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Tomgram: Andrew Bacevich, Pentagon, Inc.

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch

Oh, the nostalgia of it all!  As Nick Turse reminds us in his book The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, when the media went after the Pentagon in the 1980s for outrageous spending, at stake was "a $7,600 coffee pot, $9,600 Allen wrenches, and -- the most famous pork barrel item of them all -- those $640 toilet seats."  Same in the 1990s with the $2,187 the Department of Defense doled out for a C-17 door hinge otherwise purchasable for $31, the $5.41 screw thread inserts worth 29 cents, and the $75.60 screw sets priced in the ordinary world at 57 cents. 

Weren't those the good old days?  Now, few take out after the DoD for such minor peccadillos, not when a $75.60 screw set looks like a bargain-basement deal compared to a Pentagon that has already invested $20 billion in training the Afghan military and police and is prepared to pay $11.6 billion this year and possibly $12.8 billion in 2012 for more of the same; or to an intelligence outfit, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, that doesn't hesitate to sink $1.8 billion into an all-new headquarters complex in Virginia for its 16,000 employees and its estimated black budget of $5 billion; or to the close to $200 million that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has, according to a McClatchy News investigation, sunk into construction projects in Afghanistan that "have failed, face serious delays, or resulted in subpar work"; or to a Department of Homeland Security that thought it a brilliant idea to fund an "emergency operations center" in Poynette, Wisconsin (population 2,266) to the tune of $1 million; or to General David Petraeus who, in 2008 as Iraq War commander, invested $1 million in turning a dried-up lake in Baghdad into an Iraqi water park to win a few extra hearts and minds. (Within two years, thanks in part to neighborhood power cuts, the lake had dried up again and the park was a desolate wreck.) 

Where, in fact, are those Allen wrenches now that we need them, now that Congress has insisted that an alternate second engine (being built by Lockheed Martin) should be kept in production for the staggeringly costly, ever-delayed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which already has an engine (being built by Pratt & Whitney)?  Even the Pentagon doesn't want that second multi-billion dollar engine built, the White House has denounced it, but Lockheed is still being paid.  All of this, and so much more, should be shocking waste at a moment when Camden, New Jersey, the nation's "second most dangerous" city, has just laid off nearly half its police force and almost a third of its firefighters.  But few here even blink. 

Sacred cow?  Somehow it seems like the perfect term for the U.S. national security budget.  Let Andrew Bacevich, author most recently of the must-read bestseller, Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War, explain just how we landed in this hole and just why we're not likely to get out of it.  (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast audio interview in which Bacevich discusses the money that pours into the national security budget, click here  or, to download it to your iPod, here.) Tom

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Cow Most Sacred
Why Military Spending Remains Untouchable
By Andrew J. Bacevich

In defense circles, "cutting" the Pentagon budget has once again become a topic of conversation.  Americans should not confuse that talk with reality.  Any cuts exacted will at most reduce the rate of growth.  The essential facts remain: U.S. military outlays today equal that of every other nation on the planet combined, a situation without precedent in modern history. 

The Pentagon presently spends more in constant dollars than it did at any time during the Cold War -- this despite the absence of anything remotely approximating what national security experts like to call a "peer competitor."  Evil Empire?  It exists only in the fevered imaginations of those who quiver at the prospect of China adding a rust-bucket Russian aircraft carrier to its fleet or who take seriously the ravings of radical Islamists promising from deep inside their caves to unite the Umma in a new caliphate.

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What are Americans getting for their money?  Sadly, not much.  Despite extraordinary expenditures (not to mention exertions and sacrifices by U.S. forces), the return on investment is, to be generous, unimpressive.  The chief lesson to emerge from the battlefields of the post-9/11 era is this: the Pentagon possesses next to no ability to translate "military supremacy" into meaningful victory.

Washington knows how to start wars and how to prolong them, but is clueless when it comes to ending them.  Iraq, the latest addition to the roster of America's forgotten wars, stands as exhibit A.  Each bomb that blows up in Baghdad or some other Iraqi city, splattering blood all over the streets, testifies to the manifest absurdity of judging "the surge" as the epic feat of arms celebrated by the Petraeus lobby.

The problems are strategic as well as operational.  Old Cold War-era expectations that projecting U.S. power will enhance American clout and standing no longer apply, especially in the Islamic world.  There, American military activities are instead fostering instability and inciting anti-Americanism.  For Exhibit B, see the deepening morass that Washington refers to as AfPak or the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater of operations.

Add to that the mountain of evidence showing that Pentagon, Inc. is a miserably managed enterprise: hide-bound, bloated, slow-moving, and prone to wasting resources on a prodigious scale -- nowhere more so than in weapons procurement and the outsourcing of previously military functions to "contractors."  When it comes to national security, effectiveness (what works) should rightly take precedence over efficiency (at what cost?) as the overriding measure of merit.  Yet beyond a certain level, inefficiency undermines effectiveness, with the Pentagon stubbornly and habitually exceeding that level.  By comparison, Detroit's much-maligned Big Three offer models of well-run enterprises.

Impregnable Defenses

All of this takes place against the backdrop of mounting problems at home: stubbornly high unemployment, trillion-dollar federal deficits, massive and mounting debt, and domestic needs like education, infrastructure, and employment crying out for attention.

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Yet the defense budget -- a misnomer since for Pentagon, Inc. defense per se figures as an afterthought -- remains a sacred cow.  Why is that? 

The answer lies first in understanding the defenses arrayed around that cow to ensure that it remains untouched and untouchable.  Exemplifying what the military likes to call a "defense in depth," that protective shield consists of four distinct but mutually supporting layers. 

Institutional Self-Interest: Victory in World War II produced not peace, but an atmosphere of permanent national security crisis.  As never before in U.S. history, threats to the nation's existence seemed omnipresent, an attitude first born in the late 1940s that still persists today.  In Washington, fear -- partly genuine, partly contrived -- triggered a powerful response. 

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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