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From Military-Industrial Complex to Permanent War State

Gareth Porter

Fifty years after Dwight D.
Eisenhower's January 17, 1961 speech on the "military-industrial
complex", that threat has morphed into a far more powerful and sinister
force than Eisenhower could have imagined.  It has become a "Permanent
War State", with the power to keep the United States at war continuously
for the indefinite future.

But despite their seeming invulnerability,
the vested interests behind U.S. militarism have been seriously shaken
twice in the past four decades by some combination of public revulsion
against a major war, opposition to high military spending, serious concern
about the budget deficit and a change in perception of the external
threat.  Today, the Permanent War State faces the first three of
those dangers to its power simultaneously -- and in a larger context
of the worst economic crisis since the great depression.

When Eisenhower warned in this
farewell address of the "potential" for the "disastrous rise of
misplaced power", he was referring to the danger that militarist interests
would gain control over the country's national security policy. The
only reason it didn't happen on Ike's watch is that he stood up
to the military and its allies.

The Air Force and the Army
were so unhappy with his "New Look" military policy that they each
waged political campaigns against it. The Army demanded that Ike reverse
his budget cuts and beef up conventional forces. The Air Force twice
fabricated intelligence to support its claim that the Soviet Union was
rapidly overtaking the United States in strategic striking power --
first in bombers, later in ballistic missiles.

But Ike defied both services,
reducing Army manpower by 44 percent from its 1953 level and refusing
to order a crash program for bombers or for missiles.  He also
rejected military recommendations for war in Indochina, bombing attacks
on China and an ultimatum to the Soviet Union.

After Eisenhower, it became
clear that the alliance of militarist interests included not only the
military services and their industrial clients but civilian officials
in the Pentagon, the CIA's Directorate of Operations, top officials
at the State Department and the White House national security adviser. 
During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, that militarist alliance
succeeded in pushing the White House into a war in Vietnam, despite
the reluctance of both presidents, as documented in my book Perils of Dominance. 

But just when the power of
the militarist alliance seemed unstoppable in the late 1960s, the public
turned decisively against the Vietnam War, and a long period of public
pressure to reduce military spending began. As a result, military manpower
was reduced to below even the Eisenhower era levels.

For more than a decade the
alliance of militarist interests was effectively constrained from advocating
a more aggressive military posture.

Even during the Reagan era,
after a temporary surge in military spending, popular fear of Soviet
Union melted away in response to the rise of Gorbachev, just as the
burgeoning federal budget deficit was becoming yet another threat to
militarist bloc.  As it became clear that the Cold War was drawing
to a close, the militarist interests faced the likely loss of much of
their power and resources.  

But in mid-1990 they got an
unexpected break when Saddam Hussein occupied Kuwait. George H. W. Bush
- a key figure in the militarist complex as former CIA Director --
seized the opportunity to launch a war that would end the "Vietnam
syndrome".  The Bush administration turned a popular clear-cut
military victory in the 1991 Gulf War into a rationale for further use
of military force in the Middle East.  Secretary of Defense Dick
Cheney's 1992 military strategy for the next decade said, "We must
be prepared to act decisively in the Middle East/Persian Gulf region
as we did in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm if our vital
interests are threatened anew."

The Bush administration pressured
the Saudis and other Arab regimes in the Gulf to allow longer-term bases
for the U.S. Air Force, and over the next eight years, U.S. planes flew
an annual average of 8,000 sorties in the "no fly zones" the United
States had declared over most of Iraq, drawing frequent anti-aircraft
fire.

The United States was already
in a de facto state of war with Iraq well before George W. Bush's
presidency.

The 9/11 attacks were the biggest
single boon to the militarist alliance.  The Bush administration
exploited the climate of fear to railroad the country into a war of
aggression against Iraq.  The underlying strategy, approved by
the military leadership after 9/11, was to use Iraq as a base from which
to wage a campaign of regime change in a long list of countries.  

That fateful decision only
spurred recruitment and greater activism by al Qaeda and other jihadist
groups, which expanded into Iraq and other countries.  

Instead of reversing the ill-considered
use of military force, however, the same coalition of officials pushed
for an even more militarized approach to jihadism.  Over the next
few years, it gained unprecedented power over resources and policy
at home and further extended its reach abroad:   

  • The Special Operations
    Forces, which operate in almost complete secrecy, obtained extraordinary
    authority to track down and kill or capture al Qaeda suspects not only
    in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in many more countries.
  • The CIA sought and
    obtained virtually unlimited freedom to carry out drone strikes in secrecy
    and without any meaningful oversight by Congress.
  • The Pentagon embraced
    the idea of the "long war" - a twenty-year strategy
    envisioning deployment of U.S. troops in dozens of countries, and the
    Army adopted the idea of "the era of persistent warfare" as
    its rationale for more budgetary resources.
  • The military budget
    doubled from 1998 to 2008 in the biggest explosion of military spending
    since the early 1950s - and now accounts for 56 percent of discretionary
    federal spending.
  • The military leadership
    used its political clout to ensure that U.S. forces would continue to
    fight in Afghanistan indefinitely, even after the premises of its strategy
    were shown to have been false.

Those moves have completed
the process of creating a "Permanent War State" -- a set of institutions
with the authority to wage largely secret wars across a vast expanse
of the globe for the indefinite future.  

But the power of this new state
formation is still subject to the same political dynamics that have
threatened militarist interests twice before: popular antipathy to
a major war, broad demands for reduced military spending and the necessity
to reduce the Federal budget deficit and debt. 

The percentage of Americans
who believe the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting has now reached 60 percent for the first time. And as the crisis
over the federal debt reaches it climax, the swollen defense budget
should bear the brunt of deep budget cuts.   

As early as 2005, a Pew Research
Center survey found that, when respondents were
given the opportunity to express a preference for budget cuts by major
accounts, they opted to reduce military spending by 31 percent. 
In another
survey
by the Pew
Center a year ago, 76 percent of respondents, frustrated by the continued
failure of the U.S. economy, wanted the United States to put top priority
in its domestic problems.    

The only thing missing from
this picture is a grassroots political movement organized specifically
to demand an end to the Permanent War State. Such a movement could
establish firm legal restraints on the institutions that threaten American
Democratic institutions through a massive educational and lobbying effort.
This is the right historical moment to harness the latent anti-militarist
sentiment in the country to a conscious strategy for political change.  


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Gareth Porter

Gareth Porter

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist on U.S. national security policy who has been independent since a brief period of university teaching in the 1980s. Dr. Porter is the author of five books, including Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare,” was published in February 2014 and "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam."  He has written regularly for Inter Press Service on U.S. policy toward Iraq and Iran since 2005.

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