A note from Dave: U.S. markets are open for only a half-day today. Usually we don’t publish The 5 Min. Forecast the day after Thanksgiving… but this year, we want to bring you the story corporate media won’t tell you about the incoming president’s “national security” team.
Your guest essayist today is our resident Renaissance man Byron King — oilfield geologist, bankruptcy attorney, Navy flight officer. It’s his military bona fides he brings to bear in this special edition of The 5. And while there might not seem to be an investing angle here, trust us — there is. Count on us to explore it in the weeks ahead.
This piece first appeared on Tuesday in our sister e-letter Whiskey & Gunpowder, where Byron writes three days a week. Not on his e-mail list? You can remedy that here.
Biden’s A-Team Spells Trouble
While President Trump’s lawyers try to conjure up a Hail Mary play to retain the White House, no grass grows beneath the feet of former Vice President Joe Biden.
Indeed, the “President Elect” is choosing his cabinet.
So far Biden has proposed names for Defense, State, Treasury, Homeland Security, not to mention important jobs like National Security Advisor and more.
The nominees are familiar Washington insiders, if you follow such things.
The State/Defense Team are “liberal internationalists,” as the Wall Street Journal labels them. They “believe in working on behalf of U.S. interests through multilateral institutions.”1
Bottom line, though, is that Biden is “getting the band back together.” He’s picking things up right where they left off, four years ago.
Once installed, we’ll doubtless see encore performances of the nation’s biggest strategic blunders from the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s… as well as new additions to the litany of bad decisions.
Just consider the people Biden has tapped for key defense positions — folks who embody the ideas of pre-Trump American internationalism, if not militarism.
If a president’s cabinet is supposed to represent the “best and brightest” that the American establishment can offer, these first selections say we’re in a lot of trouble.
Let’s dig in…
Along those lines, in 1972 New York Times reporter David Halberstam published a superb study of the origins of the Vietnam War, The Best and the Brightest.
Early in his book, Halberstam describes a scene in the U.S. Capitol Building in 1961, right after Vice President Lyndon Johnson attended his first meeting with the new cabinet appointees of President John Kennedy:
“Among those dazzled by the Administration team was… Johnson. After attending his first Cabinet meeting he went back to his mentor [Speaker of the House] Sam Rayburn and told him with great enthusiasm how extraordinary they were, each brighter than the next.… ‘Well, Lyndon,’ Mister Sam answered, ‘you may be right and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say, but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.’”
Per Halberstam, Speaker Rayburn’s knowing, prophetic quip underlined “the weakness of the Kennedy team, the difference between intelligence and wisdom, between the abstract quickness and verbal fluency which the team exuded, and the true wisdom, which is the product of hard-won, often bitter experience.”
Later in his book, Halberstam likened Kennedy’s cabinet to old New England Yankees. In essence, they were dyed-in-the-wool members of what Halberstam called America’s “controlling class.”
They run the “machinery of society,” declared Halberstam. And behind the scenes, these kinds of people write the laws of the land. They “manufacture governors, Senators, judges” to suit their purposes. And they tend to have a “fine sense of protecting their own position.”
Halberstam noted something else about these Kennedy-era, cabinet-level worthies, and did so in a tone of sadness: “Wisdom for a few of them came [only] after Vietnam.”
With that in mind, consider several names on the Biden list.
He plans to nominate Michele Flournoy to run the Department of Defense (DOD)… Tony Blinken for Secretary of State… and Jacob Sullivan as National Security Advisor.
These three positions have much to do with war and peace. It’s serious business for the U.S., which is currently militarily engaged across the planet and has been fighting somewhere or another for over 30 years.
Yet none of these people ever spent even one day in uniform, let alone, per Speaker Rayburn, “ran for sheriff.”
What’s worse, all three individuals have worrisome commonalities to their background, beginning with their respective educations and continuing into their bomb-dropping career paths.
Flournoy attended Beverly Hills High School, then Harvard — where she majored in social studies — and Oxford, where she earned a degree in international relations.
Blinken attended an upscale prep school named Dalton, in New York, followed by Harvard undergrad and a law degree from Columbia.
Sullivan hails from Minneapolis and attended Yale, where he majored in political science, followed by a trip to Oxford for international relations, capped by a law degree from Yale.
In other words, all three were smart kids no doubt. Ambitious, too. They made it through the admissions lotteries at Harvard, Yale and Oxford to pursue the right credentials.
After that, it was off to Washington to begin the ladder-climb of power within the Deep State.
Each one spent time in law and/or lobbying shops, coupled with long stints in government, working for Democrat politicians, supporting policies that engaged the U.S. in wars and revolutions.
Like it or not, this is characteristic of modern American governance…
But the deeper you dig, the more problematic these potential appointments become.
Start with Flournoy, who worked at DOD during the Clinton administration, where among other things she helped crystallize the U.S. defense concept of “full spectrum dominance” (FSD).
I recall learning about FSD when I attended the Naval War College. In essence, it was a policy to justify an expensive, robust, globe-spanning military force that American politicians — and their advisors — could deploy for pretty much every contingency under the sun.
As one War College wag characterized it, FSD was a means by which the U.S. could “fight everyone, everywhere, all the time.”
Flournoy later moved to a think tank called Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). While there in 2002, she advocated preemptive military strikes on Iraq.
Fast forward through more think tanks and aggressive military stands, and Flournoy was in the White House in 2011, advocating U.S. intervention in Libya and later in Syria.
In 2017, after Trump came to town, Flournoy left government and partnered with Blinken to set up a consulting group called WestExec. The business takes fees from clients — many of them military conglomerates — to offer advice on how to maintain the Washington gravy train.
WestExec also offered advice on overcoming trade tensions with China during the Trump presidency.
In other words, WestExec is an example of the Washington revolving door. Government insiders leave public payroll for the so-called “private sector,” where they sell their knowledge and contacts to people who want to promote certain positions to political powers.
As for Blinken, he also worked for the Clinton administration in the 1990s, on the National Security Council.
He was in the thick of things for Middle East military operations, which we called “cruise missile diplomacy” when I was stationed for a time in Bahrain.
Blinken also sat at a White House desk during the 1999 U.S./NATO war against Serbia, the strategic implications of which are still playing out negatively 20 years later.
In the 2000s, Blinken worked on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, including when his boss Joe Biden voted to support the Iraq War. Meanwhile, Blinken was affiliated with CSIS, where Flournoy spent time.
Under President Obama, Blinken was back in the White House, dealing with America’s long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as negotiations with Iran that eventually led to the so-called “deal” over nuclear weapons.
Blinken was also in the thick of things during the U.S. buildup in Syria under Obama, as well as formulating policy towards Russia over the issue of Crimea.
Then he helped launch WestExec, as I mentioned.
Jacob Sullivan took a slightly different route along the corridors of Washington power.
After Yale Law, he clerked for a federal circuit judge, then for Supreme Court Justice Breyer.
Sullivan practiced law for “a few months” of his life and evidently didn’t much like it.2
Yet the lure of Washington was strong, pulling him away to work for Hillary Clinton during her stint as Secretary of State under Obama.
When Hillary stepped down, Sullivan lateraled-over to work for then-Vice President Biden. He had much to do with formulating U.S. interventionist policies towards Syria and Libya.
There are many common themes here.
Flournoy, Blinken and Sullivan were all part of the hyper-militarized U.S. foreign policy of the Clinton-Bush-Obama era. It’s what they know. It’s what they did.
These were not bit players, either. They were right there, making policy and advising leadership up to and including Presidents Clinton and Obama.
Interestingly, it seems that the Beltway default position almost always tends toward sending in the jets and troops.
Yet these kinds of decisions are also personal, in so many ways…
I spent over 30 years in the Navy, active duty and reserve. I was selected for good jobs and promoted to Navy captain (O-6).
Frankly, I never turned down a set of orders… And some of those assignments were in frontline arenas that made me eligible for “imminent danger pay.”
So I understand completely the concept of “civilian control” over the military. Heck, they drill that into your head beginning on Day One of boot camp.
Meanwhile, it’s fair to say that the U.S. military does not go to war on its own. It only fires weapons and drops bombs on other people after a strict process of review and authorization by a long chain of command, leading through the Pentagon and across the Potomac River to the White House and Capitol Hill.
Then again, it’s also fair to say that over 30 years, I often wondered about the quality of decision making that came out of that “civilian control.”
As in… The country goes to war based on some point paper crafted by a social studies major? Or a political science major? Really?
Post-Cold War — in the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s — it often seemed to me that the ships, airplanes and troops were toys in the hands of “big kids” in Washington who wanted to play war.
But I doubt those civilian Clausewitz-wannabes of the Beltway ever read much Clausewitz.
We’re talking about people who never spent a day in uniform. Never lived under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or “somebody else’s rules,” as we called it. Never did a single pushup for a drill instructor.
But they make policy that means life and death for both U.S. personnel and those on the receiving end of our “fires.” (The military expresses the concept using a plural noun.)
And so, here we go again.
A new president picks “familiar” names to staff his administration. Names of people he knows, and with whom he is comfortable.
And Biden has known his three national security selectees for many years. They are reliable analysts who come up with reliable recommendations.
I don’t doubt for a moment that Flournoy, Blinken and Sullivan are smart people. They had to have great grades and superlative SATs to get into the schools they attended. Surely, they wrote good papers and tested well.
Now, they have impressive credentials and verily drip with Ivy League wax and ribbons.
The media are already gushing over these selections… New York Times, Washington Post, etc.…
This is what Washington insiders want to see: Washington insiders picking other Washington insiders for inside-Washington jobs.
Then again, per Speaker Rayburn, “they may be every bit as intelligent as you say…” But none of them ever ran for sheriff.
And considering their decades-long backgrounds, formulating policies that sent U.S. troops into combat and unleashed ungodly U.S. military power against other nations and peoples…
None of them ever truly experienced what they asked others to do per their policymaking, nor experienced the effects when it all plays out.
It gets back to what Halberstam said about the “controlling class.” They tend to have a “fine sense of protecting their own position.”
And as for wisdom? Well… let’s hope that wisdom comes before they march us into another long, miserable — perhaps losing — war like Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan.
After all, aren’t these people the best and the brightest?
On that note, I rest my case.
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2 Jake Sullivan to become State Department director of policy planning, The Cable