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Why ‘Top Secret America’ and the ‘End of the Establishment’ are over-hyped

Why ‘Top Secret America’ and the ‘End of the Establishment’ are over-hyped

There are two breathless stories today that are hyped as shock and awe assaults on the national security establishment. I have read both and tried several times to muster the requisite emotion, but both struck me as the analytical equivalent of fizzles.

The first and biggest, is the Washington Post‘s long-awaited investigative series on the growth of the national security establishment. Taking its cue from British tabloids, the Post has breathlessly promoted this series with its own brand — "Top Secret America" —  sensational headlines — "A Hidden World, Growing Beyond Control" — and extravagant but somewhat unprovable claims — such as the charge that the intelligence community failed to connect the dots in a timely manner on the recent terrorist attempts because of the redundant nature of the system. Its most innovative aspect is a series of nifty interactive features that allow tailored searches and graphics-rich displays of two basic (and I would have thought, well-established) facts: (1) that the national security world is complex and (2) that defense spending has grown in the last decade. Bottom line: This is a very glossy website that so far seems to try a bit too hard to shock viewers with how much gambling is going on in the casino.

The series has just begun and perhaps future installments will offer more bombshell revelations, but the first installment leaves me wondering what the fuss was about. The major claim that the complexity of the intelligence community has made it hard to manage in a centralized fashion is neither new nor proven in a novel way. I am sympathetic to the charge — anyone who has worked in government understands how complex the national security establishment is and can probably name a publication or an organization that, in one person’s humble opinion, could be dropped without fatally wounding national security. The difficulty is that when you aggregate across a variety of experienced perspectives, you do not come up with a common list of things to axe. One man’s meat is another man’s fluff, and vice-versa. You need look no further than this very series to establish this fact. The Washington Post team have spent two years talking with scores of people and compile all of the complaints without producing (yet, yet … perhaps the best is yet to come) any coherent and viable set of reforms.  

The two leads, Dana Priest and Bill Arkin, have a wealth of experience bringing obscure matters to a more general audience (full disclosure: Bill and I co-moderated a discussion group at washingtonpost.com called Planet War for a time). I would like to think that some of the purple prose got foisted upon them by editors desperate to generate traffic to the website. So perhaps the series will develop in a more constructive direction.  

I have less high hopes for Jacob Heilbrunn’s crocodile tears complaint about the waning of establishment Republicans on foreign policy. He begins with the hook that one of the leading Republican contenders for 2012, Mitt Romney, came out opposed to the new START treaty with Moscow, a treaty supported with varying degrees of enthusiasm by several senior Republican wise men. But debates among Republicans about the wisdom of specific compromises on specific nuclear arms control treaties is as old as, well, nuclear arms control. Indeed, because Heilbrunn explicitly avoids taking up the merits of the case either way, he does not demonstrate that this new debate is especially shallow or even especially vigorous.

Alas, the piece goes downhill from there and quickly reaches farce by the fourth paragraph, which reads:

Just as Republicans have united by reflexively saying no to Obama’s domestic program, so they are also attacking his approach to foreign affairs as tantamount to a new round of Carteresque appeasement of foreign adversaries. Any deviations from the catechism, such as Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele’s comment that Afghanistan is "Obama’s war" and may not be winnable, are excoriated with the verbal equivalent of a death sentence by stoning in Iran. The liturgy is enforced by the likes of Liz Cheney or William Kristol and obediently recited by party leaders such as Republican House whip Eric Cantor, who informed the Heritage Foundation on May 4 that America’s defenses are "hemorrhaging" and that Obama’s "policies bespeak a naive moral relativism in which the United States bears much responsibility for the problems we face around the world.

I have read this paragraph several times and I still can’t make sense of it. Republicans have not reflexively criticized Obama’s foreign policies. The "stoning" of Michael Steele by other Republicans was actually a defense of one set of Obama’s foreign policies regarding Afghanistan. Bill Kristol has been one of the loudest supporters of Obama on the foreign policy in question. And so on.

But beyond mere sloppy editing, the paragraph and the entire piece betrays a more fundamental wrong-headedness. It wants to claim that there is a new Republican orthodoxy on foreign policy, and, of course, that the new orthodoxy is flawed and a rejection of the old Republican establishment. But the evidence it presents actually reveals something else: a rich panoply of debate among Republicans today and throughout the Cold War. Doubtless some of those positions were flawed and some of them are flawed today (put it this way, George Will and Bill Kristol cannot both be right about Afghanistan). But there is no orthodoxy and it is certainly not reflexively opposed to everything the Obama administration has attempted to do on national security. And, of course, neither is it reflexively anti-establishment. Even a casual reader of the Shadow Government blog will find a range of opinion, and we are hardly the full spectrum of Republican foreign policy specialists.  

I can imagine an interesting piece doing the intellectual geography of mapping out various Republican debates. But I haven’t read that piece yet, and somehow I doubt it will begin with the premise that Republican intellectuals have sold out to the barbarians.

Two big pieces, both worth reading, but count me just poked, not provoked.