Allison Pujol: Two truths and a lie: Cheney, Iraq and viral memes

Thursday, December 5, 2019 - 6:34pm

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Before the exciting new world of TikTok, before we could enjoy its “For You” page’s random, entertaining 15-second videos and long before the proliferation of VSCO girl jokes, there was Vine. Most young people in the United States keeping an eye on the internet are already well aware of one of Vine’s most iconic memes, “Dick Cheney made money off the Iraq War.” The brief, seemingly tongue-in-cheek video of the original Vine of a guy repeating this sentiment into the camera has received hundreds of thousands of views and seems like a snapshot of millennial humor, but the history of private war-making in U.S. politics is long and brutal. 

Private military contractors — essentially, multinational corporations that hire professional mercenaries to participate and aid in wars abroad — are an ideal tool to ensure the human and emotional costs of war remain largely hidden from the American public. In her book “The Lonely Soldier”, author Helen Benedict details the overlap between private corporations who engaged in war-fighting and the government officials who supported the conflict in Iraq. As the book and other sources detail, the corporations involved in the Iraq War included those such as Blackwater Worldwide. But the largest corporation by far was KBR, a subsidiary of the Halliburton corporation, of which Dick Cheney had been the CEO before entering the White House. In the first year of the Iraq War alone, then-President Bush and Vice President Cheney handed over $39.5 billion over 10 years in noncompetitive contracts to KBR to provide anything from food and water to vehicles and weapons for soldiers in Iraq. Suspicions of Cheney’s war profiteering seem even more credible given The Guardian’s report that Cheney was paid an extra $1 million by Halliburton during the time he served as vice president. The Washington Post has also reported extensively on the large bonuses that KBR received during the time of the conflict. 

One would assume that the massive amount of money pouring into private military contractors during the Iraq War would have translated into the efficiency and the desired results often associated with the private sector. But the use of private defense contractors has yielded mixed results abroad, and this is particularly true in Iraq. Indeed, an archived 2011 report from a bipartisan government commission tasked with investigating potential abuse of funds in the Iraq War estimated that there was a $60 billion total — or $12 million/day — loss or waste in fraud via funds allocated from the government to private contractors since 2001. 

Though Cheney’s involvement in the conflict seems troubling as well as financially motivated, it would be inaccurate to suggest that corporate greed was the sole contributor to the U.S.’s involvement in Iraq. This is not necessarily a uniquely American phenomenon — the U.K., for example, also has a booming industry for private war-fighting. What is uniquely American, though, is the breadth of other justifications for U.S. involvement and deployment, which is not more reassuring than the assertion that Cheney’s greed facilitated the conflict itself. President George W. Bush’s claim that Iraq possessed chemical and/or biological weapons of mass destruction revealed itself to be a lie. Many in policy circles also believed that the U.S. would be welcomed as a benevolent global power that could restore the American-led deterrence in the Middle East (a blatant falsehood, as U.S. forces entering the region quickly realized). But one of the darker reasons later suggested for the war is that the United States needed the conflict — that the post-9/11 power vacuum necessitated an international leader to demonstrate it could fill the void of liberalism, that the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq would “reassert and demonstrate (U.S.) strength in no uncertain terms to a global audience, crown itself king of the hill, and reestablish generalized deterrence.” 

It’ll be years before we can see what the Bush administration’s motivations might have been, after White House documents become declassified or leaked. But we can see fragments of this policy at work today in Donald Trump’s presidency, despite the White House’s repeated isolationist stances toward international engagement. Daniel DePetris, a fellow at security-focused think tank Defense Priorities, has written about how Trump has repeatedly characterized military engagement in the Middle East as hopeless: The president argued that “Iraq was a disaster; Afghanistan was a tragic waste of lives of resources; Syria was a land of ‘sand and death’; and the nation-building campaigns in the Middle East were a sad joke.” And yet, for all of Trump’s insistence on the futility of spending resources in the Middle East, his rhetoric has not aligned with reality. Recent increases in U.S. military spending seem to indicate that the drive for American militarism has certainly remained intact and has every intention to accelerate. 

Allison Pujol can be reached at ampmich@umich.edu.