Friday, February 08, 2013

The National Security State: It’s Secret

At Concurring Opinions, Danielle Citron writes:

“Recall after President Obama’s first inauguration the fuss made about his administration’s commitment to transparent government. The January 2009 Open Government memorandum seemed a fresh start for openness in the post-9/11 era. Now, four years later, drastic change in government secrecy has not materialized.”

It may turn out that some semblance of “progress” will be made on this or that front by the Obama administration when it comes to increased transparency, but I suspect, for structural reasons as it were, that this is a problem with no easy or imminent resolution. Why? Because I believe with Garry Wills in Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State (2010), that this lack of transparency is one necessary consequence of, and thus now intrinsic to, the concentration of power in the executive branch since World War II, when our government became largely transformed into a National Security State (in the sense that national security presumptions, perceptions, and imperatives have been accorded an extra-constitutional power to trump those virtues of governance associated with liberal-democratic regimes). To be sure, the “war on terror” and the inchoate insecurities associated with being a declining imperial power (in no small measure because neoliberal capitalist globalization lacks nationalist subservience and loyalty*) serve as variables that exacerbate these structural features, and the power of money to corrupt our politics serves to distract those who represent us from attending to what truly matters for democratic governance in our time and place. As Wills writes,

“[T]he momentum of accumulating powers in the executive is not easily reversed, checked, or even slowed. It was not created by the Bush administration [although John Yoo and others shamelessly endeavored to give it an historico-legal imprimatur]. The whole history of America since World War II caused an inertial rolling of power toward the executive branch. The monopoly on use of nuclear weapons, the cult of the Commander in Chief, the worldwide web of military bases to maintain nuclear alert and supremacy, the secret intelligence agencies, the whole National Security State, the classification and clearance systems, the expansion of state secrets, the withholding of evidence and information, the permanent emergency that melded World War II and the Cold War with the war on terror—all these make a vast and intricate structure that may not yield to efforts at dismantling it. [….] A president is greatly pressured to keep all the empire’s secrets. He feels he must avoid embarrassing the hordes of agents, military personnel, and diplomatic instruments whose loyalty he must command. Keeping up morale in this vast shady enterprise is something impressed on him by all manner of commitments. He becomes the prisoner of his own power. As President Truman could not not use the Bomb, a modern President cannot not use his huge power base. It has all been given him as the legacy of Bomb Power, the thing that makes him not only Commander in Chief but Leader of the Free World. He is a self-entangling giant.”

* National self-deception and states of denial at both ends of the political spectrum (such as it is) continue to afflict the powers-that-be with regard to the end of the “white man’s burden” and the shattering of the messianic complex. Those with avowed commitments to liberal values and the principles and practices of democracy will have to acquire heretofore elusive habits and virtues should they wish to avoid interminable violent conflicts and maintain (or increasingly attain) a reasonable level of “universal” welfare and well-being, one no longer dependent on exploiting the resources and vulnerabilities of others around the planet (or the planet itself, for that matter). The writing is on the wall, but it’s seen as indecipherable graffiti: Charles A. Kupchan, No One’s World: The West, the Rising Rest, and the Coming Global Turn (Oxford University Press, 2012).


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