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Commentary

Defending the Homeland


     
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Shortly after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President Bush created an Office of Homeland Security. How many of us have stopped to ponder the meaning of that action? For more than fifty years, the United States has maintained an active—some might say hyperactive—Department of Defense. If it does not defend our homeland, what does it defend?

Whatever the answer might be, the Pentagon has not been shy about spending our money. During the more than forty years of Cold War, annual military spending averaged 7.5 percent of GNP. Just in the past five years, military spending has cumulated to more than $1.5 trillion. You'd think that so much money would purchase a lot of national security. Yet, apart from the catastrophic attack on New York City, the Defense Department failed even to anticipate or to defend against the devastating attack on its own headquarters!

On October 1, the Pentagon issued its Quadrennial Defense Review. As the New York Times noted, this review “restores the defense of the United States as the department's primary mission.” One can’t help wondering: what was its primary mission before? (Would you believe propping up allied governments, cowing potential future enemies, or deterring threats to U.S. interests abroad and, should that deterrence fail, defeating the unfortunate adversary?)

On October 23, the Defense Department issued an announcement seeking contract proposals for “combating terrorism, location and defeat of hard or difficult targets, protracted operations in remote areas, and countermeaures to weapons of mass destruction.” It seems the Pentagon is—now—in a hurry in its counter-terrorism efforts, because it seeks “near-term solutions,” to be developed in 12-18 months.

You don’t need to be a defense specialist to see that the Pentagon was caught off-guard by the recent attacks on the United States, by the manner in which they were carried out, and by nature of the perpetrators. You have to wonder: what were all those defense bigwigs doing with all that money during the past decade?

Well, . . . they were fighting the Cold War, even though that conflict had ended in the early 1990s with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Notwithstanding the evaporation of the once-mighty Red Army, the lion's share of recent defense spending has gone—and continues to go—toward maintaining a force equipped with Cold War weapons—high-tech aircraft, ships, missiles, satellites, and so forth. A politically entrenched defense industry makes sure that such spending continues at a high level, and pork-dispensing congressmen grease the wheels, buying a few votes in the process.

Even though the September 11 attackers launched their mission with decidedly low-tech weapons—box cutters—the military-industrial-congressional complex, in defiance of all logic, has redoubled its efforts to milk the established high-tech cash cows. For example, Northrup-Grumman and its friends in high places now perceive an opportunity to resume production of the quintessential Cold War weapons platform, the B-2 bomber, at a cost of some $28 billion for gearing up the assembly line and turning out another forty aircraft. In the view of Congressman Duncan Hunter (R., Calif.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on research and development, the war on terrorism has shown that “long-range and precision-strike capabilities are going to be even more valuable than before.” Yeah, obviously.

According to the Wall Street Journal, “the F-22 and nearly every other expensive Pentagon weapon suddenly has become immune to major budget cuts” since the terrorists commandeered the four airliners in September. For DoD and its contractors, “that means keeping every current big-ticket item and adding a few new ones.” In the immortal words of Boeing vice chairman Harry Stonecipher, “the purse is now open,” and members of Congress who oppose the new spending frenzy by arguing that “we don’t have the resources to defend America . . . won’t be there after November of next year.” Bizarrely, even the granddaddy of all military boondoggles, the ballistic-missile-defense system, has regained its momentum in the aftermath of the terrorists' use of nonballistic missiles conveniently made available by United Airlines and American Airlines.

The Pentagon’s business-as-usual defense policy—obviously—failed to defend the American people on September 11. Nor will it defend them in the future. Just possibly, what's good for Lockheed-Martin, the top brass at the Pentagon, and the congressmen in cahoots with them is not necessarily good for national security. But then, who cares? We’ve now got the Office of Homeland Security to protect us.


Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at The Independent Institute and Editor at Large of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation. He is the author of many books, including Depression, War, and Cold War.

Full Biography and Recent Publications

Reprinted with permission from the May 2002 issue of The Free Market, published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Copyright 2002, Ludwig von Mises Institute, 518 W. Magnolia Avenue, Auburn, AL 36832-4528.

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