Still Punching Holes in the Defense Industry

a review of Sanford Gottlieb's book Defense Addiction: Can America kick the habit?

One of the great curiosities of the Cold War was its ability to spawn entire industries dedicated to excoriating America’s role in it. Literally tens of thousands of academics, pundits, and activists made entire careers Blaming America First. And one of the most vibrant sectors of that enterprise involved beating on the Military-Industrial Complex that was allegedly destroying America’s economy, ecology, society, culture, morality, and ability to relax on weekends. (There was indeed a Military-Industrial Complex that wrecked an economy The Soviet Union’s but that’s tangential here.) Those who made their livings criticizing the American Military-Industrial Complex generally fell into one or more of three categories: sensationalists, ideologues, and/or those who said they favored a strong defense, yet never seemed to meet a weapon they liked.
Today, they’re still at it, rather like blacksmiths who refuse to close up shop simply because the horses don’t come into town anymore. Sanford Gottlieb’s a good example: a longtime practitioner of the up-in-arms-about-arms trade who doesn’t know when to stop. Defense Addiction: Can America Kick the Habit? is a shallow, callow, superficial book. And therein lies its significance proof that, if this is the best they can come up with, the time for this sort of thing has passed and maybe they ought to get themselves retrained in something more useful and germane.

Defense Addiction kicks off, predictably, with the same shopworn list of indictments that those folks have been tossing about for decades. Defense contractors have a cozy relationship with the Pentagon. So they do. So would any industry that has only one major customer, and a rather wacky one at that. Defense contractors influence Congress. So does every other industry that provides significant numbers of jobs. Defense contractors are guilty of cost overruns and late deliveries. Has anybody ever observed that sometimes getting it right is more important than getting it on-time? Not to mention the military’s penchant for messing with schedules by “changing the specs” at every conceivable, and some inconceivable opportunities.

In this view, defense contractors are creatures of original sin. Whatever they do will be wrong. They’re guilty of making money. They’re guilty of mergers, acquisitions, spinoffs, downsizing, and consolidation. They’re guilty of high dividends and rising stock prices. They’re guilty of not disappearing from the earth. They’re guilty, period, and no one must ever be allowed to forget it.

Mr. Gottlieb then displays two favorite tricks of his trade. The first involves playing games with the data. For example, he claims that real defense spending is still higher than it was in 1980. Now, why pick that particular year as a baseline? Perhaps because it represented the bottom of a decade’s worth of neglected, inflation-ravaged defense budgets. But why not also mention that President Carter’s 1981-85 projected defense budget nearly duplicated what Ronald Reagan actually did? And why not also mention that real defense spending has dropped over fifty percent since the high point of the Reagan buildup?

In other words, we spent more while we were engaged in winning. Now we’re spending less perhaps too little, given the array of threats out there.

In reality, peacetime defense spending has remained relatively stable since World War II, at roughly five to six percent of GDP. Mr. Gottlieb also notes, more than once, that defense spending contributes to the national debt. Of course. Everything contributes to the national debt. But entitlements and transfer payments contribute far more, and their share is rising.

And then there is the sneer. Mr. Gottlieb cannot admit that the Military-Industrial Complex ever accomplished anything, without in some way souring the compliment. He notes that the F-16 is “reputed” to be “efficient and low cost.” Then he adds, “at least by comparison with its competitors.” What else would you compare it to? He praises Raytheon for making airport wind-shear-detecting radars, but adds that “some of these radars are sometimes out of commission.” Yep. Stuff, especially new stuff, doesn’t always work perfectly. And the unkindest cut: Asking whether, given all our present problems, winning the Cold War was “really winning?”

You bet it was.

When not rehearsing the sins of the past (And let’s not forget there were sins, ranging from common criminality to criminal stupidity) Mr. Gottlieb recounts how defense conversion has been going. His assessment of the Big Boys reveals a depth of insight available to anyone who reads The Wall Street Journal. Then he fingers his real heroes (heroines, mostly) self-appointed community “activists” and small entrepreneurs who, by making perpetual pests of themselves, occasionally attain some modest successes.

Mr. Gottlieb then concludes by rejecting “dual use” (co-production of civilian and military goods) for no very clear reason; by calling for “public-private partnerships” to effect massive conversion to more “socially responsible” endeavors; and by chopping the military another fifty percent. He ends with calls for greater virginity in foreign arms sales, scads more arms control, and an assessment of the real problems: global warming, soil erosion, decaying infrastructure, poverty, and the rest. He praises himself by suggesting that such thinking, which runs so counter to the “conventional wisdom,” is a “daring” look at the “big picture.”

He isn’t wrong . . . about the problems. Nor is he wrong to suggest that the Military-Industrial Complex (what’s left of it) bears watching. But he’s certainly wrong about his own originality. And indeed, this book may well be less about the evils of the Military-Industrial Complex than about the utter sterility and creeping senescence of a once-vibrant political phenomenon. So this is what’s left of the Left.

Philip Gold is director of defense and aerospace studies at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute.

Philip Gold

Dr. Philip Gold is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, and director of the Institute's Aerospace 2010 Project. A former Marine, he is the author of Evasion,: The American Way of Military Service and over 100 articles on defense matters. He teaches at Georgetown University and is a frequent op-ed contributor to several newspapers. Dr. Gold divides his time between Seattle and Washington, D.C.