By any reasonable measure, the policies carried out by the U.S. government since 1990 toward the Muslim countries of the Middle East (democracy promotion, regime change, political stabilization, “peace process,” antiterrorism) have failed disastrously. Not only is nothing better over there, but everything is worse over here, the home of the not-so-brave and ever-less-free. Every sentient, reflective American over the age of 45 can remember that the country was safer and freer the year the first Bush, freed from the constraints of the Bear and eager to spend the Peace Dividend, unleashed the kraken on the world. For all the needless wars and imperial adventures that followed, we are trillions of dollars poorer, are afflicted with homegrown Islamic terrorism, and live in what can be described, without hyperbole, as a not-so-soft totalitarian police state. Yet undaunted by failure, immune from experience, and insensible to shame, our mandarins and policy wonks, enabled and protected by the press and politicians, push on and on and plunge ever deeper into the black morass of empire.
Why? James Risen’s answer is simple: money. There are fortunes to be made searching for monsters to destroy, and even more pretending to destroy them—so much so that it actually pays to create new monsters when the old ones prove to be unfrightening to subjects who have come to expect ever-new dangers on their widescreens. If statistics can lie, they can also illuminate and abbreviate, and one that Risen cites serves not only to validate his argument but to render subsequent chapters of his book largely redundant: Seven of the ten wealthiest counties in America are in the Washington, D.C., area. Case closed.
Some will recognize James Risen as the author of State of War (2006), a stunning exposé of how the supersecret National Security Agency started collecting, sifting, and storing the phone, email, and internet records of American citizens after September 11. That such a program violated the law (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978) and the Constitution (the Fourth Amendment, now considered quaint) mattered little to those who realized they “had the power.” The New York Times, Risen’s paper, sat on the story for over a year before Risen announced that a book he had written on the subject was about to be published. Executive editor Bill Keller was “furious,” yet, to avoid looking too much like a shill for the government, he ran the story in December 2005, only weeks before State of War’s publication. Risen was then criminally investigated by the Department of Justice and the FBI for an “unauthorized release of classified information,” an investigation the Obama administration pursued.
I have always suspected that bribery is the main prop of our foreign policy and that the sanctions and bombs are for those who will not take our money. Here is confirmation of my suspicion. Risen tells how the Coalition Provisional Authority (remember that?) and its inept figurehead Paul Bremer squandered over $20 billion in American cash on Iraq. And I mean cash: shrink-wrapped bundles of hundred-dollar bills stacked on pallets, loaded into Air Force C-17 transport planes, and flown from Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington directly to Baghdad International Airport. The money was then distributed to CPA officials and military officers to spend as they saw fit. This went on for more than a year. The newly printed money, which was supposed to be used to keep Iraq functioning, became an enormous slush fund designed to grease the skids of the American occupation. Subsequent audits could not account for how, or on whom, $11.7 billion was spent: It simply vanished.
Or did it? It seems now that certain high-ranking Iraqi officials have secreted some two billion dollars of that fortune in privately guarded vaults in Lebanon in the event they choose to flee the country; the money will ease their exile in London or Geneva. Billions more have ended up in American bank accounts as, perhaps, an undeserved cash bonus or a novel form of Keynesian stimuli to the top level of the economy.
Americans continue to work for, as well as craftily work, the vast corporate behemoth known as the American Empire, because that’s where the money is. Take Dennis Montgomery, among the first of a new type of “counterterrorism entrepreneur,” who realized after September 11 that there was money to be made, and lots of it, winning government contracts. Montgomery actually represents a very old American type, one depicted by Herman Melville in his novel The Confidence Man. Montgomery somehow conned the CIA, the NSA, and the Pentagon into believing he had developed revolutionary computer software that would help identify terrorists and expose terrorist networks. The French, however, were not buying it. They exposed him as a fraud and his technology as a fake. Otherwise, the U.S. government might still be paying him.
The Blue brothers, Neal and Linden, chairman and vice chairman of General Atomics, at least produced something that actually worked, in a lethal way: the Predator and Reaper drones. In 2001 their company won $110 million in government contracts; in 2012, $1.8 billion, a 1,600-percent increase. Talk about a growth industry.
Then there is the former subsidiary of Halliburton, Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), the company that “ran Iraq,” earning a tidy $39.5 billion in government contracts providing logistics. “KBR was the company that allowed America to go to war without a draft,” writes Risen: At the height of the conflict, it had 50,000 employees and subcontractors working for it. In past wars, all of them would have been in uniform.
KBR operated with what can be described only as a callous disregard for the health and safety of American military personnel, at least 18 of whom died by electrocution because of shoddy electrical wiring by its subcontractors. Other employees operated an ongoing bonfire of toxicity just outside Joint Base Balad, one of the largest U.S. military facilities in the country, staffed by 36,000 troops and contractors. For six years, from 2003 to 2009, KBR burned as much as 250 tons of hazardous waste per day, including spent ammunition, paint, oil, batteries, solvents, computers, appliances, medical waste, dead animals, and, according to some, amputated body parts. Thus “war lung injury” may be added to the other signature wounds of this generation’s wars.
There comes a time in every republic-turned-empire when those in power realize that those outside it do not matter and that the law is a mere abstraction, the violation of which carries no consequences. We have arrived at that time. We have lost the republic, and live under despotism now. Two chilling incidents—one experienced by Risen, the other recounted to him—make the point.
One: Risen is called into an FBI office to tell what he knows about a U.S. intelligence operation gone rogue. An Amman, Jordan, based company known as Jerash Air Cargo, created by Special Operations Command to be its own intelligence arm (bypassing the CIA), has engaged in arms dealing, money laundering, drug trafficking, and sanctions busting. After informing seven FBI agents of what he knows, Risen is met with stony silence. They say nothing and refuse to answer, or even acknowledge, his questions. They simply sit and stare at him—the impassive face of Kafkaesque bureaucracy.
Two: Diane Roark, a staffer on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, confronts NSA director Michael Hayden with the undeniable illegality of his agency’s warrantless wiretapping and massive data-mining operation and is informed that it doesn’t matter, “because we have the power.”
Risen is a real reporter, one who does not see his job as that of an intermediary between the government and the people, a kind of publicity agent for the rich and powerful whose task it is calmly to explain to the multitude that their rulers have their reasons and that it is not for them to question their betters. Risen believes that indeed they do have their reasons: greed, the motivator; power, the means; and endless war, the profitable and ongoing result. Yet is that really all there is to it? How did the United States end up with a government in which any care for the public good, or the slightest constitutional scruple, will end a career? How did it come about that We the People count for nothing in the eyes of those who now rule us?
Risen writes, “Secrecy breeds corruption.” But isn’t it the other way around? And isn’t that the whole problem, as Benjamin Franklin predicted it would be one day? We have a president who is ruling by executive decree, a Congress that has surrendered its powers, and a U.S. senator who boasts publicly that he would use the military to restore nonexistent spending cuts. Yet most Republicans remain obsessed with ISIS, Assad, and the mad mullahs of Tehran. The worse things become here, the more Republican thoughts turn to what is happening over there. Is this escapism? Or is it something more ominous?
The French Hellenist Simone Weil, in her brilliant L’Enracinement (1944), observed that “uprootedness is by far the most dangerous malady to which human societies are exposed, for it is a self-propagating one”—like corruption. People suffering from it can either sink into the passivity of despair or they can “hurl themselves into some kind of activity designed to uproot those who are not yet uprooted.” History attests that “whoever is uprooted uproots others.” Weil regarded the United States with great foreboding. It was clear to her that we would emerge from the war as the strongest world power. It was also clear to her that Americans suffered from three forms of uprootedness: the movement of people from the country to the city in search of work; historical amnesia; and decades of large-scale immigration, which is another means, besides conquest and imperialism, by which uprooted peoples uproot others. Thus do Americans both perpetrate and suffer from this affliction. The people we help uproot take their revenge by settling among us, while we bomb those left behind.
The late Gore Vidal saw all this unfolding decades ago, but he consoled us with this: “in the end, entropy gets us all. Funhouse falls down.” While our mindless and dysfunctional empire is more like a house of horrors now, the point is well taken. The imperial foundation, made of fiat currency and propaganda, cannot support the weight of lies much longer.
[Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War, by James Risen (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) 285 pp., $28.00]