Hear Allison Stanger in Mad River Valley at the Valley Players Theater at 7:00 pm on Thursday, November 5. Sponsored by the Green Mountain Global Forum.
“The American homeland is the planet.” – 9/11 Commission Report
Very rarely do I read a “policy wonkish” book in which I so clearly agree with the diagnosed problem, but feel like the solutions offered leave me completely at sea.
Allison Stanger’s One Nation Under Contract: The Outsourcing of American Power and the Future of Foreign Policy is such a book.
Stanger is no slouch. She is Middlebury College’s Russell Leng ‘60 Professor of International Politics and Economics, and directs the college’s Rohatyn Center for International Affairs. Her clear, concise, and thoughtful new book is “blurbed” by some high-powered people, including USMC General Anthony Zinni (who calls Stanger’s analysis “a superb work on government outsourcing and contracting”); Canadian Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff (“a clarion call to bring the business of government under more effective public control”); and Harvard University professor Joseph Nye (“well-reasoned”).
But her book’s conclusions left me scratching my head.
Stanger sets out to answer a big and crucially important question: In an age in which governments around the world have “outsourced” nearly everything to private for-profit corporations, how do citizens reestablish effective oversight over private-public partnerships? This outsourcing problem is so vast and extensive that even the Establishment New York Times, an overexuberant cheerleader for U.S. foreign policy if ever there was one, referred to contractors as a “fourth branch of government” in 2007, a sign of just how troublesome things have become.
Stanger’s extended case-study is the United States, a “republic-turned-Empire” (to her credit, Stanger is willing to entertain the use of the term “empire” to describe U.S. activities abroad) of 300 million citizens that has emerged over the past several decades as the richest, most powerful, most influential nation in the world, with as many as 1,000 military bases networked across more than 130 countries across the planet, 10,000 nuclear warheads, and an annual “defense” budget (read: “war-making”) larger than the next twenty countries combined.
What once was considered public oversight (the domain of Congress, the State Department, and other somewhat-publicly-accountable government organizations) for maintaining this emerging global “Empire of Bases” is increasingly being governed by the dictates of private for-profit corporate interests. In her book, Stanger examines what she calls “the evolution of military outsourcing,” including the privatization of U.S. matters diplomatic (which she rightly traces to the 1947 Congressional passage of the National Security Act), a process that has emerged in full dysfunctional flower with the 2001 creation of the so-called Department of Homeland Security, as well as the “slow death” of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
Stanger is at her best when chronicling the waste, fraud, and abuse that has accompanied ongoing outsourcing. The U.S. government’s six year invasion and occupation of Iraq is the most recent reminder of just how nasty things can get: more than 1 million Iraqi lives lost, billions of dollars “disappeared,” U.S. tax-supported private corporate armies waging a mercenary war against entire Mesopotamian cities (Fallujah, anyone?) while U.S. diplomats hole up inside the so-called “Green Zone,” home to the new U.S. embassy in downtown Baghdad: the largest, most extensive, and most expensive embassy compound the world has ever seen.
And Iraq is just the tip of the “outsourcing” iceberg.
While I appreciated her diagnosis of the “outsourcing” problem, I have two big issues with Stanger’s book.
The first is her continual acceptance (not unusual for a U.S. scholar/policy wonk) of the U.S. government’s officially stated “party line” on all matters diplomatic. When she asserts, for example, that the U.S.’s primary interest in invading and occupying Iraq was to help bring “democracy” to the Middle East, I found myself scrawling the word “nonsense” in the book’s margin. Her unwillingness to push beyond presidential rhetorical rationales for U.S. actions abroad – Oil? Support for Israel? Profit for “Defense” Corps like Halliburton and KBR? – deeply undercuts the credibility of her argument.
Second, and more troubling, are her “solutions,” packed into the last few pages of the book, which seem utopian to the extreme, even for this idealist. She speaks of “cultivating an emerging market for virtue” built on the “creativity of free individuals”; of “radical transparency in all government financial transactions” (and oddly, points to Wall-Street-Bankster-Backscratcher President Obama as a model here); of “loosening the grip of special interests on American politics” (yawn); and more to the point, of “restricting the use of no-bid contracts” and “demilitarizing U.S. foreign policy,” both wonderful ideas that any D.C. insider will be the first to tell you will never happen.
In short, to this decentralist reader, Stanger’s book is right in its diagnosis of what ails the United States, but wrong on the cure. Only a radical devolution of political and economic power away from the center (Washington, D.C. and Wall Street) and towards the periphery (Main Street and individual states, with Vermont leading the way, perhaps) will be able to stanch the “outsourcing” and the complete collapse of this once-great constitutional republic at the hands of those wringing a profit from its ruin.
To explore that phenomenon, however, Ms. Stanger may have to write another book.