By: Tony Burman, Special to the Star
America’s “military-industrial complex,” as U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower described it in his farewell address in 1961, is in full-throated terror. The world is about to end — or at least their inflated, overly protected and dangerous part of it. But I suspect that Eisenhower, were he still alive, would respond to their agony with a brush-off: “My fellow Americans, it is about time.”
Across-the-board cuts to the bloated U.S. military budget — variously described as “catastrophic,” “draconian” and “legislative madness” — will go into effect in two weeks unless Washington’s warring Republican and Democratic leaders come to a compromise on spending and revenue.
It is timely to recall Eisenhower’s warning in 1961. He worried about the growing power of the “military-industrial complex” and the impact of the defence industry’s quest for profits on foreign policy. As Aaron B. O’Connell, who teaches history at the United States Naval Academy, wrote in The New York Times last November: “(Eisenhower) warned that unending preparations for war were incongruous with the nation’s history (and) cautioned that war and war making took up too large a proportion of national life.”
Those prophetic words were spoken 52 years ago by one of America’s most honoured military leaders. Earlier this week, in his state of the union speech, President Barack Obama seemed to echo that theme, perhaps unintentionally. Obama never once mentioned the words “Iraq” or “war on terror.” He talked about ending the war in Afghanistan and focused on the need to “fix” America, rather than “fix” the world.
Most Americans see themselves as “peacemakers” who are committed to bringing their sense of “democratic values” to all. It is a comforting self-image shaped by a conceited belief in American “exceptionalism.” But much of the developing world, particularly after the disastrous decade that followed Sept. 11, see the United States as mostly “war makers” — with a self-serving and hypocritical commitment to true “democracy.” It is this crucial contradiction where change, finally, may be occurring.
In much of the current alarmist debate about the threats to “America’s national security,” several facts have been lost in the shuffle.
The United States has a staggering military budget, which has ballooned since Sept. 11. It is 20 per cent of the entire federal budget and now significantly more than Medicare. In 2011, the U.S. spent more on its military that the next 13 nations combined. That will still be true, even if the latest round of cuts — roughly 10 per cent — is imposed. The cuts would leave the military budget at roughly the same level as it was in the latter years of the Bush administration.
What is also revealing is what Americans think. This reality is largely ignored in the debate among America’s chattering classes. A national survey by the Stimson Center revealed that most American voters — including Republicans — favoured budget cuts to the military that would be far greater than has currently been proposed.
It is ironic that these significant budget cuts to the U.S. military, if they go ahead, will begin in early March when Americans mark the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Many might see that as a historic transition point. In 2003, American imperial power seemed to be at its height. Now, after the collapse of that adventure, America’s power is in decline and it is necessary for its leadership to manage that decline in the best interests of the United States, its people and the world at large.
In 2003 at Yale University, former president Bill Clinton said the U.S. should be realistic about how the future will unfold, and act in partnership with other nations: “(The U.S.) is the biggest, most powerful country in the world now. . . But if you believe that we should be trying to create a world with rules and partnerships and habits of behaviour that we would like to live in when we’re no longer the military, political, economic superpower in the world, then you wouldn’t (act unilaterally).”
But this must be done by stealth. No active American politician can acknowledge that this 21st century will not be America’s century, and that includes Obama. But his recent actions suggest he has listened to Clinton’s words.
Tony Burman, former head of Al Jazeera English and CBC News, teaches journalism at Ryerson University. email@example.com