Commentary

Good Times for the Military-Industrial Complex

TOMDISPATCH, William D. Hartung, November 12, 2023

But Is It Truly the Arsenal of Democracy?

The New York Times headline said it all: “Middle East War Adds to Surge in International Arms Sales.” The conflicts in Gaza, Ukraine, and beyond may be causing immense and unconscionable human suffering, but they are also boosting the bottom lines of the world’s arms manufacturers. There was a time when such weapons sales at least sparked talk of “the merchants of death” or of “war profiteers.” Now, however, is distinctly not that time, given the treatment of the industry by the mainstream media and the Washington establishment, as well as the nature of current conflicts. Mind you, the American arms industry already dominates the international market in a staggering fashion, controlling 45% of all such sales globally, a gap only likely to grow more extreme in the rush to further arm allies in Europe and the Middle East in the context of the ongoing wars in those regions.

In his nationally televised address about the Israel-Hamas and Russia-Ukraine wars, President Biden described the American arms industry in remarkably glowing terms, noting that, “just as in World War II, today patriotic American workers are building the arsenal of democracy and serving the cause of freedom.” From a political and messaging perspective, the president cleverly focused on the workers involved in producing such weaponry rather than the giant corporations that profit from arming Israel, Ukraine, and other nations at war. But profit they do and, even more strikingly, much of the revenues that flow to those firms is pocketed as staggering executive salaries and stock buybacks that only boost shareholder earnings further.

President Biden also used that speech as an opportunity to tout the benefits of military aid and weapons sales to the U.S. economy:

“We send Ukraine equipment sitting in our stockpiles. And when we use the money allocated by Congress, we use it to replenish our own stores, our own stockpiles, with new equipment. Equipment that defends America and is made in America. Patriot missiles for air defense batteries, made in Arizona. Artillery shells manufactured in 12 states across the country, in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas. And so much more.”

In short, the military-industrial complex is riding high, with revenues pouring in and accolades emanating from the top political levels in Washington. But is it, in fact, an arsenal of democracy? Or is it an amoral enterprise, willing to sell to any nation, whether a democracy, an autocracy, or anything in between?

Arming Current Conflicts

The U.S. should certainly provide Ukraine with what it needs to defend itself from Russia’s invasion. Sending arms alone, however, without an accompanying diplomatic strategy is a recipe for an endless, grinding war (and endless profits for those arms makers) that could always escalate into a far more direct and devastating conflict between the U.S., NATO, and Russia. Nevertheless, given the current urgent need to keep supplying Ukraine, the sources of the relevant weapons systems are bound to be corporate giants like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. No surprise there, but keep in mind that they’re not doing any of this out of charity.

Raytheon CEO Gregory Hayes acknowledged as much, however modestly, in an interview with the Harvard Business Review early in the Ukraine War:

“[W]e don’t apologize for making these systems, making these weapons… the fact is eventually we will see some benefit in the business over time. Everything that’s being shipped into Ukraine today, of course, is coming out of stockpiles, either at DoD [the Department of Defense] or from our NATO allies, and that’s all great news. Eventually we’ll have to replenish it and we will see a benefit to the business over the next coming years.”

Read More: TOMDISPATCH