The Progressive War Party, of Sorts
Our American system of government, by design, has a lot of healthy churn. So far this century we’ve seen a Democrat Clinton hand power to a Republican Bush who handed power to a Democrat Obama who handed power to a Republican Trump who handed power to a Democrat Biden. There is enough churn to make hyper-partisans of all types frustrated, but for the mass in the middle and everyone else, really, this is a good thing.
Like a body of water, national politics needs vigorous competition and change. It keeps things healthy. For those in the national security arena, domestic politics can be a distraction. Programs, requirements, and threats do not work in election cycles.
For those in uniform, domestic partisan politics is something to be avoided in the open. This is a feature, not a bug. However, national defense is, to a nation, a different policy area than others.
Any student of history will tell you that the most serious of all areas of government is national defense. If you get it wrong, you put your nation and your people at existential crisis and risk of poverty, servitude, and in extreme cases, elimination wholesale. Even for those sad souls who don’t know their history, they can just look to the latest news out of Ukraine for the latest example of a pattern as old as our species.
For the USA, with our pleasantly healthy churn between the two parties, the nation needs serious natsec people in both parties. On occasion you will hear people reminiscence about the “bi-partisan consensus” (BPC) on defense that existed at some point in the past … if you ask them they will vaguely wave at the 1980s or perhaps 1950s, but really – no. It never existed. Trust me about the 1980s, I was there. Conflicting views, concepts, and priorities were there, and rather heated. I will give the BPC false memory this, the real national security professionals on Team Donkey and Team Elephant were closer together then than they seem now.
As we now are in an age where the center is thinning and in domestic politics as the center-mass of each party seems to be running to the fringes, many serious people are wondering how this separation will manifest itself in the natsec arena.
Apart from your friendly local liberal of old, today’s “progressive” is of a different stripe. More leftist than liberal, and all that comes with it. It is fair for those on the right to wonder, as the progressive wing grows stronger in (D) circles, are they still within arm’s reach of their counterparts on the most critical issues?
In case you didn’t know, friend of the blog and occasional guest poster here Bryan McGrath has his own substack (which you need to subscribe to), and on this topic I’d like to point you to his latest post, “Can Progressives Run the Pentagon?”
You need to read the whole thing, but let me grab a few pull quotes for your consideration. He starts with a point that needs to be in your mind in everything you see coming out of the present DOD;
… progressives in positions of authority in the Department of Defense must wrestle with ideological dilemmas that do not occur to conservatives, and that to the extent their ideological priors influence policy, those influences are unlikely to be additive.
In essence, the Pentagon—populated with progressives in key policy jobs—is being asked (told) to keep a lid on spending so that money can be applied to other domestic political priorities. And I assert that this is fine with most of them. These other domestic political priorities are not random or unanticipated; they represent the jot and tittle of the modern progressive agenda. Inequality, climate change and the environment, the welfare state, and urban transportation and housing are center of mass policy ends of the progressive cause, far more so than Pentagon spending. Progressive national security types certainly want sufficient resources for national defense, but they REALLY want a domestic agenda that looks to the defense budget for resourcing.
People are policy … and political appointees, regardless of what their personal views and opinions may be, serve at the pleasure of the President. They, rightfully, owe him their advice and opinion, but at the end of the day must align themselves 100% with his policy goals. That is their job. That is an honorable position and as long as what you are doing is legal, ethical, and does not dishonor you – it is what you do, or you resign.
It isn’t business, it’s politics – even in the natsec arena. That is OK, but you need to acknowledge it and its consequences;
The current Deputy Secretary of Defense is … Kathleen (Kath) Hicks…(who) spent a good bit of time and energy thinking and writing about how to cut the defense budget before she came into office.
The closer one looks at the details of military spending, the clearer it becomes that although radical defense cuts would require dangerous shifts in strategy, there are savings to be had. Getting them, however, would require making politically tough choices, embracing innovative thinking, and asking the armed forces to do less than they have in the past. The end result would be a less militarized yet more globally competitive United States.
It is difficult to conceive under what circumstance a modern American conservative national security thinker would advocate for a “…less militarized yet more globally competitive United States…”, but I supposed they may exist.
Looking at it from the outside, I think Bryan gets it about right.
At some level of abstraction, progressive national security types are a lot like conservative education policy types. The work is incredibly important to the country, but within your own tribe, other priorities exist. When a nation spends $750B on defense even under a progressive administration, it is hard to feel bad for the left of center defense community, and I’m sure the policy analysts at Health and Human Services aren’t crying any crocodile tears for the poor Schedule C personal assistant to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Partnerships with whom they worked on the Hill. But it is important to realize that both come from the same set of policy preferences, one that sees unfairness and inequity as something to be addressed by government and policy, and that sees “investment” in education, the environment, infrastructure, and diversity as governing priorities, with national defense as as a necessary government function requiring reshaping and reform in order to harvest savings to be applied to the other priorities.
I’ve only taken a sample, take some time to read the whole thing to start your week off right.