Think of Iraq as the AIG of wars — the only difference being that the bailout there didn’t involve just three payouts. More than eight years after the Bush administration invaded that country, the bailout is, unbelievably enough, still going. Even as the U.S. military withdraws, the State Department is planning to spend billions more in taxpayer dollars to field an army of hired-gun contractors to replace it. Afghanistan? It could have been the Lehman Brothers of conflicts, but when Barack Obama entered the Oval Office he chose the Citigroup model instead, and surged troops in twice in 2009. In other words, he double-TARPed that war, and ever since, the bailout money has been flooding in.
Until now — as the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations make clear — “too big to fail” has meant only one set of institutions: the plundering financial outfits that played such a role in driving the U.S. economy off a cliff in 2008, looked like they might themselves collapse in a heap of bad deals and indebtedness, and were bailed out by Washington. Isn’t it finally time to expand the too-big-to-fail category to include the Pentagon, the U.S. Intelligence Community, and more generally the National Security Complex?
There is, of course, one major difference between those bailed-out financial institutions and the Complex: however powerful the banks may be, however much money financial outfits and Wall Street sink into K-Street lobbyists and the election campaigns of politicians, however much influence the U.S. Chamber of Commerce may wield, when too-big-to-fail financial institutions totter, they have to come to the federal government hat (and future bonuses) in hand.
For the Pentagon and the National Security Complex, it’s quite another matter. These days it’s only a slight exaggeration to claim that they are Washington and that their very size, influence, and power protects them from the consequences of failure.
In the last decade, as “the troops” became sacrosanct, the secular equivalent of religious icons, they also helped ensure that no Congress could afford not to pour money into the Pentagon. (Pay no attention to the much-touted $450 billion that institution is expected to trim over the next ten years. That sum will largely come from “cuts” in future projected growth and anything more will be strongly resisted.) In that same decade — thanks largely to two hijacked planes that damaged New York beyond al-Qaeda’s wildest dreams — “American safety” (narrowly defined as “from terrorists”) became the mantra of the moment. Soon enough, it was the explanation of choice for any expenditure: the latest drones, surveillance equipment, high-tech motion sensors, or peeping-Tom technology at airports.
“The troops” translated into a get-out-of-jail-free card for the Pentagon, and it worked like a charm. In the three years since the economy melted down, when so much that mattered to most Americans was being cut back or deep-sixed, that budget was still merrily expanding. In the meantime, there were those constant infusions of fear for “American safety,” helped along by terror plots generally too inept to do the slightest damage. All this ensured that an already massive crew of intelligence outfits would morph into a labyrinthine bureaucracy of stupefying proportions.
That same phrase fertilized the Department of Homeland Security, the homeland security state that went with it, and an immensely lucrative homeland-security-industrial complex that went with that — all growing at a remarkable clip.
An Insurance Policy for the National Security Complex
Imagine for a second that, at the height of the Cold War, someone had told you of a future in which the U.S. faced no armed great power (not one!) and at most a few thousand terrorists scattered across the planet, as well as modestly armed minority insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Imagine that person making this prediction as well: in budget and size, the National Security Complex of that moment would put its Cold War predecessor in the shade.
Without a doubt, you would have dismissed him as a madman. If someone had proposed such a future to those running the Cold War back then, they would have called it victory. And yet that’s exactly our reality today, while victory itself has become the rarest of vintages, no longer stocked anywhere in our American world.
The dimensions of the National Security Complex now beggar the imagination. In fact, everything about it should make it the global yardstick for “too big to fail.” The Pentagon budget is, for instance, about 50% higher today than the Cold War average and accounts for nearly half of all military expenditures globally. And yet it has kept right on growing; and if bailed-out bankers continue to take home their bonuses as thanks for practically sinking the country, top Pentagon types continue to take home their golden pensions with future revolving-door opportunities in the military-industrial complexalways available.
If you really want to grasp the enormity of the National Security Complex, just consider this stat: today, 4.2 million federal workers and employees of private contractors have security clearances — about, that is, the population of New Zealand or Lebanon.
Whatever Washington turned over to the banks, the Complex has it so much easier. After all, its managers essentially pay themselves more or less what they desire in the name of supporting the troops and promoting American safety. Yes, our congressional representatives officially dole out the money, but they have little choice when it comes to offering less than what’s asked of them. And presidential election campaigns always lock candidates into yet more of the same.
So here’s a basic American reality in the second decade of the twenty-first century: the Complex has an insurance policy unavailable to other Americans, while a vast blanket of secrecy in the name of national security ensures that most Americans have no idea what’s being done with their money. The Complex’s funding is safe and its employees are above the law, no matter what acts they may commit. Notoriously, the Pentagon has never even passed an audit. By default, we guarantee the Complex that, whatever happens to other Americans, its institutions and employees will remain safe. That's the real definition of American security — and doesn’t it sound something like the banks and bankers who just can’t fail?
Don't Ask, Don’t Tell
In such circumstances, cost is no object. To pick a random example, one of the — count ‘em — 17 outfits that make up the U.S. Intelligence Community is the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Of course, like 99.9% of Americans, you’ve never heard of it, and yet it has 16,000 employees, a “black budget thought to be at least $5 billion per year,” and a new, nearly Pentagon-sized headquarters complex in Virginia that’s cost you, the taxpayer, a nifty $1.8 billion.
And what does it do? Protect you, of course. Ensure your safety, naturally. Beyond that, don’t ask how it uses your money. As writer Gregg Easterbrook explains, that's highly classified information. The agency does claim to provide “timely, relevant, and accurate geospatial intelligence in support of national security.” Be satisfied.
And that’s no anomaly. Your taxes regularly bail out the Complex. You ensure its wellbeing, and no one even bothers to give you an explanation. In 2008, economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes did the numbers and offered a “conservative” estimate of the ultimate costs of the Iraq War: $3 trillion. Now that Washington increasingly looks like it’s giving up hope of keeping any significant number of troops stationed in Iraq, you might ask just what that phenomenal sum bought Americans. But no answer will be forthcoming. On Iraq, mum’s the word, nor will anyone in Washington be held accountable.
Oh, and don’t bother to ask, because no one who matters thinks you need to know. Meanwhile, talking about golden parachutes, the president who took us into Iraq and kept us there is overseeing the creation of a library named after him and by last accounting had already raked in $15 million on the lecture circuit at $100,000 to $150,000 a pop; the vice president, who was a key player in the decision to invade and the war that followed, took home more than $2 million for his bestselling memoir; the national security adviser, who offered her keenest advice to the president on the subject of Iraq, garnered a guaranteed $2.5 million on a three-book contract and now charges up to$150,000 an appearance for speaking engagements, while settling into posts at Stanford University and the Hoover Institute; and the secretary of state who went to the U.N. to infamously defend the coming invasion with a pack of lies has pulled in a similar $150,000 ($5,000 a minute) for his lectures — and those are just the first few names on a far longer list.
By the way, in case you think it’s over in Iraq, think again. Washington’s stimulus bill for that country is still in effect. Foreign Service Officer Peter Van Buren writes at the Huffington Post that the State Department is now asking Congress for $5 billion over five years to create jobs for police officers — Iraqi police officers, that is.
A recent report from Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies estimated that the ultimate cost of both the Afghan and Iraq wars could range up to $4.4 trillion (with another vast stimulus package going to the Afghan police and military for years to come). And keep in mind that those trillions don’t include the global war on terror or spending on the rest of the national security complex.
Chris Hellman of the National Priorities Project did the math for TomDispatch and found — again, a conservative estimate — that American taxpayers are shelling out at least $1.2 trillion a year for the vast military, intelligence, and homeland security combine that operates in their name.
All of this to keep you safe from the next underwear bomber. Of course, if you live in Topeka or El Paso or Sacramento or Juneau, you have about the same chance of being endangered by a terrorist as meeting an angel. Which means that whoever’s safety net that money is going to, it’s not yours. Those trillions don’t secure your home from going “underwater,” or your income from falling off a cliff, or your pension from evaporating, or your job from going down the drain or overseas, or the teachers in your community (not to speak of the police) from being given pink slips, or the library in your neighborhood from closing, or that “extra” firehouse in your vicinity from being shut down.
Too Safe to Fail?
When a country spends “more on defense than the next 17 top-spending countries combined” and can’t win a war, you should know that something’s wrong, and that “too big” and “fail” do stand in some relation to each other. Washington, however, doesn’t.
Right now, the United States is still involved in conflicts, declared or undeclared, overt or covert, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen. Only last week, President Obama upped the ante, by announcing that he would send the (first) 100 Green Berets on an armed “advise and assist mission” to Uganda and three other African countries that most Americans couldn’t locate on a map.
They are to help ferret out the Lord’s Resistance Army, a grim, if small, guerrilla force that has been doing terrible things for years (but has in no way endangered the United States). This is, in part, payback for the way Ugandan troops have helped advance the American war on terror in Somalia. Whatever else it may be, it also threatens to be yet another small-scale conflict without end — and of course another potential payday for the National Security Complex.
The only problem: unless you’re inside that Complex or involved in making weapons or other equipment for it, it’s not your payday, just your payout. You, the taxpayer, bailed out AIG, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, and a host of other tottering financial firms. You saved their skins and their bonuses (and got nothing in return). The only bright spot: those were one-time, two-time, or three-time deals.
The Complex is forever (at least as its managers see it). Despite modest rumblings in Washington about the Pentagon and intelligence budgets and the deficit, it’s not just considered too big to fail, but generally too big to question, and too deeply embedded to think much about.
No wonder TARPing war has become a Washington pastime.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com, where this article first appeared. His latest book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), will be published in November.