The economic consequences of Global War on Terrorism

Imtiaz A. Hussain   | Published: May 02, 2019 20:31:00 | Updated: May 03, 2019 21:49:58

Caption: A DAMAGED BUILDING IN MOSUL : Terrorism cannot always be mentioned as the causal factor: Iraq was invaded by US President George W. Bush's argument that Saddam Hussein "tried to kill my dad."           — Photo: Reuters

John Lennon said it best. "All we're saying," he proposed, representing the lay public, "is [to] give peace a chance." With Tom O'Connor's Newsweek piece (November 14, 2018), reporting $5.9 trillion US 21st century expenditures on wars, the shutters on conflict will not be pulled down any time soon. In spite of an "America First" call to retreat from the world economically, the global damage expected exceeds that of long-term US economic costs. Given the spiralling needs to protect against climate change consequences, preserving Millennium Development Goals attainments, and fulfilling Sustainable Development Goals commitments, diverting even a slice of that total might make a positive global difference. Yet, since President Donald J. Trump is not interested in that, what might happen?

Comprehending US Cold War militarisation context offers valuable insights. One must first recall how the United States abandoned the global arena after World War I. Dragged into that war, not by an explosive occasion as the Pearl Harbor bombings in December 1941 were, but by relatively trivial incidents/allegations, such as the 1915  Lusitania ship-sinking by Germans and the Zimmerman Telegram (a German ploy to induce Mexico to fight the United States from the southern flank), US President Woodrow Wilson still produced the stupefying League of Nations, only to have it shunned equally dramatically by the US Senate. Isolationism was institutionalised by the Hawley-Smoot Tariffs in 1930.

It was not Japan, the country instigating Pearl Harbor, alone retaining the United States in the global arena after World War II. The Soviet Union played a greater part, not, like during the war as an ally, but serving as the direct threat. Still, the two atomic bombs that were unnecessarily dropped upon a retreating and abjectly defeated Japan helped build US remorse. It played a far larger role in shaping US Pacific interests (brewing since at least as far back as the 1860s, when Chinese low-wage farmers were recruited to create what eventually became the California agricultural revolution), while also stimulating international trade in unprecedented ways. Although Japan became the second-largest US trading partner and the world's second-largest economy at one point, the thrust of the US Cold War interests remained preventing a communist domino (as that became the key lesson drawn from the Soviet occupation of East Europe from the later 1940s: one country after another succumbing to communism.

Forty years of the Cold War, from 1947 to 1987, boosted the US military and created what President Dwight David Eisenhower lamentably described in his January 17, 1961 "Farewell Address," as the military-industrial complex (MIC). In the time since, a paymaster has been added to that equation, to rechristen it the military-industrial-congressional complex (MICC). War was no longer going to be measured in terms of soldiers fighting for the country. It had also become both a business and political  playground: building and transacting weapons, if not for battlefield usage or as a deterrent, then for selling abroad; and electing representatives, especially those from war-industry locations, ostensibly to defend US interests, but mostly for local, pecuniary, personal purposes.

Another audience automatically enters the picture: the paying public. The Cold War was expensive. Using the 1982 dollar-value as its reference, the Cato Institute shows how two "hot" wars in that 40-year Cold War span (the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, roughly 1950-53 and 1960s, until the 1969 Guam Doctrine), institutionalised high-stakes defence expenditures: the roughly $60 billion spent in 1950 roughly tripled annually until the end of the 1960s, then dipped briefly (though never less than twice the 1950 figure), before quadrupling in the 1980s. Soviet bankruptcy led to its collapse by the early 1990s. It also promoted military innovation. Corporations like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman became staples of the US R/D (research and development) frontiers. Wars may subside, but dismantling these proved well-nigh impossible (or even desired).

Against the $6.0 trillion 21st century US tally, the Cold War counterpart would be about $6.5 trillion in 1982 dollar-value, but obviously a lot higher under today's dollar-value. Granted the Cold War time-span was twice that of the 21st century, but the MIC renaissance and the MICC-driven robustness today contrast the isolationism as the United States practised a century ago.

Though the US costs gradually dented the authority of US leadership, both worldwide and domestically, there were many pluses abroad. Germany and Japan emerged as capitalist bastions, of different shades, no doubt, while a number of "emerging" countries fully completed the "emergence," with South Korea leading the list in Asia. Trade has become multilateral, and the European Union could grow into adulthood because of the US security umbrella during the 1950s and 1960s. It is doubtful any other paradigm could have produced such economic growth during those stormy days.

On the flip side, many communist countries barging into the capitalist camp when the Cold War ended still struggle to maintain their two feet, both politically and economically. In particularly, the Soviet successor, Russia, seems willing once again, to take the US bull by its horns, this time in conjunction with other countries. With China's phantom-like emergence as the world's second largest economic player, the threats binding Russia with China, and others, guarantee the MIC and MICC shadows will not fade.

What has unsettled the global military playground has been the shift to non-regular forces and combat, with Islam occupying the communist place. Here expenditures can only go off the chart. Unlike the relative Cold War fight against communism, the fight against "Islamic" terrorism was cultivated. Soviet communism was first identified by George F. Kennan's "X" article in Foreign Affairs in July 1947, when East Europe was already under Soviet control. Yet, Islam was indirectly implicated as soon as the Cold War ended, for example, by Samuel P. Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis, also in Foreign Affairs in 1993 (Summer issue). His threat was not from terrorists but unassimilated Muslim migrants across Western countries. Even the key terrorist groups, Taleban and al-Qaeda, had implicitly received prior US support, through Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, to evict Soviet troops from Afghanistan in the late 1980s. Establishing "Islamic terrorism" as the threat with 9/11 itself fed a broader fear against Muslims everywhere. Whether that was intended or not, costs spiralled, without end, as of 2019.

Communist threat became country-specific, "Islamic" threat is not. Whereas the former could be stopped, the latter cannot follow in the same vein. Arguments galore posit Islamic terrorist groups, such as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) being an Israeli creation to ward off Iran from its border areas (Stephen Lendman, Global Research, December 2015; or Jay Syrmopoulos, True Activist, September 2017). Whether true or not, the result has been devastating: Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Syria have been either sanctioned or reduced to perpetual warfare from the viable states they once used to be. Outcomes like these further fuel the Muslim mindset of a war against their religion, particularly led by the United States. Terrorism cannot always be mentioned as the causal factor: Iraq was invaded by US President George W. Bush's argument that Saddam Hussein "tried to kill my dad."

Against such a backdrop, the global economy has suffered badly. Military costs and fears are not the only reason why, but they are enough to discourage long-term economic plans, associations, multilateralism, and above all, a hopeful 21st century future.

Dr Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.


Share if you like