Thursday, February 23, 2006

A Co-Equal Branch

Karl von Clausewitz was a Prussian general who lived from the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. He held many important positions in the Prussian military, from aide-de-camp, to chief of staff, ending his career as a major general. While von Clausewitz participated in many important battles, he is best known for his military treatise On War. The Prussian general famously wrote that "War is the continuation of politics by other means;" herein is the lesson.

One of the great cliches of the post-Vietnam era in American politics is that when the U.S. military is in conflict, it must be supported wholeheartedly. Were I a betting man, I'd have no problem wagering my life savings on the proposition that every member of congress has made some statement to this effect. In one sense, I have to agree with them: if you're going to vote to send military forces into battle, you ought to be prepared to make the necessary sacrifices to make that battle successful. However, the belief that inquiry and investigation into military policy is somehow unpatriotic reveals just how neutered the once-proud people's branch has become.

If one accepts von Clausewitz' notion that war is politics using other means, why ought the politicians abdicate their responsibilities to participate in this process? A general from one of the most war-oriented states since Sparta ought to be a relatively good source for understanding warfare's implications. That isn't to say that Joe Q. Representative should be calling special-ops command demanding that they change their priorities, but blind acceptance of the requests and strategies of military leaders is a dangerous notion. Political leaders from the legislative branch have a duty to look toward military policy with a critical eye. The question then is why they fail to do so.

Congress does not exactly have a reputation for benevolent power sharing. If there is power to be had, and Congress has the means, you can count on them aquiring it. Why then do so many members, Republican and Democrat alike, blindly accept that once at war, questioning military leaders is inappropriate? The answer is an old one, the military industrial complex. No less a general and leader than Dwight Eisenhower warned us about it nearly fifty years ago. It was a concern great enough for him to mention in his last message to the American people, and it has certainly not abated.

The story is all too familiar, defense officials moving to positions as defense contractors, defense contractors appointed as defense officials. It is an incestuous world that few have access to. A cursory glance at the campaign finance reports of members who sit on the defense subcommittees of both the senate and house appropriations committees bears out the influence of the defense industry.

I doubt none of this is new to anyone, which is quite sad. It's a reality we seem to have resigned ourselves to. The solutions to these problems are difficult: campaign finance reform combined with competitive house districts to weaken the advantages of incumbency. A new attitude about war as a sign not of our national might, but the failure of our power to work with other countries.

War is politics. The men and women we elect have a substantive role in it. That role ought to reflect a diversity of constituent opinions to include those defense contractors who employ thousands, but more importantly reflect the views of those who don't stand to profit, and the feelings of those who might have to risk their lives.

The legislature is a co-equal branch and it's time they began to act like it.

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