In 2016, the RAND Corporation published a report on American military capabilities. The authors paint a bleak picture, arguing that the US is falling behind its “great power adversaries”—that is, China and Russia—and poorly equipped to deal with “threats” from smaller countries like Iran and North Korea. The report favors building up a military that is at the very least capable of defeating one major and one regional adversary at the same time (p. 109).
The assessment is back in the news. Much has been made of the fact that a RAND researcher involved with the project said that the US loses in war games to China and Russia.
As far as I can tell, RAND has not released any information on these “war games,” so their methodology is not reproducible. But their talking points are. The story has been picked up by a website called “Breaking Defense,” which recommends a “cheap” $24 billion fix. I don’t know who runs this website, but the first time I clicked on it I received a banner ad for Boeing.
As with any report, one must consider the source. On the “About Us” page we are informed that “Breaking Defense is produced by Breaking Media, a highly innovative business-to-business digital media company based in New York City.” Translating from corporate speak, the website is run by a P.R. firm working on behalf of corporate clients.
RAND is a mostly government-funded institution. What all of this means is that the state pays for research justifying larger budgets, and big corporations are kind enough to tell us where that money should go. When decision makers within the military retire, the vast majority of them will be handsomely rewarded for their efforts.
Follow the Money
Every industry has interest groups that lobby for more money and influence. Engineers are always telling us our roads and bridges need repairing, lawyers lobby against do-it-yourself tax services, and teachers’ unions fight for more education spending. This does not mean that in any particular case the interest group is wrong, only that we must view any research presented by lobbyists with a skeptical eye, acknowledging it as part of a P.R. campaign.
Think tanks generally do not have to disclose their funding sources. Some excellent reporting, however, has uncovered that many get money from foreign governments, who would like to conscript American forces to fight their battles for them, and weapons manufacturers who benefit from the educated public believing that sending them billions of dollars in taxes is vital for “national security.”
In the case of the RAND Corporation, in 2018 more than 80% of its revenue came from the federal government, including $40 million from the army, $49 million from the Air Force, $46 million from DHS, and another $62 million from the Secretary of Defense and other national security agencies. By funding supposedly objective “research,” rather than just doing the studies themselves, the government can defer to “outside experts” in order to lobby for the budgets that it wants.
Spend, Fight, Repeat
A glance at the RAND report itself provides insights into the pathologies of much of the national security community, echoing the recently released Afghanistan papers. They know that endless war is good, and don’t spend too much time thinking about why. On page 2, the authors write “The United States has interests and allies worth fighting for in multiple parts of the world, and multiple adversaries that pose challenges to those interests. Therefore, U.S. force planners cannot count on being able to fight only one war at a time.” Well, that settles it!
The individual chapters devoted to different regions of the world provide no more reflection on what American power is actually for. The chapter on Russia gives less than one page to “Background and Purpose” before spending the rest of the chapter discussing troop presence, “Russian aggression,” and how we can best protect our “NATO allies.” The report does not meaningfully consider why we have any interest in defending these countries, why we should suspect that Russia would ever invade them, or why they cannot defend themselves.
In the recently released Afghanistan papers, those at the highest levels of government revealed that they had no discernible strategy or purpose in that country. As soon as the war started, concentrated interests made sure it would continue. Yet this applies to not only Afghanistan, but practically all of our foreign policy commitments. The US has no territorial dispute with Iran or Russia. To justify continuing antagonism towards these countries, we have to remain close to them, forming defense alliances with their neighbors and seeking to overthrow their governments.
Recently, Secretary of Defense Mike Esper, a former Raytheon lobbyist, went on a tour of East Asia where he tried to convince Japan and South Korea to take more seriously the threat coming from China. Presumably, the military-industrial complex knows what these countries need for “defense” better than they do.
Most commentary on foreign policy should be treated as what it is: propaganda on behalf of foreign governments and the military-industrial complex. For every region of the world, there is no shortage of lobbyists, consultants, and “experts” who are more than happy to explain to us why they need our money. Even in a country in which special interests have implemented policies that milk the citizenry across the economy, the corruption of the defense sector stands out.
No American should lose sleep over a war games simulation funded by the government. Instead, our citizens should redouble their efforts at fighting the influence of rent-seekers at home, the people who are the real threat to our interests.