Beltway Academics and the War Machine

The Pentagon rewards beltway academics in exchange for scholarly support. Dr. Michael O’Hanlon and Dr. Robert Kagan, of the Brookings Institution, exemplify this symbiotic aggrandizement of power.  


On 26 March, Dr. Michael O’Hanlon discussed the United States’ war effort in Afghanistan with ISAF Commander General John Allen. Instead of analyzing the conflict critically, O’Hanlon deliberately framed the discussion within the confines of complacency and sycophancy.

Prior to hosting General Allen, O’Hanlon wrote “beneath the headlines, international forces are actually making substantial progress” in Afghanistan. Before commencing any discussion, O’Hanlon amended the sycophantic tone by physically applauding General Allen. Then O’Hanlon laid down the ground rules for the conversation, stating that he’s not “inclined to prognosticate about where debates may go in this town or in Kabul or Islamabad or such matters.” O’Hanlon also refused to “get into sensitive diplomatic issues.” Taken together, O’Hanlon parameters immunized General Allen from any earnest inquiry.

After laying out deferential ground rules, O’Hanlon lobbed soft questions to General Allen’s public relations wheelhouse. For instance, O’Hanlon asked about the relative security of Highway 1, a pertinent but delusive question given the greater elephants in the room. He then asked for General Allen to relate how US soldiers “feel” about the Afghan Security Forces, a backscratcher disguised as query. O’Hanlon also helped General Allen by asking if it’s fair to say that we “may have to wait a few more months of impressive combat by ISAF and the ANSF forces to show the enemy that there’s no other way to get a good outcome,” instead of grilling the man whose institution is ultimately responsible for massacre, the burning of holy books, the displacement of Afghan citizens, Karzai’s electoral fraud, indefinite imprisonment at Bagram’s Parwan Detention Facility, and mass civilian casualties throughout Afghanistan. Dr. O’Hanlon avoided in-depth discussion of these salient topics in favor of feeble catechism.

O’Hanlon adopted DOD-sanctioned nomenclature by inquiring if Kabul was assisting General Allen’s efforts to work with the “competent,” “not corrupt” Afghan commanders. Allen responded, “Where they are not corrupt… we can get some good battlefield performance out of them.” This phrasing provides tremendous insight into the mindset of General Allen and O’Hanlon. At the end of the day, Afghans are just tools. They’re no different than a Craftsman hex key, giving new meaning to the name Allen Wrench. That is the context within which Allen admitted to firing Afghan generals “in an expeditious manner,” one of whom “was fired I think by the time the sun went down that day.”

Ever true to sycophancy, O’Hanlon heaped praise upon General Allen, asserting that he “has proven through his running of Annapolis, other distinguished academic efforts, and his testimony on the Hill last week that he’s more than up to the challenge of discussing a very complex topic.” O’Hanlon pitched underhanded to Allen by stating that although some “are struck by the fact that these parts of the country are more dangerous than they were five, six years ago… I think I understand the answer, but I’d like to hear it from you.” O’Hanlon praised how Allen’s responses “really sketched [the answer] out beautifully.” In case more flattery was needed, O’Hanlon concluded: “again, congratulations, and I know you and your troopers [sic] have made huge headway in the south.” Unfortunately, sycophancy is only half of the story.

Dr. Michael O’Hanlon rolled out the complacent carpet when claiming that he had “reviewed the transcripts from last week and [General Allen’s] testimonies.” If O’Hanlon had indeed reviewed Allen’s March 20th testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, he’d have noticed some glaring issues. Firstly, when discussing Afghanistan’s tragic history, General Allen mentioned “Soviet occupation, civil war, [and] the darkness of the Taliban” without mentioning the United States’ equally tragic occupation of Afghanistan. Secondly, General Allen opened and closed his testimony by leaning on the troops and their memory. Finally, Allen employed sophisticated theatrics during his testimony, including weighty pauses, reading letters from dead soldiers, and quoting deferential Afghan military commanders. While the weakest of academics could have questioned General Allen about these discrepancies, O’Hanlon complacently avoided these topics.

When Allen mentioned securing “key lines of communication” in the north, O’Hanlon complacently let the General off the proverbial hook by not asking why such fundamentals are still unfinished ten years into the war. When General Allen justified progress through enumerating fewer “enemy-initiated attacks,” O’Hanlon didn’t inquire how the Pentagon quantifies or qualifies such a vague metric. When General Allen claimed that increased violence is “expected,” O’Hanlon didn’t press further, but rather accepted Allen’s excuse that areas of increased violence are due to a “different kind of insurgency in some respects.” When General Allen touted his “success” in the south and north, O’Hanlon didn’t ask why more than a third of Afghan civilians live below the international poverty line during ISAF’s nation-building watch.

In the spirit of complacency, O’Hanlon repeatedly allowed General Allen to get away with vague, corporate terminology: shaping the campaign, defeat mechanism, wild card scenario, operational profile, operational conditions, re-posturing, leveraging success, consolidating our hold, village stability operations platforms, bureaucratic traction, harmonizing the placement of forces, and multifaceted, robust counterinsurgency. Instead of academically questioning General Allen about anything of significance, O’Hanlon allowed Allen to weasel around touchy subjects through recourse to pre-packaged homeruns, like refusing to get “into too much specificity on operational detail.” Complacency was the word of the day.

Dr. Michael O’Hanlon’s discussion with General Allen exemplified how beltway academics and the Pentagon corroborate symbiotically. O’Hanlon didn’t academically dissect Allen’s contentions about the Pentagon’s strategic reasons behind occupying Afghanistan, global web of bases, intimacy with the corporate media, failure of generalship, war profiteering, the debilitating effect of night raids, or the hideous victims of United States’ wars. Instead of getting to the “heart of the matter,” the “important conversation” with General Allen was nothing more than a fantastic tribute to the Pentagon’s Potemkin village of “progress.”


The Brookings Institution’s Dr. Robert Kagan also actively perpetuates the US war machine. Kagan argues that democracy, the free market, and peace among world powers are a direct result of the United States’ post-WWII leadership. Kagan’s vacuous arguments, which neglect the Pentagon’s support for dictatorships, the indigenous populations ravaged by the Pentagon’s protection of neoliberal economic policies, and the Pentagon’s tradition of interference in sovereign lands, illustrate how some DC academics and the Pentagon benefit symbiotically. In a fashion complementary to O’Hanlon, Kagan supports the Pentagon through complacent manipulation of financial data and sycophantic clouding of historical events.

Kagan argues complacently that cutting defense spending will not revive USA’s fiscal health. Deeming any cuts in military funding as “reckless,” Kagan inaccurately insists that withdrawing from Middle East locales and cutting “all the waste [the Defense Department] can find,” would still amount to less than a 10 percent decrease in overall defense spending. Ending Overseas Contingency Operations, which are projected at roughly $118 billion, would save roughly 16.7 percent of the total $707 billion Pentagon FY 2012 budget. Mathematics proves Kagan wrong.

Kagan demands that high levels of war funding continue, yet so many Pentagon contracts are extraneous or completely avoidable. For example, here are one day’s worth of Pentagon contracts from the month in which Kagan decried war spending cuts: Boeing received $94,985,863 for APACHE and CHINOOK weapon systems; Bristol Environmental & Engineering Services received $8,614,694 for hazardous waste cleanup in Alaska; Caterpillar received $6,771,854 for supplying equipment to Mubarak’s Egypt; Cazador Apparel received $11,626,483 for office furniture and equipment for BRAC 133; DRS C3 7 Aviation received $19,691,000 for surveillance hardware and services for Mubarak’s Egypt; EADS received $52,509,992 for UH-72A Helicopters, radio systems, and two engine filters; FLIR Systems received $15,892,846 for camera systems and operator classes; General Dynamics received $75,343,937 to reconfigure M1A2 tanks, for an M1A2S production facility in undemocratic Saudi Arabia, and for operations at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait; IAP Worldwide Services received $55,557,377 for transportation work in Kuwait and Iraq; Lockheed Martin received $18,708,099 for DDG 51 services; Marsh Creek received $10,363,735 for environmental cleanup in Alaska; Mission 1st Group received $3,000,000 for IT projects; N-Link received $6,751,326 for digital training facilities; PAE Government Services received $5,618,615 for equipment and support to the Afghan National Security Force; Science Applications International received $34,654,306 for operating a training center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, for airborne ISR, and for US Central Command ammunition stocks.

These contracts highlight many realities, all of which Kagan dodges. Should the Pentagon spend millions in one day on office furniture? Should the Pentagon have poisoned the environment in the first place, necessitating environmental remediation today? Should the Pentagon have supplied Mubarak’s Egypt and undemocratic nations like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia with materiel and weaponry? By writing well and invoking fear, Kagan stresses how frightful possibilities might occur if the Pentagon were to embrace fiscal responsibility. Clinging to dread, Kagan insists that the Pentagon’s military presence in “Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere make[s] it harder for [terrorists] to strike.” He again omits a sad reality: the Pentagon’s presence in each of these countries is the single greatest recruiting tool for those who resist the United States’ empire. By waging war around the world, the Pentagon feeds inflammatory rhetoric of its resisters.

In another act of clerical overindulgence, Kagan complacently praises the “financial benefits” of US military hegemony. Critical minds wonder, who has actually benefited? Certainly the military-industrial-congressional complex profits directly. While retired four-star generals play golf, consult for Lockheed-Martin part-time, and collect a hefty retirement pension, global citizens pay for the Pentagon’s transgressions with blood, sweat, and tears. Inequality doesn’t begin to describe the “financial benefits” that transpire.

Kagan flatters the Pentagon by never mentioning civilian casualties. Unfortunately for all, NATO forces accounted for 440 Afghan civilian deaths alone in the year 2010 and 410 in 2011. These figures exclude the 168 children who have died in CIA drone strikes across the border in Pakistan. US officials can apologize profusely for their errors, but they never consider the potency of revenge in Afghan culture. Even Kagan would fight back if a JDAM, AGM-114, or night raid wiped out his family. If Pentagon officials were actually serious about implementing their glorified counter-insurgency doctrine (FM 3-24), they would study Afghanistan’s history closely and demand that all commanders consider the prospect of revenge when pursuing any “intelligence” lead. “Promising” is how Pentagon officials describe the fact that the majority of civilian deaths are attributable to Taliban action. However, having occupied Afghanistan for over a decade, Pentagon commanders and policy-makers are responsible for all civilian deaths, which Kagan obsequiously avoids en route to perpetuating the Pentagon’s wars of aggression.

Offering “offshore balancing” as the only strategy that could accompany Pentagon budget cuts, Kagan demonstrates a sycophantic aspiration to remain within the confines of US imperialism. Operating under an all-or-nothing rubric, he never considers that a partial withdrawal would be appropriate in many circumstances. For instance, the Pentagon’s presence in Germany, comprising dozens of separate installations, can be pared down without compromising “national security,” a frequently invoked but highly vague term. War would not break out with a reduction in the number of US facilities across Europe. One can even argue that wars occur because of, not despite, the presence of the United States’ war machine.

Kagan’s concessions are noteworthy. He confesses that USA has been engaged in combat roughly 47 percent of the time during the last 112 years. He further admits that the US military has intervened abroad an astounding 70 percent of the time since the end of the Cold War. Kagan concedes that “many Americans are unhappy with the on-going warfare in Afghanistan… and that, if asked, a majority would say the United States should intervene less frequently in foreign nations.” Yet Congressional and military policy-makers, by Kagan’s own admission, do not listen to the voice of the US citizenry. Many thanks for Kagan’s honesty about our broken democracy. Kagan accurately asserts that addressing entitlement spending helps achieve fiscal responsibility, but confronting entitlements doesn’t mean that the Pentagon can continue to bathe in a $700 billion budget or that the policies behind imperial overreach can continue unbridled.

The complacency and sycophantic stances adopted by Dr. Michael O’Hanlon and Dr. Robert Kagan shed light on a major force in post-9/11 USA. Like children obsessed with toy soldiers or obese citizens unfit for service, beltway academics fail to see how their personal veneration of USA’s warfare distorts public perception of foreign policy. Democrats and Republicans, unable to think independently, worship military power, passively contort support our troops into support the Pentagon, and neglect to dissent against imperial wars. As a result, military generals are immune from public scrutiny, the Pentagon’s wars continue unabated, and war funding continues to monopolize the federal government’s discretionary budget. In sum, professional profit, bolstered by personal veneration of the troops, actively perpetuates the Pentagon’s imperial reach. Throughout it all, O’Hanlon and Kagan deliberately miss the point: Tough love is the best love, and a tight leash on the Pentagon is better than no leash.

In the End

The formula is simple. As exemplified by Dr. Michael O’Hanlon and Dr. Robert Kagan, many beltway academics receive complete support from the Pentagon’s fiscal and political weight in exchange for aiding its war narratives. O’Hanlon and Kagan exemplify the symbiotic power synergy between beltway academics and the Pentagon. Pentagon generals sustain O’Hanlon’s academic career with interviews and elite access to DOD officials (O’Hanlon has traveled to Afghanistan eight times). President Obama himself consecrates and promotes Kagan’s myths in exchange for unconditional advocacy of United States military supremacy and support of Obama’s Afghanistan War. In essence, Executive and military blessings reward lies. Since 11 September 2001, “O’Hanlon has appeared on television or spoken on the radio about 2,000 times” and Kagan cozied up to John McCain, wrote four books about US power, and was ranked one of the world’s Top 20 Public Intellectuals. By saddling up to the war machine and analyzing the Pentagon’s wars in a positive light, Kagan and O’Hanlon benefit professionally. In turn, the Pentagon gains through receiving unconditional support from academics at the world’s premier think-tank. And the narrative of “progress” in Afghanistan is never questioned.

Kagan touts the “benefits” of US power and O’Hanlon insists that persistence in Afghanistan is crucial, since “this part of the world offers a choice of generally mediocre options [for the United States].” True to form, Kagan and O’Hanlon attribute any defect to the flaws inherent in Afghanistan’s “part of the world,” not to US imperialism. Neither acknowledges that the United States’ economy, based so heavily on military spending, is geared towards, and concordantly pulled in favor of, military pursuits. Less than a month after O’Hanlon and Kagan touted the benefits of US power, General Allen’s forces faced a strong “spring offensive.” On the same day, the Pentagon doled out almost $7 billion in weapons contracts. Unfortunately, many US citizens are content treading this interminable warpath. We romanticize military service while beltway academics and Pentagon officials pursue invariably their own priorities, incongruent with the greater good. The result of our passivity is grim, as Thoreau articulates:

A common and natural result of an undue respect for the law is that you may see a file of soldiers… marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences… Now, what are they? Men at all, or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power?

Today, a variety of US citizens idle. They include the mid-level bureaucrat at Raytheon, the soccer dad who spouts bumper-sticker slogans, and the intelligence analyst who disagrees with the unconstitutionality of her work but keeps quiet because her job provides her with a comfortable lifestyle in the Baltimore suburbs. Similar to Thoreau’s days, many US citizens wait for others to remedy the evil. Reform can be achieved, but obstacles loom in the form of those who continually yield to the broken US political process, despite disagreeing with its imperial overreach. These citizens embody resounding disappointment and prioritize order instead of accountability; they prefer “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” As a result, they allow the Pentagon to abuse its power with full support of beltway academics. This must change.

Christian Sorensen is an Arabic-English translator and an American military veteran.