Useful ways to pass the quarantine time: Since April, in response to the pandemic, I’ve been involved with a series of Zoom webinars examining a number of issues through the lens of COVID-19. So far, we’ve covered everything from mental health and addiction and recovery to the search for a vaccine.
The sessions are organized by Hollywood Health & Society which, as per their website, “is a program of the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center that provides the entertainment industry with accurate and up-to-date information for storylines on health, safety and security.” The Writers Guilds of America East and West have been co-sponsoring the webinars; as immediate past president of the Writers Guild East, I’ve had the pleasure of moderating several of them.
Last week, our topic was National Security in the Age of COVID-19, and the guests were Ambassador Wendy Sherman, former undersecretary of state for political affairs during the second Obama administration and negotiating team leader of the Iran nuclear deal that Donald Trump systematically has tried to destroy, and Joe Cirincione, who just completed 12 years as president of the Ploughshares Fund, the group dedicated to reducing and one day eliminating the existential threat of nuclear weapons.
What immediately was clear will come as no surprise: despite all his boasting about beefing up our defense, his brags that America is stronger than ever, Donald Trump has placed our national security in peril. With our own government in chaos and a shambolic delusional president systematically destroying our relations with longtime friends in the world, we have completely abandoned our role as a leader among nations and in many ways, left ourselves defenseless.
Especially galling last week was Carl Bernstein’s CNN report revealing:
In hundreds of highly classified phone calls with foreign heads of state, President Donald Trump was so consistently unprepared for discussion of serious issues, so often outplayed in his conversations with powerful leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Erdogan, and so abusive to leaders of America’s principal allies, that the calls helped convince some senior US officials—including his former secretaries of state and defense, two national security advisers and his longest-serving chief of staff—that the President himself posed a danger to the national security of the United States, according to White House and intelligence officials intimately familiar with the contents of the conversations.
When it comes to our role in the world, a change has got to come, not just because of Trump and his gang of outlaws but because the planet now is so radically different. An article published in May in World Politics Review was headlined, “COVID-19 and Climate Change Will Change the Definition of National Security.” Its author, Stuart Patrick, senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, writes:
The United States still confronts geopolitical competition, particularly from China, as the two jockey for global influence. But the biggest contemporary threats to U.S. security come less from armed adversaries than from two “threats without a threatener” — a deadly pathogen and runaway climate change. When a pandemic can kill hundreds of thousands, even millions, and when the fate of the living planet is in jeopardy, many issues that once ranked high on the national security agenda, like whether the Islamic State is on the run or whether Nicolas Maduro’s regime is on the verge of collapse in Venezuela, appear less pressing. They seem, in a word, trivial.
But change won’t take place under a Trump presidency nor will it occur if our current defense establishment remains in place. “The financial collapse of 2008, the Russian interference in our election, now the pandemic, the systemic racism that has been revealed… these threats that we face as a nation do not have military solutions, but that’s where we put our money,” Joe Cirincione said during our webinar. “Sixty percent of all our discretionary spending on the federal level is devoted to the Pentagon. And this has got to readjust. The defense budget has gone from $300 billion in 2000 to $740 billion today poured into these systems, these weapons that actually are irrelevant to the major threat we face…
Half of the defense budget—half!—goes directly to defense contractors. So about $370 billion goes right to them. If you start threatening their money pipeline, you’re going to face some very stiff resistance… What’s going on is that in Washington, the defense industry has, at last count, 727 lobbyists. They spend about $130 million a year protecting these contracts. There are only 535 members of Congress. So there are more defense lobbyists than there are members of Congress.
Wendy Sherman added, “The other underlying national security issue that we’re all coping with right now is disparity—between the rich and the poor, between different ethnic groups, and religious groups, and racial groups all over the world. What brought us Brexit, what brought us, I believe, Donald Trump, what’s bringing authoritarian leaders to many countries is this enormous gap between the rich and the poor… None of these things know borders.
… Our military is built for conventional warfare, not the national security issues of the future. Not the agile systems that we need for the future. And on top of all of this, we really have to find ways to talk with each other. Yes, we will have to compete with China. Yes, we will have to stop Russian disinformation. But we can’t do it by making our police officers look more like our military troops than people who are supposed to help keep our community safe. So we have a huge demilitarization effort that we need to undertake, we have a huge effort of understanding that, even in this time of COVID when we are separated to stay safe, it is because we are so utterly connected.
Hot spots around the world are even hotter in part because the United States is missing in action, disheveled and distracted by Trump’s obsession with trade deals, kissing up to dictators, hollowing out the State Department and trying to blame other countries for his own blunders. China and India again have been killing each other’s troops along the Himalayan border and China has clamped down on dissent in Hong Kong, imposing a national security law in violation of the 1997 agreement that turned the then-British territory over to the Chinese.
“This is a president who only has tactics, only has photo ops, only has campaign slogans, he doesn’t really have a foreign policy,” Wendy Sherman said. “He doesn’t have a strategy, whether it’s North Korea, which has just been a series of disastrous photo opportunities and romance letters, or it’s been Hong Kong, where there’s tough talk but no strategy. Or China where it’s tactical without a broader strategy, or Iran which is pressure, pressure, pressure, to what end?”
Since Trump sought to sabotage the Iran nuclear deal Sherman negotiated, “Iran has a larger stockpile of enriched uranium, it has more advanced centrifuges. The breakout time is now back to close to where it was when we began negotiating the deal. They haven’t stopped their malign behavior in the Middle East. They haven’t stopped their arms trading. They haven’t stopped their missile development. They’ve put more Americans in Evin Prison. So nothing has improved. The administration just goes around saying, ‘Pressure, the pressure’s working.’ But to what end? It’s foreign policy without an objective, it is no policy at all.”
As for Russia, Sherman and Joe Cirincione agreed that the recent New York Times reports that Putin’s government had placed a bounty on the lives of American soldiers in Afghanistan, and Trump’s subsequent inaction, were appalling. “He’s claiming he wasn’t briefed, which is its own incompetent storyline, but now that he knows, he still hasn’t done anything about this,” Cirincione noted. “All the while, he’s arguing to allow Vladimir Putin to come back into the G7. I mean, this is treason. Any other president would be hauled up on the dock. There’d be impeachment hearings right now.”
I asked each what frightened them most about the possibility of a second Trump administration and conversely, if elected, what a Biden administration should do first when it comes to national security.
Former Vice President Biden “and the people around him aren’t beginners,” Wendy Sherman remarked. “That’s the really good news. They understand how Washington works. They understand how to use power. They understand how to use authority. They know that Congress and the populace matter, they have some humility. Joe Biden’s actually apologized for things. Not because he thinks it’s weak, but because he thinks it’s strong.
…This is one hell of a time to want to be president of the United States. But I have faith, both in the resilience and the goodness of the people in this country and that guy in the Midwest who wants what everybody else in the world wants; to have a decent job, to have a safe community, to have his kids get a good education and have a better life than he and his wife had. Everybody wants that all over the world. I think Joe Biden gets that. I think he’s going to speak to it. And I think he’s going to speak to it for both the young people who have been in the streets with their masks on, and the guys who have been at the president’s rallies without them.
Joe Cirincione urged Biden to, “Make a list of all the executive orders you have to repeal, make a list of all the people that have to be cleaned out. Do not make the mistake that Barack Obama made of turning the page, of not going back and looking at the people in the Bush administration who lied us into an unnecessary war of choice and saying, ‘Well, we don’t want to provoke partisanship.’ No, you’re going to have to hold people accountable. You can’t let them get away with this… You can’t let them escape justice once they’ve been pushed out of office.”
Assuming Trump’s defeat and a Republican Party in disarray, “The next president has enormous political space to do what’s right,” Cirincione continued. “To do the right thing, and not just go halfway on something. No, now you get your chance to really do what’s right on healthcare. Really do what’s right on climate change. Really do what’s right to demilitarize our national security strategy.”
But both are worried about the consequences if Trump is re-elected. “An American democracy can survive one Trump term,” Joe Cirincione said. “I think we can recover from this, but he’s dug a big hole for us, I’m not so sure about two. It would be enormously damaging to the very fabric of the country. If he’s reelected, we’re going to have to rethink our priorities about what we have to organize about and what we have to fight about. We really are going to be in a struggle for American democracy at that point.”
Wendy Sherman agreed but was quick to remind that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the self-described “Grim Reaper,” also has played a destructive role. Nonetheless, “I don’t think our country will be our country if Donald Trump’s elected for four more years,” she warned. Black Lives Matter, economic disparity, climate change—”That will be nowhere. That will go backwards. All of the anti-regulatory moves that he’s made will become even more so, he will feel he can do anything he wants… He will have gotten away with so much that he will believe he can now get away with more.”
“I’ve got two tiny little grandsons, four and six, and I fear for their future,” she added, “That’s what it is about for me. I want to make sure that my grandsons can grow up in a peaceful world that certainly will have conflict, but people who try to solve problems, not create more conflict. I really worry about who we are.”
We are adrift on a ship captained by a madman who has never been to sea, determined to destroy us all and delight in the wreckage. A change of course is imperative.