The Best Defense

11 of the 18 congressional powers listed in the Constitution focus on national security

By Charles Stevenson

Best Defense guest columnist

The Constitution was written in 1787 with a strategic vision that allowed it to survive with few changes (only 27 amendments so far) as the United States grew in population and economic power and expanded across the continent. There were domestic concerns -- Shays' Rebellion, trade barriers between states, and the fundamental weakness of the government under the Articles of Confederation, under which taxes could only be requested by Congress.

But the framers also faced major national security concerns that shaped the new Constitution. As I explain in more detail in my latest book, the newly independent country faced numerous external threats in 1786, including:

-British refusal to withdraw from five western forts as promised by treaty

-Spanish control of the lower Mississippi River and exclusion of U.S. trade

-British and French bans on U.S. trade with the West Indies

-British and Spanish support to various Indian tribes

-7,000 Creeks threatening Savannah and Indian raids on the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers

-Barbary states seizing U.S. ships for ransom

When the framers drafted the Constitution, 11 of the 18 powers specifically granted to Congress related to security; of the first 36 Federalist Papers -- before the authors began explaining the procedures of the new government -- 25 dealt with national security. They wanted a government with taxing power, a standing army (only two years at a time, to appease critics) and permanent navy, and centralized control over trade and foreign relations. In short, they wanted to guarantee American unity against foreign powers.

And don't forget Article VI's ban on dissenting from the Constitution: not only did all federal government officials have to take an oath to support the new Constitution, but so did "all executive and judicial officers... of the several states" as well as "members of the several state legislatures." Opponents of ratification such as George Mason and Patrick Henry would have been permanently barred from office unless they took the oath.

The check and balances of the Constitution worked pretty well to prevent dictatorships and limit the tyranny of the majority, to give the commander in chief great powers in wartime yet push for consensus foreign policies at other times. What the Framers didn't foresee and couldn't prevent, however, was partisan gridlock and parochialism.

Charles A. Stevenson is an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies. He previously taught at the National War College and served as a Senate staffer. His most recent book is America's Foreign Policy Toolkit: Key Institutions and Processes.


The Best Defense

Comment of the day: It isn’t just that Maliki is a jerk, Tom, it is also that he ousted some of his best commanders

Good comment here in response to my post yesterday about why Iraqi soldiers won't fight for Maliki as hard as their enemy will fight for their own cause:

With all due respect I think your analysis doesn't fully capture what happened here. I think many Iraqi soldiers are indeed willing to die for Maliki's version of Iraq -- the majority demographic of its total headcount is proudly sectarian Shia. The problem is that Maliki chopped up the army so much that its loyal and combat experienced junior officers and enlisted aren't clustered together in cohesive units.

I was an advisor to the IA from 07-08 and have kept up with many of the guys I advised. Our battalion was primarily Shia and its members were (and are) supportive of Maliki. If the personnel structure of the IA were the same today as it was in summer '08, they would have spanked ISIS in Mosul.

As America disengaged from OIF in 2009-2011, Maliki fired experienced, American-mentored division commanders and replaced them with guys who he thought were politically loyal and wouldn't participate in a coup against him. The new division commanders (who reported directly to him in contravention to the new Iraqi constitution) then turned around and told him that he needed to reshuffle the army -- specifically, by spreading the most experienced and professional guys from 1st and 7th Divs into the other divisions. They all wanted "their share" of the best soldiers.

The result of this has been that instead of an Iraqi Army whose battalions were on a Bn-by-Bn basis roughly 1/3 legitimately professional, 1/3 a bit iffy, and 1/3 Keystone Kops (situation in 2008), you have an army all of whose battalions are combat ineffective because half their dudes desert at the moment of enemy contact.

Even worse, the politically appointed division commanders fired or reassigned a lot of the experienced and relatively non-corrupt staff officers to make room for their cronies, who are criminally incompetent and/or cowardly in many cases. For example, a platoon commander I worked with in 1st IA who is now a company commander in 2nd IA (reshuffled as per above) had his entire company abandoned in a combat outpost in Mosul that was under mortar and HMG fire from ISIS -- when he radioed his Bn CO, the guy said, "sit tight, we're coming to get you". The CO then stopped answering radio traffic and calls to his personal cell phone. My buddy and his company were able to exfil to Kurdish lines - luckily their pos was on the eastern side of Mosul.

De Atkine's "Why Arabs Lose Wars" is as pertinent as ever. I really do wonder whether there will ever be a competent Arab army that exists outside of a brutal authoritarian dictatorship.

-/AFP/Getty Images