Seven Days in January

How the Pentagon Counts Coups in Washington

Sometimes it pays to read a news story to the last paragraph where a
reporter can slip in that little gem for the news jockeys, or maybe
just for the hell of it. You know, the irresistible bit that doesn't
fit comfortably into the larger news frame, but that can be packed away
in the place most of your readers will never get near, where your
editor is likely to give you a free pass.

So it was, undoubtedly, with New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller, who accompanied Secretary of Defense Robert Gates as he stumbled through a challenge-filled, error-prone two-day
trip to Pakistan. Gates must have felt a little like a punching bag by
the time he boarded his plane for home having, as Juan Cole pointed out,
managed to signal "that the U.S. is now increasingly tilting to India
and wants to put it in charge of Afghanistan security; that Pakistan is
isolated... and that Pakistani conspiracy theories about Blackwater were
perfectly correct and he had admitted it. In baseball terms, Gates
struck out."

In any case, here are the last two paragraphs of Bumiller's parting January 23rd piece on the trip:

Mr. Gates, who
repeatedly told the Pakistanis that he regretted their country's 'trust
deficit' with the United States and that Americans had made a grave
mistake in abandoning Pakistan after the Russians left Afghanistan,
promised the military officers that the United States would do better.

final message delivered, he relaxed on the 14-hour trip home by
watching 'Seven Days in May,' the cold war-era film about an attempted
military coup in the United States."

Just in case you've forgotten, three major cautionary political
films came out in the anxiety-ridden year of 1964, not so long after
the Cuban Missile crisis -- of which only Dr. Strangelove,
Stanley Kubrick's classic vision of the end of the world,
American-style, is much remembered today. ("I don't say we wouldn't
get our hair mussed, but I do say no more than ten to twenty million
people killed.")

All three concerned nuclear politics, "oops" moments, and Washington. The second was Fail Safe,
in which a computerized nuclear response system too fast for human
intervention malfunctions and fails to stop an erroneous nuclear attack
on Moscow, forcing an American president to save the world by nuking
New York City. It was basically Dr. Strangelove done straight (though it's worth pointing out that Americans loved to stomp New York City in their fantasies long before 9/11).

The third was the Secretary of Defense's top pick, Seven Days in May, which came with this tagline:
"You are soon to be shaken by the most awesome seven days in your
life!" In it, a right-wing four-star general linked to an incipient
fascist movement attempts to carry out a coup d'etat
against a dovish president who has just signed a nuclear disarmament
pact with the Soviet Union. The plot is uncovered and defused by a
Marine colonel played by Kirk Douglas. ("I'm suggesting, Mr.
President, there's a military plot to take over the government, and it
may occur sometime this coming Sunday...")

These were, of course, the liberal worries of a long-gone time.
Now, one of the films is iconic and the other two clunky hoots. All
three would make a perfect film festival for a Secretary of Defense
with 14 hours to spare. Just the sort of retro fantasy stuff you could
kick back and enjoy after a couple of rocky days on the road,
especially if you were headed for a "homeland" where no one
had a bad, or even a challenging, thing to say about you. After all,
in the last two decades our fantasies about nuclear apocalypse have shrunk to a far more localized scale, and a military plot to take over the government is entertainingly outre
exactly because, in the Washington of 2010, such a thought is
ludicrous. After all, every week in Washington is now the twenty-first
century equivalent of Seven Days in May come true.

Think of the week after the Secretary of Defense flew home, for instance, as Seven Days in January.

After all, if Gates was blindsided in Pakistan, he already knew that a $626 billion Pentagon budget,
including more than $128 billion in war-fighting funds, had passed
Congress in December and that his next budget for fiscal year 2011
(soon to be submitted) might well cross the $700 billion mark. He probably also knew that, in the upcoming State of the Union Address,
President Obama was going to announce a three-year freeze on
discretionary domestic spending starting in 2011, but leave national
security expenditures of any sort distinctly unfrozen. He undoubtedly knew as well that, in the week after his return, news would come out that the president was going to ask Congress for $14.2 billion extra, most for 2011, to train and massively bulk up the Afghan security forces, more than doubling the funds already approved by Congress for 2010.

Or consider that only days after his plane landed, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released
its latest "budget outlook" indicating that the Iraq and Afghan Wars
had already cost the American taxpayer more than $1 trillion in
Congressionally-approved dollars, with no end in sight. Just as the
non-freeze on defense spending in the State of the Union Address caused next to no mainstream comment,
so there would be no significant media response to this (and these
costs didn't even include the massive projected societal price of the
two wars, including future care for wounded soldiers and the
replacement of worn out or destroyed equipment, which will run so much higher).

Each of these announcements could be considered another little coup
for the Pentagon and the U.S. military to count. Each was part of
Pentagon blank-check-ism in Washington. Each represented a national
security establishment ascendant in a way that the makers of Seven Days in May might have found hard to grasp.

To put just the president's domestic cost-cutting plan in a Pentagon context: If his freeze on domestic programswere
to go through Congress intact (an unlikely possibility), it would still
be chicken-feed in the cost-cutting sweepstakes. The president's team
estimates savings of $250 billion over 10 years. On the other hand, the National Priorities Project
has done some sober figuring, based on projections from the Office of
Management and Budget, and finds that, over the same decade, the total
increase in the Pentagon budget should come to $522 billion. (And keep
in mind that that figure doesn't include possible increases in the
budgets of the Department of Homeland Security,
non-military intelligence agencies, or even any future war-fighting
supplemental funds appropriated by Congress.) That $250 billion in
cuts, then, would be but a small brake on the guaranteed further rise
of national-security spending. American life, in other words, is being
sacrificed to the very infrastructure meant to provide this country's
citizens with "safety." That's what seven days in January really means.

Or consider that $14.2 billion meant for the Afghan military and police. Forget, for a moment, all the obvious doubts about training, by 2014, up to 400,000 Afghans for a force bleeding deserters
and evidently whipping future Taliban fighters into shape, or the fact
that impoverished Afghanistan will never be able to afford such a vast
security apparatus (which means it's ours to fund into the distant
future), or even that many of those training dollars may go to Xe Services
(formerly Blackwater) or other mercenary private contracting
companies. Just think for a minute, instead, about the fact that the
State of the Union Address offered not a hint that a single further
dollar would go to train an adult American, especially an out-of-work
one, in anything whatsoever.

Hollywood loves remakes, but a word of advice to those who admire
the Secretary of Defense's movie tastes: do as he did and get the old Seven Days in May from Netflix. Unlike Star Trek, James Bond, Bewitched, and other sixties "classics," Seven Days
isn't likely to come back, not even if Matt Damon were available to
play the Marine colonel who saves the country from a military takeover,
because these days there's little left to save -- and every week is the
Pentagon's week in Washington.

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