The Military Escapes The Anti-Government Crusade
The Republicans' slash-and-burn assault on Medicare, Medicaid, and dozens of other governmental programs is generally seen as the first salvo in the Gingrich Revolution. The demands of this rebellion are simple: reduce taxes and public spending, balance the budget, and get the federal bureaucracy off our backs. Even as opinion surveys show that more than half of all Americans are opposed to such harsh cutbacks, the terms of political debate -- essentially over how and where to whittle away the public sector -- have been monopolized by right-wingers masquerading as libertarians and populists. Lost amidst the sound and fury of this "debate," however, is the fact that hundreds of billions of taxpayers' dollars are still being sucked up by that most voracious and gargantuan bureaucracy of all -- the Pentagon. For Democrats and Republicans alike, the military fortress remains off-limits. Unique among federal bureaucracies, the U.S. military complex has been immune to the probing scalpel of the anti-government crusaders. Though the Cold War is over and the U.S. faces no serious military threats, citizens are forking out $270 billion a year to help the Pentagon maintain its global domination -- all without any real national discussion. At a time when the country urgently needs resources for domestic rebuilding, we continue to support a military-industrial machine that rivals the one we had during the peak years of anti-Soviet hysteria. Despite all the tough-minded talk we hear from Newt Gingrich and Phil Gramm about budget deficits and the perils of the welfare state, these same politicians are quite ready to increase military allocations even beyond the $1.5 trillion earmarked for the next six years. So much for the war on big government. While blathering on endlessly about how the average person is being taxed mercilessly to subsidize health care and school-lunch programs, the anti-bureaucrats see no problem in springing for 20 new B-2 stealth bombers, a dozen projected aircraft carriers (at $5 billion an item), a revived missile-defense system that harkens back to the Star Wars fiasco, and a new type of Navy attack submarine -- at a total cost of $100 billion. Obsessed with balancing the budget by 2002, both Republicans and Democrats are willing to spend a tidy $50 billion a year to maintain a troop deployment in South Korea that no longer has any rationale, given that the South Koreans have roughly five times the military strength of the North Koreans. Much the same can be said regarding the more than 100,000 U.S. troops that remain in Europe. Where is the enemy there? The collapse of communism was supposed to bring a "peace dividend," but it seems to have vanished into the coffers of an always needy Pentagon. What the military planners desire is something else: a huge, mobile, worldwide arsenal that can effectively wage two regional wars simultaneously. Extra funds will be required, of course, for "emergency" operations like those in Panama, Iraq, Haiti, and Somalia -- just enough to keep the New World Order intact. You won't hear any mention in the budgetary debates about how the Pentagon is the government's largest source of fiscal waste, the biggest consumer of research and development funds, and the worst of all environmental offenders. Apparently, the anti-government bureaucrats think that this is too arcane for the average person to grasp. Nor are you likely to be told that the U.S. military is the biggest peacetime machine ever, or that no other industrial nation spends more than one-tenth of what the U.S. spends for "defense." And you won't learn much about how our high-tech military generates only one-third as many jobs as do more labor-intensive social programs. There have indeed been military cutbacks since 1987, but such reductions have scarcely made a dent in the permanent war economy. One reason is that we're still imbued with the Cold War legacy. If the need to fight communist designs to take over the world had little to do with reality, the propaganda did allow corporate and military elites to mobilize popular support behind their own privileged interests. The Soviet "threat" was from the very outset a well-crafted myth, part of an exaggerated and self-serving ideology which justified pouring $20 trillion into a security state and war economy. In truth, the Soviet-bloc states were always more timid than expansionist in their foreign policy, "totalitarianism" was a fragile and vulnerable system, and virtually every leap in Cold War military technology was initiated by the U.S. More significantly, Soviet leaders after Stalin were anxious to carve out a comfortable modus vivendi with the West -- a goal that, despite brief interludes of detente, would be frustrated. During the post-war period, anti-communism provided a useful rationale for lopsided military priorities, undercutting extension of the New Deal and evolution toward a European-style welfare state. The result was that by the 1980s, U.S. global military power was accompanied by domestic economic stagnation, social decay, and the weakening of democratic institutions. This is precisely what Paul Kennedy, in his book The Rise and Decline of Empires, describes as the fate of any military power with aspirations toward global hegemony. Today the war economy continues to dominate the landscape, but in a different geopolitical setting, one that demands new sources of ideological justification. For several years now, elites have been furtively looking for new objects of national hysteria around which to bolster military Keynesianism: the demonic leaders of Libya, Panama, and Iraq; international drug dealers; terrorists; even the fearsome prospect of a communist resurgence in the East. Since 1990, it is the "rogue states" (Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya) that have been identified as the main post-Cold War threat-- nations that with access to weapons of mass destruction could disrupt the smooth workings of the capitalist world order. As Presidents Bush and Clinton both affirmed, this new challenge means that U.S. military power must be prepared to intervene at any time and place around the globe. To keep the outlaws in line, we must be ready for many future Desert Storms. If the U.S. is to serve as international military arbiter, then arms spending must remain high even at a time when ideological enemies may be more difficult to find. The "rogue" countries, however, are in fact relatively weak economically and militarily, with a nuclear potential that is many years away at best. They are also politically vulnerable. A fixation on such countries only diverts attention away from more pressing domestic and foreign-policy issues. According to State of the World (1995), published annually by the Worldwatch Institute, military expenditures for all countries declined by $935 billion between 1987 and 1994. Nevertheless, the global arms race continues; in the U.S., military spending has decreased by only about three percent since 1987. Military-base closings have reduced the overall infrastructure by fifteen percent, but the agenda of military planners is more or less unchanged. Clinton spoke often during his presidential campaign about conversion from arms to civilian investment, but only $20 billion has been allocated toward this end -- most of it earmarked for high-tech initiatives to help corporations such as Westinghouse, General Electric, and Hughes diversify their product lines. Any commitment to large-scale conversion programs that would replace military with social priorities, creating new civilian-sector enterprises and jobs in the process, is light years beyond what Clinton and other leading politicians have even discussed. The reason for this void is not hard to see: the interests of both major parties are organically linked to the war economy. This is why the very term "conversion" has been largely dropped from the political vocabulary. Instead of addressing military cuts in this way, corporations and the Pentagon would rather sell arms abroad(to the tune of $31 billion in 1993). As writers such as Seymour Melman have been arguing for many years, militarism and domestic decay are opposite sides of the same coin. Without a basic shift away from a war economy, it's inconceivable that global powers will move from intervention to disarmament and peaceful cooperation. As Michael Renner concludes in State of the World, "Given the huge stocks of military equipment around the globe, it is difficult to imagine that antagonists will choose to rely on nonviolent means of dispute settlement." Thanks to the arms merchants, the global military buildup has reached an all-time high. In this context, the prospects for demilitarization appear dim. For the U.S., the only hope is to begin by cutting Pentagon spending in half, or even more. The bloated military bureaucracy could be streamlined, expensive new weapons systems could be junked, most armed-forces personnel could be demobilized, and much of the fleet and weapons arsenal could be phased out. The savings could be diverted to badly needed social programs (health, education, child care, housing, the environment)-- in other words, we could put in place a genuine conversion process that would begin to revitalize the domestic infrastructure. In such a scenario, the U.S. would still have the most powerful military apparatus in the world, including enough nuclear weapons to blow up the planet several times. The problem is that we lack anything resembling a national or global strategy for carrying out such a plan; there is no vision of demilitarization, disarmament, and conversion. So long as the multinationals are in charge, it may be that war and the preparation for war are simply too lucrative. And so long as the U.S., as the world's leading military power, remains a vital center of transnational capital, the initiative for change will have to come from outside the formidable military-industrial power structure.There are a good many ideological obstacles to be overcome along the way: the myth that military power is the key to national strength; the nationalistic belief that international conflicts can be resolved through military intervention; the notion that military operations can secure the ideological ambitions of nations (democracy, socialism, religion, etc.). In the final analysis, the major powers are dedicated only to advancing their own economic and geopolitical interests. The sole defensible activity for troops on foreign soil is peacekeeping. As Hungarian author George Konrad wrote in his classic book Anti-Politics, "I don't know of a single instance where one of the great powers occupied a small country in order to topple a local dictatorship and free the people." Konrad's citation of a refrain chanted by rebels in Budapest in October 1956 seems more appropriate than ever: "Soldiers from everywhere. Go home and stay there!"