WASHINGTON _ Blistering charges of misplaced power and a morally bankrupt culture in the nation’s “military-industrial complex’’ are rarely leveled by one of the defense establishment’s own.
But that is exactly what an instructor of the military’s rising stars lobbed on Tuesday when he very purposely engaged in friendly fire at a defense budget conference co-hosted by the Cambridge-based Project on Defense Alternatives.
Gregory D. Foster, a former Army officer and West Point graduate who now teaches national security studies at the National Defense University in Washington, seemed unconcerned about collateral damage when he went after the top brass, political leaders, and defense company executives.
He accused them of allowing the nearly sacrosanct principle of civilian control of the military — an early building block of American democracy — to be turned on its head. How? By virtually never questioning the key assumptions of military planning and allowing a largely unchecked, destructive and highly militarized foreign policy to pose as a “properly subordinated military industrial complex.’’
“If you want to be a recognized, credible, card-carrying member of the national security community what you have to do is buy into the received truths of the establishment and continue to perpetuate that stuff,’’ said Foster. “This is what I call civilian subjugation to the military. We face it in this administration, we faced it in the Clinton administration…we faced it in the Bush administration.’’
Foster’s 30-minute briefing spared few quarters. It was laced with accusations of “militaristic civilian officials’’ who serve not as civilian overseers as intended but “military advocates’’ who are “politically afraid of the military.’’
It all makes for a national security establishment, in Foster’s view, that perpetuates an approach to the world that is overly confrontational, lacks critical thinking about long term objectives, and even undercuts the strategic aims of democracy.
For example, he said the accepted orthodoxy of never-ending global threats and the necessity to confront them militarily makes it nearly impossible to fashion a national security strategy that puts real security, crisis prevention, and the preservation of civil society ahead of institutional bias and private profit.
“I think we collectively, the national security community, suffer from what I would characterize as conceptual deficit disorder,’’ he said, lambasting most defense practitioners for shirking their “moral obligations to be strategic.’’
What is left is an “American way of war’’ on autopilot that is too expensive, wasteful, and indiscriminately destructive — “killing people and breaking things’’ — and a growing global reputation of hypocrisy.
“I want to talk about walking the talk, about practicing what we preach. I want to talk about being able to elicit moral authority,’’ he said. “When we preach peace but practice war, when we preach self defense but practice aggression we are[not] being consistent in how we exercise power.’’
Asked how his decidedly unconventional views are received by the senior colonels, commanders, captains, and their civilian government counterparts who are among his students at the NDU’s Industrial College of the Armed Forces, Foster was characteristically blunt.
“I have to be quite candid. They are…striving to be accepted orthodoxians. They are part of institutionalized cultures…They are being prepared to be advocates to serve the selfish self-interest of their part of the larger institution.’’