Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

National Security and Double Government

National Security and Double Government by Michael J. GlennonGlennon - Double government

For many people, US President Barack Obama’s term in office has been a disappointment. Having campaigned on the theme of ‘change’, his foreign policy has closely resembled the second term of the Bush Administration. Why is this so?

It could be Obama never believed what he said, or perhaps he did, but was persuaded in government to stay the course. In ‘National Security and Double Government’, Michael J. Glennon offers a third option, that thanks to the network of national security organisations established under Harry Truman and expanded in size and power ever since (the NSA, NSC, Joint Chiefs of Staff etc), Obama was never really in charge of his government’s policy.

To make clear, Glennon is not suggesting any mass conspiracy. His concern is not about nefarious individuals, but the way a relatively close knit and largely obscure mid-level range of institutions operates to drive policy, often in the face of the wishes of the visible (and publicly responsible) institutions such as the President and Congress.

Borrowing from the great English commentator Walter Bagehot’s analysis of the monarchy-legislative diarchy in 19th century England, Glennon describes this as a ‘double government’. In the case of the US, it is staffed by decent, intelligent and hard working people, but a group which tends to support a certain style of policy (more often military and intelligence than political or diplomatic) and operate without significant oversight, as a way to deal with the nation’s threats. Foremost among them, international terrorism.

Glennon – again never implying a conspiracy – details substantial evidence of the way bureaucratic organisations in the United States, especially the military and intelligence agencies work to shape, subvert or even mislead the leaders of the government in Congress and the White House. Congress is kept in the dark, presidents battle day by day to make the smallest of changes to the course of the ship of state. In turn, the general public keeps blaming the public ‘Madisonian’ institutions the founders established, for a failure that is often tied to the role of largely private ‘Trumanite’ organisations and individuals.

This is a depressing book. It suggests that the War on Terrorism (at an estimated cost of $3.3 Trillion) is starting to feed upon the democratic structure of the US. It suggests a profound institutional failure is underway that will be extremely difficult to fix. As Glennon notes, many of the seemingly ‘simple’ changes, such as greater oversight by Congress or the Judiciary have been tried and continue to fail.

For example, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approved 99.9% of all warrant requests between 1979 and 2011. To repeat, 99.9%. Glennon in particular notes the co-option of the courts and congressional committees to the public servants they are supposed to monitor. Some of the quotes he provides suggest a serious dereliction of duty by key individuals who, under the honourable motive of trying to protect the country from external threats, have guaranteed harm at home by abandoning their tasks of oversight and providing checks and balances.

The only plausible way forward Glennon suggests, is a revitalisation of civic virtue. A role demanded of the public by Madison, Jefferson and Washington, but since abandoned as Republican ideals gave way to liberal notions which suggest a citizen’s only duty is to abide by the law and pay (minimal) taxes. Representative government, and in turn the bureaucracy that feeds it can not run without an engaged public. Cruelly however, the more the public institutions seem to fail (Congress has an approval rate of 15%), the more the public reduce their attention.

There’s much to recommend about this short book, though it often resorts to inferring and supposing the presence of the network it focuses on, rather than clearly mapping its contours. Perhaps rightly, Glennon doesn’t try and single out specific individuals as the key sources of blame, but nor does he provide enough institutional analysis of what organisations and at what level the network operates at. Strangely this sense is actually deepened by the presence of an interesting chapter looking at alternative explanations for the continuity such as rational actor models, or organisational behaviour etc. This is to Glennon’s academic credit, but I would have liked a little bit more of a journalistic edge, more interviews and clearer descriptions of on the ground behaviour.

I am not entirely persuaded by the final thesis, but I think this is an important read for those interested in how governments manage national security issues, as well as those seeking insight to US foreign policy and the War on Terror. It shows how many of the failures we might easily prescribe to ignorance, incompetence or malevolence, are often best explained by boring but extremely serious institutional failure. The Trumanite network that Glennon condemns are all filled with good people who are desperately trying to protect the US in this era of anywhere, anytime threats. But if this compelling book is to be believed, the state is paying an extremely high cost for their loyalty. New ways are needed, and soon.