The ‘X’ Dreams of Washington’s Wonks

April 4, 2007 • Commentary
This article appeared on Asia Times Online on April 4, 2007.

You’ve got to love Washington’s foreign‐​policy wonks, always ready for the next battle between the pundits with either a profound Kissingerian piece of thought to catch the eye of the op‐​ed page editor (“Multipolarism can only be sustained through a hegemonic‐​led concert of great powers”) or a catchy news‐​bite to fill a few seconds on Cable News (“Is this the long‐​awaited ‘tipping point’ in Iraq?”).

And they insist that to pontificate about the latest Mideast crisis on this television show or to sound off on the new trade accord in that think‐​tank briefing is not really a “job”, the kind they would have held (for sure!) in a big‐​time Wall Street law firm or in a prestigious Ivy League university — if they just wanted to get rich and famous.

But they didn’t. And here they are in the capital of the world’s only remaining superpower, and to quote the motto of a local television station, “We Care About You” — “you” being the nation, the world, humanity. (As a full disclosure, let me acknowledge that I am a Washington‐​based foreign‐​policy wonk who actually authored the above in‐​parentheses words of wisdom.)

If he belongs to the realist school, the foreign‐​policy wonk (not many wonkettes operate in what is basically a man’s world) would claim that his only ambition (well, “mission” sounds better) is to advance the US national interest or national security. Contemporary “realists” look up for inspiration to the wise men, the lawyers, bankers and diplomats who drew up the outline of containment policy of dealing with the Communist Bloc during the administration of president Harry Truman.

They include such certified “Wise Men” as Dean Acheson, Charles E Bohlen, W Averell Harriman, Robert A Lovett, John J McCloy and George F Kennan, who became the exemplars of the US foreign‐​policy establishment: pragmatic and non‐​dogmatic hardcore realists who set the standard for the realpolitik‐​type policies pursued by their successors: Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, George Shultz, James Baker.

An “idealist” would swear that he wants (among many other things) to end world hunger and promote human rights here, there and everywhere. He or she is probably daydreaming about time‐​traveling to the presidencies of John F Kennedy or Jimmy Carter and launching another Peace Corps and Alliance for Progress (and forgetting that the intervention in Vietnam and in Afghanistan had been the brainchildren of officials in the administration of respectively JFK and Carter).

But whether he is a realist or an idealist, all foreign‐​policy wonks share the same fantasy: that he would give birth to the Next Big Thing in US foreign policy, the Great Strategy for the post‐​post‐​Cold War and, by extension, post‐​Iraq era.

That would lead to a date with the next president in the White House where our wonk would be asked to turn his idea into policy, being instantly transformed into a statesman, the first Dr K of the 21st century, on his way to do “shuttle diplomacy” in the Middle East. The inspiration for this wet dream is one of the Wise Men, George Kennan, who in July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs, under the pseudonym “X”, published an article that outlined the policy of containment toward the Soviet Union, which would remain in place for the duration of the Cold War.

Then there was the case of Jeane Kirkpatrick, who in an article “Dictatorships and double standards”, published in Commentary in November 1979, made a distinction between “authoritarian” right‐​wing regimes (which Washington should embrace) and the communist “dictatorships” (which Washington should fight). The article came to the attention of presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, for whom she became a foreign‐​policy adviser and, after his election to the presidency, ambassador to the United Nations.

As the neo‐​cons — the wonks who became statesmen during the presidency of George W Bush — are being shown the way out of Washington (“You’ll never do foreign policy in this town”) and while their fantasies have been relegated to the narrative of the cartoonish movie 300, ambitious wonks are hoping to deliver a conceptual framework that will replace “unilateralism”, “preemption”, “freedom agenda” and “assertive internationalism” with something, well, different.

But meanwhile, they’ll have to spend their time in the “green room” waiting for another shouting match on the cable news shows of Bill O’Reilly or Chris Mathews and on “advising” (perhaps even a few minutes of “face time” with) “Barack” or “Hillary” or “Rudy” or “Chuck”.

Just imagine all the personal sacrifice, all the sweat and tears, by our foreign‐​policy wonks (and conclude this segment with president Kennedy’s “Don’t ask what your country can do for you” or Winston Churchill’s “Never … was so much owed by so many to so few”).

Yep. The check is not in the mail. I won’t love you in the morning. There is no Santa Claus. And foreign‐​policy wonks care about you. Right? Wrong! Believe it or not, foreign‐​policy wonks are just as ambitious, as greedy — seekers of power, fame and fortune — as the rest of the “players” in Washington. In this Age of Empire, the New Rome — the regime changer, the exporter of “freedom”, the importer of foreign currency (hey, someone has to pay for all of this) — is attracting every corrupt autocrat in the “Stans”, every “freedom fighter” — from Chalabi and Makiya to Maliki and Pahlavi — in the Broader Middle East, every producer of “color revolution” in the former Communist Bloc, every oil profiteer and every non‐​governmental‐​organization do‐​gooder, as they each plead for more dollars, more marines, more business deals, more democracy promotion.

So is it surprising that US foreign‐​policy wonks are also converging on Washington to gain their financial and power share of the expanding imperial prize and join the winners in the White House and on Capitol Hill, in the Pentagon, the State Department, Treasury and the alphabet soup of government agencies from AID to NED? And let’s not forget the moneyed influence peddlers on K Street with its polished law firms, lobbyist groups, and public relations agencies. Rent Seekers of America and the World Unite in Washington.

Indeed, apply a bit of evolutionary psychology and mix it with a slice of public choice theory and some good old realism aka cynicism, and you’ll be able to deconstruct the lives of US foreign‐​policy wonks. Consider Washington and its “foreign‐​policy community” as an environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA), where the evolved human psychological mechanisms are adapted to policy reproduction.

These mechanisms include those of growth (PhD from good school and networking with the well‐​connected “inside the Beltway”); development (attachment to a “sugar daddy” such as powerful congressman or a wealthy think‐​tank); differentiation (“Anything you can say, I can say better”); maintenance (remember Woody Allen: “Eighty percent of success is showing up”); mating (with a winner, eg president), parenting (a policy); and social relationships (managing bureaucratic infighting and leaking to the press).

And please do some deconstructing of the We Care About You stuff, and assume that the wonks produce policies that can conflict with the overall desires of the general public and reflect the interests of the more powerful and wealthy members of that public (I know, you’re shocked! shocked! shocked!).

Like the politicians they consult, the wonks have their own “constituencies” that include interest groups and lobbyists that fund their think‐​tanks (which provides policy analyses and briefings), their magazines and webzines. In short, they make sure that the wonks can pay the rent (especially after their president loses the election).

And it just happens that the wonks seem to agree with the views and agendas of those who help keep them afloat professionally and financially, which explains why when he leaves government, the retired wonk lands on a six‐​figure salary working on K Street. Hence the term “rent seeking” coined by public‐​choicers to refer to agents in and outside governments extracting the resources provided by government; in our case, foreign policy.

In a way, the intellectual and political epoch of The Rise and (Almost … we’re getting there …) Fall of Neo‐​conservatism, would probably be recalled by future aspiring wonks as the classic case of ambitious peddlers of foreign‐​policy ideas of embracing successful adaptationist mechanisms that have helped them win in the evolutionary process in Washington, while excelling as “rent seekers” as they continue to gain personal and professional profits.

While conspiracy theorists imagine the neo‐​cons as a group of conniving conspirators meeting in secret locations in Washington and around the globe as they try to orchestrate Machiavellian intrigues, anyone who has followed the amazing victories of the neo‐​conservatives in Washington’s foreign‐​policy community after September 11, 2001, through the insightful reports by Jim Lobe and other journalists and analysts can only conclude that the likes of Paul Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams, Richard Perle, Max Boot, William Kristol, Robert Kagan, Peter Rodman, and Douglas Feith have basically demonstrated their policy reproductive success and talent for “rent seeking”.

Indeed, they have adopted mechanisms of growth (through influence by such scholars as Leo Strauss, Allan Bloom and Albert Wohlstetter as well as networks linked to the Congress for Cultural Freedom to the Committee on the Present Danger); development (through attachment to “sugar daddies” ranging from politicians such as former senator Henry M Jackson and Ronald Reagan to businessmen such as Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black as well as to think‐​tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Hudson Institute); differentiation (through opposition to liberal internationalists on the left and conservative realists on the right); maintenance (through propagation of ideas in such outlets as the Project for the New American Century [PNAC] and The Weekly Standard and, indeed, “being there” when September 11 took place); mating (with winners, President George W Bush); parenting (the post‐​September 11 foreign policy, including the war in Iraq); and social relationships (through the management of bureaucratic infighting that led to the resignation of Colin Powell as secretary of state and through leaking to the press disinformation on Iraq before the war and manipulating public and elite opinions).

And when it comes to extracting bureaucratic, financial and intellectual rewards, the neo‐​cons can probably write the book on “How to Succeed in the Foreign Policy Business”. They established footholds not only in think‐​tanks and publications well funded by their close benefactors, but have also penetrated the editorial pages of such newspapers as the New York Times and the Washington Post and other intellectual powerhouses of the foreign‐​policy establishment, including the Council on Foreign Affairs and the Carnegie Endowment, while dominating centers of foreign‐​policy making in the White House, Pentagon and State Department and, in retirement, winning lucrative consulting jobs and book contracts (Wolfowitz’ professional rise in government, including his final landing on the job of president of the World Bank, is probably the most dramatic example of a contemporary policy wonk rising from rags to riches).

One of the most critical roles that the neo‐​cons have played in the foreign‐​policy community can be understood by applying a term coined by biologist Richard Dawkins — “meme”, which refers to a “unit of cultural information” that can propagate from one mind to another in a manner analogous to genes. By successfully diffusing their foreign‐​policy memes through government, the think‐​tanks and the media since the end of the Cold War and the first Gulf War — Francis Fukuyama’s celebrated End of History; the inclusion by Wolfowitz of themes of “unilateralism” and “preemption” in a draft 1992 Pentagon paper; the continuing propaganda efforts by PNAC to press for Saddam Hussein’s ouster; Max Boot’s popularization of military‐​driven nation‐​building; demonizing China and political Islam as post‐​Cold War threats — the neo‐​cons were able to construct what Dawkins refers to as “memeplexes” or “meme complexes”, that is, memes that propagate as a more or less integrated cooperative set.

From that perspective, in the post‐​September 11 era, the neo‐​con memes evolved into a meme complex, in the form of the “Bush Doctrine” consisting of such memes as “unilateralism”, “preemption”, “freedom agenda”, and “aggressive internationalism”.

So who are the Washington wonks who are trying to diffuse new foreign‐​policy memes that could evolve eventually into the post‐​post‐​meme complex that would be known as the “Clinton II Doctrine” or perhaps the “Hegel Doctrine”? I met two of them in a seminar held recently in the offices of The National Interest magazine at the Nixon Center, whose editor Nikolas K Gvosdev and a group of “neo‐​realist” foreign‐​policy wonks have been imagining, debating and writing about the shape of global things to come in the aftermath of the reign of the neo‐​cons.

In the seminar, one of these thinkers, Michael Lind, a Whitehead senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a “cool” think‐​tank that has been the home for other anti‐​neo‐​con warriors, such as wonk extraordinaire Steven Clemons and columnist Jim Pinkerton, called for replacing the hegemonic strategy of the Bush administration with a concert‐​of‐​great‐​powers system, in which the United States, the European Union, Russia, China and India would share in the task of policing the world.

Instead of unilateralism, Washington would embrace multipolarism, an approach that would be more cost‐​effective in terms of US economic and military resources, argued Lind, the author of The American Way of Strategy: US Foreign Policy and the American Way of Life (Oxford University Press, 2006).

Joining him in the panel was Amitai Etzioni of George Washington University, another critic of the neo‐​cons’ unrealistic agenda, which he wants to replace with what he called a “security first” foreign policy in which the focus of US strategy would be placed on protecting core national‐​security interests, such as denying terrorists access to weapons of mass destruction and not on exporting democracy.

But while both Lind and Etzioni are marketing substitutes for the Bush Doctrine, the debate between the two reflects a deeper division among members of the post‐​neo‐​con foreign‐​policy community in Washington. Forget about the never‐​ending ideological and political struggles between realists and idealists, or between hawks and doves, and instead contemplate a clash between foreign‐​policy wonks like Etzioni, who are trying to rearrange the neo‐​con memes, assign to them new labels and assemble them into a more user‐​friendly meme complex, and between more contrarian neo‐​realists like Lind, who are conceptualizing new and ground‐​breaking memes and now‐​for‐​something‐​completely‐​different presidential doctrines.

One of the first observers to draw attention to these new foreign‐​policy divisions, columnist Are Berman of The Nation magazine, argued that many of the leading wonks who are expected to occupy top positions in the US National Security Council, State Department and Pentagon under a Clinton II or Obama administration, members of the “strategic class” — the foreign‐​policy advisers, think‐​tank specialists and pundits — have supported the ouster of Saddam Hussein and are now basically promoting a set of neo‐​con‐​lite foreign‐​policy ideas.

These “muscular internationalists” or “liberal hawks” include wonks associated with prestigious think‐​tanks such as the Brookings Institution, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, where wonks including Martin Indyk, former ambassador to Israel; Kenneth Pollack, a former Central Intelligence Agency official whose book The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq played a crucial role in persuading wavering Democrats and liberals to back the run‐​up to the Iraq war; Peter Beinart, former editor of The New Republic and author of The Good Fight: Why Liberals — and Only Liberals — Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again (HarperCollins, 2006); and Ivo Daalder and Richard Holbrook, who advise Democratic leaders on foreign policy.

Not unlike Amitai Etzioni, these wonks are proposing that their ideas would permit the United States to maintain its hegemonic position in the Middle East and elsewhere by adopting more cost‐​effective and marketable policies: the US will remain in the driver’s seat but allow the allies to check the tires and replace the oil, and more efforts would be made to sell the continuing US drive toward supremacy as a “multilateral” project.

In fact, a veteran wonk, Will Marshall, president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute, predicted during another National Interest seminar on “What a Post‐​Bush Foreign Policy Might Look Like” that the foreign‐​policy doctrine that will be adopted by a new Democratic president will probably be even more aggressive in terms of fighting the “war against terror”, strengthening America’s military presence abroad as well as exporting democracy — the same argument that Beinart has made in his book.

In contrast to the Next Not So Big Thing advanced by the members of Washington’s old “strategic class”, the neo‐​realists, and associated with the New America Foundation, the Cato Institute (with which I’m affiliated as a research fellow), the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, and such publications as The National Interest and The American Conservative (where yours truly serves as a contributing editor), most of which opposed the “liberation” of Iraq, are disseminating new foreign‐​policy memes that run contrary to conventional wisdom that guided US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, and particularly since September 11: adopting a strategy based on the protection of core US security and economic interests abroad; replacing the unipolar Pax Americana strategy with an approach based on multipolarism, with the United States accepting the right of other great powers to dominate their regional spheres of influence (China in East Asia; Russia in the “near abroad”; the EU in the eastern Mediterranean); a gradual military disengagement from the Middle East, including a more “normal” relationship with Israel and with the United States playing a role of an “offshore balancer” in the region; and an end to the global crusade for democracy with the US helping to advance political liberty and free markets as a role model and through trade and targeted economic assistance.

Some of the major foreign‐​policy wonks who have been advancing these ideas for several years include in addition to Michael Lind, Steven Clemons, Jim Pinkerton and Nikolas Gvosdev such scholars and writers as Anatol Lieven of the New America Foundation and John Hulsman, co‐​authors of Ethical Realism: A Vision for America’s Role in the World (Pantheon, 2006); Jonathan Clarke of the Coalition for Realistic Foreign Policy and Stefan Halper, co‐​authors of Silence of the Rational Center: Why American Foreign Policy Is Failing (Basic, 2007); Ted Carpenter and Christopher Preble of the Cato Institute; Patrick Lang and Larry Johnson of The National Interest; and Scott McConnell Andrew Bacevich and Michael Desch of The American Conservative.

The neo‐​realists still lack the kind of financial resources that have been available to the neo‐​cons and helped them spread the message and eventually win the foreign‐​policy debate after September 11, 2001. And as Lind points out in his book, a strategy based on the assumptions that Washington would play a less interventionist role in global affairs runs contrary not only to the ideas and interests of the neo‐​cons but also to those of the elites in Washington whose power and prosperity are tied very much to the continuing global hegemonic position of the United States.

These elites like the idea of residing and operating in, and ruling over, the New Rome, and they are not going to give up their jobs in government, Congress, the media, and K Street, unless they come under pressure at home from a growing number of Americans who are less inclined the pay the costs in blood and treasure that are involved in maintaining the American Empire, and as these costs become more apparent as a result of opposition from counter‐​hegemonic global powers (Russia, China) as well as global players (Iran, Venezuela).

Indeed, the neo‐​realist memes would continue to evolve for some time, but they would only turn into a meme complex, the Next Big Thing in foreign policy, and a perhaps even a presidential doctrine, if and when a global crisis of the magnitude of September 11 that will expose the high costs of the current policies, say a war with Iran coupled with rising oil prices and a deteriorating dollar, will also force leaders in Washington to reverse course and search for ideas that make sense of the new global realities and could help transform a wonk into a Wise Man.

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