War lobby on top in Washington
June 20th, 2013
07:21 AM ET

War lobby on top in Washington

By Jeffrey D. Sachs, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Jeffrey D. Sachs Director of the Earth Institute and author of the new book To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace. The views expressed are his own.

The War lobby in Washington won two key victories last week.  From the White House and Congress, political leaders of both parties swore allegiance to massive surveillance on American and foreign citizens in the name of fighting terror. And then to cap the week, President Barack Obama announced that the CIA would channel weapons to Syrian rebel fighters. Former President Clinton urged the Syrian moves, declaring that, “Sometimes it’s best to get caught trying, as long as you don’t overcommit.”

With so little public scrutiny of spying and wars led by the CIA and other obscure parts of the government (such as the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC), it’s hard to gauge the degree of “over-commitment.”  What seems clear, however, is that the intelligence agencies and military remain in the driver’s seat of our foreign policy.  The mere mention of the word “terrorist” is still sufficient to ensure that the political class will give the green light to whatever drones, assassinations, special operations, or spying the military brass and spymasters deem to be required.

It is of course very familiar terrain.  Fifty years ago, the word “communist” had the same effect as the word “terrorist” today.  A half century ago, the U.S. destabilized governments, supported coups, and channeled arms to any group no matter how nefarious or violent, if it promised to fight the “communists.”  Very few politicians dared to buck the trend.  The results were disastrous.  Legitimate politicians in countless countries were toppled and replaced by U.S.-backed thugs, and “over-commitment” became the defining reality, prompting President Eisenhower to warn darkly of the military-industrial complex even before the Vietnam disaster.

More from CNN: Give Syria talks a chance

It’s especially instructive, therefore, to examine closely a key moment of history when a U.S. president bucked the trend and pursued a strategy of peace rather than of war.  President John F. Kennedy pulled the world back from the Cold War nuclear precipice in 1963 by recognizing that escalating warfare was not the only path to national security.  A better path, he argued that year, was to pursue peace by engaging the Soviet Union in cooperative policies, starting with a ban on nuclear tests in the air, water, and space.

Like Bush and Obama, JFK also started out his government with trust – or at least acquiescence – in the guidance of the CIA and the military top brass.  He agreed to the disastrous CIA-led Bay of Pigs “invasion” of Cuba, the placement of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Turkey, and an overall arms buildup. Yet escalation on one side prompted escalation by the other, and the two nuclear powers soon found themselves at the brink of nuclear war after the Soviet Union secretly and recklessly placed nuclear missiles in Cuba in the fall of 1962.  Total annihilation was just one accident, misstep, or crazy local commander away.

JFK learned the hard way that advice he was receiving from the CIA and military was often disastrously flawed, to the point that the military advice during the Cuban Missile Crisis would likely have led to nuclear war.  War-fighting agencies are not the best at identifying options for peace, to say the least.  They are specialists in violence and destruction, not in accommodation and peace.

This realization led JFK to understand that the pursuit of peaceful options vis-à-vis the Soviet Union required vigorous presidential leadership to overcome the war-making machinery and attitudes that dominate so much of the U.S. government and politics.  As I describe in my book To Move the World, JFK pursued those peaceful options with remarkable intelligence, grace, political skill, and most of all courage.  The result was a key treaty with the Soviet Union and a world-saving step back from the nuclear brink.  The 1963 Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty became the crucial stepping stone to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty five years later.

The Cold War was, of course, not just directly between the United States and Soviet Union, but involved numerous regional wars as well that the superpowers viewed in a Cold War context. The most significant of these wars was in Vietnam, and the issue of what JFK would have done in Vietnam is still intensely debated. By 1963, Kennedy was successfully moving towards easing tensions with the Soviet Union, had become more skeptical of the U.S. role in Vietnam, and clearly wanted to avoid escalation. He resisted till the end the calls to introduce ground troops (which did not happen until March 1965, under Lyndon B. Johnson), and was aiming to reduce the number of U.S. military advisors.  Yet whether JFK would have fully withdrawn from Vietnam in 1965, as some advisors maintained after JFK's death, is uncertain.

Either way, the dynamics of mutual escalation are clear enough.  (The game theorists know it as the Prisoners Dilemma and the Security Dilemma).  Yet mutual escalation – whether of massive spying by the U.S. and other governments, or dirty wars led by secret military operatives – can’t bring peace.  For that, the options of diplomacy and development rather than of war must be brought to bear.  Washington seems to lack that awareness today.

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Topics: Conflict • Syria • United States

soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. Joseph McCarthy

    So it's these people who are running this country nowadays! No wonder this nation's economy is in such a slump! Unfortunately, they now own the White House and 90% of Congress and this means but one thing, that this country will be constantly at war for a very long time and our treasury will be bled white!

    June 20, 2013 at 7:57 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Mr. Sachs, today fifty years later, we realise that the threat of communism then was nothing but a phantom of fear, portrayed by Joseph McCarthy. But the 9/11 was real and many Americans approved the war on terror. Yet two years after Bin Laden's death, many in Washington still don't want to end this war and a large number of citizens are willing to give up part of their civil liberties for public safety, playing into the hands of Lindsey Graham et al.

      June 21, 2013 at 7:19 am | Reply
      • Marine5484

        Well put, j. von hettlingen.

        June 21, 2013 at 8:40 am |
  2. Time

    Time to pay the GOP to start more wars!!!!!!!!

    June 20, 2013 at 9:22 am | Reply
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    June 20, 2013 at 11:32 am | Reply
    • Patrick

      Why did CNN let this idiot above post this meaningless piece of crap here? If this idiot above has nothing to say, then I say, block him once and for all!!!!!!

      June 20, 2013 at 3:49 pm | Reply
  4. Big Bird

    I would love to have some of what Mr. Sachs is smoking. Until then, lets deal with the real world. This article is so full of misstatements and half-truths it is not even funny.
    "From the White House and Congress, political leaders of both parties swore allegiance to massive surveillance on American and foreign citizens in the name of fighting terror." Foreign citizens have no right to privacy from our intelligence services. There is no massive surveillance of US citizens. They may collect metadata on electronic communications, but no one reads your emails. It is worth noting that the congressional committees do not deny being aware of these programs and the FISA process was utilized to the letter. Nevertheless we'll see how this plays out.
    "With so little public scrutiny of spying and wars led by the CIA and other obscure parts of the government (such as the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC)" Why should there be public scrutiny of these sensitive and classified parts of government. They operate in grey and dark areas on behalf of the nation and once again, there are classified congressional committees overseeing them. By their nature, these things operate best in the shadows against our enemies.
    "Fifty years ago, the word “communist” had the same effect as the word “terrorist” today." The communists were a real threat fifty years ago. Terrorists are a real threat to us now. The degree of the threat is debateable but the people living in New York, London and Madrid and oh, yeah Boston know firsthand about the threat of terrorism.
    "War-fighting agencies are not the best at identifying options for peace, to say the least. They are specialists in violence and destruction, not in accommodation and peace." Actually our military establishment has historically been more reluctant to get into fights than our civilian leaders. Look elsewhere on the CNN webpage for the story on how the DoD doesn't want to get more involved in Syria. Our State Dept and other levers of national power should take the lead on keeping the peace. Sometimes our military is the best tool to keep the peace: Korea, The balkans, the Sinaipenninsula etc.
    I have run out of time and desire to correct this fool.

    June 20, 2013 at 11:54 am | Reply
    • Sean B.

      damn good points. Sad how even intellectuals can internalize their paranoia and try to legitimize it with false reasoning.

      June 20, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Actually Big Bird, the Communists have never posed any kind of threat to the U.S., not in the 1950's and certainly not now! That so-called "threat" was a mere invention by the right-wing politicians to scare the public. Adolf Hitler use the same tactic to scare the German people in the 1930's!

      June 20, 2013 at 3:58 pm | Reply
  5. Nancy B.M.

    It's all about the money!! As long as there are wars for us to get involved in, the "Arms Industries" in this country will continue to bleed billions from our treasury to supply them. I am close to 80 yrs and have known NO lengthy time when we have NOT supplied troops, so-called "military advisors",( i.e.CIA) and arms to foreign countries. WW2, Korea, Vietnam, Cuba,etc. "Send it there, so it doesn't come here"??? That's just BS political rhetoric!

    June 20, 2013 at 12:46 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      Beautifully posted, Nancy. I couldn't agree more!

      June 20, 2013 at 3:52 pm | Reply
  6. GOPtard

    The GOP/McCain/MIC want to spend trillions to start another unfunded, "off the books", war in the middle east. The GOP want to spend billions on a fence to "attempt" (i.e. it won't work) to keep Mexicans out. But the GOP won't pass a farm bill for our own farmers. Priceless!!!!!!!!

    June 21, 2013 at 10:17 am | Reply
  7. Gopherit

    Fareed Zakaria advocates that the U.S. use "diplomacy and development" rather than initiating "mutual escalation," but the problem is that for the U.S. "diplomacy" now involves surrender to the U.S.'s agenda. The Neocon agenda did not die with the end of the G.W. Bush presidency. Obama insured its survival and now even its growth by appointing the prior administration's hacks to his cabinet, to head "security" agencies, and as advisors.

    June 21, 2013 at 3:48 pm | Reply
    • Joe M.

      Well said, Gopherit. Thank you.

      June 22, 2013 at 7:57 am | Reply
  8. Bruce Rubin


    June 21, 2013 at 11:27 pm | Reply
  9. Michael

    Wars are not going to make US corporations and US businesses one success. Wars are counterproductive and did hurt USA interests. Let's take a look why are Asian (kia, hyundai, samsung, sony, honda, mazda, toyota, suzuki, ...) corporations more successful, than American. They fought successfully secret intelligence wars, and destroyed many US businesses and killed many Americans and Westerners, to keep them out of markets. The US sponsored public wars are not helping the Western World, neither USA. Let's try it with PEACE.

    June 22, 2013 at 8:04 am | Reply
  10. lgporter

    Governments have and obligation to monitor communication,after 911,and Boston's there was a lot of finger pointing going on as to how our intelligence community miss these terrorists. The Boston fire chief had to quit his job over his handling of the aftermath and that's just sad but somebody had to be blamed I guess.America's should have no fear of and invasion force landing on the west coast and moving inland no at this time in history.But that's because we're prepared. Over sea action private citizens don't need to know.And that's the criteria I believe is used often.It's more our elected politicians from both parties that US this system to their and backers best interest.That human nature and it will only change by removing this temptation because their just human.I don't know how to take the money out and still get the skills we need in politics?excuse. my writing I'm an uneducated man

    June 22, 2013 at 7:11 pm | Reply
  11. herupyuda

    Reblogged this on Journal and Journey.

    June 23, 2013 at 2:55 am | Reply
  12. ecleggett

    If only the American people could come together on 1 thing so we could give our government a huge slap in the face: refuse to vote PERIOD until permanent 2 term limits are put in place. We have a government that operates within the politically financed self interests of "Lobby Land". How can we explain to ourselves things will change for the better without first starting something that can help us permanently remove the old and bring in new, 2 term limit elected officials who are not caught up in what's destroying our republic in the first place.

    June 23, 2013 at 11:54 am | Reply

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