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Congress and the Politics of National Security

Congress and the Politics of National Security, edited by David P. Auerwald and Colton C. Campbell. Cambridge University Press, 2012, 265 pp.

In Congress and the Politics of National Security, US National War College professors David Auerwald and Colton Campbell assemble an impressive group of scholars who examine the effect of Congress on national security issues via its interface with federal agencies and reactions to domestic political concerns. As the editors point out, this volume fills a niche in national security literature addressing the role of Congress in national security policy in a twenty-first-century security environment that is very different from those of the past (p. 12). They posit that congressional authority and responsibility for national security must be accompanied by an ability and willingness to act if any substantive reform of the US national security system is to be successful. The study also addresses whether Congress is “adequately organized to deal with national security issues” and the idea that Congress lacks the will to act during military operations, an important concept after 10 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan (pp. 4–5).

The first part of the book is historical, providing the editors’ view that the willingness of Congress to take a role in security policy has often been tempered by its ability to do so. This is followed by examples of congressional and executive sparing over national security issues, using the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon as a historical dividing line. The preattack chapter by Robert Johnson points to a government throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century which was rife with partisan politics and ideological polarization (p. 21). This allowed Congress to use foreign policy power given by the constitution, such as ratification of treaties and regulation of trade, to limit presidential ambition for expansion during the 1800s and international intervention in the 1900s. The postattack chapter’s subtitle, “Partisan Polarization and Effective Oversight,” provides foreshadowing of the authors’ bias. This chapter focuses on attempts to organize Congress and its committees for the changed national security environment. It is an effective transition from the previous chapter addressing partisanship to the next four that address specific areas of national security presenting oversight challenges.

The four chapters on oversight challenges—defense, homeland security, intelligence, and foreign aid—effectively argue that Congress is, or could be, involved in a very diverse and complex set of issues as it executes oversight of national security policy and programs. Fragmentation is the theme of Timothy Balunis and William Hemphill’s chapter on homeland security but also can be found in the discussions of the other national security policy areas. As a group, the chapters in the second part clearly and persuasively identify how fragmented congressional involvement and oversight over national security have become, and will probably continue to be, given the growing complexity of the international environment and ongoing budget cuts in national security programs. What they fail to do is provide any insight into how Congress should be convinced to reform itself to facilitate more-effective oversight. The discussions about attempts to reform congressional committees and their jurisdictions are reminiscent of those about efforts to develop the National Security Act of 1947 found in Amy Zegart’s Flawed by Design.

The final three chapters examine specific policy issues—enemy combatant detainees, arms control, and national security surveillance— important to the contemporary national security debate. Each explains the intricacies of the congressional/executive relationship relevant to its topic, but the chapters seem to lack a centralizing theme tying them together as fragmentation did in the prior section. While congressional/executive interaction attempts to fill that role, it does not quite rise to the challenge. These chapters also seem less tied to the broader argument of the book.

David Auerswald’s chapter on arms control argues that “the Senate has regularly and increasingly exercised authority over national security policy using the treaty advice and consent process” (p. 189) and concludes that “policy making via advice and consent will continue to have an important impact on U.S. foreign policy” (p. 212). While New START provided an extremely informative illustration of its use relative to treaties, a broader look including confirmation of officials might have made a stronger argument about congressional power inherent in advice and consent. (While post-publication, the 2013 confirmation processes for secretary of defense nominee Chuck Hagel and Central Intelligence Agency nominee John Brennan illustrate this point.)

Louis Fisher’s chapter on national security surveillance is a very interesting and thought-provoking presentation of this current policy dilemma but seems somewhat out of place in this volume. It addresses one small slice of the broader intelligence process which was wonderfully addressed by Loch Johnson in the prior section and, in contrast to most of the other chapters, concentrates on actions of the executive branch and subsequent legislative responses, or lack thereof, rather than congressional action as the primary topic.

The volume admirably covers legislative and executive push and pull over the national security issues. However, it suffers from a lack of attention to the influence of the third branch of government. An overarching concept throughout the volume is that Congress’ role in national security is one of oversight through law. There are references to the judicial branch’s role in mediating differences between the executive and legislative, but the relationship with the courts could have been more consistently addressed. For example, Robert Johnson brings up the idea that the Supreme Court identified a clear distinction between the powers of the legislative and the executive when it comes to domestic matters and international affairs (p. 31). This distinction is not emphasized in later chapters, despite its importance in the post–World Trade Center attack national security environment with its questions about homeland defense structure and control, where and how to try combatant and noncombatant detainees, and surveillance of US citizens at home and abroad.

While some chapters are extremely dense and appeal only to academics, this volume overall is very understandable and approachable. I recommend it to military officers and NCOs who need or desire to develop a better understanding of the congressional role in national security decision making or individuals who want to develop a greater appreciation of the politics behind a specific issue or policy area. A professional military education course director covering those issues or areas in a course would probably find great value in the individual chapters.

Col Robert J. Smith, USAF 

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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