The Defense Department is ruining America: Big budgets, militarization and the real story behind our Asia pivot

"Our defense contractors await your business." That was the message behind Obama and Carter's visits to Asia

Published May 28, 2016 6:00PM (EDT)

FILE - In this Friday Dec. 5, 2014 file photo, Ashton Carter, President Barack Obama's choice to head the Defense Department, listens as the president announces Carter as his nominee for defense secretary Friday, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. Carter says he would consider changing the current plans for withdrawing all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year if security conditions worsen. Carter also says he is aware of reports that Islamic State militants may try to expand into Afghanistan, and says he will work with coalition partners to ensure that doesn't happen. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File) (AP)
FILE - In this Friday Dec. 5, 2014 file photo, Ashton Carter, President Barack Obama's choice to head the Defense Department, listens as the president announces Carter as his nominee for defense secretary Friday, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. Carter says he would consider changing the current plans for withdrawing all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year if security conditions worsen. Carter also says he is aware of reports that Islamic State militants may try to expand into Afghanistan, and says he will work with coalition partners to ensure that doesn't happen. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File) (AP)

You have to tip the cap to Defense Secretary Carter. People in Washington spin things as a matter of course, as Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security advisor, just explained in that New York Times profile considered in this space a few weeks ago. The spin is the thing. But never mind all that. Ashton Carter spins aircraft carriers, and right before your eyes.

There he was last month, a few weeks before Obama’s current swing through Asia, on the flight deck of the John C. Stennis as it passed through a narrow strait in the South China Sea hard by the People’s Republic’s territorial waters, pronouncing in the somber tones these people favor that China is militarizing the western Pacific. The Stennis, you need to know, is a nuclear-powered supercarrier that forward-deploys for indefinite periods with a strike group of escort vessels attending it. It travels with eight squadrons of attack craft on its deck—25 to 30 fighter jets.

Think about that for a sec. For my money Carter gave us one of the quintessential moments of the Obama presidency with that brief tableau. Then think about this:

A week before this occasion Carter attended 10 days of joint military drills in the Philippines—the first time a Sec Def has done so in the decades these things have been held. A week after it, our Ash sent half a dozen A-10 Thunderbolts, heavily armed jets designed to support ground troops, to buzz the Scarborough Shoal, which is among the disputed land formations in the South China Sea over which Beijing and other Asian nations claim sovereignty.

“The United States intends to continue to play a role out here that it has for seven decades,” Carter proclaimed aboard the Stennis. It reminded me of Bush II’s famous “Mission Accomplished” moment aboard a carrier in 2003, except that Carter stayed in mufti. John Wayne could hardly have got more of the O.K. Corral into these remarks.

In the good old days of frightening confrontation between the U.S. and the socialist bloc—a time dearly missed by people such as Ash Carter—the non–West used to call this kind of talk “hysterical.” It was then and it is now. But here is the thing: The Chinese were the only ones who seemed to notice that Carter was trying to turn daytime into night. I know no one in our great country who gave any thought to Carter’s bluster about China’s assertive military while standing on an aircraft carrier near the Chinese coast. Beijing subsequently barred the Stennis from docking in Hong Kong—a highly unusual move on China’s part, Hong Kong having been a port of call for U.S. vessels for decades. So what? What about those Yankees?

We will pay for our failures to pay attention to the world around us and our place in it, and do not say no one warned you. We are, indeed, already paying—a point to which I will return.

Here is an interview with Foreign Minister Wang Yi that Al Jazeera’s Ahmed Mansour conducted four days after Carter’s Stennis moment.

Given that most Americans are no longer capable of rational conversation devoid of ideological charge, one must strip the names out before considering the merits of any non–American’s comment. Do so, then think it through.

China is currently knee-deep in disputes over sovereignty in the South and East China Seas. These questions are complex and at various stages in the long process of international adjudication. Keep this in mind while considering the merits of Wang’s remarks. Keep also in mind that non-aggression and non-interference have been among the principles of international conduct China has asserted since Zhou Enlai’s day. Then bring to mind the record on these scores of the nation that pays Ash Carter’s salary.

For the record, my own view of the sovereignty questions lying between China and Japan on the one hand, and China and various Southeast Asian nations on the other, is that solutions are to be found in condominiums: international status and administration for these specks of land, atolls and outcrops of rocks and joint development of the resources beneath them. The thought was raised during talks some years ago between Beijing and Tokyo on the Diaoyu or Senkaku islands (in Mandarin and Japanese respectively), but it subsequently disappeared beneath the waves. We will have to see.


Carter’s long swing through Asia last month was effectively advance work for Obama’s, which began a week ago. The president’s trip took him to Vietnam and Japan and is one leg of his farewell world tour. Beginning with his March visits to Cuba and Argentina, Obama’s foreign itinerary this year will take him from Saudi Arabia, Britain and Germany (last month) to Canada (June), Poland (a NATO summit in July), China and Laos (multilateral summits in September) and Peru in November (for another summit).

Between them, Obama and his defense secretary tell us a couple of important things about American foreign policy, policy across the Pacific in particular and still more particularly the president’s “pivot” to Asia (a word that now requires Dramamine there has been so much pivoting these past few years, albeit that none of it amounts to much).

Let us consider these lessons—pivoting from one to the other, of course.

The first thing to note is that militarization in the western Pacific is not this administration’s concern. Neither is international law. Ash Carter’s stage-set appearance on the Stennis last month was monumentally miscalculated in this respect—and consequently told us all we need to know about Washington’s true preoccupation. This is simply stated. America’s policy cliques are all for a militarized East Asia: They have made it so for the seven decades Carter noted. They simply do not want anyone challenging this status quo.

What did Obama just do during his week in the region? In Hanoi he announced that he would lift the longstanding ban on American arms sales to Vietnam. And fair enough in one way: Why should we discriminate against the Vietnamese when we sell arms to 180 other nations? Our defense contractors await your business: This is all Obama had to say, apart from the obnoxious correctives on human rights and press freedom American leaders will never stop insisting upon when traveling in nations that do not share our lapsing standards in both spheres.

The Japan visit was far more complex. Obama had re-enlisted the Japanese in our seven-decade military dominance in the Pacific —known in the Japanese case as the “security umbrella”—when Prime Minister Abe visited Washington last year. So that was out of the way; even a nationalist such as Abe—grandson of a war criminal—bows yet before the victors in 1945. But a finer line this president has rarely walked. It only looked like a mission of peace.

Apart from an apparently unremarkable Group of Seven session, the centerpiece of Obama’s visit was a tour of Hiroshima, which Truman leveled in 1945 with the world’s first and only wartime detonation of an atomic bomb. No, there would be no apology, of course: The argument that Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved lives, while highly questionable and wholly hypothetical in any case, still holds to justify a prima facie war crime. Obama’s hours in Hiroshima were intended to underscore his commitment to nonproliferation, but it would be hard to measure the immensity of this president’s hypocrisy: The defense secretary he named last year has long been a prominent proponent of a sweeping, expensive renovation of America’s nuclear-weapons stockpiles, and this now proceeds apace. Once again, night is supposed to be day.

Obama had a brief sit-down with Abe, but the Japanese premier spent all of it berating the president for a former Marine’s murder (yet another) of a Japanese woman in Okinawa shortly before Obama’s arrival. Highly embarrassing, of course. Abe could not care less about the sentiments of Okinawans, as anyone who understands Japan will know. But the American military installations in Japan’s southernmost islands are 1.) the single largest component of the U.S. presence in the western Pacific and 2.) unambiguously against the will of those who must live with them.

Obama was fully cognizant of the former point. It would be hard to say whether our progressive leader or Abe was more indifferent to the latter.

I go back to Carter’s unintentionally interesting assertion aboard the Stennis: We have been predominant in the Pacific since 1945 and we will not let this change. The policy cliques, you have to surmise, are incapable even of seeing, let alone accepting, the turning of history’s wheel.

Washington could, theoretically, address China’s emergence as a regional and, indeed, global power imaginatively. But this implies the presence of trained diplomats, and so theory must remain only theory. In practice, Washington is into neo-containment at the other end of the Pacific. It is a policy doomed to failure. (Michael Sullivan, the NPR man out there, actually used the phrase “containment of China” in a broadcast the other day. But only once, so far as I can tell, given that this ranks high among the unsayables.)

Pivot to the second lesson.


Who makes policy in Washington?

This has long been an interesting question and will continue to be one. It is important for paying-attention people to keep asking it. As Andrew Bacevich noted in the interview published in this space over the previous two weeks, all is always in flux among the policy cliques. Power is fluid, flowing now one way and now another.

But there are fewer mysteries on this point now than there may have been when Barack Obama took office. I still cannot tell whether this man stands four-square behind the foreign policies executed during his watch or if he is merely the acquiescing front man, as Bush II was, listening to discussions conducted above his head. The historians will have to sort that out. But this now seems plain: Whatever his thoughts on the matter, he does not actually make the kind of policies we now associate with him. That falls ever more consistently to the Pentagon and its allies in the intelligence and national security agencies.

The Pacific was bound to deliver this lesson more legibly than any other region. And it just did. This is what Ash Carter and Obama have put on display over the course of the last couple of months.

Apart from a brief period immediately after the Japanese surrender, the story of American policy in Asia from the Occupation onward has been one of progressive militarization. This process went emphatically into high gear after the Chinese Revolution in 1949. The “Who lost China?” arguments that ensued more or less wiped out a generation of thoughtful diplomats trained in Asian languages, cultures, histories, and so on. As the Cold War went on, so did the gutting of the State Department’s ranks; by the Reagan years the process was complete.

There is no question that China’s emergence—economic, diplomatic, political—challenges the U.S. and the rest of the world to think through the proper responses. This is among the truly large questions of our time. But anyone who thinks those running policy now—or having the biggest sway over it—are up to this task is as unaware of the complexities at work as Carter plainly is. Questions of history and culture need to be addressed. China’s ambition to “stand up,” as Mao memorably put it, reflects a wound to national pride dating to the Opium Wars in the 1840s. One may or may not hold such realities in any regard, but they are part of what drives the Chinese, and no number of aircraft carriers in the South China Sea will make them go away.

It is useful to consider just who Ashton Carter is. He was trained as a nuclear physicist and taught at Harvard. Also trained in international affairs and global security, he has sat at the intersection of science and strategy his entire career. America’s nuclear weapons program has been an abiding interest at least since Bill Clinton’s Defense Department hired him as assistant secretary in 1993. Obama inherited him, as he did Robert Gates, and put Carter in charge of the Pentagon’s acquisitions and technology. Here I pause: How wrong is it to give someone previously assigned to shopping among the defense contractors the power to set policy?

Very, in my view. Conflict of interest is woven into everything Ash Carter does. In this respect, his appointment as Sec Def suggests something very disturbing about the true locus of power among those now setting foreign policy in Washington.

He is a man of science, of means, in a sphere wherein a great deal more is needed. He is not a “what” man or, far less, a “why” man. He is a “how” man and nothing more. He is versed in method, not purpose. Nobody with even a slight grasp of China and Asian history—or history in general—could possibly stand on an aircraft carrier in the middle of a locally conflicted region and say the things Carter did last month. He evinces no sense of his own recklessness.

If you follow Carter’s movements, it becomes plain he is a man with a mission. Two, indeed, for he is doing the same thing across the Atlantic as he is across the Pacific: Conjure an adversary, maintain tensions at the highest possible level, militarize all possible responses to the conjured adversary. Remember the two-front war Pentagon planners, and defense contractors behind them, longed for as the Cold War wound down? Ash Carter’s apparent intent is to make the dream come true.


We already pay for Ashton Carter and our failure to address all he stands for, as earlier mentioned. Let me conclude with one small story explaining one way this is so.

William Hartung directs the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy in Washington. The other day he posted an excellent essay on the TomDispatch web site entitled “The Pentagon’s War on Accountability.” It is a an astonishing review of just how the only government institution that refuses to be audited—and gets away with it, preposterously—hides literally countless billions in secret slush funds, off-budget weapons programs, cost overruns, “deterrence funds,” dishonest accounting, no accounting and, of course, deception. The figures Hartung publishes are blood-boiling: They run to the trillions. Hartung’s piece is here.

I printed it out, filed it and moved on through a pile of accumulated reading. The next item happened to be my local sheet, called Norfolk Now. On its front page was a report on this year’s budget hearing. Ordinarily among the big events in my village—things get quiet here, indeed—it lasted two minutes and 11 seconds this year, just long enough for the vice-chairman of the finance committee to announce there was no budget to discuss.

Connecticut being critically broke, it turns out that Hartford, the capital, had just sent the state’s 169 towns letters concerning what is called the Education Cost Sharing grant, meaning the amount the state provides to support local school systems. Norfolk’s school budget is $4.2 million a year; the state usually covers $380,000 of it. The letters explained that there were two plans under discussion: One cuts the state’s ECS grant to $55,000; the other cuts it to zero.

“There’s no question we’re in deep sneakers,” the chairman of the finance board told Norfolk Now’s intrepid reporter. I had not heard the expression, but it gets the point across well enough.

We are all in deep sneakers. There is no question of this. There is no question of the straight line to be drawn between this village’s school budget and the Pentagon’s. There is no question that the Defense Department is not defending America so much as ruining it.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is

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