There’s No Business Like War Business

This is the third installment in a series on issues of War and Peace.  Future posts will examine the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, violence at home, and the US addiction to war.

Remember that iconic line from The Graduate? Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) has recently graduated from college and his parents are throwing a cocktail party in his honor. A friend of Ben’s parents, a Mr. McGuire, pulls Ben outdoors to the patio, alongside the swimming pool:

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Benjamin: Yes, sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Benjamin: Yes, I am.

Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?

Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?

Well, Mr. McGuire may have been right, even prophetic. There was a great future in plastics, as it turned out. But it was nothing compared to the business potential of another simple little word: war.

It was six years before The Graduate hit the big screen that Dwight D. Eisenhower gave what came to be known as his farewell address to the nation. In the speech, Eisenhower coined the term military-industrial complex. Looking back, it seems apparent that Ike’s insights and misgivings were also prophetic. The military-industrial complex has become a big business, unlike any other business in its magnitude and malignity. It’s a business with a few big winners and a lot of big losers.

Here’s an excerpt of what he said in that farewell speech:

“We now stand ten years past the midpoint of a century that has witnessed four major wars among great nations. Three of these involved our own country. Despite these holocausts America is today the strongest, the most influential and most productive nation in the world. Understandably proud of this pre-eminence, we yet realize that America’s leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment.

“Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

Ike and Military Industrial Complex“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist … Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose. Because this need is so sharp and apparent, I confess that I lay down my official responsibilities in this field with a definite sense of disappointment. As one who has witnessed the horror and the lingering sadness of war—as one who knows that another war could utterly destroy this civilization which has been so slowly and painfully built over thousands of years—I wish I could say tonight that a lasting peace is in sight.”

While Eisenhower acknowledged the US was “compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions,” I wonder if he ever imagined it would lead, not to peace and security, but to permanent war? Or that this new industry, this military-corporate complex, in its insatiable lust for profit, would soon propel and dictate foreign policy? Or that the very notion of disarmament would become little more than a chimera because a major market strategy of this new industry would be to arm a good portion of the world?

It is only since World War II that the US has relied on private industry to produce most of its weaponry. I learned this in a 1987 newsletter from the Center for Defense Information (CDI), an organization founded in 1971 by retired military officers. (CDI merged with the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) in 2012.) Before the “Great War,” the nation used a mix of government-owned factories and private corporations to make its weapons. The “private sector” has accounted for the vast majority of arms production since the Korean War.

Making weapons was already a very big business back in 1987—30 years ago— according to the CDI newsletter. About 35,000 businesses received contracts directly from the Defense Department and another 150,000 or so were subcontractors. Most US industrial corporations had their hands in military work.

If the US arms industry were a national economy, CDI reported, it would be (in 1987) the 13th largest in the world. Ten giant enterprises accounted for a third of all weapons contracts. The top contractors were heavily subsidized by taxpayers, using $40 billion worth of government property free of charge.

Military sales were nearly $185 billion in 1985: $166 billion to the Pentagon, $6 billion to the Department of Energy and $13 billion in arms exports. By then, six major aerospace firms had become dependent on Uncle Sam for at least 60 percent of their sales. Lockheed, for instance, had evolved from a commercial aircraft business to “essentially an appendage of DoD, with 88 percent of its sales to the US government,” CDI noted. “These corporations have a vital interest in the continued sale of arms and bring all of their enormous economic and political leverage to bear to promote military and congressional support for their weapons programs.”

In the absence of effective competition in the arms industry, the profit motive gives corporations the incentive to sell as many weapons at as high a price as possible. A massive increase in military spending that began in 1979 made for a lucrative business for arms manufacturers. Between 1980 and 1985, annual military sales exploded from $84 billion to $163 billion.

Hard to believe that an industry that profits off of death, destruction and devastation could also be dishonest, but that seems to have been the case. “In the torrent of spending, the industry was awash in cash and scandal, registering record profits paralleled by record numbers of cases of contractor fraud and waste,” CDI reported. “Fifty-nine of the top 100 contractors were under investigation by 1986.”

A comprehensive 1985 study by the DoD found that defense contractors were getting a fair profit as a percentage of sales, but, as a return on assets, the profits were “grossly out of line.” The standard logic in business is: the greater the risk, the greater should be the profit. But in the arms business, CDI noted, contractors get higher profits for lower risk. The government and taxpaying public assume all the risk.

Of course, waste, fraud and high profits proved not to be a temporary aberration in the arms business. In an issue of the Nukewatch Quarterly in late 2010, my friend John La Forge wrote about a “war” on military waste that the Pentagon waged for one day … and lost. Donald Rumsfeld had just taken over as Pentagon chief and admitted in a press conference: “According to some estimates, we cannot track $2.3 trillion dollars in transactions.” (That’s about $8,000 for each child, woman and man in the country, La Forge noted.)

Rumsfeld blamed the mess on “the Pentagon bureaucracy” and called the military-industrial complex a serious threat, “a matter of life and death.” (Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill wrote about this in more depth in the preface to his book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army). Unfortunately, Rumsfeld’s press conference took place the day before 9/11. Soon after, George Bush announced a military budget that called for $48 billion in new spending. Before long another trillion dollars (one thousand billion) would go missing, La Forge noted. He cited a report from the San Francisco Chronicle from May, 2003, that the Pentagon’s efforts in cost control failed to even control the fiscal control programs. The government’s non-partisan Government Accounting Office (GAO) reviewed the Pentagon’s Corporate Information Management System (CIM), an attempt to consolidate 2,000 overlapping systems used for billing, inventory, payroll, etc. After spending over $20 billion, the CIM initiative was scrapped, the GAO said.

Rumsfeld and Bush

Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush

Then came the news that the US had flown nearly $12 billion in shrink-wrapped $100 bills from New York City to Baghdad in 2004, the year after the invasion of Iraq. The cash, about 281 million bills weighing 363 tons, was shipped in C-130 cargo planes, with deliveries occurring once or twice a month. The biggest shipment of $2,401,600,000 happened on June 22, six days before the interim Iraqi government was to take control of Iraqi funds.

This biggest transfer of cash in the history of the Federal Reserve was revealed by a US congressional committee and reported in The Guardian of London in February, 2007. Rep. Henry Waxman, the committee’s chair and a critic of the war, said that the way the money had been handled was mind-boggling. “The numbers are so large that it doesn’t seem possible that they’re true,” he said. “Who in their right mind would send 363 tons of cash into a war zone?”

Cash payments were made from the back of pickup trucks and money was stashed in unguarded sacks in Iraqi ministry offices. One official was given $6.75 million in cash and ordered to spend it in one week, the Guardian reported. The US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was supposed to appoint an independent, certified public accounting firm to oversee the expenditures. Instead, the CPA hired an obscure consulting firm that operated out of a private home in San Diego. The special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction found that the company “did not perform a review of internal controls as required by the contract.”

Paul Bremer, head of the CPA and responsible for much of the chaos that ensued after the US occupation of Iraq, excused the mismanagement of the funds. He rationalized that the money, which came from Iraqi oil sales, surplus funds from the UN oil-for-food-programme and seized Iraqi assets, actually belonged to Iraqis and not US taxpayers.

Retired Admiral David Oliver, Bremer’s financial adviser, when asked by the BBC news what had happened to the funds, answered: “I have no idea. I can’t tell you whether or not the money went to the right things or didn’t, nor do I actually think it’s important.”

Although the billions of dollars that disappeared was supposedly Iraqi money, it is likely that Bremer and his ilk cared not a whit for the billions more in US taxpayer money that was wasted on the war. Did I say billions?

Sorry, my mistake. Would it were only so. Let’s try trillions.

Twenty days after publishing the exposé about the pallets stacked with shrink-wrapped $100 bills, The Guardian ran another article on the true cost of the war in Iraq. It was an interview with Joseph Stiglitz, who had co-authored a book on that subject and would soon be testifying before Congress. After several years of painstaking research and calculations, Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes concluded that this second Iraq war would cost the United States “a conservatively-estimated $3 trillion. The rest of the world, including Britain, will probably account for about the same amount again,” the article reported.

Stiglitz is a Nobel prize-winning economist who spent four years on Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers and another three as chief economist at the World Bank. At the time the Guardian interviewed him, the US had already been in Iraq for five years, longer than the country had spent in either world war. Daily military operations had already cost taxpayers more than 12 years in Vietnam and twice as much as the Korean War.

At that time, the US was spending $16 billion per month on running costs alone in Iraq and Afghanistan, equal to the entire annual budget for the United Nations. Many more millions were falling through the cracks at the Department of Defense, which “had failed every official audit of the past ten years. The DoD’s finances, based on an accounting system inaccurate for anything larger than a grocery store, are so inadequate that it is impossible to know exactly how much is being spent, or on what,” Stiglitz charged.

The economist said there were a number of reasons why the Bush administration and Pentagon’s estimates for the cost of the war were deceptively low. For instance, the government claimed the infamous “surge” would only cost $5.6 billion, but it counted only combat troops, not the 15,000 to 28,000 support troops that would be required. Official tallies neglect to count the cost of death payments or caring for the wounded, Stiglitz said, even though the ratio of wounded to dead in Iraq–seven to one–was the highest in US history.

And then there were the costs related to Bush and Rumsfeld’s new strategy of privatization of war-making. The fact that a private contractor working as a security guard gets about $400,000 a year, for example, as opposed to a soldier, who might get about $40,000. The administration insisted on “sole-source bidding” to award lucrative contracts to corporations like Halliburton while forcing free market and privatization ideals on Iraq. Many reconstruction jobs went to expensive American corporations rather than cheaper Iraqi ones, and American companies would hire cheap labor from countries like Nepal, while one of every two Iraqi men were out of work.

While many believe, perhaps rightly, that Bush bombed Iraq for oil, Stiglitz and Bilmes pointed out that cheap oil was not an outcome of the war. The price of oil climbed from $25 to $100 a barrel in five years, a benefit for oil-producing countries and contractors, but no one else. The economists projected that the US would pay an extra $1.6 trillion more on oil alone by 2015.

The cost to oil-importing countries in Europe and the Far East would be nearly as much, not to mention the trillions the rest of the world would shoulder due to a devastated Iraqi economy, tens of thousands of Iraqis dead, and the price of neighboring countries absorbing thousands of refugees.

Stiglitz and Bilmes calculated what just one trillion dollars wasted on the war could have paid for: eight million housing units, 15 million public school teachers, scholarships to university for 43 million students, or healthcare for 530 million children for a year. The entire three trillion could have fixed America’s social security problem for half a century.

When Donald Trump delivered his first joint address to Congress a year ago, he called for a staggering increase in Pentagon spending in order to “rebuild the military.” Every few years a president or members of Congress demand more funds for the Pentagon in order to “rebuild” our fighting forces, even as the military budget grows steadily, along with the waste and corruption.

An email letter from the Council for a Livable World the day after the President’s speech pointed out that US forces are hardly under-funded. “The United States spends over $600

1024px-The Pentagon

Photo by Master Sgt. Ken Hammond, US Air Force

billion on defense every year–more than the next seven countries combined,” the letter said. And there is no transparency about how the money is spent, the Council added, claiming “the Pentagon has never successfully completed an audit … In 2016, the Defense Department’s Inspector General reported that the Army made $2.8 trillion worth of inaccurate or wrongful accounting adjustments in one quarter alone–and $6.5 trillion for the year–to make it appear that their books were balanced.”

Nobody probably knows for sure exactly how much the US spends (or wastes) on the military, and how that compares to other nations, but the fact is that there is no comparison. In his State of the Union address in January, 2016, President Obama said “We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined.” The Peter G. Peterson Foundation, (citing sources such as the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), concurred with the president, naming the eight trailing countries, in order of spending, as: China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, France, the United Kingdom, Japan and Germany. Total US military spending for 2016 was $611 billion, contrasted with $595 billion for the other eight nations.

Shuffling back through a pile of papers in my file folder on the military budget, I see that the situation hasn’t really changed in decades, no matter who controlled Congress or who resided in the White House. Democrat President Clinton and the Republican-led Congress back in 1995 were taking pains to “balance the budget” by slashing federal spending for housing, job training, school lunches, education and other domestic programs. But they made sure that the military was spared the axe.

The Center for Defense Information reported that Clinton proposed a Fiscal Year (FY) 1996 budget that included $258 billion in new “budget authority” and $261 billion in projected “outlays” for National Defense. The Administration’s six-year projection of military spending through FY 2001 was set at $1.6 trillion.

CDI noted that Clinton’s new military budget request was a full $20 billion more in current dollars than was spent on the military in the 1980s, a time of great Cold War tension in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. “America’s military budget is nearly as large as the military budgets of all the other nations in the world combined,” reported CDI. “It is more than three times the military budget of Russia, six times that of Japan, and eight times that of Germany.”

A 1999 newsletter from a Colorado peace group, borrowing CDI data, indicated that the US military budget was then five times greater than the seven countries usually perceived by the Pentagon as most likely adversaries: Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria.

In 2004, a group of 16 UN-appointed military experts reported that global military spending would rise to nearly $950 billion by the end of the year, up from $900 billion the year before. By contrast, they said, rich nations spend only $50 to 60 billion on development aid each year. In other words, (employing very primitive math), nations were using only five percent as much of their wealth to help each other as they were using to kill each other.

The 2004 spending estimates would be “substantially higher if the costs of major armed conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq were included,” the UN experts said. The US Congress had authorized spending of about $25 billion for Afghanistan and Iraq that year, but the figure was expected to more than double by years’ end.

The same article noted that the US budget for 2005 would allocate $1.15 billion a day, or $11,000 per second, for “defense,” according to Frida Berrigan, a senior research associate at the World Policy Institute’s Arms Trade Resource Center. The defense allocation does not include the cost of ongoing fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, about $15 billion per month, Berrigan said. “These costs are paid through emergency supplementals,” she said, of which Congress had already signed off on $190 billion worth of “emergencies” for war and occupation in these two countries.american-imperialism-military-spending cartoon

It’s important to recognize that total funds for “national defense” are not easy to calculate and no two organizations calculate them the same. The newsletter for the Wisconsin chapter of Peace Action, in late 2006, also borrowing information from CDI, reported that Congress had just passed a $377.6 billion Defense Appropriation bill for FY 2007. It had also voted for an additional $70 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the brief article pointed out that the figures are deceptive. The appropriations bill did not include $17 billion for nuclear weapon expenditures by the Department of Energy, nor $4.8 billion for “other defense-related activities,” nor $58.9 billion for military construction and “quality of life” programs President Bush had requested.

So the total was going to be $458 billion plus $70 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which equals $528.3 billion. “Are we done yet?” Peace Action asked. Nope. According to CDI, another $60 billion would be requested for the war in FY 2007 and, when all was said and done, the final figure for defense would be between $576.9 billion and $596.9 billion. Give or take a few billion.

Do you know where you tax dollars go? Not a chance. But you can bet your bottom dollar that the vast majority go to death and destruction.

Another Peace Action Wisconsin newsletter in March, 2008 informed us that Bush II was not done yet. He was proposing a FY 2009 budget of $515.4 billion for the DoD, which would be the biggest military budget since WWII, (adjusted for inflation). Of course, that budget did not include $140 billion projected costs for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nor $17.1 billion for nuclear weapons, nor $40 billion for Homeland Security nor … well, you get the picture.

In another article from the same period, Robert Scheer wrote on Truthdig.com that “Bush totally betrayed his campaign 2000 promise to reshape the post-Cold War US military when he seized upon the 9/11 attack as an opportunity to reverse the “peace dividend” that his father had begun to return to taxpayers. Instead Bush II ushered in the most profligate underwriting of weapons systems that are grotesquely irrelevant for combatting terrorism.”

But Bush was on his way out the door and Obama and Clinton were campaigning for the right to take over. “Curb your enthusiasm,” Scheer cautioned. “Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have treated the military budget as sacrosanct with their Senate votes and their campaign rhetoric.”

Now it’s January, 2009. Deepak Chopra is writing a memo to Barack Obama, who is now in the White House. He tells the president how “America has been on a war footing since the day after Pearl Harbor, 67 years ago. We spend more on our military than the next 16 countries combined … Since aerospace and military technologies remain the United States’ most destructive export, fostering wars around the world, what steps can we take to reverse that trend and build a peace-loving economy?”

He outlines nine steps Obama can take. Number four is to convert military bases to housing for the poor. Five is to phase out all foreign military bases. (The US had over 1,000 in 120 countries, costing $140 million to maintain. China had none.)

Deepak is a great dude, don’t get me wrong. He’s reportedly “one of the world’s greatest leaders in the field of mind-body medicine,” but what kind of Kool-Aid was he drinking? Needless to say, the president never got the memo.

April, 2009. Another Peace Action newsletter with the headline: Where is the Change? Obama Continues Bloated Military Budget. It’s beyond bloated. It’s over $700 billion a year and $6,000 per household, the article says. The Progressive Democrats of America say the military budget has increased by over 60% since 2001. The article ends by saying: “A rationale society would have the abolition of war as one of its primary goals. A rational society would try to minimize the use of scarce resources to produce weapons that, unlike all other products, are used optimally when they are not used at all.”

Sounds great, but we are a rational society. The rationale is money and profit. It’s a business, a better business than plastics. Who profits? The arms-makers, of course, but also the politicians. And the politicians rely on the arms-makers to help them buy votes.

One more article in that file folder, this time from the Washington Post. It’s still early 2009 and Obama is promising to fight defense spending he considers wasteful and inefficient. But who is he fighting with? None other than liberal Democrats. (You know, his own Peace Party, the one that all good liberals vote for rather than those nasty, brutish Republicans.)

It seems that Democrats had stuffed an estimated $524 million in defense earmarks (that the Pentagon did not request) into the appropriations bill, $220 million more than the Republicans did. It seems that 44 senators had begged Defense Secretary Robert Gates to build more F-22 Raptors, a fighter plane conceived during the Cold War that Pentagon officials said was not suited to 21st Century conflicts. It seems that most of these senators were Democrats.

It seems the Navy’s top brass had decided to stop producing their newest class of destroyers in response to classified intelligence reports highlighting their vulnerability. It seems that “seven Democratic senators quickly joined four Republicans to demand a reversal.” Within a month, Gates and the Navy changed course and endorsed production of another destroyer, at a cost of $2.7 billion.

“A lot of these weapons systems that are big-ticket items now have no purpose,” said the director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New American Foundation, a Washington think tank. “The Taliban doesn’t have an air force. China and Russia are at least a generation behind us.”

The problem, he was quoted as saying, is that the defense industry is dominated by a handful of large firms with offices or subcontractors in key congressional districts, and they play the political game extremely well.

One example was the F-22, an aircraft with a price tag of $145 million, one which senior defense officials noted had not been used in Iraq or Afghanistan. The fighter had been conceived in the 1980s and, even though Defense Secretary Gates said that building 183 of the planes was enough, 194 House members had signed a letter to continue the program. It seems that tens of thousands of jobs directly related to production of the F-22 were spread across 44 states. Those who signed the letter to build more planes read like a Who’s Who of liberal Dems: Joe Biden, Edward Kennedy, Patty Murray, Barbara Boxer, Christopher Dodd, Barbara Mikulski and Diane Feinstein.

During the 2008 election cycle, the Post article noted, more than half of the defense industry’s estimated campaign contributions of $25.4 million went to Democrats. Of the two committees that control military spending in the House, Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chair John Murtha (D-PA) garnered the most industry cash, $743,275. Armed Services Committee Chair Ike Skelton (D-MO) placed second with $268,799 in contributions.

Murtha added more than $100 million in earmarks to the FY 2008 defense bill, the article noted, nearly a fifth of the total inserted by all Democrats. Every earmark reflected a project the Pentagon did not seek in its budget request. Some of Murtha’s earmarks benefitted clients of a lobbying firm called PMA Group, under FBI investigation for possible violation of federal election law. PMA was run by a former Murtha aide and some of its clients were donors to his campaigns.

Murtha joined other Dems, including Boxer, in adding billions to the war budget for 15 Boeing C-17 cargo planes that the Pentagon did not request. “We have said we have enough, but members keep adding them to every spending bill,” a senior defense official complained.

The article also singled out Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Evan Bayh (D-IN) and Kennedy for adding nearly a billion dollars to the Pentagon budget for an alternate engine for a jet fighter that the Pentagon said was unnecessary. The plane was already $55 billion over budget. And Kennedy joined Senators John Kerry (D-MA), James Webb (D-VA), Herb Kohl (D-WI) and other Dems in demanding funding for a third unwanted and obsolete DDG-1000 Navy destroyer.

In 2011, Jim Wallis of Sojourners interviewed Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen and they talked at length about the military budget.

“Spending money on unnecessary weapons is taking away from our schools and hospitals and housing, and taking away the hopes of our children and the genius of our times,” Cohen said. “It’s just amazing to think about the huge expenditures of money on these unneeded weapons and what could be done with that same amount of money, if we used it to actually help people, especially people in poverty.”

Military spending accounted for 58 percent of the US discretionary spending budget for FY 2011, according to research by the National Priorities Project. Cohen pointed out that the US was spending five times as much on the military as its nearest competitor, China, which was also its biggest trading partner.

Which brings us all the way up to last fall, when the US Senate voted to increase military spending by $81 billion. In an article by Adam Johnson of FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), the author wondered where all the “deficit hawks” in the mainstream media had gone, the ones who badgered and berated Bernie Sanders for his campaign proposals for universal health care, free college and a living wage. “How will we pay for it?” they had demanded to know.

Just the increase in the military budget alone was greater than the total spent annually on state university tuition by every US student, Johnson pointed out. If the military budget had just stayed the same, “the US could have paid the tuition for every public college student, with $11 billion left over for board and books.”

Defense cartoon

Why were the media deficit hawks quiet now? Johnson asked. One answer, he suggested, was that their notion of policing the deficit probably meant “keeping government money out of the hands of the poor–and in the coffers of weapons makers, banks and other wealthy interest groups.”

Of course, the American taxpayer isn’t the only one purchasing all the weapons the arms industry churns out. There are plenty of foreign markets for made-in-America weapons of mass destruction. (If you’ve got a good product, why not share it with the whole world? No harm there.) Since the end of the Cold War, Uncle Sam has been the top salesman in the international arms trade. Last year, the State Department set a new record for clearing weapons sales, with nearly $76 billion cleared for sale.

That was certainly cheery news for those in the arms business. They were feeling quite perky as evidenced by an article in Defense News in September. A Pentagon spokesman said that “sales continue to be strong and continue to indicate the interest of our partners in seeking the quality products and services we offer.”

Remy Nathan, vice president of international affairs with the Aerospace Industries Association, commented that “any growth in defense trade is positive. It supports high-skill, high wage American jobs and funds innovation, lowers unit costs and delivers a better deal for the taxpayer.”

By jingo! That sounds swell. Not to mention all the side benefits of this booming industry, such as more murder, mayhem and devastation throughout the Middle East, millions of refugees, endless instability, and potential annihilation of  a region, if not the whole planet.

In an article a year ago, financial analysts Michael Sauter and Samuel Stebbins reported that the US sent nearly $10 billion worth of military vehicles and weapons systems to foreign governments in 2016. Uncle Sam is by far the world’s largest purveyor of armaments, surpassing countries like Russia and China by billions of dollars. In the past five years, over 100 nations have directly purchased aircraft, ships, armored vehicles and missiles from the US government.

So who are Uncle Sam’s best customers? Sweden, Switzerland, Finland and Costa Rica, perhaps? Guess again. The one place on the planet that needs weapons least, the most volatile region, the one that the US has done its dogged best to devastate for three decades or so: the Middle East.

A snippet from the Peace Action newsletter from December, 2000, begins to tell the story: how the US began flooding the Middle East with weapons in the 1990s, right after its first Gulf War. Over $51 billion in arms were peddled to this tormented region between 1992 and 1999 according to the Congressional Research Service.

Saudi Arabia led the way, with $27.8 billion in arms purchases, followed by Egypt, $8.7 billion; Kuwait, $4.9 billion; United Arab Emirates, $1.1 billion; and Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia and Morocco with purchases in the millions. Oh, let’s not forget Israel, which bought $5.8 billion in arms, along with its annual gift of $6 billion in military aid. But Israel, as we know, is a western-style “democracy,” which just coincidentally is burdened with supporting a brutal occupation, so it needs all the help it can get.

An accompanying article in this newsletter noted that Israel would be getting Apache helicopters, Blackhawk helicopters and Beechcraft light patrol aircraft, mostly paid for with US funds. Uncle Sam attested that the arms sales would “contribute to the foreign policy and national security” of the US by helping a country that “continues to be an important force for political stability … in the Middle East.”

In their article last year, Sauter and Stebbins reported that 13 countries accounted for almost 70 percent of US arms exports. Using figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s Arms Transfers Database, the authors identified the countries that were the biggest winners in Uncle Sam’s 2016 arms bazaar.

Saudi Arabia led the list with $1.9 billion in arms imports from the US. Iraq was second with $893 million in purchases. Close behind were Australia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Israel, Italy and South Korea.

Saudi Arabia, that oil-rich beacon of democracy in the Middle East, had never spent more than about $600 million on US arms between 2006 and 2013. Then their spending shot up to well over $1 billion in 2014 and up to $1.9 billion in 2016. In the final weeks of his administration, Obama blocked the sale of 16,000 guided munitions kits to the Kingdom, amid growing concern over civilian casualties in Yemen.

But when Trump came to power, he opted to move forward with the sale and announced $110 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, with an additional $240 billion committed over a ten-year period. As Andrew Exum noted in an article in The Atlantic last May, many of these sales were already in the works under Obama.

“The Obama Administration spent eight years quietly selling a lot of arms to Saudi Arabia: When President Obama left office, for example, the United States had $100 billion in the foreign military sales pipeline with Saudi Arabia and, in 2011, had inked what was previously the largest arms sale in US history with the Kingdom–a $29 billion deal to sell F-15s to the Saudis,” wrote Exum.

“Overall, the Arab Gulf states went on a spending spree during the Obama years, and most of the money was spent on American arms,” he added.

What lesson did Exum want you to learn from this, at least if you consider yourself a “progressive elite” or a Democratic politician trying to get elected? Basically, that you need to get savvy and brag about all the billions of dollars in weapons that Democratic administrations are selling (or giving) to foreign countries. Why? Because Democrats need to win back working class voters, because Boeing employs 157,000 people, most of them in the US, because Lockheed Martin employs 97,000 workers, and because Raytheon employs another 60,000.

Oh, don’t get him wrong. Exum is not that crass. He expresses grudging admiration for Senator Chris Murphy, “one of the most eloquent and consistent critics of US arms sales in the Senate, even though his own state has a very robust defense industrial base.”

He even admits that he harbors “a lot of respect for these progressives and their values.” And he confides that he “spent too much time in Sunday school … not to feel a little uneasy about the business of selling weapons.” But business is business and politics is politics and people need jobs and, of course, the best way to create jobs is to make weapons to kill people and destroy countries and possibly incinerate the entire planet.

This is the liberal mainstream media speaking. I don’t know which is more pathetic and disgusting, the paucity of morality or the paucity of imagination and vision. Am I just another “progressive elite” who is “out of touch” with voters, or is it conceivable that the American workers who produce such marvelous instruments of destruction that the whole world wants to buy could also be trained to build schools and houses and hospitals and roads and bridges and mass transit systems and all the other things that our country so desperately needs?

Here’s one last clipping, from a Catholic Worker newsletter from 1999: The US Dwight D. Eisenhower, one of the ships used in Iraq, cost $5 billion dollars to build. I wonder what Ike would think if he were here today, after trying to warn us about the “military industrial complex”? Would he be proud of this $5 billion dollar warship with his name on it? Would his chest swell with pride to see what this nation has become?

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