Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Future of the Constitution: Foreign Policy and National Security -- post by Stephen Holmes

The Iraq war illustrates the pathological consequences of unilateral commander-in-chief power to define the "threats" to American national security on the basis of secret information that is never examined by a constitutionally independent body with a realistic chance to withhold approval for the commitment of military force abroad. The gravest injury to constitutional government caused by "the war on terror" has not been to civil liberties but to checks and balances, namely, to basic constitutional mechanisms for self-correction, designed to facilitate midstream readjustment when disastrous policy failures become self-evident. At risk is not individual freedom but public reason.

One challenge is to develop, presumably on the basis of currently existing Congressional committees -- overseeing foreign policy, covert intelligence and military affairs -- a serious and bipartisan forum in which to debate, define and establish reasonable priorities among various and evolving threats to US national security. The vital importance of such a forum, which obviously must take into account the government‚s needs in this area for secrecy and dispatch, is revealed by the basic irrationality of the current approach to the war on terror. Fundamentally, the administration reasons as follows. To determine the need for a military response to a looming threat, we need to multiply the probability of the threat by the gravity of the threat. Even a remote chance of a suitcase nuke in Washington, DC, they irrationally conclude, requires us to tie down 70% of our national-security assets in Iraq. The fallacy of such reasoning is obvious to anyone outside the bunker: it ignores opportunity costs and fails to husband resources (to keep our powder dry) for the inevitable emergence of even graver and more imminent threats elsewhere (in Korea, say, or the Taiwan Straits). This is how the constitutionally untrammeled and unilateral commander-in-chief power to define national-security threats undermines public reason.

Assuming continued one-party control of all branches of the federal government, the last effective check on executive-branch irrationality comes from inside the executive branch, from dissenters inside DOD, CIA and so forth. Such voices are currently being stifled. If you speak truth to power, you lose your security clearance. This is not just a problem. It is a catastrophe. To address it, we need something more than strengthened whistle-blower laws. We need some sort of legal requirement for the (limited) disclosure of fundamental debates over threat assessment occurring inside clandestine intelligence agencies. Rationality requires our conclusions to be driven by evidence and argument. Partisanship, by contrast, encourages the one-eyed search for evidence and arguments to corroborate pre-established policy choices. To exaggerate somewhat, we can say that the question facing us today is this: will one-party government recreate our intelligence agencies in the image of AEI and FOX news, where the books are always cooked, or will the spirit of nonpartisan professional be constitutionally preserved?

Finally, we must deal with the DOD takeover of foreign policy, facilitated by the happenstance of a Vice President with personal ties to the Secretary of Defense, but which also has deeper roots in the massive power of the Pentagon and private defense contractors. DOD tends to interpret the international threat environment in the light of its own capacities. Threats that cannot be handled militarily are downplayed. This is obviously unwise and indeed immensely dangerous so long as DOD's version of the threat environment cannot be effectively challenged by the State Department and other agencies where at least some knowledgeable and worldly personnel can help bring other kinds of threats into focus. The primary threat to US national security is not the possibility that non-nuclear states will go nuclear, but rather the possibility that existing nuclear stockpiles will sluice into the clandestine international arms market. This grave threat cannot be decreased by military force or the threat of force. It requires diplomacy, a tightened arms-control treaty regime, and intensified international police cooperation. These essential tools for enhancing American national security will be dangerously neglected until DOD's exaggerated influence over US foreign policy is substantially reduced. Ordinarily, the White House and the National Security Council can be expected to maintain some sort of reasonable balance between the Pentagon and the State Department. But these are not ordinary times. Can some sort of constitutional reform preserve the residual professionalism of State, and its capacity to resist DOD unilateralism, in the face of one-party rule?

--Stephen Holmes