The Party Line – April 29, 2011: And the Band Played On

After pausing for a day to placate another bleating billionaire, President Obama stepped to the first microphone Thursday to announce that Leon Panetta would soon sit where Bob Gates now sits, and that David Patraeus would sit in Panetta’s old chair, and that John Allen would grab King David’s throne, and so on and so forth until someone pulled the needle off the record. At which point we were told that the president had re-tooled his national security team for the challenges that lie ahead.

But if that sounds less like re-tooling and more like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, well, that’s because it should.

At a place in history where the administration’s much ballyhooed Afghanistan strategy has proven another stutter-step in a long, bloody line of failed tactics, at a time when the entire US intelligence establishment seems to have been caught flat-footed by the uprisings of this Arab Spring, bringing us to a moment where being militarily overextended and signally under-informed has quickly left the US knee-deep in a Libyan quagmire, one might think that Obama would use the force of history as the perfect excuse to really change course. One might think that, but Obama did not do that.

Instead, the architect of our misfortune in Afghanistan is given control of the Central Intelligence Agency, and the guy who forsook the CIA’s intelligence gathering responsibilities to further strengthen covert ops will now run the whole shebang (emphasis on “bang”) at the Pentagon.

While “failing upward” seems to be the 21st Century way America tries to win the future, perhaps the even more disturbing theme is the further blurring of the distinction between the US military and national intelligence. Marcy, David, and Jim have all touched on aspects of this, but, in short, what were once the independent and sometimes competitive interests of the intelligence community, the diplomatic corps and the military have, in the interest of post-9/11 “coordination” or post-imperial expedience, been mixed into the what now looks like the world’s largest paramilitary.

Which is actually a pretty dangerous place to steer the ship of state. While America’s giant military industrial complex, its ability to reach across the globe and “hit ‘em there” (and often do so with only the push of a button) may give us the sense that we are insulated from the conflicts abroad, we are, in fact, staying a course rife with icebergs.

To use a more recent (if you consider 30 years ago “recent”) analogy, the US is not unlike the space ship in a game of Asteroids. It has enough torpedoes to whip around and fire at will at the interplanetary rocks heading its way, but each hit breaks an asteroid into dozens of smaller ones, and eventually there are just too many to dodge.

OK, where was I? Oh, yes. Darting back in time again, I often talk about a theory I call “The Sick Man of the Americas.” It is a play on “The Sick Man of Europe,” a term used to describe a declining and dangerous Ottoman Empire at the turn of the last century. At that point, the Ottomans had been on the downward slope of history for a long time, but what they lacked in political influence, they tried to make up for with military might.

The American Empire stands at a similar precipice. Feeling its diplomatic might on the wane, its industrial prowess now being outstripped by several regional powers, its economy stagnant, its technological edge blunted by a decade of anti-science leadership, and even its cultural significance questioned, the US still has one thing it knows it can do better than any other place in the world, and that is blow things up.

The problem is, lots of other countries find that tiresome. It might suffice for now, given expectations, trade deals, and pre-existing commitments, but eventually all this bounderism gets in the way of things like commerce, and when you screw with other people’s money, they get touchy.

There may not be some great army ready to advance on our shores, not yet, but there will come a point where doing things the American way becomes more trouble than its worth. And in an interconnected world, that will make it very hard to even play in the future, forget about, uh, winning.

The sad part is it doesn’t have to be this way. Though the establishment that just played musical chairs is entrenched, it is not immortal. There are actually people well on their way to being part of the establishment who also worry about an overly militarized American century. Note, for example, Mr. Y.

Mr. Y, in reality two senior members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (the pseudonym is a play on a 64-year old essay by George Kennan), released a paper titled “A National Strategic Narrative” (PDF), and in it they spell out a part-primer, part-warning on the choices America is now making.

The paper is long, and I am still digesting it, but the takeaway relevant to this week’s events is the insistence that America needs to transition away, as they say, from a policy of “containment to sustainment,” and that the US needs to see that its security lies in its prosperity, as opposed to the other way around. The idea (and I am seriously shorthanding here) is that rather than using military might to keep perceived threats at arms’ length (pun intended), a focus on strong domestic institutions will serve American security much better.

It is not a surprising position from a generation of military leaders that have been put through the meat grinders of Iraq and Afghanistan. And it is a position that might seem consistent with what was promised by candidate Barack Obama back in 2008.

Yes, it is true that Obama did signal an escalation in Afghanistan during the campaign, but otherwise, the junior Senator from Illinois spoke of reclaiming America’s role in the world by investing in domestic industry and innovation, and leading by example rather than by ordinance.

Contrary to the Obama of April 2011, that future still seems winnable. The Mr. Ys of this world, bred of a professional military, tired of playing Pinky to the intel black-baggers’ Brain, provide a ready and powerful force on the inside. The Democratic base—the young new voters and the liberals of all ages that surged to the polls to give Obama his first term as president—would provide all the support Obama would need on the outside. But those dual constituencies, seemingly so perfectly primed to help the ’08 vintage Obama bring forth the change he once promised, find themselves alternately ignored or punched by the present president.

It is the macro-theme that played out in microcosm on Thursday. Obama, the captain on the bridge, promoted an intelligence director who turned a deaf ear to a global chorus of discontent, and a leader of military escalations—almost by definition a guy that shoots first and asks questions later—was given the responsibility of doing the required listening that lies ahead.

The band will play on, but will anyone on the promenade deck be able to recognize the tune?