excerpted from the book
The Pornography of Power: How
Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America
by Robert Scheer, Twelve
www.alternet.org/, June 27, 2008
The following is an excerpt from
Robert Scheer's new book, The Pornography of Power: How Defense
Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America (Twelve, 2008)
War doesn't pay, nor does imperial ambition.
That should be self-evident to anyone who has paid attention to
the successful trajectory of the American experience, both politically
and commercially, since the Republic's founding. It is a statement
neither liberal nor conservative in orientation, and until recently
it would have been accepted as a commonsense proposition by leading
politicians of both political parties.
Although some leaders took us to war,
they always claimed to do so reluctantly, as is reflected in the
doubts expressed in their memoirs and those of their closest confidants.
Lyndon Johnson, musing about the indefensibility of sacrificing
even a single young American to die in Vietnam but sacrificing
59,000 of them in order to emerge victorious in his forthcoming
election battle with Barry Goldwater, is all too typical. What
that evidence reveals is just how intense is the political pressure
to reject common sense when the specter of an enemy is raised.
Those pressures have always been with us, and to the extent that
they derive from national insecurities, political demagogues,
economic avarice, overzealous patriotism, and religious or ideological
fervor, they are a constant of the human experience in just about
any given society.
The amazing thing about the American political
experiment is that our system is the one most consciously designed
to limit those risks of foreign military adventure, and for most
of our history, it has worked out quite well. I don't intend to
minimize the expansionist, indeed rapacious conquest of our own
continent, or the occasional colonial adventures abroad, as in
the Philippines and other outposts from Hawaii to Alaska, but
in the main, with few lapses, the public remained properly suspicious
of its leaders' intentions. The dominant assumption was the importance
of avoiding foreign "entanglements," to use Thomas Jefferson's
words of warning about the risks of intervening in the affairs
of others. Indeed, that policy of nonintervention was thought
by our nation's founders to be a basic demarcation between the
politics of the old and new worlds.
By nonintervention, they did not intend
indifference to events in the outside world or a narrow protectionist
view of trade accompanied by a fortress American military posture.
Such a stance, often described as isolationism, obviously is not
only out of joint with our current, highly interconnected world,
but it didn't make sense at the time of the nation's founding,
even when the distance of oceans afforded far more secure borders
than today. What nonintervention meant, as was commonly understood
even on the tavern bar level, was don't go sticking your nose
into other people's business, and certainly don't pick fights
that you can't finish. That is a posture that has nothing to do
with limiting charitable concern for others beyond your borders,
missionary work abroad, humanitarian aid, and everything to do
with avoiding the military expeditions that bankrupted the most
pretentious and at times successful of empires. Not being like
those empires was a driving force in the thinking of the nation's
founders, who were in wide agreement on extreme caution as to
That guiding idea of nonintervention --
developed by the colonists in rebellion, espoused to great effect
by the brilliant pamphleteer Thomas Paine, and crystallized as
a national treasure in the final speech to the nation of George
Washington -- is as fresh and viable a construct as any of the
great ideas that have guided our governance. Washington's Farewell
Address, actually a carefully considered letter to the American
people crafted in close consultation with Alexander Hamilton and
James Madison, is one of our great treasures, but although read
each year in the U.S. Senate to mark Washington's legacy, it contains
a caution largely ignored by those same senators as they gleefully
approve massive spending to enable international meddling of every
sort. Their failed responsibility to limit the president's declaration
of war has become a farce that as much as anything mocks Congress'
obligations as laid out in the Constitution.
Explaining why he, as our first president,
followed "our true policy to steer clear of permanent Alliances,
with any portion of the foreign World ... Taking care always to
keep ourselves, by suitable establishments, on a respectably defensive
posture," Washington shunned isolation, and instead held
out a vision of peaceful international relations: "Harmony,
liberal intercourse with all Nations, are recommended by policy,
humanity and interest. But even our Commercial policy should hold
an equal and impartial hand; neither seeking nor granting exclusive
favors or preferences; consulting the natural course of things;
diffusing and diversifying by gentle means the streams of commerce
but forcing nothing."
What more powerful though gentle warning
could be offered against the instincts to the imperial adventures
that have destroyed all great empires? Washington knew this record
of imperial folly well, and he was well aware that his countrymen
could fall as had others for that siren song of military power
coupled with economic greed that had humbled the powers of Europe:
"In offering you, my Countrymen, these counsels of an old
and affectionate friend ... to moderate the fury of party spirit,
to warn against the mischiefs of foreign Intrigue, to guard against
the Impostures of pretended patriotism ..."
What happened to us as a people that those
modest yet profound sentiments now seem so foreign to the tongues
of our politicians and the ears of their constituents? Who, be
they Democrat or Republican, among our top leaders, particularly
in the aftermath of the tragedy of 9/11, dares rise to warn against
the "Impostures of pretended patriotism"? Are any of
them as truly devoted as was Washington to "the benign influence
of good Laws under a free Government," or indeed to the nurturing
of what the founders well understood to be an ever fragile experiment
in representative democracy?
For democracy to work, the scale must
be kept small, and that is why the founders of the American version
of that bold experiment stressed the local over the grand, leaving
the majority of power to the individual and severely restricting
the role of the state. To the degree that the state itself was
tolerable, its power was severely curtailed, with the individual
states of these United States reluctantly ceding the bare minimum
of decision-making power necessary for the maintenance of public
order to the new federal entity, one always to be regarded with
the greatest of suspicion so widely shared and so obviously referenced
in the original document that a Bill of Rights was not considered
a necessity until the final draft of the Constitution.
If there is one thing that can be stated
with absolute certainty as to their intentions, it is that the
founders believed that the concepts of Republic and Empire represented
an inevitable contradiction in terms. It is an essential caution
that in the Cold War era came to be largely ignored. One reason
is that our ambitions were never presented with the honesty of
other imperial powers proclaiming their right to dominate others.
Our intrusions were always framed as defensive
in nature, even when it meant dropping more explosives on the
small country of Vietnam than had been dropped in all of World
War II and leaving, according to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara,
who initiated a good portion of the carnage, 3.4 million innocent
dead in its wake. The policies were not conducted by a War Department,
as had been the case during World War II, but rather a Department
of Defense. So it has been with every U.S. military expedition
of the past half century, efforts all conducted in the name of
liberating others rather than feeding our delusions of grandeur,
insecurities, and greed.
Of course, all empires have had their
pretenses justifying the expansion of one nation's influence over
others in the name of religion, freedom, combating aggression,
or exporting the standards of higher civilization. There are elements
of all that in what we do as a nation, but the compelling rubric
that protects our adventures from internal criticism, though not
necessarily from abroad, is that we seek no advantage for ourselves
but only what is obviously good for others. Sometimes that may
be the case, but it hardly works as an explanation of our enormously
contradictory and often exploitative foreign policies.
However, it does work, at least in terms
of creating a base of domestic political support for policies
that in many instances contravene logic and fact. As Washington
warned, it is extremely difficult to unmask the "Impostures
of pretended patriotism" when the nation is frightened by
enemies both real and imagined. Nor could Washington have anticipated
the sort of mass media society in which government propaganda
becomes compelling and inconvenient truths are easily concealed
behind the veil of national security requirements. What he certainly
did not anticipate is the modern militarized state, in which,
ever since the onset of the Cold War, a permanent war footing
has been the norm.
For these reasons, the concerns of Washington
expressed in his farewell speech needed the updating provided
by the parting statement of our other great general turned president,
Dwight David Eisenhower. Ike's Farewell Address provides a perfect
bookend to that of Washington, for it marks a modern president's
recognition that the fears of our first president had been realized.
The empire had come to replace the republic. The "military-industrial
complex" that Eisenhower warned against was merely the logical
extension of an imperial reach of forward military bases throughout
the world and a stark American intervention into the affairs of
nations on every continent.
What alarmed him most is that while the
enemy communism was in his mind all too real, the system that
had grown up to counter it was self-perpetuating and disconnected
from the defensive tasks at hand. Eisenhower predicted exactly
what has come to pass. Despite the end of the Soviet Union, and
with it the rationale for the Cold War, the military-industrial
complex soon found another enemy, called terrorism.
The proof that Eisenhower's warnings were
all too prescient is provided by the 2008 federal budget in which
defense spending consumes $217 billion more than the total discretionary
funding for all other divisions of the federal government. As
Our military organization today bears
little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peace
time, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.
Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had
no armaments industry. American makers of ploughshares could,
with time as required, make swords as well. But now we can no
longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have
been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast
This conjunction of an immense military
establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American
experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual
-- is felt in every city, every state house, and every office
of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for
this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave
In the councils of government, we must
guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether
sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential
for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this
combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We
should take nothing for granted; only an alert and knowledgeable
citizenry can compel the proper meshing of huge industrial and
military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals,
so that security and liberty may prosper together.
There you have it; don't say we weren't
warned. Mind you, Eisenhower was willing to speak out against
this "unwarranted influence" at a time when he thought
there was an equally powerful adversary equipped with precisely
the same sort of advanced weaponry as we possessed. There was
a high-tech arms race under way, and yet even then Eisenhower
sounded his warning. What is the excuse of politicians and the
media for not sounding that warning when we face no such adversary
but yet defense spending is at an obscene all-time high?
The disconnect between the arsenal of
the terrorist enemy and that which has been arrayed against it
in the post-9/11 years more than affirms Eisenhower's warning
about the "unwarranted influence" of the military-industrial
complex. The good news, however, is that it derives from a power
base fraught with contradictions. As we have seen in this book,
much of what is demanded by the military machine is absurdly disproportionate
to the task at hand. One wonders how the lobbyists and politicians
even maintain a straight face as they argue, as did Senator Lieberman,
for $2.5 billion submarines to fight terrorists without even a
dinghy. I don't doubt that they will continue to make their case
and that the money spent toward that end will secure political
and pundit support, but it is wearing thin. So, too, the effort
to manufacture crises with "rogue nations" and to continuously
exaggerate the cohesion and power of the "terrorist"
enemy. Nor will the Chinese- or the Russians-are-coming gambit
work as both of those countries move deeper into the fray of the
commercial markets rather than serving as props in the theater
of war games.
The U.S. military budget is roughly equal
to that of all of the rest of the world's nations, and it is inconceivable
that any hostile state could emerge in the next twenty years with
the ability to match the United States in a combat zone, even
if no new weapons are added to the American arsenal. It is also
true that we can likely go on building unneeded weapons systems
without destroying our overall economy. While the budget is almost
twice as large as it was in Eisenhower's last year in constant
dollars, it is half of what it was as a percentage of Gross Domestic
Product. The good news in that statistic is that it should be
easier to eliminate defense-related jobs without having as much
negative impact on the economy as in Eisenhower's time.
The benefits of such a cut would be more
dramatic in freeing up government funds for other purposes, including
programs in health and education that would make the nation stronger.
The reality is that there is no will in the United States in either
party to raise taxes, and as a result, existing and new programs
must compete for a fixed pool of tax dollars. The dollars that
can be allocated are further limited because of mandatory expenditures,
including the two largest -- Social Security and Medicare -- which
will not be cut because of the voter resentment that would ensue.
For these reasons, the full range of nonmandated programs, all
those items that are wrangled over by Congress, from farm subsidies
to children's health insurance and medical research, are competing
with the defense dollar, which is almost totally discretionary.
Therefore, the essential parameter in
considering how we allocate federal funds boils down to what is
available in the discretionary spending category, where roughly
six out of ten dollars go to the military side. As a consequence,
it is from cutbacks on military spending that funding will in
all likelihood have to be found for increases in domestic spending.
That is the most honest way to judge the opportunity cost of the
defense dollar, as in two unneeded submarines versus coverage
of health insurance for 4 million kids.
There is, however, a greater cost to a
huge permanent military to which Eisenhower was alluding, and
that concerns the vitality of our democracy. As we saw in the
run-up to the Iraq war, the threat inflators who seek an expanded
military role are not above using their enormous lobbying power
to influence the political debate and votes in Congress. If the
military were merely a boondoggle in which defense contractors,
top military officers, and all those who work in the defense bureaucracy
and industry were simply viewed as recipients of an enormously
bountiful welfare program, the costs to society, as measured in
dollar payments, would arguably be manageable. Some, like Colin
Powell in his autobiography, even defend the armed forces as a
purveyor of enlightened social services, particularly in affording
education and job training to those who failed to obtain needed
skills from the public schools. If one could restrict the military
to that sort of function, it might be duplicitous but defensible
as a needed social program.
The problem is that the public will not
support the military unless it feels that its activities are connected
with a real threat, and as a result the military and its suppliers
and other allies have a built-in need to exaggerate the threat.
That is the risk of "the total influence -- economic, political,
even spiritual" that Eisenhower warned is "felt in every
city, every state house, every office of the federal government."
It is a built-in and well-financed constituency for stressing
the military option over the diplomatic one, for exaggerating
the strength of the enemy rather than realistically appraising
it, and for finding new wars to be fought with a sense of desperation.
While it is certainly true that there are those in the military
hierarchy resistant to military engagements that cannot be won
-- Colin Powell is an example -- it is also true that warriors
need wars in order to establish their relevance. So, too, the
national security experts in the think tanks who do much to shape
the national agenda.
No need, however, to get too gloomy here,
for the bottom line is that even most of the hawks could find
something else to do for a living, and we do have examples of
former imperial powers decommissioning their military force, as
we did after both World Wars, and rising to higher levels of prosperity.
That indeed was the direction in which we were headed after the
first President Bush acknowledged the end of the Cold War, and
few would deny that the economy fared far better during the years
of much lower defense spending during the Clinton administration
than as a result of the defense spending spree of the George W.
Bush presidency. It is also true that those spending levels of
the Clinton years left the United States strong enough to easily
conquer Afghanistan and Iraq, although the lengthy occupation
of both countries has proved far more burdensome.
The short answer is that we can have peace
and prosperity, and we can easily afford to cushion the fall for
those who have grown dependent on the defense dollar. It means,
however, not invading countries that we have to occupy at great
cost, a lesson that the American public, which gave Bush a blank
check, now at last seems to have learned.
So, yes, there is much reason to hope
that the military buildup of the George W. Bush years is an aberration,
since the objective reality out there -- the utter lack of credible
enemies with advanced weaponry -- makes it an increasingly difficult
sell. Yet as I write those words, I hear again Eisenhower's warning
and wonder if I am not being overly optimistic. Yes, the money
we are spending is absurdly disproportionate to the task at hand,
the weapons are making us less secure, not more so, powerful forces
are unleashed that seek to find excuse for war, and we are dramatically
increasing a fiscal debt that will deprive future generations
of needed government services and programs. What is going on in
our name is irrational, costly, and dangerous, but there are powerful
vested interests that want to keep it that way. Will they win?