This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.
Think of Iraq as the AIG of wars -- the only difference being that the bailout there didn't involve just three payouts. More than eight years after the Bush administration invaded that country, the bailout is, unbelievably enough, still going. Even as the U.S. military withdraws, the State Department is planning to spend billions more in taxpayer dollars to field an army of hired-gun contractors to replace it. Afghanistan? It could have been the Lehman Brothers of conflicts, but when Barack Obama entered the Oval Office he chose the Citigroup model instead, and surged troops in twice in 2009. In other words, he double-TARP ed that war, and ever since, the bailout money has been flooding in.
Until now -- as the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations make clear -- "too big to fail" has meant only one set of institutions: the plundering financial outfits that played such a role in driving the U.S. economy off a cliff in 2008, looked like they might themselves collapse in a heap of bad deals and indebtedness, and were bailed out by Washington. Isn't it finally time to expand the too-big-to-fail category to include the Pentagon, the U.S. Intelligence Community, and more generally the National Security Complex?
There is, of course, one major difference between those bailed-out financial institutions and the Complex: however powerful the banks may be, however much money financial outfits and Wall Street sink into K-Street lobbyists and the election campaigns of politicians, however much influence the U.S. Chamber of Commerce may wield, when too-big-to-fail financial institutions totter, they have to come to the federal government hat (and future bonuses) in hand.
For the Pentagon and the National Security Complex, it's quite another matter. These days it's only a slight exaggeration to claim that they are Washington and that their very size, influence, and power protects them from the consequences of failure.
In the last decade, as "the troops" became sacrosanct, the secular equivalent of religious icons, they also helped ensure that no Congress could afford not to pour money into the Pentagon. (Pay no attention to the much-touted $450 billion that institution is expected to trim over the next ten years. That sum will largely come from "cuts" in future projected growth and anything more will be strongly resisted.) In that same decade -- thanks largely to two hijacked planes that damaged New York beyond al-Qaeda's wildest dreams -- "American safety" (narrowly defined as "from terrorists") became the mantra of the moment. Soon enough, it was the explanation of choice for any expenditure: the latest drones, surveillance equipment, high-tech motion sensors, or peeping-Tom technology at airports.
"The troops" translated into a get-out-of-jail-free card for the Pentagon, and it worked like a charm. In the three years since the economy melted down, when so much that mattered to most Americans was being cut back or deep-sixed, that budget was still merrily expanding. In the meantime, there were those constant infusions of fear for "American safety," helped along by terror plots generally too inept to do the slightest damage. All this ensured that an already massive crew of intelligence outfits would morph into a labyrinthine bureaucracy of stupefying proportions.
That same phrase fertilized the Department of Homeland Security, the homeland security state that went with it, and an immensely lucrative homeland-security-industrial complex that went with that -- all growing at a remarkable clip.
An Insurance Policy for the National Security Complex
Imagine for a second that, at the height of the Cold War, someone had told you of a future in which the U.S. faced no armed great power (not one!) and at most a few thousand terrorists scattered across the planet, as well as modestly armed minority insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Imagine that person making this prediction as well: in budget and size, the National Security Complex of that moment would put its Cold War predecessor in the shade.
Without a doubt, you would have dismissed him as a madman. If someone had proposed such a future to those running the Cold War back then, they would have called it victory. And yet that's exactly our reality today, while victory itself has become the rarest of vintages, no longer stocked anywhere in our American world.
The dimensions of the National Security Complex now beggar the imagination. In fact, everything about it should make it the global yardstick for "too big to fail." The Pentagon budget is, for instance, about 50% higher today than the Cold War average and accounts for nearly half of all military expenditures globally. And yet it has kept right on growing; and if bailed-out bankers continue to take home their bonuses as thanks for practically sinking the country, top Pentagon types continue to take home their golden pensions with future revolving-door opportunities in the military-industrial complex always available.
If you really want to grasp the enormity of the National Security Complex, just consider this stat: today, 4.2 million federal workers and employees of private contractors have security clearances -- about, that is, the population of New Zealand or Lebanon.
Whatever Washington turned over to the banks, the Complex has it so much easier. After all, its managers essentially pay themselves more or less what they desire in the name of supporting the troops and promoting American safety. Yes, our congressional representatives officially dole out the money, but they have little choice when it comes to offering less than what's asked of them. And presidential election campaigns always lock candidates into yet more of the same.
So here's a basic American reality in the second decade of the twenty-first century: the Complex has an insurance policy unavailable to other Americans, while a vast blanket of secrecy in the name of national security ensures that most Americans have no idea what's being done with their money. The Complex's funding is safe and its employees are above the law, no matter what acts they may commit. Notoriously, the Pentagon has never even passed an audit. By default, we guarantee the Complex that, whatever happens to other Americans, its institutions and employees will remain safe. That's the real definition of American security -- and doesn't it sound something like the banks and bankers who just can't fail?