A Debauched Culture Leads to a Debauched Foreign Policy

by WILLIAM S. SMITH • September 4, 2019

Readers of TAC are no doubt familiar with the truism that “politics is downstream of culture.” This maxim, which is undoubtedly true, should not, however, only be applied to social issues. In fact, culture shapes our public policy very broadly, far more than do dispassionate “policymakers” exercising careful reason and judgment. The nature of our governance tends to reflect the cultural and philosophical orientation of our elites, and this orientation is increasingly debauched.

When talking about politics, we should be careful not to define “debauched” too narrowly. While debauchery is typically associated with over-indulgence of the sensual pleasures, a more fitting political definition is a general loss of self-control. All the great religious and philosophical traditions understood that there is a part of our nature that can get out of control and a divine part that can exert control. A culture thus becomes debauched when elites lose the sense that they need to rein themselves in, that “there is an immortal essence presiding like a king over” their appetites, as Walter Lippmann put it. In the political realm, debauchery is less characterized by the sensual vices than by an overzealous desire for power.

The ghost of Jeffrey Epstein is all one needs to see that many elites are very debauched as regards social mores. Yet how might a debauched culture be reflected in the realms of domestic and foreign policy?

Let’s start with domestic policy. How would debauched elites govern a democracy at home? One might surmise, for example, that their lack of self-control might cause them to spend federal money as a means of keeping themselves in power. They might also attempt to bribe their constituents by promising a variety of domestic programs while also pledging that the programs will be funded out of the pockets of others. If they were really debauched, they might even borrow money from future generations to pay for these incumbency protection initiatives. They might run up staggering debt for the sake of their expedient political needs and promise that “the rich” can provide for it all. In short, the hallmark domestic policy of a debauched democracy is, and has always been, class warfare.

It should be pointed out that class warfare is not simply a creation of demagogues on the left. Class warfare tends to resonate most broadly when the wealthy become self-indulgent and unworthy, and dissolute plutocracies are oft times defended by “conservatives.” In the terminal phase of a democracy, this can portend domestic revolution.

While most conservatives might agree about the dangers of class warfare, it is on the foreign policy front where they seem most debauched themselves. They remain stuck in a vortex of GOP clichés, with standard references to Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill, leaders who were closer in their time to the American Civil War than we are to them now. For many of these “conservatives,” every contemporary authoritarian leader is the progeny of Hitler and any attempt to establish cordial relations is a rerun of Munich 1938.

As with domestic policy, the true sign of a debauched foreign policy is a loss of self-control and an excessive will to power reflected in attempts to exert dominion over others with no particular nexus to the national interest. A debauched foreign policy might just look like the decision to invade Iraq—a war whose supporters offered numerous justifications, including alleged weapons of mass destruction, democracy promotion, and anti-terrorism. Yet in hindsight, its real cause seems to have been the simple desire by our leaders to impose their will. In a debauched democracy, class warfare is the paradigmatic domestic policy and profligate war making is the paradigmatic foreign policy.

Given that self-control and restraint are the hallmarks of a genuinely conservative foreign policy—because they remain humble about what human nature can actually achieve—one should receive the recent conference on national conservatism with some skepticism. The retinue of experts who spoke generally espoused a foreign policy that sought dominion over others—in other words, a continuation of the belligerent interventionism that characterized the second Bush administration. This may be nationalism, but it seems not to be conservatism.

One hopes that the leaders of this new movement will re-consider their foreign policy orientation as they have increasingly formidable resources to draw upon. The creation of the Quincy Institute and the rise of an intellectually formidable network of foreign policy “restrainers” provide hope.

Given that culture is king, however, these intellectuals may want to keep top of mind that restraint is not simply a policy option but a character trait—a virtue—that needs to be developed in leaders who are then elevated. Prudent policies are no doubt essential but the most important challenge in politics is, and always will be, attracting and encouraging the best leaders to rule. Our system often does the opposite. This is at root a cultural problem.

William S. Smith is research fellow and managing director at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at the Catholic University of America, and author of the new book Democracy and Imperialism.

The Presidency Unchained

by CLAES G. RYN • July 17, 2019

When it comes to war, does the president have too much authority?

The Framers of the US Constitution had a rather dark view of human nature and went to great lengths to restrain, divide, and decentralize power. In particular, they believed that it was in the nature of executive power to be unduly prone to war. For this reason, they very deliberately placed the power to take the country to war in the Congress. At the Constitutional Convention James Wilson argued, ‘This system will not hurry us into war; it is calculated to guard against it.’

Yet the presidency has over the years gathered more and more of the war powers unto itself, and at present intense political conflict is tearing at the fabric of the Constitution. As the momentous possibility of conflict with Iran is being considered you have to wonder whether the old checks and balances of the Constitution still have any efficacy.

Granted that the Executive’s expanded role in foreign policy violates the text of the Constitution, could it be argued that the presidency, while adapting to changed historical circumstances, remains faithful to the spirit of the Constitution? The present moment affords an opportunity to test this proposition. The reason is that American conservatives have long viewed themselves as strong defenders of the Constitution and that putative conservatives are now in charge of US foreign policy. A comparison between them and the Framers will help assess the state of American constitutionalism.

The Framers’ effort to tame power was not merely a matter of making ingenious institutional-procedural arrangements. Their notion of what structures would increase the likelihood of good government grew out of a view of human nature. They believed that humans have a potential for nobility and wisdom, but that these are forever threatened by traits like ruthlessness, greed, ignorance, and, above all, an excessive desire for power. The Constitution was intended to bias decision-making in favor of man’s better angels.

The institutional checks would ultimately fail without the restraint, integrity, and high-mindedness that could come only from within the political actors: from moral character, circumspection, knowledge, respect for the truth, modesty, and from a recognition that in politics no side has a monopoly on right. People of statesmanlike qualities concerned about the common good had to check partisan demagogues and bullies.

The Constitution thus had to be made efficacious by people capable of acting in its spirit. They would have to be temperamentally predisposed to self-control and long views — exhibit what we may call the constitutional personality. Without it, even the best-designed procedural checks would become hollow.

The Constitution assumes that decisions are best made in an atmosphere of calm deliberation. Popular representatives of broad views and critical detachment from the passions of the moment should set the tone. The American constitutional tradition disdains making important decisions when emotions run hot. It favors the more slowly emerging ‘deliberate sense’ of the people. The task of popular representatives is, as Madison wrote in Federalist 10, to ‘refine and enlarge the public views.’ The Constitution puts a premium on defusing conflict, deliberating, compromising, and respecting the minority.

To contemplate the personality traits that the Framers hoped would animate the Constitution is to become aware how different they are from traits prominent among those now in charge of US foreign policy. In the latter group, you find a strong preference for assertive, hawkish, unilateral application of superior power. The preferred method of dealing with recalcitrant states is confrontation, saber-rattling, and other harsh, unrelenting pressure — not negotiation, compromise, and openness to the possibly legitimate interests of opponents, as if only the US had such interests.

Secretary of state Mike Pompeo and others on President Trump’s foreign policy team have revived the ‘neoconservative’ ideas that helped get the US into war with Iraq. We are again told that the US is morally and politically unique, based on universally applicable principles that make America the obvious and indispensable leader of the forces of freedom. Good stands against evil in the world. On July 8, in a speech to a convention of Christians United for Israel Pompeo said that America ‘is given to defend the spiritual values — the moral code — against the vast forces of evil that seek to destroy them.’

In a speech in June, at the Claremont Institute in California, Pompeo had reminded us that America is ‘exceptional…a place and history apart from normal human experience.’ By virtue of its noble global mission America is entitled to dictate terms to a rogue power like Iran and confront countries like China and Russia that are ‘intent on eroding American power.’ Should this reasoning appear conceited and a recipe for conflict, understand that, according to Pompeo, ‘conflict is the normative experience for nations.’

President Trump recently ‘joked’ that if his national security adviser John Bolton had had his way ‘we’d be in four wars by now.’

In a speech at the recent West Point graduation ceremony, Vice President Mike Pence made the military implications of the Pompeo-Bolton view of America’s role in the world explicit. He told the cadets to put their ‘armor’ on for conflict so that ‘when — not if – that day comes, you’ll be able to stand your ground.’ They had to be ready to counter an ‘aggressive’ country like Russia that is trying to ‘redraw international boundaries by force.’ Not to worry, Pence said, ‘you will fight and you will win.’

In the Congress, the same confrontational attitude is represented by reputed conservatives like the always bellicose Sen. Lindsay Graham and his colleague Tom Cotton, who is challenging Graham for the role of uberhawk. The latter recently argued that the president or even ‘battalion commanders’ should be able to decide whether to attack Iran.

These allegedly conservative sentiments indicate that at least when it comes to foreign policy and war the president should not be subjected to the kind of checks that, according to the Framers, needed to be placed on all power. Why, indeed, should a force for good in the world be restrained?

It should be evident that if devotion to the Constitution is a prominent feature of American conservatism, the appetite for unrestricted executive power in foreign policy represents something very different. Conservatism has somehow been turned on its head. Self-importance rather than modesty, confronting opponents rather than defusing conflict, dictating terms rather than compromising — these contrast sharply with the spirit of American constitutionalism. They also do not accord with Donald Trump’s promises during his election campaign.

The constitutional personality is in short supply in today’s America. Among those now setting the tone in foreign-policy it is often positively scorned.

Article originally published at The Spectator USA.

Irving Babbitt and Warlike Democracies

William S. Smith, Research Fellow and Managing Director at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship, is the author of a forthcoming book from the University of Michigan Press, Democracy and Imperialism: Irving Babbitt and Warlike Democracies (2019).

From the publisher’s website:

After costly U.S. engagement in two wars in the Middle East, foreign policy debates are dominated by questions about the appropriateness of American military interventions. A central issue is whether an interventionist foreign policy is compatible with the American constitutional tradition.

The book examines Irving Babbitt’s (1865–1933) unique contribution to understanding the quality of foreign policy leadership in a democracy. Babbitt explored how a democratic nation’s foreign policy is a product of the moral and cultural tendencies of the nation’s leaders and that the substitution of expansive, sentimental Romanticism for the religious and ethical traditions of the West would lead to imperialism.

The United States has been moving away from the restraining order of sound constitutionalism to impose its will on other nations, which will inevitably cause the United States to clash with the “civilizational” regions that have emerged in recent decades. Democracy and Imperialism brings the question of soul types to issues of foreign policy leadership and discusses the qualities in leaders that are necessary for sound foreign policy.

The New Social Contract We Must Reject

By BRUCE P. FROHNEN and TED V. McALLISTER • April 30, 2019

America’s public life is disordered; our discourse toxic. Competing lists of scandals and abuses (calls for impeachment, “nuclear options,” attacks on free speech, and so on) are long and shop-worn—and often miss the real issue that something profound, systemic, and dangerous has happened to our nation. A hostile ideology now permeates the institutions that inculcate our children’s values, that shape or manufacture public opinion, and that supply the public with our only menu of political options from which to choose.

In effect, our ruling class has declared a new social contract, and they expect us to accept in silent acquiescence.

A social contract reveals itself in action, not ideas, and the true nature of the new, progressive contract emerges in countless examples of applied tyranny rather than its rhetoric of liberation. If we allow this new social contract to become our national norm, we will no longer be Americans in any meaningful sense. We will descend from a self-governing people into the subjects of social democratic elites who will dictate what kinds of political, economic, and social relationships we have with one another and with our new rulers.

American public life grew from a creative tension between two competing but ultimately compatible visions of who we are and what makes our common life meaningful. In effect, Americans have lived in and between two social contracts, which we have come to call “liberal” and “conservative.”

Our liberal social contract is largely individualistic; it stresses natural rights, political consent, and legal protections that extend from protecting contracts to guaranteeing equality of opportunity. Our conservative social contract, accepting much of liberalism, undergirds it by emphasizing the ties of community—of family, church, and local association—that make economic and political cooperation possible and help give life meaning. Freedom and stability, rights and duties, personal drive and the deeper ties and shared stories that bind us, these seeming contradictions have served as the poles of our common life, allowing us to forge a society of dynamic, ordered liberty.

Things have changed. Whether in the sweeping power grab of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “Green New Deal,” the old-style socialism of Senator Bernie Sanders, or the dogged resistance of “mainstream” Democrats to any judicial nominee who recognizes the duty of judges to follow rather than make law, formerly fringe positions have coalesced into a new consensus on the left more radical than anything we have seen previously in our two-party system.

How did this happen?

Barack Obama’s vapid speechifying about America’s coming “fundamental transformation” sounded sophomoric to many of us but inspired others—activists, academics, journalists, and politicians—to believe their vanguard had finally captured all the important cultural and political high ground. The words were conceptually empty but nonetheless important as they signaled a coming out for this vanguard. Feeling free to use naked power to implement their new social and political model, progressives largely immobilized non-progressive elites whose foolish complicity in the building of the new paradigm left them without a script.

This paradigm owes much to the most radical of American Progressives from a century ago. It is laid out most fully, however, in a work of academic philosophy, the 1971 book A Theory of Justice by Harvard philosopher John Rawls.  At one level, Rawls merely restates old leftist prejudices, and his abstruse language hardly conceals the radicalism of a “social contract” demanding that we reject our lived culture, our inherited principles, and the defining traits of our American character in favor of a radical, inhumane, and fundamentally unjust “theory of justice.”

On another level, Rawls offers the purest form of political abstraction that supported a method of analysis perfectly attuned to the desires of a new generation of radicals for moral certitude and for those who cannot tolerate dissent or pluralism.  In this way, Rawls crafted a very useful and seductive theory for people who want action. Rawls’ contract begins with the question: what type of society would an individual choose from behind a “veil of ignorance” completely masking every aspect of a distinctive self: gender, class, talents, physical limitations, religious and moral beliefs? Rawls’ answer is a “fair” society, in which the only permissible inequalities would be those that produce disproportionate benefits to the most disadvantaged. The cold abstraction of Rawls’ system produces moral heat against all forms of difference and inequality, and against anyone who fails to parrot the claim that its principles are self-evident. And so, dissent from the new orthodoxy is portrayed as a sign of racist rage and a selfish thirst for power, political majorities are dismissed as brainwashed rubes or mere fictions, and open opposition to the new order is deemed treason. Rawls’ theory effectively closes the mind of disciples in order to prepare them for the long march to power.

If we have learned anything over the last two and a half centuries it is that nothing is so dangerous to real, particular, breathing humans as moralism devoted to abstract visions of the good. Unfortunately, we seem perpetually destined to unlearn such lessons. “Free” college, medical care, and guaranteed incomes, courts determined to legislate against the expressed will of the people, and the poisonous demands of today’s identity politics all share a hostility to the norms of personal responsibility and traditions of due process deeply embedded in our liberal/conservative consensus. They demand rejection of tradition and opportunity in favor of using government and radical pressure groups to redistribute wealth and power according to political standards.

Political conflict is nothing new in America. Nor is all political conflict the product of disagreements over our social contract. For example, much of the tragedy of race relations historically has stemmed from primitive emotions and bad, race-based pseudo-science. But at the core of today’s toxic politics is a battle for America’s soul. We must choose: Are we, as a people, dependents of a central government and those who perpetually run that government, looking for administrators to protect us from all the tragedies of life—including sickness, poverty, feelings of inferiority, and speech we find hurtful? Or are we a free people, possessed of a common story as well as our own stories in our own communities, capable of governing ourselves provided each of us is given fair treatment and room to move in the public square?

The Rawlsian contract demands that every form of inequality—political, economic, and social—pass muster according to rigorous, unrealistic criteria. In effect, every aspect of our lives is to be judged by the most “woke” among us, who will then use the power of the state to enforce their judgement. Promising liberation, the Rawlsian social contract would reduce each and every one of us to a featureless cog in a great machine of constant social reconstruction. This most political of social contracts is the real foundation for the politics of envy and resentment promoted by Occasio-Cortez, Sanders, and their enablers.

At its heart, the Progressive social contract is a rejection of society itself in favor of a pervasive, inescapable politics, guided by a permanent ruling class insulated from the people by tenure, lifetime appointments, civil service rules, and a corrupt political system. Real political consent comes, not from behind a veil of ignorance, nor from the kind of mass, national elections called for by those who would destroy our Electoral College. It comes from people within their own states and local communities. National politics and promises must take a back seat to local concerns and loyalties if we are to regain self-government. For this to happen we first must call out those who would shame normal Americans into submission. It is time to call a radical a radical and a socialist a socialist. Most important, it is time to remind ourselves that, whether conservative or liberal, a majority of Americans still believe in self-government and ordered liberty; this is what has bound us together, and what must continue to bind us together if we are to remain a free people.

Article originally published at American Greatness.

How the Pentagon Budget is a Threat to the Middle Class


According to SAIS Professor Hal Brands, progressives and Americans should embrace the social benefits military spending offers to the middle class. Not only does American military strength support the liberal world order that makes the world “safe for democracy,” Brands claimed, but military spending undergirds millions of middle-class jobs for service members, civilian employees, and contractors for the Pentagon.

In reality, the opposite is true: American military adventurism and massive spending undermines middle-class prosperity and makes the world less free and secure. A militarized approach to American foreign policy harms global freedom and security far more than it helps.

Though modern Washington seems to have forgotten it, the architects of the post-World War II American-led liberal world order understood that it would not—and could not— be secured by American military power alone. Strong diplomatic and trade relationships allow international institutions to flourish and help secure global buy-in from national governments.

In recent years, reckless interventions, underinvestment in relationships and diplomacy, and the hypertrophy of the U.S. military has undermined America’s ability to shore up this order. In a vicious cycle that former Defense and State Department advisor Rosa Brooks compared to a Walmart devouring the local general store, Washington’s growing reliance on the military’s vast capacity to fill in for civilian agencies leads to further atrophy of American diplomacy and adaptability in foreign affairs. As then-CENTCOM Commander General James Mattis once warned, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.”

The notion that military spending underwrites a middle-class lifestyle for millions is even more off base. It discounts the long-term effects of military spending on the American economy as a whole, as political economy experts increasingly see a dangerous relationship between free-wheeling military spending and boom-bust cycles.

Boston University political scientist Rosella Cappella Zielinski has shown, for example, how the desire to sustain high levels of military spending without sacrificing domestic political priorities led President Lyndon B. Johnson to rely on debt-financed military spending that eventually precipitated the demise of the gold standard, stagflation, and a recession.

Political economist Thomas Oatley has likewise argued that every postwar economic boom, save one, was caused directly or indirectly by military spending (including stagflation and the 2008 financial crisis). Ten years after 2008, the average middle-class family’s net wealth is still $40,000 lower than 2007, and constraints on government spending throughout the West have contributed to public disillusionment and surging populism.

While military spending might subsidize a middle-class lifestyle for some, it has contributed to macroeconomic trends that are hollowing out the middle class writ large.

Using the military as a replacement for the social safety net is a boondoggle, not a boon. Brands quotes a forthcoming Carnegie Endowment study to say, “a middle-class standard of living would be put out of reach for several thousand Ohioans if they could not count on the National Guard and Reserves as a way to contribute toward their educational expenses, acquire coveted training, earn a livable wage, provide healthcare, and add to their portfolio of retirement benefits.”

A more accurate way of putting this would be to say that for Americans not living in a few elite parts of the country, healthcare, education, and a livable wage are increasingly dependent on your willingness to serve as cannon-fodder for America’s ill-advised wars. As Eric Levitz commented at New York magazine, this reflects the failure of political elites more than a sly victory for progressive (or any other) politics.

The net result of conducting social programming by way of military spending is to ensure the burdens of America’s wars fall on an increasingly small part of the population already beset by serious economic woes. In regions of America suffering trade-related job losses and bipartisan abandonment, military enlistment rates are rising to compensate for the withering American Dream. Places like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin are thus hit with a one-two punch of economic decline and military casualties.

In the Federalist Papers, even our most pro-federal spending founders held that alarge standing army and a heavy, un-financed public debt burden were a danger to our republic’s health and security. Combining the two in the form of an ever-growing military budget is no victory. It is a threat to the future of the United States as we know it.

Jonathan Askonas is an Assistant Professor of Politics at the Catholic University of America and Fellow at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship.

[Article originally published in The American Conservative on April 3, 2019.]

A French Officer Speaks the Truth about the War in Syria

By GIL BARNDOLLAR • March 5, 2019

America’s military leaders do not like to rock the boat. Whether testifying before Congress or writing in professional journals, our modern major generals, and the colonels and majors who dream of wearing stars on their collars one day, have been largely unwilling to criticize either the strategy or the tactics of our failed post-9/11 wars. Though there have been honorable exceptions, our combat leaders mostly keep their opinions to themselves, even in retirement. So we owe thanks to our oldest ally for boasting an officer with the moral courage to put himself in the line of fire back at home.

Col. Francois-Regis Legrier, who leads the French artillery supporting Kurdish forces in Syria, recently excoriated the anti-ISIS coalition for its risk aversion and the resulting destruction of civilian areas. “Yes, the Battle of Hajin was won, at least on the ground, but by refusing ground engagement, we unnecessarily prolonged the conflict and thus contributed to increasing the number of casualties in the population,” Colonel Legrier wrote in France’s National Defense Review.

There has been much back-patting and celebration in Washington about the merits of our very light footprint in the counter-ISIS campaign. No more than 4,000 troops in Syria at any given time, achieving our aims through the largely Kurdish proxy forces we supported. U.S. casualties were minimal—just seven American servicemen have lost their lives in Syria to date. This, we are told by some experts, is the future of warfare.

The political downsides of our methods have become increasingly clear. We do not control our proxies, and they have political and military aims that may be at odds with U.S. strategic goals in the region. The Kurdish YPG in Syria, for all its fighting prowess, cannot defeat the Turkish Army that confronts it—a Turkish Army that is a NATO ally of the United States. Earlier in our haphazard Syrian intervention, different U.S. proxy forces may not have actually fought each other. But CIA-backed forces did ally with Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, an entirely predictable outcome.

Going a little further back, our proxies in South Vietnam ultimately lacked the will to win, while some of our Afghan proxies in the 1980’s ultimately became contributors to international terrorism.

What Colonel Legrier has pointed out is that we do not need to even look at these second- and third- order effects to see the downside of our method. Instead of doing the job with our own soldiers, we chose to enable our partners through massive applications of Western firepower. Precision-guided munitions can kill civilians just as easily as dumb bombs, despite defense industry marketing claims. Compare photos or videos of barrel-bombed Aleppo and smart-bombed Raqqa. Notice any similarities?

Colonel Legrier contended that a few thousand Western infantrymen could have made short work of ISIS’ final sanctuary. Repeating our infamous mistake at Tora Bora in Afghanistan, we chose not to employ our conventional troops in sustained combat. “This refusal raises a question: why have an army that we don’t dare use?” Legrier asked. This is not Madeleine Albright’s flippant taunt to Colin Powell in 1992; Colonel Legrier is a combat veteran who understands the costs of war. If the Islamic State really was and is a serious danger to the West, it should have been dealt with swiftly, decisively, and with no ambiguity about the capability and willingness of the West to destroy any legitimate jihadi target we can find.

Instead of “butcher and bolt,” we have “by, with, and through” and prolonged civilian suffering. The myth of humane warfare persists despite the reality on the ground. Low U.S. casualties mask the extent of the devastation. The Pentagon claims a little more than 1,100 Iraqi and Syrian civilian deaths from U.S. military action. Estimates by independent observers are at least five times that. Regardless, profligate use of coalition firepower during a grinding campaign spearheaded by local proxies with their own goals is a recipe for a continuing cycle of repression, grievances, revenge, and chaos. Iraq and Syria are both in the midst of proving that.

The military campaign to liberate ISIS-held territory is all but over, despite partisan political sniping in the United States. But the newly announced plan to leave 400 U.S. soldiers in Syria promises more of the same. We are pledged to “mow the grass” of extremists though small raids and airstrikes while also somehow ensuring peace between Turks and Syrian Kurds. America thus remains a party to the region’s dysfunction, while lacking the military force to influence events in any meaningful way.

Colonel Legrier’s article was quickly removed from the National Defense Review’s website, and the French Army has said he may be punished for speaking out. C’est la guerre. Would that we had a few U.S. officers willing to risk a slightly smaller pension in order to acknowledge publicly that their nation is tactically and strategically adrift.

Gil Barndollar is Military Fellow-in-Residence at CSS and Director of Middle East Studies at the Center for the National Interest. Article originally published at Defense One.


The Armed Forces Arithmetic Isn’t Adding Up


Politicians and generals frequently tell Americans that our military is “the finest fighting force the world has ever known.” The Romans and Mongols might have taken issue with that, but we do have an unparalleled ability to project power around the globe and win tactical engagements, regardless of the troubling results of our post-9/11 wars. Our military, however, has an enormous Achilles’ heel: its all-volunteer manpower system.

The bipartisan, congressionally-appointed National Defense Strategy Commission recently published its consensus report on the state of the U.S. military and its ability to meet the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy (NDS). For the first time since the Cold War, the NDS focuses on the challenges of defeating near-peer competitors such as Russia or China. The report detailed many shortcomings, including the “secular decline” in the ability and propensity of Americans to serve in uniform. This shrinking manpower pool puts U.S. national security at long-term risk, the commission says, requiring the military and Congress to take “creative steps” to address the issue.

Although welcome, this acknowledgement of reality does not go nearly far enough. Military recruiting is approaching a crisis, with clear implications for U.S. national security. The unfitness and unwillingness of American youth to serve show us the inherent limits of our current military manning. America’s vaunted all-volunteer force (AVF) is increasingly unsustainable.

The root of the problem is the fundamental math of the all-volunteer force: the “AVF arithmetic.” More than 4 million Americans turn 18 every year, but only 29 percent of them can meet minimum enlistment standards, leaving 1.2 million qualified to serve. Of those, only 15 percent exhibit any interest in military service, leaving 180,000 qualified and willing. To meet its needs, the military must recruit upwards of 85 percent of this group every year.

When the numbers grow tight (during periods of low unemployment, for example, or the grinding years of the Iraq war), the military lowers its standards (permitting felons and high school dropouts to join), offers high retention bonuses (some reaching six figures), and even forbids servicemen and women from leaving the military by using “stop-loss” orders. Maj. Gen. Malcolm Frost, commander of the Army’s Initial Military Training Command, put it bluntly: “The next existential threat we have … is the inability to man our military.”

It is an open secret in the defense community that any war with a major power such as Russia or China would require quickly restoring the draft — a possibility about which many Americans are oblivious.

Attempting to man the force from this shrunken pool has required the military (and the Army especially) to routinely resort to serious measures. Last year, the Army failed to achieve its enlistment goal for the first time since 2005 despite lowering standards, granting waivers (for mental, physical and criminal records), enlisting Category Four (CAT IV) applicants who score between the 10th and 31st percentile on aptitude tests, offering two-year enlistments, and providing student loan repayment programs.

In addition, the Army offered an individual enlistment bonus of up to $40,000 and paid an estimated $600 million in enlistment bonuses in fiscal year 2018. To gin up interest, more than 9,600 high-performing soldiers (mostly noncommissioned officers) are assigned to the Army Recruiting Command, the equivalent of three combat brigades. The Army has proposed adding 650 more this year.

Because of recruiting struggles, the Army increasingly relies on retaining more soldiers to meet its needs. The same soldiers thus make more and more deployments, associated with higher rates of traumatic brain injuries, PTSD, divorce, domestic violence and even suicide. The military’s higher compensation, benefits and enlistment/retention bonuses are disproportionately attractive to the lower socioeconomic classes of our population.

Moreover, between the difficulty of recruiting and congressionally-mandated caps on manpower, the military increasingly relies on contractors to fill as many roles as possible, another factor driving up cost but also subtly increasing risk: it isn’t clear that contractors (many of whom are not Americans) can be persuaded to provide services on a “hot” battlefield in a major war. The net effect is also to create a widening civil-military gap. Many Americans do not know someone serving in the military, and a small portion of the country bears the burdens of war.

As the commission’s report emphasizes, this is not a problem the military likely can spend its way out of. Personnel costs have skyrocketed since 2001, rising more than 50 percent in real terms. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has reported that if personnel costs continue to grow at the current rate, and the overall defense budget remains flat, military personnel costs will consume the entire defense budget by 2039. Given America’s national debt, aging population, rising health care costs and massive unfunded pension liabilities, it is unlikely that the defense budget has much room to grow.

Perhaps the strongest evidence that the all-volunteer force is not sustainable is that it could barely be sustained during the post-9/11 global war on terror. Now, with the AVF struggling just to tread water during an era of low-intensity operations, an initial bloody nose attack during a future major conflict could prove far more dangerous than it did in World War II or Korea.

Our increasingly hollow all-volunteer military is facing renewed major threats on the horizon. Rogue states such as Iran and North Korea possess significant capabilities and have the strategic depth to make any conflict extremely painful for the United States. China is ascendant in the Pacific and assertive throughout what it sees as its sphere of influence. Russia seems inclined towards dangerous geopolitical gambles that could spark war with NATO. What limited glimpses we have of 21st century high-intensity combat indicate it will be just as bloody as past warfare.

When our next major war comes, it is almost certain to bring casualties that will overwhelm our military’s manpower reserves. Even without such a dire event, any number of contingencies could crash us on the shoals of the AVF arithmetic. Our nation’s leaders must expand the means for manning the military — or contract the ends expected of our forces — while the choice is still ours to make.

Maj. Gen. Dennis Laich retired from the U.S. Army in 2006 after more than 35 years of service.

Jonathan Askonas is a research fellow at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at the Catholic University of America.

Gil Barndollar is the military fellow-in-residence at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship and served as a U.S. Marine infantry officer from 2009 to 2016.

[Article originally published in The Hill on December 6, 2018.]

When ‘Populist’ Becomes a Slur

By CLAES G. RYN • October 12, 2018

In order to make sense of the term “populism” as ordinarily used today, we must first take into account that it has been defined almost exclusively by America’s permanent ruling establishment.

This establishment is sometimes called the “deep state,” but we should resist a narrow political conception of the power structure in question. To convey the nature and reach of it, we need something like the old Aristotelian term “regime,” which refers not merely to government in the modern sense but also to an entire socio-cultural ethos that sets the tone in society and molds the way in which people view the world.

America’s permanent regime consists most importantly of the elites in the media, the universities, Hollywood, Wall Street, Madison Avenue, Silicon Valley, and Washington. This multi-faceted ruling class, linked by similar sensibilities and perspectives on the world, has immense political influence, to be sure, but it has even greater power to shape the country’s moral outlook, its mind, and its imagination, through education, publishing, movies, music, and even advertising. It has the ability to define what is and what is not newsworthy, to lionize or demonize persons and phenomena. What the regime approves of is portrayed as “normal,” “mainstream,” or “moderate”—everything else it can dismiss as extreme, radical, or worse.

A Covenant with all Mankind: Ronald Reagan’s Idyllic Vision of America in the World

I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy, By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms. —Walt Whitman

Ronald Reagan’s vision of America’s role in the world, especially as it was expressed in his presidential speeches, continues to resonate with many Americans. President George W. Bush and Senator John McCain, for example, have celebrated Reagan both as a great man and as a great leader. Each has acknowledged drawing a high degree of inspiration for his foreign policy thinking and actions from Reagan’s ideas. Countless other politicians, including President Barack Obama, as well as academics and ordinary citizens, are enthralled by this type of vision. Reagan’s popularity might lead many to believe that his foreign policy ideas are well understood, are by now deeply embedded in the American mind, and require little by way of fresh explanation and analysis. Yet it may be that many who have heard his words have not really listened to them. They have taken away vague impressions of his rhetoric and have not fully understood the meaning and significance of what he actually said. This may be especially true of those who were captivated by Reagan’s ideas and images during his presidency and the waning days of the Cold War.

Reagan’s vision of U.S. foreign policy consisted of a complex mixture of ideas about America, politics, and human nature. That mixture was not without paradoxes and internal tensions. At times he even intimated that not very much should be expected of politics. He described human beings as ethically dual, that is, as capable of both good and evil, and he could describe government, including democracy, as a limited enterprise devoted primarily to minimizing disorder. Such opinions recommended relatively modest foreign policy objectives. In his presidential speeches, he often invoked important U.S. strategic, economic, and national security concerns in support of specific goals in Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and elsewhere, but, despite his seeing serious disagreements with other nations, he sometimes stressed that a successful U.S. policy would need to include restraint, flexibility, realism, and openness to dialogue, especially with the Soviet Union. Comments like these suggested that he viewed politics and foreign policy as the art of the possible, not as an attempt to realize some great ideal.

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The ‘Fatal Flaw’ of Internationalism: Babbitt on Humanitarianism

[Originally published in Humanitas (Volume IX, No. 2, 1996)]

Richard M. Gamble is Professor of History at Hillsdale College.


From whence come wars and fightings among you? Come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?

     –James 4:1

In 1915, Irving Babbitt, professor of French literature at Harvard University and architect with Paul Elmer More of the New Humanism, turned his attention to the “breakdown of internationalism” that had plunged the world into the catastrophe of the Great War. Observing the critical situation less than a year into the European conflict, he prepared a lengthy and penetrating two-part essay on internationalism during a brief but busy sabbatical that was otherwise devoted to his forthcoming book, Rousseau and Romanticism (1919)–his important consideration of the origin of the modern temperament. The companion articles appeared in the Nation in June 1915, but carried an editor’s disclaimer that they did not entirely reflect the Nation‘s own views on the war. Babbitt was indeed likely to offend the magazine’s more jingoist readers. By the late spring of 1915, there had already been some loss of American life (most notably on the Lusitania in May), and the fighting in Europe had stalemated in the trenches of the Western Front, circumstances pointing to the likely involvement of the United States. But Babbitt’s essays for the Nation preceded America’s “inevitable” decision to join the belligerents and were published when deliberation and restraint were still possible for America’s leaders, when an alternative remained open to Rooseveltian “realism” on the one hand and Wilsonian “idealism” on the other, twin expressions of the will to power and both violations, as Babbitt would argue, of humanism’s law of measure.

Throughout the war, Babbitt contributed articles to the Nation on topics ranging from Rousseau, to Matthew Arnold, to Buddha, making in each essay at least passing reference to the war. But his extended analysis in 1915 of the breakdown of modern internationalism spoke directly to the West’s moral crisis that had culminated with such force in the Great War. Babbitt’s careful dichotomizing of “true” and “false” internationalism—one the product of humane control, the other the product of humanitarian impulse—led him to consider the cumulative spiritual problem behind the war ’s more readily apparent material causes and behind the superficial mechanistic explanations for the war then being offered. He sought to disentangle the ethico-religious problem from the build-up of armaments, the political maneuvering, the economic and imperial rivalry, and the headline-grabbing events of the battlefields of Europe. While Babbitt did not deny or even minimize the war’s proximate political, social and economic causes, he endeavored especially to discern and explain the condition of the human will and imagination that had allowed a catastrophe of such magnitude—of unprecedented extent in geography, material cost, and loss of human life—the world having recently talked so expectantly of a coming day of peace and brotherhood among nations. Babbitt set out in these articles to uncover, in his words, “the solid background of ideas” and to reveal “how these ideas have actually worked out in life and conduct.”

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