Barack Obama’s crippling inheritance as President of the United States is the near-five-decade failure of the nation’s political leadership to heed President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s warning that “in the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”
This complex, according to Tom Barry of the Center for International Policy, has now “morphed into a new type of public-private partnership — one that spans military, intelligence, and homeland-security contracting — that amounts to a ‘national security complex’.”
Over the past three decades, despite the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War, U.S. presidents have done next to nothing to challenge or limit the national security complex, which continues to drain the federal treasury and block any potential political threat to the military-industrial status quo.
Through this period, reaching from Ronald Reagan to Obama, military spending has continued to increase, with the United States outspending the entire rest of the world on weapons systems.
The $708 billion defense budget for 2011 is higher than at any point in America’s post-World War II history. It is 16 percent higher than the 1952 Korean War budget peak and 36 percent higher than the 1968 Vietnam War budget peak in constant dollars.
Yet some Pentagon leaders see this spending level as restraint. Defense Secretary Robert Gates argues that the budget plan “rebalances” spending by emphasizing near-term challenges of counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism, and stabilization operations.
But the current budget plan makes no effort at prioritizing these near-term commitments against funding for long-term commitments. Instead, it increases funding for both near-term and long-term programs. Despite complaints from deficit hawks, the military-industrial hawks still rule the roost.
Overall procurement spending will rise by nearly 8 percent in the 2011 budget, covering virtually all of the equipment the services wanted. Historically, the costs to operate and maintain the U.S. military tend to grow at about 2.5 percent. Not this year. The basic defense budget request seeks more than $200 billion, or an 8.5 percent increase, in funding for Operations and Maintenance.
Over the past three decades, the military tool also has become the leading instrument of American statecraft. The defense budget is 13 times larger than all U.S. civilian foreign policy budgets combined, and the Defense Department’s share of U.S. security assistance has grown from 6 percent in 2002 to more than 50 percent in 2009, when Obama was inaugurated.
There are more members of the military in marching bands than there are Foreign Service Officers, and the Defense Department spends more on fuel ($16 billion) than the State Department spends on operating costs ($13 billion). More than half of U.S. discretionary spending is in the defense budget, and war spending only accounts for half of the increase in defense spending since 1998.
All at Fault
All U.S. presidents since 1981 have contributed to the militarization of national security policy.
President Ronald Reagan was responsible for unprecedented peacetime increases in defense spending even though the Soviet Union was in decline; he also endorsed the Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986 that enhanced the political role of the regional commanders-in-chief (CINCs) and marginalized the State Department.
President George H.W. Bush’s deployment of 26,000 troops (Operation Just Cause) to Panama only one month after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, indicated that the use of force would play a greater role in the new international environment, which Bush dubbed “the new world order.”
President Bill Clinton weakened the role of the State Department in implementing foreign policy, when he abolished the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and the United States Information Agency and substantially reduced funding for the Agency for International Development.
Clinton became the first president in three decades to fail to stand up to the Pentagon on arms control, when he was unwilling to challenge the military’s opposition to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
President George W. Bush ushered in the doctrine of preemptive war in Iraq and, by declaring a counterproductive “war on terror,” assured that the Pentagon would be the leading policy agency in combating terrorism around the world. Bush’s policies of unilateralism, proclaimed at West Point in 2002, marked a radical revolution in American foreign policy.
President Bush ineffectually relied on saber-rattling against the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea. While doing so, he abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the cornerstone of deterrence since 1972, and funded a national missile defense system that is not workable but remains the largest line item for a weapons system in the current defense budget.
The Bush administration was also responsible for militarizing (and further politicizing) the intelligence community, which reached its nadir in 2002 when the CIA prepared a phony National Intelligence Estimate to justify the war against Iraq.
The attacks on 9/11 and the declaration of “the war on terror” brought a new dimension to the national security state: the formation of largely unaccountable security contractors, such as Blackwater, without any code of conduct, and various consulting agencies that act as intermediaries between the federal government and the defense contractors.
The illegalities of Blackwater (now called Xe) are well known and, thanks to Tom Barry, we have a better understanding of the consulting agencies managed by former high-level officials of the Bush administration, including Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, national security adviser Stephen Hadley, directors of homeland security Michael Chertoff and Tom Ridge, and CIA director Michael Hayden.
Nearly a quarter of the federal budget is devoted to contracts to the private sector, with the new Department of Homeland Security and Office of National Intelligence serving as conduits for this money.
Private contracts are now responsible for 70 percent of the intelligence budget, and private contractors represent more than half of the employees of the new National Counterterrorism Center. The trumpeting of “cyber war” marks the next cash cow for the defense industry.
In addition to unprecedented military spending, the Pentagon has gained increased leverage over the $70 billion intelligence community as well as increased influence over the national security and foreign policies of the United States.
With the State Department and the CIA in decline, the Pentagon’s role in intelligence, nation building, and Third World assistance grows significantly. Congressional armed services committees have become sounding boards for the Pentagon, and the increased absence of military experience on the part of congressional representatives contributes to less oversight.
Recent presidents also have retreated from the principle of meaningful civilian control over military policy. George W. Bush, for instance, identified the chief lesson from the Vietnam War as the need to avoid interference from politicians in Washington with the military commanders on the ground.
As for Obama, while deliberating whether to escalate the war in Afghanistan, he allowed himself to be blindsided by the self-serving leak of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s recommendation for more troops, a policy also pushed by Gen. David Petraeus and one that Obama ultimately bowed to.
President Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex and the need for commanders-in-chief who actually understood – and knew how to resist – the Pentagon’s clarion calls have never been more germane.
In addition to inheriting two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama inherited the so-called war on terror, particularly the psychology of that war, which promised a never-ending struggle against faceless Muslim insurgents and Islamic fundamentalists around the world.
This psychology has led to a decade of wireless wiretapping, the abrogation of habeas corpus, torture and abuse, and an atmosphere of fear and anxiety, which have combined to make us less secure.
With a justice system that defers to the national security state, a compliant Congress all but dysfunctional, and a corporate media abandoning its watchdog role, there has been little consistent criticism of the illegal excesses of the national security state.
In the wake of 9/11, Bush brandished a belief in the necessity of American hegemony and turned increasingly to the Pentagon to enforce this global “full-spectrum dominance.”
By the time of Obama’s election in 2008, the United States was alienated from much of the world – and the new President faced a difficult choice: either chart a dramatically new (and surely harrowing) course or accept a subservient place within the entrenched military-industrial complex.
Note: This is Part II of a series by former CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman addressing the presidency and the Pentagon.
Part I examined what President Dwight Eisenhower knew about the military as a retired five-star general and what he tried to impart to his successors. Part III will deal with President Obama’s mishandling of the military-industrial complex’s power and what he should do.
Melvin A. Goodman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor of government at Johns Hopkins University, spent 42 years with the CIA, the National War College, and the U.S. Army. His latest book is Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA.