rethinking a strong national defense

Mark Levin’s response to The Weekly Standard’s Peter Berkowitz is surprisingly good.  I find myself truly befuddled by the apparent twin-personalities of the man who is Mark Levin – the thoughtful, reasonable essayist vs. the talk-radio bloviator.  Perhaps each medium requires its own panache.  Maybe I just don’t get talk-radio.  In any case, I found myself warming a great deal to the man when I discovered that in his book he calls Bill Kristol a neo-Statist.  And in many ways, Levin’s description of neoconservatism as neo-statism is right on the money.  I wonder how he squares his own support for international exuberance in foreign policy – it seems less than “prudent” to me given the inevitable tangles we find ourselves in whenever idealism outdistances pragmatism.  Certainly the Iraq debacle bears this out….

I came across Levin’s response via Stacy McCain, who writes about the Iraq War:

My position on the Iraq war was nuanced, as the liberals would say. Unlike Kerry, I was against the war before I was for it. Basically, from 2002 until the war started, I was very skeptical toward arguments for the invasion and conquest of Mesopotamia. However, the time for arguing ended when the first shot was fired. My attititude about war is, “If you’re in it, win it.”

No nation ever benefitted from losing a war. Military defeat tends to demoralize a nation and, if repeated, can result in absolute decadence. (Cf. France.)

I had a similar take, actually, though I was far more than skeptical.  I was downright appalled – as much by my fellow countrymen who touted the “love it or leave it” faux patriotism, as by the Bush administration’s nonsensical arguments for invasion (and the Democrats’ cowardly compliance).  I was still reeling from the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the advent of the Patriot Act.  The Iraq rhetoric – and the broader “war on terror” language – seemed only to add to the overall Orwellian spookiness of those days.

Like McCain, once the war began my attitude shifted as well – at least toward the Iraq war in particular.  (The “war on terror” which might “last decades” still scared the hell out of me.  Now that the Obama administration has made the Doublespeak even more glaring by renaming it the Overseas Contingency Operation, I think the chill has in fact deepened.)

The problem with war is that it is much easier to begin than to end.  You can’t just “shock and awe,” disrupt government and economic activity, topple a dictator, fire an entire army, stir up sectarian feuds, spark chaos and civil war and then just leave.  This was one of my more serious reservations with the Democratic candidates going into this last election – that for political reasons alone they’d rush a preemptive withdrawal from Iraq.  I’m less sure now that our sticking around will do much good, but it does strike me as altogether unfair to leave  before finishing the job.  Whether or not we possess the capacity to really patch things up is another question.  ‘You break it, you buy’ it seems to apply nonetheless.

In any case, conservatives should not abandon a strong position on defense, but it is high time to ditch the nation-building, neoconservative stance that has so dominated conservative foreign policy for most of the Bush administration and on into the Obama administration.  Leave that to the Democrats – the original international optimists.  Conservatives should realize that statism and militarism are the same thing.  Nothing – entitlements and bailouts included – will expand the powers of the state more than an intervenstionist foreign policy.

I’m not sure if Levin realizes this or not.  Jack Hunter writes:

When the average Levin listener hears the phrases “national defense” or “national security,” he naturally thinks of current U.S. foreign policy, automatically assuming that our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops stationed all over the world are not unnecessary occupations or imperialism as some claim, but very necessary defensive measures of the American homeland.  That this might be a bizarre way of looking at the world, and that many conservatives have said so—including giants like Kirk whom Levin cites—is something the reader will never know. One even wonders if Levin knows. And Levin gives the impression that global American empire, not merely a republic in which “each state was free to act on its own,” had been the Founders intention from the beginning.

In his attempt to create a conservative defense for policing the world, Levin promotes neoconservative utopianism and imperialism by denouncing any attempts to pursue utopianism or imperialism.

Maybe this is the real tragedy here – that we have a man like Mark Levin at the forefront of conservative punditry who appears to understand the downside of a Utopian American foreign policy, who hints at it – and goes so far as to call leading neoconservatives statists – but simply can’t take that final step.  What American conservatism desperately needs is for Levin or someone like him to come out against this irrational, neo-imperialist foreign policy altogether – to come out against the abuses of executive power by conservatives and liberals alike – and to make painfully clear how our foreign policy excesses lead directly to the same excesses on the domestic front.  The Bush administration’s use of unprecedented executive power has inadvertently led to a far more powerful Democratic presidency.  This alone should set off alarm bells.

I realize that such a shift will be difficult.  The lockstep as it exists now within the conservative movement has become fiercely pro-interventionist.  Somehow leaders in the movement must begin reframing what a “strong defense” ought to look like.  At some point the movement must disassociate itself from the foibles of the last administration and create a new, more sober vision for American foreign policy.  I think that with the war in Afghanistan revving up, and with the Obama administration pondering things like new interrogation units for terror suspects, there is a definite opening for a new realism that embraces an efficient, responsive military but eschews nation-building and limitless executive power.  Conservatives should embrace such a policy.  My instincts tell me they will, but that it will take a long time to get from here to there.

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33 thoughts on “rethinking a strong national defense

  1. Geez Obama got lambasted for only raising the defense budget by 4% this year. He is trying to cut the F-22 and in a massive uphill fight. The American people eat up the strong defense, must buy more weapons stuff. Until the people start to learn our politicians don’t have a chance. Just about everybody loves themselves a defense job, even those who don’t think government can create jobs or stimulus.

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  2. Good post.

    Shifting to a non-interventionist foreign policy seems impossible because both major political parties agree that the US has a right – if not responsibility – to police the entire planet and now outer space.

    We’ll need curb the influence of military contractors and the power of exceptionalist rhetoric before we can realistically move either political party in the direction you describe. Or we just wait for budget realities to kick in and limit “defense” spending.

    ***

    “I’m less sure now that our sticking around will do much good, but it does strike me as altogether unfair to leave before finishing the job.”
    Shouldn’t we respect the opinion of the Iraqis on this question? We would owe it to them to stay, and since they want us gone, we should leave.

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    • Yeah, what is “our” job? They didn’t hire us and want us out a couple years, or more, ago. There are many things we just can’t do. Or if we were to try to do them, and likely fail, we would have to just say we are staying for 50 years and we going to make the country we want.

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      • If you go into a restaurant and break all the plates and tip over all the tables and spill paint all over the floor – well, it sure as hell wasn’t because you were “hired” to do so. And that would be a pretty lame excuse not to clean up after yourself.

        That said, I don’t think we have any business building the nation in our image. We need to make sure there is some stability, security, and functioning infrastructure and then get the hell out.

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        • I’m all for cleaning up after I trash a restaurant, not that I am personally admitting to anything. But when we talk about “our job” some of that is beyond us. We can and should rebuild the stuff we broke and spend some blood and treasure to help remake the place. But building a civil society and functioning democracy is not in our power.

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        • If the restaurant in question were yours or mine, I bet we’d just tell the brutes to f-off and grant us the dignity of cleaning up the mess ourselves.

          …and then send them a bill, if they’re honestly concerned and responsible.

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  3. I’ve tried reading more about neoconservative philosophy in attempts to understand it, but I still can’t square why on the one hand government is supposed to be so ineffective at spending on domestic priorities like health care, education, science and technology, and transportation, yet on the other hand can believed to be prudent and efficient with investing equivalent or greater sums in military science and technology, military education, health care for the military, and the infrastructure of other countries.

    If the DoD is so uncommonly wise as an investor, can’t we simply rotate those experts into Treasury and Transportation and HHS and the like so that they can apply their brilliance? Or is it believed that somehow the nature of military investments are of such different type that they are easy to make and administer while other investments of similar scale are hard to make and administer? If that’s the case, what’s the basis of that belief? Where are the economic data and theory that support such a belief?

    If anyone here can clearly outline the reasoning on this (bonus points for persuasively doing so), I’d love that.

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  4. E.D., dude, you’re right about the nastiness of Bush’s wars to “take democracy to the Middle East.” Nutso time!
    However, if His Holiness gets socialized medicine America’s doomed!
    You won’t have to worry about wars for empire!

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    • Both the health insurance industry and the military-industrial complex forsake human well-being in favor of boosting their bottom line.

      War and sickness are beneficial to our economy, or so the bottom-liners cynically believe, no matter what they espouse publicly. It’s the perversity at the core of our system.

      I, for one, would like to remove the capitalistic incentive from both of those spheres of our society. No one should get rich off OUR sick people, or profit from war-making. The fact that these two industries are among the heaviest hitters on K Street makes me ill.

      Sorry if “socialized” is such a bad word for you to stomach, but the insane wealth being generated as a direct result of the suffering of American families seems a little less than patriotic to me.

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      • Please add the growing prison-industrial complex to the nefarious list of things people now make a profit on. If I get a dollar for the each time you are slapped across the face, what incentive do I have to make it stop? Likely my conscience will prevent me from letting you get beat to hell, but I guarantee that will be several slaps too many for you… Better to not get into the face slapping business altogether.

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  5. Put me down a as a proponent of non-intervention, and, to go a step further, we need to close, over a period of time where country’s can adjust to the change, all oversea’s military bases. We should build a strong national defense, then mind our business. If a country is in dire need of assistance because of genocide, or some such violent problem, then, if it’s neighbors or the UN can’t help, perhaps private armies could be contracted to help the countries. We are too toxic in the world, so we should remove our military presence and allow private industry to concentrate on free trade — if attacked we should respond with appropriate force, if we know who to attack, but make it clear, that we will not linger and build after the attack.

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  6. More of a bad idea that countires going to war and defense contractors can make billions? I still haven’t gotten oven my anger at the military/industrial complex from the 60s. As soon as we add “private”, it becomes evil — why is that?

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    • So you gather from my position on foreign policy that it wasn’t until we added the word “private” that such operations became wrong? I think I’m pretty explicitly against private and government military actions of the non-defensive kind. And I hardly see how privately contracted mercenaries wouldn’t be a part of said military/industrial complex….

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      • So, you think a private military force that could be contracted to help protect groups from being wiped out help in third world countries would go around starting wars so they could get paid? I’m thinking of some type of NGO that also helps with food aid and development and such, with small armed force division to help in situations like I mentioned — the UN could contrat with them to keep countries like the US from getting politically involved.

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        • If the UN is paying and ordering then you have all the big countries pushing it or at least going along. That injects the politics right there. If you are talking about some guards to protect food shipments that might work although there would be huge questions about accountability, discipline and follow through. A force big enough to stop a genocide, like in Rwanda, is going to be in the thousands and need armor, transpo and air support. But if it is just guards then that does not seem like a big deal.

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        • A private military force that had the power to protect groups would also have the power to prey on those same groups.

          I think we should respect the fact that predatory behavior is the NORM with private military forces and non-predatory behavior is the rare exception.

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  7. I also don’t know why we need to have military bases in countries that should be defending themselves. The “threat” to the US from overseas is greatly exaggerated. What country is a threat? I’m not talking an isolated attack, but a threat to the existence of the US.

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  8. When I watched that….I was horrified by what Dr. Kilcullen said about the Iraqi civilian population sustaining a 9/11 every week. They have a tenth of our population.
    Even less now I guess.
    >:(

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  9. As I continue catch up day, this is really interesting.

    I think there’s a point at which Western pro-activeness is supremely counter-productive to shaping the world in which we want to live. For lack of a better expression, I think we really need to just let some countries go. Figure things out at their own pace, discover liberalism within their own traditions.

    Then again, we can’t exist in a bubble. Our existence, our media, our technological capabilities give new tools to the powerful, entrenched interests. (see China & Iran) America was created as something revolutionary and new. Democratic Africa was created in the mold of something alien, and in many places, simply didn’t take.

    (thinking aloud here) So where can we find balance? What should we do or not do to better effect positive change not just in the world today but down the road.

    These are the questions we needed to discuss and ask before Iraq. They’re even more important now.

    A final consideration, our country, indeed Western civilization itself is surprisingly fragile and I have no doubt in my mind that we’re not attacked more often, we don’t have violent episodes more often, not because we don’t have enemies but because those who protect us are secretly pro-active.

    Some of the cities that have made such strides in crime prevention and lowering crime rates are the ones that really do pro-actively look to stop crime before it happens, rather than simply responding to it after fact. So, I’m reticent to fully support shrinking our global military footprint on the basis that it might very well lead to more attacks and not just on Americans.

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  10. …I find myself truly befuddled by the apparent twin-personalities of the man who is Mark Levin…

    This might be too snarky/cynical, but I imagine a significant reason is that writing wonky articles for the American Thinker probably doesn’t pay the billz as well as being a crazy talk radio guy.

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