Thursday, March 09, 2006

Feeding the Monkey

I have to admit that I’ve read Mark Hyman’s commentary on the Quadrennial Defense Review a number of times, and for the life of me I can’t extricate a coherent point. He titles his piece “QDR is DOA,” but he doesn’t seem to have any criticism of the QDR other than the fact that it says the obvious (according to the source Hyman cites, The Armed Forces Journal).

The upshot (such as there is) seems to be that according to Hyman “the U.S. can no longer improve U.S. military [sic] without significant additional spending.”

I haven’t read the QDR, so I don’t have any particular feelings one way or the other about it. However, someone who has is Lawrence Korb, former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
He’s a bit harsher about the QDR than Hyman is, pointing out (among other things) that the QDR doesn’t call for cutting a single weapons system, even those designed with Cold War concerns in mind and/or those that have proven to be dodgy at best when it comes to actually working properly.

What I can glean from Hyman’s editorial is that he thinks the problem with the military is not enough spending. Nonsense. The problem is not spending wisely. Think what the money that’s been poured into Star Wars could do if it was used to create a better and stronger intelligence network in the Middle East?

Defense is the one area where conservatives openly criticize frugality and economizing. Of course, there are any number of areas in which they don’t practice these virtues (Exhibit A: The Reagan administration), but at least they pay lip service to them. But when it comes to defense spending, government spending can’t be big enough.

Why is this? Two possible explanations suggest themselves immediately, and they’re not mutually exclusive.

One, as President Eisenhower warned us, the combination of government and military industry is dangerous, powerful, and money-hungry. Talk of the “military industrial complex” can take on the patina of wooly-headed conspiracy mongering, but the truth of the matter is that when you’ve got so many symbiotic relationships between individuals and collectivities in government and industry, the chances that anyone in either area is going to rock the boat (let alone scuttle it) are minimal. Spending on outlandishly expensive and probably useless weapons systems becomes an end in itself. It doesn’t need a purpose, just a rationalization. You gotta feed the monkey.

Secondly (and this is more of an abstraction of the first explanation) is one touched on by the oft-cited (particularly in this blog)
George Lakoff, who notes that the military embodies the sort of hierarchical, patriarchal, authoritarian values that are at the core of the conservative worldview. Spending money on defense is like writing a check to Jerry’s Kids: you’re not sure exactly how it will be used and it’s not at all clear that it will make things materially better, but it feels like the right thing to do. Again, the spending is an end in itself rather than a means to an end. The main difference is that in this view, the monkey being fed is the conservative self-image, not Dick Cheney.

But in both cases, the way it’s rationalized for the public is through the use of fear. With Bush’s “Long War” (i.e., unending war) against “Terror,” conservatives have the rationale they’ve lacked since the end of the Cold War to ramp up defense spending indefinitely. Throw in a bit of retro fear mongering about communism (China playing the role of the U.S.S.R) and you’ve got a good public relations package for limitless defense budget busting.

At least until we decide not to be fooled by it.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 2.55


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