In February, as Likudnik-optioned Senators were mobilized to derail Chuck Hagel’s appointment as Secretary of Defense, I lamented in a blog post how the hearings ignored the Pentagon’s corrupt accounting and alliance systems. A month later, after Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was ordained as Pope Francis, I was similarly dismissive of his ability to save a Catholic Church staggering under the burden of murky finances, misogyny, homophobia, and industrialized buggery.
Since then, the career trajectories of the two men have diverged dramatically. Francis - who this week was named Time magazine’s Man of the Year - is gamely trying to shunt the Vatican into the post-Inquisition age. Hagel meanwhile, has not only failed to prepare the Pentagon for its reduced stature in the emerging multipolar world, he is leading it by the nose into another generation of endless conflict.
It may seem odd to compare the Catholic Church with the U.S. Department of Defense. (Unless you’re from the Philippines, which had the misfortune of being run by both for all but a fraction of the last half-millennium.) In fact, the two institutions have much in common. They are equally masculine and hierarchical, with a host of tribes and secret societies who duel furtively for power. Both presume divinely inspired missions to evangelize - one for souls, the other for basing rights. Their respective charters rest on the conceit that men are intrinsically sinful, if not evil outright, and on occasion must be destroyed.
Finally, both the Pentagon and the Holy See are hidebound and impervious to change - or so it seemed until recently. This week, the Financial Times published a superb investigative piece into the Institute of Religious Works, the Vatican’s bank, which for its shady deals had become a €5 billion, ecclesiastical slush fund. Prosecutors allege that the bank was used “to move money for businessmen based in the Naples region, widely regarded in Italy as a haven of organized crime.” It imposed “surprisingly few checks and balances on cash flow,” skimped on documentation, and its staff, a mere 112 people, with cardinals acting as supervisors, “seemed unversed in customer due diligence.
The story documents how regulators effectively shamed banks like Deutsche Bank and JPMorgan into withdrawing as the Vatican’s partner for overseas transactions. The biggest asset in the investigation, however, was the pontiff himself. In speeches, Pope Francis publicly condemned the “idolatry of money” and tax evasion while quietly issuing papal decrees that helped speed inspections and enabled reform within the clergy’s senior ranks.
For centuries church elites have employed endless deliberation to obstruct reform efforts both from within and without. Yet here is the outsider Francis, an Argentine ascetic, exposing one of the Vatican’s most sinister fiefdoms in less than a year of his papacy. And he hasn’t stopped there. Last week he launched a task force, comprised of both lay and clerical members, to investigate the rape and intimidation of children by priests and to recommend reforms for preventing further abuse. Though he has yet to challenge the Medieval orthodoxies that estrange gays, women and divorced persons from church rituals, he has signaled rhetorically that he may one day do battle on their behalf.
If only Chuck Hagel, the primate of America’s national security priesthood, was so dauntless. His first year as Secretary of Defense reveals an embrace of the status quo that is as disappointing as it is unsustainable. Last month, the Reuters news agency revealed a slag heap of fraud so vast it reduces the Vatican bank into a back-ally shell game. Each year the Department of Defense submits its expenditures to a team of independent accountants and each year its inspector-general issues a report that cites numerous “material weaknesses” - i.e. unsupported outlays - in the value of hundreds of billions of dollars. Among Washington’s many extra-terrestrial outrages, this is perhaps the most egregious.
“The Pentagon,” according to the Reuters investigation, “is largely incapable of keeping track of its vast stores of weapons, ammunition and other supplies; thus it continues to spend money on new supplies it doesn’t need and on storing others long out of date. It has amassed a backlog of more than half a trillion dollars in unaudited contracts with outside vendors; how much of that money paid for actual goods and services delivered isn’t known. And it repeatedly falls prey to fraud and theft that can go undiscovered for years.”
Since 1996, all federal agencies have been legally obliged to annually audit their accounts. The Defense Department, by the sheer weight of its size and dysfunction, has been relieved of this obligation. That means, as the Reuters report points out, that the $8.5 trillion in Pentagon budget outlays allocated over the last seventeen years - an amount that exceeds the value of China’s economic output last year - has never been accounted for. (Remember that the next time senior Pentagon officials charge, as they so often do, that China’s military spending is inadequately transparent.)
Hagel, a Vietnam veteran and former U.S. Senator, declined to be interviewed for the Reuters story, a tacit admission that he has no plans to address the Pentagon’s corrupt accounting regime. He has, however, found time to reaffirm Washington’s commitment to defend Japanese territory, including a chain of islets it ceded to Tokyo in 1971 despite counterclaims by Beijing on the same nano-archipelago. In doing so, he has done as much as anyone to hasten a Sino-American war. (As I write this, wire agencies are reporting that U.S. and Chinese warships have narrowly avoided collision in the disputed area.)
While touring the Middle East last week, Hagel delivered a similarly hawkish message. Speaking at a security forum in Bahrain, he assured an assembly of despots, strongmen, and unelected emirs of an “enduring” American commitment to their defense. As proof, he cited forward deployments of U.S. troops armed with the world’s deadliest weaponry, as well as a $580 million investment to expand the Fifth Fleet’s headquarter in Bahrain and a new combined air operations center in Qatar.
Separately, veteran Washington Post correspondent Walter Pincus reported that Hagel’s Pentagon is building huge depots in the Arab world and Israel to warehouse weaponry and equipment at an estimated cost of up to $110 million. The largest depots are in Israel, he writes, where some $1.2 billion in surplus U.S. military equipment and weaponry are stored for use by the United States or Israel. Presumably, these stockpiles have accumulated for an anticipated war with Iran.
There are good reasons why the Pentagon’s scandalously opaque accounts defy reform. Global hegemony is expensive - so much so that if its true costs were revealed Americans would insist on its dissolution. Therein lies the difference between Pope Francis, who apparently toils for the sake of his congregation, and Hagel, who labors for empire.