Years ago, I optimistically read AEI fellow Jeane Kirkpatrick‘s defense of our foreign policy hypocrisy, entitled Dictatorships and Double Standards. Even as a Cold War conservative at the time, I recall feeling that she protested too much. The American Enterprise Institute’s sustained role in propagandizing American wars, including the creative and carelessly contrived 2003 invasion of Iraq, certainly belies the organization’s moniker.
Paying attention to the real work of the AEI is almost enough to turn a person into an anti-American world socialist… but perhaps that’s precisely the point, given the ideological backgrounds of so many of the neoconservatives there.
Yet, the AEI remains, posing as an organization that advocates for freedom of individuals rather than the state. It continues to shill for war, global conquest, and to promote a kind of fantastic Washington mastery-of-the-planet idea. The most recent case in point is this week’s AEI policy panel entitled "The War in the Caucasus."
Fred Kagan spoke at length on the Russian-Georgian conflict, with many PowerPoint slides. The pudgy Ph.D. droned on and on, apparently boring not only myself, but many in the AEI audience, some of whom appeared to be suppressing yawns. Of course, this lethargy may be explained by the fact that the audience consisted mostly of well over-fifty and similarly pudgy white men. The few young people in the audience appeared not to be paying close attention. Fred Kagan is insufferably boring.
Because Fred was purporting to give a military style tactics and strategy briefing, my mind wandered back to my military days. We liked well-organized, concise, and accurate briefings. Where speculation was called for, such speculation was presented with full disclosure, conservatively, and constrained always, always, by known facts.
Did I mention "concise?" What about "factual?" Good, I thought so. Needless to say, what Fred (who, as the presentation proceeded, increasingly reminded me of one of the pigs in Animal Farm) communicated could have been better done by a 21-year-old airman. Interspersed and interwoven between Kagan’s various "facts" was Kagan’s ill-considered and pathetically transparent hopes for larger war, and his narrowly contrived opinions about what the conflagration in Georgia meant for the globe.
Perhaps I was simply in a bad mood because Fred had three different pronunciations for the city of Tbilisi, each of which he insisted upon giving equal time. Egalitarianism and self-determination is justified for faulty pronunciations, but sadly, not for South Ossetians or Abkhazians.
But I don’t mean to pick on Fred. Next was former Army Lt. Col. and prolific author Ralph Peters. Peters appeared to fully share Kagan’s ideas of the grand significance of Russia’s invasion, and he was angered by President Bush’s sissified reaction. Airlifting Georgians back from supporting our own invasion of Iraq, a quickly deployed U.S. military-humanitarian mission, and declaring our undying support for that great democrat, Saakashvili? This was not nearly enough for Ralph, who looked like an aging hippie in a suit. I met Peters at NSA in the mid-1990s, and remember him as young, clean cut and energetic. This week at AEI, his familiar stomping ground, he seemed fuzzily hysterical, and almost frail as he panted for more war.
It goes without saying that these effeminate men-children flock to play war, even as they avoid real debate, real disagreement, and real combat. Intimidated by a complex and uncontrollable world, they create in their own minds an ordered controllable fantasy. Hence the tidy attraction of socialism — but this ideological flirtation with super-centralized control of human activity is normally overcome by education and maturity — and for most moral people, ownership of perfection is granted to a higher, immortal power. It is eerie to witness the arrested intellectual and moral development on public display at AEI. But more frightening is AEI’s institutional avoidance of reality and justice, and its enthusiastic cultivation of what Hayek called the pretense of knowledge.
The strangest aspect of the AEI panel was the fluidity of AEI’s pronouncements on the wrongness of the Russian military action against the Georgian state, its cities and population, AEI’s pointed criticism of Russia’s economic motivations, and AEI’s repeated claims for the rights of small states to be left alone, to rule themselves, to evolve. With each high-minded criticism of Russia’s actions over the past few weeks, I wondered why no one in the audience was physically wincing at how accurately AEI’s criticism applied to our own cavalier destruction of states, governments and cities, our own insistence on loyal puppet governors (like Saakashvili himself, supported by American taxpayer dollars, and Washington back-room dealings) as we occupy Iraq, and manipulate the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and other countries around the world.
Our 20th-century American habit, continued to the present day, is to send our military halfway around the world to dominate and destroy small countries with fourth-rate defenses. This not only doesn’t seem to embarrass the great minds at AEI, it is embraced by them — except when a once and future (and now very wealthy) enemy follows suit. Then, miraculously, the language of freedom is summoned. That elsewhere these same intellectuals can smoothly take the side of separatist Kurds, Shiites, Kosovars and even Chechnyans — using the same exact language, belies the real purpose and intent of AEI: to promote the neoconservative Washington consensus — clothed in the language of freedom and democracy.
For a good reading of Washington’s strategic interests in Georgia (and these do NOT include democracy, self-determination, freedom or peace) you are better off looking at this paper from the Army War College. For wisdom that applies today, we may actually find it in AEI. Jeane Kirkpatrick observed in 1988 that, "Russia is playing chess, while we are playing Monopoly. The only question is whether they will checkmate us before we bankrupt them." Resident AEI scholar Leon Aron, on the panel this week, wrote of Russia under Putin in 2006,
… [the Kremlin decided to]…. reanimate the role of the state, occupy “commanding heights” in economy again, repossess the “jewels” in the “economy’s crown,” and put the executive branch of the government above all the other branches, permanently.
Kirkpatrick and Aron, as with every topsy-turvy articulation from the AEI, have it exactly right — except for orientation. American interest in Georgia in the past decade is the result of neoconservative fear that Russia will bankrupt America’s heavily indebted and credit-dependent government. And rather than contemporary Russia becoming less free, more economically centralized and tyrannical, Aron’s projection more accurately reflects the United States today, an ugly America that AEI promotes and nurtures.