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First Principles

Praetorianism and
the ‘Deep State’

Article II gives the president sweeping powers to conduct foreign affairs and negotiate with leaders of other nations. It does not grant any such power to unelected bureaucrats to act in ways that demonstrate they approve or disapprove of foreign policy—even when they are “deeply troubled” by it.


- November 9th, 2019
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Defenders of President Trump have long railed against the “deep state,” a name given to the entrenched bureaucracy working from within to bring down the Trump Administration. They point to the anonymous New York Times op-ed from September 2018, “I am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” said to be written by a “senior official in the Trump Administration,” which criticized President Trump and claimed “that many of the senior officials in [Trump’s] own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.”

They point to the machinations of high ranking members of the Intelligence Community (IC), including former CIA Director John Brennan, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and fired FBI Director James Comey, who have worked assiduously to undermine the president at every turn, and indeed even to mid-level drones such as the still-anonymous (officially) “whistleblower” who touched off the investigation of President Trump and his dealings with Ukraine, as well as Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, who expressed similar concerns.

Of course, the president’s critics mocked the idea of a deep state as a crazy right-wing conspiracy theory. But they have come around now not only to admit that the deep state does exist, more importantly, they claim, it’s a good thing!  Recently, Michelle Cottle, a member of the New York Times editorial board, opined about the denizens of the deep state that “They Are Not the Resistance. They Are Not a Cabal. They Are Public Servants. Let us now praise these not-silent heroes.

“President Trump is right: The deep state is alive and well,” Cottle wrote. “But it is not the sinister, antidemocratic cabal of his fever dreams. It is, rather, a collection of patriotic public servants—career diplomats, scientists, intelligence officers, and others—who, from within the bowels of this corrupt and corrupting administration, have somehow remembered that their duty is to protect the interests, not of a particular leader, but of the American people.”

Not to be outdone, Cottle’s Times colleague, James Stewart, has recently written a book that celebrates “a federal bureaucracy dedicated to halting or slowing down President Trump’s agenda. There is a deep state. There is a bureaucracy in our country who has pledged to respect the constitution, respect the rule of law. They do not work for the president, they work for the American people.” In an interview on NBC’s “Today Show,” Stewart said, “as Comey told me . . . thank goodness for that because they are protecting the constitution and the people when individuals . . . they restrain them from crossing the boundaries of all . . . What Trump calls the deep state in the United States is protecting the American people and protecting the Constitution. It’s a positive thing.”

Do we really want to normalize the view that unelected bureaucrats are the protectors of republican government?

Recently, I wrote a column called “The Perils of Praetorianism,” noting how the opposition to President Trump has led some retired and active-duty military officers to adopt a stance that can only be described as praetorian in character. The recent New York Times op-ed by retired Admiral William McRaven is a case in point. In my own experience, I have heard military friends describe the “whistleblower” and Lt. Col. Vindman as “heroes” and “patriots” who “understand their oath.” Which oath is that? The one to the Constitution, which grants to the president, in conjunction with Congress—not to unelected bureaucrats—the power to make U.S. foreign policy?

In 2010, my friend Andrew Bacevich observed that praetorianism leads soldiers to become “enamored with their moral superiority and impatient with the failings of those they are charged to defend” including a “smug disdain for high-ranking civilians . . . .” We saw an example of a praetorian mindset in 2010 when Rolling Stone reported that officers on the staff of General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, had made disparaging comments about President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Obama’s national security advisor, Jim Jones. As Bacevich wrote, McChrystal’s chief lieutenants referred to themselves as “team America” and suggested that they were “bravely holding out in a sea of stupidity and corruption.”

I personally believe that President Obama’s foreign policy was a disaster. I know for a fact that many military officers believed that as well. One was General James Mattis, as he makes clear in his recent book, Call Sign Chaos. But imagine if he had used his military status to criticize Obama or to decide that he, rather than the president, was responsible for making U.S. foreign policy.

Interestingly, although praetorianism is traditionally associated with the military, it seems to be even more prevalent these days among senior members of the Intelligence Community. Listen to Brennan, Comey, and Clapper, who have decided that they are also morally superior to the rest of America. They’re not.

The fact is that the deep state is praetorianism on steroids. It is based on the claim that unelected bureaucrats have a duty to undermine the policy of a duly elected president, simply because they disagree with it. Vindman is a perfect example of this mindset. He complained that “he was deeply troubled by what he interpreted as an attempt by the president to subvert U.S. foreign policy . . . .” Read that again. The problem here is that Article II of the Constitution gives the president sweeping powers to conduct foreign affairs and negotiate with leaders of other nations. It does not grant any such power to unelected bureaucrats to act in ways that demonstrate they approve or disapprove of foreign policy—even when they are “deeply troubled” by it.

No matter what one thinks about Trump, we must ask ourselves: is it a good idea for military officers, members of the Intelligence Community, and even run-of-the-mill bureaucrats to form a phalanx around the duly elected president “for the good of the country”? Do we really want to normalize the view that unelected bureaucrats are the protectors of republican government? If so, we enable the denizens of the deep state, a concept at war with the very idea of republican government.

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