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Cow Most Sacred: Why Military Spending Remains Untouchable
Posted on Jan 27, 2011
By Andrew Bacevich, TomDispatch
This article was originally published by TomDispatch. Click here to read Tom Engelhardt's introduction.
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The Pentagon presently spends more in constant dollars than it did at any time during the Cold War—this despite the absence of anything remotely approximating what national security experts like to call a “peer competitor.” Evil Empire? It exists only in the fevered imaginations of those who quiver at the prospect of China adding a rust-bucket Russian aircraft carrier to its fleet or who take seriously the ravings of radical Islamists promising from deep inside their caves to unite the Umma in a new caliphate.
What are Americans getting for their money? Sadly, not much. Despite extraordinary expenditures (not to mention exertions and sacrifices by U.S. forces), the return on investment is, to be generous, unimpressive. The chief lesson to emerge from the battlefields of the post-9/11 era is this: the Pentagon possesses next to no ability to translate “military supremacy” into meaningful victory.
Washington knows how to start wars and how to prolong them, but is clueless when it comes to ending them. Iraq, the latest addition to the roster of America’s forgotten wars, stands as exhibit A. Each bomb that blows up in Baghdad or some other Iraqi city, splattering blood all over the streets, testifies to the manifest absurdity of judging “the surge” as the epic feat of arms celebrated by the Petraeus lobby.
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Add to that the mountain of evidence showing that Pentagon, Inc. is a miserably managed enterprise: hide-bound, bloated, slow-moving and prone to wasting resources on a prodigious scale—nowhere more so than in weapons procurement and the outsourcing of previously military functions to “contractors.” When it comes to national security, effectiveness (what works) should rightly take precedence over efficiency (at what cost?) as the overriding measure of merit. Yet beyond a certain level, inefficiency undermines effectiveness, with the Pentagon stubbornly and habitually exceeding that level. By comparison, Detroit’s much-maligned Big Three offer models of well-run enterprises.
All of this takes place against the backdrop of mounting problems at home: stubbornly high unemployment, trillion-dollar federal deficits, massive and mounting debt, and domestic needs like education, infrastructure and employment crying out for attention.
Yet the defense budget—a misnomer since for Pentagon, Inc. defense per se figures as an afterthought—remains a sacred cow. Why is that?
The answer lies first in understanding the defenses arrayed around that cow to ensure that it remains untouched and untouchable. Exemplifying what the military likes to call a “defense in depth,” that protective shield consists of four distinct but mutually supporting layers.
Institutional Self-Interest: Victory in World War II produced not peace, but an atmosphere of permanent national security crisis. As never before in U.S. history, threats to the nation’s existence seemed omnipresent, an attitude first born in the late 1940s that still persists today. In Washington, fear—partly genuine, partly contrived—triggered a powerful response.
One result was the emergence of the national security state, an array of institutions that depended on (and therefore strove to perpetuate) this atmosphere of crisis to justify their existence, status, prerogatives and budgetary claims. In addition, a permanent arms industry arose, which soon became a major source of jobs and corporate profits. Politicians of both parties were quick to identify the advantages of aligning with this “military-industrial complex,” as President Eisenhower described it.
Allied with (and feeding off of) this vast apparatus that transformed tax dollars into appropriations, corporate profits, campaign contributions and votes was an intellectual axis of sorts government-supported laboratories, university research institutes, publications, think tanks and lobbying firms (many staffed by former or would-be senior officials)—devoted to identifying (or conjuring up) ostensible national security challenges and alarms, always assumed to be serious and getting worse, and then devising responses to them.
The upshot: Within Washington, the voices carrying weight in any national security “debate” all share a predisposition for sustaining very high levels of military spending for reasons having increasingly little to do with the well-being of the country.
Strategic Inertia: In a 1948 State Department document, diplomat George F. Kennan offered this observation: “We have about 50 percent of the world's wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population.” The challenge facing American policymakers, he continued, was “to devise a pattern of relationships that will permit us to maintain this disparity.” Here we have a description of American purposes that is far more candid than all of the rhetoric about promoting freedom and democracy, seeking world peace, or exercising global leadership.
The end of World War II found the United States in a spectacularly privileged position. Not for nothing do Americans remember the immediate postwar era as a Golden Age of middle-class prosperity. Policymakers since Kennan’s time have sought to preserve that globally privileged position. The effort has been a largely futile one.
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