August 18, 2007

Of late, many of the nation’s literati have preoccupied themselves with a mendacious New York Times op-ed column by a couple of think tank hacks named Michael O”€™Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, the burden of which is that, by golly, the glorious Surge really is working. Of course, the whole thing was a put-up job, sold on the man-bites-dog pretence that the two authors were longtime critics of the Bush administration who had gone to Iraq and seen the light. Their performance is deftly skewered here.

But as edifying as it might be for us to wallow in the discrediting of Messrs. O”€™Hanlon and Pollack, the piece is rather unimportant in itself “€“ merely one of a thousand bits of semi-official war propaganda, essentially backward-looking as it attempts to vindicate the disastrous decision to invade and occupy Iraq. Our eyes alighted upon a more fruitful field for analysis in the form of a column by two other think tank hacks, Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution (not coincidentally, the place of employment for Mr. O”€™Hanlon as well), and Robert Kagan of the catastrophically misnamed Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The piece is ominously titled “€œThe Next Intervention.”€ Just when we thought two cloddishly mismanaged wars at the same time in Iraq and Afghanistan might chill the American appetite for military intervention, the authors rush to assure us that the dreadful prospect of a few years of peace can be safely ruled out. Why? “€œDespite the problems and setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, America remains the world’s dominant military power, spends half a trillion dollars a year on defense and faces no peer strong enough to deter it if it chooses to act.”€ Might makes right apparently. Rather than fighting on behalf of some morally unimpeachable cause, the principal reason the authors advance for going to war is because we can do it. This is, in fact, the opposite of “€œpeace through strength,”€ and suggests that critics of Pentagon spending were right all along in their assertion that more spending equals more war.

Mindful of the idiotic way in which the Bush administration handled diplomacy in the run-up to their Mesopotamian Blitzkrieg, the authors concede that getting other countries to sign off on our wars is a good thing. For one thing, it sells war to the Better Sort of People in America (the ones who shop at Whole Foods, watch PBS, can find foreign countries on a map, and are likely to be reading one’s op-ed in the Washington Post): “€œIt matters to Americans, who want to believe they are acting justly and are troubled if others accuse them of selfish, immoral or otherwise illegitimate behavior.”€ Horrors, the mortification of being accused, as a right-thinking American, of such low-class behavior! As well to receive a nasty letter from one’s homeowner’s association berating one for not cutting the lawn. After all, if the Frogs are on board as well as the Brits, it makes the war more Atlanticist and gives everyone a dose of righteous nostalgia for the Euro-American solidarity of the cold war.

But the problem, as Messrs. Daalder and Kagan see it, is that damned United Nations. We aren”€™t ever likely again to be in a situation like 1950, when the Russians boycotted the Security Council, so there will always be a permanent member able and willing to veto a U.S. military intervention. We need to overcome this problem because, as the authors pompously remind us, “€œToppling Saddam Hussein was a just act and therefore was inherently legitimate.”€ That is no doubt a great comfort to the next of kin of the 600,000 or so “€œexcess mortalities”€ that the British medical journal Lancet estimates have occurred pursuant to the U.S. invasion.

The solution? “€“ a “€œConcert of the Democracies”€ to replace the United Nations. One can almost hear the director cuing the inspirational music, à la the “€œWhy We Fight”€ series. Nowhere, of course, do the authors define what a democracy is. If it means majoritarianism via one-man-one-vote, then the U.S. Senate and the Electoral College would have difficulty passing muster. If it means the rule of law maintained by such bedrock principles as habeas corpus, there will be a lot of embarrassed coughing behind the hand in Washington’s think tanks.

Even on more practical grounds, one can find insuperable problems with this scheme. One could point to any number of indubitable democracies in Latin America that, from bitter experience, would hesitate a long time before giving a blank check to Washington to intervene wherever it liked. In all likelihood, the authors”€™ vision, were it ever realized, would amount to no more that the same “€œcoalition of the willing”€ we have in Iraq, i.e., a smallish group of subservient and/or well-bribed countries. It has, in fact, always been the administration’s preference to act as the capo among a group of clients, rather than as one sovereign country dealing with others of the same status. The op-ed piece so neatly fits the administration’s line, in fact, that it might as well have been drafted in the White House basement.

Much has been written about the military industrial complex: its obscene cost overruns; the corrupt relations between the uniformed military, the contractors, and Congress; the wild threat inflation. Too little studied has been the role of ostensibly non-partisan think tanks as the semi-official propaganda arm of the complex, and as the transmission belt of propaganda themes between the government and the prestige press. While the activity of the American Enterprise Institute as a propaganda organ is widely known because of its tub-thumping for the Iraq war and its championing of Iranian spy Achmed Chalibi, the same charge applies, to a greater or lesser degree, to most of the “€œprestige”€ think tanks: Brookings, Carnegie, CSIS, the Hudson Institute, etc.

They are an integral part of the government’s two-track propaganda machine for selling war. For the downscale end of the market, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, or Michael Savage will do nicely. Their braying voices and crude arguments are finely calibrated to reach every low-status white male out in satellite dish country. The notion that it’s even theoretically a good idea to have world opinion on America’s side before it embarks on war would be derided as sissy stuff in such precincts. One recalls the eve of the Iraq war, when the visceral hatred of the French in the Murdoch gutter press actually exceeded the vituperation against Saddam Hussein.

But to convince the professionals, the academics, the people who show up at the various world affairs councils which dot the provinces, it is critically useful to have mediators like Messrs. Daalder and Kagan. The Better Sort roughly corresponds to the National Bourgeoisie in Wilhelmine Germany or the outer Nomenklatura in the Soviet Union. They may not send their kids to war in any appreciable numbers, but their support for war is crucial to any administration. The more tender-minded of the Better Sort, in particular, lust in a most alarming way for some sort of “humanitarian” intervention they could support. It is the task of the Daalders and Kagans to toss around terms like “genocide” to provide a humanitarian gloss to whichever invasion advocacy project they are promoting at the moment. (One rather doubts a bunch of fuzzy-minded do-gooders was able to finance the recent campaign to intervene in Darfur that included full-page advertisements in the prestige papers and 60-second spots on television; there must have been more substantial interests involved. Although the “invade Sudan” lobby has thus far failed in its aim, it must be admitted that the target country of Sudan was a poor prospect: with a head of government not one person in ten thousand could name, it lacked an identifiable Hitler; and with a technology base more suited to the stone age than the space age, the fearmongers and threat inflators could hardly suggest WMD without eliciting laughter. When President Clinton dispatched cruise missiles against a Khartoum aspirin factory, the operation was not wildly popular, even among normally bellicose Republicans. One suspects the latter regarded it as an unwelcome distraction from their relentless drive to impeach him. If so, it was a rare case of domestic concerns trumping national security issues.)

Note as well, that in the division of propaganda labor between the roughneck demagogues and the think tank chin-scratchers, the propaganda themes to promote a given policy are disparate or even contradictory. The Limbaughs and the O’Reillys sell a frank brand of gutter patriotism emphasizing the joys of killing foreigners. If there is any policy reason that appeals to the target audience, it is likely to be something direct and tangible, like the acquisition of valuable resources such as oil. On the flip side, the fear used to motivate Limbaugh Nation is some comic book level bugaboo, such as the notion that an Islamic army will physically invade and conquer America. (Lest the reader think we exaggerate here, internet columnist Glenn Greenwald has written about exactly how prevalent this fantasy is among the Right Wing.)

That sort of thing won’t sell with the Better Sort. Ideally, we are fighting, after a vigorous and probing national debate, and much searching of souls, for a better world, to prevent genocide, to stop female circumcision, or for credibility with our allies. If there is an overriding fear that motivates the Better Sort, it is that old nemesis of the MacNeil-Lehrer set, “regional instability.” While the lumpenproles seethe with apocalyptic visions of hand-to-hand combat with the minions of the Caliphate in downtown Paducah, the Better Sort’s fantasies parse like a graduate seminar from hell. Mr. Daalder and Mr. Kagan are only too happy to feed the conceits of the class that nurtured them on behalf of the government that employs them at one remove.

The day before yesterday it was Vietnam; yesterday it was Kosovo; today it is Iraq. Tomorrow it could be Iran, or Belarus, or Venezuela, or any one of a dozen prospects. The duty of the think tank hacks is to make war seem not only inevitable, but respectable in the eyes of the Better Sort.

Werther is the pen name of a Northern Virginia-based defense analyst.


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