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The Return of a Powerful U.S.

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May 12, 2022


On May 3, President Joe Biden visited the Lockheed Martin plant in Troy, Alabama. He was there to thank the company and its workers for building the weapons being sent to Ukraine to defend against the Russian invasion, in particular the Javelin anti-tank missile. He told the employees “You’re allowing the Ukrainians to defend themselves.  And, quite frankly, they’re making fools of the Russian military in many instances.” Biden referenced America as “the arsenal of democracy,” citing not just World War II but also Iraq and Afghanistan. “And every worker in this facility and every American taxpayer is directly contributing to the case for freedom.  And that’s something we can all be incredibly proud of, in my view,” he declared.

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This appearance undoubtedly disturbed those on the Left who had welcomed Biden as a pacifist who would pull America inward, renouncing the assertive foreign policy and military buildup of President Donald Trump. Though both presidents had wanted to pull out of the “endless wars” of the Middle East, President Trump’s motive was to shift resources to meet the real challenges of Great Power competition posed by China and Russia. Biden’s career, however, has been characterized by a desire for complete withdrawal in the face of conflict to avoid escalation. He had advised President Barack Obama not to go after Osama bin Laden and feared that Trump’s strike against Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani would spark a war with Iran. In both cases, he acknowledged that the targeted men had been responsible for the deaths of Americans. As one of his first acts as president, he cut off all aid to the Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran’s proxy insurgency in Yemen. and then collapsed Afghanistan. His initial reaction to the Russian invasion threat was to open the door for Vladimir Putin by assuring him that Ukraine was outside the U.S.-NATO defense perimeter and no Americans would fight for Kyiv.

Particularly chagrined by Biden’s visit to the Troy weapons plant was William Hartung of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex (Nation Books, 2012). The book makes the standard leftist argument that rather than provide the United States with the equipment and technology it needs to defend its interests in a contentious world, Lockheed Martin has used its capitalist “power” to drive a bellicose foreign policy simply to enrich itself.

On the “Democracy Now” PBS program, Hartung claimed this is also the motive behind the effort to arm Ukraine. He stated, “Well, this is a bonanza for the companies. You know, they’re going to profit from this in so many ways, it makes my head spin. But you’ve got the $3 billion in direct arms, which is a substantial amount for these companies. Then you’ve got countries like Germany increasing their Pentagon — military budgets to buy things like Lockheed Martin F-35s for billions of dollars, or Poland buying General Dynamics tanks… So, between the arms to Ukraine, arming the European buildup, the Pentagon being jacked up far beyond what is needed even to address the Ukraine crisis, these companies, which already get — you know, the top five get $150 billion a year from the Pentagon. That’s just going to go up and up. So, this is kind of unfortunate for the world, but it’s good financial news for these companies.” It’s “unfortunate for the world” that the West defends itself from aggression? Hartung’s loyalties clearly do not lie with the country in which he lives.

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The Quincy Institute wants a world in which the U.S. is not the preeminent power. It sees “the emergence of a multipolar world in the 21st century where economic power is more evenly shared across nations.” It thus favors the rise of rival powers like China that can offset America’s lust for “domination.” A May 5 post advises against “The Folly of Pushing South Korea Toward a China Containment Strategy.” Instead, “both South Korea and China should be included in non-traditional security activities of the Quad such as infrastructure and climate change.” The Quad is the alignment of India, Australia, Japan, and the U.S. which the Quincy experts want to see “demilitarized” as a counter to China.

Another Quincy member is Andrew J. Bacevich, a prolific opponent of any American policy not based on appeasement and retreat. The day after President Biden made his request to Congress for $33 billion in aid to Ukraine, $20.4 billion of which would be military support, the flagship of mainstream liberal opinion, the New Republic, ran a piece by Bacevich. “For American politicians and pundits given to giddiness — and to distracting attention from recent failures — the proxy war in Ukraine is the perfect foreign quarrel. It is rejuvenating Cold War–style militarized globalism as the cornerstone of U.S. national security policy” he wailed. He denounced “the typically dovish Damon Linker” for observing that “The Ukraine invasion marks a return to a world primarily dominated by competition and hostility among states.” Yet, this is exactly the case, though it would be more accurate to note that this is less of a return than a confirmation that we never left a contentious world. For Bacevich the enemy is always at home. He blames the “reckless” expansion of NATO even as Putin’s brutality justifies the concern that motivated that growth in NATO membership; that Russian imperialism would reappear.  But forget Putin — the real villain is described in the TNR headline “The Ukraine War is Ballooning America’s Military-Industrial Complex.”

On May 9, President Biden signed the “Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act Of 2022” which will make it easier to provide military aid to Ukraine and other Eastern European countries. The bill passed the Senate by voice vote and the House by a 417-10 margin. Biden chose the date marking Victory in Europe Day to sign the bill as Lend-Lease had been originally conceived as a way for the U.S. to aid those fighting Nazi aggression before the U.S. entered the war itself. This reference indicated that Biden has not changed his views at their core. As he said at Lockheed Martin, “You’re making it possible for the Ukrainian people to defend themselves without us having to risk getting in a third world war by sending in American soldiers fighting Russian soldiers.” So, he is still opposed to direct military action out of fear of escalation. Still, there has been some encouraging movement. He justified support for Ukraine, “Because if you don’t stand up to dictators, history has shown us they keep coming. They keep coming. Their appetite for power continues to grow.” The question is whether he will remember this vital lesson of history when dealing with China, Iran, North Korea, and any other threat from ambitious would-be conquerors. And will he also recall that, as in WW II and numerous other contests, eventually we had to join the fight ourselves for the forces of liberty to prevail.

William R. Hawkins is a former economics professor who has written widely on defense and foreign policy issues for a variety of scholarly and popular publications. He has also served on the staff on the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee.

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