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By Democracy Readers

The Awful Vérité

I greatly appreciate Heather Hurlburt’s thoughtful review of my book Unwarranted Influence [“Peace Is Our Profession,” Issue #21], and accept her observation that it and William Hartung’s Prophets of War could have done more to reflect the critical voices about military spending that can be heard within the military establishment itself. As she correctly asserts, “It simply will not be possible in today’s political climate to change the relationships among military, Congress, and industry without the military’s acquiescence.”

I regret, however, not being able to share the optimism with which Hurlburt greets several recent budgetary developments. She asks, “Is it possible to imagine a defense sector that operate[s] differently?”

The answer is yes—but every alternative has been soundly rejected by Congress and the military over the last century (the 1930s probably represents the high-water mark for potential, but abandoned, reform of the American armaments system).
Harder to swallow is Hurlburt’s excitement over the French legislature’s method of approving or rejecting military budgets in toto, suggesting that this and related tinkering will whisk away any influence of a military-industrial complex. Mon Dieu—where to begin?

First, all comparisons between the United States and any post-Soviet military budget fall down on the issue of scale. U.S. military expenditures are well more than ten times the size of France’s, and so any solution that “works” in one country may not work in the other.
Second, it is naïve to think that any of the possibly salutary structures Hurlburt finds in France have prevented the rise and unwarranted influence of a military-industrial complex in the country of protectionist dirigisme, the country where military contractors have stakes in an alarming number of media outlets, the country whose intelligence agencies murderously blew up a Greenpeace boat to protect its nuclear tests on a Polynesian atoll, and so on.

Hurlburt should contemplate this difficult but absolute vérité: The prime mover behind today’s military-industrial complex comes less from budgets or battlefields than from the economy. Procurement reform alone, no matter how necessary, is insufficient to tame the influence of the military-industrial complex.

James Ledbetter
New York, N.Y.

Heather Hurlburt responds:

Ledbetter accuses me of optimism and naïveté. I plead guilty to optimism but deny the other charge.

Ledbetter and I agree on a core point: The military-industrial complex is so essential to its political and corporate beneficiaries that reforming its excesses and curbing its appetites seems nearly impossible. We also agree that it often operates outside the realities of current conflicts, much less larger questions about American strategy. Taming the military-industrial complex will require going beyond technical procurement reforms. It will require nothing less than a different conception of security from the one Americans currently buy at a price tag higher than the rest of the world combined.

As a journalist, Ledbetter is permitted to stop after reporting those facts. As a policy thinker and advocate, I need to motivate myself and others with the idea that change is possible. Indeed, I struggled to give readers of the review reasons for hope—creativity and an open outlook are essential here. The appeal of the French model is not at all that the United States can, or should, be France—vive la différence—but rather that it removes legislators’ ability to mix fundraising and procurement decisions. As I wrote, the homegrown model that seems to offer hope is the nonpartisan base realignment and closure commission (better known as BRAC) that recommends a package of base closures to Congress for an up-or-down vote, and that has always been successful.

Can the so-called “super Congress”— which faces apparently mandatory defense cuts if agreement on a revenue package is not reached—direct a way forward based on a rational assessment of our strategic needs and the relative costs and benefits of various weapons systems and policies? Certainly, all of Ledbetter’s reasons for pessimism are in play. But suddenly, we are in unknown territory—a place neither Ledbetter nor I would have predicted we would be in even six months ago. And that alone, given the history of bad policies being repeated over and over again, is grounds for optimism.

Democracy Readers who would like to submit a letter to the editor can do so by emailing dajoi@democracyjournal.org.

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