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The War-Money Nexus: How Some 2020 Democratic Candidates are Threatening the ‘Unsustainable’ Military-Industrial Complex

The War-Money Nexus: How Some 2020 Democratic Candidates are Threatening the ‘Unsustainable’ Military-Industrial Complex

“In actual fact it would seem that during the Cold War, if not during World War II, this country has become frankly a warfare state built on affluence, a power structure in which the interests of big business, the obsessions of the military, and the phobias of political extremists both dominate and dictate our national policy.”

-- Thomas Merton, Cold War Letters

Despite leading troops to victory on D-Day and effectively ending the Korean War, President Dwight D. Eisenhower--known by his nickname “Ike”--is ultimately best remembered in American history for what he said while in office. In his farewell speech on January 17, 1961, after eight years in the White House, Eisenhower warned the American people that they “must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex…[since] the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” President Eisenhower went on to disclaim that the United States (U.S.) had “been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions” and that it was imperative that the nation maintain a balance between their defense spending and their economic gains.

In that farewell address, President Eisenhower was referencing the ‘military-industrial complex’ (MIC): the informal but close alliance between the country’s military and economic sectors that often influences public policy. Essentially, the two sectors share a ‘vested interest’ where the defense industry, involved in the production of military weapons and equipment, and the military are dependent upon one another. However, Eisenhower was not simply informing the American public that this close relationship existed. Rather, he was bringing attention to the fact that it does so in a way that, if unchecked, it has the power to threaten the nation’s well-established democracy by destroying the very institutions the complex seeks to protect. As Eisenhower observed, the “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience.” Because of this, he was wary that it would increase global military competition and lead to an arms race of nuclear proportions. 

Now in an era of unprecedented military growth, Eisenhower’s worries still resonate with many Americans who have their own concerns regarding the nation’s unchecked military capabilities and extensive overseas involvement. Pairing such concerns with the growing relationship between private contractors, military personnel, and members of Congress, the military-industrial complex has become a renewed focal point for many Democratic candidates in their 2020 presidential campaigns.

A History of Funded Militarism

(To better understand the magnitude of the numbers that are presented in this article, it is important to be aware that the U.S. federal budget is comprised of three components: discretionary spending, mandatory spending, and interest on the debt. Military expenditures are funded by discretionary spending, which is the amount of money that Congress appropriates each year for certain agencies like the Department of Homeland Security. Furthermore, military spending in this context consists of the activities of the Department of Defense, war spending, nuclear weapons spending, international assistance, and funding for other Pentagon-related concerns.)

Known as the biggest powerhouse in the international community, the United States has always been a military-oriented nation. This fact was only made more prominent as the MIC rapidly grew during World War II. Military spending in the 1960s, on average, accounted for about 10 percent of U.S. GDP--a large number at that time. This was a surprising figure given that the country had already endured two long and arduous World Wars that amounted  to over 10 years of fighting, an estimated $4.43 trillion in expenditures (adjusted for inflation), and almost 17 million deployed military personnel. 

When it came for Eisenhower to leave the White House, the United States was experiencing a period of relative peace after rapid demobilization following the unconditional surrender of the Axis forces. However, military spending increased again under President Kennedy as he dealt with the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion in Cuba, the unnerving Cuban Missile Crisis, and additional rising tensions with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. According to a Council of Foreign Relations report published in 2014, post-World War II defense spending in terms of GDP fluctuated between 15 percent in 1952 during the Korean War and 3.7 percent in 2000. Not surprisingly, military spending drastically rose again in response to the devastating September 2001 attacks.

The events that transpired on 9/11 were arguably the catalyst for today’s current unprecedented military spending. President Bush declared a global “War on Terror,” engaging the United States in the Middle East in a quest for justice. This reinvigorated the country’s commitment to their military roots by building up the MIC and increasing defense spending even more. Now dubbed the “endless wars,” U.S. involvement overseas in Afghanistan and Iraq is going on 18 years, yet the nation’s focus on its military has not wavered. If anything, with each new president comes a renewed dedication to the MIC. At the end of the 2018 Fiscal Year (FY), the United States is said to have spent more than $5.6 trillion on post-9/11 wars.

Since then, the military-industrial complex has only expanded under President Obama and--though briefly declining upon taking office--President Trump. It seems that America and its leaders continue to fail to heed Eisenhower’s warnings. President Obama focused on actively building up America’s drone program and use of special forces teams in an attempt to maintain “the strongest fighting force the world has ever known.” At the same time, he was decreasing military personnel and pulling troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet regardless of these efforts, military spending during his tenure was still significant. The Department of Defense (DoD) even declared that President Obama was responsible for the largest military budget since World War II. Between Fiscal Years 2010 and 2015, the U.S. government was spending an average of $663.4 billion a year on the military, about $30 billion more than what President Bush had spent annually between 2002 and 2009. This number decreased slightly during President Obama’s last year as military spending in FY 2016 equaled about $611 billion. 

The U.S. has historically devoted a larger portion of its discretionary budget to its military. Though President Obama managed to decrease funding to a degree, current expenditures under President Trump are increasing again. In fact, it was President Trump who vowed to pursue a “historic increase” in funding in order to “make [the United State’s] military so big, powerful and strong that no one will mess with us.” Since the beginning of his presidential campaign, one of Trump’s main objectives was to rebuild the military in a way that President Obama had supposedly failed to do. 

In FY 2018 alone, the U.S. spent $649 billion on its defense. The largest military powerhouse in the world, the United States spends more on its armed forces than China, Russia, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, India, and the United Kingdom combined (see Figure 1)

Figure 1. U.S. Defense Spending (in billions of dollars) Compared to the Next Seven Countries. Graph courtesy of Peter G. Peterson Foundation.

Fast forward two years and in March 2019, President Trump proposed a FY 2020 Budget of $750 billion for national security, of which the Department of Defense would receive $718.3 billion to aid in their efforts to actively compete against the emerging threats posed by Russia and China. This call for an increase in military funds ultimately aligns with President Trump’s desire to show the rest of the world the United States’ “unquestioned military dominance.” In June 2019, under Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, President Trump’s efforts to increase spending seemed to be on a path to success as the House Armed Services Committee advanced a $733 billion defense budget, making it the largest defense budget the United States has ever held. Whether this budget will be successful remains unknown, but Mark Esper, recently appointed Secretary of Defense, approves of it, so the odds seem to be in President Trump’s favor.

Renewed Opposition by the Democratic Party

In accordance with Eisenhower’s fears, the military-industrial complex is alive and well. Yet many Americans are hoping that this will change in the next few years. With the upcoming presidential election in November 2020, a combined 26 candidates--25 Democrats and one Republican--are set to challenge President Donald Trump’s re-election bid. However, amidst claims that the Democratic Party is unstable and divided is the unanimous agreement that this batch of candidates is the most diverse in history. Candidate platforms focus on topics ranging from criminalizing corporate negligence and enforcing stricter gun laws, to increasing the national minimum wage and investing more in federal infrastructure, with an overall prioritization of health care and social justice-related issues. Yet even with the wide array of issues being discussed in debates, talked about during newscasts, and posted on social media, many of the top Democrats share one issue in common: their desire to decrease or limit the Pentagon’s astronomical defense budget. Among these candidates are Elizabeth Warren, Tulsi Gabbard, and Bernie Sanders, all of whom have made defense budget cuts or anti-war policies a central component of their campaign. These three candidates have ultimately been the most vocal about these issues and received more press than other Democrats who have spoken out.

Elizabeth Warren: Anti-Corruption & Progressive Foreign Policy

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is a well-known progressive foreign policy advocate. Different from the approaches taken by neoconservatives and liberalists, progressive foreign policy aims to improve economic justice and social cohesion, defend democratic institutions, and foster a sense of diverse patriotism. This is done so by reinforcing alliances based on common interests, remaining cautious of excessive military intervention, and both reducing and reallocating military funds. Because Warren is arguably a foreign policy expert and an influential member of the House Armed Services Committee, it was only predictable that a key aspect of her campaign platform would be to reorient the country’s position in the international community through progressive foreign policy. Her official campaign website promises that if elected, the U.S. will gradually work to bring troops home and will “continue to be vigilant about the threat of terrorism,” whilst also relying more on diplomacy so that the country can “cut [its] bloated defense budget and end the stranglehold of defense contractors on [its] military policy.” Other goals of hers include ending the current war in Afghanistan, ending support in Yemen, moving towards diplomacy with North Korea, and halting ‘first use’ of nuclear weapons.

Unlike many of her fellow Democrats who do not have concrete plans laid out on the table yet, the part of Warren’s populist campaign that strikes directly at the military-industrial complex does so through proposed legislative changes. In May 2019, she unveiled a preliminary Department of Defense Ethics and Anti-Corruption Act that would fight corporate corruption “between defense lobbyists, Congress and the Pentagon” by banning senior defense officials from “owning any stock in a major defense contractor” and imposing a “4-year ban on giant contractors hiring senior DoD officials.” The primary goal of this legislation is to eventually stop the “revolving door” of government employees leaving the government to enter the private sector. True to her campaign platform, Warren was only one of eight Democratic Senators to vote against a defense budget proposal of a record $717 billion for 2019, calling it “unsustainable.” This bill ended up passing with an overall vote of 87-10, therefore pushing the U.S. closer to the $1 trillion expenditure mark (see Figure 2).  Summing up her thoughts on the MIC in a Foreign Affairs article, Warren wrote that in terms of U.S. foreign policy, “corporate profits should not take higher priority than American families,” later stating that “it’s time to stop this business of more, more, more for the military.”

However, while Warren is a staunch critic of the ‘revolving door’ and the ‘Big Five’ defense contractors, she is no saint. She has previously voted to approve 68 percent of military spending bills and is known to support Raytheon and General Dynamics, two major defense contractors based out of her home state of Massachusetts. In March 2017, Warren, Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) and Congressman Joseph Kennedy III (D-MA) announced that the House and Senate Appropriations committees were tacking on an additional $114 million for the Fiscal Year 2017 bill in order to fund the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) program created by General Dynamics. Lucy Ryan, a spokeswoman for General Dynamics, even testified that Warren “has supported programs that are important” to the company, such as WIN-T. Furthermore, it was brought to the public’s attention that in 2018, Warren brought in over $34,000 in defense industry contributions from her Senate re-election campaign, meaning that she received a substantial amount of donation money from big-name defense companies and individuals, ones that she consistently regards as “corrupt.”

Tulsi Gabbard: Anti-War but Pro-Defense Spending

A Congresswoman from Hawaii and former military member herself, Tulsi Gabbard has made foreign policy the focal point of her campaign. Despite her prior military service, Gabbard’s rhetoric is almost exclusively anti-war. A member of the House Armed Services Committee, she supports non-intervention policies, maintaining a tough stance on terrorism, reducing U.S. involvement in Syria, and continuing talks with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Commenting on the military-industrial complex and military spending on her campaign website, Gabbard notes that America’s leaders have wasted “trillions of dollars and countless lives in regime change wars and new cold war,” adding that it brings the country “ever closer to nuclear annihilation.” This aligns with her promises to end wasteless, “senseless wars” like the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as end U.S. involvement in the Middle East in general. Gabbard, in her desire to limit overseas intervention, hopes to invest those leftover trillions of dollars “domestically, on health care, infrastructure and the environment” because while the defense sector certainly has enough money to engage in ‘senseless wars’ abroad, there is not enough money “to make sure that we have safe roads and bridges to drive on.”

However, Gabbard’s voting record does not necessarily support her campaign rhetoric. Since 2013, she has voted for 19 out of 29 military spending bills, twice to keep the controversial 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force law intact, and three times against limiting the Pentagon’s “slush funds,” which are part of the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund and subjected to very little oversight. Furthermore, she neglected to vote for an amendment that would result in a one percent cut in the military budget and, just like Warren, was the recipient of over $8,000 of defense industry contributions for her re-election campaign in 2018. While she recently announced that she would no longer accept money from Political Action Committees (PACs), organizations created for the purpose of raising money to spend on candidates, Gabbard’s 2016 campaign received over $63,000 from various Super PACs in the defense sector. In the end, despite her isolationist rhetoric, Gabbard’s military background, funding history, and overall actions seem to hold her back from fully committing to the anti-MIC side. Instead, she is confusing the American public by saying one thing and doing another.

Bernie Sanders: A Thoughtful Defense Budget

Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Senator since 2007, is well known for his voting on all things military related. In fact, since 2013 he has voted for only three out of 19 military spending bills. According to his website, his campaign includes supporting U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and Syria, ending Saudi support in Yemen, rejoining the Iran nuclear agreement, and preventing the president from being able to “wage unauthorized and unconstitutional interventions overseas” because the American people “do not want endless war.” For Sanders, however, the primary objective is to “present a thoughtful budget that meets the defense needs of this country” without merely spending “billions of dollars of unnecessary money [on] the military industrial complex.” This includes stopping the country from spending “$700 billion a year on the military” in the future. 

As part of his plans to limit the role that the MIC plays, Sanders wants to scale back spending by giving more weight to the president’s budget and looking more closely at the interactions between the Pentagon and large defense contractors. The Vermont Senator was also instrumental in passing the War Powers Resolution on Yemen, a bill that essentially mimicked the War Powers Resolution of 1973 by stating that U.S. troops engaged in hostile situations overseas could be removed by Presidential order at the directive of Congress if there was no “declaration of war or specific statutory authorization” to be there. Sanders ultimately summed up his foreign policy views in a speech that echoed the sentiments expressed by America’s 34th president; in it he stated that “what Eisenhower said over 50 years ago is even more true today” in that “foreign policy is not just tied into military affairs,” but it is also “directly connected to economics.” 

However, like the others, Sanders has also received contributions from the defense sector. During his 2016 campaign he was the recipient of over $300,000 from defense contractors. Sanders was also a supporter of getting the F-35 Lightning II fighter jet, the world’s most expensive aircraft, stationed in Vermont. Despite the fighter jets costing $89.2 million each, he hoped that by being located at the Burlington airport, it would help create direct and indirect local jobs and stimulate both the local and national economy.

It should also be noted that Warren, Gabbard, and Sanders are not the only Democratic candidates that have spoken out about their desire to decrease military spending in order to focus on various other programs and initiatives, most of which are domestic. Various notable Democrats that have done the same, but have received less national press about it, are Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Andrew Yang, and Mike Gravel. Other presidential candidates are either silent or undecided on the matter thus far.

To Spend or Not to Spend (More) Money on the Military

While the ‘unsustainability’ of the defense budget has united many of the 2020 Democratic candidates, there is still much debate regarding what could or would actually happen if military funding were to be cut substantially. First is the belief that reducing military spending will make the United States look weaker to the international community. However, as noted previously, the U.S.’s defense budget for FY 2018 alone was $649 billion, which was more than the next seven countries combined. In comparison, Russia is said to have only spent $150 billion, whereas China, one of the U.S.’s main cybersecurity threats, spent a little over $600 billion. While these numbers may be slightly inaccurate due to the probability that these countries may not be disseminating accurate data, it still sheds light on the budget disparity that exists internationally. 

A second point of contention regarding budget cuts is the fact that defense spending increases the national budget deficit, which in turn increases U.S. debt. A budget deficit is essentially when spending exceeds outcome. If that deficit is not paid off, then debt is created and built up until it is. But with a record high national debt of $22 trillion, the United States is not likely to accomplish that anytime soon. Therefore, as the defense budget continues to increase, slowly inching towards the $1 trillion mark, critics continue to grow antsy because the long-term state of the economy is at stake.

However, while spending almost $1 trillion on national defense is worrisome to many Americans, especially when some of the nation’s biggest adversaries are not spending nearly as much, a large budget, to some degree, is necessary. The U.S. is known for its hard power approach by means of brute military force. In order to flex its military might in the international arena, the United States needs a substantial defense budget that can adequately fund its 800 military bases in over 70 countries and train its nearly 1.2 million-plus active duty troops within the Armed Forces, which consists of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps. As one of the largest employers in the world, the U.S. Department of Defense also provides jobs for over 710,000-plus civilian personnel and needs to be able to pay them. 

Furthermore, a big military budget boosts U.S. power on the international playing field. A large military can help strengthen U.S. economic bargaining and negotiating capabilities, increase their ability to provide aid money for developing countries and countries facing humanitarian disasters such as Yemen, and supply land, sea, or air support to other states in times of war or crisis.
Nonetheless, despite arguments from either side, the issue of the military-industrial complex, or the “military-industrial-technological-congressional-complex,” as former senior Defense and State Department official Leslie Gelb calls it, is downright tricky. While a large military budget is necessary to keep Americans alive and well in an increasingly hostile world, how much of the Pentagon’s money is effectively being put to use towards security and how much is simply being taken in by defense personnel? The point made by many who oppose budget increases, such as Warren, Sanders, and Gabbard, is that a large budget is necessary, but it doesn’t have to be an astronomical number for the U.S. to still wield significant military power. After all, it is how the U.S. uses the money in the discretionary budget, not just the size of the budget, that matters.

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