I enjoyed Glenn Greenwald’s take on the “foreign policy community”. Let me observe, however, that he left one crucial trope off the list. One is not supposed to question the motives of members of the foreign policy community. If Barack Obama says we need to be willing to make surgical strikes in Pakistan even if the government in Islamabad isn’t willing to act, it’s perfectly okay to say he’s doing this, in part, to emphasize a hawkish side to his views. If union leaders are reluctant to endorse John Edwards despite his union-friendly views, it’s sperfectly okay to say they’re reluctant because they don’t want to alienate the eventually winner and they don’t think that winner will be Edwards. If Chuck Schumer wants to preserve special tax breaks for hedge fund managers it’s okay to point out that this has something to do with the fact that many of his constituents work in the financial services industry and generously support his career with campaign contributions.
But insinuate that leading foreign policy analysts are driven in part by careerism and not just determined pursuit of the truth, and people get the vapors.
This is curious, in part, because the institutions that comprise “the Community” exist, in essence, to provide employment for job seekers. There are plenty of positions for people interested in foreign policy and national security issues that aren’t like that — there are career jobs in the foreign service, the intelligence agencies, and the military. There’s also academia. But if you aren’t as interested in serving your country or pursuing disinterested scholarship as you are in trying to get a political appointment, it might be a great idea to secure a post as a Brookings or CSIS fellow. Which is fine on one level, obviously, those jobs need to be filled.
But what I didn’t understand years ago, and that many people still don’t understand today, is that this means these people are, in fact, politicians rather than scholars or analysts. Just as a politician thinking of running for president might shy away from the idea that we ought to reduce defense expenditures for fear of offending defense contractors, a person hoping to be made assistant secretary of defense may also want to stay away from such ideas. At that point, though, politicians get even more frightened, since now when rival politicians attack the candidate who wants to cut defense expenditures, they can probably get an army of “experts” from throughout the Community to back them up.
Not, of course, that I would want to attack anyone’s motives. People aren’t bribed into changing their views. But people know that if they have a view on some topic that’s impolitic to express, the smart thing to do is find some different issue to talk about. So you wind up with Michael O’Hanlon and Kurt Campbell writing a book which says we’ve over-militarized our foreign policy, but that nonetheless concludes that there’s no case for cuts in overall defense expenditure and no planned weapons systems that should be eliminated. Similarly, if you take the view that the view that there’s neither a strong national interest case, nor a strong case from universal morality, for making Israel the largest recipient of US foreign aid spending, you find a topic other than US aid to Israel to write and speak about.
Which is why, as Steve Clemons observed at YearlyKos, such members of Community as had the foresight to recognize that invading Iraq might be a bad idea tended not to speak out. The leading presidential candidates and the key legislative leaders were all going to back the war, so to criticize Bush’s policy would be to criticize Daschle and Gephardt and Lieberman and Kerry and Edwards and Clinton and Biden and so forth, which isn’t helpful if your goal is to have those guys get you jobs. So people who favored the war said they favored it, while others found other issues to worry about for a while.
Now needless to say, the alternative to listening to the Very Serious Experts isn’t to turn to people who aren’t serious students of these issues. But you find a much higher level of candor and intellectual honest when you look for experts who aren’t life-long job seekers. Guys like Rand Beers and Richard Clarke and Flynt Leverett who were all professionals who had jobs until they quit them because the Bush administration was determined to steer the ship of state into the rocks. People from the academic world like Robert Pape who, unlike think tankers, really are free to publish their research even if it goes against political fashion or powerful interests also have a lot of value to add. Meanwhile, there are always going to be institutions that are breedings grounds or holding pens for the political appointees of tomorrow. But, fundamentally, the existing set of people that are supposed to guide thinking and discussion — the people who interested non-specialist members of the public ought to be able to rely on — have gotten things badly, badly wrong over the past few years and thousands and thousands of people are dead as a result. The presidential election ought to involve actually shaking that crew up and dislodging it, not just reshuffling which people are working for the government at the moment and which are writing the op-eds.
Brookings Institution photo