Letter from Washington — From the January 2015 issue

Game On

East vs. West, again

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On February 28, 2014, Russian troops effortlessly seized control of Crimea. Two days later, Congressman Mike Rogers, Republican of Michigan and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, denounced the Obama Administration’s weak response to the crisis. “Putin is playing chess and I think we are playing marbles, and I don’t think it’s even close,” Rogers said on Fox News Sunday. Not long afterward, as the crisis escalated, Rogers hosted a breakfast fund-raiser in downtown Washington.

As befitted an overseer of the nation’s almost $70 billion intelligence budget, Rogers attracted a healthy crowd, largely composed of lobbyists for defense contractors. Curious as to how the military-industrial complex was reacting to events abroad, I asked a lobbyist friend who had attended (but was loath to reveal his identity and thus his communication with a liberal magazine) about the mood at the meeting. “I’d call it borderline euphoric,” he said.

Illustration by Taylor Callery

Illustration by Taylor Callery

Just a few months earlier, the outlook for the defense complex had looked dark indeed. The war in Afghanistan was winding down. American voters were regularly informing pollsters that they wanted the United States to “mind its own business internationally.” The dreaded “sequester” of 2013, which threatened to cut half a trillion dollars from the long-term defense budget, had been temporarily deflected by artful negotiation, but without further negotiations the defense cuts were likely to resume with savage force in fiscal 2016. There was ugly talk of mothballing one of the Navy’s nuclear-powered carriers, slashing the Army to a mere 420,000 troops, retiring drone programs, cutting headquarters staffs, and more.

Times had been dark before, sometimes rendered darker in the retelling. Although defense budgets had actually increased in the post-Vietnam 1970s, for example, veterans of the era still shared horror stories about the “hollow” military in the years following the final withdrawal from Saigon. That cloud had lifted soon enough, thanks to sustained efforts — via the medium of suitably adjusted intelligence assessments — to portray the Soviet Union as the Red Menace, armed and ready to conquer the Free World.

On the other hand, the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union had posed a truly existential threat. The gift that had kept on giving, reliably generating bomber gaps, missile gaps, civil-defense gaps, and whatever else was needed at the mere threat of a budget cut, disappeared almost overnight. The Warsaw Pact, the U.S.S.R.’s answer to NATO, vanished into the ash can of history. Thoughtful commentators ruminated about a post–Cold War partnership between Russia and the United States. American bases in Germany emptied out as Army divisions and Air Force squadrons came home and were disbanded. In a 1990 speech, Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, revered in those days as a cerebral disperser of military largesse, raised the specter of further cuts, warning that there was a “threat blank” in the defense budget and that the Pentagon’s strategic assessments were “rooted in the past.” An enemy had to be found.

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