History, Military History, Politics, Uncategorized

The Praetorian Guard, the U.S. Intelligence Community, and Michael Flynn: Dangerous Precedents

The Praetorian GuardOn the first day of my Ancient and Medieval Civilizations class, I always ask my students why we study history. One of them always replies that if we don’t learn from history, we will be doomed to repeat it.

I think this is true. I also think that we as a people never learn from history.

The early weeks of the Trump administration brought up an interesting case in point. President Donald Trump’s National Security Director, Michael T. Flynn, was forced to resign after someone in the intelligence community intercepted and leaked to the media a recording of a conversation between Flynn and Russian ambassador Sergey I. Kislyak, in which Flynn seemed to suggest that relief of U.S. sanctions against Russia was possible under Trump.

Many in the media hailed the leaker as a hero who’d exposed an alleged violation of the 1799 Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens from engaging in diplomacy. After all, Flynn wasn’t appointed National Security Director until a few weeks after the conversation with Kislyak.

Not everyone, though, viewed this development in a positive light. Nor was it only Trump supporters and fellow Republicans who expressed concerns about the wiretapping and leaks. Former Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who is perhaps best known for his attempts to impeach President George W. Bush in 2008, gave an interview in which he strongly condemned the actions of the mysterious leaker and warned of the secret power plays at work in the CIA. “The American people,” Kucinich said, “have to know that there’s a game going on inside the intelligence community where there are those who want to separate the U.S. from Russia in a way that would reignite the Cold War. That’s what’s at the bottom of all this.” He also mentioned that “what’s going on in the intelligence community with this new President is unprecedented. They’re making every effort to upend him.”

Whether they like Trump or hate him, I think all U.S. citizens should be troubled to learn of unknown and unelected bureaucrats working covertly to sabotage a presidential administration. We are not the first civilization to tread over this dangerous ground.

For much of its early history, the city of Rome did not tolerate armed troops within its official boundaries. Returning armies marching through the city in victory processions had to leave their weapons outside the city limits. The presence of armed troops within the city was viewed as too great a danger to the freedoms of Rome’s citizens.

This policy changed with the rise of Caesar Augustus and the emperors who followed in his footsteps. Augustus, arguing that he needed bodyguards, allowed armed troops into the city in the form of his elite Praetorian Guard. As the years passed, the Praetorian Guard grew more influential and more accustomed to protecting its own interests. It eventually became so powerful that it was able to depose emperors and proclaim new ones.

Over the centuries that followed Augustus’s reign, a total of thirteen Roman emperors died at the hands of those who were supposed to be their bodyguards. It’s true that many of these rulers were evil or incompetent or both, but the Praetorian Guard wasn’t just looking out for the good of Rome. It had a vested interest in ensuring that there would always be an emperor in need of its protection. Thus, after the Praetorians murdered the vicious emperor, Caligula, they moved quickly to thwart the plans of the senators for restoring the Roman Republic by declaring Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, the new emperor. By doing so, they ensured that they would maintain their position of power within the Roman government.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Trump or any future President is going to get assassinated by the CIA or any other government agency. But I am questioning how comfortable we should be with unelected bureaucrats pulling strings and calling the shots from the shadows, especially when those bureaucrats belong to an agency known around the world for its role in regime changes.

In the United States we have a Constitution with a system of checks and balances in place to prevent any branch of the government from becoming too powerful. If a President (or one of his subordinates) does something illegal, he needs to answer to the people’s representatives in Congress. That’s how our system is supposed to work. While it might be easier to let the intelligence services take care of the problem, it’s also far more dangerous.

 

Nicholas Kaminsky

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Foreign Policy, History, Military History, Politics

Andrew Bacevich on the Secularization of U.S. Foreign Policy

americas-war-for-the-greater-middle-eastThese two paragraphs from Andrew Bacevich’s book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East, expose a very difficult truth the U.S. needs to take seriously.

Bacevich says,

“But among those paid to think about strategy, soldiers and civilians alike, history and religion counted for little. In the wake of World War II, in large part due to the primacy assigned to nuclear issues, economists, mathematicians, political scientists, and specialists in game theory had come to exercise an outsized influence on framing the debate over basic national security policy. On matter where so little history existed, historians seemingly had little to offer and could therefore safely be ignored. As for theologians, with rare exceptions, they were excluded altogether. National security policy was a thoroughly secular enterprise.

For Generals Kingston, Crist, and Schwarzkopf to incorporate history or religion into their thinking alongside geography or the prospective enemy’s order of battle would have required an enormous leap of creative imagination. At CENTCOM headquarters, such imagination was – and would remain – in short supply.”

I would argue that it is largely due to the secularization of our foreign policy that we are completely unable to come to grips with how to deal with Islamic countries (many of which should be our allies), Islamic terror organizations, and the broader Middle Eastern region. Secularism has created massive blind spots when dealing with these deeply religions cultures, and I see very little hope for improvement in the future.

 

– Lucas G. Westman

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Foreign Policy, History, Military History, Politics

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates – “On War”

Robert Gates DutyThis passage is taken from the section of Robert Gates’s memoir titled, “On War”:

“Usually we don’t get to choose and almost never accurately predict the kind of war we will fight next. I am always amused when I hear a senior military officer or a politician declare that we will never fight certain kinds of wars again. After Vietnam, our defense “experts” avowed we would never again try to fight an insurgency, yet we have done so in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We are hearing the same claim now. Those who assert we will fight only certain kinds of wars in the future forget history and the reality that our enemies, as I’ve said, always have a vote, as do future presidents. In the forty years since Vietnam, our record in predicting where we will be militarily engaged next, even six months out, is perfect: we have never once gotten it right, not in Grenada, Haiti, Panama, Libya (twice), Iraq (twice), Afghanistan, the Balkans, or Somalia. When it comes to predicting future conflicts, what kind of fights they will be, and what will be needed, we need a lot more humility.

Wars are a lot easier to get into than out of, a point I hope I have made clear. Those who ask about exit strategies or what happens if assumptions prove wrong are rarely welcome at the conference table when the fire-breathers argue we must act militarily – as they did when advocating an invasion of Iraq, intervening in Libya and Syria, or bombing Iranian nuclear sites. The argument against military action is almost never about capabilities but whether it is wise. As Petraeus said early on in Iraq, “Tell me how this ends.” Too often the question is not even asked, much less answered.

My time as secretary of defense reinforced my belief that in recent decades, American presidents, confronted with a tough problem abroad, have too often been quick to reach for a gun – to use military force, despite all the realities I have been describing. They could have done worse than to follow the example of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. During his presidency, the Soviet Union became a thermonuclear power, China became a nuclear power, and there were calls for preventive nuclear war against both; the Joint Chiefs unanimously recommended that he use nuclear weapons to help the French in Vietnam; there were several crises with China related to Taiwan; a war in the Middle East; a revolution in Cuba; and uprisings in East Germany, Poland, and Hungary. And yet after Eisenhower agreed to the armistice in Korea in the summer of 1953, not one American soldier was killed in action during his presidency.

Too many ideologues call for the use of the American military as the first option rather than a last resort to address problems. On the left, we hear about the “responsibility to protect” as a justification for military intervention in Libya, Syria, the Sudan, and elsewhere. On the right, the failure to use military force in Libya, Syria, or Iraq is deemed an abdication of American leadership and a symptom of a “soft” foreign policy. Obama’s “pivot” to Asia was framed almost entirely in military terms as opposed to economic and political priorities. And so the rest of the world sees America, above all else, as a militaristic country too quick to launch planes, cruise missiles, and armed drones deep into sovereign countries or ungoverned spaces.

I strongly believe America must continue to fulfill its global responsibilities. We are the “indispensable nation,” and few international problems can be addressed successfully without our leadership. But we also need to better appreciate that there are limits to what the United States – still by far the strongest and greatest nation on earth – can do in an often cruel and challenging world. The power of our military’s global reach has been an indispensable contributor to peace and stability in many regions and must remain so. But not every outrage, every act of aggression, every oppression, or every crisis can or should elicit an American military response.” (Pg. 590, 591)

 

– Lucas G. Westman

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