Pork and War, In the Same Room?

Comes the news that our august legislators are scattering pork throughout the budget, once considered sacrosanct, for the defense of our nation: “Congress said to steer military funds to pet projects”.

Yo, duh. (The little green guy.)

No News Here

What’s news here is not that Congress is refusing to allocate funds for operations and maintenance requested by the Pentagon, and investing those funds in questionable projects ($900 million for a destroyer the Navy didn’t ask for, $35 million for a waste water treatment plant in Desoto County, Mississippi). That’s not news as much as it is the next move in a game of scandal. For or against the war, there’s no countenancing the underequipment of those the country sends to fight and die.

Honestly, the entire War on Terror makes no sense in foreign-policy terms. Recent polls show a majority of Americans believe the neocon adventure in Iraq has not made the country safer. The age-old excuse of maintaining credibility is a ghost of itself under Bush II, and the claims of self-defense are transparent nonsense.

In light of this, I expect the ability of the Bush team to gain a second term has done as much harm to our international standing as the war in Iraq. If Bush had been dumped in favor of someone who wasn’t overtly repugnant, the world would have breathed a sigh of relief. US-friendly historians of the Bush phenomenon would have hinted at foul play in the first election, and praised the wisdom of the American democracy in replacing the weirdo peacefully. (We’ve got a similar chance for redemption coming up soon here in California.)

Still, however they did it, the Republicans held onto Congress and the White House. The American democracy did not spit them out like poison; it savored the exotic flavor of empire. Naturally, those who received the greatest share of the profits savored it most.

And used the profits to grow. The heavily subsidized US arms industry, for example, signed 56.7 percent of the world’s arms agreements in 2004. We arm the world. Good for the economy, devastating to security.

The Real Explanation

Is our government really so beholden to weapons manufacturers that it makes bad security policy to enrich corporations? Or is the government in the business of providing an insecure environment, as a means of scaring people into relieving themselves of their liberties? Or have all the politicians just been bought off?

The explanation I think is the best fit for the available facts is unfortunately this: while the business of America remains business, the most profitable business is war. As Ray McGovern said in the Conyers DSM hearings last week, we’re in Iraq for OIL: oil, Israel, and logistical bases.

In Iraq, the combination of war profiteering and advertising expertise has succeeded in generating another situation like post-war Europe in Gravity’s Rainbow, in which law, and to some extent civilization, have broken down, and new systems have yet to take hold. Magic and theft are rampant. Neocons appear to be high-minded in rhetoric, but realpolitik in action. The arms industry is all about assertive Americanism for obvious reasons. This combination swells the so-called defense budget, creating space in which pet projects are concealed.

A study by Taxpayers for Common Sense recently identified more than $12 billion in add-ons last year and expects the number to be higher this year.

Keith Ashdown, vice president for policy at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a fiscally conservative watchdog group, said Congress is showing “a trend to dictate to the military services where and when they should be spending more and more of their money” in part to further their parochial interests. And he said legislators are showing little restraint: “They are giving all the pet items to everybody. The numbers have skyrocketed.”

Ashdown said his analysis found that the “parochially and politically motivated earmarks” totaled 2,671 last year, compared to just 62 in 1980. The analysis also showed that 65 percent of the add-ons were inserted by members of key committees.

The rise is partly blamed on the practice since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to pay for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq through separate “emergency” spending bills so the money is not tallied in the overall federal budget. These bills have provided another opportunity to direct defense dollars to lawmakers’ states or districts while also freeing room in the regular defense bill for more favored programs, according to specialists.

The Real News

The news, in other words, is not the existence of pork, but:

  • Its vast increase over the last twenty years, particularly under the umbrella of 9/11
  • The feeding of the beast from funds needed for operations and maintenance during war

War profiteering is an old story, as is that of states becoming dependent on war. What’s changed is the scale of the treasury-draining supplemental appropriations, currently topping $200 billion with no end in sight.

Why are we allocating money for an(other) undeclared war through supplemental appropriations? So these expenses won’t be on the budget. Which means the Executive will not have to produce estimates as part of the budgeting process. They’re planning for the war the way they plan for Social Security, refusing to offer any specifics up front on the assumption that their goals would not attract a working majority. They might plan, but they don’t share the plans (or don’t use them). Comparing the results in Iraq to the public predictions of Rumsfeld et. al., you can see why they’d be shy.

So Congress adopts its equivalent of the time-honored Pentagon cost-plus financing system, guaranteeing a profit no matter what the expenses turn out to be. This method was designed for the Cold War, considered by the players to be a Manichean struggle (more precisely, a Zoroastrian one), in which Good had to triumph over Evil or all would be lost. No matter how. All’s fair, and so forth. The leadership took this view, and the people, scarred by war and scared by propaganda, went along. This is not a recipe for efficiency. Or even honesty.

Setting Our Expectations

As I understand cognitive psychology, its model is that we can sense vastly more information from the world than we can process. We’re thus forced to filter out what appears to be noise so as to concentrate on the useful information. Our ideas about the world form the filter; our emotions are reactions to the difference between what we expected and what actually happened.

As a result, we can to a great extent control our emotions by setting our expectations appropriately. This requires a model that accounts for certain observed facts:

  • Modern warfare is the most powerful engine for generating profits humanity has invented. This has generated strong incentives for the wealthy in the US to find excuses for war.
  • US government policies and actions have been pissing people off around the world for a century or more. Many nations go adventuring, but none have taken such a cache of military weaponry on their adventure. The neighbors are understandably frightened.
  • Given the immense superiority of the US military over any potential foe, pissed-off people are attempting to strike back with everything from terrorism to boycott.
  • The US strategy of retaliation in multiple kind recalls Israeli methods, probably consciously. Such methods are contrary to international law, cruel, and counterproductive: they generate more enemies than they eliminate. Which is probably why they’re employed. Certainly US policy in the Middle East has not been calculated to win friends, but to frighten. To terrorize.

What’s the Plan?

We can make, it seems to me, two types of plans to respond to this reality, which I think of as crush and absorb.

We can build a larger military, institute a draft, test new nukes. Of course we wouldn’t have to keep making new generations of weapons if we didn’t sell so many arms to other countries, especially to tin-pot dictators and despots. But that’s what keeps the economy going. And of course we wouldn’t need those weapons if we weren’t trying to enforce our will around the globe. We’re not defending ourselves, we’re defending the interests of our corporations.

The thing is, we’ve already got an enormously powerful military machine, and an equally powerful propaganda machine; yet we’re unable to dominate Iraq, which was a fourth-rate power by the time of the recent invasion. We already spend more on our military than the rest of the world combined; how much will it take to make us safe? What sort of weapons will we have to resort to?

Alternatively, we can seek to understand the world that generates our enemies. Perhaps we can even glimpse the world as our enemies see it. That’s where the power to make peace comes from. If that’s the goal.

When the Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh was asked what he would say if he could speak to Osama bin Laden face to face, he answered:

If I were given the opportunity to be face to face with Osama bin Laden, the first thing I would do is listen. I would try to understand why he had acted in that cruel way. I would try to understand all of the suffering that had led him to violence. It might not be easy to listen in that way, so I would have to remain calm and lucid. I would need several friends with me, who are strong in the practice of deep listening, listening without reacting, without judging and blaming. In this way, an atmosphere of support would be created for this person and those connected so that they could share completely, trust that they are really being heard.

After listening for some time, we might need to take a break to allow what has been said to enter into our consciousness. Only when we felt calm and lucid would we respond. We would respond point by point to what had been said. We would respond gently but firmly in such a way to help them to discover their own misunderstandings so that they will stop violent acts from their own will.

So, essentially, love your enemy. Isn’t there some other religion that counsels that too?

…the charity of a [Christian] bishop, Acacius of Amida, whose name might have dignified the saintly calendar, shall not be lost in oblivion. Boldly declaring that vases of gold and silver are useless to a God who neither eats nor drinks, the generous prelate sold the plate of the church of Amida; employed the price in the redemption of seven thousand Persian captives; supplied their wants with affectionate liberality; and dismissed them to their native country, to inform the king of the true spirit of the religion which he persecuted.


This level of graft will bring down the wrath of the American public on the Republicans. Eventually. To take money from operations and maintenance while American soldiers are dying in unarmored vehicles! How can a government do this and expect to keep the loyalty of its citizens?

Is the American experiment failing? How can a political party follow such leadership on paths so contrary to its nature as historic deficits and foreign adventuring? How can an opposition fail to take advantage of the obvious weaknesses of the ruling party?

It’s puzzling, I admit. Perhaps we’re in the last days of American democracy, but I don’t think so. I think it’s just a stage we’re going through on our way from primacy to importance. Those whose lives are about power are struggling with a future in which their importance on the world stage will decrease. This will produce one of two effects in the US: an intensification of the class war leading to third-worldization and conflict, or a turning of the tide toward democracy as opposed to capitalism. Personally, I haven’t given up hope that the populace will be moved to act before it’s too late.

Many of our fellow citizens who call themselves Christians seem to have forgotten the charity and compassion part and converted completely to the soldier part. They often appear to be ignoring the facts and acting on faith, as if faith could move mountains. What part should faith play in society? In particular, what part should it play in education? That’s the topic of the next post.

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