Making the World Safe for Plutocracy

As I write this, it’s day three of Gulf War II, and American bombers have just bombed the living shit out of Baghdad, following a strategy the Coalition commanders call “Shock and Awe.” While the term ostensibly applies to the idea of raining such overwhelming force on the enemy’s heads that they’ll be too busy pissing themselves to fight back — less Sun-Tzu, more God of Abraham — it comes as no surprise to those of us who have been pondering the events leading up to this war. We’ve been in shock and awe for months.

The Bush Administration pressed on with its determination to wage war against Iraq despite a lack of clear and credible evidence to support its claims, despite a lack of internecine and international support for the cause, and despite a host of far more pressing domestic concerns. At the same time, the Administration’s behavior has become increasingly irrational, its message fuzzy, its persona unclear. Whereas at one point the President seemed to be going for the Cowboy Mojo that worked so well for Ronald Reagan (who slipped easily into the role of the lone sheriff going in to rout them varmints in Grenada and Libya), he now more closely resembles that other American myth-figure, Captain Ahab. Never mind that the ship of state is floundering. George W. Bush will have his White Whale and damn the consequences. Shock and awe, Melville-style.

The questions raised by this posture are profound and prolific, and the proffered answers less than satisfying. If we are truly in Iraq because of our deep belief in the need to enforce United Nations edicts, we would have invaded Israel years ago. If we’re there to neutralize a potential threat to the United States, we’d be knocking on Kim Jong Il’s door with bunker-buster bombs as well. If we’re there because of our missionary passion to bring democracy to the rest of the world, we’d show more respect for the democracy at work in France and Turkey, and White House spokesman Ari Fleischer would not be making the asinine claim that the “coalition of the willing” numbers 1.8 billion people, seeing as the majority of the populations of that coalition’s members are opposed to the war.

And, of course, if we expect the Iraqi people to embrace American-brand freedom, the Administration would be working much harder to practice it at home, ending unlawful detentions, the suppression of dissent, the proposed kangaroo tribunals, and the murder of prisoners, such as those of two Afghani detainees recently beaten to death at Guantánamo Bay (Independent, 7 March 2003). These are all the sorts of atrocities from which we claim to be liberating Iraq.

War, like any other human enterprise, requires a guiding philosophy. Despite Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s somewhat baffling trash-talk, it is not a lack of will nor of courage that kept the French and Germans from siding with us, nor is it “irrelevance” that deadlocked the United Nations, as the President would have us believe. Contrary to current American thinking, our emergence as the world’s sole remaining superpower has given us an even greater responsibility to make sure that the rest of the world has no doubts about our motives, especially when we go adventuring in other people’s neighborhoods. The United States and its allies outlined an unprecedented course of pre-emptive military action against a sovereign nation — the very thing the United Nations was created to prevent — without effectively making their case. The U.N. lived up to its philosophy, while the U.S. and U.K. traded theirs for a bunch of postures that simply made no sense.

Sadly, the only explanation for the war that ultimately does make sense is the most prosaic one, the most horrifying and least flattering to our nation’s inflated self-image, and thus the one the American people find hardest to wrap their minds around. It’s all about the Benjamins, baby.

Much has been made about the fact that our current President is the first Chief Executive to hold an MBA, though not for the lack of trying by other corporate warriors such as Ross Perot and Steve Forbes. Citing that heinous phrase, “The business of America is business,” corporate America has been trying to get its own in positions of power for decades. We’ve seen a rise in the ranks of entrenched businessmen who are no longer content to be mere lobbyists or the recipients of influence peddling; now they seek to cut out the middleman and enact public policy themselves.

The usual justification for the political aspirations of CEOs and giants of industry — that a successful businessman knows best how to manage the affairs and insure the prosperity of a going capitalist concern like the United States of America — is simplistic enough to pacify many, but it fails to wash for two reasons. One, a government is not a business and doesn’t work like one; and two, a successful businessperson is such because capitalism favors aggressive self-interest, that is, a man who succeeds by being a venal, rapacious bastard should be suspect the moment he professes a sudden burst of altruism and a yen for selfless public service.

That said, even the most casual look at the profit motive behind the war against Iraq is appalling in its brutal logic. “No Blood for Oil” has become such a cliché among opponents of the first Gulf War and the current one that the Administration has taken great pains to categorically deny that its purpose is the hostile takeover of the Iraqi oil industry, second only to that of Saudi Arabia. The oil “belongs to the Iraqi people,” Bush says while imploring Iraqi forces not to set fire to the wells, and yet he has also discussed paying for this incredibly expensive war by citing future Iraqi oil revenues. Either Bush and his minions are crossing their fingers and counting hopefully on the largesse of the next (independent, of course) president of Iraq to table the rebuilding of his country until after he’s paid off the people who so generously blew it up, or American annexation of the oil fields is a done deal. You make the call.

I’m kidding, of course. The call has already been made, by news organizations and watchdog groups, with such force that even America’s own lawmakers are succumbing to shock and awe. Last week, the Wall Street Journal (11 March 2003) reported the offer of postwar construction bids to companies with ties to Bush Administration officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney’s old outfit Halliburton, an oil-apparatus construction firm that pays ex-CEO Cheney a million dollars a year as part of his compensation package. This came as a surprise to members of Congress (including Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, head of the Senate Appropriations committee), who had not been apprised of these dealings despite the fact that they would be the ones appropriating billions in taxpayer money to the winners of these secret bids (NPR News, 11 March 2003).

But it really shouldn’t have. After all, Cheney became CEO of Halliburton after stepping down as the first Bush’s Secretary of Defense, at which time the firm secured a contract with Saddam Hussein to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure after the first Gulf War — you know, the one Cheney directed.

Currently Brown and Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, is providing support services to U.S. military camps in Kuwait, Afghanistan, and other areas where we have sent forces following an exclusive 10-year, open-ended sweetheart deal worth hundreds of millions as an outsourcing firm for the Pentagon that was inked in December 2001. In other words, every military operation the U.S. has engaged in since the September 11th attacks has resulted in huge paydays for a company with business ties to the Vice President and a track record of profiting from wars he is instrumental in starting (CorpWatch, 20 March 2003).

William Randolph Hearst and the Krupp family would be proud.

Add to the above recent revelations in The New Yorker (17 March 2003), that Richard Perle, Chairman of the Defense Policy Board, a Defense Department advisory committee with high-level access to military information, is also one of the heads of an outfit called Trireme Partners and a director of the British firm, the Autonomy Corporation. Both companies specialize in providing governments with “technology, goods, and services that are of value to homeland defense and security.” This means that in between appearances on Meet the Press to perpetuate alarm and drum up public support for the wars on terrorism and Iraq, and visits to the Pentagon to garner top-secret information and lend his considerable weight to the push for the U.S. to go to war, Perle is busy securing contracts with the American and Saudi governments for his companies. Talk about scaring up business — every time the nation goes on Orange Alert, Dick Perle sees green.

The list goes on and on: the elder Bush was a director for an investment firm whose top clients were the bin Laden family. Osama bin Laden’s many relations in America managed to leave the country unmolested after 9/11 while hundreds of innocent Muslims were being rounded up. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld formerly served as member of the board of the Swiss technology company that provided North Korea with much of the equipment it’s now reportedly using to build nuclear weapons. And deals for the pharmaceutical industry, another Bush family interest, snuck into the USA-Patriot Act.

Shock and awe.

Perhaps the most heinous corollary of the “business of America” saw, however, is that it operates under the guise of the national interest. While the Bushes and their cronies secretly do business with the parties they claim to despise, and start wars that only make sense if one looks at the profit motives, their political positions and unfettered access to the bully pulpit have spun this morass into an us-versus-them paradigm that blatantly capitalizes on the national horror brought about by 9/11. When Bush intoned, “You’re either with us or against us,” after the al-Qaeda attacks, he wasn’t just addressing the leaders of other nations, he was addressing the American people as well.

Dissent, opposition, even questioning the actions and motives of this Administration is to appear supportive of America’s enemies, whether you’re Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, the Dixie Chicks, French President Jacques Chirac, or an ordinary citizen whose most private information is being quietly compiled by the Justice Department or the Pentagon’s Total Information Office.

The trouble is, as we are expected to rally round the flag, boys, and weld our love of country to a blind acceptance of whatever the White House decides is best for us, to our leaders, it’s just business. Like Manuel Noriega, who helped facilitate illicit drug revenues for the CIA until he got greedy, or the Taliban, whom we put in power to keep the Soviets’ hands off our potential trans-Afghanistan pipeline, Saddam Hussein is a brutal and sadistic thug of a man whose greatest crime, nevertheless, was becoming undesirable as a business partner.

Like many other Americans, I support the troops currently in the Persian Gulf and I pray for a swift and decisive end to this war, because a swift and decisive end means that fewer of them and fewer Iraqi citizens will die as a result of the efforts of war profiteers with government jobs to line their pockets.

And, like many other Americans, I believe in the old quote about the business of America. Not the one about the business of America being business, but that other one, about how the business of America is to “provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” (Italics added, of course.) These days, it seems necessary to remind people that the government’s purpose is to care for all of its citizens, not just the ones with lucrative defense contracts, and the fact that it’s become necessary just fills me with shock and awe.

[Addendum: Events march on. In the days since this piece was written, the New York Times (21 and 23 March 2003) reported that the aforementioned Richard Perle had been retained for $725,000 by Global Crossing, the telecommunications giant which crashed in last year’s corporate accounting scandals, to help persuade the Pentagon to approve its sale to an overseas conglomerate. Thus while Perle is supposed to be advising the Pentagon on matters of defense, he continues to bring his wallet with him. Perle also reportedly addressed members of the American Enterprise Institute on the desirability of expanding the war into Iran and recently participated on a conference call with Goldman Sachs clients on investment opportunities resulting from the current war and a future conflict with North Korea. Not only do these activities violate government ethics rules to which Perle is required to adhere, they provide further evidence that America’s rush to war has been entirely leveraged by people seeking to profit from it. In the face of a pending federal investigation into his business dealings, Perle resigned as chairman of the Defense Policy Board on 27 March. The rest of the gang remain at large.]