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Pentagon as Casino

Versailles on the Potomac

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

War profiteer. It used to be one of the dirtiest slurs in American politics, potent enough to sully the reputations of the rich and powerful. Now it’s a calling card, something you might find highlighted in a defense contractor’s corporate prospectus as a lure to attract investors looking for bulging profits and escalating dividends.

In the summer of 2000, the defense industry was mired in a prolonged slump, as was the US economy, which under the unforgiving lash of its neo-liberal architects had become dependent on the financial engines of the munitions makers. Unhappily for the defense industry and its investor class, the Soviet Union had disintegrated before their very eyes and the People’s Republic of China, long considered the bogeyman state in waiting, had lustily embraced state capitalism instead of stepping up to the plate as a brawny military rival.

The big ticket items of the Cold War, from Stealth bombers to nuclear subs, from aircraft carriers to the Star Wars scheme, that had sustained the industry to the tune of tens of billions every year no longer had the slightest pretext for continued production, except as the most extravagant form of corporate welfare. Those weapons systems that weren’t obsolete, such as the B-2 bomber and F-22 fighter, simply didn’t work, such as Star Wars-lately remarketed as Ballistic Missile Defense.

To make matters more fraught for the weapons industry, the Pentagon was poised to put the finishing touches on its Quadrennial Defense Review, which sets procurement, budget and policy goals for the Defense Department. Of course, the Pentagon would never slash its own budget and, in fact, many anticipated that the QDR would call for increasing annual defense spending to something approaching 4 percent of the gross domestic product. However, it seemed likely that the generals would call for the termination of many of the multi-billion dollar relics of the Cold War in exchange for massive increases in spending on newer killing technologies geared for what has come to be known as "4th Generation Warfare."

Then 9/11 happened and all the anxieties of the weapons lobby evaporated in the flames of one fateful morning. The QDR, once so threatening, was simply another fat white paper that came and went without leaving so much as a scratch on the old Imperial Guard.

As we revealed here in CounterPunch, the Taliban offered Osama Bin Laden, and his top associates, the Bush administration on several occasions after the attacks of 9/11. Bush refused. They wanted a prolonged and ever-escalating war, not a deftly executed police action and not justice for the families of those slain and maimed by Bin Laden’s kamikazes.

Instead, thousands of Cruise missiles were ordered up and, just like that, Boeing and Lockheed were back in business. For months, cruise missiles, J-DAM bombs and CB-87 cluster munitions shredded the hamlets and hovels of Afghanistan, killing more than 3,500 civilians in the early days of that one-sided war. But this was simply a bloody prelude to a more profound slaughter. For Afghanistan, in the immortal words of Donald Rumsfeld, wasn’t a "target rich" environment. But Iraq certainly was. And only hours after the 9/11 attacks, Rumsfeld and his neocon coterie of laptop bombardiers began plotting the war on Saddam and the domestic propaganda campaign for how to sell it to a psychologically shattered and anxiety-ridden American public. The civilian body count in Iraq would climb much higher, topping 650,000 by the winter of 2007, with more than 200 Iraqis dying every day.

The Bush wars on Afghanistan and Iraq were misguided, counter-productive and illegal ventures, although entirely predictable outbursts of imperial vengeance. What is truly perverse is the fact that while one wing of the Pentagon was planning wars against a "faceless enemy" and a "rogue state", another wing was lobbying congress on behalf of the weapons companies to approve tens of billions in funding for all of the baroque artifacts of the Cold War, from Star Wars to Stealth fighters. Congress was only too happy to help. From the fall of 2001 through the end of 2002, not a single funding request for a big-ticket item went denied, from unneeded aircraft carriers to unwanted Boeing tankers.

But in order to fund these bailouts to the defense lobby for making weapons for a war that no longer existed, Congress had to rob other budgetary accounts. And here’s where it gets truly bizarre. Intent on satiating the cravings for pork from their political patrons, the leadership of the Defense Appropriations committees, chaired until 2007 by Senator Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican, paid for these costly and useless projects by reprogramming billions from the so-called Operations and Maintenance accounts, which were being used to fund the logistics work for the on-the-ground wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even the normally docile Office of Management and Budget raised a warning, writing in a letter to Stevens dated December 6, 2002: "These [Operations and Maintenance] reductions would undermine DoD’s ability to adequately fund training, operations, maintenance, supplies and other essentials. They would seriously damage the readiness of our armed forces and undermine their ability to execute current operations, including the war on terrorism."

That warning letter (and thousands of documents like it), ignored by the war-hungry US press, is the congressional equivalent of the Pentagon Papers for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. In order to shell out billions for Star Wars and the F-22 fighter, Congress took money from accounts that would have improved the terrible logistical planning in Iraq and bought essential items for the protection of US combat troops, such as body armor and armored Humvees. The blood of many a soldier maimed or killed in Iraq is indelibly stained on the hands of Stevens and his colleagues who choose to put the welfare of Boeing and Lockheed above the grunts in the field.

The Pentagon has become a kind of government operated casino, doling out billions in contracts to the big-time spenders in American politics: General Dynamics, Boeing, Raytheon, Bechtel, Lockheed and, of course, the bete noir of the Bush administration, Halliburton.

The saga of Halliburton, however, is only a grotesque symbol for a cancer that has gone systemic, gnawing away at corporations, politicians, bureaucrats, the legions of lobbyists on K Street, media elites, Wall Street fund managers and military brass.

Weapons making (and the credit companies) are the last thriving sectors of the American economy. . Of course, even defense work is being inexorably outsourced, as the story of Magnequench’s relocation from Indiana to China details with a cruel absurdity that may even have caused Artaud to blink.

War and credit. The two enterprises go hand in hand. Recall Ezra Pound’s declaration in the Cantos: "The purpose of war is to make debt." Bush inherited a $500 billion budget surplus. After his tax giveaways to corporations and millionaires and five years of war-making, the surplus has been transformed into a record deficit that forecloses opportunities for urgently social spending on health care, education, and development of alternative sources of energy that would alleviate the impulse to wage wars for oil.

It’s an easy but fateful step from war and debt to corruption and profiteering. Washington has become a dizzying maze of revolving doors; bribery and kickbacks, where even generals betray their loyalties to the grunts in exchange for fat checks and cushy jobs with Pentagon contractors. The deals that reprimed the Boeing bank accounts and steered no-bid contracts to companies as big as Halliburton and as obscure as the Chenega Native Corporation were greased by the dispensation of political cash and, in some cases, more personal gratuities.

While the politicians, CEOs and generals got rich, the death toll in Iraq mounted with a grim inexorability. On average each week brings the death of 21 American soldiers, with over a hundred and fifty more being maimed. By the spring of 2007, more than 3,300 US troops had died in Iraq, nearly 3,000 of them perishing after Bush announced "Mission Accomplished" from the deck of the USS Lincoln. And for every US death more than 150 Iraqis die in bombings and ambushes, in losses that are unmourned and almost unmentioned outside their own ravaged nation.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban has quietly regained control of much of the countryside, with US troops and NGOs under almost daily attack. In 2006 alone, nearly as many US troops were killed in Afghanistan than died there in the first four years of the war combined. But few want to look back at a war we’d been told that was long since won.

As for Osama Bin Laden, the world’s most wanted man, he remains at large, his ranks of suicidal automatons swelled by the thousands as a direct result of Bush’s clumsy crusades, the cruel torture chambers of Gitmo, Bagram and Abu Ghraib and the casual and unrepentant slaughter of innocents. Bush’s ineptly executed war on terror may at last be running out of gas, but the fundamentalist forces that gave rise to it are only gaining in potency and global reach. The blowback next time may be a terrible thing to behold.

Yes, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq blew up in Bush’s face, but his cronies laughed all the way to their off-shore banks, as they raced to deposit their blood-soaked billions. Just another season in Versailles on the Potomac.

This essay is adapted from Grand Theft Pentagon: Tales of Corruption and Profiteering in the War on Terror.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book is End Times: the Death of the Fourth Estate, co-written with Alexander Cockburn. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net