In political science, the "iron triangle" is used to model the relationship between industry, bureaucracy, and the legislature. The classic example of an iron triangle is the military-industrial complex in the USA:
     Defense contractors
            / \
          /     \
        /         \
      /             \
    /                 \
In this case, one corner of the triangle represents the Armed Services Committees in Congress, which appropriate funds for the Department of Defense. DoD, at the second corner, makes decisions about which systems to procure and how they will be deployed. The contractors, like LockMart and Boeing, develop the systems with Congress's money.

These form an iron triangle because they lobby each other vigorously for mutual help. Defense contractors want to make weapons. The Pentagon wants weapons, and wants money from Congress to buy those weapons. Congresspeople want production and deployment to boost the economy in their home constituencies.

The military is not the only example of an iron triangle: any industry paralleled by a bureaucratic organ exhibits a similar lobbying cycle. Many analysts call the oil industry and the Department of Energy part of a strong iron triangle: a similar case could be made for airlines and the FAA, or even labor unions and the Department of Labor.

In the Korean War, the Iron Triangle was formed by the towns of Pyongyang (not that Pyongyang), Chorwon, and Kumhwa, which formed a triangle around a valley chokepoint near Panmunjom. It was the site of heavy trench warfare between United Nations troops and North Korea from 1951 onward.

And then there was the infamous Iron Triangle of the Vietnam War. It was a sixty square mile area, twenty miles north of Saigon, where the Viet Cong had kept underground bases for years.

After evacuating all the civilians they could, United States forces opened free fire on the Iron Triangle in Operation Cedar Falls of January, 1967. It was the first corps-level operation of the war, and it led to the killing of some 1,300 Viet Cong and sympathizers within the Triangle, as well as the destruction of the entire village of Ben Suc.

One of the driving purposes of a democratic system such as that of the United States is to fulfill the aspirations of the people. In lieu of this, principles have been ingrained in the United States' constitution to ensure that the various arms of government assume complementary roles and even act in opposition to each other on occasion to prevent vested interests from profiting at the peoples’ expenses. There are still, however, ways by which groups are able to manipulate the government to ensure that their agenda is furthered, even at the cost of the greater good. An example of this sort of manipulation is the concept of the iron triangle.

Iron triangles are mutually beneficial alliances formed between interest groups, congressional committees and federal agencies that are formed to shape public policy to the participants’ advantage. While federal agencies can be hampered in their work by lawmakers and interest groups, they can also be aided by them whenever the trio shares a common interest on a certain issue. The issues that concern them are usually very specific- for example, serving the interests of the tobacco industry- rather than being concerned with something of a more global nature. These triangles benefit the participants because the interest groups are able to push their agenda through congressmen (who help pass bills into law) and the federal agencies (who enforce policies once they are brought into law), congressmen are helped by the interest groups in election campaigns and in drafting legislation and federal agencies are helped by congressmen through interest groups in approving funds and legislation beneficial to them. In recent years, however, iron triangles have been on the wane since the number of interest groups has increased and there is heightened concern over government spending.

Iron triangles are definitely detrimental to the integrity of government. By acting on very specific programs, they hinder the global program of the federal government. If the President were eager, for example, to withdraw all American troops from foreign soil to cut costs then an iron triangle concerned only with the interests of a particular country would be able to throw a spoke into those plans. For example, President Reagan’s attempts to eliminate the Small Business Administration were subverted by an iron triangle in 1985.

Iron triangles also work in detriment to the public good. Since they work intensely for their own benefit, they often introduce new measures (such as laws) at a tremendous cost to the taxpayer. They completely disregard the consequences that their actions have for the people of the country. They could conceivably cause levying of heavy taxes, harm to the environment or even weaken the nation’s defenses. For example, congressmen from rural areas back farm subsidies even at great cost to taxpayers.

Iron triangles, thus, have a deeply negative effect on American government. Not only do they block the proper functioning of the government, but they also wound the aspirations of the people. However, we still have to keep in mind that iron triangles are part and parcel of the system that the framers of the constitution had devised. Perhaps they can also be looked at as natural consequences of the existence of political agendas and interest groups.

Squire, James, at al. Dynamics of Democracy. Brown & Benchmark, 1996.

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