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.

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