This is not a democracy: Behind the Deep State that Obama, Hillary or Trump couldn't control

Foreign policy never really changes regardless of who holds the White House. This is why exceptionalism always wins

Published October 21, 2015 11:01PM (EDT)


There are two ways to consider the White House’s announcement last week that, no, American troops will no longer withdraw from Afghanistan as previously planned. You can look back over President Obama’s record in such matters or you can face forward and think about what this decision means, or implies, or suggests —or maybe all three—about the next president’s conduct of foreign policy.

I do not like what I see in either direction. What anyone who looks carefully and consciously can discern in Obama’s seven years in office are limits. These are imposed in part by inherited circumstances, but let us set these aside for now, appalling as they are. My concern is with the limits imposed by the entrenched power of our permanent government, otherwise known as the “deep state.”

With the first Democratic debate in Las Vegas last week, the serious party joins the unserious party in articulating a vision of America’s proper conduct abroad. The question Obama’s two terms force upon us is how much any of what we hear from the Democratic candidates will matter even if we assume one of them succeeds him.

The Obama administration’s accumulated inventory on the foreign side is a mixed bag to put the point mildly, and one has to count it heavily net-negative at this point. The big accomplishments, of course, are the accord governing the Iran nuclear program and the resumption of diplomatic ties with Cuba. While both represent hard-fought political victories, there was considerable backing for these undertakings in the intelligence agencies, the Pentagon, the State Department bureaucracy and the corporate sector. Hang on to this distinction.

Against the successes stands a long list of failures, reversals and something else that does not make such punchy headlines but is just as important as the policies that do: I refer to the president’s unwillingness or inability to counter what we can call policy momentum. Time and again, Obama has allowed State, Defense and the intelligence apparatus to proceed with programs and strategies not remotely in keeping with his evident tilt toward a less militarized, interventionist and confrontational foreign policy.

I put this down to two realities. One is Obama’s ambivalent thinking. Many, many people misread what this man stood for and against when he was elected seven autumns ago, and we are now able to separate the one from the other. More on this in a minute.

Two is the “power elite” C. Wright Mills told us about in the book of this name he published many decades ago. “They are in command of the major hierarchies and organizations of modern society,” Mills wrote. “They run the machinery of the state and claim its prerogatives.” They are, in short, the deep state.

Mills’ book came out in 1956, when the phenomenon he described was newly emergent. Having ignored this elite’s accumulating influence in the 59 years since, we get the questions Obama’s experience raises: Does it matter who we put in the White House? Is there any prospect at all of changing this nation’s conduct and direction? Are our policy-setting institutions any longer capable of self-correction?

The best that can be said now is that the power elite/permanent government/deep state, take your pick, is greatly more visible. At least we know enough, some of us, to ask the questions.


Where to begin?

Well, Obama came to office promising to end the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and will leave having ended neither. With the new decision to keep 10,000 American troops in Afghanistan, it is plain that (1) he has no serious exit strategy in either case and (2) no one at the Pentagon is especially concerned with developing one.

Closing the prison at Guantánamo was one of Obama’s signature commitments when he was elected, and now look: His own defense secretary, the worrisomely unintelligent Ashton Carter, stands in open defiance by refusing to sign release papers for 52 detainees cleared to leave. Just as astonishing, the president can apparently do nothing about it.

As to Syria, the president has taken to blaming others for the ever-worsening debacle on the argument he was not behind this interventionist program from the start. Unseemly is the very kindest word here. There is no reason to doubt Obama’s word, but he begs a question almost too large to contemplate: If you opposed the policy, Mr. President, why are we there and why is your name on it?

By way of the Iran agreement, it appeared that Obama had a serious chance to alter Washington’s profoundly distorted engagement with Israel. But this, clearly, was never the story. The story all along has been to preserve Israel’s nuclear-weapons monopoly in the Middle East while keeping neighbors either onside or off balance. Hence the obsession with removing the Assad government in Syria. Hence Washington’s explicit green light a matter of hours prior to the coup deposing President Morsi in Egypt two year ago.

Other matters. The wholly unnecessary confrontation with Russia will stand as the worst and most consequential blot on the Obama administration’s foreign policy legacy, in my view. Who runs this policy and why? Tension in Sino-American relations is less charged but not less stupid. And as the evidently ongoing program to destabilize the Maduro government in Venezuela suggests, the subversion machines at the CIA and State continue firing on all eight.

This is the backward glance. What does this splattered, pockmarked record tell us as we look forward and wonder what the policies of Obama’s successor will look like? It is time to consider this question carefully. Now that Democrats join Republicans in advancing their thinking—is this the word?—as to America’s conduct abroad, what are we hearing?


The foreign policy of any Republican candidate now in the race, with the exception of the rapidly vanishing Rand Paul, is a no-brainer, and I mean this literally. We find among them a seamless unity behind reactionary policies that lie between unworkable and dangerous. In this respect, the most worrisome G.O.P. aspirants are Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, the two who purport to have operational agendas.

I do not find anyone in the right-wing lineup electable, but I will stay short of any prediction. It is not my point. However little sense they make, they are a very influential presence in the national political conversation, and no one can afford to miss this. Two reasons.

One, the Republicans’ argument for militarized, often-perilous assertions of American prerogative abroad are perfectly congruent with the ideology that sustains the deep state. In effect, the G.O.P. is the agency through which the exceptionalist consciousness that drives the deep state remains a political imperative for anyone seeking high office.

One may find the Republican leadership—in Congress as well as on the stump—primitive nostalgists lost in a half-imagined version of the past. But these people exist among us because we decline to dismiss them as frivolous—which they are and which we should.

This is partly the fault of our “political-media ecosystem,” as Paul Krugman put it very cogently in a recent New York Times column. “The modern Republican Party is a post-policy enterprise, which doesn’t do real solutions to real problems,” he wrote. “And the news media really, really don’t want to face up to that awkward reality.”

Too true. But it is a cheap dodge to place all blame on those media operating as a deep state appendage. We all own a piece of the Republican charade, in my view, so long as we remain unwilling to look squarely at the system—including the press and the broadcasters—that puts political vandals before us as somehow credible.

Two, in the circumstances just described the G.O.P. has an unmistakable influence on America’s foreign policy discourse. Maybe all societies have categories designating what is sayable and unsayable, but ours is drastically skewed. It should be obvious to all that even those candidates not part of the Republican clown show will find it that much more difficult to advance any seriously innovative policy proposals.

And so to the Democrats.

As Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir suggested in a superbly pithy piece after the first Democratic debate last week, it is impossible to know whether Hillary Clinton is a progressive candidate or a political predator intent on swallowing Bernie Sanders whole, but it grows more likely that she will win the Democratic nomination before we are able to tell. Here is O’Hehir’s piece.

I do not buy into the idea that last week’s exchange in Las Vegas was Clinton’s triumph and the beginning of Sanders’ decline. When I read as much in the following morning’s Times, the report struck me as a hopelessly bald attempt to mold the truth—as power elitists always think nothing of doing. I thought Sanders carried the evening.

This said, weaknesses appeared in Sanders’ positions, and foreign policy was high among them. He does not, it grieves me a little to say, appear to have much of one. Senator Sanders’ opposition to the Iraq war back in 2003 is greatly to his credit. But Candidate Sanders seems to take the safe, default position on one question after another—Russia, the Middle East, most recently Obama’s decision to keep troops in Afghanistan.

I do not see that this will do. But neither will Clinton’s righteous faith in spreading neoliberal ideology across the planet, her stacked-deck idea of humanitarian intervention, a liking for military solutions in foreign affairs that sometimes puts her closer to Republican candidates than to her boss when she was secretary of state. Whatever Clinton wants us to know or not know about her thinking, exceptionalist consciousness is inscribed in every sentence she utters.

What have we got on the Democratic side? A candidate smart enough to understand that were he to propose an authentically progressive foreign policy agenda he would be mauled for the positions it would logically include? Another candidate who is very likely more at home in the deep state than anyone else from either party? It is hard to say, but maybe.

Easier to say what we do not have on foreign policy questions in this election: much of a choice.


Is this by design?

I put this question to David Talbot in a telephone exchange Tuesday. Talbot (who founded Salon 20 years ago) has just published “The Devil’s Chessboard,” an account of the deep state focused on the crucial role of Allen Dulles as it emerged in the 1950s. Dulles directed the CIA from 1953 until President Kennedy fired him in 1961. It is Talbot’s contention that elements of the deep state, probably including Dulles, were responsible for Kennedy’s assassination two years later.

“Presidents have to be thoroughly vetted before getting to the White House,” Talbot replied. “Kennedy was probably the last president not thoroughly approved by the deep state. This may be edgy, but I think there’ve been lessons in this for every president since. It’s a question of what a president can and can’t do, or what he does at his own peril.”

If “edgy” means very far from the orthodox version of events, O.K. But I see no grounds whatsoever to push any part of Talbot’s thesis off the table. The reality we must all grasp if we are to straighten out our nation’s bent path into the 21st century is that a very vast swathe of history requires a fundamental rewrite.

“Every president has been manipulated by national security officials,” Talbot said in a long Q & A with Salon’s Liam O’Donoghue when “the Devil’s Chessboard” was published last week. You can read that interview here.

Return briefly to Obama’s foreign policy record. In my view, it is the story of a president discovering the limits of his prerogative as defined by various elements of our permanent government—primarily uniformed military officers and the national security officials Talbot mentions. He appears to have won (Iran, Cuba) or lost (most of the rest) depending on whether the deep state sanctioned the policy direction.

“Obama came up through all the usual institutions—Columbia, Harvard Law,” Talbot remarked when we spoke. “He has the basic ideology of the group, which is American exceptionalism.”

It is an interesting observation in that it helps us to read into Obama’s choices. Without exception, every one of his initiatives abroad concerned how policy is executed—never the policy goals. The ancient Greeks distinguished between techne—means, method—and telos, meaning purpose, intent, desired outcome. Obama concerns himself solely with the techne of American policy. As Talbot put it, “He wanted to moderate and modulate some of the excesses.”

And this, I conclude, is the borderline that will circumscribe the choices of any candidate voters and wealthy donors, many of them deep state inhabitants, send to the White House in 2017. We are to see nothing more than tinkering at the edges.


I read an extremely compelling piece on environmental politics the other day. Wen Stephenson’s “Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Climate Justice Movement” came out in The Nation and is taken from his just-published book, “What We’re Fighting for Now is Each Other.” The Nation essay is here.

I had better say right away why I end a column on our foreign policy prospects with mention of a piece on the climate question. It is very simple.

Stephenson is concerned with the failure of incremental change of the kind attempted by mainstream Greens over the past several decades. He writes about “wide-awake people” and their ideas as to what needs to get done to put effective, planet-saving policies in place. Their thinking runs to “changing power structures.”

“To be serious about climate change is to be radical,” Stephenson writes. He quotes an activist (and divinity student at Harvard) who tells him, “The kind of change you’re talking about—anything feasible within the current political system—really won’t do us any good. You’re talking about going off the cliff at 40 miles per hour instead of 60.”

What is the topic here? Fair enough to say it is the ability among our political and policy-setting institutions to self-correct, to advance toward rational, life-enhancing outcomes. They have lost it. The urgent task is to face this.

And now you know why this column ends as it does: The truths carry over, perfectly congruent.

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

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