Demagogic Politicians and Gung-Ho Operatives

by Neil H. Buchanan

In my two most recent Dorf on Law posts, I have attempted to explain why the widespread panic in the U.S. in the aftermath of the Paris attacks is wrong, dangerous, and self-defeating.  The pertinent part of the first post included my claim that the "Now we'll get 'em!" narrative makes no sense, because it is obvious that we had more than enough reason even before Paris (including beheadings, bombings, takeovers of large parts of countries, and so on) to want to stop the Islamic State.  If obvious and effective solutions existed, we would have long since solved this problem.  It strikes me as totally absurd to imagine that the Paris attacks, notwithstanding how horrifying they were, could lead to a productive change in strategy against ISIL.  And as far as refugees are concerned, the people who are freaked out about whether asylum-seekers might need to be vetted should be pleased to learn that we already do that.

In the second post, I acknowledged that new situations can reasonably lead to different strategies, as a general matter.  Even though, on the direct questions of dealing with this particular source of terrorism and being careful about refugee intake, there appears to be nothing more that we could be doing, it is surely true that new events should lead to constant reflection and reevaluation of our approaches to security.  At the end of that post, however, I argued that in fact we already do that, too.  My point was not that we already are doing everything that one would want to do, even if circumstances change, but that we are always quite sensibly reassessing our strategies in light of new intelligence and events.  If Post #1 said, "We are already doing what we can do about these particular situations," Post #2 said something like, "And we are already doing the things that are necessary to change what we would do in response to new situations as they arise."

At the end of that latter post, I obliquely acknowledged some discomfort with a possible implication of my argument.  I noted that we must not simply trust implicitly the security technocrats who are in charge of developing strategy (and strategy about strategy): "In the area of security more than possibly any other area of policy, our technocrats are all too often willing to take their missions to extremes in the pursuit of their narrow vision of being tough and effective.  If anything, our processes need more restraints on the technocrats, not fewer."  A reader then asked in a comment on that post whether I was referring to the military-industrial complex, and its effects on the political process.  Although that is a good point on its own, to which I will return briefly below, my point was somewhat different.

Perhaps the best way to describe my discomfort with trusting the technocrats is to note that even though the technocracy in security areas (defense, spying, counterterrorism, policing) draws a large number of dedicated, patriotic people into its ranks, it is also notorious for its tendency to draw in too many ends-justify-the-means people with cowboy mentalities, people who disparage constitutional constraints and who are willing to operate beyond the edge of allowable (to say nothing of actually useful) behavior.  When the head of the CIA responds to the Paris attacks by bemoaning the "hand-wringing over the government’s role in the effort to try to uncover these terrorists," he is merely giving voice to what appears to be a depressingly pervasive attitude among many people in his line of work.

My call to put more restraints on technocrats, not fewer, is thus based on the idea that organizations that have eagerly engaged in torture, and which then tried to twist the evidence to suggest that their illegal and immoral tactics have somehow produced positive outcomes, are not exactly organizations to whom we should say, "Hey, you've got this!  Keep doing what you're doing, and if something new comes up, we'll trust you to change what you're doing in the best way possible."

The problem is that the only way to constrain the over-the-top operatives is via the political process.  And, as the French journalist Sylvain Cypel wrote in a NYT op-ed criticizing President Francois Hollande's power grab in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, trying to act tough in a way that plays on the public's fears is a dangerous game, because "there’s always a bigger demagogue around."  Fourteen of those bigger demagogues are running for the Republican presidential nomination, and hundreds more are senators, representatives, and governors.  Even though Democrats are generally much better on these issues, they are certainly capable of capitulating in the face of what they perceive as unwinnable political challenges.

So who is more deserving of our trust?  More accurately, has either group shown that it should be mistrusted less?  My instinct in yesterday's post was to believe that the spooks might be better than the politicos.  This was based on the thought that few if any all-but-above-the-law national security types would be likely to think that, say, Jeb Bush's idea to admit only Christians into the country would be a sensible strategy.  Granted, given how aggressively the national security agencies recruit from religious universities, I have little doubt that many agents and supervisors would agree with Bush's basic motivation.  Even so, I at least can imagine most of them saying, "This is not going to work, even though I do not find it objectionable."

In addition, the worst aspects of the post-9/11 overreactions in the U.S. seem to have been driven by the Bush/Cheney Administration, with Cheney and his thugs apparently putting pressure on line officers and intelligence analysts to tell them what they wanted to hear.  From what I have read, the professionals in surprising numbers thought that the neocons were crazy and wrongheaded.

The problem, then, is that we have an enormous security apparatus that needs to be reined in by politicians, yet we also have a political atmosphere that strengthens the hands of opportunistic office-seekers who would go beyond what all but the most Strangelovian cloak-and-dagger types would be likely to pursue.  Worse, there appears to be a one-way ratchet effect, with overreactions in every situation nearly impossible to peel back after the fact, which means that the overreactions accumulate and congeal into a permanent expansion of the national security state.

This is where the reader's comment on my second post (about the military-industrial complex) comes in, because it is certainly true that the spooks-and-politicos dichotomy is not a dichotomy at all, but a self-reinforcing dynamic that moves everything inexorably either in the wrong direction or at least too far in the right direction.

There are no good answers to this.  Even if the current political environment suggests that the apolitical side is more trustworthy, the only real solution is for enough people to fight the urge to pander to the panic.  Again, this is why I am grateful that Barack Obama -- despite my many criticisms of him in the past -- is currently in charge.  So far, at least, he has been unwilling to be pushed into adopting stupid policies.  I hope that we can say the same thing about his successor.