Rationalizing Lunacy: The Policy Intellectual as Servant of the State

Yves here. Andrew Bacevich excoriates policy intellectuals as “blight on the republic”. His case study focuses on the military/surveillance complex but he notes in passing that the first policy intellectuals were in the economic realm. And we are plagued with plenty of malpractice there too.

by Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations emeritus at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies.  He is writing a military history of America’s War for the Greater Middle East. His most recent book is< Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country. Originally published at TomDispatch

Policy intellectuals — eggheads presuming to instruct the mere mortals who actually run for office — are a blight on the republic. Like some invasive species, they infest present-day Washington, where their presence strangles common sense and has brought to the verge of extinction the simple ability to perceive reality. A benign appearance — well-dressed types testifying before Congress, pontificating in print and on TV, or even filling key positions in the executive branch — belies a malign impact. They are like Asian carp let loose in the Great Lakes.

It all began innocently enough.  Back in 1933, with the country in the throes of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt first imported a handful of eager academics to join the ranks of his New Deal.  An unprecedented economic crisis required some fresh thinking, FDR believed. Whether the contributions of this “Brains Trust” made a positive impact or served to retard economic recovery (or ended up being a wash) remains a subject for debate even today.   At the very least, however, the arrival of Adolph Berle, Raymond Moley, Rexford Tugwell, and others elevated Washington’s bourbon-and-cigars social scene. As bona fide members of the intelligentsia, they possessed a sort of cachet.

Then came World War II, followed in short order by the onset of the Cold War. These events brought to Washington a second wave of deep thinkers, their agenda now focused on “national security.”  This eminently elastic concept — more properly, “national insecurity” — encompassed just about anything related to preparing for, fighting, or surviving wars, including economics, technology, weapons design, decision-making, the structure of the armed forces, and other matters said to be of vital importance to the nation’s survival.  National insecurity became, and remains today, the policy world’s equivalent of the gift that just keeps on giving.

People who specialized in thinking about national insecurity came to be known as “defense intellectuals.”  Pioneers in this endeavor back in the 1950s were as likely to collect their paychecks from think tanks like the prototypical RAND Corporation as from more traditional academic institutions.  Their ranks included creepy figures like Herman Kahn, who took pride in “thinking about the unthinkable,” and Albert Wohlstetter, who tutored Washington in the complexities of maintaining “the delicate balance of terror.”

In this wonky world, the coin of the realm has been and remains “policy relevance.”  This means devising products that convey a sense of novelty, while serving chiefly to perpetuate the ongoing enterprise. The ultimate example of a policy-relevant insight is Dr. Strangelove’s discovery of a “mineshaft gap” — successor to the “bomber gap” and the “missile gap” that, in the 1950s, had found America allegedly lagging behind the Soviets in weaponry and desperately needing to catch up.  Now, with a thermonuclear exchange about to destroy the planet, the United States is once more falling behind, Strangelove claims, this time in digging underground shelters enabling some small proportion of the population to survive.

In a single, brilliant stroke, Strangelove posits a new raison d’être for the entire national insecurity apparatus, thereby ensuring that the game will continue more or less forever.  A sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s movie would have shown General “Buck” Turgidson and the other brass huddled in the War Room, developing plans to close the mineshaft gap as if nothing untoward had occurred.

The Rise of the National Insecurity State

Yet only in the 1960s, right around the time that Dr. Strangelove first appeared in movie theaters, did policy intellectuals really come into their own.  The press now referred to them as “action intellectuals,” suggesting energy and impatience.  Action intellectuals were thinkers, but also doers, members of a “large and growing body of men who choose to leave their quiet and secure niches on the university campus and involve themselves instead in the perplexing problems that face the nation,” as LIFE Magazine put it in 1967. Among the most perplexing of those problems was what to do about Vietnam, just the sort of challenge an action intellectual could sink his teeth into.

Over the previous century-and-a-half, the United States had gone to war for many reasons, including greed, fear, panic, righteous anger, and legitimate self-defense.  On various occasions, each of these, alone or in combination, had prompted Americans to fight.  Vietnam marked the first time that the United States went to war, at least in considerable part, in response to a bunch of really dumb ideas floated by ostensibly smart people occupying positions of influence.  More surprising still, action intellectuals persisted in waging that war well past the point where it had become self-evident, even to members of Congress, that the cause was a misbegotten one doomed to end in failure.

In his fine new book American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity, Christian Appy, a historian who teaches at the University of Massachusetts, reminds us of just how dumb those ideas were.

As Exhibit A, Professor Appy presents McGeorge Bundy, national security adviser first for President John F. Kennedy and then for Lyndon Johnson.  Bundy was a product of Groton and Yale, who famously became the youngest-ever dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, having gained tenure there without even bothering to get a graduate degree.

For Exhibit B, there is Walt Whitman Rostow, Bundy’s successor as national security adviser.  Rostow was another Yalie, earning his undergraduate degree there along with a PhD.  While taking a break of sorts, he spent two years at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar.  As a professor of economic history at MIT, Rostow captured JFK’s attention with his modestly subtitled 1960 book The Stages of Economic Growth:  A Non-Communist Manifesto, which offered a grand theory of development with ostensibly universal applicability.  Kennedy brought Rostow to Washington to test his theories of “modernization” in places like Southeast Asia.

Finally, as Exhibit C, Appy briefly discusses Professor Samuel P. Huntington’s contributions to the Vietnam War.  Huntington also attended Yale, before earning his PhD at Harvard and then returning to teach there, becoming one of the most renowned political scientists of the post-World War II era.

What the three shared in common, apart from a suspect education acquired in New Haven, was an unwavering commitment to the reigning verities of the Cold War.  Foremost among those verities was this: that a monolith called Communism, controlled by a small group of fanatic ideologues hidden behind the walls of the Kremlin, posed an existential threat not simply to America and its allies, but to the very idea of freedom itself.  The claim came with this essential corollary: the only hope of avoiding such a cataclysmic outcome was for the United States to vigorously resist the Communist threat wherever it reared its ugly head.

Buy those twin propositions and you accept the imperative of the U.S. preventing the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, a.k.a. North Vietnam, from absorbing the Republic of Vietnam, a.k.a. South Vietnam, into a single unified country; in other words, that South Vietnam was a cause worth fighting and dying for.  Bundy, Rostow, and Huntington not only bought that argument hook, line, and sinker, but then exerted themselves mightily to persuade others in Washington to buy it as well.

Yet even as he was urging the “Americanization” of the Vietnam War in 1965, Bundy already entertained doubts about whether it was winnable.  But not to worry:  even if the effort ended in failure, he counseled President Johnson, “the policy will be worth it.”

How so?  “At a minimum,” Bundy wrote, “it will damp down the charge that we did not do all that we could have done, and this charge will be important in many countries, including our own.”  If the United States ultimately lost South Vietnam, at least Americans would have died trying to prevent that result — and through some perverted logic this, in the estimation of Harvard’s youngest-ever dean, was a redeeming prospect.  The essential point, Bundy believed, was to prevent others from seeing the United States as a “paper tiger.”  To avoid a fight, even a losing one, was to forfeit credibility.  “Not to have it thought that when we commit ourselves we really mean no major risk” — that was the problem to be avoided at all cost.

Rostow outdid even Bundy in hawkishness.  Apart from his relentless advocacy of coercive bombing to influence North Vietnamese policymakers, Rostow was a chief architect of something called the Strategic Hamlet Program.  The idea was to jumpstart the Rostovian process of modernization by forcibly relocating Vietnamese peasants from their ancestral villages into armed camps where the Saigon government would provide security, education, medical care, and agricultural assistance.  By winning hearts-and-minds in this manner, the defeat of the communist insurgency was sure to follow, with the people of South Vietnam vaulted into the “age of high mass consumption,” where Rostow believed all humankind was destined to end up.

That was the theory.  Reality differed somewhat.  Actual Strategic Hamlets were indistinguishable from concentration camps.  The government in Saigon proved too weak, too incompetent, and too corrupt to hold up its end of the bargain.  Rather than winning hearts-and-minds, the program induced alienation, even as it essentially destabilized peasant society.  One result: an increasingly rootless rural population flooded into South Vietnam’s cities where there was little work apart from servicing the needs of the ever-growing U.S. military population — hardly the sort of activity conducive to self-sustaining development.

Yet even when the Vietnam War ended in complete and utter defeat, Rostow still claimed vindication for his theory.  “We and the Southeast Asians,” he wrote, had used the war years “so well that there wasn’t the panic [when Saigon fell] that there would have been if we had failed to intervene.”  Indeed, regionally Rostow spied plenty of good news, all of it attributable to the American war.

”Since 1975 there has been a general expansion of trade by the other countries of that region with Japan and the West.  In Thailand we have seen the rise of a new class of entrepreneurs.  Malaysia and Singapore have become countries of diverse manufactured exports.  We can see the emergence of a much thicker layer of technocrats in Indonesia.”

So there you have it. If you want to know what 58,000 Americans (not to mention vastly larger numbers of Vietnamese) died for, it was to encourage entrepreneurship, exports, and the emergence of technocrats elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

Appy describes Professor Huntington as another action intellectual with an unfailing facility for seeing the upside of catastrophe.  In Huntington’s view, the internal displacement of South Vietnamese caused by the excessive use of American firepower, along with the failure of Rostow’s Strategic Hamlets, was actually good news.  It promised, he insisted, to give the Americans an edge over the insurgents.

The key to final victory, Huntington wrote, was “forced-draft urbanization and modernization which rapidly brings the country in question out of the phase in which a rural revolutionary movement can hope to generate sufficient strength to come to power.”  By emptying out the countryside, the U.S. could win the war in the cities.  “The urban slum, which seems so horrible to middle-class Americans, often becomes for the poor peasant a gateway to a new and better way of life.”  The language may be a tad antiseptic, but the point is clear enough: the challenges of city life in a state of utter immiseration would miraculously transform those same peasants into go-getters more interested in making a buck than in signing up for social revolution.

Revisited decades later, claims once made with a straight face by the likes of Bundy, Rostow, and Huntington — action intellectuals of the very first rank — seem beyond preposterous.  They insult our intelligence, leaving us to wonder how such judgments or the people who promoted them were ever taken seriously.

How was it that during Vietnam bad ideas exerted such a perverse influence?  Why were those ideas so impervious to challenge?  Why, in short, was it so difficult for Americans to recognize bullshit for what it was?

Creating a Twenty-First-Century Slow-Motion Vietnam

These questions are by no means of mere historical interest. They are no less relevant when applied to the handiwork of the twenty-first-century version of policy intellectuals, specializing in national insecurity, whose bullshit underpins policies hardly more coherent than those used to justify and prosecute the Vietnam War. 

The present-day successors to Bundy, Rostow, and Huntington subscribe to their own reigning verities.  Chief among them is this: that a phenomenon called terrorism or Islamic radicalism, inspired by a small group of fanatic ideologues hidden away in various quarters of the Greater Middle East, poses an existential threat not simply to America and its allies, but — yes, it’s still with us — to the very idea of freedom itself.  That assertion comes with an essential corollary dusted off and imported from the Cold War: the only hope of avoiding this cataclysmic outcome is for the United States to vigorously resist the terrorist/Islamist threat wherever it rears its ugly head.

At least since September 11, 2001, and arguably for at least two decades prior to that date, U.S. policymakers have taken these propositions for granted.  They have done so at least in part because few of the policy intellectuals specializing in national insecurity have bothered to question them.

Indeed, those specialists insulate the state from having to address such questions.  Think of them as intellectuals devoted to averting genuine intellectual activity.  More or less like Herman Kahn and Albert Wohlstetter (or Dr. Strangelove), their function is to perpetuate the ongoing enterprise.

The fact that the enterprise itself has become utterly amorphous may actually facilitate such efforts.  Once widely known as the Global War on Terror, or GWOT, it has been transformed into the War with No Name.  A little bit like the famous Supreme Court opinion on pornography: we can’t define it, we just know it when we see it, with ISIS the latest manifestation to capture Washington’s attention.

All that we can say for sure about this nameless undertaking is that it continues with no end in sight.  It has become a sort of slow-motion Vietnam, stimulating remarkably little honest reflection regarding its course thus far or prospects for the future.  If there is an actual Brains Trust at work in Washington, it operates on autopilot.  Today, the second- and third-generation bastard offspring of RAND that clutter northwest Washington — the Center for this, the Institute for that — spin their wheels debating latter day equivalents of Strategic Hamlets, with nary a thought given to more fundamental concerns.

What prompts these observations is Ashton Carter’s return to the Pentagon as President Obama’s fourth secretary of defense.  Carter himself is an action intellectual in the Bundy, Rostow, Huntington mold, having made a career of rotating between positions at Harvard and in “the Building.”  He, too, is a Yalie and a Rhodes scholar, with a PhD. from Oxford.  “Ash” — in Washington, a first-name-only identifier (“Henry,” “Zbig,” “Hillary”) signifies that you have truly arrived — is the author of books and articles galore, including one op-ed co-written with former Secretary of Defense William Perry back in 2006 calling for preventive war against North Korea.  Military action “undoubtedly carries risk,” he bravely acknowledged at the time. “But the risk of continuing inaction in the face of North Korea’s race to threaten this country would be greater” — just the sort of logic periodically trotted out by the likes of Herman Kahn and Albert Wohlstetter.

As Carter has taken the Pentagon’s reins, he also has taken pains to convey the impression of being a big thinker.  As one Wall Street Journal headline enthused, “Ash Carter Seeks Fresh Eyes on Global Threats.”  That multiple global threats exist and that America’s defense secretary has a mandate to address each of them are, of course, givens.  His predecessor Chuck Hagel (no Yale degree) was a bit of a plodder.  By way of contrast, Carter has made clear his intention to shake things up.

So on his second day in office, for example, he dined with Kenneth Pollack, Michael O’Hanlon, and Robert Kagan, ranking national insecurity intellectuals and old Washington hands one and all.  Besides all being employees of the Brookings Institution, the three share the distinction of having supported the Iraq War back in 2003 and calling for redoubling efforts against ISIS today.  For assurances that the fundamental orientation of U.S. policy is sound — we just need to try harder — who better to consult than Pollack, O’Hanlon, and Kagan (any Kagan)?

Was Carter hoping to gain some fresh insight from his dinner companions?  Or was he letting Washington’s clubby network of fellows, senior fellows, and distinguished fellows know that, on his watch, the prevailing verities of national insecurity would remain sacrosanct?  You decide.

Soon thereafter, Carter’s first trip overseas provided another opportunity to signal his intentions.  In Kuwait, he convened a war council of senior military and civilian officials to take stock of the campaign against ISIS.  In a daring departure from standard practice, the new defense secretary prohibited PowerPoint briefings.  One participant described the ensuing event as “a five-hour-long college seminar” — candid and freewheeling.  “This is reversing the paradigm,” one awed senior Pentagon official remarked.  Carter was said to be challenging his subordinates to “look at this problem differently.”

Of course, Carter might have said, “Let’s look at a different problem.” That, however, was far too radical to contemplate — the equivalent of suggesting back in the 1960s that assumptions landing the United States in Vietnam should be reexamined.

In any event — and to no one’s surprise — the different look did not produce a different conclusion.  Instead of reversing the paradigm, Carter affirmed it: the existing U.S. approach to dealing with ISIS is sound, he announced.  It only needs a bit of tweaking — just the result to give the Pollacks, O’Hanlons, and Kagans something to write about as they keep up the chatter that substitutes for serious debate.

Do we really need that chatter? Does it enhance the quality of U.S. policy? If policy/defense/action intellectuals fell silent would America be less secure?

Let me propose an experiment. Put them on furlough. Not permanently — just until the last of the winter snow finally melts in New England. Send them back to Yale for reeducation. Let’s see if we are able to make do without them even for a month or two.

In the meantime, invite Iraq and Afghanistan War vets to consider how best to deal with ISIS.  Turn the op-ed pages of major newspapers over to high school social studies teachers. Book English majors from the Big Ten on the Sunday talk shows. Who knows what tidbits of wisdom might turn up?

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  1. LifelongLib

    Professor Bracevich believes that our interventions in Vietnam and the Middle East were/are wrong-headed. Fine, I agree.

    However, I’ve talked to a number of Vietnam vets who think our intervention there was entirely justified, and failed only because it wasn’t pursued vigorously enough, or was abandoned too early. I don’t know how many think that way compared to those who came to oppose the war, but it’s certainly a substantial number. There can be few things more difficult to contemplate than the thought of having put one’s life on the line (and killed) for a bad or unnecessary cause.

    Assuming he isn’t just being facetious, what makes him think that Iraq or Afghanistan vets would reach different conclusions about the interventions they were part of?

    1. rkka

      Since war is not a senseless act of passion, but is controlled by the political objective, the value of that objective must limit the sacrifices to be made for it, both in magnitude and also in duration. And when the sacrifice exceeds the value of the political objective, the political objective must be renounced and peace must follow.

      The Army’s own histories of the Vietnam War show that our client government in Saigon was no more capable of governing its territory in 1974 than it had been in 1963, when the degree of political collapse in Saigon first prompted the USG to send an army of 500,000 men, along with a vast aerial and naval armada in support. And yes, we could have kept that army employed there, alone with the aerial and naval armada, at significant expense of blood, and vast expense of treasure, down to this very day, but for what? So absentee landlords in Saigon could keep collecting rent from peasants and local officials, many from the North who were given office because they were good Catholics, could continue to shake the peasants down for the little the landlords left?

      ‘Tweren’t worth it.

      1. Whine Country

        “Maybe the man believes veterans see things differently because he is one”

        And you point Ben is…….

    2. low integer

      I’m not speaking from experience here, so take what I’m saying as being worth what you paid for it.
      Frontline US military humans get dumped in the middle of foreign lands and often have to fight for survival. Whether they’re fighting for right or wrong is irrelevant at this level. They end up fighting for the people they are deployed with, not the people or country that sent them there. This forms strong bonds between the members of each unit and those that don’t see too much can come away from these deployments feeling they have succeeded. Once they get some time to themselves after these experiences, I would reckon that those who properly reflect on what they’ve been through would have a very high propensity to go one of two ways. The vet suicide rate is a symtom of one of these ways, and enthusiasm for more war is the other.

    3. David S. Knothere

      Having lived thru the Vietnam Conflict, having served three tours as a Naval officer over there, and having gone thru Annapolis and receiving a fairly good education, nothing in my mind justified our presence over there. Without getting into a policy kerfuffle or a back and forth on strategy (or lack thereof), Vietnam was just our answer in the early 1960’s of what our leaders thought would be rampant Chinese colonialism in SE Asia. Which, in hindsight, might not have been too bad, given what happened with the Khmer Rouge and Myanmar today.

      Forty and fifty year retrospectives almost always shine a sepia-toned Ken Burnsian-type light (replete with background fiddle music, I suppose) on all our wars of aggression. The military-industrial complex overruled some very sane minds in the Navy where I worked at the time; after all, it had been 8 years since the end of the Korean Conflict and munitions were stacking up. What was Kennedy to do but dive in?

    4. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

      I never understand these kinds of statements. What was victory supposed to look like? A South Vietnam ruled by a kakistrocracy totally devoted to Free Market virtues? I guess?

    5. Rosario

      I suppose the problem is, if empires are so certain of their superior order why is there always a need to intervene? Shouldn’t the example set be enough? I tend to think that trauma births violence and our reactionary enemies are merely repositing a violence acted on them them ages before. Vietnam communists yielded from colonialism. African warlords yielded from colonization, past and present. Same with “terrorists” or similar. I’m always suspicious of justifications for intervention as they always only tell one half of the story. Thus the constant cycle of “justified interventions”.

  2. JCC

    Andrew Bacevich is one very smart person. I’m glad to see the first University I attended is still hiring smart rational PolySci and History Profs.

    1. juliania

      Speaking of the tree of liberty, my small eastern liberal arts college campus boasted one of the originals when I was a student, and it was the best college in America at the time, proudly conscious of its heritage. My senior year (’62) the rot was beginning. We students saw what had previously been an outlying ‘board of visitors and governors’ infiltrate the faculty for contacts with nearby Washington, D.C. politicians. Oh, it was all very virtuous seeming – senior year after all studied western political history, the Federalist Papers, The People Shall Judge – what could be better than infusing that with seminars for actual politicians on the side?

      In his Republic Plato has Socrates state that the course of education he is espousing will produce philosopher kings mayhap, but it can also be manipulated – he was thinking of Alcibiades and others of the same ilk. We early liberal artists discussed this problem, looking askance at the ‘b of v/g’ as a necessary evil, even when forced upon us as graduation speakers. We did midnight dastardly deeds like chucking veggie seeds over the nearby navel academy wall. (Don’t ask) We did NOT play croquet with the midshipmen.

      All has sadly changed. Now prominent politicians send their sons and daughters. Politicos like David Brookes are invited to speak. The money is rolling in. Remember, this was ’62. The ball started rolling and we birthed the Vietnam war; I am certain of this. And it’s still rolling. I sort of knew it when a faculty member actually proudly accepted a medal of something from George Bush at the White House – she who taught virtue and classical integrity to young impressionable minds.

      “. . . Action intellectuals were thinkers, but also doers, members of a ‘large and growing body of men who choose to leave their quiet and secure niches on the university campus and involve themselves instead in the perplexing problems that face the nation . . .’”

      Indeed. But it’s when universities and colleges welcome in the think tankers that the rot really begins. As it did for our own particular liberty tree. Some years ago they chopped it down as a hazard to nearby buildings. That great old tree is gone.

      1. Beans

        At least you knew the difference – I came through a liberal arts college in the mid 80’s and only recently have realized that what I thought was liberty was actually something quite different – call it factual knowledge that enabled me to get a job and allowed me to anyone I disagreed with as a “left wing nut job” and feel pretty darned smug about it. It has made me question how I received a liberal arts degree, yet never was educated as to what comprised the foundation of liberty.
        Things haven’t gotten any better with the passage of time.

        1. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

          I got a liberal arts education as well and that and $3 will get me a cup of coffee in Portland OR

  3. Pepsi

    Really good piece

    Indeed, those specialists insulate the state from having to address such questions. Think of them as intellectuals devoted to averting genuine intellectual activity. More or less like Herman Kahn and Albert Wohlstetter (or Dr. Strangelove), their function is to perpetuate the ongoing enterprise.

    They are freshly dug canals that spread ideas benefitting those in power to the rivers of personal opinion and lakes of popular consensus, if you allow my stupid metaphor.

    It’s so frustrating to watch the news and see the opposite of the truth being trumpeted along with some scare mongering about dumb stuff that doesn’t matter even a tiny bit. We need to discover new ways of organizing people and informing people to protect them and the darn planet.

  4. Jesper

    The credibility-spiral:
    The intellectuals gain credibility from the fact that the state support them.
    The state gains credibility as those same (now) credible intellectuals support them.

    Only support the intellectual who support the preferred bias/opinion and then the result of the self-reinforcing bias is something spectacular to behold.
    Same as playing a game of dice with rigged dice and then reality comes along and when the game is suddenly played with honest dice…. Overconfidence leading to crazy risks being taken -> Huge losses.

    1. Sirvinia

      It is actually more formal than that. The iron rule that I’ve been told is that you don’t question how an issue is scoped by your sponsor. Your job then is to be objective within that scope. Which of course means the issue can be scoped to give only the answers the sponsor will find palatable. It thus creates institutional tunnel vision, of which Carter is a product. In that sense the author is correct: these people, be they from Rand or elsewhere, by accepting the rule (if you don’t you’re out of a job) give legitimacy to any system, no matter how corrupt and off the rails it is.

    2. j7915

      The credibility spiral: sounds like the wahhab/sunni vs House of Saud mutual support circle.

      1. hunkerdown

        And the two-party system, I hasten to add, though the parties put on a much more spectacular show of fighting than the bloodless, pwecious five-paragraph essay that comes out of think banks, er, tanks.

    3. pedrito

      The Credibility spiral: …sounds like the religious vs political situation in the ME. Wahhab vs or with the House of Saud.

  5. James Levy

    Bacevich has proven over many years to be an honest, consistent voice, but ironically a very conservative (rather than reactionary) one. What he is saying here Chomsky said 50 years ago in The New American Mandarins, but that book is not cited, because Bacevich can’t escape the “credibility” trap. To mention that Chomsky had said it first would immediately delegitimize and negate the important point he is trying to get through to “serious” people, because Chomsky is beyond the pale. But by policing the discourse in this manner Bacevich unwittingly reinforces the power and message of those in control–ideas and the people who express them have no value unless they are first legitimized by the Establishment. Of course, Bacevich believes, I’m sure, that he’s got to stay in there and pitch, but the game is rigged and will stay so as long as those currently in power remain in power. Like the good soldier he is, he’s doing his duty, but he’s fighting a war he can’t possibly win.

    1. Carla

      James Levy: I appreciate your comments on NC and often agree with them. But when you say “the game is rigged and will stay so as long as those currently in power remain in power” I ask that you consider a change of emphasis.

      It seems to me we have a systemic problem. Until we figure out how to change the system, and actually DO it, replacing those in power will accomplish exactly nothing. The game is not just rigged, it is probably the wrong game.

      1. hunkerdown

        You’re making it about individuals; James is (correctly IMHO) making it about classes. Power is just what people will let you get away with — which is why everything really does circle back to the concept of vested authority — the concept that a person has more right to rule than the ruled have to eject them, and the cranky-but-looks-desperate scramble for logical fallacies to keep those idols running roughshod over us — growing like mold on everything it touches.

        1. Beans

          Nice clarification hunkerdown-
          Perhaps someone will comment about the tendency of the ruled classes to want to be ruled – IMO that is why the moldy theories propagated by the “intellectuals” are bought hook, line and sinker by the same people who ultimately are victimized by the theories they support.

    2. diptherio

      Wait, so every time someone brings up a line of argument that someone else (Chomsky or whoever) has used before, they must cite the earlier reference or be accused of “policing the discourse”?

      I don’t know about that. Every time I talk about solidarity among workers, should I be required to bring up Marx? In fact, it seems to me to be a certain type of authoritarian mindset that demands this sort of thing. On the one hand, it is–essentially–arguing from authority, and on the other it is itself a form of “policing the discourse,” since it requires all speakers/writers to abide by a particular set of rules (i.e. thou shalt not mention something Chomsky has talked about without mentioning Chomsky by name–all hail Chomsky!). I honestly don’t see how you can read the article and think that Bacevich is somehow reinforcing conventional wisdom, just because he fails to mention an old book that most readers will not recognize in any case.

      Ideas are important–peoples’ names, not so much…I think you’re kind of missing the point on this one. Bacevich is doing his level best to break our typical dialogue on the GWOT out of its standard confinements. Bitching that he fails to use your preferred citation method is not actually helping anything…

      1. James Levy

        Bacevich is a Ph.D., a scholar, and has to be held to the standards thereof. The New American Mandarins is an extremely famous text. If you are making an argument, and cite sources (which Bacevich does) and you leave something famous out, something is amiss. When you leave out something so obvious that Bacevich unquestionably knows about, then you are distorting your message. And this is not a short statement on a comment thread like you and I are indulging in here–this was a serious piece published on a serious site. And I didn’t say he’s reinforcing conventional wisdom. But he is reinforcing the status of those who police the discourse and say what people and ideas are worth paying attention to by ignoring Chomsky so he can appear more “respectable”. He’s also distorting history by making his argument seem new when it is not. I feel that these are things worth commenting on. I do not say they negate his argument, which I happen to think is correct.

        1. RWood

          James Levy: I interpret your comment as indicating generally that the resistance to the Vietnam War was consistent in emphasizing the bs of the communist threat — the multiples of people resisting and condemning that war, centered and authenticated by people such as Professor Chomsky not only sought to expose the idiocy, but the “reasoning” behind the policies as the assertion of need for the war state, the determination of “national security” as justification of autocracy. Chomsky was and still is an icon of resistance to the debased values of the political establishment, as plainly indicated by Professor Bacevich.
          So it goes:

        2. low integer

          “What he is saying here Chomsky said 50 years ago”

          “To mention that Chomsky had said it first would immediately delegitimize and negate the important point he is trying to get through to “serious” people, because Chomsky is beyond the pale.”

          “the game is rigged and will stay so as long as those currently in power remain in power.”

          Hmmm. 50 years ago things may have been on the same trajectory but can hardly be compared to the current paradigm. Are you the official referencing authority or something? I get the feeling that you may be one of the people described in my quote posted at 8:22pm. Lawyer or economist?

        3. low integer

          Apologies for my last two sentences, I concede that they were a bit personal and thus out of line.

          1. James Levy

            I’m a naval historian. I publish things. Those things are my stock in trade. They are free to anyone to use, so long as they tell everyone where they got the material from. As Bacevich himself says, this idiocy was alive and well in the days of the Bundys and Dean Rusk–50 years ago. So I am not sure why my comment, which was a defensible observation and not an attack on Bacevich’s thesis, is generating such ire.

            1. hunkerdown

              Outside of academia, credentialling is not a strong source of authority. Look at that book cover almost dripping with red meat juices for the salt of the GOP, the wannabe stormtroopers with big trucks, off-the-shelf family units and a television perma-tuned to the most sensational IV drip available. I see Bacevich writing this not as a factual exposition, but as a political, persuasive piece, for a particular effect: to get low-level ammosexuals thinking about their choices and their lives.

              1. Yves Smith Post author

                That is just not true. Credentialing matters enormously in Washington, DC. One of my buddies has a mere BA from a top Ivy League school and feels he is not listened to much as a result (as in he does not have the obligatory law degree from a top law school or economics PhD). Credentialing also matters a great deal as in who gets quoted in press and on TV.

                Credentialing also matters a ton to hedge funds and private equity funds. Different criteria, but they too only hire MBAs from very top schools or PhDs from top math/physics programs (in the case of hedge fund, the math in PE is trivial).

                1. Doug Terpstra

                  True, but witness what certifiable madness poison-ivy league credentialing hath wrought. That seems to be Bacevich’s point after all: establishment credentialing is not merely highly overrated (or in the case of Harvard deans, not even relevant), it has devolved into high-level criminal indoctrination and the intellectual foundation for propaganda mills (think tanks). Witness the latest unindicted war-felon POTUSs produced by Yale and Harvard, nothing more than self-serving snakes in suits. This is why the salt of the earth in flyover country have no respect for the intellectual or moral integrity of the elite scum that has floated to the top…ivy-festooned politician-lawyer-liars, economists, lobbyists, and financiers.

                2. bh2

                  ” Credentialing matters enormously in Washington, DC.”

                  I rather suspect, Yves, that Bacevich targeted this piece to an audience well outside the Beltway — and therefore more likely to be swayed by common sense than academic standing.

                  1. bh2

                    Why policy wonks are mostly ignored outside the inner sanctum of the governing class is illustrated by this contemporary comment from a celebrated French economist who some American journalists and “action intellectuals” recently cite with deep admiration:

                    “The Americans invest 3 percent of their GDP in their universities, while it’s more like 1 percent here [in Europe]. That’s the main reason why America is growing so much faster than Europe.” Thomas Piketty in Der Spiegel

                    Seriously? Do most Washington policy wonks agree it has been higher levels of “investment” in universities that did the trick to spur the US economy?

                    Here we see an entirely irrelevant factoid suited up by a celebrated academic “authority” to look like an implied cause-effect outcome achievable by a political policy change (greater university funding).


            2. low integer

              Fair enough and I do see your point. I also now understand that your comment was made in the context of your experience in a similar profession. At the time I replied I was a bit put off by your argument that one is discredited by referencing Chomsky or discredited by not referencing Chomsky, when the phenomenon described is currently self-evident to anyone with any kind of critical thinking skills. I think the last sentence of your initial post rubbed me the wrong way too, which I meant to quote instead of the “the game is rigged” sentence, however upon re-reading it I realise that you were probably being sincere rather than condescending. Best wishes in any case. Cheers!

              1. James Levy

                I said it more in despair than anything! Bacevich is correct, but he’s telling a bunch of charlatans to be honest, when their power and wealth depends on them remaining charlatans. That’s one hell of a job to pull off.

          2. RWood

            I think Professor Chomsky was indicating then what “pale” might mean, and that intellectuals and all those affected by them had a responsibility to keep their society from that. Telling the truth. Since we’ve achieved and exceeded that pale, so that the concept of shame is no affront, those who made warning then have quieted.
            I think–out here on my icebridge–that Professor Bacevich is greatly saddened by that destruction. He may have set aside his recognition of Professor Chomsky not only for his own credibility, but for the simplicity of the same warnings, though awfully belated. And we are not only in a slow-motion Vietnam, but we’re going ahead into the missile crisis. The horror, the horror….

    3. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

      Maybe not specifically citing Chomsky is just good editing. It’s an opinion piece, (erudite as it may be) not a scholarly article. Does Bacevich cite Chomsky anywhere in his published books? That’d be a better place to look.

  6. Mary Wehrheim

    I was a teenager in Kansas during the first part of the Vietnam mess, What I was spoon fed during that time was the Barney Fife rationale…..”Nip it in the bud.” aka the domino theory. The two historical images that seem to have most traumatized the conservative psyche are the photo of the Weimar guy with a wheel barrow full of cash and Chamberlain coming off the plane from Munich with his umbrella. Thus their visceral hatred of the words inflation and appeasement. The Commies, like Hitler before, were trying to take over the world and if we did not stop them in Vietnam they would soon be at our doorstep. Worked for us….we bought it. We were also the homeland of Fred Koch. I grew up with the John Birch Society and “Impeach Earl Warren” and “Say no to fluoridation” billboards.

    1. bh2

      The nazies didn’t arise in Germany before the communists, but after them. These two forces were direct competitors for power. In the short term, the nazi thugs defeated the communist thugs in the struggle for power and banned them by law. The nazis were banned by law immediately after WW2, but a rump communist party survives as a remnant to the present day.

  7. low integer

    I read a lot of different sites, and pay particular attention to the comments. I save the comments that seem most poignant. Diptherio is one regular here who has a comment in what I consider to be my archive of wisdom. Anyway, I think the comment that I’m quoting was left anonymously at Saker of the Vineyard, however I think it is relevant to the type of ‘intellectuals’ that are the subject of this article.

    False intellectuals (or ‘Betas’) think the training they get at school and uni to spew words into formal templates, in what are laughingly known as ‘essays’, in order to win the praise of their teachers, is purposeful. Later in life, the many column inches found in the ‘proper’ newspapers and social journals re-enforces this idiot Beta thinking.

    Life is just not this complicated, and the people who abuse power are far easier to understand, if only one will pay proper attention.


    Many [] are frightened to see things as simply as they truly are. You have been brainwashed that ‘complexity’ = ‘cleverness’. If some [] speaks with clarity and simplicity, and makes obvious sense, you have been trained to think something must be wrong.

    I recall in my Physics lessons when at an exam I would turn in one page for the five pages from my ‘best’ opponent, and yet score far higher- even causing comment from the teacher about how my superior understanding allowed clarity and brevity. But in a physics examine, no one can ‘question’ the correctness of your answer, when it is clearly correct.

    Move from maths and science, and everything becomes much dirtier. Now the monsters can happily obfuscate the truth in a deluge of verbal pseudo-intellectual diarrhoea, and all those references to things you don’t understand, or have never heard of, make you feel ‘inferior’ and unable to have a worthy opinion in comparison. It’s an old trick.

    Thanks to whoever wrote this, I agree completely.

    1. low integer

      If anyone is wondering about the comment from diptherio that I thought was wise, I will replay it here. It resonated with me, and I hope I’m not out of line quoting it.

      One of my major life discoveries was realizing that it is not possible to act if one is constantly reacting. Reaction (emotional or otherwise) is like being a marionette: pull a string and evoke a response, with no thought or intention necessary on the part of the puppet. But if one wishes to act; that is, to act thoughtfully and intentionally; one must first come to a state of non-reaction. When once you have become unflappable, when nothing succeeds in evoking a reaction, only then can you reflect, think, and truly act. So long as a person is ruled by reaction they have no free-will, regardless of what they might think.

      Our media encourages reaction and snap judgment. No sooner has information been presented than one is expected to have an opinion about it. And once decided (if a decision can even said to have been made), a person is expected to stick to their decision, their stated opinion, regardless of additional information. All of our MSM, with but few notable exceptions, seeks to evoke response and reaction–which is the same thing as saying they seek to keep their audience from the reflection that is necessary for free will to exist. Or, more succinctly, they seek to enslave.

      Best wishes to all. Peace!

      1. low integer

        No worries. I can say with certainty that there is at least one person who really appreciates your time spent commenting. Wisdom will hopefully gain traction eventually, even if it is only one person at a time. One of the reasons I love NC is the crowd it attracts. Good people (mostly).

        1. Ulysses

          I second this appreciation for the NC commentariat. I like that the views expressed here come from a very wide range of people, from all over the globe, with a tremendous diversity of personal histories!

  8. Carolinian

    One quibble: while our era is lousy with “policy intellectuals” it’s not really a phenomenon that is unique to the present day. In the 19th century Alfred Mahan was a huge influence on both Theodore Roosevelt and the European imperial powers leading up to WW1.


    Like his successors Mahan wasn’t necessarily master of the practical.

    Despite his success in the Navy, his skills in actual command of a ship were not exemplary, and a number of vessels under his command were involved in collisions, with both moving and stationary objects. He had an affection for old square-rigged vessels and did not like the smoky, noisy steamships of his time; he tried to avoid active sea duty.

    And of course the most famous policy intellectual was Banger’s fave, Machiavelli. Once could argue that these court philosophers have always been necessary to rationalize the more irrational impulses of the powerful. The Best and the Brightest may have supplied the policy framework for LBJ’s disastrous war, but it was his own egotism that ultimately triggered it.

    1. tim s

      Fully agree. As long as there are segments of a society that do not have actual involvement in their schemes, there will be these types of people. They are just a modern version of the kings advisers. Their privileged status and connections get them into these Ivy League schools. Then they come out with their half-baked ideas and the lower classes go out and fight. If these eggheads ever lost their own blood, their head would probably get screwed on a little straighter. That won’t happen with the current structure.

    2. ambrit

      I would posit that much more than LBJ, Dulles is the godfather of the Indochina Adventure. That was a man who really did run his own private Administration, in tandem with, and often competing against, the “Official” Administration. Kennedy finally had to sack him, but the run up to the Post Colonial War for Dominance had already been started during the latter part of the Eisenhower Administration. Kennedy sent in the first official advisor corps. An overview:

      1. ex-PFC Chuck

        On October 4, 1963, Kennedy also decided to begin withdrawing all US troops and advisors from Vietnam by the end of the year. The decision was formalized in National Security Action Memorandum #263 about a week later. One of Johnson’s first acts as president was to issue NSAM #273, which rescinded #263. Most members of Kennedy’s national security team, who for the most part stayed in position under Johnson, opposed him on this, and few of them make mention of these facts in their later memoirs, media appearances and contributions to historians and biographers. Ironically one of the most vilified of the players of that era, Robert McNamara, was apparently one of the few team members who supported the decision, which begs the question of why he stayed on so long under Johnson.
        This was documented in a review of McNamara’s book In Retrospect by Jamie Galbraith in a 1995 issue of The Texas Observer. The review is reprinted in Appendix 2, page 443, of the 2nd, 1996 edition of the book.

    3. Vatch

      They go back a lot farther. In one of Peter Heather’s books (I think it was The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians), the author discusses the chameleon-like philosopher Themistius, who served multiple emperors. I don’t have the book in front of me, but the first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry on Themistius contains a good summary:

      He flourished in the reigns of Constantius II, Julian, Jovian, Valens, Gratian, and Theodosius I; and he enjoyed the favour of all those emperors, notwithstanding their many differences, and the fact that he himself was not a Christian. He was admitted to the senate by Constantius in 355, and he was prefect of Constantinople in 384 on the nomination of Theodosius.

      And before that there was the authoritarian philosopher/politican Li Si, who served the Qin emperors.

  9. cnchal

    Action intellectuals were thinkers, but also doers, members of a “large and growing body of men who choose to leave their quiet and secure nriches on the university campus and involve themselves instead in the perplexing perpetuating problems that face the nation,”

    MMT (Military Money Tree) for the Dulles corridor and Surveillance Valley.

    There is never a shortage of business people eagerly willing to sell their soul to grab money from the military.

  10. Whine Country

    “One could argue that these court philosophers have always been necessary to rationalize the more irrational impulses of the powerful.”

    And so it goes to this day.

  11. Doug Terpstra

    Superb post, Yves. Bacevich has an uncanny facility for exposing the cartoonish “verities” of deep thinkers as manifest madness. Apparently, those towering intellectuals who believed destroying the village to save it was a perfectly logical foundation for the Vietnam War are still ascendant and are continuing to “tutor Wshington in the complexities of maintaining ‘the delicate balance of terror'”. Their mission is all about a breeder-reactor for perpetual war, creating more enemies, failed states and chaos than we can ever resolve.

    Ukraine is the latest manifestation of this insanity, brought to us by another Kagan, Victoria Nuland, mentioned by these same luminairies as (God help us) the next Secretary of State.

  12. kevinearick

    Discharging Bipolar Moving Money

    The Imperative, the ‘secret’ order, of every nation/state is its particular brand of feudalism, a common conspiracy of stupidity, with many dresses, each feeding on the one below, swapping their disaffected and disillusioned.

    There is nothing quite like healthcare in a concentration camp to replace faith with fear, and bananas on a pole connected to an electrode to normalize the monkeys to artificial scarcity.

    Keep eating the seed, to extend and pretend, looking for green shoots, expecting escape velocity, with single parents baiting the trap with their children, playing the lottery.

    Not everyone is quite so stupid as to believe that property, rights granted by government, replacing wealth with debt, taxing work to inflate real estate, is a responsible path to freedom, from stupid.

    Earning power is as earning power does, opposite or compliment depending upon the observer, position on the fulcrum, a vice, from the outside in and the inside out, creating frequency and amplitude, a spring wave, which is a circle with a switch, of zero time.

    The Fed has fulfilled its mandate, to replace labor with automation, within the empire, redefining productivity accordingly, breeding and employing puppets, with arbitrary debt, money replacing wealth, in bait and swap.

    Draghi has made two assumptions, that America is addicted to feudalism, like every other nation/state, and Labor is contained by feudalism, globally, as implemented by Silicon Valley, eye candy coatings on military hardware, misery voting for company.

    Electricity is not a one-way street, despite public education to the contrary, Life is not a competition for scarce resources, in its spoil pile, and speed is entirely relative to perspective, work accelerating gravity to resonance, the dimensional multiplexer as train station.

    Automatons serving technology, assuming that technology serves them, empty buildings connected by slow trains to nowhere, is the rabbit hole. Turn the empire on its head to see the exit, the cost of arbitrary rent to opportunity, otherwise unseen.


  13. Jim

    “Policy intellectuals…are a blight on the Republic.”

    Couldn’t agree more–unfortunately it is now accepted wisdom across the political spectrum that our fragmented society requires management, in part, by a cadre of professional experts/ policy intellectuals.

    On the right there is the ongoing historical struggle between the neo-conservative experts and the paleo-conservative experts and the left there is ongoing historical struggle between experts who support Marx’s more collectivist approach, and others who prefer Lenin’s more bureaucratic centralism, or Bahro’s more social democratic management or the New Left utopianism of the 1960s.

    Such experts (of all political stripes) have managed to continually legitimate themselves in the name of those who allegedly cannot take care of themselves (whether the working class, the middle class or the poor).

    On the left more specifically, the old Democratic New Deal coalition no longer exists (the link between well-paid industrial workers, farmers and minorities). It has been replaced by a new Democratic power structure uniting a portion of Wall Street, many of the high-tech ultra-rich and the urban poor with a fragmented group of policy experts in waiting(like, for example, the MMT, Levy institute, Boston network, or the more well-known and more powerful traditional liberal/ partially social democratic like media, entertainment, university, foundation apparatus of policy intellectuals around Obama and Clinton.

    1. James Levy

      Jim, I would be hard pressed to find anyone around Obama, or god forbid Clinton, who could be called a social democrat if that term has any meaning. Clement Atlee was a Social Democrat. Salvador Allende was a Social Democrat, as was Willi Brandt and Olof Palme. Eugene Debs was clearly one. Please point out to me anyone in the media or any policy intellectuals who have held government office in the last 40 years who fits that bill, because I am not seeing them.

      1. Jim

        Hey James:

        You may not have understood what I wrote: I stated that: “…or the more well-known and more powerful traditional liberal/partially social-democratic like media, entertainment, university, foundation apparatus around Obama and Clinton.”

        I did not define policy intellectual as someone who held government office in the last 40 years who fits that bill…” I defined a policy intellectual as, someone in the above apparatus– around politicians like Obama and Clinton.

        For example, see article by Laura Byrne entitled “96% of Ivy League Presidential donations were for Obama.”

  14. impermanence

    There are an unlimited number of ways to rationalize the fraud and stealing that characterize societies parasitized by governments, corporations, and all sorts of nefarious institutions.

  15. ewmayer

    Nitpick: Strangelove is the one who proposes using deep mines to shelter key portions of the populace, but Turgidson (George C. Scott) is the one who jumps on that idea to promote the “mineshaft gap” hypothesis.

    The bit where Strangelove gets the assembled warheads and pols – including the Soviet ambassodor – to buy into his plan is feckin’ hilarious – you really have to watch the movie to fully appreciate it, but even the transcript is funny:

    [Strangelove’s plan for post-nuclear war survival involves living underground with a 10:1 female-to-male ratio]

    General “Buck” Turgidson: Doctor, you mentioned the ratio of ten women to each man. Now, wouldn’t that necessitate the abandonment of the so-called monogamous sexual relationship, I mean, as far as men were concerned?

    Dr. Strangelove: Regrettably, yes. But it is, you know, a sacrifice required for the future of the human race. I hasten to add that since each man will be required to do prodigious… service along these lines, the women will have to be selected for their sexual characteristics which will have to be of a highly stimulating nature.

    Ambassador de Sadesky: I must confess, you have an astonishingly good idea there, Doctor.

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