The Strategic Class
by Ari Berman
The Nation magazine, August 29,
In July 2002, at the first Senate hearing
on Iraq, then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Joe Biden
pledged his allegiance to Bush's war. Ever since, the blunt-spoken
Biden has seized every opportunity to dismiss antiwar critics
within his own party, vocally denouncing Bush's handling of the
war while doggedly supporting the war effort itself. Biden carried
this message into the Kerry campaign as the candidate's closest
foreign policy confidant, and a few days after announcing his
own intention to run for the presidency in 2008, he gave a major
speech at the Brookings Institution in which he criticized rising
calls for withdrawal as a "gigantic mistake."
The Democrats' speculative front-runner
for '08, Hillary Clinton, has offered similarly hawkish rhetoric.
"If we were to artificially set a deadline of some sort,
that would be like a green light to the terrorists, and we can't
afford to do that," Clinton told CBS in February. Instead,
she recently proposed enlarging the Army by 80,000 troops "to
respond to threats wherever danger lies." Clinton, a member
of the Armed Services Committee, appears more comfortable accommodating
the President's Iraq policy than opposing it, and her early and
sustained support for the war (and frequent photo-ops with the
troops) supposedly reinforces her national security credentials.
The prominence of party leaders like
Biden and Clinton, and of a slew of other potential prowar candidates
who support the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, presents the
Democrats with an odd dilemma: At a time when the American people
are turning against the Iraq War and favor a withdrawal of US
troops, and British and American leaders are publicly discussing
a partial pullback, the leading Democratic presidential candidates
for '08 are unapologetic war hawks. Nearly 60 percent of Americans
now oppose the war, according to recent polling. Sixty-three percent
want US troops brought home within the next year. Yet a recent
National Journal "insiders poll" found that a similar
margin of Democratic members of Congress reject setting any timetable.
The possibility that America's military presence in Iraq may be
doing more harm than good is considered beyond the pale of "sophisticated"
The continued high standing of the hawks
has been made possible by their enablers in the strategic class--the
foreign policy advisers, think-tank specialists and pundits. Their
presumed expertise gives the strategic class a unique license
to speak for the party on national security issues. This group
has always been quietly influential, but since 9/11 it has risen
in prominence, egging on and underpinning elected officials, crowding
out dissenters within its own ranks and becoming increasingly
ideologically monolithic. So far its members remain unchallenged.
It's more than a little ironic that the people who got Iraq so
wrong continue to tell the Democrats how to get it right.
It's helpful to think of the Democratic
strategic class as a pyramid. At the top are politicians like
Biden and Clinton, forming the most important and visible public
face. Just below are high-ranking former government officials,
like UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke, Secretary of State Madeleine
Albright and Assistant Secretary of State Jamie Rubin. These are
the people who devise and execute foreign policy and frame the
substance of the message. Virtually all the top advisers supported
the Iraq War; Holbrooke, who's been dubbed the "closest thing
the party has to a Kissinger" by one foreign policy analyst,
even tacked to Bush's right, arguing in February 2003 that anything
less than an invasion of Iraq would undermine international law.
Many of the officials held high-ranking positions in the Kerry
campaign. Holbrooke, frequently mentioned as a potential Secretary
of State, urged Kerry to keep his vision on Iraq "deliberately
vague," the New York Observer reported. Rubin appeared on
television sixty times in May 2004 alone. Nine days before the
election, Holbrooke addressed the American Israel Public Affairs
Committee and reiterated Kerry's support for the war and occupation,
belittled European negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program
and endorsed the Israeli separation wall. Hardly a Dove Among
Dems' Brain Trusters, read a headline from the Forward newspaper.
Underneath the top policy officials are
the anointed regional experts, who play an instrumental role in
legitimizing the politicians' arguments and drumming up support
inside the Beltway for impending conflicts in faraway lands. Brookings
fellow and former CIA official Kenneth Pollack's book The Threatening
Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq played precisely that function
for wavering Democratic elites in the run-up to war, turning "more
doves into hawks than Richard Perle, Laurie Mylroie and George
W. Bush combined," wrote Slate's Chris Suellentrop in March
2003. "In Washington, it's not uncommon to hear fence-straddlers
qualify their ambivalence about an Iraq war with the sentiment,
'Of course, I haven't read the Pollack book yet.'"
The likes of Pollack are greatly bolstered
by a second front of national security specialists at prestigious
think tanks like Brookings, the Council on Foreign Relations,
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Center for Strategic
and International Studies and the Center for American Progress.
Though they often toil in obscurity, the think-tank officials
form a necessary echo chamber for the political class, appearing
on television and writing issue briefs while providing, through
their organizations, a platform on which candidates can appear
"robust" in the national security realm. As one example,
Stephen Walt, a leading foreign policy expert and academic dean
of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, says that "Brookings
was basically supportive of the war in Iraq. If Brookings is signing
on to a major foreign policy initiative of a Republican Administration,
that doesn't give the Democratic mainstream much room to mount
a really forceful critique of the incumbent foreign policy."
Much of Kerry's campaign platform--with its calls to add 40,000
troops to the military, preserve the doctrine of pre-emptive war
and stay the course in Iraq--read as if it had been lifted verbatim
from a Brookings strategy memo.
At the bottom of the pyramid are the
liberal hawks in the punditocracy, figures like New Republic editor
Peter Beinart, Time writer Joe Klein and New York Times columnist
Tom Friedman. These pundits, along with purely partisan outfits
like the Democratic Leadership Council's Progressive Policy Institute
(PPI), help to both set the agenda and frame the debate. The journalistic
hawks churn out the agitprop that the more respectable think tanks
turn into "serious" scholarship, some of which eventually
becomes policy, or at least talking points, when adopted by the
Central to the liberal hawks' mission
is a challenge to other Democrats that they too must become "national
security Democrats," to borrow a phrase coined by Holbrooke.
To talk about national security a Democrat must be a national
security Democrat, and to be a national security Democrat, a Democrat
must enthusiastically support a militarized "war on terror,"
protracted occupation in Iraq, "muscular" democratization
and ever-larger defense budgets. The liberal hawks caricature
other Democrats just as Republicans long stereotyped them. The
pundits magnify the perception that Democrats are soft on national
security, and they influence how consultants view public opinion
and develop the message for candidates. In that sense, the bottom
of the pyramid is always interacting with the top. It matters
little that people like Beinart have no national security experience--as
long as the hawks identify themselves as national security Democrats,
they're free to play the game.
Today, despite the growing evidence that
the Bush Administration's actions in Iraq have been a colossal--some
would say criminal--failure, what's striking is how much of the
pyramid remains essentially in place. As the Iraqi insurgency
turned increasingly violent, and the much-hyped WMDs never turned
up, the hawks attempted a bit of self-evaluation. Slate and The
New Republic both hosted windy pseudo-mea culpa forums. Of the
eight liberal hawks invited by Slate, journalist Fred Kaplan remarked,
"I seem to be the only one in the club who's changed his
mind." TNR's confession was even more limited, with Beinart
admitting that he overcame his distrust of Bush so that he could
"feel superior to the Democrats." Pollack took part
in both forums, and then earned five figures for an Atlantic Monthly
essay on "what went wrong." Even at their darkest hour,
the strategic class found a way to profit from its errors, coalescing
around a view that its members had been misled by the Bush Administration
and that too little planning, too few troops and too much ideology
were largely to blame for the chaos in Iraq. The hawks decided
it was acceptable to criticize the execution of the war, but not
the war itself--a view Kerry found particularly attractive. A
"yes, but" or "no, but" mentality defined
this thinking. Having subsequently pinned the blame for Kerry's
defeat largely on the political consultants or the candidate himself,
the strategic class has moved forward largely unscarred.
Biden and Clinton still have more influence
than antiwar politicians like Ted Kennedy or Russ Feingold. No
one has replaced Holbrooke or Albright. Pollack continues to thrive
at Brookings and, despite never visiting the country, has a new
book out about Iran. Shortly after the election, Beinart penned
a 5,683-word essay calling on hawkish Democrats to repudiate "softs"
like MoveOn.org and Michael Moore; the essay won Beinart--already
a fellow at Brookings--a $650,000 book deal and high-profile visibility
on the Washington ideas circuit. Subsequently a statement of leading
policy apparatchiks on the PPI publication Blueprint challenged
fellow Democrats to make fighting Islamic totalitarianism the
central organizing principle of the party. Replace the words "Al
Qaeda" with "Soviet Union" and the essay seemed
straight out of 1947-48; the militarized post-9/11 climate of
fear had reincarnated the cold war Democrat. A number of leading
specialists signed a letter by the neoconservative Project for
the New American Century asking Congress to boost the defense
budget and increase the size of the military by 25,000 troops
each year over the next several years. The "Third Way"
group of conservative Senate Democrats recently introduced a similar
"There's an approach which says,
'Let's raise the stakes and call,'" says former Senator Gary
Hart, a rare voice of principled opposition in the party today.
"That if Republicans want a ten-division Army, let's be for
a twelve-division Army. I think that's just nonsense, frankly.
It's stupid policy. Trying to get on the other side of the Republicans
is folly, both politically and substantively."
If Hart is correct, then why does so
much of the Democratic strategic class march in lockstep? There's
no simple answer. The insularity of Washington, pressures of careerism,
fear of appearing soft and the absence of institutional alternatives
all contribute to a limiting of the debate. Bill Clinton's misguided
political dictum that the public "would rather have somebody
who's strong and wrong than somebody who's weak and right"
applies equally to the strategic class.
"Everybody's on the make,"
says Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation, who led the
fight against John Bolton from his blog, The Washington Note.
"They're all worried about their next government job. People
pull their punches or try to craft years in advance what sort
of positions they're gonna be up for. The culture of Washington
is very risk-averse." Adds Walt, "It's pretty hard to
go wrong right now taking a hard-line position. There's enough
places or institutions that will take care of you. Outside of
academia, if you take positions on the other side, there's just
nowhere near the level of institutional support."
Those insiders who doubt the wisdom of
a hawkish course often get the cold shoulder if they stray too
far from the strategic line. After criticizing the rush to war,
Ivo Daalder of Brookings became the foreign policy point man for
Howard Dean's insurgent campaign. Many of Daalder's colleagues
at Brookings and elsewhere sharply criticized Dean, and afterward
unnamed Democratic insiders bragged to The New Republic that Dean's
advisers would never work again. That, of course, didn't happen,
but Daalder and others have since tempered their opposition rhetoric.
Today Daalder blames the antiwar movement for Dean's defeat and
calls for more troops in Iraq.
For daring to tackle the liberal hawk
consensus in his recent book America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy
of American Nationalism, Anatol Lieven, who is British and until
recently a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, got lumped into the
"anti-American" category by Jonathan Tepperman of the
Council on Foreign Relations in the New York Times Book Review.
"It is hardly an anti-American position to suggest that Americans
today can learn much from the work of great Americans of the past
like Reinhold Niebuhr and J.W. Fulbright," Lieven wrote in
reply. He has since left Carnegie and joined Clemons at the New
America Foundation, a centrist think tank that has acquired a
maverick reputation. New America, along with places like the Coalition
for a Realistic Foreign Policy--an anti-imperial umbrella of thinkers
on the left, right and center--now form a sort of dissident establishment.
Owing to their distinction, the Democratic
strategic class, consisting of the party's leading foreign policy
thinkers, could have provided a powerful check on a reckless Administration
intent on rushing to war. Instead, it bears partial responsibility
for the war's costs: more than 1,800 American fatalities, thousands
of maimed and wounded US soldiers, many more dead Iraqi civilians,
spiraling worldwide anti-Americanism, surging world oil prices,
a new breeding ground for Al Qaeda, multiplying terror attacks
abroad and mounting economic insecurity at home.
At the same time, talking tough on Iraq
has been a disastrous moral, tactical and political miscalculation
for Democrats. A recent Democracy Corps poll found that Iraq tops
the list of factors motivating voter discontent toward President
Bush. "This is a country almost settled on the need for change,"
political consultants Stan Greenberg and James Carville write.
Yet Democrats will only prosper if they pose "sharp choices,"
something the strategic class has been unwilling or unable to
do. A few small progressive think tanks, helped by the dissident
establishment, have tried to pry open badly needed institutional
space for a bolder national security policy. A few courageous
elected officials are attempting to drum up Congressional support
for withdrawal. Thus far, the hawks have drowned them out. Unless
and until the strategic class transforms or declines in stature,
the Democrats beholden to them will be doomed to repeat their
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