What Won’t Change (I)

Whatever happens in the U.S. elections tomorrow, two fundamental things will not change.

First, the national security policy of the United States is unlikely to change in any systematic or meaningful ways, meaning both the approach of the government towards civil liberties and its military posture abroad.

The appointment of particular individuals to specific executive offices by either possible President may make for slight differences of emphasis in the professionalism, competence and interpretation of the consensus policies of the American government. That’s about it.

This is not a Naderite assertion that there is no difference between the two parties. This is not about parties any more. If by some bizarre fluke Jill Stein or Ron Paul were elected tomorrow night, they’d very likely be forced to continue almost all of the security policies of the Bush and Obama White Houses. They could give orders to the contrary, but they’d be overriden actively by Congress and possibly the federal judiciary as well. They’d be ignored or circumvented by the military, intelligence services, foreign policy professionals and rank-and-file law enforcement. They’d be shouted down by the numerous popular and local constituencies that actively depend for their livelihood on security spending–arguably even liberals should hesitate to massively redirect the flow of that money for the same reason that they argue against austerity in general. Any given President might succeed in ending one wasteful war–or might foolishly rush into one. But the basic tenor of American policy almost cannot be moved.

The last time it was about parties or political factions was in the aftermath of 9/11, when I do believe there was a choice that could have been made and might have been made differently by a Democratic administration. I say might have been not just because of the difference in the personalities of the important executive authorities of the Bush White House and the probable Gore White House, but because I think for various reasons the Democratic Party elite of the early 2000s would have kept the harder authoritarian kinds of neoliberal folly further from political influence (but not entirely cut them out of the loop).

It’s not about parties in part because of what was done after 9/11 and in part because of what was done in the two decades before 9/11, by both Democrats and Republicans, and by people who aren’t particularly interested in party politics. The current direction of the American hegemony was built not just by massive increases in spending but also by lobbing punitive cruise missiles at the Sudan or Afghanistan based on weak intelligence for the sake of security theater and then asserting a unilateral right to do so. The only real feint in the direction of some more pragmatic, multilateral kind of neoimperial hegemony was curiously enough from the first Bush Administration, whose Gulf War now seems less like a prelude and more like the road not taken.

Where the foundation hardened into a set form was with the high-level sanctioning and legalization of torture, rendition, indefinite detention, assassination, domestic surveillance and first-strike cyberwarfare. The national security systems of most 20th and 21st Century nation-states have indulged in most or all of these activities to varying degrees, no less the United States. There is a huge difference, however, between doing them against the law, out of the sight of top-level authority, and reigning in or redirecting such efforts when directed to do so either by civilian leaders or in response to moral and political pressure. There is a big difference between an individual doing something they believe necessary but illegal, immoral and dangerous and having the President of the United States and his top officials actively affirm the systematic right to do any of these things at will and without any possibility of oversight or review.

That’s where we are now, whomever is elected tomorrow night. We are where some empires eventually arrive: enslaved to the perpetual threat of an ever-wider war with our frontiers and ourselves. As Frederick Cooper and Jane Burbank’s superb new history of empires in world history observes, not all empires crumble from their own contradictions: they are as varied in their stability and character as nations are (in part because there have been more of them in world history). But the U.S. is now tracing the contours of a familiar kind of structural crisis that tends to be resolved in one of two ways: the empire kills its own power by mindlessly racing far beyond what its resources allow, its savvier clients and rivals deliberately bleeding it dry by exploiting the helpless giant’s inability to exercise judicious restraint and pragmatic self-control. Or it turns ferociously inward into itself when its own core citizenry finally recognize that their wealth is being squandered at the frontier and their freedoms are being whittled away in the name of safety. I don’t see any political leadership capable of threading either of those needles before events provide a far more drastic and unpleasant resolution.

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1 Response to What Won’t Change (I)

  1. Doug says:

    “the harder authoritarian kinds of neoliberal folly”

    Neoconservative, surely?

    “more pragmatic, multilateral kind of neoimperial hegemony was curiously enough from the first Bush Administration, whose Gulf War now seems less like a prelude and more like the road not taken.”


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