The Hive and the Heterodoxy

Last month in this space we discussed the role of top foreign policy/national security think tanks as standard-bearers for the military establishment and political status quo in Washington.

It’s a dizzy game that is no doubt taken seriously by many scholars who are quite earnest and impassioned about their respective fields of research, but it is also a hive, inhabited, too, by overweening courtiers and navel-gazing elite who shuffle around cyclical cocktail parties and windbag conferences, assuring their place.

It’s these types you see more often than not, quoted in newspapers and magazines and cooling their heels in mainstream media green rooms waiting to get on the air and when they do, they set the tone — they tell people what to think and how to think about the most complicated issues of our time. Like war.

That is what ultimately makes this more than just a harmless menagerie. If, like the Borg, the Beltway hive is wired to support the health and wealth of the national security state as the source of U.S. power projection abroad (whether it be humanitarian interventionism, neoconservatism or plain old corporatism), then the thrust of their output is to support war and the current trajectory of aggressive defense spending.

One need to look no further than the size of the federal deficit and ballooning cost of VA health care and benefits included in the projected $5 trillion price tag for our overseas wars, to see how this think tank heterodoxy is harming us.

To believe in the hive is to see it in action. There’s no better example than when the president spoke to the American people from Kabul last week. In his remarks, Barack Obama announced a “strategic agreement” with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, which basically extends the U.S. war in Afghanistan indefinitely. The White House commits an untold number of American troops and civilian employees to that country through at least 2024 — all despite the growing public call for ending the war much sooner than that.

His current plan, as described, would reduce all combat troops by 2014, with no word on how many “trainers,” “advisers” or Special Forces would be left behind.

To make the sale, Obama proceeded to play down the Afghan violence against U.S. and NATO service members, the tensions with Pakistan, and the incredible pessimism that has infused every single credible analysis of the war since 2010 (except for the Pentagon’s own reports to Congress, always a convenient ‘mixed bag’).

The response to this depthless presentation, which was so obviously soaked with this year’s presidential politics, was essentially monolithic, offering only a few gradations among the military hawks, political operatives, neocons and so-called progressives among the hive elite.

All seemed perfectly resigned to the inevitability of a long-term footprint in Afghanistan — like it, or not. And here’s the rub: with the exception of the Cato Institute and independent voices like struggling everyday against the current, there was hardly a peep about the most obvious alternative: just ending the war.

If anything, the so-called experts muddy what is already a muddled message in which Obama wants clearly to have it both ways — withdrawal and long-term commitment at the same time.

Which is fine for everyone in this incestuous Washington swamp: real debates will take place in the weeds, while the core tenets of intervention and the power of the national security state remain intact. Meanwhile, Americans are expected to sit on the sidelines, badly informed and disconnected as ever — exactly where the establishment wants them to be.

How does this happen? One taste of the discourse last week and it should be fairly obvious.

First let’s start with the courtiers, the most likely to offer up the most enthusiasm for the president. The Center for a New American Security was built to promote a strong military policy for a Democratic White House and when Barack Obama was elected in 2008, it became his interlocutor to the military establishment. This think tank plays a deft hand at promoting the Pentagon’s interests while giving the White House cover in making tough decisions about defense budgets and the war.

Last week, its featured experts were too eager to boost Obama’s plans for Afghanistan, playing on American’s aversion to “abandonment” and fear of not fulfilling our “commitments,” i.e., “Saigon complex.”

Lt. Gen. David Barno, former commander of U.S. and Coalition Forces in Afghanistan and senior fellow at CNAS, offered probably the most effusive commentary I could find, calling Obama’s remarks his “best wartime speech to date, showing a president now finally fully comfortable with his role as commander-in-chief.”

“By any estimate, this agreement signals that American troops will be in Afghanistan and the region conducting counter-terrorism and training missions for many years to come,” he enthused.

“That reassurance alone can do much to help stabilize a volatile part of the world where the United States still has enduring vital interests.”

That reassurance alone has the Taliban licking their lips, not to mention Karzai patting his purse.

Chimes in John Nagl, former CNAS president and “Johnny Appleseed” of COIN: “This commitment must continue, not just until the Afghans assume responsibility for their own security in 2014, but for at least a decade longer as U.S. forces continue to pursue terrorists and train and assist Afghan security forces.”

Easy for him to say, far away from the battlefield and snug as a bug in a lucrative research fellowship at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis (despite the fact his apples have all got worms).

For the longest time, Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation, “which aims to promote a new American internationalism that combines a tough-minded realism about America’s interests in the world with a pragmatic idealism about the kind of world order best suited to America’s democratic way of life,” has successfully advanced his blog, The Washington Note, as a beacon for the Washington NatSec hive.

He then went to The Atlantic as Washington editor at large and extended his reach. No surprise Clemons’ response in both blog and magazine jibes with his compatriots at CNAS, displaying his usual talent for playing it so eloquently safe.

“By indicating that there would be some sort of minimalist after-life, or next-life of American engagement in the nation,” offered Clemons, “[Obama] is saying ‘we will not abandon Afghanistan’ while at the same time telegraphing that the U.S. would not be responsible for everything that happens in the country.”

For his response, NatSec policy maven Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, gave us his now familiar, increasingly turgid, “rethinking the war” disquisition. Made to sound authoritative, Cordesman spends a great deal of time telling us the war is in essence a failure, and suggests how to lower our expectations for success down to an Afghanistan that is merely “good enough” (kind of like the Surge in Iraq, which was “good enough” for us to save face and escape before anyone noticed the stink).

“This kind of Afghan ‘good enough’ falls far short of the goals the United States and its allies once set, or claim to be pursuing now,” says Cordesman. “The reality, however, is that it is this Afghanistan that offers at least some hope of holding together and protecting large numbers of Afghans. Pursuing today’s ‘strategy’ and illusions offers almost no hope at all.”

But he always ends up saying the same thing: give me just a little more time, and our love will surely grow!

On the other hand, if anyone was expecting temperance from the Brookings Institution they hadn’t been paying attention to how interventionist or shall we say, “liberal interventionist” the Democrat-leaning think tank has evolved over the last decade.

Fellow Bruce Riedel has teamed up with military establishment voice box Michael O’Hanlon in the past to surrogate for Obama’s Afghan strategy. No surprise that last week he was doing the same:

“The surge of troops sent by Obama has turned the momentum around and made possible the building of an Afghan Army that with continued American financial and military support has a decent chance of containing the Taliban after 2014,” he wrote.

“It won’t be cheap, but it will be much less expensive than sending Americans to do the job.”

Great. So what happens when the Afghan Army isn’t ready by 2014? No matter, because as Riedel points out we have a Pakistan problem that will demand our occupation attention too. “We need Afghanistan. Without Afghan bases to operate from, we cannot defeat al-Qaeda and its affiliates in Pakistan.”

Meanwhile, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, the queen bee of the hive, wants so badly to step boldly, but this is CFR — we must stay the course, man.

“Past sacrifice is a poor justification for continued sacrifice unless it is warranted,” he starts promisingly. But flakes out, ending abruptly with:

“The truth is that while the United States still has interests in Afghanistan, none of them, other than opposing al-Qaeda, rises to the level of vital. And this vital interest can be addressed with a modest commitment of troops and dollars.”

Modest? What does that even mean?

Moving on, the Truman National Security Project , which we profiled in our first think tank installment, was eager to field its fellows for the post-speech spin. Seeing that Truman is all about supporting Democratic election campaigns, it was no surprise to hear Truman expert and University of Southern California professor Josh Lockman serving as White House pitch man (watch video here).

“Going forward,” said Lockman, “this being an election year, President Obama made a savvy political move in at least calling for a drawdown while securing a strategic partnership with the Afghan government that ensures some undetermined presence of U.S. troops into the future.”

Of course the rival team needed something to complain about, and Obama’s politicizing quickly became the mantra. What else? Since the neoconservatives want to keep America fighting Islamists across the globe until every last one is either dead or in prison, they could hardly sniff at Obama’s strategy, which certainly keeps the dream alive.

For example, the American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka accused Obama of “waving the bloody shroud,” but nonetheless managed to spit out some backhanded praise for the president’s announcement.

“More than a few have compared Obama’s Afghan trip to George W. Bush’s dreadful ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech,’ she said. “But they’re wrong. The Afghan trip was the right call; everything else was the disgrace.”

Of course not all the think tank wonks chose to completely toe the line last week. Andrew Exum, a reliably status quo guy from the reliably status quo CNAS, approved of the president’s “strong and necessary message to the Afghans that the United States will remain committed to their security.”

But he criticized Obama in an Associated Press interview for implying that the war was winding down, stripping the speech of some of its illusory edifice.

“I do not think this is the beginning of the end of the war,” Exum said. “I think it is misleading to say we are winding down the war. The war does not stop and start according to our desires, and it will not stop for the Afghans. It will also not stop for the many U.S. special operations forces that will continue to fight by, with, and through the Afghans.”

Of the major think tanks with enough resources to get people on the air and in newspapers, however, the Cato Institute was the only one to challenge the assumption that we must stay in Afghanistan at all.

Conservative WABC’s Geraldo Rivera told Cato’s Malou Innocent that she “ruined a lot of people’s lunch” when she charged there was no military solution to Afghanistan’s problems, that those problems “must be resolved internally by Afghans themselves” and without a foreign occupation.

Meanwhile, Christopher Preble, her colleague at Cato, wrote clearly and without hesitation, that “the mission of preventing the Taliban from rising again in Afghanistan is a hopelessly quixotic crusade, and one that we would be wise to abandon.”

Of course we would be wise to listen, too, but many of us cannot hear above the din — the buzzing of the hive that drones on until all of these analyses fight for media saturation, eventually reassembling themselves into one fuzzy message that simply calls for staying the course. No wonder we tune out.

And that, dear readers, is what think tanks do.

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Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.