The Cult of National Security

What Happened to Checks and Balances?

Recent revelations that President George W. Bush authorized U.S. intelligence agencies to engage in domestic surveillance have revived old apprehensions about the abuse of executive power. Dark references to Watergate litter the airwaves and editorial pages. On Capitol Hill, outraged politicians vow to shield Lady Liberty from further assault. All of this is as predictable as a Pearl White serial and about as meaningful.

Railing against the imperial presidency, whether the villain is Richard Nixon or George W. Bush, mistakes the symptom for the disease. To imagine that curbing this president’s inclination to spy on Americans will restore the system of checks and balances designed by the Constitution’s framers makes about as much sense as thinking that occasionally skipping dessert offers a sure-fire cure for obesity. The real problem is not executive authority as such. It is the worldview that over the past several decades has spawned a perverse and antidemocratic cult of the presidency.

Put another way, the problem stems not from conspirators in the White House but from twin convictions to which virtually all members of the political elite, and much of the public, devotedly subscribe. According to the first of these convictions, the United States is a nation under siege, beset by dire threats, its very survival at risk. According to the second, only the capacity and willingness to use all of the instruments of executive and military power, instantly and without hesitation, keep our enemies at bay.

These two notions describe the essence of the national-security paradigm that has shaped U.S. policy since World War II. From the late 1940s through the 1980s, responding to the threat posed by international communism meant placing a premium on maintaining, threatening, and at times using force. From this imperative there evolved the various components of what has been called the national-security state: a large standing military establishment scattered around the world; a vast arsenal of strategic weapons kept ready for instant employment; intelligence agencies operating beyond public scrutiny in a “black world”—the entire enterprise tended by an army of devoted bureaucrats planning, managing, budgeting, and elevating group-think to a fine art. To lend a veneer of rationality to the activities of this sprawling apparatus, successive administrations devised “doctrines” with imposing names. For Truman there was “Containment”; for Eisenhower “Massive Retaliation”; for Kennedy “Flexible Response.”

The Soviet threat was real and an American response was necessary, but one unanticipated consequence was that crisis became a seemingly permanent condition. With anxious citizens looking to the commander-in-chief to keep them safe, presidents accrued—and exercised—an ever-expanding array of prerogatives. In the process, the legislative branch by and large functioned as an enabler and drifted toward irrelevance.

With the Congress deferential (if not altogether supine) on matters related to national security, politics centered increasingly on the question of who controlled the Oval Office. More often than not, the key to winning the White House lay in scaremongering, with successful candidates from Eisenhower to George H. W. Bush letting it be known that in a “dangerous world” electing their opponent was to invite the barbarians through the gates or to risk the cataclysm of World War III.

Although the cold war eventually ended, the symbiotic relationship between the national-security state and the imperial presidency did not. As the various alarms of the 1990s demonstrated, even after the Soviet Union collapsed the drumbeat of ongoing crisis continued. In the Persian Gulf and the Balkans, in Somalia and Haiti, in the Taiwan Straits, and on the Korean Peninsula, the elder Bush and Bill Clinton acted in accordance with the dictates of the established national-security paradigm. In doing so, and by no means incidentally, they sustained the freedom of presidential action that had evolved during the postwar era. If Truman could order U.S. forces into Korea, if Eisenhower could overthrow the governments of Iran and Guatemala, and if Kennedy could decide for or against nuclear war in October 1962, then surely there could be no objection to Clinton bombing Belgrade or Baghdad.

In this sense, George W. Bush’s response to 9/11 did not mark some radical departure from the past. Following in the footsteps of his predecessors, Bush has merely exploited the process whereby the cult of the presidency and the ideology of national security feed on one another. The essence of the Bush Doctrine promulgated in 2002 laying out the “war on terror” can be distilled into a single phrase: “more still.” The threat posed by Islamic radicalism obliged the United States to shed any lingering constraints (and scruples) pertaining to the use of American power. Furthermore, consistent with real and manufactured emergencies of the previous sixty years, deciding when and where to employ that power remained the president’s business and his alone. So (at least) the Bush administration has insisted.

Bush and his lieutenants marketed this enterprise as a global war, a conflict that they likened to the great struggles of the twentieth century. The label stuck. Seeing September 11 as a reprise of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, most Americans readily embraced the proposition that the path to safety lay in embarking on a vast open-ended war. That in conducting this war Bush should be allowed the autonomy that Truman had enjoyed in dealing with Korea or JFK with Cuba was taken for granted.

Fast forward four years and growing numbers of citizens are unhappy with the results. The outcry over domestic spying represents one expression of that unhappiness. Impatience with the almost unimaginably botched occupation of Iraq is another. Uneasiness with the administration’s tendency to make up new rules as it goes along on everything from detainee interrogation to the legal rights of Americans held in federal custody is a third. The growing mismatch between means and ends—not enough money, not enough troops, and not enough allied help—offers a fourth.

As this unhappiness accumulated through the latter half of 2005, the president’s standing in public opinion polls tumbled. Congressional challenges to the administration’s management of the war became more insistent, some of them coming from within the president’s own party.

The administration pushed back, arguing its case as a principled defense of presidential power under ostensibly partisan political attack. Bush’s aides denounced any diminution of executive authority as reckless and irresponsible. In the words of Vice President Dick Cheney, during wartime “the president of the United States needs to have his constitutional powers unimpaired.” Despite all the evidence that the Bush gang can’t shoot straight, the president’s defenders insist that he just needs more ammunition.

Unfortunately for the administration’s critics, the argument works. As long as the “Global War on Terror” remains the organizing principle of U.S. policy, “all hail the commander-in-chief” will continue to be a compelling slogan. (If Democrats win the White House in 2008, look for the new president’s supporters to cite Cheney when insisting that her powers must be “unimpaired.”)

For this reason, concern about this administration’s efforts to press the limits of presidential power—advertised as necessary to win the Global War on Terror—ought to focus on a question that has thus far remained largely off limits: Does “war” provide the most appropriate means of adjudicating the conflict between the United States and the Islamic world? Or will war as currently conceived only exacerbate that conflict, rooted in a complex of historically rooted grievances? Is the struggle against Islamic radicalism the latest in a series of American crusades on freedom’s behalf? Or does it represent the ugly consequence of previous U.S. policies, once justified as essential to our vital interests, but now revealed as ill-advised, short-sighted, and foolish?

More broadly, those eager to curb future abuses of executive power need to train their fire not on this White House but on the idée fixe of national security. Habits and routines that became hard-wired during the cold war, but whose relevance to a post-9/11 world has become highly questionable require critical reexamination. These include the notion that national-security policy should remain the special purview of a small elite operating in an atmosphere of secrecy; that the principal mission of the Department of Defense is not defense but “global power projection”; that the deployment of U.S. forces around the world provides a cost-effective way to maintain stability; and that exerting American power to export American values is good for “them” and good for us.

Whether or not Americans can devise an alternative to the existing national-security paradigm is a very large question indeed. Doing so will require a great political debate, not only in Washington, but especially among the public at large. Neither the anemic condition of national politics nor the limited attention span of the average American seems conducive to such a debate. But this much is certain: until Americans disenthrall themselves of the ideology of national security, the abuse of power by imperial presidents will recur, posing a continuing threat to liberty at home.

Published in the 2006-01-27 issue: 

Andrew Bacevich is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book is After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed.

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