US MILITARY KEYNESIANISM AND THE MILITARY- INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX’S ‘CHINA SYNDROME’
By now, it appears that the US political economy of fear in relation to China has a distinct ring of militarism. Chalmers Johnson calls it the American version of ‘military Keynesianism’. First used by the exiled Polish economist Michal Kalecki to describe Nazi Germany’s economic recovery from the Great Depression, the term ‘military Keynesianism’ refers to the artificial stimulation of economic demand through government military spending. 26 By way of military Keynesianism, people can find secure jobs in the war economy, lawmakers have little trouble getting (re-)elected by content voters, and with the help of lawmakers, the military and defence contractors can continue enjoying political influence as well as reaping handsome profit. All the while, the commander-in-chief is able to muster ever-greater power and authority. As military Keynesianism takes hold, the emergence of the national security state is often not far off the horizon. Political scientist Harold Lasswell labelled this phenomenon the ‘garrison state’, ‘a world in which the specialists on violence are the most powerful group in society’.27
In the American context, that most powerful group is called the military- industrial complex. Coined by President Eisenhower, the military-industrial complex consists of ‘the Congressman who sees a new defense establishment in his district; the company in Los Angeles, Denver, or Baltimore that wants an order for more airplanes; the services which want them; the armies of scientists who want so terribly to test out their newest view’.28 When Eisenhower initially canvassed this problem in his farewell address to the nation in 1961, little did he anticipate that four decades later, even the White House, whose occupants had become progressively indebted and addicted to defence contractors for their campaign contributions and job creation, would become an effective part of that powerful complex. In 2001, five of the top six donors to the House Armed Services Committee were nuclear weapons and missile defence contractors. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in the 2004 election cycle, the arms industry contributed more than $13 million, with 62 per cent going to Republican candidates or committees.29 Not surprisingly, by the time George W. Bush entered the White House in 2001, he had accumulated a large debt to the military-industrial complex. While there was much controversy over Bill Clinton’s rewarding of his 1996 campaign donors with an overnight stay in the White House’s Lincoln Bedroom, Bush easily outdid his predecessor by handing his campaign contributors—many of whom were executives of major defence contractors—powerful posts in the Pentagon. James Roche, an executive with Northrop Grumman, and Peter B. Teets, former president and chief operating officer of Lockheed Martin, were appointed respectively as secretary and undersecretary of the Air Force. Gordon England, a vice president of General Dynamics, was made secretary of the Navy.30 Moreover, one will not forget that Vice President Dick Cheney himself came straight from the top job of the oil service and military construction firm Halliburton. Stephen Hadley, before his appointments as deputy director of the National Security Council and later the National Security Advisor, was a partner in the Washington-based law firm Shea & Gardner, which represented Lockheed Martin. In total, 32 major Bush policymakers had significant ties to the arms industry. 31
The military-industrial complex thrives on military spending. By one (perhaps conservative) estimate, in 2002 the number of private firms in the US that profited from the military contracting systems reached 85 000.32 But in order to maintain high-level military spending upon which the production of weapons systems is dependent, threats have to be in continuous production. For, in the words of a defence analyst from the Lexington Institute, ‘The most fundamental thing about defense spending is that threats derive defense spending’.33 To Martin Feldstein, Professor of Economics at Harvard University and one-time chief economic adviser to President Reagan, the obvious linkage between threat and defence spending is not the question. The ‘real questions’, as he maintains, ‘are how much more [spending] is needed, what the new funds should be spent on, and how the money can be raised’.34
C. Wright Mills once observed that ‘military threat places a premium on the military and upon their control of men, material, money, and power’.35
Yet, not just any type of threat will suffice for military Keynesianism to operate at full speed. The threat has to be both major and durable. The Soviet Union used to be one such source of fear. After its collapse, many military planners, who made a career out of ‘containing’ the Soviet threat, were in immediate danger of becoming politically irrelevant. As a journalist then put it, ‘“Board game” conferences to discuss choke points and sea lanes will become harder to find, and those who used to attend them will have to find another line of work’.36 And for the defence apparatus as a whole, maintaining Cold-War-level military spending would become a tall order in a postSoviet era. As the demand for weapons started to dwindle, many defence contractors faced the prospect of having to shut down their production line. The imperative of commercial survival would force them to look harder for new promising markets, which could explain why the oil-rich Middle East and the newly-industrialising countries in East Asia caught their attention.
But even those new markets would not last without the identification of new worthy threats. In the Middle East, thanks to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the terrorist attacks of ‘September 11’, on both occasions the Saddam regime filled the threat vacancy. As it turned out, the 1990-1991 Gulf War, which was watched on living room televisions around the world, became a brilliant real-time advertising campaign for weapons suppliers. Within three years after the Gulf War, the US signed arms deals with Gulf countries worth billions of dollars.37
Although defence contractors and their CEOs made huge profits out of the Gulf War and the ‘War on Terror’, ‘rogue states’ and terrorist groups could not provide a sustained rationale for the continued production and purchase of advanced weapons systems, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, the F- 22 Raptor jet fighters, Virginia-class submarines and Trident D5 submarine ballistic missiles. Neither small ‘rogue states’ nor the shadowy Al-Qaeda have the apparent ability to engage in submarine battles deep in the ocean, for which the Virginia-class submarine was specially designed. The F-22, dubbed ‘the most unnecessary weapon system built by the Pentagon’, was from the outset intended to counter some mysterious Soviet aircraft that never saw the light of day.38 Indeed, even with the two vast battle grounds of Iraq and Afghanistan lying wide open in front of US war planners, by then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s own admission, ‘the F-22 has not performed a single mission in either theater’.39 To his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld, Afghanistan was simply not a ‘target rich’ area to start with.40
If the spectre of terrorism alone provides limited room for the continued operation of America’s colossal machine of military Keynesianism, nothing short of a ‘near-peer’ competitor, much like the former Soviet Union, should do. In the post-Cold War era, the only candidate is China. Only with a threat as big as China can those weapons programs grow into an optimal size and become both strategically justifiable and financially sustainable. ‘When a program gets to a certain size, in the billions, it employs so many people in so many districts you can’t kill it’, said a congressional staffer and former Army officer.41 For example, with its contracts in all of the 48 continental states, the B-2 Stealth Bomber, whose contract team is made up of a who’s who of leading military contractors including Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Hughes Aircraft, and General Electric, has been virtually assured the widest possible support from Congress.42 Some forty years ago, Senator J. William Fulbright remarked that ‘Millions of Americans whose only interest is in making a decent living have acquired a vested interest in an economy geared to war. Those benefits, once obtained, are not easily parted with. Every new weapons system or military installation soon acquires a constituency’.43 But even he did not foresee the magnitude of this constituency today, nor did he seem to envisage that the constituency would include the White House.
In 2001, as soon as George W. Bush came to office, the newly-elected President branded Beijing as a ‘strategic competitor’. On 6 February 2006, Bush proposed a record military budget of $439.3 billion for 2007. Noticeably, on the same day he sent the budget request to Congress, the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review Report was officially submitted, which contains the now well-known punch line that ‘Of the major and emerging powers, China has the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States’.44 A sheer coincidence in timing perhaps, but such a coincidence made perfect sense given that the China threat had served explicitly as a major justification for maintaining American satellite capability, the F-22 and other new types of fighter aircraft, missile defence, new naval ships, or any other big-ticket programme.45 For example, Robert Gates told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee in February 2008 that the F-22 fighter ‘is principally for use against a near peer in a conflict, and I think we all know who that is’.46 One person who certainly knew the answer was Bruce Carlson, commander of the Air Force Materiel Command. The Air Force had long planned to buy 380 F-22 Raptor jets, each costing around $140 million. But only 187 jets had been approved in the budget. An unhappy Carlson complained to a group of trade reporters in early 2008 that 187 was ‘the wrong number’, for it would leave too much room for risk to national security in future military competition or confrontation with China. 47 And for the Navy, the line of reasoning was the same. As a former naval officer put it, ‘China is everyone’s reason for a big Navy’.48 Defence commentator Fred Kaplan has labelled this whole phenomenon the Pentagon’s ‘China Syndrome’:
Every day and night, hundreds of Air Force generals and Navy admirals must
thank their lucky stars for China. Without the spectre of a rising Chinese military,
there would be no rationale for such a large fleet of American nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers, or for a new generation of stealth combat fighters—no rationale for about a quarter of the Pentagon’s budget.49
Caught up in the ‘China Syndrome’ himself, Rumsfeld was ‘annoyed’ that ‘the war in Iraq has diverted resources from his real goal of “transforming” the military into a high-tech outfit that can scare the bejeezus out of China’.50