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How About We Try a Day Without Bullshit?

[ 54 ] June 8, 2011 |

A couple of weeks ago, Mackenzie Eaglen and Bryan McGrath published “A Day Without Seapower,” a nightmare scenario in which Barack Obama breaks the coffee machine at the Heritage Foundation, among other depredations. I take some issue with elements of their case:

The most recent entry into this genre also comes courtesy of the Heritage Foundation, with an assist from the Weekly Standard. Mackenzie Eaglen and Bryan McGrath have penned an essay arguing that the United States needs to strengthen its commitment to seapower in order to maintain not only its global influence, but also the modern global economic system. Detailed at length in a Heritage Foundation report and in a briefer version at the Weekly Standard, Eaglen and McGrath’s nightmare scenario depicts the United States circa 2025 as a broken country, friendless and at the mercy of a nefarious coalition made up of China, Russia, India, Korea, Iran, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine and Syria. Not pretty and altogether alarming. But before we beg the authors to save us, we might want to consider whether the wool is being pulled over our eyes. How does this dreadful state of affairs come about?

Two additional thoughts:

  1. This kind of nonsense highlights the need for robust progressive defense infrastructure. The problem with Heritage Foundation bullshit is that on relatively technical defense issues like this, there’s often very little pushback from knowledgeable progressives. It will surprise no one to find that I think that seapower is pretty important, and that there’s a clear progressive case to be made for a seapower-focused national security strategy. While things have certainly gotten better over the last couple years, we too often cede the field to Heritage Foundation bullshit artists.
  2. The lack of progressive infrastructure on these issues creates additional problems of opportunity. Mackenzie Eaglen is a Heritage Foundation hack; she’s paid to lie in the service of powerful defense interests. Not really my cup of tea, but I can respect that on some level; everybody’s got to make a living. Bryan McGrath is different; I’d like to think that if he had the opportunity to write a high profile brief in favor of seapower that didn’t involve a string of events somewhat less likely than a maritime oriented alien invasion. This isn’t to absolve McGrath; no matter how much I cared about seapower, I would never have put my name on garbage like this. Nevertheless, it would be nice if progressives offered some institutional alternatives.

Comments (54)

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  2. Scott P. says:

    From the article:

    Meanwhile, the phenomenon of strategic balancing almost disappears from the Eaglen/McGrath scenario.

    My guess is that Eaglen/McGrath have a view of foreign policy that is a combination of a) everyone naturally follows the hegemon (and if they don’t as is the case for the U.S., it’s due to feckless leadership, something China evidently doesn’t have) and b) a moralistic view in which the “bad guys” naturally band together. Japan keeps out because it is a “good guy” unlike the Europeans.

  3. Nevertheless, it would be nice if progressives offered some institutional alternatives.

    Too many progressives refuse to think in reality-based terms about anything touching on the military. Instead, they think that that all one needs in order to have a respectable opinion about them is the proper ideological outlook about war as an abstract concept. It’s the flip side of those neocons who spent 2002 babbling about how The Lord of the Rings shows that we need to invade Iraq.

    This stands in sharp contrast to how progressives approach pretty much ever other policy area. The level of detailed knowledge about health care delivery and financing, tax policy, greenhouse gas science or transportation infrastructure one finds in even the comment threads of progressive blogs is amazing, but when it comes to weapons programs or any proposed military action, “War is bad, mmm-kay?” and “It’s all just a scam by the MIC,” and “This is JUST LIKE Vietnam!” and “War for Oil!” pass for the pinnacle of enlightened insight. The facts are just assumed to back up the platitudes, while any actual knowledge about these topics marks someone as ideologically suspect.

    • Of course, there are counter-examples. Rachel Maddow, of all people, is extremely well-versed in military affairs.

    • Holden Pattern says:

      Here’s a lighter for that straw man.

      • You’re right, I’m nuts. The level of detailed knowledge one finds among progressives about military affairs is quite impressive, and rivals what you see in health care and economic policy.

        Progressives who do write with detailed knowledge about these issues are highly-respected, and occupy places of prominence in the progressive intelligencia. I’m sure Farley can back me up on this, if he isn’t too busy fielding requests for media appearances.

        This also helps to explain why there are so many progressive military experts among elected Democrats, so that when they control Congress, solid left-leaning figures like Ike Skelton and John Murtha are available to chair the relevant committees.

        And certainly, you don’t even see “commentary” from progressives equating every military action to Vietnam, or dismissing practical considerations of specific details of the situation while falling back on universal platitudes.

        Nosiree, I just made that all up. I don’t know what I was thinking.

        • I’d say the best demonstration of how wrong-headed I am is the comment count on military policy-wonk posts by Farley or Carpenter.

          • wengler says:

            It’s almost as if conservatives are more attracted to military affairs and liberals are more attracted to domestic welfare systems.

            Who’d have thunk it?

            • I see conservatives waging campaigns full of detailed policy wonkery on domestic proposals all the time. There is a strong think-tank infrastructure on the right dedicated to specific, detail-oriented policy work aimed at justifying the reduction and elimination of programs they don’t like. Heritage, the Reason Foundation, CATO – these organizations put a good deal of resources and staff work into understanding the details, and they are better-able to convince the public, legislators, and bureaucrats as a result.

          • DK says:

            I’d say if a comment count is your best demonstration of anything, than you lack a demonstration on that point.

            Perhaps you might do well with a slightly narrower brush. It is possible there is a choice other than the two alternatives you offered.

            • I’d say if a comment count is your best demonstration of anything, than you lack a demonstration on that point.

              Ah, yes. Of course.

              Because comment counts on threads about a topic are such a terribly proxy for level of interest about that topic. In particular, comment counts on a progressive blog about a topic are in way demonstrative of the level of interest among progressives about that topic.

              Umwut?

              Perhaps you might do well with a slightly narrower brush.

              I’m afraid if I get any narrower than “Too many progressives…,” I’m liable to slip between the floor boards.

              It is possible there is a choice other than the two alternatives you offered.

              You mean like when I provided a counter-example (Rachel Maddow) to my point?

              No, I don’t feel that my carefully-qualified point about “too many progressives,” which includes the acknowledgment of counter-examples, needs to be further qualified to even the slightest degree.

    • DocAmazing says:

      Actually, it’s a bit finer-grained than that: progressives, in my experience, tend to see military issues in a historical context and a cultural one, while conservatives and neocons view them economically (invariably with a view to maintenance of hegemony) or fascination with hardware and operators.

      It is not a sign of being better-informed about military affairs to be able to identify the specific military units posted in a specific area who would likely respond in a specific circumstance; most of the time, it’s mere military fanboyism.

      • Neocons don’t look at military issues in a historical or cultural context?

        I don’t think that’s true. Think about all of the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric after 9/11. Think about Victor David Hanson. Think about all of the gawdawful Lord of the Rings analogies from 2002-2003. Think about the theories about spreading democracy, and “Suck on this!” and the manly-man nonsense about support for military adventurism as a sign of our strength as a culture. Think about John McCain’s “Great National Purpose.”

        Neocons’ theories about military action are all about culture and history; they’re just nuts.

        It is not a sign of being better-informed about military affairs to be able to identify the specific military units posted in a specific area who would likely respond in a specific circumstance

        Well, yeah, actually, because it demonstrates an awareness of what our military capabilities are – the capabilities of units, and also the capabilities of equipment and platforms. I agree, the motivation for wanting to have this level of knowledge is often just the interest of a groupie, and they’d almost certainly have exactly the same opinions about political question regardless of whether they had this knowledge or not, but they’re still acquiring and using knowledge, and it still gives their side a leg up in policy debates.

        • DocAmazing says:

          Knowing the displacement of the engine of a Ferrari Testarossa does not give one a leg up on debates about highways, transportation, or oil exploration.

          Sabermetricians have little to offer when the question of the economic viability of a new stadium is being discussed.

          By the same token, bloggers who specialize in how cool the F-22 is or how many SEALs fit in a boat don’t have a lot to add, and that’s a very big part of the con/neocon bench. This effect tends to be increased as those same con/neocon analysts fail–repeatedly–to take into account obvious characteristics about the countries that they expect to invade (like a propensity to shoot back).

          The knowledge that they acquire doesn’t really make them any better-equipped to answer the questions that arise. It’s akin to the age old tension between information and knowledge.

          • Focusing specifically on the question of procurement, though, yes, knowledge about the capabilities of different platforms does give them a leg up. It also makes them appear more knowledgeable overall, so that they are given greater deference on indirectly-related questions, like “How much capability do we need?” Maybe it’s unfair that they gain this deference; life sucks like that.

            Think about a debate between a teabagger who only knows his anti-tax talking points and frequently makes errors of fact such as “Half of Americans pay no taxes,” and a liberal who not only knows the ideological case for higher taxes, but who can run rings around the teabagger on the details, and keeps catching him on his misstatements of fact.

            Who’s going to win a debate over the principle of higher vs. lower taxes?

            • DocAmazing says:

              Debate analogy doesn’t make it. Try “think of a debate between a teabagger who knows his anti-tax talking points and frequently makes errors of fact and a guy who knows the names of all of the tax acts passed in the last century and the dates of their passage and the number of punctuation marks in each act but has never himself paid any taxes and sees no reason not to tax every last dollar of a person’s income”, if you’re trying to cast the progs in the role of teabagger, as I think you might be.

              • It’s not an analogy. We need to win debates.

                And this bullshit: has never himself paid any taxes and sees no reason not to tax every last dollar of a person’s income is just a bunch of self-congratulatory nonsense about the side you’re on being the good guys.

                • DocAmazing says:

                  But
                  a liberal who not only knows the ideological case for higher taxes, but who can run rings around the teabagger on the details, and keeps catching him on his misstatements of fact
                  is a wholly dispassionate description of one side of the debate.

                  Mmm hmmm.

                • Yup. It’s an objective statement about their relative levels of knowledge – knowledge being the relevant variable we were discussing here. As opposed to your irrelevant chickenhawk slam.

                  You don’t understand, even in theory, the difference between an objective statement that demonstrates one side’s superiority, and trash-talking.

                  Congratulations.

                  BTW, since you seem to have fogotten, YOU were trying to argue that specific knowledge is irrelevant to one’s ability to understand and argue about a topic. I know you’re really, really enamored of throwing out the chickenhawk card when you find yourself if a rough spot during an argument about military matters, but it’s a statement against your interest here.

                • DocAmazing says:

                  Right. “Teabagger” is objective.

                  And “specific knowledge” is not the same thing as “fanboy trivia”.

          • Is there any other area of government or politics in which you’d argue that specific knowledge about the operations and tools of the relevant department is not helpful in understanding the policy and political questions, coming to useful conclusions about them, and arguing for your preferred actions?

            I don’t think there is, and yet you’re arguing that about the military.

            This is my problem with too many people on our side: they don’t approach military matters the way they approach every other field of politics.

            • DocAmazing says:

              I work a lot with groups involved in health care issues; most of them have never been in an operating room, and don’t ever need to be in one to help shape healthcare policy.

              I work a lot with groups involved in transportation issues; few of them could distinguish a bulldozer from a backhoe, and they don’t need to to help determine the allocation of maintenance funds or the routes of buses.

              Hardware fetishism and order-of-battle trivia aren’t necessary (or even helpful) in laying out the requirements for national defense; they impress wannabe commandos in the media, and that is important, and they make military officers happy during briefings, but they are not otherwise useful.

              • I work a lot with groups involved in health care issues; most of them have never been in an operating room, and don’t ever need to be in one to help shape healthcare policy

                Is this supposed to demonstrate to me that the input of care givers into policy and their presence in the public debate is without value? Because it totally doesn’t.

                I work a lot with groups involved in transportation issues; few of them could distinguish a bulldozer from a backhoe, and they don’t need to to help determine the allocation of maintenance funds or the routes of buses.

                Is this supposed to demonstrate to me that the input of transportation engineers and planners and DPW directors into transportation policy and the public debate is without value? Because it totally doesn’t.

                they impress wannabe commandos in the media, and that is important, and they make military officers happy during briefings, but they are not otherwise useful.

                Well cripes, Mrs. Lincoln, other than that, how was the play?

                • DocAmazing says:

                  Is this supposed to demonstrate to me that the input of care givers into policy and their presence in the public debate is without value? Because it totally doesn’t.

                  If you’re trying to make the argument that military personnel are being kept out of the discussions of the military budget and procurement, I’m going to ask to check your medication levels.

                  Your argument is that progressives are insufficiently educated as to the nuts & bolts of the arguement. As I’m pointing out, the other side is obsessed with trivia. Trivia is not necessary to make policy. Professionals in the fields in question are always going to be part of the debate (except possibly in education, where every asshole and his uncle seems to think he’s smarter that teachers); the question remains: what level of specific knowledge of hardware is necessary for policy planning outside of the porfessionals? The answer varies, of course, but the ability to tell the exact kilowatt output of a Pratt and Whitney jet engine is not useful in allocating funds for a fleet of fighter aircraft–any more than the ability to operate a road grader is necessary to determine the utility of traffic calming of an urban arterial road.

                • If you’re trying to make the argument that military personnel are being kept out of the discussions of the military budget and procurement

                  Good thing I’m not then. I can restate my argument if you’d like, but it would probably be better for you to just scroll back up and reread what I’ve written. I can’t even reverse-engineer how you might have ended up with this confusion, so I’m not going to try to straighten it out.

                  As I’m pointing out, the other side is obsessed with trivia.

                  And in doing so, dismissing the entirety of “knowledge of military affairs” as “trivia.” Literally, the opposite of being reality-based, you are disparaging any and all knowledge about military affairs as useless to a consideration of military policy – in other words, demonstrating my point as clearly as I could ever have hoped.

                • DocAmazing says:

                  you are disparaging any and all knowledge about military affairs as useless to a consideration of military policy

                  You might want to see someone about that reading comprehension problem. “Any and all knowledge”? No, just the obsession with specifics of hardware and slobbering over trivial details of order-of-battle that is so very common among cons/neocons–and, it would appear, among some DLCers, as well.

              • Oh, and reducing the entirety of “knowledge of military affairs” to “hardware fetishism” is a dodge.

                • DocAmazing says:

                  But that is what we’re talking about, after all. Since having some knowledge of, say, the ethnic makeup of a country that we’re getting set to get militarily involved in (and what that portends for cooperation on the part of the locals) is seen as extraneous and irrelevant by the cons/neocons, we’re really not talking about people who value knowledge in any broad sense, are we?

                • But that is what we’re talking about, after all.

                  No, it’s not. You’ve just decided to disparage the entire field of “knowledge of military affairs” as “hardware fetishism.”

                  And that is your problem, and the problem I’ve been discussing this whole time.

                  Since having some knowledge of, say, the ethnic makeup of a country that we’re getting set to get militarily involved in (and what that portends for cooperation on the part of the locals) is seen as extraneous and irrelevant by the cons/neocons,

                  If you’re trying to convince me that neocons are nuts, you don’t have to try very hard.

                  If you’re trying to argue that the neocons’ willful ignorance about country-specific conditions somehow makes specific knowledge about military operations useless when debating military policy, your conclusion does not follow.

                  we’re really not talking about people who value knowledge in any broad sense, are we?

                  I’ve never claimed they value knowledge “in any broad sense,” but rather, in a particular, narrow sense. I don’t believe that their willful dismissal of a broad knowledge is a very good argument for yours, though.

              • most of them have never been in an operating room, and don’t ever need to be in one to help shape healthcare policy.

                So, therefore, they have no specific knowledge about the operations and tools of public and private-sector health care delivery systems?

                I work a lot with groups involved in transportation issues; few of them could distinguish a bulldozer from a backhoe

                So, therefore, they have no specific knowledge about the operations and tools of transportation systems and public and privately-run transportation modes?

                That’s a dodge.

              • Robert Farley says:

                It won’t be surprising for you to find that I’m wholly with Joe on this point; there are in fact lots of cases where technical details that seem relatively obscure to the layman have significant operational and strategic effect. Knowledge, for example, of the payload and range of Tu-22 Backfire bombers was quite useful in understanding elements of US policy towards South Africa in the last decades of the Cold War.

                Long story short, there’s never an upside to ignorance, and arguing that “hardware fetishism and order-of-battle trivia” aren’t even helpful is ignorant and borderline anti-intellectual.

                • Holden Pattern says:

                  Long story short, there’s never an upside to ignorance, and arguing that “hardware fetishism and order-of-battle trivia” aren’t even helpful is ignorant and borderline anti-intellectual.

                  This all assumes that this sort of detail, which is sort of endless fact-memorization, which almost nobody does who isn’t paid for it or just a fanboi, is really relevant in the larger scheme of things. One of the things that one sees very quickly when one asks “but WHY are we spending these billions upon billions of dollars in this way instead of that way” is that the answer is very rarely in those fanboi technical details. And if someone starts rattling off those technical details in response, it’s generally pretty clear that they’re obfuscating.

                  So, yes, we have bases all over the world because we need them for instant force projection because of a certain set of limitations of our technology, which I’m sure you can rattle off in detail. The question of why we need to be instantly projecting force in all of those far-flung locations, however, is treated as unserious hippie-dippie ridicule-worthy bullshittery, just as JFL did right away in his eagerness to bash anyone to his left.

                  But this is how you make your money, it’s obviously something you find interesting, and so it is important, at least here. Plus, it’s a useful set of tools to bash people who live anywhere to your left.

                • Robert Farley says:

                  This all assumes that this sort of detail, which is sort of endless fact-memorization, which almost nobody does who isn’t paid for it or just a fanboi, is really relevant in the larger scheme of things.

                  No; I’m arguing that it’s really relevant in the larger scheme of things. Moreover, I think it’s an extraordinarily easy argument to make; knowing the actual capabilities of weapons (whether, say, a Russian carrier can be used for strike missions or not) tells you rather a lot about the strategic and political environment in which defense decisions are made.

                  I find it rather depressing that people on this thread are actively arguing for ignorance regarding technical and doctrinal military details, especially when it’s so obviously clear to me that progressives need a better grasp on such issues, if only to bash people who live to their right.

                • Robert Farley says:

                  To give an example, I’d say that the French deal with Russia for four Mistral class amphibious assault ships is a pretty big deal; both France and Russia seem to regard it as pretty important, as do a lot of Russia’s neighbors, etc. It seems very difficult to me to evaluate the relevance of the deal without some sense of what a Mistral class amphibious assault ship can do, what sort of equipment the Russians can put on it, how the Mistral fits into Russian force structure, and so forth. I cannot understand a vision of the political that doesn’t consider the Mistral deal as relevant, even if it may not be the most important thing that happens on a given day. Because other questions are regarded as “hippy dippy” or what not hardly means that it isn’t important to have an informed view of this particular question. Indeed, knowledge of the capabilities of a Mistral class amphibious assault ship is pretty goddamn useful when you’re arguing with right-wingers who either a) haven’t the faintest what one is or can do, or b) are comfortable lying.

                • DocAmazing says:

                  And when you’re arguing with right-wingers who can’t even identify Russia’s neighbors or how those neighbors differ from Russia and what Russia might hope to gain by attacking those neighbors, you don’t really need to fall back on the details of the capabilities of Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to end the argument.

                  There’s a place for detailed technical knowledge, but knowing who the players are and what game is being played is Step One; after that, you can start going over the details of the athletic equipment.

                  Much of this goes back to framing: acting as though a guy with a subscription to AW&ST and an abiding ignorance of geography and economics has won the argument concedes way too much.

    • astonishingly dumb hv says:

      With notable exceptions, joe from troll believes:

      If you want to make a general anti-war, anti-intervention argument on grounds like these, fine.

  4. jsmdlawyer says:

    Virtually every major Western nation finds itself in horrific economic straits, and only nations without expansive social safety nets are able to meet current obligations. Those with robust social welfare programs face aging populations, smaller workforces, and drastic cuts in services that spill over into all sectors of their economies.

    Just a bit of a tell, hmmmm? Or from the authors’ point of view, an easy twofer. It was probably in the instruction manual: “While arguing for increased military spending based on a nightmare scenario that’s not going to happen, throw in a plug against social welfare programs and for deficit reduction.”

    Wingnut alert system flashing red!

  5. Passing By says:

    Have a heart here. “Riddle of the Sands

  6. Passing By says:

    Have a heart here. This kind of military scare-mongering has a long, if less than honorable, history … going back at least a century to “The Riddle of the Sands”. And the scare scenarios haven’t ever been particularly persuasive.

    What’s striking here is how, even 20 years later, these people haven’t come up with a compelling bogeyman to replace the USSR. Frame it as some sort of contest … What’s the least-convincing mortal threat to Western civilization: China, al-Qaeda or gay marriage?

    • What’s striking here is how, even 20 years later, these people haven’t come up with a compelling bogeyman to replace the USSR.

      My favorite: in the early 1990s, an element of the Iron Triangle tried to sell Congress on the threat posed by “Narco-Stalinists,” meaning the regime in Burma.

      Narco-Stalinists: Gonna getcha!

    • Matt says:

      “What’s the least-convincing mortal threat to Western civilization: China, al-Qaeda or gay marriage?”

      Chinese being gay-married by al-Qaeda officials? ;)

    • Malaclypse says:

      What’s the least-convincing mortal threat to Western civilization: China, al-Qaeda or gay marriage?

      If Bill Clinton and Anthony Weiner have taught me anything, it is that the gravest threat to the Republic comes from penises attached to Democratic politicians.

    • rea says:

      This kind of military scare-mongering has a long, if less than honorable, history … going back at least a century to “The Riddle of the Sands”.

      So, let Mackenzie Eaglen and Bryan McGrath contemplate the fate of Erskine Childers and beware!

  7. Patrick says:

    Bonus points for the “Fortress America” reference. Someone should have told Rumsfeld and Cheney about Partisan Cards during the Iraq planning.

  8. Woodrowfan says:

    OK, who left the corpse of Alfred Thayer Mahan laying out?

  9. wengler says:

    The alternative that Progressives usually provide is to cut the military. Since cutting the military feeds no one within the military, their contractors, or their Congressional supporters this alternative isn’t deemed credible.

    Also when you get into procurement, which you have had many detailed posts about, the rightwingers start nerding out over tehnical details while the progressives are wondering why it is needed in the first place. Again, since the value of questioning the need is not rewarded by any sector of society the opinion is ignored.

    • Arguments for cutting the military are strengthened when those advocating for that course are able to speak in detail about our capabilities and commitments, and those of our adversaries and potential adversaries. Since the counter is always going to be an assertion that such cuts will leave us vulnerable, it is important to be able to show your work and demonstrate that they will not.

      the rightwingers start nerding out over tehnical details while the progressives are wondering why it is needed in the first place

      Yes, they’re “nerding out” while we’re “wondering.”

      You’re absolutely right, wengler, that they’ve got the money and the personally-interested allies. That makes it even more important that we be able to outsmart them. It’s all we’ve got.

  10. M. Bouffant says:

    Per renowned Republican defense expert Ken Blackwell, the wars in which the U.S. “engages” (Not even pretending there’s a defensive element.) are more important than the well-being of Americans.

    “Clean water is important to us,” said Blackwell. “Decent housing is important to us. But they’re not rights. And we have to begin to say that what’s important is that we in a rational way are able to reform these programs in a way to save them. And, yes, if it means that somewhere down the line individuals have to make sacrifices, because the rationalization of the system means we save it, but we are also doing it in a more efficient way. … I don’t think too many Americans will object to that. At the end of the day we’re going to get back to making sure we’re in a position to finance the wars in which we engage. Does that mean we can do that without sacrificing? No. We have to make sacrifices. But what’s more important? Our freedom and security or the gluttony of the federal government?”

    Guns, not water!!

  11. Jeffrey Kramer says:

    The thing that jumped out to me about their nightmare scenario was how disappointing it was as a nightmare. If they’re going to tell us that a coalition of vampires, werewolves and zombies will come for us if we fail to buy their product, I expect at the very least a few scenes showing blood being sucked and brains being eaten. But the worst thing that happens in Weekly Standard’s Scary Movie is Americans in Egypt not getting evacuated when the Old Ones Islamists take over.

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