Interviewer: Han Sung Lim
Michael J. Glennon is a professor of international law at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Q. Could you provide a short introduction of yourself, what work you’ve done so far, and how you got to go into your field?
I got interested in this field in law school, during debates in my constitutional law class on the legality of the war in Vietnam. From there I went to work afterwards on Capitol Hill, and ultimately for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where I worked on issues of war and peace international commitment, intelligence oversight, and variety of different national security issues. After that, I went into teaching and have been reading, studying, and writing about this subject for the last forty years.
Q. When you served in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, it was during Carter’s Administration, which was before the Reagan Administration, which was involved in Afghanistan Freedom Fighters and Iran Contra. How did the previous administrations influence you in how you view the world today?
I was struck by the perplexing continuity of national security policy from the Ford administration to the Carter administration. In fact, I supported Senator Ted Kennedy in his effort to replace President Carter as the Democratic nominee, in part because I believed Carter had not been sufficiently true to the principles of the Democratic party, concerning even his core issue of human rights. It seemed to me that Carter ought to have been much more open to progressive changes in American foreign policy following the defeat of President Ford, than he was, and Ford’s Policy was of course, a continuation of the policy of President Nixon. Essentially, my view was that the Carter administration was not sufficiently committed to human rights, which President Carter strangely viewed as his landmark achievement in foreign affairs. That was particularly true, I might add, in respect to his support of the Shah in Iran.
Q. Even with the Camp David Accords that happened during the Carter Administration and the relinquishment of the Panama Canal, do you believe that even then Carter didn’t live up to principles of the Democratic party?
He hosted the Shah when the Shah visited Washington, giving a toast, commending the Shah in a very effusive way that seemed to me very inconsistent with the Shah’s record on human rights. While it’s true that President Carter did exhibit some courage in pushing the Panama Canal treaty through the Senate, I thought it could have been done in a way that was politically more protective of his democratic allies in the Senate. As it turned out, his leading allies beginning with Senator Church and Senator McGovern, Senator Culver and a few others, Senator Bly, lost the next election part in because they were identified with a weak and vacillating foreign policy in the White House. He was a drag on the democratic ticket in 1980, and I don’t believe that Senator Kennedy, had he had been a nominee, would have been a drag. He might well have defeated Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Q. So, do you think that a good foreign policy is one that is supported by the democratic principles of the state?
Democratic with the small ‘d,’ yes. In fact, Republican presidents, including President Nixon, have pursued foreign policy objectives that were quite sensible. Nixon for example, with Secretary Kissinger pursued a policy of détente with the Soviet Union and opened relationships with the People’s Republic of China in ways that considerably advanced American national interest. So, it’s not as though the democratic party has a monopoly on good ideas or far sighted policies, when it comes to the foreign relations of the United States.
Q. Nixon’s ratification of the ABM treaty and the Paris Peace Accords seem to support your view.
The ABM treaty, and the negotiations on the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks, the Salt 1 Treaty. But, my view is that he allowed the Vietnam war to drag on far longer than was necessary. It’s true that he finally did conclude the Paris Accords with North Vietnam, but in my judgment could have been achieved far earlier. He claimed at the outset that he had a secret plan to end the Vietnam war, but he managed to keep that a secret from even his own negotiators for a protracted period of time.
Q. From my reading, you were against all three wars, of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Vietnam war not on the basis of the immorality of war, but overreach of the executive branch. What’s your stance on war and the state violence?
I think the United States, has engaged in a long series of reckless and needless wars. I’ve supported restraints on executive war making in part with the hope that that recklessness be curbed. I think with more involvement by the elective representatives of the people, it’s less likely that the United States will make the kind of errors it did in Vietnam and Iraq. I supported the initial action in Afghanistan on the simple theory that it was defensive, but I believe it has gone far too long and that it is far too costly than any benefit that could be derived in remaining in Afghanistan.
Q. Have there been wars that have beneficial?
I’m not opposed to all wars. I believe that the American response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor was legitimate and just. Nations have a right to defend themselves. I’m not a pacifist by any means. As I said I also supported the initial military action against Afghanistan. I don’t believe that the United States can or should delegate the decision to go to war, to an international organization. Whether it would be the League of Nations or the United Nations. That is a decision that, constitutionally, has to include the House of Representatives, because the constitution confers upon Congress, the House and the Senate, the power to place a nation at war. Therefore, I opposed the administrations attacks on Libya, even though the United Nations Security Council had authorized the defense of civilians in Libya, because a UN Security Council Resolution cannot constitutionally substitute for a law enacted by congress that authorizes the president to use force.
Q. So, your position is that the decision to go to war must be shared equally between the legislative and the executive?
Yes, that’s the whole theory and premise on which the War Powers Resolution was enacted. War Powers is a shared power, and that significant military actions that are non-defensive and which expose the United States to non-trivial risks of retaliation require congressional approval.
Q. I think this leads into the Intelligence Agencies in that, when you mention that voters should be able to decide on whether nations should go to war or not, do you think that agencies become too big or too complex for the ordinary voter to make an informed decision on what’s best for the security for the US?
I think that the public is capable based upon information that is available in the popular media to make informed and sensible decisions on whether the United States should use force in places such as Syria, Libya and Iraq. And if the President went to congress and sought approval the elected representatives of the people in conflicts such as those, we would have avoided horrendous mistakes. It’s true that congress approved the use of force in Vietnam, but that was less of a mistake on part of Congress, than it was a fraudulent representation by the executive concerning the events in the Gulf of Tonkin that never unfolded as Congress assured they had. Congress was deeply and profoundly misled, and if it were told the truth, the whole truth, I doubt that the United States would have got involved in the Vietnam War.
Q. In 2014, 5 CIA officers tampered with Senate Intelligence Committee material. Do you think that the tendency of intelligence agencies to be secretive and conceal information from the American public is because of its incentive structure?
There’s no question that some secrets, some activities have to remain a secret. There is a valid role for classified information. It’s also true however that much information is classified not because of legitimate need for secrecy, but to avoid embarrassment to the government, and there is an incentive to keep that information secret for an obvious reason: the intelligence community wishes to maintain credibility with Congress and the public by downplaying or covering up its mistakes, and there have been plenty of mistakes. So, there is an incentive to not only keep relevant information secret, but also to hoard information and intelligence and keep it to itself. Information is power in Washington, and the more any given department or agency knows the greater its political leverage in Washington. That’s the way the system works. The question is whether it’s possible to achieve a greater level of democratic accountability with agencies that necessarily operate in great secrecy. I believe that it is, but the ultimate answer lies in electing senators and representatives who insist upon full and complete disclosure to the oversight committees, and unfortunately, the oversight committees have become dysfunctional. That’s the word used by the 9/11 commission in describing the watchdog committees. Senator John McCain was more blunt. He said, they have been co-opted. Anyone who sees the record of these oversight committees they have to agree with McCain.
Q. But, do you think that the legislative is always put at a disadvantage, because of its inherent party divide, from holding the executive accountable?
The problem is that there is very little constituency that insists upon rigorous congressional oversight. The public simply doesn’t care about intelligence oversight as is strongly does for example about tax relief or healthcare or immigration. Until members of these oversight committees have their feet held to the fire because they’re doing a lousy job, oversight will never improve.
Q. Do you think that the media has a role to play in this? It seems that there was an abundant concentration on the Hillary email scandal, when there wasn’t equivalent focus on the Agency’s looking into the committee’s emails.
There is a huge vacuum that has occurred as a result of the collapse of the congressional oversight, and investigative journalists need to fill that void. Investigative journalism is extremely expensive. It requires long months and sometimes years for a top-flight investigative journalist like Dana Priest and Seymour Hersh to develop sources within these secret agencies. The words of Winston Churchill however come into mind, in thinking about contributions of journalists such as those. “Never had so many owed so much to so few,” as Americans owe to investigative journalists. When you look at the contributions to, dare I say it, “truth” that have been made by such journalists, from revealing CIA spying on the American people to Abu Ghraib torture, these things would have never come to light, but for the persistence of this very small handful of courageous investigative journalists.
Q. Do you think that the current administration has role in limiting that accountability from journalists as well?
The current administration is doing all it can to put the lid on investigative journalists and to make their jobs more difficult but in fairness the prior administration did as well. President Obama prosecuted far more leaks than any president in history. Whistleblowers were treated very harshly. The Obama administration if anything was a continuation of the Bush administration in its counter terrorism and national security policies with very few exceptions. The programs remained identical or virtually identical.
Q. I read an article on Politico which outlined former CIA officials condemning Donald Trump statements. Do you think that now the agencies and executive are at odds?
Obviously, there was an enormous rift that developed between the national security bureaucracy and the Trump administration. Right after Trump took office. That has been exacerbated by alumni and former intelligence officials such as Brennan, Clapper, Morell, and others, who have gone after the president and try to shake his cage. This has brought about a real crisis in legitimacy for both the president and the intelligence agencies. The public needs to be assured that the president is getting first rate intelligence and if he says that the FBI, CIA, or military is filled with a lot political hacks, the public is right to wonder how is he learning whether, say, North Korea is progressing with its missile program or whether Iran is cheating on its nuclear deal. Similarly, the intelligence community derives its legitimacy from its electoral connection. These are unelected bureaucrats, whatever credibility or respect they have, from the fact that they work for and are accountable to the president. But when the president forces them to develop their own stand-alone legitimacy that becomes an extremely dangerous development in a democracy.
Q. In Walter Bagehot’s theory of British governance, he described the dual institutions of government in explaining British politics and drew a parallel to the US. Do you think that model is failing as well, and that citizens are no longer convinced by the “noble lie?”
Well, it was essential for the operation of Bagehot’s theory of double government that the public institutions and the concealed institutions project, publicly, an image of harmony. They both have to be on the same page. They both have to appear to be in agreement on national security policy. They have to be working in unison. Their activities have to be in sync. Once, a gap appears before them, Bagehot theorized, the whole system becomes destabilized, because each side is delegitimated, as I just described. That’s the situation that we are in right now. The system is spinning out of control because the public harmony necessary for the system to proceed efficiently, no longer exists.
Q. Madison, contrary to popular belief, didn’t believe that ambition against ambition wouldn’t restrain. Do you think that even when the electorate is responsible electing officials and creating that accountability system, it still wouldn’t inherently solve or reform underlying incentive structures?
Adlai Stevenson put it well. He said that in a democracy people get the quality of government they deserve. That in a nutshell sums up Madison’s theory. Madison believed that this system of checks and balances would never work unless what he referred to as civil virtue existed not on one level but two levels. First, it is necessary to have an electorate that is engaged and informed. Not simply engaged but informed as well, which means intelligence, rational, capable and deliberation and compromise when necessary. Second, that electorate has to elect public officials who are committed to the public good, not their personal advancement, not their private wealth, not their families, not prominence nor affluence but the public good, even at the cost of their careers or finances. Absent civic virtue at both of those two levels, Madison and his two colleagues believed that the whole system would collapse, and that is what we are seeing today.
Q. Are college campuses failing to do a good job in educating American students to be civic oriented?
I think the problem arises earlier than college campuses. It’s grade schools and high schools that don’t teach civics. Students come to college without the vaguest knowledge of American history and the structure of American government. It’s no surprise that they move on to become citizens who are woefully uninformed. Political ignorance, David Souter said, has reached crisis proportions in this country and it’s true that education ultimately is the problem, but the reality is that you can’t blame American institutions. At some point, American citizens have to take responsibility. That means parents, families, and individuals themselves in a democracy have to cast intelligent votes and elect intelligent and public-spirited office holders, and unless they do that, no democracy can survive.
Han Sung Lim is a Sophomore at Tufts University studying Film and Media Studies and International Relations.