If you’re wondering why some US politicians are so hot for war in the Ukraine, think “merchants of death.” At the height of the antiwar movement, that was nasty label some of us applied to Lockheed Martin, Boeing and other major manufacturers of high-tech war-fighting equipment—planes, tanks, missiles, whatever does the job. When the drums of war are sounding in some distant land, these the weapons makers naturally smell sales opportunities.
Trouble in Ukraine has aroused the same ambitions and hawkish politicians have picked up the ball and are running with it. They are demanding that the US government send military stuff to Kiev to hold off threatening Russians (our favorite bad guys). The hawks are portraying President Obama as a wimp who’s insufficiently bellicose. But the president is so far playing a cool hand. He has been getting us out of two wars. He’s pretty sure the people don’t want another one.
In fact, neutral historians may someday conclude that it was the United States who stirred up the trouble in the Ukraine, inadvertently if not intentionally, and that US arms makers played an important supporting role. When the Cold War ended in 1991, these companies saw a promising new market opening for their stuff—the newly liberated Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe. Let’s expand NATO! The manufacturers lobbied policy makers in Washington and courted governments of post-Soviet nations as potential customers.
Bill Clinton decided to do it, cheered on by the arms merchants. Why is nobody talking about that? Because It might sound unpatriotic. And the media love bang-bang, even if the cause is stupid.
But expanding NATO to the east—even right up to Russian borders—was the provocative decision that led eventually to the current tensions and troubles. The Clinton administration determined that the United States must reach out and embrace the nations of Eastern Europe by offering them membership in the defense alliance originally created to hold off Soviet aggression. Expanding NATO, it was said, would guarantee the Communists could never reclaim their old dominance.
The decision would also sell a lot of fighter planes. Starting with Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, the countries were delighted to be free of the old Warsaw Pact and eager to replace clunky old Soviet jet fighters with high-tech American versions—awesomely superior and also much more expensive. No problem, Washington would lend the money and guarantee the loans.
To sell this deal, the arms makers created the US Committee to Expand NATO. Its president was Bruce Jackson, director of strategic planning for Lockheed. Between 1996 and 1998 alone the six biggest military contractors spent $51 million lobbying Congress and public opinion, according to The New York Times, while helping ethnic groups of Eastern European descent organize supporters.
Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, an opponent, called it “a Marshall Plan for defense contractors who are chomping at the bit to sell weapons and make profits.” A congressional aide confided to New York Times reporter Katharine Seelye that the arms manufacturers were so intent on NATO expansion that “we’ll probably be giving land-locked Hungary a new navy.”