As long as Americans remember the Iraq blunders they fostered, neoconservatives and the foreign policy positions they champion aren’t likely to regain decisive influence any time soon. But they continue to mesmerize the nation’s mainstream media, which keep awarding them plum pundit-izing platforms and outsized amounts of space.
That’s why we all owe such a debt to former Wall Street Journal columnist George Melloan’s recent essay attacking President Obama’s foreign record these days. Melloan makes all the by-now-standard charges that the President’s hesitancy, and his supposed determination to pull America largely out of world affairs, have egged on aggressors throughout the Middle East and in Moscow. But he also unwittingly performs a major public by reminding the nation just how internally contradictory and historically whacko neoconservatism can be.
The biggest internal contradiction revealed in Melloan’s column in the (often neoconservative) Journal is of most immediate interest to conservatives. But it also valuably reminds all Americans of a crucial tradeoff between foreign policy and domestic policy that’s too often ignored. According to Melloan, a great lesson taught by the 20th century is that the greatest U.S. foreign policy and military successes owed overwhelmingly to the private sector, and that these vital capabilities are being destroyed “by the progressives who took control of the U.S. government in 2009.”
Not that Melloan or other neocons would ever slight the skill and power of the American military. But the idea that the U.S. economy somehow spontaneously turned its productive might into a gargantuan war machine is either shockingly ignorant or disgracefully deceptive. During World War II, it took a triumph of effective government – including not only crackerjack administrative and logistical expertise but strong support for the numerous technological innovations that were keys to victory.
Yes, many of these war-time government officials came from the private sector, where they developed their skills. But does anyone honestly think that they could have created the vaunted Arsenal of Democracy sitting in their offices on Wall Street or in corporate boardrooms? And P.S.: Stalin’s Russia possessed none of this private sector knowhow or tradition and built a pretty fair military itself.
Government’s role in maintaining the gargantuan peacetime defense establishment for which Melloan and other neocons clearly pine was so pervasive that no less than Dwight D. Eisenhower left office warning his countrymen about the power of a “military-industrial complex.” One key passage is worth spotlighting:
“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.”
Yet even this description of government’s involvement in the military, and of its impact on the broader post-war economy, is a considerable under-statement. Just one example: Pentagon-funded research and deelopment not only created high tech weaponry. It also made possible, at least on a commercial scale, every American information technology industry you can think of – including the internet.
There’s also a strong argument that, once the New Deal emergency faded and the World War was won, America’s unprecedentedly enormous peacetime military indirectly helped fuel the rise of the permanent welfare state. It’s easy to see how it forced American politicians in both major parties to keep finding ways to persuade taxpayers that they were getting something for their money other than soldiers and weapons. It’s also easy to see why for so long these same politicians refused to choose between guns and butter when they faced budget crunches, and chose both – thereby setting the national debt on a high-growth path.
And this effect hasn’t just been seen since World War II. It’s long been recognized by American historians that the Civil War both established once and for all Washington’s supremacy over the states, and greatly expanded that federal government’s powers.
Such history should be so well known to a veteran commentator like the Journal’s Melloan that it’s hard to believe that he’s not trying to mislead – and that the fictional narrative he offers stems from the anti-government, free market zealotry propagated for so long by him, by the Journal editorial board, and by much of the American conservative movement. (Libertarians have been a major exception: Fear of its pattern of feeding government underlies much of their critique of foreign policy activism.) In other words, he seems to fear that if government gets its due for 20th century foreign policy successes, the rest of the anti-government case could collapse.
The crucial point here is not to defend either government spending as such or Obama’s alleged foreign policy restraint. Instead, it’s to remind not only neocons but others on the right of center in particular that they can’t have it both ways. If they want a more forceful foreign policy, they’re going to have to accept a much bigger government that reaches far more deeply into the civilian economy on an ongoing basis. If they want a much smaller government, they’ll never get it without scaling back their foreign policy ambitions. If, however, they want the nation stuck with the worst and most dangerous of all possible worlds, a highly active, globally engaged foreign policy and a shriveled public sector, they’ll try to rewrite history and wish the problem away– like George Melloan.