Elaine Scarry’s “Citizenship in Emergency” is an evocative metaphor masquerading as policy analysis. In this metaphor, two doomed planes symbolize contrasting approaches to national defense. Flight 77—the plane that struck the Pentagon—is used to illustrate the inadequacies of a hierarchical, technological approach to defense policy that is obsessed with speed. In contrast, Flight 93—which crashed in Pennsylvania after the passengers fought back—represents an approach to national defense that Scarry believes is both more effective and more consistent with American values.

Scarry and I probably agree on a number of specific policy issues, such as the folly of national missile defense or the need to preserve civil liberties in the wake of September 11. Unfortunately, her “analysis” tells us very little about the actual content of U.S. defense policy or the proper policies we should adopt in the future. Although her narrative is energetic and arresting, readers who do not share her views are unlikely to be persuaded. Even worse, those who may agree with her basic position won’t find much additional support for their views. 

How Good (or Bad) is U.S. Defense Policy?

The main flaw in Scarry’s article is her attempt to challenge the entire thrust of U.S. defense policy on the basis of a single set of events. Even if one grants that “the Pentagon could not defend the Pentagon” on September 11, it does not follow that our basic approach to national security is misguided. No complex organization can boast a hundred percent success rate, especially when it faces adversaries who are actively trying to outwit it. A proper evaluation of U.S. national security policy requires that we look at a broad sample of successes and failures while simultaneously taking into account events (both good and bad) that might have occurred but didn’t. Scarry claims that “one day is all we have,” but it would be silly to base our entire defense policy on the “lessons” of a single tragic morning. Focusing solely on a vivid and dramatic failure stacks the deck in favor of the critics, but it doesn’t tell us what we are doing right and what we might be doing wrong.

What does the overall record look like? The United States has made many mistakes in its foreign and defense policy in Vietnam, the Middle East, Latin America, and elsewhere, errors that squandered billions of dollars and cost thousands of lives. These failures are balanced, however, by many successes: the postwar reconstruction of Europe and Japan, the creation of durable institutions for managing the world economy, the containment of Soviet expansion and eventual collapse of communism without a great power war, and the steady advance of democracy and human rights worldwide. U.S. foreign and defense policy may not deserve all the credit for these things, but it surely played a role. Similarly, at the very moment that Flight 77 struck the Pentagon, U.S. military forces were also deterring conflict on the Korean Peninsula, reassuring numerous allies in Europe and Asia, keeping the peace in Bosnia and Kosovo, and helping stabilize the simmering dispute between India and Pakistan. Perhaps these policies are all unnecessary, and maybe the United States (and the world) would be better off if the United States retreated to isolationism and left the rest of the world to its fate. But the metaphor upon which Scarry relies does not help us engage these issues.

Scarry’s discussion of “speed” betrays a similar unfamiliarity with the underlying principles of U.S. defense strategy and the historical record of U.S. decision-making. In general, the emphasis on rapid responses has been confined to two basic situations. The first is conventional warfare, where the ability to respond quickly to changing battlefield conditions is an obvious advantage. The second situation is the fear of a “decapitation” strike. In this scenario, U.S. defense planners worried that a nuclear-armed adversary might try to avoid nuclear retaliation by launching a sneak attack against U.S. leaders and command and control capabilities. The danger of this sort of attack was remote, but demonstrating that U.S. forces could respond very rapidly made it even less likely.

If one looks at the historical record, moreover, rapid responses have been the exception rather than the rule. President Truman did not intervene the day the Korean War broke out, and U.S. entry into the Vietnam War occurred gradually, over the course of a decade, and enjoyed both popular and Congressional support. The decision to reverse Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was debated for weeks, and our interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo followed months or years of agonized introspection. Even the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis lasted nearly two weeks, and Kennedy and his advisors debated options extensively before settling upon a course of action. Although presidential administrations sometimes cite the need to respond rapidly in order to maximize their political autonomy, the historical record offers little evidence of a “hairtrigger” mentality.

Moreover, it is not clear what policy conclusions we should draw from Scarry’s detailed deconstruction of the September 11 timetables. She criticizes the Defense Department’s emphasis on speed, but her narrative shows that part of the problem on September 11 was our inability to act fast enough once warning was available. This failure occurred in part because the United States stopped spending much money on continental air defense once nuclear weapons were placed on missiles, a decision that has saved the United States hundreds of billions of dollars over the past four decades. But what lesson, then, should we draw from all this? Was the Pentagon struck because we have placed too much emphasis on “speed,” or because we did not emphasize it enough? 

How Should National Security Decisions Be Made?

Scarry’s own preferred model of national security decisionmaking—as symbolized by the improvised “town meeting” on Flight 93—suggests that we should encourage direct citizen participation in key national security decisions. That is a laudable goal, but there is a big difference between public engagement, direct participation, and democratic accountability. In a republic of 285 million people, we cannot base every public-policy decision on face-to-face public deliberation or even some form of plebiscite. Instead, we sanction leaders who do not perform well (i.e., by voting them out of office) and we require key decisions to conform to constitutional principles and legislative approval. These institutions do not always work as well as we might wish, but Scarry does not offer any evidence to show that our existing political mechanisms have failed to produce an intelligent national security policy. Once again, accomplishing that task would require looking beyond September 11 and require her to provide a more comprehensive assessment of successes and failures.

There are at least two further problems with the model for decisionmaking that Scarry endorses. First, the “town meeting” model would be inappropriate in the face of an imminent attack. What if the President received intelligence of an imminent terrorist attack on the United States, possibly involving a nuclear, chemical, or biological weapon, and what if there was a good chance the attack could be thwarted by sending U.S. forces to destroy the weapon(s) in question? A rapid (and secret) response would be essential, and a public debate would simply tip off the adversary. It is worth noting that the passengers on Flight 93 did not “debate” their actions openly: they discussed options covertly so as not to alert the hijackers as to their intentions. The democratic safeguard in this scenario is not a public debate about how to respond; it is the capacity of the electorate to oust a leader whose judgment proves unreliable.

Second, Flight 93 is not a useful metaphor for the conduct of national security policy precisely because these individuals were forced to act in isolation from the normal constraints that govern policymaking in a democracy. Do we really want any group of Americans who believe they are in imminent danger to be empowered to use force to defend themselves, provided that they have “deliberated” or “voted” in some fashion? Of course not. Democracy is a wonderful thing, but lynch mobs can vote, too. The passengers on Flight 93 are regarded as heroes because they responded bravely to what we now know was a genuine danger, but we hardly want to enshrine this type of independent action as the ideal response whenever someone feels threatened. At the national level we want national security decisions to be conducted by officials who are both empowered and held accountable by the electoral process and whose conduct is constrained by laws and constitutional principles.

Finally, Scarry’s near-exclusive focus on the two planes diverts her from the more important lesson from September 11, one that should be central to her concern for democratic control of U.S. policy. September 11 shows that the United States cannot be engaged in every corner of the world without provoking considerable resentment. Over the past decade, the United States has ore active military role in the Islamic and Arab worlds—and especially the Persian Gulf—while maintaining its one-sided support for Israel. It has also stuck its nose in lots of other countries’ business, showing scant regard for global opinion while doing so. These policies do not justify what al Qaeda did, of course, but Americans should hardly be surprised when its efforts to mold world politics trigger resentment and retaliation. And what has been missing is any serious national debate about America’s global military presence: should the United States be the world’s gendarme or not? When and where should we use force, and when should we stay out? By focusing solely on a single morning and on the fate of two doomed planes, Scarry’s article—ambitous though it is—fails to come to grips with that fundamental question.

Thus, my main reaction to “Citizenship in Emergency” is disappointment. Professor Scarry has provided a vivid narrative, but her timetables, analogies, and breathless rhetoric do not tell us very much about how we should deal with these problems in the future. And because I suspect we would agree on a number of contemporary security issues, I wish her article made a better case.