Exit the Strategists, Enter the Hacks
I recently moderated a panel discussion that investigated whether our domestic political polarization leads to poor policy, particularly in the national security realm. The general consensus was that, polarization was hurting out interests, and yes, consensus between parties and between branches of government was required in order to have effective policies, let alone develop a grand strategy. Unfortunately, there was little agreement on how to get back to the point of domestic cooperation on national security matters. Furthermore, the opportunity for extremism increases as we head into another national election.
Democracy needs a full-throated discussion about national security issues, so a “loyal opposition” is both necessary and useful in crafting sound policies and advancing American interests. But, President Obama’s opponents have consistently put political expediency ahead of common sense, extending their opposition to his domestic agenda to his (and our) national security agenda. So, in the previous Congress, the opposition opposed repeal of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell, despite assurances by the military leadership that the time had come to get rid of this bit of biased practice. And, when the new START Treaty was up for approval, the opposition flew in the face of overwhelming endorsement of the military and security experts, including perhaps the smartest national security expert in the Senate, Richard Lugar (R-IN).
The political scientist Robert Putnam described the formulation of national security policy as a “two level game.” The first game is the domestic, internal negotiation, while the second is the struggle between the US and external players. A healthy first level game and then consensus drives a powerful second level game. But, the President’s opponents prevent that first level from playing out, restricting our ability to act on the world stage, and potentially damaging our interests.
But, this reckless approach to national security policy should not again become habit in the executive branch as it was during the George W. Bush administration, which benefited from the support of the loyal opposition but failed to listen to its generals or the moderating voices in their midst, such as Brent Scowcroft, GHW Bush’s national security advisor, who famously advised in 2002, “Don’t Attack Saddam.”
Given this backdrop, we have to question the presumptive GOP, Mitt Romney, when he suggests that he will, “listen to the generals” if he is elected president. This may be true, but he will also listen to all of the constituents within his party. But, so far, his views tend to reflect the extreme views and stances of elements around him. Whether it is suggesting we need another Cold War with Russia or failing to recognize that we have placed unprecedented pressure on the Iranian regime, we have seen this story before, and it does not bode well.
Perhaps it is unnatural for “politics [to stop] at the water’s edge,” as asserted by Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg when he turned from isolationist to internationalist and signed up to support President Truman’s vision of a post World War II order. On the other hand, we have achieved consensus before: during WWII, through the Cold War, and following the 9/11 attacks. But, it takes two partners to win this two level game.
Paul Clarke is a Truman Security Fellow and a retired Air Force officer. He served as a spokesperson for Presidents GHW Bush and Bill Clinton.