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The Washington Quarterly 24.2 (2001) 75-81

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Principles for a National Security Consensus

William S. Cohen

Any predictions of whether a bipartisan consensus on foreign or defense policy is possible in the coming years must be circumscribed by a good deal of humility and caution. Will the coming years be defined by the open arms of cooperation or the clenched fists of confrontation? We do know that future events and decisions will not occur in isolation. They will be shaped--for better or worse--by the recent past. Any candid assessment of the prospects for bipartisan national security policy must therefore begin with an equally honest look over our shoulders at the successes and shortcomings of recent years. As secretary of defense, I watched the pendulum of politics swing wildly between refreshing moments of agreement and regrettable moments of acrimony. Two such moments reveal the stage upon which the coming years may be played.

One--a telling ceremony on the steps of the Pentagon on October 5, 1999--illuminated the potential for progress. Standing together that day was the nation's entire defense team: a Democratic commander-in-chief, his Republican secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the secretaries and chiefs of every service. Joining us were Republican and Democratic leaders of the congressional defense committees: Senators John Warner (R-Va.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) of the Senate Armed Services Committee and Representatives Floyd Spence (R-S.C.) and Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) of the House Armed Services Committee.

The bipartisan representation reflected the spirit of the day. With a stroke of his pen, President Bill Clinton signed into law the largest sustained increase in defense spending in 15 years, including the largest increase in military pay and benefits in nearly two decades as well as funding to sustain significant increases in modernization. Only a few short years earlier, most [End Page 75] observers had regarded such an infusion of new funds as unlikely, if not impossible, given the political consensus that balanced budget concerns would remain paramount for the foreseeable future. Yet less than three years later, such an increase was not only likely, it was law. This development proceeded, to be sure, from an unexpected surplus, but also because those on the Pentagon steps that day were able to narrow their political differences and craft legislation supported by both the Congress and the administration.

A second scene--only 11 months earlier--serves as a searing reminder of the danger when national security falls victim to highly charged times. In December 1998, split-screen news broadcasts captured the schizophrenic nature of world events. On one side of the screen were images of political combat on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives as it grappled with the fate of the president. On the other side were images of combat over the skies of Baghdad as U.S. and British forces struck Saddam Hussein's military apparatus following his continued failure to abide by United Nations resolutions. So poisoned was the political atmosphere in Washington that some still viewed the Operation Desert Fox strikes--which were understood to be the likely response to Saddam's continued intransigence ever since similar strikes were averted earlier in 1998 by mere minutes--through partisan lenses.

Under these circumstances, I found myself--alongside Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Hugh Shelton and Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet--in the unprecedented position of standing in the well of the House before a closed-door gathering of lawmakers on the first evening of the air campaign. As I had on other occasions that week, I sought to assure those gathered that national security concerns were the only factor in the president's decision to launch the strikes. Political leaders on both sides of the aisle ultimately expressed their support for the operation, but that we found ourselves in the well of the House at all underscored the corrosive effect of partisan discord seeping into the national security arena.

We should not harbor any illusions that a repetition...


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