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The Vision Men

A new book by William Hartung offers a portrait of an entrenched cadre with an agenda of lasting American global dominance through overwhelming military might.
 
 
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Early in his tenure as chairman of the Defense Policy Board, Richard Perle spent the better part of a New York-to-Washington flight pestering a Japanese businessman to invest in his new firm Trireme. A colleague of Perle's on the defense board was seated behind them on the same flight.

bookThe exchange involved known knowns, to borrow a phrase from Perle's friend Donald Rumsfeld, and unknown unknowns. One of the known knowns to the Japanese businessman was that as Defense Policy Board chairman, Perle had an inside line on America's future defense needs -- handy information for the head of a security-oriented investment firm like Trireme.

Another known known, this one the board member’s, was that Perle was at that moment not passing the sniff test. The Defense Policy Board, which is supposed to serve as a broad-based advisory council for the defense secretary, has strayed far from its nonpartisan mission, stocked as it is with partisan hawks like Newt Gingrich and Perle whose far-right views mirror Rumsfeld's own. But Perle's position still carried with it ethical considerations, among them the responsibility not to profit from his appointment by doing things like pimping his insider status at the Pentagon to potential investors for personal enrichment.

The unknown unknown, from Perle's point of view, was that his fellow board member was sitting behind him. Upon landing and discovering this discomfiting fact, Perle hurried to explain that it wasn't what it sounded like, really it wasn't ... Within two years, though, Perle was busted by the press doing the same thing, only carrying it out to fruition. He stepped down from the chairmanship in March 2003 when the story broke that he had exploited his position on the board to win $100 million in Trireme investments, this time from a Saudi businessman and his friends. The meeting had been arranged by a middleman in the Iran/Contra affair.

The airplane story, told to author William Hartung by the backseat board member, is one of dozens of accounts of shenanigans, cronyism and warmongering in How Much Are You Making on the War, Daddy?: A Quick and Dirty Guide to War Profiteering in the Bush Administration (2004, Nation Books/Avalon). What emerges from Hartung's analysis is a portrait of an entrenched cadre that has been biding its time since the Cold War, waiting for a sympathizer to make it into the White House so the group can advance its agenda of lasting American global dominance through overwhelming military might. Some are motivated by greed, others by ideology, but this is the goal.

They're making progress, by the way. Not including the cost of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush's proposed 2005 budget allocates $401.7 billion to defense -- $100 billion more than when he took office -- and a 13 percent increase in funding for missile defense.

The main characters in Hartung's book are Vice President Dick Cheney, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Perle and Frank Gaffney of the right-wing think tank Center for Security Policy, neoconservatives all. Hartung visits their younger selves in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations and traces their careers in the defense industry and at think tanks like CSP and the American Enterprise Institute during the Clinton years. He also chronicles numerous examples of unsavory activity since they reentered the halls of power and the Iraq war began.

Hartung, a senior research fellow at the New School's World Policy Institute, has plucked much of his material from newspapers and magazines, and many of the stories will be familiar to readers. There's the infamous no-bid contract for Halliburton -- which still pays its old boss Dick Cheney $150,000 a year in deferred compensation -- that could rake in as much as $7 billion over the next two years to fight oil fires in Iraq and rebuild the oil infrastructure. When outraged critics insisted part of the contract be put up again for a proper bidding process, the Army sped up the timetable so that Halliburton was paid for much of the work anyway.

Later it was discovered that Halliburton got the no-bid contract because it wrote the plan for rebuilding Iraq's oil facilities. Curiously, Cheney became vice president in much the same way. Charged with finding a running mate for Bush the younger, Cheney gave the matter some thought, then dispensed with Colin Powell, Tom Ridge, Frank Keating and others in favor of his very own self. Former Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes later referred to Cheney's lordly powers of objectivity when she stated, "Secretary Cheney told me he subjected himself to the same kind of scrutiny" as he had the other candidates.

That's a knee-slapper. Slightly less amusing is Donald Rumsfeld's history as an avid proponent of nuclear weapons. While Gerald Ford's defense secretary, Rumsfeld -- along with a few other hard-liners -- decided that the Soviet threat was far more dire than American intelligence portrayed it to be and pushed for an alternative analysis that later drove the Reagan-era push for massive defense spending and the Star Wars program. In 1998 Rumsfeld was recruited by Gaffney's CSP to reprise the alarmist routine, this time in regard to the ballistic missile threat from North Korea and other quarters, priming the pump for George W. Bush's dramatic increase in Pentagon funding. As defense secretary this time around, Rumsfeld doubled spending on the Star Wars program and spearheaded the effort to free the United States from the strictures of the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty once and for all.

Hartung also devotes a chapter to the Carlyle Group, the defense investment firm that has George Herbert Walker Bush on retainer and former Secretary of State James Baker as a senior counselor. The group openly trades on its still-viable political connections. "Without its ability to give investors the impression that it has inside dope on the direction of U.S. government policy that no other firm can get, there would be no rationale for the Carlyle Group to exist," Hartung writes.

In Hartung's view, involvement in the market, however unseemly, actually has a moderating influence on the hawks. Asked whom he considers the most dangerous of Bush's advisers, Hartung does not hesitate: Wolfowitz. His forays into the business world have been trifling -- a consulting job with weapons-maker Northrop Grumman in the mere thousands rather than hundreds of thousands -- but he is the one who, after Sept. 11, was calling for a multiple-front war in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon.

"It seems Wolfowitz is by far more possessed by ideology than with money," Hartung says. "For that reason, in some ways he's more dangerous. I don't think he really cares about money, but he cares about carrying through on this vision, whereas guys who have one eye on 'which country am I gonna work with when I get out' -- that has a moderating effect, sort of.

"Someone like a James Baker at the Carlyle Group, I think his outlook is a little more of a live-and-let-live approach," he says, adding, "That's not always a good thing because it leads to a certain tolerance for tyrants and human rights abuses and so forth."

Still, they are far less eager to identify new candidates for the axis of evil than their ideologically driven counterparts. "Take China," Hartung says. "The neocons view China as the next big thing after the Middle East, the next threat on the horizon. On the other hand, China's a new market. The ones with the business connections are much more likely to entertain the idea that maybe we could come to an accommodation with China that would make it less likely that 15, 20 years down the road we have to have a conflict.

"Of course," he says wryly, "there's a hybrid like Perle, who's willing to take money from the tyrant right up to the moment when he crushes him. And that's a real skill."

The fact that Perle and David Frum (who coined the gem "axis of hatred" that later became an “axis of evil") found it necessary to collaborate on An End to Evil , their manifesto on regime change, suggests that the neocons are finding George W. Bush too timid for their taste. Yet Bush and Karl Rove have enough political sense not to change another regime before 2004, and therein Hartung finds a small glimmer of hope.

"The question is: Is this a temporary lull?" Hartung says. "That's what the neoconservatives are hoping it is."

Given their gross underestimation of the human and financial costs of Iraq, though, Bush may feel burned by the neocons and start reassessing their advice. "You certainly saw a case with Ronald Reagan where he changed substantially in the second term from the first term," Hartung says, referring to Reagan's mellowed stance on nuclear weapons development starting in 1984. "But I don't know if Bush is capable of that in the same way. He seems more immature."

Traci Hukill is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.