Big Government, Small Government, and the Military

If there is one thing, in this season of tumult, that every Republican can agree on it is this: centralized planning and government ruins innovation, destroys accountability, breeds corruption, engenders absurdity, and lowers performance. Republicans believe that, above all things, government should be lean and accountable to the people – except, of course, for the security establishment.

The idea that the political constraints placed on Pentagon planners are the only thing standing in the way of military victories has become a familiar – if odd – mantra among conservatives. Whether it’s in the jungles of Southeast Asia or the deserts of the Middle East, defense hawks like to argue that the military could have gotten the job done, if only they had been allowed to.

In recent months, Republican darling Ben Carson has captured the party sentiment by calling for the use of armed drones over the United State’s southern border. He’s also promised that he would “destroy” ISIS, and not “tie [the military’s] hands” in doing so.

(c) Gage Skidmore via Flickr

(c) Gage Skidmore via Flickr

By now, we should be used to the tendency among Republicans to advocate that the country dispense with the niceties of conflict protocol on everything from the use of force to the use of torture. In 239 years of national history, perhaps no other person has ever given as clear an exposition of this as Dick Cheney did on September 16th, 2001: “We have to work the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows.”

The conservative worldview is essentially Manichean – that is, it sees the moral landscape as fundamentally and neatly divided between the forces of good and the forces of evil. That might explain why they’re so ready to write blank checks for the guys with guns.

It makes sense: in an existential fight, where the differences between you and your enemies are irreconcilable, there’s little sense in keeping options off the table. There’s also little sense in diplomacy – you cannot negotiate with evil.

Of course, there’s also an alternative viewpoint, one which holds that the moral landscape is  actually a continuum. If that’s how you see the world – and I’d argue that it’s how many progressives see the world – then a different set of features come into focus. For one, it makes it easier to negotiate because it’s easier to appreciate when your adversaries move on the margin. People who see the world through a continuum framework are probably not waiting for their enemies to get religion, they’re just looking for them to moderate their behavior. Nixon to China, Clinton to Gingrich, Obama and Iran – all examples of people looking for changes along a spectrum. Bernie, Carson, and Barry Goldwater? Manicheans.

One payoff of this contrast is an appreciation for the role of strategy. Continuum thinking imagines countless outcomes, each different from the next. As a consequence, getting the strategy right matters. Whether or not the United States should engage in torture or the long-term large-scale bombing of rural areas are strategic questions in which careful thinking needs to balance benefit and loss.

If you’re a Manichean, these questions aren’t strategic – they’re tactical. And tactical questions are best left to the experts, which explains the otherwise confounding deference that usually authority-skeptical conservatives show towards the military. Again and again, on the campaign trail, in speeches, and in debates, Republicans proudly declare that they will leave some of the most important matters of national strategic thinking in the hands of military commanders.

When asked when the United States would pull out of Iraq, President Bush’s favorite answer was that he would listen to his generals – conveniently ignoring that his generals were hand selected. When asked how many troops should be sent back into Iraq, Senator Lindsey Graham gives basically the same answer.

In other areas – think climate change, health, or economic policy – Republicans are more than happy to contradict the technical judgement of experts. They see no reason to accept the reality of global climate change, the importance of preventative healthcare, or the value of the tactful deployment of stimulus spending. In each of these areas, Republicans are turned off by the centralization of decision making and the specter of government spending.

But the Pentagon plays a special role in the Republican mind. The usual rules are suspended. Conservatives want more money spent on the military, less accountability over how that money is spent, and more vigorous government action to achieve policy outcomes.

So much for idealogical purity.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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