The Military-Industrial Complex, Plus Congress

In his farewell address to the nation, Jan. 17, 1961, President Eisenhower warned of the military-industrial complex. At the time, the U.S. defense budget accounted for 47 percent of the world’s arms expenditures; today it is over 50 percent. Eisenhower advised:

“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, and even spiritual – is felt in every city, every statehouse, and every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. 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. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

The Constitution of the United States makes the president “the commander in chief of the Army and the Navy of the United States,” implying that he can order the troops to withdraw from a war or battleground. But can he? The power to command the troops is limited by the power of Congress to authorize funds for the military and by the actions of the members of the armed forces.

Generals and the officers of the military under them are trained to win battles and wars. Their purpose is to win. If they fail, they will not be promoted, and their military careers will be short. The military is unwilling and probably unable to provide an exit strategy for any significant conflict in which it is engaged. Losing is not an option.

The military, of course, likes to have access to the best, most modern equipment. The Air Force wants the fastest fighter planes, even if they are unsuitable for the types of combat in which the U.S. is engaged. In Afghanistan, for example, fast fighter planes are almost useless; slow, low-flying aircraft that can shoot at a building or a group of combatants would be more effective. The Air Force generals resist buying such planes. The Navy wants nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers even though, over the last several decades, they have had virtually no role to play in any American conflict.

Defense contractors want to build and sell expensive military equipment. To ensure that they will be funded, they subcontract the manufacturing of the equipment to as many states and congressional districts as possible. Representatives and senators, knowing that their constituents hold jobs producing that equipment, have strong incentives to keep the funds flowing for military hardware. Many, if not most, legislators, will naturally oppose reducing the size or reach of the military.

In the 1980s, the reluctance of Congress to allow reductions in military bases – no one wanted to eliminate a base within his/her district or state – led to the establishment of a commission to recommend which bases were to be closed; Congress agreed to accept or reject the commission’s report in total. Today eliminating military programs would be almost as difficult as was closing bases in the ’80s.

In addition, patriotism is a very powerful force. We all know the expression “My country, right or wrong.” Consequently, supporting our troops in foreign wars has become mandatory, especially for politicians. Even if we believe the war to be mistaken or just wrong, politicians, at least, must continue to support the military. Although the president may have the authority to direct the military, the “politically correct” stance is to follow their advice. According to Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars, CIA Director Leon Panetta asserted, “No Democratic president can go against military advice, especially if he asked for it.” The Woodward book also shows that, in 2009, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates were all strongly recommending additional troops for Afghanistan. As Panetta said, how could the president do anything but order more troops into that war?

If President Obama were to order the troops home, would Congress permit the withdrawal? It seems likely that they would try to enact a funding bill prohibiting any money being used to repatriate our troops from Afghanistan.

Many observers of U.S. foreign policy believe that our military is overextended around the world and that we would be better off withdrawing from our foreign bases. If the president were to order that all foreign military bases be closed and the troops be returned to U.S. soil, would Congress allow it? If troops were brought back, the size of the military would have to be significantly reduced. Although this would cut government spending and slash the deficit, it would cause consternation in the military. Many officers would have to be retired. Promotions would become difficult to secure. The companies that provide military hardware would find their markets severely curtailed.

If Congress were unwilling or more likely unable to prevent the closing of foreign bases, would the military simply salute and obey? I believe they would; but in the past and in other parts of the world, military leaders have refused to follow orders from civilian leaders. The Roman Republic lasted for hundreds of years until, eventually, a general, Julius Caesar, led his forces across the Rubicon, thereby creating the Roman Empire (run, of course, by the military). Unless we rein in our military-industrial complex, ultimately that may be our fate.

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Author: Thomas Gale Moore

Thomas Gale Moore is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in economics and has taught at the Carnegie Institution of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), Michigan State University, UCLA, and the Stanford Business School. He has written numerous peer-reviewed economic articles and several books.