Fear, Procurement, Profit: Permanent War and the American Way

When it comes to determining the true thrust and implication of world events, the old adage is still valid: "Follow the money."

The lust for long green is not the sole determinant of state policies, of course. For example, there are also the psychosexual anxieties of blustering elites, the soul-corroding pathology of political ambition, the ignorance and arrogance of the powerful and the privileged, the herd instinct that can drive whole populations into self-deluding frenzies of nationalistic fervor -- all kinds of factors in the mix. But money is never not in the center of things.

This is especially true in systems where war and rumors of war have become the foundation of the national economy. This is the ultimate condition of every empire (or rather the penultimate position; the ultimate position is the inevitable decline and fall). And the United States, with its globe-spanning military empire, is no exception. Here we have a  nation that has stripped its own industrial base, brutally neglected its educational system, allowed its physical infrastructure to rot, and driven its small-holding farmers from the land, dispossessing its own citizens and degrading their communities, all for the short-term profit of a moneyed elite -- and, what's more, has based its prosperity on the profligate and disproportionate use of a finite resource which it cannot produce in sufficient quantities within its own borders.

Andrew Bacevich discusses this latter point this way in his new book, The Limits of Power, in a passage picked out by Bill Moyers which puts the American people in the frame along with our predatory elite:

"The pursuit of freedom, as defined in an age of consumerism, has induced a condition of dependence on imported goods, on imported oil, and on credit. The chief desire of the American people is that nothing should disrupt their access to these goods, that oil, and that credit. The chief aim of the U.S. government is to satisfy that desire, which it does in part of through the distribution of largesse here at home, and in part through the pursuit of imperial ambitions abroad."

The decades-long quest for military-enforced dominance of geopolitical affairs has been both producer and product of this ravenous system. And now, the war machine is pretty much the only thing left. It has eaten all our seed corn, and must keep prowling constantly in foreign lands to feast on the resources of others. So war and the ever-present threat of war will continue to be the driving forces of American policy, at home and abroad, both in the public and private sectors – because that's where the money is. Big money, gargantuan money, money out the wazoo. And what's more, it's free money – because most of it comes from the taxpayers, through insider sweetheart deals that very often guarantee profits for the crony contractor. No muss, no fuss, no risk – just gravy.

And so the Russian response to Georgia's attack on South Ossetia – "Six Days That Changed the World!" as the deathless (or rather, death-filled) headlines proclaim – has been the usual win-win situation for the war-profiteers in the cockpit of the American corruptocracy, as the Wall Street Journal reports. The Journal writes for those who really count in American society – the movers and shakers and shifters of Big Money – so you can often get a better analysis of what's really going on than you would from, say, the New York Times, with all its weighty think-tank lumber. The headline from Saturday's WSJ story says it all: Attack on Georgia Gives Boost To Big U.S. Weapons Programs.

Just as the rash and bloody deed of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili – who assaulted South Ossetia in a ferocious sneak attack -- gave the Kremlin war machine the excuse it needed to flex its muscles, so the Russian response has been a godsend for the Pentagon. Now you see why we need all them big new weapons we've been hankering for, say the boys from Hell's Bottom: we got to keep them Russkies down. And of course, in keeping with the noble tradition of our bipartisan foreign policy establishment, a top Democrat (an erstwhile hero of the "anti-war" movement, no less), is in the forefront of the Pentagon's fear-mongering gobble at the pork barrel. From the Journal:

Russia's attack on Georgia has become an unexpected source of support for big U.S. weapons programs, including flashy fighter jets and high-tech destroyers, that have had to battle for funding this year because they appear obsolete for today's conflicts with insurgent opponents.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has spent much of the year attempting to rein in some of the military's most expensive and ambitious weapons systems -- like the $143 million F-22 Raptor jet -- because he thinks they are unsuitable for the lightly armed and hard-to-find militias, warlords and terrorist groups the U.S. faces in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has been opposed by an array of political interests and defense companies that want to preserve these multibillion-dollar programs and the jobs they create.

When Russia's invading forces choked roads into Georgia with columns of armored vehicles and struck targets from the air, it instantly bolstered the case being made by some that the Defense Department isn't taking the threat from Russia and China seriously enough. If the conflict in Georgia continues and intensifies, it could make it easier for defense companies to ensure the long-term funding of their big-ticket items.

For example, the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. John Murtha, quickly seized on the Russia situation this week, saying that it indicates the Russians see the toll that operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are taking on the U.S. military. "We've spent so many resources and so much attention on Iraq that we've lost sight of future threats down the road. The current conflict between Russia and Georgia is a perfect example," said Rep. Murtha during a recent visit to his district.

Go tell it, Brother John! Ivan's on the march, and he's headed straight for downtown Latrobe. If we don't get them Raptors up pronto, they'll be dishing up borschtburgers at McDonald's next week. [Bernard Chazelle has a somewhat different take on Russia's motivations over at A Tiny Revolution.]

But behind all the bull-roaring in the Beltway, the Journal cuts to the chase with admirable dispatch:

Some Wall Street stock analysts early on saw the invasion as reason to make bullish calls on the defense sector. A report from JSA Research in Newport, R.I., earlier in the week called the invasion "a bell-ringer for defense stocks."

…The change in administration [after the 2008 election] comes at a time of record profits and sales in the industry, reflecting historic highs in defense spending. Yet budget pressure is already undeniable. Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan require laying out almost $12 billion a month and the Pentagon faces a massive tab for repairing and overhauling equipment when troops start coming home.

Now, the Russian situation makes the debate over the equipping of the U.S. military a front-burner issue. "The threat always drives procurement," said a defense-industry official. "It doesn't matter what party is in office."

And here our candid if unnamed war-profit maven has neatly encapsulated both the last century of American policy – and the next century as well: "The threat always drives procurement. It doesn't matter what party is in office." His vatic pronouncement should be emblazoned on billboards, streamed constantly beneath the natterers on TV news, and chiseled in marble on the Capitol Dome. For it is, in a very real sense, what America is about today: Threat. War. Procurement. Profit.

And never doubt the bipartisan nature of this self-devouring system. For even as Democratic "anti-war" icon John Murtha is saber-rattling at Moscow, Democratic "anti-war" icon Barack Obama is saber-rattling at Tehran in the official party platform that his aides have just completed. As Jonathan Schwarz reports, Obama's platform insists that Iran has an active nuclear weapons program – despite the finding by the Bush Administration's own intelligence agencies that it does not. And of course, it goes without saying that this non-existent program is such an overwhelming threat that Obama has pledged that he will be – wait for it – "keeping all options on the table."  From Schwarz (see original for links):

Sure, America's intelligence agencies concluded last year December that Iran no longer has a nuclear weapons program. But what do they know? Surely the Democratic Party is far more informed about the situation than them, which is why the Democrats refer to Iran's "nuclear weapons program" in their just-finalized 2008 platform:

Prevent Iran from Acquiring Nuclear Weapons
The world must prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. That starts with tougher sanctions and aggressive, principled, and direct high-level diplomacy, without preconditions…. We will present Iran with a clear choice: if you abandon your nuclear weapons program, support for terror, and threats to Israel, you will receive meaningful incentives; so long as you refuse, the United States and the international community will further ratchet up the pressure, with stronger unilateral sanctions; stronger multilateral sanctions inside and outside the U.N. Security Council, and sustained action to isolate the Iranian regime… By going the extra diplomatic mile, while keeping all options on the table, we make it more likely the rest of the world will stand with us to increase pressure on Iran, if diplomacy is failing.

Note also that the Democrats are going to be "keeping all options on the table." I've always wondered whether this phrase includes the possibility of America and Israel giving up all their nuclear weapons. I mean, that's an option—surely if all options on the table, that means our complete nuclear disarmament is there on the table with all the rest of them.

So the beat – and the beat-downs – will keep going on, around the world, and fear will keep driving procurement, no matter what party is in office.  As long as we want to guzzle and glut and "project dominance" in every corner of the world, war is all we've got.