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Day 17

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The Pentagon's Presidential Auction

The Other Kiss

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

Gore’s famous embrace of Tipper before his speech at the Democratic convention may pale beside his prospective ecstasies with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In AD 193 the Roman Praetorian Guard murdered the Emperor Pertinax and proceeded to auction off the imperial throne to the highest bidder. Until this year the most strenuous emulation of this feat by the US military came in 1980, when the Joint Chiefs of Staff took bids on the White House from the ramparts of the Pentagon. Despite fierce bidding by Jimmy Carter, the Chiefs had no hesitation in accepting Republican pledges and in proclaiming that only Ronald Reagan would keep the Empire strong.

We are in the climactic moments of the 2000 auction. By now the ritual is well established. Stage One: senior Praetorians and associated intellectual prostitutes repine the pitiful condition of America’s fighting folk and the decrepitude of the US military arsenal. Frank Gaffney Jr., a Defense Department official in the Reagan years, set the tone in an article in the Washington Times in early August: “Future defense capabilities may be seriously inadequate. History suggests that the consequence of such a practice is a vacuum of power that hostile nations often feel invited to fill.” Then Gaffney relayed the Praetorians’ reserve price on the imperial throne: “A nation with a projected $1.9 trillion budget surplus can afford consistently to allocate a minimum of 4 percent of its gross domestic product to ensure its security.”

Already on July 21, Adm. Jay Johnson had said, as he stepped down from his post as the Navy’s top officer, that national security requires a defense expenditure of 4 percent of GDP. On August 16 Gen. James Jones, Commandant of the Marine Corps, used the occasion of an interview with Defense Daily to call for a “gradual ramp up” in defense spending “to about 4?4.5 percent of the US gross domestic product.” Two days after Jones’s comments, Gen. Gordon Sullivan, formerly Army Chief of Staff and now president of the 100,000-strong Association of the US Army, confirmed the Praetorians’ floor demand: “We must prepare for the future of the security of our nation. We should set the marker at 4 percent.”

The Praetorians have avoided spelling out what 4 percent actually means in dollar terms. The latest figures from the Office of Management and Budget project GDP at $10.9 trillion in 2002, rising to $13.9 trillion in 2007. So a military budget set at 4 percent of GDP in 2002 would amount to $438 billion, and in 2007 $558 billion. This year’s budgetary tribute to the Praetorians is just on $300 billion. The combined spending of all putative foes of the United States-Russia, China and our old friends the rogue states, including Iran, Syria, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Serbia, Cuba and Sudan-amounts to a little over $100 billion.

It is not well understood that though the number of ships, planes and troops available to guard the nation has declined sharply, the actual flow of dollars into the pockets of the Praetorians and their commercial partners has remained at cold war levels. It is true that in the immediate aftermath of the cold war, US military spending under George Bush I diminished slightly. Clinton reversed this trend with enough brio to allow Gore, speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in the 1996 campaign, to declare that the Democratic bid to the Praetorians that year was far superior to that of the Republicans.

In his offer to the Praetorians this year, George W. Bush has offered Star Wars plus a pay raise for the armed forces. This is scarcely enough. An August 23 Washington Post editorial relayed the Praetorians’ contempt: “It is Mr. Bush who, despite some muscular rhetoric, is sounding weak on defense.” In other words, “George, it’s your bid.” The Praetorians know well that the missile defense scheme endorsed by Bush is a fantasy and that missile defense spending has been more or less constant since the early sixties.

The appeal of a pay raise from a Republican emperor is undercut by lavish disbursements such as the recent 10 percent raise enacted by Emperor Clinton, who further solidified the loyalty of the senior officer class by smoothing out wrinkles in the practice of double dipping. These days, an officer can retire on full pension and then return to work at the Pentagon in civilian capacity at a hefty salary, with pension unimpaired. “There are retired colonels in this building,” a Pentagon number cruncher remarked recently, “who are taking home $200,000 a year.” “I’m proud,” Gore told the VFW five days after he kissed Tipper, “that we won the largest military pay increase in twenty years.”

Gore’s commitment to the Praetorians was well advertised by his choice of running mate. Senator Joe Lieberman has been the faithful errand boy of Connecticut’s arms firms. The Praetorians are licking their lips at the prospect of a delightful bidding war stretching over the presidential debates. We can look forward to Lieberman chastising Dick Cheney for his temerity, as President Bush’s Defense Secretary, in cutting the military budget and even canceling such egregious boondoggles as the A-12 Stealth fighter.

There may be a deeper reason for the 4 percent solution. The military share of the economy has been going down. There are no convincing external enemies, and it’s been getting harder to claim a prime role for military R&D in setting the agenda for technological innovation. Thanks to Hollywood and our militarist heritage, the Pentagon still has a powerful cultural hold. The Democrats had Tom Hanks, the rescuer of Private Ryan, in camera view in the Staples Center, when Lieberman extolled the most powerful military force on earth. But as the Pentagon’s weight in the overall economy diminishes, so too does the clout of the Praetorians, and there may come a day when their bluff is called.

For now, let us await the next bid, probably against a backdrop of October surprises-saving Montenegro from Slobo, or settling accounts one more time with Saddam. Oh, and by the way, if the Praetorians get their 4 percent out of a bidding war between Gore and Bush, Pentagon analyst Franklin Spinney accurately remarks, “The 4 percent defense solutionwould be tantamount to a declaration of total war on Social Security and Medicare in the following decade. Such a war could be justified only if our nation’s survival were at stake.” CP