by Ryan McMaken
There is a common naïve view among many conservatives — and other supporters of a bloated military establishment — that foreign policy is made as part of a rational process in which foreign threats are assessed, and then requests are made to Congress to fund projects that “keep America safe.”
This credulous approach to foreign policy — expressed by many millions of “red-blooded” Americans who fancy themselves as the hard-nosed, realist “adults in the room” — ignores the immense amount of domestic political power wielded by the military and its allies in the private sector. The advocates of this view instead defer to the belief that the military’s current drive for ever-more spending and military build-up in Afghanistan is based on revelations about the “real threat” in Afghanistan, and that the military is driven only by a selfless desire to “kill terrorists.”
Meanwhile, American policy aimed toward perpetual occupation of Afghanistan has little to do with actual defense of the North American mainland, and much more to do with domestic politics.
Daniel McAdams recently examined the bizarre American preference for occupying Afghanistan while considering Saudi Arabia to be a great “ally”:
A gang of radical Saudis attacked the US on 9/11. Their leader, Osama bin Laden, was a CIA favorite when he was fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. … Osama’s radicals roamed from country to country until they were able to briefly settle in chaotic late 1990s Afghanistan for a time. They plotted the attack on the US from Florida, Germany, and elsewhere. They allegedly had a training camp in Afghanistan. We know from the once-secret 28 pages of the Congressional Intelligence Committee report on 9/11 that they had Saudi state sponsorship.
…Bin Laden’s group of Saudis attacked the US on 9/11. Washington’s neocons attacked Afghanistan and then Iraq in retaliation, neither of which had much to do with bin Laden or 9/11. Certainly not when compared to the complicity of the Saudi government at the highest levels.
…Sixteen years — and trillions of dollars and thousands of US military lives — later no one knows what the goals are in Afghanistan. Not even Trump, which is why he said tonight that he would no longer discuss our objectives in Afghanistan but instead would just concentrate on “killing terrorists.”
This is what American policy amounts to in Afghanistan. No clear objective has ever been stated for the occupation there, while one of the world’s biggest sponsors of Islamic terrorism — Saudi Arabia — remains on the Best Friends list.
A More Sober, Realist View
Nevertheless, conservatives and other interventionists stick dogmatically to the claim that more intervention is always better. When specifically confronted with dissenting views from libertarians such as Ron Paul, interventionists invent a caricature of their critics and claim that anyone who disagrees with them is a pie-in-the-sky anarchist utopian who thinks there are no “bad guys” in the world.
In reality, these endless occupations are frequently opposed by foreign policy realists such as Andrew Bacevich and John Mearshimer to name only two. The realists, of course, set their foreign policy in accordance with increasing actual military defensive capability. Realists are anything but believers in the boundless good will of human beings — and they’re certainly not Rothbardians — but they also understand, as Mearshimer put it, the “basic realist view” is “these interventions [i.e., Iraq and Afghanistan] have not been good for the United States.”
Other realists have also recognized the absurdity of comparing the current terrorist threat to past conflicts such as the Cold War. In 2007, Harvey Sapolsky, et al — none of them Rothbardians, to say the least — wrote at World Affairs:
No nation or ideology now menaces American security in the same ways or to the same degree that the Soviet Union and Communism did during the Cold War. Instead, a variety of ethnic, religious, and nationalistic conflicts oceans away from us now obsess our policymakers, even though those conflicts have little to no prospect of spreading our way. To be sure, radical Islamists have attacked Americans at home and abroad, and while these attackers should be hunted down, they do not pose an existential threat, only a difficult and distracting one. Killing or capturing the criminals who attack Americans makes sense; trying to fix the failed states they call home is hopeless and unnecessary. The United States is safer than ever.
This, of course, is not what we hear from the military itself, or from the Republican party. In that case, we hear nearly an endless litany about how the military is near “collapse” and how it has been “gutted” and how, thanks to Obama, the military is now on a shoestring budget. In truth, the military is still funded at Reagan-era Cold War levels.
In the jejune minds of much of the American public, though, it’s never a possibility that the military acts in its own financial self interest. If the military says it needs more taxpayer money, then, well, they must be given what they want. Why, a military officer would never lie or bend the truth!
The Role of Domestic Policy
So if the US current spate of military interventions are both damaging and unnecessary, why do these military operations continue unabated?
Part of it, as we’ve noted, is due to the public’s tendency to always defer to the pro-military position. Frankly, the American public’s ideological views tend toward indifference toward foreign policy, or outright militarism. There is a reason that no major candidate running for president in 2016 advocated for any significant cut in military spending. Even Donald Trump, who — at the time — claimed to oppose the ongoing occupations, advocated for massive increases in military spending.
With the public reliably on the military’s side, the debate then boils down to how much of the budget the military industry can wrest from other special interests.
Again, on the side of the military establishment is the large swath of the American population that benefits financially from taxpayer funds being funneled to military spending schemes. These have many economic benefits for certain groups.
It has long been true, for instance, that the US military is a jobs program. As we’ve noted here are mises.org, military personnel tend to make more money than their peers of similar education levels working the private sector.
But the beneficiaries of an expansive military establishment extend far beyond the people who can be defined as active military personnel.
Sapolsky has noted that, in spite of frequent claims that military personnel make up only one percent of the population, the real number of people whose paychecks rely on military spending is actually much larger:
In fact, more than 1% of Americans are involved in America’s defense. In addition to the two plus million service personnel—the 1.4 million active duty and 800,000 plus in the reserve components—there are 800,000 plus civil service employees of the Department of Defense—people who work in military depots, defense laboratories, shipyards, and contract management offices—and five to six million (the exact number is not known) contract employees—people who build weapon systems, provide support services, and conduct defense related research.
This totals to 3-4% of the adult population. Add spouses and other family members, and you can see that not an insignificant portion of the American population is involved in defense.
In other words, we’re looking at more than 12 million Americans who rely on military spending. For comparison’s sake, we can note that the the total number of people in the US working in agriculture totals less than 3 million people.
Nor should those 12 million Americans worry that they’re not being looked after on Capitol Hill. According to Open Secrets, in 2016 there were more than 752 defense-