Today is obviously dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King Jr., but 50 years ago Dwight Eisenhower delivered his famous "military-industrial complex" speech. His granddaughter recalls what he was referring to:
The pressures Eisenhower faced during his presidency were enormous. Over the years, as the Soviet Union appeared to reach military parity with the United States, political forces in Washington cried out for greater defense spending and a more aggressive approach to Moscow. In response, the administration publicly asserted that there was no such thing as absolute security. "The problem in defense is how far you can go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without," Eisenhower said. And he followed through, balancing the budget three times during his tenure, a record unmatched during the Cold War. ...
"This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. . . . We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron."
This sounds very much like things Stephen Walt has been yelling for the past decade. And this understanding of Ike's famous phrase is very different from the typical interpretation, where "military-industrial complex" is essentially shorthand for rent-capture by defense agencies. I think most people can agree that there is quite a lot of both going on right now, and when even the Defense Department wants its funding cut you can tell that things are out of control.
But I don't think the American public are all that interested in weighing the costs of the national security state versus the benefits. We don't think in terms of tradeoffs -- extra airport security means higher taxes or fewer schools -- or if we do we seem to immediately decide that security is the highest pursuit, even if we're chasing diminishing returns.
In many ways this is a perfect companion to MLK Day. We remember MLK and the civil rights movement for the large advance of human liberty it produced. It helps remind us of the sort of society we used to be, the sort of society are now, and the sort of society we hope to be in the future. It's also worth dwelling for a few moments on the implications of our foreign policy and public spending on those goals. I don't think that points us in any one direction as Walt does, but I do think reflection is a valuable exercise.