How the “West Point Mafia” Runs Washington

From Congress to K Street, a small cohort of men exert immense influence on American political life.

By Danny Sjursen and cross-posted from Tom Dispatch.

Every West Point class votes on an official motto.Most are then inscribed on their class rings. Hence, the pejorative West Point label “ring knocker.” (As legend has it, at military meetings a West Pointer “need only knock his large ring on the table and all Pointers present are obliged to rally to his point of view.”) Last August, the class of 2023 announced theirs: “Freedom Is Not Free.” Mine from the class of 2005 was “Keeping Freedom Alive.” Each class takes pride in its motto and, at least theoretically, aspires to live according to its sentiments, while championing the accomplishments of fellow graduates.

But some cohorts do stand out. Take the class of 1986 (“Courage Never Quits”). As it happens, both Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are members of that very class, as are a surprisingly wide range of influential leaders in Congress, corporate America, the Pentagon, the defense industry, lobbying firms, big pharma, high-end financial services, and even security-consulting firms. Still, given their striking hawkishness on the subject of American war-making, Esper and Pompeo rise above the rest. Even in a pandemic, they are as good as their class motto. When it comes to this country’s wars, neither of them ever quits.

Once upon a time, retired Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute (Class of ’75), a former US Ambassador to NATO and a senior commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, taught both Esper and Pompeo in his West Point social sciences class. However, it was Pompeo, the class of ’86 valedictorian, whom Lute singled out for praise, remembering him as “a very strong student—fastidious, deliberate.” Of course, as the Afghanistan Papers, released by The Washington Post late last year, so starkly revealed, Lute told an interviewer that, like so many US officials, he “didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking in Afghanistan.” Though at one point he was President George W. Bush’s “Afghan war czar,” the general never expressed such doubts publicly and his record of dissent is hardly an impressive one. Still, on one point at least, Lute was on target: Esper and Pompeo are smart, and that’s what worries me (as in the phrase “too smart for their own good”).

Esper, a former Raytheon lobbyist, had particularly hawkish views on Russia and China before he ever took over at the Pentagon and he wasn’t alone when it came to the urge to continue America’s wars. Pompeo, then a congressman, exhibited a striking pre–Trump era foreign policy pugnacity, particularly vis-à-vis the Islamic world. It has since solidified into a veritable obsession with toppling the Iranian regime.

Their militarized obsessions have recently taken striking form in two ways: The secretary of defense instructed US commanders to prepare plans to escalate combat against Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, an order the mission’s senior leader there, Lt. Gen. Robert “Pat” White, reportedly resisted; meanwhile, the secretary of state evidently is eager to convince President Trump to use the Covid-19 pandemic, now devastating Iran, to bomb that country and further strangle it with sanctions. Worse yet, Pompeo might be just cunning enough to convince his ill-informed, insecure boss (so open to clever flattery) that war is the answer.

The militarism of both men matters greatly, but they hardly pilot the ship of state alone, any more than Trump does (whatever he thinks). Would that it were the case. Sadly, even if voters threw them all out, the disease runs much deeper than them. Enter the rest of the illustrative class of ’86

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