Lawrence B. Wilkerson, chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, has an important op-ed in the LA Times this morning. The entire piece is well worth reading, but I will provide a few key excerpts:
I knew that what I was observing [in the preparations for the war in Iraq] was not what Congress intended when it passed the 1947 National Security Act. The law created the National Security Council â€” consisting of the president, vice president and the secretaries of State and Defense â€” to make sure the nation’s vital national security decisions were thoroughly vetted.
He later asks why we should care about such procedural niceties as outlined in the congressional statute creating and delegating authority to the NSC, noting rhetorically:
Isn’t it the president’s prerogative to make decisions with whomever he pleases? Moreover, can he not ignore whomever he pleases? Why should we care that President Bush gave over much of the critical decision-making to his vice president and his secretary of Defense?
His answer includes the following observation:
Discounting the professional experience available within the federal bureaucracy [...] makes for quick and painless decisions. But when government agencies are confronted with decisions in which they did not participate and with which they frequently disagree, their implementation of those decisions is fractured, uncoordinated and inefficient.
Yes, and one could go farther with this. Any time a President seeks to streamline policy-making by circumventing the complex procedures established by statute, that executive is circumventing the very system of checks and balances itself. Like it or not, our system of political and policy-making institutions is intended to frustrate executive power, because an executive that is not responsible to the legislature (as it is in a parliamentary system) creates an enormous risk of runaway power “not unlike the the decision-making one would associate more with a dictatorship than a democracy,” as Wilkerson says.
Wilkerson concludes with:
Given the choice, I’d choose a frustrating bureaucracy over an efficient cabal every time.
Indeed. An efficient bureaucracy would be nice, and no, that is not an oxymoron. But our system of governmentâ€”mainly, the separation of executive and legislative branchesâ€” does not lend itself to that. The 1947 National Security Act was actually an effort by Congress to make the process of policy-making in the area of national security more efficient, and yet presidents still frequently try to circumvent that process. But none as much as the current administration did in 2002-3.
Nowhere is the danger of a runaway executive greater than in war powers, which is why it is worth concluding with some important words from the birth of the republic:
In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people.
â€”James Madison, “Political Observations,” 1795