Tom Engelhardt launched TomDispatch in November 2001 as an e-mail publication offering commentary and collected articles from the world press. In December 2002, it gained its name, became a project of The Nation Institute, and went online as "a regular antidote to the mainstream media." The site now features Tom Engelhardt’s regular commentaries and the original work of authors ranging from Rebecca Solnit, Bill McKibben and Mike Davis to Chalmers Johnson, Michael Klare, Adam Hochschild, Robert Lipsyte and Elizabeth de la Vega. Nick Turse, who also writes for the site, is associate editor and research director.
TomDispatch is intended to introduce readers to voices and perspectives from elsewhere (even when the elsewhere is here). Its mission is to connect some of the global dots regularly left unconnected by the mainstream media and to offer a clearer sense of how this imperial globe of ours actually works.
As I read "Tough Times in Troubled Towns," today's third installment of Nick Turse's Tough Times series, this one on the nationwide meltdown of America's most vulnerable municipalities, I couldn't help thinking about an old line that, by my childhood in the 1950s, had become a kind of national folk wisdom: "As General Motors goes, so goes the nation." (Indeed, as befit the rise of the U.S. as an imperial power, "nation" was sometimes replaced with "world.") Of course, in those days, if you were the head of General Motors, it wasn't so unreasonable to imagine that you controlled the fate of the nation and the planet. Not only were you atop a global powerhouse of a company, but you might still be going places.
After all, in 1953, Charles Wilson, GM's president, did become President Dwight D. Eisenhower's secretary of defense. Asked in his Senate confirmation hearings whether he would have a problem making governmental decisions that might not be in the interest of GM, he famously replied that he found it hard to imagine a conflict of interest "because for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa." (Soon, that would be simplified to: "What's good for General Motors is good for the country.")
Only a few years after Wilson stepped down, a new President, John F. Kennedy, asked Ford's president, Robert S. McNamara, to step into the very same post. At that moment, it seemed true indeed that, as Big Auto went, so went the world. Of course, that was before McNamara and his "whiz kids" got us deep into, but not out of, the Vietnam War. Now, that's so much ancient history -- though today, you might imagine a new version of the old adage, based on Bush and Obama administration staffing decisions at the Treasury Department: What's good for Goldman Sachs is good for the country.
The name search took a year, while the company became persona non grata in Iraq, but now it's a reality. The notorious Blackwater Worldwide has officially rebranded itself Xe. According to a company memo, "Xe will be a one-stop shopping source for world class services in the fields of security, stability, aviation, training and logistics."
It's pronounced "Zee," by the way, and it's also, oddly enough, the symbol for Xenon, a colorless, odorless noble gas found in trace amounts in the Earth's atmosphere. If only Blackwater and its ilk in the hire-a-gun private security business were found, under whatever names, in mere trace amounts in American foreign and military policy. But no such luck.
In the last eight years, many of the tasks formerly associated with the U.S. military have been privatized and outsourced in a wholesale way -- from guard duty for U.S. diplomats to peeling potatoes and delivering the mail, not to speak of building and maintaining the U.S. bases that now dot the Middle East and Afghanistan. Without its private crony corporations, the Pentagon might, in fact, be on something like life support.
This report, first posted at TomDispatch.com, comes from historian and retired Lieutenant Colonel William J. Astore:
A leaner, meaner, higher tech force -- that was what George W. Bush and his Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld promised to transform the American military into. Instead, they came close to turning it into a foreign legion. Foreign as in being constantly deployed overseas on imperial errands; foreign as in being ever more reliant on private military contractors; foreign as in being increasingly segregated from the elites that profit most from its actions, yet serve the least in its ranks.
Now would be a good time for President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to begin to reclaim that military for its proper purpose: to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Now would be a good time to ask exactly why, and for whom, our troops are currently fighting and dying in the urban jungles of Iraq and the hostile hills of Afghanistan.
According to the New York Times, suicides in the U.S. Army this January alone could total as many as 24. (For January 2008, the number was five.) If so, that would not only be the highest monthly total since the Army started keeping such figures in 1980, but more deaths than occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan combined that month. In 2008 as a whole, at least 128 soldiers killed themselves. As the Times noted, "Suicides… rose for the fourth year in a row, reaching the highest level in nearly three decades. Army officials say the stress of long deployments to war zones plays a role in the increase."
Mark Benjamin and Michael de Yoanna, who have just completed a major multi-part examination of Army suicides at Salon.com, record this official reaction to the military health crisis: "'Why do the numbers keep going up?' Army Secretary Pete Geren said at a Pentagon news conference Jan. 29. 'We can't tell you.' The Army announced a $50 million study to figure it out." The two reporters find a wealth of evidence of military misdiagnosis, mistreatment, and plain, outright lack of desire to face a plague of suicides. ("At Fort Carson," the base they studied, "a mental problem from combat is still a scarlet letter.")
But above all, of course, there are simply those endlessly repeated tours of duty in the Afghan and Iraq war zones. Suicides, in this sense, can be thought of as the individual symptoms of a larger military disease. In these last years, the U.S. military has been, like the individuals who committed suicide, overstrained, overstressed, and made to fight wars that consumed America's treasure, while becoming ever more unpopular at home. As retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and TomDispatch regular William Astore points out in his latest piece, "An American Foreign Legion," despite all the lovely "support our troops" sentiments in the U.S., the military was essentially abandoned to its stresses abroad and so became, in practical terms, ever more "foreign" to Americans. Is the U.S. military, he wonders, now the American equivalent of the French Foreign Legion -- a force considered expendable by French elites, recruited from around the world, and meant to fight France's colonial wars in far-flung lands? That force's fate was well captured, he comments, in its grim, sardonic motto: "You joined the Legion to die. The Legion will send you where you can die!"
Already it's begun -- the endless non-departure from Iraq. The Obama plan, restated many times during the presidential campaign, involved a 16-month schedule for withdrawing not all U.S. forces, but only U.S. "combat troops." Now, his (and, of course, George W. Bush's) generals are showing visible evidence of dragging their combat boots in the sand on the subject. We were given fair warning. Over the last two years, numerous military figures have claimed that, as fast as they got into Iraq, it would be hell just getting all the U.S. stuff now embedded there out -- and that's without even taking into account the political situation in that country. Recently, according to military leaks to the media, "U.S. military planners" have come up with two alternate scenarios to Obama's 16-month plan. One is reportedly 19 months long, the other 23 months long, and -- here's a shock -- the two top generals in charge, Centcom commander David Petraeus and U.S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, favor the 23-month approach.
"Odierno and Petraeus have said that we really need 23 months to do this without jeopardizing the security gains that we've secured," was the way one typical anonymous official put it. President Obama has yet to show any sign of agreeing to this, but the pressure is evidently only beginning. Gareth Porter of Inter Press Service indicates that a "network of senior military officers is also reported to be preparing to support Petraeus and Odierno by mobilizing public opinion against Obama's [16-month plan]… If Obama does not change the policy, according to the source, they hope to have planted the seeds of a future political narrative blaming his withdrawal policy for the ‘collapse' they expect in an Iraq without U.S. troops." Stab in the back, anyone?
Oh, and in the bargain, the generals are evidently also planning to re-label some of those withdrawable combat forces among the still staggering 144,000 troops in Iraq -- the American invasion force of 2003 was only about 130,000 strong -- as non-combat "support troops" or advisors. They would, Robert Burns of the Associated Press writes, be "redesigned and reconfigured as multipurpose units to provide training and advising for Iraqi security force" and so would "be considered noncombat outfits." What's in a name, after all?
Sometimes it's the small gesture that defines the end of an age. Richard Fuld, CEO of Lehman Brothers, the single financial firm the Bush administration allowed to collapse into bankruptcy in what may someday be thought of as the slow-motion Crash of '09, made one of those gestures recently. Just to be clear, we're talking about a man who, between 1993 and 2007, took home a tidy $466 million in pay. (That's no misprint, though it's a pay level that it would take factories of workers cumulative lifetimes to reach.) Then, in 2008, the year his firm would collapse, Fuld was awarded another $22 million in what was called "retirement pay."
But that's the big picture. Here's the small one that catches our shape-shifting moment perfectly. Fuld was recently outed for "selling" his wife their jointly held $14 million, 3.3 acre Florida beach-front mansion -- one of five houses the two of them owned, including their 8-bedroom main domicile in Greenwich, Connecticut -- and the lovely touch is the selling price: $100. That's right, one hundred bucks "in a possible attempt," writes the British Times, "to move assets beyond the reach of infuriated investors of the collapsed bank." Smooth move, Dick! Just petty and sleazy enough for a $488 million man.
Fuld and the other CEOs, who lived fabulous lives in their many mansions and passed out money as if it were sand, have been slow to grasp changing times. After all, as late as last December, according to the Wall Street Journal, John Thain, CEO of Merrill Lynch, "let it be known" that he expected a $10 million bonus in a year in which the company he oversaw had a nifty $28 billion in losses. Like Fuld, these men have proven remarkably tin-eared as well as lead-fingered and, in a season of catastrophe for their firms and for so many Americans, they still managed to pass out a staggering $18.4 billion in bonuses.
It is now a commonplace -- as a lead article in the New York Times's Week in Review pointed out recently -- that Afghanistan is "the graveyard of empires." Given Barack Obama's call for a greater focus on the Afghan War ("we took our eye off the ball when we invaded Iraq..."), and given indications that a "surge" of U.S. troops is about to get underway there, Afghanistan's dangers have been much in the news lately. Some of the writing on this subject, including recent essays by Juan Cole at Salon.com, Robert Dreyfuss at the Nation, and John Robertson at the War in Context website, has been incisive on just how the new administration's policy initiatives might transform Afghanistan and the increasingly unhinged Pakistani tribal borderlands into "Obama's War."
In other words, "the graveyard" has been getting its due. Far less attention has been paid to the "empire" part of the equation. And there's a good reason for that -- at least in Washington. Despite escalating worries about the deteriorating situation, no one in our nation's capital is ready to believe that Afghanistan could actually be the "graveyard" for the American role as the dominant hegemon on this planet.
In truth, to give "empire" its due you would have to start with a reassessment of how the Cold War ended. In 1989, which now seems centuries ago, the Berlin Wall came down; in 1991, to the amazement of the U.S. intelligence community, influential pundits, inside-the-Beltway think-tankers, and Washington's politicians, the Soviet Union, that "evil empire," that colossus of repression, that mortal enemy through nearly half a century of threatened nuclear MADness -- as in "mutually assured destruction" -- simply evaporated, almost without violence. (Soviet troops, camped out in the relatively cushy outposts of Eastern Europe, especially the former East Germany, were in no more hurry to come home to the economic misery of a collapsed empire than U.S. troops stationed in Okinawa, Japan, are likely to be in the future.)
Recently, reviewing lobbying disclosure reports, the Washington Times discovered "that 18 of the top 20 recipients of federal bailout money spent a combined $12.2 million lobbying the White House, the Treasury Department, Congress, and federal agencies during the last quarter of 2008." Citibank alone, according to the New York Times, fielded "an army of Washington lobbyists," plunking down $1.77 million in lobbying fees just in the fourth quarter of last year.
And it isn't only sinking financial institutions begging for federal dollars that have bolstered their Washington lobbying corps. So have the biggest US armaments companies--"drastically," according to reporter August Cole of the Wall Street Journal. In 2008, he found, Northrop Grumman almost doubled its lobbying budget to $20.6 million (from $10.9 million the previous year); Boeing upped its budget from $10.6 million to $16.6 million in the same period; and Lockheed-Martin, the company that received the most contracts from the Pentagon last year, hiked its lobbying efforts by a whopping 54% in 2008.
If you want to get a taste of what that means, then click here to view an ad for that company's potentially embattled boondoggle, the F-22, the most expensive jet fighter ever built. What you'll discover is not just that it will "protect" 300 million people--that's you, if you live in the USA--but that it will also "employ" 95,000 of us. In other words, the ad's threatening message implies, if the Obama administration cuts this program in bad times, it will throw another 95,000 Americans out on the street. Now that's effective lobbying for you, especially when you consider that for any imaginable war the U.S. might fight in the coming decades, the F-22, built to counter a Soviet plane that was never produced, will be thoroughly useless.