Two posts by our good friend Winston Elliott serve as my point of departure. The first (on 3 May) was entitled, “What is the proper role of military power for a Republic?,” and raised salient considerations in seeking an answer to that question; the second (appropriately enough on Memorial Day) emphasized the responsibility of the people for holding to account those elected officials who “put our soldiers in harm’s way.”
Both these posts dealt with crucial issues, particularly in light of our recent military ventures. It is evident from Winston’s first post, for example, that he has strong doubts, as well he might, that these ventures have served any useful purpose. And, although Winston doesn’t come right out and say this, I think it also fair to conclude that he believes they have not been worth the price, the lives lost and the treasure expended. In this belief, it should be noted, he is not by any means alone. His views are shared by a healthy majority of Americans who even seem to be coming around to Pat Buchanan’s view, “If there is nation building to be done, let it begin here.”
Now, clearly Winston’s concerns are of a piece. Surely, those who sanctioned the deployment of our military for these costly, ill-conceived, and failed missions should be held to account.
What does ”holding to account” mean? In the sense Winston uses the term – i.e., in the context of a republican system – it means more than just seeking a public explanation or justification from the office holder for his or her vote. It necessarily embodies a corollary, albeit tacit, that those elected decisions makers, who have supported measures that have needlessly placed our troops in harm’s way or who have backed ill-conceived military ventures, should be removed from office through electoral processes. In other words, accountability carries with it a sanction, namely, the sacking of those heedless of the consequences of their vote, as well as those who just show poor judgment. Now my first point regarding Winston’s understanding of accountability is that he is unquestionably right in pointing out that, off at the end, it is the responsibility of citizens to hold the decision makers to account. But in what sense can we hold them to account? Can they, for instance, be held to account for their votes on the use and deployment of the military (or, for that matter, a specific vote on any issue) in the manner suggested above; that is, through elections? In answering this, we must face a hard reality: namely, at a minimum, this kind of accountability requires that a significant portion of the public is attentive, well informed, and sufficiently civic minded to discharge its responsibility. And anyone at all familiar with the political illiteracy and apathy that prevails among the American electorate will see at once just how unlikely it is that these conditions will ever obtain, save in the most extraordinary circumstances. These characteristics of the American electorate even make accountability in a more general sense – i.e., not with regard to a specific issue, but rather the overall record and character of an individual representative – difficult. Still, even if the electorate consisted of upstanding members of the League of Women Voters, the accountability Winston has in mind would still be difficult because normally in elections any number of issues come into play, and this by itself creates uncertainty over exactly what the voters were voting for and against. And aside from this, we know from the umpteen voting surveys that have been conducted over the years that large sectors of the population do not cast their votes on the basis of issues.
This is not to say that there have not be elections where accountability somewhat along the lines Winston suggests has been possible, i.e., where a single issue or policy over which there is great controversy plays a central role during the campaign period. But the political landscape today renders an election of this kind virtually impossible. To begin with, most voters concerned about our military and foreign policies, have no effective way of holding their representatives to account because both parties are pretty much in lock step. Moreover, and perhaps one reason the two parties are so close, we have an all-volunteer military which means that only a very small portion of the population is directly affected by our military commitments. Indeed, one could reasonably maintain, particularly when the casualty reports are relegated to something like page A12 of the New York Times, that the fate of our military personnel is not of much concern to the average American. It comes as no surprise, then, to find that the vast majority of today’s voters are not motivated or inclined to hold decision makers to account for their positions relating to our military commitments.
I do not mean to dwell on the obvious. My point is simply that elections are far from being an adequate mechanism for holding our decision makers to account on any specific position they may have taken. To be effective in the manner Winston suggests would seem to require a choice for the voter at election time on a specific issue. This is a requisite for this kind of accountability. The issue, moreover, must be the decisive factor in determining for whom the voters will cast their votes.
Allow me to comment on two matters not mentioned in Winston’s posts but which are closely related to his concerns. In my judgment, they both point, albeit indirectly, to the fact that the very foundations of our constitutional republic have eroded. First, as we know, Congress has abdicated its power to declare war. This naturally complicates a bit the question of who should be held responsible for commitment of military force to combat. Of course, so long as this is the case, the president must bear primary responsibility. What of the Senators and Representatives who are wont to delegate this authority to the president? Perhaps, when things go awry as they did in Vietnam, they could argue in good conscience that in voting for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution they never envisioned the enormous escalation of both mission and forces that ensued. Yet, the need for accountability would seem to be called for when members of Congress abdicate their constitutional responsibilities, and imperative when, fully aware of the consequences of their abdication, they fail to take corrective measures. The accountability called for here relates, it seems to me, to the moral and intellectual character of the representatives, including the obligation they feel to uphold the Constitution. But even to ask for this degree of accountability seems futile in the present political environment.
A second matter is this: the representatives, when voting to commit our forces, may not be fully responsible for their vote because they were purposely misled or deceived. (Think “aluminum tubes,” “yellow cake,” “mushroom clouds,” etc.) Likewise these tactics may serve, as they did in the case of the Iraq invasion, to mobilize public support for military intervention (in this case a preventive war, without parallel in our history). This consideration points to the need for widening the scope of accountability to embrace non-elected officials (White House officials, cabinet officers, and the like) who have engaged in these deceptive practices. In these cases, unlike those dealing with elected decision makers, accountability can surely be had. It could come through congressional investigations and, if the evidence warrants, courts of law. Still, as much as accountability at this level is absolutely necessary to insure rational and prudent decisions over such vital matters, we are not likely to see it because, among other reasons, it would prove an embarrassment for both political parties.
Much more can be said along these lines, but what is clear is that accountability along the electoral lines suggested by Winston is virtually impossible to come by given our present political climate. Short of this, of course, those who see the failures and shortcomings of our policies can endeavor to mobilize public opinion in hopes of pressuring the elected representatives to change course. Here again, however, certain drawbacks to this alternative seem evident. For one thing, as Stephen Walt has remarked, those who make even the most horrendous decisions resist acknowledging as much. “With a few exceptions,” he writes, “I can’t think of very many politicians, pundits, or government officials who have openly acknowledged their errors and apologized for them. Here in the United States, this only seems to happen when sexual indiscretion is involved, or when former officials are at the end of their careers and seeking some sort of absolution.” This means to secure a policy reversal through mobilization of public opinion is an uphill battle all the way. This is clear from the use of this tactic to end the war in Vietnam. As this effort indicates, there has to be something resembling what V.O. Key termed a “decisive” majority – i.e., an intense majority demanding change – before an ongoing policy will be scrapped or substantially altered. But where, as we have noted, only a small portion of the population is affected by our interventionism, chances of success via this route are virtually nonexistent. To be sure, as we have also intimated, a majority of Americans are war wary, but this majority in no way resembles a decisive majority. Consequently, the decision makers have sufficient latitude to continue those policies they have concocted, avoiding the potential political fallout from reversing positions. Finally, any victory obtained through the mobilization of public opinion would, more likely than not, be partial or limited; that is, it would probably involve change, not in broader policy, but only with respect to specific prompted by that policy. For instance, while we can imagine public opinion “forcing” withdrawal of forces from, say, Iraq, this would not, at the same time, necessarily serve as a repudiation of policy that initially justified our invasion in the first place. Nor would it serve to prevent future actions in keeping with the same policy. (Think Obama and the Afghan “surge.”)
These considerations point to the facts that the initial decision to commit military forces is, in most important respects, the crucial one. A mistake at this juncture, even in the unlikely event it is subsequently corrected, can prove very costly. Consequently, it is the initial decision that requires very serious deliberation in the fullest sense.
This brings us around to Winston’s first post that suggests a way around the difficulties we have cited. While accountability after the fact may be extremely difficult to come by, we can – as Winston urges us to do – take time to deliberate, to ask ourselves the hard questions, before we commit our troops to hostilities. To this end, he identifies a number of considerations we ought to take into account before committing our troops to perilous missions. Among his questions (and here I largely paraphrase): How much of our life and treasure should be expend to “promote ‘democracy’” in distant nations? What obligations do we have “to impose order,” particularly in nations riven by internal strife and dissension? Did our Framers ever contemplate our nation assuming these missions? Should we look upon the “militarization of our foreign policy” as a reasonable price to achieve these goals? What will be the consequences for the principles of republican government if we continue with our present policies? And who are we, with all our problems and deficiencies, “to tell other nations” what they should be doing?
Now these are all excellent questions. And one would suppose, given the enormous obstacles to holding our representatives accountable once a commitment has been made, that these and like questions would certainly be asked and answered before, not after, any decision to enter or initiate hostilities in foreign countries. A highly relevant question arises, however: Where, or in what forum or venue should this deliberation – i.e., the asking and answering – take place? What is clear is that, for one reason or another, foreign policy decisions have traditionally been made in relative isolation from the American people, and this has been the case with the commitment of our military to war. That this is the case is reflected in the fact that over the decades “reformers” have sought to establish some system whereby public approval is secured before any military forces are committed to hostilities. Whether this is feasible or not is one issue, but the fact is that any administration has powerful means at its disposal to insure popular approval of its policy. Perhaps the lead up to the Iraq War is the best evidence of this. [What is astounding to me is the high percentage of Americans (32%), mostly Republicans (63%), who still believe that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction.]
While there certainly is a need to explore ways in which the public might play a larger and meaningful role in our decisions to commit our military to hostilities, at the present time and for the foreseeable future, reality dictates that if we are to have deliberation of the kind that Winston would like (and he is far from alone in calling for this), it will have to take place among a relatively small circle of decision makers. As we know, Congress tried to insert itself into this process in a very limited way with its War Powers Resolution, but it has in practice abandoned its constitutional war powers.
Acknowledging this, we are obliged to ask whether, within this narrow circle (now confined largely to the executive branch), the considerations raised by Winston are weighed; whether and to what degree, that is, the questions he sets forth are asked and answered. While any answer to this concern might seem at first glance hard to come by, one reliable measure would certainly seem to be what we can glean from office holders, i.e., what they say in public addresses, interviews and the like. Then, too, there is no dearth of analyses, comments, and critiques by those who, for lack of a better term, constitute our “foreign policy elite,” e.g., prominent columnists, academics, members and officers of the Council of Foreign Relations, former diplomats. Also of great value in this endeavor are those studies that emanate from the numerous “think tanks” whose job it is to analyze our policies and commitments, presumably with an analytical eye. To this, of course, could be added a number of books that present an inside picture of the decision making processes and how the political climate of the time affected the outcome. In sum, not to belabor the point, I would simply contend that concerned Americans are far from being without sources for drawing reliable conclusions about the decision making processes, particularly those surrounding the decisions leading up to the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent “surge” in Afghanistan.
It seems clear from Winston’s first post that, aside from pointing to the need for deliberation, he was genuinely concerned that those responsible for putting our troops in harm’s way in both Iraq and Afghanistan had not paid sufficient attention to those considerations he regarded as decisive. And, judging from the evidence we have at hand, his concern seems well founded. Take Obama’s 2010 “surge” decision that significantly augmented the number of troops in Afghanistan. While not in the league with Bush II’s decision to invade Iraq, it was still ruinous and ill-conceived. Obama’s decision, however, cannot be viewed apart from the political context that prevailed at the time. It was understood that if he had rejected outright the military request (demand?) for a significant force increase, the Neocon establishment and the war hawks – e.g., Senators Graham, McCain, and Lieberman – were primed to assail him and his party as weak, as endangering our national security. These were charges that Obama did not have the fortitude to confront. Or, if one seeks a more charitable account, Obama did say during the presidential campaign that Iraq represented a diversion from where the real danger resided and that he was merely fulfilling his campaign promise by putting more troops and resources into Afghanistan. But even if this is the case, political considerations – certainly far different from those Winston has in mind – were still decisive factors in the decision. If we move on to our policy toward Iran (the new number one on our enemy list), which could well result in another military confrontation of some kind, we even find that foreign interests – primarily those of Israel – seem to take precedence over those considerations Winston (along probably with the vast majority of Americans) regards as uppermost. And this, in turn, is a state of affairs closely related to the aims of powerful internal political forces, not at all predisposed to pay much attention to the long term consequence of our actions (see this recent article in the American Conservative).
The decision to invade Iraq, on the other hand, is baffling to say the least, in large part because we still don’t know for sure what its purpose or objective was. A complicating factor, of course, is that the administration offered up different reasons at various times, depending on the turn of events. This fact, by itself, means that many of Winston’s most important concerns simply could not have been addressed. For example, how can one weigh the costs of a mission when the mission lacked purpose or objective? Or when the decision makers, themselves, kept moving the goal posts? Likewise, the lack of planning, the incompetence of the post-combat administrators, the staggering waste of treasure are all testimony to that the decision makers were shamefully remiss in dealing with virtually every aspect of this venture. As we know from the Downing Street Memo, “There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath of military action.” Can we imagine, then, that they gave thoughtful consideration to Winston’s concerns?
Our experiences leading up to the Iraq War point to a concern of another order that Winston’s posts do not touch upon, but which, at the same time, relate to his call for deliberation. In this pre-war period, we encounter a prototypical top-down decision; that is, a decision that has been made by the small circle at the top and then announced to a compliant people. While this kind of decision is not at all unusual in the foreign policy area, the Iraq decision is somewhat unique and points to very real dangers. Without any doubt, the “fear factor” has proven to be extremely powerful in manipulating public opinion. And the Bush II administration, well aware of this, and intent upon both justifying and gaining popular support for the invasion, pictured Iraq as posing a grave danger to the United States – from drones spewing anthrax up and down the East coast to utter annihilation (“mushroom clouds”). Given this picture of the threat, any consideration in public circles over how much of life and treasure should be expended to eliminate it had to be relegated by the public to a secondary or tertiary concern.
Throughout this period we encounter a major “sin of omission”: the media failed to do their job. On its face, this is to say, the administration’s case was extremely dubious. Iraq, a relatively small country with limited resources, had not even recovered from its crushing defeat only a decade before, partly because we saw to it that its oil revenues would be significantly reduced. Yet, while it couldn’t pose any serious threat to our vital interests, few in the media saw fit even to question the administration’s assertions. On the contrary, albeit it with some exceptions, they accepted the picture painted by the administration. In fact, as we know, the New York Times, through its news columns, was complicit with the administration in transforming Iraq into a formidable military power with weapons of mass destruction – a fact which it later half-heartedly acknowledged. But the media were not the only culprits. The “foreign policy elite,” which presumably should have known better, seemed to accept, with a few exceptions here and there, the administration’s line. As Stephen Walt has observed, those “experts” who supported the war were given access to the most influential media outlets, whereas, it would seem, those who questioned it were consigned to C-Span. The prevailing mood in the months prior to the invasion is perhaps best conveyed by the reaction to those, both Left and Right, who did oppose the invasion: Phil Donahue was summarily fired at MSNBC because of his outspoken opposition, while Pat Buchanan and Robert Novak were castigated as “unpatriotic conservatives” in the pages of the National Review. Indeed, large sectors of the public, whose “patriotic” instincts had been aroused, were inclined to view those who challenged the prevailing consensus as actually putting the United States in harm’s way.
I go over these grounds, probably familiar to most who are reading this, to point up the degree to which those in power, those responsible for the decisions, are capable of channeling public opinion while simultaneously stifling any critical examination of their decision in the public arena. While we know very little about why the Iraq invasion was launched, we do have every reason to believe that the Bush II administration was intent upon preventing critical inquiry in wider, public circles. Looking back at the tactics of the Bush II administration, I find Hermann Goering’s observations highly pertinent. (They are taken from an interview contained in Gustabe Gilbert’s Nuremberg Diary.)
“Why, of course, the people don’t want war,” Goering shrugged. “Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.”
“There is one difference,” I pointed out. “In a democracy the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.”
“Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”
Please note, I am not saying that our government is “no better than” Nazi Germany, or that we are ruled by an elite no different from that to be found in authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. Goering’s analysis of the ability to make war, resting as it does on the same kind of realpolitik assumptions common in our foreign policy (and academic) establishment, simply reveals a danger to which all systems are prone‑‑that of manipulation of the people by those whose “higher” vision of the national interest fails to take sufficient note of the real needs of real people.
Perhaps the greatest barrier to the kind of deliberation Winston wants is the mindset of our decision makers (that small circle) whether Republican or Democrat. In my judgment, Andrew Bacevich (Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War) convincingly shows that, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, the cold war mentality has evolved to embrace a new and even wider mission for our military, and that, in addition, this new mission is now accepted as doctrine by our party leaders and foreign policy elite (i.e., those who have ready access to the main media outlets). Concretely, as Bacevich points out, the military “primacy,” that which we sought during the Cold War, has now been replaced by “global military supremacy.” Why global military supremacy? Because, he continues, our new mission, not entirely unrelated to that of the Cold War, became that of providing world leadership, maintaining international peace and order, and, ultimately, transforming the world. To meet these responsibilities requires, in turn, that we maintain a “global military presence,” “configure” our forces for “global power projection,” and “counter existing or anticipated threats” though “global interventionism.” As a result, we have a military establishment many times larger than is necessary simply to defend the United States.
While it is far from my purpose here to detail Bacevich’s argument, certain observations are called for. For openers, as I have already intimated, this imperial mentality is largely unchallenged in decision making circles or even in the public arena. In other words, the policy – the beliefs and assumptions upon which it rests – is seldom called into question. The questions that do lead to some introspection among our security and foreign policy gurus are usually those of the Titanic/deck chair character, e.g., whether the force commitment is adequate or whether the commanding generals are employing the right strategy or tactics. (My experience has been that, despite their presumed expertise, they don’t possess any special insight into matters. They do, however, repeat warmed-over cliches by way of supporting their “analyses.”) As remarked above, those who do pose the strategic questions – and there are some – have limited outlets with small audiences. Additionally, there are unquestionably powerful economic interests that benefit from the prevailing consensus surrounding our global mission; Eisenhower’s “industrial-military complex” warning is still highly relevant. In fact, it is generally conceded that any abrupt reversal of our policies would undoubtedly cause a serious economic downturn for the nation. Nor should we overlook the influence of the riches dispensed by the Pentagon on our elected representatives. Finally, our present policy is buttressed by a belief in American exceptionalism that has gained currency among large sectors of the population in recent decades. And the rhetoric of our presidents, Secretaries of State, and politicians, as we might expect, plays into this belief. In short, the reality is that a significant portion of the American people have come to regard those who do not believe that America is a “shining City upon the hill” committed to doing God’s work by spreading its political system and way of life around the globe as unpatriotic.
I have used Winston’s very sensible concerns as a focal point with the purpose of showing just how distressing and hopeless our situation is. I can put our plight into a larger context by way of summarizing. Both parties bear responsibility for (to use Obama’s expression) running this country into a ditch. Not a small part of this has involved our interventions abroad that have taken an enormous toll on our military forces and treasury. What is worse, perhaps, these interventions may well have proven counterproductive. Certainly, today we have more enemies who would like to do us serious harm than we did before we initiated our “Global War on Terror.” In any event, we now find ourselves headed toward bankruptcy, our costly military ventures being a significant contributing factor, and we also find ourselves in the midst of war without any discernible end point. We have, on top of this, a dominant political class that, astonishingly, seems to relish war; that sees enemies of America, so to speak, behind every bush.
Enter Winston. Faced with this, all he wants is what any prudent person would want: deliberation, some re-thinking about our role in the world, along with accountability. What he wants is not only reasonable but something that would occur in a healthy constitutional republic as a matter of course. My point throughout, however, is simple: he’s not going to get what he wants. There are two ways by which it might seem possible for his desires to become a reality. The first would be through a sea change in the public opinion and attitudes; aroused and intense majorities that make it clear to our decision makers that we had best abandon our quest for empire. This, for reasons I hope to have made clear, isn’t going to happen barring some totally unforeseen development. A second way would be through a change of thought among the elite, i.e., those in and around the circle of decision makers. This, too, is extremely unlikely, if only because of the consequences that would follow from such a change. Indeed, those who were at the center of the decision making process, pushing for the invasion of Iraq and the renewed war in Afghanistan – as well as their supporters among the foreign policy elite – seem to have learned nothing from these experiences. Some even believe they’ve “done good.”
The virtual impossibility of even having a serious debate in the halls of Congress about our role in the world, foreign wars, and the uses to which our military ought to be put is one revealing measure of just how sick our Republic is. This is a state of affairs, I can say with some confidence, the Framers would have deplored. And so should we.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.