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From Military Keynesianism to Global-Neoliberal Militarism

James M. Cypher is a professor-researcher in the doctoral program in development studies at the Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas, in Mexico. He is coauthor, with James L. Dietz, of The Process of Economic Development (Routledge, 2004). He has written extensively on the role of military spending in the U.S. economy since 1971.

The New Militarism

In mid-summer of 2006 a Harris Opinion poll revealed that roughly 50 percent of the U.S. public believed that weapons of mass destruction (WMD) had been found in Iraq by U.S. forces and nearly two-thirds of those polled thought that the Iraqi regime had been collaborating with al-Qaeda forces prior to the Washington invasion in the spring of 2003. All this, of course, stood in stark contrast to the facts as they were then known and grudgingly acknowledged by U.S. policymakers. At the same time, a large majority of the population believed that the invasion had been a mistake and favored significant troop withdrawals in the near future.

Psychologists might interpret these discordant results as indications of mass cognitive dissonance. That it is, but it is much more: The U.S. public in general has a very long and deep, and largely positive, association with things military. This peculiar relationship owes much to experiences during the Second World War. Although the United States suffered significant losses in terms of death and injury to its fighting forces, the economy boomed during the war, the Depression faded, and the fight was “over there.” Furthermore, in the early 1940s the U.S. military promulgated a new doctrine of “forward defense,” meaning that after the Second World War Washington would stage much of its firepower throughout the globe, essentially spending next to nothing to defend the territory of the United States itself. The destruction of war was felt most by the hundreds of millions of people in other lands who experienced imperial wars and interventions in their national territories. This unique positive U.S. relationship between economic recovery and heavy bouts of military spending (if not war) has remained up to the present.

During 1945–89, Washington engaged in six large-scale military actions. In the 1989–2003 period the United States carried out nine such actions. With the onset of the Persian Gulf War of 1991, a new factor was thrown into the relationship—high-tech, “precision-guided” weaponry would make combat antiseptic. War would become its antithesis—thanks to American ingenuity. A childish and disengaged language also began to circulate in this period. There were “good guys” and “bad guys.” High-tech war would eliminate the bad guys—not innocent civilians whose deaths had been compartmentalized heretofore as collateral damage. As the tempo of intervention rose, so did much of the U.S. population’s fascination with technowar and all things military.

The presentation of war as entertainment during the 1991 Gulf War was designed to beat back the Vietnam Syndrome—what conservatives saw as a pathology regarding the U.S. population’s increased reluctance to support interventions in the third world. It succeeded. The war in Kosovo in the late 1990s echoed this theme as the United States/NATO pounded the former Yugoslavia from the air—suffering no casualties.

The post-Vietnam formula was simple: go in and get out fast. The public will support military adventurism, but it will not sustain high human costs of war in the United States. Death and injury rupture the delusion of the antiseptic, high-tech, precision-guided technowar. So, the polling data cited above fit nicely into what would logically appear to be a contradiction: A large portion of the U.S. public is drawn to support the military and military adventurism in the abstract, and they want to believe—as they are constantly being told—that the United States has only engaged in just wars and in justifiable levels of military buildup, and that the U.S. exercise of force is overwhelming and righteous. Conversely, once the public is confronted with the inevitable reality of these policies, its enthusiasm for such belligerent actions wanes.

Integral Hegemony versus Minimal Hegemony

There is a well-known and all too little used term for a society that has a predilection for deference to all things military—militarism. In the United States militarism is and has been since the late 1940s a hegemonic societal perception—the prism through which global political events and U.S. foreign policy are interpreted. Shaping and responding to such events is the function of grand strategy, which is about the strategic application of military force or threat of force to change the surrounding world environment so as to achieve an end. These ends are defined by the power elite and propounded by “defense intellectuals” (often operating from key foundations and research centers) and state managers. Once formulated, policy is disseminated via Pentagon national security documents, presidential speeches, and State Department pronouncements to the underlying population.

Joseph V. Femia describes hegemony as a state in which “one concept of reality is dominant, informing with its spirit all modes of thought and behavior.” As James Martin tells us, “a successful hegemony will seek to render itself incontestable.”1 Like other taboo words, militarism is often disallowed as inapplicable because its form has evolved while the terminology is seemingly locked in historical place. One does not need a military caste or a Prussian-style political system replete with swaggering, medal-bedecked generals to maintain that militarism is the dominant concept of reality informing all modes of thought and behavior with regard to the forcible actions of the state. A civilian-led military establishment achieved a certain level of autonomy as a result of and in the aftermath of the Second World War—particularly due to the rise of the Cold War.

But, militarism’s hegemony in the organization of the U.S. state and the conduct of foreign policy is fragile. It is not what followers of Antonio Gramsci’s concept would term “integral hegemony” based upon a very broad level of consent. Consent has had to be constructed and reconstructed: The Cold War construct—a battle between good and evil according to the Manichean view of President Reagan—was all but incontestable until deep protest and analysis broke through the hegemonic barriers that had circumscribed critical analysis of the precepts of the Cold War during the Vietnam era. In the late 1940s, when the U.S. leviathan began to string its military bases around the globe (numbering over three thousand small-to-large facilities by the late 1960s) serious voices of dissent were heard from 1949 on—particularly in Monthly Review and Monthly Review Press where Paul Baran and I. F. Stone fearlessly challenged mainstream distortions.2

But, this had limited effect at the time. Later, of course, the Monthly Review analysis of U.S. militarism was fundamental in the late 1960s—particularly the work of Harry Magdoff—providing a theoretical starting point.3 As a result of the war in Vietnam, Cold War militarism fell apart, giving way to what conservatives called the Vietnam Syndrome. No one knew this better than the professional military.

Getting U.S. militarism back to a level of incontestable, integral ideological hegemony has been a long sought goal that appeared well in reach after 9/11. The shock and awe unleashed on Iraq in 2003 was to restore U.S. militarism as the premier ideological construct. Behind this construct U.S. power could fluidly unfold, as the world’s only superpower demonstrated that no form of nationalist defiance would go unpunished. A new era of neoliberal militarism was consolidating, according to the architects of the new model—Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Pearle, Douglas Feith, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld (among others).

From time to time some critical or restraining voices were to be heard, most particularly within the Pentagon, but also in the CIA and other intelligence agencies, and at the State Department where the fantasies of antiseptic high-tech warfare were understood as delusional. Nonetheless, long before 9/11, as we now know, the architects of neoliberal militarism were intent upon making Iraq a showcase of their resolve. Preemption of any form of defiance would yield long-term benefits as other nations curbed their nationalist impulses lest they suffer the consequences of U.S. destabilization or invasion. Meanwhile, a very substantial part of the U.S. public, confident in the righteousness of U.S. military power, could be counted on to consent—offering their tax dollars, their allegiance, and their enthusiasm to the application, expansion, and maintenance of revitalized militarism.

 But, it just did not work out that way: Instead of reconstructing an integral and incontestable hegemony, the actual application of U.S. military power slowly revealed again something the public had been conditioned for decades to forget: As Karl von Clausewitz—perhaps the most renowned student of war—understood, the fog of war frequently makes the application of military force an unusable and sometimes perverse instrument. And, slowly at first and then gaining rocket-like speed, the situation in Iraq, post-invasion, has unraveled to the point where by the fall of 2006, the top of the U.S. military command were openly pointing to a civil war scenario, while the insurgency seemed to gain strength. The “high-tech–no-tech” war (asymmetrical warfare) was going backward in Iraq. Meanwhile, the military situation in Afghanistan—five years on—had seriously eroded. Supplying the world with 87 percent of its opium, the dissidents in Afghanistan have plenty of money and time to make life very uncomfortable for those who projected U.S. military power in that nation. 

 The long effort to beat the Vietnam Syndrome had pushed the U.S. public to a point well short of the achievement of integral, incontestable hegemony for U.S. militarism. The bellicose architects and their many supporters in the Senate and House of Representatives—many dumbstruck by 9/11—could count on the money, allegiance, enthusiasm, trust, (press-led) jingoism, and short attention span of the U.S. citizenry—but they were much less able to spill the blood of combatants from working-class backgrounds.

In Iraq the death toll of U.S. soldiers exceeded 3,000 (with additional deaths of U.S. non-military security forces/contractors unpublished). A multiple of that number have been maimed and injured to a degree not seen in previous battles. That is, unprecedented medical intervention has saved thousands of combatants whose injuries are catastrophic and lifelong. Unfortunately but predictably, the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi war victims, overwhelmingly civilians, simply are not part of the calculus. This vital element of the ideology of militarism—deaths of opponents are, if not entirely irrelevant, better not mentioned—remains well-entrenched.

Consent for U.S. militarism cannot, since Vietnam, be sustained in the face of significant levels of U.S. combat deaths. Support for the Iraq War has steadily withered as the death toll has climbed. Thus, rather than engendering integral hegemony, militarism has achieved at best minimal hegemony. That is, in the deployment of force by the U.S. state, the level of consent to be extracted from the underlying population is weak and conditional.

Military Keynesianism and Global-Neoliberal Militarism

After the Second World War the leading lights of the economics profession anticipated that the U.S. economy would fall back into depression. But, pent-up demand from the days of rationing during the Second World War actually led to a significant expansion of the economy, for a while. Then, in 1948–49 the economy seemed to falter and the dreaded stagnation hypothesis—the notion that the closing of the frontiers, lack of major technological changes to follow the automobile, slowing population growth, and other factors would all lead to an economic slowdown and rising levels of unemployment/underemployment—was much in evidence. At the same time in the political, strategic, and geopolitical realms a great deal of change was occurring, foremost among them the explosion of a nuclear device by the Soviet Union and the final triumph of Mao’s forces in China, both in 1949. A recession broke out in mid-1949, suggesting to many that depression was imminent. Meanwhile, the U.S. military and its civilian advisors at the State Department were convinced that Washington could and should build an extremely costly super weapon, the hydrogen bomb, to trump the Soviets and create a permanent military edge of superiority.

Hence, with the participation of the Departments of Defense and State, the United States embarked on a series of high-level secret studies to determine what should be U.S. military posture in the face of these (and other) new contingencies that were viewed with great alarm by President Truman and the bipartisan political elite. Under the heading of National Security Document-68 (NSC-68), the Magna Carta of the Cold War era was gradually pounded out. Secret, but widely known for its conclusions until published in 1975, NSC-68 made the then novel argument that the U.S. economy had excess capacity and that high levels of military spending on a permanent basis would act as a stimulant to the economy—creating multiplier effects on employment and spending by absorbing the unemployed and the untapped production capabilities of U.S. industry. In its sheer breadth and comprehensiveness—both in terms of the creation and use of military power and in its focus on the economy—it is safe to argue that nothing like it has been produced since. Pale were the efforts of various groups in the 1990s, including the Project for a New American Century and the U.S. Government’s Commission on National Security/21st Century, to emulate NSC-68.4

NSC-68 distilled the views of the military-civilian policymaking elite that had recently acquired control of the state within the state—the National Security State. In the testy climate of 1947 dominated by the heady Truman Doctrine, the National Security Council, the Department of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Department of Defense (DoD), the CIA, the National Security Agency, and other new national security entities gave form to a new constellation of governmental agencies, bureaus, and empowered personnel. The shell of the National Security State was there and NSC-68 provided the ideological and theoretical structure to fuel the military-industrial “iron triangle” which has merged the interests of manufacturing and high-tech industries, the political apparatus of the state, the civilian Pentagon leadership, and the professional military.

In June 1950, the Korean War began and the race to pump up the military sector was on. Truman along with the political elite and the corporate leaders of the manufacturing sector became convinced, apparently, that the military Keynesian policy of high levels of government spending—even if occasionally financed through deficits—could boost the economy and keep it on an even keel. The Keynesian aspect of the policy related to the issue of full employment and rising wages. Within the new economic paradigm there was room for unions, with virtually all major military contractors and subcontractors operating with the cooperation of union workers in a high-wage, labor-intensive environment. Many contracts were cost-plus so rising wage payments were not an issue. Other contracts tended to allow for cost overruns or gold plating and the military services were indifferent to costs, since their only real focus was on the performance of weapons systems.

Periodically boosting military spending turned out to be a convenient way to combat recessions and slowdowns and to sidestep the conservative ideology that counter-cyclical additions to the public debt would undermine the integrity of the economy. To be sure, increased military spending in the late 1960s—towards the end of what had then been the longest consecutive period of economic expansion—led to a so-called overheated economy rife with inflationary pressures. But, setting aside that period, military spending has played a significant role in all economic recoveries save that of the early 1990s when extremely high levels of recently accumulated deficits combined with the winding-down of the Cold War precluded the adoption of the military spending tactic. This is the long legacy of NSC-68.

One part of that legacy, however, was jettisoned during the trying years of the 1970s: slowly but steadily the frontal onslaught on U.S. labor gained force and momentum as a principal means to reverse the then falling rate of profit. By 2006 the most successful of all unions, the United Auto Workers, was pushed into what seemed to be a death spiral. Military spending continues to play a major role, albeit a lesser one than it did in the 1950–73 period, but the link between military spending and job creation and wage enhancement for the U.S. working class has long been broken. Military contractors today generally pay scant attention to their unions and strive to relocate to right-to-work states and/or directly attack unions. At one time the unions were an important part of the iron triangle using their political weight to support the contracts that their employers sought. The climate at the base of the iron triangle has changed because the corporate elite and the state managers abandoned the Keynesian capital-labor accord in the 1970s.

The new era of global-neoliberal militarism, following the debacle in Vietnam, began in the 1980s, not coincidentally with the onset of the Reagan/Thatcher era. In the United States, the objectives of global-neoliberal militarism are served by military spending, which boosts the profit rate of large corporations, creates new technologies such as the Internet, and contributes to policies that confront the onset of recessions. The objectives of lowering the unemployment rate, raising wages, and contributing to workers’ economic security are no longer a consideration, as they were in the days of military Keynesianism.

Part of the neoliberal ideology is to destroy the state, except insofar as it defends the institutions of business ownership and the ability to project military power. But even military functions are to be privatized to whatever degree possible. Any conceivable activity in which the military sector engages is analyzed in terms of its potential to generate profit for the private sector. Hence, if potato peeling can be done at a profit, then this activity will be turned over to the private sector—assuming that such a change will not have a negative impact on the ability of military personnel to perform their functions. Even in the Keynesian era many operations and maintenance activities were spun-off to private contractors, but in the new era the search for possible privatizations has reached new heights. The logic of the privatization model is rather straightforward—for every billion dollars of expenditure on the military apparatus a larger percentage of these funds will circulate in the private sector where profit can be taken. Meals will be served, prisoners guarded, bases built, etc., but at a higher cost, and/or at lower wage and benefit levels, such that an impressive margin of profit can be extracted.

Neoliberals believe, a priori, that all public sector activities are inefficient and that (thanks to the regulating role of the free market) private sector activities are a model of efficiency. Hence, get the military out of every sort of activity to the fullest degree possible. This model is now in place in Iraq, where private contractors (operating an unofficial army with over a hundred thousand employees) have apparently enjoyed unrestrained opportunities to amass quick profits. As a result, a new addition to the military-industrial complex—a vast constellation of contractors employing a shadow military with a vested interest in higher levels of military spending, particularly in the high-profit intervention/reconstruction business—has been created over the last fifteen years.

Abroad, global-neoliberal militarism can be distinguished from military Keynesianism in terms of projects for the structural adjustment of defiant nations. According to the president’s 2006 National Security Strategy of the United States, nations remade by the United States will have borders open to trade and investment and will also conform to the neoliberal dictates of the IMF in terms of monetary and fiscal policies, labor policies (particularly flexibility programs that eliminate labor and obliterate any institutions of economic security and stability for workers), and tax policies (which shift the fiscal burden from capital to labor). An independent, democratic country cannot take control of its national resources and use them as it sees fit—such as nationalizing its transportation system or health system, or maintaining sovereign control over oil, gas, and minerals via nationally owned companies.

Meanwhile, in the nation-building exercise in Iraq, Washington is constructing at least four superbases, along with ten enduring bases or contingency bases where massive amounts of military material can be forward-staged for quick use in the Middle East, South Central Asia, and North Africa. Currently, the United States operates as one of its four superbases the Balad Air Base, a fifteen-square-mile facility near Baghdad, where the level of air traffic is second only to London’s Heathrow airport. At the same time, the United States is building a $592 million embassy in Baghdad that is the biggest ever constructed worldwide.5 Thus, in Iraq as elsewhere, a “democratic” regime has been stripped of the essence of autonomy, is compelled to follow a rigid neoliberal economic model in domestic and international arenas, and, furthermore, yields to the permanent basing of U.S. military forces, while an overweening embassy duly keeps notes on the degree of conformity with the new model of global-neoliberal militarism.

The Macroeconomics of Militarism

During the era of military Keynesianism the Soviet “threat” was the pretext for runaway outlays on the military. Threat inflation kept the wheels of the military-industrial complex greased with profits for the private sector, jobs for union workers, and new gizmos of destruction for the military. After a brief period of disorientation when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989–91, threat inflation is once again the prime device facilitating runaway outlays on the military—this time with the military receiving the new gizmos the contractors happily provide, but without the same pressure to raise wages and create jobs for the U.S. working class. The director of MIT’s Security Studies Program, Harvey Saplosky, refers to the current bout of threat inflation as being driven by what he terms “You Never Know(ism)”:

You Never Knowism is the guiding ethos of U.S. national security. National security planning documents are rife with it. They evoke a world of swirling uncertainty and rising complexity, a time of unprecedented change, where predictions are impossible but dangers great. They claim that the simple Soviet threat has been replaced by more various and irrational ones, which require capabilities-based planning—building military forces with no particular foe in mind.

The Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), the defense planning document drafted every four years to guide U.S. defense spending, is only the latest example. Following the National Security Strategy (2002), the National Military Strategy (2004), and the National Defense Strategy (2005), the Review, released in February [2006], states that the United States now faces a hostile mix of terrorists, failed states that we must order, insurgencies, rogue states with missiles, and large militaries like China’s.

Like these prior strategy documents, the QDR does not bother to estimate how probable these threats are and decide to focus on one or another on that basis. It contends simply that “managing risks” compels us to prepare for all of them.6

Because of 9/11 the marketing of fear resonates with the U.S. public even more perhaps than did such attempts in the 1950s when it was not possible to point to any form of Soviet military intervention in U.S. territory. Yet, as the specialists in security studies at MIT maintain, in relative terms the widespread fear of terrorist attack has little basis in reality—while serving to drive military expenditures higher and higher:

The dirty secret of American national security politics is that we are safe. Americans might be the most secure people in history. But we worry. We are told that our enemies may be organizing our destruction in pockets of disorder, which are growing. We are taught that the world is chaotic, awash in civil war and terrorism, which could strike us “any place, with virtually any weapon.” We hear that our satellites are ripe for attack, that pirates prey on our shipping, that Iran’s nuclear weapons portend disaster, and that China is a growing threat. At base, however, most arguments claiming America’s insecurity rely on implausible scenarios. The futures these arguments fear are not probable but possible. It is possibility that justifies the defenses they advocate.7

With the public largely in a receptive and uncritical mood regarding military spending, the expansion of the military budget that began in 1999 has continued. According to data compiled by the U.S. government’s Office of Management and Budget, the current ten years (fiscal years 1999 through 2008) of sequentially rising arms spending, measured in inflation adjusted expenditures, is now longer than that of the Vietnam era (six years of real rising outlays) and Korea (four years). In relative terms, real Department of Defense outlays in the Vietnam era rose by 35.7 percent during 1963–68, while during 1999–2006 real outlays soared by 56 percent.8 For 2008, overall basic military spending is slated to leap by 11 percent, following a strong estimated increase in 2007. Some of this is driven by the boots-on-the-ground philosophy of the Bush administration, with army and marine forces scheduled to rise from the 2006 level of 694,000 to 749,000 in 2011.

Moreover, the actual level of funding for all military related outlays is much larger than what is encompassed by direct DoD outlays. Determining precisely how much larger is not really possible. Nonetheless, making some reasonable assumptions regarding various items in the U.S. budget, it is possible to demonstrate that overall military expenditures amount to roughly 80 percent more than the public believes, based on press releases of the Pentagon. The following formula roughly accounts for the total annual outlay for all military related expenditures (MilReEx):

MilReEx = DoD* + Int Aff x .5 + Science & Space + Vets + Net Interest x .81 + Homeland + Other Def
DoD*includes basic DoD outlays + atomic energy related outlays
Int Aff x .5 attributes 50% of State Department and aid outlays to military purposes
Science and Space includes research & development for space weapons and systems
Vets  includes all expenditures by the Veterans Administration
Net Interest x .81 attributes 81% of the annual interest payments on the federal debt to past wars and periods of military build-up9
Homeland includes all outlays for Homeland Security not in DoD*
Other Def includes a variety of civilian outlays due to military spending such as military retirement

In 2003, for example, basic DoD outlays were $387 billion, or about $41.7 million per hour, while the total outlays, or MilReEx, amounted to $686.3 billion.10 For 2006, the Office of Management and Budget records estimated DoD outlays at $512 billion while estimated MilReEx amount to $929.8 billion. On this basis, and adjusting for inflation (using year 2000 constant dollars) MilReEx jumped from 5.9 percent of the Gross Domestic Product to 7.1 percent from 1999 to 2006—far from the 3–4 percent range commonly assumed by pundits and economists. What this means, among other things, is that MilReEx have been a leading sector since 1999, and were particularly important when they soared precisely as the economy turned downward and slowly recovered in the 2001–03 period, while serving as a vital prop to the otherwise relatively weak economy since then.

Ironically, one of the major factors slowing MilReEx was the decline in net interest payments during the current round of arms buildup primarily due to the aggressive cutting of the interest rate by the Federal Reserve beginning in May 2000. Viewed in another way, as interest rates have risen to a more historically established level since November 2005, the burden of past bouts of DoD outlays financed by deficits have increased. Net interest outlays fell from $234 billion in 1999 to $144 billion in 2003, climbing to an estimated $192 billion in 2006.11 Not only did the burden of interest payments fall by 48 percent in real terms, but the drop in net interest payments meant that a much greater portion of MilReEx circulated within the U.S. economy since the reduction in the net interest component meant that a smaller portion of military expenditures was shifted abroad to pay foreign owners of the U.S. national debt. Thus, MilReEx had more of a stimulating impact on a recessed economy in the 2000–03 period than one might surmise viewing only the jump in the MilReEx/GDP ratio.

While the above calculations are rough estimates of MilReEx, in one important area the figures could be too low by perhaps as much as $50 billion or more: The United States has fifteen intelligence services, including the giant National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency. The amount budgeted to these agencies is a national security secret, although prior to the current long buildup it was common to encounter annual outlay estimates in the $30 billion range. It is commonly assumed that this budget is hidden in one or more of the categories relating to MilReEx. But it would be more consistent with the general obfuscation of the real cost of global-neoliberal militarism to hypothesize the burial of the intelligence budget outside of the categories mentioned above. Thus, as large as the numbers cited above are for MilReEx, and as far from the conventional wisdom regarding DoD costs as they are, they are likely to prove to be an underestimate of total MilReEx due to (1) possible untracked intelligence expenditures, and (2) foreign arms sales of which only a portion is included in the international affairs item—the rest being private sector arms exports unsupported by government funding.

Structuralist versus Neoliberal-Unilateralist Views on the Arms Boom

What is behind the big jump in arms spending? Here a serious debate seems to loom. It is possible to encapsulate this debate by dividing analysts into two camps, those who hold to either the “structuralist” or the “neoliberal-unilateralist” view. The structuralists find basic continuities in U.S. strategic policy from at least the 1940s, if not earlier, to the present—marked by periods of vast military buildup and by periods of stasis and limited decline.12 Some structuralists, such as Gabriel Kolko, trace this to the larger geopolitics and global political economy of the United States—or to basic tendencies within capitalism, modified in various phases (e.g., monopoly capitalism and the recent neoliberal financialization phase), as in the case of Harry Magdoff and authors associated with Monthly Review.13 Within the structuralist framework central recognition in analyzing militarism is given to the rather broad range of strategic visions that have existed regarding power projection and forward defense. Thus, during the high-points of tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, there were high-level civilian and military strategists who urged preemptive war, and spending rose. Rollback and first strike were seriously entertained within the higher circles of power, but were set aside in favor of more indirect forms of confrontation. Quirky presidents and belligerent “preventive war” advisors have existed long before the George W. Bush administration began to flout their ideas of the unrestrained use power. In this view the concept of the United States as the world’s only superpower constitutes a change of limited substance. The emphasis here is on continuity where the United States is viewed as a nation dominated in Kolko’s interpretation by structuralist tendencies coupled with the volunteeristic use of power—guided not by a viable strategic doctrine but by wishful thinking and self delusion. Thus according to Kolko, with respect to the United States:

Its grand military strategy always contained an important element of wishful thinking; but as it became more ambitious, the unexpected surprises increased. Its defeat in Vietnam revealed that although the United States had a great deal of firepower, it utterly lacked the essential political understanding needed to avoid more failures….What the United States does best is spend money as if weapons provide solutions to political and social problems, and because it is so rich it has not learned anything fundamental from its past errors.14

While the Bush administration harped on its unilateral power, the world is becoming more multipolar—a new phase in international relations has emerged since 1999. In this new phase:

[T]he US impulse to intervene virtually everywhere in the world had led to an incoherent foreign policy that confronted many more challenges than it could resolve….[T]he way the United States viewed the world and its commanding role in it, along with its core assumptions about the means and institutions it possessed for attaining its goals were seriously confused….The dilemma was not only its persistent definition of global priorities that exceeded its military and political resources, but also the fact that many of the places in which the United States had intervened in the past remained continuing obligations, leaving an accumulation of troublesome legacies to potentially challenge the future.15

For structuralists like Kolko the problem is to some degree reducible to the fact that the United States has always believed its role was one of predestination, leading to a global mission that would altruistically impose “democratic” rules and institutions upon much of the rest of the world. In this context the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the current possibilities of conflict with Iran are not exceptional, but merely recent examples of self-delusion and wishful thinking regarding the potential use of military power.

In the neoliberal-unilateralists’ perspective, U.S. foreign policy and military strategy have been seized through a neoconservative policy “coup.” This has its origins in organizations such as the Project for a New American Century, which urged a vast increase in military spending and war on Iraq during the Clinton administration, and the Congressional Policy Advisory Board, formed in 1998, in which the same neoconservative zealots urged a much more aggressive use of U.S. military capabilities. Perhaps the best treatment of this perspective is to be found in James Mann’s The Rise of the Vulcans, but the idea of a fundamental discontinuity in the projection of U.S. power is also to be found in Ron Suskind’s One Percent Solution and in Kevin Phillip’s American Theocracy, which takes up the discussion from the standpoint of the rise of religious fundamentalism and its advocacy of a muscular foreign policy.16

One aspect of the neoliberal-unilateralist perspective, arguing that U.S. policy has fundamentally changed—now being more volatile and aggressive than in the past—is open to structuralist criticism. Advocates of the aggressive use of military power, such as Donald Rumsfeld, are often not newcomers to the arena of political power—many date back to the early days to the first Reagan administration, others to the Nixon era and  are not neoconservatives. Yet, it is possible to argue that these personalities have been gradually pulled over to the worldview of the neoconservatives as the power structure of Washington has shifted toward the more rightist think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and the American Enterprise Institute, among others.

The neoliberal economic offensive against workers that began in the 1970s has proceeded unabated; the rightist onslaught has fragmented the working class, accelerated outsourcing, raised the rate of profit, and dropped taxes precipitously for the affluent and particularly for the rich. These discontinuities between the 1945–70 period and the current era have seemingly been matched by discontinuities in the exercise of U.S. power projection. The postwar presidential administrations until the rise of the Reagan/Thatcher era of neoliberalism, while sometimes influenced by extreme advocates of first strike and roll back—threatening a preemptive war with the Soviet Union—were generally guided by plodding “realists” such as George Kennan, or more recently Brent Scowcroft.

Today “realists” have been pushed out of policy making and strategic circles, replaced by neoconservatives such as Elliot Abrams, who since 2002 has been senior director at the National Security Council. There is no doubt that President Bush’s failure to go along with the 2006 Iraq Study Group Report, which was largely the product of his father’s secretary of state, James Baker, considered a consummate realist, is an indication of the neoconservative weight in the framing of U.S. military/foreign policy.

Even Kolko seems to have adopted the view that there has been a discontinuity in the exercise of power projection and military strategy:

The Bush administration made foreign policy proposals that were breathtaking and open-ended, painfully and obviously vague projects and commitments whose ultimate consequence in most cases could scarcely be predicted….The studiously vague US war on terror introduced an element of irrationality in the international order that did not exist until the mid-1990s.17

Nonetheless, he argues elsewhere that while it has been brasher than previous administrations, the substantive difference is one of capability, with the Bush administration “consummately inept in almost everything it did.”18

Putting to rest this debate is beyond the scope of this article. But although evidence would seem to suggest that structures are important and continuities can be found in U.S. power projection, Washington has now embarked on a form of global militarism that stretches beyond the precedents established in the postwar era. Where but in the Bush administration’s National Security Strategy of the United States and similar documents is to be found open-ended, threatening language such as this?: “While we do not seek to dictate to other states the choices they make, we do seek to influence the calculations on which these choices are made. We also must hedge appropriately in case states choose unwisely….we must be prepared to act alone, if necessary.”19

The Bush doctrine of self-justificatory preemptive war and permanent military superiority as stated in 2002 and 2003 arose from a long struggle by neoconservative elements to dominate the definitions and uses of U.S. military power. The neoconservatives, in the 1964–95 period, sought to take over the conservative political space, using a fierce combative style to resurrect U.S. military assertiveness and strategies of global dominance in the aftermath of Vietnam. Vietnam suggested that force was not a viable means of policy, while the neoconservatives believed the contrary. With the unexpected end of the Cold War some neoconservatives believed the “imperial moment” had come for the resurrection on a far larger scale of the “American Century,” while others were unsure and undirected.

By 1995 a new generation of neoconservatives began to emerge: They envisioned “military power as an instrument for transforming the international system and cementing American primacy.” The neoconservatives held to “the certainty that American global dominion is, in fact, benign and that other nations necessarily see it as such.” A major tenet of the neoconservatives of the second generation is “nothing works like force.” Peace occurs only as an outcome of war. “[P]romoting the assertive use of American military power became central to the imperial self-definition devised by second-generation neoconservatives.”20 Thus, the buildup of military power became central to their focus and the realist assumption that all nations face limits in their ability to act became a heresy when applied to the United States. Armed force was the best means, probably the unique means, to project American values—this is Wilsonianism on steroids.

Defining Interests

A balanced approach would suggest that neither the structuralist nor the neoliberal-unilateralist theses are entirely wrong, and that in this most recent phase of U.S. global-neoliberal militarism is a product of the two. The elements of continuity in U.S. military policy and doctrine and the fact that Democrats as well as Republicans—the economic interests of Silicon Valley as well as the oil interests of West Texas—supported the new phase of U.S. militarism suggests that the dominant class forces taken as a whole were generally consenting in the expeditionary military buildup after 9/11. Nonetheless, the management of the wars, due to the makeup of the Bush administration itself, was spearheaded by neoconservative Vulcans, creating conflicts within the elites of the U.S. body-politic, exemplified in the “realist” Iraq Study Group critique of the Bush Doctrine. In that sense the “neoliberal-unilateralist” thesis, though crude, and often misleading, has something to teach us. It may indeed reflect the evolution of a whole new age of U.S. imperial strategizing and military power projection, in which structural forces too are pointing toward greater adventurism.

According to neoconservative ideology, U.S. intervention is values based—imposing “a single sustainable model for national success: democracy, and free enterprise” in the words of the 2003 version of the National Security Strategy of the United States. Lurking behind such conceptions is the much denied question of interest-based use of force characteristic of capitalism: To access resources, to control resources, to dominate markets, and to ensure stability of relationships that facilitate the functioning of the U.S. economy.

In this context, the U.S. intervention in the Persian Gulf should not be seen as all about oil but also, and more importantly, about capitalism and geopolitical domination—that is, accumulation, militarism, and (informal) empire. Oil is a strategic resource”—the single most important energy resource—and its control has long been central to U.S. strategic policy. But the pluses of intervention for the power structure go far beyond that.

From the standpoint of the neoconservatives now dominating the state within the state, interventionist actions will: (1) produce a surge of support for the White House thereby enabling it to accomplish other objectives; (2) defeat defiant nations and by extension demonstrate to other nations that defiance will result in destruction of their regimes; (3) realign resources and market access relationships; (4) allow for the repositioning of U.S. military bases and forward staging facilities; (5) restructure geopolitical relationships; (6) show the “will to power” of U.S. leaders, creating shock and awe abroad and further cementing the ideology of militarism within the psyche of the underlying U.S. population. From the standpoint of the iron triangle of the military-industrial complex (a crucial aspect of the overall system), military intervention and war can sell weapons and boost MilReEx in general, leading to major innovations in new weapons and creating technological spin-offs into the private sector. It can serve to elevate further the esteem of the military, creating fast promotions for military officers.

Nevertheless, the fog of war remains. Such blitzkrieg policies can also go terribly wrong from the perspective of the policy planners and strategists, revealing—as Kolko has maintained—the delusional, wishful nature of U.S. power projection. In the final analysis facts and events can be known and analyzed, but motive(s) can only normally be attributed—members of the power elite very rarely reveal their motives, speaking rather in an elite code of ideological obfuscation to which their own understandings are often prey. It is likely that they act on structural imperatives that they may not fully articulate, or even understand. As Kolko concludes: if the United States “continues as it has over the past half-century, attempting to satisfy its vainglorious but irrational ambition to run the world, then there will be even deeper crises and it will inflict wars and turmoil on many nations as well as on its own people. And it will fail again….”21

Rather than constituting something entirely new, the current neoconservative thrust of U.S. grand strategy has tragically accelerated dangerous belligerent tendencies built into the structure of the U.S. political economy. Blowback effects from earlier phases of intervention (in Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan) have now combined with the new superpower illusions creating a vortex of runaway forces, that seemingly justify a ten-year escalation in military spending—most of which has nothing to do with the Middle East and Southwest Asia.

Yet, such forces were beaten back in the context of the Vietnam War—as they must be once again.


1.   Joseph V. Femia, Gramsci’s Political Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 24; James Martin, “The Political Logic of Discourse,” History of European Ideas 28, (2002), 25.
2.   The 3,000+ base figure is taken from Harry Magdoff (see the following note). For an early attempt at analysis on the strategy of “forward defense” that undergirds the global bases policy see George Marion, Bases and Empire, 3rd ed.(New York: Fairplay Press, 1949). For a recent review of the same issue see Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004). The editors of Monthly Review, in a recent study, put the number of U.S. bases overseas at the end of the Cold War at around eight hundred, The Editors, “U.S. Military Bases and Empire” Monthly Review 53, no. 10 (2002): 1–14.
3.   Magdoff’s brilliant essay “Militarism and Imperialism,” was widely read at the time and warrants rereading today: see Harry Magdoff, Imperialism: From the Colonial Age to the Present (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978), 198–212.
4.   Fred Block’s “Economic Instability and Military Strength,” Politics and Society 10, no. 1 (1980): 35–58, remains the best introduction to NSC-68. On the Project see, James Mann, The Rise of the Vulcans (New York: Viking, 2004), 238, 243, 285. On the commission see, James Cypher, “Return of the Iron Triangle,” Dollars and Sense (January–February 2002), 16–19, 37–38.
5.   Michael Hirsh, “Stuck in the Hot Zone” Newsweek, May 1, 2006, 1–4,
6.   Benjamin H. Friedman and Harvey Saplosky, “You Never Know(ism),” Breakthroughs xv, no. 1, (Spring 2006): 4.
7.   Friedman and Saplosky, “You Never Know(ism),” 3.
8.   Office of Management and Budget, Historical Tables: Budget of the United States, The Korean War era buildup was much larger—a 221 percent increase in real DoD outlays, but this was partly due to the much smaller base.
9.   Robert Higgs, “The Defense Budget is Bigger than you Think,” San Francisco Chronicle (January 18, 2004).
10. Office of Management and Budget, The Budget for Fiscal Year 2007, Historical Tables, 59–60, 77–78,
11. Office of Management and Budget, The Budget for Fiscal Year 2007, Historical Tables, 147–48,
11. The most articulate advocate for this view is Gabriel Kolko whose research on the limits of U.S. power is vast. See Gabriel Kolko, Another Century of War? (New York: The Free Press, 2002) and especially The Age of War (Boulder: Lynne Reinner, 2006).
12. See Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, Monopoly Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966); Harry Magdoff and Paul Sweezy, Stagnation and the Financial Explosion (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1987); Fred Magdoff, “The Explosion of Debt and Speculation” Monthly Review 58, no. 6 (November 2006): 1–23.
13. Kolko, Age of War, 91.
14. Kolko, Age of War, 88–89.
15. James Mann, The Rise of the Vulcans (New York: Viking, 2004); Ron Suskind, The One Percent Doctrine; Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy (New York: Viking, 2006).
16. Kolko, Age of War, 105, 108.
17  Kolko, Age of War, 120.
18. President of the United States, National Security Strategy of the United States (2006),36–37,
19. Andrew Bacevich, The New American Militarism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 83, 84, 86.
20. Kolko, Age of War, 178.