Ismael Hossein-zadeh. The Political Economy of U.S. Militarism
Ismael Hossein-zadeh. The Political Economy of U.S. Militarism. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillian, 2006. Hardcover, $75.
In a well-written and very readable book, Ismael Hossein-zadeh seeks to provide answers to two questions: Why have U.S. citizens been unable to receive any “peace dividends,” especially once the Cold War came to an end. The other is why have American leaders been so inclined to resort to the use of military force (and plenty of it, as their fondness for the “shock and awe” approach attests) to settle international disputes. His answers are inspired by the earlier work of Sidney Lens on the military-industrial complex and of Ernest Mandel on the periodization of capitalism.
Hossein-zadeh presents two lines of argument, ones that co-exist a little uneasily. The first, and dominant, theme is that in the latter part of the 20th century, the U.S. entered a new era of capitalist development in which parasitic imperialism replaced benign imperialism. Whereas in the earlier era leaders of capitalist nations used military force only after concluding that they could obtain economic benefits by doing so, in the new era they used force as a way to guarantee that the military-industrial complex could claim a larger share of the public treasury. The application of military power no longer was a means to an end: it had become the end itself.
The growing power of the military-industrial complex is the reason why the new form of imperialism appeared. With its base in the military industry, Pentagon, and Congress, this bloc became powerful enough by the late 1970s that it could control American foreign policy. Interestingly enough, the major opponent of the military group were international capitalists who wanted to reduce military spending and create a world economy based on free trade. The militarists consistently outmaneuvered them, however, primarily because of their ability to manufacture foreign threats at just the right moment. Another aspect of the argument is that the capitalist nature of the military-industrial bloc makes it exceedingly dangerous. In countries where the government controls the munitions industry, military spending somewhat corresponds to perceived threats; but the U.S. munitions industry is privately owned and driven by the profit motive. The industry has an insatiable drive to increase profits, and historically wars have done wonders for the industry’s bottom line.
Hossein-zadeh said, “Imperial wars and demand for arms are nowadays precipitated more by sales or profit prerequisites than the other way around, as was the case with imperial powers of the past. It is this built-in propensity to war that makes the U.S. military-industrial complex a menace to world peace and stability, a force of death and destruction,” (200). According to this logic, therefore, the military-industrial complex should be the prime mover behind the present war in Iraq.
The other (and secondary) line of argument that Hossein-zadeh develops to explain the militarist orientation of America’s policy differs from the prior one. Rather than making the military-industrial complex the main actor, he focuses upon the ways in which conservatives have used military spending to further their overall domestic agenda. In other words, he looks at military spending as part of a broader battle over the structure of the country’s political economy, with the main issue being the legacy of the New Deal. Since the early years of the Cold War, conservatives have used military expenditures as a way to contain the New Deal and then to repeal it. By raising the Pentagon’s budget while simultaneously cutting taxes, conservatives have reduced the amount of money available for many social programs.
What should we make of these arguments, ones that the author presents in a very skillful and forceful manner? It is hard to quarrel with his desire to try to explain why U.S. foreign policy has become so heavily militarized in recent years. This is one of the most serious problems that Americans, to say nothing of people throughout the world, face. Nonetheless, his insistence that the military-industrial complex is able to cause wars largely to enhance its segment of public spending seems to me to overstate the case and to make this bloc, admittedly a very powerful coalition, more decisive than it is. If we look at the wars the U.S. has fought since 1945, it is hard to detect the hand of munitions makes and their allies behind either the Korean or the Vietnamese Wars. Admittedly Hossein-zadeh could counter that these conflicts took place before the military-industrial complex reached maturity. When we switch our attention to the period after 1980, however, I still am not persuaded that the military-industrial complex was the decisive factor leading to the two Gulf Wars. In the case of the current war, moreover, the author himself assigns a pro-Zionist faction as important a role as he does the military-industrial one.
What we never should forget is the fact that within the American political framework, the president is the decisive player in foreign affairs. He (maybe someday it will be a she) selects the top advisers and decides which recommendations to listen to and which to reject. Under the Constitution, moreover, the president, as commander-in-chief, decides when to send in the troops. Although only Congress has the formal rights to declare war, American presidents never have allowed this Constitutional nicety to stand in their way. Thus somehow Hossein-zadeh has to demonstrate that presidents now advocate wars in order to enhance the profit margins of the military-industrial complex. This is a tall order.
There is another issue to consider. In this account, the major players (benign imperialists and parasitic imperialists) are two factions of the dominant class. What of the other classes? Because of their overwhelming numerical superiority, they are the decisive political force: they are the ones who elect presidents. Why are large segments of these classes inclined to support policies that, as Hossein-zadeh correctly notes, serve to harm their interests? Therefore, it seems to me that any attempt to account for a political economy of militarism has to examine the process by which an appropriate political carrier emerged. Only at the very end of the book does the author mention that the future of “U.S. imperial military power, ultimately boils down to the balance of social forces and the outcome of the class struggle” (255). I wish that he had paid more attention to this question throughout the manuscript. This is the reason why I believe that his secondary argument about militarism as a means to repeal the New Deal is potentially more persuasive than is his primary argument.
Nevertheless this is a very compelling and timely work that deserves a wide readership. It is controversial and will force people to think carefully about the direction of American foreign policy. Because of its accessibility, instructors should consider adopting it for classroom use. The book will generate a lot of debate.
Fred Adams is Professor of History Emeritus at Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa.
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