02/09/2007 11:56 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Forget the War -- Look at the Wary System

The next week or two will see a lot of the blame game between Republicans and Democrats over why the Senate can't pass even a mild reproof of Iraqi war policy. On the surface it's a demoralizing about face. Neither side is showing the courage to say what is obvious to the electorate: a failed war needs to be stopped. The so-called Warner compromise that is stalled goes so far as to actually support Pres. Bush on various points, like promising not to cut off funds for the troops or planning a timed or phased withdrawal.

As with so much concerning the war, events on the surface don't reflect reality. The conspiracy buffs are certain that this war is about the oil companies gaining control of Iraq's energy resources. The fact that Exxon Mobil posted a record $14 billion profit last year boosts the contention that the war is good for oil. But to my mind Congress's failure to put even the mildest brake on the Iraq disaster has to do with the war system itself. Bush's proposed budget allocates 20% of all federal spending to defense. It increases rather than decreases war spending. It pours immense resources into the very sector of the economy that is failing. Moreover, money spent on the military is notoriously inefficient. If you give a dollar to education, a student may get a better job that leads to him paying taxes in the future. Your dollar investment thus comes back to you tenfold, or more. If you spend a dollar on a bomb, it blows up. The net result is zero. It could wind up being negative if you wind up rebuilding the thing the bomb destroyed.

Iraq is obviously a negative investment. The war makers promised in 2003 that the price tag would be no more than $50 billion total. In other words, a petty war would cost a rich country very little. This year Bush wants over $140 billion for the war, and he will predictably come to Congress at year's end wanting even more in the form of supplemental funds. A serious war is costing a rich society dearly.

Why does a free market, the Golden Calf of Republicans, favor such a huge negative investment? It doesn't. The market is heavily manipulated in favor of the war system, which is totally subsidized without the slightest proof that it is efficient, necessary, profitable, or even voluntary. The military-industrial complex runs the business of America in a tangled mesh of connections that includes big oil, university research, weapons development, aerospace, federal scholarship programs, and hundreds of other inter-related enterprises. There are only a few degrees of separation between a satellite beaming down Desperate Housewives and one devoted to missile defense, between a kid's video games and computerized bomb guidance systems. Every member of Congress has a permanent stake in keeping the system going, as do hundreds of lobbyists.

This is how a bad war is "good" for the country, because the system is so thoroughly locked in place that it cannot be dismantled. We are addicted to war, not because America is a vicious country but because it is hard-headed about money, influence, and power. If the war system could be changed overnight into a system that is based on repairing the infrastructure, improving education, and cleaning up the environment, that new system could be a positive investment. A dollar in could reap many dollars out. But inertia prevents such a change. Fear and attachment to old ways prevent such a change.

Even as it pulls us deeper into a war that will prove to be a black stain in American history, the war system hums happily along, unmindful that it has corrupted democracy and destroyed the country's moral position in the world. The tale of why the Senate won't rap Bush's knuckles on Iraq turns out to be rather long and complex, but it's true.