According to Transparency International’s 2019 Corruption Perception’s Index, the US is the world’s 23rd least swindling state. A bit better than Bhutan, but not quite as honest as Uruguay or the United Arab Emirates. So much for "We’re number one! We’re number one!" Still, I think the index was rather generous to Uncle Sam. Maybe that’s because it "ranks 180 countries and territories by their perceived levels of public sector corruption, according to experts and business people."
In other words, Transparency International mainly looks inward, paying limited attention to states’ foreign policies and the domestic profits produced. Yet two short-lived stories last month – a US company’s Syrian oil contract and the State Department Watchdog report on Saudi arms sales – should seal the deal: America’s true top export is corruption.
A Syria "Mission" fit for a Smedley Butler
Back in the bad old days of "gunboat diplomacy," Washington shipped its sons off to overt corporate protection-racket missions in Latin America and East Asia. Sometimes the guns on those boats weren’t sufficient, so the navy was obliged to "send in the marines." These were dubbed America’s "Banana Wars."
So it was that the proudest of the Corps’ "few and proud" – Major General Smedley Butler – earned his two Congressional Medals of Honor during ten or so deployments bolstering business interests. Or, as he’d later explain in his post-retirement "Road to Damascus" tract, War is a Racket:
I helped make Mexico…safe for American oil interests…Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys…raping half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street…I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers…the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests…made Honduras right for American fruit companies…In China…helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested.
All in all, he diagnosed himself mostly "a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street."
Yet what’s unfolding in the Syrian sphere of the US military’s Operation Inherent Resolve would be all too familiar to Smedley. For about the only thing current administration has inherently resolved to do there is protect the oil wells of Delta Crescent Energy. Five will get ya 500 – about as many troops still in country – that America’s mothers imagined a more romantic mission for their cherished sons. But such is life at the tip of Trump’s transactional strategic-spear.
It was, predictably, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who announced the deal between the US energy corporation and northeastern Syria’s Kurds to develop the fields under their militia’s control. Delta Crescent is a classic kleptocratic choice – basically a "revolving door" with shareholders – what with its co-foundingtrio of a former US Army Delta Force officer, a Bush-era diplomat, and a veteran oil executive.
Official Syria screamed, naturally – and not without cause. A foreign ministry statement said Damascus "condemns [the agreement] in the strongest terms" as a scheme for "an American oil company to steal Syria’s oil under the sponsorship and support of the American administration." Unsavory Assad’s regime may be; but wrong, according to international law? Not exactly.
The deal’s broad strokes are more than a bit shady. The insider trio formed Delta Crescent for the sole purpose of securing this secretive contract, which it lobbied State hard for this past year. The deal is expected to produce billions of dollars for Kurdish authorities and the US company, none of which they plan to share with the Syrian government. Adding insult to injury, this Spring the Treasury Department granted Delta Crescent a license exempting it from Washington’s expansive sanctions regime against the Assad regime.
Only let’s not vilify The Donald and absolve the Democrats. However muddled motives and paltry his principles, do remember that Trump has thrice declared his intent to pull US troops from Syria; and all three times hawkish foreign policy advisers and advocates dissuaded him. The second time, in late 2018, National Security Advisor John Bolton pushed back and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis literally resigned in protest.
The last time, in October 2019 – with Bolton and Mattis both banished – a bipartisan House super-majority condemned Trump’s withdrawal in the face of a Turkish invasion of northern Syria. Some of the loudest rebukes came from Democrats, who, you know, control the chamber. Not a single one of them voted against the measure (though nine didn’t vote at all).
None other than Mr. Israel himself, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee Representative Eliot L. Engel, introduced the bill. His virtue-signal of a statement was sufficiently vacuous: "At President Trump’s hands, American leadership has been laid low." Nobody paid much mind to the ceaseless canary in the militarism coal mine, Senator Rand Paul, when he sensibly Tweeted "If we can save one American soldier from losing their life or limbs in another senseless middle eastern war, it is worthwhile."
Enter a far savvier senatorial operator, Lindsey Graham, and his go-to Fox News contributor-general Jack Keane – an architect of that Iraq surge which went so swimmingly. They reportedly convinced America’s casino-commander-in-chief to keep a contingency force in Syria to defend oil fields from the Iranian boogeyman. Brilliant, as my brother British officers used to say! The dastardly duo at the forever war law firm of Graham&Keane knew their man – his incredible ignorance, profound principles-paucity, and just what buttons to press. It was almost too easy, and the third time sure was the charm in this case: "I like oil. We’re keeping the oil" in Syria, the president parroted.
All of which set the staggeringly stupid stage for the current centenary reprise of American boys (and now girls!) wagering their lives for distant oil interests. And it isn’t even all that much oil we’re talking about here. In 2018, Syria produced an anemic 24,000 barrels per day – in other words, something like 1/500th the daily output of Saudi Arabia.
Thing is, the dirty secret that everyone not-so-secretly knows is this: a meager 500 US troops can neither defeat the remaining insurgents in post-civil-strife Syria nor (clearly) deter invasions by even ostensible NATO-allies like Turkey. What they can do is babysit Delta Crescent’s concessions – protecting its infrastructure and civilian workers from an array of hostile forces roaming the Wild West of Syria’s East.
Cue poor Smedley rolling in his proverbial grave.
Saudi Arms Sales and Starving Yemeni Children
It’s a rather old banana republic story: an outside audit or internal investigation exposes government misbehavior; and then, for his trouble, the diligent inspector is canned. I know what you’re thinking: it can’t happen here – not in a nation so full of freedom it can’t help but share some with the rest of the world. Until it does, and just did…again.
Early last month, the State Department inspector general issued a report criticizing the agency’s failure to take proper measures to reduce Yemeni civilian deaths from the American-made bombs Washington’s Saudi and the U.A.E. buddies have been dropping on them since 2015. Pretty scathing, if secretive stuff – seeing as its detailed civilian casualties data was heavily redacted and the report’s single "recommendation" was in the classified annex. Are you catching my drift here, good people of Transparency International?
But wait: didn’t Congress put a bipartisan two-year hold on transfers of arms for the Saudi-Emirati terror war on Yemen? Well, sure – but Machiavelli Mike is made of sterner stuff than that. Besides, he had a handy mechanism for an end run around those pesky legislators on the Hill: the "emergency" clause. So a persistent Pompeo went ahead and just declared one in May 2019, citing some compulsory and vague "threat" from Iran’s malign – if largely unchanged – activities in the region. And, in case you were wondering, no: investigators didn’t much examine whether an actual Iran "emergency" existed or if the weapons-sale approval was based on that at all. Rather, the report addressed more narrow procedural issues.
Anyway, with "emergency" waiver in hand, Pompeo opened the floodgates for $8.1 billion in Saudi-bound sales of the munitions mandatory for killing Yemeni kids. That sure is a lot of dough: wonder who made most of it? You guessed it: Raytheon: longtime lobbying home of Mighty Mike’s West Point classmate and cabinet-compadre, Defense Secretary Mark Esper. You’ve got to stand in awe of corruption that overt and old school. These M&M boys could teach some Arab and African authoritarians a thing or two!
Only it gets worse. In May, under some Pompeo-prodding, Trump fired Mr. Steve Linick – State’s then inspector general – amidst this and four other investigations into alleged wrongdoing at the department. Ice cold, Mike; Ice cold. Not a month later, Linick fingered the two main administration heavies who’d pressured him to drop the arms sale investigation. One was State’s top lawyer, Mark String. The other? Yep, Brian Bulatao: the under secretary of state for management, longtime friend and West Point ’86 classmate of Pompeo and Esper. "He tried to bully me," Mr. Linick said of Butalao – whose nickname at the academy just happened to be "Rambo." Well, sure: Brian learned his moves at hazing central: from those oft-cruel cadets at West Point! Sound shady enough yet? There’s also this: Mike, Mark, Brian, and a core of other ’86ers in the administration call themselves the "West Point Mafia.” So, yea…
But have no fear, folks – that no-retreat-from-Syria stalwart, Eliot Engel, has our back and was presumably breathing down Pompeo’s. And boy did he ever fire back at the IG’s insufficient report. Wait for it: "We will review the entire product with an eye toward ensuring that the classified annex hasn’t been used to bury important or possibly incriminating information." Hardly scathing, that.
Nor has lame duck Eliot shut down business on the Hill until he gets to the bottom of this banality of evil executed in our name. Which begs the pathetic question: this guy is the best overseer on offer? Guess that leaves average Americans sh*t out of luck. To hell with this loser – which he was in the recent primary – and his home in the Israeli far-right’s pocket. Good riddance to bad (and ever-complicit) rubbish!
As for the output, it’s a classic case of qui bono – the American defense secretary’s old bosses at Raytheon – and qui gets f*cked: Yemeni babies.
America’s "Lebanonization” of Iraq…and Itself
If there’s a silver lining to more classic mafia states like Lebanon and Liberia (tied for 137th on the Transparency list), or textbook tin-pot dictatorships like Djibouti (126th), it’s that they’re too small to export corruption. Not so America the exceptional, and expeditionary. Take Dr. Freedom’s post-9/11 patient zero: the Iraqi Kleptocracy. As Robert Worth wrote in a New York Times investigatory report, "As recently as the 1980s, corruption was rare, and ministries in Saddam Hussein’s autocratic government were mostly clean and well run."
The key pivots were the U.S. sanctions regime imposed after Saddam’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait – which, beyond killing half a million Iraqi kids, dropped per-capita income from to $3,500 to $450 – and Bush’s 2003 Baghdad regime-change fiasco. See, when government officials’ salaries halve – or "eighth" – it can be difficult to make ends meet without taking bribes. Worse still, when the regime one works for is "changed," plus government and society collapse into chaos then civil war, corruption becomes king.
Of course, a desperate US military – and its Washington masters – had an expedient solution for the ethno-sectarian strife they’d catalyzed: consider it the Lebanon formula. So America’s orientalist ambassadors – most, staggeringly young Republican stalwarts with no knowledge of the Mideast – imported France’s imperial Levantine blueprint. Essentially, this meant sectarian quotas and preferences for political office: a Kurdish president, Sunni parliamentary speaker, and Shia prime minister. The French have actually added the term for this disastrous recipe – libanisation – to their dictionaries: "A process of state fragmentation, resulting from the clash between various communities of faiths."
The end state, in today’s Iraq – as in modern Lebanon – is government ministries meted out to various militias (many linked to Iran) by unwritten "street" agreements. The Sadrists have Health, Badr Brigades have long held Interior, and Oil belongs to the Hikma honchos. Now that’s for some "Iraqi Freedom" befitting Baby Bush’s operational codename for the ’03 invasion.
Still, seen another way, this Iraqi endgame wasn’t just predictable, but perfectly appropriate – reflective of a US increasingly Lebanonizing at home. In Sectarian America, a people divided, distracted, and armed, battle for control of the nation’s streets, whilst their nominal leaders corruptly carve up contracts with the defense industry and in overseas fiefdoms. Washington’s duopoly elites ship their bombs to Saudi Arabia and their sons (well, not their sons) to Syria to secure arms deals and oil fields. And if, as a result, about a 100,000 Yemeni children, and a handful of American soldiers have to die, well – so be it.
"All of them means all of them"
Hardly anyone here in the "land of the free" notices, of course. Yet, for those paying attention, it’s enough to wonder if today’s post- (corruption-induced) blast, livid Lebanese protesters are on to something. They’ve recently taken to constructing makeshift gallows, hanging effigies of their political elites, and even – in a macabre nod to their French colonial forebears – retweeting calls to "bring back the guillotine."
Should that sound solely Lebanon-level crazy, recall that last week a demonstration of Amazon employees led by Staten Island’s own, Christian Smalls, set up a guillotine outside Jeff Bezos’ house. He whose wealth has grown by $85 billion since January, amidst Amazon’s soaring mid-COVID revenue, and owns a Washington Post that recently ran the headline (unironically): "Lebanon patronage system immune to reform." Pot, meet kettle.
Both sides have blood and bribery on their hands. Pompeo and Esper are Republican kleptocrat classmates; but the Pelosis and Engels (himself a Raytheon recipient) doing the over-sighting attended their Democratic sister school. Could it be the rotten two-party system fueling America’s expeditionary extortion is to blame? Couldn’t be more obvious; or less meaningfully challenged.
Perhaps We the People should take another page out of the Lebanese protest playbook and collectively chant down our own oligarchs: "All of them means all of them!" Or, since US foreign policy doesn’t serve the national interest, but as a kleptocrat piggy-bank, Americans ought offer their Iraqi cousins’ trademark slogan:
"Nureed watan"…"We want a country."
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer, contributing editor at Antiwar.com, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), and director of the soon-to-launch Eisenhower Media Network (EMN). His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, Mother Jones, ScheerPost and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War (Heyday Books) is available for pre-order. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and see his website for speaking/media requests and past publications.
Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen