What We Talked About At ISA: The U.S. Military-Industrial Complex, Part I

Earlier this year, the U.S. government set out to reduce its vast defence budget. On 5 January, Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to hold a press conference at the Pentagon. What prompted it was the release of Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defence, a “strategic guidance” document outlining the national blueprint for “deterring and defeating aggression,” while reducing record budget deficits “through a lower level of defence spending.” (The document also attracted much media attention because it offered a rare glimpse into the strategic thinking of a president who seems to refuse to be associated with a “doctrine.”) In his State of the Union address three weeks later, Obama reinstated his belief that paring defence sending could help “pay down our debt.” The Pentagon’s FY2013 budget projection followed on 13 February, with a request for $614 billion in funding: $525 billion for the base budget and $88 billion for the so-called overseas contingency operations. FY2012 budget request, the Pentagon noted, was bigger.

Pundits in the US have been debating the meaning of the coming defence cuts, starting with the question of whether there will, in fact, be any cuts in the first place. This debate will probably intensify as the election date approaches, although, indicatively, Obama’s strategic guidance contains no “East of Suez” moments, and his Pentagon speech was a candid expression about the need to stay the course: “Over the next 10 years, the growth in the defence budget will slow, but the fact of the matter is this: It will still grow, because we have global responsibilities that demand our leadership… I firmly believe, and I think the American people understand, that we can keep our military strong and our nation secure with a defence budget that continues to be larger than roughly the next 10 countries combined” (emphasis mine; also, “10” appears to be way too low).

Much remains to be said about the type, magnitude, and sequence of the coming changes to America’s defence, and the electoral 2012 will be too short to say it all. The first round of projected budget cuts (“$487 billion”) takes into consideration the provisions of the self-flagellating Budget Control Act from August 2011. The second round of cuts (“$500 billion”) refers the so-called automatic sequestration cuts, also specified in the Act, which will take effect in January 2013 if Congress does find “alternative” ways to control the budget. U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta described these automatic cuts as the “doomsday scenario,” a label that Congress’s bipartisan supercommittee will no doubt keep in mind as it looks for those alternatives (such as, for example, legislation to reverse the Act). In the end, what will change is the ordering of America’s military priorities, but not the militarization of America’s “global responsibilities” (to use Obama’s own label) as such. Behind it, after all, are multiple and reinforcing structural factors that make real cuts difficult. One of them is “defence industry,” which some pundits and watchdog organizations like to call, somewhat retrospectively, the “military-industrial complex” (MIC).

As a conceit, the MIC goes back at least to World War I, but it is popularly dated to Eisenhower’s ‘Farewell Address’ in 1961. As far as US presidential speeches/speechwriting goes, Eisenhower’s was a tour de force in every respect, but the reason why we read it today – or, rather, search for it on YouTube – is for the parts where the president urges the American citizens to pay attention to the “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry [that is] new in the American experience,” while advising the American government to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”

An excellent behind-the-scenes look at this speech can be found in James Ledbetter’s Unwarranted Influence (2011), an account of how and why the phrase MIC first took hold  and then evolved into one of the great political tropes of twentieth century America. Unlike some other authors whose excellent writings on the MIC regularly appear on my syllabi, Ledbetter is unwilling to consign neither the phrase nor the referent historical phenomenon to the dustbin of history. Instead, he concludes that the contemporary MIC remains “at least equal to the one Eisenhower warned against,” especially if one fixes this trope thus: “a network of public and private forces that combine a profit motive with the planning and implementation of strategic policy.”

This type of definition is attractive on two grounds. First, it subsumes the common practice of complexifying the complex: military-industrial-congressional-media-think tank-academic-private security-virtual-global and so on, as lampooned in the title of Nick Turse’s 2008 book. As Ledbetter notes, many adjectives work, but ‘judicial’ is not one of them because the MIC has escaped the otherwise steady judicialization of American politics. There are certainly good theoretical reasons for expanding the phrase. In the age of media wars, cyberwars, ghost wars, MOOTWs (“military operations other than war”), less lethal engagements and such, the wares built for the large-scale industrial wars of the twentieth century are often irrelevant and ineffective, at least compared to state-of-the-art technologies for collecting and controlling information. The evolution of weapons into weapon systems, argued Mary Kaldor in her 1981 book Baroque Arsenal, led to a massive increase in complexity (and so the rates of failure), and a similarly massive increase in costs of military production (the latter point was not lost on the leaders of defence industry at the time; check out “Augustine’s Law 16”). But there is another way of interpreting contemporary weapon systems. Writing in the early days of the post-9/11 era, James Der Derian put it thus: “If Vietnam was a war waged in the living-rooms of America, the first and most likely the last battles of the counter/terror war are going to be waged on global networks that reach much more widely and deeply into our everyday lives.” In his analysis, the MIC has now become the “MIME-NET”: the military-industrial-media-entertainment network. A similar point, but from an entirely different theoretical starting point, was made in 1999 by James Kurth, who concluded that “American interests” were damaged less by the MIC than by “other complexes-financial, medical, educational, or entertainment.”

Eisenhower’s MIC, it should be noted, was almost born with an extra adjective: it was the president himself who made a last-minute decision to drop “Congressional” (or “parliamentary”, depending on the source) from the triad put forward by his speechwriters. And it was this omission that induced future critics of defence industry to opt for the “iron triangle,” a metaphor Gordon Adams employed in his 1981 analysis of the politics of U.S. military procurement.

Second, and related, the idea of the network recognize that the phenomenon in question operates as a combination of public, para-public, and private actors that seek to bring profit to strategy (and vice versa). From this perspective, actors that constitute the MIC-qua-network both cooperate and compete, depending on how conflicting their desires (money, information, status) and beliefs (what is profit? what is strategy?) concerning the mobilization of public resources used to protect the national “way of life.” Ledbetter’s intellectual history stays away from due and undue theorizations, but his definition tempts one to suggest that the operation of the MIC can perhaps best be understood in terms of the evolution of the power of a particular node (e.g., BAE Systems) viz. other nodes (the UK government, U.S Department of State, Lockheed Martin, U.S. Air Force, etc.) in what has become a globalized web of relations (TDOT has addressed the global dimension of the MIC before). Social scientists have long recognized that social interaction – and power relations – can be analyzed in networks terms (for an early network analysis of corporate power, see William Carroll’s 1986 study; for an artistic representation, see Josh On’s They Rule; and for a pointed “what we talked about ISA”-style discussion on the theory/methodology distinction in this type of analysis, see Charlie Carpenter’s post at the Duck). In addition to measures like “resources” (writ large), “clustering” (being accepted into mini-webs within a larger web of nodes, also related to ”density”), and “access” (the number and quality of direct links to other nodes, also expressed as “reciprocity” and “transitivity”), what matters for networked actors is also “brokerage power” (the linking of heretofore unconnected nodes). A firm may thus become a “prime” in a larger defence contract not only because of its size or electoral geography at the time of the contract, but also because its executives were skillful at brokering among different actors within the political landscape (Conversely, the same firm might be relegated to a “major” status because its good connections might end up cancelling each other).

That the study of the MIC qua network(s) can be analytically promising for all sorts of theoretical perspectives can be appreciated in a parallel reading of Richard Bitzinger’s Towards a Brave New Arms Industry (2003) and Anna Stavrianakis’s Taking Aim At the Arms Trade (2010).  This promise is also evident from a recent paper authored by Bastiaan van Appeldoorn and Naná de Graaff (forthcoming in EJIR). What this work offers is a theoretical argument on the importance of the social context in which US grand strategists operate. In this view, the influence of the defence lobby on America’s military orientation is important, but not quite as important as the influence of Wall Street or the “financial industry.” Rather than its cause, the authors suggest, the MIC is in fact the effect of America’s drive for military dominance of the global commons, the engine behind it all being US transnational capital and its venerable “Open Door” strategy. Van Appeldoorn and de Graaff make this argument by subjecting top-level corporate affiliations of key state officials (the president, secretaries, advisors etc) in the last three administrations to various tools of social network analysis. The affiliations that predominate across administrations are financial corporations and law firms, not weapons manufacturers. Their conclusion accords with Ledbetter’s point that the MIC may be an archaic term in the sense that the U.S. economy has significantly deindustrialized since Eisenhower’s era. Be that as it may, the study of the ways in which elite network relationships evolve and influence the power dynamics within governments, a large and important question in itself, can without a doubt be a salutary new addition to the research on global supply chains, party and committee politics, electoral geographies, and other dimensions of the MIC with which social scientists have grappled with for decades.

As a political trope, Ledbetter suggests in his book, the MIC is “almost always” deployed negatively. The first reason is militarism, a set of ideas, discourses, institutions and practices that lead towards the preparation for, and conduct of, organized political violence (for more on this definition, see the forthcoming volume edited by Anna Stavrianakis and Jan Selby). According to Fareed Zakaria, even Eisenhower regarded militarism as the main problem with the MIC:

The result is a warped American foreign policy, ready to conceive of problems in military terms and present a ready military solution. Describing precisely this phenomenon, Eisenhower remarked that to a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. In his often-quoted farewell address, Eisenhower urged a balance between military and non-military spending. Unfortunately, it has become far more unbalanced in the decades since his speech.

The extent to which states ought to equip themselves with tools built for killing people and breaking things is a question that has long fascinated political philosophers. A debate on the “standing armies” between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine – and specifically the arguments of the latter – is often said to have influenced the American secessionists who authored the Articles of Confederation in 1777, which forbade the creation of the nationwide armed forces (subsequent founding documents, starting with the Federalist Papers, corrected this desideratum, acknowledging that the security-liberty trade-off must always take into account the nature of external threats). As almost every American politics textbook teaches, the newborn republic saw itself as an open and democratic society with its (small) government institutions owing their existence to those values, rather than military power. (One of the manifestations of America’s openness, textbooks ought to discuss, was its government’s consistent refusal to stop its citizens from selling weaponry to various belligerents around the globe. Writing in 1793 to the British ambassador George Hammond, Thomas Jefferson, then U.S. Secretary of State, explained his country’s arms trade policy:

Our citizens have been always free to make, vend and export arms. It is the constant occupation and livelihood of some of them. To suppress their calling, the only means perhaps of their subsistence, because a war exists in foreign and distant countries in which we have no concern would scarcely be expected. It would be hard in principle and impossible in practice.)

In the histories of U.S. foreign policy, the principles and practices invoked by Jefferson, Madison and other foundational believers in America the Peaceful are sometimes linked in discourse with “neutrality” and even “isolationism,” which are said to have operated to set the U.S. apart from the ghastly great power politics of the Old World. Then 9/14 happened. On 14 September 1940, reacting to what became known as World War II, Congress passed the first peacetime draft in U.S. history, the so-called Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 (also known as Burke-Wadsworth Act). With the stroke of FDR’s pen two days later, the act became law requiring registration of all American male citizens between 21 and 35 to register for the draft, leading to a lottery selection for 12 months of military service in the “Western Hemisphere or an overseas U.S. possession or territory.” (A couple of interesting factoids: a result of the act, all adult American males must register for “contingency service” even if the U.S. government suspended conscription after the Vietnam War. Also, the act codified racialized segregation in the U.S. Army by calling for a 10% quota for African Americans, which was meant to represent the actual African American population at the time).

The institutional spree established by the 1947 National Security Act marks the beginning of the so-called national security state. On the materiel side, historians have shown, – and I am thinking of two essays in particular, Robert Higgs’s 1993 chapter on the rearmament program of 1940-1941 (in Mills and Rockoff, The Sinews of War) and Alex Roland’s 2001 take on the MIC – the U.S. government enacted a series of new policies and programs that we have come to associate with the “private profit, public risk” MIC model (direct subsidies, tax breaks, advance payments, no-bid contracts, government-supplied plants and equipment etc.). And the rest is historical institutionalism, as Rachel Maddow observes in her fresh-off-the press Drift (2012):

It is not a conspiracy. Rational political actors, acting rationally to achieve rational (if sometimes dumb) political goals, have attacked and undermined our constitutional inheritance from men like Madison. For the most part, though, they’ve not done it to fundamentally alter the country’s course but just to get around understandably frustrating impediment to their political goals.

“Liberals and moderates”, as those who follow Maddow’s MSNBC show are sometimes called in the U.S., like to rail against the power of the MIC by referring to America’s foundational promise as a “deliberately peaceable nation” (reference is to the concluding phrase in Maddow’s book). The 1940 draft bill, note, had its fair share of sceptics: 124 representatives voted against, as did 25 senators. Pearl Harbor would of course “change everything,” but it is worth zeroing in on one particular critic from this era. Drawing on the ideas of Hans Speier (one the founders of the University in Exile of the New School for Social Research), Harold Lasswell penned two articles in 1937 and 1941, which introduced the trope of the “garrison state,” an entity controlled by a class of specialists in organized political violence. The U.S. was not immune to trends toward militarization, he argued in his 1941 article, noting that the American or British garrison states could seek to “universalize a federation of democratic free nations” in the name of democracy. The was not a desirable future, he noted, but “[s]hould the garrison state become  unavoidable, however,  the friend of democracy  will seek to conserve  as many values as possible within the general framework  of the new society.”

Laswell’s parallel critique of the standing armies and weapons manufacturers drew on a long, home-bread American tradition of suspicion toward militarized state power or, for that matter, all types of state power. (This is a simplification. Hayward Alker’s 1989 essay “An Orwellian Lasswell for Today” provides a much broader context-and-meaning narrative). “American” anti-militarism pre-dates “America,” but its early institutional expression can be found, as Charles DeBenedetti shows, in the early nineteenth century social movements among the urban and urbane of bourgeoisie of the northeastern seaboard, especially among Congregationalist, Unitarian, and Quaker traders, clergy and teachers.

Exceptional moments like Pearl Harbor or 9/11 aside, this critique was sustained throughout American history by innumerable commentators, varying widely in analysis and political stance: moderates, progressives, liberals, libertarians, Marxists, and poststructuralists all like to talk and write about the excesses of the American national security state. A typical case against the MIC centers on militarism, while also mobilizing a combination of economic teachings (revolving around terms such as misallocation, wastefulness, opportunity costs, distortions and so on) and additional political, social and cultural themes (patriarchy, favouritism, corruption, secrecy, to name but four). What must be recognized is how a “case against” always repackages past narratives, especially those on the defence industry “scandals.” (Here, germane is the work of Jennifer Erickson, as is Adam Goldstein’s analysis of the $600 hammer scandal, which traces the development of a narrative on waste in defence contracts, and its subsequent legal and regularly impact on the practices of U.S. procurement.) The value of Ledbetter’s book lies in the way such narratives are situated into an account that is at once historical (the author sets out to trace the origins and evolution of the idea of the MIC in the American public sphere) and, I would suggest, genealogical (“to weigh contemporary arguments about the MIC using standards suggested by Eisenhower’s views”). As the book shows, there has been no shortage of powerful arguments against the MIC over the decades, yet the MIC is alive and kicking. So what, then, about a “case for”? The second part of this post will begin with this question.


2 thoughts on “What We Talked About At ISA: The U.S. Military-Industrial Complex, Part I

  1. Pingback: Sunday Reading « zunguzungu

  2. Pingback: Militarism in the Age of Trump, Part II | The Disorder Of Things

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