Fifty years ago, President Dwight D. Eisenhower in a speech during his final days in office warned of the dangers of what he described as the “military industrial complex”. Eisenhower feared that combining the nation’s military with a growing arms industry would be a recipe for disaster. He stated on January 17, 1961: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.”
Following WWII, during the emerging Cold War, the United States military grew immensely in size and power in parallel with an equally hefty arms industry. Eisenhower saw this as dangerous — as a threat to the stability of the American government. The financial burden of the coming arms race with the Soviet Union, the inevitable lobbying power of a permanent arms industry and the redirection of funds from other government agencies to the military made Eisenhower apprehensive.
Today, Eisenhower’s fears have become a reality. In 2010, the Defense Department had a budget of $700 billion, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States spends nearly six times more on its military than China does on theirs and almost as much as the entire rest of the world combined. With somewhere between 560 and 737 military bases abroad, America’s hegemonic power continues to thrive, but at what cost? Put in perspective, Obama’s health care bill is projected to cost $875 billion over ten years compared with the defense budget’s $700 billion over one year.
The military budget has become politically impossible to keep from expanding each and every year no matter what threats rise or fall. Neither party has been willing to cut military spending in spite of so many downsides and the mounting world resentment our empire engenders. Not surprisingly, significant percentages of Muslims have expressed anger and resentment over the number of US military bases in the Middle East. After the Gulf War, the US military’s considerable presence in Saudi Arabia was used by none other than Osama bin Laden as a justification for attacking the United States. If the objective of a military is to protect the homeland, this strategy was an enormous failure in this instance.
Today, our biggest threats appear to be Iran and North Korea potentially acquiring nuclear arms. This issue is currently being addressed not militarily, but diplomatically, as possible military solutions to counter these threats could expose the United States to even greater dangers. Note that the State Department’s 2010 budget was about $16 billion — a tiny fraction of the budget for the Pentagon. Yes, strong diplomacy oftentimes requires a strong military to back it up, but the disparity in resources is astounding.
Currently, there are six major weapons producers from which the United States military purchases most of its arms. During the Clinton years, many arms dealers in the United States were forced to merge in an effort to cut overhead costs that the United States government was unwilling to subsidize. The assumption then was that the US military would not be able to continue growing, at least at its then current rate, so weapons manufacturers would have to cut costs in order to stay competitive. This has not turned out to be the case. Back then, defense spending was around $300 billion. After 9/11 and in the ensuing Bush years and Obama’s first term, that number has more than doubled to $700 billion a year. Today the big six are Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, Raytheon, and United Technologies. In 2009, Lockheed Martin alone received $38 billion in US government contracts.
The Pentagon is the only client for most of the weapons manufactured by these companies and this creates fierce competition for influence in Washington by their lobbyists. On the flip side, the Defense Department realizes it needs these six companies to remain not just afloat, but profitable, in order to sustain its own growth. In other words, the biggest weapons manufacturers have become “too big to fail” from the point of view of the Pentagon.
As the only customer for these weapons manufacturers, the Pentagon has a monopolistic sway regarding how each company should run their enterprises if it chooses to use this power. The co-dependence, though providing the Pentagon with this advantage over its suppliers, comes with a huge price for the federal government and a responsibility to purchase a consistent supply of arms no matter what America’s military involvement around the world may be any given year.
Such a huge bureaucracy aligned with huge corporations makes any changes to this structure problematic. Even reducing the defense budget to what it was during the Clinton years would require Congress to do what most believe is politically impossible. Appearing weak on defense policy (and appearances are all that political adversaries require) while troops are still in combat, and cutting jobs from their constituents in military-focused communities, would surely be a swift and effective way to lose the next election, for most members of Congress.
There are, though, a number of potentially fruitful steps we might take in order to begin reducing the size of the defense budget. For example, keeping a permanent base of 50,000 troops in Germany, an ally, seems excessive, not to mention the thousands more stationed in Japan for over 60 years. Are these really necessary? What is the justification? Granted, both these former adversaries agreed to a large extent to disarm their militaries following WWII and may require some protection from allies, but does the United States really need to station such large contingents of military personnel in peaceful countries that arguably, are no threat what-so-ever?
If members of Congress were to spell out exactly what they are cutting and why, the American public might be more likely to support the cuts. Unfortunately, people typically hear only dollar amounts, usually accompanied by outrage-inducing propaganda from contractor lobbyists and hawkish Republicans, so ultimately, public opinion ends up protecting inflated budgets. Publicizing the particular cuts, showing specifics and clarifying that troops on the ground in war zones would not be getting any less support, might be effective, but would require courage on the part of those in congress who recognize the problem. The hard underlying truth is that we simply cannot sustain forever-increasing defense budgets and an overreaching global military presence in peaceful allied states.
A good first step might be to admit the follies of Afghanistan and Iraq and a dozen other wars, and learn from our mistakes—something we’ve had a hard time doing. We’ve had a major military presence in Afghanistan since October of 2001 and have arguably done more harm than good since invading the country almost ten years ago. In 2003, we invaded Iraq. Eight years into the war, the country is still experiencing bloodshed on a regular basis. The citizens of both nations fear the vast corruption within their newly adapted political systems. America’s standing in the Middle East has never been more negative, and the rage provoked following the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, have left the United States the target of retaliatory attacks and a burgeoning anti-American ideology.
These wars have shown that the traditional forms of national defense do not play out well in this 21st century world. Non-state actors are on the rise, gaining followers and more advanced means of attack. Going after nations who harbor these terrorist organizations may not be the most constructive route to keeping the United States safe. As they become more creative in their means of attack, the US will have to become ever more creative in its means to protect its citizens from such attacks, and that means more expense and less freedom of movement here.
The hundreds of US military bases scattered around the world, make America, if not a de facto empire, at the very least, appear to be an empire, and an empire looking to expand its reach as far as it is able. A nation with such a global reach will necessarily be regarded by the rest of the world as lacking peaceful intentions, so it is inevitable that the US will continue to be viewed as imperialistic. This is why we must attempt reductions. Until this occurs, it should come as no surprise that people around the world will continue to see the US as a threat to their own well-being.
Just as Eisenhower warned, we Americans should not feel comfortable with a military-industrial complex continuing to gain power and influence. The opportunity costs of sustaining such a large military are enormous. Huge military budgets have led to the emergence of very powerful interest groups in Washington, with very close ties to the Defense Department. A glaring example is that of Halliburton’s multi-billion dollar contracts in the Iraq War. Then-Vice-President Dick Cheney was chairman and CEO of Halliburton immediately prior to his job as Vice President. Quickly, after the war began, Halliburton was awarded a $7 billion no-bid contract to aid in Iraq.
This is exactly the type of backdoor dealing Eisenhower warned us about. We need a national discussion on the future of our role in the global community and the role of US military prowess. If we can’t undo the power of the military and contractor lobbies, we will ultimately bankrupt America. The status quo is simply not sustainable.
Brian Kennedy is a freelance writer based out of Oakland, CA.