The Quartermaster’s Tools and the Quartermaster’s House

When the next executive term is inaugurated on January 21st, 2021, it will have been 19 years, 3 months, and 15 days since the start of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. Not since 2008 has the left in the United States had such an opportunity to re-imagine foreign policy from the executive branch. Should a Sanders or a Warren or another left-curious candidate assume the presidency in 2021, they will inherit a massive American security bureaucracy, with key positions waiting to be staffed by political appointees. 

To the extent that there is a bench for foreign policy within the big tent of the Democratic party, it is a bench that is almost exclusively aligned with the pro-intervention sides of both the Obama and Clinton camps, leaving few people of an anti-intervention bent for a president to call on. To better understand how this situation came to be and how it might be mitigated, I spoke over email with Daniel Bessner, a historian of American defense intellectual culture.

Kelsey D. Atherton: Let’s start with the most immediate question: should we get a Sanders or a Warren presidency, and a foreign policy to match, where would those administrations look to hire people into the administration to manage the national security apparatus? 

Daniel Bessner: I think this will be one of the foremost problems confronting a future progressive president. There is simply not a bench for left wing foreign policy thinkers, analysts, and bureaucrats in the same way that there is for conservatives or liberals. This is, in fact, my biggest gripe with the previous generation of left wing thinkers: though they were mostly correct in their moral condemnations of US foreign policy–its imperialism, its brutality, its feigned innocence– they fundamentally misunderstood how power works, at least in the foreign-policymaking realm.

It seems to me that social movements are unable to have a particularly restraining effect on the use of US power–particularly military power–abroad. Instead, moments of mass resistance have often been moments–and, I should make clear, important moments–of saying no, of expressing opposition to a particular path forward. But neither the mass protests against the Vietnam War nor the mass protests against the Iraq War were able, in the final analysis, to do much.

I believe this failure should force left wing thinkers to confront the problem of how power operates, at least in the foreign policy realm. In this country foreign policy is an almost entirely elite-directed affair. At least, it is now. There are several reasons for this–structurally, foreign-policymaking authority is concentrated in the executive branch, and since World War II it has been ever-more concentrated in the White House itself; there have been conscious attempts by elites of both parties to prevent the US public from taking much of an interest in foreign affairs. But either way, this is the situation we face, and have faced for quite a while.

But previous generations of left wing thinkers either didn’t realize this or didn’t acknowledge it. So there was never a sustained project of institution-building to mirror the one the right undertook in the 1970s (for example, the Heritage Foundation was founded in 1973, the Cato Institute in 1977) or liberals undertook in the early 2000s (the Center for American Progress was founded in 2003, and in my opinion earlier groups, like the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution, were for the most part liberal groups). And this is where the left finds itself today; without the institutions that could have–and should have–been building the cadre who would staff the state if a Bernie, or even a Warren, won the presidency.

This also relates to the fetish for revolution that some segments of the American left have entertained for a long time. I don’t believe the United States is on the verge of any kind of left wing revolution, and will thus need to, at least for the moment, manipulate power within a status quo.

KDA: Your work has delved deep into the institutionalization of the national security state as a narrow field dominated by a subset of professionals insulated from the currents of democracy. Do we know where administrations looked for staffing prior to that professionalization? Is that worth returning to, or should a left administration try and instead to democratize the administering of the national security state? 

DB: The modern US state is essentially a creation of the 1930s and 1940s. A way to think about it that I believe is helpful is that the New Deal of the 1930s focused on the domestic sphere, while the post-World War II era of state-building focused on the foreign. So, it’s only in the late 1940s you get the Department of Defense, the National Security Council, and the Central Intelligence Agency–before then, the main institutions of foreign policymaking are the State Department, and some elements of the Departments of War and Navy.

Early on, there was essentially a rotation of people from the WASP professional classes–lawyers and bankers especially–who would occasionally take time from their regular business practice to spend some time in government. Think of Elihu Root, who served as Secretary of State and Secretary of War, and who was a lawyer. After World War I, things started to change–you get the creation of the Council on Foreign Relations, and the modern US Foreign Service is started in the 1920s. In other words, after World War I the United States started to professionalize its foreign policy apparatus as it became clear–even during the so-called “Return to Normalcy” of the 1920s–that the nation was likely to take a more active approach in foreign affairs. Indeed, contrary to popular memory, the 1920s-1930s weren’t really decades of isolationism; the United States did quite a bit to affect world affairs, particularly in the economic realm (think of the Dawes Plan or the Young Plan, for example).

But this is all to say that, before World War II, foreign policy was largely the remit of a WASP elite that shared similar economic, cultural, and political assumptions. In that sense, then, the national security state created after World War II was an “improvement” in that it truly did democratize the establishment. This is why a Jewish exile like Henry Kissinger was able to rise to the highest foreign-policy positions in the country; because the establishment had democratized–or, put another way, it “meritocratized”– now, people of “merit” were invited into the bureaucracies of state, regardless of ethnic or religious background (well, if you were a white male; women and people of African descent were largely excluded).

But this elite democratization failed to make US foreign policy better–Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam, etc., all followed it. So this presents a problem: what do we do going forward?

Basically, I maintain we need to democratize US foreign policymaking by developing mechanisms to connect ordinary people to the policymaking process. At first, I believe this will need to start with American citizens–but over time, I think this needs to expand to people who are directly affected by American empire. This includes, first, the undocumented who are presently residing within this country, who should be given the right to vote, and other rights of citizens, immediately. But it also includes people who are affected by US foreign policy abroad–as several scholars and thinkers have noted, there should be “no annihilation without representation”; if the United States destroys your country, you should be able to represent yourself within its government.

KDA: What sort of institutions outside the military can cultivate the deep knowledge needed to manage security bureaucracies? 

DB: Right now, the major institutions to cultivate knowledge about how to manage the Pentagon are US universities, which contain the most coherent community of thinkers who reject the status quo of American empire and militarism. Nevertheless, many of these critics do not have experience in government and thus would probably, at least at first, not be the most effective managers of foreign policy. So this will be a real problem going forward. I’m hopeful that new groups like the Quincy Institute will be able to begin cultivating the cadre and expertise needed to manage enormous and complex organizations like the Pentagon, but this will likely take at least a few years. Put another way, there’s a gap, and I’m not sure there’s a real short-term answer to your question.

KDA: How far could National Security Council (NSC) reform get us toward a left foreign policy without radical personnel changes at the Pentagon? If a Sanders Administration filled the NSC, which is not as large a bureaucracy to manage as the Defense Department, with left foreign policy thinkers, introduced significant audits and cuts to defense spending, and restructured the White House end of foreign policymaking to be much more open and democratic, could Sanders get away with staffing the Pentagon with the kind of center-left folks we would have seen in a Hillary Clinton administration and still accomplish his foreign policy goals? How much would change in that scenario?

DB: This is a really interesting question, and in brief, I think that structural reform in Washington, DC, while crucial, is not enough to change the actual operation of US foreign policy. As I’m sure many Fellow Travelers are aware, the policy that is made in DC is not always followed on the ground, and forces abroad–say, for examples, the military personnel that staff our hundreds of bases or the diplomats who staff our embassies–have an enormous amount of latitude to do what they want. Put another way, structural changes in DC, to have meaningful effect, must be accompanied with a significant withdrawal of US forces from the rest of the world. To ensure that this is a smooth process, a President Bernie would need to appoint left wingers not only to National Security Council and White House positions, but also to the Defense Department. Relatedly, I believe one of the most important resources available to those skeptical of American militarism and American empire are younger military officers who served in Afghanistan and Iraq and have seen the effects of disastrous US foreign policies firsthand. The left should be working to empower these critical voices within the military, who will be essential to transforming how the military acts and how future generations of officers and enlisted soldiers understand their own role in the world.

With regards to appointing centrists: I think there are several options available to a President Bernie. On one hand, he could appoint centrists to certain positions to guarantee that these bureaucracies function. However, he would then be placed in the position of dismantling the apparatuses of the national security state at the same time that there are people within the bureaucracy who don’t want these institutions weakened. On the other hand, Bernie could adopt a Trump-like position and just refuse to staff certain parts of the Defense Department. More research and thinking would have to be done to figure out which of these choices is most suited to getting rid of the imperial structures that have done so much damage to the United States and the world; the most important thing now is to think creatively so we have plans once a leftist is finally elected.

KDA: What’s the best use of the time before left institutions start producing defense technocrats?

DB: Right now, there’s a lot of interesting discussion about left wing foreign policy happening in places like n+1, Jacobin, Boston Review, The New Republic, Dissent, and the like. At this point in history, we have to develop some very basic ideas about what we mean by left wing foreign policy to help guide future analysts as they actually put ideas into practice. This is especially important because the left might not get many opportunities to prove itself to the US public; we absolutely cannot mess up when we eventually move into government.

KDA: Who are some other people working in this space that you would recommend KDA talk to?

DB: There are a number of excellent people working in this space that Fellow Travelers should speak with, including, in alphabetical order: Iram Ali, Emma Ashford, Asli Ü. Bâli, Elizabeth Beavers, Kate Kizer, Aziz Rana, and Stephen Wertheim, among others.

KDA: What’s the best thing you read recently, on left national security policy, or any other topic?

DB: Anything written by Aziz Rana.


Daniel Bessner is a historian at the University of Washington, where his work covers the culture and circumstances of the of the national security enterprise. Fellow Travelers Blog previously reviewed his book, Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual, in August 2018.

Kelsey D. Atherton is a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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