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October 16, 2005

National Security Contract With America
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

There's been talk in recent weeks about the need for progressives to devise their own version of Newt Gingrich's 1994 Contract with America.  Nancy Pelosi is apparently putting the finishing touches on such a document, and analysts including Robert L. Brosage at The Nation are proffering their own formulations.   Walter Cronkite has called for convening a mid-term Convention to ratify the ideas.  The bulk of any such proposal will deal with domestic policy, but here are nine ideas to get the ball rolling on what the foreign policy planks of such a contract could be.  When the Gingrich contract was issued within weeks of the 1994 mid-term elections, each provision was accompanied by draft legislation. 

1.  Truth in War Act - This law would require that before Congress could declare war (or shortly thereafter in exigent situations), the maximum possible disclosure of information be made to the American people concerning the grounds for military action and the challenges and risks of the proposed operation.  It could  be up to the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence to jointly certify that the requisite level of disclosure was made under the circumstances and the Senate could hold public hearings on their findings.

2.  Strengthening America's Military Act (aka Uncle S.A.M.) - This law would enlarge the active-duty military and the the Special Forces, and reduce reliance on over-taxed reservists, stop-loss orders and extended tours.  It would provide resources for DOD to develop recruitment, training, benefits and outplacement packages necessary to lure substantial additional recruits for active duty.  More details on each of these are contained in this CAP report.  CAP also identifies potential cuts to wasteful programs that could make expansion of the army revenue-neutral.

3.  Accountability in Contracting Act - This law would require that all private contracting for national security-related functions be based on open bidding, would create a dedicated GAO audit function to detect overcharges and abuses, and would impose stiff civil and criminal penalties for firms that willfully or negligently defraud the US government under national security related contracts.

4.  National Crisis Preparedness Act - This law would give the Department of Homeland Security six-months to develop comprehensive plans to deal with the most pressing domestic security threats - from dirty bombs to port security to pandemics - in every city and state in America, in order of priority.  Insofar as possible, portions of these plans would be made public so that Americans would know where to go and what to do in the event of a disaster. 

5.  Restoring America's Alliances Act - This law would create a bi-partisan Commission to review the state of every U.S. alliance (formal and informal), what we can get out of it and how we might strengthen it.   It would also consider and make recommendations on the need for new alliances - for example in South Asia - to respond to changing power relations.   Based on this, the Administration will be required to report quarterly to the Congress on their efforts to strengthen America's alliances.

6.    Quagmire Avoidance Act - This law would establish a set of conditions for America's continued involvement in Iraq including a plan to relieve overtaxed military resources, a strategy to increase international participation, an independent audit of the effort to train Iraq's military, and a commitment not to maintain permanent military bases in-country.   These conditions would form the basis for monthly reviews of the state of America's involvement in Iraq, with the Congress committed to accelerating the timetable for withdrawal if these conditions for success are not met.

7.   Nuclear Weapons Security Act - This law would require the Administration to increase its efforts to prevent nuclear weapons from falling into terrorist hands through measures including increased funding for threat reduction programs, more technical assistance for countries that participate, international standards for protecting weapons and facilities, and expedited removal of nuclear materials from vulnerable sites.  More on that here.

8.  Secure America for Our Children Act - This law would create a National Security Council function dedicated to assessing and preparing for long-term (5-50 years) threats.  Such threats might include the rise of a second superpower like China, pandemics, or nuclear accidents.  The Administration would be required to outline strategies for preparing and responding to each.  Periodic reports on these threats to Congressional oversight committees would help ensure that political considerations do not result in over or underestimating particular threats.

9.   Restoring the Beacon Act - This law would outlaw torture and other human rights violations by the US military, military interrogators and intelligence agents and would require that senior officials under whose watch such abuses occur be held accountable for them.  It would also expand the human rights and cultural training that all members of the military from Generals to prison guards receive before serving overseas.  It would aim to ensure that the U.S. is once again regarded as a beacon leading the way in the protection of individual rights and promotion of human dignity around the world.


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Before the snarks begin their critique, I just wanted to say that I'd vote for that party.


I realize your list is meant just to get the ball rolling, as you say. And most of these proposals are reasonable and admirable, as far as they go. But they are a bit too wonky and process oriented to form the heart of a progressive global policy agenda. If progressives want to lead, they will have to offer their fellow citizens more than new precedural guidelines, or abstract diagnoses of institutional and structural shortcomings. They need to offer concrete assessments of the current global situation, and specific policy recommendations for responding to that situation. And they need to offer a vision of the future, of the new and better world they will lead us to, if given the chance.

It is not enough to say: "We have a plan to organize a committee to develop a task force to task certain agencies with proposing some recommendations for developing several plans to meet certain contingencies that the committee, task force and agencies tell us are important." Along these lines, it is not enough to advocate tasking the NSC with identifying and evaluating long term threats to our children's and grandchildren's security. (Although that is a fine idea in itself.) At least some prominent progressives must presume to tell Americans what those threats are, and spell out a confident long term strategy for dealing with them. That is what leadership is about - setting an agenda with confidence and authority, and inspiring others to follow you. If progressives don't think they already know what the major problems are, and what we should be doing about them, at least in rough form, they don't deserve to lead.

If you are a group of stockholders sizing up new managers for your company, who is going to inspire more confidence? Is it the candidate who says "I plan to hire the best consultants around and then let them tell me what to do", or the one who says "Here are the problems, here are the opportunities, and here's what I am going to do to solve the problems and take advantage of the the opportunities"? The former individual is likely to be met with the response "Why don't we just hire those consultants, rather than you?"

I do have a couple of major problems with the overall thrust and emphases of your proposals:

I have been arguing for a couple of years now that much current security thinking is unbalanced by an undue obsession with terrorism, and is insufficiently heedful of problems that are both more conventional and more dangerous. Do I worry about nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists? Of course I do, and we must work to deal with that problem. But the major nuclear danger confronting the globe, and the US, continues to be nuclear weapons in the hands of states, and the threat of conflicts among those states leading to the use of those weapons. Terrorists could sow a certain amount of nuclear devastation, that is true. But it is still the case that widespread nuclear annihilation is most likely to be the product of escalating conflict among states. We live in a world in which expanding populations are engaged in increasingly fraught competition for the dwindling resources the world provides. And despite certain popular intellectual views about the decline of the state, the agents of this intense global competition continue to be the states which govern and organize those populations.

I am concerned that so many people seem to feel that the threat of nuclear war ended with the Cold War. I think this is a grave mistake. My nightmares tend to involve out-of-control conflicts involving Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, Iran and the United States, and the massive nuclear exchanges these conflicts could bring, more than the occasional one-shot nuke attack by a terrorist organization. Progressives need to rekindle the spirit of non-proliferation, global disarmament and international governance which inspired much of our thinking us during the Cold War.

Perhaps the false sense of security these days is based on the belief that global competition is now less ideological than it was during the Cold War, and hence less dangerous. But this is foolish. Organized crime families and drug gangs, by analogy, have had no small success in killing each other - yet they all share the same "ideology". An ideological affinity between peoples can certainly help to lessen tensions and provide a framework for mutual understanding and negotiated settlements. But if two peoples are locked in a conflict over the a few of the last raining puddles of petroleum in the world, it does not much matter if both sides go to the same church.

Another factor in the current complacency about state-to-state conflict is the zany and fanatical free-market triumphalism of post-Cold war America. The enthusiasts for this kind of thinking seem to think that economic competition is a throughly healthy, uniformly progressive and miraculously self-regulating phenomenon. But a more sober assessment of human nature and human history tells us the only thing that keeps the material violence of competition among economic enterprises from exploding into corporal violence is the check provided by a rule of law backed by effective governmental power. We can now see what this free-market fanaticism has wrought in the former Soviet Union. The enthusiasm for laissez faire economics among the earnest foreign reformers of Russia and its satellites helped produce a group of gangster states, ruled by lawless gangs of oligarchs more powerful than the government. There is no reason to think that competition among states - even democratic capitalist states - will remain peaceful in the absence of transnational, institutionalized power structures capable of restraining the natural tendencies in the direction of violence.

Much security thinking these days goes into the problem of rogue states and failed states. The presumption seems to be that if only we could get rid of these irrational and unstable actors, everything would be fine. But our own founders had a more realistic and sober assessment of human nature. The fundamental problem of civil peace is not the presence of bad actors or "rogues" whose appetites are inordinate, whose rationality is deficient, or whose spirit of cooperation is weak. That is one problem. But the fundamental problem is with all of us - the problem is that we all have a tendency to disturb the peace in the pursuit of our natural inclinations; we all oppress others and violate them in succumbing to the temptations of power and the glories of individual achievement. Without government, we are all potential rogues. So for a community to govern itself, its individual members must be willing to impose strong preventive checks on their own behavior. Once we begin to elevate ourselves to the ranks of the "good", who need no checks, and separate ourselves conceptually from the "rogues", who do need checks, we have forgotten the lessons of human nature and human government.

It is really time for some far-sighted global initiatives designed to check and manage interstate competition, and achieve more effective global governance. I have argue in this forum before for the establishment of a Global Energy Transition treaty - a new international regime designed to manage the world's decades-long transition to a post-petroleum economy; to balance the needs of developed energy consumers, developing energy consumers, and producers; to set targets, fund research and provide incentives for new technologies; to establish environmental regulation on a global scale; to squelch price spikes and regulate profiteers; to make decisions about the global allocation of investment capital; to organize global reserves; to plan for emergencies; and to establish security systems to respond to military crises at key links in the global production, refinement and supply chain.

Progressives need to come out foursquare for effective global governance. Indecisive agendas that deftly ignore this key issue, and are noncommittally poised between weak government and strong government views of the global future, will not cut it. And we must recognize that global governance means more than just the rejection of unilateralism in favor of a tendency toward multilateralism, or a cleaving to alliances.

Let me add that two of your proposals about which I have no reservations at all are the "Restoring America's Alliances Act" and the "Restoring the Beacon Act." Along thse lines, I was reminded recently of the eloquent pre-war resignation letter by John Brady Kiesling, former Political Counselor to the American embassy in Greece. Kiesling wrote:

The policies we are now asked to advance are incompatible not only with American values but also with American interests. Our fervent pursuit of war with Iraq is driving us to squander the international legitimacy that has been America's most potent weapon of both offense and defense since the days of Woodrow Wilson. We have begun to dismantle the largest and most effective web of international relationships the world has ever known. Our current course will bring instability and danger, not security.


When our friends are afraid of us rather than for us, it is time to worry. And now they are afraid. Who will tell them convincingly that the United States is as it was, a beacon of liberty, security, and justice for the planet?

I agree with both Suzanne and Dan here. But just like writing a resume, or explaining to the generally uneducated population. You have to make your point on the first page. No one will read a twenty page document except some pundit that will take apart some obscure misspelled word. Make your point in the first paragraph, then elaborate later. A vision statement, then the details. If you loose the reader in the first sentence, you will just loose.

i realize these are partisan proposals. Number three is just outright stupid. It's stupid for two reasons.

One, to call it that let alone employ an idea that negates victory is a partisan windfall for the other party(s).You allow them to label the party weak on National Defense. That will just set the Democrats back

Two, it would allow either party to question actions by running military action through a series of bureaucratic measures to delay action. In short create your own quagmire.

Stop already.

Robert M.

I don't understand your criticism of Suzanne's #3. It seems to be a fairly standard good government and best practices proposal. Who could oppose criminal and civil penalties for willfully defrauding the government? I see no reason why national security contracts should not be open to the same sort of competitive bidding and oversight that governs other contracts. Competition is good - it keeps prices low and quality high.

My mistake. Fat fingers? It should be #6. The quagmire avoidance act.

OK Robert, now I get it.

Dan: What about classified contracts?

IE, where to put out the contract would reveal something happening/existing/whatever that we don't want revealed, for whatever reason.

(Would you really put the construction contract for the alien embassy at Area 51 up for an open bid?;))

John Penta, we shouldn't have any classified contracts until we get a government we can trust with them.

I don't think that's a good campaign plank at the moment, but in six months it might easily be. For the next 20 years it's more important not to keep secrets from the US public than it is to keep secrets from our prospective enemies, beyond short-term tactical things.


Perhaps a lwayer or someone in government could help us out. But how does this stuff work now?

If the government needs to contract the work on some project, rather than do it themselves, and there really is a compelling reason for keeping the project secret, then some private company has to be brought into the loop of secrecy. The question is whether the government should simply choose one company and offer them the contract, or send invitations to bid to more than one company.

Bid invitations for secret projects would themselves have to be secret. Perhaps the government would send a preliminary bid invitation with an unclassified outline sketch, accompanied by a request to sign secrecy agreements before the full invitation, containing classified information, is sent.

Even secret projects receive some accounting oversight and congressional oversight. The bidding process would presumably be overseen by secret sessions of the appropriate congressional committees, and a special branch of the GAO, whose members get high clearances, tasked with looking at these projects. Is this way off?

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