Monday, January 17, 2011

The military-industrial complex, the scientific-technological elite, and the almost universal securitization of policy and politics

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Dwight Eisenhower's most memorable speech, one which -- I am compelled to report by overwhelming journalistic consensus -- "became, arguably, the most famous farewell address since George Washington's" (/"...has become, with the possible exception of George Washington's departing speech, the best-known presidential farewell address in U.S. history"/" to George Washington's farewell address, [is] perhaps the most significant valedictory in presidential history"/"...ranks, as Eisenhower intended it to, with Washington's Farewell Address as a masterpiece of American rhetoric, of balance, and of prudent far-seeking counsel." One wonders why, amidst this remarkably consistent precedent, commentators continue to assert their agnosticism on the matter with possibles and perhapses and arguablys. If only Eisenhower had foreseen this [arguably] entirely valueless and yet [perhaps] apparently unavoidable comparison, he may have [possibly] chosen to deliver the message in some other venue!). A mere 1,800 words, the address provides ample fodder to this day for the sort of prescriptive critical analysis of the type represented above. We all remember the "military-industrial complex," of course, but what of the "scientific-technological elite"? And did Eisenhower really mean that a cabal of militarist interests threatened control of the government, or did he simply want to balance the books?

I don't intend to adjudicate among the various interpretations of the speech. Meaning matters, of course, but it matters differently to different audiences and it's unsurprising that those with differing political ideologies would emphasize different angles on it. (If you want to have a conversation about whether or not the author's intent should matter, whether a passage can be considered as a self-referential formal object with objective meaning, etc., go get a grad degree in lit-crit. Or read this essay in this book.) But there are some bits of Ike's address worth noting for the insight they can provide on the way we deal with defense in our modern political discourse, and for the way they prod us to think about what it is that "defense" is defending -- and how well.

"Our military organization today," Eisenhower contended in 1961, "bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peace time, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea." He went on to both bemoan and justify the necessity of a "permanent armaments industry of vast proportions," but the re-organization of the federal government to meet a changed threat environment was perhaps even more consequential. The Department of Defense had replaced the poorly-structured (and even more poorly-named) National Military Establishment (huh huh, get it, Ehn-Ehm-Ee?), which was created when the Departments of War and the Navy were agglomerated. There's evidence that Ike's attitude towards the Soviet threat changed signficantly between his inauguration in 1953 and his farewell address eight years later, but by 1961 his assessment of the nature of the nascent Cold War was basically uncontroversial:
We face a hostile ideology-global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method. Unhappily the danger it poses promises to be of indefinite duration. To meet it successfully, there is called for, not so much the emotional and transitory sacrifices of crisis, but rather those which enable us to carry forward steadily, surely, and without complaint the burdens of a prolonged and complex struggle-with liberty at stake.
These words were meant to prepare the American people for what might today be called an "era of persistent conflict" (pdf): a future where the threat of violence and even war was not episodic but constant. Though he would -- later in the very same speech -- warn against "the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex," Eisenhower seeded the ground for just such a future by recognizing a "conflict now engulfing the world," one that "commands our whole attention, absorbs our very beings." The specter of Soviet aggression, waxing and waning though it might over the ensuing decades, facilitated a transformation of our national dialogue to one in which constant vigilance was emphasized. Every aspect of national life was a matter of national security -- of national existence. How then could he have hoped to avoid the subversion of other national priorities to the defense of America? Does it not now seem ludicrous to imagine that mere warnings could prevent this?

And so we've arrived at a time when a social ill like childhood obesity -- worthy enough of public attention simply for its pernicious social consequences -- is viewed as a security threat (pdf). When the Constitutional guarantee of religious freedom is viewed as a security threat. When climate change -- an issue that will literally impact the quality of life of billions of people -- is viewed as a security threat. When the American tradition of multiculturalism and immigration is viewed a security threat. When our very fiscal solvency is viewed as a security threat. That's how we end up with a garbage "National Security Strategy" that isn't really a strategy at all, and that does next to nothing to make Americans safer or better off.

I don't disagree that each of these issues has a security component; this seems indisputable. But when a range of disparate subjects, matters that are relevant and even fundamental to our national identity and our social health, can only be made to impact the public consciousness when they're described as matters of national security -- it's distressing. In many ways it's unavoidable. Consider 1) the philosophical justification for the state's writ and monopoly of violence, the social compact, the Leviathan angle, etc.; 2) the Constitutional emphasis on national defense as a prerogative of limited government (which flows from 1); and 3) the natural human tendency to entrust responsibility for the defense of one's own person to a higher authority so as not to concern oneself with violence and conflict. Taken together, it's easy to understand why programs justified on security grounds are far more likely to be funded and supported by the public than those that aren't (just look at the ease which with development aid for OEF-facilitator and erstwhile anti-extremist counterinsurgent Pakistan has recently sailed through Congress, while non-military aid is typically a struggle to justify on the Hill). It's also easy to see why many libertarians and fiscal conservatives have no problem treating the defense budget as untouchable, and why defense budget bloat is so common and predictable.

But it doesn't bode well. This isn't just a matter of messaging, either: the way we talk about problems informs the choice of tool we use to solve them, and the rhetoric of persistent conflict and multifarious threat mitigates in favor of the military instrument. That's how we end up with joint doctrine that perceives the "spectrum of conflict" and the "range of military operations" as including everything from stable peace to general war -- not to mention "Phase 0," which includes all "steady-state" activities along the continuum. It's how we end up with the military doing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism, and so on. (It's also how we end up with an unexamined belief in the utility of force to produce predictable constructive effects.)

This is not a new idea. In an important if slightly breathless piece in this month's Atlantic, Andrew Bacevich cites words written, fittingly enough, during the Eisenhower administration:
In his 1956 book, The Power Elite, C. Wright Mills, a professor of sociology at Columbia, dubbed this perspective “military metaphysics,” which he characterized as “the cast of mind that defines international reality as basically military.” Those embracing this mind-set no longer considered genuine, lasting peace to be plausible. Rather, peace was at best a transitory condition, “a prelude to war or an interlude between wars.”
This "cast of mind" has evolved yet further in the modern age, as peace is neither a prelude or an interlude, but rather a point along the spectrum of conflict: the venue for Phase 0 shaping operations. Indeed, this "military metaphysics" informs recent emphasis on capacity-building and the "indirect approach"; security policy as foreign policy, war without war: boosting the capacity of partner nations' forces to secure their own territory and contain conflict without costly and dangerous U.S. involvement. (Note the way that debate over the Iraq and Afghanistan escalations tended to hinge along one issue: whether to increase Western presence and operational tempo or to increase emphasis on training and equipping host nation forces.) Surely this is better than getting Americans killed, but it betrays questionable optimism in the ability of U.S. policymakers to meaningfully influence outcomes through indirect action.

And what of using the military to effect foreign policy? Something our forebears knew and that we've forgotten is that the military instrument is a blunt one. (Afghans seem to realize this better than we do: fighting, it's often said, is viewed there as a stage in a continuum of negotiation. When terms change, you change sides.) It is tremendously effective for shaping choices when the adversary's options are to move or to be destroyed. Armor is the "combat arm of decision" because it combines firepower and mobility in such a way as to make the tanker's definition of "victory" a viable one. (Ask Jason about this. The polite version would be something like "victory is when your tank is parked on the enemy's position and you're performing unsavory acts on his personal possessions.") Force is less useful, as both Rupert Smith and Gian Gentile would tell you, when the object is to change the minds of men: violence and coercion unmoored from broader strategy will be especially impotent. In a sense, our philosophies of war and our technologies of war are developing at cross-purposes: man has never been possessed of greater destructive power over his enemies, nor has he ever been more desirous of influencing his adversaries' behavior in a calibrated way, with minimal violence. We seek a way not simply to destroy the enemy but to control him, and yet the tools at our disposal are, as ever, still suited more to destruction than control.

Some think the answer is to highlight the nefarious relationship between the makers of our destructive tools and the drivers of our policy. To be sure, the influence of industry on government is troubling, and we ought to be mindful of war profiteers enriching themselves to the detriment of the Republic. But Eisenhower's speech wasn't about arms dealers' holding the budget hostage -- after all, he "recognize[d] the imperative need for" a vast and influential military establishment, while warning against a "fail[ure] to comprehend its grave implications" -- it was about his fear of the country becoming something it ought not to be in the service of what seemed to be reasonable defensive concerns. The "national welfare of the future," he warned, should not be imperiled by the "action of the moment." Basic research and development risked being overwhelmed by a profusion of government and military contracts, Ike said -- the influence not of the military-industrial complex, but of the scientific-technological elite -- again foretelling the subversion of civil aims to the imperatives of security. In the dystopian future of Eisenhower's nightmare, civil society would serve the needs of defense science just as our politics served the needs of our military establishment.

The size and diversity of our economy may have prevented the first of these fears, but is it not obvious that our rhetoric has set the stage for the second to come to pass? Influence may be "sought or unsought," we were reminded, and I take pains here to emphasize that I'm no conspiracy theorist. The elements and actors that have "conspired" to create this reality are mostly unthinking. (I don't believe Lockheed Martin is subtle or smart enough to try to increase its own profit margins by encouraging retired generals to advocate for a campaign to end childhood obesity on national security grounds, thus encouraging an over-securitized national dialogue.) But it's where we are today: each and every national issue is described as having a security component, at the very least, and many are described bluntly as "threats to national security." We're in a time of budgetary austerity, but it's still relatively easy to ensure hundreds of billions of dollars for defense and other initiatives that are justified under the guise of "security." The military takes advantage of this rhetorical climate to ensure its own budget share, piling on more and more missions and asserting that somebody in government needs to be able to do them. And our political leaders are complicit in all of this, knowing that it's easier to lock up votes by showing "support for the troops" through a big defense topline and an expensive new weapon system than by trying to move the national conversation about security to a more rational place.

We can spout pious irrelevancies about the relative size of the defense budget as a share of GDP. We can harp on a one-eyed interpretation of Eisenhower that blames our national malady on the plotting of eminences grises looking to make a buck. We can talk about how the guys in the other party don't really understand what Eisenhower meant. We can even argue that in a time of record deficits, the three-quarters of a billion dollars that gets spent on defense "is not the problem." But if we listen to Ike, what we cannot do is to simply ignore the pernicious effects of this new paradigm... one that Eisenhower himself, I'm afraid to say, helped to create.

1 comment:

  1. Have you read Bacevich's latest book? I'm a big fan of his (with the exception of the religious dimension). He's also an extraordinarily talented writer.

    I did a Skype interview with an Oxford student yesterday and told him that it's important to understand that the U.S. is trying to fulfill an imperial function with a traditional national mindset. Like Bacevich, I consider this tension unsustainable. And like Bacevich, I consider only the nationalist approach sustainable, cf. the global imperialists like Boot and the Kagans.