Amid the rubble of our cratered economy, the Bureau of Labor Statistics points to at least one verdant pasture of high-wage jobs where grazing is not barred by any lack of expertise, meaningful credentials, or relevant experience. No, not the North Dakota oil boom, but the field of "national security," which, sluiced by monsoons of federal funding, now nourishes a picaresque horde of consultants, G-men, think-tankers, journalists, academicians, and linguists--some of whom can count to five in Pashto.
Finding fresh existential dangers every day is hard work, and one admires the creativity, the entrepreneurial hustle. Still, a dozen years of threat inflation may not be altogether wholesome for the body politic. One wag recently tweeted what seems like the condensed wisdom of this profession: "There might be a terror attack somewhere. Perpetrator could be related to a group, or a lone wolf. #terrorism expert"
That bit of color commentary comes courtesy of Micah Zenko, the most important foreign-policy writer you've never heard of, a natsec journalist's natsec journalist, known among the drone-strike cognoscenti for his think pieces, whose soundness and sobriety is enhanced rather than undermined by the dashes of Attic salt dispensed on the author's Twitter account. (Example: "De Blasio: 'part of my job description is to be a defender of Israel.' Does Tel Aviv mayor say this about the US?")
A national-security expert who knows what he's talking about and has some adult memory of the time before 9/11 is a rare beast. Weirder still is that this C. Douglas Dillon Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations--a body that defines the corseted parameters of U.S. foreign-policy thought--is a worldly devotee of old-school pacifism.
Who is this guy? Zenko hardly looks any different from the other loafered mandarins treading the carpeted hallways of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on the morning I meet with him. From his affable, clean-cut mien, he could work in law or finance. His speech is calm and measured, not the agitated torrent of most intellectual dissidents.
Only when you listen to the words do you realize that something is up. "I'm a relentless reader of the pacifist A.J. Muste. What did he say? 'The problem after a war is the victor. He thinks he has just proved that war and violence pay. Who will now teach him a lesson?'"
Zenko's writing is a constant effort to take the threat landscape out of the funhouse mirror and restore some perspective: the gentle blasphemy of threat deflation. "Clear and Present Safety"--a widely read essay Zenko coauthored with Michael A. Cohen in Foreign Affairs two years ago--argues, for example, that the United States has a surplus of security and most of its risks are of its own panicked creation.
"Since the military controls the overwhelming share of the resources within the national security system," the authors warn, "policymakers tend to perceive all challenges through the distorting lens of the armed forces and respond accordingly" If all you've got is Tomahawks, everything looks like a casus belli.
This is a hard habit to kick. 2014 began for Zenko with an essay in Foreign Policy--"The New Forever War"--pointing out that even if the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed after 9/11 is revoked, the technological and political threshold for deploying military force is now so low that a nonstop semi-war is still in our future whatever legal fiction is on the books.
Zenko is not just an extruder of think pieces, however--he is an acknowledged expert on drones, a new kind of weapon whose proligate use risks becoming a semiconscious national habit. The question debated by human-rights groups, the military, and Congress alike seems not to be whether to use these airborne assassins but merely how to use them. But are open-ended global counterinsurgency strikes, whether by drones or by special ops, really a wise strategy? …