The King of the Jungle

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For a nation swept by a mixture of self pity, paranoia and gung-ho aggression, it's not a great surprise that the US has announced a huge increase in military spending.

It will rise by 15 percent, from $310.5 billion in 2001 to $347.5 billion this year, and onwards and upwards by a further $48 billion in 2003, rising to an extra $120 billion over the next five years.

To put the figures into a more meaningful context, the world's only remaining superpower will spend more than the combined total of the next 15 highest military spending countries. It will constitute 60 percent of the world's total spending on arms. In 2000 the 'defence' budget cost each US citizen nearly $900. By 2007 the total amount will be 11 percent higher than average US spending during the Cold War years. Equally unsurprisingly, the money to help fund the new weapons will come from cuts in Medicaid and job training programmes.

In a nation which prides itself on the rights of the individual, the brave voices of dissent are few. The rest have largely been silenced by the media owners. Those people of foreign origin who are held on suspicion of connections with the 'axis of evil' or Islamic militants have had their civil rights swept away. In any other country the sight of a middle aged political leader appearing in public dressed in a bomber pilot's jacket would attract rightful derision. In the US that jacket has become the symbol of an unthinking, revenge demanding national mood.

Some liberal critics of the US military predominance have expressed surprise and asked why, with such already overwhelming power, the US needs to throw more money at the military. One very good reason is that since 11 September the defence contractors and their friends in government, such as Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have been pushing at an open door. To oppose their demands would be regarded as deeply unpatriotic. President Eisenhower warned of the malign power of the military-industrial complex when he stepped down in 1961. His remarks have even more significance today.

There is one interesting difference. Up until the very recent past the big military corporations were relatively direct and upfront about what they wanted, even if they often used covert methods to achieve their aims. They lobbied, hustled and bribed to get the big contracts at home and overseas. Presidents phoned their counterparts in foreign countries to offer political favours if US hardware was bought. Companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and United Technologies were household names. Now there is a new kind of creature in the US arms jungle.

The Carlyle Group is a huge financial conglomerate that specialises in buying and selling defence stocks. Unlike the traditional companies it has no deep roots in the defence industry. It buys low and sells high. Formed only 15 years ago, it's now worth around $3.5 billion and manages $12 billion in investments. The Carlyle Group has a long payroll of former politicians and financial figures, including George Bush Sr and his Secretary of State James Baker, former US Defence Secretary Frank Carlucci, one-time World Bank treasurer Afsaneh Masheyeki and, fresh from his triumph of reorganising Britain's railways, our own John Major. It is a majority shareholder in United Defence Industries, a major contractor to the US army. The increase in military spending has benefited United Defence. A sudden switch in policy has rescued the programme of its $665 million Crusader field artillery system.

One of the other beneficiaries of the well funded 'war on terrorism' has been the Bin Laden family, whose errant relative, Osama, has been such a thorn in the side of the US. The 'Wall Street Journal' revealed that last year they held $2.2 million worth of shares in the Carlyle Group, and that John Major and Frank Carlucci had paid visits to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, where the headquarters of the Bin Laden firm is based. After the newspaper's revelations it was reported that the Bin Ladens had hurriedly sold their shares. It's a fair bet that they made a nice little profit, as defence stocks have risen sharply. They say they disapprove of Osama, but thanks partly to his activities and the belligerent response of the US their investment was well placed.

Saudi Arabia, the home of the Bin Ladens, is the achilles' heel of US foreign and defence policy. With 25 percent of the world's oil production, it has been its crucial ally in the Middle East. Its human rights abuses have been ignored, and potential terrorists of Saudi origin operating in the US have been left untouched by the security agencies. The US government fears, rightly, that arrests of Saudi citizens, particularly those with strong Islamic connections, would spark more unrest in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi royals, who are clinging on to power, are much more unpopular than they were ten years ago and Islamic religious leaders are preaching openly that US troops should leave their country.

After the backslapping and flag waving over the military victories in Afghanistan have been forgotten, the US will have to confront a much more difficult and important issue--how to deal with a popular revolt that threatens to overthrow a feudal monarchy that has supplied them with underpriced oil for the past 60 years. Perhaps the Bin Ladens could give them some advice.