Phoenix Media Co-op asked nuclear policy specialist Joe Cirincione about the power of the arms lobby in US politics. And he explained how treating China and Russia as enemies helps to justify massive spending on weapons, especially considering that “the defence-industrial complex has got such a hold over Congress”.
I worked in Congress for 10 years. I’m telling you – it’s money that matters when it comes to Congress. … They listen a lot more to what the defence contractors have to say than they listen to diplomats or arms control experts. … It’s just too much money.
It’s hard to believe, but members of Congress don’t think it’s a conflict of interest if they’re taking money from defence contractors as political contributions, taking trips funded by defence contractors, and then voting on what kind of contracts those defence corporations should get. They don’t see that as a conflict of interest; but, of course, it is.
A “completely corrupt” system
Talking about “this vast money machine”, Cirincione insisted that “the contractors have gotten very good at basically buying experts”. He added:
I don’t know a single proponent of nuclear weapons in Washington that doesn’t benefit directly or indirectly from defence contractor money. That is, there are thinktanks like CSIS or the Center for New American Security that are heavily funded by defence contracts or they’re at consulting firms where they have contracts with defence contractors. Most of the people that you see quoted in the paper who are arguing for more nuclear weapons are either in thinktanks funded by defence contractors – in states where they depend on defence contracts for jobs and bases and facilities – or are simply, basically, the defence contractors themselves, in the millions they spend on ads in the newspapers, in online publications.
The last count I saw, the last year for which there was reporting two years ago – I think defence contractors spent $127m lobbying Congress and had over 400 lobbyists employed. [Note: there seems to have been a slight drop in the lobbying figures in the last two years.]
They simply overwhelm the Congress. They’re embedded in the Department of Defense. It’s a system that, at this point, is completely corrupt. And I don’t think you can rely on the structures we have to get objective assessments of what weapons we really need to defend our country.
“Keep the money flowing”
Cirincione then spoke about how it’s arms companies that essentially make the policies in Washington:
Our military policy is largely determined by the five largest defence contractors. That’s who makes the policy.
if you think I’m exaggerating, just look at the lack of oversight: when’s the last time there was a serious congressional investigation into waste, fraud and abuse at the Department of Defense? When’s the last time the White House or Congress cancelled a failed weapons system? When’s the last time you saw something slowed down because it wasn’t working? No.
And he shared a poignant anecdote, saying:
When I was on the staff of the House Armed Services Committee, a veteran staffer pulled me over after a while. He could see that I was working on reform proposals and working with a group of congresspeople who wanted to improve the procurement practices in the Department of Defense. And he put his arm around me and said: ‘Joe, 95% of what we do around here is keep the money going. We keep the money going. The sooner you realise that, the happier you’ll be here.’
And I know exactly what he means. That is what happens in the House Armed Services Committee, the Defense Appropriations Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and in the White House. You just keep the money flowing. And as long as you do that, you don’t have any problems. If you try to stop one of those contracts, you’re going to have a big fight on your hands.
Turning China and Russia into an excuse
Cirincione stressed that current US president Joe Biden “doesn’t want to have a big fight on his hands”. And for that reason, he and his team:
have decided to go slow on any change to defence, to go slow on any change in national security strategy, to keep up the Trump approach – which is that our main adversaries are China and Russia, to keep up the frame that this is a ‘great power competition’. That’s not true at all. That’s not what characterises the modern world. But that is the frame that works best if you’re a defence contractor, if your job is to constantly produce new weapons in great quantities and make billions of dollars in profits. That kind of conflict-oriented frame works great for you. And the Biden administration seems willing to buy into that, at least for its first couple of years.
More about the interviewee
Cirincione is a ‘distinguished non-resident fellow’ at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He previously worked as non-proliferation director at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is also the author of Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World before It Is Too Late; and of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons.
Main article image via Campaign Against Arms Trade