The Militarism and Mechanics of the National Security State

Photo by Colin Lloyd

In the past several weeks, we have gained excellent insight into the processes of the National Security State that finds the White House, the Congress, and the mainstream media cooperating to justify additional defense spending and strategic weaponry.  Following the attacks of 9/11, we have seen the steady militarization of our national security policies, including the use of the military to secure foreign policy goals and the militarization of our intelligence community.

In addition to excessive spending on defense, there has been an increased operational tempo that takes advantage of 700 military bases and facilities the world over.  The United States, moreover, has consistently underestimated its power and influence, and consistently overestimated the power and influence of its adversaries.  The current policy of dual containment of China and Russia as a major mission of the national security state is being used to justify more military spending and influence.

Last month’s release of the National Security Strategy (NSS) was the latest step in the process to convince the American people that we are devoting insufficient resources to our defense.  There is nothing in the report that points to new diplomatic initiatives by the Biden administration; instead, it highlights the need for increased military power to advance our international interests.  The NSS presents no alternatives for curbing our military deployments in more than 100 countries or for returning arms control and disarmament to the national security dialogue.  Clearly, the Biden national security team has forgotten that the disarmament dialogue with the Soviet Union was central to improving bilateral relations with Moscow and ending the Cold War.

In the wake of the release of the National Security Strategy, the Pentagon released its own National Defense Strategy (NDS) that predictably called for a more robust effort to increase U.S. military preparations and to deter Russian and Chinese forces.  In an effort to bolster the message of the NSS, the Pentagon report refers to China as a “pacing” technological and military challenge and to Russia as an “acute” threat.  In order to counter China’s influence, the Pentagon plans to build up its base structure and its presence throughout the Indo-Pacific region.

The Pentagon’s companion report, the Nuclear Posture Review, even opened the door to the possibility of a first-strike attack by U.S. nuclear forces.  In his campaign, Biden indicated that the United States would never be the first to use nuclear weapons in conflict, and that the “sole purpose” of our nuclear arms would be deterrence and, if necessary, retaliation against a nuclear strike. But the Pentagon’s report argued that deterrence was the “fundamental” role, not the sole purpose of the nuclear inventory.

The failed policy toward North Korea relies entirely on the military instrument, including joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea as well as a continued arms buildup in South Korea.  Meanwhile, North Korea has significantly increased its missile tests as it expands and diversifies its arsenal.  What if the Department of State tried to engage Pyongyang on the basis of mutual confidence-building measures that traded fewer military exercises and an easing of sanctions against North Korea for more North Korean openness about its military facilities and fewer missile tests.  The current period of provocation could easily lead to an actual confrontation.

Of course, the Congress is more than willing to do its part in adding to the bloat in defense spending and ignoring the U.S. advantages in “soft power” that relies on diplomacy and dialogue.  Before leaving Washington to campaign for this week’s mid-term election, Democrat and Republican Senators filed more than 900 amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act that would increase military spending far beyond our ability to meet the enormous cost that would be required.  The campaign to increase defense spending is the only congressional bipartisan effort in recent years.  Under these new amendments, Taiwan would receive more than $22 billion in military assistance, and Ukraine would receive an additional $15 billion.  The proposed amendments for greater military weaponry in the inventories of the United States, Ukraine, and Taiwan would produce an additional $100 billion in defense spending, which already accounts for more than half of all discretionary federal spending.

Only one of these amendments actually called for a significant reduction in defense spending.  An amendment sponsored by Senators Ed Markey, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren favors reducing defense spending by $45 billion.  Not a chance.  Any savings in defense spending could lead to greater allocations for the Department of State, the Department of Justice, and the Agency for International Development, which would represent a better path to correcting the fundamental disconnect between our defense spending and our strategic goals.  It is long past time to honor Secretary of State John Quincy Adams’ admonition that our freedom and independence relies on “not [going] abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”  (See Professor David C. Hendrickson’s “Freedom, Independence, Peace: John Quincy Adams and American Foreign Policy.”)

The mainstream media, meanwhile, offers enthusiastic support for the budgetary and operational demands of the National Security State.  On November 3, for example, the Washington Post and the New York Times headlined the Biden administration’s warnings about Russia’s possible use of a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine.  The lead article in the Post was headlined “Nuclear threats put U.S. in a quandary,” and the off-lead in the Times was titled “Russian Military Talked of Using Nuclear Arms” and subtitled “Generals Frustrated by Failures in Ukraine, U.S. Officials Say.”  Both the Post and the Times have reported regularly for the past several weeks that the Russian campaign regarding Ukraine’s possible use of a so-called dirty bomb is disinformation to justify Moscow’s use of such a weapon.

At the same time, there is insufficient attention given to considerable information that points to Moscow’s disavowal of any use of a nuclear weapon.  In late October, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a speech that denied any Russian preparation for using nuclear weapons.  U.S. military and intelligence officials, moreover, have indicated that they have no evidence of any change in Russia’s handling of its nuclear forces.  There have been several conversations in the past few weeks between Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu that suggested both sides may recognize the need to downplay the propaganda war between the two sides, particularly with regard to the use of nuclear weapons.

It should be noted that tactical nuclear weapons have never been used in combat, and that the difficult logistics in moving such weapons into an operational mode would provide vital clues to sophisticated U.S. intelligence collection.  It would be difficult, moreover, to use such a weapon on a battlefield that is occupied by Russia’s own forces.  In view of the pathetic performance of Russian forces thus far, it is unlikely that the Russian military has offered the specialized training and equipment that would be required to protect its own forces.  If the Russian goal is to cause concern and disarray in U.S. planning circles as well as within the American public regarding the possible use of such weaponry, then the mainstream media’s constant warnings about tactical nuclear weapons is assisting Russian propaganda.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for