"Politics should never get in the way of national security," wrote John Brennan, the White House's shockingly political deputy national security advisor. His USA Today Op-Ed article last week set off a firestorm inside the Beltway by essentially accusing critics of administration policy of deliberately lying -- "misrepresenting the facts to score political points, instead of coming together to keep us safe" -- and aiding and abetting al-Qaeda: "Politically motivated criticism and unfounded fear-mongering only serve the goals of al-Qaeda."
The fight Brennan is asking for is a classic D.C. slugfest, with charges of partisanship and insinuations of unpatriotism. To some it seems like American politics at its worst. It's certainly not American politics at its best, but maybe it's not so bad either.
Partisan attacks are the democratic equivalent of a market signal to those in power. Most businessmen hate competition, but the most successful businesses learn from what the market tells them. Competitors expose vulnerabilities in your product line and deficiencies in your sales pitch. The unhealthiest firms are those that have gone the longest without serious competition. It's the same in nearly every field of human endeavor. In a democracy, the hope is that serious arguments will win out over frivolous ones. The only way for that to happen is to have the arguments.
For the record, I basically agree with Brennan's critics. The Obama administration's explanations for how it's treated the suspect in the attempted Christmas Day bombing and how it dealt with the civilian trial for Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and other al-Qaeda terrorists have been incoherent and amateurish. Also, Brennan's talking-point hackery, even to denounce alleged talking-point hackery, is bad form for a high-ranking national security official. It leaves the impression that the guy running the antiterrorism effort is a political operative first and terrorism-fighter second.
But let's take those talking points at face value. Who says politics should never interfere with national security? Politics is the means by which we define acceptable trade-offs. How else but through politics are we to hash out everything from waterboarding to wiretapping?
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