America: Master Builder No More

Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com

I recently took a little trip into the past and deep into America's distant war zones to write a piece I called "It's a $cam." It was, for me, an eye-opening journey into those long-gone years of American "nation-building" and "reconstruction" in Afghanistan and Iraq. Mind you, I still remembered some of what had been reported at the time like the "urine-soaked" police academy built in Baghdad by an American private contractor with taxpayer dollars. But it was the cumulative effect of it all that now struck me -- one damning report after another that made it clear Washington was incapable of building or rebuilding anything whatsoever.

There were all those poorly constructed or unfinished military barracks, police stations, and outposts for the new national security forces the U.S. military was so eagerly "standing up" in both countries. There were the unfinished or miserably constructed schools, training centers, and "roads to nowhere." There were those local militaries and police forces whose ranks were heavily populated by "ghost soldiers." There was that shiny new U.S. military headquarters in Afghanistan that cost $25 million and no one wanted or would ever use. It was, in short, a litany of fiascoes and disasters that never seemed to end.

Financially, Washington had invested sums in both countries that far exceeded the Marshall Plan, which so successfully put Western Europe back on its feet after World War II. Yet Iraq and Afghanistan were left on their knees amid a carnival of corruption and misspent taxpayer money. What made revisiting this spectacle so stunning wasn't just the inability of the U.S. military, the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and a crew of crony warrior corporations raking in the big bucks to do anything right, but that this was the United States of America. It was the country I -- and I was hardly alone in this -- had grown up thinking of as the globe's master builder. In the 1950s and early 1960s, my childhood years, it seemed as if there was nothing Americans couldn't build successfully from an unparalleled highway system to rockets that were moonward bound.

Half a century later, it's clear that, at least in our war zones, there's nothing we've been capable of building right, no matter the dollars available. And that, as Rebecca Gordon suggests today in an eye-opening piece, "Home, Sweet Kleptocracy," is just the beginning of our new American reality.