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There are moments in the life of a nation when its destiny can be glimpsed. The images in the crystal ball align themselves to prefigure what is in store for us. Usually the opportunity to foresee the future is lost in the clutter and clamor of current obsessions. Today we are experiencing one of those moments. Failure to discern what the emerging constellation means could well ensure the decline of the American republic as we have visualized it. The flare-up over “kill lists,” cyber war and the manipulation of information by our leaders has revealed deep seated flaws in our political culture and the mentality of our political class that are toxic to a healthy democracy.
Let’s put the headlines in context and then consider their full implications. The key elements are these.
One, the United States government has been engaged in a massive, multifaceted violation of the laws and principles that have guided government behavior since the country’s founding. New Age electronic “wiretapping” without warrant, surveillance of whole communities, arbitrary arrest and detention without cause or appeal (NDA Act), summary execution of American citizens deemed a threat by an anonymous Executive Branch official¸ transgressions of the Fourth Amendment, abridgement of the First Amendment, and analogous undercutting of civil liberties at the state and municipal levels have made a mockery of America’s most cherished traditions. The massive acquiescence in these assaults by professional associations, the media and the people at large are the permissive cause and reinforcing effect of this degeneration in our political culture. Audacious power grabs by the few matched by passivity of the many is the classic formulation for transmuting liberty into autocracy. We are following a well-trod path.
All of this has occurred under the guise of a “war on terror” that cannot identify a specific enemy, that embraces the globe, that has sent Uncle Sam on a relentless hunt for imagined enemies at home as well as abroad. It is a war without end as unavailing in its foreign missions as it has been successful in institutionalizing the politics of fear and the policies of repression that that fear encourages – even demands. Cynical elites whip the citizenry into periodic frenzies to bolster their personal ambitions while expanding their powers of intrusion and control into matters that have little or no bearing on any tangible dangers to our collective well-being.
Two, the President of the United States has arrogated to himself the right to pronounce the death sentence on anyone in the world without constraint and without accountability. Guilt is presumed unless proven otherwise posthumously. This power of tyrants has been seized despite a decade of evidence that Americans will be more at risk rather than less as a result.
Three, this information is leaked by several members of the administration to a favored reporter for The New York Times. The product is a feature story of exceptional length that reads like the legendary account of a mythic hero who unnatural strength and character are the salvation of the Republic. That hero is the philosopher-king Barack Obama. Like Marcus Aurelius, he ponders the entwined ethics of personal morality and political responsibility before ticking the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ box next to each name on the list. Those pencil marks are like the long shadow cast by the Washington Monument over the White House – to borrow from Pasternak. Obama in reality is more a self absorbed actor in the nation’s celebrity culture obsessed with focus groups than a philosopher-king. He has not the erudition or intrinsic virtue for profound philosophical reflection on morality, obligation and responsibility.
A companion revelation, also based on inside information, exposes the United States as the creator of the Stuxnet virus that is portrayed as the ingenious weapon deployed by Washington to cripple the Iranian nuclear program.
Four, these actions evoke widespread approval – if not acclaim. There is virtually no critical reaction from any association or figure in the mainstream of American public life.
Five, Republicans in Congress become agitated by the White House’s propaganda coup. They launch a campaign of outrage that classified secrets have been leaked. In this attack, they are joined by the strident voices of some Democrats, e.g. Senators Feingold and Levin, who claim that America’s security thereby has been compromised. There is no logical argument made, however, as to why this is the case. After all, the targets of Washington’s drone attacks and assassinations know perfectly well that they live a misstep away from being in the crosshairs. No technical knowledge of any kind has been revealed that affects the equation between hunter and hunted whatsoever. Indeed, it could be asserted that confirmation of the program’s extent and arbitrariness will have the effect of paralyzing the bad guys. As for the Stuxnet virus, the Iranians know perfectly well that they have been the target, and have suffered damage from attack virus launched by the official “cyber terrorists” of Israel and the United States. Nothing has been revealed that improves the Iranians’ chances of preventing them.
Six, Attorney General Holder hurriedly announces that he is assigning two Justice Department attorneys to probe into this grave leakage of government secrets. He is shocked! Shocked! that leaks of highly classified material have occurred. He promises to be as relentless in pursuit of the leakers as he has been in the prosecution of Drake, Manning and Assange – among other menaces to the national interest. President Obama confirms that “yes, we will” get to the bottom of this. Of course, that sordid bottom is to be found within the inner sanctums in the White House and Justice Department – where the investigators cannot and will not look.
Are we sure that the NYT’s story was a sophisticated plant – not a leak by a rogue official? The evidence, I believe, is overwhelming that indeed this was orchestrated by the White House. David Sanger himself provides two compelling bits of evidence. One, he has stated publicly that he had received various pieces of the story from a number of people in different offices over a period of months. That indicates institutional encouragement to make the administration’s exploits known. Two, he further states that he showed an outline of the story to a White House staffer who nodded a green light to go ahead with it. Furthermore, the account itself smacks of administration cooperation. Its thoroughness, its detail, and its verisimilitude match the classic insider recounting of a self congratulatory team. Similar pieces after the fact of a major policy decision appear fairly frequently in the NYT and Washington Post – as well as in Bob Woodward’s semi-official portraits of the great and the good in action. Finally, the delayed reaction of the White House, otherwise hyper sensitive to leaks on matters of far less consequences, is the tip-off that this was a plant.
When one views the entire picture in perspective, we see the distinct portrait of a political system lacking in basic honesty, integrity and accountability. The base dishonestly is so total as to escape the awareness of the principals themselves. That is due in part to the progressive corruption of our public life to the point where conduct of this kind is not just acceptable –but, indeed, the new norm. The credible democracy we have prized throughout our history cannot thrive in this setting. The question is whether it can survive.
Then there is the enormous cost that the United States is incurring abroad. America historically has been a living symbol of civic virtue. While our adoration by others is easily exaggerated, the idea of America has been powerful and enduring. For very many, it confirmed the possibility of achieving the good society. The vibrancy of the American ideal explains why the country has been accorded exceptional respect even when its actions did not warrant it. It is striking that the American idea survived slavery/lynchings, survived Hiroshima/Nagasaki, survived Vietnam. Our crude, hypocritical policies in the Greater Middle East post 9-11 provide another stern test. The positive American image might even have survived that test – however impaired. What it cannot survive is America’s assault on itself. Its self mutilation. For that makes it impossible for others to superimpose their dreams on what had been a reasonable approximation of the imagined American ideal. An America that no longer respects its truest self cannot hold the respect of people elsewhere. Bitter disenchantment is the residue. American “soft power” wafts away with the four winds. We have become ordinary. The United States, therefore, is a double loser from its blind descent from the lofty into the mire.
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.