Print Window   
 
The Independent Institute
Commentary

The Cold War: Too Good a Deal to Give Up


For years, Pentagon watchers have remarked on the curious fact that the end of the Cold War failed to bring about a substantive change in the care and feeding of the U.S. military establishment. Yes, the “defense and international” budget did fall from its Gulf War height of $314.5 billion in fiscal year 1992, and it failed to keep up with the growth of the economy, dropping to 3.2 percent of gross domestic product by the late 1990s. Still, considering that the United States no longer faced any powerful enemy comparable to the once-mighty USSR, some observers considered it odd that in inflation-adjusted terms, the military budget during the six fiscal years from 1995 through 2000 was equal to what it had been during the baseline years (1955-65 and 1974-80) of the Cold War. Moreover, the Pentagon continued to spend its money for the same kinds of forces and weapons that had been developed specifically for confrontations with the Red Army or a similar foe. Times had changed, but the generals hadn’t.

I was among those making such observations. Early in 2001, I composed an article called “The Cold War Is Over, but U.S. Preparation for It Continues” for the fall issue of The Independent Review. As fate would have it, this issue was passing through the mail to subscribers when the terrorist attacks of September 11 took place. In the article, I had observed that the U.S. military establishment was not being managed so as to provide security against terrorist attacks on Americans at home—a remark that, to some readers, later seemed prophetic—but I had scarcely been a lone voice crying out in the wilderness. Others had been warning for years of precisely the same misallocation of defense resources.

The Hart-Rudman Commission, for example, had highlighted the threat of international terrorism, noting that Americans no longer enjoy a “relative invulnerability of the U.S. homeland to catastrophic attack” and predicting that “[a] direct attack against American citizens on American soil is likely over the next quarter century.” The Department of Defense, the commission concluded, “appears incapable of generating a strategic posture very different from that of the Cold War, and its weapons acquisition process is slow, inefficient, and burdened by excess regulation.” Declaring that the DOD “needs to pay far more attention to this [homeland defense] mission in the future,” the commission recommended that “a new office of Assistant Secretary for Homeland Security be created to oversee DoD activities in this domain and to ensure that the necessary resources are made available.” Such reports, one comes to expect, are duly noted by the press and then pass into obscurity more or less ignored by the busy people who populate the military-industrial-congression complex (hereafter, the MICC), and this particular report was no exception.

Shortly after the September 11 attacks, President Bush did move in the direction recommended by the Hart-Rudman Commission when he created an Office of Homeland Security. One wonders how many Americans 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 gross national product, and 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 establishment, along with its numerous in-house and affiliated “intelligence” organizations, failed even to anticipate or to defend against the devastating attack on its own headquarters.

On October 1, 2001, the Pentagon issued its Quadrennial Defense Review. As New York Times reporter Thom Shanker 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 these imperial objectives: stationing forces worldwide, propping up allied governments, deterring threats to U.S. interests abroad, and, should the need arise, fighting a couple of those ever-popular foreign wars?

On October 23, 2001, 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 twelve to eighteen 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. So, you have to wonder: what were all those defense bigwigs doing with all that money during the past decade?

Well, as anyone who bothered to look would have noticed, they were continuing to fight 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-formidable 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 combat aircraft, warships, 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 MICC, 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 House 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, sure.

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 the defense department 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 2002. 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.

As Independent Institute defense analyst Ivan Eland [Director, Center on Peace & Liberty] has recently remarked of the Bush administration’s proposal to increase defense spending by $48 billion, or 12 percent, during the fiscal year 2003, “Most of the defense budget increase has little to do with winning the war on terrorism.” Just as the Korean War once served as the pretext for vastly increasing military spending on weapons and forces positioned worldwide, the so-called war on terrorism now serves as the pretext for throwing money at every constituent in the MICC. The Wall Street Journal confirms, “The antiterror campaign is making for some remarkably flush times for the military, and the need for hard choices on weapons systems has all but evaporated.” For all the big weapons systems and all the big contractors, the threat of project cancellations or spending cutbacks is now a thing of the past.

Members of Congress, never satisfied until a maximum amount of the defense budget has been diverted toward buying votes for their reelection, are not objecting to the huge increase in military spending, but they want no reallocations whatsoever away from the established Cold War programs that currently channel taxpayer money to their political backers: “In a bipartisan voice,” reports James Dao of the New York Times, “lawmakers on Capitol Hill are telling the Pentagon that they want to increase spending on conventional big-ticket weapons programs, particularly warships and planes, raising new questions about Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s ability to revamp the military with newer types of technology.”

And so it goes. For those with an appreciation of the past sixty years of U.S. history, its déjà vu again. This time, however, Americans may have to pay a higher price in blood as well as money for the maintenance of their blessed MICC. The Pentagon’s business-as-usual defense policy—obviously—failed to defend the American people on September 11. Nor can we expect it to 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.
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


New from Robert Higgs!
CRISIS AND LEVIATHAN (25TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION): Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government
The size and scope of government power has grown in response to crises of war and economic upheavals. Such increased power remains long after each crisis passes, threatening both civil and economic liberties, all at the behest of special interest groups.