Tag: pentagon

Climate Change and the Axis of Fear

A few years back, when global warming was near the top of the national and global agendas, a surprising new activist suddenly took the field: the  Pentagon.  In 2009, it called climate change a “threat” to national security.  In 2010, it lauded the climate with its ultimate recognition, inclusion in the Quadrennial Defense Review.  All of this was uncritically conveyed by journalists on the Pentagon and environmental beats.

Recently, the first effort to test whether climate change in fact has security implications was published by the Journal of Peace Research.  Its bottom line:  

“Only limited support for viewing climate change as an important influence on armed conflict. However, framing the climate issue as a security problem could possibly influence the perceptions of the actors and contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy.”


Of course, the climate changesecurity nexus was always speculative  Yet that did not stop the military from jumping on the warming wagon as yet another way of justifying its bloated budgets. More interestingly, at the time, environmentalists widely saluted the Pentagon’s entry into the climate wars.  Here is Sierra Club President Carl Pope in a 2010 press release, complete with hyperlink to the Quadrennial Defense Review:

“In another reminder of the national security and international implications of climate change, the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review highlights the risks posed by climate change for the first time ever.  While the Pentagon’s report considers the longer-term risks of climate change, we can’t escape the fact that each and every day we continue to send $1 billion a day overseas to buy oil–much of it from hostile nations.  It’s time we started spending that money to create jobs here at home.”


Who can blame the Sierra Club?  With a heavy-weight institution taking a stand on global warming, environmental fears could be stoked and perhaps even legitimated.  After all, if even the military is taking part, who could deny the pressing need for action?  With the Pentagon on board, new research dollars would also flow, making this move a boon for academics and government contractors as well.  

I don’t claim that global warming is invented.  But I do worry about the threat inflation being used to justify actions against climate change and about the strategic alliances, tacit or otherwise, environmentalists strike to achieve their goals.  The Pentagon is no friend of the environment, as anyone who’s watched the grindingly slow clean-ups of numerous, highly-polluted military bases well knows.  Lending activist legitimation to the defense establishment is likely to be a net-negative for environmental quality.  

Of course, for better or worse, real action on climate change is no longer imminent in the US or most other countries.  A broader lesson remains, however:  The axis of fear is endemic to our politics.  It is the strategy of choice for true believers on all sides of all issues as they seek to sell their causes to the public.  In the incessant competition to draw attention and support, the temptation to inflate threats is ever-present and difficult to resist.  

Alliances of convenience are the order of the day, and the Pentagon, with its oversize booty, is consort of preference even for those who should know better.  So we have environmentalists bedding down with the big boys with their big guns over global warming.  And now we have human rights activists lusting after the big boys with their little drones, notwithstanding the weapons’ mounting toll in lives and liberties at home and abroad.  The Pentagon, always eager for new conquests, similarly keeps its insatiable eye out for anyone hustling the cutting edge of terror, literally and figuratively.  

In all this, the new climate change research offers a breath of rationality.  Now, if only we could fight the axes of fear that pervade any number of other issues:  cyber warfare, hot zone diseases, and most of all terrorism.  All are similarly ripe for careful analysis of actual “threat” levels and concerted efforts to question the politicians, journalists, bureaucrats, and activists who hype them.

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Pentagon as Economic Dynamo: Not

The Pentagon is remarkable for its ability to contrive reasons to justify its bloated budgets.  In recent years, it and the gaggle of contractors, analysts, and journalists that support it have found military-security risks in everything from “hot zone” diseases to global warming.  But with looming budget cuts, the defense establishment is being forced to downsize, albeit modestly.

To protect itself, it has now taken to fear-mongering.  Some of this is the usual:  the supposedly dire threats we face abroad – e.g., from distant, 10th rate military powers like Iran or Pakistan or al-Qaeda, or from major trading partners like China.  All of this, of course, is stated with a straight face even while our military spending dwarfs that of other nations combined.  Somehow, however, and even with the natural geostrategic advantages provided by two oceans, the U.S., at least in the eyes of our panicky military brass remains forever UNDER THREAT.

In addition to such perennial hyperbole, the Pentagon now warns that cuts will have nasty domestic consequences, raising unemployment and killing economic innovation.  It’s hard to argue that major military cuts might lead to job losses, not only among uniformed servicemen but also among the hordes of government contractors who’ve grown fat on defense budgets paid for by taxpayer dollars.

But that’s a good thing!  If in fact it happens – and, unfortunately, that remains a big if given the proven power of the military-industrial complex to defend its narrow self-interest – ex-soldiers and ex-contractors will find other ways of getting along.   Sure there will be some temporary pain for the displaced, but this will in the end help the larger economy and certainly the government’s budget picture.

As for innovation, the New York Times’s Binyamin Appelbaum has a front-page article today about that issue – one that’s worth reading as much for its misjudgments as for anything else.  

The article strives for balance, including a number of different viewpoints on how much impact military spending has on economic dynamism.  But its take-away lines, signaled by its original headline, “A Hidden Cost of Military Cuts Could Be Invention and Its Industries,” are that the Pentagon has an “unmatched record in developing technologies with broad public benefits – like the Internet, jet engines and satellite navigation – and then encouraging private companies to reap the rewards.”

“Unmatched?” Really?  How can one possibly make such a statement without placing it in context?  But for the Pentagon’s pull on the purse strings, those contracts might have been administered through other government agencies, rather than the military.  And they might well have been far more efficient.  Alternatively, the money sucked out of the private economy by taxes to fund the military might have been used for R & D directly, by investors and entrepreneurs.  And what of the countless amounts of R & D spending that have ended in nothing – or nothing better than a more efficient killing machine, usable only in wars?

Nowhere in the article is there anything but assumption that only the military, as some kind of beneficent and far-seeing midwife of invention, could have fostered these and other innovations.  Nowhere are there convincing arguments that most if not all of these developments wouldn’t have been made either through some other government R & D agency or through the market itself.

The article’s claim that 59 Nobel Laureates have received funding from the Navy fails to impress.  The fact that future Nobelists took money from a rich vein of governmental fat says nothing about whether the Pentagon’s influence led to their prizes.  It certainly doesn’t justify the claim that the military has had a “remarkable record of success.”

Nor does Appelbaum provide a convincing explanation for this unproven success.  One factor he raises is the “Pentagon’s relative insulation from politics which has allowed it to sustain a long-term research agenda in controversial areas . . . [n]o matter which party is in power.”  This view is myopic.  Certainly Congressmen are reluctant to halt weapons programs – because they are strategically sited in every Congressional district around the country.  That is not insulation from politics.  It is the very essence of politics, and for that reason leads to vast amounts of waste.

One expert is quoted as saying that the Pentagon is superior to other government agencies because “they are the customer. You can’t pull the wool over their eyes.”  But the Pentagon buys its products with taxpayer money, not its “own” money.  It feels little pain when, for instance, boondoggle aircraft carriers like the Gerald M. Ford, have billions of dollars in cost overruns.  Cosy relationships between the military, contractors, legislators, and journalists make for few if any incentives for economic efficiency.  Worse still, many new weapons systems have had poor safety records, resulting in injuries and deaths to our servicemen.

The article, to its credit, includes quotations from economists who raise such fundamental questions, showing just how inefficient Pentagon expenditures are compared to other government spending.  Yet Appelbaum fails to see that these studies call into question his bold claims.

Meanwhile, Appelbaum’s view is backed only by those who don’t appear to have thought enough about the issues.   One expert says he’d “like to see a lot less weapons and a lot less focus on them, but [defense spending is] not all about that.”  According to him, “If catalyzing innovation is going to be an important part of our economic strategy, then we better be careful how we handle” the military budget.

But if we really care about innovation in our economy, why would we ask the Pentagon to take part, much less take charge?  A shocking 55% of all government R & D spending is allocated to the military.  In fact, the military is a remarkably poor vehicle of economic dynamism – hardly surprising since, of course, that is not its mission.  If innovation is our goal, why not better fund government agencies tasked precisely with the goal of innovation?

One answer seems to be provided by another expert who is said to believe that “the Pentagon [has] an inherent advantage in funding research and development” and is quoted as saying that “War matters more.  People take it more seriously.”  In other words, only the Pentagon can convince our short-sighted Congress to provide money for long term R & D.

How sad.  But the bright side for the future is that if less tax money is squandered on the Pentagon, there will be more funds for private sector investment.  True, some innovations that require long-term R & D might be missed without a government hand in the process.  But if as a result the U.S. loses its competitive edge, Congress might even see fit to provide such funding to new agencies aimed precisely at creating technological advances – not to a Pentagon tasked with fighting wars.

Other economists are cited as arguing that Pentagon spending saves money by providing security within which economic growth can occur.  Even if true, that claim, of course, says nothing about whether the Pentagon is a good place to spend America’s innovation dollar.  It also assumes that there are threats severe enough to jeopardize growth.  Yet the spate of warfighting that the US has engaged in since the end of the Cold War has cost trillions.  And one of the main reasons we engage in so many of these operations is not because our nation’s security is truly threatened—but because we can, because we have the overblown military forces and high technology to do so.  Worse still, there is a good argument that these wars have created more enemies than they have destroyed.

My heart bleeds for the thousands of workers in Northern Virginia and around the country who have fed at the Pentagon’s trough for so long.  But why should they be any different from the rest of the U.S. economy, which must suffer through the adjustments that our economy periodically requires? The Pentagon and military contractors have for decades been a bastion of privilege – a protected little socialist republic within our capitalist state – immune from the laws of economics.  After a decade of gluttonous expansion, there is now a modest effort to rein it in.   

I look forward to the possibility however small of more cuts – and to the increased innovation and dynamism it is likely to spark in our economy.
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Eggheads Requested

I wonder what readers of the Duck (and my co-bloggers) think about the DoD’s “Minerva” social science initiative. Short story is, the Pentagon plans to fund $8 million worth of social science research through the National Science Foundation this year. The NSF program solicitation is to be found here.

Today, the Washington Post reported that one “Network of Concerned Anthropologists” has expressed concern with the initiative:

“The Pentagon’s Minerva Research Initiative, named after the Roman goddess of wisdom and warriors, will fund social science research deemed crucial to national security. Initial proposals were due July 25, and the first grants are expected to be awarded by year’s end. But the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, which includes professors from American and George Mason universities, said dependence on Pentagon funding could make universities an ‘instrument rather than a critic of war-making.’

American Anthropological Association has issued similar concerns.

I think this position is bunk. The fact that the DoD is asking certain questions in a certain way and will be interested in the findings does not mean the DoD controls the research or that the science is compromised. It doesn’t mean that social scientists will be militarized or are unable to be critical of policies based on certain empirical fallacies. It does mean that those who want the money will have to demonstrate the relevance of their research designs to the kinds of questions the DoD wants answered, but that’s no different from any other NSF RFP. What it also means (significantly) is that the DoD at least wants to send the signal that it is actually prepared to consider the results. In light of recent history, I think this is a great leap forward.

Then again, perhaps I am just in favor because I want some of the money.

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Winning the other War of Ideas

Sorry for the lack of posts recently, I’ve been sick all week and finally feel like myself again this afternoon, so I’m going to try to catch up on a few things that I had meant to mention but….

First off: A must read from last Sunday’s NYT (I had actually started the post earlier, but only typed 2 lines before I started coughing).

So, to all those who thought that the US needed to do a better job in winning the “war of ideas,” it turns out that the US is doing a fantastic job—just targeting a different audience. Last Sunday’s NYT has a fascinating bit of investigative journalism on the cozy to insidious relationship between expert military analysts employed by major media organizations and the Pentagon’s public affairs team. In a nutshell, the Pentagon treated the retired senior officers acting as media analysts as its behind enemy lines information warriors, in place to shape the story of Iraq. Whenever bad information was reported, the Pentagon fed these analysts talking points which were then repeated on air or in print. What makes it really seamy is that these analysts were treated to first-class access to the upper echelons of DoD and used that access to advance their consulting gigs, helping to win contracts. DoD also paid big bucks to a media monitoring firm to track each and every media appearance of its team of analysts to monitor its efforts.

Now, a military friend of mine was not at all surprised by this–his reaction was duh, why wouldn’t they at least try this. I think the surprise is the extent of the effort, the blatant payoff in contracts for customers (sort of a play to get paid), and the monitoring and resulting swift retribution for those going off message.

Some seem to think this is more arrogance by the Administration, but my reaction was that smacks of insecurity even more.

Bush likes to analogize himself to Truman—a president who did what he thought was right, ended up rather unpopular as a result, but was vindicated by history. The key difference now exposed is that Truman never wavered in his forthrightness with the American people. Truman was vastly unpopular in 1948 as well, and yet still managed to defeat Dewey (famous photo to the contrary), because when he campaigned on the merits of his actions, his honest, forthright, and persuasive arguments carried the day. What we now see is that this administration has no honest, forthright, and persuasive arguments to offer the American people on the war with Iraq. Rather, it seeks to define the rhetorical terrain in the media in its favor because it knows that it can’t win on a level playing field, as its unvarnished arguments have little merit and even less persuasive value to the public at large.

Really, though, you should read the article and judge for yourself.

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Set Phaser to Torment

The Pentagon’s “less-than-lethal” weaponry is finally going mainstream. Though the Active Denial System (ADS) has been under development for years, 60 Minutes has finally reported on it as if it’s the newest thing around. (Click here to see the 10-minute segment from Sunday’s show.)

Not exactly a hand-held phaser, and it doesn’t painlessly knock you out. Instead it sends a wave of directed energy at a person or a crowd that vibrates the water molecules under the skin. This induces a feeling of being on fire. But unlike actual flamethrowers, the pain only lasts until you move out of the beam.

Pentagon officials frame this as a humanitarian weapon that will save lives by giving US troops something to blaze away with other than a gun. They particularly tout its use for riot control, an easy way to disperse crowds in stability and support ops.

Opponents have some concerns. Quoth various commenters on Crooks and Liars:

“So when we have 2 groups of demonstators facing off against each other, which group will be zapped? The side that agrees with the current administration or the side that opposes it? This looks like a potentially serious threat to free speech.”

“So the military is basically afraid of it’s own people is the moral of this story. The weapon won’t be used in REAL battles, but when it comes to protesters/crowd control it’s ok. So when does the US military officially take over complete control of the US in the form of a advertised coup?”

“A weapon like this is a clear infringement of our Constitutional rights to peacefully assemble for a redress of our grievances. It is unconstitutional. Period.”

A “humane” weapon? Frankly I think I’d rather be burnt to death in a space of three minutes than stuck in a “non-lethal” agonizer ray indefinitely, as might happen if I’m a small child being trampled in a panicked crowd. Although as a matter of fact, being basically a microwave beam, more likely it would eventually cook that small child inside out and kill her anyway.

Perhaps revisiting of the basic just war principles of discrimination, proportionality and unnecessary suffering might be in order here.

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