Is There a Deep State?

Author:Heilbrunn, Jacob

In Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 movie North by Northwest, the protagonist Roger Thornhill, a genial New York advertising man played by Cary Grant, is suddenly swept up into clandestine Cold War machinations. Only after he encounters an American spymaster named the Professor, who is based on CIA director Allen Dulles, the brother of John Foster Dulles and a charter member of the American Establishment, does Thornhill begin to decipher the turbulent series of events, including a harrowing encounter with the anonymous pilot of a crop duster, that have put his life in jeopardy. "I don't like the games you play," Thornhill declares. "War is hell, Mr. Thornhill," the Professor retorts, "even when it's a cold one." Thornhill is enraged. "Perhaps you ought to start learning," he says, "how to lose a few cold wars."

It's a telling exchange. Suspicions of an amoral caste of foreign-policy mandarins intent on manipulating, or even subverting, American democracy for their own ends are hardly new. Instead, apprehensions about a cabal have formed a persistent theme of American political debate. Three years after the appearance of Hitchcock's film, the journalist Richard Rovere wrote a famous spoof, complete with footnotes, about searching for the American Establishment in the American Scholar. His minute researches about "a more or less closed and self-sustaining institution that holds a preponderance of power in our more or less open society" prompted William F. Buckley Jr. to publish a response in Harper's. Buckley was having none of Rovere's levity. "The fact of the matter," wrote Buckley, "is that Mr. Rovere's disavowals notwithstanding, there is a thing which, properly understood, might well be called an American Establishment; and the success of Mr. Rovere's essay wholly depends on a sort of nervous apprehension of the correctness of the essential insight." Indeed, two decades later, Leonard Silk and Mark Silk went on to offer a highly informative conspectus of the institutions of the foreign-policy elite in their 1980 book The American Establishment. There the matter rested.

In recent months, however, apprehensions about a deep state, led by intelligence officials at the FBI, CIA and Justice Department, have acquired a fresh prominence. The conservative Christian leader Franklin Graham is sounding alarms about a "coup d'etat" against Donald Trump, and the president himself is warning on Twitter about the sinister operations of a "Deep State Justice Department." How much credence should be placed in such assertions? Does a deep state exist? Is there really a concerted effort to subvert the Trump administration by government officials? Or is that an outlandish allegation? The National Interest invited leading experts, a number of whom have served in government in senior positions, to explicate and evaluate the controversy surrounding a deep state.

Emma Ashford

The migration of the idea that a "deep state" controls the U.S. government from the realm of fringe conspiracy theorists to mainstream political discussion is undoubtedly one of the more intriguing developments in the last year. But Donald Trump's repeated assertions that a deep state exists, and that it is actively thwarting his policy agenda, pushing investigations into his campaign or even wiretapping his offices, mean that the idea has now become a part of our mental landscape.

It is utter nonsense.

Certainly, there will always be pressure on foreign policy from entrenched interest groups, both inside and outside the government. Political scientists study the field of bureaucratic politics for a reason: institutional structure and incentives matter a lot. But the idea that the whole American bureaucracy shares a common goal on practically any issue area simply doesn't pass muster. The tools of the so-called "deep state"--bureaucratic inertia, internal policy debates, conflicts over resources--are far more often used in interagency turf wars than to force politicians to adopt a certain policy.

At the same time, there are undoubtedly civil servants who find themselves unwilling or unable to implement the president's policy agenda. Whether it is a special counsel who pursues the law rather than loyalty to an individual, as Donald Trump demands, or a Foreign Service professional who finds himself unwilling to work for a leader such as Trump, not all public servants will willingly help Trump implement his policy or personal preferences.

Yet this mostly results in resignations, not internal rebellion. Indeed, as John Feeley, ambassador to Panama, noted in his resignation letter, civil servants take an oath to defend the constitution. When they cannot reconcile that oath or their personal opinions with the administration's stances, they are "honor bound to resign."

Nonetheless, critics like Michael Glennon are right that there has been remarkable consistency over time in U.S. foreign policy. Even presidents who are critical of U.S. foreign policy while campaigning usually dial back that criticism in office, and fail to follow through on their promises. Jimmy Carter's plan to withdraw U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula ultimately failed, while Donald Trump's promise to end the war in Afghanistan eventually morphed into an increase of troops on the ground.

These critics are accurate in their depiction of U.S. foreign policy. There is a surprising amount of consistency between presidential administrations on foreign policy. But whether they call it "double government" or the "deep state," the focus of critics on some unelected network of bureaucrats as the cause of this consistency is misguided.

Instead, they'd do better to look to the bipartisan foreign-policy consensus that has guided American policy since the end of the Cold War. This consensus--commonly described as liberal hegemony or primacy--focuses on a globally active United States with extensive overseas military and alliance commitments, and is shared by the majority of the policymaking community in Washington, DC. The result is that when presidents seek foreign-policy advisers, they primarily draw on this pool of recruits.

Trump has been reluctant to recruit from among this pool of advisers, in part due to the open opposition to him from many during the campaign. Nor has he been able to recruit those who criticize the liberal international consensus--his views on trade and immigration, and his repugnant statements and personal views, have alienated even those who might be willing or happy to attempt to reshape U.S. foreign policy in any other administration. Instead, Trump has been forced to rely on a mixture of unqualified individuals and former military officers. Many other offices remain unfilled.

Unsurprisingly, his administration has found it difficult to formulate and implement foreign policy while understaffed. The areas in which it has done so are thus far conventional, as his few advisors push him towards orthodoxy on issues like troop levels in Afghanistan, and take the lead in drafting his administration's strategy documents.

The problem is not, as Trump claims, that the "deep state" is thwarting his policy agenda. It is his reliance--even as a relative outsider to DC politics--on advisers who themselves agree with the post-Cold War foreign-policy consensus. So long as that consensus remains unchallenged, U.S. foreign policy will continue to tread the same, consistent path, regardless of administration.

George Beebe

Few questions have greater import for the health and integrity of any republic than the question of whether important parts of its government's national-security apparatus are abusing their power for political purposes. This is particularly true in the United States, where the departments and agencies known collectively as the Intelligence Community (ic) have grown so large and capable, where faith in the integrity of our democratic institutions is so vital to the effective functioning of our system, and where suspicions about secret police and intelligence organizations are baked so deeply into our country's political culture.

The United States has faced this question several times in its recent history. The Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations all used--or attempted to use--the FBI and CIA to gather intelligence on U.S. citizens they suspected of collaboration with communist agents, with too little regard for statutory regulations and prohibitions of such practices, and too great a tendency to view their political enemies as national-security threats. Lyndon B. Johnson believed, without much justification, that the CIA had conspired against him at the 1960 Democratic convention to ensure that John E Kennedy won the presidential nomination. Richard Nixon was equally convinced that the CIA had helped to swing the subsequent presidential election to Kennedy. These misperceptions barely surfaced in public at the time and did little to shake voters' faith in the outcome of the election, but they had significant implications for the working relationships of both Johnson and Nixon with the CIA once in office. Johnson's suspicions probably increased his inclination to side with the Defense Department's optimistic assessments of the Vietnam War over the CIA'S more pessimistic--and, in retrospect, more accurate--analyses. Nixon's suspicions fueled his determination to build a small intelligence-gathering and covert-action group within the White House, which ultimately led to the Watergate break-in and cover-up that destroyed his presidency.

Investigations in the 1970s into various ic abuses, including efforts to collect intelligence on the political activities of U.S. citizens, led to the creation of specially designated congressional oversight committees--the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence--with the power and authorization to ensure that the CIA, NSA, FBI, and other ic bodies conduct their...

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