In the hierarchy of progressive political concerns – from inadequate healthcare and substandard education to income inequality and environmental catastrophe – the military industrial complex has taken a back seat. This is both strange and misguided since all of these issues are closely interconnected and the United States war machine is as much of an existential threat as global warming. Now more than ever it is critical that we understand how these issues are linked and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders along with Tulsi Gabbard are the only ones connecting the dots.
As a dual United States-Australian citizen, I am concerned about what the US military behemoth means for both of my countries and for the future of the planet. The perpetual war that began with 9/11, in which Australia is a complicit coalition partner, has cost a total of $5.9 trillion since 2001, killed over a million people, and unleashed the biggest refugee crisis since WWII. The US is now involved in 7 wars around the world and is conducting counterror exercises in 80 countries.
With new conflicts looming and longstanding nuclear agreements being abandoned by the US, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has set their Doomsday Clock closer to midnight than at any time since the height of the Cold War arms race in 1953.
The threats posed by the military industrial complex, however, don’t end there. It is crippling our ability to provide healthcare and education, end child poverty, build vital infrastructure and save the global environment – and, notably, the US military is the world’s largest consumer of fossil fuels and the number one contributor to climate change that is killing the planet.
Today, the scale of the US war machine is almost incomprehensible. The Pentagon is the world’s largest employer with 2.1 million personnel across the globe. The US military has over 800 bases in 70 countries – compared to China’s 1 and Russia’s 8, all of which are in their own region except for 1 in Syria.
This year, the total US military budget has risen to $716 billion – more than the total spending of the next nine countries in the world combined. By comparison, of America’s biggest superpower rivals, China spends $175 billion and Russia $66 billion – less than one tenth of the US.
So why is the US wasting this extraordinary amount of money when it has less to fear from military attack than almost any other country on the planet? America is bookended by two vast oceans, it shares borders with two countries that are allies and trading partners, and, unlike Russia, has no foreign missiles or troops on its frontiers. The last time the US was invaded was in the War of 1812 in some minor border skirmishes with the British.
The reason America goes to war is not to protect its borders, but because it sees the entire world as its backyard where American interests prevail above all others. Just look at a map of where the US has militarily has intervened or plans to invade over the past two decades, and you’ll see that almost every country – from Iraq to Venezuela – has valuable oil and mineral resources or provides a route for oil and gas pipelines. When any US administration talks about humanitarian reasons for military intervention, they are almost invariably lying. There is no such thing as a humanitarian war. Wars are always about resources, markets, strategic advantage, and greed. This is not cynicism; it’s a grave reality.
The other big driver, of course, is the war machine itself. In 1960 President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against the “acquisition of unwarranted influence…by the military industrial complex.” He was talking about the nexus between the foreign policy establishment, the Pentagon and private defence contractors that produce the fighter jets, bombs, missiles, aircraft carriers and destroyers that keep the war machine going. Today, they include some of America’s largest corporations such as Lockheed Martin, that in 2018 received $45 billion from the Defence Department, followed by Boeing ($27 billion); Raytheon Corporation ($24 billion), BAE Systems ($23 billion), General Dynamics ($16 billion)…the list goes on.
In fact, every time there’s the smell of a new US military intervention, defence stocks go through the roof. Lockheed Martin’s stocks rose 150% in the two years following 9/11; Raytheon’s hit an all time high when Obama intervened in Syria ; and when Trump tweeted that his “nuclear button” is “much bigger” than Kim Jong-un’s, defence industry stocks soared 30% across the board. As one Barron’s headline enthusiastically gloated: “War is Hell, But Not for the Stock Market”.
From here in Australia, I see how the global reach of the US military has made the world more dangerous and diverted resources from real human needs in both of my countries. Australia has had a fawning one-sided alliance with the US since WWII – “virtually the 51st State”, as Australian journalist John Pilger commented. Australia was a zealous participant in the Vietnam bloodbath; a coalition partner in the disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq; and now has 1,587 US military personnel in Darwin conducting regular joint military exercises in the South China Sea that put the entire region at risk. Australia also hosts the US satellite surveillance base at Pine Gap that, in addition to global spying, directs many of America’s illegal drone strikes that potentially make Australia criminally complicit in civilian deaths around the world.
The influence of the US military machine across the planet is staggering, but I see hope on the horizon. The transformational change going on in the US is unlike anything that I have seen in my lifetime. The newly elected Congress includes some of the most progressive young political representatives in US history, who are taking strong anti-war positions. And, with a huge progressive movement behind him, Bernie Sanders is the first politician in decades who says he wants to take on the military industrial complex, invoking the phrase first coined by Republican President Eisenhower in 1961.
Recently, Bernie was one of only eight Senators who voted against Trump’s $716 billion defence budget. He also sponsored the successful Senate resolution (S.J. Res. 54) to withdraw US support for the war in Yemen, giving the power to declare this war back to the Congress where it belongs. There’s still vital work ahead, including US withdrawal from ongoing wars that are only aggravating global tensions and the repeal of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that gives sitting presidents the power to wage war anywhere in the world without congressional approval.
Bernie is on the record saying that he wants to pursue diplomacy over confrontation and does not support the perpetual wars that have cost so much in human lives and resources. Regardless of his foreign policy agenda, however, once in office, like all presidents before him, he will have to confront what Obama advisor Ben Rhodes dubbed “the Blob” – the powerful foreign policy establishment made up of the Pentagon, the intelligence agencies and think tanks – that shapes presidential priorities and whose default setting tends toward military confrontation.
The power of the Blob can’t be underestimated and confronting it may be progressives’ toughest fight of all.
For decades, both major political parties have pledged steadfast backing for America’s military industrial complex and wars of aggression. Despite the Democratic Party’s professed hatred of Donald Trump, they voted overwhelmingly to support his obscene military budget, and they have enthusiastically embraced every military war cry, from missile strikes on Syria’s Shayrat Airbase to the threat of another illegal war in Venezuela. For them, there’s no better way to appear “presidential” than dropping bombs on some faraway country.
It’s no wonder that the defense industry lobby buys the votes of those in the most powerful positions. Top Democrats on the receiving end include: Chair of the House Armed Services Committee Adam Smith who received $261,000 in campaign contributions from the arms industry; House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer who took in $180,000; Intelligence Agency Chair Adam Schiff received $81,000; Appropriations Committee Chair Nita Lowry raked in $79,000; and Eliot Engel, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee received $41,000.
As a result, write Nicholas Davies and Medea Benjamin, “the new House Dems may face a bit of a shock when they discover that all their domestic priorities are held hostage by a huge ‘war tax’ that drains off well over 60% of federal discretionary spending for weapons, war and military spending.”
Our representatives have to be made aware that transitioning to a peace economy is the only sensible way to reduce the global threat of war and pay for desperately needed help at home. To put it in perspective, a mere 10% cut – $70 billion a year – would buy universal preschool or provide free tuition to half of America’s four-year college students. Imagine what 50% could do!
Back in 1964, then Senator George McGovern called for a National Economic Conversion Commission to oversee the transferring of money and jobs from the military industrial complex to the welfare state. He took the idea from Colombia economists Seymour Melman who believed that the military war machine was destroying the economy and making the world less safe. The idea was gaining traction – and then the Vietnam War intervened and set it back indefinitely.
We are now at a crossroads: will we pick up where George McGovern left off…or not? “Bernie Sanders has a simple moral vision for America’s future,” said Congressman Ro Khanna, in his introduction to Bernie Sanders’ March 4 campaign rally in Chicago: “Instead of spending $6 trillion on endless war, we need to spend it on healthcare, education, infrastructure and clean energy in every community across America”.
His words invoke the grave warning of President Eisenhower more than a half century ago: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” With a heightened awareness of what’s at stake for the US and the planet, Bernie and the brand new congress backed by a strong and vocal progressive movement are our best chance yet for the transition to a peace economy.