This is another one of those very "serious" weeks in Washington, when we put aside matters like senators skulking about in men's rooms and turn our attention to the life-and-death questions as General David Petraeus testifies to Congress on the progress of the surge in Iraq. Our concern here is not the testimony itself, since it's been obvious for some time that Petraeus will say that the surge is showing sufficient signs of success for Congress to continue funding the war.
Cynosure though he will be today, Petraeus in fact has only a limited role to play in seeing to it that the US continue its mad engagement. The stars of that dispiriting drama will be the phalanx of foreign policy experts based in Washington, who will, in the wake of the general's testimony, fan out across the cable channels and op-ed pages, arguing that giving the surge one more chance is the only "serious" option.
These, you see, are the "serious" foreign policy people. It's good work if you can get it. You may be thinking that you become a serious foreign policy person by often being right about foreign policy. But this just shows how little you know about how these things work.
No - you become a serious foreign-policy person in Washington by dint of meeting two criteria. First, you should adopt the most hawkish position you can plausibly adopt, so that you come across as appropriately "tough-minded". Second, you must note what all the other serious foreign policy people are saying and take care to ensure that your position is sufficiently indistinguishable from theirs for you to be lumped in with them when the time comes for the Washington Post to write a group profile of Washington's serious tough-minded foreign policy people.
For skilled practitioners of the art, this tends to work out marvellously, career-wise. Take Kenneth Pollack and Michael O'Hanlon, the two emblematic seriousistas of the Bush age. Both are scholars at the Brookings Institution, a centre-left thinktank, and both are nominal Democrats. Both were also early fans of the Iraq war. Pollack achieved special notoriety with his book The Threatening Storm, which persuaded many a liberal who might otherwise have looked askance at a war undertaken by the likes of George Bush and Dick Cheney war to support it.
Here in America, we're taught that in the realm of ideas, no less than of products of commerce, the free market sorts everything out - it rewards the good ideas and punishes the bad ones, and at the end of the day fairness will obtain.
Well, the famous invisible hand seems to have left the world of foreign policy seriousness untouched, because Pollack and O'Hanlon, far from paying any price for their errors, are just as celebrated as ever. They published a major op-ed piece in the New York Times in late July touting the progress being made in Iraq, and O'Hanlon's byline appeared again on the page a mere five weeks later. This week, cable bookers will be calling them so often that they might as well set up cots in the studios.
Of course, all this hasn't worked out too well for the country or the world. But that's tolerable in Washington, because the important thing here is that the status quo should not be disrupted.
A friend immersed in the foreign policy world once described to me the enormous pressure that people in that orbit felt to support the war in 2002-03. The status quo then: back military force, especially when a president is advocating it, and don't take a position that could remotely be construed as soft-headed, post-Vietnam liberalism. The status quo today? Not much different, really. The American people desperately want the war to end as soon as possible. But it isn't up to them. It's up to the experts. Seriously.
© 2007 The Guardian