Since 1786, Congress has authorized subsidies to Big Business’s demand that US troops protect their unending drive to seize and exploit a weaker country’s raw resources or to monopolize overseas marketing.
This centuries-old arrangement started in the US after the Revolutionary War in 1784 when heated complaints from business interests about bribes demanded by North Africa’s Barbary States pirates reached Thomas Jefferson, then the ambassador to France. Shippers were too cheap to either use cargo space for cannon or hire pirate brigantines. Yet overland-based merchants voiced no demands for federal protection to deal with pirates hijacking cargoes and passenger plunder. These merchants hired “shotguns” to ride with drivers of wagons and stagecoaches to protect their goods.
But in shippers’ views, piracy was somehow different from highway robbery in principle, seemingly only because of business size and degree of loss. Ergo, large companies working the Mediterranean coast had a greater right to demand taxpayer protection because of those familiar claims of contribution to the US economy — jobs, raw-material purchases, expansion, import trade. That somehow made shippers’ interests “national interests” requiring taxpayer protection — cost-free to the shippers themselves, of course.
Just how that was to be accomplished with no navy or standing army was ignored. So was the fact that taxes had just started to fill the Treasury of an infant nation prostrated by the Revolution’s costs and a public with near-empty pocketbooks. The whiskey excise tax was not the only revenue-raiser that set off protests.
Because thrift and concern for commoners was equally alien to the aristocratic and high-living Jefferson, he wrote to his former law student James Monroe, then a Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress, strongly suggesting that the shippers’ cause
will require a protecting force on the sea. Otherwise the smallest powers in Europe, every one which possesses a single ship of the line may dictate to us, and enforce their demands by captures on our commerce. Some naval force then is necessary if we mean to be commercial.
That policy provoked hot debates for the next two years in the Continental Congress because its powerful and prudent leader John Adams and his penurious colleagues strongly objected. Adams argued it was cheaper for businessmen to pay Barbary bribes than to convince taxpayers to build a navy just to protect their ships and profits.
Unfortunately, pressures from business interests triumphed then as they do now in contemporary military matters. So in 1786, Congress authorized what then was an astronomical $2.1 million (in 2018 dollars) of tax money to cover a treaty with Morocco guaranteeing businesses free passage to Mediterranean ports.
Eight years later, it was Algerian pirates (from today’s Tunisia and Libya) under the rule of Algiers’s Dey, Omar Agha. This time, businessmen commanded Congress to provide cost-free protection. So in 1794, after another bitter debate, the House voted 46-44 to spend more than $15 million (in 2018 dollars) of taxpayer money to build the US Navy’s first six ships for protecting commercial vessels sailing east of Gibraltar.
Taxpayer Costs: $37.9 Million. Business Interest Costs: $0.
The usual military/naval cost overruns during the next four years of construction meant that the total came to around $37 million (in 2018 dollars). Nowhere is it recorded that business interests ever paid a cent for the warships’ construction or operational costs.
By 1803, Jefferson was president and ordered the naval vessels to blockade Tripoli — at taxpayer expense. It seemed successful until the 36-gun Philadelphia and its 307-member crew were captured five miles offshore in late October. The ransom was $1.3 million (in 2018 dollars) for the crew. A US raid in mid-February burned the ship to keep it from pirate hands.
This time the pirates had gone too far. Between fury from the public and the Philadelphians who owned the ship, Jefferson had had enough. Knowing the captives would be dead long before merchants ever paid the ransom, he opened the door to the precedent of the US military protecting business interests at the expense of taxpayers.
The blockade continued until April, when a land-sea “pincer” movement was launched to solve the Barbary hijacks: By land, it was an eight-man Marine team — commanding 400 fractious mainly Arab and Greek hirelings — ordered to march 944 miles from Alexandria along the Mediterranean to capture Tripoli and the Philadelphia prisoners. Halfway there, however, they and US Navy guns defeated a nearly 2,200-man garrison, ending the Barbary wars with a free-passage treaty in 1805.
A Modern History
Ever since, gunboat “diplomacy” at taxpayer expense has provided license for US traders, playing on national pride, to murderously exploit foreign territories, ranging from Mexico in 1846 and the Philippines in 1898, to Iraq today.
Jefferson’s ruinously expensive precedent has depended on a gullible (or resigned) public, and business-controlled Congresses and presidents. The additional criminal irony is that businesses today have ensured million-dollar loopholes in current tax codes to avoid even paying US taxes on foreign sales.
Using US tax dollars for business exploitation and profit without repayment is bad enough. But writing off the bloodshed of our youth to provide that protection is beyond appalling. Millions in the armed services have been killed protecting these business interests and many more have been wounded and scarred, often for life.
Unfortunately, the Pentagon appears to have the same disregard for taxpayers’ money once it’s doled out. Consider the US military’s failure to investigate $9 billion worth of seized assets earmarked for reconstruction in Iraq that instead disappeared into the country’s corrupt government. US taxpayers have been footing the $60 billion reconstruction bill since 2003. Small wonder the first year’s no-bid contracts were secretly awarded to US construction titans Halliburton and Bechtel — offerings of nearly $9.6 billion and $928 million (in 2018 dollars), respectively.
With both the Gulf and Iraq Wars, the petroleum barons got exactly what they wanted: a return to controlling Iraq’s oil. Though the first five out of six Iraqi contracts in 2009 went to global oil giants such as Russia’s Lukoil, ExxonMobil won the West Qurna 1 field near Basra for “refurbishing.” They were followed by Chevron and Occidental until 2015. Occidental sold out to Iraq’s South Oil Company in mid-November 2015, to eliminate “non-core assets in the Middle East.” Chevron temporarily departed in 2015 after enduring a year of Iraqi and Kurdish armies preventing ISIS from possessing northern Iraq’s major oil fields in the Kirkuk area. It returned until the 2017 conflict over Kurdish independence, briefly shutting down drilling operations until last February.
In the meantime, Exxon expanded by teaming with PetroChina in 2013 and setting up two subsidiary entities (ExxonMobil Iraq Limited/Exxon Mobil Kurdistan Region of Iraq Ltd.) to reap the corporation’s overall (but unstipulated) Iraqi portion of $19.7 billion in 2017 alone.
Indicative of business interests’ control of oil in the region — and Pentagon protection of these interests — were the howls of rage at Trump’s recent decision to withdraw US troops from an oil-rich area of Syria and the projected mineral mecca of Afghanistan.
The US-Backed War in Yemen
Jefferson’s precedent-setting decision to provide taxpayer protection to business interests in the Mediterranean and Middle East has now come full circle in the Saudi-Yemen war. The US military is supporting the Saudis on behalf of multinational munitions companies, chiefly Boeing, Lockheed-Martin and Raytheon, that are making stratospheric profits collectively: $90 billion since 1950 and $5.5 billion in 2017.
To keep Saudi oil flowing to US multinational business (and the Pentagon), US presidents since Obama have been helping Saudi Arabia destroy its neighboring country to prevent the kingdom’s ageless and unending major fear: That the Yemeni Revolution will spread and end the royal family’s power and wealth.
Taxpayers have been inadvertently “helping” Saudi Arabia with 165 airstrikes in 2016-17 alone — not to mention aiding the kingdom’s daily bomb runs. The US has also been financing Saudi Arabia’s military surveillance, hardware and air-refueling services, and since 2017, US Special Force squads have been working to deactivate Yemen’s puny ballistic launchers inside Saudi borders.
The law on arms exports gives a president control of what companies ship to overseas markets and specifically forbids arms sales contributing to increasing “the possibility of outbreak or escalation of conflict.” It also permits the president to transform “major defense equipment” if s/he determines it’s “appropriate and in the national interests of the United States.” Obviously, use of the “national interests” label opened the door in 2015 to weapons makers selling Saudi Arabia such conflict-escalating hardware as bombs, missiles, tanks and aircraft. The laser bombs that struck a school bus of Yemeni children, for instance, were Lockheed products.
The current death toll from those so-called national interests in the Yemen slaughter is disputed as far too low. Even so, the colossal casualty count is at least 17,000 civilians killed or injured, 2 million displaced, 22.2 million in need of assistance, 1 million at risk of starvation and 1 million suffering from cholera. The UN prediction is that the Yemen situation may result in the “worst famine in the world in 100 years” because its major port of Hodeidah is blockaded.
Incredibly, Trump touted a US-Saudi arms deal as beneficial to the US economy because he estimated billions in weapons sales would provide “hundreds of thousands of jobs” to Americans. It was quickly unmasked as a lie. The “sale” was a “non-existent $450 billion deal.” All of the president’s claims of jobs for the US weapons industries instantly evaporated upon the media’s rapid investigations.
Recent congressional legislation about its war powers has failed to halt the military juggernaut because business powers somehow have always owned Capitol Hill. The current five bills to halt US participation in the Yemen war are commendable and reflect many Americans’ sentiments, even if re-submitted in Congress’s next session. But all have flaws or loopholes that will render them impotent — and, even so, will earn Trump’s veto.
Stopping wars for business interests rests on a public revolt against the use of the Pentagon as a taxpayer-subsidized bodyguard. For more than two centuries, a mostly supine US public has let them. Stopping business wars rests on a public revolt — like France’s yellow vests — against that use of the Pentagon as a cost-free bodyguard.
Alternatively, a modern-day congressional powerhouse like John Adams would strongly advise business interests to pay for their own protection, lest taxpayers be forced to fund wars “forever.” As he wrote Jefferson all too prophetically in late July 1786 in a climate of tax revolts and other countries paying Barbary bribes rather than building a navy just to protect their commerce:
This thought is I fear, too rugged for our People to bear. To fight [the pirates] at the Expence of Millions, and make Peace after all by giving more Money and larger Presents than would now procure perpetual peace Seems not to be œconomical.
Indeed, the multinational moguls always have the unsavory option of hiring Blackwater founder Erik Prince’s sizable mercenary army to “ride shotgun” for exploitive needs. The bottom line is that taxpayers should not continue paying blood and treasure to protect monumental corporate war crimes disguised as “national interests.”