Questions of foreign policy, particularly those of war and peace, are among the most critical in politics. A lost war can destroy an empire and erase a nation. Victory can attain safety, security, and prosperity for many generations. An inconclusive campaign—such as our neverending stalemate in Afghanistan—can sap national confidence and shatter the minds and bodies of a generation of veterans.
Reasonable minds will differ about what the nation should do overseas and how it should be done. Facts, loyalties, priorities, and predictions all play a part. There are no guaranteed formulas for success. This is the fundamental nature of political questions.
Republicans Defer to the Military
In the wake of the Vietnam War, a popular narrative emerged, particularly on the Right, that victory was lost because the generals were overly constrained by meddling civilian leaders. Hawks told a similar story about the Korean War, focusing on Harry Truman’s firing of an insubordinate General Douglas MacArthur.
In the aftermath of those campaigns, Republicans became more self-consciously militaristic, with Reagan’s defense buildup being a signal moment, and many adopting a broader position that war should be “left to the generals.”
Democrats have bounced between being distrustful of the military in the wake of Vietnam (and then again at the height of the Iraq War) to being supporters of “humanitarian wars” when their party held the presidency. But, like Republicans, they tended largely to defer to the experts, placing a higher premium on those who counseled diplomacy and emphasized the role of international institutions.
Republicans’ militarism extended beyond the mere conduct of war to the larger question of national security. Many criticized Barack Obama’s decision to withdraw from Iraq on this basis, treating the continuation of the Iraq War as a merely technical question to be decided by the generals. The broader question of whether we were accomplishing anything useful and at a reasonable cost was mostly set aside. Even the Republicans’ criticism of the Obama Administration over Benghazi focused on the drama of the consular attack, rarely asking whether we should have intervened in Libya at all.
While much technical expertise is required to execute military missions, questions of war and peace are not technical questions. In the words of American strategist, George Fielding Eliot:
It is for the civil power to determine higher ends of state policy and to provide the military power with the instruments necessary to support or, if need be, to defend the policy so adopted. It is for the soldier to advise as to the sufficiency of these instruments, but the determination of policy is not his province.
Who are our friends? Who are our enemies? What are our goals? These are not settled issues or technical questions that are easily divorced from broader political concerns. Indeed, the American people tend to be less interventionist than the elites of the foreign policy establishment. While the current impeachment proceedings are based on Trump’s deviations from foreign policy conventional wisdom, most Americans are less concerned about protecting Ukraine’s borders than they are about policing our own. In a healthier, more participatory form of self-government, politicians other than Donald Trump would have opinions on these matters too.
The Deep State Answers Questions Rightly Left to Elected Officials
Amid this neglect of essential policies by the political branches, the deep state thrived.
A large “blob” of analysts, senior policymakers, think tankers, senior military leaders, and career civil servants have created a foreign policy almost completely immune from political influence and defined by a broad consensus that spans both political parties. Their consensus commands liberal hegemony secured by America’s status as a “sole superpower.”
Thus, Obama, who ran as a peace candidate, ended up following deep state plans to intervene in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. And Donald Trump, who ran on a platform of America First, has been walking back his efforts to leave Syria under the influence of “his generals” in the defense establishment.
By its nature, the deep state resists its formal subordination to the president. In this way, the foreign policy apparatus shares much in common with the domestic administrative state, whose members also have their own policy agenda and frequently resist political control.
While some Republicans have been critical of the deep state—particularly as it has grown so brazen towards President Trump—they have largely exempted the military from their criticism. As Mike Huckabee put it in the 2008 presidential race, the problems in Iraq “primarily had to do with listening to a lot folks who were civilians in suits and silk ties, and not listening enough to the generals with mud and blood on their boots and medals on their chest.”
Of course, the military is part of the same deep state as those in “suits and silk ties.” It seeks more power and larger budgets. Its senior leaders tend to absorb the same cultural habits of the rest of Washington, D.C., where many such leaders spend the latter parts of their careers.
And the military’s views on strategy, such as they are, make up a significant part of the deep state’s consensus regarding liberal hegemony. As someone who has an agenda of change, but who also has an instinctive respect for the military, Trump has taken a long time to learn this lesson.
The nondemocratic views of the “deep state’’ functionaries can be found in sharp relief in the recent testimony of Lt. Colonel Alex Vindman.
A decorated combat veteran, Vindman had a rather hazy understanding of the chain of command while serving in Trump’s National Security Council. He testified that “[i]n the spring of 2019, I became aware of outside influencers promoting a false narrative of Ukraine inconsistent with the consensus views of the interagency. This narrative was harmful to U.S. government policy.” That these outsider views came from the president or officials doing the president’s bidding—like EU Ambassador, Gordan Sondland, or Ukrainian special representative, Kurt Volker—mattered little to Vindman. For him, the “consensus views of the interagency” were sacred and could not be disturbed, certainly not by a mere president.
The Deep State Is Fundamentally Unconstitutional
While much pious talk of “democracy” and “the rule of law” has been levied against President Trump by his critics, one would search in vain for a discussion of the powers of unelected bureaucrats or the importance of an “interagency consensus” in the Constitution. The Constitution, as we learn in school, is designed to foster a government “of the people.” This is no mere rhetoric. Electoral control over the executive branch and the legislature is how the Constitution ensures the people remain in charge.
This is why the president is the commander in chief of the armed forces. The benefit of civilian control of our military does not rest in the fact that the president is an outsider or does not wear a uniform, but rather because he, unlike the military’s career officers, is subject to democratic control. He is influenced by and accountable to popular opinion and is thereby entitled to preeminent authority over foreign policy.
Authentic self-government atrophies in age of bureaucracy. Self-government requires elected officials to control all major policy and, for this control to be meaningful, citizens must have meaningful choices. If the most critical questions of war and peace are to be off the table and instead decided by the deep state’s “interagency consensus,” then half of the federal government’s portfolio would be immune from political control.
Implicit in the recent impeachment inquiry is whether the president may make policy contrary to the wishes of the deep state. Of course, any notion of constitutionally limited government requires that he has such power. The real “high crime” is the idea that it could be otherwise.