Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power - Rachel Maddow (2012)
Prologue. Is It Too Late to Descope This?
IN THE LITTLE TOWN WHERE I LIVE IN HAMPSHIRE COUNTY, Massachusetts, we now have a “Public Safety Complex” around the corner from what used to be our hokey Andy Griffith–esque fire station. In the cascade of post-9/11 Homeland Security money in the first term of the George W. Bush administration, our town’s share of the loot bought us a new fire truck—one that turned out to be a few feet longer than the garage where the town kept our old fire truck. So then we got some more Homeland money to build something big enough to house the new truck. In homage to the origin of the funding, the local auto detailer airbrushed on the side of the new truck a patriotic tableau of a billowing flaglike banner, a really big bald eagle, and the burning World Trade Center towers.
The American taxpayers’ investment in my town’s security didn’t stop at the new safety complex. I can see further fruit of those Homeland dollars just beyond my neighbor’s back fence. While most of us in town depend on well water, there are a few houses that for the past decade or so have been hooked up to a municipal water supply. And when I say “a few,” I mean a few: I think there are seven houses on municipal water. Around the time we got our awesome giant new fire truck, we also got a serious security upgrade to that town water system. Its tiny pump house is about the size of two phone booths and accessible by a dirt driveway behind my neighbor’s back lot. Or at least it used to be. The entire half-acre parcel of land around that pump house is now ringed by an eight-foot-tall chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, and fronted with a motion-sensitive electronically controlled motorized gate. On our side of town we call it “Little Guantánamo.” Mostly it’s funny, but there is some neighborly consternation over how frowsy Little Guantánamo gets every summer. Even though it’s town-owned land, access to Little Guantánamo is apparently above the security clearance of the guy paid to mow and brush-hog. Right up to the fence, it’s my neighbors’ land and they keep everything trim and tidy. But inside that fence, the grass gets eye-high. It’s going feral in there.
It’s not just the small-potatoes post-9/11 Homeland spending that feels a little off mission. It’s the big-ticket stuff too. Nobody ever made an argument to the American people, for instance, that the thing we ought to do in Afghanistan, the way we ought to stick it to Osama bin Laden, the way to dispense American tax dollars to maximize American aims in that faraway country, would be to build a brand-new neighborhood in that country’s capital city full of rococo narco-chic McMansions and apartment/office buildings with giant sculptures of eagles on their roofs and stoned guards lounging on the sidewalks, wearing bandoliers and plastic boots. No one ever made the case that this is what America ought to build in response to 9/11. But that is what we built. An average outlay of almost $5 billion a month over ten years (and counting) has created a twisted war economy in Kabul. Afghanistan is still one of the four poorest countries on earth; but now it’s one of the four poorest countries on earth with a neighborhood in its capital city that looks like New Jersey in the 1930s and ’40s, when Newark mobsters built garish mansions and dotted the grounds with lawn jockeys and hand-painted neo-neoclassic marble statues.
Walking around this Zircon-studded neighborhood of Wazir Akbar Khan (named for the general who commanded the Afghan Army’s rout of the British in 1842), one of the weirdest things is that the roads and the sewage and trash situation are palpably worse here than in many other Kabul neighborhoods. Even torqued-up steel-frame SUVs have a hard time making it down some of these desolate streets; evasive driving techniques in Wazir Akbar Khan often have more to do with potholes than potshots. One of the bigger crossroads in the neighborhood is an ad hoc dump. Street kids are there all day, picking through the newest leavings for food and for stuff to salvage or sell.
There’s nothing all that remarkable about a rich-looking neighborhood in a poor country. What’s remarkable here is that there aren’t rich Afghan people in this rich Afghan neighborhood. Whether or not the owners of these giant houses would stand for these undrivable streets, the piles of garbage, the sewage running down the sidewalk right outside their security walls, they’re not here to see it. They’ve moved to Dubai, or to the United States, or somewhere else that’s safer for themselves and their money. (Or our money.) Most of these fancy properties in Wazir Akbar Khan were built by the Afghan elite with profits from the international influx of cash that accompanied the mostly American influx of war a decade ago—built to display status or to reap still more war dollars from the Western aid agencies and journalists and politicians and diplocrats and private contractors who need proper places to stay in the capital. The surges big and small have been good to the property barons of Wazir Akbar Khan: residential real estate values were reportedly up 75 percent in 2008 alone. Check the listings under Kabul “villas” today and you’ll find properties priced from $7,000 to $25,000 a month with specs like this: four floors, a dozen rooms, nine toilets, three big kitchens, sleeps twenty.
No one sold the American people on this incarnation of Wazir Akbar Khan as one of the desired outcomes of all those hundreds of billions of tax dollars spent in Afghanistan. But it is what we have built at Ground Zero Afghanistan. Whatever we were aiming at, this is the manifest result.
Consider also the new hundred-million-dollar wastewater treatment facility in Fallujah, Anbar Province, Iraq, which provides only spotty wastewater treatment to the people of that city. In 2004, after the US military all but demolished Fallujah in the deadliest urban battle of the Iraq War, it was decided that the way to turn the residents of the recalcitrant Sunni Triangle away from Al-Qaeda and toward their country’s fledgling government would be to build a sewage system for all of Fallujah. The initial $33 million contract was let to a South Carolina company in June 2004, while the city was still smoldering. There was no time to waste. The Bush administration’s Iraqi Reconstruction Management Office identified the sewage system as a “key national reconciliation issue.” The goal was to have it up and running by the beginning of 2006.
Nearly five years after the deadline, having clocked in at three times its initial budget, there was still not a single residence on line. Accordingly, the plan was “descoped”—scaled down—to serve just a third of the city. In the midst then of doing a third of the work for triple the money, there was talk of walking away from the project without connecting even that one-third of Fallujah residences to the aborted plant. We had built a shit-processing plant that didn’t process shit.
And it gets worse. According to a 2008 report by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, about 10 percent of the money paid to Iraqi subcontractors for the Fallujah project ended up in the hands of “terrorist organizations.” According to that same report, residents near two particular pump stations “[might] become angry” if the system ever did come on line, because “funding constraints” made “odor control facilities” impractical. Even households that were not part of the collection system would still be subject to what the Iraqi minister of municipalities and public works delicately called the “big stink.” The eighty-page report also noted, with dry finality, “The project file lacked any documentation to support that the provisional Iraqi government wanted this project in the first place.”
When, finally, late in 2011, seven years into the project, at a cost of $108 million, we managed to get a quarter of the homes in Fallujah hooked into that system, this partial accomplishment was not met with resounding huzzahs. “In the end it would be dubious to conclude that this project helped stabilize the city, enhanced the local citizenry’s faith in government, built local service capacity, won hearts or minds, or stimulated the economy,” the Special Inspector General said in 2011. “It is difficult to conclude that the project was worth the investment.” A hundred million American dollars, partially diverted to the groups fighting US troops, to build (poorly) a giant, unwanted wastewater-treatment project that provides nothing but the “big stink” for three-quarters of the city. No one would argue for something like this as a good use of US tax dollars. But it is in fact what we bought.
Here at home, according to an exhaustive and impressive two-year-long investigation by the Washington Post, the taxpayer-funded Global War on Terror also built enough ultra-high-security office space (Sensitive Compartmentalized Information Facilities, or SCIF, in bureaucrat-speak) to fill twenty-two US Capitol Buildings: seventeen million square feet of offices in thirty-three handsome and generously funded new complexes powered up twenty-four hours a day, where an army of nearly one million American professionals spies on the world and the homeland. It’s as if we turned the entire working population of Detroit and Milwaukee into high-security-clearance spooks and analysts.
The spy boom has been a beautiful windfall for architects, construction companies, IT specialists, and above all defense contractors, enriching thousands of private companies and dozens of local economies hugging the Capital Beltway. All those SCIFs and the rest of the government-contractor gravy train have made suburban Washington, DC, home to six of the ten wealthiest counties in America. Falls Church, Loudoun County, and Fairfax County in Virginia are one, two, and three. Goodbye, Nassau County, New York. Take that, Oyster Bay.
The crown jewel of this sprawling intelligopolis is Liberty Crossing, in the Virginia suburbs of Washington—an 850,000-square-foot (and growing) complex that houses the National Counterterrorism Center. The agency was created and funded in 2004 because, despite spending $30 billion on intelligence before 9/11, the various spy agencies in our country did not talk to one another. So the $30 billion annual intelligence budget was boosted by 250 percent, and with that increase we built ourselves a clean, well-lighted edifice, concealed by GPS jammers and reflective windows, where intelligence collected by 1,271 government agencies and 1,931 private companies under government contract is supposedly coordinated.
It is a big, big idea, and perhaps necessary—the financial commitment to it implies at least that we think it is. But it turns out Liberty Crossing is a bureaucratic haystack into which the now even more vast intelligence community tosses its shiniest needles. When a businessman relayed to CIA agents in Nigeria that his son seemed to be under the spell of terrorists and had gone to Yemen, perhaps for training, that duly reported needle got sucked into the fifty-thousand-reports-per-year haystack, only to be discovered after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit and tried to set off a bomb he’d stuffed into his underpants. “The complexity of this system defies description,” a retired Army lieutenant general and intelligence specialist told the Post reporters. “We can’t effectively assess whether it’s making us more safe.”
If no one knows if it’s making us safer, why have we built it? Why are we still building it, at breakneck speed? Liberty Crossing is slated to almost double in size over the next decade. Remember the fierce debate in Congress over whether or not it’s worth it to do that? No? Me neither. But we keep building it. We keep chugging along.
National security is a real imperative for our country—for any country. But the connection between that imperative and what we do about it has gone as frowsy as my hometown’s little pump station in high August. Our national security policy isn’t much related to its stated justifications anymore. To whatever extent we do argue and debate what defense and intelligence policy ought to be, that debate—our political process—doesn’t actually determine what we do. We’re not directing that policy anymore; it just follows its own course. Which means we’ve effectively lost control of a big part of who we are as a country. And we’ve broken faith with some of the best advice the founders ever gave us.
Our constitutional inheritance didn’t point us in this direction. If the colonists hadn’t rejected British militarism and the massive financial burden of maintaining the British military, America wouldn’t exist. The Constitutional Convention debated whether America should even have a standing army. The founders feared that maintaining one would drain our resources in the same way that maintaining the eighteenth-century British military had burdened the colonies. They worried that a powerful military could rival civilian government for power in our new country, and of course they worried that having a standing army around would create too much of a temptation to use it. Those worries about the inevitable incentives to war were part of what led to the division of government at the heart of our Constitution, building into the structure of our new country a deliberate peaceable bias.
But in the past generation or two, we’ve drifted off that historical course. The steering’s gone wobbly, the brakes have failed. It’s not a conspiracy, there aren’t rogue elements pushing us to subvert our national interests to instead serve theirs. It’s been more entertaining and more boneheaded than that.
The good news is we don’t need a radical new vision of post–Cold War American power. We just need a “small c” conservative return to our constitutional roots, a course correction. This book is about how and why we’ve drifted. It wasn’t inevitable. And it’s fixable.