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Will the Pentagon Be the Next U.S. Institution to Crash?

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Posted on Oct 2, 2008

By William Pfaff

The nuclear physicist Leo Szilard once remarked that the fall of the Soviet system would eventually lead to the fall of the American system. He said that in a two-element structure, the interrelationship and interdependence are such that the one cannot survive without the other.

This comment has been relayed by a friend, and as Szilard has passed to his reward I am in no position to explain his reasoning, but it is possible to restate it in political terms, and we are seeing the result in finance and in war. I think that Szilard was implying what a very intelligent opponent of the United States also said when the Cold War ended. Georgi Arbatov, former head of the U.S.A. and Canada Institute of the Soviet Union, said to an American interlocutor: We are about to do something truly terrible to you. We are going to deprive you of your enemy.

Without the enemy, the machinery of power begins to race, with nothing to resist it; megalomania sets in. The end of the Cold War coincided with the beginning in the United States of globalized finance, launched under the Clinton administration. It operated with ever more dazzling and daring gambles in which the constraints and tension of the Cold War were replaced by the psychology of greed and excess.

The economic crisis that has now overtaken the United States can be interpreted as the logical result of a financial system that reached the point where there was no limit to what you could take out of it even when you were incapable of understanding the transactions taking place.

Less apparent to most people, but just as real, are the signs of an impending crash of an American military system in which, since the end of the Cold War, Pentagon dysfunction has metastasized so uncontrollably as to scandalize both the man who was defense secretary when the so-called war on terror began and the current secretary, Robert M. Gates, the man in charge as that war mutates into the “Long War.”


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The war has been renamed the “Long War” because no one has a better name for it, and nearly everyone fears that it may go on forever, since it seems to be a war against disorder, failed nations, rogue states and the collective miseries of all the world beyond the frontiers of the United States and Europe.

On Sept. 10, 2001, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld delivered a speech in which he declared that the greatest threat to the security of the United States was the organization over which he presided, the Pentagon and its bureaucracy. He said that its waste and disorder had to be brought under effective control—an undertaking which he was not sure could succeed, but to which he was dedicating himself.

The next day brought the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Rumsfeld’s planned reforms mostly had to be abandoned. He had a vision of postmodern war in which a limited number of special troops on the ground would control electronic intelligence systems, high-technology air forces and unmanned drones to destroy primitive enemies. Old-fashioned infantry would be obsolete. Rumsfeld kept a news photo in his office of a special forces horseman galloping across the Afghan plain while directing an assault from the air against the Taliban.

More conventional officers opposed Rumsfeld’s ideas, and the luckless Taliban, which had prepared entrenchments against ground assault, found itself decimated (or worse) by high-level B-52 raids coming from bases in the United States, Britain and the Indian Ocean, under whose bombardments peasant soldiers and tribal levees were helpless.

Afghanistan was then turned over to ethnic warlords who previously had been defeated by the Taliban, and Rumsfeld went on to a new shock-and-awe victory in Iraq, which rapidly turned into a fiasco, because there wasn’t enough old-fashioned infantry.

There still isn’t, because the use and abuse of occupation forces have discouraged recruitment in the all-volunteer army. There is a new/old war in Afghanistan, spilling into Pakistan, and commanders are demanding more ground troops. Secretary Gates doesn’t have them in sufficient numbers, unless he takes them from Iraq (and declares victory there, a rash move).

The speech he gave last Monday to the National Defense University in Washington accused the Pentagon bureaucracy of obsession with high-technology weaponry to defeat enemies the United States does not (yet) have, using hypermodern weapons yet to be invented. He accused it of “idealized, triumphalist or ethnocentric notions of future conflict that aspire to upend the immutable principles of war.”

He said that during four decades, the trend line of Pentagon procurement has been toward lower numbers and higher technology, toward weapons systems “that have been ever more baroque, ever more costly, taking longer to build, and fielded in ever dwindling quantities.” There could not be a better description of a bureaucracy in decadence, just as the same phrase must be applied to a financial system for multiplying the apparent value of fundamentally worthless securities. (It was Alan Greenspan who said that American finance had symbolically passed through the sound barrier of the known financial system and now was in an entirely new dimension. So it had, as we see now.)

I think that what Leo Szilard was saying is that a system cut free from the opposition that kept it honest passes into hubris, otherwise known as irrational exuberance, and after hubris comes the fall.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

© 2008 Tribune Media Services Inc.

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By sgpesgpe, October 6, 2008 at 10:43 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

And how much of our precious petroleum is the Pentegonon squandering on these vicious, despicable, dollar-crashing wars?  I’ll take my war-share of petroleum and put it in my car’s gas tank.

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By KMarx, October 5, 2008 at 9:23 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Good heavens, when I saw these terms in the article I thought he was talking about this has-been country! I mean it’s surely looks like us.

Here is what is happening: The prophecy of Karl Marx is finally coming of age. It is a prophecy that says when Capitalism develops into its final phase – a malignant, unbridled, imperialistic form - the system will ultimately collapse. Translation: The beast with an infinite appetite can no longer sustain itself on a finite amount of sustenance.

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By diamond, October 4, 2008 at 3:43 am Link to this comment

What absolute crap mendez. To my certain knowledge the Democrats have never said anything about returning America to its position in the world. They’ve talked about reversing the contempt in which America is currently held but surely any American would be in favour of that? Interesting that the date September 10 2001 flits by in this article without any mention whatsoever of the $2.3 trillion that Rumsfeld also announced was missing from the Pentagon on that fateful day. There is also no mention of the fact that the only place hit by the ‘plane’ that is supposed to have hit the Pentagon was the accounting department on the second floor. Most of the people killed were auditors. But what the hell? They were only going to find out where all that money went, weren’t they?

Donald Rumsfeld is the man who flew to Iraq and ‘approved’ Saddam Hussein to be the new ruler of Iraq. Rumsfeld and the other members of his gang kept Hussein there as long as they could use him but then when they decided they wanted Iraq’s oil they pinned the 9/11 attacks on Hussein so they could invade Iraq and also pinned them on the Taliban so they could invade Afghanistan and reclaim their poppy fields which the Taliban had burnt. It’s common knowledge that the CIA started running drugs in Vietnam where they smuggled heroin out of Vietnam in the body cavities of dead soldiers. A third of the soldiers who came back alive from Vietnam were addicted to heroin.But now, over 90% of the heroin on American streets comes from Afghanistan and the CIA owns the trade. They launder the drug money on Wall Street and it’s a trillion dollar a year economy. Senator Carl Levin in 2004 named 20 major US financial institutions involved in laundering drug money. Many of them are now going under for the third time and I can’t tell you how good it feels to see them finally get what’s coming to them. Donald Rumsfeld is a psycopath: there’s no nice way to say it. He’s a pathological liar and a war criminal. In fact, watch the DVD ‘The World According to Bush’. It was made in 2004 too so it’s only the first thousand days of Bush/Rumsfeld/Cheney/Neo Con rule but a more ghastly indictment of an administration of any political stripe would be impossible to find. America’s biggest enemies are in the Pentagon, the CIA and the White House. You want terrorists? That’s where you should look. These idiots lost the Soviet Union as an enemy so they started chasing each other around like dogs with rabies. Yes, it’s funny but they’re incredibly dangerous people so really it’s not.

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By A NON FARMER, October 4, 2008 at 2:05 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Dear William Pfaff,
From an Australian perspective the collapse of the USSR was something that happened the other side of the Equator when I was relatively ‘young and immortal’.
We’re pretty dim in the great South Land and don’t notice ‘gators until they bite us on the butt.
You have it right and I can hear the, close behind, snapping of teeth!
I grow older and learn to recognise and worry about these things.

Australia has always been a convenient stopover for the logistics milkrun - California, Hawaii, Guam, Darwin and then on to the areas of interest.
Now that the Great Game has moved on from SE Asia - to Central Asia/ Middle East - it might be that the great alliance our politicians pretend to believe might no longer be affordable.

Centre of interest closer to Europe and the Atlantic run might be cheaper for the evacuation flights from Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel.
Meanwhile all this war your Masters have caused has mightily pissed off a whole bunch of Nation States in Asia and the Indian Ocean Basin.
Result. About five years time the US’ greatest ally will be effectively, geopolitically, militarily, snookered.
And yes. I am writing this for your advice but primarily for an Australian audience naive enough to pretend the best way to defeat invasion is to ask everyone down to a beach party - and if anyone gets out of hand, or crashes the party - then bash ‘em over the head with the empties.

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By yellowbird2525, October 3, 2008 at 7:00 pm Link to this comment

what the Muslim people & Iraqi’s NEED to know is THIS: BIG DIFFERENCE between the PEOPLE of the USA & the GOV & political sytem operating in the USA; the IRAQI’s had HEARD of “freedom” and welcomed us: origanally: THEN they said THIS IS DICTATORSHIP, NOT freedom! It is WORSE than it EVER WAS under Saddam Hussain & wished HE were alive again cuz while he was bad: the set up Gov like in USA & same Corps working with them everywhere: are hundreds of times WORSE than under Hussain; THAT caused Bush to say “we prefer to be called dysfunctional” cuz of course to be KNOWN as DICTATORS would CAUSE THEM to be easily overthrown. So he changed the name from “democracy” to “peace”. It is sheer enslavery in Iraq the SAME as in the USA; but the PEOPLE of the USA are the only ones UNAWARE of what is going on. (well, some of them); My own thoughts were to take the politicians to Iraq & apologize to them: & let heads roll if they needed to; & allow the PEOPLE of both there & everywhere else this evil conglomeration has gone: remove them. simple, quick & easy; Elsewhere these dastardly devils (devil means deceitful one) well named by Muslim countries is MY humble opinion. FORGET what the media TELLS you: find out in REALITY what THIS Gov does: NO ONE in the USA would tolerate it if they would but uncover the multiple layers of deceit, deception, & lies: one started it appears to be unending. Another country wants to take them outback & feed to the hungry THEY created there. It is not a “lack of food” but a lack of ACCESS to food; TAUGHT by the USA GOV that THIS is the way to do it: THIS is “democracy”; you decide people. Democracy is THIS???

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By MAR, October 3, 2008 at 6:40 pm Link to this comment


A very perceptive comment - and it was an excellent article above.

As far as you invading us (canada) you’ll have to think of something better - that would only take a day or two and then an eternity of resistance - like putting arsenic in your .. . . what is the name of that Seattle stuff?

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By jackpine savage, October 3, 2008 at 3:20 pm Link to this comment


Good essay, thanks for the link. I believe (though i do not know) that the best answer to what to do with the MIC can be found in space exploration. You’re correct that the fall of the Pentagon would spell very real economic doom across America. Many, if not most, of those companies are involved in aero-space…or at least very high technology. While shifting spending from arms to space would not change the budget, it would at least make the shift…and would be more likely to produce useful spinoffs.

It’s what i wish Clinton had done because he had the moment, now that moment may be too far gone.

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By jackpine savage, October 3, 2008 at 3:15 pm Link to this comment

Well, apparently i’ve been agreeing with Szilard since 1992. The USA and the USSR propped each other up. Levi Strauss suggested that the human mind revolved around binary opposites, and though the two nations were not actually opposite they at least appeared that way…with enough propaganda.

There is no such thing as good without evil, nor white without black. Hence the exuberance related to the possibility of a “new Cold War” with Russia. Terrorism and Islamofascism don’t really cut it as the “other” to be feared and, hopefully, destroyed.

And Anarcissie is quite right that as the US trends downward, there will be plenty of nations/people ready to take their best shot…and that best shot may be good enough. For one thing, the DoD uses more oil in a year than all but 34 nations on the planet. Any disruption to a constant supply pretty much ends our warmaking ability…and i haven’t heard about them fitting the JSF and the F-22 with hybrid engines.

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By syed salamah ali mahdi, October 3, 2008 at 1:25 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

When 5 million Iraqis whose 1 million next of kin have been ‘obliterated’ by America and another 5 million Iraqi refugees who have been displaced by the White Hordes plus about 2 million Afghans and 3 million Palestinians, SUPPLICATE God/Allah every single day for HIS Wrath to descend upon America, it only needs ONE such supplication to get through and be accepted. It seems several have gone through and gotten accepted. Not ONE of the millions above and anyone outside the Wealthy Anglo Saxon Protestants (WASP)and Jewish AXIS OF EVIL will shed a single tear when God’s/Allah’s WORKS are done and over.

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By Leanderthal, Lighthouse Keeper, October 3, 2008 at 10:41 am Link to this comment

For my comment please read the post I’ve written on my blog:

This might not be good manners or form, but I spent a good deal of time on it, and wouldn’t be able to justify it with a brief comment here.

Asking forgiveness, not permission,

Leanderthal,  Lighthouse Keeper

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By mendez, October 3, 2008 at 8:58 am Link to this comment

After years of stuffing the coffers of military contractors and fortifying the five sided fortress’ retiring generals, rendered impotent with a box cutter on 9/11, we are still hearing stories about what is wrong with the hegemonic crime family known as our military leadership.

Now the Democrats have learned that the beast is sacrosanct and any talk of not funding their follies is a sure step towards political defeat.  We are more addicted to our military state than we are to any drug or behavior.  Perhaps, as Robert Bly suggested, our nation suffers a collective guilt so hard-wired as to leave out the option for sanity.

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By mendez, October 3, 2008 at 8:42 am Link to this comment

It is amusing to watch and listen to “Democrats” who feign outrage because they feel McCain/Palin are simply not up to the job of restoring the U.S. to its former status in the world.  If truth were the objective - especially for the eponymously named web sites and media which curry its favor - we would be more than willing to admit that we have not had a hint of leadership since maybe the curb appeal of JFK.  This group or that group or the next group are no match for our desires in leadership.  We have heard all the cliches about “holding our nose” and voting with our loyalties, and we have all seen where that has gotten us.  Nihilists have won and until this country hits its real bottom, we won’t see another shot at the golden ring.  It would be thoroughly enjoyed to see McCain win, drop dead and leave this nation with Sarah Palin in charge.  I suspect those odds are favorable and I expect that should trigger the true bottom many of us have been attempting to call.

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By martin weiss, October 3, 2008 at 3:53 am Link to this comment

The BushCo cabal has repeatedly set up traps for client nations to fall into so as to become future casus belli events. Saddam offered to leave Iraq and bring in the US military—Bush preferred invasion. The Iranians, to whom we had sold nuclear technology, offered to halt uranium enrichment—Bush censured the Swiss diplomat who carried the communication. BushCo needed the Iranian “threat” to justify the Pentagon budget. Now we have sold “dual use” and missile-guidance chips to China, perhaps also anticipating another “opponent” to further the war economy and the war mentality. Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine” explicitly details the steps taken to create these unnecessary conflicts and the resulting economic windfalls to defense spending with corresponding setbacks to infrastructure and innovation that lure money away from vested interests in old technologies like oil. The Conservative strategy is a Big Con with us as the servers. The penchant for faith-based initiatives to discredit science is equally a drive toward the perpetration of an irrational scam. These forces are desperate to conceal the Big Lie and they are running scared and won’t give up without a fight.

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By marcus medler, October 2, 2008 at 10:31 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I have been following the front runners in this current “election” and that scrutiny forces me to disagree with the above essay. McCain has made it clear, if you want a life in the U.S.A., that is; housing, medical/dental care, food, training/education and retirement you better get connected in some way to the pentagon. He will not support by federal funding any programs unless the pentagon asks. In Hawaii we have learned, due to our well connected Senator, that Federal programs, jobs and infrastructure that benefit society as a whole come easy via the pentagon.(I am sure S.California will second, as too Conn. and now Seattle)

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By yellowbird2525, October 2, 2008 at 9:12 pm Link to this comment

and sad to say that Clinton went up & bribed the Canadians political heads: and they are now hobbnobbing with criminals per googling it; dysfunctional gov; is what it was being called; same down in Mexico & the mega Corps now own huge amounts of land & all the water rights completely contrary to their constitution; but THAT is NOT what your Gov wants you to know; nor that there is civil war there now because of it; tells of torturers being sent there to train others on how to it; THIS is why all the countries CALL the USA (meaning our Gov) torturers; and if you look up on british detainee you will see & understand exactly what all the other nations of the world know: they have documented proof of it all; both video & more; isn’t it NICE to be deceived? and given false pictures & misleading information? all of Congress knows this: and NOTHING is being done. Oh, the “financial crisis” was SET UP for this: they knew it all folks: just like they knew they were taking out Saddam Hussain ahead of time.

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By yellowbird2525, October 2, 2008 at 9:05 pm Link to this comment

there was never any link between Al Quieda & Saddam Hussain; whom the politicians had decided to take out in 1996; it was sheer coincidence that they had the 75 retired military with contractors always used to “lose” equipment with & launder huge amounts of $ out & into themselves: THUS they amero & gold they do NOT want you to know about; and sheer coincidence that 50% of the Pentagon was gone; & the overspending parasites were outside having a drill for what to do if a plane ever hit the Pentagon when it was hit; It was sheer coincidence that 90% of folks going to Iraq THOUGHT they it was payback for the attack on the USA cuz Bush & everyone kept mentioning the 2 together in sentences; coincidence that a Congressman on C spam talking to others said “the reason we are in Iraq of course if for our own interests then looked up as he was cautioned being on TV had to say oh yes mmmm and Al Quieda; they set up a Gov just like the one here; same huge mega Corps as are here; & the graft & corruption are worse hundreds of times worse that what the USA accused Saddam of; but hey hey hey the huge Corps & political elites who have mega dollars to spend on them & their families & pet projects: the people are paying thousands of times more than they used to & ha ha ha don’t think they should be taxed! are now being taxed & the Gov can “never” agree on giving the people anything; main thing the soldiers did there on a daily basis was to kick down doors & kidnap people; good ol USA Gov; way to go; oh did I mention they have 63 or more “private contractors” going around the world: like the 2 companies in Georgia training them for attacking Odessa? But WE keep being told over & over & over (so we can believe the lie) that Russia went in & attacked for no reason at all!

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By samosamo, October 2, 2008 at 8:11 pm Link to this comment

Yeah? Could be since their main function now is to maintain an empire that it cannot maintain with 2 very real and useless wars against an enemy of ghosts. Terrorists don’t have countries. They are just like any criminal in any country just waiting for an opportunity to reek some havoac and disappear into the woodwork. It is not worth destroying any nation for the sake of hunting down a few radical enemies that are better chased by a united international community working together for a common good.
And I cannot think of group of terrorist more worthy of chasing down than those misguided lowlifes that have caused more devestation, misery and death, our very own financial sector still trying to promote the agenda of Milton Friedman’s economic ideology. These would be the easiest to round up and generate a better stability than pretending to ‘protect’ our country from an enemy that would be hard pressed to create anything comparable to the 9/11 attack that was allowed to happen.
And I don’t think the military would collapse either. What would collapse would be the military industrial complex and the whacked out military and civilian leaders in the pentagon that are benefitting by taking the american taxpayers to the cleaners over useless new high tech and space type weapontry that has a less chance of working than getting orgainized religions to stop lying and robbing people of their lives and money.
Besides, article 2 of the Bill of Rights still works and anyone trying to invade this country would have to contend with the gun owners of america who I believe would be the first people to start to defend themselves and this country. Count me as one of them, being one of the first things I noticed years ago with the ability of a person to defend him/herself being taken away and left in the hands of the historians, the police.
And a curious thing happens when the empire is broken and disappears, international cooperation breaks out and a lot of anamosities disappear. Twould be nice.

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By Anarcissie, October 2, 2008 at 7:20 pm Link to this comment

It seems to me that as the U.S. declines it will begin to encounter many powers which will be able to give it a good fight and maybe even defeat it.  The Pentagon’s glory days may yet be ahead of it, as it struggles to fend off Cuba and Puerto Rico and keep Alaska in the Union, all while remaining a reliable satellite of China.  Or Canada.

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By Big B, October 2, 2008 at 6:56 pm Link to this comment

The fall of the Soviet Union led directly to the creation of our new enemy, Islamofacism.
One cannot possibly continue to get away with spending hundreds of billions of dollars on it’s military industrial complex when it doesn’t have an object of its ire.
The problem is that the islamofacists have not proven to be a soviet level opponent. While 9/11 was an impressive trick, it was their money shot. We have since given them every opportunity from afghanistan to Iraq to our porous borders to start a really impressive offensive against christian imperialism. For one reason or the other, whether it be poor organizational skills or the fact that they are troglodytes with 16th century thought processes, they have proven to be an inferior nemisis.
So what is a superpower to do? We have all these high tech weapons laying around with no one to use them on.
China, there’s a worthy opponent! Oh wait, they are more interested in economic domination. Well, so much for China.
Russia, our old friends will surely come to our rescue. No. They only spend 40 billion a year on defense. They are far more interested in oil and natural gas than us.
It looks as though we will have to turn our attention to the evil Canadian empire. They are sure to be up to something up there, Aye?
How about just abolishing our military and having universal healthcare?
Like that’ll ever happen.

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