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Gareth Porter on how the Military-Industrial Complex evolved into the Permanent War State

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. President Obama delivered his State of the Union speech. In it there was one sentence about the military budget, and here’s what it was.


PRES. BARACK OBAMA: The secretary of defense has also agreed to cut tens of billions of dollars in spending that he and his generals believe our military can do without.


JAY: Fifty years ago, another president also talked about the military budget and the role of the military in US government. That was President Eisenhower. Here’s what he had to say.


PRES. DWIGHT EISENHOWER: In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.


JAY: So how do we go from a president who warns of the danger of the military-industrial complex and makes that the keynote of his farewell speech, to 50 years later one sentence about cutting a few billion dollars? And, in fact, when you look into what that cut is, it’s a few billion dollars over a few years in the future, and certainly nothing, no serious cuts in the short term. Now joining us to help us understand that arc of history is Gareth Porter. Gareth is an investigative journalist and a historian. He writes for IPS. He’s an often-contributor to The Real News Network. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: What happened? So Eisenhower warns the nation. Fifty years later, one sentence in the State of the Union.

PORTER: Well, the problem really is that as soon as Eisenhower left the presidency, the Democrats came into power already aligned with precisely the military-industrial complex forces that Eisenhower was warning about. They had already basically bought into the policy line that the Army and the Air Force particularly were trying to peddle unsuccessfully in the Eisenhower administration. And so when John F. Kennedy was elected, he was already committed, essentially, to giving the Army and the Air Force much of what they wanted. And so that was the beginning of this arc of history that you’re talking about.

JAY: Now, it’s not like Eisenhower didn’t understand what the Cold War was. He understood what the Soviet Union was. He knew all the same set of facts that Kennedy knew. But Kennedy comes in, in fact, as the cold warrior.

PORTER: Well, that’s because, of course, Eisenhower was attacked very viciously by the Air Force and the Army. Not so much directly, you know, generals standing up and attacking him (that would’ve basically gotten them in deep trouble), but what they did was to plant stories in the press and get civilians in the national security elite to make the attacks on Eisenhower as soft on defense, soft on communism. And that’s exactly what they did, particularly in the latter years of the Eisenhower administration.

JAY: Okay. Now, really quickly, for some of the younger people watching this whose history comes out of the American educational system and may not even know much about Eisenhower, really fast, this is a guy who was a military man.

PORTER: He was the biggest American military hero of World War II. He was a man of some integrity. He was really the only major military figure who opposed the use of the atomic bomb against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And while he was president, he was very, very determined to avoid any further war by the United States. And that, of course, cut against the interests of the military services, because they wanted at least to position themselves to intervene in any brushfire wars on the periphery of the Soviet Union and China.

JAY: So this cuts against a lot of the narrative one likes to hear–I mean, I should say the Democratic Party likes to hear about itself, that the Republicans are sort of the historic partners of the military-industrial complex, and the Democratic Party somehow are the party of peace.

PORTER: That really didn’t happen until Reagan. It was not until the Reagan Administration that the Republican Party became the leader in terms of pushing the military budget forward and building up the military. It was really the Democratic Party, beginning in the Truman administration, with the big buildup just before and during the Korean War, that established the Democratic Party as the party of the military-industrial complex.

JAY: And this is part of the idea that after World War II, instead of demobilizing, which armies usually do when wars are over, the Truman administration makes the decision [that] far from demobilizing, we’re going to actually expand.

PORTER: That’s right. That was a fateful decision, which made for a new combination of interests, which is what Eisenhower talked about: a major, powerful set of military services on one hand, and the military contractors aligned with them who got enormous amounts of money through Congress, which was the third leg of that triangle, which Eisenhower actually intended to talk about but dropped from the speech.

JAY: This is another thing that people didn’t want to hear when Barack Obama was running for president, ’cause often he was asked about his foreign policy thinking, and he would say the roots of my foreign policy are in Truman. And people didn’t want to hear that.

PORTER: Well, and that’s–that is something that people should have heard, and in many cases it would’ve been obviously a very different take on Obama had that been understood as well as it is now, I think, or at least should be understood as well as it is now.

JAY: So after Eisenhower, you have Kennedy, you have the Cold War, you have enormous support for expansion of the military. But during and after the end of the Vietnam War, the military take it on the nose, and there’s an issue of, well, people wanting great cuts to the military budget. So what happens? How do we get from the Vietnam War, where the military is–I don’t know if the word is disgraced, but certainly the people have decided, we don’t want these kinds of wars overseas, to today where you can’t even talk about the military budget any kind of serious way? Like, Barney Frank is even a senior member of Congress. He’s calling for a 25 percent cut in the military, and he can’t get anywhere with it.

PORTER: Right, and you’re absolute correct that between the Vietnam War and the Gulf War of 1991, the US military and the military-industrial complex, writ large, was in serious trouble, and they knew that, despite the fact that the Reagan Administration in the early period of the administration built up the budget tremendously.

JAY: I think it was a 43 percent increase in the military.

PORTER: It was a huge increase. But nevertheless, in the latter years of the Reagan Administration, they faced the Gorbachev phenomenon, and the fear of the Soviet Union simply melted away. And then, of course, they know the Soviet Union was essentially going to either fall apart or the Cold War in another way was going to end. And so–.

JAY: And, thus, where is the rationale for such a military expenditure?

PORTER: The military was flat dead in the water at that point unless they could come up with some answer. And the answer was the Gulf War of 1991, because it was only after that that you get this phenomenon of a constantly ascending or temporarily flat military budget. But the political reality after the Gulf War was that the military budget could not be touched by the president in terms of actually cutting it. I think that’s when you get the phenomenon that politically the military-industrial complex, which I now would call the permanent war state, was so powerful that their budget was untouchable.

JAY: So take us then from–you could go from Reagan to Obama. Obviously the next big moment will be 9/11, where post-9/11, now the military presence becomes more than untouchable.

PORTER: Well, 9/11, of course, occurs in the context of this very–a much broader and more fundamental political change, which already had given this additional power to the military and its allies in the administration and outside. So when 9/11 happened, what should have taken place was that the response to terrorism should have been much more nuanced and would not involve military power, the reason being the US military was simply not an instrument which was appropriate to this policy problem. And the military knew it. They said it privately on many occasions. And Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, who was in power at that point, said so in one of his famous “snowflakes” to all of the people in the Pentagon, high officials in the Pentagon. He said the Pentagon is not organized to do terrorism; we just don’t do that well; the military is not organized to do that. But what happened instead was that they wanted to go into Iraq, and that–.

JAY: ‘Cause fighting terrorism was never the real issue.

PORTER: That was never the real issue for them. But they went into Iraq. That war then turned sour by 2005. That turned sour, and then they realize that unless they could claim to be doing something about terrorism, again they were going to be in serious trouble. So what happened, starting in 2004, 2005, the Pentagon and the military begin to say, oh, we’re doing terrorism. And then special operations forces were becoming the headline, the forward group, the one that would be highlighted as the specialists on dealing with terrorism, and they were given enormous power around the world, particularly in Afghanistan, Iraq, and then, of course, later on, in Yemen, Somalia, to track down–

JAY: And the establishment of AFRICOM in Africa.

PORTER: –yeah–to track down the terrorists and their allies. And that, of course, then became the rationale for a much bigger military budget, on the idea that they were somehow saving us from terrorism.

JAY: Everyone watching this, watching The Real News, has probably heard us talk before, but if you haven’t–about the Project for the New American Century. And if you don’t know about this, you should, you know, go Google it or search for it on our site, ’cause we’ve talked about it many times. The ideological partners of the military-industrial complex, or you can say the ideological frontline warriors, and not their only ones, was it not this neoconservative cabal that comes up with this document in the late ’90s, the Project for the New American Century, which says, essentially, now that the Cold War’s over, it’s not time for us to step backwards with the military; it’s actually time to step forward; now we have an unobstructed path to assert US military power around the world, including regime change?

PORTER: It was. It was the of the neoconservatives and the people from the first Bush administration, that is, Rumsfeld and Cheney, particularly Cheney, who had in fact engineered this comeback for the military after it looked like that they were going to be dead because of the end of the Cold War. And so, you know, it was during the 1990s, in fact, with that foundation that Cheney had laid for future war in the Middle East that the role of military began to change, the doctrines, the strategies of the US military began to change from one of defensive Cold War style strategies and policies to a much more aggressive regime-change orientation. And that’s really a fundamental change that predated 9/11 and made that a much more easy transition for the military and its allies.

JAY: So the fundamental assumption of the Project for the New American Century document, and you could say the assumption that most–is most advantageous to this military-industrial complex, is that the United States should assert military power abroad, project military power abroad, as they say, and essentially reshape the world. So is there any indication that the Obama administration is rethinking or changing any of those assumptions?

PORTER: It’s now very clear that the Obama administration and Obama himself totally buy into that ideological line, which is that the United States must be, can be, and should be the preeminent power in the world, and that it should use military power to project its influence around the globe, and particularly in the Middle East. That is indeed the ideological viewpoint that I think the Obama administration shares, and there’s not much ambiguity about it.

JAY: And it’s practically sacrilegious to talk about it in mainstream media, the idea of cutting–serious cuts to the military budget. At a time when everyone wants to talk about cuts in debts and deficit, there’s not–you can’t find a Sunday morning talk show where there’s a serious talk, discussion about it.

PORTER: And I would add that in his State of Union address Obama actually did not say that we’re going to cut the military budget overall. The way he worded it was very ambiguous, and it’s very clear that what the plan is is to increase the military budget gradually over the next–well, the next two years, and if he’s reelected, beyond that. That’s what he has agreed to with Bob Gates, his secretary of defense. So what he was talking about was perhaps reducing the level of increase, the amount of increase in the military budget. So that reflects the degree to which the forces of militarism have achieved such untouchable status politically in this country, that even with this obvious economic crisis, even with the deficit being identified across the board in both parties as central to the economic crisis of the United States, the military budget is still sacrosanct.

JAY: And the–I don’t know if it’s irony, but the fact is it doesn’t work. The Vietnam War the United States did not win. Most examples of the projection of US power in terms of war are failures, including Iraq, where they’re going to end up–at the best-case scenario, they’re going to end up in Iraq with a government that is as friendly to Iran as it is to the United States. They’re mired in Afghanistan.

PORTER: Every major war–Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam–have turned out to be failures, massive failures, and costly failures, of course. In the case of these wars, we’re talking about trillions of dollars of cost, which the United States simply cannot afford. Now, I would add that we face–I mean, not we, but the military-industrial alliance, what I call the permanent war state, face a serious set of obstacles to remaining–to maintaining their power: first of all, the failure of the wars; secondly, the fiscal crisis; and thirdly, the clear majority of the American people want to cut the military budget, know that it has to be cut for the health of US economy. So they’re very vulnerable at this point.

JAY: And let’s not forget that one of the pillars of the reasons, today’s reasons of having such military power is domination and control of the Middle East. All this military power sitting on aircraft carriers all around the Middle East, it’s virtually powerless when hundreds of thousands of people get into the streets.

PORTER: Right. Both the air power and the ground power on the fleet in the Middle East and the ground forces in the Middle East have proven to be useless in terms of actual US influence. I mean, that’s the bottom line.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Gareth. Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Gareth Porter is a historian and investigative journalist on US foreign and military policy analyst. He writes regularly for Inter Press Service on US policy towards Iraq and Iran. Author of four books, the latest of which is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam.