Politics Between the 45-Yard Lines

Most of American politics – and much of the discussion of it – are played between the 45-yard lines. Translation: The teams are opposed to each other, but the distance between their viewpoints is really quite small. In part, this is because both parties in a two-party system face competitive pressures to produce what the median voter wants. But that’s only part of the story. Because the median voter doesn’t typically pay attention to many of the issues, the politicians often don’t need to pay attention to what the median voter wants. What, then, do they pay attention to? It’s often to the wishes of the special interests. In the area of foreign policy, these special interests include, of course, the major defense contractors. But they also include the foreign policy establishment: the people who make their living analyzing, discussing, and writing about foreign policy. And the differences among these people are relatively minor. A large percentage of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, for example, thinks that the U.S. government should have a large role in deciding matters almost anywhere in the world, no matter what people in other parts of the world think or want.

I saw this played out in an event at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) on June 8 of this year. The Panetta Institute, named after Leon Panetta, currently the director of the CIA, had invited Frank Sesno, John Abizaid, and David Ignatius to speak at one of its regular events on a Monday evening. That afternoon, they did their show at NPS. Sesno made his career as a reporter for CNN; Abizaid, a retired U.S. Army general, succeeded Tommy Franks as commander of the U.S. Central Command; and Ignatius is a columnist with the Washington Post. I attended the afternoon talk and watched the evening talk on local television. Whereas I normally am an active participant at such events, the format did not lend itself to that. No one other than Sesno, who acted as moderator, got to ask questions directly; members of the audience had to write their questions out, and a committee of local reporters and editorial writers screened the questions. The good news is that they didn’t just keep the softball questions; the median question from the audience was tougher than those that Sesno asked. What follows are some of the highlights.

Abizaid led by identifying four U.S. strategic concerns:

  1. The rise of radical Sunnis.
  2. The rise of Shia Islamic extremism.
  3. Israel and Palestine.
  4. “Perhaps most important, how do we diminish our delicate problem with oil in the Middle East, our dependence on Middle East oil?”

Do you notice something interesting? The first three issues wouldn’t be of concern if the U.S. government simply kept its hands off that part of the world. And the fourth one, as I have pointed out elsewhere, is bogus: To simplify a much longer argument, no matter who owns the oil, the owner will want to sell it to us.

Abizaid hastened to say, “We don’t want to control the Middle East, but we want to shape the outcome.” How do you “shape the outcome” without exercising control? Blank out (i.e., no answer), as the late Ayn Rand would have said. The presence of about 200,000 U.S. troops in the Middle East, a presence that he once headed, belies Abizaid’s statement. Did Sesno challenge him? No. Ignatius? No.

At various points throughout the hour and a half, Sesno, Abizaid, and Ignatius all discussed how best to “shape” the situation in the Middle East. Not one of the three questioned whether it needed to be shaped.

At least, though, there were 10 yards of difference between their views. The differences showed up in the way Ignatius and Abizaid saw the so-called Global War on Terror. Sesno asked, “Is there a global war on terror?”

Ignatius: “Terrorism is a tactic. It’s used by the Tamil Tigers, etc. The war on terror is never-ending. We’re in danger of drawing a circle so widely that we get in fights we don’t need to.”

Abizaid: “They [the soldiers] are fighting a war with over 200,000 troops. It’s a war. I won’t say it’s not a war. We are doing our troops a disservice not to call it a war and not to define the scope.”

But Abizaid had avoided responding to Ignatius’s point that you can’t conduct war against a tactic. So Ignatius tried again: “If we describe a never-ending conflict, you folks [looking at the audience of largely U.S. military officers] are never going to get home. We owe the people serving a precise definition of what they’re fighting.”

The first question by an audience member was a hardball question, but, again, it fell within the 45-yard lines. The question to Abizaid, which Sesno read aloud, was, “On your watch, your strategy failed. Why?” Abizaid replied, “The strategy implemented on my watch hasn’t failed yet.” Then he added, “You can’t do it just by putting one-tenth of 1 percent of your people on the front line.” Was he suggesting a much larger military force? He didn’t say.

At one point, in response to Abizaid’s and Ignatius’s comments about Israel, Sesno asked, “What do we do if Iran persists in getting a nuclear weapon?”

Abizaid replied, “If we go to war with Iran, we should go to war with Iran. That means destruction of their nuclear capability, their navy, their air force. It doesn’t have to mean regime change. I think most people understand that, including the Iranians.”

To his credit, Sesno followed up on this. He listed countries that have nuclear weapons and then asked, “Can we live with a nuclear Iran?”

Ignatius answered, “Iran is a country that tries to destabilize other countries. The problem is, as Henry Kissinger said, Iran is a cause and not a nation.”

So, implicit in Ignatius’s opinion was the idea that if a government of country X destabilizes country Y, the government of X can’t be allowed to have nuclear weapons. But the Soviets often tried to destabilize other countries and yet never used nuclear weapons on us, or on anyone else for that matter.

Interestingly, though, Abizaid seemed to leave open the idea of not making war on Iran simply for having, as distinct from using, nuclear weapons, saying, “We’re going to have to dust off the deterrence notebook. Is there a way to have a deterrence effect against an organization that might achieve nuclear capability? There should be no question about what happens to Iran if Iran uses a nuclear weapon.”

One question from the audience was about how the travesty at Abu Ghraib happened. Abizaid fielded it: “The only time I ever thought about resignation because I was dissatisfied with my own personal performance, it was over Abu Ghraib.”

Sesno followed up: “At what point, either in protest or accountability, does a senior officer resign?”

Abizaid answered, “When given an order that’s immoral or illegal, you have no choice but to resign.” (Emphasis his.)

Here I need to comment. I think a reporter worth his salt would have asked the obvious question: “Given that you never resigned, that means you must never have been given an immoral or illegal order. Is that true?” Yet Sesno didn’t ask that. The next day in class, when I pointed this out to my students, a student of mine, an Army officer who had been stationed in Iraq, pointed out something else: Abizaid hadn’t, in fact, answered the question Sesno had asked. He didn’t answer at what point a senior officer should resign in protest or accountability. All he gave was the extreme: resignation in response to an illegal or immoral order.

Ignatius, though, had a different response from that of my Army student or me. He said, “Wow! That’s leadership.” Then Sesno fell in line, saying, “I applaud you, General, for that.” Much of the audience of military officers broke into applause.

One of Sesno’s last questions was the following: “John, I’m the president. I bring you to the Oval Office. And I ask you, ‘What do I need to worry about most?'”

Abizaid answered, “The most important thing we need to worry about is losing confidence in ourselves. You need to tell people that we can get the job done. We’ll do it because we have things that are worth fighting for.”

Many in the audience broke into applause. They were presumably more forgiving of evasion than an actual U.S. president would be.

Sesno asked both Ignatius and Abizaid to make some final remarks. Ignatius said, “It’s an honor to address an audience like this. I admire you for what you’ve done. It’s a pleasure to be on the stage with John Abizaid. He’s thoughtful, committed, fun to be with. Hats off, General.”

Abizaid said to the audience, “I want to say two things. First, thank you for your service. I would urge you to stay with the team. Second, you need to connect with our people. You need to talk to your fellow citizens about what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and what you think about it. My impression is that they [American citizens] want to be part of it.”

The next day in class, a number of my students commented that they had seen me furiously taking notes. (I took 14 pages.) They wanted to discuss the event. One student focused on Abizaid’s final comments, saying, “How can I talk to my fellow citizens about what I’m doing and what our goals are over there when no one in the military has told me what we’re doing or what our goals are?”

Some other students, all U.S. military officers, nodded in agreement. I would love to know Abizaid’s answer.

Copyright © 2009 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or Antiwar.com.

Author: David R. Henderson

David R. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an emeritus professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is author of The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey and co-author, with Charles L. Hooper, of Making Great Decisions in Business and Life(Chicago Park Press). His latest book is The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund, 2008). He has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, the Jim Lehrer Newshour, CNN, MSNBC, RT, Fox Business Channel, and C-SPAN. He has had over 100 articles published in Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, Barron’s, National Review, Reason, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Hill, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has also testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. He blogs at http://econlog.econlib.org