Mattis: One More General for the ‘Self Licking Ice Cream Cone’
Big brass and government executives play both sides of the military revolving door, including “the only adult in the room.”
Before he became lionized as the “only adult in the room” capable of standing up to President Trump, General James Mattis was quite like any other brass scoping out a lucrative second career in the defense industry. And as with other military giants parlaying their four stars into a cushy boardroom chair or executive suite, he pushed and defended a sub-par product while on both sides of the revolving door. Unfortunately for everyone involved, that contract turned out to be an expensive fraud and a potential health hazard to the troops.
According to a recent report by the Project on Government Oversight, 25 generals, nine admirals, 43 lieutenant generals, and 23 vice admirals retired to become lobbyists, board members, executives, or consultants for the defense industry between 2008 and 2018. They are part of a much larger group of 380 high-ranking government officials and congressional staff who shifted into the industry in that time.
To get a sense of the demand, according to POGO, which had to compile all of this information through Freedom of Information requests, there were 625 instances in 2018 alone in which the top 20 defense contractors (think Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin) hired senior DoD officials for high-paying jobs—90 percent of which could be described as “influence peddling.”
Back to Mattis. In 2012, while he was head of Central Command, the Marine General pressed the Army to procure and deploy blood testing equipment from a Silicon Valley company called Theranos. He communicated that he was having success with this effort directly to Theranos’s chief executive officer. Even though an Army health unit tried to terminate the contract due to it’s not meeting requirements, according to POGO, Mattis kept the pressure up. Luckily, it was never used on the battlefield.
Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise but upon retirement in 2013, Mattis asked a DoD counsel about the ethics guiding future employment with Theranos. They advised against it. So Mattis went to serve on its board instead for a $100,000 salary. Two years after Mattis quit to serve as Trump’s Pentagon chief in 2016, the two Theranos executives he worked with were indicted for “massive” fraud, perpetuating a “multi-million dollar scheme to defraud investors, doctors and patients,” and misrepresenting their product entirely. It was a fake.
But assuming this was Mattis’s only foray into the private sector would be naive. When he was tapped for defense secretary—just three years after he left the military—he was worth upwards of $10 million. In addition to his retirement pay, which was close to $15,000 a month at the time, he received $242,000 as a board member, plus as much as $1.2 million in stock options in General Dynamics, the Pentagon’s fourth largest contractor. He also disclosed payments from other corporate boards, speech honorariums—including $20,000 from defense heavyweight Northrop Grumman—and a whopping $410,000 from Stanford University’s public policy think tank the Hoover Institution for serving as a “distinguished visiting fellow.”
Never for a moment think that Mattis won’t land softly after he leaves Washington—if he leaves at all. Given his past record, he will likely follow a very long line, as illustrated by POGO’s explosive report, of DoD officials who have used their positions while inside the government to represent the biggest recipients of federal funding on the outside. They then join ex-congressional staffers and lawmakers on powerful committees who grease the skids on Capitol Hill. And then they go to work for the very companies they’ve helped, fleshing out a small army of executives, lobbyists, and board members with direct access to the power brokers with the purse strings back on the inside.
Welcome to the Swamp.
“[Mattis’s’ career course] is emblematic of how systemic the problem is,” said Mandy Smithberger, POGO’s lead on the report and the director of its Center for Defense Information. “Private companies know how to protect their interests. We just wish there were more protections for taxpayers.” When everything is engineered to get more business for the same select few, “when you have a Department of Defense who sees it as their job to promote arms sales…does this really serve the interest of national security?”
That is something to chew on. If a system is so motivated by personal gain (civil servants always mindful of campaign contributions and private sector job prospects) on one hand, and big business profits on the other, is there room for merit or innovation? One need only look at Lockheed’s F-35 joint strike fighter, the most expensive weapon system in history, which was relentlessly promoted over other programs by members of Congress and within the Pentagon despite years of test failures and cost overruns, to see what this gets you: planes that don’t fly, weapons that don’t work, and shortfalls in other parts of the budget that don’t matter to contractors like pilot training and maintenance of existing systems.
“It comes down to two questions,” Smithberger noted in an interview with TAC. “Are we approving weapons systems that are safe or not? And are we putting [servicemembers’] lives on the line” to benefit the interests of industry?
All of this is legal, she points out. Sure, there are rules—”cooling off” periods before government officials and members of Congress can lobby, consult, or work on contracts after they leave their federal positions, or when industry people come in through the other side to take positions in government. But Smithberger said they are “riddled with loopholes” and lack of enforcement.
Case in point: current acting DoD Secretary Patrick Shanahan spent 31 years working for Boeing, which gets about $24 billion a year as the Pentagon’s second largest contractor. He was Boeing’s senior vice president in 2016 just before he was confirmed as Trump’s deputy secretary of defense in 2017. Last week he recused himself from all matters Boeing, but he wasn’t always so hands off. At one point, he “prodded” for the purchase of 12 $1.2 billion Boeing F-15X fighter planes, according to Bloomberg.
But the revolving door is so much more pervasive and insidious than POGO could possibly catalogue. So says Franklin “Chuck” Spinney, who worked as a civilian and military officer in the Pentagon for 31 years, beginning in 1968. He calls the military industrial complex a “quasi-isolated political economy” that is in many ways independent from the larger domestic economy. It has its own rules, norms, and culture, and unlike the real world, it is self-sustaining—not by healthy competition and efficiency, but by keeping the system on a permanent war footing, with money always pumping from Capitol Hill to the Pentagon to the private sector and then back again. Left out are basic laws of supply and demand, geopolitical realities, and the greater interest of society.
“That’s why we call it a self-licking ice cream cone,” Spinney explained to TAC. “[This report] is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot more subtle stuff going on. When you are in weapons development like I was at the beginning of my career, you learn about this on day one, that having cozy relationships with contractors is openly encouraged. And then you get desensitized. I was fortunate because I worked for people who did not like it and I caught on quickly.”
While the culture has evolved, basic realities have persisted since the massive build-up of the military and weapons systems during the Cold War. The odds of young officers in the Pentagon making colonel or higher are slim. They typically retire out in their 40s. They know implicitly that their best chance for having a well-paid second career is in the only industry they know—defense. Most take this calculation seriously, moderating their decisions on program work and procurement and communicating with members of Congress as a matter of course.
“Let’s just say there’s a problem [with a program]. Are you going to come down hard on a contractor and try to hold his feet to the fire? Are you going to risk getting blackballed when you are out there looking for a job? Sometimes there is no word communicated, you just don’t want to be unacceptable to anyone,” said Spinney. It’s ingrained, from the rank of lieutenant colonel all the way up to general.
So the top five and their subsidiaries continue to get the vast majority of work, usually in no-bid contracts ($100 billion worth in 2016 alone), and with cost-plus structures that critics say encourage waste and never-ending timetables, like the $1.5 trillion F-35. “The whole system is wired to get money out the door,” said Spinney. “That is where the revolving door is most pernicious. It’s everywhere.”
The real danger is that under this pressure, parties work to keep bad contracts alive even if they have to cook the books. “Essentially from the standpoint of Pentagon contracting you are not going to have people writing reports saying this product is a piece of shit,” said Spinney. Worse, evaluations are designed to deflect criticism if not oversell success in order to keep the spigot open. The most infamous example of this was the rigged tests that kept the ill-fated “Star Wars” missile defense program going in the 1980s.
Everyone talks about generals like Mattis as though they’re warrior-gods. But for decades, many of them have turned out to be different creatures altogether—creatures of a semi-independent ecosystem that operates outside of the normal rules and benefits only a powerful minority subset: the military elite, defense contractors, and Congress. More recently, the defense-funded think tank world has become part of this ecology, providing the ideological grist for more spending and serving as a way-station for operators moving in and out of government and industry.
Call it the Swamp, the Borg, or even the Blob, but attempting to measure or quantify the revolving door in the military-industrial complex can feel like a fool’s errand. Groups like POGO have attempted to shine light on this dark planet for years. Unfortunately, there is little incentive in Capitol Hill or at the Pentagon to do the very least: pull the purse strings, close loopholes, encourage real competition, and end cost-plus practices.
“We generally need to see more (political) championing on this issue,” Smithberger said. Until then, all outside efforts “can’t result in any meaningful change.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is executive editor at TAC. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC.
JANUARY 2, 2019
‘Make America Great Again’: Trump’s slogan seems both to yearn for a time when the United States had more influence, and to call for its pre-eminence to be restored. In its own way, it asserts that the US is – or should be – different. In fact it was only Trump’s predecessor, Obama, who was the first president to talk regularly about American exceptionalism, yet to Trump it is something that is long lost and it is his job to recover it. Yet belief in the US’s exceptional nature has been a constant feature of the country’s history, whoever has been president, and continues right up to the present day.
Its starting point in the early nineteenth century was the ‘Monroe doctrine’, the assertion of the US’s pre-eminent power in the western hemisphere, replacing the old colonial powers such as Spain and Portugal. Its domestic counterpart was the US’s God-given ‘manifest destiny’, which justified settlement of the whole North American continent, regardless of the presence of the people to whom much of the land already belonged. Whereas the Monroe doctrine at first reflected a degree of respect for the then newly emerging Latin American nations, by the end of the century it only thinly disguised a new kind of imperialism which justified US intervention anywhere in the hemisphere.
Soon after the end of the second world war, the former ‘great powers’ began to give up those colonies that had not already been returned to their rightful owners. But, fuelled by the cold war, the US began a new phase of imperialism. Dan Kovalik, in his new book The Plot to Control the World, quotes a report, which he says is almost certainly an underestimate, that the US interfered in 81 foreign elections between 1946 and 2000. And even that number omits more serious interventions such as US-provoked coups, assassinations and invasions. Yet, as Kovalik says, ‘American exceptionalism’ requires a belief that the US is a unique force for democracy and freedom in the world. This enables the New York Times to justify US interference in the affairs of other countries because the US is unique in using its power to challenge dictators or otherwise promote democracy, whereas Russia (say) more often intervenes to disrupt democracy or promote authoritarian rule.
Dan Kovalik is far from the first author to show US intervention in its true light. Chomsky, William Blum and many others have trodden this path with, it seems, little effect on the conscience of most of the US population or, for that matter, on that of much of Europe’s. Kovalik’s approach is to take ten examples, reduce the history of each to its essentials, recount it in very readable form and ensure that it is bang up to date. In response to the current obsession with Russian interference in the last US presidential election, he begins with an account of the much more drastic action taken by the US to ensure the right result in Russia’s 1996 election. The rest of his choices are also strategic: Iran (where the long history of US interference began when it halted an emerging democracy in its tracks), Guatemala (where it did the same and created the conditions for a war in which perhaps 300,000 people died), Congo (which was on the point of bringing to an end perhaps the world’s worst colonial nightmare), Brazil (to show that even a giant among developing powers was not allowed to shape its own future), Vietnam (for the genocide which the US unleashed), Chile (to aid the birth of neoliberalism), Honduras (showing that the supposedly liberal Obama-Clinton administration could also disregard democracy), Nicaragua (where the story comes up to 2018) and Ukraine (where the US aims to deny Russia the right to influence even what happens on its own doorstep).
In Latin America, Kovalik uses five examples, but in truth he could have cited almost every country that is a former Spanish or Portuguese colony: of those, only Costa Rica has not been the subject of US intervention and arguably the US is so dominant in its economy and the country has been so obedient in never electing rulers who have challenged US hegemony, that it has earned its immunity. While most of the former British, French and Dutch colonies have been exempt from direct interference, there have been notable exceptions. The most obvious and most recent are Grenada in 1983 and Haiti on multiple occasions. One wonders what President James Monroe would think now of the consequences of the doctrine that still carries his name.
Kovalik quotes Harold Pinter as saying that an important feature of US interventions is that they ‘never happen’. Even while they are happening they aren’t happening. Everyone should look away. So often the role of the supposedly liberal media is to turn a blind eye, especially when a US-provoked disaster is taking place, or to tell the story that favours the intervention, rather that of people who suffer from it or are resisting it. Nicaragua is a case that is very much in point.
Dan Kovalik is a much better writer than William Blum and more accessible than Noam Chomsky. His book should be required reading in US colleges and could be a useful reminder to many politicians, political commentators and journalists in Europe of the real nature of the US’s ‘exceptionalism’. As the title says, what it really amounts to is an often overlooked and not very subtle ‘plot to control the world’. Why isn’t this the message conveyed by the mainstream media, and when will they start to tell the truth?
John Perry writes for the London Review of Books.
This review originally appeared in Two Worlds.
When ‘Trashing Our Allies’ Was All the Rage
The same neocons who gush about alliances today were telling anyone not on board with the Iraq invasion to ‘go to hell.’
Is it blatant dishonesty or a convenient bout of amnesia? It’s hard to tell. What I do know is this: the supposed American devotion to alliances, now being celebrated by those who deem the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis as heralding the end of Western civilization, is a load of malarkey.
The canonization of Mattis as a secular saint was underway in record time. In The New York Times, David Sanger describes Mattis as “the last senior official in the administration deeply invested in the world order that the United States has led for the 73 years since World War II, and the global footprint needed to keep that order together.” Here the tradition of Marshall, Acheson, and Kennan ostensibly ends and the precipice beckons.
To the wise and seasoned defense secretary, Sanger writes, “alliances were a force-multiplier.” To the foolish and impetuous commander-in-chief, “they are mostly a burden.” To drive the point home, Sanger recruits Robert Kagan, who obligingly chides President Donald Trump for treating allies as “freeloaders who can go to hell if they don’t get on board.”
Treating allies with disrespect is no doubt a terrible thing. Yet not so very long ago it was Kagan and his fellow neoconservatives who were telling allies unwilling to get onboard to go to hell. The moment was the run up to the Iraq war. The George W. Bush administration was urging American allies to join our mission. Overthrowing Saddam Hussein would initiate a great crusade to democratize the Middle East. What could possibly go wrong?
Apparently failing to appreciate that Washington’s operative definition of ally is “we decide, you agree, photo op to follow,” the Krauts and the Frogs refused to go along.
To which Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld replied: so what? In their view, allies were window dressing—nice to have if convenient, but utterly expendable if they dared to interfere with the exercise of American global leadership. Regarding Iraq, the Bush administration did not hide the fact that the United States would go it alone if necessary. “Coalition of the willing” was the phrase devised to gussy up what was little more than a policy of naked unilateralism.
The Germans? Ingrates who had managed to forget their debt to the United States, dating from 1945 and continuing through the Cold War. And the French? “Cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” Together the two European nations formed an “axis of weasel.” They could both go to hell.
As it actually took shape, the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld coalition of the willing consisted mostly of the United Kingdom, led into war by a prime minister subsequently derided by his own countrymen as George Bush’s “poodle.” Tagging along were various other military contingents, together mustering firepower roughly equivalent to that of the Joplin, Missouri Police Department. Not a lot of capability, but since the war was sure to end up as a great romp—or so its proponents believed—none of this was expected to matter. The mighty forces of the United States would make short work of anyone foolish enough to resist. The favored term was “cakewalk.”
As is so often the case in war, things did not go as expected, to put it mildly. The reckless U.S. invasion of Iraq set in train a sequence of events leading—wouldn’t you know it—to the election of a president promising to put “America First.”
Donald Trump is a fool. Let there be no doubt on that score. But let there also be no confusion about how the United States got into the mess in which it finds itself today. Back in 2002 and 2003, various warmongers decided that noncompliant allies could “go to hell.” They got their wish and we live with the consequences.
Andrew Bacevich is TAC’s writer-at-large.