The foreign policy community

America's bipartisan foreign policy orthodoxies and their scholar-guardians are in desperate need of challenge.

Topics: Washington, D.C.,

(updated below)

If you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend this memo from Samantha Power, a Harvard Professor and top foreign policy advisor to Barack Obama. It is one of the best and potentially most important political documents I have read in some time.

America is plagued by a self-anointed, highly influential, and insular so-called Foreign Policy Community which spans both political parties. They consider themselves Extremely Serious and have a whole litany of decades-old orthodoxies which one must embrace lest one be declared irresponsible, naive and unserious. Most of these orthodoxies are ossified 50-year-old relics from the Cold War, and the rest are designed to place off limits from debate the question of whether the U.S. should continue to act as an imperial force, ruling the world with its superior military power.

Most of the recent “controversies” involving Barack Obama’s foreign policy statements — including his oh-so-shocking statement that it would not make moral or political sense to use tactical nuclear weapons to bomb isolated terrorist camps as well as his willingness to attack Al Qaeda elements inside Pakistan if the Musharraf government refuses (as they did for some time) — were not “controversial” among the Establishment on the merits. They were “controversial” (and “naive” and “irresponsible”) because they breached the protocols and orthodoxies imposed by the Foreign Policy Community governing how we are allowed to talk about these issues.

This was vividly illustrated by the sharpest exchange from last night’s debate, where both Hillary Clinton and Chris Dodd excoriated Obama for his comments on Pakistan, not on the ground that Obama’s statements were wrong on the merits (i.e, not that we should avoid military action inside Pakistan under those circumstances), but instead on the ground that he committed the sin of actually discussing with the American people what our foreign policy would be.

The Foreign Policy Community is more secretive than the Fight Club. They believe that all foreign policy should be formulated only by our secret “scholar”-geniuses in the think tanks and institutes comprising the Foreign Policy Community and that the American people should not and need not know anything about any of it short of the most meaningless platitudes. They are the Guardians of Seriousness. “Serious” really means the extent to which one adheres to their rules and pays homage to their decrees.



It is hard to overstate how self-important and impressed with itself is the bi-partisan Foreign Policy Community. When I was attempting this week through a series of e-mail exchanges to convince a reluctant Michael O’Hanlon to agree to an interview with me about his field trip to Iraq, he explained his reluctance this way:

I have gone light on what people say about your work. I have not slammed you the way various people have told me you’ve slammed me. I have simply said that people tell me you go after scholars very very hard.

People in the Foreign Policy Community refer to themselves and each other as “scholars,” and they have a long list of Byzantine rules with which one must comply in order to be permitted to participate in our country’s foreign policy discussions.

Over the past couple of days, there has been a continuation of the ongoing dispute between Matt Yglesias and Michael Rubin, a “Resident Scholar” at the American Enterprise Institute. The lastest dispute concerned an attack by Rubin on journalist Mark Leon Goldberg over an article Goldberg wrote a couple of years ago about an AEI event. Over at National Review‘s Corner, Rubin attempted to explain why this petty dispute was, in fact, so important:

The point, Matthew, is not how many years ago the incident was: Everyone in the policy community assesses which journalists regardless of ideology are honest and accurate and which perhaps take too many liberties, if only so we know who is serious or honest enough to talk to regardless of what their politics may be.

This is why Powers’ memo is so important. The Foreign Policy Community — our establishment “scholars” — were almost unanimously supportive of George Bush’s invasion, worked themselves into a lather over Saddam’s WMDs and mushroom clouds over U.S. cities, stayed silent in the face of obvious Bush abuses and excesses, embraced the most manipulative and fictitious neoconservative doctrines, and they still continuously issue all sorts of theoretical constructs to justify America’s increasingly militaristic and imperial role.

There is no real dispute within it about the most fundamental foreign policy questions we face (which is why the “liberal” Brookings Institutional “scholars” are so pro-war and work so cooperatively with the neoconservative AEI). And they not only have a monopoly over deciding who is Serious and who is not, but also in declaring which issues are off-limits from real debate. The foreign policy disasters of the last six years, at least, are their doing.

As Powers points out, the Foreign Policy Community has proven itself to be reckless, irresponsible and deeply unserious. These “scholars” have lost the right to judge anyone or to declare anyone else unserious. It is long past time to aggressively challenge their most precious orthodoxies.

Leave aside whatever views you may have about the wisdom of attacking Osama bin Laden or other Al Qaeda elements inside Pakistan because that is a separate question entirely. There are few issues more vitally important than destroying the supremacy and monopoly of our Foreign Policy Community and forcing a re-examination of our most fundamental assumptions about America’s role in the world. To the extent that Obama’s campaign will continue to challenge not only the establishment’s orthodoxies by the Establishment itself (and whether he will remains to be seen), that can only produce vitally needed outcomes.

UPDATE: Where was the Foreign Policy Community — our establishment “scholars” — when all of this was happening?

UPDATE II: Let us also take note of the bizarre fact that the Rules of Seriousness seem to allow someone to run around talking about attacking, invading, and bombing everyone except for the people who actually attacked us on 9/11. All the Serious People cheered on the invasion of Iraq and talk openly about attacking and bombing Iran and Syria. None of those countries, of course, had anything to do with 9/11, but no matter. The Serious People are free to speak as openly and explicitly as possible about new wars with those nations.

But Barack Obama speaks of the possibility of attacking the actual individuals who attacked us on 9/11 if we know where they are and Pakistan leaves them be, and suddenly, he is a terribly Unserious and Naive and Irresponsible person for suggesting such a thing. Apparently, it is very Serious to ponder new wars on a whole list of countries and groups provided they had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.

One would be equally remiss if failing to note that people like Mike Rubin, who reside in the belly of the neocon beast, who wanted to turn Iraq over to Ahmad Chalabi, and who devotes his life to fueling the flames for a new war with Iran, still thinks he is in a position to designate who is “serious” and who is not, and his friends at Brookings Institution, who hosted AEI’s Fred Kagan when it was time to unveil his Surge Plan, would undoubtedly agree. In the Foreign Policy Community, arguing in favor of new wars never removes one from the Realm of Seriousness provided — as the Obama “controversy” proves — the new war targets have nothing to do with any actual attacks on our country.

[On an unrelated note, the interview I conducted with O'Hanlon will be published in a couple of days. He and I agreed that I would only write about the interview with a full, unedited transcript attached. It was a long interview -- he provided some answers, even to simple and direct questions, that were 3-5 mintues long -- and it is going to take a little more time before the transcript is ready].

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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