While vacationing on the shores of the Mediterranean this summer, I was able to keep an eye on the shores of the Potomac by reading the “hottest” book in Washington, Mark Leibovich’s This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral. It provides a very depressing, yet hilarious account of how my neighbors in Bethesda, Maryland, and other residents of the Greater Washington area spend their long days and nights getting rich at the nexus of big politics, big media, and big money.
Government officials, lawmakers, journalists, and the many, many lobbyists, lawyers, political strategists, and PR professionals who comprise this book’s cast of characters seem to be drowning in the millions of dollars that interest groups and big corporations spend on purchasing their services to win media exposure, peddle influence, buy votes, and shape legislation and policy in the most powerful city in the world.
There is nothing new about the notion of political corruption in Washington. What is new—and actually quite astounding—is how big, how ugly, and, yes, how outright corrupt it has all become, especially when it comes to the amount of money passed between politicians and lobbyists every day. What was once done behind closed doors, thanks to a sense of shame, is now regarded as legitimate, if not respectable.
Written against the backdrop of the financial meltdown, the ensuing Great Recession, and the election of President Barack Obama, much of Leibovich’s book focuses on how these guys and gals drive policy making and the legislative process on economic issues: Wall Street regulation, budget battles, and the like. Unfortunately, there is almost no discussion of the role that the power players and the media in “this town” have in determining U.S. national-security and foreign policy.
As someone who has worked and spent time in Washington from the First Gulf War through W.’s military misadventures in Mesopotamia and the Hindu-Kush, I read the book trying to figure out how Leibovich could have integrated a discussion of foreign policy into his narrative. He could have told how the small elite in “this town” that made a mess of the American economy has also been dragging the American people into costly and never-ending military interventions around the world.
So I enjoyed reading Conor Friedersdorf do just that in the Atlantic recently, when he described how an “insular Beltway elite” has been driving the push for military intervention in Syria at a time when public opinion polls make it clear that a large majority of Americans are opposed.
Friedersdorf does a good job detailing how hawkish journalists and “experts” have succeeded in setting the policy and legislative agenda so that any challenge to the idea of attacking Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is marginalized within Washington, and how that creates powerful pressure on the White House and Congress to “do something.”
Yet my own experience in Washington suggests that the interventionist syndrome in Washington reflects more than just an insider urge to use U.S. military power in the service of an ideological agenda. It goes beyond the foreign-policy agendas and political-ideological biases of the neoconservatives and liberal-interventionist crowd, trying to advance American interests and/or values as they see fit.
Politics and ideology do play a role, certainly. The progressive-era ideas that take for granted the need for the American government to fight evil at home and abroad have become a policy axiom among our political and intellectual elites, who have been programmed to respond with an activist approach whenever this or that Bad Guy rears his ugly head in the world. They all seem to agree that we have an obligation to fight monsters here, there, and everywhere.
Following in Leibovich’s footsteps, though, perhaps we should apply his main thesis to the debate over foreign policy and national security. What drives political players in Washington today has less to do with the partisan fights between Republicans and Democrats, or the ideological struggles between conservatives and liberals, and more to do with the personal and institutional interests of the powerful men and women who rule this city. These are the people who use their position to advance their own interests, to gain fame and make money.
Ask yourself why there is this continual effort by the Beltway insiders and journalists to elevate foreign policy and national security to the top of the agenda. Could it be because they believe a “player” in Washington has a better chance of drawing public and media attention, of gaining recognition, and of accumulating power when he or she is dealing with matters of war and peace as opposed to, say, the makeup of the next budget?
After all, we remember the names of the American presidents—and the men and women who advised them and the journalists who covered them—who led the nation into war or otherwise operated during those “interesting times” when “the fate of humanity was hanging in the balance.”
Think of the Cuban Missile Crisis as the kind of foreign-policy template that officials, lawmakers, and journalists hope will define their experience in Washington. They fantasize about being “present at the creation,” of taking part in a great historical event as all the world waits and watches. These kinds of foreign-policy crises, especially if they are followed by wars, have become a political and financial goldmine for the players participating in this global drama, covering it as journalists, or explaining it as experts.
Think about the ways our involvement in the Middle East and the so-called war on terror has helped advance the careers of government officials through bigger budgets, new departments, and more exposure and influence. Not to mention how these crises have enriched outside contractors and businesses, sent war correspondents to new assignments, and opened new avenues for TV face time and think-tank fellowships for the experts.
Let’s not forget the huge advances policymakers and their aides receive to write their memoirs describing how they saved America, Western civilization, and the world, and how such high-stress experience qualifies them for corporate boards and speaking engagements at all the best investment banks.
The good news is that even if you actually messed things up by leading us into a disastrous war in Iraq, or wrote columns predicting that said war would be a great success, your friends in this town have a tendency to forgive and forget. Don’t worry. You’ll still receive those big consulting contracts, be invited to appear as an analyst on cable news shows, or get to write columns for our leading newspapers. Someone else will pay for the mistakes you made in Iraq, and those you’re trying to make in Syria.
Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.