“Double Government” in the US – an explanation for another Obama failure?

Review of essay by Michael J Glennon Harvard National Security Journal January 2014.

There is a fairly widespread feeling in international circles that the Obama presidency promised more than it delivered, and the continuity in national security policy of the Bush presidency is seen as part of this. Many observers, at home and abroad, are disappointed at this, and struggle to explain how Obama has signally failed to live up to his promise of fundamental change.

 A recent article by a respected US academic holds one possible explanation. In summary it argues that Obama, as president, does not really set national security policy. That policy is set long before the president or his aides have any significant input.

Glennon’s thesis is that this continuity in the national security area can be understood using the “double government” theory of the 19th century English political economist, and scholar of the English Constitution, Walter Bagehot. Bagehot said that power in Britain initially resided in the monarch alone, but over time a dual set of institutions emerged. One set comprises the monarchy and the House of Lords (termed the “dignified” institutions-providing a link to the past, which through theatrical show, pomp and historical symbolism excites the public imagination and exercises an emotional hold on it). The second new set – the House of Commons, the Cabinet, and the Prime Minister (termed the “efficient” institutions), do the real work of governing. Together both comprise a “disguised republic” in Britain that obscures the massive shift in power that had occurred. This structure works successfully in that the dignified institutions continue to take part in some real governance and the efficient institutions partake in at least some public ceremony and ritual. As Glennon puts it: “These dual institutions, one for show and the other for real, afford Britain expertise and experience in the actual art of governing while at the same time providing a facade that generate public acceptance of the experts decisions”.

Applying this theory to the formulation of national security policy in the US today, explains the policy continuity, according to Glennon.

Power in the US initially lay in one set of institutions – the president, congress, and the courts (the “dignified” institutions, which Glennon re-names the “Madisonian” institutions, after James Madison the principal architect of US constitutional design). Later a second set of institutions emerged to safeguard the security of the US (the “efficient” institutions, which Glennon renames as the “Trumanite” network, after the president primarily responsible for creating the current national security apparatus in the US). Most still believe that the Madisonian institutions, subject to the famous system of checks and balances, are where power resides, which helps maintain public support. Glennon suggests however that when it comes to national security, power resides with the Trumanite network (primarily due to its bureaucratic expertise and knowledge) which makes decisions far removed from public gaze and from constitutional checks and balances. “The US has, in short, moved beyond a mere imperial presidency to a bifurcated system-a structure of double government, in which even the President now exercises little substantive control over the overall direction of US national security policy. Whereas Britain’s dual institutions evolved towards a concealed republic, America’s have evolved in the opposite direction, towards greater centralisation, less accountability, and emergent autocracy”.

The Trumanite network is a network of several hundred high-level military, intelligence, diplomatic, and law enforcement officials within the executive branch who are responsible for national security policy making in the US. These few hundred individuals are the ones who formulate and oversee the implementation of national security policy. While cohesive due to the nature of its work, the network is curiously amorphous- it has no leader, is not monolithic, has no formal structure, and its membership blurs at the margins. The Washington Post’s landmark study in 2011 of the Trumanite network (“Top Secret America”) identified 46 federal departments and agencies engaged in classified national security work, with missions ranging from intelligence gathering and analysis to war-fighting, cyber operations and weapons development. Almost 2,000 private companies support this network, which takes place over 10,000 locations across the US. The size of the budgets and workforces involved are mostly classified, but are enormous-a total annual outlay of around US $1 trillion with millions of employees.

So is this a credible explanation for what is occurring in the national security area?

A former associate counsel in the Bush White House, Brad Berenson, has commented: “The dirty little secret here is that the US government has enduring institutional interests that carry over from administration to administration and almost always dictate the position the government takes.” Neil Sheehan (the New York Times reporter who obtained the Pentagon Papers and won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on Vietnam) explained to his colleague David Halberstam: “the government of the US was not what he had thought it was; it was as if there were an inner US government, what he called ‘a centralised state, far more powerful than anything else…. It had survived and perpetuated itself…. It does not function necessarily for the benefit of the Republic but rather for its own ends, its own perpetuation; it has its own codes which are quite different from public codes’”.

The admirable desire to efficiently protect US citizens from terror and other attacks, and an ever increasing list of dangers and threats, eventually leads, via a subterranean bureaucratic network without any real checks and balances on its activities, to the extraordinary behaviour, and more importantly the thinking behind such, displayed by the recent NSA revelations. When a June 2013 Time magazine poll, shows that 70% of Americans aged between 18 and 34 believe Edward Snowden “did a good thing” in leaking details of these NSA surveillance programs it is time for a fundamental rethink. Madison, in writing on the US constitution believed that the structures in place that enabled the government to protect and control the citizens of the country had to be matched by structures of equal importance to protect the people from the government itself. This latter issue may prove to be one of the defining issues with respect to the health of democracy not just in the US, but in the West generally.

Looked at from this angle, security policy continuity in the US is only too understandable. And Glennon has valuable insights into US foreign policy. But those who read Glennon from a European perspective may feel that he has overstated his case. Were Bagehot writing about the separation of powers in the UK today, his fundamentals might be unchanged, but his views would be tempered by experience since the 19th century. Glennon varies his perspective too much. He jumps from one country to another, one century to another and relies too much on metaphor and literary flourishes, weakening his delivery. Had he confined himself to the more recent past, using the Nixon presidency as a comparator for example, he might have carried more conviction.

The article – National Security and Double Government – by Michael J Glennon (Professor of International Law, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University), was published in the Harvard National Security Journal, and is available a harvardnsj.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Glennon-Final.pdf .

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