Enthusiasm over entrepreneurship is now found in every corner of society—even, apparently, within the federal bureaucracy. Witness after witness in last month’s House impeachment inquiry hearings referred to “the interagency,” an off-the-books informal government organization that we now know has enormous power to set and execute American foreign policy.
The first to testify before the House Intelligence Committee, State Department official George Kent, seemed to conceive of the interagency as the definitive source of foreign-policy consensus. That Mr. Trump’s alleged decision to withhold military aid to Ukraine deviated from that consensus was, for Mr. Kent, prima facie evidence that it was misguided.
Next up, Ambassador William Taylor told the committee that it was the “unanimous opinion of every level of interagency discussion” that the aid should be resumed without delay. Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council official, gave the game away by admitting how upset she was that Gordon Sondland, President Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, had established an “alternative” approach to helping Kyiv. “We have a robust interagency process that deals with Ukraine,” she said.
What is the interagency, and why should its views guide the conduct of American diplomatic and national-security professionals? The Constitution grants the president the power to set defense and diplomatic policy. Where did this interagency come from?
I first heard of the interagency in Baghdad in 2009. I was there as part of a Council on Foreign Relations delegation to Iraq. As a U.S. Army general briefed us on how the war was being fought, he spoke of the interagency as the source of the strategy he was executing. Naively, I asked why he wasn’t operating according to orders from his military superiors or the secretary of defense.
He explained that American war-fighting was being guided by a “whole of government” philosophy. Incredibly, he explained that the war couldn’t be won without, among other agencies, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Health and Human Services, Justice and Labor. Iraq needed economic expansion, modern farming, business statistics, new hospitals, a working court system and workplace regulations. The strategy framed by the interagency was nothing less than a yearslong engagement in nation building—precisely what President George W. Bush had rejected in his 2000 campaign.
Interagency cooperative agreements have been around for decades. The Justice Department, for example, has opioid-interdiction programs that require it to work with the Department of Homeland Security. Today a dictionary of more than 12,500 official terms exists to guide bureaucrats in writing interagency contracts that repurpose federal funds appropriated to various executive departments. Often these interdepartmental initiatives devised by bureaucrats are unknown to Congress. It’s hard to imagine that the legislative branch wouldn’t object to these arrangements, if only it were aware of them.
When the war on terror opened, with all the secret activity it required, professional cadres in the diplomatic corps, the military and the nation’s many intelligence agencies were able to transform interagency cooperative agreements that had existed since the Cold War into a de facto agency—a largely informal and virtual bureaucracy—with the assumed power, if need be, to determine and execute a foreign policy at odds with the intent of the president and Congress.
Last month’s testimony before the Intelligence Committee shed light on this club whose members are a permanent shadow government credentialed by family histories, elite schools and unique career experiences. This common pedigree informs their perspective of how America should relate to the world. The dogmatists of the interagency seem to share a common discomfort with a president who probably couldn’t describe the doctrine of soft power, doesn’t desire to be the center of attention at Davos, and wouldn’t know that Francis Fukuyama once decided that history was over.
The impeachment hearings will have served a useful purpose if all they do is demonstrate that a cabal of unelected officials are fashioning profound aspects of U.S. foreign policy on their own motion. No statutes anticipate that the president or Congress will delegate such authority to a secret working group formed largely at the initiation of entrepreneurial bureaucrats, notwithstanding that they may be area experts, experienced in diplomatic and military affairs, and motivated by what they see as the best interests of the country.
However the impeachment drama plays out, Congress has cause to enact comprehensive legislation akin to the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, which created more-efficient structures and transparent processes in the Defense Department. Americans deserve to know who really is responsible for making the nation’s foreign policy. The interagency, if it is to exist, should have a chairman appointed by the president, and its decisions, much like the once-secret minutes of the Federal Reserve, should be published, with limited and necessary exceptions, for all to see.
Mr. Schramm is a university professor at Syracuse. His most recent book is “Burn the Business Plan.”