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Published: 7/23/2008

Military's influence growing, but don't expect a coup d'etat

TODAY we are going to explore one of those subjects that most Americans like to stay miles away from - the militarization of America.

This subject, with the even more sensitive question inherent in it of whether there is a risk of a military coup d'etat in the United States, is generally the realm of either advanced liberal conspiracy theorists or foreign diplomats.

"Coup possibilities" are, I can tell you, a subject that American embassies in almost every country in the world - with the exception of most of the European democracies, Australia, and New Zealand - review internally with some regularity.

Here are some facts that support the contention that the American government is militarized, or, put another way, under increasingly substantive control by the U.S. military.

The Department of Defense has benefited across the last eight years from an increasingly large proportion of the U.S. government budget. The amount has more than doubled from 2001 to what is requested for 2009. A new Northern Command, covering the United States, was created in 2002.

The director of national intelligence is a former military officer. The director of central intelligence is a recently retired general. It is the unanimous assessment of the American intelligence community that defense intelligence bodies have now achieved dominance within that group of agencies, based - surprise, surprise - on their superior financial resources.

The vice president of the United States is a former secretary of defense. Before achieving that office he was CEO of an important defense contractor.

Our military is now a professional force, no longer larded with draftees who brought more skepticism and less devotion to the military as an institution than current forces do. The leadership of the armed forces now have served together and maintain much closer lines of personal and professional communication than previous modern officer corps. Tie that to the fact that many of those officers retire from the armed forces to find senior employment with U.S. defense contractors and one has a serving and retired corps of senior officers who have a very large stake in the status quo.

Now, to think like senior foreign diplomats trying to make sense of this country, project that the current administration in Washington, probably the most pro-military, the most prone to seek military solutions to international political problems that the United States has seen in a century, and the one that has put the most money in the hands of defense contractors in the history of the country, will be swept from office next year.

Then, to move sharply into the area of conspiracy theory, is there not some means potentially at hand to prevent that occurring, as it would bring the military-defense contractor gravy train to a halt? That's the kind of reasoning that lies at the base of some concerned e-mails I receive.

So, is there something to worry about? Is the military-industrial complex that former President (and general) Dwight Eisenhower warned us about thinking about a grab?

It would be in the name of national security. Its chances of acceptance would be enhanced if another war started - against Iran, with Israel's future at risk, for example. It wouldn't need to be a naked grab. November elections could simply be postponed, with President Bush remaining in office for a time because of America's heightened vulnerability. Remember that then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani tried that in 2001 after the 9/11 attack; it didn't work.

Having made the case for how it might happen, I will now tell you why it won't.

The first is the deep attachment of America's military, from top to bottom, to constitutional government. I had close working relationships with military officers for 38 years, including as the deputy commandant of the U.S. Army War College and vice president of the National Defense University. I do not know a group more attached to both the correct functional role of the military in the U.S. constitutional scheme of things or to the concept of civilian direction of the military.

Recall that a senior Libyan army officer stood up in an officer's mess in the 1950s to announce a military coup. Another more junior officer went up to him, put his pistol to the senior officer's head, and announced that he was arresting him in the name of the Libyan king.

The second constraint is that the power of the purse is tightly held by Congress. The military-industrial complex depends for its functioning on money appropriated by Congress. Cut that off and the military grinds to a halt.

The third and perhaps most effective constraint is that most Americans would just laugh if the U.S. military tried to seize power, thus pulling the plug on the whole enterprise.

The militarization of America in recent years is certainly an observable phenomenon, but a threat to U.S. constitutional government it is not, in my view.



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