Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The National Security Ideology

"Observers preoccupied with delineating the differences between this Republican President and that Democratic one may uncover any number of small truths while missing the big ones. Identifying the big ones requires appreciation for continuity rather than change. It's not the superficial distinctions that matter but the subterranean similarities.

President Bush's critics and his dwindling band of loyalists share this conviction: that the forty-third president has broken decisively with the past, setting the United States on a revolutionary new course. Yet this is poppycock. The truth is this: Bush and those around him have reaffirmed the pre-existing fundamentals of U.S. policy, above all affirming the ideology of national security to which past administrations have long subscribed. Bush's main achievement has been to articulate that ideology with such fervor and clarity as to unmask as never before its defects and utter perversity.

Four core convictions inform this ideology of national security. In his second inaugural address, President Bush testified eloquently to each of them.

According to the first of these convictions, history has an identifiable and indisputable purpose. History, the president declared, "has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of liberty". History's abiding theme is freedom, to which humanity aspires. Reduced to its essentials, history is an epic struggle, binary in nature, between "oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right."

According to the second conviction, the United States has always embodied, and continues to embody, freedom. America has always been, and remains, freedom's chief exemplar and advocate. "From the day of our Founding," the president said, "we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. As the self-proclaimed Land of Liberty, the United States serves as the vanguard of history. Revising, refining and perfecting their understanding of freedom, Americans constantly model its meanings for others around the world. In 1839 the journalist John L. Sullivan declared the young United States s "The Great Nation of Futurity". So it remains today. Within the confines of the United States, history's intentions are most fully revealed.

According to the third conviction, Providence summons America to ensure freedom's ultimate triumph. This, observed President Bush, "is the mission that created our Nation". The Author of Liberty has anointed the United States as the Agent of Liberty. Unique among great powers, this nation pursues interests larger than itself. When it acts, it does so on freedom's behalf and at the behest of higher authority. By invading Iraq, the United States reaffirmed and reinvigorated the nation's "great liberating tradition," as the president put it. In doing so, "we have lit a fire as well- a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power, it burns those who fight its progress, and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world." Only cynics or those disposed toward evil cold possibly dissent from this self-evident truth.

According to the final conviction, For the American way of life to endure, freedom must prevail everywhere. Only when the light of freedom's untamed fire illuminates the world's darkest corners will America's own safety and prosperity be assured. In effect, what the United States offers to the world and what it requires of the world align precisely. Put simply "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one" This proposition serves, of course, as an infinitely expansible grant of authority, empowering the United States to assert its influence anywhere it choses since, by definition, it acts on freedom's behalf.

The ideology of national security does not serve as an operational checklist. It imposes no specific obligations. It functions the way ideology so often does- not to divine truth or even to make sense of things, but to provide a highly elastic rationale for action. In the American context, it serves principally to legitimate the exercise of executive power. It removes constraints, conferring upon presidents and their immediate circle of advisers wide prerogatives for deciding when and how to employ power.

Nothing about this ideology, however, mandates action in support of the ideals it celebrates. It doesn't, for example, oblige the United States to do anything on behalf of the people of Zimbabwe or Burma, no matter how heavy the yoke of oppression they are obliged to bear. It certainly does not prevent American policy makers from collaborating with debased authoritarian regimes that deny basic freedoms like Hosni Mubarek's Egypt or Pervez Musharraf's Pakistan. What it does do is provide policy makers with a moral gloss that can be added to virtually any initiative by insisting that, whatever concrete interests might be at stake, the United States is also acting to advance the cause of freedom and democracy.

Postwar presidents have routinely tapped elements of this ideology as a source of authority. America's status as a force for good in a world that pits good against evil has provided a rationale for bribing foreign officials, assassinating foreign leaders, overthrowing governments, and undertaking major military interventions. George Bush did not invent this practice; he merely inherited and expanded upon it."

1 comment:

  1. "Although nominally serving the public, the institutions making up the apparatus of the national security state go to great lengths to evade public scrutiny, performing their duties shielded by multiple layers of secrecy. Ostensibly, this cult of secrecy exists to deny information to America's enemies. Its actual purpose is to control the information provided to the American people, releasing only what a particular agency or administration is eager to make known, while withholding (or providing in santized form) information that might embaress the government or call into question its policies.

    In 1961, the social critic Lewis Mumford described the already expansive national security state's modus operandi this way: 'one-way communication, the priestly monopoly of secret knowledge, the multiplication of secret agencies, the suppression of open discussion, and even the insulation of error against public criticism and error...which in practice nullifies public reaction and makes rational dissent the equivalent of patriotic disaffection, if not treason. Events since have affirmed Mumford's view many times over.

    The case of "The United States vs Reynolds, 345 U.S. 1 (1953) provides an early, telling illustration of how the system works.

    In October 1948, a B-29 Superfortress bomber engaged in testing an electronic device crashed near Waycross, Georgia, killing several of those on board. Widows of the deceased crewmen, wanting to know what had caused the crash. petitioned the airforce to release the accident investigation report. Air force officials refused, claiming that they could not comply "without seriously hampering national security." When the widows sued, the Supreme Court found in favor of the air force. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Fred Vinson asserted that in "a time of vigorous preparation for national defense" the courts should steer clear of telling senior national security officials what information to release and what to withold. Given the overriding importance of keeping secrets absolutely secret, wrote Vinson, courts needed to take officials at their word: "insisting upon examination of the evidence, even by a judge alone in chambers", posed too great a risk.

    A half a century later, when the Pentagon finally declassified the accident report, it held no sensitive information at all; rather, it showed that the aircraft crashed due to poor maintenance and pilot error. The air force had used claims of national security to conceal garden-variety organizational ineptitude.

    It would be wrong to charge all officials employed by the State Department, the armed services, intelligence agencies, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the staff of the National and Homeland Security Councils, Committees of Congress, the Office of the President and the FBI with engaging in a conscious effort to fleece or abuse the American people. Yet it would not be wrong to suggest that an eagerness to advance interests and protect institutional reputations trumps all other considerations and routinely provides the basis for behavior that is dishonest, unprofessional, unethical, and frequently at odds with the nation's well being.

    "The Limits of Power; The End of Amercan Exceptionalism" By Andrew J. Bacevich, Metropolitan Books, N.Y.2008

    The point of the title is that the national security ideology, among other aspects of our the American polity, makes America quite unexceptional in history. It simply follows the course of all great empires contrary, one supposes, to the intentions of at least a handful of the Founding Fathers.