Jeffrey St. Clair is the co-editor of CounterPunch and the author of numerous books, most recently Grand Theft Pentagon: Tales of Corruption and Profiteering in the War on Terror (Common Courage Press 2006). He recently spoke with Joshua Frank about his latest book.
Joshua Frank: Jeff, it’s been three long years since the US invaded Iraq and there has been a mountain of speculation as to the real motives for the war and occupation: Was it for oil, Israel? No WMDs have turned up, and there weren’t any connections between Saddam and Bin Laden. After reading Grand Theft Pentagon, however, it’s hard not to think that perhaps a larger reason the US invaded was to benefit economically. Can you talk about this a bit? Why the heck are we in Iraq anyway?
Jeffrey St. Clair: Josh, stop cribbing questions from Helen Thomas! The invasion of Iraq had a MIRV warhead full of motives, none of which had to do with eliminating Saddam’s arsenal of WMDs. They knew all he had at most were a few aging mustard gas bombs and the like that had been rusting away since the first Iran/Iraq war. (I believe we may be in the opening acts of the second Iran/Iraq war.) That’s precisely why he felt so comfortable in launching the invasion with such a relatively small force. A lesson Iran and North Korea have taken to heart. Second, they knew Saddam the Atheist and Osama the Fundy loathed each other. But most Americans had no clue about this long-standing antagonism, so they were easily, and to some extent, willingly duped by this fictional alliance.
The neo-con claque in the White House and in the salons of Washington had their own motives, some of which they publicized, such as imposing another US client state in the heart of the Middle East; some of which they kept relatively submerged, that is, annihilating a threat to Israel. But the neo-cons are zealots and even many inside the Bush White House recognize them as such. Useful zealots, just like Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson. But it’s vital to understand that the key players in the Bush inner sanctum — Rove, Card, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell and Armitage — are not neo-cons. So they had other motives, some political, some strategic and, yes, some economic. Bush needed a scalp after 9/11. Toppling the pitiful Taliban wasn’t going to be enough to mask the troubling questions about his administration’s incompetence leading up to 9/11. Saddam was sitting out there as the perfect object of sacrifice. They could inflate this marginal regime into a threat the size of a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade balloon, knock them down swiftly with minimal US casualties and then have access to a huge trove of oil, as a kind of tribute of war, which they could use to pipe money into the portfolio of private contractors who acted as a kind of second invasionary force.
After 12 years of nearly daily bombings and a vicious sanctions regime, the Bushies knew that the basic infrastructure of Iraq, from power plants to sewage plants, was broken. And what had survived the sanctions was slated for being destroyed in the invasion. Post-invasion Iraq was going to be the biggest reconstruction project in history. The contracts would largely go to companies hand-picked and vetted for loyalty to Bush by Douglas Feith, the former Undersecretary of Defense, Paul Bremer. And the funding was supposed to come from Iraq’s oil revenues, once Halliburton and Parson’s got the spigots opened, to the tune of $100s of billions. It was all meant to be a big feast and your ticket to the feeding frenzy was a big political contribution to the RNC. Guess who came to dinner?
JF: So, who is behind some of these monstrous reconstruction contracts?
JSC: The more difficult question is which unlucky corporation didn’t win a seat at the table. Companies were being created on the fly to get a piece of the Iraq pie, from security firms formed by former Pentagon and CIA staffers to telecom companies who did little more than act as brokers and middlemen, where the heavy lifting was really just stuffing money into their accounts as fast as possible. Of course, the big ticket contracts, worth 100s of millions of dollars, went to an honor roll of contractors whose names are familiar to us all: Halliburton and its subsidiary Brown and Root, Bechtel, which has never seen a war it didn’t profit from, Parsons Company (Halliburton’s great rival), the Carlyle Group, naturally. Republican big wigs used to join elite country clubs to do their business, but now that they’ve begun admitting blacks they flock to the Carlyle Group instead. But there are 100s of other corporations, from Blackwater Security to MZM, the CIA-connected company that took Duke Cunningham down, that have largely executed loot-and-run operations in Iraq with little attention from the press.
And you certainly don’t have to slap a Bush/Cheney sticker on the back of your black Mercedes SUV to cash in. You’ve done excellent reporting, Josh, on the freshets of funds flowing into the accounts of Richard Blum, husband of Democrat icon Dianne Feinstein, through his company URS. That’s not to say that the Bushies haven’t made out like bandits. Neil Bush, who is nearly as incompetent in business as his bro, appears to have paid for his divorce and his new Houston mansion through “terror war” related contracts in the Middle East, including most curiously, Dubai. From there, Neil went on to loot New Orleans in the name of reconstruction. And President Bush’s Uncle Bucky, an investment banker in St. Louis, sits on the board of what was once a struggling defense contractor called ESSI, Inc. With Bucky Bush on the board, W. in the White House, ESSI’s fortunes took a fortuitous swing for the better, with Uncle Bucky chuckling all the way to the bank. If you didn’t score during this orgy of contracts, you’re likely to become a case study in business school classes across the country. The whole scandal reminds me of Mexico during the Salinas years when people close to the government became billionaires through their proximity to the country’s corrupt leaders. The Mexican prosecutors had a great name for it: inexplicable enrichment. The corruption of the Bush years makes that look like minor league ball by comparison.
JF: One the most interesting, if not frightening, chapters of Grand Theft Pentagon for me was a piece on John McCain, who will likely run for president in 2008. You make the claim that McCain may be the Senator most likely to start a nuclear war. Why is that?
JSC: McCain is a seriously unbalanced individual. He is a kind of political transvestite, all-dressed up as a maverick, when in fact he is in many ways a more hardboiled conservative than Bush and political wraiths who swirl around him in the White House. Recall, that McCain, now hailed as a reformer, was the Duke Cunningham of his time. As a member of the Keating Five, he was caught taking bribes from S&L looter Charles Keating. Because it was another bi-partisan scandal, McCain got away with merely a soft slap on the wrist.
Even more disturbing is McCain’s volcanic temper. He explodes into rages at staffers, constituents, reporters and fellow senators (witness his recent bizarre buzzbombing of Barak Obama), transforms petty grievances into political death matches, and is paranoid.
I’m sure a lot of the warps in his psyche stem from his relationship with his dictatorial father, Admiral John McCain, the Curtis LeMay of the Navy, who wanted to nuke North Korea and North Vietnam. Part of it may stem from his time as a prisoner of war. Interestingly, a Cuban shrink interviewed McCain while he was a POW and produced a frightening psychological profile of the young flyer, which concluded he was borderline paranoid schizophrenic. Today we’d call him a bipolar, juice him up with Eli Lilly’s finest and send him out in the world. The description of McCain as the most likely senator to start a nuclear war comes from Dr. Robert Witzeman, a Phoenix-area physician who has known McCain for decades.
Witzeman is an environmentalist and human rights advocate who has spent many years defending Mt. Graham, one of the Apache’s most sacred mountains, from the demented scheme by the University of Arizona and the Vatican to implant deep space telescopes on the peak. McCain nearly assaulted Witzeman and his friend Robin Silver, another physician, during a meeting in the senator’s office. His tendency to throw violent tantrums and to engage in political witch hunts is well known to senate staffers.
The senator played a malign role in getting one of the most gifted and honest defense committee staffers on the Hill, Winslow Wheeler, fired, after Wheeler, writing under the pseudonym Spartacus, exposed McCain’s hypocrisy on defense pork barrel spending. Look today at how McCain is cozying up to Bush and ask yourself what kind of man would have any kind of relationship with Bush and his inner circle of thugs after these same characters had slimed your wife as a pill-popper and accused you of siring an inter-racial child out of wedlock. McCain is a more frightening figure than any other politician on the landscape, including Hillary Clinton and Tom Tancredo.
JF: I have a good friend stationed down in Antarctica doing science work who met McCain last fall. Apparently the Senator was there on a tour of sorts. My buddy, who had the misfortune of sharing a sink with the guy after taking a leak, told me McCain looks as if he’s about the keel over. I guess he’s a walking corpse. So maybe we have that going for us. Anyway, can you talk a little about the excess weapons programs that you outline in the book? Most cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, yet have no real use other than fattening the pockets of the military industrial giants.
JSC: McCain probably spends a lot of time at the sink scrubbing his hands to the bone like Lady Macbeth. But as furiously as he scrubs, he can’t wipe the tell-tale stains away. You can see his true inner nature seeping out across every pore in his face, like some strange beast out of a Borges story, which becomes more and more grotesque. McCain makes Nixon look like Carey Grant.
As you know, I subscribe to the historian Gabriel Kolko’s view that the morons running the Bush administration are destroying the US empire from the inside out. But even the seasoned Dr. Kolko must be agape at how quickly the rot has set in. Not only has the Bush administration provoked civil war inside Iraq, they’ve also ignited one inside the Pentagon. That’s because by and large the Generals who run the show aren’t all that anxious to start extended wars so much as to engage in threat inflation to justify their real operational mission which is to funnel billions into the coffers of the big defense firms: Lockheed, Boeing, TRW, Raytheon and the like. Recall that the Iraq war was supposed to be a quick cakewalk, with Saddam’s regime smashed to bits during the Shock and Awe air assault, and the ground forces entering Baghdad in a kind of parody of a Roman triumph. And it was all supposed to pay for itself through the looting of Iraq’s oil wealth. Surprise! The Pentagon now finds itself in an intractable quagmire with no foreseeable exit. Worse from the Generals’ point of view is the escalating costs, now approaching a trillion dollars with no end in sight and not the slightest indication from Bush Central that any new revenue streams, i.e., tax hikes, are in the offing. The public debt is soaring and that means that real business of the Pentagon is being put at risk: procurement of big-ticket items. At the top of the list, of course, is Star Wars, the $100 billion fantasy, which has never worked and never will.
The biggest reason Kim Jung Il has nothing to fear from the Bush crowd is that they need his slingshot missile program in order to justify continuing to dump money into Star Wars on the ludicrous grounds that the North Koreans might be able to hit one of the outer Aleutian Islands with a wind-aided missile strike. And there are dozens of other baroque projects dreamed up during the height of the Cold War, from the F-22 Fighter to the Stealth bomber to the Joint Strike Fighter, which no longer have any strategic or tactical utility other than to keep Boeing and Lockheed’s assembly lines rolling with the costliest weapons systems ever conceived to be deployed against an enemy that doesn’t exist. Now, personally, I think if we’re going to spend billions on weapons we might be better off spending them on weapons that don’t work and almost certainly will never be used. But the Pentagon and the big contractors are having night sweats. For the first time in 60 years there may not be enough money to go around. That’s why you’ve begun to hear grumblings from inside the Pentagon and inside the executive offices of companies such as Lockheed and Boeing that it might be time to cut and run in Iraq. Rumsfeld is fighting two insurgencies: one is Iraq and one inside the Pentagon. It’s probably our best hope for an early end of the war.
JF: You close Grand Theft with a quote from Jefferson, “If there is one principle more deeply rooted in the mind of every American, it is that we should have nothing to do with conquest.” So, how are we to end all of this looting? How are we to hold all the criminals accountable and end these scandalous wars?
JSC: Unfortunately, I don’t think “we” appear to be capable of ending this war. The peace movement at the organizational level is moribund. It’s trapped in tired old formulas. The occasional demonstrations appear more like the parades of a dead movement marching. There is no opposition party to the war. There’s not a single national political leader of any standing who is an outspoken advocate of a complete withdrawal. All we have is Murtha’s redeployment plan and Feingold’s tiresome legalisms. This is all the more scandalous given the fact that the overwhelming majority of the American populace has turned against the war. The only way the peace movement could stop this war given the lack of any political power is to cut off the supply of fresh blood. By that, I mean the movement should concentrate almost all of its energy on anti-recruitment work. The Rumsfeld army is at the breaking point. The military can’t afford a steep drop in new recruits. But such protests are unglamorous, grueling and necessitate a degree of commitment that seems beyond the capacity of most antiwar organizers these days.
Ultimately, I believe that Professor Kolko is right. The American Empire will be undone by its own arrogance and extravagance. As in Vietnam, the US will be chased from Iraq not by the American antiwar movement, but by Iraqis. We have entered a very grim phase of the war, when, to quote Shakespeare, sin will pluck on sin. In fact, the US occupation of Iraq, which is degenerating daily, may succeed in uniting Kurds, Shias and Sunnis, especially after the massacres of the last few weeks by US troops.
The sooner the Iraqis evict US forces from Iraq, the better off we’ll both be. Perhaps then America’s imperial ambitions will be chastened. Perhaps the federal budget will be so busted that future forays will be curtailed and provocative and destabilizing weapon systems will be mothballed. And, perhaps, a third party will emerge to reclaim the banner of Jeffersonian idealism. I said, perhaps, didn’t I?