I recently took a little trip into the past and deep into America's distant war zones to write a piece I called "It's a $cam." It was, for me, an eye-opening journey into those long-gone years of American "nation-building" and "reconstruction" in Afghanistan and Iraq. Mind you, I still remembered some of what had been reported at the time like the "urine-soaked" police academy built in Baghdad by an American private contractor with taxpayer dollars. But it was the cumulative effect of it all that now struck me -- one damning report after another that made it clear Washington was incapable of building or rebuilding anything whatsoever. There were all those poorly constructed or unfinished military barracks, police stations, and outposts for the new national security forces the U.S. military was so eagerly "standing up" in both countries. There were the unfinished or miserably constructed schools, training centers, and "roads to nowhere." There were those local militaries and police forces whose ranks were heavily populated by "ghost soldiers." There was that shiny new U.S. military headquarters in Afghanistan that cost $25 million and no one wanted or would ever use. It was, in short, a litany of fiascoes and disasters that never seemed to end.
Financially, Washington had invested sums in both countries that far exceeded the Marshall Plan, which so successfully put Western Europe back on its feet after World War II. Yet Iraq and Afghanistan were left on their knees amid a carnival of corruption and misspent taxpayer money. What made revisiting this spectacle so stunning wasn't just the inability of the U.S. military, the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and a crew of crony warrior corporations raking in the big bucks to do anything right, but that this was the United States of America. It was the country I -- and I was hardly alone in this -- had grown up thinking of as the globe's master builder. In the 1950s and early 1960s, my childhood years, it seemed as if there was nothing Americans couldn't build successfully from an unparalleled highway system to rockets that were moonward bound.
Half a century later, it's clear that, at least in our war zones, there's nothing we've been capable of building right, no matter the dollars available. And that, as TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon suggests today in an eye-opening piece, is just the beginning of our new American reality. Tom
Home, Sweet Kleptocracy
Kabul in America
By Rebecca Gordon
A top government official with energy industry holdings huddles in secret with oil company executives to work out the details of a potentially lucrative "national energy policy." Later, that same official steers billions of government dollars to his former oil-field services company. Well-paid elected representatives act with impunity, routinely trading government contracts and other favors for millions of dollars. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens live in fear of venal police forces that suck them dry by charging fees for services, throwing them in jail when they can't pay arbitrary fines or selling their court "debts" to private companies. Sometimes the police just take people's life savings leaving them with no recourse whatsoever. Sometimes they steal and deal drugs on the side. Meanwhile, the country's infrastructure crumbles. Bridges collapse, or take a quarter-century to fix after a natural disaster, or (despite millions spent) turn out not to be fixed at all. Many citizens regard their government at all levels with a weary combination of cynicism and contempt. Fundamentalist groups respond by calling for a return to religious values and the imposition of religious law.
What country is this? Could it be Nigeria or some other kleptocratic developing state? Or post-invasion Afghanistan where Ahmed Wali Karzai, CIA asset and brother of the U.S.-installed president Hamid Karzai, made many millions on the opium trade (which the U.S. was ostensibly trying to suppress), while his brother Mahmoud raked in millions more from the fraud-ridden Bank of Kabul? Or could it be Mexico, where the actions of both the government and drug cartels have created perhaps the world's first narco-terrorist state?
In fact, everything in this list happened (and much of it is still happening) in the United States, the world leader -- or so we like to think -- in clean government. These days, however, according to the Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International (TI), our country comes in only 17th in the least-corrupt sweepstakes, trailing European and Scandinavian countries as well as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. In fact, TI considers us on a par with Caribbean island nations like Barbados and the Bahamas. In the U.S., TI says, "from fraud and embezzlement charges to the failure to uphold ethical standards, there are multiple cases of corruption at the federal, state and local level."
And here's a reasonable bet: it's not going to get better any time soon and it could get a lot worse. When it comes to the growth of American corruption, one of TI's key concerns is the how the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision opened the pay-to-play floodgates of the political system, allowing Super PACs to pour billions of private and corporate money into it, sometimes in complete secrecy. Citizens United undammed the wealth of the super-rich and their enablers, allowing big donors like casino capitalist -- a description that couldn't be more literal -- Sheldon Adelson to use their millions to influence government policy.
Every now and then, a book changes the way you see the world. It's like shaking a kaleidoscope and suddenly all the bits and pieces fall into a new pattern. Sarah Chayes's Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security shook my kaleidoscope. Chayes traveled to Afghanistan in 2001 as a reporter for NPR. Moved by the land and people, she soon gave up reporting to devote herself to working with non-governmental organizations helping "Afghans rebuild their shattered but extraordinary country."
In the process, she came to understand the central role government corruption plays in the collapse of nations and the rise of fundamentalist organizations like the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State. She also discovered just how unable (and often unwilling) American military and civilian officials were to put a stop to the thievery that characterized Afghanistan's government at every level -- from the skimming of billions in reconstruction funds at the top to the daily drumbeat of demands for bribes and "fees" from ordinary citizens seeking any kind of government service further down the chain of organized corruption. In general, writes Chayes, kleptocratic countries operate very much as pyramid schemes, with people at one level paying those at the next for the privilege of extracting money from those below.
Chayes suggests that "acute government corruption" may be a major factor "at the root" of the violent extremism now spreading across the Greater Middle East and Africa. When government robs ordinary people blind, in what she calls a "vertically integrated criminal enterprise," the victims tend to look for justice elsewhere. When officials treat the law with criminal contempt, or when the law explicitly permits government extortion, they turn to what seem like uncorrupted systems of reprisal and redemption outside those laws. Increasingly, they look to God or God's laws and, of course, to God's self-proclaimed representatives. The result can be dangerously violent explosions of anger and retribution. Eruptions can take the form of the Puritan iconoclasm that rocked Catholic Europe in the sixteenth century or present-day attempts by the Taliban or the Islamic State to implement a harsh, even vindictive version of Islamic Sharia law, while attacking "unbelievers" in the territory they control.
Reading Thieves of State, it didn't take long for my mind to wander from Kabul to Washington, from a place where American-funded corruption was an open secret to a place where few would think it applicable. Why was it, I began to wonder, that in our country "corruption" never came up in relation to bankers the government allowed to sell mortgages to people who couldn't repay them, then slicing and dicing their debt into investment "securities" that brought on the worst recession since the 1930s? (Neil Barofsky, who took on the thankless role of inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Fund, tells the grim tale of how the government was "captured by the banks" in his 2012 book Bailout.)
Chayes made me wander ever deeper into the recent history of Washington's wheeling and dealing, including, for instance, the story of the National Energy Policy Development Group, which Vice President Dick Cheney convened in the first weeks of George W. Bush's presidency. Its charge was to develop a national energy policy for the country and its deliberations -- attended by top executives of all the major oil companies (some of whom then denied before Congress that they had been present) -- were held in complete secrecy. Cheney even refused to surrender the list of attendees when the Government Accountability Office sued him, a suit eventually dropped after Congress cut that agency's budget. If the goal was to create a policy that would suit the oil companies, Cheney was the perfect man to chair the enterprise.
In 2001, having suggested himself as the only reasonable running mate for Bush, Cheney left his post as CEO at oilfield services corporation Halliburton. "Big changes are coming to Washington," he told ABC News, "and I want to be a part of them." And so he was, including launching a disastrous war on Iraq, foreseen and planned for in those energy policy meetings. Indeed, documents shaken loose in a Freedom of Information Act suit brought by Judicial Watch and the Sierra Club showed that in March 2001 -- months before the 9/11 attacks -- energy task force members were already salivating over taking possession of those Iraqi oil fields. Nor did Cheney forget his friends at Halliburton. Their spin-off company, KBR, would receive a better-than-1,000-to-1 return on their investment in the vice president (who'd gotten a $34 million severance package from them), reaping $39.5 billion in government contracts in Iraq. And yet when did anyone mention "corruption" in connection with any of this?