President Barack Obama plans to keep as many as 50,000 troops
in Iraq for an indefinite period of time and send thousands more
to Afghanistan. These policies amply show the ongoing grip of Washington's
military establishment that "treats compromise as treason and
negotiation as appeasement," in the words of
And for all the hue and cry about the economic crisis, military spending
is surprisingly off limits to rational debate in Washington. The Pentagon
budget continues to lavish funds on almost every key congressional
district while also providing thousands of earmark opportunities for
legislators. This flow of money in turn generates a flow of money the
other way, as defense contractors direct campaign contributions back
The military-industrial complex is now vast, rich, and so embedded
in Washington that it is succeeding in converting the American republic
into a military empire. While military men are paid whether at war
or not, the complex requires a non-stop diet of threats. In other words,
it needs empire in a way that an army does not.
The Costs of Empire
"If the Iraq war has produced anything of value, it is to have
brought the term 'military industrial complex' back into focus for
an American public largely unaware of how and why their country is
led to war," writes Eugene Jarecki in his new book, The
American Way of War. Jareckiexplains just how difficult it is to combat this
Through "political engineering," for instance, the Pentagon
parcels out components to subcontractors in most states and key congressional
districts — the F-22 fighter aircraft has subcontractors in 44
states — ensuring widespread continuous political support. With "front
loading," defense contractors overpromise results, underestimate
costs, and profit from continuous, costly modifications. With systems
like missile defense that are already experiencing considerable cost
overruns, the industry has
begun production without proper testing.
involved is considerable.
With its dispersed base of support and a built-in mechanism for distributing
profits, the military-industrial complex is a tough nut to crack. Both
sides of the aisle are reluctant to challenge such a behemoth. Democrats
are afraid that curtailing military waste will leave them open to accusations
of being "soft on terrorism." Most Republicans, meanwhile,
are willing to subsidize the defense industry even as they oppose saving
the auto industry.
Still, there are ways to build a left-right alliance to tame the complex.
Both sides want a competent, effective military. The right is worried
about government waste and the threat of national bankruptcy. The left
has its traditional pacifism, habits of international cooperation,
and concerns that military spending will crowd out social welfare.
The right can benefit from the left's exposure of the military-industrial
complex. But the left needs credentialed conservatives to provide it
cover against charges of appeasement.
In practice, many on the left look at peace as "their" issue
and don't promote or link to antiwar conservatives. Remember, however,
the number of wars Democrats started and supported. And many conservatives
and Republicans, at least the libertarian ones, opposed the Iraq War
from the beginning, including Pat Buchanan, Ron Paul, Jude Wanniski,
Murray Rothbard, Arnaud de Borchgrave, Lew Rockwell, Paul Craig Roberts,
and the Cato Institute. Paul
Weyrich expressed opposition to the war.
Lew Rockwell once even made
a list of those opposed to starting wars.
Because the neoconservatives captured the deep-pocketed right-wing
foundations — Heritage, Bradley, Scaife, and Olin — many
antiwar conservatives feared openly questioning the war. Until the
advent of The American Conservative magazine in late 2002, antiwar
conservatives could scarcely even get published.
Today the pro-war religious right is far weaker than before, because
many old-time leaders — Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson — have
died or retired. Younger evangelicals now focus on social, personal,
and environmental issues. Rick Warren, for instance, doesn't talk about
With the pro-war right on the decline, the anti-war left and right
converging in their critiques, and the global economic crisis providing
a cost-cutting rationale, there has never been a better time to take
on the military-industrial complex. Here are 10 ways to begin.
A 10-Point Plan
1. Consistently hammer home the point that prosperity,
democracy, and freedom are incompatible with unending war and empire. Movies
of ancient Rome make it look rather fun. However, for most citizens
there or living
under the more modern British, Soviet or German empires, life was not
pleasant in the least. The left and the right should find common ground
in supporting a freedom agenda at home that emphasizes the Bill of
Rights and rolls back the Patriot Act.
2. Focus on dollars and cents. All Americans, whatever their political
beliefs, are worried about the economic crisis. They don't want to
see billions wasted on unnecessary weapons and wars that we don't need
to fight. Fielding combat soldiers costs unbelievable amounts of money.
3. Understand and inform the public about the
incredible cost of new weapons and Washington's inability to even
get them built. For instance,
it has taken 10 years to contract for an air tanker and 20 years for
the F-22. Even the Coast Guard ordered
ships that couldn't stay afloat.
An excellent source of information is the Defense
by the Center for Defense Information.
4. Work with the military. Most officers are dedicated, honest,
and loyal to America. They don't want losing, unending wars run by
incompetents and contaminated by corruption. Eugene Jarecki writes
of repeated invitations to lecture and show his documentary film, Why
We Fight, at West Point. At one showing with 800 young
future officers, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff
to General Colin Powell, introduced the film. Later a (daring)
cadet questioned, "How can
we feel just and good about being part of a system that seems so
5. Put bipartisan leaders front and center. Senator McCain
is much respected in the military and has been at the forefront of
waste and corruption in military procurement. He can provide
integrity and prestige to the reform campaign. This can be his legacy.
Both the right and the left should work with him.
6. Rebuild (and modernize) the State Department,
Agency for International Development, and United States Information
Agency. These have all been
gutted while billions are lavished on the Pentagon and CIA. Strengthening
these agencies would provide some intellectual counterweight to the
military-industrial complex, which is frequently the only voice heard
in foreign policy discussions.
7. Follow the money! Track and publicize war
money going to foundations, think tanks and journalists. The
warmongering neoconservatives received key funding from military
industries. These "national security" intellectuals
from top universities, credentialed with lifetimes in government
and academia, are the big promoters of war in press and on television
and are also major beneficiaries of war spending.
8. Explain to southern Republicans and others
why they should not despise or fear the outside world. Other nations have vital interests
too. An excellent primer is Fareed Zakaria's The Post American World.
It compares the costs and consequences of trying to rule the world
to the benefits of working and cooperating with other nations.
9. Focus on reforming Washington's corrupt system
of incumbent protection whereby 98% of sitting congressmen get re-elected. Gerrymandering contaminates
the whole system. It makes compromises and effective government very,
very difficult. It encourages the corruption of military earmarks.
10. Recognize that war is appealing entertainment
for most Americans. Sitting comfortably in front of a TV, watching
planes take off, missiles shooting up in the air, and tanks thundering
through the desert makes war seem like entertainment, like a football
game where one side "wins" and
then goes home. American TV rarely shows the devastation, much less
the decimated bodies, certainly never an American body. To strip
away this veneer of entertainment, we must emphasize that wars have
not made us safer and have instead brought us to national bankruptcy.
Most Americans today would agree that we have passed the critical point
where it costs more to maintain the empire than it produces in benefits.
This was equally a turning point for the Roman and British empires.
Most Americans would now welcome breaking the hold of the military
industrial complex and limiting its corruptive links to Congress.
Historian Niall Ferguson wrote several years ago that economic crisis
at home would soon become so onerous as to curtail America's military
ventures abroad. We are already well upon that road. In the battle
against the complex, the economic crisis makes our arguments more acceptable
and vital for saving the American republic. We need to create new political
alliances and implement new political strategies.
A version of this article appeared at Foreign
Policy in Focus and at Yahoo
Jon Basil Utley is associate publisher of The American Conservative.
He was a foreign correspondent in South America for the Journal of
Commerce and Knight Ridder newspapers and former associate editor of
The Times of the Americas. He is a writer and advisor for Antiwar.com and edits a blog, The Military Industrial Congressional Complex.
See a complete biographical sketch.
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