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Christopher Holshek

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End of the Military-Industrial Complex?

Posted: 08/07/11 10:15 PM ET

Last week's debt deal debacle portended a number of things, among them the stark, unavoidable reality of government dysfunction that it is the embodiment of Pogo's twist of phrase that "we have met the enemy and he is us." This is particularly true considering that, unlike the debt crisis in Europe, last week's display of financial fecklessness was not real but manufactured. We didn't have to go through this, but we did anyway, much -- as we are learning -- to our detriment.

The dysfunction, course, not only applies to economics, but other functions of governance, above all, national security, which is becoming increasingly synonymous with financial solvency and economic prosperity. It was once said that while the United States had an economy with a military-industrial complex, the Soviet Union had a military industrial complex with an economy. The over-investment of socioeconomic capital in martial pursuits, many claim, was the primary reason for the USSR's downfall; similarly, many also claim the same fate may await us.

Tom Friedman, in the New York Times, posited that that the U.S. "mistakenly treated the end of the cold war as a victory that allowed us to put our feet up -- when it was actually the onset of one of the greatest challenges we've ever faced," noting that we failed to invest in what makes us economically strong, lived on our laurels, and went on a credit binge.

He's right, but more precisely, we also failed to change another fundamental -- while we maintained high levels of wasteful defense spending, searching for monsters to destroy, our competitors took advantage of globalization and the economic rule-sets that we largely created, leaving us less in advantage. Then came 9/11, and defense-related costs, even more than tax cuts, became the biggest inflators of the deficit balloon that grew over the last decade and sprung a leak last week, threatening to burst.

Still, there may be signs that Americans may finally take on the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about. Sure, in the deal struck last week, the more than one-third of the agreed "cuts" and 50% of those that may come under a "sequester mechanism" that are in defense are largely gimmickry. What is remarkable, however, is that even the staunchest of conservatives displayed little willingness to fall publicly on their swords on defense the way they were about tax cuts (and their refusal to take on the latter will make it impossible to defend the former). That's because there's a larger political dynamic afoot.

Consider this: the four largest budget groupings are Medicare/Medicaid, Social Security, national security (DoD, Homeland Security, and the intelligence services), and interest payments on the debt. We know the last item can't be touched -- we either pay the interest or go into default. So that leaves us, basically, either social "entitlements" or defense. If we're talking largely about budget cuts to reach fiscal solvency (a pipe dream in itself, but humor me for a moment), then the morass on the Hill was instructive to this extent -- even some Republicans are learning not to push too hard on social spending, especially in hard times. So that leaves... well, you know. While politicians (90% of whom have never served a day of military service and most of whose children haven't either), like kissing babies, say they love the troops, they love to get re-elected even more. Game over, general, thank you for playing.

The money issue has only caught up with the other trend that our way of winning wars and peace is now in a minority of relevance to the threats, challenges, and opportunities of the 21st century. It's been a whole new ballgame out there since even before 9/11, and yet our national security business model is still essentially from the 1940s, predicated on industrial-era forms of power and hence the military-industrial complex. Or, as Jim Locher of the Project on National Security Reform likes to say: "how can you secure your children's future with your grandparent's government?" He means this because he also knows that government reform writ large cannot happen without national security reform.

History, therefore, is not on the side of soldiers this time. Not just because we're getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan. What we're about to witness will be truly historic. Since the Civil War, we have won our wars, deterred our adversaries, and maintained the confidence of our allies through overwhelming industrial and technological superiority. No longer -- it doesn't matter that much anymore. In a rapidly approaching era of strategic scarcity, the likes of which we haven't seen since the ante bellum period, our military could well return to a role much closer to its truly traditional character, not just because the larger world is forcing us to, but because we can no longer afford to do it any other way.

This is both good and bad, depending on whether we embrace and manage this or continue to deny and resist it. We could, as Friedman suggests, begin to "reinvest in our growth engines" or continue, for example, to have well over half of our research and development devoted to defense, for which the return on investment has been steadily dropping. We could overhaul our approach to national security, creating a more strategic, collaborative, less-is-more, and system that features engagement and soft power while we still have most of the decision power to do so, or simply wait for events to overtake us and be handed our fate. And what we succeed or fail to do for our long-term security will resonate through just about every facet of our public lives.

Change is coming, but if last week was any indication, we may choose once again to get in our own way. As with most of the cuts, legislators didn't have to cry too loud about defense because those cuts (related to the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) are coming anyway. The real reductions have yet to come. Still, new Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta took no time to say that he "will do everything [he] can to ensure that further reductions in defense spending are not pursued in a hasty, ill-conceived way that would undermine the military's ability to protect America and its vital interests the around the globe."

The pundits and think tanks are already lining up along the hawks-and-doves spectrum of argument. The "iron triangles" Locher talks about -- between defense and intelligence establishments, the military-industrial lobbies, and their allies among Senate and House committees normally reserved for more senior and established (i.e., entrenched) members -- will mobilize, as they have always done, to ward off any more substantive cuts. Many will waste more time arguing over a legacy of power that belongs to the past rather than trying to determine a post-industrial vision of the future security system with which we engage the world -- and think in a whole new way.
Hopefully, we will all go sooner rather than later - and more gently - into that good morning.