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Sunday, June 17, 2007

Bacevich on JCS...

This morning's Boston Globe "Ideas" section (always a good read) leads with a piece by Andrew J. Bacevich on the need to reform -- or, better yet, get rid of -- the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). It is, he argues, a failed institution that is beyond salvation.

Bacevich -- whose credentials to discuss this topic are professionally, academically (see here and here and here) and personally well established -- is focused on this particular institution, but what we have here is part of a more significant problematic: the unitary executive theory (UET). Bacevich contends that the failure of the JCS is partly due to design flaws that have not been resolvable via reform, and in part due to the mediocrity of those who rise to the level of JCS chair. (He does note Chairman Colin Powell to be the major exception, but his "success" in the position was a major reason for the mediocrity that has followed....) I think it pretty clear that the institutional context of the unitary executive theory is a more critical factor, for it defines and drives the logic of accountability and responsibility for the JCS and other agencies that were designed to have some degree of autonomy and detachment from the White House.

Since the Bush Administration has taken UET to a level well beyond those of previous administrations, it is all too easy to fall into the trap that the situation will improve on January 20, 2009. But the UET is not a manifestation of partisan differences -- it has been as strongly supported by scholars on the liberal left (see here for JSTOR-access article by Lawrence Lessig and Cass Sunstein) as defended by neocons (e.g. John Yoo). The popular consensus the UET is a necessary aspect of the modern US administrative state has been impossible to break, and the logic of American politics does not make one hopeful for a change in the near or long term future (imagine a presidential candidate running on a platform of "I will do less and defer to Congress more!"; the last president to take that position explicitly, I believe, was Grover Cleveland). But as long as UET dominates our "governmentality", none of the changes advocated for the JCS or other parts of our national security complex (Bacevich advocates advisers drawn from retired military officers) will work.

Central to the problem is a view of accountability that relies on hierarchical governance models that have been central to popular administrative thought in the US for well over a century, and even longer if you broaden your perspective to the modern state. But let's not get into that here -- a post should not be book length....


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