The blood-soaked rubble of Mosul in Iraq doesn’t look much like the glass and steel office buildings of K Street in downtown Washington DC, but the two are linked by a chain of money that runs from the US capitol and around the world to countless smoldering villages, the real finished product of arms manufacturers.
And it’s not just in Iraq, where the US has been at war, to varying degrees, since 1991. Now, too, in Syria, and American air strikes have been responsible for the deaths of civilians. A Human Rights Watch report released this week said that the bombing of a mosque in Jinah ended the lives of 38 civilians, and that “US authorities failed to take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimise civilian casualties in the attack, a requirement under the laws of war.”
It’s not clear when, or how, American military operations in Syria will end, if ever. The history of the conflict in Syria, whose eastern border which dissolved under the reign of Daesh, shows how it is the descendant of the insurgency and counter-insurgency in Iraq itself.
How does the US end a war in the 21st century? Ending all American warfare overseas is probably too ambitious of a goal to realise. But putting the brakes on US militarism is certainly possible. What it would take is a major reform of American campaign finance laws, ending private donations to political campaigns. These are reforms that look further away than ever.
It’s not just the healthcare insurance industry lobby that manipulates Congress in ways that end up killing people for profit. The defence industry has been at it for 70 years, since the beginning of the Cold War.
As President Dwight Eisenhower warned in his 1961 farewell address on the military industrial complex, money in politics has the power to keep Americans in a state of constant warfare abroad. The evidence for that is grim and clear.
You can see it in these two graphs.
The first graph, via transparency group Open Secrets, part of the Center for Responsive Politics, shows political contributions going up. The second shows an index of defence industry stock prices rising alongside it, according to S&P.
Note below how the stock price rises even after the official end of the US occupation of Iraq in 2010.
As political contributions to the defence industry have gone up, so too has the price of defense stocks. In 2016, they were actually higher than ever, at $28 million. And it’s both parties who take this money – 39 percent goes to Democrats, and 60 percent to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Only a few other industries – including healthcare, finance and telecommunications – donate so generously to both sides of the aisle, and can ensure passage of their preferred laws and budgets.
Phyllis Bennis, a Middle East analyst at the Institute for Policy Studies, said the influence of campaign donations on lawmaking is one of the prime drivers of American militarism.
“The money in politics on the issue of war and peace is not the same on other issues, because the US permanent wars have reflected a bipartisan consensus. The very powerful political lobbies representing the arms manufacturers have an enormous amount of influence on the Armed Services Committees and on the permanence of US wars.”
These lobbyists don’t just give campaign donations, but promote “the notion that war is patriotic, and that war can somehow triumph over terrorism just like it did over communism,” she said.
As CEOs at the heads of these companies make millions, all fifty states are places where much poorer folks’ jobs depend on some fragment of the defence industry. That means that even the most anti-war politicians are wary of cutting funding in ways that could hurt their chances of re-election. So they capitulate to stay in office.
I asked her what taking money out of politics would accomplish.
“What if all political campaigns were publicly financed tomorrow?” I asked.
“That would make a huge difference,” Bennis said without hesitation. “What you see here in DC, in the spring, you start to see a plethora of full page ads in the Washington Post, and billboards on the buses and in the subway, and they’re all very vague but they have pictures of a plane taking off into a blue sky and it will say something like ‘We fight for them,’ with nothing specific, and then at the bottom it will say ‘Boeing’,” the American aerospace company and defence contractor.
“The audience for that advertising is very small. It’s about 50 people. It’s the members and staff of the Armed Services Committees, and they spend millions on advertising specifically to those people. This is what patriotism looks like. If there were no ads, if there was no lobbying allowed, yeah, that would be a massive difference. If there was that kind of financial reform.”
The good news is that, in theory, those arms manufacturing jobs don’t have to disappear if the US cut defence spending. Companies could switch production over to something peaceful and useful.
“You could use the same factories to produce wind turbines and solar panels instead of bombers and bullets,” she said.
The bad news is that a solar panels doesn’t sell for $100 million each, not like the F-35. This doesn’t invalidate Bennis’s point, but rather highlights how overwhelming the issue is. Both clean energy tech and the defence industry are dependent on federal money and regulation. So it’s up to the government to switch priorities for how it spends that money.
What lies ahead?
American strikes overseas and civilian deaths have surged since President Donald Trump took office. Reports of non-combatants killed in US operations overseas in March have topped 1,000, according to Airwars, a monitoring group. Last week, more than 200 died in a bombing in West Mosul, civilians stuck between Daesh and an Iraqi government that told them not to leave the city.
What we know for certain is that some people are going through hell right now. Survivors of the American strike are holding their blinded children or lying in hospitals still unaware that their whole family is dead, other relatives wary of telling them. Those are just a couple of the stories the Los Angeles Times heard when it visited the injured who had been trapped in Mosul for days after the bombing.
It’s very unlikely that these stories of suffering will stop anyone in Washington from taking money from defence contractors or spending it on politicians to buy their loyalty. There are always rationalisations. War is hell, and so forth. People who ferry money between defence contractors and Capitol Hill have car payments, too.
That chain of money is thick, and it doesn’t just run through the lobbyists on K Street – it also makes a stop on Wall Street before it finds its way to a war zone.
Trump swore to take on lobbyists when he took office, but aside from some punishing swipes on Twitter against Lockheed Martin for its billion dollar boondoggle F-35 jet, defence contractors stand to do very well under his administration. The White House’s proposed budget urges a $54 billion increase in the Pentagon’s budget.
Even before his victory, investors in defence manufacturers in 2016 made off well. One stock index for defence and aerospace went from about $40 to $60 a share between February 2016 and 2017, according to Yahoo.
Forbes, a business magazine, is forthright about why it likes the prospects for defense industry stocks.
“Major defence contractors may benefit from President-elect Trump’s presidency. He proposes to eliminate defence spending cuts under sequestration and wants to rebuild the US military, calling for 90,000 more active Army soldiers, a 350-ship Navy, nearly 100 more fighter aircraft and strengthened nuclear and missile defences,” they write.
And it’s not just the Pentagon’s budget. Civilian deaths could lead directly to more industry profit. Creating a generation of orphans is not a way to win a war long term, much less show mercy and humanity towards the most vulnerable people on the battlefield, at least. But the defence industry doesn’t need the United States to win to make money. The only thing that matters is that the war continues.
That these strikes could cause locals to resent the United States more is good news for defence industry profits, probably for decades in the future. Orphans grow up to be fighters with grudges. Will children who watched their parents and siblings die in Mosul feel like trusting an American-backed government in Baghdad? Maybe. We’ll have to find out.
They’re part of an ecology that is beyond their control. But the system of private donations to politicians creates a conflict of interest that goes far beyond what Eisenhower warned of in the military industrial complex. Eisenhower, a former general, said the defence industry and government were becoming dangerously mutually dependent in a way that would perpetuate war for war’s sake, to an ultimate nuclear conclusion that would end civilization forever. He spoke in the context of the Cold War, but what he says is even truer today.
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist,” he said.
Fortunately for us, nuclear warfare is also bad for business. Ending the whole world is a bad business model. But ending the tiny worlds that are human lives is the whole purpose of arms manufacturing. So it seems the world hasn’t ended in a bang, just yet. But it continues to end, excruciatingly, with whimpers under rubble.