Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Institutional Bias towards more war

A couple of weeks ago, I was riffing off of James Joyner and John Robb on the high probability that the political-public feedback loop that guides US decision making on making war and continuing wards is broken. A determined minority within a Madisonion status-quo seeking system, a feckless new marginal majority and self-segrating populations with distinctly different empirical realities will cement a bad decision with localized pockets of support into long term policy.

Jack Balkin is also riffing on this proposition and he looks at the institutional frameworks of the national security state that further cement the current incentive structure towards more war, especially under domestically unaccomplished Presidents:

The sad lesson of the past year is that the modern Presidency-- armed with control over military intelligence and a large standing army-- can have its way in matters of war even if the President's policies are very unpopular, and there is very little Congress can do to stop it....

We are moving, or more correctly, we have already moved, toward a system of one person rule on matters of war and peace. It is a very dangerous tendency in American constitutionalism.... The Iraq war demonstrates that, in the context of modern politics and contemporary security threats, the framers' original system of checks and balances has utterly failed us.

I think campaigns for 'more and better Democrats' is a political solution that Madison would applaud, but even if this type of campaign is successful, the long and very unpredictable lag between public rejection of the most salient policy and political action is strong. The projected war with Iran will also be a counter-majoritarian war pushed by a small and determined clique that is unconstrained by normal institutioanl and political processes. The structural incentives for bad decision making within the political-media constraints seem to me to be very real and pressing.

Some of these problems are the classic agent-principal problem in that the actors are able to personally privatize the 'profit' (political, economic, prestige etc.) while spreading the costs to a much larger and diffuse group of stakeholders. And other problems are those of a garbage in-garbage out information loop in which people who should benefit from opposing dumb ideas are receiving signals indicating that supporting dumb and counter-productive ideas is a net positive benefit. Glenn Greenwald deconstructs this feedback loop from the elite D.C. press today to good effect.

So what can be done to improve the decision making capacity and responsiveness of US political institutions? Over the short term not a whole lot, and a long term project of intense and explicit Constitutional revision going either towards a Parliamentary/Prime Minister model, or significant restrictions on explicit and implicit presidential powers is unlikely. An intermediate term solution is to remove some of the supply-side incentive to overuse military force: reduce the readily available expeditionary combat power.

If after the US significantly withdraws from Iraq, moving the vast majority of the US Army heavy combat maneuver units from the active duty forces to the National Guard would significantly temper the willingngess of Presidents to order active duty build-ups. If you need to hold the active duty manpower of the US Army relatively constant, shift the current composition of the army from roughly 50% heavy, 50% medium or light brigades to 10-15% heavy (the Korea contigency) and 85% light or medium by shifting some of the lighter Guard brigades to the Active Duty force. Do the same with the support services; move more MPs, Engineers, Civil Affairs units into the active duty forces and shift even more artillery, attack helicopter units and air defense artillery into the Reserves.

This shift would make it so that the only way to start a major offensive war is to put National Guard units in the spearhead. The lighter and strategically more deployable active duty forces would be more than sufficient to respond to operationally defensive missions such as protecting US allies' territorial integrity and it should force a longer debate on deploying heavy forces for offensive operations instead of allowing the President to control the national security agenda and through executive power alone create a fait accompli.

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