Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Huffy Crew Idea Report #1

This Huffy Crew Idea Report will be the first in a series that aims to collect and discuss ideas we're thinking about now that we weren't thinking about before. This is a group project, so contribute where you see fit. For me, this is to be a project in which thought and history come together as the calling-out or naming of priorities and mindsets - a task a little like Nietzsche's genealogy, I think. I mean this only in the sense that, while these ideas are emphatically not novel or newly-produced, their relation to us and our interest in them bears the trace of a turn of the mind and revaluation of values.

The Military-Industrial Complex

This one I leave up for grabs (in other words, for debate). I don't know that the MIC ever completely fell off the politico-theoretical radar, but something tells me that its centrality with regard to the study of American foreign policy is a new thing, related most obviously to the Iraq war. Of course, I haven't been paying serious attention to political affairs for very long, but hear me out. This morning, it occurred to me that the problem of journalism following 9/11 was this: That they were unprepared for reporting an historical conflict. The distinction I am making is between an historical conflict and an immediate one, and in every sense the treatment of 9/11 was as an instance of the latter.

An historical conflict is one which requires a knowledge of the history of power in a region; an immediate conflict calls for the understanding of ideologies, beliefs, and emotions as they play out in the immediate present. Was it the Cold War that inured us to the idea of an ongoing immediate conflict? Likely it was; but think of Clinton, who was, by my account, an utterly immediate President. His crises were of the immediate sort - most obvious were the sex scandals, which called for just the sort of psychological and emotional analysis that characterize affairs of immediacy. But think as well of Clinton's rhetoric, his "I feel your pain" compassioneering, which went a long way towards keeping Americans convinced that affairs of political importance belong to the electorate rather than to silent cabals and hidden powers.

Clinton kept our attention upon affairs in the present; he was probably not the first public figure in recent years to do so, but he did it so well that it's worth calling him archetypal. Of course, there were secret cabals and hidden powers, but to root them out requires political archeology - rooting and digging and, above all, an historical understanding of affairs. Historical affairs are not necessarily more difficult than immediate ones; or at least, they are both impossible when thought of in the extreme, only in different ways. The problem with historical insight is that it is never-ending: there are always more players and situations of power than can be counted. Immediate insight is impossible insofar as the motivations of actors are unknowable in the final instance. As it happens, I think, totalitarianism prospers by making all affairs immediate, and by seeking to rewrite the narrative of history as an ongoing conflict of emotions, worldviews, beliefs - in short, according to unvarying, all-encompassing attitudes. It is worth noting that the popular understanding of our "terrorist enemy" follows this narrative; so does any description of a conflict as a purely ideological one, or a clash of beliefs or passions. To take seriously the notion of the MIC and its centrality with regard to current political affairs is to engage in serious historical investigation. We have, I think, begun to reclaim this sort of historical insight; but only after 4 years of war revealed to us a situation of irreducibly historical import.

Labels: ,


Blogger Robot said...

A fine idea, Kushakov. Allow me to respond to some of your thoughts. The notion of the Military-Industrial Complex has indeed been steadily making a comeback, both in this blog (see past discussions by Scantron on Chalmers Johnson, the most articulate expression of the MIC's current form), and in the semi-mainstream media (the documentary "Why We Fight" and countless issues of Harpers). I think the MIC is something we should take seriously as one part of a complex set of answers that seek to explain, well, why we fight. As for journalism, there's no doubt in my mind that the world would always benefit from more "historical perspective" on current events.

My fear here, however, is that this kind of historical vs. immediacy debate leads us back to the "September 11th changed everything" vs. "September 11th changed nothing" debate that occurred in the year following 9/11. By 9/11 changing nothing, we are supposed to believe that the reality of an American hegemon, of rising extremism, and of political oppression in the Middle East, is nothing novel; that on September 11th, for a brief moment, the static was made clear, and the world was made to see several long-term historical developments play themselves out, only this time in American cities. By 9/11 changing everything, we are supposed to picture a troubled though ever-more peaceful world suddenly rocked, in the true sense of a rupture, by an inexplicable attack, which in turn raised a sleeping giant into action and has led to a new War on Terror.

In rehashing these two tales one quickly recognizes the two opposing sides that we are by now quite accustomed to hearing. Often, the left takes one side and the right the other and off they go!

Normally, I would try to argue that the response to such a debate would be to find the middle path, or to declare that both ideas are right and should be synthesized, but I'm not sure that sort of effort applies here.

For one, I think it's important if we're going to think historically to take the long historical view and not just the short one. By taking the long one, I mean that most of the "historical" school want to look at U.S. foreign policy and its consequences only since WWII (with a few exceptions, such as Robert Kagan wanting now to go from the beginning of the Republic). When commentators try to fit U.S. activity into an almost exclusively Military-Industrial Complex interpretation, they seem to neglect the fact that the U.S. fought wars before there existed such a Complex, and that given that it was the single bloodiest attack caused by foreigners on American soil in a single day, there was both immediate and historical precedence for an overwhelming military response. In this very simple sense, the MIC interpretation is I think fairly unpersuasive in explaining why we invaded Afghanistan.

As for the Iraq War and other militaristic expressions, I think readers of this blog realize by this point that the reasons are complex and manifold. They are indeed historically driven, in the shorter sense of the MIC, and in the longer sense of ... all the unique qualities that America has had since its independence, and that the aforementioned Kagan has apparently written a book about. And they are also driven by immediate causes: by the strange set of events in Florida in 2000 that ushered in an administration full of neoconservative personalities and an incompetent (at best) president; by the failure of the U.S. and British intelligence-gathering services; by the existence of someone like Ahmed Chalabi; by the deficit of a strong and persuasive leader in the Democratic Party; by the turn of events that prevented Mohamed Atta from getting the flu, or breaking his leg in the first week of September, etc.

Some of these are of course rather trivial and obvious contingencies, but I hope my point is clear enough: that we should try to think about historical events like September 11th without over-analyzing them (which you, Kushakov, are not necessarily doing at all) and, ironically, placing them into one interpretation or another.

Ultimately, though, is something like the MIC the dominant reason for recent American militarism? Again, I'm simply not persuaded. I think it's a highly influential one, but that even if it was severely limited, we could very well be looking at a United States not too different from the one we have today.

5:43 PM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

Interesting ideas here; I believe that a genealogy of the MIC is certainly needed, but that only one rooted firmly in actual specifics can express the true historical (and ahistorical) sickness that the MIC embodies. According to the conventional understanding, which I believe is correct, the MIC exists because of an “Iron Triangle” between lawmakers, defense contractors, and the military itself. Lawmakers gain credibility, campaign contributions, and the support of the military by supporting defense spending, as well as immediate benefits for their constituencies. The military does what all bureaucratic institutions want to do: grow in absolute size and relative power. In addition, defense officials are able to profit from the “revolving door” that exists between the military and industry. The industry makes a shitload of money in proportion to the amount that it benefits lawmakers and employs former military.
All of this provides us with immense defense expenditures, and is rooted in America’s need for a standing military during the cold war. When the Wall went down, the system had already become self-sustaining; although many cuts have been made since then, the military is still doing well in absolute terms, even if it is smaller proportional to GDP than before.
Then we come to 9/11: since we are now fighting assymetrical warfare, the need for submarines and fighter jets is diminished and the need for ground troops is increased (note that we did not reduce funding for subs and jets—more on this later). Enter KBR and Bechtel. These groups are able to free up ground troops from non-fighting duties to make the military itself more able to fight. Importantly, these groups have strong connections to the Bush administration. Did this cause the wars we are currently fighting? I don’t think so, but it is undeniable that they have changed the way that these wars have been fought.
At first glance, the idea of freeing up ground troops for combat seems pretty intelligent. But we don’t know the land, languages or cultures of Iraq or Afghanistan. As detailed in Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City, building up comfortable, protected bases was precisely the wrong thing to do in this kind of war. The troops should have been eating hummus and pita with Iraqis in Baghdad instead of drinking alcohol and flown-in bacon in the Green Zone. Unfortunately, the current arrangement is peculiarly suited to the television and internet age: the troops themselves are cut off from the war as much as possible, casualties are kept to a minimum, and we keep pouring money into the pockets of the companies that made all of this possible.
As an entity unto itself, the MIC is historical because it arose under certain historical circumstances and adapts to the political movements of its age. But as a tool for obtaining results, it is uniquely ahistorical: it persists merely as a method of moving money from the pockets of taxpayers to specific, concentrated groups; it is the embodiment of Madison’s fear of factions in the Federalist. If, for a moment, we grant that the use of private companies in ground war was an authentic attempt at a new form of warfare, we must still condemn the MIC because of the huge funding for anachronistic devices like navy ships, new nuclear bombs, and stealth bombers that are two or three generations beyond any other military on the planet. For some parts of the MIC, 9/11 unfortunately changed nothing.
I think the MIC is not responsible for the fact that America fights, but rather the method that we use to fight. Kaplan’s Imperial Grunts expresses well how the American desire to fight and spread democracy can be beneficial and effective. The key is to work with native citizens and not to isolate ourselves in bases or confine troops with regulations. But Kaplan’s most important point is that Americans’ most effective campaigns are the least expensive, because wars are not about firepower but people. We will be fighting wars for a long time. The real question is whether we will continue to use institutions that make us less effective and cost us more money.
The MIC is particularly disgusting because it embodies a form of corporatism normally confined to Europe. A selected group of stakeholders determines the outcomes in a market, the results desired are obtained inefficiently, and the monopoly on power strangles innovation and good business. Thus the distaste for the MIC should not be confined to the left, but should extend to anyone who cares about American capitalism, American workers, or American soldiers.

10:17 AM  
Blogger Scantron said...

The real problem with the MIC, as it seems to me, is not what we see, but what we don't see. That is to say, Robot is right that the US fought wars before WWII, and we will continue to fight wars. However, we did not always brazenly flaunt our military power around the world or get involved so often in other countries' political affairs (often with murderous results). These sorts of actions are, I think, direct effects of the MIC, and are more "off the radar": establishing military bases, selling weapons, supporting or even fomenting coups, etc. Thus, I think we can count episodes like the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran, our subsequent involvement in Guatemala, and the coup in Chile as direct results of MIC pressure. In most cases, explicitly in Iran and Guatemala, American economic interests are threatened, leading to complaints from businesses and promises from the military and weapons manufacturers to fix the problem. Iran-Contra in the 80s also has the MIC's fingerprints all over it, not only because we were attempting to sell our weapons to the Iranian gov but also of course because in turn the military used the profits to fund the Contras. You can dispute the direct effect of the MIC here, but ask yourself if we would be engaging in such actions if there were not a close link between government, industry, and the military.

I also think that a case can be made for Vietnam being not only a result of the MIC, but a beneficiary of it in some of its most heinous aspects once the war began. American military escalation in Vietnam occurred only after the Cuban Missile Crisis--this event was a "victory" for us in that we humiliated Khrushchev, but many like Curtis LeMay (a real asshole, if you've ever seen "The Fog of War") lamented the fact that we hadn't given the Commies a proper lesson, considering how much weaker they were than us and that we had the technology and weaponry to do it. So perhaps the Crisis was a spur to more confident action (Vietnam). Certainly, once the war was underway the "industrial" wing of the MIC had its own special contributions to make--Dow chemical in particular had already developed napalm, but it also supplied the gov with Agent Orange (as did Monsanto and countless other groups). The wonderful effects of this chemical-military partnership can be see here:

(Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi supplied this reference.)

In more recent times, the MIC has played an important role in Iraq. Here I take issue with both Austin and Robot, insofar as they're not willing to point the finger at the MIC per se. While Robot is right that we've debated to no end the "how" of the Iraq War--i.e. what celestial alignment of disinformation, journalistic cravenness, popular support, think tank activity, and liberal willingness to cooperate made the war possible--I stand firmly by my own "why" of the war in the first place: the government's desire to find a pretext for insinuating itself into the Middle East in an attempt to strengthen our power there and to make a move in the geopolitical game of control over the world's petrol resources. Again, I find it hard to conceive of how we could think ourselves capable of doing this in the first place without something like the existence of the MIC. In addition, the War on Terror in general is creating an opportunity for th expansion of the type of "unseen" activities I described earlier, particularly the establishment of military bases. This article from the CS Monitor in 2004 describes our "lily pad" strategy:

Our involvement in places like Kyrgyzstan gives us a military advantage and sets up favorable trading conditions with foreign governments like the Kyrgryz.

Unfortunately for the government, it's ideology and reliance on private contractors has been its own undermining: presumably I don't need to give direct references of how much the companies have fucked up and how much money they've wasted, but here also is an account of how we completely effed the public sector industries in Iraq:

Paul Bremer was stubbornly and stupidly opposed to reopening public, state-owned industries during the occupation, since he just had to wait for private contractors to swoop in. The result? Lots of unemployed and pissed off workers, more violence, and thus fewer investors.

Austin is right that both leftists and libertarians and other free-marketers should be concerned about the MIC. Here, for instance, is a website that tallies the amount of money given out every day (taken from the US Gov's own stats) to military contractors:

Just today it was $234.6 million. Last month alone it was $8.5 billion. This is a flagrant abrogation of choice and a misuse of tax dollars. There is basically no control over this activity, public or private. For "small government conservatives," the military, the Pentagon, and the MIC in general should be a nightmare, but I don't need to tell you the actually existing state of affairs. Like so many aspects of government, despite the supposed contest of values between liberals and conservatives, they both have left our enormous military intact. Austin is right that we spend much less of a percentage of our GDP on the military now than, say, in the 40s, but then again our GDP is fucking huge now, so we can still manage to spend 7x more than China while keeping the percentage around 3.7% (this comes from wikipedia's entry on the US military budget but can be confirmed elsewhere).

I will close by saying that the disintegration of the MIC and the handling of military matters by either freemarket or public control will not happen until the U.S. is seriously humbled by an economic crisis, a military loss on domestic soil, or a major outflanking by its competitors. Unfortunately as it stands now it has a bureaucratic logic all its own. It's just as much the fault of Democrats as of Republicans and is the result of their overarching category, the hegemonic post-war welfare state (in this case welfare towards the corporate sector rather than the public sector).

3:22 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home