A Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” With no hesitation whatsoever, Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Prophetic words from Benjamin Franklin? Perhaps. Given the budgetary gamesmanship currently on display in our nation’s capital, it seem appropriate to ask ourselves, what is the state of the American Experiment, and is it in danger?
I have often argued that the United States faces threats from enemies conducting unconventional warfare. Whether from Al Qaeda or any other actor who seeks to practice the Chinese theory of “unrestricted warfare,” I have long worried about the potential effects of subversion and sabotage on our financial, economic, communications, and electrical infrastructure – as well as on our political system. I have even wondered if the current government shutdown might leave us vulnerable to a massive terrorist attack. On the surface it would seem to be the most opportune time to attack: much of the US government is shut down, and those employees who are working are likely distracted by the political machinations in Washington and are stuck simply trying to figure out the impact of the budget showdown on their respective agencies. Sure, the national security apparatus is supposed to continue functioning; however, it is unlikely to be do so at peak efficiency in the midst of apparent political dysfunction.
However, in examining the potential of such heightened vulnerability, we should recall Napoleon’s course of action when facing an enemy experiencing a situation such as ours. His counsel was this:
Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.
So then we are relatively safer from attacks at the moment, if our enemies follow these wise words. And it is likely that they will, since Napoleon’s guidance is an ideal lesson for a combatant that aligned against a comparatively stronger one – which is true of any American foe. They will let the US Congress and President continue their domestic political battling in the hopes that the American Experiment will collapse from within.
I, however, do not think our system is dysfunctional. I think our founding fathers created the best possible form of government, one that is sufficiently flexible to continue to evolve with changing conditions. The problem is not the system, but rather the people who operate it. And of course, those people are us. We are responsible. We elected the officials whose political maneuvering is undermining our system of government. We have seen how, once in office, elected officials from both parties seek to solidify their political longevity by gerrymandering Congressional districts, resulting in a system in which threats to re-election do not come from an opposition party, but rather from within factions of parties. And this is among the most fundamental problems with our government today: elected officials are increasingly forced to prioritize raising money to fend off these intra-party threats to re-election, at the expense of the real, substantive work of governance. But we have elected them and now we have to live with them or vote them out.
In considering the many possible ramifications of the current government shutdown, I do believe our enemies are taking Napoleon to heart, and thus I am not so worried about the likelihood of an attack. The question, however, is whether we will heed Benjamin Franklin’s words and prove capable of keeping our Republic.
David S. Maxwell is the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies and the Security Studies Program in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University. He is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel with 30 years of service.