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...

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About the Author

Andrew J. Bacevich is the author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East:  A Military History (April 2016).