Thursday, July 31, 2008

Veteran Journalist Robert Scheer Speaks in San Diego

Promotes New Book Attacking the Military-Industrial Complex


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Robert Scheer, veteran journalist and activist who has been publishing critiques of the U.S. military and foreign policy since he wrote the ground-breaking pamphlet How the United States Got Involved in Viet Nam in 1966, came to San Diego July 26 to speak at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church and promote his latest book. Called The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America, the book was inspired by former President Dwight Eisenhower’s famous warning in his farewell address “against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex” and dedicated to Eisenhower and former Democratic Presidential candidate George McGovern as “two war heroes who preferred plowshares to swords.”

“I didn’t think I would need to write my book,” he rather ruefully said at the beginning of his talk. “There is nothing in it that should be controversial. It’s not a plea for socialized medicine or even an anti-poverty program. The idea that I have to write about the military-industrial complex almost 50 years after Eisenhower warned us about it at a key moment of tension in the Cold War is pretty depressing.” Scheer noted that not only have American politics in general swung far to the Right since Eisenhower made that speech in 1961 but the supposed “need” for an ever-expanding military in particular has become so entrenched that compared to both parties’ candidates in the current election, former Republican presidents like Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and George Bush, Sr. “seem like flaming liberals” by comparison.

Though Nixon stretched out the U.S. war in Viet Nam four years longer than he had to, Scheer said, “he came out for a guaranteed income and met with Russia and China. Now if you want to negotiate with Iran, that’s considered dangerous.” Scheer also read an extract from the first President Bush’s 1992 State of the Union Address that called on Americans to “stop making the sacrifices we had to make when we had an avowed enemy that was a superpower” — the Soviet Union — and promised that if he were re-elected, he would have cut defense spending by 30 percent by 1997.

“Bush and his secretary of defense, Dick Cheney, both knew that there were still enemies and problems — this speech was given a year after the Desert Storm war with Iraq — and yet both of them pushed through major cuts in the defense budget rather than seeking increases,” Scheer wrote in his commentary on the first Bush’s speech in The Pornography of Power. “Not so the second coming of the Bush-Cheney team that more than doubled the defense budget of Bush I.”

Throughout his speech, Scheer stressed that the military-industrial complex is supported by a bipartisan coalition. In fact, he was so much harder on Democrats than on Republicans that one audience member in the question-and-answer period after the speech asked if he was recommending a vote for John McCain on the idea that, like his fellow Republicans Eisenhower, Nixon and Bush I, he might be more willing to cut the defense budget that his Democratic rival, Barack Obama. Scheer made it clear that he didn’t intend his attacks on Obama and the Democrats to be a McCain endorsement, but he also stressed that Obama is being pulled to the Right by the Democratic party’s infrastructure of national security advisers and it will be up to peace activists to pressure him to go with his best instincts and take on the defense establishment.

Indeed, Scheer said, it was a Democrat — former Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-Washington) — who carried the torch for the defense industry’s counterattack against the threatened cutbacks under Nixon and Bush I. “The neoconservative movement started in response to Nixon, who realized that communism was not the boogeyman and you could do business with them,” Scheer explained. “The first serious opponent to d├ętente was Scoop Jackson, who not only was called the ‘Senator from Boeing’ [the major aircraft maker and defense contractor headquartered in Washington state] but prided himself on the title. Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, who were Democrats then, were both on his staff.” The neoconservative movement grew powerful enough that under Democrat Jimmy Carter and Republican Ronald Reagan, the defense budget was spared further cuts and started growing again — and then a terrible thing happened to the defense hawks: “the Soviet Union collapsed.”

Without giving the name of the speaker, identifying it merely as a speech given “before 9/11” to the ranking brass at the Pentagon, Scheer quoted a talk about “an adversary that poses a threat, a serious threat, to the security of the United States of America. This adversary is one of the world’s last bastions of central planning. It governs by dictating five-year plans. From a single capital, it attempts to impose its demands across time zones, continents, oceans and beyond. With brutal consistency, it stifles free thought and crushes new ideas. It disrupts the defense of the United States and places the lives of men and women in uniform at risk.” Denying that he was talking about either the now-defunct Soviet Union or “one of the last decrepit dictators of the world,” Scheer’s mystery man — U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld — reached the punch line of his speech: “The adversary is closer to home: it’s the Pentagon bureaucracy.”

Rumsfeld gave that speech on September 10, 2001, but those ideas disappeared off the administration’s radar screen after the terror attacks the next day, Scheer said. “All logic was thrown out the window,” he argued. “Instead of dealing with terrorism as a matter of criminal justice or sociology, they dug up weapons designed to defeat a Soviet threat that never came to be and repackaged them as essential to a ‘war on terror.’” Scheer said that the high-tech weaponry designed in the later stages of the Cold War — like Lockheed’s F-22 Raptor stealth fighter and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — were advanced as necessary against “an enemy whose arsenal comes from Home Depot.”

Scheer’s attack on the military-industrial complex makes three main points. First, these weapons are an extravagant waste of money that takes away from the American government’s ability to deal with its problems at home. He noted that at the insistence of Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, the U.S. is buying two high-tech submarines per year at a cost of $5 to $7 billion — enough to have funded the extension of the S-CHIP health insurance program for children which President Bush vetoed on the ground that the country couldn’t afford it. Lieberman’s reason for insisting that the U.S. buy these expensive seacraft when Osama bin Laden, the supposed leader of our enemy in the “war on terror,” lives in caves in a landlocked country is that the Electric Boat Company, which builds them, is one of his home state’s major employers.

Indeed, one way the military-industrial complex builds political support for its projects is to spread their construction around the country as much as possible so every Congressmember has constituents that make their livings building them. Scheer mentioned one weapons system whose supporters described it as “beautiful” because they had managed to have part of it produced in every one of the United States’ 435 Congressional districts. According to Scheer, legislators are so fearful that defense cutbacks will cost their constituents jobs that even a strong liberal Democrat like California Senator Barbara Boxer has staunchly supported the C-17 cargo transport, “a plane no one in the Pentagon wants,” because it’s built in Long Beach.

But the real problem with the military-industrial complex, Scheer said, isn’t either the waste of money on unnecessary weapons or the corruption of the political process. It’s the fact that having all these cool high-tech weapons around gives administrations of both parties the irresistible urge to use them. “You don’t build weapons without a reason to use them,” Scheer explained — even when the reason is specious: old threats from countries like the Soviet Union that no longer exists or new threats from China or “terrorists.”

According to Scheer, politicians of both major parties “boy into the unilateral strong Pax Americana thing” — the idea that this country has the right to intervene anywhere in the world and tell countries we don’t know anything about how they should run their affairs. He recalled Rumsfeld’s infamous comment that we had to intervene in Iraq because there weren’t enough “good targets” in Afghanistan. “By building these weapons,” Scheer explained, “you develop an enormous constituency for war.”