The Afghanistan Escalation and Triumph of Military Interest Groups

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-sector lobbyists working in DC, representing 223 clients.

It’s unlikely this total includes state-level politicians who engage in informal lobbying in favor of more military spending in their districts and states. In some states, such as Virginia and Hawaii, military spending is equal in size to more than 12 percent of the state’s total GDP. Needless to say, mayors and governors in these areas won’t exactly be complaining if the President announced yet another military occupation. Each additional ratcheting up in military action means more training exercises, more weapons testing, more spending by soldiers in the local economy.

Thus, when we hear that a variety of policymakers are united in their call for more military spending, there is no reason at all to assume this is due to some important change in the international environment. It’s far more likely that domestic political conditions have changed in such a way that the Pentagon realizes the political situation has swung in its favor.

Certainly, this has been the case with the arrival of the Trump administration. Republicans have long received more funding from defense lobbyists than Democrats, and even before Trump was sworn in, it was assumed that a military spending binge was on the way.

And, in spite of claims that the Trump administration is merely the continuation of the Obama adminsitration’s foreign policy, there is good reason to believe that the Trump administration is actually a departure from the Obama years — in a more militaristic direction. While military spending did not actually suffer to any meaningful extent under Obama, some observers believe there was nevertheless an antagonism between the Obama White House and the Pentagon. As Mearshimer claims here, had the Deep State been less powerful, Obama may have actually been successful in withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan. As it was, Obama settled for a rapproachment with Cuba and Iran — two moves that infuriated foreign interventionists.

Are There Any Real Limits on Military Spending?

Mearshimer is speculating here, but even if he’s right about what Obama would have preferred to do, how would a drawdown of troops benefit Obama politically?

As a politician, there’s actually very little to be gained from military withdrawal. As we’ve already noted, the political and economic rewards of expanding military spending and operations can be substantial. This is especially true in the modern world when the political downside of military operations is very small.

Historically, the downside of starting a war or sending troops to foreign soil was twofold:

  1. It was expensive.
  2. Dead and wounded soldiers were politically damaging.

Nowadays, the first problem can be solved with deficit spending, and by inflating the money supply. The financial costs of war are palmed off on future generations who have no say in the current policy debate.

The second issue is now mostly solved as well. While, as McAdams points out, more than 2,000 American lives have been lost in the Afghanistan occupation, that’s a total that accumulated over more than a decade. Compared to large military operations of the past, these are very small numbers. Military spending nowadays focuses on producing weapons and material that can be used while minimizing the danger to the American soldiers themselves. The drone program — in which American soldiers drop bombs on children from the safety of a warehouse in North America — is a perfect example of this.

Moreover, when casualties do occur, they are inflicted on volunteers. Nor do these deaths disproportionately fall on poor or minority soldiers. As analyses have shown, poor and minority soldiers tend to volunteer for work in medical and logistical fields. The front-line combat positions tend to go to educated white people.

So, there’s no especially damaging political cost to sending more troops to central Asia to conduct yet another occupation. Yes, there will be some deaths, but calculating politicians know that casualties are unlikely to occur in such numbers as to cancel out the political benefits of starting a nice new war.

The Afghanistan Escalation

Thus, how can anyone be truly surprised that Donald Trump — who once fiercely mocked supporters of the Afghanistan occupation — has now changed his mind. Trump, of course, is a man who apparently is swayed by photographs of mini-skirts rather than by anything resembling serious historical analysis.

As he has become increasingly isolated politically, he has seen an opportunity to shore up his political base with yet another military expansion — one that’s likely to come with a lot more spending. Even worse, Trump may become even more bellicose the less popular he becomes. Domestic concerns won’t be mentioned in the dominant narrative however. The administration and the Pentagon will invent a justification for why a new war is necessary, and the media, of course, will happily play along.

Ryan McMaken is the Editor of Mises Wire and The Austrian at the Mises Institute.


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

Do you like the article?

We are glad you do! Please consider donating if you want to read more articles like this one.


Share this article!
Join our community and stay updated!