Privatizing 'Obama's War'
Editor’s Note: President Barack Obama is making some moves on the international chess board – reaching out to the Muslim world, chastising Israel for its harsh treatment of Palestinians and seeking to bring Iran and hard-line Arab states into regional peace talks.
However, even as Obama makes those rhetorical and diplomatic moves, the wars in Iraq and, especially, Afghanistan grind on, with some disturbing similarities to George W. Bush’s approach, writes Michal Winship in this guest essay:
The sudden reappearance of former Vice President Dick Cheney over the last few months - seeming to emerge from his famous undisclosed location more frequently now than he ever did when he was in office - does not mean six more weeks of winter.
But it does bring to mind that classic country and western song, "How Can I Miss You When You Won't Go Away?" Or, maybe, "If You Won't Leave Me, I'll Find Someone Who Will."
In his self-appointed role as voice of the opposition, Mr. Cheney has been playing Nostradamus, gloomily predicting doom if the Obama White House continues to set aside Bush administration policy, setting the stage for recrimination and finger-pointing should there be another terrorist attack on America.
Cheney's grouchy legacy is the gift that keeps on giving. Just this week, The Washington Post reported for the first time that while vice president, Cheney oversaw "at least" four of those briefings given to senior members of Congress about enhanced interrogation techniques; "part of a secretive and forceful defense he mounted throughout 2005 in an effort to maintain support for the harsh techniques used on detainees...
"An official who witnessed one of Cheney's briefing sessions with lawmakers said the vice president's presence appeared to be calculated to give additional heft to the CIA's case for maintaining the program."
And remember Halliburton, the international energy services company of which Cheney used to be the CEO? After the fall of Baghdad, Halliburton and its then-subsidiary KBR were the happy recipients of billions of dollars in outside contracts to take care of the military and rebuild Iraq's petroleum industry.
Waste, shoddy workmanship (like faulty wiring that caused fatal electric shocks) and corruption ran wild, Pentagon investigators allege, even as Vice President Cheney was still receiving deferred compensation and stock options.
Reporting for TomDispatch.com, Pratap Chatterjee, author of the book, Halliburton's Army, writes, "In early May, at a hearing on Capitol Hill, DCAA [Defense Contract Audit Agency] director April G. Stephenson told the independent, bipartisan, congressionally mandated Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan that, since 2004, her staff had sent 32 cases of suspected overbilling, bribery and other possible violations of the law to the Pentagon inspector general.
“The 'vast majority' of these cases, she testified, were linked to KBR, which accounts for a staggering 43 percent of the dollars the Pentagon has spent in Iraq."
In one instance, KBR was charging an average $38,000 apiece for "prefabricated living units" on bases in Iraq; another contractor offered to provide them for $18,000. But of a questionable $553 million in payments to KBR that the DCCA blocked or suspended, the Pentagon has gone ahead and agreed to pay $439 million, accepting KBR's explanations.
KBR, Halliburton and the private security firm Blackwater have come to symbolize the excesses of outsourcing warfare. So you'd think that with a new sheriff like Barack Obama in town, such practices would be on the "Things Not to Do" list. Not so.
According to new Pentagon statistics, in the second quarter of this year, there has been a 23 percent increase in the number of private security contractors working for the Pentagon in Iraq and a 29 percent hike in Afghanistan. In fact, outside contractors now make up approximately half of our forces fighting in the two countries.
"This means," according to Jeremy Scahill, author of the book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, "there are a whopping 242,647 contractors working on these two U.S. wars."
Scahill, who runs an excellent new website called "Rebel Reports," spoke with my colleague Bill Moyers on the current edition of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS.
"What we have seen happen, as a result of this incredible reliance on private military contractors, is that the United States has created a new system for waging war," he said.
By hiring foreign nationals as mercenaries, "You turn the entire world into your recruiting ground. You intricately link corporate profits to an escalation of warfare and make it profitable for companies to participate in your wars.
"In the process of doing that you undermine US democratic policies. And you also violate the sovereignty of other nations, because you're making their citizens combatants in a war to which their country is not a party.
"I feel that the end game of all of this could well be the disintegration of the nation-state apparatus in the world. And it could be replaced by a scenario where you have corporations with their own private armies. To me, that would be a devastating development. But it's happening on a micro level. And I fear it will start to happen on a much bigger scale."
Jeremy Scahill's comments come just as Lt. General Stanley McChrystal, the man slated to be the new commander of our troops in Afghanistan says the cost of our strategy there is going to cost America and its NATO allies billions of additional dollars for years to come.
In fact, according to budget documents released by the Pentagon last month, as of next year, the cost of the war in Afghanistan - more and more known as "Obama's War" - will exceed the cost of the war in Iraq.
The President asserted in his Cairo speech on Thursday that he has no desire to keep troops or establish permanent military bases in Afghanistan.
But according to Jeremy Scahill, "I think what we're seeing, under President Barack Obama, is sort of old wine in a new bottle. Obama is sending one message to the world," he told Moyers, "but the reality on the ground, particularly when it comes to private military contractors, is that the status quo remains from the Bush era."
Maybe that's one more reason Dick Cheney, private contractor emeritus, won't go away.
Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program “Bill Moyers Journal,” which airs Friday night on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers.
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