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The Radical Presidency—A Commentary by Bruce Ackerman ’67

The following commentary was posted on ForeignPolicy.com on September 15, 2010.

The Radical Presidency
By Bruce Ackerman ’67

After America's century-long rise to world hegemony, the presidency is a vastly different institution than it was in the days of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. The next few decades will be equally transformative, but in ways that will cause great difficulty for the sober formulation of U.S. foreign policy.

A series of political, bureaucratic, and military developments threaten to make the presidency into a platform for charismatic extremism and abrupt swings in foreign policy. Barack Obama's centrism and constitutionalism may disguise their significance in the short term. But this should not lead the president to ignore the long-term dangers. He should use his time in office to support reforms that will ameliorate, if not cure, underlying pathologies -- lest a Sarah Palin, or her mirror image on the left, someday come to power and use the presidency as an engine of destructive radicalism.

Let's begin with the presidential primary system. Before 1972, when our current system was adopted, party chieftains steered the nomination to figures who would maximize their appeal to the political center. But the new rules shifted the balance in the direction of extremism -- away from the median voter in the general election, toward the median voter in the primary or caucus. With turnouts low, mobilizing the base is now often a recipe for winning the nomination.

This tendency toward extremism is heightened by the increasingly polarized character of the voting public: The Democratic base is becoming strongly isolationist; the Republican, emphatically militarist. Successful nominees have little choice but to pander to their base during the primary campaign. Once they win the White House, they may move toward the internationalist center. But then again, they may not -- generating a foreign policy that gyrates from extreme to extreme with each electoral cycle.

At this point, a second institutional development intervenes: Presidents now surround themselves with a White House staff of super-loyalists -- numbering more than 500 in recent years. This is a modern development. It was only in 1939 that Franklin D. Roosevelt won the right to name six "presidential assistants" to serve on his staff. Until then, the president governed through his cabinet, relying only on occasional advisors loaned to him by one or another department.

Since FDR, the concentration of power in the White House has only accelerated. Although the president appoints his leading staffers unilaterally, his nominations to key positions in the State and Defense departments require confirmation by the Senate -- where they are notoriously subject to sometimes-infinite delay by a single senator. Between 1979 and 2003, Senate-confirmed positions were, on average, vacant 25 percent of the time. As the Senate finally fills empty jobs, others open up, continually undermining the team effort required for the smooth operation of cabinet departments.

In contrast, the president can easily replace burned-out White House staffers with new cadres of ambitious up-and-comers. Although new recruits will be closely vetted for political loyalty, they may not take seriously the advice of long-time government experts who don't have easy access to the West Wing. This is a recipe for policymaking that is strong on presidential "vision" at the expense of real-world experience or a sense of enduring national commitments.

A third institutional transformation may counterbalance these shifting presidentialist enthusiasms, but at a very high price. As civilian policymakers come and go, the military leadership demonstrates greater staying power -- and it has been remarkably successful in colonizing positions previously reserved for civilians over the past generation.

Before 1980, national security advisors were foreign-policy intellectuals like McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow, Henry Kissinger, and Zbigniew Brzezinski -- men who often eclipsed their secretaries of state during the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter. The only exception was retired Air Force Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who served as advisor to Gerald Ford while Henry Kissinger was dominating the field as secretary of state.

Things changed under Ronald Reagan. After running through two undistinguished civilian advisors in three years, the president made a fateful turn to the military -- choosing Col. Robert "Bud" McFarlane, followed by Vice Adm. John Poindexter. Despite the Iran-Contra scandal, Reagan and his successor George H.W. Bush continued the new practice with the appointments of Colin Powell and a repeat performance by Scowcroft. Neither could provide the intellectual firepower of a Kissinger or Brzezinski, but they did well enough to blot out the disastrous precedents left by McFarlane and Poindexter, making the position ripe for further military colonization at later moments. When Barack Obama named the former commandant of the Marine Corps, James Jones, to serve as his national security advisor, nobody seriously questioned the propriety of his choice. This top National Security Council post is no longer a job that is specially reserved for a civilian.

The military is gaining a foothold in other key positions. Consider the new directorship of national intelligence, charged with coordinating the entire surveillance effort. George W. Bush's first choice was a civilian, but he has been followed by three retired military men.

The active-duty high command is also carving out a much more aggressive political role. During the first generation after World War II, the Joint Chiefs of Staff did not have the capacity to present a united front to its civilian bosses. It was a forum for intense inter-service rivalry, with each chief fiercely promoting his service's distinctive interests and weapon systems. But the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 changed all that, transforming the chairman of the Joint Chiefs into a political actor who could speak for the military as a whole. Colin Powell quickly exploited this new opportunity. As chairman under George H.W. Bush, he took the unprecedented step of formulating his own Powell Doctrine on the use of military force -- and then backed it up by writing a New York Times op-ed during the 1992 campaign, lecturing Bill Clinton on his foreign-policy responsibilities. Subsequent chairmen have, in one way or another, followed Powell's example of operating as political spokesmen.

In contrast, career State Department types play a diminishing role in White House deliberations. All this adds up to a fundamental imbalance. While civilian loyalists in the White House come and go, top military leaders have greater political influence, even after they leave active service. Although each president will bring his own enthusiasms (and enthusiasts) to the world stage, the larger policy establishment increasingly emphasizes the military over civilian aspects of the national interest.

So what's the big picture? Over the long haul, we can expect U.S. foreign policy to exhibit outbursts of extremism that swing in opposite directions but are sequentially taken up with partisan zeal by White House loyalists in a fashion that emphasizes the narrowly military aspects of the problem. Not a pretty picture, especially for a country in decline. If a rising superpower exhibits such erratic behavior, other nations may go along, fearing that open opposition will lead to even harsher sanctions. But when a superpower is in decline, its unreliability will spur rising powers to search for more reliable partners. Which leads to the obvious question: Can anything be done to fix the presidency's multiple pathologies before it is too late?

I explore this question systematically in a recent book, but one thing is clear: America won't get anywhere without a far broader recognition of the severity of current pathologies. For example, the recent McChrystal affair -- in which Obama's Afghanistan field commander and staff made outrageous comments about civilian leaders -- should not be dismissed as a passing indiscretion by a naïve general, but as a symptom of dangerous changes in civilian-military relations. Understanding the depth and scope of the problem is the first step toward proposing long-term, structural solutions.

The United States is very far from such a debate today -- and meanwhile the electoral clock keeps ticking. Who knows when an extremist will be speaking to the nation from the Oval Office?

Bruce Ackerman is Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale University and author, most recently, of The Decline and Fall of the American Republic.