The Architecture of Perpetual War

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Of
late, many of the nation's literati have preoccupied themselves
with a mendacious New York Times op-ed column by a couple
of think tank hacks named Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack,
the burden of which is that, by golly, the glorious Surge really
is working. Of course, the whole thing was a put-up job, sold on
the man-bites-dog pretence that the two authors were longtime critics
of the Bush administration who had gone to Iraq and seen the light.
Their performance is
deftly skewered here
.

But as edifying
as it might be for us to wallow in the discrediting of Messrs. O'Hanlon
and Pollack, the piece is rather unimportant in itself — merely
one of a thousand bits of semi-official war propaganda, essentially
backward-looking as it attempts to vindicate the disastrous decision
to invade and occupy Iraq. Our eyes alighted upon a more fruitful
field for analysis in the form of a column by two other think tank
hacks, Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution (not coincidentally,
the place of employment for Mr. O'Hanlon as well), and Robert Kagan
of the catastrophically misnamed Carnegie Endowment for International
Peace.

The piece is
ominously titled "The
Next Intervention
." Just when we thought two cloddishly
mismanaged wars at the same time in Iraq and Afghanistan might chill
the American appetite for military intervention, the authors rush
to assure us that the dreadful prospect of a few years of peace
can be safely ruled out. Why? "Despite the problems and setbacks
in Iraq and Afghanistan, America remains the world’s dominant military
power, spends half a trillion dollars a year on defense and faces
no peer strong enough to deter it if it chooses to act." Might
makes right apparently. Rather than fighting on behalf of some morally
unimpeachable cause, the principal reason the authors advance for
going to war is because we can do it. This is, in fact, the opposite
of "peace through strength," and suggests that critics
of Pentagon spending were right all along in their assertion that
more spending equals more war.

Mindful of
the idiotic way in which the Bush administration handled diplomacy
in the run-up to their Mesopotamian Blitzkrieg, the authors
concede that getting other countries to sign off on our wars is
a good thing. For one thing, it sells war to the Better Sort of
People in America (the ones who shop at Whole Foods, watch PBS,
can find foreign countries on a map, and are likely to be reading
one's op-ed in the Washington Post): "It matters to
Americans, who want to believe they are acting justly and are troubled
if others accuse them of selfish, immoral or otherwise illegitimate
behavior." Horrors, the mortification of being accused, as
a right-thinking American, of such low-class behavior! As well to
receive a nasty letter from one’s homeowner’s association berating
one for not cutting the lawn. After all, if the Frogs are on board
as well as the Brits, it makes the war more Atlanticist and gives
everyone a dose of righteous nostalgia for the Euro-American solidarity
of the cold war.

But the problem,
as Messrs. Daalder and Kagan see it, is that damned United Nations.
We aren't ever likely again to be in a situation like 1950, when
the Russians boycotted the Security Council, so there will always
be a permanent member able and willing to veto a U.S. military intervention.
We need to overcome this problem because, as the authors pompously
remind us, "Toppling Saddam Hussein was a just act and therefore
was inherently legitimate." That is no doubt a great comfort
to the next of kin of the 600,000 or so "excess mortalities"
that the British medical journal Lancet estimates have occurred
pursuant to the U.S. invasion.

The solution?
— a "Concert of the Democracies" to replace the United
Nations. One can almost hear the director cuing the inspirational
music, à la the "Why We Fight" series. Nowhere,
of course, do the authors define what a democracy is. If it means
majoritarianism via one-man-one-vote, then the U.S. Senate and the
Electoral College would have difficulty passing muster. If it means
the rule of law maintained by such bedrock principles as habeas
corpus, there will be a lot of embarrassed coughing behind the hand
in Washington's think tanks.

Even on more
practical grounds, one can find insuperable problems with this scheme.
One could point to any number of indubitable democracies in Latin
America that, from bitter experience, would hesitate a long time
before giving a blank check to Washington to intervene wherever
it liked. In all likelihood, the authors' vision, were it ever realized,
would amount to no more that the same "coalition of the willing"
we have in Iraq, i.e., a smallish group of subservient and/or well-bribed
countries. It has, in fact, always been the administration's preference
to act as the capo among a group of clients, rather than
as one sovereign country dealing with others of the same status.
The op-ed piece so neatly fits the administration's line, in fact,
that it might as well have been drafted in the White House basement.

Much has been
written about the military industrial complex: its obscene cost
overruns; the corrupt relations between the uniformed military,
the contractors, and Congress; the wild threat inflation. Too little
studied has been the role of ostensibly non-partisan think tanks
as the semi-official propaganda arm of the complex, and as the transmission
belt of propaganda themes between the government and the prestige
press. While the activity of the American Enterprise Institute as
a propaganda organ is widely known because of its tub-thumping for
the Iraq war and its championing of Iranian spy Achmed Chalibi,
the same charge applies, to a greater or lesser degree, to most
of the "prestige" think tanks: Brookings, Carnegie, CSIS,
the Hudson Institute, etc.

They are an
integral part of the government's two-track propaganda machine for
selling war. For the downscale end of the market, Rush Limbaugh,
Sean Hannity, or Michael Savage will do nicely. Their braying voices
and crude arguments are finely calibrated to reach every low-status
white male out in satellite dish country. The notion that it's even
theoretically a good idea to have world opinion on America's side
before it embarks on war would be derided as sissy stuff in such
precincts. One recalls the eve of the Iraq war, when the visceral
hatred of the French in the Murdoch gutter press actually exceeded
the vituperation against Saddam Hussein.

But to convince
the professionals, the academics, the people who show up at the
various world affairs councils which dot the provinces, it is critically
useful to have mediators like Messrs. Daalder and Kagan. The Better
Sort roughly corresponds to the National Bourgeoisie in Wilhelmine
Germany or the outer Nomenklatura in the Soviet Union. They may
not send their kids to war in any appreciable numbers, but their
support for war is crucial to any administration. The more tender-minded
of the Better Sort, in particular, lust in a most alarming way for
some sort of “humanitarian” intervention they could support. It
is the task of the Daalders and Kagans to toss around terms like
“genocide” to provide a humanitarian gloss to whichever invasion
advocacy project they are promoting at the moment.1

Note as well,
that in the division of propaganda labor between the roughneck demagogues
and the think tank chin-scratchers, the propaganda themes to promote
a given policy are disparate or even contradictory. The Limbaughs
and the O’Reillys sell a frank brand of gutter patriotism emphasizing
the joys of killing foreigners. If there is any policy reason that
appeals to the target audience, it is likely to be something direct
and tangible, like the acquisition of valuable resources such as
oil. On the flip side, the fear used to motivate Limbaugh Nation
is some comic book level bugaboo, such as the notion that an Islamic
army will physically invade and conquer America.2

That sort of
thing won’t sell with the Better Sort. Ideally, we are fighting,
after a vigorous and probing national debate, and much searching
of souls, for a better world, to prevent genocide, to stop female
circumcision, or for credibility with our allies. If there is an
overriding fear that motivates the Better Sort, it is that old nemesis
of the MacNeil-Lehrer set, “regional instability.” While the lumpenproles
seethe with apocalyptic visions of hand-to-hand combat with the
minions of the Caliphate in downtown Paducah, the Better Sort’s
fantasies parse like a graduate seminar from hell. Mr. Daalder and
Mr. Kagan are only too happy to feed the conceits of the class that
nurtured them on behalf of the government that employs them at one
remove.

The day before
yesterday it was Vietnam; yesterday it was Kosovo; today it is Iraq.
Tomorrow it could be Iran, or Belarus, or Venezuela, or any one
of a dozen prospects. The duty of the think tank hacks is to make
war seem not only inevitable, but respectable in the eyes of the
Better Sort.

  1. One rather
    doubts a bunch of fuzzy-minded do-gooders was able to finance
    the recent campaign to intervene in Darfur that included full-page
    advertisements in the prestige papers and 60-second spots on television;
    there must have been more substantial interests involved. Although
    the “invade Sudan” lobby has thus far failed in its aim, it must
    be admitted that the target country of Sudan was a poor prospect:
    with a head of government not one person in ten thousand could
    name, it lacked an identifiable Hitler; and with a technology
    base more suited to the stone age than the space age, the fearmongers
    and threat inflators could hardly suggest WMD without eliciting
    laughter. When President Clinton dispatched cruise missiles against
    a Khartoum aspirin factory, the operation was not wildly popular,
    even among normally bellicose Republicans. One suspects the latter
    regarded it as an unwelcome distraction from their relentless
    drive to impeach him. If so, it was a rare case of domestic concerns
    trumping national security issues.
  2. Lest the
    reader think we exaggerate here, internet columnist Glenn
    Greenwald has written about
    exactly how prevalent this fantasy
    is among the Right Wing.

August
15, 2007

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

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