Enforcing the community's foreign policy orthodoxy

To maintain credibility as a "foreign policy expert," one must embrace the basic tenets of America's imperial role.

Published August 14, 2007 10:14AM (EDT)

(updated below - updated again - Update III - Update IV)

A rather spirited exchange occurred yesterday on the question of Iraq between Atrios, on the one hand, and, on the other, Michael Cohen and Shadi Hamid at Democracy Arsenal, a foreign policy blog for various Democratic members of the Foreign Policy Community. The primary topic was whether those Democrats such as Will Marshall of the DLC -- who not only supported Bush's invasion but also actively enabled the whole litany of abuses of the last six years -- should be considered discredited and shunned.

In the course of defending Marshall's honor, Michael Cohen -- who worked in various foreign policy positions as part of the Clinton administration and then for various Democratic politicians -- argued that: "Like it or not, there was a defensible case for war in Iraq. . . . . Did this justify war? In my view, absolutely not. But that doesn't morally invalidate the people who believed that war was appropriate." Thus, he argued, people who supported that war are perfectly credible and Democrats should treat them with the respect they deserve.

In the course of defending the credibility of Democratic war proponents, Cohen says this:

Surely, a defensible case for war does not mean that we should have necessarily gone to war. It's a view that I share. There is a good argument to be made for going to war against Iran and North Korea -- that doesn't mean we should do it.

Just marvel at that. Not only, according to this Democratic foreign policy expert, were there "good arguments" for attacking and invading Iraq (a country which neither attacked nor threatened to attack us), there are also now what Cohen calls "good arguments" for starting wars against two more countries (at least) that have also not attacked us (or anyone else for that matter). And this is not Bill Kristol talking -- at least not here. Rather, it is the view of someone who not only works within the Democratic Party foreign policy establishment, but -- like the Brookings Institution -- is situated on the so-called "liberal" end of the spectrum (Cohen worked for Bill Richardson and Chris Dodd, among others).

* * * * *

The Number One Rule of the bi-partisan Foreign Policy Community is that America has the right to invade and attack other countries at will because American power is inherently good and our role in the world is to rule it though the use of superior military force. Paying homage to that imperialistic orthodoxy is a non-negotiable pre-requisite to maintaining Good Standing and Seriousness Credentials within the Foreign Policy Community.

Conversely, one who denies that premise reveals oneself to be deeply unserious and unworthy of meaningful discourse. While differences on the "when" and "how" are permitted, there is virtually no debate within the foreign policy establishment about whether the U.S. has the right to continue to intervene and attack and invade and occupy other countries in the absence of those countries attacking us. Hence, to Cohen and his colleagues, it sounds perfectly normal and natural to say that the U.S. has "good reasons" to start wars against a whole host of countries because -- as bizarre and abnormal and unfathomable that idea is for most of the world -- it is an implicit, unexamined belief among our foreign policy elites that the U.S. is entitled, more or less, to use military force even in the absence of being attacked or threatened with attack.

This orthodoxy is not merely passively accepted, but actively enforced. The principal goal is to ensure that it remains a bi-partisan view so that, in turn, the question of America's role in the world is never subject to any real debate. The three "crazy, insane, wacko, fringe" presidential candidates are Ron Paul, Mike Gravel, and Dennis Kucinich. Yet the only thing they have in common (other than having been elected multiple times to the U.S. Congress) is a belief that the U.S. has been using its military force illegitimately by using it against other countries that are not attacking us. But that belief, standing alone, is enough to eject one from the mainstream, because it violates the central consensus of the establishment.

Conversely, Mitt Romney can call for the "doubling of Guantanamo" and John McCain can literally sing songs about dropping bombs on Iran, and they are still Serious. While the First Rule of Seriousness is that one must never dispute America's right to police and rule the world by military force, those Rules entail no limits on how many wars one can urge. That is why the Kagan Family and the AEI are members in Good Standing, and it is why even "liberal" members like Michael Cohen defend those who are responsible for the grotesque disaster in Iraq and believe that Good, Serious Arguments can be made for still new wars. Within the Community, there is no such thing as unserious warmongering. That is an oxymoron.

In a column earlier this year, David Brooks noted -- and celebrated -- the fact that our mainstream political discourse does not entail any debates about whether America should continue to act as a world hegemonic power:

After Vietnam, Americans turned inward. Having lost faith in their leadership class, many Americans grew suspicious of power politics and hesitant about projecting American might around the world.

The Vietnam syndrome was real. It lasted all of five years -- the time between the fall of Saigon and the election of Ronald Reagan.

Today, Americans are disillusioned with the war in Iraq, and many around the world predict that an exhausted America will turn inward again. Some see a nation in permanent decline and an end to American hegemony. At Davos, some Europeans apparently envisioned a post-American world.

Forget about it. Americans are having a debate about how to proceed in Iraq, but we are not having a strategic debate about retracting American power and influence. What's most important about this debate is what doesn't need to be said. No major American leader doubts that America must remain, as Dean Acheson put it, the locomotive of the world.

After arguing that both the leading GOP and Democratic presidential candidates clearly embrace this view of America's role, Brooks continues:

This is not a country looking to avoid entangling alliances. This is not a country renouncing the threat of force. This is not a country looking to come home again. The Iraq syndrome is over before it even had a chance to begin.

The U.S. has no material need to reconsider its dominant role in the world. . . .The U.S. has no cultural need to retrench. Vietnam sparked a broad cultural revolution, a shift in values and a loss of confidence. Iraq has not had the same effect. Many Americans have lost faith in the Bush administration and in this particular venture, but there has been no generalized loss of faith in the American system or in American goodness. . . .

The hegemon will change. The hegemon will do more negotiating. But the hegemon will live.

It is hard to argue with Brooks' claims here. Every credible presidential candidate in both parties wants to expand the U.S. military, even though we already spend more than the rest of the world combined. We have military bases in over 100 countries. We routinely sit around and debate which countries we should invade and the circumstances under which we should start our new wars but, as Brooks argues, do not really debate and never re-examine the fundamental premises of our role in the world. Those premises are ossified and are required orthodoxy in the Community.

* * * * *

Much of this effort to enforce imperialistic notions as a bi-partisan consensus comes from neoconservatives, who are highly respected in the Foreign Policy Community. They are currently devoting themselves to the effort to ensure that Democratic presidential candidates enthusiastically endorse these orthodoxies; it remains to be seen if these efforts will succeed.

But that was the point of Brooks' column. It is why so many of them have been praising Hillary Clinton's foreign policy views. And it is why Robert Kagan -- in a Washington Post column titled "Obama the Interventionist" -- praised a recent Obama foreign policy speech this way:

Barack Obama put an end to the idea that the alleged overexuberant idealism and America-centric hubris of the past six years is about to give way to a new realism, a more limited and modest view of American interests, capabilities and responsibilities. . . . When it comes to America's role in the world, apparently [leading Democratic presidential candidates] don't think there's much of an argument.

This is one reason the O'Hanlon/Pollack Op-Ed was such an instructive moment. In conventional Beltway wisdom, Brookings has been and still is considered to be the preeminient "liberal foreign policy think tank," and yet just look at the behavior and warmongering ideology of its leading "scholars." In replying to their Op-Ed, Robert Farley pointed to what he called this "awful" Washington Times Op-Ed by O'Hanlon in June, in which O'Hanlon excoriated Harry Reid for his blasphemous questioning of General David H. Petraeus. The "liberal" O'Hanlon wrote:

Sen. Harry Reid's recent statements questioning the forthrightness of Gen. David Petraeus in reporting on conditions in Iraq are unseemly and unfair. Gen. Petraeus is a remarkable general, one of our best in modern American history, and his bravery and commitment to the nation in Iraq and elsewhere have been exemplary. . . . [I]t is important to take on Mr. Reid's critique, because it is wrongheaded and should be retracted.

First, a word on Gen. Petraeus, whom I have known for 20 years since we were in doctoral studies together at Princeton. Those who also know him will not be surprised to learn that while most of us took the standard five or six years to finish our Ph.D.s at the Woodrow Wilson School, Gen. Petraeus was done in two. He has been a prodigy throughout his career, and admittedly a little lucky too, surviving a bullet to the upper right chest and a failed parachute among smaller mishaps.

Gen. Petraeus' preparation for this job could not have been much better. . . The Senate majority leader should have been more careful in questioning the integrity of someone with such a track record. It is true Gen. Petraeus was too optimistic about the training program of Iraqi forces when he was in charge of it. But he was not alone in having undue confidence about the course of events in Iraq at that point.

That this snide pro-war screed is written by one of the most prominent "liberal" foreign policy "experts" tells you all you need to know about the lack of any real debate within the Foreign Policy Community. And in this Community, there is no accountability for those who favor war. Being wrong -- or making statements about the war which are (ahem) "too optimistic" -- is, as both O'Hanlon and Michael Cohen insist, merely a matter of good faith debates, nothing that ever can warrant questioning someone's credibility or judgment. Members in Good Standing of the Foreign Policy Community are intrinsically and irreversibly trustworthy and credible by virtue of their membership.

As Ari Berman put it in his superb 2005 article in The Nation examining the Community and "liberal hawks" (h/t Farley):

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. . . . 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. . . . .

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" . . . .

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. . . . .

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 politicians. . . .

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.

That is exactly how it works. There are some exceptions. Many foreign policy academics strongly opposed the invasion of Iraq before it began, and some foreign policy experts, such as Steve Clemons at The New America Foundation, are attempting to challenge some of these long-standing and unchallengable orthodoxies. Moira Whelan voiced some excellent critiques in that Democracy Arsenal argument yesterday.

But by and large, the American Foreign Policy Community -- notwithstanding the tragic disaster it has wrought and the untold damage to our country for which it is responsible -- continues to control the terms of our foreign policy debates. They sit around in their extremely well-financed institutions, in their plush conference rooms, debating with each other in the most sterile and technocratic tones about optimal "force deployment packages" and which countries should be bombed and/or invaded next and how the countries we control should be organized and "partioned" and which ones should have their governments changed by the United States.

They have a built-in system of very potent careerist incentives to ensure that there is no real deviation from the bi-partisan consensus concerning America's role in the world. Our "experts" who go on television and write in magazines about foreign policy are drawn almost exclusively from their ranks, thus bolstering this consensus further. And thus we continue to be subjected to such plainly absurd, actually quite obscene, notions -- including from its "liberal" sect -- as: "there is a good argument to be made for going to war against Iran and North Korea."

Large numbers of Americans believe that we should stop acting as the world ruler -- the new Pew Poll found "widespread feelings that the US is playing the role of the hegemonic or dominant world leader more than it should be" -- but such views are rigidly excluded from the bi-partisan Foreign Policy Community and thus excluded from what we are permitted in the mainstream to debate.

UPDATE: The aforementioned Michael Cohen has e-mailed to (among other things) request that I note that he is no longer (in his view) a member of the Democratic foreign policy establishment, but instead "serve[s] on the Board of a foreign policy group called National Security Network, [is] a fellow at a think tank [The New America Foundation], and ha[s] a day job that is not in politics."

He also requested that I note that he has posted a "clarification" of his earlier post, which can be read here. While it clarifies the specific Iran/North Korea comment to some extent (by, in essence, retracting it), it does not really address the broader point: namely, while Cohen disagrees with the view that we should start new wars with Iran and North Korea, ought proponents of those wars, or people like the AEI "scholars," be considered credible and Serious?

UPDATE II: Michael O'Hanlon was on a radio program this morning, along with Anthony Cordesman, and a caller asked him about the interview he did here and the follow-up article I wrote about it. Atrios has some of O'Hanlon's response here, as well as a link to the full recording.

I don't have time this minute to respond fully (and am not sure I would even if I had the time), but I will simply note that between them, Pollack and O'Hanlon did 10 or so television interviews, and the hosts were uniformly reverent of their Expertise and self-professed credentials as "administration critics," barely asking them even a single critical question about any of their "conclusions." They had (or at least expressed) no problem with that "kind of journalism."

But O'Hanlon proclaimed today that he does not "have high regard for the kind of journalism that Mr. Greenwald has carried out here" without bothering to identify a single factual inaccuracy or misleading claim in anything I wrote (even though he took almost two minutes to answer the caller's question and found the time to hurl much vague invective). And, of course, the full transcript of our interview accompanied my article -- something that I offered, really insisted upon, precisely in order to prevent these sorts of unspecific, petulant claims of unfairness. Everything I wrote was based upon O'Hanlon's own words.

I think it's rather clear what "kind of jouranlism" our Beltway Elite Experts like. It's the "kind" that brought us the Iraq war and six years of Bush radicalism and lawbreaking, the kind that traffics in fawning and vapid coverage of our Beltway stars, and it's exactly the "kind" that any actual journalist works as hard as possible to avoid.

UPDATE III: C&L has the audio clip of the exchange between O'Hanlon and the caller, who did an excellent job of posing the question.

UPDATE IV: On his "Worst Person in the World" segment, Keith Olbermann last night named Michael O'Hanlon as runner-up (second only to Bill O'Reilly):

Our runner up, Michael O'Hanlon from the Brookings Institution. You remember his glowing review of the surge, how well it was going from the point of view of a ceaseless critic of the war? Mr. O'Hanlon has now said in an interview with Salon.com that he was always pretty much a supporter of the war, and that his tour of Iraq featured merely short visits only with U.S. commanders in locations handpicked by the Pentagon. But for the, quote, predominant majority of Americans and Iraqis he talked to, quote, the conversations were ones arranged by the Department of Defense.

So, they wrote a press release and you signed it.

Olbermann did not interview either O'Hanlon or Pollack about their exciting findings.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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