A recent poll conducted by the Quincy Institute found that 57% of likely voters strongly or somewhat support the US pursuing diplomatic negotiations as soon as possible to end the war in Ukraine, even if it requires Ukraine making compromises with Russia.
Despite relentless pro-war propaganda, a majority of Americans are not on board with their government’s strategy of pouring endless weapons into Ukraine’s war with its nuclear-armed neighbor and hoping for the best. They are concerned about the costs of this war – more than 60 billion taxpayer dollars have already been spent, with much of that money filling the coffers of U.S. arms manufacturers.
Americans are also concerned about the growing risk of nuclear Armageddon. In 2019, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists kept the Doomsday Clock set to two minutes before midnight following the United States’s unilateral withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Then on January 20, 2022, as tensions escalated between Russia and Ukraine, and also between the U.S. and China, the clock was reset to 100 seconds from midnight — on “doom’s doorstep.”
Unfortunately, as numerous academic studies have shown – such as the 2017 study by political scientists Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens – the concerns of “ordinary Americans [have] little or no impact” on federal government policy, which is directed by economic elites and by organized groups representing business interests.
The most influential business groups directing foreign policy are the U.S. arms manufacturers. Bomb makers like Raytheon require zones of active conflict to meet Wall Street’s profit expectations. Manufacturers of big-ticket items require hostile relations with larger nations like Russia and China to justify new sales of aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, F-35 fighter jets, and new generations of nuclear bombs. The mineral extracting industries also exert great influence, demanding an empire of at least 750 military bases in 80 countries to crush the will of local people who might oppose foreign exploitation of their resources.
I have seen firsthand how the wealthy shape government policy to favor their business interests through lobbying, think tanks, political action committees, and of course bundled campaign contribution checks to both Democrats and Republicans and especially to the Congressional lawmakers on the key committees and appropriations subcommittees. In short, wealthy people demand that their servants in government act decisively to assure a high rate of return on their investment capital. And the politicians reliably deliver the goods. So much so that, in the eyes of the wealthy, government leaders are competent and highly responsive. Whereas working people often see federal officials as useless at best, and more often as arbitrary and oppressive.
And because Congress exempts itself from any meaningful ethical or conflict-of-interest rules regarding the industries it oversees, its members are permitted to take campaign cash and other financial favors from corporations that profit from war, and simultaneously appropriate taxpayer funds to these same companies.
The conflict in Ukraine has been a bonanza for the arms industry. The runup to the war saw NATO expand east towards Russia’s border, requiring each new NATO state to purchase arms compatible with U.S. weapons systems. The 2014 US-backed coup that ousted Russia-leaning President Viktor Yanukovych opened the door to a policy of arming Ukraine. Russia’s invasion earlier this year accelerated the profiteering, as U.S. taxpayers were required, without hearings or debate, to purchase billions of dollars’ worth of weapons from U.S. arms makers for shipment to Ukraine. As of the end of October, the US committed $18 billion in arms and other equipment to Ukraine since the war began on February 24.
The voice of the war industry can be heard through its think tanks. A recent analysis in Jacobin Magazine found of the top 50 think tanks with donors disclosed, 79% took arms industry cash. The arms industry spreads its largesse among both conservative outfits like the Heritage Foundation and liberal ones like the Center for American Progress, all of which share a pro-growth attitude toward Pentagon spending.
A recent think tank story in the Guardian by Brookings Institution senior fellow Steven Pifer summarizes the arms industry’s position on the Ukraine war: Russia is losing. The Ukrainian military “has driven Russian forces back in the east and south of the country and appears poised to recover further territory…For Ukraine, seeking negotiations in the current circumstances has zero appeal…Strong continued US financial and material support for Ukraine’s effort to drive the Russian military out thus is central to ending the war on acceptable terms.” Predictably, Pifer’s column does not mention the danger of nuclear war.
Arms industry think tanks also urge less diplomacy and more provocation towards China. A recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal by Hudson Institute and Hoover Institution fellow Nadia Schadlow asserts that any cooperation with China is just a “fantasy.” Reckless acts, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s incendiary trip to Taiwan this past summer, are applauded. Others argue that we must spend even more taxpayer dollars on weapons to prepare for simultaneous wars in Asia and Europe.
Think tanks elevate the ideas profitable to industry sponsors. They encourage our leaders to send more weapons into conflict zones, and to shun diplomacy. And they provide the talking points for public officials to spout while they ignore the concerns of their constituents.
The scholarship coming from pro-war, industry-funded think tanks could never carry the day if there were an actual debate. Not to worry. Congress holds no debates or public hearings on vital issues of war and peace, thereby allowing poorly-reasoned arguments for more war and less diplomacy to become official policy. Meanwhile, the mainstream media does its part by excluding anti-war voices from their platforms.
Congress’s need to avoid any public debate over its industry-friendly foreign policy explains why the toothless letter sent October 24 by a group of “progressive” House Democrats, gently suggesting that the Biden administration “pair the military and economic support the United States has provided to Ukraine with a proactive diplomatic push,” was met with such a vicious backlash from party leaders. Unsurprisingly, the so-called progressives immediately folded and withdrew their letter.
Despite populist rhetoric, progressive Democrats are beholden to the donors that finance their party, including Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and General Dynamics. These donors want the war to continue. And they don’t want any debates about diplomacy or the risk of nuclear war. They don’t care if the Democrats get trounced in the midterm elections or that voters are growing tired of electing representatives who always step up to fund war, but never jobs, housing or health care.
The arms industry owns both of the corporate parties and has nothing to fear if Republicans take over Congress in 2023, notwithstanding warnings by some, like House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy, that there will be no more “blank check” for Ukraine if Republicans win back the House majority. A Republican Congress might cut back some of the aid to Ukraine. But the weapons will continue to flow.
The failure of progressive Democrats to stand up and fight for their professed principles demonstrates yet again that dissenting voices inside of a corporate-controlled party serve no function other than to help sell the lie that the party represents ordinary people and not just wealthy donors.
The situation in Ukraine is becoming more dangerous every day. And the industry groups directing foreign policy are ill-equipped to protect the world from nuclear Armageddon. Publicly-traded corporations are profit-seeking engines focused on quarterly earnings. The personal views or morality of corporate directors is immaterial. They are under fiduciary obligation to maximize profits for the shareholders. And profit models show that ramping up hostilities with Russia and China will increase profit projections. The danger of nuclear annihilation literally does not compute.
Recent comments by President Biden suggest that he sees this danger. A seasoned cold warrior, Biden understands that in a conflict between nuclear powers, there has to be direct lines of communications between leaders, as there were between Kennedy and Krushchev during the Cuban missile crisis.
Publicly, Biden is staying on script, telling CNN’s Jake Tapper in a recent interview: “I’m not about to, nor is anyone else prepared to negotiate with Russia about them staying in Ukraine, keeping any part of Ukraine, etcetera.”
But behind closed doors, Biden recently told Democratic donors at a Manhattan fundraiser that the world faces “the prospect of Armageddon” for the first time “since Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis.” Vladimir Putin “is not joking when he talks about potential use of tactical nuclear weapons or biological or chemical weapons, because his military, you might say, is significantly underperforming.”
Biden understands who is in charge, and he is begging his party’s donors to send him a lifeline, or an off ramp. Biden has reason for alarm. His key advisors are all industry lackeys. His Secretary of State Antony Blinken, our nation’s chief diplomat, has no significant experience negotiating with our adversaries. His greatest achievement during past government service in the Clinton and Obama administrations was finding a way to keep Pentagon budgets rising while transitioning from Bush-era ground wars to smaller scale sustainable operations. In the private sector, Blinken wrote memos advocating for new smarter, more sustainable wars, and he shared his list of government contacts to help clients obtain defense contracts. Blinken advocated for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the interventions in Libya and Syria, the 2014 Ukraine coup, and the Saudi-led mass atrocities in Yemen. All of these military adventures were disastrous for the people on the ground but highly profitable for the war industry. Blinken recently praised the bombing of the Nord Stream pipelines as a “tremendous strategic opportunity.”
Biden’s secretary of defense, Lloyd James Austin III, went directly from the board of Raytheon to Biden’s cabinet. Biden’s National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, was a senior fellow at a war industry-funded think tank, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Even if we manage somehow to survive the current crisis, the toxic mix of war profiteering and legalized bribery of our elected leaders will eventually lead us towards mutually assured destruction. The only question is whether we will perish in a nuclear war or by environmental collapse.
The best gift for the people of earth would be to greatly reduce the size of our war machine, which currently emits more climate-changing gasses than most medium-sized countries, and also to reduce the amount of lethal weapons we send around the globe, many of which find their way to the black market and mercenaries. But to do this, we will need a new political system that allows voters to elect a Congress that is not beholden to the two corporate parties.
A recent Gallup poll shows Americans’ support for a third U.S. political party is at an all-time high. Sixty-two percent of U.S. adults say the “parties do such a poor job representing the American people that a third party is needed.” Even a record high of 63% of Republicans favor a third party. Yet the two-party duopoly uses its power to block access of third parties to ballots, debates and to federal matching funds.
Our system of winner-take-all elections also works against third party candidates by scaring voters into casting their ballot for the lesser of the two evil establishment candidates, rather than “waste” their vote on a third-party candidate, who the corporate media has declared unelectable. This problem can easily be fixed with a Ranked-Choice Voting system where voters rank the candidates in order of preference.
Congress will not fix this system on its own. One of the few ways we can exert pressure is to stop making financial contributions to the campaigns of candidates for national office who align with the Democrats or Republicans. We should not allow these candidates to claim grassroots support from working class voters. Even if that candidate claims to support an anti-corporate policy such as Medicare-for-All, their true loyalty is to their party, which has assured its donors that M4A will never become law.
I would not apply this absolute ban on donations to candidates for state and local office. Unlike their federal counterparts, state and municipal leaders must deliver actual services within a limited budget — education, garbage collection, sanitation, public safety — making it harder for them to completely ignore the concerns of constituents.
Many liberals still argue that it is important to support Democrats because of issues like reproductive rights and identity politics. However, it is the rigged system that forces the two corporate parties to agree on issues that impact corporate profitability, that thereby turns up the heat on the remaining issues making them more difficult to resolve. Democrats risk offending their donor base if they question war spending or for-profit healthcare. Thus they need issues like reproductive rights to remain unresolved so they will have something to run on in November.
Only by rejecting the corporate parties can we open up the debate to include other issues concerning voters, like ending wars for profit and fixing our healthcare system in which sick people avoid the doctor for fear of bankrupting their families. Once we break the corporate duopoly and its stranglehold on American politics, issues like reproductive rights will be easier to resolve by compromise. And we will also improve our chances of avoiding nuclear Armageddon.
Leonard C. Goodman is a Chicago criminal defense lawyer and an adjunct professor of law at DePaul University.