by Katrina vanden Heuvel / The Nation / Dec. 01, 2009
Tonight President Obama will announce his new Afghanistan policy. By all accounts it will be one of military escalation. This is a tragic moment–both for the nation and his presidency–and it is one I had hoped the President would avoid by courageously leading us in a wiser direction, one that views 21st century challenges anew, in fresh and necessary ways.
It is true that Obama would have needed real political courage to extricate himself from his predecessor’s war. He would have faced toxic blowback from a military and media establishment poised to attack. But in a war-weary nation, amidst great economic trouble, he could have used his great oratorical and political skills to marshal people of all kinds to his side.
Instead, with this escalation, we see the continuing grip of the National Security State–whose premises have been shared by the conservative and liberal hawks for close to 60 years, and which essentially remain unchallenged among the establishment and the mainstream media. Obama will now be held hostage to this mindset as a war bequeathed to him by a reckless and destructive administration becomes his own war.
This retro thinking and failure to explore real alternatives to military escalation reveal a deeper structural problem–the fact that there are too few countervailing voices or centers of power and authority to challenge the liberal hawks and interventionists, and very few if any are allowed to enter the halls of power. The political establishment works from its narrow consensus; meanwhile, the media fails to offer a full range of views.
Our challenge now as progressives is to begin to lay the groundwork so that the failed National Security States premises are exposed as ones no longer suited to addressing central challenges and threats of our time–from global pandemics and economic inequality and instability, to nuclear proliferation and, yes, decentralized networks of terrorists. We need structural reform if we’re to have a rich and deserved contest of ideas and views in our politics and society.
As James Carroll argues in a Boston Globe op-ed, “The time when ‘new thinking’ is most needed is before war starts,” and we must “put in place the structures of new thought that will prevent its repetition.”
How do we build pressure for structural reforms and the changes we believe in? How do we change the paradigm so that we expose the retro National Security State as the failure it is? The structural problem demands action on several fronts. We need a serious think/do tank on national security issues which is capable of contesting the underlying premises for specific interventions, and also challenging the prevailing assumptions underlying the National Security state. It also needs to work closely with progressive organizations with ties to the grassroots in order to build a broad-based movement for change. (Raising the idea of a new think/do tank is not meant to diminish the valuable work already being done at a handful of existing places.)
If we don’t look at the structural issues, we will always be fighting against the latest, newest, terrible, bad person/country that requires invading, occupying, or bombing with the latest weapon. We will also continue to lose reform-minded leaders to the powerful post-Cold War Military-Industrial-Terrorism complex. Its not hard to see how a Democratic candidate and now President like Obama–relatively unschooled in security issues–got caught up in establishment thinking. In choosing his foreign policy team, he looked to experienced advisors from the last Democratic presidency–a Clinton administration replete with establishment Democrats.
And then there’s the example of Lyndon Johnson, a Southerner, a master of the Senate, who did not have political courage to face down his military and counterinsurgency best and the brightest. Listen to the tapes of his conversations with his friend and mentor, Senator Richard Russell, and you hear a man who would face down almost anyone but was terrified of his right-wing, terrified of being called “soft.” So how do we change the meaning of “being tough” in the 21st century?
I believe we progressives/ethical realists/clear-minded people/citizens who believe in common sense–share some blame in not building a more powerful alternative foreign policy bench to compete with these counterinsurgency experts populating DC think tanks and Congress. Structural reform must now be the work for thinkers and activists working with elected officials who are open to understanding the world and its future in new and not-ready-for-primetime ways–even as a President we had high expectations for is escalating a war that may well deplete this country of the resources needed to rebuild its promise, while doing little to nothing to make us or the region more secure or stable.