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Tomgram: Mandy Smithberger, Bailing Out the War State

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

In this century, the war-fighting performance of the U.S. military has proven woeful indeed and both the Pentagon high command and key Trump administration officials have evidently been incapable of drawing obvious conclusions from that fact. Or think of it another way: even the president who can't tell Lysol from a helpful prescription drug has noticed that something is truly wrong with America's war in Afghanistan. This should have long been obvious. After all, almost 19 years after the U.S. invaded that country on a mission to destroy the Taliban, as well as al-Qaeda, and "liberate" Afghans, thousands of American troops, advisers, and contractors (though officially being drawn down) remain there, along with striking amounts of U.S. air power. And, of course, Washington is still embroiled in a conflict with the Taliban, which now controls ever more of the Afghan countryside, as well as other insurgent groups, including a spinoff of the Islamic State. (Meanwhile, spin-offs from the original al-Qaeda operate across significant parts of the Greater Middle East and Africa.)

Now, add into that equation the Covid-19 pandemic. It's clear that the coronavirus is spreading from Iran into poverty-stricken Afghanistan via hundreds of thousands of Afghans heading home from that country into crowded cities lacking the most basic health care or even hot water and soap for hand-washing. In other words, as I've written elsewhere, the U.S. military is now certain to find itself embroiled in pandemic wars that could make events on the Covid-19-ridden aircraft carrier USS Roosevelt look like next to nothing. Stranger yet, the "very stable genius" who often seems to grasp so little has, NBC News reports, grasped this and has been pushing his national security team daily "to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan amid concerns about a major coronavirus outbreak in the war-torn country." By now, you probably have some sense of what it might be like to have Donald Trump push you daily.

Yet hand it to the Pentagon and crew: they haven't agreed to his request. Instead, his "military advisers" have reportedly pointed out to him, in true Trumpian fashion (via an analogy from hell), that "if the U.S. pulls troops out of Afghanistan because of the coronavirus, by that standard the Pentagon would also have to withdraw from places like Italy." Gasp!

Now, don't misunderstand me: this country's top military figures and national-security types may be hopeless when it comes to waging war successfully in the twenty-first century, but they're by no means hopeless. They couldn't be more skilled or more successful when it comes to getting themselves and the rest of the military-industrial complex funded at levels that are historically mind-boggling. As TomDispatch regular and director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight Mandy Smithberger points out so strikingly today, their skill in making use of this pandemic moment to ensure that funding flows ever more quickly and copiously into the complex is beyond compare. If America's forever wars were funding ones, the winners would be instantly obvious. Tom

Beware the Pentagon's Pandemic Profiteers
Hasn't the Military-Industrial Complex Taken Enough of Our Money?
By Mandy Smithberger

At this moment of unprecedented crisis, you might think that those not overcome by the economic and mortal consequences of the coronavirus would be asking, "What can we do to help?" A few companies have indeed pivoted to making masks and ventilators for an overwhelmed medical establishment. Unfortunately, when it comes to the top officials of the Pentagon and the CEOs running a large part of the arms industry, examples abound of them asking what they can do to help themselves.

It's important to grasp just how staggeringly well the defense industry has done in these last nearly 19 years since 9/11. Its companies (filled with ex-military and defense officials) have received trillions of dollars in government contracts, which they've largely used to feather their own nests. Data compiled by the New York Times showed that the chief executive officers of the top five military-industrial contractors received nearly $90 million in compensation in 2017. An investigation that same year by the Providence Journal discovered that, from 2005 to the first half of 2017, the top five defense contractors spent more than $114 billion repurchasing their own company stocks and so boosting their value at the expense of new investment.

To put this in perspective in the midst of a pandemic, the co-directors of the Costs of War Project at Brown University recently pointed out that allocations for the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institutes of Health for 2020 amounted to less than 1% of what the U.S. government has spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan alone since 9/11. While just about every imaginable government agency and industry has been impacted by the still-spreading coronavirus, the role of the defense industry and the military in responding to it has, in truth, been limited indeed. The highly publicized use of military hospital ships in New York City and Los Angeles, for example, not only had relatively little impact on the crises in those cities but came to serve as a symbol of just how dysfunctional the military response has truly been.

Bailing Out the Military-Industrial Complex in the Covid-19 Moment

Demands to use the Defense Production Act to direct firms to produce equipment needed to combat Covid-19 have sputtered, provoking strong resistance from industries worried first and foremost about their own profits. Even conservative Washington Post columnist Max Boot, a longtime supporter of increased Pentagon spending, has recently recanted, noting how just such budget priorities have weakened the ability of the United States to keep Americans safe from the virus. "It never made any sense, as Trump's 2021 budget had initially proposed, to increase spending on nuclear weapons by $7 billion while cutting Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funding by $1.2 billion," he wrote. "Or to create an unnecessary Space Force out of the U.S. Air Force while eliminating the vitally important directorate of global health by folding it into another office within the National Security Council."

In fact, continuing to prioritize the U.S. military will only further weaken the country's public health system. As a start, simply to call up doctors and nurses in the military reserves, as even Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has pointed out, would hurt the broader civilian response to the pandemic. After all, in their civilian lives many of them now work at domestic hospitals and medical centers deluged by Covid-19 patients.

The present situation, however, hasn't stopped military-industrial complex requests for bailouts. The National Defense Industrial Association, a trade group for the arms industry, typically asked the Pentagon to speed up contracts and awards for $160 billion in unobligated Department of Defense funds to its companies, which will involve pushing money out the door without even the most modest level of due diligence.

Already under fire in the pre-pandemic moment for grotesque safety problems with its commercial jets, Boeing, the Pentagon's second biggest contractor, received $26.3 billion last year. Now, that company has asked for $60 billion in government support. And you undoubtedly won't be surprised to learn that Congress has already provided Boeing with some of that desired money in its recent bailout legislation. According to the Washington Post, $17 billion was carved out in that deal for companies "critical to maintaining national security" (with Boeing in particular in mind). When, however, it became clear that those funds wouldn't arrive as a complete blank check, the company started to have second thoughts. Now, some members of Congress are practically begging it to take the money.

And Boeing was far from alone. Even as the spreading coronavirus was spurring congressional conversations about what would become a $2 trillion relief package, 130 members of the House were already pleading for funds to purchase an additional 98 Lockheed Martin F-35 jet fighters, the most expensive weapons system in history, at the cost of another half-billion dollars, or the price of more than 90,000 ventilators.

Similarly, it should have been absurdly obvious that this wasn't the moment to boost already astronomical spending on nuclear weapons. Yet this year's defense budget request for such weaponry was 20% higher than last year's and 50% above funding levels when President Trump took office. The agency that builds nuclear weapons already had $8 billion left unspent from past years and the head of the National Nuclear Security Agency, responsible for the development of nuclear warheads, admitted to Representative Susan Davis (D-CA) that the agency was unlikely even to be able to spend all of the new increase.

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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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