There are rules of proper etiquette in the Washington think tank culture, the most annoying of which is to suppress all emotion for a given topic in the interest of appearing aloof and dispassionate, ever-reaching for the inner Mr. Spock in some narcissistic attempt to look more scholarly than everyone else. Apparently another “must,” particularly in the national security think tank sphere, is never to invoke President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1961 speech in which he ominously gives name to the Military Industrial Complex (MIC).
As the 34th President said:
“Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the militaryindustrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
Think tank maven Robert Kagan, who has been sloshing about at the military trough so long he wouldn’t know a MIC from a St. Paddy’s Day reveler, waved off a brief mention of the foreboding Eisenhower speech at a panel discussion of his new book and how national security issues are affecting the presidential election at the swanky neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) on Thursday.
“Among the many things I didn’t like about Eisenhower that speech was one of them — I don’t like that speech and I did not know what he was talking about,” Kagan flippantly retorted to a soft-spoken questioner who apparently hadn’t gotten the rule book that says there will be no uncomfortable questions that include the words (in no certain order or combination), “propaganda,” “military industrial complex,” or “Eisenhower.” Case closed. Next question?
Kagan, who hails from the aggressively establishment Brookings Institution, was on hand to collect think-tanky accolades for his new tome, not surprisingly entitled, The World America Made, which is about, in part, maintaining U.S hegemony, or as Kagan likes to calls it, “American World Power” throughout the globe. Kagan of course knows what Eisenhower was talking about, but to people in Washington’s NatSec hive, criticizing the MIC is like throwing mother’s milk out the kitchen window. The only way the U.S can exercise this global power Kagan is so breathlessly selling is to have the war machine running balls to the wall 24/7 — every institution, every technology, every human cog a symbol of power to be used and exported for both message and might. As Kagan wrote in his ponderous New Republic essay in January, “Preserving the present world order requires constant American leadership and constant American commitment.”
That Eisenhower. What a weenie.
In Kagan’s world, America is not in decline, it’s just going through persistent struggle. But it’s been there before. “Success in the past does not guarantee success in the future. But one thing does seem clear from the historical evidence: the American system, for all its often stultifying qualities, has also shown a greater capacity to adapt and recover from difficulties than many other nations, including its geopolitical competitors.” Chicken Soup for the Empire’s soul.
President Obama loved the essay’s lines about American exceptionalism and decline being”a myth” so much he gushingly quoted them in meetings with press before his January State of the Union address. He obviously sees Kagan — one of a family of hawkish neoconservatives who not only lobbied for the wars we are in now, but actively counseled military generals and administrations and even helped to author the so-called “Surge” in Iraq — as a master tool for deflecting Republican criticism. Call Obama defeatist, or complain he’s taking the country to hell in a bucket and he’ll just quote Republican Robert Kagan, talking about how things aren’t really that bad: World democracy is on the rise! Prosperity at record levels! We haven’t had a World War III (yet)!
“The renewal of American leadership can be felt across the globe,” Obama said in his Jan 26 State of the Union address. “From the coalitions we’ve built to secure nuclear materials, to the missions we’ve led against hunger and disease; from the blows we’ve dealt to our enemies, to the enduring power of our moral example, America is back.”
“Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”
What makes this so icky is that Kagan is a foreign policy advisor to Mitt Romney, Obama’s chief political rival. This point was not lost on the AEI audience, which chuckled knowingly — but appropriately — when Kagan mentioned it a full hour into the day’s events. But what’s the big deal? The notion that “we’re all friends here,” couldn’t be more apropos in the Washington NatSec establishment, and no more obvious than at Thursday’s event, which was sponsored by three of the most influential status quo think tanks in town: AEI, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and to a slightly lesser extent, the New America Foundation. They’re supposed to espouse differing ideologies, but that’s pretty much the myth, as evidenced in the agonizingly monochromatic discussion among the representative “scholars,” as they held forth on Thursday.
And why not? Maintaining the American global “order” as it were, requires the survival of the entire war apparatus built up after 9/11. It’s not only a state of mind, it’s a jobs program. Let’s be frank — like that brilliant Twilight Zone episode, no one wants to be deemed “the obsolete man.” This is the lifeblood of most of the people who inhabited the AEI auditorium on Thursday, and certainly sustains its panelists — Kagan, AEI “defense and security analyst” Tom Donnelly, CNAS senior advisor Richard Fontaine (who worked on Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign), and Peter Bergen, director of New America’s security studies program, who spent the last decade writing and talking about the war and has done some great research on drones, but never seems willing to use it to take a hard stand on anything when it counts, like on Thursday.
So they proceeded to eschew so-called “isolationism” and even “off shore balancing,” and embraced China as the Next Big Challenge, transcending what party biases they might have to cheer on the great hegemon as it turns away from the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan with a disinterested shrug.
Which leads them to say the darndest things! Like when Donnelly, who co-wrote Lessons for a Long War: How America Can Win on New Battlefields with Kagan’s brother Frederick Kagan in 2010 (how’s all that winning that going?), charged that soldier fatigue is an “anecdotal” problem. Though acknowledging all those messy stress and suicide statistics, Donnelly nevertheless insisted the force — you know, that one-half of one percent of Americans who have done one to 5 tours in-country — is sustaining itself just fine. We should be proud and helpful and not be “leaping to conclusions” about whether they are too strained, he rambled on somewhat defensively.
Meanwhile, Bergen noted that “we’re not really spending that much money on this war.” Kagan, who never sees a potential military solution he doesn’t like, urged U.S intervention in Syria. “If we didn’t have an election … I think we would be moving more quickly into Syria,” he bemoaned.
Fontaine proceeded to chime in on what everyone in NatSec wants to hear today: “China is the most profound challenge we are going to face.” As for the one question about human rights (brought to us by the same lonely lady in the front row who dared mention Eisenhower’s MIC speech), Fontaine said, “because the United States has a human rights agenda, it will always be accused of inconsistency … I’d rather be accused of inconsistency than be accused of doing nothing.” There you have it. Case closed. Next question?
It is no more apparent than in events like these that the odds for a foreign policy “non-interventionist” or even a “realist” option in the upcoming general election are about as good as John McCain showing up at the Left Forum in New York City this weekend (I will be there, however, talking on a panel about the prospects for a left-right alliance against empire). By all reports, Republican primary candidate Ron Paul is winding down, leaving us varying degrees of hawk on both sides of the aisle and no viable third party alternative to hang our hats on.
When President Obama starts quoting Robert Kagan with the enthusiasm of a school boy, or better yet, like George W. Bush when he used to grasp on to any intellectual he could to prove he was right in invading and occupying Iraq, we know we’ve got no place to go.
At least the NatSec think tanks are happy — they win either way. They just can’t rightly show it. Etiquette, you know.