February 2, 2010

Seven Days in January

How the Pentagon Counts Coups in Washington

Sometimes it pays to read a news story to the last paragraph where a reporter can slip in that little gem for the news jockeys, or maybe just for the hell of it.  You know, the irresistible bit that doesn’t fit comfortably into the larger news frame, but that can be packed away in the place most of your readers will never get near, where your editor is likely to give you a free pass.

So it was, undoubtedly, with New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller, who accompanied Secretary of Defense Robert Gates as he stumbled through a challenge-filled, error-prone two-day trip to Pakistan.  Gates must have felt a little like a punching bag by the time he boarded his plane for home having, as Juan Cole pointed out, managed to signal “that the U.S. is now increasingly tilting to India and wants to put it in charge of Afghanistan security; that Pakistan is isolated… and that Pakistani conspiracy theories about Blackwater were perfectly correct and he had admitted it. In baseball terms, Gates struck out.”

In any case, here are the last two paragraphs of Bumiller’s parting January 23rd piece on the trip:

Mr. Gates, who repeatedly told the Pakistanis that he regretted their country’s ‘trust deficit’ with the United States and that Americans had made a grave mistake in abandoning Pakistan after the Russians left Afghanistan, promised the military officers that the United States would do better.

His final message delivered, he relaxed on the 14-hour trip home by watching ‘Seven Days in May,’ the cold war-era film about an attempted military coup in the United States.”

Just in case you’ve forgotten, three major cautionary political films came out in the anxiety-ridden year of 1964, not so long after the Cuban Missile crisis — of which only Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick’s classic vision of the end of the world, American-style, is much remembered today.  (“I don’t say we wouldn’t get our hair mussed, but I do say no more than ten to twenty million people killed.”)

All three concerned nuclear politics, “oops” moments, and Washington.  The second was Fail Safe, in which a computerized nuclear response system too fast for human intervention malfunctions and fails to stop an erroneous nuclear attack on Moscow, forcing an American president to save the world by nuking New York City.  It was basically Dr. Strangelove done straight (though it’s worth pointing out that Americans loved to stomp New York City in their fantasies long before 9/11).

The third was the Secretary of Defense’s top pick, Seven Days in May, which came with this tagline: “You are soon to be shaken by the most awesome seven days in your life!”  In it, a right-wing four-star general linked to an incipient fascist movement attempts to carry out a coup d’état against a dovish president who has just signed a nuclear disarmament pact with the Soviet Union.  The plot is uncovered and defused by a Marine colonel played by Kirk Douglas.  (“I’m suggesting, Mr. President, there’s a military plot to take over the government, and it may occur sometime this coming Sunday…”)

These were, of course, the liberal worries of a long-gone time.  Now, one of the films is iconic and the other two clunky hoots.  All three would make a perfect film festival for a Secretary of Defense with 14 hours to spare.  Just the sort of retro fantasy stuff you could kick back and enjoy after a couple of rocky days on the road, especially if you were headed for a “homeland” where no one had a bad, or even a challenging, thing to say about you.  After all, in the last two decades our fantasies about nuclear apocalypse have shrunk to a far more localized scale, and a military plot to take over the government is entertainingly outré exactly because, in the Washington of 2010, such a thought is ludicrous.  After all, every week in Washington is now the twenty-first century equivalent of Seven Days in May come true.

Think of the week after the Secretary of Defense flew home, for instance, as Seven Days in January.

After all, if Gates was blindsided in Pakistan, he already knew that a $626 billion Pentagon budget, including more than $128 billion in war-fighting funds, had passed Congress in December and that his next budget for fiscal year 2011 (soon to be submitted) might well cross the $700 billion mark.  He probably also knew that, in the upcoming State of the Union Address, President Obama was going to announce a three-year freeze on discretionary domestic spending starting in 2011, but leave national security expenditures of any sort distinctly unfrozen.  He undoubtedly knew as well that, in the week after his return, news would come out that the president was going to ask Congress for $14.2 billion extra, most for 2011, to train and massively bulk up the Afghan security forces, more than doubling the funds already approved by Congress for 2010.

Or consider that only days after his plane landed, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released its latest “budget outlook” indicating that the Iraq and Afghan Wars had already cost the American taxpayer more than $1 trillion in Congressionally-approved dollars, with no end in sight.  Just as the non-freeze on defense spending in the State of the Union Address caused next to no mainstream comment, so there would be no significant media response to this (and these costs didn’t even include the massive projected societal price of the two wars, including future care for wounded soldiers and the replacement of worn out or destroyed equipment, which will run so much higher).

Each of these announcements could be considered another little coup for the Pentagon and the U.S. military to count.  Each was part of Pentagon blank-check-ism in Washington.  Each represented a national security establishment ascendant in a way that the makers of Seven Days in May might have found hard to grasp.

To put just the president’s domestic cost-cutting plan in a Pentagon context:  If his freeze on domestic programs were to go through Congress intact (an unlikely possibility), it would still be chicken-feed in the cost-cutting sweepstakes.  The president’s team estimates savings of $250 billion over 10 years.  On the other hand, the National Priorities Project has done some sober figuring, based on projections from the Office of Management and Budget, and finds that, over the same decade, the total increase in the Pentagon budget should come to $522 billion.  (And keep in mind that that figure doesn’t include possible increases in the budgets of the Department of Homeland Security, non-military intelligence agencies, or even any future war-fighting supplemental funds appropriated by Congress.)  That $250 billion in cuts, then, would be but a small brake on the guaranteed further rise of national-security spending.  American life, in other words, is being sacrificed to the very infrastructure meant to provide this country’s citizens with “safety.”  That’s what seven days in January really means.

Or consider that $14.2 billion meant for the Afghan military and police.  Forget, for a moment, all the obvious doubts about training, by 2014, up to 400,000 Afghans for a force bleeding deserters and evidently whipping future Taliban fighters into shape, or the fact that impoverished Afghanistan will never be able to afford such a vast security apparatus (which means it’s ours to fund into the distant future), or even that many of those training dollars may go to Xe Services (formerly Blackwater) or other mercenary private contracting companies.  Just think for a minute, instead, about the fact that the State of the Union Address offered not a hint that a single further dollar would go to train an adult American, especially an out-of-work one, in anything whatsoever.

Hollywood loves remakes, but a word of advice to those who admire the Secretary of Defense’s movie tastes:  do as he did and get the old Seven Days in May from Netflix.  Unlike Star Trek, James Bond, Bewitched, and other sixties “classics,” Seven Days isn’t likely to come back, not even if Matt Damon were available to play the Marine colonel who saves the country from a military takeover, because these days there’s little left to save — and every week is the Pentagon’s week in Washington.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), an alternative history of the mad Bush years.

[Note:  My thanks to Chris Hellman, director of research for the National Priorities Project, and Jo Comerford, its executive director, for checking on, and crunching, some Pentagon numbers for me.  A small bow as well to TomDispatch regular William Astore for first bringing up the issue of military coups at this site in mid-January and beating the Secretary of Defense to the punch with this sentence:  “Don’t expect a Seven Days in May scenario.”]

Copyright 2010 Tom Engelhardt

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