Six decades ago, President Dwight Eisenhower warned Americans that a “military-industrial complex” threatened prosperity and peace. The term referred to the coalition of weapons manufacturers, skilled labor and the Pentagon whose interest is served by promoting unnecessary wars and military spending. Unfortunately, his warning was mostly ignored. Since Eisenhower retired, that same complex has persistently promoted war, and threats of war, as a means of self-enrichment.
The permanent war lobby has tilted American foreign policy away from diplomacy toward warfare. Ill-advised and unsuccessful wars in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq and Vietnam are the result. These failed wars were wasteful of human lives and hugely expensive. President Biden recently underscored this point, noting that the U.S. spent $6.1 trillion on Middle Eastern wars between 2001 and 2019. The war in Afghanistan cost us $2.6 trillion.
As that war ends amid public rejoicing, Americans gloomily wonder how soon the next useless war will arrive. Unless something basic changes, the military-industrial complex will market the “axis of evil” as it did in the past. To forestall the next Afghanistan or Vietnam, the U.S. needs to dismantle that complex now. This is easier said than done because the complex creates employment in every Congressional district. An abrupt and drastic reduction of Pentagon funding would create an immediate economic depression. A reduction of military spending must be accomplished as part of an integrated plan.
In order to close down, or at least weaken, the military-industrial complex, the government needs to initiate long-term, massive spending on domestic priorities so that jobs lost in the warfare industries are compensated elsewhere. A Green New Deal does that. Backers of the deal have already identified many benefits this policy direction would bring, including rebuilding our industrial infrastructure, protecting the climate, and facilitating economic growth. Another huge benefit has thus far escaped public discussion: a more peaceful future. A Green New Deal would assist the transformation of the U.S. from a self-appointed, unpaid world policeman into a prudent defender of core national interests.
Good news: This transition has already begun. The infrastructure bill that the House of Representatives recently passed projects a $3.5 trillion expense over 10 years. This sum is exactly what Uncle Sam paid for during the final 10 years of wars in the Middle East, [and] for which the U.S. obtained nothing of value in exchange. If Bernie Sanders’s bigger Green New Deal were fully funded, within 10 years the U.S. would enjoy vastly improved social, economic and climate-protecting infrastructure, and the added benefit of attracting foreign investment. That would be truly something of value. To the extent that a Green New Deal is funded by a reduction in military spending, the government would rebuild our tattered infrastructure without increased spending.
Dismantling the military-industrial complex does not mean that we defund the Pentagon, but only reduce the military budget to the proportionate average of our NATO allies. The U.S. now spends more on defense than do our 29 NATO allies combined. There is nothing to stop the U.S. from reducing its military spending to their level; because this process would be both gradual and create compensatory employment, a Green New Deal could overcome the political resistance that diminished military spending is certain to provoke.
Back in 2016, Trump appealed to voters tired of forever wars. Now, exhausted by 20 years of warfare, Americans ardently desire a more peaceful future. As a result, an ambitious Green New Deal policy has more to offer American voters than its backers realize. Peace is back by popular demand. Backers of the Green New Deal need to recognize that peace is a bonus to the advantages already on offer.
Ivan Light is an Inverness resident and a professor emeritus of sociology at U.C.L.A.