D. Dowd Muska


A ‘Defense Intellectual’ and His Policy Pratfalls

April 03, 2014

Before the memory of James R. Schlesinger slips into murky posterity, let’s spend some time bashing the deceased.

Until the dawn of the Cold War, Washington’s Wise Men were WASPS with backgrounds in law or on Wall Street. But when the federal government appointed itself the planet’s perpetual protector from communism, the brain trust needed legions of fresh recruits. There was so much to do!

Diplomats, think tankers, cabinet secretaries, and presidential “special assistants” still needed Ivy League pedigrees -- Schlesinger had three sheepskins from Harvard -- but Irishmen and Italians were allowed into the club. Mormons and Jews, too. (Schlesinger converted to Lutheranism in his early twenties.) Work histories diversified, as bankers, stockbrokers, and lawyers were joined by economists, industrialists, and scientists.

A professorship at the University of Virginia brought Schlesinger to the attention of RAND. “Everything about him,” wrote Fred Kaplan in The Wizards of Armageddon, “spelled ‘defense intellectual’ -- the slightly jaded sensibility, the whiff of arrogance, the pipe-puffing affectation of cool insouciance.” A job with Nixon’s Bureau of the Budget came next, followed by the chairmanship of the Atomic Energy Commission, then a brief stint as CIA director. In July 1973, Schlesinger took the reins of the Pentagon.

During his tenure at DOD, Schlesinger presided over a truly deranged “contingency plan.” Amidst the Yom Kippur War crisis in October 1973 -- Israel attacked by its neighbors, oil exports to the U.S. halted by the Middle East’s petrocracies -- he plotted to invade and occupy one or more nations in the Persian Gulf region. Schlesinger scheduled the assault for late November. Iran was pressed for logistical help, an aircraft carrier moved into position, and thousands of Marines, who had conducted desert maneuvers the previous summer, prepared to go ashore.

Luckily, the amphibious task force fell behind schedule. In the meantime, Israel survived, courtesy American taxpayers, and the oil embargo crumbled.

Sacked by Gerald Ford in November 1975, Schlesinger participated in the revival of the “Committee on the Present Danger,” a group of ultra-hawks who claimed that the Soviet Union’s military buildup was “reminiscent of Nazi Germany’s rearmament in the 1930s.” It lambasted the CIA for failing to conclude that the U.S.S.R. was on its way to insurmountable superiority. Time hasn’t been kind to the committee’s paranoiacs. As former Reagan administration defense official Lawrence Korb noted in 2004, “the Soviet threat had been substantially overestimated in the CIA’s annual intelligence estimates.”

In 1977, Schlesinger brought his blundering to the Carter administration, as the president’s energy czar. (Oil was no longer a commodity, but an issue of “national security.”) Present at the department’s creation, he became the first Secretary of Energy.

Schlesinger was an economist, but he didn’t understand energy markets at all. Rather than immediately implement both broad deregulation and the end of price controls, the legislation crafted by the Carter administration expanded government’s destructive meddling. Conservation and efficiency -- fine when voluntarily pursued by individuals and businesses, unwise when mandated by D.C. -- became a fetish. Hugely wasteful subsidies flowed to “alternative” energy.

In 1979, an auto executive told NEWSWEEK that Schlesinger was a “crisis creator.” No kidding. The secretary embraced the laughable notion that the world was rapidly being drained of its hydrocarbons. Fired once again, his parting address wailed that “the energy future is bleak and likely to grow bleaker in the decade ahead.” (It didn’t.)

Schlesinger’s obtuseness ran so deep that as late as 2010, he continued to peddle peak-oil nonsense. At the birth of the fracking revolution, which could make the U.S. a crude exporter sometime soon, he failed to understand that the war between resource cornucopians and the-end-is-nigh alarmists was over, and that the optimists had prevailed.

Michael Knox Beran warned of the kind of culture that produced Schlesinger: “By exalting a public-service ethos, we encourage the idea that those who have been initiated in it traditions, with their fancy degrees and vast experience of the cursus honorum, possess a preternatural power to oversee the nation’s great leaps forward.”

The days of the towering technocrat are over. The federal treasury is empty. Washington’s “great leaps forward” are behind it. Scrounging the money to pay off debt, clear Social Security checks, and pay Medicare bills will occupy the federal government for an unknowable number of decades.

James R. Schlesinger wasn’t the worst “public servant.” But like his presidential bosses, the pompous professor would have benefited from a strong injection of humility.

You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

# # # # #