A permanent bipartisan committee of senior statesmen is needed to check presidential power.
Washington; and Cambridge, Mass. — With the recent House vote to reconstitute the Iraq Study Group (ISG) in anticipation of fall reports from Gen. David Petraeus and US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, a fresh look at its first iteration is warranted.
It has become conventional wisdom that the much heralded ISG report had negligible impact on President Bush. At the time of its issuance last December, he damned it with faint praise.
This president was not about to talk to "rogue" regimes just because some unelected body told him to, no matter how "blue ribbon" its members. And no self–respecting president would effectively outsource policymaking on the nation's top security issues.
Upon reflection, though, the impact of the Baker–Hamilton report has been grossly understated. A single sentence – "The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating" – was enough to force the president to change the way he and his administration talked about the war. Gone ever since has been the happy talk about "staying the course" and the progress being made toward political reconciliation and greater security.
To be sure, the group's policy recommendations were mostly ignored. Most conspicuous, the group recommended a troop drawdown, rather than a "surge." Still, the report did something very significant: It rebranded the war as the impending failure that it is.
Because of the eminence of the ISG's members and the group's nonpartisan approach, they accomplished what none of the war's other critics – in government, in the media, and in think tanks and universities – could. Ever since, the administration has taken pains to acknowledge that things are not going well in Iraq, and that time is running out to show progress there.
This important, but largely unnoticed, accomplishment is an exception that proves a rule. It highlights how rare it is for a president to be held to account on matters of foreign policy and national security.
Though Congress has the sole weighty constitutional prerogative of "declaring" war, presidents have been waging war without feeling obliged to obtain congressional approval since World War II ended. And though Congress has the power to stop funding wars it has come to disapprove of, the post-Vietnam political reality is that no Congress is likely to exercise it.
Plus, at a time when partisanship is at an all-time high and public regard for all Washington institutions is at an all-time low, there is a limit to how availing even the most vigorous congressional oversight can be.
The federal courts are held in higher esteem than Congress. But in the national security domain, they exert themselves only at the margins, mostly when constitutional issues arise.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Inspector General's office (IG) do good work, but their job is limited to ferreting out fraud, waste, and misconduct, rather than making judgment calls about whether a given policy course is the "right" one. It would be unthinkable for the GAO or an IG to challenge a president's insistence that a war was being won rather than lost.
In sum, the absence of comprehensive oversight by a body independent of the White House makes for a glaring deficiency in presidential accountability on the gravest of issues.
Who, then, can fill this accountability gap? We believe that part of the answer is to impanel a standing, bipartisan committee of senior statesmen and women – along the lines of Baker–Hamilton – whose mandate would be simply to "speak truth" from time to time as they see it on critically important national security issues.
Their primary contribution would be to act as a centrifugal force against administration spin. The committee would not make national security policy. That, we agree, is something an elected president cannot and should not try to outsource. But its experience, expertise, objectivity, and credibility would combine – at least on issues where a consensus could be achieved among ideologically diverse members – to serve as a brake on administrations that put ideology before reality.
Future presidents would rightly feel free to reject the policy prescriptions of such a group, no matter how eminent or "grise" its members. But a president would also be far less free to insist that black is white or up is down if a group such as the one we have in mind were unanimously to declare otherwise.
Baker-Hamilton 2.0 is a good first step. Even better would be an evergreen version. Modest though it may be, this proposal – if implemented – would be a major step in the right direction of presidential accountability where the stakes are life and death.
• Clark Kent Ervin, the first inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, is the director of the Homeland Security Program at the Aspen Institute. Andy Zelleke is a lecturer in public policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and codirector of its Center for Public Leadership.