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The Strategic Class | The Nation

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The Strategic Class

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"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."

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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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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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