OPINION: Guns, butter, and Obama

Over the next several months there will be a battle for hearts and minds, but not in Iraq or Afghanistan. The war will be here at home, waged mostly in the halls of Congress, where grim lobbyists for one of the top 15 economies in the world are digging in to preserve their stake in the massive U.S. military budget. With the country in deep recession and resources dwindling for the new administration’s programs on health care, education and the environment, the outcome of this battle may well end up defining the next four years.

But coming to grips with the issue, as one military analyst noted, is likely to resemble the worst of World War I trench warfare. ‘It will be like the British Army at the Somme,’ Winslow Wheeler of the Center for Defense Information (CDI) told the Boston Globe. ‘You will just get mowed down by the defense industry.’

Up against the industry

For starters, there are 185,000 corporations behind those metaphorical machine guns, and a few are formidable indeed: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, Alliant Techsystems, United Technologies, Textron, Teledyne, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman and Texas Instruments, just to name a few.

The World Policy Institute found that dozens of high Bush administration officials were former arms company executives, consultants or shareholders, and that this network of influence reaches deep into Congress. The combination of lobbying and PAC money that pours into election coffers every two years gives the arms industry enormous influence over the actions of the executive and legislative branches.

The reason is simple: the money at stake is staggering, although nailing down exactly what this country spends on the military is extremely difficult. ‘Figures on defense spending are notoriously unreliable,’ defense expert Chalmers Johnson points out. ‘All numbers released by the Pentagon should be regarded as suspect.’

While the ‘official’ 2009 U.S. military budget is $516 billion, that figure bears little resemblance to what this country actually spends. According to CDI, if one pulls together all the various threads that make up the defense spending tapestry — including Homeland Security, secret ‘black budget’ items, military-related programs outside of the Defense Department, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and such outlays as veterans’ benefits — the figure is around $862 billion for the current fiscal year. Johnson says spending is closer to $1.1 trillion.

Even these figures are misleading, since it does not project future costs. According to Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, when the economic and social costs of the Iraq war are finally added up — including decades of treatment for veterans disabled by traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder — the final bill could reach $5 trillion.

Cuts in the offing?

Given the current economic crisis, even the defense establishment recognizes that some cuts are inevitable. A recent study by a Pentagon advisory group, the Defense Business Board, says that current defense spending is ‘not sustainable’ and recommends scaling back or eliminating some big-ticket weapon systems.

Canceling Lockheed Martin’s F-22 stealth fighter and F-35 joint strikefFighter, the Virginia Class submarine, the V-22 Osprey, the Zumwalt Class destroyer, and Boeing and Raytheon’s missile defense system, combined with some judicious reductions in other budget items, would save $55 billion annually, according to Foreign Policy in Focus’s Unified Security Budget.

The problem with U.S. military spending isn’t just expensive weapons, but the underlying philosophy that the use of force is a valid policy tool. And on that question, the incoming Obama administration has yet to break from the past.

While Obama has pledged to stress diplomacy over warfare, he has also promised to ‘maintain the most powerful military on the planet’ and to increase the armed forces by some 90,000 soldiers. According to the Congressional Budget Office, that will cost at least $50 billion over five years.

The most disturbing initiative, however, is a recent push to ‘reshape’ the armed forces. A recent Defense Department directive elevates ‘IW’ (irregular warfare) to a level ‘as strategically important as traditional warfare,’ arguing that for the ‘foreseeable future, winning the Long War against violent extremists will the central objective of U.S. policy.’

This concept is no different than the ‘hearts and minds’ counterinsurgency strategy that failed so disastrously in Southeast Asia two generations ago. The directive assumes that military disasters result from impatience and poor tactics. If you’re willing to fight a ‘Long War,’ don’t kick in too many doors, lunch with the locals, and hand out lots of candy to the kids, you win.

Occupational hazards

But the key to understanding why the U.S. and NATO are losing in Afghanistan and Iraq is the word ‘occupation.’

Writing almost a century ago, T.E. Lawrence laid out what he called the algebra of occupation: ‘Rebellion must have an unassailable base … it must have a sophisticated alien enemy, in the form of a disciplined army of occupation too small to dominate the whole area. It must have a friendly population … sympathetic to the point of not betraying rebel movements to the enemy. Granted mobility, security … time and doctrine … victory will rest with the insurgents, for the algebraical [sic] factors are in the end decisive.’

Lawrence was writing about the British occupation of Iraq, but he might as well have been channeling the future. His conclusion should give the Obama administration pause about its plans for a ‘surge’ of troops into Afghanistan: ‘Against them [the algebraic factors], perfections of means and spirit struggle quite in vain.’

History is replete with examples of Lawrence’s formula too numerous to list. Indeed, the few examples of successful counterinsurgency — the Americans in the Philippines and the British in Malaya — were the result of unique historical factors that have never transferred well.

The occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan has been a financial and diplomatic disaster for the United States, devastated the countries we invaded, and is spreading the war to Pakistan and India. The recent terrorist assault on Mumbai was very similar to the September bombing of the Islamabad Marriott Hotel, both of them almost certainly ‘blowback’ from the growing involvement of Indian forces in southern and eastern Afghanistan, and the Pakistani Army in the northwest frontier and tribal territories.

Won’t adding 90,000 troops trained in counterinsurgency warfare create pressure to use those troops in places like the Sudan, Somalia, the Gulf of Guinea, Colombia, or any number of regions where U.S. interests collide with local aspirations?

In an article in the most recent Foreign Affairs, Defense Secretary Robert Gates lays out his roadmap for a new U.S. military: ‘What is dubbed the war on terror is … a prolonged, worldwide irregular campaign — a struggle between the forces of violent extremism and those of moderation. Direct military force will continue to play a role in the long-term effort against the terrorists and other extremists. But over the long term, the United States cannot kill or capture its way to victory.’

Gates’ strategy embodies the possibility of both hope and disaster. If the United States chooses to keep the military on its current footing — including adding more troops and focusing on the use of ‘direct military force’ — then future wars and occupations will almost certainly torpedo Obama’s plans to deliver a more equal and humane society.

If, however, diplomacy and negotiations takes the place of F-16s and Special Forces, then there is yet hope that the world can take a step back and look for alternatives that avoid Lawrence’s grim calculations.


Conn Hallinan is a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist. This article is reprinted from www.fpif.org with permission of the author.