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The China “Threat” Rises Again

When the Cold War ended in 1991, the Military – Industrial – Congressional Complex (MICC) was left high and dry, floundering like a beached whale, because there was no superpower threat to sustain its bloated existence.  But the MICC is a self-organizing adaptable cultural organism, and when one looks back on the 1990s, it becomes clear that the early 1990s became years of experimentation in the MICC’s struggle to evolve a new threat (what the Pentagon lovingly calls a peer competitor) or a combination of threats (in Pentagonese, ‘near-peer’ competitors) to justify a continuation of high budgets and hi-tech business as usual.

 

The initial focus in the early 1990s was to build up China as a peer competitor, but that could not stand even casual scrutiny, and the China threat quickly petered out.  It turned out that the Wars of the Yugoslavian Succession, especially Kosovo, provided the decisive pivot by establishing and legitimating the illegal warfighting theories of Humanitarian Intervention and Regime Change.  These models solved the ’threat problem’ by establishing the paramountcy of perpetual small wars, or the threat of small wars, as the planning and budget justification models for the post-cold-war MICC, as I explained in greater detail last January (here).

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001, which were not an act of war but a horrendous crime perpetrated by a stateless gang of fundamentalist ideologues, provided the the MICC with an excuse to lock in the Kosovo planning model.  The MICC, spearheaded by the neocons, succeeded in transforming what should have been an international law enforcement operation into an open-ended global war on terror.  The hype surrounding this so-called war resulted in a continuing succession of relatively small ‘hot’ wars  (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yeman, Somalia, Libya).

Unfortunately for the MICC, the hot wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down, and the two most likely new wars to continue the sequence of perpetual war — hot wars in Syria and/or Iran — are beginning to take on the appearance of a ‘bridge too far’ for either the humanitarian intervention or regime change paradigms. Moreover, public opinion polls indicate that a substantial majority of the American public is now tired of perpetual war and want their government to turn inward to solve economic problems at home.

To make matters worse for the MICC, the Super Committee, as many predicted, just collapsed, and the automatic across-the-board spending cuts of the sequester are now scheduled to commence in 2013.  Under the constraints of the sequester, the Pentagon’s budget would revert to the level that existed in 2007, before growing thereafter.  According to an analysis of  the Congressional Budget office’s August update of the federal government’s baseline budget, a sequester would reduce future growth in the Defense budget between 2012 and 2021 from 26% to 16%.  Nevertheless, this reduction in future increases of the defense budget has the MICC terrified.

The Pentagon, led by Defense Secretary Panetta, for example, has been predicting a doomsday scenario if the sequester takes effect, alleging that the looming defense cuts would create a hollow military and 1.5 million people would lose their jobs, thereby increasing the national unemployment rate by one percent. Former Defense Secretary Bill Cohen, a former Republican senator, recently penned an op-ed in the 21 November issue of New York times parroting the Pentagon’s estimates of the carnage to force structure that would occur under a sequestration.

Yet only one day after Cohen’s op-ed, Elizabeth Bumiller of NYT reported on 22 November that the Pentagon has refused to make any contingency plans to deal with the sequester.  That means the hysteria promoted by Secretary Panetta and Cohen and the generals/admirals Cohen so obediently parroted, is baseless hype and no one in the Pentagon has a clue about what could be done to mitigate the ‘damage’ caused by these potential ‘cutbacks’ described above.

Of course, the Pentagons cluelessness is understandable and predictable.  As I explained in my last statement to Congress (June 2002), the accounting system and the program planning system underpinning the Pentagon’s management information system is an unauditable shambles.  Decision makers at the top don’t have, and based on their refusal to fix this problem over the last 29 years, clearly don’t want1 to have, the information they need to link their strategic policy choices and force structure outputs to budgetary levels.  There is a solution to this problem, as I went to great lengths to explain in the 2002 statement: The solution is to synthesize a new management information/decision-making system built around the central idea of contingency planning.

Had this proposal (or something like it) been implemented, it would be easy for Panetta, Cohen, and the generals and admirals to make a rationale assessment of  how to mitigate the ‘damage’ caused by a sequester, but of course, it would be apostasy for the MICC’s leadership to entertain the possibility that it might be possible for the Pentagon survive with less.

Bringing this together: The people are sick and tired of perpetually fighting small hot wars; Syria and Iran are two small and not so small wars ‘too far;’  and there is a real threat of marginal budget reductions is in the offing, but the Pentagon refuses to do rational contingency planning.  So what is the MICC to do?

There is only one answer: Find a peer competitor and start a new Cold War.  That would generate the requisite amount of fear to unleash the purse strings, but at the same time, Pentagon could pump more modernization money to defense contractors (the industrial wing of the MICC) without having to pump up the operations budget (which mushrooms in hot wars).  But what nation fits the bill?

Only China — and it looks like President Obama has swallowed the MICC’s bait.  As Michael Klare skillfully lays out, Obama has chosen to commence a buildup aimed at isolating China.  The Pentagon will deploy 2500 Marines to northern Australia on the Timor Sea, expand the Naval presence in the South China Sea (which is on top of major oil and gas deposits), and strengthen its alliances with Indonesia and the Philippines on China’s Pacific periphery. It is virtually certain that these moves will be perceived by China as a dangerous encirclement, and the will, therefore, trigger some kind of countermoves by China.

Voilà! With any luck, the MICC will be off to a new cold war arms race, the sequester will be quashed, and increased spending as usual will continue unabated.

That, dear reader, is how the bookkeeping shambles, threat inflation, and the politics of fear are the MICCs budget multipliers that will trump Social Security and Medicare in the coming budget debate.

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. He be reached atchuck_spinney@mac.com

Notes. 

1 It is not as if this is a new problem in the Pentagon. I described the program planning aspect of bookkeeping shambles in testimony to joint hearing of the Senate Budget Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 1983.  That testimony was described in a cover story of Time Magazine that appeared on 7 March 1983.

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Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He be reached at chuck_spinney@mac.com

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