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January 18, 2012


A Republic’s Strategy, But Not Ours

by Mike M

A forceful pair of new essays intertwine in interesting and unexpected ways to say important things about U.S. geostrategy—both its short-term drift and its ingrained habits and pathologies.

In an impassioned post at The Daily Beast, Leslie Gelb demands a full and open debate on the accelerating rush toward conflict over Iran:  lest we get sucked into (another) war without thinking through all the implications, without defining the end-state, without planning the post-war—without, in fact, knowing for certain whether we absolutely need to wage the damned thing in the first place.

Gelb’s plea brings repellently to mind the bleak—and yet in some quarters thrilling—march to war in 2002, and the uptilted noses of those who scoffed at the doubters; and the failure of some of us with doubts to put up a stronger fight; because, surely, They Must Know Something We Didn’t—about the real WMD evidence, or adroit post-war arrangements, or something.  This hesitation embraced much of the Legislative Branch of government, those who sit in the first seat of the Constitution, right up there next to “we the people,” in Article I.

Gelb is understandably anxious to avoid a re-run of that mostly analysis-free episode.  And well he should be, because once there is the whiff of a pants-hitching threat in the air—this is serious, now; no more time for pontificating, time for the adults to take over, move aside, thanks very much for playing—the space for a serious public dialogue has pretty much dried up.

Often enough, states jump into war out of perceived necessity, not as part of a nine-moves-ahead chessboard strategy.  Perceived imperatives, “musts,” the demands of credibility, the screaming requirements of commitments made—such urgencies compel actions.  The result is that demands for careful debate get brushed aside by those in the grip of an imperative.

The question then becomes the source of those impertives, which leads us to the second essay:  Todd S. Purdum’s brilliant argument about the character of the American national security state, made through the prism of a survey of George Kennan’s ideas, from the January 2012 Vanity Fair.

By the end of Kennan’s life, Purdum writes, America had become a country that the former diplomat “no longer recognized.”  Militarily dominant around the globe.  Restricting liberties at home to an unprecedented degree in the name of a global national security role alien to the country’s founding values.  Neglecting domestic investments essential for national strength in favor of tank divisions and carrier battle groups essential for meddling in other peoples’ business.

“This trend,” Purdum himself contends, “has warped virtually every aspect of national life, with consequences that are quite radical in their cumulative effect on the economy, on the vast machinery of official secrecy, on the country’s sense of itself, and on the very nature of national government in Washington.”  Yet because it has happened so gradually, no one has noticed.

There are quibbles to be made.  Purdum seems to imply that the national security establishment has unique power in Washington, but as an old Washington hand himself he well knows that the corn lobby or the pharma lobby or the old age lobby are equally if not more influential.

But still, some definition of a “national security state” has emerged, and grown; and the habitual U.S. grand strategic posture is global, all-encompassing, aggressive, and demands a military-intelligence establishment that overawes the world.  The Soviets having gone, though, must this remain frozen in place forever?  Can the world really never get along without “American leadership”?

Read Purdum, and claim somehow that a little voice in the back of your head isn’t insistently saying, There’s a real point to this.  Think back to March 2003, and recall that reaction, as the first images leaked back of bombs going off and U.S. tanks rolling through Baghdad:  What the hell are we doing?  Is it just possible that we have reached a culminating point for tolerance in the U.S. national security state?

Then again, with Modern Warfare 3 commercials now telling us that “There’s a soldier in all of us” and featuring Jonah Hill as an everyman “Noob” who transforms into a grinning, homicidal warrior, it could be that we’re so far down the rat-hole of this leading narrative that there’s no getting out.

Or perhaps not.  Given worries about economic issues, suspicion of government, and the general American desire to “bring the troops home” when we’re done with our “jobs,” this narrative could actually swing far more quickly than some assume.  The key may not be the right arguments, but the right person:  Take a laconic, Southwestern, two-time Iraq war veteran, Republican foreign affairs expert Senator who says, “Our founders did not found an empire.  We have been fighting foreign wars long enough.  We have an important role to play helping those in need and preserving peace; but I say to you, as Washington and Eisenhower said to us, ours need not be an empire.  Not every threat or problem in the world is ours to solve.”

And their proposed alternative need not be isolationism.  It could be built around (1) self-defense, (2) participation as one of many leaders in true shared actions by the world community, (3) the residual promise to remain true to alliance commitments now on the books (knowing that the means required to do so given current threats are pretty limited, and can be focused on naval and air assets), and (4) capabilities to offer humanitarian assistance.  You could do all that for probably two-thirds of our current defense establishment—and in the bargain appoint a blue-ribbon commission to lay out an agenda to scale back the overweening secrecy of the national security establishment.

Unlikely, to be sure.  But Gelb and Purdum, in different ways, invite us to do that most important of things:  Step back and rethink the fundamentals of our posture, our worldview, our habits.  Because if anything is clear, it’s that we’re taking a great deal for granted right now, and that particular habit might buy us yet another Middle Eastern adventure whose duration, prospect, and justification have not been debated—or even explained—before the people in whose name it will be undertaken.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Monk
    Jan 18 2012

    Too much of the National Security debate takes place in a sphere where it is influenced by individuals, editorial pundits, and talk radio hosts whose purpose is to affect our internal domestic politics. We, as a Nation, would benefit if those in the field–either active or retired in the State and Defense Departments, in the intelligence community, and other Security apparatus–could more accurately depict and explain to the American people the current state of affairs, and the risks and costs involved in following different courses of action. They, of course should not dive into partisan debates, or divulge classified information–but when political candidates draw ‘red-lines’ that do not need to be drawn and that have enormous consequences, those in the community should in some way be able to explain to us what those consequences and costs would be. Not only the man on the street, but too many Flag Officers assumed the last administration “knew something we didn’t” during the march to war in Iraq, and went along on the ride. “Fool me once, shame on you…” Those who did advocate a different path were drowned out, or kept quiet.
    We, as Americans, should show and express a little confidence in our position and our strength, both military and moral. We need to understand that our security is not enhanced by considering every challenge as a mortal threat to our existence–there are a variety of arrows in our quiver, and a little patience is a good thing.

  2. Matt J
    Jan 23 2012

    I’ve at times over the last decade shared Kennan’s bleak outlook on the state of the republic. Purdum makes much of Kennan’s views to support his points on the national security state. From Gaddis’s recent biography (I’m about half-way through . . . but I’ll comment anyway), one can see, though, that Kennan held similar views on the United States from very early in his career. In the early ’30s, long before the rise of anything that could be described as a national security state, he had this to say: “The America I know and love and owe allegiance to is Father’s America — the America of . . . John Hay and Henry Adams and Roosevelt [Teddy] and Cleveland . . . it stood for certain ideals of decency and courage and generosity which were as fine as anything the world has ever known.” This by contrast to the ignorance and materialism that in Kennan’s mind preoccupied the Americans of the ’30s. Sound familiar? Throw profligacy and obesity into the balance and you’re talking about 2012. So maybe there’s something deeper here, or at least more lasting, than the moral failings of any given American generation. I think it reflects the enduring tension between what the vast bulk of our nation actually is — a continental economy generating some 75% of GDP within its own borders, and quite legitimately not giving a damn about the rest of the world — and the elite that rules it and has many outwardly-focused interests. Kennan, for all their brilliance, was just as much a part of this elite as today’s policymakers, and his frustration should be viewed in that light rather than necessarily as some fundamental wisdom on our recent fall from virtue. That’s not to argue, by the way, that the national security state is a good thing — it is, for the most part, bloody waste and folly. But Kennan’s nostalgia and pessimism (which his wife warned Gaddis never to take too seriously in writing the biography) are not the greatest authorities for the point.


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