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The Strategic Class | The Nation

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The Strategic Class

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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."

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Ari Berman
Ari Berman
Ari Berman, a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and an Investigative Journalism Fellow at The Nation...

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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.'"

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