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Is Continuing Corporate Welfare For Big War Healthy Right Now?

Military-industrial cronyism is making America less prepared to fight a pandemic.

(By Baiploo/Shutterstock)

When people are struggling to pay the bills and the country is poised on the brink of an unprecedented recession it’s fair to ask some hard questions. Some of these hard questions have actually been asked for decades, but have simply been ignored or repurposed as applause lines about America First. 

But a pressing crisis like the current pandemic and economic implosion is causing some of these hard questions to finally be heard, such as: Why should corporate and arms industry profits and business strategies be put above American national interest? And more specific ones, like: Why should Washington ship troops, weapons and missile defense systems abroad to protect Saudi oilfields, when the kingdom’s current oil production policy is devastating oilfields in the United States? 

Even dedicated Iran hawks and Riyadh loyalists like Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota are beginning to ask just that. Now that hundreds of thousands of jobs are up in the air in his state because of the cynical actions of a supposed ally, the practice of mindlessly backing the Saudis’ war in Yemen or going on about necessary alliances and massive weapons deals just won’t cut it. 

Although questions do occasionally come up about the U.S. arms industry selling weapons to regimes that torture children and routinely commit human rights abuses, the general thinking of the Blob is that the arms industry is a staple of the U.S. economy and lifeblood for its foreign influence and leverage. When in doubt, Raytheon can just celebrate transgender people by signing a “GLBTA Ally Wall,” or build a bigger float for the pride parade to keep K Street smiling. 

Lawsuits can be handled privately, and blacklisted countries are just future markets. Tax breaks are the price the arms industry charges for keeping their business in your state, and the Defense Department doesn’t need to know the real price of military technology, really. They have endless money anyway, right? As an added bonus, defense contractors make sure to leave behind some nice presents too, like mountains of toxic waste.

For decades America’s corporate right and corporate left seems to have converged around the belief that welfare is bad—except when it goes to the military industrial complex and too-big-to-fail banks. Trump’s April 2019 withdrawal from the 2013 Arms Trade Treaty, which was aimed at stopping weapons sales to human rights abusers, provides clear evidence of the dominant thinking in his administration: arms exports are a projection of American strength and an automatic economic leg up.

Defense spending is supposedly a cure-all stimulus and an inherent win-win, the experts say. But other government spending on domestic priorities, which would have greater knock-on effects, are considered an example of creeping socialism. Healthcare and infrastructure jobs or restoring American manufacturing and American pharmaceuticals, would have a massive employment benefit and serve the dual purpose of untethering the United States from dependency on malicious foreign actors such as China. 

But the defense industry trumps all that. The military-industrial complex bolsters domestic employment and keeps food on the table – even if it occasionally leads to blowing up the bride and groom’s wedding tables and wedding parties in other countries.

We are conditioned to believe that corruption, conflicts-of-interest, and crony capitalism are just the price  we pay for having a strong military. Any concentration of power and contract procurement is a feature, not a bug. It means the big players can keep a seat at the table and keep cranking out the product for worldwide consumption. It is curious, though, why there are are dearth of convincing explanations as to why defense industry interests are often put above military readiness.

“We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies.Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow,” British statesman Lord Palmerston said in 1848. This was echoed by another Henry of the surname Kissinger when he opined that “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.”

Even if one were to accept this premise it begs the question: is the military-industrial complex itself in America’s national interest? Was President Eisenhower just a doddering fool? Or could it be—just perhaps —that things have gone just slightly off the rails?

America and its foreign policy shouldn’t be run by General Dynamics, BAE, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin—nor does it need Mr. Bailout Boeing calling the shots and extorting the national economy if it doesn’t get its way. These corporations have demonstrated repeatedly that their own profits are more important to them than the good of the nation.  

Beyond just defense contractors, the ongoing crisis is revealing who is on the side of their countrymen and who is out for themselves: whether that be Jared Kushner who has been pleading for a break from creditors while demanding all his real estate tenants pay up no matter what, or Philadelphia private equity bigwig Joel Freedman who has refused to help out in this crisis and wanted to charge nearly $1 million per month rent for use of his closed-down hospital. Freedman is in line for a major tax break because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

This kind of thinking directly mirrors that of arms industry lobbyists and executives. Their interests always come first even if troops are in harm’s way or there’s a devastating pandemic that’s killing thousands of Americans. Just in 2018, we spent twice as much on U.S. defense contractors as we spent looking after veterans.

As Vince Calio and Alexander Hess noted for Time, “Arms sales have remained concentrated among the same small number of companies for more than a decade. The top 10 companies have largely remained in place because industry consolidation in the 1990s made them dominant players, even through fluctuations in government military spending.”

Even some pro-defense industry vocies have acknowledged that a growing consolidation of large defense contractors in the United States is not good for military readiness or innovation.

As William D. Hartung wrote in Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex, seeking to write your own rules and enjoy an endless win-win situation in the defense industry is nothing new. As early as World War One, the defense industry benefited from “cost-plus contracts” where expenses were paid back by the government and automatic profit minimums were established.

As Hartung writes, “these generous deals were compounded by a lack of effective oversight and minimal accountability for any malfeasance or misfeasance carried out with the taxpayers’ money.” 

Each year American taxpayers are indirectly subsidizing already massively profitable U.S. arms corporations to the tune of billions of dollars. Defense giants have no shame devouring funding from the public trough even as talking heads on the news emphasize that socialized medical care and student loan forgiveness are pie-in-the-sky lunacy reserved for naïve Bernie Bros and enthusiasts of Scandinavian tax systems.  

To be fair, it’s not only arms industry pressure and leverage that keeps the hamster wheel of death turning: it’s also the eager complicity of legislators. Only days after the White House first announced a state of emergency, Members of Congress were appealing to the House Armed Services Committee to buy more F-35 fighter jets at a price tag of $100 million each. It may warm people’s hearts to know this was a bipartisan appeal. Do F-35s fight pandemics? Does the $738 billion Pentagon budget for 2020 make the nation more prepared to face this frightening pandemic, in comparison to Health and Human Services’ $94 billion, or the CDC’s $8 billion program funding? There is some irony in the fact that past military warnings that the U.S. would be hit by precisely this sort of crisis were ignored. 

The truth is that it is not in America’s interests to keep allowing arms to be exported all over the globe, including to highly unstable nations. It is not in the American national interest for arms industry lobbying to override national security and swindle taxpayers for billions of dollars. Subsidizing research and development of the defense industry is not in the American interest if those funds are only used to further their profits and solidifying the stranglehold on the market. It is not in America’s interests to buddy up with rogue regimes like that in Riyadh and then act surprised when it turns on them indifferently and helps chew up our economy at home.

There is no glowing orb scene that will make reality go away.

Paul Brian is a freelance journalist. He has reported for the BBC, Reuters, and Foreign Policy, and contributed to The Week, The Federalist, and others. You can follow him on Twitter @paulrbrian or visit his website www.paulrbrian.com.

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