Richard Reeves

A Military Coup, American Style

JACKSON, Wyo. -- The off-season population of this town, one of the gateways to Yellowstone National Park and other spectacular gifts from God, is less than 7,000. So you don't expect to see big airplanes roaring into the little Jackson Hole Airport. But three giant cargo planes did last Monday morning. Air Force C-130s.

"Cheney's coming," said a lady in the tiny cafeteria. Outside the window, SUVs and other perks of the Office of the Vice President of the United States, who has a home here, began rolling out of the body of one of the transports. "Must cost a lot, huh?" someone said.

Well, yes. But not as much as war in Iraq. The Defense Department is the Willie Sutton of our time. For those too young to remember, Willie Sutton was a dapper New York thief famous for his answer to a reporter who asked him why he robbed banks. Said Sutton: "Because that's where the money is."

The rise in the Department of Defense budget amounts to a rolling military coup d'etat. The current headlines pitting Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld against Secretary of State Colin Powell have more to do with money and mission than with ideology or personality. The Pentagon budget is now rising above $400 billion a year -- and that does not include the costs of war and occupation in Iraq -- while the State Department is running at less than $25 billion a year. The annual increase in defense spending -- now 10 percent a year -- is more than the total State Department budget.

Numbers like that make "power struggles" into something like a series pitting a small college baseball team against the New York Yankees. In fact, the Defense Department was in the process of becoming the principal agency of U.S. diplomacy long before the election of President Bush and the ascension of Secretary Rumsfeld. One of the generally unrecognized triumphs of the Cold War was the face-to-face, buddy-to-buddy linkage of the U.S. military with the officer corps of many dozens of other countries.

I was impressed by that one night in the Officers Club of the Honduran Air Force. The bar there, lined with commanders and pilots dressed in American-style uniforms, was surrounded by a mural of Neil Armstrong's moon landing under a sign that said, "We did it!" As in many other places around the world, these guys were all trained in the United States. They talked about American friends, American officers; they shared life with them back at Fort Benning or Vandenberg Air Force Base. That same military bonding was evident in our troubles with Turkey before the invasion of Iraq. Turkish military commanders wanted to go with the Americans, with their buddies, but Turkish politicians were reluctant.

Now, after the war, the Pentagon is selecting and servicing its own candidates to run Iraq. Rumsfeld's boys have the money and equipment to fly their favorite Iraqis, particularly Ahmed Chalabi and his bodyguards, into Baghdad. Their boots are on the ground along with American occupation officials picked and promoted by the Defense Department. All the State Department can do is fume and hand out press releases in Washington. Whether or not the military is qualified or capable of taking over diplomacy and governance is another question.

The Pentagon also had the money to buy off some of the press at home and abroad. The idea of "embedded reporters" came from commanders in the 1991 Gulf War, beginning with then Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney, who were frustrated by the fact that their battlefield brilliance was never reported to the American people because the press was being held captive, more or less, in Saudi Arabia. No reporters, no glory.

So the Pentagon decided to pay for coverage. War reportage is extremely expensive if the press pays its own bills. The expense of embedding reporters was paid for by the military, not news organizations. This is from Brian Duffy, the editor of U.S. News and World Report:

"With embeds, you have no costs. They're traveling with military personnel, so there are no traveling costs, and they're eating MREs. We're going to be talking about embedding as a concept for a long time. The fact that costs were so much lower is probably an afterthought. But it's not unwelcome."

Money talks. And what it is saying is that the military is now first among equals in the governing of both Iraq and the United States.

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