July 19, 2011

Refinancing Sparta


Glenn Greenwald, who does a much better job than I ever could of cataloging the absurdity of America's "war on terror," recently devoted one of his columns to Leon Panetta's exciting revelation that only about "10 or 20 al-Qaeda leaders" remain in Afghanistan. I think I mentioned before that Panetta, who always seems to hold some high post in every Democratic Administration (I think he's Secretary of Defense now, having moved on or up from the CIA), got his start as a character actor, playing a pharmacist on "Dobie Gillis." That's either true or something that I find funny and keep repeating even though it isn't.

A couple of thoughts come to mind: so this is why we're still fighting the war in Afghanistan, about ten years after we started? To finish killing off these 10 or 20 guys? And one other question: if we're at the point where we can count them, how come we can't just kill them now? My guess is that Leon did not clear this statement with Message Control Central over at the White House. He's been in politics for so long, Leon has (virtually his whole life), and has held so many big positions (he was Chief of Staff to Clinton for a while) that he perhaps forgot that he's a functionary in the Obama political machine and not a policy maker. There must have been some elaborate cringing in the West Wing when Leon delivered that little aper├žu.

Still, it highlights the craziness of America's misguided reaction to 9/11. 9/11 was significant for two reasons: (1) it highlighted that it's dangerous to go to sleep on the job and to fail to use the existing intelligence apparatus to protect the country, as the Bush Administration unquestionably did; and (2) it was highly significant for the people who were killed and for the people who loved them. Beyond those things, 9/11 became simply a grandiose political football (if a football can be grandiose), and entered the myth-making machine of American mass media, never to be recognized for what it actually was again. Bush's carefully calculated overreaction (orchestrated by Cheney) was for the express purpose of diverting the national attention from the fact that it was the Bush/Cheney Administration's fault in the first place, and, of course, also serving as a pretext for what they wanted to do all along, pump more and more money into defense. If the al-Qaeda problem has been reduced to 10 or 20 guys (even allowing for a moment the unproved assertion that al-Qaeda was behind 9/11, instead of, say, the much more logical conclusion that it originated with the Muslim Brotherhood or Saudi factions unrelated to al-Qaeda), then why the continuing production of advanced fighter jets and aircraft carriers to launch them from, and the Bradley Fighting Vehicles and all the rest of this costly nonsense (h/t: Charles Dickens)?

It's a rhetorical question. Bush & Cheney, and now Obama, realize that all this "investment" is not necessary for anti-terrorist operations, which, last time I looked, is supposedly the existential threat to America justifying our extreme devotion to defense spending. I note that the Right Wing in particular likes to talk about our defense spending in terms of a "percentage of the budget," or even as a percentage of GDP, as if there is some unwritten axiom somewhere that dictates that a country must spend some part of the national wealth on the military. But what about just the absolute freaking number? We like to deceive ourselves with the idea that this number is $700 billion (as if we could afford that), but it's not $700 billion, because the metastatic process of the Security State gave us the Department of Homeland Security, the 14 different intelligence agencies scattered throughout the government, the National Security Agency, and they're all more or less doing the same thing: keeping us safe from those 10 or 20 guys, and it costs closer to $1 trillion a year, as the late, great Chalmers Johnson informed us in numerous books, including The Sorrows of Empire.

In other words, about half of our actual national income. If you look over there to the right and click on the link to Cost of Iraq War, you'll see a running total of the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We're currently at about $1.222 trillion for these diversions. If you add about $700 billion, representing the cost of Bush's reduction of the top tier tax rate from 39.6% to 35%, you come to about $2 trillion in squandered treasure, all for no reason other than mismanagement of the nation's business. The fact that Bush was elected twice should tell you why democracy does not actually work in America. Thomas Frank's brilliant query in What's the Matter With Kansas?, to wit, why do Americans vote against their own economic and social interest, cannot be answered except by saying, well, the electorate is kind of stupid, actually. The combination of a misinformed and poorly educated electorate with a money-driven, manipulative politics is pretty lethal, really. Which explains a lot of why things look the way they do these days.

So I notice, at long last, that even Washington, D.C., has begun to question the wisdom of so much defense spending. True, it's only because there's no other choice. Perhaps this will even lead to a diminution in missile attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and God knows where else, and will thus lead, as Glenn Greenwald persuasively argues (as do many other observers, including Robert Baer) to a diminution in newly-created, anti-U.S. terrorists, because our random killing of many non-terrorist people in these countries with our "precision bombing" is one of the main sources of terrorism. You could say that these constant drone and Predator attacks represent our cynical investment in the War on Terror: it's a self-perpetuating business, although if Panetta is right, the inventory is a little low, which probably explains why we've moved on to new markets in Yemen and Somalia.

Still, a chance to reduce the militarized nature of American priorities is one patch of blue in the dark skies of national insolvency. It would be nice if President Obama talked about that for a change, instead of decreasing the COLA adjustments in Social Security for Americans in their 80's and 90's, where his current focus seems to be. Maybe if we cut back just a little on the aircraft carriers and $250 million jets, and allowed our military budget to be, I don't know, only three times larger than the next biggest budget, that of China, instead of somewhere between 6 and 10 times larger, we could still be safe from the world, where no actual nation has any intention of attacking us, with enough left over to handle the 10 or 20 guys.

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