Defining Country First

John McCain succeeded far beyond our expectations of the man. He hosted a rousing GOP Convention with the theme “Country First”. While Sarah Palin absolutely dominated the news coverage, John McCain’s message of selfless service did tug the heart strings during the last third of his acceptance speech.

“Country First” puts pressure on Senator McCain. It demands that he define that concept in the tangled, contradictory environment of modern government. Does it imply a mandate for economic nationalism? Does it issue a clarion call to optimize the value gained for the expenditure of tax payer dollars? Can these two imperatives be optimized in synonymy?

The contentious and long fight to build the US Air Force a new tanker fleet offers us an opportunity to compare and contrast conflicting definitions of putting country first. Since 2001, Boeing and Airbus have engaged in corporate conflict over who would build the tankers to refuel our Air Force’s combat aircraft. Choosing a side here, or even choosing not to take a side, makes an ideological statement. It puts the laser focus on how a leader’s political beliefs impacts the direction of American economic policy.

This impasse grows more urgent as time passes. The capability requirements attached to this Air Force procurement remained without slake since about a month after the attacks of 9/11. The longer this can gets kicked down the road, the longer our Air Force fights the GWOT with less than its full potential combat power.

Yet, the rush to get it out there works against the more vital imperative to get it right. Faster, better, cheaper will get two out of the three at best. Also, when the product gets built and designed abroad, its data rights can be disseminated far afield as well.

Thus, the decision of whose tanker to buy gets far more complicated than just getting a set of prototypes and proposals from each bidder and flying the two planes off. That is, unless it does not. There are three points of view here that could make a politician take a stand on this issue that will polarize the electorate and make a powerful philosophical statement as to what that candidate considers true patriotism.

Barack Obama would probably approach this question from an economic nationalist viewpoint. He would want the jobs, the data, and the lucrative stream of system support contracts all coming home to American workers and American corporations and institutes. Thus, even if he lays aside the fact that two of his partisan allies in the Senate are from Washington State, he flies Boeing on the tanker deal.

Defense Analyst, Loren Thompson, describes the direction in which Obama’s sense of loyalty will push his decision making.

“Obama is an economic nationalist,” Thompson. “For him, the tanker connects with much broader agenda items: the future of American industry, the trade balance, sending production offshore.

“Sen. Obama will look at where these two planes originate, where they are being built, and who is building them, and probably decide he prefers the Boeing tanker.”

If were only that simple, I could buck my own ticket and agree with Senator Obama. With unemployment at 6.1%, using Federally Funded industrial work to support domestic employment has short-term benefits that could make a positive difference for struggling people. And yet, going with Boeing over Airbus is not a one or zero decision.

John McCain will disagree with Barack Obama on this and not just because he’s a Republican and he’s supposed to. Two other points of view have impacted the man’s personal career. It leads him to define “Country First” in a way that is potentially, but not deliberately, inimical to the paradigm of economic nationalism.

John McCain flew combat aircraft, and without rehashing biography, I’ll suffice it say that he understands what happens to people who don’t make their connection for the return trip home. If he views this through the eyes of a former naval he wants the two companies to fight. Two proposals enter and one proposal, the best one for the aviator, leaves.

That may lead John McCain to not favor either side. His policy would vector towards an outcome where both sides had to duel before as impartial a Source Selection Evaluation Board as could be found. The Air Force would get the aircraft that met its capability requirements. Economic, diplomatic and political ramifications would not be deemed valid as decision criteria.

Yet John McCain may not define “America First” even that simply. Perhaps his belief in the moral apostasy of the 2006 GOP Congressional majorities extends beyond the realm of convention speech posturing. Boeing didn’t exactly deliver this proposal through the accepted channels. The Air Force deviated from Title X ever-so-subtly. The Congressional process by which Boeing was originally hired to do this work wasn’t the designed and accepted pathway through HASC, SASC, HAC and SAC.

Boeing’s initial efforts to get this contract involved smuggling it through 2001 budget legislation as an earmark. John McCain campaigns for earmark purity. If he really wants to thump his chest over how he picked the Veep that killed The Infamous Bridge to Speaker Pelosi, he can’t feel good about having the Air Force buy and field Earmark One to refuel its bomber fleets.

Boeing’s efforts were rebuffed and they thus reengineered their corruption. Enter the lovely and talented Darleen Druyun. Exit any sense of Civil Service with moral probity at all. As a DoD Civilian, I view Druyun as the Public Sector version of Ebbers, Bernie. The sordid details follow below.

In May 2003, the US Air Force announced it would lease 100 KC-767 tankers to replace the oldest 136 of its KC-135s. The 10 year lease would give the USAF the option to purchase the aircraft at the end of the contract. In September 2003, responding to critics who argued that the lease was vastly more expensive than an outright purchase, the DoD announced a revised lease. In November 2003, the Air Force decided it would lease 20 KC-767 aircraft and purchase 80 tankers.[1]

In December 2003, the Pentagon announced the project was to be frozen while an investigation of allegations of corruption by Druyun (who had moved to Boeing in January) was begun. Druyun pleaded guilty to inflating the price of the contract to favor her future employer and to passing information on the competing Airbus A330 MRTT bid (from EADS). In October 2004, she was sentenced to nine months in jail for corruption, fined $5,000, given three years of supervised release and 150 hours of community service. She was released from prison on September 30, 2005. The ramifications extended to Boeing CFO Michael M. Sears, who was fired from Boeing, and Boeing CEO Phil Condit resigned. On February 18, 2005, Sears was sentenced to four months in prison. Boeing ended up paying a $615 million fine for their involvement.[2] According to The Federal Times, Darleen Druyun will still be receiving a federal pension.

All of this could put John McCain in a position where he feels morally incapable of letting Boeing have that particular contract. It was Republican President Eisenhower who warned us that a military-industrial complex could arise that would corrupt that ideals of decent an ethical government. If the ideals of good and decent government get more corrupted than the attempted tanker leasing deal between the Air Force and Boeing, people would wind up dead and the taxpayer money would disappear to an anonymous bank in The Cayman Islands.

Does John McCain mean it when he campaigns to clean up DC? If so, does he tie his decision of whether Boeing gets a crack at this contract to his fidelity to the promise of fighting government corruption? At what point does the Air Force employ Boeing to enact its military strategy? Conversely, at what point does Boeing’s bottom line overdetermine the military acquisitions of the US Air Force?

The answers to these questions remain, like Senator McCain’s point of view on this issue, currently undetermined. There are at least three ways a US President could genuinely attempt to put “Country First” on the Boeing deal. All three could stem from a deep and abiding love of the country and its people. It’s the differences of opinion on things like this that keep casinos and political parties in business.