Wednesday morning came as a great shock to many of my friends. Facebook became a virtual wailing wall for angst ridden liberals. Some said they spent the morning in tears, some in fear and anger, others ready to mount a revolution. One person, who teaches history at TCC across the bay even attempted to make a correlation with Kristallnacht, the night Nazis attacked Jews, destroying their homes, businesses, and houses of worship. This struck me as a serious case of, “Dude, you’re going there? Really?” I wonder, why all the drama, why so serious?
It’s a big country, do people really think it’s going to change that much?
Now eight years into his administration, Obama’s version of national security looks almost indistinguishable from W’s. Guantanamo Bay remains open. The NSA has, if anything, become more aggressive in monitoring Americans. Drone strikes have escalated. The assassination of American citizens living abroad has somehow become acceptable, and the US is spending up to $1 trillion modernizing and revitalizing America’s nuclear weapons.
This of course, is not Obama’s fault—there’s nothing an elected official can do about it. In the end, the faces change but the policies remain the same. Somehow we have elevated the importance of the American vote to grandiose proportions, that we can steer our own government by electing new officials. Michael Glennon in his book, “National Security and Double Government,” disagrees, and uses the term “double government: There’s the one we elect, and then there’s the one behind it, steering huge swaths of policy almost unchecked. Elected officials end up serving as mere cover for the real decisions made by the bureaucracy.”
He writes, “a bifurcated system — a structure of double government — in which even the President now exercises little substantive control over the overall direction of US national security policy.” The result, he writes, is a system of dual institutions that have evolved “toward greater centralization, less accountability, and emergent autocracy.”
Hardly a conspiracy though, but instead a tricky problem of, “smart, hard-working, public-spirited people acting in good faith who are responding to systemic incentives”—without any meaningful oversight to rein them in.
Congress or even President can hardly make a dent in the monolith. Members of Congress the experts (usually), and must defer to folks that have “been within the national security realm, as elsewhere. They are particularly concerned about being caught out on a limb having made a wrong judgment about national security and tend, therefore, to defer to experts, who tend to exaggerate threats. The courts similarly tend to defer to the expertise of the network that defines national security policy.”
While we may want to believe, we are voting for change or hope, like Bill Murray suggested in Meat Balls, “It just doesn’t matter.” We want to believe the presidency is a top-down institution, “headed by a president who gives orders and causes the bureaucracy to click its heels and salute.”
Policy emanates from within the bureaucracy. Many of the more controversial policies, from the mining of Nicaragua’s harbors to the NSA surveillance program, originated within the bureaucracy.
Glennon has noted, “I think the American people are deluded…They believe that when they vote for a president or member of Congress or succeed in bringing a case before the courts, that policy is going to change—policy by and large in the national security realm is made by the concealed institutions…. The ultimate problem is the pervasive political ignorance on the part of the American people. And indifference to the threat that is emerging from these concealed institutions. That is where the energy for reform has to come from: the American people. Not from government.”
Interview notes from Jordan Michael Smith and The Christian Science Monitor.