Obama, the slide back to Iraq and the power of the "Deep State"

Critics like Michael Moore are partly right -- but Obama's doomed presidency is more momentous than they think

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 20, 2014 5:00PM (EDT)

Barack Obama, Michael Moore             (Reuters/Charles Dharapak/Lucas Jackson/photo montage by Salon)
Barack Obama, Michael Moore (Reuters/Charles Dharapak/Lucas Jackson/photo montage by Salon)

It was certainly impolitic of filmmaker Michael Moore, and possibly unfair as well, to tell the Hollywood Reporter in a recent interview that Barack Obama would only be remembered, a century from now, as the first black president of the United States. I am tempted to respond that while Obama’s race will always be the headline, its real significance is more like a footnote. He will quite plausibly be remembered more for other things, and some of them (though not a lot of them) are laudable. He began the process of moving the country away from our profoundly unfair and overpriced catch-as-catch-can private health insurance system toward some kind of socialized medicine. (Yeah, I said it.) That’s no small achievement, considering how many previous administrations have impaled themselves on the same sword, although God alone knows how long it will take for that process to play out.

Obama may also be remembered, somewhat less favorably, for embracing and even extending the notion of the “imperial executive” bequeathed to him by the Bush-Cheney regime; for promising the most transparent administration in history and delivering instead the most secretive and most paranoid; for running on the now-infamous promise of “hope and change” and presiding over an era of disillusion and stagnation. Now we get to witness the tragicomic denouement of Obama’s presidency, as he gets suckered into riding the slippery-slide of doom into another Iraq war, and so undoing the principal campaign promise that got him elected in 2008. (If you believed any syllable of the “no ground troops” pledge, for even a second, before the chair of the Joint Chiefs called backsies on it the other day, I’ll have to think of something much more impressive than the Brooklyn Bridge to sell you.) Has any previous president ever fulfilled a major campaign promise and then unraveled it again, all by himself? I’m guessing the answer is yes, but let’s leave that challenge to the history buffs.

Some of those things can be rationalized away, I guess, as byproducts of partisan political paralysis or international crisis. There’s no doubt that Obama has faced intractable opposition from a party that has bet its electoral future on villainizing him, and also that he has confronted a highly unstable geopolitical situation and a sluggish economic recovery. But those things cannot all be blamed on the Republicans or the terrorists. While the right-wing caricature of the president as an inept and disengaged executive who has been pinioned by circumstance and buffeted from crisis to crisis is a simplistic and self-serving fiction, it offers a convenient frame for comprehending the Obama enigma. American media and American politics always long to revert to familiar and comforting core narratives, to Great Man (and, someday soon, Great Woman) myths about “character” and “leadership,” rather than looking for deep-rooted systemic or structural explanations that are more likely to be true.

If the key to an effective presidency lies in some list of individual qualities out of a business-school self-help book, then the problem is simply that we misjudged the quality of the job applicants last time around. My diagnosis is that anybody who tells themselves, “Gosh, wouldn’t things be different if we had elected Hillary” – or McCain, or Romney, or Howard Dean, or whomever the hell you like – is missing the point, whatever their supposed ideology may be. The real secret of the Obama presidency lies in a set of facts that appear to be contradictory on the surface, but taken together serve to mask the true nature of the American state in the 21st century. On one hand, the president now resembles a species of elected king, with the power to wage secret war on multiple continents, spy on anyone and everyone, and conduct assassination campaigns against civilians (including U.S. citizens), all without any congressional oversight or public explanation. On the other hand, the range of real-world options available to this imperial executive, in practice, appears curiously and stringently limited.

Gosh, it almost looks as if the overheated bipartisan circus in Washington, which eats up so much media bandwidth and so much of the oxygen in public discourse, despite the fact that we all hate it and all understand how useless it is, functions as a grand distraction while the most fundamental questions of economic policy and foreign policy are never discussed or debated in public. I can’t be sure, for example, whether Obama came to the White House already determined to let the same pack of billion-dollar criminals who had brought the financial system to the brink of doom shuffle the deck a little and carry on, or whether it became clear to him that no other option was really available. Similarly, I don’t know whether Obama had already been swayed to the Dick Cheney “dark side” doctrine of permanent covert warfare before he became president, or whether he was immediately surrounded and hypnotized by the Orc-spooks of what former congressional staffer Mike Lofgren calls the “Deep State.” How we interpret Obama’s motives or mind-set doesn’t matter much in the end, and only serves to twist the focus back toward delusional questions about individual character.

If you haven’t read Lofgren’s essay, “Anatomy of the Deep State,” which was published on Bill Moyers’ website last February, it might be the most important document of American political journalism in this decade, let alone this year. It’s even more trenchant now than it was in the relatively innocent days of last winter. He discusses the contradiction I mention above in great detail: Even as the Republicans have succeeded in bringing the most routine parliamentary business of Washington to a grinding halt, the president is permitted to “liquidate American citizens without due processes, detain prisoners indefinitely without charge, conduct dragnet surveillance on the American people without judicial warrant and engage in … witch hunts against federal employees.” While Republicans indulge their constituents’ cuckoo-for-Cocoa Puffs fantasies about Obama the Kenyan-socialist dictator, almost no one in Congress ever mentions any of this stuff. (The notable exceptions are Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who appear to have actually read the Constitution and are treated as left-wing and right-wing kooks, respectively.)

Lofgren, who spent almost three decades on Capitol Hill as, in effect, an adjunct or employee of the Deep State, describes it as “a hybrid entity of public and private institutions ruling the country according to consistent patterns in season and out, connected to, but only intermittently ruled by, the visible state whose leaders we choose.” Its principal institutions are mostly large and obvious: the immense professional bureaucracies at the State Department, the Defense Department, Treasury and Justice, along with the CIA and NSA and Homeland Security and a laundry list of smaller and more mysterious entities like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, whose every action is a highly classified state secret. As Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks have partially made clear, the Deep State is tied by many subterranean threads to both Wall Street and Silicon Valley, so much so that it is not always clear who is the servant and who the master. While the functionaries of the Deep State profess to be non-ideological and above politics, they actually represent the “Washington Consensus,” a self-reinforcing combination of neoliberal, free-market economic policies and an aggressive, militaristic foreign policy that defines the zone of American interests as the entire globe.

Lofgren makes clear that he is not claiming the existence of a secret conspiratorial cabal, but you could almost say he's protesting too much. What he really means is that the operatives of the Deep State do not see themselves in that light. They are the grown-ups who actually run things, irrespective of which party the bozo in the Oval Office belongs to, while the rest of us fight over marriage legislation and history textbooks and football players who beat their wives and other cultural effluvia that (to them) don’t much matter. One of Lofgren’s most interesting hypotheses comes in a footnote, the idea that the Deep State operates via stage-managed crises that force the hands of political leaders toward desired outcomes. (He doesn't mean that 9/11 was an inside job or whatever; he means that al-Qaida in 2001, and ISIS in 2014, are framed as problems that can only have military solutions.) In other words, to an outsider the Deep State sure as hell looks and functions like a conspiratorial cabal, one that operates according to its own principles and views democracy with undisguised contempt. In practice, it is not much different from the entrenched bureaucratic elites that ran the Soviet Union or the Ottoman Empire or whatever other top-heavy, sclerotic and self-deluding state apparatus you can come up with.

Writing many months before the rise of ISIS became headline news and the prospect of an American reentry into Iraq emerged, Lofgren notes that “the Deep State is populated with those whose instinctive reaction to the failure of their policies is to double down on those policies in the future.” Stalemate in Iraq (or worse) led to stalemate in Afghanistan (or worse), which led to the chaos in Libya that produced Benghazi and the confused effort to overthrow Assad in Syria. That whole concatenation of events – all of which, arguably, flow from the American invasion of Iraq in the first place -- has now produced a new threat that the wise men of the Deep State have declared worse than all the old threats put together.

Now, I’m not claiming I know exactly what to do about ISIS, which seems to be a thoroughly hateful organization, and for that and many other reasons I’m grateful that I will never be president. As this helpful article from Psychology Today explains, it isn’t true that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. It’s really the definition of “perseveration,” meaning the pathological repetition of an act that is meant to solve problems but is likely to leave the sufferer frustrated and unsatisfied. America’s foreign policy brain trust -- supposedly the most grown-up and hard-headed of all Deep State denizens -- has been stuck in a pattern of perseveration since at least 9/11, if not since Vietnam. That would be bad enough on its own even without the fact that it has killed innocent people in enormous numbers and shredded what remained of our constitutional liberties.

Michael Moore’s problem, and the problem of old-school Democratic liberals in general, is simply that they dared to hope for something different, and that “change we can believe in” turned out to be an especially cruel hoax, even by the standards of campaign rhetoric. But as I said earlier, if they blame the Republicans for doing exactly what they said they would do, or blame Obama for his perceived personal failings, they are missing the point. When we look at what became of the Obama presidency, and the inexorable slide toward another Middle East war that anyone who’s immune to the Ivy League pixie-dust of the Deep State can see is a terrible idea, it may be helpful to resist the most conspiratorial interpretation. I don’t think we’re looking at an especially mendacious or ineffective politician, just one who has been given a historically unusual combination of immense power and very limited freedom to use it.

I would not claim, for instance, that Barack Obama was a human poison pill all along, a Manchurian candidate designed to apply a final coat of ideological cement to the marriage between the liberal-cosmopolitan social policies of the Democratic Party and the perma-war, pro-corporate agenda of the Deep State. At least, I wouldn’t exactly claim that; I only claim that was the effect. Let’s remember that Obama ran for president in the first place promising to govern as a rational, bipartisan architect of compromise, a centrist who would break through idiotic political divisions and get things done. Yeah, he defeated Hillary Clinton by positioning himself slightly to her left on national-security issues, and he possessed a unique ability to energize African-American voters, who are (somewhat misleadingly) considered a “liberal” demographic. But he was essentially the friendly face of the Deep State from the get-go. Why should we be surprised that it devoured him?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir