I recently had an interesting lunch with a foreign academic who is in the US on a one year sabbatical to study how the political process in Washington shapes foreign policy. She asked me why the United States has a foreign policy that does not appear to serve actual US interests, citing the recent drive to revive the Cold War and to bomb Iran over a weapons program that it does not actually have. The question led to a discussion of how corruption works in the world’s oldest constitutional republic. I explained that money has corrupted every aspect of government at every level in the United States, creating a system in which laws are passed to make various forms of corruption legal rather than trying to have government do things that actually benefit most of the people. The United States has more lawyers than the rest of the world combined because what is “legal” becomes a substitute for what is “responsible or accountable” even though they are not the same, meaning that the interaction of government with its citizenry is now framed purely in terms of what people are and are not allowed to do.
We both noted the perfectly legal lobbying that is a huge industry in the United States, though many would regard it as the worst possible case of institutionalized corruption as it serves special interests that profit from the process and does nothing for the broader public interest. I recalled Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who broke numerous electoral laws in his country on his way to being elected prime minister in 2001. After he won he passed retroactive laws legalizing what had once been illegal. Five years later he was overthrown by a military coup and retired to Dubai to avoid prosecution. His sister is now prime minister. The Bush and Obama Administrations couldn’t have managed it any better, though the preferred method in Washington is for the Justice Department to protect insiders by refusing to prosecute their criminal behavior, as it has done with both Wall Street and the CIA torturers.
The rot starts with the bipartisan dominance of what passes for political process in the United States. The vetting process managed by the two parties and their batteries of lawyers coupled with large cash flows from special interests means that challenging the status quo is well-nigh impossible. The certain winner of an upcoming primary election here in northern Virginia to replace a retiring congressman was promoted by the local GOP machine and received endorsements from John Bolton, Eric Cantor, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Sean Hannity and Mark Levin. Indeed, while it was possible to find a candidate who claimed that disabled children are God’s punishment for having had an abortion and that incest can be “voluntary” it was impossible to find any one of the six aspirants who was in favor of a non-interventionist foreign policy because there was no one who would dare to take such a position. Each instead boasted of his or her commitment to national security and defense, shorthand for big budgets and aggressiveness overseas. So if you want to know why Washington pursues policies that do not serve any conceivable national interests you only have to look at the bottom level where the voter has, in reality, no choice because he is only offered a cookie cutter politician.
The failure of the Tea Party movement perfectly illustrates the problem. Voters eventually become so upset with the status quo that they lash out and even sometimes organize to change things. In the case of the Tea Party, they initially demanded smaller, more responsible government, constitutionalism and an end to America’s perpetual wars, surely all positive objectives. So what happened? The Tea Party was hijacked and then subsumed into the Republican Party while its leadership came to be defined by folks like Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, Michelle Bachmann and Marco Rubio. Ron Paul’s non-interventionist legacy was conveniently forgotten and replaced by traditional GOP across the board bellicosity while small government became focused on one issue only, Obamacare, a partisan political wedge issue unaccompanied by any plan to actually help people who are uninsured. And there is no balanced budget in sight as nearly everyone now calling himself or herself a Tea Partier actually de facto believes in more government. The Constitution, meanwhile, is a little red book printed by the Cato Institute that is passed out by those seeking office though no one is required to read it.
Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson epitomizes the corruption that money brings. GOP presidential wannabes lined up to kiss his ring recently in Las Vegas, with Chris Christie notoriously apologizing when he misspoke by saying “occupied territories” in his description of what are undeniably occupied territories. The craven pandering by the GOP stalwarts should have disqualified all of them from the holding of high office, but no doubt we will be seeing them again in 2016. And Adelson is not alone in using money to buy access which in turn becomes the power to influence or even write policies, he is just more blatant about it. He is above all an Israel Firster who wants to elect a president who will support attacking and even nuking Iran.
Could it happen? Almost certainly. If his preferred candidate in 2012 Mitt Romney had actually been elected we might well be at war in the Middle East right now.
Adelson, with a fortune estimated to be in the $39 billion range, largely derived from gambling, is at the top of the food chain and is unfortunately able to influence national policies but the cancer in the system exists at all levels. On top of my local congressman-to-be being yet another foreign policy hawk, I also have to suffer from local policies that impact on me negatively but which produce large profits for those who are wired into the political system and have their lawyers standing by to back them up. My county in Virginia pays a billionaire sports team owner $2 million to market his business, claiming that his training facility brings in tourist revenue, though no one has ever been able to demonstrate just how that works or whether it is really true or not as all the concessions are actually run by the team itself.
In America, what is technically legal and what wired-in folks can get away with will almost always triumph over what is responsible and accountable. My county is also paying for an extension of the Washington metro system. Public transportation, sounds good, doesn’t it? But the reality is that only a very small percentage of the country’s population will use the system and the big winners will be the monied interests who have bought up the land and will build a new “town center” around the station. There was considerable local opposition to the nearly $300 million plus price tag, which everyone will have to pay though few will benefit, but the all-Republican board of supervisors voted for the plan anyway. I am sure that everyone reading this has knowledge of a similar “civic improvement scheme” in their municipality or county that will enrich some at the expense of many. Monied interests almost always win, just as we are seeing a frenzied rush for more fracking in spite of the serious environmental issues that the process brings with it. The frackers will also win as will the Keystone pipeline.
So it should be no surprise that “follow the money” beginning at the local level should extend to the formulation of US foreign policy, where money also talks. Adelson wants a war? He just might get it if he backs the right GOP horse. And don’t think for a second that a President Hillary will be any different. She also has monied interests behind her who wouldn’t mind seeing Iran get its comeuppance. Where is the peace candidate? Looking for money.