August 21, 2007

In a previous article, we analyzed the function of supposedly nonpartisan think tanks as propaganda mills for government policies, particularly those that aggrandize the warmaking state. It is worth elaborating with a fresh example.


In the Aug. 16, 2007, edition of the New York Times, Anthony Cordesman of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) tells us why it is a terrific idea for the United States to variously sell and give away more than $50 billion in weaponry to several Middle Eastern states.


His argument boils down to this: the Middle East is a rough neighborhood, and the only way to buy influence is with authentic coin of the realm in the form of arms. If we don’t, others, like the Rugged Russian Bear, the Heathen Chinee, or even the effete Europeans, would be more than happy to peddle their wares.


There is some merit in his argument – unlike President Bush and his neoconservative ventriloquists, Mr. Cordesman is at least grown up enough to dispense with the childish nonsense that the United States government is attempting to spread democracy in the region as a philanthropic exercise. What we are engaging in, according to Mr. Cordesman, is a realist’s game of power-balancing.


Having established that premise, it is the author’s task to demonstrate its validity with plausible evidence. That is where he falls short.


Mr. Cordesman’s first gambit is to play the "jobs, jobs, jobs" card:


"America has vital long-term strategic interests in the Middle East. The gulf has well over 60 percent of the world’s proven conventional oil reserves and nearly 40 percent of its natural gas. The global economy, and part of every job in America, is dependent on trying to preserve the stability of the region and the flow of energy exports."


There is no empirical evidence that U.S. military meddling in the Persian Gulf region (to include arming the various contending factions) has done anything to assure a steady flow of oil at an affordable price. Indeed, the two most memorable examples of a cutoff of oil – in 1973 and 1980 – were the result of U.S. intervention. The latter incident is particularly striking, in that the U.S. government had for years armed the shah’s Iran to the teeth with advanced weaponry, and then watched helplessly as the mullahs came to power.


More recently, the U.S. invasion of Iraq has resulted in not more, but less oil on the international market. At the same time, the instability flowing from the invasion and occupation has added a risk premium to every barrel of oil that is pumped out of the Middle East.


But there is a more fundamental objection to Mr. Cordesman’s line of argument: no regime, no matter how theoretically hostile, can afford to drink its oil. One cannot emphasize too many times the hypocrisy of the "protecting-the-flow-of-oil" cant coming from the mouths of theoretical conservatives. On the one hand, we must endure their panegyrics about the limitless blessings of the free market, where a buyer will always find a seller and vice-versa. Yet mysteriously, this mechanism will not work where oil is concerned. (It is fascinating that one other area where "conservatives" cease their hosannas to the free market is drug reimportation in the context of Medicare Part D. This trillion-dollar boondoggle essentially created a closed domestic market for Big Pharma, courtesy of George W. Bush, Karl Rove, Tom DeLay, Bill Frist, and other raging free-marketeers.)


Mr. Cordesman then proceeds to argue that the only way to contain Iran is by arming Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries.


But how is Iran going to launch a conventional military attack against Saudi Arabia without crossing the Persian Gulf, which is essentially an American lake, thereby coming into direct military conflict with the United States before it even reaches Saudi soil?


To be sure, the Saudi government could be taken down, but the odds of this happening by external invasion are very small compared to the likelihood of its falling to internal unrest – exactly as Iran, our erstwhile heavily armed ally, fell to an internal insurgency.


Mr. Cordesman is undoubtedly correct in cautioning against blanket demonization of the Saudis as if they were some species of insect. As individuals, they are probably no better and no worse than anyone else in the neighborhood. But common prudence requires us to be mindful that the vast majority of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals, and even Mr. Cordesman admits that 10-25 Saudi nationals per month join the insurgency in Iraq – although, incredibly, he maintains that this is no big deal.


Given that the administration has been threatening war with Iran based on alleged Iranian support to the Iraqi insurgency, one would think that is a very big deal. Should any of the Gulf regimes be threatened by an internal fundamentalist insurgency, the shiny weapons we wish to sell them would be about as much use as the shah’s F-14s were in preventing the mullahs’ uprising. On the other hand, is it really a good idea to load up unstable and tyrannical regimes with sophisticated arms like the joint direct attack munition (JDAM), precisely given the risk of who might come to power?


The rest of his op-ed consists of rationales for the granting of $30 billion in arms to Israel. Like most commentators, Mr. Cordesman obscures the nature of the transaction, never coming out and saying that unlike the sales to the Gulf states, the $30 billion is an outright gift of the U.S. taxpayer to the government of Israel. The shorthand employed in most news articles about "a Middle East arms deal" practices the same obfuscation.


While this is merely a minor example of double talk, it is part and parcel of what Messrs. Mearsheimer and Walt have been talking about when they complain of the bias inherent in any discussion about Israel in the U.S. media. Most of the elites in government, journalism, and the think tanks know that the public is viscerally opposed to foreign aid (whereby the elites no doubt believe this is another sign of the dumb provincialism of the American people). Nevertheless, the elites are careful not to run afoul of the public mood – too much discussion about foreign aid in the context of Israel might cast that country in a more negative light to the voters.


Mr. Cordesman’s justification for weaponry to Israel is as defective as his rational for weaponry to the Gulf states. As we are seeing in Iraq, and as we saw last summer in Lebanon, advanced conventional weapons against Fourth Generation Warfare are becoming increasingly obsolete. And piling weaponry on Israel, far from giving the Israelis the reassurance they need to avoid war, is more likely to drive them to the opposite course. The Israeli government did not undertake the disastrous decision to invade Lebanon because it assumed its military was weak; rather, it did so because it was foolishly overconfident of its military superiority.


Thus has it always been: countries engage in catastrophic military adventures because their leaders think that at that particular moment they have a decisive military superiority over their intended target. Ratcheting up the level of weaponry all around the Middle East, to Israel and its potential foes, runs the same risk as the arms race prior to World War I: that of simply pouring gasoline on a volatile situation.


As our previous piece sought to show, think-tank intellectuals exist to validate the militaristic inclinations of our governing class, and they are amply rewarded for the effort. Mr. Cordesman hastens to say, however, that he is no mere hireling: no government, foreign or domestic, asked him to write it. Of course not; think-tank experts know what is expected of them, and they act accordingly. They also, we are sure, do so of their own volition, consonant with their own beliefs. The Beltway is a great shaper of convictions. It reminds us of Humbert Wolfe’s clever doggerel of a bygone era:


"You cannot hope to bribe or twist Thank God! The British journalist But seeing what the man will do Unbribed, there’s no occasion to."


Mr. Cordesman’s disclaimer, though, is curious: "Disclosure: the nonprofit organization I work for receives financing from many sources, including the United States government, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. No one from any of those sources has asked me to write this article." We can take it as a given that that is true. But can employees of a Washington think tank write disinterestedly about foreign policy when their employer is on the take from a foreign government – or for that matter, the U.S. government? (One of the most notorious think tanks in this regard is the Heritage Foundation, which churns out countless sophomoric "studies" on behalf of East Asian donors such as Taiwan and South Korea.)


It is no surprise that the Saudis would be lavishly funding every foreign policy bucket shop in Washington. Curiouser is Mr. Cordesman’s revelation that Israel is buying influence in the same quarters. One would think a country that can’t get by without billions in foreign aid would have better things to do with its money. More cynically, one wonders why it is even necessary: the Washington establishment will typically fall all over itself to do Israel favors for free. At least we have some comfort in knowing our foreign aid money is being recycled in this country.


Perhaps curiouser still is his statement that the richly endowed CSIS is a recipient of U.S. government money. When the supposedly fiscally conservative Bush administration starts funneling our money to a think tank, it’s plain that the fix is in. Unmentioned in Mr. Cordesman’s disclaimer is the admission that think tanks also receive donations from the likes of Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman – the direct pecuniary beneficiaries of Middle East arms deals.


Nonprofits typically obtain their 501(c)3 tax status by virtue of performing some charitable or other public benefit. Accordingly, should we rank think tanks with hospitals for the public service they perform? Only if we think war is good for us.


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