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Tomgram: Nick Turse, Revolving Doors, Robust Rolodexes, and Runaway Generals

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

Here's an oddity: Americans recognize corruption as an endemic problem in much of the world, just not in our own. And that's strange. After all, to take but one example, America's twenty-first-century war zones have been notorious quagmires of corruption on a scale that should boggle the imagination. In 2011, a final report from the congressionally mandated Commission on Wartime Contracting estimated that somewhere between $31 billion and $60 billion U.S. taxpayer dollars were lost to fraud and waste in the American "reconstruction" of Iraq and Afghanistan (which undoubtedly will, in the end, prove an underestimate). U.S. taxpayer dollars were spent to build roads to nowhere; a gas station in the middle of nowhere; teacher-training centers and other structures that were never finished (but made oodles of money for lucky contractors); a chicken-plucking factory that never plucked a chicken (but plucked American taxpayers); and a lavish $25 million headquarters that no one ever needed or bothered to use. Thanks to tens of billions of U.S. dollars, whole security forces were funded, trained, armed, and filled with "ghost" soldiers and police (while local commanders and other officials lined their pockets with completely unspectral "salaries"). And so it went.

Of course, all that took place in another galaxy far, far away where corruption is the norm. In the U.S.A. itself, corruption is considered un-American (though don't tell that to the denizens of Ferguson, Missouri). This is, of course, largely a matter of definition, as Thomas Frank made vividly clear at TomDispatch recently when he laid out the scope of the "influence" industry in Washington. You know, the hordes of lobbyists who live the good life and offer tastes of it to government officials they would like to influence -- none of which is "corrupt." It's completely legit, a thoroughly congenial way of operating among Washington's power brokers.

In its 2010 Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court offered its own redefinition of corruption in America, ensuring that dollars by the barrelful could be piped directly into the political system with remarkable ease to influence (not to say buy) politicians and elections. Only the other day, it spoke up again with a unanimous decision in favor of corruption as a perfectly acceptable way of life. It overturned the conviction of Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell for "using his office to help Jonnie R. Williams Sr., who had provided the McDonnells with luxury products, loans, and vacations worth more than $175,000 when Mr. McDonnell was governor." (Lest I seem too gloomy on the subject, let me mention one small sign of something different. Anti-corruption scholar and activist Zephyr Teachout just won the Democratic nomination for a congressional seat in New York State. Will wonders never cease?)

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That American knack for banishing corruption from our lives without banishing the activities that normally go with it came to mind again today because TomDispatch's managing editor, Nick Turse, has a look at a former general who successfully navigated America's war zones of corruption, and whose post-official life could -- depending on your viewpoint -- be seen as pure as the driven snow, or as corrupt as can be imagined. You choose. Tom

Leaker, Speaker, Soldier, Spy
The Charmed Life of David Petraeus
By Nick Turse

I ran into David Petraeus the other night. Or rather, I ran after him.

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It's been more than a year since I first tried to connect with the retired four-star general and ex-CIA director -- and no luck yet. On a recent evening, as the sky was turning from a crisp ice blue into a host of Easter-egg hues, I missed him again. Led from a curtained "backstage" area where he had retreated after a midtown Manhattan event, Petraeus moved briskly to a staff-only room, then into a tightly packed elevator, and momentarily out onto the street before being quickly ushered into a waiting late-model, black Mercedes S550.

And then he was gone, whisked into the warm New York night, companions in tow.

For the previous hour, Petraeus had been in conversation with Peter Bergen, a journalist, CNN analyst, and vice president at New America, the think tank sponsoring the event . Looking fit and well-rested in a smart dark-blue suit, the former four-star offered palatable, pat, and -- judging from the approving murmurs of the audience -- popular answers to a host of questions about national security issues ranging from the fight against the Islamic State to domestic gun control. While voicing support for the Second Amendment, for example, he spoke about implementing "common sense solutions to the availability of weapons," specifically keeping guns out of the hands of "domestic abusers" and those on the no-fly list. Even as he expressed "great respect" for those who carried out acts of torture in the wake of 9/11, he denounced its use -- except in the case of a "ticking time bomb." In an era when victory hasn't been a word much used in relation to the American military, he even predicted something close to it on the horizon. "I've said from the very beginning, even in the darkest days, the Islamic State would be defeated in Iraq," he told the appreciative crowd.

I went to the event hoping to ask Petraeus a question or two, but Bergen never called on me during the Q & A portion of the evening. My attendance was not, however, a total loss.

Watching the retired general in action, I was reminded of the peculiarity of this peculiar era -- an age of generals whose careers are made in winless wars; years in which such high-ranking, mission-unaccomplished officers rotate through revolving doors that lead not only to top posts with major weapons merchants, but also too-big-to-fail banks, top universities, cutting-edge tech companies, healthcare firms, and other corporate behemoths. Hardly a soul, it seems, cares that these generals and admirals have had leading roles in quagmire wars or even, in two prominent cases, saw their government service cease as a result of career-ending scandal. And Citizen David Petraeus is undoubtedly the epitome of this phenomenon.

Celebrated as the most cerebral of generals, the West Point grad and Princeton Ph.D. rose to stardom during the Iraq War -- credited with pacifying the restive city of Mosul before becoming one of the architects of the new Iraqi Army. Petraeus would then return to the United States where he revamped and revived the Army's failed counterinsurgency doctrine from the Vietnam War, before being tapped to lead "The Surge" of U.S. forces in Iraq -- an effort to turn around the foundering conflict. Through it all, Petraeus waged one of the most deft self-promotion campaigns in recent memory, cultivating politicians, academics, and especially fawning journalists who reported on his running stamina, his penchant for push-ups, and even -- I kid you not -- how he woke a lieutenant from what was thought to be an irreversible coma by shouting the battle cry of his unit.

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A series of biographers would lionize the general who, after achieving what to some looked like success in Iraq, went on to head U.S. Central Command, overseeing the conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan. When the military career of his subordinate General Stanley McChrystal imploded, Petraeus was sent once more unto the breach to spearhead an Afghan War surge and win another quagmire war.

And win Petraeus did. Not in Afghanistan, of course. That war grinds on without end. But the Teflon general somehow emerged from it all with people talking about him as a future presidential contender. Looking back at Petraeus's successes, one understands just what a feat this was. Statistics show that Petraeus never actually pacified Mosul, which has now been under the control of the Islamic State (ISIS) for years. The army Petraeus helped build in Iraq crumbled in the face of that same force which, in some cases, was even supported by Sunni fighters Petraeus had put on the U.S. payroll to make The Surge appear successful.

Indeed, Petraeus had come to New America's New York headquarters to answer one question in particular: "What will the next president's national security challenges be?" Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, Iraq, Afghanistan: precisely the set of groups he had fought, places he had fought in, or what had resulted from his supposed victories.

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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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