Beware the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex

Beware the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex

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A half century ago next week, President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his famous farewell address. Coining a phrase destined to become part of the political lexicon, the man who led the U.S. to victory in World War II warned against the “unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”

Though Ike took over a year to craft the speech, it had little influence on his immediate successors. John F. Kennedy successfully campaigned for the presidency by accusing the previous administration of letting America fall behind the Soviet Union on ballistic missiles – the so-called missile gap. Spending on military hardware soared during his administration. Lyndon B. Johnson, his successor, led America into a hugely expensive land war in Asia that set in motion political, economic and fiscal consequences from which the nation never fully recovered.

Over the next 40 years, there were two somewhat successful efforts to rein in Pentagon spending. Both were launched, ironically enough, by Republican presidents. Even before the last U.S. personnel were airlifted off the rooftop of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, President Gerald Ford began a systematic reduction in the size of the U.S. military, a program executed by his chief of staff, Richard Cheney. And after the end of the Cold War, President George H.W. Bush began a gradual reduction in military spending that the Clinton administration continued throughout the 1990s.

At a forum yesterday at the New America Foundation commemorating the anniversary of Ike’s speech, a diverse group of military spending experts suggested that with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down and the government budget deeply in the red, the U.S. is once again at an inflection point.

The government this year will spend over $700 billion on national defense, they pointed out. That’s 56 percent of all discretionary spending, twice what it spent in 2001, and more in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars than at any time since the end of World War II. The U.S. spends more on defense than the rest of the world combined, according to Gordon Adams, a foreign policy professor at American University.

Both geopolitical and economic realities point to the need for major cuts in military spending. “U.S. military missions and the defense budget that supports them have grown without discipline over the past decade, largely as a consequence of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Adams argued in an article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, titled "A Leaner and Meaner Defense: How to Cut the Pentagon’s Budget While Improving Its Performance." “The U.S. government must make difficult choices about which defense missions to undertake, exercise restraint in defense planning and budgeting, and bring tough management practices to the Pentagon.”

Other experts on the panel included the Center for Strategic and International Studies’s David Berteau, who helped craft the $100 billion in defense cuts called for by President Obama’s fiscal commission. His group recommended sharp reductions in U.S. troop levels, including sharp cuts at expensive billets in Europe and Asia, and the elimination or slowdown in several major weapons programs, which, along with Pentagon overhead, are the major drivers of defense spending.

Cutting defense spending is a political minefield, Berteau said. He pointed out that every major weapons program and every major military base has forceful advocates on Capitol Hill – the House and Senate members whose districts would lose jobs and income when specific programs or bases are cut. The late Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts or Chris Dodd of Connecticut, both considered liberal, could be among the most vociferous backers of defense projects that created jobs in their states. “What we really have is a military-industrial-congressional complex – an iron triangle,” he said.

Federal spending on defense is the closest thing the U.S. has to a Works Progress Administration (the New Deal make-work program), added Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, which monitors government programs for waste. The nearly $400 billion the Pentagon spends each year on contractors (think Lockheed Martin, Martin Marietta, Raytheon, she said) translates into jobs and tax revenue that districts and states desperately need in this sluggish economy. “If this is really just about jobs and not about defense, why aren’t we having a national discussion about whether this is the most efficient or useful way to create jobs,” she said.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, speaking for the Obama administration last week, tried to get out in front of the parade. He called for $78 billion in cuts in the Pentagon’s budget over the next five years, mostly by cutting administrative overhead. He also called for cancelling a few problematic procurement projects, such as a new amphibious assault vehicle for the Marines that can skim across water for miles before converting to a land-based fighting vehicle. Pretty amazing stuff, but even Gates was hard pressed to imagine a military situation where such a vehicle would be necessary.

However, at the same time he called for recycling the savings into other military programs, and not using it to reduce the federal budget deficit.

That simply won’t do, said Adams, whose detailed proposal in Foreign Affairs called for slashing $788 billion from military budgets between 2012 and 2018. “The capacity of the U.S. military is stunning,” he said. “Should the cuts be implemented, the remaining U.S. military force would still be superior to any other in technology and capability.”

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spent 25 years as a foreign correspondent, economics writer and investigative business reporter for the Chicago Tribune and other publications. He is the author of the 2004 book, The $800 Million Pill: The Truth Behind the Cost of New Drugs.