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Think of Iraq as the AIG of wars—the only difference being that the bailout there didn’t involve just three payouts. More than eight years after the Bush administration invaded that country, the bailout is, unbelievably enough, still going. Even as the U.S. military withdraws, the State Department is planning to spend billions more in taxpayer dollars to field an army of hired-gun contractors to replace it. Afghanistan? It could have been the Lehman Brothers of conflicts, but when Barack Obama entered the Oval Office he chose the Citigroup model instead, and surged troops in twice in 2009. In other words, he double-TARPed that war, and ever since, the bailout money has been flooding in.
Until now—as the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations make clear— “too big to fail” has meant only one set of institutions: the plundering financial outfits that played such a role in driving the U.S. economy off a cliff in 2008, looked like they might themselves collapse in a heap of bad deals and indebtedness, and were bailed out by Washington. Isn’t it finally time to expand the too-big-to-fail category to include the Pentagon, the U.S. Intelligence Community, and more generally the National Security Complex?
There is, of course, one major difference between those bailed-out financial institutions and the Complex: however powerful the banks may be, however much money financial outfits and Wall Street sink into K-Street lobbyists and the election campaigns of politicians, however much influence the U.S. Chamber of Commerce may wield, when too-big-to-fail financial institutions totter, they have to come to the federal government hat (and future bonuses) in hand.
For the Pentagon and the National Security Complex, it’s quite another matter. These days it’s only a slight exaggeration to claim that they are Washington and that their very size, influence, and power protects them from the consequences of failure.
In the last decade, as “the troops” became sacrosanct, the secular equivalent of religious icons, they also helped ensure that no Congress could afford not to pour money into the Pentagon. (Pay no attention to the much-touted $450 billion that institution is expected to trim over the next ten years. That sum will largely come from “cuts” in future projected growth and anything more will be strongly resisted.) In that same decade—thanks largely to two hijacked planes that damaged New York beyond al-Qaeda’s wildest dreams—“American safety” (narrowly defined as “from terrorists”) became the mantra of the moment. Soon enough, it was the explanation of choice for any expenditure: the latest drones, surveillance equipment, high-tech motion sensors, or peeping-Tom technology at airports.
“The troops” translated into a get-out-of-jail-free card for the Pentagon, and it worked like a charm. In the three years since the economy melted down, when so much that mattered to most Americans was being cut back or deep-sixed, that budget was still merrily expanding. In the meantime, there were those constant infusions of fear for “American safety,” helped along by terror plots generally too inept to do the slightest damage. All this ensured that an already massive crew of intelligence outfits would morph into a labyrinthine bureaucracy of stupefying proportions.