Left and Right Against the
Military-Industrial Complex

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 Fareed Zakaria.

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 to Washington.

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 nonstop 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. Jarecki explains just how difficult it is to combat this complex.

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. The waste 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 starting wars.

With the pro-war Right on the decline, the antiwar 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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 Monitor, published by the Center for Defense Information.
  1. 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 Gen. 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 corrupt?”
  1. Put bipartisan leaders front and center. Sen. McCain is much respected in the military and has been at the forefront of challenging 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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 print and on television and are also major beneficiaries of war spending.
  1. 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.
  1. Focus on reforming Washington’s corrupt system of incumbent protection whereby 98 percent of sitting congressmen get reelected. Gerrymandering contaminates the whole system. It makes compromises and effective government very, very difficult. It encourages the corruption of military earmarks.
  1. 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 corrupting 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.

Reprinted courtesy of Foreign Policy in Focus.

Author: Jon Basil Utley

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 adviser for Antiwar.com and edits a blog, The Military Industrial Congressional Complex.