The Military-Industrial Complex Doesn’t Run Washington
Something else does
A little while ago I found myself interested to read a frustrated Glenn Greenwald argue that, given the context of the “enormous” $858 billion U.S. defense budget recently passed by Congress along with an additional $44 billion in military aid for Ukraine, the only thing anyone can now inevitably rely on from Washington D.C. is that “the U.S. budget for military and intelligence agencies will increase every year no matter what.”
I felt this merited some reflection. Greenwald’s explanation for why perpetual growth of the defense budget is an inevitability (which it basically is), and for why American foreign policy is relentlessly hawkish more broadly, is a popular one: that the American arms manufacturing industry, the military, and our politicians are all engaged in a circle of corruption and collusion to make each other rich. The big defense contractors bribe the politicians with large donations and the generals and other government officials with board seats and other lucrative positions, and they in turn come up with reasons to justify shoveling ever-increasing piles of taxpayer money into buying new weapons from the arms makers. This, Greenwald says, is precisely the “unwarranted influence” of the “military-industrial complex” that President Eisenhower gravely warned our country to guard against in his famous farewell address some 62 years ago.
Eisenhower was, I must point out, attempting to draw attention to an even broader issue, i.e. the rise of an unaccountable technocratic administrative state, which accelerated in the wake of the technological-managerial revolution produced by WWII, and the “danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.” The influence of this transformation of American republican governance, of which a military-industrial complex was but one part, was likely, he predicted, to be “economic, political, even spiritual” in scope, and threaten to change “the very structure of our society.” But I will leave all that aside for the time being, as “military-industrial complex” is the phrase that stuck in public memory, along with the narrower, more common understanding of what Eisenhower was warning about that Greenwald is using in this case.
As described above, this understanding of the military-industrial complex – and a common understanding of how politics in Washington works in general – is essentially conspiratorial. Its primary mechanism is individuals, or groups of individuals, cynically manipulating the procedures of the state to advance their material self-interests. Thus Washington has turned into a “multi-tentacle war machine,” Greenwald says, because “No matter what is going on in the world, they always find – or concoct – reasons why the military budget must grow no matter how inflated it already is.” (Emphasis mine.)
Let’s call this the Corrupt Conspiracy Model of how Washington functions (or dysfunctions). It is a model that can be powerfully convincing, because it taps into the truth that people really are naturally flawed and self-interested creatures, demonstrably prone to corruption. Applying Lenin’s maxim – “who benefits?” – appears to provide players (the “they”) and the motive. Combine that motive with the means and opportunity produced by systems of collusion, and you seem to have a straightforward explanation for most of the policy that comes out of Washington: it’s all basically a con game led by a pack of greedy psychopaths. As Greenwald notes with some frustration and confusion, this used to be a characteristically left-wing critique of government and corporate power, but following the Great Political Realignment it’s now become common to the disaffected right instead.
Reading his argument made me recall how, back when I was younger and left-leaning, I too believed in this model, at least implicitly. As noted, it can be quite persuasive, even satisfying, in its simplicity. It’s also actually a subtly idealistic and optimistic theory: the American system would work great, just as it was designed to do, if not for all the selfish bad actors taking advantage of the system, etc. The only problem was that, after enough time in Washington, I had no choice but to reevaluate. Because what I found is that the swamp is populated almost wholly not by cynics, but by true believers.
True believers in what? Answering that will require trying to nail down a second, more complex model to explain how people in the Imperial City make decisions – and why it’s still always a good bet to invest in Lockheed Martin.
First, let me qualify by acknowledging that yes, Washington is indeed awash with lobbyists, corrupt politicians, psychopathic executives, cynical operators, and backstabbing climbers. It is a veritable hive of scum and villainy. They just aren’t what really makes the place tick. In fact all of these people conform themselves parasitically to that which does.
The real issue to contend with is that almost no one in Washington actually thinks in the terms of the Corrupt Conspiracy Model. I.e. they don’t think “I will advocate for a hawkish, interventionist foreign policy so that the resulting wars will benefit the arms industry and make me and my friends rich…” – even the people with seats on the boards of defense contractors. The reality is more disturbing than that, honestly.
What runs Washington is a Spirit. Or, alternatively, a Story. Let me try to explain.
There is a useful saying in Washington, which is: “Where you sit is where you stand.” This refers to how individuals’ interests, and even their values, almost inevitably come to be determined by their position within and among bureaucracies. Whatever motivations they may enter with, they soon find themselves defending and advocating for whatever will most benefit the bureaucracy of which they have become a part. It is a relatively common phenomenon for even loyal top-level political appointees, dispatched by a new president to head a particular department or agency specifically so as to bring it into line with the president’s policy goals, to quickly be coopted into acting against that president’s wishes and working to advance their bureaucracy’s self-interests instead. Even those who enter and discover the truth that “the bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy,” as Oscar Wilde memorably quipped, find they desire nothing so much as to help it do so. Their own interests and incentives have been subsumed by the bureaucracy’s interests and incentives.
How does this happen? And what is a bureaucracy, really? How is it that, as the critic Brooks Atkinson once wrote, bureaucracies are organizations “designed to perform public business,” but seemingly “as soon as a bureaucracy is established, it develops an autonomous spiritual life and comes to regard the public as its enemy”?