BOOKS/Margie Burns

A Dynasty in Service to Business

To preface his new book, American Dynasty, conservative commentator Kevin Phillips quotes President Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1961 farewell speech:

"This conjunction of an immense Military Establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -&endash; economic, political, even spiritual &endash;- is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the Federal Government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications ...

"In the councils of government we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

"We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together."

For Phillips, Eisenhower's feared military-industrial complex is now becoming a "military-energy-national security-industrial complex."

This development has several historical strands: the growth of crony capitalism; the establishment of a super-secretive "security" or "intelligence" apparatus, joined with the power of the federal government; and a conjoining of private interests with US foreign policy on a scale not seen before, dovetailing with the new imperialism of the 21st century.

Phillips, a former Republican strategist now a registered independent, is a commentator on National Public Radio and writes for the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal. Viking Penguin released American Dynasty (subtitle: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush) in January.

Philllips summarizes trends and events with calm lucidity:

• "... tax cuts aimed at stimulating upper-bracket investment have a record of bypassing declining industrial centers and urban slums, and even middle-class neighborhoods full of two-earner households mired in credit card and mortgage debt." (126)

• "This is the practice of crony capitalism: government favors for the well-connected, and publicly financed rescues for private financial interests. During both Bush administrations, such practices flourished to a degree that mocked their ostensible commitment to free markets." (128)

• "The election of a president and a vice president who were both conservatives from the oil industry obviously intensified and accelerated two important trends: the prioritization of energy issues and geopolitics, and the privatization of military functions." (176)

Phillips' summary history of the military-energy-security-industrial state does what a newspaper cannot do, filling in gaps left elsewhere in print, to provide an expanded "backgrounder" to recent events.

"Simply put, World War II made government, business, and the military larger, more permanent, and more powerful &endash; and also obliged each to pay more attention to the other elements ... As government military contracts went disproportionately to big companies ... America's biggest companies kept expanding ... The national security state, in short, concentrated economic power and favored business." (195)

Fortunately, the author substantiates his discussion with facts rather than name-calling, and narrating rather than characterizing. Phillips reviews ground covered before but not often in one place, or so efficiently, or so lucidly. Thus the "Enron-Halliburton Administration" chapter contains shocks, even for the informed. In 1992 then-Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney commissioned a private study on how well private companies could supply the US military. The study was done by Halliburton subsidiary Brown & Root, a company that would benefit from its own conclusions (pro-privatizing). Cheney then became head of Halliburton for five years, leaving it to join the 2000 Bush campaign, then became vice president in the administration that awarded Halliburton a no-competition federal contract worth billions.

Earlier episodes also involve shocks: material regarding the Reagan-Bush buildup of Saddam Hussein known as "Iraqgate" (301-305) is gathered together; and multiple "green lights" the first Bush administration gave Saddam to invade Kuwait (307-308) are listed.

In short, a few private interests have been dominant in US policy, at several critical junctures. The push for "energy deregulation," for instance, built up within the broader "oil interface" with national security. Any concern that "deregulating" a vital industry, especially one like energy where competition does not operate (households cannot replace one electric company with another at will), could undermine "national security," was not manifested by framers of recent energy policy, including industry lobbyists.

Dominance by narrow interests goes back at least three generations with the Bush and Walker families among others, as Phillips shows in his review of pre-World War II and even pre-World War I armaments business interests and their war connections. Now, however, the pattern obtains on a larger scale. As Phillips puts it:

"The pattern of revenge, cronyism, and dynastic pride also carried into broader Middle Eastern relations, particularly dealings with Saudi Arabia and Iraq ... the plans being made by conservative hard-liners for regime change in Iraq intensified during the late 1990s as George W. Bush's nomination prospects solidified. Once he was elected, officials who had helped his father cover up in Iran-Contra and other scandals received new jobs in Bush II." (291)

A family "vocation" in finance (123), combined with a lack of civic commitment (135), has also yielded undemocratic domestic policy: favors and special rulings in both Bush administrations; even stronger antilabor provisions in the second; and tax proposals that "reflected unprecedentedly open favoritism to the rich." (127)

Some parts of Phillips' history are fuller and better reasoned than others. The segments on business and great-family interests, as they enmesh with national policy, are mainly good. The segments arguing an American fondness for "dynasty" are mixed. Weakest are the segments on "fundamentalism"; the author does not adequately support key assumptions, namely that conservative Christians necessarily support Bush, or that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were religiously motivated. Drawing parallels between American and Islamic fundamentalists risks falling into colonialist projection, regardless of whether you're talking about the Middle East or the American Southeast.

Nor does Phillips discuss how much the trends he chronicles were assisted by corporatized media. Had George W. Bush's family connections to "blowback" adventurism, destabilizing other countries, and financial links to the Middle East been scrutinized by national newspapers and television, Phillips would have had a different history to write.

Still, Phillips provides a start to recording a dynastic growth of cronyism in government, industry, and even national security; a governmental security apparatus increasingly "privatized" and secretive though paid for by taxpayer dollars; and a latter-day imperialism both serving and served by the other trends.

Margie Burns is a native Texan who writes in suburban Maryland. Email

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