Belaboring the Obvious

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Imperial ennui....

Perhaps it was inevitable that this country, once founded, endowed with all the natural resources necessary for sustaining itself and building an agricultural and industrial base, would, despite the occasional warnings of its founders, end up with an empire jones.

In order to do that in a system which seemed, on paper, to discourage imperial ambition, the country's elite had to ignore history, common sense and, often, the Constitution itself. The movers and shakers also had to fundamentally change the attitudes of the people of the country, which I think they've done very successfully through the course of the Cold War.

We've always had leaders who saw, often through rose-colored glasses, imperial ambition, constant expansion and military might as entirely beneficial. Teddy Roosevelt was one, Monroe was another. Wilson, despite his protestations of peaceful intentions, was one, too. But, only after the end of WWII was there a presumption on the part of the country's foreign policy and economic elite that the first and singular duty of any President, by definition, was to further their ambitions.

This change is one of the bad lessons of the "Good War." Henry Stimson is an example. Before the war, in his capacity as Secretary of State, Stimson withdrew funding for the country's first peacetime cryptologic agency, the so-called "Black Chamber," saying that "gentlemen do not read other gentlemen's mail," (in a way, this was a conscious decision to resist the militarization of diplomacy) and yet, at the war's end, he retired from government service, not just to write his memoirs, but to visit elite Yale's young elite, giving monthly dinners at the Skull & Bones society, and at each of these events exhorting the secret society's members to use their future positions and the skills learned at Yale to force American exceptionalism on the rest of the world.

The second bad lesson learned was a consequence of the United States surviving the war virtually intact. This was frequently seen as a sign of the country's virtuousness, sometimes of God's favoritism, when it was mostly accidental--a function of geography. Nevertheless, that fact was used to promote both the pragmatic and the pompous. It generated the Marshall Plan and the quickly emerging belief that the United States was "the leader of the free world," a heady concoction of imperial desire, if there ever was one, and the moniker was almost as quickly attached to the President himself (the phrase persists today almost out of habit--the French, for example, find it an utterly ridiculous posture for any country's leader to take). It was also a way of reminding every Presidential hopeful afterwards of the elite's expectations.

The third bad lesson learned from that war was that it was, indeed, possible to extend military power across the globe in a very short space of time, maintain communications with those far-flung forces (something which had plagued the Romans) and establish more or less reliable lines of supply across vast distances, and as the immediate post-war occupations showed, extraordinarily easy to induce conquered enemies and allies alike to accept garrisons of foreign troops on their soil in exchange for money and other aid. Where 19th century attempts at co-opting Japan as a refueling point for military ships intent on controlling the greater market of China had largely failed, 20th century total war had succeeded.

Which brings up the fourth bad lesson--that the military could be made invincible through continuous technological improvement and the use of that technology on civilian populations. Certainly, the first atomic bombs were a dramatic datum in that calculation, but, mass night bombing in Europe and the fire-bombing of Japanese cities were also very convincing to war planners.

All of these "successes" merged into the worst lesson of all--that the country could conceivably control most, and possibly all, of the planet through combined military and economic power, and that possibility has dominated elite thinking ever since. As a consequence, we've had sixty years of military expansion and all-too-frequent war, the careful and increasing manipulation of public opinion to support that military spending and those wars, and via the increasing power of the military, the rapid ascension of government secrecy (while at the same time loudly proclaiming ourselves to be an "open society"), along with the progressive, inexorable diminishment of Constitutional rights principally by the courts' obeisance to the Executive in the use of military technology domestically.

Reductively, the military (with its auxiliary intelligence and contractor functions) has become a government unto itself. No significant bloc in Congress is capable of reining in the beast, and no President has been willing to seriously and significantly buck the Pentagon, if only because the Pentagon is the principal source of the President's power, ever since the creation of the national security state in 1947. While we've had plenty of indications of this sorry state of affairs over the years (COINTELPRO, the Vietnam war and Iran-Contra come immediately to mind), the last decade has been rife with dead canaries in the coal mine of which we've taken little to no notice. A few canaries:

1) Despite obvious and egregious violations of law by the country's top executives, the country's elite--in media, in the foreign policy arena and the economic world--have effectively neutered the ability of Congress to rationally exercise its authority to impeach. If anything, Republicans--very calculatingly and effectively--sought in the impeachment of Bill Clinton to convince the public that impeachment was a purely partisan political exercise, thus inoculating themselves in the future from the possibility of such censure, since they could then use that charge against Democrats if the Democrats chose to impeach for substantial cause. With Obama's refusal to engage Congress in setting limits on Executive power, impeachment for high crimes, let alone misdemeanors, is now impossible except for purely partisan reasons. In the future, impeachment will only be used by Republicans as a means of entrenching that party's power. (Anyone doubting that should review the ways in which Clinton's impeachment affected the media discourse during the 2000 election.)

While it's almost too predictable for words, the notable current example is Rep. Darrell Issa's promise to expand the staff and subpoena powers of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee if the Republicans regain the House in November, using the committee to politically harass the Executive branch in exactly the same way as Dan Burton used it during the Clinton years, and is certainly intended as a means of inclining public opinion toward Obama's impeachment.

Complicating this matter further is the Democrats' decided abhorrence of impeachment for violations related to perceived national security issues. Anything bordering on national security has simply been off-limits. In this way, the elites in Washington have been immunized from both impeachment and prosecution, regardless of the severity of their crimes. This may be the single most damaging effect of the militarization of society today, since it effectively has created a criminogenic environment at the top of government.

2) Government, and particularly the Pentagon, has increasingly sought to limit the ability of the press to report, and has constructed artificial limitations on the press that, in very fundamental ways, shape the content and tone of reporting. Most recently, of course, there is the issue of "embedded" reporters, but, this effort has been going on in earnest at least since the invasion of Grenada, when the Pentagon created a press blackout during those operations and even fired on reporters attempting to reach that island by boat. The elder Bush ordered the same during the invasion of Panama, and in the build-up to the first Gulf War, the Pentagon and the White House used public relations firms to manage information and the Pentagon effectively controlled the press by denying access except to media outlets that had signed prewar agreements to put themselves under military control (see, particularly, Rick MacArthur's excellent Second Front for details on the latter).

Similar arrangements were operative in Serbia and Kosovo, but this insanity has increased exponentially since 9/11. Much of reporting today is based on Pentagon press releases or officially authorized anonymous Pentagon and White House leaks, a process at which the Bush White House became highly adept, and which has not changed much in Obama's administration (note, for example, the recent article by James Risen at the NYT which announced, with high drama, that there was at least $1 trillion dollars' worth of untapped mineral resources in Afghanistan, a pronouncement which came at precisely the time when every independent report on that war was suggesting an ever-bleaker outcome there, as if the prospect of the stealing the country's resources would breathe new life into support for the war).

More ominously, of course, is the attitude in the Pentagon and the White House about using black propaganda on the U.S. public. Despite the existence of a 1946 law (the Smith-Mundt Act) forbidding the government to propagandize the public, the practice goes on with impunity. In recent years, the most egregious practice of the art came with the Pentagon's calculated and coordinated use of retired senior military who were also military advisers to the television networks to promote the Pentagon's line on the wars, on military spending, and on pretty much every issue of interest to the Pentagon. Worse yet, the television networks--even after the practice was exposed, and after it became known that many of the participants were also in paid positions with defense contractors and stood to gain personally by promoting the Pentagon's line--failed to acknowledge their own complicity, and almost all cases, continued to use those military advisers in news shows without disclosing either their conflicts of interest or their participation in the Pentagon propaganda effort. Worse still, the Pentagon's IG absolved the Pentagon offices involved of all wrongdoing.

3) As the government's talent for deceit has increased, along with the news media's tolerance of and willingness to participate in that deceit, the government's--and the courts'--intolerance of exposing the truth has only grown. Consider for a moment the press, public and Congressional reactions to the publication of the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971. The import of those documents cannot be underestimated--their release prompted illegal retaliations by Nixon's White House, furthering Nixon's inexorable slide toward impeachment, the NY Times went to court to preserve their right to publish, they were read into the Congressional Record by then-Senator Mike Gravel, and their general effect on the public was dramatic, showing for the first time the obstinate pursuit by the military and successive administrations of a goal that was doomed from the start and in no way could be construed as advancing the security of the nation.

Contrast the mood over the leak of the Pentagon Papers with recent leaks. The press, Congress and public alike just wanted the Abu Ghraib mess to go away. There were a few low-level prosecutions of the "just following orders" variety, but the Pentagon and White House leadership were left virtually untouched, and the principal investigator for the Pentagon, Maj. Gen Antonio Taguba, effectively ended his military career by issuing the report--he was seen by the Pentagon's military and civilian leadership as disloyal for doing so. When the NY Times produced a story in 2004 showing conclusively that Bush had violated law in sweeping ways with his domestic surveillance and wiretapping practices, not only did the NY Times withhold the story at Presidential request for nearly a year, until Bush was safely reelected, but, as well, Congress rushed to both immunize the giant telecommunications corporations which profited from assisting the government in illegal operations and to codify the President's illegality in law. The public remained largely uninformed about the ways in which the changes in law affected their Constitutional rights and bewildered by the technicalities. The outrage was confined to a few civil libertarians and progressives who took the time to understood the implications.

Most recently, the Pentagon has sought to openly fight back against unauthorized leaks which threaten its control over the news. The government is actively pursuing the prosecution of Thomas Drake, a former NSA official who leaked information on the NSA's waste of money and resources on its Trailblazer program to a Baltimore reporter. It has formulated what are, in effect, battle plans against WikiLeaks, the independent forum for disclosure of government wrongdoing, and has detained the intelligence analyst who purportedly supplied to WikiLeaks the video of an Apache helicopter attack on two Reuters photographers which killed them and several others, and seriously wounded two children. The press has not pursued the issue of the Pentagon's iron grip on information beyond describing the Pentagon's search for WikiLeaks' founder, Julian Assange, as a "manhunt," as if Assange, an Australian citizen and a journalist, were an internationally dangerous criminal. Maher Arar, the Canadian engineer abducted by the United States and sent to Syria for torture was denied his writ of certiorari by the Supreme Court on Monday last, apparently acting on the Obama's administration's request that the Court not hear his case. Even the Coast Guard, despite protestations otherwise, has apparently attempted to control news of the continuing oil damage in the Gulf on behalf of both BP and the administration, and new restricted flight zones are being created to prevent overflights at altitudes where oil damage can be observed and photographed (the FAA claims safety, while some reporters say the altitude restrictions put them in haze or cloud cover where the damage can't be accurately recorded, and point to lower altitude limits in force before the spill as proof).

4) The war's coming home, in unexpected ways. In societies where militarism and military expansion are a way of life, there's often little consideration of the ways in which the military is used domestically, or the ways in which a system of for-profit military procurement promotes the use of warmaking technology at home. The traditional cautionary note has been that anything the military uses in war can be turned on its own citizens, and the desire for profit can only make that temptation worse. Not only have defense contractors seen law enforcement as a new market for military weapons (think the rapid increase in the use of paramilitary SWAT teams around the country operating with military equipment and tactics), but they are already contemplating the domestic use of equipment designed for the military which the military hasn't even deployed, such as the Active Denial System, the "pain ray" microwave system which has been billed as the ultimate crowd control system. The LRAD sound cannon has already been used in the U.S., recently against both innocent bystanders and protesters of the G20 conference in Pittsburgh. Perhaps this is a natural consequence of the military's attitudes toward dissent. And, if you couldn't see it coming, the push is now on to employ surveillance drones in a variety of capacities inside the U.S. And, quite apart from the paramilitary law enforcement applications, there are the consequences implicit in turning U.S. territory into just another military zone of operations with the creation of Northern Command. Consider, too, the bill created by the Senate's resident neoliberal authoritarian idiot, Joe Lieberman, to give the President the tools and the authority to preside over an internet "kill switch."

5) More and more, we're trying to do all these things--and much more--on the credit card. We have an entrenched wealthy corporate class whose entire existence is devoted to tax avoidance and to getting the government to subsidize them, even in time of war. Unemployment remains doggedly high, and military spending combined with tax cuts for the wealthy is the chief impediment to alleviating that condition. Especially in the last decade or so, we've protected the wealthy and the military at the expense of the vast remainder of the population, coddled corporations and looked the other way at illegal activities, and the result has been financial and societal and environmental chaos. We have instituted, behind closed doors, the sort of corporatism that would have made Mussolini envious.

* * *

All these things are indications of an empire already in decline. Where we are now on that arc of imperial rise and fall, I couldn't begin to say, but, I would hazard a guess that a process which in antiquity took hundreds of years to resolve may now happen, due to near instantaneous communications and lightning-fast transfers of capital, in decades or less.

We cannot say, with any honesty at all, that we are still an open society. We resemble one superficially, but, in fact, the growing national security state and increasing Executive power have subsumed every principled attempt at openness. We continue to say we have a free press, but, in large part, that press acts not as a skeptical adversary of government, but, rather, as a partner (there are exceptions, of course, but they are becoming increasingly rare). We continue to claim the spread of democracy as our inherent right, and yet, in rather stark terms, our civil and Constitutional rights are seen by the government as an impediment to the protection of the national security state, our voting rights, that essential building block of democracy, are compromised--either in theory or in practice--by unauditable electronic systems and our candidates are too often chosen for us by political machines and by a corrupt system of campaign financing (if there's any indication of just how debased the system of voting has become, it's in the huge number of people who don't vote). The government may arbitrarily deny us justice to evade the public disclosure of its own wrongdoing or of embarrassing information.

Increasingly, countries around the world have been stung badly and have rejected our corporatist brand of democracy, which too often comes out of the barrel of a gun, and which too often demands the impoverishment of entire nations in exchange for our "protection." Many of those countries learned, from bitter experience, what happens when the United States trains the foreign leaders it favors, in "democratic" principles.

The ongoing project of the right wing in the United States has been to transform citizens into frightened consumers, and the effort has, thus far, been remarkably successful. The propaganda effort by the right continues to promote economic policies which are intended solely to move wealth upwards, and have apart from that purpose been abject failures.

If there is one single measurement of our decline, however, it is in the sense of futility so many of us feel. With dissent relegated to "free-speech zones," far from the eyes and ears of our representatives, and access to the wheels of government determined by the level of one's campaign contributions, by the seeming abandonment of the middle class and the working poor in favor of the wealthy and the powerful, we have come to believe, grudgingly and against our will, that the government finally has been captured by the post-war elites who will drive the country into the ground in pursuit of money and power, and principally because the distribution of power will become increasingly lopsided over time, our dissolution as a people is inevitable and inexorable.


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