Dedicated to Norman Birnbaum (1926–2019), a valued and longtime member of the Nation editorial board and a founding member of the Committee for the Republic.
On a brisk autumn night this past October, a block or so northwest of the White House, an assemblage of the well-heeled, impressively credentialed, and civic-minded gathered within that venerable pillar of the Washington establishment the Metropolitan Club of the City of Washington to hear what many today would regard as a subversive—if not downright heretical—commentary.
The speaker on the evening in question was Colorado College’s David C. Hendrickson, featured guest of the Committee for the Republic’s monthly salon-lecture series. Hendrickson’s description of the much-vaunted “liberal world order” would not, alas, have endeared him to the guardians of respectable Beltway opinion.
According to Hendrickson, “the US establishment touts adherence to a rule-based order as the be-all and end-all, and then says that the United States’ exceptional character gives it the right to violate the rules. Those two propositions together would be impossible to justify in theory, but in practice they rule the roost in Washington.”
Clearly, the professor didn’t come all the way from Colorado to pay tribute to the cherished shibboleths of the Washington establishment.
Hendrickson was the latest in a long line of independent, provocative thinkers, such as the financial historian (and frequent Nation contributor) Nomi Prins and the Israeli dissident-author Miko Peled, to whom the Committee for the Republic has given a platform to air their heterodox views.
Founded in 2003, the committee has often found itself a lonely voice in a Washington dominated by neoliberals, neocons, and liberal hawks.
At first glance, the members of the committee might seem as though they don’t have very much in common except for the distinction they’ve attained in their previous careers as diplomats, military men, scholars, businessmen, journalists, publishers, and lawyers. Which is to say its membership is nothing if not ecumenical.
Serving on its board are, among other notables, C. Boyden Gray, former counsel to President George H.W. Bush; Molly McCartney, a former Washington Post journalist and author; Bill Nitze, son of legendary arms-control negotiator Paul and himself a former State Department and EPA official; retired Army Col. Douglas MacGregor, an author and frequent guest on Fox News; and Claes G. Ryn, the Catholic University political theorist.
The committee’s longtime chairman, career diplomat Chas Freeman, notes that “The founders of this group were of disparate political persuasions. But we shared a fear that the excessive militarization of American foreign policy would threaten constitutional government in our country.”
Yet, in spite of the dogged efforts of the committee, the bipartisan foreign-policy orthodoxy, aptly described 70 years ago by the historian Charles A. Beard as one that wages “perpetual war for perpetual peace,” remains firmly entrenched.
Committee co-founder John Henry (a descendent of Revolutionary War hero Patrick Henry), a Washington-based investment banker who has taken on an avocation as a playwright, told me the committee “tries to bring together Republicans and Democrats on foreign policy. There has been no effective competition between the GOP and Democrats on the issue. For seven generations, the parties have defined ‘American greatness’ by the size of our military footprint.”
For Henry, Woodrow Wilson (the subject of Henry’s latest play, the well-received Republic Undone) bears much of the responsibility for what he describes as America’s “Old Testament” foreign policy.
Freeman believes that “the Committee has become one of the very few institutions—sadly, now maybe the only one—in Washington with a firm claim to trans-partisanship.”
Which is no doubt the case: But what exactly is the committee?
Well, it’s not a think tank, though it produces more higher-caliber white papers, lectures, and articles than nearly everything currently coming out of Massachusetts Avenue’s think-tank row. And it’s far more than a social club for what remains of patrician Washington, though there’s some of that too.
So think of it as an advocacy group cum think tank cum social club cum amateur theater troupe, which is part liberal, part conservative, part Republican, part Democrat. It promotes its message through a dizzying array of lectures, debates, plays, dinners, and awards ceremonies, all in an effort to advance the deeply traditional, but now seemingly radical, idea that Congress ought to exercise its constitutional duties on matters of war and peace.
Yet unlike the self-anointed monitors of acceptable opinion at Brookings, the Center for American Progress, and AEI, the committee takes no foreign money. Little wonder, then, that it feels no obligation to stick with the script; in fact, it seems to be writing one of its own.
The Committee for the Republic has its roots in a venerable, though too often forgotten and ignored American foreign-policy tradition that dates back 120 years, to 1898.
In March of that year, a now long-forgotten senator from Vermont, Redfield Proctor, returned to Capitol Hill from a fact-finding mission to Cuba.
In Proctor’s view, it was time for the United States to act against the Spanish Empire because, as Proctor told his Senate colleagues, “the entire native population of Cuba” was in a struggle “for freedom and deliverance from the worst misgovernment of which I ever had knowledge.”
In Cuba, Proctor espied a kind of “responsibility to protect.” It was Proctor’s account, according to the historian Robert Dallek, that provided the “final propulsion to war” and by April of that year, President McKinley declared war on Spain.
And thus began America’s rather checkered career as an empire.
But in response to the bellicosity that gripped Washington at the fin de siècle, a number of prominent writers, historians, industrialists, and diplomats formed the Anti-Imperialist League in opposition to the quest for war and empire.
The committee’s founding manifesto would have been met with hearty agreement by the Anti-Imperialist League of Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie, and Nation founding editor E.L. Godkin:
Domestic liberty is the first casualty of adventurist foreign policy.… To justify the high cost of maintaining rule over foreign territories and peoples, leaders are left with no choice but to deceive the people.… America has begun to stray from its founding tradition of leading the world by example rather than by force.
The author of The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire, Stephen Kinzer, told me that he believes the committee “is certainly comparable to the old Anti-Imperialist League in terms of intellectual firepower. Both groups attracted thinkers who wish to see the United States remain faithful to its constitutional principles and abjure reckless foreign interventions.”
Challenging the Orthodoxy
In the moronic inferno that is Trump’s Washington, the members of the Committee are very much the “adults in the room.”
But while serious in purpose, absent from committee gatherings is the grievous sanctimony so typical of DC political gatherings nowadays, where participants feel duty-bound to outperform one another in their condemnation of the vulgarian in chief.
These, then, are happy warriors, and theirs is a light touch.
Committee co-founder Bruce Fein occasionally dons 18th-century garb to play the role of James Madison at committee events. Fein is not a thespian by trade, but is, rather, a respected constitutional lawyer who served in Reagan’s Justice Department.
Writing in 2007 for The Nation, John Nichols suggested President Bush nominate Fein for attorney general, though, as Nichols pointed out, “Fein’s willingness to put principle above politics undoubtedly disqualifies him from consideration by Bush.”
Last July, Fein drafted HR 922, which sought to put an end to what he and the committee have defined as “presidential wars,” that is, wars that are waged without regard to Article I, section 8, clause 11 of the Constitution (the War Powers clause). As Fein explains it, the legislation would make presidential wars “impeachable offenses, which would expose the president to impeachment by the House, conviction by the Senate, and removal from office.”
The legislation was sponsored by Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) and Walter Jones (R-NC). While it didn’t pass, it did spark a much-needed discussion over Congress’s abdication of its constitutional duties with regard to matters of war and peace.
In addition to taking up such unfashionable yet necessary causes, another thing that distinguishes the committee is its willingness to do that which is simply not done by those who wish to remain on good terms with the Washington political-media axis: criticize Israel’s illegal half-century occupation of Palestinian land.
The journalist Max Blumenthal, a prominent critic of the occupation and a frequent attendee of committee events, says that, in his view, the committee “provides a place where foreign policy heretics can feel at home. Committee events have a community feel, bringing together people who put their principles on matters of war and peace over petty partisanship.”
That the committee is willing to grab the third rail of American foreign-policy discourse is all the more remarkable given the ordeal the committee’s chairman, Chas Freeman, went through when, in 2009, President Obama nominated him to chair the National Intelligence Council.
Freeman, a career diplomat who served as the principal American translator for Nixon’s 1972 trip to China, and then went on to become US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and later, assistant secretary of defense for international-security affairs, became the target of a McCarthyite smear campaign seemingly orchestrated by the Washington Post editorial page and taken up and pursued with vigor by such eminences as Charles Lane, Jennifer Rubin, and Jeffery Goldberg.
In the face of the savage attacks, Freeman dropped out, no doubt to the relief of the controversy-shy Obama. But he didn’t go quietly. In a letter announcing his withdrawal, Freeman wrote that it is his belief “that the inability of the American public to discuss, or the government to consider, any option for US policies in the Middle East opposed by the ruling faction in Israeli politics has allowed that faction to adopt and sustain policies that ultimately threaten the existence of the state of Israel. It is not permitted for anyone in the United States to say so.”
The late and much-missed Norman Birnbaum, a founding member of the committee (and a longtime member of the Nation editorial board), told me that he “wasn’t surprised Obama stood by and did nothing. The Israel Lobby went after Freeman as a demonstration of strength.”
Freeman now splits his time between DC and Rhode Island, where he is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute at Brown University. I recently spoke with Freeman at his Washington apartment just as he was preparing to leave for China.
Our conversation touched upon the stranglehold the bipartisan war party has on Washington. Freeman told me that in his view, “the government is not evil, it’s just incompetent. Why do we have a [crappy] infrastructure and why is our human infrastructure deteriorating, with all the money going to wars which we’ve lost?” Like Fein, he feels Congress has abandoned its responsibilities. “Capitol Hill,” says Freeman, “is populated by an invertebrate species,” and what lies at the root of the problem is what Freeman calls “the venality of our politics.”
Touching upon the new Cold War, Freeman observes that “after the end of the Cold War, we expanded the alliance network we had built to defeat USSR. But what was the logic to that?” It was motivated by what he calls “a paternalistic hegemonic instinct.” But, “it turned out history wasn’t at an end, though we pretended that it was.”
Turning to the Middle East, Freeman’s view is that the United States has an unhealthily “dependent relationship” with Israel. “Our policies in the Middle East don’t make any sense,” he says. They consist of “knee-jerk responses to vested interests.”
A defining feature of Trump’s Washington (particularly among the Democratic opposition) has been the valorization of not just some of the most sanguinary neoconservatives of the Bush era but of some of the most transparently sinister adepts of the national-security apparatus, including former CIA director John Brennan.
Brennan’s central role in one of the Obama administration’s most notorious prosecutions, that of CIA whistle-blower John Kiriakou, is too often overlooked by those who ought to know better.
Kiriakou, a 14-year CIA counterterrorism official, blew the whistle on agency torture in 2007. Though he was accused of leaking the identity of a CIA agent to the press, in 2008 the FBI determined he committed no crime and the Justice Department closed the case.
Yet in 2009, when Obama, to his everlasting discredit, brought John Brennan into his administration, Brennan pressed for the case to be reopened, and, ultimately Kiriakou was charged under the rarely enforced Intelligence Identities Protection Act.
As a result of John Brennan’s personal vendetta, Kiriakou was sentenced to 30 months in prison.
The indignities didn’t end there.
This past January, Kiriakou recounted his long ordeal to a packed house at the Metropolitan Club where he, along with anti-torture and human-rights advocate Alberto Mora, was awarded the committee’s Defender of Liberty award.
Kiriakou recounted the years spent under investigation, the death threats and the ridicule by Agency sadists like Jose Rodriguez, who tweeted to Kiriakou, as the latter was on his way to prison, “Don’t drop the soap.”
Mora, seemingly the sole Bush administration lawyer who challenged the administration’s pro-torture advocates like John Yoo and David Addington, told the assembled that “the Bush administration cloaked its recklessness in righteousness” and that the claims that “enhanced interrogation” techniques work are “completely bogus.”
It is, in the current climate of conformity (where, in the words of Hendrickson, “the boundaries of permissible opinion have become narrower and narrower”) virtually unthinkable that any other organization in DC would single out patriots like Mora and Kiriakou for their opposition to the police-state tactics employed by the likes of John Brennan and the current CIA director “Bloody” Gina Haspel.
The first recipient of the Defender of Liberty award was committee co-founder Norman Birnbaum, who passed away at the age of 92 in January.
In a tribute to Birnbaum, Freeman noted that he epitomized “the civility, tolerance, and empathy that have long distinguished our culture from its competitors. He also exemplifies the modesty and lack of pretense that only those who have aged into comfort with themselves and confidence in their abilities exhibit.”
Yet as the committee mourns the loss of one of its founders, the hard work of creating a viable, constitutional, and sane foreign-policy alternative carries on. On February 12, the committee and its friends and supporters will gather once again in downtown Washington to honor the life and work of the legendary investigative reporter and longtime bête noire of the national-security establishment Seymour M. Hersh.
Stephen Kinzer tells me that he thinks “there is a constituency in the US for a more restrained foreign policy. The intellectual leadership is there, in the form of the Committee for the Republic, and other groups.”
“I am hoping,” says Kinzer, “that the committee will help force debate over our foreign wars onto the agenda of the 2020 presidential campaign.”
In the meantime, what the committee has done is create a true resistance in the form of a counter-establishment manned by a distinguished, bipartisan cast of modern-day anti-imperialists.
And they seem to be having a good time in the process.