Militarism's Transmission Belt

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In a
previous article
, we analyzed the function of supposedly nonpartisan
think tanks as propaganda mills for government policies, particularly
those that aggrandize the warmaking state. It is worth elaborating
with a fresh example.

In the 16 August
2007 edition of The New York Times, Anthony Cordesman of
Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies tells
us why it is a terrific idea for the United States to variously
sell and give away more than $50 billion in weaponry to several
Middle Eastern states.1

His argument
boils down to this: the Middle East is a rough neighborhood, and
the only way to buy influence is with authentic coin of the realm
in the form of arms. If we don’t, others, like the Rugged Russian
Bear, the Heathen Chinee, or even the effete Europeans, would be
more than happy to peddle their wares.

There is some
merit in his argument — unlike President Bush and his neoconservative
ventriloquists, Mr. Cordesman is at least grown up enough to dispense
with the childish nonsense that the United States government is
attempting to spread democracy in the region as a philanthropic
exercise. What we are engaging in, according to Mr. Cordesman, is
a realist’s game of power balancing.

Having established
that premise, it is the author’s task to demonstrate its validity
with plausible evidence. That is where he falls short.

Mr. Cordesman’s
first gambit is to play the “jobs, jobs, jobs” card: “America has
vital long-term strategic interests in the Middle East. The gulf
has well over 60 percent of the world's proven conventional oil
reserves and nearly 40 percent of its natural gas. The global economy,
and part of every job in America, is dependent on trying to preserve
the stability of the region and the flow of energy exports.”

There is no
empirical evidence that U.S. military meddling in the Persian Gulf
region (to include arming the various contending factions) has done
anything to assure a steady flow of oil at an affordable price.
Indeed, the two most memorable examples of a cut-off of oil — in
1973 and 1980 — were the result of U.S. intervention. The latter
incident is particularly striking, in that the U.S. government had
for years armed the Shah’s Iran to the teeth with advanced weaponry,
and then watched helplessly as the mullahs came to power.

More recently,
the U.S. invasion of Iraq has resulted in not more, but less oil
on the international market. At the same time, the instability flowing
from the invasion and occupation has added a risk premium to every
barrel of oil that is pumped out of the Middle East.

But there is
a more fundamental objection to Mr. Cordesman’s line of argument:
no regime, no matter how theoretically hostile, can afford to drink
its oil. One cannot emphasize too many times the hypocrisy of the
“protecting-the-flow-of-oil” cant coming from the mouths of theoretical
conservatives. On the one hand, we must endure their panegyrics
about the limitless blessings of the free market, where a buyer
will always find a seller and vice versa. Yet mysteriously, this
mechanism will not work where oil is concerned.2

Mr. Cordesman
then proceeds to argue that the only way to contain Iran is by arming
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries.

But how is
Iran going to launch a conventional military attack against Saudi
Arabia without crossing the Persian Gulf, which is essentially an
American lake, thereby coming into direct military conflict with
the United States before it even reaches Saudi soil?

To be sure,
the Saudi government could be taken down, but the odds of this happening
by external invasion are very small compared to the likelihood of
its falling to internal unrest — exactly as Iran, our erstwhile
heavily armed ally, fell to an internal insurgency.

Mr. Cordesman
is undoubtedly correct in cautioning against blanket demonization
of the Saudis as if they were some species of insect. As individuals,
they are probably no better and no worse than anyone else in the
neighborhood. But common prudence requires us to be mindful that
the vast majority of the September 11 hijackers were Saudi nationals,
and even Mr. Cordesman admits that 10–25 Saudi nationals per
month join the insurgency in Iraq — although, incredibly, he maintains
that this is no big deal.

Given that
the administration has been threatening war with Iran based on alleged
Iranian support to the Iraqi insurgency, one would think that is
a very big deal. Should any of the Gulf regimes be threatened by
an internal fundamentalist insurgency, the shiny weapons we wish
to sell them would be about as much use as the Shah’s F-14s were
in preventing the mullahs’ uprising. On the other hand, is it really
a good idea to load up unstable and tyrannical regimes with sophisticated
arms like the Joint Direct Attack Munition, precisely given the
risk of who might come to power?

The rest of
his op-ed consists of rationales for the granting of $30 billion
in arms to Israel. Like most commentators, Mr. Cordesman obscures
the nature of the transaction, never coming out and saying that
unlike the sales to the Gulf states, the $30 billion is an outright
gift of the U.S. taxpayer to the government of Israel. The shorthand
employed in most news articles about “a Middle East arms deal” practices
the same obfuscation.

While this
is merely a minor example of double talk, it is part and parcel
of what Messrs. Mearsheimer and Walt have been talking about when
they complain of the bias inherent in any discussion about Israel
in the U.S. media. Most of the elites in government, journalism,
and the think tanks know that the public is viscerally opposed to
foreign aid (whereby the elites no doubt believe this is another
sign of the dumb provincialism of the American people). Nevertheless,
the elites are careful not to run afoul of the public mood — too
much discussion about foreign aid in the context of Israel might
cast that country in a more negative light to the voters.

Mr. Cordesman’s
justification for weaponry to Israel is as defective as his rational
for weaponry to the Gulf states. As we are seeing in Iraq, and as
we saw last summer in Lebanon, advanced conventional weapons against
Fourth Generation Warfare are becoming increasingly obsolete. And
piling weaponry on Israel, far from giving the Israelis the reassurance
they need to avoid war, is more likely to drive them to the opposite
course. The Israeli government did not undertake the disastrous
decision to invade Lebanon because it assumed its military was weak;
rather, it did so because it was foolishly overconfident of its
military superiority.

Thus has it
always been: countries engage in catastrophic military adventures
because their leaders think that at that particular moment, they
have a decisive military superiority over their intended target.
Ratcheting up the level of weaponry all around the Middle East,
to Israel and its potential foes, runs the same risk as the arms
race prior to World War I: that of simply pouring gasoline on a
volatile situation.

As our previous
piece sought to show, think tank intellectuals exist to validate
the militaristic inclinations of our governing class, and they are
amply rewarded for the effort. Mr. Cordesman hastens to say, however,
that he is no mere hireling: no government, foreign or domestic,
asked him to write it. Of course not; think tank experts
know what is expected of them, and act accordingly. They also, we
are sure, do so of their own volition, consonant with their own
beliefs. The Beltway is a great shaper of convictions. It reminds
us of Humbert Wolfe’s clever doggerel of a bygone era:

You cannot
hope to bribe or twist
Thank God! The British journalist
But seeing what the man will do
Unbribed, there’s no occasion to.

Mr. Cordesman’s
disclaimer, though, is curious: “Disclosure: the nonprofit organization
I work for receives financing from many sources, including the United
States government, Saudi Arabia and Israel. No one from any of those
sources has asked me to write this article.” We can take it as a
given that that is true. But can employees of a Washington think
tank write disinterestedly about foreign policy when their employer
is on the take from a foreign government — or for that matter, the
U.S. government?3

It is no surprise
that the Saudis would be lavishly funding every foreign policy bucket
shop in Washington. Curioser is Mr. Cordesman’s revelation that
Israel is buying influence in the same quarters. One would think
a country that can’t get by without billions in foreign aid would
have better things to do with its money. More cynically, one wonders
why it is even necessary: the Washington establishment will typically
fall all over itself to do Israel favors for free. At least we have
some comfort in knowing our foreign aid money is being recycled
in this country.

Perhaps curioser
still is his statement that the richly-endowed CSIS is a recipient
of U.S. government money. When the supposedly fiscally conservative
Bush administration starts funneling our money to a think tank,
it’s plain that the fix is in. Unmentioned in Mr. Cordesman’s disclaimer
is the admission that think tanks also receive donations from the
likes of Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman — the direct pecuniary
beneficiaries of Middle East arms deals.

typically obtain their 501(c)3 tax status by virtue of performing
some charitable or other public benefit. Accordingly, should we
rank think tanks with hospitals for the public service they perform?
Only if we think war is good for us.

is the pen name of a Northern Virginia-base defense analyst.


  1. Weapons
    of Mass Preservation.
  2. It is fascinating
    that one other area where “conservatives” cease their hosannas
    to the free market is drug reimportation in the context of Medicare
    Part D. This trillion-dollar boondoggle essentially created a
    closed domestic market for Big Pharma, courtesy of George W. Bush,
    Karl Rove, Tom DeLay, Bill Frist, and other raging free-marketeers.
  3. One of
    the most notorious think tanks in this regard is the Heritage
    Foundation, which churns out countless sophomoric “studies” on
    behalf of East Asian donors such as Taiwan and South Korea.

21, 2007

is the pen name of a Northern Virginia-based defense analyst.

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