How Not To Be Corrupt, American-Style

Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com

Here's an oddity: Americans recognize corruption as an endemic problem in much of the world, just not in our own. And that's strange. After all, to take but one example, America's twenty-first-century war zones have been notorious quagmires of corruption on a scale that should boggle the imagination. In 2011, a final report from the congressionally mandated Commission on Wartime Contracting estimated that somewhere between $31 billion and $60 billion U.S. taxpayer dollars were lost to fraud and waste in the American "reconstruction" of Iraq and Afghanistan (which undoubtedly will, in the end, prove an underestimate). U.S. taxpayer dollars were spent to build roads to nowhere; a gas station in the middle of nowhere; teacher-training centers and other structures that were never finished (but made oodles of money for lucky contractors); a chicken-plucking factory that never plucked a chicken (but plucked American taxpayers); and a lavish $25 million headquarters that no one ever needed or bothered to use. Thanks to tens of billions of U.S. dollars, whole security forces were funded, trained, armed, and filled with "ghost" soldiers and police (while local commanders and other officials lined their pockets with completely unspectral "salaries"). And so it went.

Of course, all that took place in another galaxy far, far away where corruption is the norm. In the U.S.A. itself, corruption is considered un-American (though don't tell that to the denizens of Ferguson, Missouri). This is, of course, largely a matter of definition, as Thomas Frank made vividly clear at TomDispatch recently when he laid out the scope of the "influence" industry in Washington. You know, the hordes of lobbyists who live the good life and offer tastes of it to government officials they would like to influence -- none of which is "corrupt." It's completely legit, a thoroughly congenial way of operating among Washington's power brokers.

In its 2010 Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court offered its own redefinition of corruption in America, ensuring that dollars by the barrelful could be piped directly into the political system with remarkable ease to influence (not to say buy) politicians and elections. Only the other day, it spoke up again with a unanimous decision in favor of corruption as a perfectly acceptable way of life. It overturned the conviction of Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell for "using his office to help Jonnie R. Williams Sr., who had provided the McDonnells with luxury products, loans, and vacations worth more than $175,000 when Mr. McDonnell was governor." (Lest I seem too gloomy on the subject, let me mention one small sign of something different. Anti-corruption scholar and activist Zephyr Teachout just won the Democratic nomination for a congressional seat in New York State. Will wonders never cease?)

That American knack for banishing corruption from our lives without banishing the activities that normally go with it came to mind again today because TomDispatch's managing editor, Nick Turse, has a look at a former general who successfully navigated America's war zones of corruption, and whose post-official life could -- depending on your viewpoint -- be seen as pure as the driven snow, or as corrupt as can be imagined. You choose.