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On doing stupid things

You, me, the President, and the NSC

January 2007

Abstract:
The doing of stupid things is normal in humans.  Which is why we should be more accepting of them in private persons, and much more on guard against them in our national leadership.  The National Security Council is the President's stupidity control valve in foreign affairs, but it has totally failed.
I, like you, have done a lot of stupid things.  I'm OK with that because it marks me, and you, as a bona fide member of the human species, something that one perhaps still can take some pride in.  (We note parenthetically that most other species rarely do stupid things.  It truly is a human trait.)

There's no shame in occasionally doing something stupid, and we ought not to hold it against a person as long as the act is honest.  The media routinely delight in showing us prominent persons confessing to some really dumb act in their past.  And we delight in showering the sinner with shame.  But our attitude ought to be different.  Our genes and our hormones ensure that we'll do really dumb things from time to time   Moments of confusion, insecurity, and bad decision-making are a human trait that we all occasionally lapse into, and we just need to accept this.  It's not a flaw, it's just a fact of life.  We should react to each other's stupid moments, not with blame or mockery or a slap, but with understanding and a helping hand, recognizing that we're likely to be next.  No one is immune from doing stupid things, not even political leaders.  And therein lies a challenge.

Kings and presidents are just as inclined to do really stupid things as the rest of us.  That is why, for a thousand years, kings and presidents have operated with councils of advisors;  the idea being that not all the advisors are likely to embrace a given stupid notion at the same time.  Not a bad idea, in principle.  Unless, of course, the leader hires and fires the advisors himself (or herself, naturally), whose powerful positions therefore depend on giving the kind of advice that the leader likes to hear.  And there's nothing a leader of the people likes to hear more than agreement with his own very wise thoughts. 

A recent example is the U.S. military invasion of Iraq in 2003.  That was of course monumentally stupid, and equally tragic in its consequence.  It was, specifically, a breakdown of the system we have erected to try to protect ourselves against just such tragic gaffes.  Of course it's popular to blame Mr.Bush for this disaster, but that would be missing the point.  Mr.Bush is a relatively normal human being, and can therefore be expected to come up with some really stupid ideas from time to time, just like anyone else.  Which - just as with medieval kings - is the reason that the President has councils of advisors to prevent those of his ideas that prove to be really dumb from being put into practice.  The relevant council in this case is the National Security Council, created by Congress in 1947.

The NSC is the chief statutory body advising the President on foreign policy and security matters.  Its function, according to the National Security Act of 1947, "shall be to advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security".  More specifically, "(1) to assess and appraise the objectives, commitments, and risks of the United States in relation to our actual and potential military power, in the interest of national security, for the purpose of making recommendations to the President in connection therewith; and (2) to consider policies on matters of common interest to the departments and agencies of the Government concerned with the national security, and to make recommendations to the President in connection therewith."  The membership of the NSC is not strictly set by law (some members - the VP, the secretaries of State and Defense - are included by statute), so the President may include whom he wishes on the Council.  In 1949 Congress made the mistake of moving the Council within the Executive Office of the President.

The result is that the NSC is made up of the President's men and women.  As a check on bad ideas from the President it is evidently designed to fail.  There is no member of the Council (except the Vice President) whom the President has not appointed and whom he cannot discharge at will.  In short, the NSC members all depend on the President's pleasure to continue in their high-status positions.  What should we think about this arrangement?  Is this the best we can do in the way of Presidential gaffe-control?  To depend on a council of the President's yes-(wo)men?  This situation is completely bizarre.  It's like Alice in Wonderland:  The councelors to the King - that is, the President - on matters of war and peace are all beholden to the benefactor whom they are expected to advise.

The status quo is here so clearly unacceptable that Congress must amend the National Security Act to change the NSC from a cozy colloquy of the President's pals to a group with the diversity, independence, and background to nay-say when nay-saying is called for, and even to administer the President a verbal spanking when needed.  We sometimes seem to forget that the President is not a king;  he is an ordinary citizen whom we've hired to serve a temporary stint in a responsible post.  Like any such employee, he requires oversight and scrutiny, not by people he himself can hire and fire, but by people who meet him on an equal basis, whose loyalty is not to him but to the mission.  The President must not be beyond challenge, since we know that he will otherwise be allowed to do some really stupid things, because he's just like the rest of us.

So what was the Iraq war?  A case of temporary stupidity by Mr.Bush?  Sure, but equally much by all of us.  How could we have been so stupid as to depend on the "President's men" to exercise stupidity control over the President?  Clearly, in retrospect, we should have required the President to consult with advisors that represent various views of the world, not just those who echo his own views.  I won't presume to tell Congress how it should revise the National Security Council, but it should certainly include members appointed by a power other than the President, probably by Congress itself.  And it needs to be removed from the Office of the President.

Is this urgent?  The same NSC that thought it a good idea to invade Iraq is now advising the President on Iran and Korea and China and Palestine and Somalia and Russia and ... 
Is it urgent?  Lose no time in contacting your Senator.

© 2007 H. Paul Lillebo

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