Proliferation Press

A webpage devoted to tracking and analyzing current events related to the proliferation of WMD/CBRN.

Can American Foreign Policy Overcome the Bully Pulpit? Cavanaugh’s Diagnosis and Cure for “Threat Escalation”

Posted by K.E. White on January 30, 2008

Summary: How do follies like Iraq occur? Can they be avoided? Cavanaugh attempts to answer this question: breaking down the variables that lead to threat escalation. He also explores how threats can be underestimated, examining the failure to prevent the 9-11 attacks. Cavanaugh thus identifies how a charged executive can steer American foreign policy toward inflated threats—or away from legitimate threats. The solution to foreign policy follies? A greater role for Congress in US foreign policy. While his article suffers from selection bias and uncertainty clouds what actually determines foreign policy ‘success’, Cavanaugh’s article is still a must-read for anyone curious about US foreign policy.

 

The Political Science Quarterly (PSQ) offers a very interesting—and free—article examining “threat inflation” American foreign policy.

Why was the avoidable catastrophe of 9-11 not caught? And why was the nation cajoled into a second Iraq conflict that most now agree went against American security interests?

Jeffery M. Cavanaugh seeks to answer these dual questions of overreaction and under reaction—a.k.a. “threat inflation”. And he finds that there are several examples from recent American history to explore this concept.

Cavanaugh looks at three cases of successful threat inflation: President Harry Truman’s successful inflation of the Soviet threat, America’s Vietnam venture and the second Iraq war. He then probes a counter-case: the profound underestimation that culminated in 9-11.

All this might leave you wondering: Is American foreign policy ever rational?

Lessons from Truman, Vietnam and Iraq

Cavanaugh’s analysis moves past Bush blaming, instead seeking to find similarities between different cases threat inflation. Below is a table (reproduced from the article) that displays Cavanaugh’s four test cases and the variables that tie them together.

In regards to Korea, Cavanaugh argues that while Truman played up the Soviet threat, events came to verify his viewpoint and the American public and political classes rallied behind containment. Thus this can be called a ‘successful’ case of threat inflation: a President pushed the public to his view, but as events played out a bipartisan foreign policy was forged.

Vietnam and Iraq were both weaker cases of threat inflation: both succeeded in there immediate aims to wage war, but appear to have broken—not forged—a coherent direction in America’s foreign policy.

Meanwhile the threat of a terrorist attack on American soil never received the attention it deserved. Here one finds two crucial differences: divided elite opinion and a complete lack of bureaucratic capture as reasons for this failure. Such features would have stopped even a proactive executive—or any national politician—from successfully tackling this threat, according to Cavanaugh.

All these cases point to a profound American political weakness: the President holds too much power to frame and propel the national security debate, showing at times the ability to deceive the American public.

Cavanaugh rightly points out the chronic weakness of Congress on national security—having diluted it wartime authority over the sixty years. (This theme has been explored elsewhere,  as  this past article demonstrates).

Conceptualizing and Testing American Foreign Policy

But what differ Cavanaugh’s analysis is this: He attempts to identify the variables that lead to such outcomes. Cavanaugh also offers new solutions to bring the Congress and the executive back into balance.

But are the variables he examines helpful towards future foreign policy dilemmas? Many of his variables can only be obtained after an event. This diminishes the predictability value of his model–making any ‘test’ of his model difficult.

This comes through most clearly with his use of Truman Cold War foreign policy. Tackling such a huge subject—with various events—seems to make this not comparable to the defined cases of Vietnam, Iraq and the 9-11 attack.

Would not have merely investigating how Truman pulled America into Korea—which some academics consider also an avoidable war–been a better test case to explore?

(There’s also one obvious problem with the cases: Can one can fairly compare a traditional war to a highly lethal terrorist attack?)

But this is all part of a much bigger question: How does one define foreign policy success? By the immediate outcome (i.e. victory in Korea, failure in Vietnam)? Or the long term impact regardless of whether  or not the initial threat was overblown?

For example: It seems clear the short-term costs of the Korean War (verses a containment approach) outweighed any strategic interest the United States had in North Korea. But did not the long-terms benefits of this expenditure of blood and treasure pay make this a successful instance of American foreign policy?

In continuing this line of research, Cavanaugh must develop a model that proves the value of his test cases—and whether or not they should be seen as American foreign policy ‘successes’ or ‘failures’. (And another, perhaps even more daunting task, would be to incorporate the interplay between conflicts: e.g. the impact the Korean War had on America’s conflict in Vietnam.)

This conceptual fog risks boiling Cavanaugh’s research down to this: presidents have overcharged wartime authority, whereas Congress has far too diluted powers. Thus good or bad foreign policy comes down to having a good or bad President–unless Congressional powers are reworked. (One does not need Cavanaugh’s test cases to prove this, though they do offer different angles to gauge Presidential manipulation).

But Cavanaugh deserves credit for attempting to answer 1) how are threats to American security articulated within or society and 2) what generalizable and predictive tests help us get closer to evaluating American foreign policy.

Cavanaugh’s Advice to Congress and America’s National Security Infrastructure

Cavanaugh does offer Congressional remedies: some bland, some bold. He repeats calls for both longer terms for intelligence heads and greater whistle-blowing protections.

More interesting—and controversial—are two of his Congressional reforms: First he advocates granting members of Congress briefings akin to the President’s daily brief on national security. (Naturally one could easily imagine Congress barraging the executive with their daily concerns over American security.)

But Cavanaugh gives a seemingly firmer fix. Congress should merge the Intelligence, Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees into one, bipartisan body.

Such a reform—going against decades of decentralization—would guarantee focused and board attention from the Senate and House of Representatives on America’s national security. The hope? Congress will take clear stands on important foreign policy decisions.

But this too runs into problems: Either the committee would be huge and unmanageable, or Congressman would have to give up chairmanships and committee tasks. This second outcome would not only be an ego blow to Congress, but could dilute specialization of Congressional oversight and also shrink the numbers of elected officials involved in our nation’s foreign policy formulation.

But Cavanaugh offers a template of reform that can easily be tinkered, and perhaps—in time—evolve into an institutional counterweight to an excessive executive. If one reworked Cavanaugh’s scheme into a select, joint Senate-House committee, tasked with both an annual review over American foreign policy and crisis periods (e.g. before launching an invasion or after catastrophic events) one could see—over time—this practice becoming a clear Congressional ‘green light’ to bold developments in American foreign policy.

In short, Cavanaugh’s reforms run into the ‘9-11 Wall’. Why did retired officials steer of the 9-11 investigation? While their work was exemplary, politicians and the media suggested current politicians could not be trusted with foreign policy heavy lifting.

Can members of the House of Representatives—in constant ‘reelection’ mode—give the time necessary for such weighty work?

(On Capitol Hill, by Julian E. Zelizer, goes into great detail about Congress’s many institutional flaws and difficulty to reform.)

A solution would be to keep such work within the Senate, while granting a rotating representative for House Speaker and minority leader.

Conclusion

Cavanaugh’s research does a skillful job of getting past chronic ‘Bush blaming’ for America’s failure in Iraq. He successfully delineates a model of executive foreign policy bullying that can be applied in different time periods and different conflicts.

He also pushes the ball on Congressional reform: proving their value and bringing forth new ideas.

But on the bigger questions of diagnosing American foreign policy and threat inflation, Cavanaugh has much further to go. Cavanaugh’s Truman example must be broken down if it is to be fairly weighted with Vietnam and Iraq. Furthermore he must refine he judges sucess, or risk that he is simply manipulating his test-cases to prove his model.

Cavanaugh’s article also does not thoroughly explore when and if foreign policy decisions can be reversed. Look at his Vietnam example: at what point was Vietnam a failure, and when would have an American pull out been politically acceptable?

But these criticisms are mainly ‘add on’ criticisms. As such, they reflect both the importance of Cavanaugh’s line of research and his skill in laying out a path—however rough—towards a greater understanding of American foreign policy.

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