military, the defense contractors, the “think tanks” (such as they are) politicians who can boast of creating jobs back home in their districts and their constituents too. Even some institutes of higher learning ride the gravy-train of permanent global conflict. There are plenty of fingers in that pie and that’s what makes it difficult to throw out.
Now about Donald Trump, clearly a dangerous sociopath who isn’t even qualified to be National Dog Catcher let alone, sit in the Oval Office. These last three months (100 years in politics, remember?) have shown me that he shouldn’t be allowed to get within a hundred miles of the White House. Additionally, someone who clearly had never heard of America’s “nuclear triad” up until he was asked about it, has no business being handed the codes to it. He’s blustering, impetuous, thin-skinned, angry, unpredictable, volatile, ignorant and seemingly proud of it and those are his positive points. Not exactly presidential timber. He really does remind me of Benito Mussolini with his cockiness, arrogance and brashness, wholly inept at the same time. I seem to recall him leading Italy into the abyss in his promise to restore that country to its former glory.
Think I’ll stick around China for a while. Just in case… Just in case…In the meantime, feel free to chant along with me…
“Slim Pickens for President”
America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History by Andrew J. Bacevich. 2016. I just finished reading this outstanding history of America policy in the Middle East has largely been a trainwreck.
Fun facts about “Dr. Strangelove.” Peter Sellers who played three roles: President Merkin Muffly, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake and Dr. Strangelove was slated to play the role of the B-52 pilot but because he couldn’t perfect the proper accent our friend, Slim Pickens was chosen. By the way, Pickens was never shown the script, nor told it was a black comedy so he played the role as if it were a serious drama – with amusing results.
Speaking of B-52’s: In the early 1960s the B-52 was cutting-edge technology. Access to it was a matter of national security. The Pentagon refused to lend any support to the film after they read the script. Set designers reconstructed the B-52 bomber’s cockpit from a single photograph that appeared in a British flying magazine. When some American Air Force personnel were invited to view the movie’s B-52 cockpit, they said it was a perfect copy.
In case you were wondering why the movie ends so abruptly. The original ending features a custard pie fight scene but director, Stanley Kubrick changed his mind because it was too farcical to fit in with the satirical nature of the rest of the film. Another reason for the cut might have been when President Muffley took a pie in the face and fell down, prompting Gen. Turgidson to cry, ‘Gentlemen! Our gallant young president has just been struck down in his prime!’ Too soon, after Dallas. The only known public showing of the pie fight scene was at the 1999 screening of the film at London’s National Film Theatre, following Kubrick’s death.
Slim Pickens reads off the contents of the emergency survival kit. The last line of the monologue was clearly dubbed. It originally was “Dallas” but again because of JFK, it was redubbed as “Vegas.”
Why watch bits and pieces when you can watch the entire movie that is the American Film Institute’s third funniest film in American cinema. Still, one of my favorite films of all time.