The Rule of the ‘Experts’

Tom Ricks can kiss my a**

by , May 11, 2009

The idea that we should be governed by "experts" goes back a long way, all the way to Plato, advocate of rule by philosopher-kings, who, in their wisdom, would reign over the common herd of humanity – for our own good, of course. More recently, the idea was picked up by various would-be saviors of mankind on the Right as well as the Left. During the Great Depression, a time when all sorts of half-baked "experts" arose armed with panaceas, the idea reached its apotheosis in the form of Technocracy, a movement founded by Howard Scott, which championed a dictatorship of scientists and engineers. They would know how to fix the broken gears of a shattered economy and set things right!

Such ideas were in the air, a byproduct of a society that had lost its economic and social bearings and was veering out of control. The whole concept of expertise, of a class of professional know-it-alls whose collective wisdom could be mined and used to rebuild the socio-economic structure, was taken up by the Roosevelt administration. FDR and his advisers happily went along with the media’s characterization of the president’s "Brain Trust," whose braininess would save the nation. Ever since that time we have been infested with a plague of "experts," all of them self-appointed, who are trotted out whenever the Powers That Be want to pull the wool over the eyes of the American people.

We saw this kind of operation in action during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, when the Bush administration unleashed its own "experts" on the airwaves and the op-ed pages of the nation’s newspapers. Drawn from the Washington swamp of neoconservative think-tanks and covertly subsidized "journalists," this cadre of self-appointed Iraqologists, laptop bombardiers, and armchair field marshals were certain Saddam was hiding weapons of mass destruction. Furthermore, they had solid "evidence" of his links to al-Qaeda, and they knew – they just knew – that unless we stopped him the entire region would be drawn into a general conflagration.

Today, of course, we know there were no weapons of mass destruction and no links to al-Qaeda, and the general conflagration now taking shape in the region is directly traceable to our invasion of Iraq. Whatever was possible to get wrong, these experts got wrong. Spearheaded by Bill Kristol and his Project for a New American Century, the War Party readily supplied bookers for CNN, MSNBC, and Fox with all the "experts" they needed, and more, from the wacka-doodle-doo Laurie Mylroie, who blames Saddam Hussein for everything but the Kennedy assassination and the Teapot Dome Scandal, to the self-assured little gnome himself, who blithely assured television audiences that the Iraqis would greet us as "liberators," crying tears of joy.

Sometimes these assembled talking heads would differ among themselves, but only over specific details, never challenging the basic assumptions behind U.S. policy in the Middle East – a policy seemingly intent on enforcing U.S.-Israeli domination of the region. No other views were allowed on national television, and when Phil Donahue was one of the few to raise his head and challenge the consensus of experts, he was quickly canned by MSNBC, his long history as a successful and pioneering television talk show host sacrificed on the altar of the war god. (By the way: it is one of the most sickening examples of hypocrisy I know of that MSNBC, which now presents itself as edgy-lefty – when it isn’t shilling for the Obama administration, that is – hasn’t reinstated Donahue to his proper place in American television. Instead, we are given – ugh! – The Ed Show. What craven, clueless cowards these people are!)

In any case, now that the neocons have been driven out of town on a rail – supposedly – we have a new bunch of Official Experts in town. And if you hated the Project for a New American Century you’re going to despise the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), the freshly minted Washington think-tank that seems to have been granted the foreign policy franchise by the Obama administration.

I have written about their nation-building counter-insurgency doctrine at length: it is based on the alleged success of the Iraqi surge – or Surge, as our columnist Kelley Vlahos terms it – and its principal author is Gen. David Petraeus, the Bush administration’s Caesar-like figure whose exploits are now claimed by both parties.

The Bushies may be out of power, but their dream of a regional transformation in the Middle East lives on in the CNAS-Petraeus COIN strategy, whose advocates boast of their ability to effect change on whole societies. It is a liberal version of the same old imperialist game, this time played in the name of global uplift. It is neoconservatism with a human face.

These left-neocons have their own cadre of experts, who are trotted out to imbue our current wrong-headed policy of escalating the Afghan war and dragging in Pakistan with an aura of faux credibility. Prominent among these is Tom Ricks, the Washington Post‘s Pentagon correspondent and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Like most of our vaunted experts, Ricks hates having his credibility challenged, and he especially hates it when… well, let him tell it:

"Antiwar.com rolls in touting Col. Gian Gentile as an unrecognized savior and slams CNAS for being having several people (Nagl, Kilcullen, Exum, me) being focussed on counterinsurgency. Note to bloggers: This is what happens when someone writes about an area about which they know absolutely freaking nothing. This is one reason, for example, I try to avoid writing about, among other things, basketball, golf, cats, oboes, scuba diving, physics, Maxwell’s demon, electric cars, farming, abstract sculpture, the works of Anthony Powell, South America, or Buddhism."

Notice the characteristic response of the Professional Expert when he stumbles on an idea that doesn’t fit into his paradigm: the argument from authority. Come to think of it, this is the expert’s response to anything and anyone that challenges his basic assumptions: they don’t know what they’re talking about! After all, I’m the expert!

Ricks is the product of an inbred, Washington-centric, tunnel-visioned, technocratic elite who are so wired into the fast-fading dream of an American empire that they can’t recognize how quickly it is disintegrating, even as they draw up their bold plans to expand it. They are so completely oblivious to reality that they truly can’t comprehend how anyone could possibly disagree with their most reasonable plans to subjugate vast swathes of central Asia, to wit:

"What’s Antiwar’s point here? Bad on CNAS, I guess, for being interested in issues like protecting the population. I mean, does Antiwar.com understand what it is advocating here? I’ve seen how the U.S. military operated in Iraq in 2003-06, and I really think we don’t want to go back to that approach. (I actually was embedded with Col. Gentile’s unit in February 2006, and remember asking him why his unit operated on a big FOB instead of being based out among the people.)"

The column that got under Ricks’ skin was by Kelley Vlahos, who interviewed Col. Gentile – director of the military history division at West Point and a former cavalry squadron commander in Iraq – and gave a platform to his trenchant critique of the nation-building, ultra-interventionist doctrines promoted by the CNAS and Ricks, the flavor of which can be ascertained by this snippet from his piece [.pdf] in the current Joint Forces Quarterly:

“Retired Army lieutenant colonel John Nagl, author of Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife, is so cocksure of the efficacy of Army combat power that he believes it will have the ability not only to dominate land warfare in general but also to ‘change entire societies.’ … We are organizing ourselves around the principle of nationbuilding rather than fighting. For defense thinkers such as Nagl, that principle has turned into a synthetic consensus. To repeat, how else can one explain his most profound and deeply troubling statement that the Army, in the future, will have the capability to ‘change entire societies’? In this sense, the caricature of Nagl as a ‘crusader’ seems correct.”  

Nagl is the new president of the CNAS, now that co-founder Michele Flournoy has been appointed to take Doug Feith’s old position at the Pentagon. With other CNAS alumni flooding into the Obama administration, it’s just like old times again – except for the faces and the names. There’s a "New American" something-or-other operating not too far behind the scenes, armed with a doctrine [.pdf] that justifies a policy of perpetual war. It’s the same old same old, albeit this time presented under the rubric of "pragmatic" liberalism.

Ricks wants to know "what’s the point?" Okay, then, here it is: we’re against your war. No matter how progressive its execution may be, no matter how enlightened, we’re against it and will continue to be against it no matter how many self-proclaimed experts vouch for it. We oppose it because, contra Obama, yourself, Nagl, Flournoy, et al., the tribal groupings that inhabit the isolated areas we have targeted present no credible threat to the security of the continental United States. We are told that Osama bin Laden is present in the area, yet no evidence of this has been presented to the public by U.S. policymakers. If they know where he is, why don’t they just go in there, grab him – or kill him – and be done with it? But of course they wouldn’t be done with it, because they’ll never be done with it – not unless and until the American people rise up and say "Enough!"

Ricks just doesn’t get it, but there ought to be a clue in our web address: Antiwar.com. I know it’s subtle, but you would expect a smart guy like Ricks – an acknowledged expert-of-all-experts – to have caught on. In his post on the web site of Foreign Policy magazine, he cites "a colleague" – no doubt a fellow expert – who purportedly said:

"So let’s get this straight: Antiwar.com promotes Gian Gentile, who argues that we should conduct COIN in the form of 19th-century British punitive raids, as the Army’s shining light. Ergo, Antiwar.com is in favor of more Predator drone strikes and ‘direct action’ counterterrorism?"

In his own voice, Ricks avers: "Good question, Antiwar.com."

This is how we are supposed to be framing the question: it’s not whether we should be bombing Afghanistan, but how. Confined to those parameters, the "debate" is meaningless, but I’ll answer Ricks anyway. Yes, given our druthers, we’re in favor of smaller-scale military operations that take on actual enemies, i.e., specific evildoers such as Osama bin Laden. Our record is clear: see our response to 9/11 posted shortly after that horrific event. "Kill them and get out" – that was our prescription, and if we’d gone that route instead of sending our military rampaging through the Middle East like a gang of thugs on a wild expedition, we’d all be a lot better off.

We oppose the Predator strikes, however, because we oppose our very presence in Afghanistan and our violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty, a policy that can only destabilize an already tenuous Pakistani state and cause the roiling cauldron of that country’s politics to boil over into a regional catastrophe. The U.S. should lay off Pakistan, withdraw from Afghanistan, and hurry up and get the heck out of Iraq. If the Obamaites know the whereabouts of bin Laden, let them launch a special operations task force to take him and his cohorts out, not that that will destroy the global jihad he launched against us. But it will satisfy the political requirements of exacting revenge – which is what the war in Afghanistan is all about – and give Obama a huge jump in the polls.

The nation-building, moral uplift goody-two-shoes variety of imperialism is all the rage in Washington these days, but it sounds suspiciously like the early war propaganda of the Bush administration, which kept prattling on about how many damned schools they were building while suicide bombers were blowing up half of Baghdad and the insurgents – formerly known as the "dead-enders" – were taking over entire provinces.

What especially grates on the nerves is this claim that our occupying army in Afghanistan is charged with "protecting" the people of that war-torn country. Which brings to mind the old complaint raised against would-be "benevolent" despots the world over: Who will protect us from our protectors? It naturally doesn’t occur to Ricks and his fellow theorists of liberal counterinsurgency doctrine that the people wouldn’t need to be protected from the effects of war if we hadn’t invaded and occupied their country.

Clear, hold, and build: that’s the essence of the counterinsurgency doctrine Ricks is so eager to defend. Clear the country of all opposition, hold the territory, and build a compliant regime totally dependent on the U.S. for its military defense and economic survival, an American protectorate in a region where Russia, China, and India glare at one another over oft-disputed borders. It is a process that will take decades and provide plenty of work and government subsidies for a whole bunch of folks – not the least of whom are Ricks and his pals at the CNAS.

The rule of the self-appointed "experts" – God, I’m so sick and tired of it I could puke. And I bet you’re sick of it, too. Well, one way to challenge their rule, and get under the skin of the Tom Ricks types, is to make a donation to this web site. You see, unlike Ricks and his colleagues in the War Party, we don’t have generously funded foundations with millions of dollars backing us up and making sure we stay in operation. We don’t have the "prestige" of the Washington Post, which supports America’s foreign policy of endless intervention everywhere, yet they feel they have to take us on, anyway. And of course they do have to, because we present the most cogent, the most consistent, and the most widely-read critique of U.S. foreign policy anywhere, 24/7. We’re always on the War Party’s case, and they know it all too well.

That’s why it’s important that we don’t become just another casualty of the economic downturn. That downturn, by the way, was long predicted in these pages: it is the logical outcome of our ridiculously extravagant spending on the military and foreign aid, which are considered sacrosanct by members of Congress (who take in big campaign bucks from lobbyists for their support).

What Ricks and his ilk want from the American people is a blank check – after all, they’re the "experts," they know better, and who are we peons to question them? Well, Ricks and his fellow "experts" can kiss my a**, because I have news for them: the reign of the "experts" is over.

Ricks & Co. just don’t get it. They don’t get the Internet, they don’t get its implications for the priesthood of expertise, and what’s more they don’t want to get it. Well, let them stew in their own self-enclosed universe, where the Kool-Aid is always fresh and the matchstick edifice that is the American empire will stand forever. Our job isn’t to convert Ricks. He’s hopeless. Our job is to educate the American people, and we are having an impact – or else they’d just ignore us, now wouldn’t they?

Give as much as you can, as soon as you can. Antiwar.com is an institution worth preserving, and not just because it annoys the heck out of the bombastic Ricks – although that, in itself, is a perfectly good reason (as far as I’m concerned) to double your usual contribution. Or, if you have never contributed, it ought to spur you to seriously consider it.

Read more by Justin Raimondo