National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism

Image of National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism (Open Media)
Release Date: 
January 15, 2013
City Lights
Reviewed by: 

“Melvin A. Goodman is a damn fine author, and National Insecurity is a damning assessment of U.S. defense spending and covert operations.”

National Insecurity is a well written, damning book of an out-of-control defense budget, military driven diplomacy, and instances of presidential abuse of power.

The Cold War has ended. The greatest strategic threat to the U.S., the Soviet Union, has dissolved, yet the U.S. remains in an arms race with itself. Melvin Goodman points out to the reader that “[t]he U.S. lacks a strategic vision for a world without an enemy, and it continues to spend far more on defense, homeland security and intelligence than the rest of the world combined.” He continues, “[w]e have the most expensive and lethal military force in the world, but we face no existential threat; nonetheless, liberals and conservatives alike declare the defense budget sacrosanct.”

This reviewer must point out the last claim is not precisely true. The House of Representatives did pass a law in 2011 cutting spending on military bands by $125 million.

Recognition of where the U.S. was beginning to be so wrong-headed started with President Eisenhower and his prescient speech on the military industrial complex. “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in a final sense a theft from those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending its money alone—it is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”

Melvin Goodman makes the case that having great military power creates its own temptation for abuse.

The obvious example is President George W. Bush’s preemptive attack in Iraq. Prior to its start, the estimated cost of the Iraq war was less than $2 billion. There were even claims that it would pay for itself through oil revenue. The actual price to date exceeds $1 trillion with the final bill expected at $4 trillion, of which $1 trillion will be interest payments alone.

The author makes his case for reduced U.S. defense spending in the first 30 pages. For the remainder Mr. Goodman addresses the defining moments of the history of presidents and their relationships to the Pentagon, CIA, and national security policy, from Eisenhower through Obama, skipping Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon.

Presidents have used covert operations as the go-to tool for conducting foreign policy since the start of the Cold War. After WW II, President Truman created the CIA to be independent, non-departmental, and outside of official policy to make it less susceptible to political manipulation.

There’s a long list of examples to consider on whether that policy has been successful: JFK and the Bay of Pigs, President Reagan’s Iran-Contra affair, President Carter’s funding the anti-Soviet Mujahedeen in Afghanistan (which became the Taliban), and President George W. Bush’s rush to war in Iraq with the suspension of habeas corpus here at home with the use of secret courts, warrants, and extraordinary extraditions, sending prisoners to secret bases to be tortured in third-world countries.

Author Goodman repeatedly looks back to Eisenhower as a stellar example throughout the book. He claims that presidents after Eisenhower have not understood the military mindset and have lacked the insight needed to question generals—taking the easy route of power over diplomacy and statecraft.

“No president since Eisenhower has been willing to express his concerns with the increased power and influence of the Pentagon over the foreign and national security policies of the United States.”

Eisenhower was opposed to big wars and skeptical of small “brushfire” wars, cutting the defense budget 20% between 1953 and 1955. As much as the author praises Eisenhower, there’s one teeny tiny contradiction. Eisenhower was not averse to departing from peaceful diplomacy when he thought he could get away with it. Covert interference was authorized by Eisenhower in Congo, Indonesia, and Guatemala.

Eisenhower supported the 1953 overthrow of democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran, and 60 years later we still dealing with the terrible, strategic consequences. Eisenhower actually gave a direct order to the CIA to assassinate Patrice Lumumba, the prime minister of Congo (though the prime minister was deposed and killed by his own people before the CIA could get to him).

Secret policy is part and parcel of the corrupting influence of power, not limited to one president or one political party. Eisenhower’s use of covert operations gave precedence to presidents who followed.

President Kennedy sanctioned the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, then authorized the poisoning of Fidel Castro. President Nixon not only waged secret war in Cambodia but also intervened in Chile leading to the death of Chile’s democratically elected president.

President Carter waged a proxy war against Russians in Afghanistan, aiding those who were to become our worst enemies, the Taliban. Osama Bin Laden indirectly received CIA support.

President Reagan attempted the overthrow of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, violating U.S. law to do so, and sold weapons to Iran, our presumed enemy. Waging war in secret is both morally and politically questionable, in contradiction of core American values—but there is really nothing to stop a president from doing so.

National security is whatever the president decides it is.

Mr. Goodman defends the role of the CIA as a civilian agency though does not shy away criticizing its actions. After the Bay of Pigs, the CIA attempted but did not fully succeed in destroying its own records. The Inspector General’s 1962 report, not released until 1998, found within the CIA “arrogance, ignorance, and incompetence.”

More recently the CIA destroyed tapes showing its agents torturing prisoners during interrogations. There will be no punishment for the CIA agents who tortured, nor for those who destroyed the tapes.

Covert policy is by definition contradictory, oxymoronic like “military intelligence.” Contradictory policy causes our government to act against its own best interests. Examples of these contradictions are provided.

Mr. Goodman claims the U.S. during President Carter’s administration had advance knowledge of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons development but acknowledging it would have meant cutting off military assistance funneled through Pakistan to the Afghan rebels.

Under President Reagan, reports of Pakistan’s nuclear program were again suppressed to retain Pakistan’s support. Note our recent success in finding and killing Osama bin Laden was accomplished without Pakistan’s knowledge or support.

Mr. Goodman shatters two myths of President Reagan’s legacy. The first is his driving the collapse of the Soviet Union. “Reagan is falsely credited with bringing down the Soviet Union and ending the Cold War, but in truth the Reagan administration with the support of disinformation . . . inflated the Soviet threat and then claimed false credit for its demise.” President Reagan was, however, responsible for the largest peacetime buildup of the U.S. defense budget, a 40% increase, and the CIA was continually pressured to overestimate Soviet strength to rationalize the buildup. Not only was Soviet spending throughout this period flat, its collapse was also a surprise to the CIA.

The second myth is the value of National Missile Defense, or what was at that time was referred to as “Star Wars.” “There is probably no bigger bust or boondoggle in the history of U.S. defense spending than the investment in National Missile Defense (NMD), with an annual appropriation of $10 billion, still the most expensive and least effective weapons system in the U.S. arsenal.”

“There has never been a reliable series of tests that suggests NMD would work; there is no reason to believe that the United States would be safer with deployment of such a system.”

President Reagan did pave the way for arms control. But President George H. W. Bush did not follow up in a timely manner. The senior President Bush was a conservative Cold War politician and slow to recognize the changes going on in the Soviet Union though he did come around eventually.

The START I arms control treaty set in place by President Reagan was completed under President Bush. There was as well a unique bipartisan effort to pay for securing the nuclear inventory of the former Soviet republics.

The last two years of Bush and first two years of Clinton’s administrations saw a decrease in the defense budget by 20% that resulted from a 25% reduction in force, and the defense budget under President Clinton was only 15% of the federal budget.

Mr. Goodman’s section on President Clinton is quite illuminating.

“In the post-Cold War era, no president has had as much difficulty in dealing with the military as Bill Clinton.” Clinton’s attempt to allow homosexuals to openly serve in the military lead to an ill-conceived compromise called, “Don’t ask. Don’t tell.” This compromise was viewed as cave-in to pressure and signaled to the Pentagon that Clinton could be pushed around. This led to the killing of several international agreements: failing to join the ICC (International Criminal Court), failing to ratify the landmine ban, and failing to join the Chemical Warfare Convention.

There’s more. The military withdrawal from Somalia and Haiti, both in 1993, gave the impression that the president had no nerve for military confrontation. The president and the Pentagon also disagreed over humanitarian use of the military as shown by the lack of effort to stop the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, and the delays before U.N. intervention in Bosnia.

President Clinton also had poor results from his CIA Director picks. President Clinton’s first CIA director R. James Woolsey was forced to resign for not punishing those who failed to catch Aldrich Ames. Ames was responsible for the death of 12 Soviet officials spying for the U.S. No one at the CIA was fired or demoted in the aftermath, only reprimanded. President Clinton continued to make weak picks for his CIA directors, leading to other national security failures.

President Clinton also failed to stand up to the Pentagon over opposition to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The backstory for this failure is that the National Imagery and Mapping Agency failed to predict and monitor five of India’s nuclear tests (because the agency was Pentagon-controlled and the Pentagon placed low priority on both South Asia and on arms control).

The CIA director at this time, George Tenet, told Congress that the CIA could not monitor or verify the treaty, (a first for the CIA, though made obvious by the previous monitoring failures) and so the Senate had little choice but to defeat the treaty.

Despite President Clinton’s failings, Mr. Goodman saves his most withering criticism for President George W. Bush.

“No president since WW II has contributed more to the militarization of the United States than President Bush.” Mr. Goodman calls the run up to the Iraq war the worst intelligence scandal in the history of the U.S., possibly the worst national security decision by a U.S. president.

It is not unique for a president to manipulate intelligence prior to going to war. This was done for the Mexican-American war and the Spanish-American war. The Gulf of Tonkin incident justified President Johnson’s escalation in Vietnam.

President George W. Bush is pointed out for his institutionalization of the manipulation process. (Here a reader will notice the absence of a chapter on Nixon, preventing comparison between Nixon and Bush in the ongoing competition for title of worst president ever.)

The CIA, reluctant to support President George W. Bush in the rush to war became the scapegoat in its aftermath (a comparison to Nixon would have been of value here, too). In the Intelligence Reorganization Act of 2004, the CIA was removed from the lead role in intelligence decision making and the newly formed Director of National Security became the leader of the intelligence community.

In terms of U.S. power balancing among the intelligence bureaucracies, the role of the CIA director was weakened and the role of the Pentagon increased. Mr. Goodman asks, Why have an independent CIA if all the president wants is a rubber stamp? and points out the continuing blurring of the roles and responsibilities between the CIA and Pentagon in covert activities—and that this blurring might be illegal doesn’t appear to concern the president, Congress, or the courts.

In terms of spending, the defense budget in the last year of George W. Bush’s presidency increased to 20% of the federal budget though the largest part of the defense budget was discretionary, i.e. off the books. Adding the discretionary part back, the defense budget ballooned to 40% of the federal budget, boosting the federal debt to greater than the gross national product—again, the first time since WW II.

And so we come to our current president, President Obama.

President Obama, with little experience in foreign policy, is continuing the policies of President Bush.

“One of President Obama’s greatest failures in dealing with national security issues has been his failure to address the moral issues he inherited from the Bush administration . . .” Mr. Goodman points out that President Obama has put his administration in a hypocritical position over torture by failing to reprimand the CIA.

Apart from attempting to curb torture, he is not reversing the transgressions of the Bush administration, which include destruction of CIA records, avoiding Congressional oversight, increased drone warfare, assassinations and extrajudicial killings, and continued militarization of the intelligence community.

Strategically, the consequence of relinquishing oversight of the now not-so-much civilian CIA to the Pentagon is that the Pentagon has no problem neglecting arms control, humanitarian intervention, or for that matter any non-military concern of national security. But even if civilian oversight were to be restored, Mr. Goodman states “. . . good intelligence is no guarantee there will be a sound national security policy.” Obvious but true.

The end chapters provide an analysis of current spending on U.S. defense by program and branch, identifying where cuts can be made allowing the U.S. to provide a more rational national security. As all it takes is the political will to do so, one doubts that any cuts (other than to military bands) will be made, until perhaps the next funding crisis.

Melvin A. Goodman is a damn fine author, and National Insecurity is a damning assessment of U.S. defense spending and covert operations.