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A Self-Perpetuating Machine for American Insecurity
Welcome to the National Security State of 2015
By Tom Engelhardt
As 2015 begins, let’s take a trip down memory lane. Imagine that it’s January 1963. For the last three years, the United States has unsuccessfully faced off against a small island in the Caribbean, where a revolutionary named Fidel Castro seized power from a corrupt but U.S.-friendly regime run by Fulgencio Batista. In the global power struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union in which much of the planet has chosen sides, Cuba, only 90 miles from the American mainland, finds itself in the eye of the storm. Having lost Washington’s backing, it has, however, gained the support of distant Moscow, the other nuclear-armed superpower on the planet.
In October 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower instituted an embargo on U.S. trade with the island that would, two years later, be strengthened and made permanent by John F. Kennedy. On entering the Oval Office, Kennedy also inherited a cockamamie CIA scheme to use Cuban exiles to overthrow Castro. That led, in April 1961, to the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in which, despite major Agency support, the exiles were crushed (after which the CIA would hatch various mad plots to assassinate the new Cuban leader). What followed in October 1962 was “the most dangerous moment in human history” — the Cuban missile crisis — a brief period when many Americans, my 18-year-old self included, genuinely thought we might soon be nuclear toast.
Now, imagine yourself in January 1963, alive and chastened by a world in which you could be obliterated at any moment. Imagine as well that someone from our time suddenly invited you into the American future some 52 Januaries hence, when you would, miracle of miracles, still be alive and the planet still more or less in one piece. Imagine, as a start, being told that the embargo against, and Washington’s hostility toward, Cuba never ended. That 52 futile years later, with Cuba now run by Fidel’s “younger” brother, 83-year-old Raul, the 11th American president to deal with the “crisis” has finally decided to restore diplomatic relations, ease trade restrictions, and encourage American visitors to the island.
Imagine being told as well that in Congress, more than half a century later, a possible majority of representatives remained nostalgic for a policy that spent 52 years not working. Imagine that members of the upcoming 2015 Senate were already swearing they wouldn’t hand over a plug nickel to the president or the State Department to establish a diplomatic mission in Havana or confirm an ambassador or ease the embargo or take any other steps to change the situation, and were denouncing the president — who, by the way, is a black man named Barack Obama — as a weakling and an “appeaser-in-chief” for making such a move.
Perhaps that American visitor from 1963 would already feel as if his or her mind were being scrambled like a morning egg and yet we’re only beginning. After all, our visitor would have to be told that the Soviet Union, that hostile, nuclear-armed communist superpower and partner of Washington in the potential obliteration of the planet, no longer exists; that it unexpectedly imploded in 1991, leaving its Eastern European empire largely free to integrate into the rest of Europe.
One caveat would, however, need to be added to that blockbuster piece of historical news. Lest our visitor imagine that everything has changed beyond all recognition, it would be important to point out that in 2015 the U.S. still confronts an implacably hostile, nuclear-armed communist state. Not the USSR, of course, nor even that other communist behemoth, China. (Its Communist Party took the “capitalist road” in the late 1970s and never looked back as that country rose to become the globe’s largest economy!)
Here’s a hint: it fought the U.S. to a draw in a bitter war more than six decades ago and has just been accused of launching a devastating strike against the United States. Admittedly, it wasn’t aimed at Washington but at Hollywood. That country — or some group claiming to be working in its interests — broke into a major movie studio, Sony (oh yes, a Japanese company is now a significant force in Hollywood!), and released gossip about its inner workings as well as the nasty things actors, producers, and corporate executives had to say about one another. It might (or might not), that is, have launched the planet’s first cyber-gossip bomb.
And yes, you would have to tell our visitor from 1963 that this hostile communist power, North Korea, is also an oppressive, beleaguered, lights-out state and in no way a serious enemy, not in a world in which the U.S. remains the “last superpower.”
You would, of course, have to add that, 52 years later, Vietnam, another implacable communist enemy with whom President Kennedy was escalating a low-level conflict in 1963, is now a de facto U.S. ally — and no, not because it lost its war with us. That war, once considered the longest in U.S. history, would at its height see more than 500,000 American combat troops dispatched to South Vietnam and, in 1973, end in an unexpectedly bitter defeat for Washington from which America never quite seemed to recover.
2015 and Baying for More
Still, with communism a has-been force and capitalism triumphant everywhere, enemies have been just a tad scarce in the twenty-first century. Other than the North Koreans, there is the fundamentalist regime of Iran, which ran its Batista, the Shah, out in 1979, and with which, in the 35 years since, the U.S. has never come to terms — though Barack Obama still might — without ever quite going to war either. And of course there would be another phenomenon of our moment completely unknown to an American of 1963: Islamic extremism, aka jihadism, along with the rise of terrorist organizations and, in 2014, the establishment of the first mini-terror state in the heart of the Middle East. And oh yes, there was that tiny crew that went by the name of al-Qaeda, 19 of whose box-cutter-wielding militants hijacked four planes on September 11, 2001, and destroyed two soaring towers (not yet built in 1963) in downtown New York City and part of the Pentagon. In the process, they killed themselves and thousands of civilians, put apocalyptic-looking scenes of destruction on American television screens, and successfully created a sense of a looming, communist-style planetary enemy, when just about no one was there.
Their acts gave a new administration of right-wing fundamentalists in Washington the opportunity to fulfill its wildest dreams of planetary domination by launching, only days later, what was grandiloquently called the Global War on Terror (or the Long War, or World War IV), a superpower crusade against, initially, almost no one. Its opening salvo would let loose an “all-volunteer” military (no more draft Army as in 1963) universally believed to be uniquely powerful. It would, they were sure, wipe out al-Qaeda, settle scores with various enemies in the Greater Middle East, including Iraq, Iran, and Syria, and leave the U.S. triumphant in a way no great power had been in history. In response to a few thousand scattered al-Qaeda members, a Pax Americana would be created on a global scale that would last generations, if not forever and a day.
Washington’s enemies of that moment would have been so unimpressive to Americans of 1963 that, on learning of the future that awaited them, they might well have dropped to their knees and thanked God for the deliverance of the United States of America. In describing all this to that visitor from another America, you would, however, have to add that the Global War on Terror, in which giant ambitions met the most modest of opponents any great power had faced in hundreds of years, didn’t work out so well. You would have to point out that the U.S. military, allied intelligence outfits, and a set of warrior corporations (almost unknown in 1963) mobilized to go to war with them struck out big time in a way almost impossible to fathom; that, from September 2001 to January 2015, no war, invasion, occupation, intervention, conflict, or set of operations, no matter how under-armed or insignificant the forces being taken on, succeeded in any lasting or meaningful way. It was as if Hank Aaron had come to the plate for a more than a decade without ever doing anything but striking out.
For our by now goggle-eyed visitor, you would have to add that, other than invading the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada against no opposition in 1983 and Panama against next to no opposition in 1989, the mightiest power on the planet hasn’t won a war or conflict since World War II. And after explaining all this, the strangest task would still lie ahead.
Our American beamed in from 1963, who hadn’t even experienced defeat in Vietnam yet, would have to be filled in on the two wars of choice Washington launched with such enthusiasm and confidence in 2001 and 2003 and could never again get out of. I’m talking, of course, about Afghanistan and Iraq, two countries that would barely have registered on an American radar screen 52 years ago, and yet would prove unparalleled quagmires (a Vietnam-era term our observer wouldn’t have yet run across). We would need to explain how the “lone superpower” of the twenty-first century would transform each of them into competitors for the “longest American war” ever.
Washington’s Iraq War began in 1991, the year the Soviet Union would disappear, and in one form or another essentially never ended. It has involved the building of major war-making coalitions, invasions, a full-scale occupation, air wars of various sorts, and god knows what else. As 2015 begins, the U.S. is in its third round of war in Iraq, having committed itself to a new and escalating conflict in that country (and Syria), and in all that time it has won nothing at all. It would be important to remind our visitor from the past that Barack Obama ran for president in 2008 on the promise of getting the U.S. out of Iraq and actually managed to do so for three years before plunging the country back in yet again.
The first American war in Afghanistan, on the other hand, was a CIA Cold War operation that began in 1979 just after the Soviets invaded the country and was meant as payback for Vietnam. And yes, to confuse that visitor even more, in its first Afghan War, the U.S. actually supported the crew who became al-Qaeda and would later attack New York and Washington to ensure the launching of the second Afghan War, the one in which the U.S. invaded and occupied the country. That war has been going on ever since. Despite much talk about winding it down or even ending the mission there 13 years later, the commitment has been renewed for 2015 and beyond.
In both countries, the enemies of choice proved to be lightly armed minority insurgencies. In both, an initial, almost ecstatic sense of triumph following an invasion slowly morphed into a fear of impending defeat. To add just a fillip to all this, in 2015 a Republican majority in the Senate as well as in the House — and don’t forget to explain that we’re no longer talking about Eisenhower Republicans here — will be baying for more.
The National Security State as a Self-Perpetuating Machine
So far, America’s future, looked at from more than half a century ago, has been little short of phantasmagoric. To sum up: in an almost enemy-less world in which the American economic system was triumphant and the U.S. possessed by far the strongest military on the planet, nothing seems to have gone as planned or faintly right. And yet, you wouldn’t want to leave that observer from 1963 with the wrong impression. However much the national security state may have seemed like an amalgam of the Three Stooges on a global stage, not everything worked out badly.
In fact, in these years the national security state triumphed in the nation’s capital in a way that the U.S. military and allied intelligence outfits were incapable of doing anywhere else on Earth. Fifty-three years after the world might have ended, on a planet lacking a Soviet-like power — though the U.S. was by now involved in “Cold War 2.0” in eastern Ukraine on the border of the rump energy state the Soviet Union left behind — the worlds of national security and surveillance had grown to a size that beggared their own enormous selves in the Cold War era. They had been engorged by literally trillions of taxpayer dollars. A new domestic version of the Pentagon called the Department of Homeland Security had been set up in 2002. An “intelligence community” made up of 17 major agencies and outfits, bolstered by hundreds of thousands of private security contractors, had expanded endlessly and in the process created a global surveillance state that went beyond the wildest imaginings of the totalitarian powers of the twentieth century.
In the process, the national security state enveloped itself in a penumbra of secrecy that left the American people theoretically “safe” and remarkably ignorant of what was being done in their name. Its officials increasingly existed in a crime-free zone, beyond the reach of accountability, the law, courts, or jail. Homeland security and intelligence complexes grew up around the national security state in the way that the military-industrial complex had once grown up around the Pentagon and similarly engorged themselves. In these years, Washington filled with newly constructed billion-dollar intelligence headquarters and building complexes dedicated to secret work — and that only begins to tell the tale of how twenty-first-century “security” triumphed.
This vast investment of American treasure has been used to construct an edifice dedicated in a passionate way to dealing with a single danger to Americans, one that would have been unknown in 1963: Islamic terrorism. Despite the several thousand Americans who died on September 11, 2001, the dangers of terrorism rate above shark attacks but not much else in American life. Even more remarkably, the national security state has been built on a foundation of almost total failure. Think of failure, in fact, as the spark that repeatedly sets the further expansion of its apparatus in motion, funds it, and allows it to thrive.
It works something like this: start with the fact that, on September 10, 2001, global jihadism was a microscopic movement on this planet. Since 9/11, under the pressure of American military power, it has exploded geographically, while the number of jihadist organizations has multiplied, and the number of people joining such groups has regularly and repeatedly increased, a growth rate that seems to correlate with the efforts of Washington to destroy terrorism and its infrastructure. In other words, the Global War on Terror has been and remains a global war for the production of terror. And terror groups know it.
It was Osama bin Laden’s greatest insight and is now a commonplace that drawing Washington into military action against you increases your credibility in the world that matters to you and so makes recruiting easier. At the same time, American actions, from invasions to drone strikes, and their “collateral damage,” create pools of people desperate for revenge. If you want to thrive and grow, in other words, you need the U.S. as an enemy.
Via taunting acts like the beheading videos of the Islamic State, the new “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, such movements bait Washington into action. And each new terrorist crew, each “lone wolf” terrorist undiscovered until too late by a state structure that has cost Americans trillions of dollars, each plot not foiled, each failure, works to bolster both terrorist outfits and the national security state itself. This has, in other words, proved to be a deeply symbiotic and mutually profitable relationship.
From the point of view of the national security state, each failure, each little disaster, acts as another shot of fear in the American body politic, and the response to failure is predictable: never less of what doesn’t work, but more. More money, more bodies hired, more new outfits formed, more elaborate defenses, more offensive weaponry. Each failure with its accompanying jolt of fear (and often hysteria) predictably results in further funding for the national security state to develop newer, even more elaborate versions of what it’s been doing these last 13 years. Failure, in other words, is the key to success.
In this sense, think of Washington’s national security structure as a self-perpetuating machine that works like a dream, since those who oversee its continued expansion are never penalized for its inability to accomplish any of its goals. On the contrary, they are invariably promoted, honored, and assured of a golden-parachute-style retirement or — far more likely — a golden journey through one of Washington’s revolving doors onto some corporate board or into some cushy post in one complex or another where they can essentially lobby their former colleagues for private warrior corporations, rent-a-gun outfits, weapons makers, and the like. And there is nothing either in Washington or in American life that seems likely to change any of this in the near future.
An Inheritance From Hell
In the meantime, a “war on terror” mentality slowly seeps into the rest of society as the warriors, weapons, and gadgetry come home from our distant battle zones. That’s especially obvious when it comes to the police nationwide. It can be seen in the expanding numbers of SWAT teams filled with special ops vets, the piles of Pentagon weaponry from those wars being transferred to local police forces at home, and the way they are taking on the look of forces of occupation in an alien land, operating increasingly with a mentality of “wartime policing.” Since the events of Ferguson, all of this has finally become far more evident to Americans (as it would, with some explanation, to our visitor from 1963). It was no anomaly, for example, that Justice Department investigators found a banner hanging in a Cleveland police station that identified the place sardonically as a “forward operating base,” a term the military uses, as the New York Times put it, “for heavily guarded wartime outposts inside insurgent-held territory.”
In the wake of Ferguson, the “reforms” being proposed — essentially better training in the more effective use of the new battlefield-style gear the police are acquiring — will only militarize them further. This same mentality, with its accompanying gadgetry, has been moving heavily into America’s border areas and into schools and other institutions as well, including an enormous increase in surveillance systems geared to streets, public places, and even the home.
In the meantime, while a national security state mentality has been infiltrating American society, the planners of that state have been rewriting the global rules of the road for years when it comes to torture, kidnapping, drone assassination campaigns, global surveillance, national sovereignty, the launching of cyberwars, and the like — none of which will, in the end, contribute to American security, and all of which has already made the planet a less secure, more chaotic, more fragmented place. In these last years, in other words, in its search for “security,” the U.S. has actually become a force for destabilization — that is, insecurity — across significant swaths of the planet.
Perhaps one of these days, Americans will decide to consider more seriously what “security,” as presently defined by the powers that be in Washington, even means in our world. There can, as a start, be no question that the national security state does offer genuine security of a very specific sort: to its own officials and employees. Nothing they do, no matter how dumb, immoral, or downright criminal, ever seems to stand in the way of their own upward mobility within its structure.
As an example — and it’s only one in an era filled with them — not a single CIA official was dismissed, demoted, or even reprimanded in response to the recent release of the redacted executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report. It hardly mattered that the report included actual criminal behavior (even by the degraded “enhanced interrogation” standards green-lighted by the Bush administration) and the grimmest kinds of abuse of prisoners, some quite innocent of anything. In an America in which, economically speaking, security has not exactly been the gold standard of the twenty-first century, it is hard to imagine any group that is more secure.
As for the rest of us, insecurity will surely be the story of our lives for the rest of the twenty-first century (as it was, of course, in 1963). After all, on August 6, 1945, when we consciously entered the age of the apocalyptic possibility at Hiroshima, we had no way of knowing that we had already done so perhaps 200 years earlier as the industrial revolution, based on the burning of fossil fuels, took off. Nor almost 20 years later, did that American of 1963 know this. By 1979, however, the science adviser for the president of the United States was well aware of global warming. When Jimmy Carter gave his infamous “malaise” speech promoting a massive commitment to alternative energy research (and got laughed out of the White House), he already knew that climate change — not yet called that — was a reality that needed to be dealt with.
Now, the rest of us know, or at least should know, and so — with what is likely to be the hottest year on record just ended — would be obliged to offer our visitor from 1963 a graphic account of the coming dangers of a globally warming world. There has always been a certain sense of insecurity to any human life, but until 1945 not to all human life. And yet we now know with something approaching certainty that, even if another nuclear weapon never goes off (and across the planet nuclear powers are upgrading their arsenals), chaos, acidifying oceans, melting ice formations, rising seas, flooding coastal areas, mass migrations of desperate people, food production problems, devastating droughts, and monster storms are all in a future that will be the definition of human-caused insecurity — not that the national security state gives much of a damn.
Admittedly, since at least 2001, the Pentagon and the U.S. Intelligence Community have been engaged in blue-skies thinking about how to give good war in a globally warming world. The national security state as a whole, however, has been set up at a cost of trillions of dollars (and allowed to spend trillions more) to deal with only one kind of insecurity — terrorism and the ever-larger line up of enemies that go with it. Such groups do, of course, represent a genuine danger, but not of an existential kind. Thought about another way, the true terrorists on our planet may be the people running the Big Energy corporations and about them the national security state could care less. They are more than free to ply their trade, pull any level of fossil fuel reserves from the ground, and generally pursue mega-profits while preparing the way for global destruction, aided and abetted by Washington.
Try now to imagine yourself in the shoes of that visitor from 1963 absorbing such a future, bizarre almost beyond imagining: all those trillions of dollars going into a system that essentially promotes the one danger it was set up to eradicate or at least bring under control. In the meantime, the part of the state dedicated to national security conveniently looking the other way when it comes to the leading candidate for giving insecurity a new meaning in a future that is almost upon us. Official Washington has, that is, invented a system so dumb, so extreme, so fundamentalist, and so deeply entrenched in our world that changing it will surely prove a stunningly difficult task.
Welcome to the new world of American insecurity and to the nightmarish inheritance we are preparing for our children and grandchildren.
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His new book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (Haymarket Books).
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Copyright 2015 Tom Engelhardt