Friday, September 25, 2009

The National Security State: Remember when Ike said something about this?

Former Colorado Senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart has started a blog: Matters of Principle. Senator Hart has cogently contributed to the Huffington Post for some time. The transition to his own blog is an obvious next step and I am eager to see how the undertaking goes. I liked his this offering, which was also posted on HuffPo, very much.

Senator Hart outlines what he calls 'the national security state.'

"The National Security Act of 1947 was the statutory basis for defining America’s role in the world post-World War II and for conducting the Cold War. It established a new Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council, and the United States Air Force as a new military service. For more than six decades, it has also been the source of authority for the president as commander-in-chief."

Though the American Civil War was the prototype for the 'imperial presidency' and the model for the dominant picture of the 'American President' in the 20th Century was drawn by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt, because of the Great Depression and WWII, enjoyed unprecedented national and global power. He was elected president four times, also unprecedented. Only Ulysses S. Grant had run more than twice and Grant was not even nominated by the Republican Party on his third try. Roosevelt was the defining personality of the 1930s and the 1940s, even after his death. The National Security Act of 1947 was written with the view that the president would manage the Cold War the way President Roosevelt had managed WWII.

Here comes the rub: FDR was a wartime president who enjoyed broad wartime powers based on a situation of worldwide emergency. Even before the US entry into WWII, the rest of the world was at war for a period of two years. When America entered into the war it became the dominant force among the allies. Due to American resources and British and Soviet need, Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the Duke of Marlborough on a global scale. The National Security Act of 1947 was written during peacetime. The powers granted the president through the NSA has given American presidents wartime powers in time of peace to the best of their ability to wield them ever since.

Can you see why this is inherently dangerous?

If you can't, then consider this:

"Despite the fact that our Constitution, Article I, section 8, gives Congress solely the power to “provide for the common defense” and “declare War,” it is not accidental that no declaration of war has been authorized since 1941, even while we waged war in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and dozens of other venues. Presidents now decide when and where we will wage war."

Due to the power given to the executive through the NSA, the single defining change in the law post-WWII, the president has been able to fight wars at his discretion without a Congressional declararion. For this the justification was the Cold War and the tool that made it possible was unprecedented peacetime authority and a vastly expanded national security apparat. As Hart says, all of this power is a trap for the man who wields it all. He can exercise authority over this national security apparatus, as Hart says, but he can't get away from it.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, the last president to command an army personally, understood this. It was very much the point of his last speech as president. Everyone knows the famous line:

"In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the militaryindustrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."

Much of our history since Eisenhower is based not on remembering this warning, but forgetting it. Many of the crimes, failures, and tragedies connected to the Iraq War and the Bush Administration as a whole were intimately connected to the failure of subsequent American presidents to heed this warning. In the wake of WWII, every American president has used this national security apparatus to advance its own agenda around the world. While this was justified first by the Cold War, then the so-called 'War on Drugs, and now the 'Global War on Terror' it is really all the same thing.

As Hart says:

"This helps explain the demented insistence on the part of the Bush administration to create, or perhaps merely ratify, the “unitary executive,” a notion based on the premise that all executive power resides in the president and Congress has no authority to question his actions as they relate to national security. In this context “national security” is so broadly defined as to include virtually everything.'

This is the consequence of the concept of President-as-Generalissimo. Even President Obama, who ran against this concept, has been unable to escape it. Hart makes comment on this. It is echoed by this piece from Ron Chusid at Liberal Values.

Hart puts his finger right on the current situation:

"All this might make some plausible sense, but only if two things were true: one, that we are now locked into a kind of semi-permanent era of conflict and danger; and two that James Madison and his colleagues had not gone to considerable pains to create a genius system of checked-and-balanced government where power is concentrated in no single branch."

Hart finishes by saying that our chief concern should be what James Madison would think of this, but I strongly disagree.

Our real chief concern should be whether the concept of a 'semi-permanent era of conflict and danfer' is something that we, as American, can afford to accept. This concept has prevailed since the beginning of the Cold War. The only exception has been the brief period between the end of the Cold War and the 9/11 attacks. Americans who grew up during the Cold War find the return to that mentality unremarkable.

That desperately needs to change.

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