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Possible New Cold War? High-Fives in the Halls of the Pentagon

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has given the Department of Defense a possible reprieve from American citizens’ war-weary thoughts.

Part of the Series

I am resuming my “Solutions: Making Government Work” column after taking 14 months off to be the acting executive director of Truthout while Maya Schenwar was on book leave. For those who are not familiar with this weekly column, I look at a problem in the federal or state bureaucracy, explain the problem and the bureaucratic and contractor forces that are responsible, and suggest a doable slice of solution to begin to reform it. I am happy to be back crawling around our governmental bureaucracies and welcome your input.

The Pentagon released its proposed budget this week. As usual, the kabuki dance has started. Does the budget include true cuts instead of just trimming a very high increase? Is sequestration gutting our national defense, and therefore, should we just cut food stamps instead? It is an annual dance played by all the players: the DOD civilian secretary, the generals, the Congress, the White House and the defense contractors. At the end of the dance, the DOD will get what it wants – and the DOD budget has more than doubled since 9/11. The sequestration has limited the DOD budget to a lower amount for fiscal year 2015, but the DOD has attached a “wish list,” and Congress will, as it almost always does, get around most of the sequestration-mandated cuts. Either way, total defense spending, in constant dollars, is at a higher rate than the peak of the Reagan buildup and the height of the Vietnam War.

But how can the DOD justify the ceaseless increase in its budget? The war in Afghanistan is supposed to be winding down, and no planes have flown into US buildings lately to scare us into opening up the federal checkbook for whatever the DOD says we need to stay safe. The public is war-weary. The American people, for the most part, now want to stay out of wars and perhaps invest more in this country.

However, President Vladimir Putin of Russia just gave the DOD a possible reprieve from the citizens’ war-weary thoughts. As Putin continues to invade parts of Ukraine and the United States continues its economic and military saber rattling, the media is abuzz with speculation of the resumption of the Cold War, which was declared dead when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1990.

In many ways, the Cold War never really ended. The Pentagon continued to build the tanks, planes and ships designed for the Cold War even though these weapons were not appropriate for the newer types of wars. Once these weapons and their offspring got bureaucratic, Congressional and, most important, government contractor constituencies, it didn’t matter that they were mainly designed to keep the Soviets from invading Western Europe. The Pentagon just kept making different versions of the same failed and overrun systems for decades. Many of these weapons were woefully inadequate for the skirmishes and smaller wars we got ourselves into after Vietnam. That didn’t stop the endless rise in the DOD procurement budget, because there were contractors to lobby and generals intent on making reputations for themselves. Those contractors and generals could then retire to advise contractors and members of Congress intent on bringing home the federal DOD dollars to their districts.

I worked to expose and reform the military procurement process during the Cold War in the 1980s. The Cold War was a perfect time for building weapons that the military knew it would never use against the Soviet Union, because of the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. It didn’t matter if these weapons failed their tests and overran their budgets, again and again. We would never use them, and the overruns ensured that the next generation of weapons would be priced based on the fraud and waste of its ancestors.

The fear factor was whipped up enough so that there was always more money for all but the taxpayers and the soldiers. I was told that I was on a fool’s errand, because no one cared if the weapons didn’t work and the prices were outrageous. It was like playing poker and saying that you held four aces but were never required to show your hand. The object was to make everyone fear the Soviet Union’s so-called dangerous and scary army, get the money for a land-and-sea war that would never happen because of our mutual nuclear arsenals, bend metal and let it rust while planning its expensive replacement. The perfect enemy was ever-present, and the circumstances spared the DOD the messiness of a full-blown war.

Occasionally, the public would get complacent with the Cold War and wonder about a military procurement machine that would pay $435 for a common hammer or $600 for a toilet seat, while they read about fielding weapons that didn’t work. It was also hard to stay terrified about the missiles aimed at your head because after decades, the prospect just began to seem normal. At points like these, the United States would get into some world skirmishes, often with client countries of the Soviet Union, to keep the fear and money flowing.

One of these skirmishes occurred late in the Cold War in April 1986. President Ronald Reagan decided to bomb various Libyan targets, including the headquarters of Muammar al-Qaddafi, in retaliation against various Libyan-sponsored “terrorism” acts against overseas American citizens and troops.

Just after the American air raids, CNN was looking for talking heads to fill airtime on what weapons were used and why. They found one of my military reform sources, the late Dr. Thomas Amlie, inventor of the Sidewinder missile, and he agreed to go on the air. Amlie was a brilliant weapons engineer and did not hesitate to speak his mind. With an understated but intense demeanor that sometimes came across like the Doc Emmitt Brown character in the Back to the Future movies, Amlie committed truth in this interview based on his decades of knowing how the DOD worked. The interview, which stopped me in my tracks at the time, was memorialized by his boss and friend Ernest Fitzgerald in his book The Pentagonists:

The morning after the April 1986 bombing of Libya by the USAF, my associate Tom Amlie appeared live on Cable News Network and explained that the raid was necessary: “It was that time of year.” In other words, military budget time. “The budget is in trouble, aid to the Contras is in trouble,” Tom said. And Khadafi was an ideal enemy. As Tom pointed out, he was “not a Christian, he talks funny and he’s probably guilty of most of the things we accuse him of.” Tom then got the hook from CNN, but he had made his point.

I remember the CNN anchor’s look of horror as they quickly went to a commercial. The tape became a cult classic among the military reformers, and it would go viral today. But Amlie committed truth as he saw it, gleaned from years of working for the DOD weapons programs.

This is not to say that the DOD wasn’t able to make budgetary hay with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They managed to bring in very expensive contractors to care for the troops and throw money at enemy threats such as the feared and destructive improvised explosive devices (IEDs). As I outlined in a previous column, the organization created to find ways to defeat the terrible human destruction of IEDs, the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), has thrown more than $20 billion at the problem with contractors coming up with all types of “gee whiz!” devices but found that trained dogs had a much higher success rate – for only $8.7 million. The DOD bureaucracy insisted on trying for the expensive fix instead of the too-cheap-and-effective canine nose. (The DOD has been trying, since 1997, to reverse-engineer a dog’s nose, to no avail.) The DOD and its supporters certainly have managed to accelerate the growth of the defense budget without a Cold War in place.

But having the Cold War resume would be much less risky and messy. The DOD would not have to worry about battlefield-weapon failures and the public turning sour as sons and daughters come home maimed or worse. If Putin continues to act up while still sitting on a nuclear arsenal that could destroy much, if not most, of the United States, and vice versa, there is a good chance that he and the United States could restart the Cold War. The US generals would be secretly high-fiving themselves within the Pentagon for turning up the money flow, while sternly outlining the Russian risk to the public. The good old days could return again, at least for a while. The military and the White House know that a traditional military option would not be viable here, but that wouldn’t stop the defense contractors from digging up every crazy technology that they have and running to their favorite generals to promote a new weapon in the name of a new Cold War.

The solution? Well, this is not something that can be fixed by legislation or regulation. There’s a huge problem at hand, and the American public needs to remember that no troops on the ground can fix it, especially with dangerous nuclear options available on both sides. This knowledge needs to be kept in front of a war-weary public. The current dust-up must be prevented from being used by the DOD, Congress and the defense contractors to revert back to the old Cold War formula of spending more ungodly sums of money to beef up already-bloated nuclear and conventional weapon options.

One of the best-known military reformers, Pierre Sprey, the co-designer of the F-16 fighter and the A-10 close ground support plane, told me that his uncle used to tell him that there is no real foreign policy for each country, just domestic policy. In other words, each country is manipulating a conflict for their advantage domestically, whether it is to distract from a poor economic recovery or other domestic crises, such as in the United States, or possibly to save face from an embarrassing and expensive Olympics and a rocky economy, as with Russia. Either way, it keeps the money flowing to the individual groups in the country that benefit from endlessly growing military budgets. If the public in both countries can look beyond the trumped up rah-rah pseudo-patriotism from their own leaders, maybe each side can be pressured to not step into another Cold War that harmed both countries for decades. The powers that be and their contractors that will benefit from an increased flow of money will try to reinvent the same formula that worked so well for their own self-interests in the past.

As an investigator, I would say that the political and military power brokers in each country that are trying to whip this into a new Cold War are really just self-dealing.

The definition of self-dealing is “the conduct of a trustee, an attorney, a corporate officer or other fiduciary that consists of taking advantage of his position in a transaction and acting for his own interests rather than for the interests of the beneficiaries of the trust, corporate shareholders or his clients. Self-dealing may involve misappropriation or usurpation of corporate assets or opportunities. Self-dealing is a form of conflict of interest.”

Just as it is unacceptable and illegal for anyone to “self-deal” in any other endeavor at the expense of the whole enterprise, it is even more unacceptable and illegal for the people in charge of a country to do it. The public needs to be reminded over and over that its civilian and military leaders should not be allowed to self-deal at the expense of their country.

The American and Russian self-dealers cannot be allowed to push these two countries into another needless and destructive Cold War. Too many lives and too much treasure were lost in the last enactment of this evergreen scam.

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