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Guiding U.S. National Security and Military Policy: Whose Opinion Matters?

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Time and again, I've clashed with friends and colleagues over the following question regarding the nature of authority and guiding U.S. security policy: who has the right to say what? The fact of the matter is that the explosion and reach of citizen journalism and commentary, made possible by the advent of the Internet, has unquestionably democratized the decision-making processes of the U.S. government.

First, it is important to note that it is simply impossible to overstate the complexities and nuances of U.S. foreign policy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, hunting down al-Qaeda, or preventing nuclear terrorism, among other such issues of life and death. However, I believe that grounded, thoughtful and astute commentary on those very issues can be produced by any and all individuals making an effort to be engaged. And in a society that prides itself on equal opportunity, it is the writer's idea and insight, and not their affiliation or title, which will ultimately prevail. In fact, it turns out that the White House agrees with me, too.

In a major policy decision concerning international peace and security, the President decided to double-down on Afghanistan last December. Careful review and consultation with aides and advisors was not enough for Helene Cooper of the New York Times noted that the White House called in a number of Afghan experts from various Washington think tanks, along with influential columnists, bloggers, and, in the words of one expert, "everyone who has ever written an Op-Ed on Afghanistan" to give their views on the proposed build-up. Openness to new ideas, welcoming tough criticism, and instilling the need for constructive and civil debate are all hallmarks of the Obama Presidency.

Indeed, opinions outside the white walls are not garnered solely on issues of war and peace. Anne E. Kornblut and Michael A. Fletcher of the Washington Post reported earlier this year that Mr. Obama "looks for offbeat blogs and news stories, tracking down firsthand reporting and seeking out writers with opinions about his policies." An inquisitive President seeking reasoned citizen critique beyond the Washington cocoon represents the true nature of the democratic process, and should be both nurtured and celebrated; for his predecessor, need I remind you, relied heavily on his "gut."

Only ten years ago, before the accessibility of engaged and enlightened public opinion came to be, the authority of writing about issues of foreign policy, national security or the role of the military rested strictly in the hands of professors and scholars of international affairs, seasoned domestic and foreign correspondents, current and former public servants with decades of experience, and trusted allies of the President. Today, that isolated world of advice is democratizing. What was once off-limits to the majority of the body politic is now both fair-game and meritocratic; the most interesting, thoughtful and engaged thinkers and doers can have a hand in shaping real policies in real time. This is true whether you're a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School focusing on religion, ethics and politics, as I am, hoping to contribute to the critical debates of peace and security as we enter the 21st century, or you're a freshly-minted M.D. eager to contribute to the reformation of national healthcare. There is now an outlet for your cause.

Since America's founding, individuals have had to rely on Congress and the Senate to represent their collective needs, voices, and opinions. With public trust of Washington at an historic low, there is absolutely no excuse that justifies the lack of individual expression with regard to policies that affect or trouble you. You can be heard, but you have to want to be engaged, and it's as simple as that.

For more articles by Rahim Kanani, click here.

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