What American constitutional government most urgently needs at present is for our Madisonian institutions—the presidency, the Congress, and the courts—to wrest back control of national security policy from an unelected and increasingly rogue national security establishment.
That ominous challenge to constitutionalism was on full display with the recent op-ed piece in the New York Times by retired Admiral William McRaven, in which he brashly warned that unless Trump jumped aboard the Forever War bandwagon, he must be removed, and “the sooner the better.” The U.S. must have a policy, McRaven said, that protects “the Kurds, the Iraqis, the Afghans, the Syrians, the Rohingyas, the South Sudanese and the millions of people under the boot of tyranny.”
How did we get to the point where a former senior military officer calls for the removal of a duly elected president because he doesn’t stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Rohingyas? McRaven’s op-ed represents something new in American politics: the assertion that an elected president is illegitimate unless he works to spread our “ideals of universal freedom and equality” through military action and alliances. McRaven also argued that it is “the American military…the intelligence and law enforcement community, the State Department and the press,” all unelected institutions, that now embody the true American civic religion and protect its “ideals.” Amazon.com Gift Card i... Best Price: null Buy New $50.00 (as of 01:10 EST - Details)
Even though President Trump’s promises to end wars and question expensive alliances were quite popular with the electorate, in the view of many in the national security establishment, elections do not bestow constitutional legitimacy. They assume instead that their “ideals” and belligerent foreign policy represent the true animating principles and governing force of the nation. To question them is tantamount to an “attack” on America “from within.”
While the rank-and-file military are among the most patriotic of Americans and show unwavering support for the Constitution, there is a huge class of elite national security bureaucrats who, whatever they may say on ceremonial occasions, believe they are above the Constitution.
Wait a minute, you say, this is hyperbole. The Constitution provides for civilian control of the military and other national security institutions. The problem is that in practice the Constitution does no such thing. As Samuel Huntington pointed out, the constitutional oversight of the military establishment by elected civilians is fractured, non-linear, and tenuous. The president is commander-in-chief, a title more than a function, and Congress controls the purse strings, the power to declare war, and the confirmation of senior national security nominees. The National Guard reports to presidents and governors. Anyone watching a general, admiral, or CIA director testify before Congress is aware that the national security establishment has more than one boss. Who in the civilian government is ultimately in control? Everyone and no one.