Force Without Reason
Why does needless military spending remain impervious to reduction, while critically needed domestic programs are slashed?
June 1, 1995
Jun 1, 1995
33 Min read time
Why does needless military spending remain impervious to reduction, while critically needed domestic programs are slashed?
For the first time in recent memory, the world's most powerful nations are not merely at peace but expected to remain so, perhaps for decades. At the same time, despite the rampant civil and ethnic conflicts around the world, outside the Korean peninsula there is no near-term risk of a major regional war that might lead to large-scale U.S. military intervention, involving several hundred thousand troops or more. As a result the U.S. government could set aside its usual crisis-oriented approach to matters of war and peace and focus instead on ensuring long-term security at home and abroad.
For a century, political leaders have tried to replace the great-power war system with a more democratically-based international peace. But now that conditions for such a change are especially propitious, no effort is being made.
To strengthen domestic security, the government could begin by cutting $100 billion from the $250 billion U.S. military budget. This would halve the deficit without jeopardizing Medicare or gutting programs that pay back far more than they cost, such as education, job training, drug rehabilitation, and prenatal care.
To strengthen international security, the United States could take the lead in creating a cooperative security system in which this country and others share the rights, responsibilities, and economic costs of preserving peace. In addition to enhancing the prospects for world peace, full burden-sharing would permit another $100 billion reduction in annual U.S. military spending, bringing outlays down to around $50 billion (close to those in all other large industrial nations).
Instead of taking such steps, the Clinton Administration and the Republican Congress are both proposing to increase military spending: they differ mainly on the scale and timing of the increase.
For a century, political leaders have tried to replace the great-power war system with a more democratically-based international peace—first at the Hague, then in the League of Nations, and finally in the United Nations. But now that conditions for such a change are especially propitious, no effort is being made. Given the current agenda in Washington, where political debate is limited to quarrels about how to cut the federal budget, global changes and national policies that would permit deep cuts in military spending ought to be of paramount interest. Instead they are never mentioned.
Why? What happened to the peace dividend? Why does needless military spending remain impervious to reduction, while critically needed domestic programs are slashed?
• • •
Back to the Cold War Norm
Recent Pentagon presentations, and even ostensibly objective analyses by the Congressional Budget Office and others, give the illusion that military spending has already been reduced so drastically that further cuts would be imprudent. Taking the fiscal year 1987 (FY87) peak reached under President Reagan as their starting point, they show that by the late 1990s, national defense spending will have fallen by 40 percent. (Here and below, all spending analyses refer to Defense Department outlays measured in real terms, after allowing for inflation; and all dollar figures are in projected FY96 dollars, for comparison with the FY96 budget. The figures do not include the military activities of the Department of Energy and other agencies, which were about $15 billion annually in the 1980s and are currently around $10 billion.)
The United States spends seven- or eight-fold more on the military than the next largest spenders—Russia, France, Japan, Germany, and Britain.
The Washington bureaucracies seem to have forgotten the huge increases in military spending in Reagan's first term. In fact, cuts since 1987 have merely returned the Pentagon's budget to the pre-Reagan, Cold War norm. In all peacetime years between 1950 and 1980, U.S. Defense Department spending lay within $20 billion of $260 billion (in FY96 dollars). Then, between FY81 and FY85, it shot up by nearly 50 percent, reaching $365 billion. During Reagan's second term and the Bush years, the figure declined gradually. By FY94—Clinton's first budget—it was back to $282 billion, at the edge of the Cold War norm.
Clinton's proposed Defense Department budgets for FY95 and FY96, $268 billion and $250 billion respectively, involve modest cuts; but they do no more than put military spending back at the pre-Reagan level (see Figure 1). Even the expected low point of post-Cold War military spending—$239 billion in FY97—falls within the Cold War range.
U.S. military spending is also disproportionately large in comparative terms. The United States spends seven- or eight-fold more on the military than the next largest spenders—Russia, France, Japan, Germany, and Britain (see Figure 2). With the collapse of Russia's military budget, the United States alone now accounts for 40 percent of world military spending.
What threats justify the enormous U.S. military budget? In 1995, for the first time in 35 years, the Annual Report of the Secretary of Defense contains no explicit reference to military threats that, in the Secretary's view, justify the proposed level of spending. In place of threat assessments, the report makes brief references to the ability to respond to possible threats, illustrated by the following passage: “In contrast to the days of the Cold War, when the focus of military planning was on winning a large-scale war in Europe, the most likely scenarios today focus...on fighting and winning regional conflicts on the scale of the 1991 Gulf War or a potential conflict in Korea.”
The failure of the Annual Report to point to any country other than North Korea as posing a potential near-future threat of major conventional war is no mere oversight. The United States has no potential Third World opponents with both ground and air forces as powerful as those of Iraq in 1991—and the US conflict with Iraq was a rout, not a war. China, Syria, and North Korea come closest, but each lacks either ground or air armament (or both) as powerful as that of pre-Gulf War Iraq. And except for Syria, neither these nor any other potential U.S. military opponents in the Third World can build up ground and air forces as powerful as Iraq's 1991 forces in less than a decade (see Table 1). Furthermore, in the cases of Syria and North Korea, Israel and South Korea are capable of defending themselves without U.S. involvement on Gulf-War scale.
Last year's Annual Report, drafted under the late Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, and the Administration's earlier Bottom-up Review of post-Cold War military needs did give a reason for maintaining U.S. armed forces large enough to keep the military budget at the Cold War norm. They argued that the United States must be prepared to fight two simultaneous Gulf War-sized conventional wars—one against North Korea, the other against a country in the Middle East, such as Iran, Iraq, or Syria. But with Iraq's forces decimated, Iran lacking virtually any conventional military power, and Syria engaged in peace talks with Israel, the only practicable major regional war in the foreseeable future would be a war between North and South Korea. And North Korea is a bankrupt, utterly impoverished country with a population of 23 million and a military budget of $5 billion, facing a wealthy South Korea with 45 million people and a military budget of $12-14 billion. Moreover, North Korea's military capabilities have changed only marginally since the 1970s, when the United States was preparing for war with the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact (with enormous forces on West Germany's doorstep), and for a war in the Middle East or between the two Koreas.
Given the huge difference between the forces of North Korea, Syria, Iran, and Iraq today, and the forces of the same countries plus the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact members in the 1970s, it is not surprising that the Pentagon has stopped specifying the military threats that are supposed to justify current military spending. What is surprising is that the Congressional Budget Office and the General Accounting Office have failed to pierce the fog of Washington's collective amnesia with a pointed reminder that even though the main threat has disappeared, military spending remains around the Cold War norm of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.
Missing Arms Control and Collective Security Efforts
The exorbitant level of military spending is not the only major defect of recent U.S. security policy. The end of the Cold War has created an unprecedented opportunity for the United States to cooperate with other nations to improve international security. In theory, the United States could take the lead in bringing together the world's leading military and economic powers—the European Union, Russia, China, and Japan—to develop new forms of arms control and to strengthen collective security arrangements under the UN and regional organizations. Such initiatives would promote world peace and security, and permit deeper cuts in U.S. military spending. The Clinton Administration has, however, failed to seize the new openings.
The Administration has refused to pursue arms control measures that might head off the only potential longer-term threats of major war: the emergence of one or more Third World military powers bent on international aggression; and policies of rearmament and aggression that might be initiated by a nationalist, right-wing government in Russia.
In the case of potential Third World threats, the five main arms producers—the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany—could stop the acquisition of all advanced conventional armaments by all developing nations (including China). Yet far from taking the lead in pressing for a five-power ban on such exports, the Clinton Administration has sought to increase U.S. arms exports and to enhance their competitiveness vis-a-vis Europe with new government subsidies. This policy, driven by the desire to keep US arms industries as large and active as possible, will inevitably encourage exports of armaments from Russia to the handful of nations that are potential major regional opponents of the United States or its allies: China, North Korea, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. The result is a genuinely vicious cycle: to keep arms industries open, the U.S. government is promoting national exports that are bound to be matched by exports by others that will create the very military threats whose potential future existence is supposed to justify active arms industries, as well as the entire $250 billion annual military budget.
The United States has ignored the chance to negotiate useful preventive limits on armaments.
In the case of Russia, the Administration's approach stresses maintaining U.S. and Western military capabilities for as long as it takes a new Russian threat to appear—rather than trying to prevent the emergence of a new Russian military threat through a combination of arms control and cooperative security measures. Russia's military power has collapsed for lack of government funding, due to national economic collapse, falling tax revenues, and corruption. One measure of military decline is the contraction in arms production: the number of new planes ordered for military service in Russia, for example, averaged 614 per year in the 1970s and 430 per year in the 1980s, but fewer than 10 per year in 1994 and 1995. Another measure involves severe limits on training, exercises, and deployments away from barracks, due to lack of funds for fuel, oil, lubricants, and maintenance. For example, annual flying hours by Russian combat aircraft pilots are now one-tenth of those in the United States. To use correctly a term often misused in the U.S. context, Russia today has a “hollow force”: a large number of men under arms, a large stock of weapons, enormous high-tech industrial potential, but little training of men, maintenance of existing weaponry, production of new weapons, or modern infrastructure.
What would happen if a nationalist, pro-military government, bent on reconstructing an empire and a command economy, seized power in Russia? No one in the West or even in Russia can predict with any confidence how long it would take such a government to mobilize the resources needed to re-establish military power like that of the former Soviet Union ±or whether that goal could be reached under any circumstances. In the worst case, however, rapid rearmament could be prevented or delayed by many years if appropriate arms control measures were adopted in the current environment, long before the need arises. A combination of measures—much deeper cuts in Russia's standing ground, air, and naval forces; new Europe-wide confidence-building measures and security institutions including Russia; and limits on the scale of active defense-industrial capacity—if negotiated and implemented over the next 5-10 years, would delay any major Russian rearmament by 5-10 years, and, during the rearmament process, provide ample warning of growing capabilities for aggression. Including Russia as an equal partner in international security arrangements would also restore some dignity to the fallen superpower, and thereby undercut the political appeal of right-wing militarists.
Here, too, the United States has ignored the chance to negotiate useful preventive limits on armaments. Instead of acknowledging Russian concerns about certain terms of the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe and making a counter-offer for follow-on talks about deeper cuts on both sides, the United States and other Western nations, refusing to talk at all, are passively watching Russia risk formal violation of the CFE Treaty as the November 1995 deadline for full implementation draws near. Similarly, instead of strengthening European security organizations that include Russia, or developing new ones specifically for this purpose, the top U.S. priority has been to preserve NATO as an institution that gives the United States a toehold in Europe. To keep NATO vital, the United States has edged toward the one step most likely to isolate Russia and provoke an angry response: expanding NATO to include Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. Instead of enhancing Central European security, extending NATO to the East is likely to promote the political standing of Russian right-wing nationalists and militarists over that of democratically-minded political groups. The idea of global limits on standing armed forces and on active arms industrial capacity, adopted to prevent or delay future remilitarization and to promote the development of democratic institutions in Russia, lies far beyond what can even be imagined now in Washington.
Though turning more often to the UN, the United States has weakened confidence in collective security under UN auspices by manipulating decisions, refusing to commit troops to a UN command, and holding up promised funds. The real problem here is that U.S. military and foreign policy has remain wedded to unilateral advantage and military superiority. The Gulf War established a new paradigm and new standards for the U.S. use of force in international affairs. Like the Gulf War (and unlike the Vietnam War), future wars of intervention will, in the view of U.S. military leaders, exploit unparalleled U.S. superiority in the quality and quantity of high-tech military equipment. And the goal in such wars, like that in the Gulf War, will be to win in a few weeks with no more U.S. casualties than usually occur in training accidents.
This new standard for the conduct of war is likely to prevent U.S. involvement in complex, drawn-out civil wars, where foreign military intervention would probably make things worse. Nevertheless, the unilateral thrust of the approach cannot but marginalize the United Nations as the guarantor of peace. In January 1991, when requesting UN Security Council endorsement of early military intervention against Iraq, the United States used economic pressure to change the votes of at least two Council members that did not support the U.S. position. Similarly, in rounding up international support for the U.S. position that the Nonproliferation Treaty should be extended indefinitely (not renewed periodically, after reviews of progress toward nuclear disarmament by the United States, Russia, and other countries that now have nuclear weapons), U.S. officials indicated that after the extension conference, countries failing to support the U.S. position “would be sorry.” Such arm-twisting undermines the authority of the United Nations as an impartial body that exists for the mutual benefit of all nations. It naturally makes countries unwilling to rely on the UN for their military security.
The real problem is that U.S. military and foreign policy has remain wedded to unilateral advantage and military superiority.
Similarly, the U.S. failure to take steps to improve capabilities for multilateral peacemaking conducted under UN command weakens the UN's role as a guarantor of peace. Official U.S. policy, which arrogates the right to use force unilaterally to protect U.S. interests, shows little concern for the rule of law or the founding statutes of the UN. According to the 1994 Annual Report of the Secretary of Defense, for “cases in which important, but not vital, U.S. interests are threatened...decision makers must consider the use of some level of force commensurate with the interests at stake... Multilateral operations, including peace operations, are an important component of U.S. strategy...[which] offer the United States a way of sharing costs....However, America must always maintain the ability to act alone.” Consistent with its reliance on capabilities for unilateral military action, the United States has made no effort to work out internationally-agreed guidelines for the use of force under UN auspices as the response of choice in opposing acts of international aggression.
Despite the enormous changes in international politics since Gorbachev, then, U.S. military policy has changed remarkably little. Even though its only commensurate military opponent has disappeared, the United States is allowing military programs begun earlier to roll forward under their own momentum. Apart from helping to deter war on the Korean peninsula, the purpose of the large, technologically-advanced armed forces maintained by the United States at great cost is to meet distant future threats in Russia and in the Third World—threats which may never emerge; which are, if anything, made more likely by U.S. military policy; and which could conceivably be nipped in the bud by a combination of arms control and collective security measures that the U.S. government has refused even to study.
• • •
Why has the United States failed so totally to seize the historic chance to use a combination of arms control, collective security, and unilateral cuts to prevent the rise of new military threats, promote democracy and the rule of law worldwide, and change national priorities at home? Why has the government failed to protect and pursue the nation's real security interests?
Many people respond to questions of this kind with a off-hand allusion to the “military-industrial complex,” suggesting that the narrow vested interests of a few people in profits and careers are prevailing over the general security interests of the nation as a whole.
I offer an alternative, more comprehensive response—one that clarifies why the vested interests in this area are especially hard to overcome. Many different kinds of vested interests benefit from perpetuating the current military system. Moreover, other important factors -- cultural attitudes, the educational and political system, and the special difficulty of educating and involving the public on military affairs -- make this sector unusually resistant to change.
Vested interests are important in perpetuating the military status quo because so many people have them. Defense contractors' interests in lucrative contracts that provide multi-year, high-tech jobs with high salaries and high profits are widely recognized. Other vested interests are less well known. Career civilian and military officers, “beltway bandits” (management consulting firms located around the Washington beltway), and independent security and foreign policy analysts all benefit from high levels of military spending. The military sector offers them relatively secure, well-paid jobs, with some prestige and excellent fringe benefits. Retirement pay, health and overtime benefits, and bonuses are available to all ranks of military service. For high-level officers there are additional perks familiar in the corporate world: golf courses, officers' clubs, VIP travel, and so on. Because of the scale and cost of military activities, high-level officers also enjoy a sense of wielding power. Even small contracts and base allocations usually involve millions of dollars and affect thousands of lives.
Different vested interests—basic interests in job security and community survival—are found in communities around the country where a large fraction of local employment is provided by a military base or an arms production plant.
Roughly 128 million people are unemployed or employed in areas neither directly nor indirectly dependent on the military budget.
Because defense-dependent communities tend to be extremely well-organized in opposing cuts in military spending, they give members of Congress an interest in maintaining high military budgets. In addition, arms contractors employ influential lobbyists and spend significant amounts of money on political campaigns. This makes elected officials acutely aware of the district and statewide funds that can be raised to oppose their re-election as a result of military-related votes. With military bases and contractors dispersed throughout the 50 states, nearly all members of the House and the Senate have reason to be concerned about communities in their districts or states that could be hit by cuts in military spending. As a result, members of Congress engage in mutual back-scratching during budget hearings: you protect the project in my district that would otherwise be cut and I'll protect the one in yours.
The power of these vested interests is enhanced by a national bias against government-supported conversion programs, rooted in the powerful anti-government-planning tenor of American public debate. The lack of conversion funding reinforces a well-founded expectation among the general public (as well as in defense-dependent communities) that defense cuts will increase unemployment and recessionary pressures. And that expectation produces fear of rapid cuts.
The real problem lies in misconceptions about conversion programs. The popular image involves either public works projects, which might put people on the dole permanently, or else fumbling, intrusive government interference in the process of converting arms-manufacturing plants to civilian products. Actual conversion programs—past and proposed—are quite different. They involve relatively short-term (6-24 month) transition programs which give individuals, communities, and firms an incentive and some assistance in finding other work—instead of keeping them employed producing unneeded weapons. Such transitional programs, using funds that would otherwise be allocated to weapon production or base operations, can involve a wide range of activities: worker retraining, relocation, and early retirement packages; corporate tax incentives for investment in new, non-military production facilities in defense-dependent (and other high-employment) localities; and community development grants.
Employment funded directly by the Defense Department budget—either through pay of uniformed personnel and civil servants or through the employment of individuals under Pentagon contracts to private industry—now comes to an estimated 4.8 million, already down by nearly one-third from the 1987 peak of 7 million. Congressional Budget Office figures suggest that employment generated indirectly by companies that provide goods and services to those funded directly by the military may be about 50 percent of directly funded positions in private industry, or 20 percent of total directly funded employment including uniformed and and civil service personnel—that is, about another 1 million people, for a total direct and indirect employment of 5.8 million. In 1995, the total labor force is estimated at 133.5 million. So roughly 128 million people are unemployed or employed in areas neither directly nor indirectly dependent on the military budget.
Nationally, then, the ratio of those who stand to gain by deep cuts in military spending to those likely to lose (in the short term) is about 20 to 1. Of course, this ratio masks the high degree of defense dependence in certain areas, and the devastating impact in such areas of deep military cuts uncushioned by well-funded conversion programs. A report by the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) shows that in one recent year, eight states (California, Texas, Virginia, New York, Florida, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Pennsylvania) received half of all U.S. military spending. Particular communities within those states are even more defense-dependent. In 1989, OTA analysts estimated, the most defense-dependent communities were found in just 93 counties (3 percent of the nation's 3,137 counties), which had defense spending three times the national average per employed worker. Together those counties employed 8.5 million individuals.
Defense Department estimates of directly defense-funded employment in industry show surprisingly wide fluctuations over the years. In 1968, at the height of the Vietnam war, such employment peaked at 3.2 million. It then dropped by nearly half, to 1.7 million in 1976, more than doubled back to 3.7 million by the 1987 Reagan peak, and has since fallen to an estimated 2.4 million. The Defense Department's employment of uniformed military personnel has not fluctuated equally widely; but because of service rotations, retirement benefits, and bonuses, cutbacks in uniformed personnel tend not to have an equally great, localized unemployment impact. Moreover, cutbacks in military personnel can generally be implemented relatively quickly (although not necessarily most efficiently) by non-replacement of those who leave service voluntarily each year.
So vested interests, though substantial, are not overwhelming. And well-focused conversion programs could do much to diminish the obstacles to reductions by softening the blow to defense-dependent communities and giving them an incentive to change. We need to look beyond vested interests, then, to account for the hammerlock on security policy held by outdated views and counterproductive approaches.
Hubris and Arrogance
Most Americans are unaware of the high price the country pays for excessive military spending: the vast waste, tremendous tax burden, and cost in domestic services foregone. In contrast, most national security experts—those whose job is to plan or advise on U.S. military and foreign policy—are aware of these costs, but discount them. If you ask a specialist, “How can you justify to yourself the disservice to the nation of supporting excessive military spending?,” the standard response shows an indifference to the economic hardships suffered by many Americans. The experts argue that the United States has a huge national product and can easily afford to spend 3-6 percent of it on the military. Of course specialists with such views usually have high standards of living that are directly or indirectly attributable to the substantial resources allocated to the military. Living in comfort, they ignore the conditions of poorer Americans and the trade-offs between dollars spent on weapons and dollars not spent on, say, lowering winter fuel costs for elderly people on fixed incomes.
At the same time, security experts often exhibit a lavish disregard for cost, modesty, and propriety in their judgments about the role of the United States in the international system. They argue that because the United States has the good fortune to be wealthy, militarily secure, and democratic, the country need not follow the rules that apply to others. We can afford to maintain armed forces large enough to play the role of world policeman, they argue; unlike an honest cop or an agency under UN auspices, however, we should not use these forces impartially for the benefit of all, but only when it suits us.
Lack of Vision and Fear of Change
By and large, those responsible for U.S. military and foreign policy assume that the future of the international system will be the same as the past. They tend not to consider whether any fundamental change is likely, necessary, or possible. Consider, for example, the future of arms industries in the five main arms-producing countries (United States, Russia, France, Britain, and Germany). In these countries, the end of the Cold War has left so many surplus weapons that little production for replacement purposes will be needed for a decade or more. But instead of shutting down the production plants, governments are keeping them open through export production and domestic contracts for weapons that, they openly admit, are not needed for security. Officials argue that open production lines have to be preserved for the time 10 or 20 years down the road when new weapons will be needed to respond to new threats.
Yet new threats—creating the need for new weapons—will arise solely as a result of the continued domestic and export arms production of the five main arms producers. Instead of keeping arms industries open, the leaders of these countries could jointly work out new mutual defense arrangements that would obviate the need for continued production of most types of major weapons. But this sensible alternative, which would save money and strengthen security, has not even been considered because the idea of "moth-balling" arms industries is such a radical departure from past practice.
Few people know that all advanced weaponry acquired in the Third World comes from just five nations.
What about the general public? Less than 5 percent of the workforce is employed in jobs supported directly by military spending. The overwhelming majority would benefit directly and immediately from deep cuts in the military budget. Why, then, is there no public outcry demanding such cuts?
To a great extent, the answer is simple ignorance. Few people know that most U.S. military spending goes to conventional military forces intended entirely for use overseas; even fewer are aware of the feeble state of Russian military forces; and virtually no one realizes that another war in the Middle East on the scale of the Gulf War could not occur for a minimum of a decade—and with global restraints on arms exports, could be prevented for several decades. People do not know that US military spending is vastly greater than that in all other countries. And the lack of national debate on trade-offs between military and domestic programs has made people discount military cuts as a way to reduce the deficit without gouging domestic programs. In fact, military spending accounts for nearly half of all discretionary spending in the FY96 budget.
Citizens are even more unfamiliar with the government's inaction and counterproductive action in security policy and arms control. Few people know, for example, that all advanced weaponry acquired in the Third World comes from just five nations—or that an agreement among these five to stop arms exports would prevent the emergence of the potential future threats which the huge U.S. military budget is ostensibly intended to guard against.
Confusion and Cultural Brain-washing
As damaging as ignorance are the public's confused and incorrect ideas about the military, fostered by deliberate or inadvertent oversimplifications. The most common myth is that large costly armed forces are likely to help prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons, thereby enhancing the security of the United States and its allies. The truth is that large military forces and high military spending can help deter and defend against threats of major conventional war, but they cannot prevent the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, nor defend against terrorist uses of such weapons. Long-range missiles and combat aircraft can be used in preemptive attacks on production and storage facilities for weapons of mass destruction; but the forces that might be used for this purpose represent only a small fraction of U.S. conventional military forces.
The U.S. lead in military technology offers only modest and declining benefits to the civilian economy.
Another myth is that the U.S. military technology and arms sales make a major contribution to the economy. In fact a focus-group poll in November 1994 showed that most people favor cuts in military spending, but fear the loss of what they think is the one manufacturing industry where the United States excels against the Germans and the Japanese. It is true that since the Russian export market collapsed, U.S. arms exports have dominated the world arms trade market, accounting for well over half of international exports. But arms production accounts for a very small fraction of all U.S. manufacturing income, and arms exports account for a very small fraction of all exports. In 1993, for example, military aerospace exports (aircraft, missiles, and related parts), which represent well over half of all arms exports, came to just 1.5 percent of total U.S. merchandise exports of $465 billion; and total 1993 military aerospace production, which at $47 billion accounted for 38 percent of all aerospace production, represented just 1.5 percent of the $3.1 trillion sales of all manufacturing industries.
Furthermore, the U.S. lead in military technology offers only modest and declining benefits to the civilian economy. Increasingly, civilian manufacturing is moving to modular, computer-based, diversified production lines, coupled with demand-related inventory maintenance. Production of major weapon systems, which is so highly specialized that it cannot be adapted to this production mode, actually impedes the successful conversion of industries to this highly efficient structure—and thereby reduces civilian productivity and international competitiveness.
Another misguided view is that cuts in military spending will not make much difference to domestic programs because the combined Federal funding for health care, social security, and welfare comes to more than the military budget. The mistake here is failing to appreciate the scale of military spending relative to the very modest individual domestic discretionaryprograms that are being decimated or eliminated altogether (see Table 2). Proposed rescissions from the FY95 budget (that is, cancellations of previously approved funding for the current year), which come to about $16 billion, could be more than doubled by the modest unilateral cuts described in the last part of this article (see Table 3).
Caution and Demoralization
The end of the Cold War has left people cautious and uncertain about international security matters. Not surprisingly, people think it is unwise to change too much too fast. This natural caution tends to merge with the idea that defense-funded employment may be better than higher unemployment; and these two ideas, combined, reinforce an exaggerated view of the intractability of vested interests.
A sad illustration of the gridlock produced by these overlapping hurdles arose at a recent Harvard University conference on newly declassified documents about Soviet military capabilities in the period 1950-1980. In a panel on White House use of CIA intelligence estimates, McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy Administration National Security Advisor, was asked whether today for political reasons, just as during the false “missle gap” of the early 1960s, the White House is allowing the public to believe that "the threat" is greater than intelligence estimates show. Bundy responded by pointing out that today the White House is constrained in how modestly it paints the threat by what the public is prepared to hear and believe. In short, because people are not in the habit of seriously challenging the Pentagon, those who try are discredited unless their criticisms are modest.
• • •
Who Should Hold the Pentagon Accountable?
In theory, the President and members of Congress should be looking out for the best interests of their constituents and the country as a whole, and should be voted out of office if they do not. But for all the reasons I have described, the system is not working. Who might step in, then, to hold the Pentagon accountable and get the government to do the right thing? In this concluding section, I look briefly at three special sectors which could play a useful role: the media, public interest groups, and schools.
Muckraking and investigative reporting are a central feature of successful journalism, particularly print journalism. Why don't the news media inform the public on key military issues? Part of the answer is that the media tend to report what is, not what could be. Criticism of fraud, waste, and abuse is easy. More difficult to convey—and not usually defined as “news and opinion” by either producers or consumers—are ideas about what might be, alternatives to current policy.
In one respect, however, the media must be faulted for adding fuel to the flames. This involves the media's failure to evaluate, in terms that ordinary citizens can understand, the military threats suggested by the Pentagon. Even when such prominent experts as William Kaufmann—a widely respected analyst, who from 1960 to 1980 played a central role in drafting the annual reports of the Secretary of Defense—show the military feasibility of much deeper cuts in military spending due to diminished threats, media coverage amounts to no more than the odd article here and there. To my knowledge, the Brookings Institution publications and congressional testimony by Kaufmann over the period 1992-1994 did not lead to any major national investigative reporting on the connection (more precisely, the lack of connection) between current military threats and U.S. force structure and spending. On the contrary, despite commonplace references to the media as having a “liberal” bias, the tendency of the media has been to seize on threat hype rather than to play the role of the skeptic looking for exaggerated, self-interested claims to debunk.
Ultimately, this media failure may resemble the problem of the emperor's new clothes: the implications of the fact that there are no military threats commensurate with U.S. military spending are so vast that no mainstream journalist dare broach the issue.
Public Interest Groups
Traditionally, when a political failure creates a crisis in society rather than a mere scandal in Washington, those who alert the public are public interest groups, supported by foundation grants, individual donations, and volunteers.
In the past, many public interest organizations have tried to build campaigns for cuts in military spending. They have failed in part because big public “peace” movements usually form around more visceral threats: war's brutality (seen on television), military-generated environmental hazards with immediate health effects, radioactive fallout. By comparison, military spending choices probably seem remote to most people. Past campaigns to cut military spending also foundered on the ignorance, confusion, and bias embedded in popular ideas about military spending, its international purpose, and its domestic economic impact. But a new effort to mobilize a broad national campaign, discussed below, may find more fertile soil in the fear and frustration of the millions of people who are aghast at the national priorities now being set in Washington.
Accurate information about the military and time for reasoned debate on the moral and political issues of military policy could be made much more widely available through high schools and colleges. Given its enormous impact on world security and on the national economy, U.S. national security policy should be a required part of civics. Ideally, it should be a required subject for graduation from high school and from college.
Of course developing the material needed to teach this subject on a national scale would take many years. College teachers would have to be taught, so that they in turn could teach others. New text books, teaching materials, and teacher training workshops would be needed.
A special effort of this kind is likely to be initiated only with multi-year, multi-million dollar foundation funding. There is a minor precedent for such activity. For five or six years at the height of the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s, foundation funding supported several two-week workshops each summer, each for about 75 college teachers, with lectures by experts from all parts of the political spectrum. This minimal effort significantly increased college teaching on nuclear arms control issues. The program was not sustained, however, and it did not cover the broader, more politically controversial issues of war and peace.
• • •
One ray of hope in this grim scene is offered by a broad coalition of public interest groups, based mainly in Washington, planning a new national campaign to cut the military budget.
Demilitarizing the international system has been an intractable goal since the first Hague conference convened in 1899 with the goal of replacing war with negotiation, mediation, and arbitration. The conference did lead to the peaceful resolution of many international disputes—but it failed in its main objective, which was to prevent a great power war.
Given the magnitude of the national and international changes involved, it is not surprising that the effort to replace the great power war system with a global peace system has been so protracted. Nor is it surprising that compared with domestic issues, military and foreign policy should be less amenable to the development of an informed, participatory public, particularly in the United States, where people tend to have an insular perspective.
What is disappointing is that at the close of a century of efforts for world peace, U.S. policy seems to be heading backwards. Having failed to create a more peaceful world in 1917 and again in 1945, U.S. political leaders have abandoned the effort.
One ray of hope in this grim scene is offered by a broad coalition of public interest groups, based mainly in Washington, planning a new national campaign to cut the military budget. The coalition, currently called the Military Spending Working Group, has developed an agreed platform for 1995 organized around what are called the “dirty dozen” and “top ten” components of the military budget (see Table 3). This platform would lead to cuts in military spending of $294 billion over the next six years (an average annual cut of $39 billion). Coalition members have jointly produced a detailed briefing book to support the platform, and they are developing a political and media strategy, and a set of long-term goals for changes in military policy and spending. At the same time, other groups and coalitions with similar impulses have begun springing up around the country.
A convergence of national and local efforts could create the first opportunity in decades for broad public education on U.S. security policy and military spending. With a concerted effort, this new activism might awaken the one group capable of cutting the Pentagon to size: the taxpayers who fund it.
While we have you...
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
June 01, 1995
33 Min read time