Neocons Trade Medicare for War

Exclusive: The American neocons are again on the upswing as they undercut peace initiatives from the Obama administration and gain Republican support for maintaining massive Pentagon spending, in exchange for limiting senior citizens’ access to Medicare. As Robert Parry reports, the neocons can now see the light at the end of the tunnel for their restoration to power.

By Robert Parry

June 14, 2011

For decades now, America’s neoconservatives have pushed for higher military spending and baited their political opponents as being “soft” on whatever the enemy-of-the-day was: Moscow, Nicaragua, Cuba in the 1980s; al-Qaeda, Iraq, Iran, Libya in recent years.

The neocons happily smeared Americans who opposed the huge Pentagon budgets, tagging them as anti-American or disloyal. They were people who would “blame America first,” as Ronald Reagan’s neocon Ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick, famously declared.

The neocons, who first rose to prominence under Reagan in the 1980s, also put fiscal responsibility in the back seat whenever the tradeoff was more military spending. Indeed, Reagan’s first budget director, David Stockman, has traced the origins of today’s budget crisis, in part, to the neocon insistence on bloated Pentagon budgets.

Last year, in a New York Times op-ed entitled “Four Deformations of the Apocalypse,” Stockman said one of those “deformations” resulted from the fact that “the neocons were pushing the military budget skyward.”

Back then, however, Reagan could appease Washington’s political factions, from Republicans wanting more tax cuts to Democrats defending social programs, by running big deficits. Reagan did target “welfare queens” and other unpopular groups for budget cuts but he essentially papered over the ideological differences with massive borrowing from foreign countries.

Today, however, as those deficits reach a crisis point, hard choices are finally being forced on the American political system. Yet, the neocons retain their place of extraordinary influence in Washington and are determined to keep military spending “skyward.”

To do that, today’s neocons are ready to make trade-offs that would shrink the social safety net for millions of Americans, including senior citizens whose lives depend on Medicare. For instance, Sen. Joe Lieberman, one of the leading neocons in Congress, has proposed raising the eligibility requirement for Medicare from 65 to 67.

While Lieberman suggests the change is a modest one, what it means for many Americans is that they will either face exorbitant fees from private insurers after turning 65 or go without insurance altogether and hope their health holds up for another two years.

As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has noted, “Not every 65- or 66-year-old denied Medicare would be able to get private coverage, in fact, many would find themselves uninsured. So what would these seniors do?

“Well, as the health economists Austin Frakt and Aaron Carroll document, right now Americans in their early 60s without health insurance routinely delay needed care, only to become very expensive Medicare recipients once they reach 65.

“This pattern would be even stronger and more destructive if Medicare eligibility were delayed. As a result, Mr. Frakt and Mr. Carroll suggest, Medicare spending might actually go up, not down, under Mr. Lieberman’s proposal.”

Life or Death

But let’s state this predicament more directly: What does it mean for a 65-year-old to postpone needed medical treatment and then get emergency care for acute problems once he or she finally qualifies for Medicare two years later? It means the person is going to survive in a much reduced condition or die.

A person who postpones treatment of a chronic illness like diabetes, hypertension or cancer can expect to face surgery, amputations, incapacity or early death. In other words, the neocons are willing to trade your health and your life for their higher military spending.

Like the old explanation of how the Nazis eliminated one group after another, you might say that the neocons first came for the welfare queens and since you weren’t a welfare queen, you didn’t protest; then they came for the people who needed subsidized housing or food stamps and since you weren’t one of them, you stayed silent; and now they are coming for those of us who need Medicare and by now we are so divided and deluded that our protests can be overridden and ignored.

But why, you might ask, are the neocons so determined to maintain U.S. military spending at record levels even as the United States spends nearly as much on war and armaments as the rest of the world combined? Why must that spending be protected even at the cost of vital services for Americans?

On one level, the answer is self-interest. Many of the top think tanks, lobbying shops and law firms where prominent neocons earn fat salaries when they’re not working in the government get gobs of money from military contractors, either as generous donations or hefty fees. It’s never wise to bite the hand that feeds you.

Plus, when the neocons rotate back into government as they hope to under a new Republican president in 2013 they want to control a robust military that can shove around global adversaries. What’s the fun in having to negotiate?

Some neocons also are deeply committed to the interests of Israel and see the proper role of the U.S. military as taking down Israeli adversaries that are beyond the capability even of the top-notch Israeli Defense Forces.

While Israel is capable of thrashing the Palestinians in Gaza or blasting apart Hezbollah targets in Lebanon, it couldn’t reach out hundreds of miles and eliminate Muslim enemies like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi or Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. That requires the nonpareil U.S. military.

Getting Iran

And, with Hussein now gone and Gaddafi under siege, that leaves Iran as Israel’s preeminent threat, and it is not within easy range of Israel’s air force. So, some neocons are quite open about the need to maintain high levels of U.S. military spending in case Israel decides to attack Iran and its nuclear program.

The Washington Post, which has evolved into the neocons’ flagship newspaper, has warned that any significant reduction in the U.S. military budget would jeopardize the power needed to confront Iran and other “rogue” states.

In a Tuesday editorial praising Defense Secretary Robert Gates for chastising NATO allies over their reduced military spending, the Post also noted that President Barack Obama was sliding in a similarly dangerous direction.

The Post editors wrote: “Despite an ongoing war in Afghanistan and the growing threat from rogue states such as Iran, Mr. Gates noted, European defense spending has fallen 15 percent since 2001, even as that of the United States has doubled.

“The American portion of NATO defense spending, which hovered around 50 percent during the Cold War, is now 75 percent.   Mr. Gates rightly blamed European governments for being ‘apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.’”

The Post continued: “The secretary’s sermon was well-justified. But we couldn’t help wondering if the assembled European ministers would find some irony in his lessons. The Obama administration, after all, is pressing for big defense cuts of its own, up to $400 billion over the next dozen years, on top of savings of a similar amount already identified by Mr. Gates.

“That will mean, the Pentagon chief said in a speech last month, ‘a smaller military’ that ‘will be able to go fewer places and do fewer things.’”

Beyond criticizing the notion of limiting the Pentagon budget, the Post chastised Obama for withdrawing U.S. strike aircraft from the Libya campaign and for considering a significant drawdown in the 100,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan.

The Post cited, nervously, “some reports suggesting that senior White House aides are again pushing to abandon the mission of creating an Afghan government and army capable of defending the country by 2014.

“It’s hard to see Europeans responding to appeals like that of Mr. Gates at a time when the United States is reducing its military capabilities, scaling back its objectives [in Afghanistan] and insisting on taking a back seat during a war [in Libya].”

The Post concluded, “It may be that NATO has a dim future, but if so it’s not only because its smaller members are shirking their responsibilities. It’s also because its dominant member leader is eschewing its indispensable role of leadership.”

Easing Out Obama

In other words, the Washington Post the capital’s most powerful newspaper is rejecting any significant reductions in U.S. military spending even as vital domestic programs, such as Medicare, are under extreme pressure.

Already, the Republicans in Washington have caved to these neocon demands by sparing the Pentagon from any budget cuts as the GOP would replace Medicare with a privatized voucher system that would shift costs heavily onto the sick elderly.

As Reagan’s budget director Stockman noted in another New York Times op-ed, congressional Republicans and their supposedly deficit-hawk budget chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan, backed away from challenging the neocons on military spending.

“Ingratiating himself with the neo-cons, Mr. Ryan has put the $700 billion defense and security budget off limits,” Stockman wrote.

Ryan’s surrender on military spending cuts, combined with the Right’s insistence on further tax cuts for the rich, skewed the Republican budget plan toward far more severe domestic spending cuts, including ending Medicare as a government-run insurance program.

Still, between the continued high military spending and the new rounds of tax cuts, Ryan’s budget would not project a balanced federal budget for nearly three decades and would achieve that primarily by shifting health-care costs onto seniors.

But Ryan’s budget deal with the neocons is nothing new. It represents a cornerstone of the Right’s alliance dating back to the late 1970s when the Republicans, the neocons and the Religious Right came together to push Ronald Reagan into the White House.

As Stockman noted then, what the neocons wanted was “skyward” military spending, which also fit with the desire of Israel’s Likud leadership to take a harder line against Arab militants who then were seen as allied with the Soviet Union.

‘Regime Change’

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the neocons began adjusting their strategies to focus more directly on Israel’s foes in the Muslim world. A neocon theory emerged that “regime change” in places like Iraq, Syria and Iran would deprive Israel’s closer-in enemies, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestine’s Hamas, of financial and military support and thus enable Israel to dictate peace terms.

The early outlines of this concept for violently remaking the Middle East emerged in 1996 when a group of American neocons, including Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, went to work for Israeli Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu during his campaign for prime minister.

The neocon strategy paper, called “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” advanced the idea that only regime change in hostile Muslim countries could achieve the necessary “clean break” from the diplomatic standoffs that had followed inconclusive Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

Under the “clean break,” Israel would no longer seek peace through mutual understanding and compromise, but rather through confrontation, including the violent removal of leaders such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.

The plan called Hussein’s ouster “an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right,” but also one that would destabilize the Assad dynasty in Syria and thus topple the power dominoes into Lebanon, where Hezbollah might soon find itself without its key Syrian ally. Iran also could find itself in the cross-hairs of “regime change.”

But what the “clean break” needed was the military might of the United States, since some of the targets like Iraq were too far away and too powerful to be defeated even by Israel’s highly efficient military. The cost in Israeli lives and to Israel’s economy from such overreach would have been staggering.

In 1998, the U.S. neocon brain trust pushed the “clean break” plan another step forward with the creation of the Project for the New American Century, which urged President Bill Clinton to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

However, Clinton would only go so far, maintaining a harsh embargo on Iraq and enforcing a “no-fly zone” which involved U.S. aircraft conducting periodic bombing raids. Still, with Clinton or his heir apparent, Al Gore, in the White House, a full-scale invasion of Iraq appeared out of the question.

The first key political obstacle was removed when the neocons helped engineer George W. Bush’s ascension to the presidency in Election 2000. However, the path was not fully cleared until al-Qaeda terrorists attacked New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, creating a political climate across America for war and revenge.

In March 2003, surrounded by neocon advisers, Bush ordered an unprovoked invasion of Iraq. Though the war had other motives besides Israeli security from Bush’s personal animus toward Saddam Hussein to controlling Iraq’s oil resources a principal goal of the neocons was the projection of American power deep into the Muslim world, to strike at enemy states beyond Israel’s limited military reach.

Of course, the geopolitical motives were rarely mentioned publicly. Instead, the American people were fed falsehoods about Iraq’s WMDs and Hussein’s ties to al-Qaeda.

Neocon Failure

The neocon plan might have worked, except that the violent resistance in Iraq to the U.S. occupation soon made it clear that the neocons’ grander plan of extending “regime change” to Syria and Iran had to be put on hold.

With the bloody Iraq War eroding George W. Bush’s political support by mid-decade and the rise of Barack Obama in 2008, the neocons found themselves shunted out of government power centers but not out of Washington’s opinion circles. The neocons also retained allies in the State Department and the U.S. military.

But the neocons needed to buy time as the Democrats gained control of the White House and Congress in 2009. So the savvy neocons conducted what amounted to a delaying action as they worked to dirty up and weaken Obama.

And the young president fell into their trap. To show his commitment to bipartisanship, Obama retained key figures from Bush’s national security team, including Defense Secretary Gates and Central Command chief, Gen. David Petraeus, both neocon favorites. Obama also appointed a neocon-lite Democrat, Hillary Clinton, to be Secretary of State.

Within months, Obama found himself hemmed in by these advisers as they sought to push him toward a major escalation in the Afghan War. They did so by limiting his war options on the inside, while the neocons on the outside built elite political support for the extra troops.

In late 2009, Obama finally gave in to the Pentagon demands, but he thought he had extracted an agreement for a withdrawal beginning in July 2011. However, once he agreed to the extra troops, he found himself under neocon criticism for any actual plan to withdraw them.

Meanwhile, the Afghan War escalation alienated Obama from his liberal “base.” Many disillusioned progressives sat out the 2010 congressional elections, which saw the Republicans regain control of the House and strengthen their hand in the Senate.

Now, as Obama’s reelection prospects decline amid a struggling economy, continued Republican obstructionism and mounting criticism of his leadership skills the neocons can see the end of the four-year tunnel.

All the neocons have to do is continue harassing Obama for another 16 months, using their influence in Official Washington to demean any foreign policy adjustments that might win him back favor with his liberal “base.”

Already, the talking points are in play if the President goes in that direction: Obama doesn’t believe in “American exceptionalism”; Obama is a “declinist”: Obama “apologizes” for America; he is “weak” on American power. The neocons might as well trot out Jeane Kirkpatrick’s old line and accuse Obama of wanting to “blame America first.”

Having fended off a challenge to their warlike foreign policy and to their readiness to put American troops in harm’s way for geopolitical goals the neocons can now look forward to a Republican restoration to the White House in 2013 and getting their hands back on the levers of American military might.

[For more on these topics, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, now available in a two-book set for the discount price of only $19. For details, click here.]

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.