Think of it as the chicken-or-the-egg question for the ages: Do very real threats to the United States inadvertently benefit the military-industrial complex or does the national security state, by its very nature, conjure up inflated threats to feed that defense machine?
Back in 2008, some of us placed our faith, naively enough, in the hands of mainstream Democrats — specifically, those of a young senator named Barack Obama. He would reverse the war policies of George W. Bush, deescalate the unbridled Global War on Terror, and right the ship of state. How’d that turn out?
In retrospect, though couched in a far more sophisticated and peaceable rhetoric than Bush’s, his moves would prove largely cosmetic when it came to this country’s forever wars: a significant reduction in the use of conventional ground troops, but more drones, more commandos, and yet more acts of ill-advised regime change. Don’t get me wrong: as a veteran of two of Washington’s wars, I was glad when “no-drama” Obama decreased the number of boots on the ground in the Middle East. It’s now obvious, however, that he left the basic infrastructure of eternal war firmly in place.
Enter The Donald.
For all his half-baked tweets, insults, and boasts, as well as his refusal to read anything of substance on issues of war and peace, some of candidate Trump’s foreign policy ideas seemed far saner than those of just about any other politician around or the previous two presidents. I mean, the Iraq War was dumb, and maybe it wasn’t the craziest idea for America’s allies to start thinking about defending themselves, and maybe Washington ought to put some time and diplomatic effort into avoiding a possibly catastrophic clash or set of clashes with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Unfortunately, the White House version of all this proved oh-so-familiar. President Trump’s decision, for instance, to double down on a losing bet in Afghanistan in spite of his “instincts” (and on similar bets in Somalia, Syria, and elsewhere) and his recently published National Defense Strategy (NDS) leave little doubt that he’s surrendered to Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, the mainstream interventionists in his administration.
In truth, no one should be surprised. A hyper-interventionist, highly militarized foreign policy has defined Washington since at least the days of President Harry Truman — the first in a long line of hawks to take the White House. In this context, an ever-expanding national security state has always put special effort into meeting the imagined needs (or rather desires) of its various component parts. The result: bloated budgets for which exaggerated threats, if not actual war, remain a necessity.
Without the threat of communism in the previous century and terrorism (as well as once again ascendant great powers) in this one, such bloated budgets would be hard to explain. And then, how would the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines get all the weaponized toys they desired? How would Congressional representatives in a post-industrial economy get all those attractive “defense” jobs for their districts and how would the weapons makers get the government cash they crave?
The 2-2-1 Threat Picture
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the newly released National Defense Strategy document. It offers a striking sense of how, magically enough, the Pentagon’s vision of future global policy manages to provide something for each of its services and their corporate backers.
Start with this: the NDS is to government documents what A Nightmare on Elm Street is to family films; it’s meant, that is, to scare the hell out of the casual reader. It makes the claim, for instance, that the global “security environment” has become “more complex and volatile than any we have experienced in recent memory.” In other words, be afraid, very afraid. But is it true? Is the world really more volatile now than it was when two nuclear superpowers with enough missiles to destroy the planet several times over faced off in a not-so-Cold War?
Admittedly, the NDS does list and elaborate some awesome threats — and I think I know just where that list came from, too. When I went through the document, I realized that I had heard it all before. Back in 2015, when I taught history at West Point, a prominent departmental alumni — a lieutenant general by the name of H.R. McMaster who, today, just happens to be President Trump’s national security advisor — used to drop by occasionally. Back then, he commanded the Army Capabilities Integration Center, which was basically a future-planning outfit that, in its own words, “develops concepts, learns, and integrates capabilities to improve our Army.”
In 2015, McMaster gave us history instructors a memorable, impromptu sermon about the threats we’d face when we returned to the regular Army. He referred, if memory serves, to what he labeled the two big threats, two medium threats, and one persistent threat that will continue to haunt our all-American world. In translation: that’s China and Russia, Iran and North Korea, and last but not necessarily least Islamist terrorism. And honestly, if that isn’t a lineup that could get you anything you ever dreamed of in the way of weapons systems and the like, what is?
So can we be surprised that, in the age of McMaster and Mattis, the new NDS just happens to lay out the very same lineup of perils?
The Two Bigs: “Revisionist Powers”
The document kicks off with a pivot of sorts: forget (but not forever!) the ongoing war on terror. The U.S. military is on to even more fearsome things. “Inter-state strategic competition [which, in Pentagonese, means China and Russia], not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security,” the document insists. Those two countries are — the Pentagon’s most recent phrase of eternal damnation — “revisionist powers” that “want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model.” In other words, they have the staggering audacity to actually want to assert global influence (the very definition of evil in any power other than you-know-who).
This section of the NDS reads like a piece of grim nostalgia, a plunge back into the pugnacious language of the long-gone Cold War. It’s meant to be scary reading. It’s not that Russian irredentism or Chinese bellicosity in the South China Sea aren’t matters for concern — they are — but do they really add up to a new Cold War?
Let’s begin, as the document does, with China, an East Asian menace “pursuing” that most terrifying of all goals, “military modernization” (as, of course, are we), and seeking as well “Indo-Pacific Regional hegemony” (as, of course, has… well, you know which other country).
The National Defense Straregy isn’t, however, keen on nuance. It prefers to style China unambiguously as a 10-foot-tall military behemoth. After all, countering a resurgent China in the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea ensures a prominent role for the Navy and its own air force of carrier-based naval aviators. In fact, the military’s latest “AirSea Battle” doctrine hinges on a potential conflict in a place that bears a suspicious similarity to the Taiwan Straits (and thanks to the catchy name, the Air Force gets in on the action as well). Consider all of this a formula for more blue-water ships, more advanced fighter planes, and maybe even some extra amphibious Marine Corps brigades.
But what about the poor Army? Well, that’s where that other revisionist power, Russia, comes in. After all, Putin’s government is now seeking to “shatter” the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. No point, naturally, in reminding anyone that Washington was the country that expanded what was, by definition, an anti-Russian military alliance right up to Russia’s borders, despite promises made as the Soviet Union was collapsing. But this is no time to split hairs, so bottom line: the Russian threat ensures that the Army must send more combat troops to Europe. It may even have to dust off all those old Abrams tanks in order to “deter” Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Ka-ching! (Consider this, by the way, a form of collusion with Russia that Robert Mueller isn’t investigating.)
If you look at the Pentagon’s 11 “defense objectives” included in the National Defense Strategy document, you get a sense of just how expansive the one great non-revisionist power on the planet actually is. Yes, the first of those sounds reasonable enough: “defending the homeland from attack.” Skip down to number five, though — “Maintaining favorable regional balances of power in the Indo-Pacific, Europe, the Middle East, and the Western Hemisphere” — and you’re offered a vision of what an expansionist attitude really is. Although the NDS claims this country is threatened by the rise of Russia or China in just two of these areas (the Indo-Pacific and Europe), it asserts the need for favorable “balances of power” just about everywhere!
By definition, that’s an urge for hegemony, not defense! Imagine if China or Russia staked out such claims. An unbiased look at that set of objectives should make anyone (other than a general or an admiral) wonder which is really the “rogue regime” on this planet.
The Two Mediums: “Rogue States”
Now, on to the next group of threats, Uncle Sam’s favorite bad boys, North Korea and Iran. North Korea, we’re told, is a land of “outlaw actions” and “reckless rhetoric” (never to be compared to the statesmanlike “fire and fury” comments of President Donald Trump). And indeed, Kim Jong-Un’s brutal regime and the nuclear weapons program that goes with it are cause for concern — but they also turn out to be deeply useful if you want to provide plenty of incentive for the funding of the Air Force’s and the Navy’s trillion dollar nuclear “modernization” effort (that already looks like it may actually cost more like $1.7 trillion). In other words, more nuclear subs, heavy bombers, and intercontinental ballistic missiles, not to speak of the immense cost of recent investments in such missile defense systems as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD).
In this way, “rogue states” couldn’t be more helpful. Take Iran, which, according to the NDS, “remains the most significant challenge to Middle East stability.” Hmmm. It’s hard not to wonder why ISIS, Bashar al-Assad’s rump Syria, Saudi terror bombing in Yemen, even old-fashioned al-Qaeda (and its new-fashioned affiliates) don’t give Iran at least a run for its money when it comes to being the clearest-and-presentest danger to the region and to the United States. (And that’s assuming that, in the Middle East, the U.S. hasn’t been the greatest danger to itself. Exhibition one being the decision to invade Iraq in 2003.)
No matter. Anti-Iranian hysteria sells fabulously in Washington, so who wouldn’t want to run with it? In fact, the alleged Iranian threat to us is the gift that just keeps giving inside the Beltway. Iran’s nuclear threat — though there’s no evidence that the Iranians have cheated on the nuclear deal President Obama signed with them in 2015 and that President Trump is so eager to abrogate — guarantees yet another windfall for all the services. The Army’s air defense programs, for example, should get a long-needed shot in the arm; the Navy will clamor for more Aegis cruisers (with anti-ballistic systems on board); and the Air Force will certainly need yet more bombers for the potential preemptive strike against the nuclear threat that isn’t there. Everyone wins (except perhaps the Iranian people)!
One “Persistent Condition”: Terrorism
And then, of course, there’s terrorism or, to be more exact, Islamist terrorism, that surefire funder of the twenty-first century. It may no longer officially be the military’s top priority, but the National Defense Strategy assures us that it “remains a persistent condition” as long as terrorists “continue to murder the innocent.” The proper question, though, is: How big of a threat is it? As it turns out, not very big, not for Americans anyway. Any of us are so much more likely to choke to death or die in a bicycle or car accident than lose our lives at the hands of a foreign-born terrorist.
And here’s another relevant question: Is the U.S. military actually the correct tool with which to combat persistent terrorism? The answer, it seems, is no. Though U.S. Special Operations forces deployed to 75% of the world’s countries in 2017, the number of Islamist threat groups has only risen in certain areas like Africa thickest with those special operators. It turns out that all the advising and assisting, all the training and coaching, has only made matters worse. As for those overstretched forces, relentless deployments are evidently breaking them down as reports indicate that rates of mental distress and suicide are again on the rise among them.
Still, here’s the positive part of the NDS’s continuing emphasis on “degrading” terrorist groups and “countering extremism”: it ensures a financial and manpower bonanza for U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). In the Obama years, that “elite” set of forces already experienced a leap in numbers to almost 70,000. (By the way, at what point in the escalation game do such troops stop being so “special”?) Since SOCOM, a joint command that’s home to personnel from all the services, hadn’t yet been dealt into this NDS version of largesse, it’s lucky that terrorism and the war on it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, which means that SOCOM will never want for funds or stop growing.
Guns Versus Butter
In 1953, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, a West Point graduate and retired five-star general, gave a speech that couldn’t have been more unexpected from a career military man. He reminded Americans that defense and social spending were always in conflict and that the “guns” versus “butter” tradeoff couldn’t be a more perilous one. Speaking of the growth of the defense budget in that tense Cold War moment, he asserted that:
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed… This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
Those words still seem salient today. As Americans experience acute income inequality, the rising cost of a college education, and ongoing deindustrialization in the heartland, the country’s runaway spending continues to rise precipitously. The planned 2019 Pentagon budget is now expected to hit a staggering $716 billion — more than much of the rest of the world’s defense spending combined.
The battle between “guns and butter” is still raging in the United States and, if the new NDS is any indicator, the guns are winning.
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Major Danny Sjursen, a TomDispatch regular, is a U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. He lives with his wife and four sons in Lawrence, Kansas. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet and check out his new podcast Fortress on a Hill, co-hosted with fellow vet Chris “Henri” Henrikson.
[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]