From Military-Industrial Complex to Permanent War State

Fifty years after Dwight D. Eisenhower’s January 17, 1961 speech on the “military-industrial complex”, that threat has morphed into a far more powerful and sinister force than Eisenhower could have imagined.  It has become a “Permanent War State”, with the power to keep the United States at war continuously for the indefinite future.

But despite their seeming invulnerability, the vested interests behind U.S. militarism have been seriously shaken twice in the past four decades by some combination of public revulsion against a major war, opposition to high military spending, serious concern about the budget deficit and a change in perception of the external threat.  Today, the Permanent War State faces the first three of those dangers to its power simultaneously — and in a larger context of the worst economic crisis since the great depression.

When Eisenhower warned in his farewell address of the “potential” for the “disastrous rise of misplaced power”, he was referring to the danger that militarist interests would gain control over the country’s national security policy. The only  reason it didn’t happen on Ike’s watch is that he stood up to the military and its allies.

The Air Force and the Army were so unhappy with his “New Look” military policy that they each waged political campaigns against it. The Army demanded that Ike reverse his budget cuts and beef up conventional forces. The Air Force twice fabricated intelligence to support its claim that the Soviet Union was rapidly overtaking the United States in strategic striking power — first in bombers, later in ballistic missiles.

But Ike defied both services, reducing Army manpower by 44 percent from its 1953 level and refusing to order a crash program for bombers or for missiles.  He also rejected military recommendations for war in Indochina, bombing attacks on China and an ultimatum to the Soviet Union.

After Eisenhower, it became clear that the alliance of militarist interests included not only the military services and their industrial clients but civilian officials in the Pentagon, the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, top officials at the State Department and the White House national security adviser.  During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, that militarist alliance succeeded in pushing the White House into a war in Vietnam, despite the reluctance of both presidents, as documented in my book Perils of Dominance.

But just when the power of the militarist alliance seemed unstoppable in the late 1960s, the public turned decisively against the VietnamWar, and a long period of public pressure to reduce military spending began.  As a result, military manpower was reduced to below even the Eisenhower era levels.

For more than a decade the alliance of militarist interests was effectively constrained from advocating a more aggressive military posture.

Even during the Reagan era, after a temporary surge in military spending, popular fear of Soviet Union melted away in response to the rise of Gorbachev, just as the burgeoning federal budget deficit was becoming yet another threat to militarist bloc.  As it became clear that the Cold War was drawing to a close, the militarist interests faced the likely loss of much of their power and resources.

But in mid-1990 they got an unexpected break when Saddam Hussein occupied Kuwait. George H. W. Bush – a key figure in the militarist complex as former CIA Director — seized the opportunity to launch a war that would end the “Vietnam syndrome”.  The Bush administration turned a popular clear-cut military victory in the 1991 Gulf War into a rationale for further use of military force in the Middle East.   Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney’s 1992 military strategy for the next decade said, “We must be prepared to act decisively in the Middle East/Persian Gulf region as we did in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm if our vital interests are threatened anew.”

The Bush administration pressured the Saudis and other Arab regimes in the Gulf to allow longer-term bases for the U.S. Air Force, and over the next eight years, U.S. planes flew an annual average of 8,000 sorties in the “no fly zones” the United States had declared over most of Iraq, drawing frequent anti-aircraft fire.

The United States was already in a de facto state of war with Iraq well before George W. Bush’s presidency.

The 9/11 attacks were the biggest single boon to the militarist alliance.  The Bush administration exploited the climate of fear to railroad the country into a war of aggression against Iraq.  The underlying strategy, approved by the military leadership after 9/11, was to use Iraq as a base from which to wage a campaign of regime change in a long list of countries.

That fateful decision only spurred recruitment and greater activism by al Qaeda and other jihadist groups, which expanded into Iraq and other countries.

Instead of reversing the ill-considered use of military force, however, the same coalition of officials pushed for an even more militarized approach to jihadism.  Over the next few years, it to gained unprecedented power over resources and policy at home and further extended its reach abroad:

  • The Special Operations Forces, which operate in almost complete secrecy, obtained extraordinary authority to track down and kill or capture al Qaeda suspects not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in many more countries.
  • The CIA sought and obtained virtually unlimited freedom to carry out drone strikes in secrecy and without any meaningful oversight by Congress.
  • The Pentagon embraced the idea of the “long war” – a twenty-year strategy envisioning deployment of U.S. troops in dozens of countries, and the Army adopted the idea of “the era of persistent warfare” as its rationale for more budgetary resources.
  • The military budget doubled from 1998 to 2008 in the biggest explosion of military spending since the early 1950s – and now accounts for 56 percent of discretionary federal spending.
  • The military leadership used its political clout to ensure that U.S. forces would continue to fight in Afghanistan indefinitely, even after the premises of its strategy were shown to have been false.

Those moves have completed the process of creating a “Permanent War State” — a set of institutions with the authority to wage largely secret wars across a vast expanse of the globe for the indefinite future.

But the power of this new state formation is still subject to the same political dynamics that have threatened militarist interests twice before:  popular antipathy to a major war, broad demands for reduced military spending and the necessity to reduce the Federal budget deficit and debt.

The percentage of Americans who believe the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting has now reached 60 percent for the first time.  And as the crisis over the federal debt reaches it climax, the swollen defense budget should bear the brunt of deep budget cuts.

As early as 2005, a Pew Research Center survey found that, when respondents were given the opportunity to express a preference for budget cuts by major accounts, they opted to reduce  military spending by 31 percent.  In another survey by the Pew Center a year ago, 76 percent of respondents, frustrated by the continued failure of the U.S. economy, wanted the United States to put top priority in its domestic problems.

The only thing missing from this picture is a grassroots political movement organized specifically to demand an end to the Permanent War State.  Such a movement could establish firm legal restraints on the institutions that threaten American Democratic institutions through a massive educational and lobbying effort. This is the right historical moment to harness the latent anti-militarist sentiment in the country to a conscious strategy for political change.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and historian and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. His latest book, with John Kiriakou, is The CIA Insider’s Guide to the Iran Crisis: From CIA Coup to the Brink of War. Read other articles by Gareth.

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  1. Saoirse said on January 18th, 2011 at 9:42am #

    Thanks, Garth, for this synopsis of some of the more salient features of the history of the evolution of the permanent war state. Two things missing, I think; (1) Clinton’s creation of the Joint Forces, which operates here, in America, under the same secret nodus operandi the CIA has always operated under elsewhere, and (2) if I read you correctly, you suggest (because of a purported lull in military funding) that the 1970’s saw U.S. militarism in decline. Yet, this is exactly the time the CIA continued its assiduous training of right-wing guerillas at what is now called the School of Americas in Bennington, Georgia, and used them to continue engineering coups such as the one that ousted (and ultimately killed) the democratically elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende and installed the arch psychopath, Augusto Pinochet. These details of history matter for two reasons: (1) supporters of the former leftist guerillas fighting the pacification of Mexico for foreign (read, American) business, the FMLN, are being targeted even today for reprisal and being murdered en masse, and this fact is (if the matter is ever discussed) being glossed over by the cover story that this activist cleansing is due to “drug wars.” (2) at this point in American military history, it’s either naive in the extreme, or plain old reprehensible, to suggest that we, the people, are ever told the truth about what our military does. By way of example, I’m sure most of your readers don’t understand that America is a closed, police state today (, which has been accessing for many decades, obviously. No statistic, or survey, is going to give you an accurate picture of the means and degree of persecution of American activists, and THOSE are the people whose liberty is the yardstick by which you must gauge the average American’s degree of liberty (to paraphrase Ghandi) because they are being repressed, terrorized and tortured right here (see #1, above) by the same methods as those being used in Mexico today. The average American doesn’t know these things because you, to whom they now look for accurate information, do not tell them. One can only pause to wonder if your glossy HISTORIES are misinformation to cover CURRENT AFFAIRS, just as the cover story of the war on drugs is used to mischaracterize the activist cleansings being waged in Mexico and here.

  2. bozh said on January 18th, 2011 at 10:50am #

    no, u.s. cannot wage wars forever– only to a certain point of time. or until it destroys 5,6, 7, 8 bn people; leaving on planet, say, just a bn people or fewer!
    that solves shortages of resources and further warmings.
    then, if that’s not it? what’s up, then? is it insane sanity? fun and games? ultimate reality show caught on camera? ultimate sanity or ultimate insanity? tnx

  3. bozh said on January 18th, 2011 at 12:44pm #

    i changed my mind! in ten words or fewer: it is, after all, ULTIMATE INSANITY!

  4. Don Hawkins said on January 18th, 2011 at 1:48pm #

    Yes but Wall Street is happy happy. War, ok how do we make money on this.

  5. Don Hawkins said on January 18th, 2011 at 2:12pm #

    Speaking of the military industrial complex Dick Cheney is back and you would think he just might reflect a bit that’s right he did, Obama is a one term President, I think I get it.

  6. hayate said on January 18th, 2011 at 7:09pm #

    “The only thing missing from this picture is a grassroots political movement organized specifically to demand an end to the Permanent War State. Such a movement could establish firm legal restraints on the institutions that threaten American Democratic institutions through a massive educational and lobbying effort. This is the right historical moment to harness the latent anti-militarist sentiment in the country to a conscious strategy for political change.”

    One can thank zionists for infiltrating and co-opting the movements and orgs that would have resisted this ziofascism/fascism for the current lack of resistance. Now that ziofascists are top dog among the corporate fascist oligarchy, the zionist occupied “left” is not interested in resistence. To quote chomsky: “it wouldn’t be useful”.

  7. Luis Cayetano said on January 19th, 2011 at 8:50am #

    ”Now that ziofascists are top dog among the corporate fascist oligarchy, the zionist occupied “left” is not interested in resistence. To quote chomsky: “it wouldn’t be useful”. ”