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Welcome to the Military-Industrial Pandemic

This is the time, above all others, you can see the special interests trumping national interests.
The Pentagon building in Arlington, Va., just outside the nation's capital.

Before coronavirus came to dominate the headlines, one of the most important stories of the year was the signing of an agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban. The deal signed in Doha on February 29 is a first step toward ending the U.S.’s longest war. After nearly two decades, thousands of lost lives on all sides, and an estimated $1.5 trillion, the Trump administration is finally acting on knowledge the U.S. government has long possessed: the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable.

The parallels between the war in Afghanistan and the Vietnam War are striking. In the Afghanistan Papers that were acquired by the Washington Post, the senselessness of the war is laid bare by U.S. government officials. The papers are reminiscent of the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers and show that for years, the U.S. government has known that the war in Afghanistan is a costly and deadly exercise in futility. Afghanistan’s terrain, tribal politics, and culture have long thwarted invaders. This is something that the British and the Soviets, to the delight of U.S. officials in 1979, learned the hard way.

Yet despite clear lessons from the past and what should have been some institutional memory, U.S. policymakers pursued financially and strategically ruinous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Estimated expenditures on these two wars and the larger open ended “war on terror” now exceed $6.5 trillion. Rather than having made the U.S. more secure, these wars, and the unchecked defense spending that they demand, make the U.S. more vulnerable to a host of internal and external threats.

America’s interventionist policies abroad and the cancerous growth of defense budgets, the most recent of which is nearly $800 billion, compromise Washington’s ability to grapple with threats like crumbling infrastructure, an educational system that fails to deliver, and true national preparedness for a crisis like the coronavirus. It is useful to think about what even a small portion of the $6.5 trillion spent on failed wars could have done had it been spent on infrastructure, world-class public education, accessible healthcare, and emergency preparedness. If it had been spent intelligently and strategically, it could have been transformative.

Instead, the U.S. public, as has so often been the case, continues to allow the military-industrial complex to exercise undue influence. The companies that make up the vast military-industrial complex in the U.S. spend millions lobbying Congress. These lobbying efforts probably have the highest return of any investment on the planet. In exchange for comparatively paltry campaign donations, members of Congress are persuaded to pass legislation that yields billions in revenue for these companies.

Those who stand up to the calls for increased defense spending are said to be “soft on defense” or even called “unpatriotic” by rival politicians and the platoon of retired colonels and generals who act as paid cheerleaders for defense contractors. In his 1961 Farewell Address, President Eisenhower presciently warned Americans about the power of the military-industrial complex. In the often-quoted speech, Eisenhower argued that “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” Eisenhower went on to say that a failure to guard against this influence could lead to a “disastrous rise of misplaced power” that could “endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”

Americans have ignored Eisenhower’s warning, and we are living with the consequences. The insidious influence of the military-industrial complex infects both Congress and much of the U.S. news media. Never was this more apparent than after September 11, when those who questioned the march to war in Afghanistan and Iraq were demeaned or silenced. Real debate about how to best respond to the threat posed by al-Qaeda and, more generally, militant Salafism was quashed. Instead, the U.S. pursued the most expensive and, as time would prove, counterproductive policies imaginable. 

Nearly 20 years on, Afghanistan is slowly reverting to Taliban control. The invasion of Iraq spawned the Islamic State and turned the country into an Iranian satellite. Neither of these wars achieved their aims, but they did make hundreds of billions of dollars for defense contractors. Low-cost and effective ways to combat terrorism are rarely considered. Such methods do exist and often consist of little more than empowering local communities via very specific tailored development projects. But such methods do not require hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of drones and Predator-borne missiles. Thus, they receive little attention and even less funding.

Now, as the U.S. winds down its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the “war on terror” is passé. The new threats are the old threats: Russia and China. The pivot away from the war on terror to renewed preparations for combatting China and Russia will be even more profitable for the defense industry because this means increased funding for big-ticket legacy weapons systems. The defense budget just passed by Congress is one of the largest in the country’s history and even funds the creation of a sixth military branch, the Space Force. The demands for ever more defense spending ignore the fact that the combined defense budgets of China and Russia equal a little more than a quarter of what the U.S. spends on defense. Nor is there much discussion of the fact that a war between great powers is as unlikely as it is unthinkable due to the threat of mutually assured nuclear annihilation. 

In the same speech in which he warned Americans about the rise of the influence and power of the military-industrial complex, Eisenhower argued that the only real check on this would be “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry.” One can only hope now that the U.S., and indeed the world, face the threat of a global pandemic, that Americans will begin to question soaring defense budgets and endless wars that contribute little to real security. Real security, as this pandemic will demonstrate, is dependent on internal resiliency. This kind of resiliency is built on sound infrastructure, accessible healthcare, a well-educated and healthy populace, localized supply chains, and responsive and responsible government. The coronavirus pandemic may finally force a rethink of how the U.S. government spends its citizens’ money and how willing it is to continue funding and fighting counterproductive wars. 

Michael Horton is a foreign policy analyst who has written for numerous publications, including The National Interest, West Point CTC Sentinel, The Economist, and the Christian Science Monitor.