In the case of FDR, the calculation was not that war = improved economy. It was that war production would stimulate industry at home for export abroad (Lend-Lease preceded US participation in combat), and that the burdens of the liquidation of excess capital could be shunted onto allies, even as the US prepared to establish itself in other imperial state’s peripheries. In particular, the US had designs on the Sterling Zone and the soon-to-be-ex British Empire. They let the Soviets absorb the brunt of Hitler’s armed forces (after the US and UK had been trying behind the scenes to get Germany to attack the USSR first), and Roosevelt let Europe absorb the economic shock of war on its own land.
The strategy wasn’t war-for-economy; it was far more contingent than that. This is the case with Obama, too. The US is looking for a handhold in a very turbulent period of change to re-establish its capacity to do what core nations do with peripheral ones… as Martinez-Alier and Hornborg said, import order and export disorder. In McNeill’s book, An Environmental History of the 20th Century World, he shows how past successful adaptations in one place are carried over into a different place, whereupon they become maladpatations that destabilize systems. Cities encroach on peasants in valleys, eg, push peasants further into hills, then old (fertile valley) farming practices (on hillsides) result in deforestation and accelerated soil erosion.
Obama et al in the US ruling class are experiencing this maladaptation, which is also in large part what Harvey called the contradiciton between the geographic logic of the state and the logics of transnational finance. Boyd, of OODA fame, would have called this perceptual mismatching.
The economy is not explicable through economics, because economics (of left as much as right in many cases) is an enterprise of ideological abstraction. In some cases, economics — where it attempts some semblance of honesty — has descriptive and even predictive value. But its separation from the physical world (through abstraction) is always and necessarily deceptive. In the real world, energy flows; and it does so in specific forms and locations, and under a complex set of historical circumstances, wherein the interplay between ecology, personhood, and culture are constantly emerging anew, even through patterns and activities that seem repititious, until we arrive at tipping points where major (and disorienting) phase-transtitions occur.
Old habits + new situations = inappropriate and unpredictable outcomes.
The question of whether war is good or bad for the economy, then, is both polemical and rootless. The context matters, a lot. As De points out, war is not the only activity that is “unproductive” in capitalism. In fact, — as Hornborg shows (influenced by Martinez-Alier) — profit and negentropy run counter to each other, they exist in an inverse ratio. Profit (growth, by extension) is always destructive (”wasting” energy); and war is but one instantiation of that destruction. War-of-choice, as the Obama-apologists call Iraq, is exactly what Obama is gearing up for in Afghanistan-Pakistan-Iran (the geographic surroundings for Waziristan and Balochistan,, which shares a long border with Iran) as part of a general attempt to re-establish stable US footprints in the world upon which to attempt another upwave of accumulation.
After the Cold War, the disposition of US imperial forces was obsolete; and the redisposition is what the US has been struggling with ever since. Bush attempted to do it in Iraq, after his coterie of zany academics conivinced him there would be some kind of cascade effect of Westernization that would magically ripple through the region. Oops.
But the US is still faced with its parasitic dependency on the rest of the world, and the dilemma that faces polticians (in attending to the geographic logic of the state) is how to keep the domestic natives from becoming too restless (preserving their imperially-derived comforts) without exacerbating the restlessness of the rest of the world at our depredations of the semi-peripheries and peripheries.
What Obama inherited was a nation whose power rested on the twin pillars of dollar hegemony and military capacity… and the former is in very deep trouble. The British faced the same dilemmas — in a sense — as their empire began to unravel. They chose the soft landing of backing out of foreign entanglements except as an adjunct of the new imperial master. The US is not in that position.
Do not be surprised if, in a couple of years, the US and Iran are cooperating militarily in Balochistan, and further destabilizing Pakistan.