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Full-Dress Irrationality

Above photo: President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris meet with national security advisers before a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the terrorist attacks by Hamas over the weekend, Tuesday, October 10, 2023, in the White House Situation Room. Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz/The White House, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Biden wastes an additional $105 billion.

Whenever Joe Biden speaks, you have to make sure your bullshit detector is switched on, to borrow Hemingway’s pungent phrase. As is well-documented, our president has spent his public life making it up as he goes along. No surprise, there was a lot of boilerplate junk in the two much-noted speeches Biden gave last week, one in Tel Aviv after attending a session of Israel’s war cabinet, the other when he dropped it on the American public that they were about to spend a lot more money financing Israeli violence, war in Ukraine and provocation across the Taiwan Strait.

We had better listen carefully this time. Biden has sold a lot of snake oil off the back of his buckwagon over the past half-century. What he has on offer now is too consequential simply to dismiss. Biden is diabolically leveraging the obvious urgency of the Israel–Palestine crisis to lock us into confrontation with most of the world—or at the very least a great deal of it. Late-imperium America would darken the 21st century but for the lights others, primarily in the non–West, insist upon to illuminate our way forward from the mess U.S. hegemony has made.

After addressing Americans from the Oval Office last Friday, Biden went to Congress with a request for new aid for Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan, with assorted odds and ends bringing the total spend to $105 billion. Here are the passages in Biden’s address that, amid perilous crises in West Asia and across both oceans, we ought to scrutinize carefully, the deceptively simplistic phrasing notwithstanding:

American leadership is what holds the world together. American alliances are what keep us, America, safe. American values are what make us a partner that other nations want to work with. To put all that at risk if we walk away from Ukraine, if we turn our backs on Israel, it’s not worth it.

That’s why, tomorrow, I am going to send to Congress an urgent budget request to fund America’s national security needs, to support our critical partners…

It’s a smart investment that’s going to pay dividends for American security for generations, help us keep American troops out of harm’s way, help us build a world that is safer, more peaceful, and more prosperous for our children and grandchildren.

American leadership, everyone wants to be our friend, national security at risk, our children and their children: Biden’s speech reads like a nostalgia piece when you think of how long America’s purported leaders have traded in this stuff. The Tel Aviv speech gives the same impression: Israel is a democracy defending freedom and human rights, etc. We have heard all this for decades, O.K. Ukraine is also a democracy defending freedom: It is new to the repertoire, but we hear this fable incessantly, too.

It is one thing to recognize how hollow the familiar rhetoric coming out of Washington is and has long been. It is another thing altogether to realize, as we must, that it is different this time—or is as it was, say, when the U.S. escalated in Vietnam. This is the Biden regime’s cover story as it tips us into full-dress irrationality.

Let us parse a few phrases from the above-quoted passage for their veracity.

American leadership holds the world together and other nations welcome it. Since the traumatizing attacks of September 11, 2001, America has made itself the primary source of global disorder in this century—this by common consent for some years. And America’s conduct abroad has at this point earned the resentment of the global majority, whether we count this in terms of population or the number of nations critical of U.S. foreign policy.

The new budget request will fund America’s national security needs. The new spending Biden proposed last Friday has nothing to do with the nation’s national security, as a glance at a map will make perfectly plain, but in one respect: America and Americans will be less secure for it, not more. Beyond our shores, Israelis will be yet less secure than the decades of U.S. military support have already made them. Europeans will be less secure. The people of Taiwan will be less secure. This is the price we and the rest of the world must pay for the Washington policy cliques’ insistence on prolonging U.S. preeminence long past its moment in world history. This is what I mean by the reign of irrationality.

The money we will spend in Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan will keep U.S. troops out of harm’s way and make the world safer and more peaceful and prosperous for generations to come. As Kelley Vlahos at Responsible Statecraft put it last Friday, West Asia is now a tinderbox in consequence of Israel’s savagery. American troops stationed in Iraq and Syria—this in gross violation of international law—are already under drone and rocket attacks launched by no one is certain who. Our children and theirs will prosper in safety? Ridiculous. I haven’t heard the phrase “imperial overstretch” since Chalmers Johnson left us 13 years ago. We are now living what he foresaw.

As reported last week, the U.S. budget deficit doubled in the fiscal year ended September 30, to $1.7 trillion—this atop the $30 trillion-plus in national debt Joe Biden’s generation will leave those to follow. The power of the military-industrial complex—its political power, I mean—bears considerable responsibility for misshaping the American economy to produce these figures.

Now that I am onto figures, let us massage a few. Let us put some of the allocations contained in the national budget for the fiscal year that began October 1 next to the $105 billion the White House just proposed—bearing in mind that the U.S. spends much more on the three beneficiaries of these funds.

The Transportation Department’s budget for FY 2024 is $28 billion, rounded up. For the Labor Department, it is $15 billion. The Interior Department gets $19 billion. These three departments have a lot to do with the way Americans live—the quality of our lives. Roads, bridges, public transport; employee training programs, worker safety, labor-management relations; mining and logging licensing and regulation, national parks, Native American affairs: The budgets for these three departments come to $62 billion. This is less than 60 percent of what Biden just asked Congress to spend on arming Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan.

I am not an economist and I don’t think overmuch about the federal budget, but to me what the national government spends on education is the single most important decision the federal bean counters make if we want to think about the prosperity, safety, and altogether the future of this country, our children and their children, etc. The Education Department’s budget for FY 2024 comes to $90 billion—$15 billion short even of this interim spend on wars and confrontations abroad.

To be noted in this connection: of the $105 billion, $61.4 billion goes to Ukraine. Except for one thing: Half of this $61.4 billion does not go to Ukraine. It goes to the Pentagon, which is to say the defense contractors.

An acquaintance told me the other day about a clever adage he saw mounted on someone’s office wall: “The main thing to remember is that the main thing is the main thing.” It is perfectly apropos. And the main thing to remember as we contemplate Biden’s $105 billion is that it will go to one war the U.S. cannot win (Ukraine), to the provocation of another war the U.S. cannot possibly win (with China over Taiwan) and to Israel’s purposely disproportionate violence against Palestinians, the end-point of which we call ethnic cleansing, although you have to wonder how long until we ought to push the vocabulary to the freighted “extermination”?

There is no calling this state of affairs rational. I go to Julian Assange’s observation some years ago. His reference was to Afghanistan, but the thought applies to all of late-imperium America’s wars: They are money-laundering operations by way of which the taxes Americans pay in the name of national security, global leadership and all the rest is recycled to the military-industrial complex behind the Chinese screen of patriotism, high ideals, duty and whatever else people such as Joe Biden come up with.

Why else would Washington spend so extravagantly on wars it cannot win and unnecessary confrontations from which it will emerge the loser? Given that the system Julian Assange identified actually works even as it claims unspeakable numbers of lives and impoverishes American life, there seems only one way to think of it: This is a textbook case of what I call the irrationality of hyperrationality.

Here and there we find indications that others see in Biden’s “urgent request” the gravity his unserious rhetoric masks. The Chinese are prominent among these others.

Last February Beijing, reflecting its concern that the proxy war the U.S. wages in Ukraine would spin into a larger conflict, issued a 12–point proposal outlining the principles that should be observed to bring the conflict to an end: “basic norms governing international relations,” “international fairness and justice,” “equal and uniform application of international law.” Nobody was called names or condemned. This was a position paper more than a “peace plan.” It put China forward as a balanced diplomatic presence, not a judge or a taker of sides.

A month later China rather sensationally brokered an agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to reestablish bilateral relations after seven years of diplomatic estrangement. “China’s diplomacy has pressed the ‘accelerate button,’” Global Times, the Chinese daily, wrote in a commentary afterward, “and sounded the clarion call in the spring of 2023 with a series of major diplomatic activities that bring positive changes to a world in turbulence.”

The world, and certainly West Asia, is yet more turbulent now than it was last spring. And China appears to be putting itself forward again as a diplomatic power. On Monday the Foreign Ministry put out a statement urging the same set of principles be applied to a settlement of the Israel–Palestine crisis. Wang Yi, Beijing’s acutely intelligent foreign minister, begins two days of talks in Washington on Thursday. These will include—and good luck, Minister Wang—meetings with Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, Biden’s secretary of state and national security adviser.

This is to be watched. With the Saudi–Iran accord last March, China took an active role in West Asian politics for the first time—an intrusion, calling this what it was, into a region where the U.S. long enjoyed unrivaled influence. Enough of the rules-based order’s disorder is more than enough, Beijing seems to be saying once again.

At home we have the case of Josh Paul, the State Department official who resigned in protest last week. Paul spent 11 years managing arms transfers to foreign powers and concluded this time, maybe as the Chinese have, that the $14.3 billion allocated in support for Israel’s plan to destroy Hamas lies beyond all acceptable norms. Paul reported receiving floods of supportive mail from colleagues after he announced his resignation. He later published an opinion piece in The Washington Post under the headline, “This is not the State Department I know.” Paul wrote in part, “I was involved in many complex and morally challenging debates over what weapons to send where. What I had not seen until this month, however, was a complex and morally challenging transfer in the absence of a debate.”

This is how irrationality works at Foggy Bottom, readers.

I would be remiss without noting a final point.

More Americans than previously now make the connection between the Pentagon’s budget and supplemental spending such as Biden just requested and the decline across the board of American life. The heavy price we pay as Biden feeds us outworn platitudes is ever better understood. Is it not equally irrational that it does not occur to the majority of us to raise our voices in protest, to object to all that is done in our names, to reject the idiotic rhetoric, the cover story, and insist that those who purport to govern us and execute policy owe us honesty, open debate, a truthful accounting of what this nation does in the world?

There seem to be passages in history when to think and act rationally bears another kind of price. In our time it comes to this. The rational course is to accept this price and pay it—for our own sakes and the sakes of many, many others. We will find that it is not nearly so steep as the price of acquiescence. Josh Paul just showed us how this is done—how, depending on our circumstances, we can act on his example. He will survive his decision, and I am very certain be the better for it.

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