's Comparative Politics/The 'Iron Triangle': Legislators, Bureaucrats, and Interest Groups

NOTE: the Military-Industrial Complex became known as the Iron Triangle due to its ability to successfully pass legislation/appropriations.

What We Talked About At ISA: The U.S. Military-Industrial Complex, Part I


by Srdjan Vucetic, The Disorder of Things

Earlier this year, the U.S. government set out to reduce its vast defence budget. On 5 January, Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to hold a press conference at the Pentagon. What prompted it was the release of Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defence, a “strategic guidance” document outlining the national blueprint for “deterring and defeating aggression,” while reducing record budget deficits “through a lower level of defence spending.” (The document also attracted much media attention because it offered a rare glimpse into the strategic thinking of a president who seems to refuse to be associated with a “doctrine.”) In his State of the Union address three weeks later, Obama reinstated his belief that paring defence sending could help “pay down our debt.” The Pentagon’s FY2013 budget projection followed on 13 February, with a request for $614 billion in funding: $525 billion for the base budget and $88 billion for the so-called overseas contingency operations. FY2012 budget request, the Pentagon noted, was bigger.

Pundits in the US have been debating the meaning of the coming defence cuts, starting with the question of whether there will, in fact, be any cuts in the first place. This debate will probably intensify as the election date approaches, although, indicatively, Obama’s strategic guidance contains no “East of Suez” moments, and his Pentagon speech was a candid expression about the need to stay the course: “Over the next 10 years, the growth in the defence budget will slow, but the fact of the matter is this: It will still grow, because we have global responsibilities that demand our leadership… I firmly believe, and I think the American people understand, that we can keep our military strong and our nation secure with a defence budget that continues to be larger than roughly the next 10 countries combined” (emphasis mine; also, “10” appears to be way too low).

Much remains to be said about the type, magnitude, and sequence of the coming changes to America’s defence, and the electoral 2012 will be too short to say it all. The first round of projected budget cuts (“$487 billion”) takes into consideration the provisions of the self-flagellating Budget Control Act from August 2011. The second round of cuts (“$500 billion”) refers the so-called automatic sequestration cuts, also specified in the Act, which will take effect in January 2013 if Congress does find “alternative” ways to control the budget. U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta described these automatic cuts as the “doomsday scenario,” a label that Congress’s bipartisan supercommittee will no doubt keep in mind as it looks for those alternatives (such as, for example, legislation to reverse the Act). In the end, what will change is the ordering of America’s military priorities, but not the militarization of America’s “global responsibilities” (to use Obama’s own label) as such. Behind it, after all, are multiple and reinforcing structural factors that make real cuts difficult. One of them is “defence industry,” which some pundits and watchdog organizations like to call, somewhat retrospectively, the “military-industrial complex” (MIC).

As a conceit, the MIC goes back at least to World War I, but it is popularly dated to Eisenhower’s ‘Farewell Address’ in 1961. As far as US presidential speeches/speechwriting goes, Eisenhower’s was a tour de force in every respect, but the reason why we read it today – or, rather, search for it on YouTube – is for the parts where the president urges the American citizens to pay attention to the “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry [that is] new in the American experience,” while advising the American government to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”

An excellent behind-the-scenes look at this speech can be found in James Ledbetter’s Unwarranted Influence (2011), an account of how and why the phrase MIC first took hold and then evolved into one of the great political tropes of twentieth century America. Unlike some other authors whose excellent writings on the MIC regularly appear on my syllabi, Ledbetter is unwilling to consign neither the phrase nor the referent historical phenomenon to the dustbin of history. Instead, he concludes that the contemporary MIC remains “at least equal to the one Eisenhower warned against,” especially if one fixes this trope thus: “a network of public and private forces that combine a profit motive with the planning and implementation of strategic policy.”

This type of definition is attractive on two grounds. First, it subsumes the common practice of complexifying the complex: military-industrial-congressional-media-think tank-academic-private security-virtual-global and so on, as lampooned in the title of Nick Turse’s 2008 book. As Ledbetter notes, many adjectives work, but ‘judicial’ is not one of them because the MIC has escaped the otherwise steady judicialization of American politics. There are certainly good theoretical reasons for expanding the phrase. In the age of media wars, cyberwars, ghost wars, MOOTWs (“military operations other than war”), less lethal engagements and such, the wares built for the large-scale industrial wars of the twentieth century are often irrelevant and ineffective, at least compared to state-of-the-art technologies for collecting and controlling information. The evolution of weapons into weapon systems, argued Mary Kaldor in her 1981 book Baroque Arsenal, led to a massive increase in complexity (and so the rates of failure), and a similarly massive increase in costs of military production (the latter point was not lost on the leaders of defence industry at the time; check out “Augustine’s Law 16”). But there is another way of interpreting contemporary weapon systems. Writing in the early days of the post-9/11 era, James Der Derian put it thus: “If Vietnam was a war waged in the living-rooms of America, the first and most likely the last battles of the counter/terror war are going to be waged on global networks that reach much more widely and deeply into our everyday lives.” In his analysis, the MIC has now become the “MIME-NET”: the military-industrial-media-entertainment network. A similar point, but from an entirely different theoretical starting point, was made in 1999 by James Kurth, who concluded that “American interests” were damaged less by the MIC than by “other complexes-financial, medical, educational, or entertainment.”

Eisenhower’s MIC, it should be noted, was almost born with an extra adjective: it was the president himself who made a last-minute decision to drop “Congressional” (or “parliamentary”, depending on the source) from the triad put forward by his speechwriters. And it was this omission that induced future critics of defence industry to opt for the “iron triangle,” a metaphor Gordon Adams employed in his 1981 analysis of the politics of U.S. military procurement.

Second, and related, the idea of the network recognize that the phenomenon in question operates as a combination of public, para-public, and private actors that seek to bring profit to strategy (and vice versa). From this perspective, actors that constitute the MIC-qua-network both cooperate and compete, depending on how conflicting their desires (money, information, status) and beliefs (what is profit? what is strategy?) concerning the mobilization of public resources used to protect the national “way of life.” Ledbetter’s intellectual history stays away from due and undue theorizations, but his definition tempts one to suggest that the operation of the MIC can perhaps best be understood in terms of the evolution of the power of a particular node (e.g., BAE Systems) viz. other nodes (the UK government, U.S Department of State, Lockheed Martin, U.S. Air Force, etc.) in what has become a globalized web of relations (TDOT has addressed the global dimension of the MIC before). Social scientists have long recognized that social interaction – and power relations – can be analyzed in networks terms (for an early network analysis of corporate power, see William Carroll’s 1986 study; for an artistic representation, see Josh On’s They Rule; and for a pointed “what we talked about ISA”-style discussion on the theory/methodology distinction in this type of analysis, see Charlie Carpenter’s post at the Duck). In addition to measures like “resources” (writ large), “clustering” (being accepted into mini-webs within a larger web of nodes, also related to ”density”), and “access” (the number and quality of direct links to other nodes, also expressed as “reciprocity” and “transitivity”), what matters for networked actors is also “brokerage power” (the linking of heretofore unconnected nodes). A firm may thus become a “prime” in a larger defence contract not only because of its size or electoral geography at the time of the contract, but also because its executives were skillful at brokering among different actors within the political landscape (Conversely, the same firm might be relegated to a “major” status because its good connections might end up cancelling each other).

That the study of the MIC qua network(s) can be analytically promising for all sorts of theoretical perspectives can be appreciated in a parallel reading of Richard Bitzinger’s Towards a Brave New Arms Industry (2003) and Anna Stavrianakis’s Taking Aim At the Arms Trade (2010). This promise is also evident from a recent paper authored by Bastiaan van Appeldoorn and Naná de Graaff (forthcoming in EJIR). What this work offers is a theoretical argument on the importance of the social context in which US grand strategists operate. In this view, the influence of the defence lobby on America’s military orientation is important, but not quite as important as the influence of Wall Street or the “financial industry.” Rather than its cause, the authors suggest, the MIC is in fact the effect of America’s drive for military dominance of the global commons, the engine behind it all being US transnational capital and its venerable “Open Door” strategy. Van Appeldoorn and de Graaff make this argument by subjecting top-level corporate affiliations of key state officials (the president, secretaries, advisors etc) in the last three administrations to various tools of social network analysis. The affiliations that predominate across administrations are financial corporations and law firms, not weapons manufacturers. Their conclusion accords with Ledbetter’s point that the MIC may be an archaic term in the sense that the U.S. economy has significantly deindustrialized since Eisenhower’s era. Be that as it may, the study of the ways in which elite network relationships evolve and influence the power dynamics within governments, a large and important question in itself, can without a doubt be a salutary new addition to the research on global supply chains, party and committee politics, electoral geographies, and other dimensions of the MIC with which social scientists have grappled with for decades.

As a political trope, Ledbetter suggests in his book, the MIC is “almost always” deployed negatively. The first reason is militarism, a set of ideas, discourses, institutions and practices that lead towards the preparation for, and conduct of, organized political violence (for more on this definition, see the forthcoming volume edited by Anna Stavrianakis and Jan Selby). According to Fareed Zakaria, even Eisenhower regarded militarism as the main problem with the MIC:

The result is a warped American foreign policy, ready to conceive of problems in military terms and present a ready military solution. Describing precisely this phenomenon, Eisenhower remarked that to a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. In his often-quoted farewell address, Eisenhower urged a balance between military and non-military spending. Unfortunately, it has become far more unbalanced in the decades since his speech.

The extent to which states ought to equip themselves with tools built for killing people and breaking things is a question that has long fascinated political philosophers. A debate on the “standing armies” between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine – and specifically the arguments of the latter – is often said to have influenced the American secessionists who authored the Articles of Confederation in 1777, which forbade the creation of the nationwide armed forces (subsequent founding documents, starting with the Federalist Papers, corrected this desideratum, acknowledging that the security-liberty trade-off must always take into account the nature of external threats). As almost every American politics textbook teaches, the newborn republic saw itself as an open and democratic society with its (small) government institutions owing their existence to those values, rather than military power. (One of the manifestations of America’s openness, textbooks ought to discuss, was its government’s consistent refusal to stop its citizens from selling weaponry to various belligerents around the globe. Writing in 1793 to the British ambassador George Hammond, Thomas Jefferson, then U.S. Secretary of State, explained his country’s arms trade policy:

Our citizens have been always free to make, vend and export arms. It is the constant occupation and livelihood of some of them. To suppress their calling, the only means perhaps of their subsistence, because a war exists in foreign and distant countries in which we have no concern would scarcely be expected. It would be hard in principle and impossible in practice.)

In the histories of U.S. foreign policy, the principles and practices invoked by Jefferson, Madison and other foundational believers in America the Peaceful are sometimes linked in discourse with “neutrality” and even “isolationism,” which are said to have operated to set the U.S. apart from the ghastly great power politics of the Old World. Then 9/14 happened. On 14 September 1940, reacting to what became known as World War II, Congress passed the first peacetime draft in U.S. history, the so-called Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 (also known as Burke-Wadsworth Act). With the stroke of FDR’s pen two days later, the act became law requiring registration of all American male citizens between 21 and 35 to register for the draft, leading to a lottery selection for 12 months of military service in the “Western Hemisphere or an overseas U.S. possession or territory.” (A couple of interesting factoids: a result of the act, all adult American males must register for “contingency service” even if the U.S. government suspended conscription after the Vietnam War. Also, the act codified racialized segregation in the U.S. Army by calling for a 10% quota for African Americans, which was meant to represent the actual African American population at the time).

The institutional spree established by the 1947 National Security Act marks the beginning of the so-called national security state. On the materiel side, historians have shown, – and I am thinking of two essays in particular, Robert Higgs’s 1993 chapter on the rearmament program of 1940-1941 (in Mills and Rockoff, The Sinews of War) and Alex Roland’s 2001 take on the MIC – the U.S. government enacted a series of new policies and programs that we have come to associate with the “private profit, public risk” MIC model (direct subsidies, tax breaks, advance payments, no-bid contracts, government-supplied plants and equipment etc.). And the rest is historical institutionalism, as Rachel Maddow observes in her fresh-off-the press Drift (2012):

It is not a conspiracy. Rational political actors, acting rationally to achieve rational (if sometimes dumb) political goals, have attacked and undermined our constitutional inheritance from men like Madison. For the most part, though, they’ve not done it to fundamentally alter the country’s course but just to get around understandably frustrating impediment to their political goals.

“Liberals and moderates”, as those who follow Maddow’s MSNBC show are sometimes called in the U.S., like to rail against the power of the MIC by referring to America’s foundational promise as a “deliberately peaceable nation” (reference is to the concluding phrase in Maddow’s book). The 1940 draft bill, note, had its fair share of sceptics: 124 representatives voted against, as did 25 senators. Pearl Harbor would of course “change everything,” but it is worth zeroing in on one particular critic from this era. Drawing on the ideas of Hans Speier (one the founders of the University in Exile of the New School for Social Research), Harold Lasswell penned two articles in 1937 and 1941, which introduced the trope of the “garrison state,” an entity controlled by a class of specialists in organized political violence. The U.S. was not immune to trends toward militarization, he argued in his 1941 article, noting that the American or British garrison states could seek to “universalize a federation of democratic free nations” in the name of democracy. The was not a desirable future, he noted, but “[s]hould the garrison state become unavoidable, however, the friend of democracy will seek to conserve as many values as possible within the general framework of the new society.”

Laswell’s parallel critique of the standing armies and weapons manufacturers drew on a long, home-bread American tradition of suspicion toward militarized state power or, for that matter, all types of state power. (This is a simplification. Hayward Alker’s 1989 essay “An Orwellian Lasswell for Today” provides a much broader context-and-meaning narrative). “American” anti-militarism pre-dates “America,” but its early institutional expression can be found, as Charles DeBenedetti shows, in the early nineteenth century social movements among the urban and urbane of bourgeoisie of the northeastern seaboard, especially among Congregationalist, Unitarian, and Quaker traders, clergy and teachers.

Exceptional moments like Pearl Harbor or 9/11 aside, this critique was sustained throughout American history by innumerable commentators, varying widely in analysis and political stance: moderates, progressives, liberals, libertarians, Marxists, and poststructuralists all like to talk and write about the excesses of the American national security state. A typical case against the MIC centers on militarism, while also mobilizing a combination of economic teachings (revolving around terms such as misallocation, wastefulness, opportunity costs, distortions and so on) and additional political, social and cultural themes (patriarchy, favouritism, corruption, secrecy, to name but four). What must be recognized is how a “case against” always repackages past narratives, especially those on the defence industry “scandals.” (Here, germane is the work of Jennifer Erickson, as is Adam Goldstein’s analysis of the $600 hammer scandal, which traces the development of a narrative on waste in defence contracts, and its subsequent legal and regularly impact on the practices of U.S. procurement.) The value of Ledbetter’s book lies in the way such narratives are situated into an account that is at once historical (the author sets out to trace the origins and evolution of the idea of the MIC in the American public sphere) and, I would suggest, genealogical (“to weigh contemporary arguments about the MIC using standards suggested by Eisenhower’s views”). As the book shows, there has been no shortage of powerful arguments against the MIC over the decades, yet the MIC is alive and kicking. So what, then, about a “case for”? The second part of this post will begin with this question.

What We Talked About At ISA: The U.S. Military-Industrial Complex, Part 2


So what would be the normative-political case for the Military-Industrial Complex (MIC)? As Ledbetter notes, the defence industry never had a shortage of defenders, proponents, beneficiaries, and apologists. Various critiques of the MIC notwithstanding, numerous American commentators are now firmly united in the belief that their country needs a large defence budget in order to protect and project its identities and interests in the world. According to Maddow, this collective belief had a lot to do with the discursive and institutional success of the infamous “Team B” reports on Soviet power, which so profoundly enthused Ronald Reagan and his administration, leading to the gigantic military buildup in the 1980s. Maddow’s assessment is worth citing at length:

The Think Tanks and Very Important Committees of the permanent national security peanut gallery are now so mature and entrenched that almost no one thinks they’re creepy anymore, and national security liberals have simply decided it’s best to add their own voices to them rather than criticize them. But like we lefties learned in trying (and failing) to add a liberal network to the all-right-wing, decades-old medium of political talk radio, the permanent defense gadfly world can’t really grow a liberal wing. It’s an inherently hawkish enterprise. Where’s the inherent urgency in arguing that the threats aren’t as bad as the hype, that military power is being overused, that the defense budget could be safely and wisely scaled back, that maybe this next war doesn’t need us? The only audience for defense wonkery is defense enthusiasts, and they’re not paying the price of admission to hear that defense is overrated.

But knotted into the right-wing discourse on defence spending is a number of corollary arguments that are associated with a variety of lefty positions in the U.S. context. America’s mainstream media outlets rarely fail to acknowledge how the twinning of the country’s economic and armed forces not only creates high-skilled jobs, but also – and critically – keeps them in the country. The move is mainly rhetorical. Not only have successive U.S. administrations encouraged American defence industry to globalize, but there is also little evidence to suggest that defence spending creates more jobs relative to spending on, say, health care or education (see, for example, Pollin and Garrett-Peltier, 2011). I would suggest, then, that what lies behind contemporary pro-MIC arguments is, in fact, a creative and complex combination of certain economic theories, (realist?) beliefs in war (or the threat of war) as a manifest destiny of the international system, as well as an overarching (liberal?) commitment to a powerful, sovereign state capable of exercising global leadership (aka., a “force for good”, in still favoured New Labour parlance.)

Let us revisit the pro-MIC rhetoric from the era of “Team B.” In a footnote, Ledbetter directs the reader to The Lonely Warriors (1970) by John Stanley Baumgartner, who is described as “one notable true defender of the MIC.” Written by an expert in public management and business administration, Baumgartner’s book makes three arguments for the MIC: 1) defending the free world is a moral thing to do (“Sputnik is only one example of the reasons for MIC”); 2) by definition, defence is a big enterprise and all big enterprises (directly or indirectly, the MIC employs one in ten Americans) occasionally make big mistakes, especially when they respond to the murky and changing specifications set by the government (“the tiger” or “the monster”) and its contracting officers; and last, 3) “unconscionable profit” is not so unconscionable in comparative terms (profit on sales, profit on investment, price/earning ratios etc. tend to be below the industrial average).

The first argument, as I will attempt to show in this post, is the trump card for the defenders of the MIC. States have a moral right to defend themselves, and so their governments must spend on defence. The aforementioned notion that the U.S. is not any state, but the indispensable nation, further reinforces this rationale. Next, because defence is a textbook public good and because of the risky/uncertain nature of international relations, governments must also constantly work hard to maintain their own arms industries (aka. the “defence-industrial base”) such that the state can defend itself even if its network of foreign suppliers is cut-off. What ultimately makes this argument persuasive in the nationalist age are the pervasive and powerful conceptions of the private/public and the inside/outside as well as the institutions and practices these conceptions execute in international life. This also means, conversely, that any attack on the MIC is at some level also an attack on the politics and ethics of these distinctions, as in the standard remainder that the costs of the war in X ought to include the costs borne out by all participants.

On the bold presumption that morality of statecraft might also arise from other forms of state security, this line of arguing can be extended further. As Mark Suchman and Dana Eyre have argued, defence spending is profoundly shaped by institutionalized normative structures that connect advanced weaponry with modernity and sovereignty. Note, for one, how the Internet or the GPS are routinely cited as examples of revolutionary technologies brought to you by the MIC (in the Reagan years, these were the Hubble telescope or the microchip; in the Eisenhower years, the television, fiberglass, and antibiotics and so on). That the desire for state-of-the-art technological development in the area of defence can overrule scientific and strategic concerns is evident in the studies of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile defence, the most recent example being Columba Peoples’ Justifying Ballistic Missile Defence (2010). Whether the underlying moral narrative centers on risk or prestige, the case for the MIC remains strong unless one is ready to accept a much broader politics of community, citizenship, security, and so on.

I will return to the morality of national defence; for the moment, let us consider how Baumgartner’s other two arguments might be related to the moral one. In a state-centric understanding of the world, it is certainly true that more-or-less pure public goods like national defence (as defined by nonexcludability and nonrivalrous consumption) face free rider problems and therefore go underprovided. So what can be done about it? In his “Public Goods, Politics, and Two Cheers for the Military-Industrial Complex” (Ch.2 in Higgs, ed., Arms, Politics and the Economy, 1990), Dwight Lee offers a classic response: “Given the latitude afforded by a rationally ignorant and apathetic public, the MIC will continue to do what all special interest do when given the opportunity, i.e., capture private advantage by imposing generalized cost in the form of waste and efficiency.”

In the public choice idiom, defence lobbies and complexes are not a solution to the undersupply of defence, they are the solution. Citizens (defined as consumers of physical security, which currently costs, depending on how one parses the military spending numbers, between $2000 and $3000 for every American resident) are ultimately better off with a predatory MIC, than with no MIC (a situation in which “there are no economic rents associated with the supply of national defence”). Negative externalities (anything from the unconscionable corporate profits to the academic grants handed out by defence and public works ministries) may thus not be so negative; and when push comes to shove (as, one may add, it does in the matters of national security) unwarranted influence in fact becomes quite warranted. What is more, there is no rational basis for reform: “the influence vacuum created by controls on the MIC would be quickly filled by the influence of other special-interest groups and they would gain control of most, if not all, of the resources away from the military.” For Lee, the defence of defence industry is a matter of “political realism.” The author is explicit:

We have no basis for criticizing those who pursue their self-interest through the political process even though we are convinced that this pursuit generates unfortunate social outcomes. When public choice economists advocate reforms for improving political outcomes, it is reform of the political institutions they have in mind, not moral reform of people who lack enthusiasm for putting the interest of others ahead of their own.

In principle, rents from military spending can be widely distributed – so long as “unintended consequences” like accelerated waste are controlled. Members of the U.S. House of Representatives are known to use tools like the committee system and cross-policy logrolling to channel military-related pork projects for their districts. (This goes double for members of the Senate, especially those who overstay in the defence appropriations subcommittee). As the financial crisis gathered pace in 2008, conservative economists went on record to argue that spending on military, police, and intelligence wares, equipment, and personnel was a tried-and-tested method of using fiscal policy to manage the national economy. What used to be a limited dimension of American politics, reserved mostly to Republican politicians in the so-called “gun belt”, was now being put forth as a blueprint for a stimulus comparable only to FDR’s “public works” campaigns during the Great Depression. This is an extreme position, but it does reveal a major double vision on the part of many contemporary commentators, think-tankers, and office-holders on the political right. Zakaria sums it up effectively:

Most talk of waste, fraud and abuse in government is vastly exaggerated; there simply isn’t enough money in discretionary spending. Most of the federal government’s spending is transfer payments and tax expenditures, which are — whatever their merits — highly efficient at funneling money to their beneficiaries. The exception is defense, a cradle-to-grave system of housing, subsidies, cost-plus procurement, early retirement and lifetime pension and health-care guarantees. There is so much overlap among the military services, so much duplication and so much waste that no one bothers to defend it anymore. Today, the U.S. defense establishment is the world’s largest socialist economy.

Zakaria’s framing of the Pentagon as the (second, third, etc.) “largest socialist economy” in the world draws from the anti-MIC discourse of the Cold War. It is a framing that invokes conceits such as “military Keynesianism,” old Marxist term popularized in the 2000s by the late Chalmers Johnson, as well as “Pentagon capitalism”, which was the name of one of the books Seymour Melman penned while under FBI surveillance. The rest of Zakaria’s paragraph must be understood in the particular context of a huge post 9/11 spike in defence spending. Up to one third of the present-day defence budget indeed goes to the spending on salaries and benefits, which, estimates the man who worked as the deputy secretary of defense in the second George W. Bush administration, have gone up by “almost 90% during this interval.” Any comparison between military and civil wages are misleading because the U.S. military base pay is a function of rank, location, time served, marital status and so on (many of which are a function of what the U.S. is doing with its military in a given context), and because “income” does not include assorted housing and health benefits that are rarely available in the civil sector (in the case anyone’s wondering, U.S. median income in 2011 was between $40,000 and $50,000 a year, depending on the source and measurement; according to Mother Jones, it is $31244 for the “bottom 90 percent”).

As a political trope, the MIC emphasizes the “I” and “C” over “M.” Zakaria selected his concluding words carefully, blaming rent-seeking on the “U.S. defence establishment”, not on the totalitarian welfare state-loving military rank-and-file. After all, how can one not “support our troops”? As politicians around the world know all too well, the best rhetorical strategy for defending defence is to talk about supporting “courageous men and women in uniform” because the phrase is a powerful reminder that the costs of national defence are not distributed equally among the citizens. Add “war” and/or some Big Militarized Threat to the rhetorical mix, and the case for defence is processed reflexively. (As George Lakoff might say, the idea of supporting our courageous men and women in uniform became physically instantiated in the synapses of brains of most Americans after 9/11. It is in the flesh!)

Little surprise, then, that most anti-MIC critiques tend to center on members of Congress, bureaucrats, lawyers, lobbyists, think-tankers, journalists and corporate types. Indeed, corporations and their representatives tend to win this particular unpopularity contest. In his biting 2000 take on the MIC in the George W. Bush era, William Hartung identified what he regarded as the five most rapacious rent-seekers: “U.S. policy is now based on what’s good for Chevron, Halliburton, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Bechtel, not what’s good for the average citizen.” It is the kind of statement most Americans tend to agree with. So short of trying to sell political realism à la Dwight Lee to the public, how does one even begin to make the case for the “I” and “C”?

One strategy is to place the American MIC in a historical-comparative context and demonstrate that it tends to operate under the rules of more-or-less free enterprise. This is the crux of an argument put forth by Aaron Friedberg, first in his 1992 IS article entitled “Why Didn’t the United States Become a Garrison State?”, and then in his 2000 book, which looks at weapons manufacturing, scientific R&D, and conscription in relation to other aspects of the American government in the middle years of the twentieth century. According to Friedberg, the U.S. won the critical early period of the Cold War (1945-1960) on the basis of its unique internal strength: a mix of the checks-and-balances constitutional structure, self-interested bureaucratic and business (especially anti-tax) politics, and the prevailing capitalist ideology. It was these “mechanisms” that prevented the creation of Soviet-style defence budgets, government arsenals, state-controlled scientific and research communities and so on, thus inhibiting “some of the worst, most stifling excesses of statism [that] made it easier for the United States to preserve its economic vitality and technological dynamism, to maintain domestic political support for a protracted strategic competition and to stay the course in that competition better than its supremely statist rival.” In short, the American MIC was elephantine, but not mammoth – and that difference could have been the difference between victory and defeat in the greatest political face-off of the twentieth century. (Friedberg’s argument, I can’t help but note, rests on my kind of ontology: America’s early Cold War strategy was not “not somehow dictated by objective, material circumstances or by some inescapable technological reality…[but was] strongly shaped by domestic, anti-statist influences.”)

Ledbetter is correct to describe Friedberg’s book as “influential.” At one level, it is a concrete demonstration of why even the most aggressive Ayn Randian anti-statist must agree that government has a necessary role in defending its citizens. (Compare with Samuel Huntington’s elaboration of the “anti-statist ethics” in his 1981 American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony). At the more fundamental level, the book offers a strong moral case for the MIC. What makes Friedberg’s narrative persuasive is the notion that the U.S. is a force of good in the world; once this premise is accepted, it is much easier to get in the swing of the overall argument. The author is admiringly candid about the political-normative framework underlying his story: “A brief word about my own biases: while I have not set out to write a morality tale, I do intend clearly to emphasize the long-term benefits to the health and vitality of the American regime of the anti-statist influences that are so deeply embedded within it. That does not mean, however, that I regard these influences as always and unreservedly positive, or that I intend to treat the postwar advocates of anti-statism as the unvarnished heroes of my story.” And “if the term refers to someone who not only rejoices in America’s Cold War success, but sees in it proof of the practical strengths as well as the moral virtues of the American regime, then I am an unrepentant triumphalist.” (When he wrote these words, it should be noted, Friedberg was involved in the Project for the New American Century.)

As Ledbetter notes, Friedberg’s triumphalism comes on very thin ice once his argument is extended to cover the work of statist power in what we would now call “homeland security.” Starting with the internment of Asian Americans during World War II (and earlier, I would add), and all the way to the current practice of warrantless wiretaps, there is much evidence to show that the American state has excelled at the garrisoning of its society, especially relative to its own founding principles. And what of the MIC as an “imperfect free enterprise”? Compared to, say, Fourth Republic France (to say nothing of the Soviet empire, which is Friedberg’s main reference point), the U.S. does in fact appear “highly resistant to centralized industrial planning” (notwithstanding the exceptional nature of nuclear weapons and so on). Cross-national comparisons like these have much rhetorical value, but they generally do not help with the central question: can the post-World War II U.S. defence sector be characterized in market terms?

Ledbetter’s, Higgs’ and Roland’s interpretations of this period of American history all say no.[1] At a fundamental level, the answer is theoretical, as suggested in the description of my ISA panel on “Markets and Militaries” (one of four sessions with the same title organized by Deborah Cowen and Emily Gilbert):

In light of the widespread militarization of zones of trade and commerce, and the phenomenal privatization of warfare, critics have begun to question the distinction between markets and militaries. No doubt we are witnessing meaningful shifts in the social and spatial ordering of accumulation and violence that demand closer scrutiny, yet the long history and complex geography of entanglement not only challenge the frame of ‘newness’, but prompt us to investigate the very salience of this conceptual divide. In different ways, a long list of scholars including Barkawi, Delanda, Foucault, Griggers, Mann, Mbembe, Melman, Mohanty, Neocleus, and Tilly have questioned the very separation of militaries and markets. Yet this distinction is linked to a series of other entrenched modern binaries (war/peace; military/civilian), and in sometimes subtle ways underpins many methods of socio-cultural, political-economic, and, importantly, spatial analysis.

In the abstract context, the manifest contingency of private/public and related modern binaries negates the “almost market” thesis. Here is how defence economists typically talk about it:

•The defence market is a rare monopsony-oligopoly situation, where one buyer (in the U.S. context, this is technically the Pentagon, but with budget authorization and much else in the hands of Congress) is dealing with a few sellers (big defence consortia led by a handful of primes like Boeing). Once the product is completed, the seller becomes a monopolist: nearly all follow-on upgrades, maintenance, etc. remains with the same contractor. Over the long term, this situation blurs the line between the buyer and the supplier;

•Price is usually not as important as performance or the timing of development and delivery. The sellers have a disincentive to compete over the price, and the buyer has an incentive to lowball the cost in its shareholder report (i.e., annual budget requests);

•Product specifications are controlled neither by the buyer nor the seller. Almost by default, weapon systems are both technologically and politically uncertain: the product succeeds so long as the buyer continues to finance its development in the face of all sorts of changing requirements over the length of the development. To go back to Baumgartner’s book, what makes military acquisitions different from, say, railroads is the degree of politicization; in the times of peace at least, spending on killing machines always needs extra normalizing. Politicization goes the other way: the supplier lobbies the buyer to expand the product line, thus creating demand;

•Related, the market, by default, is overregulated. Government guarantees, Baumgartner laments, come with all manner of strings attached, which can make the industry’s life difficult. But there is flip side to it: overregulation leads to a scramble for escape clauses and loopholes, which savvy contractors exploit to their advantage); and

•The market is subject to severe boom-bust cycles. Profits, to go back to Baumgartner one last time, may be high, but they are extremely insecure relative to those in say, the financial complex. And on the flip side, just like Wall Street, the MIC and the state are in a long-term partnership: when the going gets tough, help is swiftly on the way.

Little wonder, then, that the defenders of the MIC like to concentrate on the “M” part. Calls to protect defence spending (such as this one) almost always come folded into the moral discourses on sovereignty, territoriality, democracy, and global leadership. For example, with the “control of the global commons” as the reigning defence policy/strategy in Washington, U.S. defending spending must remain big.

Could the second Obama administration – or, indeed, any presidential administration – on its own dilute the power of the U.S. defence establishment? The aforementioned perspectives on political communication, political institutions, network theory, and history suggest that the answer is no (or No He Can’t). What of discursive and institutional coalitions? Though the current attempt to curb defence spending is by no means revolutionary, it probably reflects a certain rebalancing of power within the American MIC. In addition to the reform-minded president, now successive defence secretaries have worked under the assumption that America’s long-term debt and the deficit problems might be more threatening than, say, China or terrorism. No less important is the fact that not all Republican presidential hopefuls in 2011-12 called for more defence spending. Most of them did (without offering corollary fiscal reflections), but there were two exceptions. The obvious exception is Ron Paul, whose musings on the U.S. empire abroad and its national security state at home reached relatively large audiences during the Republican primaries (Paul was in the business of building a political movement, rather than running for the candidacy, but a question for a future post on the life of the American MIC is why he collected more donations from the rank-and-file than Mitt Romney and all other candidates combined.). The other exception is Newt Gingrich who more than once self-described as a “cheap hawk” (not to be confused with “chickenhawk”, which is how Paul described him at the some point). Add to this the recent musings of the far-right senator Tom Coburn from Oklahoma, and it appears that there may be a GOP faction favourable to defence cuts.

Real budgetary changes might well arrive, eventually making the American military arsenal less baroque (perhaps fulfilling the promise of the “revolution in military affairs” of the 1990s), but this alone will not turn the U.S. into an empire on the cheap, much less a peaceable republic invoked by both Ledbetter and Maddow. That particular future would depend on a host of events, one of them being an open, wide-ranging, and constructive debate on the executive war-making powers, which would involve the entire American political system, in all of its polarized glory. So think health care reform, and multiply by 10.

[1] While there is little evidence to suggest that early Cold War military procurements in the U.S. followed open and transparent bidding processes among would-be contractors, one must not jump the conclusion that contractors did as they pleased. Consider Eugene Gholz’ 2000 case study of the rise and fall the Curtiss-Wright Corporation, a giant of U.S. aerospace and defence industry in the early Cold War. Gholz uses this case to evaluate four propositions drawn from the social science and history literatures on the determinants of military procurement decisions: the MIC (corporations decide); the bureaucratic-strategic theory (bureaucratic politics determines outcomes); a technological determinist theory (best available technology tends to win); and the “market” perspective (best business plan, as vetted by Wall Street, carries the day). The fate of Curtiss-Wright, the author explains, constitutes a puzzle for the MIC theory: a instead of securing “unconscionable profits” through lucrative defence government contracts, the corporation folded (its research arm survived). What Gholz finds is that neither the “market” nor the MIC nor technology can explain the outcome; what can is the politics among Congress, the administration, and the military brass (Air Force and Navy procurement officers). Whether similar “separation” between the buyers and suppliers of military weaponry existed in a sufficiently large number of cases remains an empirical question, but the Curtiss-Wright story is an important addendum to Friedberg’s almost market thesis.