27 February 2022

How the Narcotic of Defense Spending Undermines a Sensible Grand Strategy


by Chuck Spinney

The MICC’s grand-strategic chickens are coming home to roost big time. While war is bad, the Russo-Ukrainian War has the champagne corks quietly popping in the Pentagon, on K Street, in the defense industry, and throughout the halls of Congress.  Taxpayers are going to be paying for their party for a long time.  

It is no accident that the United States is on the cusp of the Second Cold War.

Future historians may well view the last 30 years as a case study in the institutional survival of the American Military - Industrial - Congressional Complex (MICC), together with its supporting blob now saturating the media, think tanks, academia, and the intelligence community.  Perhaps, these future historians will come also to view the Global War on Terror (GWOT) as the bridging operation that greased the transition to Cold War II by keeping defense budgets at Cold War levels after Cold War I ended.  Also, 9-11 may have re-acclimated the American people to the climate of fear now needed to sustain Cold War II for the remainder of the 21st Century.

The First Cold War’s 40-year climate of fear was something Mikhail Gorbachev tried to end.  But Presidents Clinton and Bush (the 2nd) were busy planting the seed money for a new generation of cold-war inspired weapons.  These weapons required massive future defense budgets that would require a climate of fear to sustain (especially for the across-the-board nuclear modernization program).  President Obama then locked in these programs, and won a Nobel Peace Prize to boot.  President Trump and the Dems in Congress worked overtime to ice the Pentagon’s budget cake by incestuously amplifying the growing Russophobia.  

No one wants war, but rising tension and the politics of fear … and their bedfellow: demonization … had to be magnified to justify the huge bow wave of defense spending looming in the budgetary offing, particularly the trillion+ dollars to pay for the nuclear modernization program.  This “chicken” takes us back to the “egg” laid in the 1990s.

As it gradually sank in that the First Cold War had indeed ended when the Soviet threat evaporated in 1991, the titans in the defense industry understood their comfortable market for new hi-tech, high-cost weapons could dry up.  They also knew that sword makers do not have the management and engineering skills to make good affordable  plowshares.  So, they went on a Pentagon subsidized consolidation binge to gobble up access to what threatened to be a stagnating market.  Their collective logic was explained in October 1991 in a speech by William Anders, CEO of General Dynamics (see especially page 13). 

At the same time, the defense industrialists recognized that market diversification was necessary.  So, it was no accident that a lobbying operation named the Committee to Expand NATO emerged in the early 1990s and was headed by a vice president of Lockheed Martin — for a reminder, see Why is US Foreign Policy a Shambles?.  At the very least, in the mid-1990s, it seemed that expanding NATO implied dramatically increased requirements for what is known in NATO jargon as weapons interoperability. This promised huge new markets for American weapons, communications systems, and logistics infrastructure, as ex-Warsaw Pact countries trashed their Soviet weapons (e.g., F-16s to replace old Warsaw Pact Migs, etc.).  That this interoperability cornucopia did not materialize to the extent dreamed of is quite beside the point, when it comes to understanding the motives shaping the hopes and dreams underpinning the powerful American impulse to expand NATO — despite promises to the contrary made by leaders in the US, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom (see this page in National Security Archive). 

Against the background of broken promises not to expand NATO, Mr. Putin has made several speeches explaining why NATO expansion would be a threat to Russian security.  In this sense, NATO expansion has become both the chicken and the egg when it comes to understanding the origins of the Russo-Ukrainian war, which is now on the cusp of locking in the perpetual state of fear needed to sustain a Second Cold War for the remainder of the 21st Century. 

Washington observers have long argued that the Pentagon doesn’t have a strategy.  As the famous American strategic thinker, John Boyd opined repeatedly, “They are wrong,  … the strategy is simple,” (albeit focused more intensely on domestic politics than international relations).  “It is: Don’t interrupt the money flow, add to it.” 

But the Pentagon’s strategy of maximizing its budget has created a growing dependency on defense spending in the American political economy.  This grotesque distortion was first recognized by President Eisenhower in 1961.  In 1987, George Kennan, forty years after he fathered the dominant US policy of “Containment” for the entire First Cold War, summed up the narcotic of defense spending, saying prophetically:

“Were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the American military-industrial complex would have to remain, substantially unchanged, until some other adversary could be invented. Anything else would be an unacceptable shock to the American economy,” 

Source: George Kennan, At Century’s Ending: Refections, 1982-1995, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996) pg.118. 

And that dear reader, is why the Russo-Ukrainian War — a predictable consequence of NATO expansion — has champagne corks popping in the Pentagon, in the defense industry, and in their wholly owned subsidiaries in Congress, think tanks, the intelligence apparat, and the press.  

Understanding the internal political-economic causes of the American addiction to the narcotic of defense spending is at the heart of the problem.  This understanding is essential to reforming the foreign policy mess exacerbated by NATO expansion.  

So, there is much work to be done, but a great beginning can be found in reading and updating the late Seymour Melman’s path breaking work, which began in the 1950s (e.g., see Profits Without Production, The Permanent War Economy for an introduction).

But a first step along a road to clearer thinking is for concerned American citizens to appreciate what Mr. Putin has been saying — and to understand why Mr. Putin thinks he is justified in saying it. 

Attached herewith is James Carden’s useful analysis of how the American impulse described above is perceived by the key decision maker on the receiving end of that impulse:

Chuck Spinney

Putin’s path to war in three speeches

The time between 2007 and 2022 was a period of missed opportunities for the West

James W. Carden, February 25, 2022 


[Reposted by permission of the author.  Reformatted and underlining by CS]

With regard to the illegal war being waged by Russia against Ukraine, no one has any right to be surprised.

For all the understandable and justifiable outrage over Russian president Vladimir Putin’s decision to abandon diplomacy and launch what appears to be an unprovoked act of aggression, a look at prior statements by Mr. Putin shows that, with the passage of time, patience and rationality gave way to irrationally, paranoia and ultimately the decision to launch an armed conflict.


Any proper accounting of the history of the downturn in US-Russia relations must include Putin’s 2007 address to the Munich Security Conference. To many, this was a kind of point of no return, with Putin putting the US and its European allies on notice: there are red lines not to be crossed.

Having cooperated with and facilitated the war against the Taliban in 2001, Russia, along with France and Germany, opposed George W. Bush’s unilateral war of choice against Iraq in 2003. At Munich, Putin charged, correctly, that with the actions taken by the US against Iraq and during its so-called global war on terror,

We are seeing a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law. And independent legal norms are, as a matter of fact, coming increasingly closer to one state’s legal system. One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way.

Putin continued, “The use of force can only be considered legitimate if the decision is sanctioned by the UN. And we do not need to substitute NATO or the EU for the UN.”

Putin, in line with his immediate predecessors, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, also voiced grave concern over the project of NATO expansion. Today, pundits such as former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul and rabid neoconservative commentators like Anne Applebaum would have us believe that the current crisis has nothing whatsoever to do with NATO expansion.

Yet a reading of Putin’s Munich address should put their thesis to bed. Said Putin:

I think it is obvious that NATO expansion…represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended? And what happened to the assurances our Western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact? Where are those declarations today? No one even remembers them.


In the years between Munich and Mr. Putin’s next major international statement, his UN Assembly address of 2015, much occurred to further poison relations between the world’s two nuclear superpowers, including but not limited to: 

  • the US recognition of Kosovo (2008); 
  • a pledge by NATO that Ukraine and Georgia would become members (2008); 
  • the Russian war in Georgia (2008); 
  • US regime change wars in Libya and Syria (2011); 
  • the passage of the Magnitsky Act (2012); and 
  • the Ukrainian civil war after Russia occupied Crimea (2014-present).

At the UN, Putin took square aim at America’s self-appointed role as arbiter of the so-called international rules-based order. By 2015, it was clear that Putin’s patience with the US was at its limit.

We all know that after the end of the Cold War — everyone is aware of that — a single center of domination emerged in the world, and then those who found themselves at the top of the pyramid were tempted to think that if they were strong and exceptional, they knew better and they did not have to reckon with the UN.

Taking aim at the debacles caused by unilateral military action taken by the US in the name of democracy and human rights, Putin noted that the result was not a “triumph of democracy and progress.” What resulted instead was “violence, poverty and social disaster.”

Addressing America’s role in sowing instability in the Greater Middle East for the better part of a decade and a half, Putin mused:

I cannot help asking those who have caused the situation, do you realize now what you’ve done? But I am afraid no one is going to answer that. Indeed, policies based on self-conceit and belief in one’s exceptionality and impunity have never been abandoned.

And, yes, NATO expansion was still very much on Mr. Putin’s mind in 2015. “They continue,” he said of the US and Europe, “their policy of expanding NATO. What for?”

If the Warsaw Bloc stopped its existence, the Soviet Union have [sic] collapsed and, nevertheless, NATO continues expanding as well as its military infrastructure. Then they offered the poor Soviet countries a false choice: either to be with the West or with the East.


During last night’s address, in which Putin announced the commencement of hostilities against Ukraine, he restated his previous objections to NATO expansion, stating that 

“fundamental threats to Russia have grown yearly as a result of the expansion of NATO.” He condemned the alliance’s support for “extreme nationalists and neo-Nazis in Ukraine.”

Going much further than he had previously, Putin tried to justify his own war of choice by claiming “we had no option but to initiate a special military operation to protect the people who for eight years have been subject to bullying and genocide from the Kiev regime.”

Yet Putin’s actions are not only a departure from the sentiments and principles he himself had once so forcefully espoused, they are a wholesale repudiation of them.

In the end, the period between 2007 and 2022 may come to be regarded, in the light of history, as years of missed opportunity. And while the ultimate responsibility for this war falls on Mr. Putin, the West’s failure to take him seriously has no doubt helped bring us to this dangerous moment.

James W. Carden is contributing opinion writer for The Asia Times and a former advisor to the US State Department.