The Strategic Class

by Ari Berman

The Nation magazine, August 29, 2005


In July 2002, at the first Senate hearing on Iraq, then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Joe Biden pledged his allegiance to Bush's war. Ever since, the blunt-spoken Biden has seized every opportunity to dismiss antiwar critics within his own party, vocally denouncing Bush's handling of the war while doggedly supporting the war effort itself. Biden carried this message into the Kerry campaign as the candidate's closest foreign policy confidant, and a few days after announcing his own intention to run for the presidency in 2008, he gave a major speech at the Brookings Institution in which he criticized rising calls for withdrawal as a "gigantic mistake."

The Democrats' speculative front-runner for '08, Hillary Clinton, has offered similarly hawkish rhetoric. "If we were to artificially set a deadline of some sort, that would be like a green light to the terrorists, and we can't afford to do that," Clinton told CBS in February. Instead, she recently proposed enlarging the Army by 80,000 troops "to respond to threats wherever danger lies." Clinton, a member of the Armed Services Committee, appears more comfortable accommodating the President's Iraq policy than opposing it, and her early and sustained support for the war (and frequent photo-ops with the troops) supposedly reinforces her national security credentials.

The prominence of party leaders like Biden and Clinton, and of a slew of other potential prowar candidates who support the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, presents the Democrats with an odd dilemma: At a time when the American people are turning against the Iraq War and favor a withdrawal of US troops, and British and American leaders are publicly discussing a partial pullback, the leading Democratic presidential candidates for '08 are unapologetic war hawks. Nearly 60 percent of Americans now oppose the war, according to recent polling. Sixty-three percent want US troops brought home within the next year. Yet a recent National Journal "insiders poll" found that a similar margin of Democratic members of Congress reject setting any timetable. The possibility that America's military presence in Iraq may be doing more harm than good is considered beyond the pale of "sophisticated" debate.

The continued high standing of the hawks has been made possible by their enablers in the strategic class--the foreign policy advisers, think-tank specialists and pundits. Their presumed expertise gives the strategic class a unique license to speak for the party on national security issues. This group has always been quietly influential, but since 9/11 it has risen in prominence, egging on and underpinning elected officials, crowding out dissenters within its own ranks and becoming increasingly ideologically monolithic. So far its members remain unchallenged. It's more than a little ironic that the people who got Iraq so wrong continue to tell the Democrats how to get it right.

It's helpful to think of the Democratic strategic class as a pyramid. At the top are politicians like Biden and Clinton, forming the most important and visible public face. Just below are high-ranking former government officials, like UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Assistant Secretary of State Jamie Rubin. These are the people who devise and execute foreign policy and frame the substance of the message. Virtually all the top advisers supported the Iraq War; Holbrooke, who's been dubbed the "closest thing the party has to a Kissinger" by one foreign policy analyst, even tacked to Bush's right, arguing in February 2003 that anything less than an invasion of Iraq would undermine international law. Many of the officials held high-ranking positions in the Kerry campaign. Holbrooke, frequently mentioned as a potential Secretary of State, urged Kerry to keep his vision on Iraq "deliberately vague," the New York Observer reported. Rubin appeared on television sixty times in May 2004 alone. Nine days before the election, Holbrooke addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and reiterated Kerry's support for the war and occupation, belittled European negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program and endorsed the Israeli separation wall. Hardly a Dove Among Dems' Brain Trusters, read a headline from the Forward newspaper.

Underneath the top policy officials are the anointed regional experts, who play an instrumental role in legitimizing the politicians' arguments and drumming up support inside the Beltway for impending conflicts in faraway lands. Brookings fellow and former CIA official Kenneth Pollack's book The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq played precisely that function for wavering Democratic elites in the run-up to war, turning "more doves into hawks than Richard Perle, Laurie Mylroie and George W. Bush combined," wrote Slate's Chris Suellentrop in March 2003. "In Washington, it's not uncommon to hear fence-straddlers qualify their ambivalence about an Iraq war with the sentiment, 'Of course, I haven't read the Pollack book yet.'"

The likes of Pollack are greatly bolstered by a second front of national security specialists at prestigious think tanks like Brookings, the Council on Foreign Relations, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Center for American Progress. Though they often toil in obscurity, the think-tank officials form a necessary echo chamber for the political class, appearing on television and writing issue briefs while providing, through their organizations, a platform on which candidates can appear "robust" in the national security realm. As one example, Stephen Walt, a leading foreign policy expert and academic dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, says that "Brookings was basically supportive of the war in Iraq. If Brookings is signing on to a major foreign policy initiative of a Republican Administration, that doesn't give the Democratic mainstream much room to mount a really forceful critique of the incumbent foreign policy." Much of Kerry's campaign platform--with its calls to add 40,000 troops to the military, preserve the doctrine of pre-emptive war and stay the course in Iraq--read as if it had been lifted verbatim from a Brookings strategy memo.

At the bottom of the pyramid are the liberal hawks in the punditocracy, figures like New Republic editor Peter Beinart, Time writer Joe Klein and New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. These pundits, along with purely partisan outfits like the Democratic Leadership Council's Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), help to both set the agenda and frame the debate. The journalistic hawks churn out the agitprop that the more respectable think tanks turn into "serious" scholarship, some of which eventually becomes policy, or at least talking points, when adopted by the politicians.

Central to the liberal hawks' mission is a challenge to other Democrats that they too must become "national security Democrats," to borrow a phrase coined by Holbrooke. To talk about national security a Democrat must be a national security Democrat, and to be a national security Democrat, a Democrat must enthusiastically support a militarized "war on terror," protracted occupation in Iraq, "muscular" democratization and ever-larger defense budgets. The liberal hawks caricature other Democrats just as Republicans long stereotyped them. The pundits magnify the perception that Democrats are soft on national security, and they influence how consultants view public opinion and develop the message for candidates. In that sense, the bottom of the pyramid is always interacting with the top. It matters little that people like Beinart have no national security experience--as long as the hawks identify themselves as national security Democrats, they're free to play the game.

Today, despite the growing evidence that the Bush Administration's actions in Iraq have been a colossal--some would say criminal--failure, what's striking is how much of the pyramid remains essentially in place. As the Iraqi insurgency turned increasingly violent, and the much-hyped WMDs never turned up, the hawks attempted a bit of self-evaluation. Slate and The New Republic both hosted windy pseudo-mea culpa forums. Of the eight liberal hawks invited by Slate, journalist Fred Kaplan remarked, "I seem to be the only one in the club who's changed his mind." TNR's confession was even more limited, with Beinart admitting that he overcame his distrust of Bush so that he could "feel superior to the Democrats." Pollack took part in both forums, and then earned five figures for an Atlantic Monthly essay on "what went wrong." Even at their darkest hour, the strategic class found a way to profit from its errors, coalescing around a view that its members had been misled by the Bush Administration and that too little planning, too few troops and too much ideology were largely to blame for the chaos in Iraq. The hawks decided it was acceptable to criticize the execution of the war, but not the war itself--a view Kerry found particularly attractive. A "yes, but" or "no, but" mentality defined this thinking. Having subsequently pinned the blame for Kerry's defeat largely on the political consultants or the candidate himself, the strategic class has moved forward largely unscarred.

Biden and Clinton still have more influence than antiwar politicians like Ted Kennedy or Russ Feingold. No one has replaced Holbrooke or Albright. Pollack continues to thrive at Brookings and, despite never visiting the country, has a new book out about Iran. Shortly after the election, Beinart penned a 5,683-word essay calling on hawkish Democrats to repudiate "softs" like and Michael Moore; the essay won Beinart--already a fellow at Brookings--a $650,000 book deal and high-profile visibility on the Washington ideas circuit. Subsequently a statement of leading policy apparatchiks on the PPI publication Blueprint challenged fellow Democrats to make fighting Islamic totalitarianism the central organizing principle of the party. Replace the words "Al Qaeda" with "Soviet Union" and the essay seemed straight out of 1947-48; the militarized post-9/11 climate of fear had reincarnated the cold war Democrat. A number of leading specialists signed a letter by the neoconservative Project for the New American Century asking Congress to boost the defense budget and increase the size of the military by 25,000 troops each year over the next several years. The "Third Way" group of conservative Senate Democrats recently introduced a similar proposal.

"There's an approach which says, 'Let's raise the stakes and call,'" says former Senator Gary Hart, a rare voice of principled opposition in the party today. "That if Republicans want a ten-division Army, let's be for a twelve-division Army. I think that's just nonsense, frankly. It's stupid policy. Trying to get on the other side of the Republicans is folly, both politically and substantively."

If Hart is correct, then why does so much of the Democratic strategic class march in lockstep? There's no simple answer. The insularity of Washington, pressures of careerism, fear of appearing soft and the absence of institutional alternatives all contribute to a limiting of the debate. Bill Clinton's misguided political dictum that the public "would rather have somebody who's strong and wrong than somebody who's weak and right" applies equally to the strategic class.

"Everybody's on the make," says Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation, who led the fight against John Bolton from his blog, The Washington Note. "They're all worried about their next government job. People pull their punches or try to craft years in advance what sort of positions they're gonna be up for. The culture of Washington is very risk-averse." Adds Walt, "It's pretty hard to go wrong right now taking a hard-line position. There's enough places or institutions that will take care of you. Outside of academia, if you take positions on the other side, there's just nowhere near the level of institutional support."

Those insiders who doubt the wisdom of a hawkish course often get the cold shoulder if they stray too far from the strategic line. After criticizing the rush to war, Ivo Daalder of Brookings became the foreign policy point man for Howard Dean's insurgent campaign. Many of Daalder's colleagues at Brookings and elsewhere sharply criticized Dean, and afterward unnamed Democratic insiders bragged to The New Republic that Dean's advisers would never work again. That, of course, didn't happen, but Daalder and others have since tempered their opposition rhetoric. Today Daalder blames the antiwar movement for Dean's defeat and calls for more troops in Iraq.

For daring to tackle the liberal hawk consensus in his recent book America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, Anatol Lieven, who is British and until recently a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, got lumped into the "anti-American" category by Jonathan Tepperman of the Council on Foreign Relations in the New York Times Book Review. "It is hardly an anti-American position to suggest that Americans today can learn much from the work of great Americans of the past like Reinhold Niebuhr and J.W. Fulbright," Lieven wrote in reply. He has since left Carnegie and joined Clemons at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank that has acquired a maverick reputation. New America, along with places like the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy--an anti-imperial umbrella of thinkers on the left, right and center--now form a sort of dissident establishment.

Owing to their distinction, the Democratic strategic class, consisting of the party's leading foreign policy thinkers, could have provided a powerful check on a reckless Administration intent on rushing to war. Instead, it bears partial responsibility for the war's costs: more than 1,800 American fatalities, thousands of maimed and wounded US soldiers, many more dead Iraqi civilians, spiraling worldwide anti-Americanism, surging world oil prices, a new breeding ground for Al Qaeda, multiplying terror attacks abroad and mounting economic insecurity at home.

At the same time, talking tough on Iraq has been a disastrous moral, tactical and political miscalculation for Democrats. A recent Democracy Corps poll found that Iraq tops the list of factors motivating voter discontent toward President Bush. "This is a country almost settled on the need for change," political consultants Stan Greenberg and James Carville write. Yet Democrats will only prosper if they pose "sharp choices," something the strategic class has been unwilling or unable to do. A few small progressive think tanks, helped by the dissident establishment, have tried to pry open badly needed institutional space for a bolder national security policy. A few courageous elected officials are attempting to drum up Congressional support for withdrawal. Thus far, the hawks have drowned them out. Unless and until the strategic class transforms or declines in stature, the Democrats beholden to them will be doomed to repeat their Iraq mistakes.

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