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Overcoming gridlock: The secret use of American power

Many people believe that the United States is incapable of bold and ambitious responses to contemporary policy problems, largely because its political institutions aren't designed to act decisively. In this view, the United States is saddled with a federal system where government power is divided, with multiple veto points and various "checks and balances" that help prevent excessive concentrations of power. Add to that free speech, an intermittently vigorous press corps, a vast array of interest groups, and a degree of political partisanship, and you have a recipe for gridlock.

Or so it is said. There is a grain of truth in this caricature: the men who designed the U.S. Constitution were wary of centralized power (and standing armies!), and it is not at all surprising that they designed a system that seems to make radical change difficult. But there are some important exceptions to that general rule, and the exceptions themselves are instructive.

For example, during World War II the Manhattan Project assembled much of the world's most eminent scientific talent in a crash program that produced an atomic bomb in less than five years. Moreover, at its peak the Project was consuming ten percent (!) of the electricity produced in the entire United States, and its facilities contained more floor space than the entire U.S. auto industry. Despite this vast effort, only a handful of Americans were even aware of the project until the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

More recently, the 9/11 attacks produced a similarly rapid and far-reaching U.S. response, whose full dimensions are still not completely known by the U.S. public. In addition to the invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent lame-brained decision to invade Iraq, the United States also passed the Patriot Act and launched a wide-ranging global effort to track down and kill as many al Qaeda members as it could find. In the process, it has created a large infrastructure of government and contractor agencies and shifted the CIA's focus away from intelligence gathering and toward a global effort to eradicate al Qaeda and its affiliates through mostly lethal means.

The obvious conclusion to be drawn from these observations is that the U.S. system of government is quite capable of swift and ambitious policy initiatives when the public and key officials are really scared (as we were in 1941 and after 9/11). One might add the response to the invasion of South Korea in 1950 and to Sputnik's launch back in 1957. And this tendency in turn helps explain why threat-inflation is such a common tool within the foreign policy establishment. When Americans are feeling safe and secure, gridlock prevails. But when they are frightened, politicians are both able to launch big initiatives and motivated to do so by the fear that the public will punish them if they don't do enough to defend the nation.

The other important lesson is that big and bold initiatives are far easier when they are kept secret. Nobody knew about the Manhattan Project, and to this day nobody knows the full extent of what our national security machinery has been up to do since 9/11. Books like Mark Mazzetti's new The Way of the Knife and the Washington Post's important articles on "Top Secret America" have peeled back the veil to a degree, but there are undoubtedly many things being done in America's name (and with U.S. tax dollars) about which taxpayers are still unaware.

The danger is two-fold. First, if secrecy makes it easier to do big things, then policymakers will be tempted to make many issues as secret as possible. Classification will run amok, not to keep valuable information from our enemies but mostly from citizens who might object. And with secrecy comes a greater danger that foolish policies won't be adequately debated or scrutinized. This problem is widespread in authoritarian regimes where dissent is squelched and open debate is impossible, but it can also happen in democracies if the circle of decision is tiny and the public is kept in the dark.

The second danger stemming from popular ignorance is blowback. If Americans don't know what their government is doing (or has done), they won't fully understand why other societies view the United States as they do. In particular, Americans won't understand why others are sometimes angry at the United States, and they will tend to interpret anger or resistance as evidence of some sort of primordial or culturally-based hatred. The result is a familiar spiral of conflict, where each side sees its own actions as fully justified by the other's supposedly innate hostility. And I'd argue that spiral dynamics are at the heart of a number of difficult foreign policy challenges, especially in our dealings with the Arab and Islamic world. Unfortunately, unwinding spirals is not easy, and all the more so if a country still doesn't understand exactly why others are ticked off.

Addendum: By a strange coincidence, my colleague Larry Summers has published a column in today's Financial Times, making a somewhat similar argument about the ability of the U.S. government to act more decisively than many people often believe. You can find his views here.

Pete Souza/Wikimedia Commons

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