God won't save us: Memorial Day, honest history and our new military-industrial complex

Americans believe we are guided by divine providence. Obama's strange presidency shows the work of something else

Published May 25, 2014 3:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
(AP/Carolyn Kaster)

Memorial Day comes, always a curious occasion in a nation devoted to forgetting so much of its past. Count this column one among millions of handkerchief flags, fluttering in our spring breezes as the parade passes by.

For some time now I have considered whether we Americans have witnessed one of those events that occur in other places -- and all too often -- but that “can’t happen here,” as the phrase every American knows used to go. Anything can happen anywhere, of course, and to accept otherwise is to say history does not happen here.

The thought that Americans stand outside history has been fundamental to the ideology of this nation since the Puritans began to elaborate it in the 17th century. Providence guides and protects us. The American story begins with the story of the first settlers’ escape from the cesspits and decay of the old regimes in Europe. None of that would or even could happen here, not in “the New World.”

The notion cannot stand up to logic and never has, but it was never meant to. It is not a thought but a belief. And we live in a century requiring more thought and less belief, for the world has gone and grown complex on us. There can be no more resort to Providential guidance, not productively. Our time is all about human agency, which is to say responsible action, which is to say it is about understanding ourselves as creatures living in history like everyone else and going on from there.

So, to this event I have been turning over in my mind.

I term it “the silent coup.” The thought comes as a question, not a thesis. Has our great country undergone a shift in power such that those at the very top of our defense, intelligence and security apparatuses are beyond civilian control and act autonomously in our names? Has “of the people, by the people, for the people” been replaced by “to the people?” Add to this list the senior echelons of management at corporations whose operations relate to these functions of government, and you have the question in full.

Shortened version of the above: Who is in charge in this country now, whose fingers are on the levers, and in the service of whom?

Matters of interpretation arise. First of all, is the question even legitimate? Second, even if you say, “Yes,” the case is far from closed. One could plausibly argue either way.

I stand undecided, but plainly think it is time to pose the question. I also think a lot more Americans would ask it were it less daunting to expose ourselves to all possible answers. Depending upon what we come up with, it could be we have some big work to do — and what's more, some very big assumptions to discard and some big history to face.

The late Chalmers Johnson, just before he left us, in 2010, said to me over drinks one evening in San Diego, “When Obama gave Defense to Gates, I knew it was all over before it started. Nothing new or good was coming from this administration.”

That is Robert Gates, whom President Obama named his defense secretary upon his inauguration in 2009. Gates was a holdover from George W. Bush’s cabinet. Before that, he served as director of the C.I.A. under George H.W. Bush. Gates had been on the dark side for 26 years, having been recruited to the agency while in the Air Force.

Gates, to elaborate briefly, is a committed militarist. As deputy director at the C.I.A. in the mid-1980s, he urged President Reagan to bomb Nicaragua and destroy the Sandinistas by nearly any means necessary. And while he was not indicted by the independent counsel, this may well have included knowledge or support of the Iran-Contra affair, wherein administration officials channeled proceeds from weapons sales to Iran (then at war with Iraq) to the motley crew of “freedom fighters” scraped together to destabilize the Managua government.

You had to take Johnson’s point. The question was, Why did Obama choose this man? As defense secretary, Gates oversaw an increase in troop strength in Afghanistan from 32,000 (when Obama took office and named him) to roughly 100,000 (before withdrawals began). Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting does the counting here. Why did Obama do that?

From these questions arose the silent coup thought. And from those days forward, Obama has done much to fertilize it.

After coming to office, the president seemed repeatedly to cave, elaborating foreign, military and intelligence policies four-square at odds with the core principles he professed before coming to office and numerous times since. A chasm between his foreign and domestic agendas grew increasingly evident.

The Obama administration declines use of the term “war on terror,” but this is a mere nicety given how vigorously this war is prosecuted. The troop increases, the drone murders, the coups (Egypt and Ukraine, Syria and Venezuela if administration planners and operatives prevail), the buccaneering lawlessness of the Osama bin Laden assassination (and the Bush-style swagger afterward): It grew ever more difficult to put these events to the man signing the authorizations.

Other features of this administration grew more suggestive. Strategies and tactics bear a certain stamp. They are notably unimaginative, rote repeats of Cold War practices. Obama’s resort to force and clandestine operations, never mind all the talk of 21st century diplomacy, reflects a certain institutional memory. Who is doing this remembering, then?

Leaders who refuse the unilateral primacy of American power in the name of their own national identities are still eligible for subversion. Regimes unpretty to look at (Qaddafi’s, Morsi’s in Egypt, Assad’s until he started winning the war, Yanukovych in Ukraine) can be eliminated without any apparent thought for what will come next. The result in most cases, if not all, is a mess. Messes were America’s Cold War specialty, but they are not supposed to be Obama’s.

There has been more. The NSA revelations speak for themselves. They reek of 1950s-era paranoia and unpatriotic lawlessness in the name of rational assessment, patriotism and law.

You can consider such questions as Asia in this context, too. Obama requires Japan to remain a client near to suffocation in the American embrace, just as all the Cold Warriors did. China is not to be welcomed as it emerges as a great power (which is an historical inevitability). It is to be opposed, in the “Who lost China?” tradition.  Defense and security people still define the bedrock assumptions of Asia policy, not diplomats and policy planners at State.

Just about the time the last Memorial Day rolled around, Obama gave a big speech at the National Defense University. Lots of press, remember? “America is at a crossroads,” the president said forcefully. And of the war on terror: “This war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. It’s what our democracy demands.”

Remarkable stuff, I recall thinking. Good grasp of history’s force and motion. Good clarity as to the connection between war abroad and the price the polity pays at home. Obama’s thought that his America would learn to live without an enemy was altogether novel and brave.

Nothing came of this, as we can see. The entire thrust went down like a stick of butter. The defense bureaucrats turned him back, and the intelligence and security bureaucrats ground him down. When Obama announced obsequiously modest changes in the administration of the NSA earlier this year, the news reports explained that he had to step carefully so as not to rile the agency’s top people. Upset the spooks — the people who by law serve the administration? Something very wrong with this picture.

The N.D.U. speech did it for me. It was then I decided: We have to ask this question about the silent coup. The possibility of one needs a phrase all its own so as to get on the table. This man is not running his own show.

Obama has been a domestic man his entire career, more or less lost on the foreign and military sides. As it appears now, one has to ask if he may have cut some kind of unspoken deal with the policy cliques, the top spooks and the generals.

His performance at home, doing the right thing — or sort of the right thing sometimes but nowhere near enough, I would say — makes a remarkable contrast with the administration’s record abroad. The implied arrangement is that he got a clear run on domestic legislation, albeit this meant taking chances with Congress, while turning the rest over to the apparatchiks and doing his best as a salesman.

This would be the substance of the silent coup, were there one.

So much of government is secret at this point that hard conclusions are impossible — even as the secrecy is very suggestive of the phenomenon. Equally, there is much in the history we ought to remember (but cannot because we never knew it to forget) that makes the thought of a silent coup very much less than strange or hyperbolic.

When Eisenhower delivered his famous military-industrial complex speech, three days before he left office in 1961, it was assumed that he had issued Americans a warning, a call to vigilance. Not so. Andrew Bacevich, the former Army officer who now writes incisively of the world he left behind, did some work in the Eisenhower archives and afterward asserted that Ike’s subtle intent was to describe to Americans what had already taken place.

Foreign policy, including war, subversion and all its “other means,” have been the sequestered purview of elevated cliques since America first elaborated a foreign policy in the late 19th century. In the post-1945 period, Big Science combined with the native paranoia and its objective co-relative, the Soviet Union, to produce a technocratic elite obsessed with totalized security and ever more remote from the democratic process. Prominent members of this elite, indeed, had memories of Weimar, whose collapse with Hitler’s election in 1933 left them profoundly mistrustful of elections or anything else to do with democracy.

In this way, America became ripe ground for one of the very things that could not happen. Given the context, I cannot see how the silent coup as at least a possibility is arguable.

Now we come to the Bush II administration, September 11th and its aftermath. Someday historians may reconsider this period as the point at which the silent coup was consolidated, politically and in extra-constitutional law (in other words, law that is beyond law, lawless law).

Viewed up close, it was a complicated time. Quickly after the September 11th attacks, the White House consulted the intelligence community and heads of its agencies and offered them carte blanche in prosecuting the war on terror Bush was about to declare. This produced what was known in the sanctum sanctorum as "the Program,” the surveillance beast we now live with. On the legal side, Bush signed an executive authorization in autumn 2011 that went straight into the White House safe, known to a very, very few.

The language had been drafted by Vice President Cheney and his law-bending legal adviser, David Addington. To keep things neat, it required the attorney general to reauthorize the Program every 45 days.

Then came the crisis. Numerous figures on Capitol Hill, at the Justice Department and in the NSA questioned the legality of the NSA’s expanded activities because they did not know of the Program and its underwriting authority. The objectors, who included Thomas Drake, the brave and now-noted whistleblower, grew persistent. By March 2004, dozens of top officials at Justice had threatened to resign. The moment of truth came when John Ashcroft, of all people, Bush’s born-again A.G., refused on his deathbed to sign the customary reauthorization.

Cheney, Addington, chief of staff Andrew Card and White House counsel Alberto Gonzales then conspired to jump the rails entirely: The Program would proceed on the basis of a reauthorization by Gonzales, which had no basis in law. The legal grounding for the NSA’s activities became at this point a piece of paper.

Here is the essential part of this. Bush signed on, literally, as the NSA was invited to reverse four decades of controls, dating to the Church Committee reforms of the mid-1970s. But when the fracas over legality erupted, Cheney, Addington and the others kept him outside the loop.

Step back. You are looking at an American president whose intelligence chiefs and their political backers excluded him while they sustained a surveillance program illegal but for a façade of legal grounding. Bush went on to lie up, down and sideways about the Program until it had been too extensively exposed.

Did some larger thing occur in that intense moment? Once again, it is worth asking, as the consequences remain with us.

As it happens, an extraordinary documentary of the events recounted here just now appears. The first segment of “The United States of Secrets,” a two-parter produced by PBS Frontline, aired last week and can be seen here. The second half airs Tuesday, May 20.

This is must-see stuff. All but a few of the right talking heads are there. The film has a clarity and comprehensiveness that lend it enormous power.

Notable in the coverage is the account of the New York Times’ complicity in covering up the Program’s illegal wire-tapping activities for a year, until its apparently disgusted correspondent, James Risen, forced executive editor Bill Keller’s hand by writing a book with the whole story, including the Times’ hand in it all. The sheepish, shifty-eyed Keller as he recounts this indefensible breach of ethics is not to be missed.

Readers can take or leave, answer or ignore my silent coup question — or simply dismiss the question. My thought this Memorial Day is simply to name it so we can think about it. The longer it is nameless, the longer we flinch from doing what might need doing to correct what looks very like a grave turn down a wrong road.

“History is something that happens to other people,” Toynbee once wrote in describing the prewar English consciousness. The English learned otherwise and are better off. We will and will be, too.

Footnote: A literate reader named Chris Weigant corrects the column posted May 15th. It quoted Sainte-Beuve, the 19th century French thinker, as anticipating the enduring rivalry between America and Russia by a century. Sainte-Beuve did, in 1847, but Alexis de Tocqueville scooped him by 12 years, Weigant advises. The “two great nations” passage I cited first appeared in volume one of "Democracy in America." “You do it first,” Picasso once said, “and then someone else does it pretty.”  So it appears to have been between these two French observers of their times. Gratitude to Chris Weigant.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is patricklawrence.us.

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