The Strategic Class | The Nation


The Strategic Class

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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.

About the Author

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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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 MoveOn.org 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.

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