"The Department of Defense is the only federal agency that cannot pass a clean audit. Many of its major acquisition programs suffer from chronic cost overruns. Virtually every defense contractor has been found guilty or has reached a settlement with the government because of fraudulent and illegal activities. This has got to change", – Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, explaining his opposition to a Department of Defense funding bill, Nov. 10th, 2015..
Progressives around the world have long lamented the inability of populist movements in the US to topple the twin pillars of US policy that have done so much damage around the world in the last generation – namely, neoliberal economics and neoconservative military adventurism. To those who recall the peace movement and cultural liberation of the 1960s, the quiescence of subsequent generations is stupefying. As I heard a veteran New York radical confront one of the embarrassingly few students who attended a presentation on government torture programs during the George W. Bush administration: «Where is the outrage? Where is the outrage?»
Outrage did coalesce several years later, in the form of the Occupy Wall Street movement that sprang up in response to the malfeasance of the big banks that generated the financial crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession. The Occupy movement dissipated quickly, it is true. But it left a mark on the national consciousness, a mark that has resurfaced in important places over the last year.
First, the irreverent democratic socialist presidential campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders has shot into contention for the Democratic Party's nomination, to the shock of media pundits and distaste of moneyed elites. Next, environmental pressure groups mobilized public opinion and practically forced President Obama earlier this month to reject the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have facilitated the extraction and burning of huge Canadian deposits of shale oil. And just a week ago, on November 9th, grassroots activists in Colorado mustered enough signatures to put a single-payer health insurance system on the ballot in 2016. Colorado may blaze a trail for other states to do what Washington cannot: torpedo the for-profit health insurance industry that has visited so much pain on the population over the last few decades.
Progressive populism is alive in the US, clearly. The Sanders campaign, climate change consciousness, and the push for single-payer health insurance all continue to strengthen, but we suspect the movement will require more momentum if it is to shift the trajectory of the country away from neoliberal economics and neoconservative foreign policy. Local pressure groups arising to address institutional racism are providing some reinforcement (the furor at the University of Missouri being the most prominent at the moment). Potentially more important to America's political future, however, is a separate and thus far unexploited front: Pentagon waste and mismanagement. The potency of the issue is certainly compelling. It can draw wider swathes of the public into the progressive movement, it can make more money available to fund progressive policies, and it can clip the wings of war hawks.
The Budgetary Sinkhole
The mainstream media made the public aware of the military's large-scale misuse of funds in the 1970s, and sporadic reporting since then has sustained and deepened the perception of the Pentagon as a budgetary sinkhole. A prominent blogger recently trumpeted it as «the biggest scandal in US history that we're still not talking about». A large majority of the public is prepared, in other words, to support a movement to shine light on and clean up the Department of Defense's mess.
The scale of the mismanagement is colossal indeed. Already in 2001 then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld admitted that the Pentagon could not account for $2.3 trillion stretching back over many years. Astonishingly, several thousand separate accounting systems co-exist within the Department of Defense, and attempts to unify them have been exercises in futility, wasting tens of billions of dollars.
Moreover, as Defense budgets grew through the 2000s (up 44 percent, after accounting for inflation) financial controls shrank. The Department abandoned monitoring of contracts with private sector service and equipment providers below $100 million, inviting rampant abuse in in the form of overpricing-plus-kickback schemes. Cost overruns in research and weapons development programs jumped sharply, from an average of 27 percent in 2001 to 42 percent in 2008. By 2010 the value of non-competitively sourced contracts had nearly tripled from 2001, to $140 billion. The percentage of non-competitive contracts in the military sector finds no parallel elsewhere in US government. And, not surprisingly, the officials dispensing these contracts reap rewards on leaving government service for private industry. The number of Pentagon functionaries leaving through the «revolving door» has doubled since the 1990s.
A Complicit Congress
Congress, for its part, has done precious little to hold the Department of Defense to account for the waste and mismanagement. A precedent for action is at hand, namely the experience of the US Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, popularly known as the Truman Committee, which functioned from 1941 to 1948. The Truman Committee genuinely rooted out corruption and war profiteering, and during the mid-2000s a number of Senators agitated openly for establishment of a similar effort. But the Bush administration actively resisted this proposal, and it got little support in Congress. This raises another question, of course: what is to explain Congress's disinterest in monitoring the use of the enormous funds it sends to the defense sector?
The answer is not merely payoffs, campaign donations, and revolving door employment offers to elected officials leaving office, although these are real concerns. The biggest impediment to congressional action, it seems, is the structural dependency of the economies of a large minority of congressional districts on military projects. As researcher Rebecca Thorpe outlines in a recent book, The American Warfare State, the US made a conscious effort from the end of the Second World War to broaden the geographical apportionment of defense sector contracts. In consequence, large numbers of districts depend heavily to this day on the defense sector. A large minority of congressmen, therefore, are predisposed to vote up defense allocations at every opportunity. And they do not press for the Pentagon to comply with federal law and submit to an audit, if only from its own Inspector General office. As we lamented in an earlier article in this forum, the Department of Defense has never prepared its books for an audit. In 2006 the Department promised to be ready by 2016 at the earliest (!), but no one expects it to meet this deadline.
«Where's my peace dividend?»
In sum, the «peace dividend» Americans expected upon closing out the Cold War 25 years ago never materialized. Given the heightened political tension surrounding federal budgets since the turn of this century, plus the scale of Pentagon inefficiency, and the broad agreement on untethering the US military from conflicts across the Middle East and elsewhere, it is high time to revive the notion of a peace dividend. Wholesale reform of defense spending could easily satisfy the timeless, irrational demand of voters everywhere: «I want more services and lower taxes.»
Enter Admiral Sestak
The spearhead for reform of defense spending could take shape in the new presidential administration, in one or more congressional committees, or in a broad popular movement, likely centered around a Senator. In our judgment, the last route is a precondition for effective action. And the Senator best suited to galvanizing pressure for reform is a man who is seeking his first election to the Senate, Admiral Joe Sestak.
Sestak has the pedigree for the role. From 2001 to 2005 he was Deputy Chief of Naval Operations, oversaw billions in allocations, and famously proposed deep spending cuts. Before that he was the Navy's lead representative in preparing the year 2000 Quadrennial Defense Review, which analyzed the economic effectiveness of defense spending. He has an insider's understanding of the realities of military finance, he has forcefully advocated a variety of cost-saving measures in recent years, and is no doubt ready to prioritize the subject from a seat in the Senate.
Further, Sestak's relationship to the Democratic Party establishment is highly unusual, it must be said. He famously antagonized the Democratic Senate Electoral Committee when he disobeyed its instructions not to run for the Senate in 2010. The party brass backed incumbent Senator Arlen Spector, who had defected from the Republicans to the Democrats. Sestak went on to a sensational defeat of Spector in the primary, and the Democratic establishment continues to hold a grudge against him. For the 2016 Senate campaign they have lined up behind Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf's chief of staff, Katie McGinty, but Sestak looks likely to defeat her and win the nomination.
Sestak's independent profile enhances his appeal to most of the public. It also means that Republican politicians will not see him as radioactive – in cooperating with him they will not automatically trigger protests from right-wing watchdogs. He cannot be characterized as pacifist. As he elaborated in a pronouncement on US naval force posture vis-a-vis China last week (and here), he advocates maintaining a potent presence in the Pacific. But he is no military adventurer either.
As well, Sestak can capitalize on his independence by advocating bolder reforms than politicians in either party, which will put his campaign on the radar far beyond Pennsylvania. Given his experience as a highly placed admiral and then as a leader in national security, Sestak could easily become a lightning rod for engineering the long-awaited peace dividend.
It is entirely possible, therefore, that Sestak will arrive in the Senate in 2017 with an aura of a real reformer, a leader who could reach the stature of Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. But could Sestak make a real difference from a Senate seat? The experience in recent years of Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the Chairman of the House Committee on Armed Services, and John McCain (R-Arizona) the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is sobering. Both are established critics of Pentagon waste, but they have not achieved much in reining it in. Sestak might catalyze much broader support than McCain or Thornberry, however, both from the public and on Capitol Hill. Cost-control measures have saved enormous amounts of money in the administration of ObamaCare over the last year, which offers some encouragement that Washington can plug budget holes when it makes the effort.
In short, Sestak's is a campaign in tune with the times. The American public has done about all it can do to register its disaffection with the pettiness and artificiality of the upper layers of both political parties. Thirst for genuine, committed, highly qualified candidates is very real. In Sestak's case, his expertise and his priorities position him to lead a potent challenge to an acknowledged pathology of US government: Pentagon waste and hubris. His, therefore, is the one campaign below the presidency that most bears watching.