Brief: The so-called ‘military-industrial complex’ ushered in by the passing of the 1947 National Security Act is a luxury America and the world can no longer afford. The unprecedented threat posed by the over-privileged belligerents infecting U.S. military doctrine with their unbridled hegemonic ambition is redolent of that of the British Empire in the years leading up to the Great War in 1914. With Donald Trump advocating massive upgrades of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and full-spectrum dominance likely to remain integral to American foreign and national security policy making, along with musing on how we arrived at this point, we ponder the here and now, and an unthinkable, yet, still avoidable future.
From Truman to Trump (Extra War, Hold the Peace)
Of all the major actions taken by presidents since 1945, it is surely President Harry Truman‘s decision to sign off on the 1947 National Security Act (NSA)—thereby ‘birthing’ the National Security State, the so-called ‘military-industrial complex’ (MIC)—that has triggered the most unremitting, far-reaching and profound blowback for America, its allies and the rest of the world.
Few would argue that in order to expand, justify and perpetuate its monolithic existence, there’s much to show for the investment of blood and treasure the “complex” has exacted. This to say little of the propaganda, lies, corruption, debasement of the public good, and ‘divide, conquer ‘n rule’ abuse of power and privilege that have long sustained it, or the environmental, social, cultural and economic destruction, geopolitical instability, abject futility and all too human suffering, tragedy and farce that’s been its hallmark.
As an exemplar for the Law of Unintended Consequences hard at work, this decision doesn’t simply tick all the boxes; seventy years later, the ‘gift’ just keeps on giving. The inescapable reality from this is that there are some extraordinarily powerful folks the like of which insist to this day this is the way it should be, with some doubtless seeing it very much how it was always meant to be. President Barack Obama’s tenure was ample evidence of this prevailing, depressing reality. They will resist by any and all means open to them, attempts by anyone to question or challenge the status quo, much less any serious efforts to reverse its course. Which is to say, no one should expect any divestment by the U.S. in the machinery of war after January 20.
Notwithstanding what president-elect Donald Trump said on the campaign trail about scaling back America’s commitment to foreign wars, defusing the tensions between Moscow and Washington, developing better relations with key international partners, and curbing the ‘coups and colour revolutions’ crowd, there is much to be concerned at how foreign and national security policy and military doctrine will play out under his administration. Regardless of what Trump does or says, such is the collective psychopathology of the Great American War Machine, it retains a relentless momentum all of its own that will move forward inexorably with or without his cooperation, and/or he and/or any of his team even knowing about it. We might even say, with or without him at all!
For William Engdahl, there’s “no good side” to what we will experience under Trump, and he seems to take this view not necessarily because of who Trump is and what he might or might not do. Engdahl isn’t buying the feverish talk of elements of the national security state pulling out all stops to thwart his presidency or even prevent his inauguration. Even if he doesn’t know it himself, ‘Trump was put into office to prepare America for war’, albeit one he says Wall Street and the military industrial complex aren’t presently in a position to win.
For Engdahl then,
‘…[T]rump’s job will be to reposition the United States for them to reverse the trend to disintegration of American global hegemony, to, as the Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz Project for the New American Century (PNAC) put it in their September, 2000 report, “rebuild America’s defenses.”’
Finian Cunningham suggests Trump is being (White?) ‘house-trained’ as it were. His view is that the ruling elite is using ‘media orchestration and dirty tricks’ to ensure its desired election result prevails, which is ‘a hostile policy toward Russia, China and the rest of the world’, serving of course US corporate interests. After observing the ‘shift’ by some of Trump’s people toward a ‘more frosty stance’ on all things Russia, Iran and China (evident in secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson’s confirmation hearing testimony and that of his fellow nominee for defense James “Mad Dog” Mattis), Cunningham suggests a ‘coercive taming process’ is in play within the Beltway establishment, with, he notes unnervingly, ‘sinister implications for supposed US democracy’. He had this to say:
‘…[I]t’s a truism that US presidential winners are…determined by elite corporate power, the ‘Deep State’ military-intelligence apparatus, and their controlled news media conglomerates. In Trump’s case, the outcome appeared to be an exception…So now [Trump] is being ‘processed’ to produce the desired ‘result.’’
From Harry Truman to Donald Trump at least then, if not before, well might we say, [that] falling into line with the powers that be whilst preparing America for war has been part of the presidential job description. No sooner for example had Truman stopped one war with two very large bombs (the decision effectively having already been taken for him before he was sworn in), he then set in motion another war that went on for 45 years, the very one for which the national security state was ostensibly established to fight. The rest we might say is “history” except, as we’ll see it is not, with most presidents viewing their lasting legacy through the prism of warlike enterprise.
We’ll return to Trump later, but for useful context and perspective, we should revisit at this point some post World War Two—or more specifically, Cold War—history.
Where Have all the Wise Men Gone?
Throughout the Cold War, by any measure George Kennan was a towering figure in the geopolitical firmament, a crucial player in the realm of Cold War foreign policymaking. Of Kennan, historian Wilson Miscamble remarked that ‘[o]ne can only hope that present and future makers of foreign policy might share something of his integrity and intelligence’. To be sure given how U.S. policy has played out since Kennan’s heyday, it is difficult to think of too many folks who’ve measured up in this respect. This “integrity and intelligence” was evident when he appeared to question the myth/delusion of American exceptionalism, suggesting that, ‘[the] tendency to see ourselves as the center of political enlightenment and as teachers to a great part of the rest of the world strikes me as unthought-through, vainglorious and undesirable.’
Born in 1904 in Minnesota and educated at Princeton University, Kennan was a ‘Kremlinologist’ and Cold War intellectual and policy wonk, one of the so-called Wise Men of American statecraft of the era. He was the key architect of the ‘containment’ principle, the cornerstone of the rules of engagement by which America sought to manage (that is contain, but not directly confront) the purported Soviet menace.
Broadly defined, said “menace” was Communist-inspired, ‘full-spectrum domination’ of the Big Blue Ball, attended by the overthrow of capitalism and the purging of the bourgeoisie, represented by the much-reviled capitalist power elites. It was of course this much-touted existential Soviet threat that inspired and defined the Cold War itself; for almost five decades it informed international relations and shaped the geopolitical landscape. As indicted, under the aegis of the NSA it both justified and precipitated the establishment the ‘complex’.
For his part Kennan, who died in 2005 at the age of 101 (four years after 9/11), continued making his views on policy known to the Beltway Bedlamites throughout retirement, whether they were interested or not, which for the most part they weren’t. Notably, two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and four years before the implosion of the Soviet empire, in a foreword to Norman Cousins‘ classic 1987 tome The Pathology of Power, Kennan—presumably after having reflected much on how containment had played out since its inception and any implications this might have for America’s future national interest and security—had this to say:
‘Were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the American military-industrial establishment would have to go on, substantially unchanged, until some other adversary could be invented. Anything else would be an unacceptable shock to the American economy.’
Putting aside the unavoidable inference in his remarks the foundation for the Cold War—and the justification for the military-industrial complex ostensibly created to fight it—may have been premised on less than legitimate security concerns or noble ideals about freedom, democracy, habeus corpus and the pursuit of happiness, given the widely unforeseen nature of the event he imagined, it is tempting to assume he knew something few others did. However, this was not the case. At the same time, whilst Kennan by his own admission had a struggle coming to terms with his prior ‘what-if’ musing about this putative unipolar world, he lived long enough to see the Great American War Machine “go on…”, albeit in a much changed—and for the majority of Americans, unexpected—form.
As the U.S. entered this post Cold War era then—what Andrew Bacevich termed the Age of Great Expectations—most folks anticipated a ‘peace dividend’. But as history tells it, the much hyped and hoped for “peace dividend” revealed itself as a chimera, wishful thinking on the part of those people who’d breathed a sigh of belief at the disappearance of the Soviet threat. Of course we should recall here that most Americans and Russians amongst others expected a global “peace dividend” after 1945, which as history tells us it also failed to materialize.
True to Kennan’s ‘prophecy’ then, the Soviet Union had barely sunk, Titanic like, ‘under the waters of the [geopolitical] ocean’ when a group of folks in the U.S. began busying themselves inventing new adversaries, devising new threats and drafting commensurate doctrines to meet and challenge them so as to pre-empt the “unacceptable shock” Kennan hinted at. In fact for these people (we all know who they are), the biggest threat now facing America was that it faced no threat at all! Like their Cold War architect ‘ancestors’ back circa ‘45, talk of any “peace dividend” for these folks was anathema—nay, heresy—to their way of thinking about the world. For them, there really wasn’t any point in having this great military machine if “we” weren’t going to use it.
Throughout the nineties and in the lead-up to 9/11 and beyond then, it was this not-so-loose ‘confederacy of hegemons’ that would go on to profoundly alter the impetus and focus of American strategic policy, if not its broad direction and end game, which may have already been defined. Either way, they would do all this in ways and by means in which it’s difficult to see how Kennan and his ilk might’ve contemplated in their wisest imaginings, with or without a Soviet-style threat. That this recalibrated “impetus” in strategic policy still plays out today is a given, despite the disasters it has engendered, the enormous cost in blood, treasure, economic stability and geopolitical credibility, and most importantly, the genuinely existential risks posed by its unfettered continuance.
Indeed, these New American Centurions repudiated anything resembling what the ‘wise men’ would have considered prudent. For the latter, unilateralism and preemption weren’t part of their policy lexicon. In later years Kennan was sharply critical of such actions taken by both the Bill Clinton and George W Bush regimes. According to Miscamble, along with opposing policies for NATO expansion and [to] what he saw as the West’s ‘exploitation of Russian weakness’, he expressed considerable reservations about U.S. interventions in places like Bosnia, Somalia, and Kosovo, irrespective of their alleged ‘humanitarian purpose’. In his 98th year, a ‘still intellectually vigorous’ Kennan harshly criticized Bush’s national security doctrine, especially decrying the Iraq invasion.
It’s hard moreover to imagine he would’ve thought much of President Obama’s policies either, given what has taken place on his watch in Syria, Libya and the Ukraine, to name just three globally destabilizing, avoidable conflicts of note to which the incumbent effectively lent his presidential imprimatur. By way of considerable understatement, Miscamble noted of Kennan, [that] ‘….[his] long-expressed reservations regarding U.S. overextension and excessive reliance on military force proved remarkably consistent whatever the changed geopolitical circumstances of the new century.’
In a Fearful, Bunkered Nation (How did we get here?)
One suspects George Kennan might have also observed supreme irony in the way this post-Soviet reimagining and subsequent rearranging of the world order—in particular America’s consequent place and part in it—unfolded. For the duration of the Cold War, this was ostensibly the great fear he and his contemporaries had of the Soviet Union, which was that the USSR was positioning itself to do same. After all, was this not the basic premise of containment—to keep a lid on the gremlins in the Kremlin and curb their presumed gusto for Third World exploitation, saber-rattling destabilization, military one-upmanship, geopolitical mischief-making, proxy war mongering and global hegemony?
And though this fear of Soviet imperial ambition we can now say with reasonable certainty was never founded on much resembling a viable prospect for them or even a genuine objective, nonetheless it determined the course of geopolitics, spheres of influence, international relations, military affairs and history—along with the balance of world power, and we might add, the global financial system and world economic order—for almost half a century. We might also posit that the Soviets were themselves containing the Americans as much if not more so than the other way round.
As for the Machine itself, it’s significant that in his seminal 1956 book The Power Elite, Charles Wright Mills made much of the unholy alliances, connections, interactions and relationships between and across the economic, political, defense, industrial, legislative, intelligence, and academic hierarchies in the United States and the economics that have been it’s mainspring, what came to be called the “military-industrial complex”. Mills—who died in 1962—noted that since 1945, “….the US power elite has [become] increasingly immoral, irresponsible, ignorant, stupid (in not valuing reason)…..mindless in its quest for wealth and power.”
Fast-forward sixty years. Of all the discrete, seemingly disparate elements of the U.S. National Security State, it is with the military-industrial-security complex Mills’ observation really comes into its own. Along with reinforcing this observation, the following might serve to underscore what should be one of our principal concerns: The truly unsustainable and literally incalculable cost of keeping the machine in perpetual motion! In his introduction to the indispensable 2011 handbook The Pentagon Labyrinth, retired Defense Department veteran Chuck Spinney noted that even allowing for the cumulative effects of decades of inflation, twenty years after the Cold War’s end—and with that the disappearance of the singular existential threat upon which the whole national-security edifice had hitherto been constructed—the U.S. spends more on defense ‘than at any time since…World War II’.
If winning sundry wars and military conflicts, reducing the risk and prevalence of terrorism and other actual or perceived threats, and keeping the country and the world safe and secure are suitable measures by which to evaluate its overall effectiveness, then on such basic metrics alone the defense establishment’s performance leaves quite a lot to be desired. This is before any consideration of whether such profligacy is providing American citizens with bang for their taxpayer buck. The utter failure of the purportedly impregnable, gold-plated defense apparatus of the U.S.—still the most formidable military machine ever assembled in history—to preempt and prevent the 9/11 attacks is stark evidence of this.
We only need factor in just one of the many head-shaking realities that attend the Pentagon/DoD narrative: It cannot account for around six and a half trillion dollars of expenditure over the past two decades. From there concerns about ‘bang-for-buck’ might seem if not irrelevant for some, then a secondary consideration at best. For that matter, there’s something decidedly ‘other-worldly’ about any bureaucracy already blessed with unlimited budgets—black and white—that can lose track of such staggering amounts of money, defies, avoids or resists all attempts to undergo external audits like other agencies and departments are required to, and no-one is held accountable. And though it’s far from an insignificant ‘achievement’ (this ‘mother’ of all real-life ‘case studies’ is sure to provide forensic accounting gurus much to dine out on for some time), we’d have to say any organization that can lose track of this amount of money forfeits from the off any claim to being efficient, competent or effective, especially one that can point to few if any substantive successes in its core mission in recent memory.
(*Click link here to the graphic regarding military spending. Readers are encouraged to watch this short animation to help visualize what one trillion dollars looks like. It’s an eye-opening exercise, providing perspective to spare.)
Of course the ‘complex’ still keeps demanding—and getting—more, with Trump now pledging even further increases. Yet as Spinney notes, this gigantic defense budget is ‘not producing a greater sense of security for most Americans.’ For the highly respected former defense ‘lifer’ and many others of his ilk, the positive outcomes—quantitative and qualitative—from all this expenditure have been few and far between at best, and non-existent at worst. Who could argue that it has actually created the reality of greater instability and insecurity as well as the sense of it, in America and elsewhere? Further, Spinney observes that throughout this process,
‘…we have become a fearful nation, a bunkered nation, bogged down in never ending wars abroad accompanied by shrinking civil liberties at home. We now spend almost as much on defense as the rest of the world combined, yet the sinews of our supporting economy….are weakening at an alarming rate, threatening the existence of the high income, middle-class consumer society we built after World War II.’
Spinney rightly asks the following question: How did the American political establishment maneuver itself into such a self-destructive straitjacket? Although not an easy question to answer definitively, some reflection may assist us putting some of it in perspective. For that matter if our narrative simply keeps the discussion going as it were, then well and good. We might argue that the country’s future national security depends on it!
An Alert and Knowledgeable Citizenry (Going AWOL)
In January 1961, the outgoing president of the United States Dwight D (aka Ike) Eisenhower delivered his last address and most memorable public utterance. In his much-cited speech, Ike warned us of the dangers of the growing “military-industrial complex”. Now enough of the broad vocabulary and themes of his speech are well known, so there’s no need to expound on it too much.
Suffice to say, though Ike stopped short of acknowledging his own administration’s contribution to its emergence, he nonetheless admitted he’d become very concerned about the growing power of the bourgeoning but already Byzantine matrix of relationships between the US Military, Wall Street, Congress, and the private sector security and defense industry apparatus.
Yet well before Eisenhower uttered his immortal words, the train had left the station: The “unwarranted influence” and “misplaced power” he knowingly alluded to had already infiltrated and infected Washington’s collective psychopathology, and today this now 70 year old monster corrupts and corrodes virtually every nook and cranny of the U.S. body politic. And though it was the “military-industrial complex” bit that took up residence in most folk’s minds, we can now say the “alert and knowledgeable” bit he referred to, went decidedly AWOL.
Which is to say, unfortunately for those all too few folks fitting that ‘make’ whom Ike suggested was the only “bulwark” against the continued growth, power and influence of this monster within, most of their fellow citizenry remained completely oblivious to it all. They either fell asleep at the wheel or chose to ignore the already disturbing implications of its encroaching reach. Or those in whom they placed their faith and trust to prevent this from happening, such as their elected representatives and the political parties to which they belong, have betrayed them. Even for those savvy citizens who understood more clearly what was happening, Andrew Cockburn had this to say: [for anyone daring], ‘…..[T]o suggest that U.S. military organizations exist for the benefit of those who profit from them is considered unseemly…indicating a dangerous predilection for “conspiracy theories.”’
That the MIC throughout its evolution from 1945 onwards and up to its current incarnation then went on to become even more powerful than Ike could have ever dreamed possible, is a given of course. And as noted, it has become considerably more ‘immoral, irresponsible, ignorant, stupid, and mindless in its quest for wealth and power’ than Mills might have imagined. All of which is to say that the exponential growth of the MIC—especially so since the end of the Cold War and even more so since the events of 9/11—now exceeds anything previous generations might have imagined no matter how hard they tried. It should not be difficult to envisage the outcome from this continued mutation and metastasization and the implications for democracy and freedom (or whatever is actually left of either), and at this point we have more proof than we’ve ever had.
It hasn’t just endangered but taken the liberties and democratic freedoms—not to mention the lives—of American citizens, but as noted, those of many millions of others throughout the Western and Eastern Hemispheres. The ongoing events and developments taking place in the Ukraine and on Russia’s borders along with the continuing political standoff with Russia—to say nothing of the Syrian situation—are compelling, but by no means the only, evidence of the dangers that lie ahead.
We might also posit that it has incurred humanity’s greatest opportunity costs: In everything from security itself, to individual and collective freedom, economic prosperity, international relations, Western prestige and respect, financial stability, human rights, political effectiveness, social harmony and equality, technical and scientific cooperation, and many other areas or concerns that have been and remain vital to resolving some of the biggest issues all countries—indeed, we as an evolutionary viable species—face.
The Merits of Warlike Enterprise
And to the extent additional corroboration of impending dangers might be required, it is difficult to see how the 2015 National Military Strategy of the United States of America authored by the complex is not designed for any other purpose than to aggressively provoke a global military conflict involving two other nuclear powers, China and Russia. Quite apart from their singular status as useless, dangerous, and expensive, the starkly existential implications of their deployment would suggest there’s no better place for folks to become “alert and knowledgeable” than with nuclear weapons, and the prospect of a renewed nuclear arms race between the U.S. and Russia. Donald Trump’s talk about the U.S. upgrading its already formidable nuclear arsenal should not have come as a surprise, even if there was little indication during the campaign something like this would be on the agenda if he won.
To be sure, like most things Trump-related regardless of the issue, saying one thing and meaning another, shooting from the hip, and keeping the pundits guessing are just some of the tried and true tactics employed by the president-elect. Indeed, such foreign policy making on the fly is unprecedented, with little sign this is likely to change radically after 20 January. Given this uncertainty, it’s difficult to get a handle on what the real agenda is or might be in relation to this issue; it is even more difficult to ascertain just how the Russians might respond, and how this might play out should Trump seek a genuine rapprochement with the U.S.’s former Cold War nemesis.
It should be noted that outgoing president Barack Obama also had already flagged such an upgrade earlier, with spends of up to a trillion dollars being touted. Though it now sounds much like the presidential candidates’ equivalent of a Miss Universe contestant professing world peace to be her most fervent desire and that if crowned pageant winner she’d do everything to make it all happen, it almost certainly would’ve been Obama’s earnest declaration that if elected POTUS, he’d do everything he could to ‘rid the world of nukes’, which earned him his Nobel Peace Prize (NPP).
Indeed, here’s a president who at the beginning of his first term was all for deep-sixing nukes altogether and by the ‘fag-end’ of his second, was shilling a wholesale, trillion dollar plus upgrade. And there is to be sure incalculable irony in a president, who after accepting his NPP, becomes the very first ‘Oval Officer’ to serve two full terms with his nation at war on not one but several fronts, more than a few of which are of his own making. Along with many other unflattering assessments one might make of Obama’s performance as POTUS, this surely will become an ineradicable blot on his already considerably shop-soiled legacy.
When it comes down to it then, the hegemonic mindset that has propelled the Great American War Machine since Truman has frequently subverted, maliciously thwarted, blithely undermined and/or routinely destroyed said “liberties and democratic freedoms” along with the economic and social well-being of all concerned. With or without Trump, the next four years appear likely to bring us closer to answering that question than we have ever got to it before: that being, is it already too late? For his part Paul Craig Roberts recently pondered this question. His view is that the existential danger we all face is Washington’s assumption, based he says, on the West’s hegemony and historical rule, that it is “normal” for it to continue pursuing ‘full spectrum dominance’, despite knowing the enormous risks. However, he adds ominously, Russia and China ‘do not agree’, and that,
‘…either country is sufficient to stand up to [the U.S.], and together they overmatch Washington’s military capability. Due to the arrogance that resides in Washington, the would-be overlords of the world are not aware that Russia and China are not Iraq and Libya. If the moronic idiots that rule in Washington bring us into war with these powers, the United States will disappear from history along with the rest of the world.’
It is perhaps appropriate that the last word herein should go to Thorstein Veblen, the sadly under-appreciated Norwegian-American economist and social theorist, and noted (and occasionally pithy) critic of the excesses of capitalism and the free market. He was the man who at the time correctly presaged the consequences of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles (a sequel twenty years later), and interestingly, coined the phrase ‘conspicuous consumption’. Although in what follows Veblen was referring to the prevailing sentiment and mindset in Europe and in Britain that brought us the Great War of 1914-1918, he could quite easily have been talking about the Beltway Bedlamites in 2017.
‘Temperamentally erratic individuals…such as are schooled by special class traditions or predisposed by special class interest, will readily see the merits of warlike enterprise and keep alive the tradition of national animosity. Patriotism, piracy, and prerogative converge to a common issue. Where it happens that an individual gifted with an extravagant congenital basis of this character is at the same time exposed to circumstances favorable to the development of truculent megalomania and is placed in such a position of irresponsible authority and authentic prerogative as will lend countenance to his idiosyncrasies, his bent may easily gather vogue, become fashionable, and with persistence and shrewd management come so ubiquitously into habitual acceptance as…to throw the population at large into an enthusiastically bellicose frame of mind.’
With Veblen’s somewhat tortuous, yet pithily cogent, observations firmly in mind, might we suggest in concluding that it is in few other areas occupying real estate within the overarching U.S. body politic beyond the rarefied milieu of the U.S. national security state/military industrial complex, where ‘conspicuous consumption’, the ‘tradition of national animosity’, ‘truculent megalomania’, the ‘excesses of capitalism’, ‘irresponsible authority’, ‘patriotism, piracy and prerogative’, and the purported ‘merits of warlike enterprise’ intersect and fuse so seamlessly.
And so ominously!
Greg Maybury is an Australian based journalist and blogger, and partially rehabbed history teacher. His broad areas of exploration and analysis are the U.S. political economy, foreign affairs, social and economic history, international relations, national security, the media, and American society and culture in general.
His articles and essays have appeared on a diverse range of alternative and independent news sites here in Australia, the U.S. and elsewhere, including Consortium News, Russia Insider, Op Ed News, Contra Corner, International Policy Digest, and Gumshoe News.
Greg‘s major areas of interests embrace concerns about—and critiques of—both the neoliberal and neoconservative influence that prevails in social, economic, foreign, financial, military, trade, and national security policy formulation in the U.S., and how this policy framework impacts the American and Western body politic, along with the rest of the world.
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