How Congress Loots the Treasury for the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex

By Medea Benjamin, cofounder of CODEPINK for Peace, and author of several books, including Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Nicolas J. S. Davies, an independent journalist, researcher with CODEPINK, and the author of Blood on Our Hands: The American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq.

Despite a disagreement over some amendments in the Senate, the United States Congress is poised to pass a $778 billion military budget bill for 2022. As they have been doing year after year, our elected officials are preparing to hand the lion’s share – over 65% – of federal discretionary spending to the U.S. war machine, even as they wring their hands over spending a mere quarter of that amount on the Build Back Better Act.

The U.S. military’s incredible record of systematic failure—most recently its final trouncing by the Taliban after twenty years of death, destruction and lies in Afghanistan—cries out for a top-to-bottom review of its dominant role in U.S. foreign policy and a radical reassessment of its proper place in Congress’s budget priorities.

Instead, year after year, members of Congress hand over the largest share of our nation’s resources to this corrupt institution, with minimal scrutiny and no apparent fear of accountability when it comes to their own reelection. Members of Congress still see it as a “safe” political call to carelessly whip out their rubber-stamps and vote for however many hundreds of billions in funding Pentagon and arms industry lobbyists have persuaded the Armed Services Committees they should cough up.

Let’s make no mistake about this: Congress’s choice to keep investing in a massive, ineffective and absurdly expensive war machine has nothing to do with “national security” as most people understand it, or “defense” as the dictionary defines it.

U.S. society does face critical threats to our security, including the climate crisis, systemic racism, erosion of voting rights, gun violence, grave inequalities and the corporate hijacking of political power. But one problem we fortunately do not have is the threat of attack or invasion by a rampant global aggressor or, in fact, by any other country at all.

Maintaining a war machine that outspends the 12 or 13 next largest militaries in the world combined actually makes us less safe, as each new administration inherits the delusion that the United States’ overwhelmingly destructive military power can, and therefore should, be used to confront any perceived challenge to U.S. interests anywhere in the world—even when there is clearly no military solution and when many of the underlying problems were caused by past misapplications of U.S. military power in the first place.

While the international challenges we face in this century require a genuine commitment to international cooperation and diplomacy, Congress allocates only $58 billion, less than 10 percent of the Pentagon budget, to the diplomatic corps of our government: the State Department. Even worse, both Democratic and Republican administrations keep filling top diplomatic posts with officials indoctrinated and steeped in policies of war and coercion, with scant experience and meager skills in the peaceful diplomacy we so desperately need.

This only perpetuates a failed foreign policy based on false choices between economic sanctions that UN officials have compared to medieval sieges, coups that destabilize countries and regions for decades, and wars and bombing campaigns that kill millions of people and leave cities in rubble, like Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria.

The end of the Cold War was a golden opportunity for the United States to reduce its forces and military budget to match its legitimate defense needs. The American public naturally expected and hoped for a “Peace Dividend,” and even veteran Pentagon officials told the Senate Budget Committee in 1991 that military spending could safely be cut by 50% over the next ten years.

But no such cut happened. U.S. officials instead set out to exploit the post-Cold War “Power Dividend,” a huge military imbalance in favor of the United States, by developing rationales for using military force more freely and widely around the world. During the transition to the new Clinton administration, Madeleine Albright famously asked Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”

In 1999, as Secretary of State under President Clinton, Albright got her wish, running roughshod over the UN Charter with an illegal war to carve out an independent Kosovo from the ruins of Yugoslavia.

The UN Charter clearly prohibits the threat or use of military force except in cases of self-defense or when the UN Security Council takes military action “to maintain or restore international peace and security.” This was neither. When U.K. Foreign Secretary Robin Cook told Albright his government was “having trouble with our lawyers” over NATO’s illegal war plan, Albright crassly told him to “get new lawyers.”

Twenty-two years later, Kosovo is the third-poorest country in Europe (after Moldova and post-coup Ukraine) and its independence is still not recognized by 96 countries. Hashim Thaçi, Albright’s hand-picked main ally in Kosovo and later its president, is awaiting trial in an international court at the Hague, charged with murdering at least 300 civilians under cover of NATO bombing in 1999 to extract and sell their internal organs on the international transplant market.

Clinton and Albright’s gruesome and illegal war set the precedent for more illegal U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and elsewhere, with equally devastating and horrific results. But America’s failed wars have not led Congress or successive administrations to seriously rethink the U.S. decision to rely on illegal threats and uses of military force to project U.S. power all over the world, nor have they reined in the trillions of dollars invested in these imperial ambitions.

Instead, in the upside-down world of institutionally corrupt U.S. politics, a generation of failed and pointlessly destructive wars have had the perverse effect of normalizing even more expensive military budgets than during the Cold War, and reducing congressional debate to questions of how many more of each useless weapons system they should force U.S. taxpayers to foot the bill for.

It seems that no amount of killing, torture, mass destruction or lives ruined in the real world can shake the militaristic delusions of America’s political class, as long as the “Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex” (President Eisenhower’s original wording) is reaping the benefits.

Today, most political and media references to the Military-Industrial Complex refer only to the arms industry as a self-serving corporate interest group on a par with Wall Street, Big Pharma or the fossil fuel industry. But in his Farewell Address, Eisenhower explicitly pointed to, not just the arms industry, but the “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry.”

Eisenhower was just as worried about the anti-democratic impact of the military as the arms industry. Weeks before his Farewell Address, he told his senior advisors, “God help this country when somebody sits in this chair who doesn’t know the military as well as I do.” His fears have been realized in every subsequent presidency.

According to Milton Eisenhower, the president’s brother, who helped him draft his Farewell Address, Ike also wanted to talk about the “revolving door.” Early drafts of his speech referred to “a permanent, war-based industry,” with “flag and general officers retiring at an early age to take positions in the war-based industrial complex, shaping its decisions and guiding the direction of its tremendous thrust.” He wanted to warn that steps must be taken to “insure that the ‘merchants of death’ do not come to dictate national policy.”

As Eisenhower feared, the careers of figures like Generals Austin and Mattis now span all branches of the corrupt MIC conglomerate: commanding invasion and occupation forces in Afghanistan and Iraq; then donning suits and ties to sell weapons to new generals who served under them as majors and colonels; and finally re-emerging from the same revolving door as cabinet members at the apex of American politics and government.

So why does the Pentagon brass get a free pass, even as Americans feel increasingly conflicted about the arms industry? After all, it is the military that actually uses all these weapons to kill people and wreak havoc in other countries.

Even as it loses war after war overseas, the U.S. military has waged a far more successful one to burnish its image in the hearts and minds of Americans and win every budget battle in Washington.

The complicity of Congress, the third leg of the stool in Eisenhower’s original formulation, turns the annual battle of the budget into the “cakewalk” that the war in Iraq was supposed to be, with no accountability for lost wars, war crimes, civilian massacres, cost overruns or the dysfunctional military leadership that presides over it all.

There is no congressional debate over the economic impact on America or the geopolitical consequences for the world of uncritically rubber-stamping huge investments in powerful weapons that will sooner or later be used to kill our neighbors and smash their countries, as they have for the past 22 years and far too often throughout our history.

If the public is ever to have any impact on this dysfunctional and deadly money-go-round, we must learn to see through the fog of propaganda that masks self-serving corruption behind red, white and blue bunting, and allows the military brass to cynically exploit the public’s natural respect for brave young men and women who are ready to risk their lives to defend our country. In the Crimean War, the Russians called British troops “lions led by donkeys.” That is an accurate description of today’s U.S. military.

Sixty years after Eisenhower’s Farewell Address, exactly as he predicted, the “weight of this combination” of corrupt generals and admirals, the profitable “merchants of death” whose goods they peddle, and the Senators and Representatives who blindly entrust them with trillions of dollars of the public’s money, constitute the full flowering of President Eisenhower’s greatest fears for our country.

Eisenhower concluded, “Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals.” That clarion call echoes through the decades and should unite Americans in every form of democratic organizing and movement building, from elections to education and advocacy to mass protests, to finally reject and dispel the “unwarranted influence” of the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex.

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  1. LowellHighlander

    Another invaluable public service.

    With regard to this statement by Ms. Benjamin:

    “If the public is ever to have any impact on this dysfunctional and deadly money-go-round, we must learn to see through the fog of propaganda that masks self-serving corruption behind red, white and blue bunting, and allows the military brass to cynically exploit the public’s natural respect for brave young men and women who are ready to risk their lives to defend our country.”

    I’d love to see a President go on national TV with images of the mansions in which live executives of major “defense” contractors (e.g. Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, etc.) and contrast such images of luxury with the lives of the lowest rank-and-file troops that have to seek hand-outs to keep their wives and children fed.

    In the meantime, we can make it a point to watch Oliver Stone’s new film, JFK Revisited. [There’s an interview of Mr. Stone about this film that you can watch on Youtube.] I believe it will show what happens when a President takes on the Military Industrial Complex. We all need to know, if we are to have any hope of escaping this nightmare.

  2. Read my Lips not my Deeds

    Eisenhower – if he knew, why didn’t he do anything to stop MIC? He just passed the bucket down the generations and… well, here we stand and cannot do otherwise. God help us.

    1. Alex Cox

      Exactly. Eisenhower made every effort to enhance the MIC then briefly whined about it on his way out. I am sick of liberals idolizing another killer president just because he made a speech.

  3. tegnost

    So at a minimum, since we can’t seem to spend less yoy, 7.88 trillion over ten years. I got your infrastructure right here, folks…enjoy your pittance serfs…use it to pay for gas.

  4. Oh

    Most of us who read Naked Capitalism know that the MICC is most corrupt and the propaganda is not to be believed. However the greater part of our voting age population love the Kool Aid and Bernays sauce that’s regularly handed out. Starting from “Support our troops” nonsense to “Russia, Russia, Russia” it’s 24×7 unending brainwashing. And now the chants are turning to “China bad”. I don’t expect the brainwashed masses to stop their “patriotic” their chest beating any time soon.

  5. Synoia

    The MIC Loots the Treasury…

    Really, I thought this was covered by MMT?

    One cannot praise MMT with one hand and denigrates its use by the other hand. In addition I’d be very interested in our Government’s use of MMT and the current inflation.

    I understand consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, and I will admit to that epithet.

    Our Government’s unequal handiness is simple: It is caused by greed, and a significant portion of the money spent on the Military rotates back to our politicians as “campaign contributions.”

    The “Campaign Contributions” in turn promote our beloved leaders into millionaires.

    1. Susan the other

      I think it isn’t a question of spending, but what kind of spending. MMT is the most rational method of accounting for a sovereign nation; the alternative is to rube-goldberg a pointless spread sheet and impose austerity on millions of citizens for no reason whatsoever. So it is not a question of spending money, but of how money is spent, and squandering it on the MICC is both a waste of time and money – both of which need to be conserved for best uses. But the fox is in the henhouse so the money is being looted, for lack of a better word. We should do some clever political pest control and find the perfect predator for ridding us of foxes. More mother bears for congress is a good start. The best method is to just get rid of the garbage dump our corrupt pols are diving in and out of. We can do a better job of overseeing the money; passing laws for misappropriations and unaccountable spending/lobbying etc. We can use environmental protection laws and regulations to curtail their most poisonous projects; the worst corporations as well. We can impose civilian law over military law and force the military to pay service men and women properly and/or to prosecute the military for misusing any funds whatsoever. We do have teeth; we just dropped them behind the nightstand and we’re too lazy to reach down and get them. If we weren’t so corrupt as a government we could quickly turn the military into a quasi-civilian organization, a branch of the government, with a mandate to repair the planet, not destroy it. But where’s the jackpot for congress if we do that?

  6. HH

    The United States was poisoned by militarism after victory in WWII. Entirely oblivious to the advent of nuclear weapons, US politicians have endless fantasies of fighting massive conventional wars in the Pacific or Europe because their dream is to have a reprise of our great triumph in WWII.

    In 1914, the conventional political wisdom was completely out of touch with the technological realities of warfare. The catastrophe of WWI was the result. Today, ignorant US leaders are again sleepwalking toward a deadly conflict that could dwarf any previous war. Casual talk about war with Russia and/or China is insanity that has been normalized by a compliant media and an ignorant public.

    It took the total destruction of over 30 Japanese cities, culminating in the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to burn militarism out of Japan. Unfortunately, I believe that nothing short of the destruction of one or two US cities will put an end to our own toxic militarism.

  7. The Rev Kev

    The truth of the matter is that the entire military-industrial-congressional complex is basically a machine to funnel money from the Federal government straight to corporate America. It does not even matter if those weapons work or not because ‘thirty years of spare parts, baby’. That is how you get the F-35, littoral combat ships and the Ford-class aircraft carriers. It may work when you are slamming some third-world nation but against a peer nation like China or Russia? Not so much. The US can’t even attack Iran without catastrophic consequences. In fact, trying to attack a country like Venezuela may be too problematical as it may end up in a quagmire. Add to this weapons appearing on more and more battlefields like ATGMs and manpads and the world is not what it was like back in the 90s. Still is not stopping all the money flowing from Congress to the M-I-C complex however.

    1. Ozz

      It is all fear based. Americans live on an island called North America with little exposure to other countries except cheap labor from South America. The citizens have little to no involvement with other countries like happens in Europe where a train ride will take you through numerous countries and cultures. Against this backdrop it is easy to sell fear because we are ignorant of the world.

      Nobody could conceivably invade the country but we’re afraid of so many countries. Football teams wearing Camo, military fly overs we dearly love and praise for the volunteers that went to war and came home broken simply the cost of war as are refuges. Afghanistan and Ukraine are places where we give them weapons paid for with US taxpayer money and do not really care if they are used. It’s the sale by contractors to the USG that matter, then the ongoing sustainment paid for by american taxpayers. It’s a neat gig if you can get it and one that will not be given up easily since shareholders demand profit and buybacks and the news never show the real carnage of our endeavors. Much of the US budget in is corporate welfare such as this. It goes on in Medical, insurance and do not forget oil too. It only changes when we want it too or a change is imposed on us. The latter is unlikely to happen but there is hope for the former, after all it is the end of a fourth turning. We are where we’re supposed to be! I would so like to have a better viewpoint. I grew up during Vietnam and people knew about the war and it was talked about, the fear of the draft and it’s consequences. In this century war has become so common and the internet delivers so much distraction it was easy to pull the wars over the eyes of the american public. You would be unpatriotic if you didn’t support them

  8. JTMcPhee

    All good information, all well known by many. One has to ask what can be done, wisely and intentionally, to choke off this monkey on our backs.

    Or do we mopes just have to endure until the eventual collapse? Strongly worded letters and emails to the bribed class have zero effect, and there’s a complete dearth of electoral options.

  9. Mike

    So, are “we” going to “go to the mat” with Russia over Ukraine? Will “we” push the limits of what our Navy can do in confronting China over Taiwan or the straits? I say “we”, of course, knowing that most of us, however we think or act in our political lives, will have no weight in the decisions being crafted in DC and the executive boardrooms. But WE will be at fault, as others have said before, because we did not “go to the mat” when it was necessary, before it was so far from possible. We have died while still alive, although if ultimatism prevails, we may also be truly dead, the more to assuage our guilt.

    Pessimistic? It is true that the established order is weaker in some ways than ever before, but it is also true that injured or cornered animals lash out in ways that are very consequential for those opposing them. Are we ready? The worst aspect of this state of affairs is that victimization comes whether you are innocent or guilty. The lash will hit indiscriminately.

  10. scott s.

    Well, there either is a national security threat or there isn’t. If there isn’t, then any strategy (including military) will work. If there is a threat, you need a strategy.

    As someone who went through both the post-Viet Nam drawdown, and post-cold war drawdown, the article I think is factually wrong.

    If you don’t like the “revolving door”, rethink the personnel policy that forces people out in their mid-forties.

    I find interesting that Eisenhower’s address is always quoted in regards to the MIC, but his other warnings ignored such as “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.” I’m looking at you, Fauci.

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