.
N

early every day of the Trump presidency presented some challenge, issue, or scandal—real or imagined—so much so, it was difficult to get one’s bearings on the news cycle. Twenty-four-hour news cycles became twenty-four-minute cycles, and then it felt like it was mere seconds. To be sure, the president was challenging established policies, breaking shibboleths, and upending norms of behavior, not the least of which was in national security and defense policy. Yes, President Trump pressed America’s allies to spend more, all while alienating them by questioning the utility of alliances, publicly professing admiration for autocrats, and pressing ahead with more controversial policy decisions.

Insanity Defense: Why Our Failure to Confront Hard National Security Problems Makes Us Less Safe | Congresswoman Jane Harman | St. Martin’s Press | May 2021.

Yet, on balance, the core substance of many of the president’s national security policies were not the massive outlier many took them to be. In reality, Trump inherited an imperial presidency, the foundation of which was lain well before he took the escalator down from Trump Tower to announce his candidacy. In her latest book, former Congresswoman Jane Harman recounts the debates, discussions, and decisions made in the wake of (and prior to) September 11 that led to America’s present policies on detainees, intelligence, surveillance, and more in her new book “Insanity Defense: Why Our Failure to Confront Hard National Security Problems Makes Us Less Safe.”

Harman’s book is an interesting overview of and historical reflection on major congressional action (and inaction), on seven key national security and foreign policy issues. Here, she is well placed and a good guide to the ins and outs of these issues and congressional activity around these critical subjects, given her record of service across four different administrations.

The congresswoman brings a needed renewed appreciation to what are historical, but which may seem ancient, policy debates and discussions. The attacks on 9/11 are 20 years old and the invasion of Iraq is steadily creeping to that two-decade anniversary as well. While time may have both slowed and sped up in equal measures, making it seem so far removed from those dramatic events, those debates have fundamentally shaped where we are today. This is fundamentally the strongest contribution of the book.

So much of the debate and policy discussion seems to take place in a vacuum (at least in Washington D.C.), focusing solely on the here and now, not the antecedents that led us to our present condition. Understanding how we arrived at the policies we currently have, the debates surrounding those contentious issues, and the trade-offs made at the time should help inform both current and future discussions. This is especially crucial as the political hyperbole of the last four years obfuscated much of the underlying rationale in favor of hyper-partisan criticism of President Trump, laying much at his feet that often preceded his administration.

She is also refreshingly candid. In this non-memoir memoir, she is honest about the motivations and interests behind certain policy decisions, votes, or advocacy, especially when it affected her congressional district. Such transparency is rare; her candor is surprising. To be sure, not every representative is going to say that they sponsored X because Y company donated or lobbied for that issue. But supporting one’s constituents is part-and-parcel of the job. One may suspect that that candor is a benefit or prerogative of being out of office, but it is appreciated and welcome nonetheless.

The challenge is in that so much reflection on the debates, legislative maneuvering, and who said what and when, leaves little room for the actual prescription of solutions for the diseases identified. The final pages of each chapter lay out a framework for action, but don’t ultimately offer the robust solutions Harman is well positioned to present. Those few paragraphs or pages are almost teases at what could be very thoughtful analyses and recommendations. She quite rightly identified historical faults and shortcomings across four administrations, but doesn’t turn that same focus to the next steps, perhaps where her contribution could be greatest.

Readers will certainly gain an understanding of how we got to where we are today on critical topics such as surveillance, war powers, detainee policy, and the creation of both the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security. But they will undoubtedly be left wanting more, asking, “now what?” Again, this is not a question of capability or knowledge, but perhaps editorial decision making. If those last few pages were expanded upon more thoroughly, this short volume would stand out much more.

The centrally defining feature of all of the issues the congresswoman identifies is a government that is simply ill-equipped and ill-structured to confront the challenges of the day or indeed the future. She rightly notes that technology will always outpace policy—but technology and security threats seem to be outpacing the ability of policymakers to understand and adapt to those changes, and that is perhaps the greater, if unacknowledged threat.

Each of the national security scenarios she presents in “Insanity Defense” are examples of a crisis (however predicted or unforeseen) to which the federal government struggles to adapt and find the least bad option. Yet, as she notes, there is little discussion on the need for reforming those very institutions or the process by which policy is made. And when significant changes are made, they seem to be made in the name of political expediency, (e.g. the creation of the Department of Homeland Security) rather than thought out consideration of ends, ways, and means. This is to say nothing of the fact that Congress, the White House, and the Pentagon are institutionally predisposed to address failings and not plan for or prepare for the future—the perennial “last war” syndrome.

Perhaps the most notable failing identified in Harman’s book is the abrogation both by commission and omission of the role of Congress in key national security and foreign policy decisions. The imperial presidency continued to grow, exponentially so during the War on Terror, but one may question, as she does, whether such expansive authorities are necessary today or whether it is even possible to claw back the powers now assumed by, and deferred to, the presidency. There has not been a robust debate on the Authorization for the Use of Military Force and it is unlikely that one will appear in the near future. Moreover, it would take a fairly exceptional president to willingly relinquish the authorities that the Oval Office now possesses.

Harman rightly identifies that Congress is ill equipped and challenged to manage the portfolio of issues amidst the deluge of partisanship, demands of the two- and four-year campaign cycle, and outdated institutional and structural modes of operation - diseases afflicting the federal government as well. Bipartisanship is particularly rare even on issues of foreign and national security policy, let alone domestic issues. It is in fact so rare that it is notable for when it happens at all. Here again, though, that next step is not pursued—what do we do about it and how do we fix it? One suspects that political reform or congressional restructuring is a wholly separate book, and Congresswoman Harman would be an excellent guide for this subject, as well.

Ultimately, in her afterword, she strikes the nail on the head not just on the issues themselves, but the obstacles to real reform, saying it is a fundamental failure of “political will” to address these critical national security issues. The gamesmanship and zero-sum nature of the outlook of many politicos prevents them from standing up and acting, and certainly stands in the way of bipartisanship. The drive to win primaries and general elections, raise needed funds, and be in the social media spotlight forces both candidates and elected officials to the tails of the bell curve, leaving the moderate middle shockingly empty.

If Washington is to break the cycle of the “Insanity Defense” identified and articulated by Congresswoman Harman, it is critical to understand what those repetitive failings are and from where they came. In this, “Insanity Defense” is a success, offering a cogent articulating of the past and how it affected multiple successive presidencies. The challenge, ultimately, is mustering the political will to reset, where necessary, these issues and that is, perhaps, the most significant obstacle of all.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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Can Washington Break the Cycle of the “Insanity Defense”?

Photo by Ian Hutchinson via Unsplash.

May 29, 2021

Congresswoman Jane Harman’s book is an interesting overview of and historical reflection on major congressional action (and inaction), on seven key national security and foreign policy issues.

N

early every day of the Trump presidency presented some challenge, issue, or scandal—real or imagined—so much so, it was difficult to get one’s bearings on the news cycle. Twenty-four-hour news cycles became twenty-four-minute cycles, and then it felt like it was mere seconds. To be sure, the president was challenging established policies, breaking shibboleths, and upending norms of behavior, not the least of which was in national security and defense policy. Yes, President Trump pressed America’s allies to spend more, all while alienating them by questioning the utility of alliances, publicly professing admiration for autocrats, and pressing ahead with more controversial policy decisions.

Insanity Defense: Why Our Failure to Confront Hard National Security Problems Makes Us Less Safe | Congresswoman Jane Harman | St. Martin’s Press | May 2021.

Yet, on balance, the core substance of many of the president’s national security policies were not the massive outlier many took them to be. In reality, Trump inherited an imperial presidency, the foundation of which was lain well before he took the escalator down from Trump Tower to announce his candidacy. In her latest book, former Congresswoman Jane Harman recounts the debates, discussions, and decisions made in the wake of (and prior to) September 11 that led to America’s present policies on detainees, intelligence, surveillance, and more in her new book “Insanity Defense: Why Our Failure to Confront Hard National Security Problems Makes Us Less Safe.”

Harman’s book is an interesting overview of and historical reflection on major congressional action (and inaction), on seven key national security and foreign policy issues. Here, she is well placed and a good guide to the ins and outs of these issues and congressional activity around these critical subjects, given her record of service across four different administrations.

The congresswoman brings a needed renewed appreciation to what are historical, but which may seem ancient, policy debates and discussions. The attacks on 9/11 are 20 years old and the invasion of Iraq is steadily creeping to that two-decade anniversary as well. While time may have both slowed and sped up in equal measures, making it seem so far removed from those dramatic events, those debates have fundamentally shaped where we are today. This is fundamentally the strongest contribution of the book.

So much of the debate and policy discussion seems to take place in a vacuum (at least in Washington D.C.), focusing solely on the here and now, not the antecedents that led us to our present condition. Understanding how we arrived at the policies we currently have, the debates surrounding those contentious issues, and the trade-offs made at the time should help inform both current and future discussions. This is especially crucial as the political hyperbole of the last four years obfuscated much of the underlying rationale in favor of hyper-partisan criticism of President Trump, laying much at his feet that often preceded his administration.

She is also refreshingly candid. In this non-memoir memoir, she is honest about the motivations and interests behind certain policy decisions, votes, or advocacy, especially when it affected her congressional district. Such transparency is rare; her candor is surprising. To be sure, not every representative is going to say that they sponsored X because Y company donated or lobbied for that issue. But supporting one’s constituents is part-and-parcel of the job. One may suspect that that candor is a benefit or prerogative of being out of office, but it is appreciated and welcome nonetheless.

The challenge is in that so much reflection on the debates, legislative maneuvering, and who said what and when, leaves little room for the actual prescription of solutions for the diseases identified. The final pages of each chapter lay out a framework for action, but don’t ultimately offer the robust solutions Harman is well positioned to present. Those few paragraphs or pages are almost teases at what could be very thoughtful analyses and recommendations. She quite rightly identified historical faults and shortcomings across four administrations, but doesn’t turn that same focus to the next steps, perhaps where her contribution could be greatest.

Readers will certainly gain an understanding of how we got to where we are today on critical topics such as surveillance, war powers, detainee policy, and the creation of both the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security. But they will undoubtedly be left wanting more, asking, “now what?” Again, this is not a question of capability or knowledge, but perhaps editorial decision making. If those last few pages were expanded upon more thoroughly, this short volume would stand out much more.

The centrally defining feature of all of the issues the congresswoman identifies is a government that is simply ill-equipped and ill-structured to confront the challenges of the day or indeed the future. She rightly notes that technology will always outpace policy—but technology and security threats seem to be outpacing the ability of policymakers to understand and adapt to those changes, and that is perhaps the greater, if unacknowledged threat.

Each of the national security scenarios she presents in “Insanity Defense” are examples of a crisis (however predicted or unforeseen) to which the federal government struggles to adapt and find the least bad option. Yet, as she notes, there is little discussion on the need for reforming those very institutions or the process by which policy is made. And when significant changes are made, they seem to be made in the name of political expediency, (e.g. the creation of the Department of Homeland Security) rather than thought out consideration of ends, ways, and means. This is to say nothing of the fact that Congress, the White House, and the Pentagon are institutionally predisposed to address failings and not plan for or prepare for the future—the perennial “last war” syndrome.

Perhaps the most notable failing identified in Harman’s book is the abrogation both by commission and omission of the role of Congress in key national security and foreign policy decisions. The imperial presidency continued to grow, exponentially so during the War on Terror, but one may question, as she does, whether such expansive authorities are necessary today or whether it is even possible to claw back the powers now assumed by, and deferred to, the presidency. There has not been a robust debate on the Authorization for the Use of Military Force and it is unlikely that one will appear in the near future. Moreover, it would take a fairly exceptional president to willingly relinquish the authorities that the Oval Office now possesses.

Harman rightly identifies that Congress is ill equipped and challenged to manage the portfolio of issues amidst the deluge of partisanship, demands of the two- and four-year campaign cycle, and outdated institutional and structural modes of operation - diseases afflicting the federal government as well. Bipartisanship is particularly rare even on issues of foreign and national security policy, let alone domestic issues. It is in fact so rare that it is notable for when it happens at all. Here again, though, that next step is not pursued—what do we do about it and how do we fix it? One suspects that political reform or congressional restructuring is a wholly separate book, and Congresswoman Harman would be an excellent guide for this subject, as well.

Ultimately, in her afterword, she strikes the nail on the head not just on the issues themselves, but the obstacles to real reform, saying it is a fundamental failure of “political will” to address these critical national security issues. The gamesmanship and zero-sum nature of the outlook of many politicos prevents them from standing up and acting, and certainly stands in the way of bipartisanship. The drive to win primaries and general elections, raise needed funds, and be in the social media spotlight forces both candidates and elected officials to the tails of the bell curve, leaving the moderate middle shockingly empty.

If Washington is to break the cycle of the “Insanity Defense” identified and articulated by Congresswoman Harman, it is critical to understand what those repetitive failings are and from where they came. In this, “Insanity Defense” is a success, offering a cogent articulating of the past and how it affected multiple successive presidencies. The challenge, ultimately, is mustering the political will to reset, where necessary, these issues and that is, perhaps, the most significant obstacle of all.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.