Historically, America’s diplomats don’t get much respect. When things go wrong, they get blamed; they are rarely credited with success. Their brethren across the Potomac at the Defense Department have nearly always been another story. The Pentagon’s core annual budget has nearly doubled over the past 10 years, to almost $600 billion, not counting off-budget war expenses, and while the recent debt-ceiling deal calls for significant defense cuts, powerful voices — including President Obama’s new defense secretary, Leon Panetta — have already warned that America’s national security is at risk.
For Stephen Glain, a journalist with extensive experience in both the Middle East and Asia, it will come as no surprise if the defense hawks ultimately win out. In “State vs. Defense,” Glain explains how a powerful combination of fire-breathing generals, hawkish intellectuals and calculating or weak presidents and lawmakers enabled the military to reach such an exalted and expensive position, while systematically gutting American diplomacy, in the years since World War II.
From Generals Douglas MacArthur and Curtis LeMay, to Paul Nitze, to George W. Bush and a host of fear-mongers in between, Glain ably illustrates that the secret to their success has been scaring the beejesus out of the American public. “Their impulse is not to reason but to alarm,” he writes of the “militarists,” “and they freely concoct dangers when real ones are unavailable. ”
Using largely archival information, Glain revisits many themes in his 2004 book, “Mullahs, Merchants, and Militants: The Economic Collapse of the Arab World.” He judges the Cold War, the war on terror, and all the small wars fought in their names as largely manufactured reactionism based on purposefully inflated assessments of purported enemies.
In today’s conflicts, Clinton has fought hard for “smart power.” As the number of U.S. forces on the ground in Afghanistan has tripled under the Obama administration, so has the number of U.S. civilians. But that still leaves the civilians there greatly outnumbered: about 1,300 compared to 100,000 military personnel. As the military has grown, it has expanded into many areas previously reserved for civilians because it has the money and the manpower to do so. The Pentagon itself has bemoaned this piling-up of new duties as it undertakes tasks such as vaccinating children in Latin America, digging wells in Africa and trying to build local governance in Afghanistan.
Anyone who wants to trace the absurdities of the nuclear arms race or understand the similarities of U.S. military foibles in Vietnam to those in Afghanistan will find useful but incomplete material in Glain’s recounting of decades of Defense Department power grabs abetted by hawkish or intimidated civilian officials and those who stood to profit from contracts with the Pentagon. But his title is something of a misnomer. Rather than document the history of competition between America’s defense establishment and diplomats, Glain focuses almost entirely on how the winner cheated. The whole mess clearly makes him so angry he sometimes oversteps the bounds of fact as he marshals his case.
To argue State’s irrelevance, he erroneously claims that the Foreign Services’s director general — an in-house human relations position — was meant to be roughly equivalent to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who by statute serves as the president’s senior military advisor, but has paled in importance. He is trying to make the case that DOD has aggrandized itself at State’s expense, but in fact the two positions were never meant to be anything close to equivalent. One is essentially a human resources position, while the other is senior military adviser to the president.
Glain also indicts the current administration, correctly noting that Obama has expanded both targeted killings abroad and the Justice Department’s right to spy on U.S. citizens. But much of his supporting evidence is inaccurate. He says with no sourcing or further explanation that the CIA’s network of overseas “black site” prisons is “still in operation,” despite the fact that the system was shut down before Obama took office. He indicts Obama for leaving 50,000 troops in Iraq as part of “an ill-defined, ‘enduring’ ” presence even though most if not all of them, according to longstanding plan, will be leaving this year.
Obama’s December 2009 decision to increase troops in Afghanistan but begin a withdrawal this summer was “politely dismissed by his proconsuls,” Glain writes. But the Pentagon and military leadership ultimately supported the withdrawal. “Just weeks” after Obama’s accommodation of the generals, Glain continues, the president’s “tenacious” diplomatic point man on Afghanistan and Pakistan collapsed and died — an event that actually occurred a full year later.
is the Post’s senior national security correspondent.