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Wars and democracy

Published : Jan 11, 2013 00:00 IST

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A damning critique of the United States militarist mindset which governs its foreign policy and entails violations of civil liberties.

The imperative necessity for safeguarding these rights to due process under the gravest of emergencies has existed throughout our constitutional history, for it is then, under the pressing exigencies ofcrisis, that there is the greatest temptation to dispense with fundamental constitutional guarantees which, it is feared, will inhibit governmental action.

372 U.S. 144 at 164 (1963)

THE United States Supreme Court, packed by successive Republican Presidents, has often departed radically from its own earlier rulings. Those rulings bear recalling today because the record of the Supreme Court of India on the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA), the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) and like issues has been worse than pathetic precisely because they are laced with eloquent rhetoric on freedom, while curbing freedom. The Supreme Court of Canada has upheld the values of freedom while deciding laws on terrorism. So, in recent years, did the House of Lords, now the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.

However, a cold war between adversary states can have an equally harmful impact on civil liberties. The state uses the conflict for political mobilisation at home and the people, inflamed by official propaganda and chauvinistic media, develop a siege mentality. This is true of the U.S. today and also of the states of South Asia.

David C. Unger has been editorial writer at the solidly pro-establishment paper The New York Times for more than 30 years and a member of its editorial board for over 20 years. He teaches courses on American foreign policy at a prestigious university and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. All the more impressive and damning are his critiques of Americas militarist mindset which governs its foreign policy. His criticisms on foreign policy go hand in hand with his censures on violations of civil liberties. The emergency state took on its present contours in the days of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, he recalls.

Barack Obama is no better. Unger writes: Three years into the Obama administration, emergency state thinking and habits continue to damage our democracy, weaken our economy, and poison our international relationships. As candidate, Barack Obama talked eloquently about the importance of Presidents acting in accordance with the Constitution and the rule of law, and promised a new relationship with the world. But as President, Obama has addressed only a handful of Bushs most flagrant constitutional abuses while building his core foreign policies around the familiar emergency state model.

The assumptions and institutions of Americas emergency state have been nurtured by thirteen successive presidential administrations, seven Democratic and six Republican. Its practices and values have been sustained, and continue to be sustained, by glib overreaching formulas for national security that politicians and foreign policy experts have trained voters to demand from all candidates for national office.

John Quincy Adams was Secretary of State under President James Monroe (1817-25). In a Fourth of July address in 1823 he said, America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assumed the colours and usurped the standards of freedom. She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.

That is precisely what has come to pass. The U.S. had three historic opportunities for statesmanlike cooperation with the Soviet Union, and later Russia, for a stable world orderin 1945 at the end of the Second World War; in 1989-91 at the end of the Cold War; and at the turn of the century when Russia supported the U.S. in Afghanistan after 9/11. But the U.S. spurned even the North Atlantic Treaty Organisations (NATO) offer in 2001 and decided to go it alone, after 9/11, using its NATO allies as retainers. It also exacted a toll on democracy at home.

Move against American Japanese

The most sweeping wartime preventive detention programme was the internment of some 1,10,000 Japanese Americans, most of them born in the U.S. and American citizens. It was personally authorised by Roosevelt in Executive Order 9066 of February 1942, urged on by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and California Attorney General Earl Warren. Under the same executive order, several thousand German American and several hundred Italian American resident aliens were also interned.

The shock of Pearl Harbour, like the shock of 9/11 sixty years later, unleashed panicky public fears that played on deeply rooted prior prejudices and required no supporting evidence. Roosevelt did nothing to resist those fears, even though Hoover and others assured him that the Japanese American population as a whole posed no real security threat. The U.S. Supreme Court dutifully upheld the barbaric act.

Truman laid the foundations of an emergency state in peace time. Breaking with American tradition, Truman flexed war-rooted presidential powers in the succeeding years of peace. He kept the unlimited state of national emergency Roosevelt had proclaimed in 1941 in full force until 1947. He kept most of its emergency provisions in effect throughout his term and bequeathed them to his successors. The emergency state never ended. Cold War Presidents from both parties thought of themselves and acted as war Presidents. And so have the four Presidents who have held office since the Cold War ended.

Harry Truman created something new in America, something we live with today, something that connects our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with our trade and budget deficits, with the disproportionate growth of the financial sector over the past four decades, and with todays unsustainable foreign borrowing. Trumans decision in these years created the peacetime emergency state. Unlike the wartime emergency state the peacetime variety has no logical termination, no moment when the emergency clearly ends and normal constitutional procedures come back into force. A new, security-based set of justifications for expanded presidential powers in peacetime was born.

Days after Germany invaded Russia in June 1941, Truman advised: If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible, although I dont want to see Hitler victorious under any circumstances. Neither of them thinks anything of their pledged word.

The author is wrong in ignoring the Churchill-Stalin pact of 1944 on Eastern Europe and its sabotage by Roosevelt. His narrative of the course of the Cold War is interesting, but far more relevant are his comments on the background to the present situation. For the first time since 1940, the United States no longer faced a global totalitarian threat. All the cumulative departures from Americas constitutional design from presidential war making to the classification of essential foreign policy informationcould now be reconsidered.

Americans could safely debate the foreign policy they wanted to follow, the kind of military forces they wanted to maintain, and what it would take to ensure American security and prosperity in a post-Cold-War world. Americans could decide what role they wanted to play in the international economy and the internal political disputes of the other countries, and the purposes for which nuclear weapons should and should not be used. It had been a very long time since Americans had seriously debated any of these things. But the process could at least begin. Congress could hold hearings. Presidential commissions could investigate. Universities and civic groups could organise discussions. News organisations could report on the issues at stake. The U.S. has never seriously reflected on its role in the world as the first among equals. Its eyes were even set on global dominance.

Americans celebrated the end of the Cold War, but the institutions of the emergency state worked behind closed doors inventing new rationales for themselves while making minimal adjustments to the size and configuration of Americas military forces.

Perversely, the war on Iraq in 1991 whetted the appetite for more, as Patrick E. Tyler revealed in a truly historic piece of reporting in The New York Times of March 8, 1992. Its title was U.S. Strategy Calls for Insuring No Rivals Develop in a One-Superpower World. That is the crux of the problem. The U.S. has no time for equals. It wants subordinates. Hence its resentment of Chinas rise.

It was a 46-page document which that ace reporter brought to light. It was leaked by an official who believed that the post-Cold-War strategy should be carried out in the public domain. The draft was prepared under the supervision of Paul Wolfowitz, then Under Secretary of Defence for Policy. Those working on it included I. Lewis Scooter Libby, then Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defence for Strategy and Resources, and Zalmay Khabilzad, then Deputy Under Secretary of Defence for Policy Planning. They became major figures in the George W. Bush administration.

Bush and Dick Cheney publicly distanced themselves from some of the leaked documents most controversial points and sent it back for revision. While paying lip service to multilateralism, U.S. alliances, and the United Nations, the draft Defence Planning Guidance emphasised unilateral U.S. policies and power, acting through ad hoc coalitions of the willingtemporary groupings assembled for specific purposes and then discarded so as not to become a brake on unilateral U.S. policies. The draft Defence Planning Guidance set ambitious goals in almost every corner of the globe. Rest assured the U.S. will not countenance a powerful India.

Internal debates

Ungers book records internal debates in the U.S. administration as he travels on the course of the Cold War. President Bill Clintons U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright asked Chief of Staff Colin Powell: Whats the point in having this superb military youre always talking about if we cant use it? Have we not heard such voices in New Delhi as well?

As the clamour for war increased so did contempt for law in Bush and his men. They believed that the 1970s measures such as the War Power Act (1973), the new intelligence reporting and oversight laws (beginning in 1974), the expansion of the Freedom Information Act (passed over President Gerald Fords veto in 1974), the open meetings law (1976) and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (1978) had imperilled the nation by weakening the Commander in Chiefs powers in the permanent undeclared war against Americas enemies. They had been outraged when Democratic congressional majorities voted to cut off funding for White House-directed military and intelligence operations in Indochina (1970-73), Angola (1976) and Nicaragua (1982-84).

Obama claims a presidential right to order the assassination of American citizens in countries like Yemen on the basis of his own conclusion that they are directly or indirectly involved in terrorism. No court will review Obamas assassination orders or the evidence behind the terrorist designation, violating the letter and the spirit of the Fifth Amendments guarantee of due process.

But that is not all. This prematurely acclaimed Nobel Prize winner has been more aggressive than any of his predecessors in prosecuting government whistleblowers for speaking with the press. Such prosecutions have been very rare in American history. The Obama administration has already pursued five of them, two more than the last seven Presidents combined. A particularly chilling example was made of Bradley Manning, the army private charged with the capital offence of aiding the enemy for leaking classified Pentagon and State Department cables to WikiLeaks. Without whistleblowers, the American people would never have learned about the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandals or the National Security Agency warrantless wiretaps. Without leakers inside the national security bureaucracy, ordinary Americans would never have been able to read the Pentagon Papers.

What the author omits to emphasise is that Barack Obama personally vets the lists of men targeted for assassination. His administration has shown no zeal in investigating and prosecuting possible crimes committed by senior officials in the Bush administration Justice Department and Pentagon, passing up the chance to make similarly placed officials think twice if asked to ignore the law and the Constitution. How could he prosecute them? He has embraced Bushs expansive interpretation of the state secrets defence. It is an assertion that claims of illegal government conduct cannot proceed to trial because information bearing on national security might be disclosedto head off court review of Bushs legally dubious national security wiretap programme and its extraordinary rendition kidnappings. And in a case first argued by Elena Kagan when she was Obamas Solicitor General, it won the right to use the Patriot Acts extremely broad material support language to prosecute constitutionally guaranteed free speech.

On Afghanistan, Obamas policies have failed dismally. On Libya things are no better. Unger sums up the net result in these precise words:

We Americans have built the worlds most powerful military. Yet now we live in greater fear of external and internal dangers than before World War II. We have recorded the world economy to American specifications. Yet globalisation has fed our fears of outsourced jobs and inassimilable immigrants. We have filled our malls with more consumer products than previous generations could have imagined. Yet we enjoy less economic security than our parents, and we worry, with good reason, that global competition will mean fewer good jobs and relentless downward pressure on our childrens living standards. We have fought repeated wars to preserve the worlds freest democracy. Yet for seven decades we have been yielding our most basic liberties to a secretive, unaccountable emergency statea vast but increasingly misdirected complex of national security institutions, reflexes, and beliefs that so define our present world that we forget that there was ever a different America. But there was, and we could have it again.

Americas emergency state was originally designed to wage hot war against Nazi Germany and cold war against Soviet-led international Communism. Its institutions, and the outdated world view they embody, are not good at protecting us against todays most dangerous international threats, as the events of 9/11 and the wrongly targeted and disastrously mismanaged wars that followed painfully demonstrate.

This is where the quest for the mirage of absolute security has brought the U.S. There is no such thing as absolute security. As Henry Kissinger says, absolute security for one state is absolute insecurity for all others. It is a lesson which India and Pakistan would do well to heed as they waste money on a ruinous arms race.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jan 11, 2013.)

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