Stephen M. Walt

Was Ike right about the “military-industrial complex”?

Remember notorious pacifist…I mean, five-star General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s famous warnings about a "military-industrial complex"? Turns out Ike was pretty darn prescient.   Here’s why. If you’d just lost your job, or if you’d invested your life savings with Bernie Madoff, you’d be cutting out extravagances and focusing on necessities. If you had to spend ...

Remember notorious pacifist…I mean, five-star General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s famous warnings about a "military-industrial complex"? Turns out Ike was pretty darn prescient.  

Here’s why. If you’d just lost your job, or if you’d invested your life savings with Bernie Madoff, you’d be cutting out extravagances and focusing on necessities. If you had to spend money for something important (like food, college tuition, or an essential medical procedure) you might borrow the money or dip into your savings. But if you were smart, you’d cut way back on the things you didn’t absolutely, positively need.

As the United States tries to dig itself out of its current economic hole, it is going to have to spend some serious money on a fiscal stimulus package, on Wall Street bailouts, and (probably) on health care and education. We’ll do this by going even deeper into debt, but big deficits are a long-term drag on the U.S. economy. So if our leaders were as smart as you are, they would be looking for places where they could save some bucks.

This brings me to the defense budget. Right now, the United States spends more on national defense than almost all of the rest of the world combined.  We do this even though we have no enemies on our borders, thousands of nuclear weapons to deter a direct attack, and an array of wealthy and powerful allies. We do have some overseas interest and we do face some real enemies — like al Qaeda — but most of our vital interests are fairly easy to protect and our most fervent adversaries are a rag-tag band of criminals who don’t pose a genuine threat to our way of life.  

So you’d think that this would be the ideal time to rethink our global military strategy and look for some savings in the defense area. I’m not talking radical disarmament, but I don’t mean just canceling gold-plated programs like the F-22 or abandoning the chimaera of national missile defense. If America has to tighten its belt, shouldn’t that include DOD?  

Here’s why it won’t happen any time soon. As Cindy Williams, former director of the National Security division of the Congressional Budget Office and now a senior research scientist at MIT, points out in an as-yet unpublished paper for the Tobin Project, DOD is insulated from serious cuts by an array of impressive political advantages. First, its budget is more than 50 percent of all federal discretionary spending, and its sheer size gives it a lot of bureaucratic clout. Second, the Pentagon has a large domestic constituency: there are 1.4 million men and women in uniform, 850,000 paid members of the National Guard and Reserve, and 650,000 civilian employees. Forget GM, Ford and Chrysler: the Department of Defense is the largest single employer in the whole country. Now add the companies that provide goods and services for the military. Their employees amount to about 5.2 million jobs, which is a pretty impressive domestic constituency. And don’t forget those 25 million veterans, who are hardly shrinking violets when defense spending is concerned. Finally, a well-financed group of Beltway bandits and Washington think tanks stand ready to question the patriotism of any politician (and especially any Democrat) who tries to put the Pentagon on a diet.

So don’t expect the military to take a serious budget hit anytime soon.

President-elect Obama claims he wants to shift some serious money from DOD into other areas of international affairs (such as the State Department and the foreign aid program). Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State-designee Hillary Clinton are said to be on board with this idea. I’ll bet they try, but I’ll bet the actual sums involved turn out to be peanuts.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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