Tuesday, 22 September 2009

“The Pornography of Power”, by Robert Scheer (Twelve/Hachette)


An excellent argument for military- and defence-spending regulation and reform

U.S. defence spending is more than the rest of the world put together. The procurement system us rife with corruption, insider dealing, production of weapons the Pentagon never asked for, and millions (if not billions) of dollars in wasted taxpayer money. In The Pornography of Power, Scheer, a gifted journalist and author, outlines his argument for why defence spending must be cut.

“for the better part of the past century, foreign policy had been directed by Wall Street lawyers, recycled defence executives, and others, like Dick Cheney, who made a bundle while claiming to be primarily interested in the security of their country. But we have long been propagandised into believing that the pecuniary interest of war profiteers is not their driving focus.”

During the Cold War, the Pentagon was beset by an “acquisition fervour” for ever-more complex, expensive and destructive weapons systems, “had at least a somewhat plausible purpose.” Today, however, Scheer shows how procurement requests from Congressmen and Senators have little-to-nothing to do with the War on Terror and combating insurgencies; examples given by Scheer are the C-17 transport plane and the F-22 Raptor fighter jet, to name but two. In the C-17 case, the real reason a $300million request to mothball the fleet became $1.6billion for seven new planes (with plans for more) was clear:

“The pitch to save the plane was all about jobs, jobs, jobs, and rarely was there reference to a national defence need for the transport or to the less savoury matter of Boeing’s profits.”

What Scheer does with his book is expertly outline and describe the twisted web government-corporate connections, and show that the truth is all about jobs, votes, profits for supporters and campaign financiers, and a political fixation with

“the totems of the religion of militarism: sleek and enormously expensive objects to be worshipped for their aura of power rather than their ability to smite one’s enemies, real or imagined.”

Richard Perle, Senator Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson (“the senator from Boeing”), Senator Joe Lieberman, Representative Joe Courtney are all fingered as opportunist politicians, interested only in votes and the longevity of their political careers:

“Earmarks for military spending that support jobs and profits back home, not to mention campaign contributions, are particularly attractive because a member of Congress can cloak narrow ambition in the guise of patriotic fervour.”

Two examples stand out. Firstly, Perle, who receives a good deal of space in the book, as Scheer outlines his myriad connections and jobs within both the US government and also the defence industry (sometimes at the same time) – Scheer explains just how profitable Perle’s consulting jobs are (including at Trireme, Vikonics, AEI, Morgan Crucible, and Hollinger). Also, “in the run-up to the Iraq War, no fewer than eight key players with ties to Lockheed [Martin] were connected with the Bush administration.” Lockheed Martin, as well as Boeing and Raytheon are, according to Scheer’s account, so closely linked with the US government and Pentagon, that it makes little sense to describe them as being part of the “private sector”.

Lieberman and Courtney, both of Connecticut, are criticised for their unflagging support of increased spending on ever-more submarines (manufactured in Courtney’s Groton district), while they are totally irrelevant to the War on Terror (even the heavy-spending Bush administration balked at this). When they can’t justify the funds on GWOT-grounds, they usually revert to invoking a more traditional enemy: “the yellow horde of communist-run China.”

This political fixation on the importance of China as an appropriations tool is reference throughout the book, but also receives its own chapter (“The Chinese are Coming!”). Scheer outlines the narrow-sightedness of pointing the finger at a menacing or threatening China, using plentiful evidence and data produced by the Intelligence Community that suggests the US has quite some time before it would have to start worrying about China’s military power. Despite the frequent negative opinion of China,

“The derogatory adjectives are left out these days… in deference to the fact that these same [Chinese]... now are carrying a large part of the U.S. debt incurred in building weapons we don’t need. The joke is on us; we use the China scare to buy weapons to contain the menace of China, and those same Chinese profit from the interest they charge us on loans to pay for the weapons to contain them.”

But, through the influence of some key neoconservatives and defence hawks, China remains a spectre on the horizon. Scheer describes Perle’s input as part of the Project for a New American Century:

“In the post-Cold War PNAC statement [Perle]... is even loath to give up the expectation (or is it hope?) that China, if not a revived Russia, might still be expected to perform as the centre of a revitalised evil empire.”

These are just some of the arguments and themes discussed in The Pornography of Power. Overall, the book is meticulously and comprehensively researched, excellently and engagingly written – it’s not often that one finds a book about the military-industrial complex that is this detailed and, at the same time, this enjoyable a read. I was almost as hooked reading this as I am with some good novels. As a text I am using in my latest PhD chapter, it was surprising to find that I’d stopped taking notes and just sitting back and enjoying reading.

Not all of Scheer’s arguments are totally persuasive, and he sometimes (and far from often) falls into the same trap as pundits like Noam Chomsky – the occasional inability to see something corporate-related as anything other than undesirable and a conspiracy. Take the example of Bruce Jackson (like Perle, someone with his fingers in multiple government and contractor pies), and his input into NATO enlargement:

“The requirement for joining NATO is that new members’ military forces have to be reequipped with modern weapons systems, most of which is supplied by the United States and our allies.”

For Scheer, this illustrates corporate influence over international relations’ processes. While it’s possible to see it this way, it could also show exploitation of something that was popular with many, rather than corporate-created/-controlled foreign policy. There are plenty of benefits from modernising a country’s military, and also the likelihood that it would diminish the need for the US and its allies to do all the fighting, as well as being a sensible policy. If there were explicit clauses that dictated “thou shallt buy from Lockheed Martin”, I might be more inclined to see the military-industrial complex covertly at work, but as the stipulation was just to modernise, it’s unlikely that Jackson was a lobbyist on behalf of all Western defence contractors. On the US domestic scene, however, as I mentioned above, there is clear evidence that defence contractors have disproportionate influence on Congressmen and Senators.

This book contains some surprising and damning information and anecdotes of politicians, from both parties, exploiting the system to a quite frankly irresponsible and disgusting extent (for every example, Scheer provides plenty of evidence). It is no secret, and certainly not a new argument, that American defence spending is out of control; What makes Scheer’s book unique – and consequently so important – is the depth of analysis and the research he has conducted. Thus far, I have not found a book that deals so well with US politicians’ addiction to the aforementioned “totems” religious militarism, or how they manipulate the system in their favour, interested only in creating job and profits for their supporters and financiers.

Excellently researched and written, as well as a very enjoyable read, I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in American government and its processes.

Also read: Lawrence Davidson, Foreign Policy, Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest (2009); Tao Xie, US-China Relations: China Policy on Capitol Hill (2009); Jean A. Garrison, Making China Policy: From Nixon to George W. Bush (2005)

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