Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Mendacity of Hope

by Roger D Hodge

Harper's Magazine (February 2010)

A year and more has passed, yet we have not been delivered. Some believed that Barack Obama had come to restore the Republic, to return our nation to the righteous path. A new, glorious era in American politics was at hand.

If only that were true. We all can taste the bitterness now.

Obama promised to end the war in Iraq, end torture, close Guantanamo, restore the constitution, heal our wounds, wash our feet. None of these things has come to pass. As president, with few exceptions, Obama either has embraced the unconstitutional war powers claimed by his predecessor or has left the door open for their quiet adoption at some later date. Leon Panetta, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, has declared that the kidnapping and rendition of foreigners will continue, and the Bush Administration's expansive doctrine of state secrets continues to be used in court against those wrongfully detained and tortured by our security forces and allies. Obama has adopted military commissions, once an unpardonable offense against our best traditions, to prosecute terrorism cases in which legitimate convictions cannot be obtained; when even such mock trials provide too much justice, he will make do with indefinite detention. If, by some slim chance, a defendant were to be found not guilty, we have been assured that the president's "post-acquittal" detention powers would then come into play.

The principle of habeas corpus, sacred to candidate Obama as "the essence of who we are", no longer seems so essential, and reports continue to surface of secret prisons hidden from due process and the Red Cross. Waterboarding has been banned, but other "soft" forms of torture, such as sleep deprivation and force-feeding, continue - as do the practices, which once seemed so terribly important to opponents of the Bush regime, of presidential signing statements and warrantless surveillance. In at least one respect, the Obama Justice Department has produced an innovation: a claim of "sovereign immunity" in response to a lawsuit seeking damages for illegal spying. Not even the minions of George W Bush, with their fanciful notions of the unitary executive, made use of this constitutionally suspect doctrine, derived from the ancient common-law assumption that "the King can do no wrong", to defend their clear violations of the federal surveillance statute.

As the attorney Glenn Greenwald has argued, in his writings for Salon and elsewhere, the rule of law has not been restored but perverted; what had been outlawed but committed, the law now simply permits. Obama's lawyers, benefiting from Bush-era litigation, can claim conformity with law, but the disgraceful policies continue largely unchanged. Better, smarter legal arguments obtain for policies that should give any decent man nightmares. Our torturers and war criminals and illegal spies and usurpers remain at liberty, unpunished. The wars of choice continue and threaten to spread; 30,000 additional soldiers prepare to "finish the job" in Afghanistan's graveyard of empires while our flying robots bomb villagers in the mountains of Waziristan. This, we are told, is progress.

Admirers of the president now embrace actions they once denounced as criminal, or rationalize and evade such questions, or attempt to explain away what cannot be excused. That Obama is in most respects better than George W Bush, John McCain, Sarah Palin, or Joseph Stalin is beyond dispute and completely beside the point. Obama is judged not as a man but as a fable, a tale of moral uplift that redeems the sins of America's shameful past. Even as many casual supporters begin to show their inevitable displeasure with his "job performance", and his poll numbers decline, the character and motivations of the president remain above question. He is a good man. I trust him to do the right thing.

It is not surprising that unsophisticated children, naive Europeans, and Democratic partisans' continue to revere the heroic former candidate, despite everything he has done and left undone. Nor is it surprising that the broken remnants of the old White Supremacy coalition hate and fear the man and will oppose him without quarter (excepting, of course, his war policies). Puzzling, however, is the fact that Obama, until fairly recently an obscure striver in the Chicago Democratic machine, continues to inspire perfervid devotion among intellectual liberals who know their history. Even they say: Be patient. Give him time. It's hard to change the government. Or, more cynically: He's the best we can do. Thus, his most sophisticated admirers assume the burden, of Obama's sins, bite their tongues, and indulge the temptation to frame his shortcomings as our own. Obama is not to blame; we are to blame. Obama has not failed us; America has failed him.

Perhaps I am wrong to expect a flood of thoughtful apologetics on or around the first anniversary of Obama's rule. It may be that the bizarre spectacle of a putatively antiwar president standing in imperial glory before an audience of young West Point cadets, declaring that War is Peace even as he promises to send many of them to the grave, will jar the liberal intelligentsia from its affectionate slumber. But, as I write, the rationalizations and hagiographies have already begun to pour in, although they are not always packaged as such.

Seeking fresh historical perspective on yet another president with an obscure plan to somehow win an unwinnable war he did not start, I picked up a new book by Garry Wills with a provocative title: Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State (2010). The walls of my library are lined with books advertising similar themes, the works of trenchant historians who seek to explain what went wrong with America, how the noble republic of Jefferson and Madison devolved into a globe-gobbling empire. I came to Bomb Power with high expectations and was surprised by what I found.

Wills traces the roots of the American empire to the invention and deployment of nuclear weaponry by the Manhattan Project, the vast and secret apparatus authorized by Franklin Roosevelt and created by General Leslie Richard "Dick" Groves. An enormous covert bureaucracy, hidden from congressional oversight and beholden to one man, created the most fearsomely destructive weapon in history, and thus set the paradigm for the national security state that arose immediately after World War Two. Wills tracks its development, sketching the scientific and political intrigues at Los Alamos, and briefly outlines the development of America's Cold War posture and its culmination in the National Security Act of 1947, the epochal raft of legislation that reorganized the armed services and created the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council. Anti-communism and the perceived Soviet threat provided a ready justification for paranoia, secrecy, and the consolidation of presidential power, but nothing contributed more to that process, according to Wills, than the sheer fact of the atomic bomb. That "bomb power", as Wills calls it, was so enormous, so seductive and awe-inspiring, that it swamped the Constitution.

Lodging "the fate of the world" in one man, with no constitutional check on his actions, caused a violent break in our whole governmental system ... The nature of the presidency was irrevocably altered by this grant of a unique power. The President's permanent alert meant our permanent submission. He became, mainly, the Commander in Chief, since he could loose the whole military force of the nation at any moment. Elections became fateful because we were choosing a Commander in Chief, a custodian of the football, a person whose hand was on the button.

When the North Korean army crossed the 38th Parallel, Wills writes, the new bomb power was put to the test. President Truman, devoted to the idea of his "great office" and determined to avoid costly congressional entanglements, successfully fought off constitutional pedants such as Senator Robert Taft and launched what Wills considers the first presidential war. This was followed, as we know, by a long succession of interventions, coups d'etat, and police actions, culminating in the catastrophe of Vietnam and now the "Long War" that comprises our misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bomb Power, a vigorous, lawyerly indictment of the imperial presidency, provides a useful summary of America's shameful and violent Cold War history, and demonstrates that the crimes of the Bush regime differed from those of previous administrations largely in degree rather than in kind.

Oddly, however, Wills's emphasis on the peculiar aura of presidential bomb power, so compellingly expressed in his opening chapters, begins to lose its persuasive force as the narrative unfolds, as the wars drag on and the list of interventions and coups grows longer. What historian William Appleman Williams called the impotence of nuclear supremacy begins to make itself felt, and it is this impotence that lurks behind the belligerence of a monster like Dick Cheney, whose statement of the "bomb power" theory of presidential power is unrivaled in its clarity: "The president of the United States", he told a television audience, "could launch the kind of devastating attack the world has never seen. He doesn't have to check with anybody, he doesn't have to call the Congress, he doesn't have to check with the courts."

It's easy to see why the president's bomb power appeals to Cheney, and although Wills is surely right to observe that the president's arrogation of nuclear command represented an important victory for the executive in its long struggle with the other two branches of government, one suspects that the total mobilization required by World War Two would have had much the same effect even without the atomic bomb. The threat of the Soviet Union, together with the horrific realities of air power and conventional bombing - which claimed far more victims than did Little Boy and Fat Man - would have remained. Presidents have rarely been frustrated when contemplating violence, and Caesar required only the power of the sword.

Like many who revere the idea of the lost American Republic, Wills wishes to isolate a singular efficient cause for our imperial declension, when the more likely, and more complex, explanation is an inherent tendency or immanent manifestation, which is why the term "manifest destiny" is so perfectly apt. Continental expansion, the Indian Wars, decades of Open Door diplomacy and economic imperialism, not to mention a 150-year tradition of extraconstitutional military intervention, executive misbehavior, and secrecy, all culminated in the Cold War ideology of national security, which provided the template for our present-day terror dreams. The American empire was always present, in both idea and reality, along with the more noble republican rhetoric, as in the following bit of prophetic doggerel, printed by the Virginia Gazette in 1774:

Some fitter day shall crown us the
Masters of the Main,
In giving laws and freedom to subject
France and Spain,
And all the isles o'er Ocean
shall tremble and obey
The Lords, the Lords, the Lords of
North America.

Wills, a learned historian and the author of more than one presidential biography, can see the problem, and he spends a few paragraphs on Abraham Lincoln, whose wartime assumption of dictatorial powers troubles his thesis, and Woodrow Wilson, that accomplished theorist of executive power, according to whom "the President is at liberty, both in law and conscience, to be as big a man as he can". Yet he does not ponder Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the country by executive fiat, or Madison's failed dream of conquering Canada, or Polk's successful conquest of northern Mexico. It was Madison, principal author of the Constitution, who did more than anyone to refute Montesquieu's maxim that republican liberty requires a small state, the political consensus of the day. "Extend the sphere", he argued, and displace internal conflicts outward. Hamilton agreed, urging his countrymen to "dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world!" Americans did precisely that, and in the long years of American expansion, both territorial and economic, military power was the decisive wedge that permitted executive usurpation.

The dangers inherent in our constitutional design were recognized from the beginning. Here is John Taylor of Caroline taking stock in 1814:

Both the English king and our president are the exclusive managers of negotiation; and secrecy is their common maxim. By negotiation, foreign governments may be provoked; by secrecy, a government may delude and knead a people into a rage for war; and war is a powerful instrument for expelling the element of self-government, and introducing that of force ... By negotiation, secrecy and war, traitors convert a national detestation of tyranny into a tool for making tyrants.

"Dazzled by the prospect of permanent union", Taylor continues, "the sponsors for liberty, were forgotten in the general joy; and a president of the United States was invested with far greater powers than sufficed to Caesar for enslaving his country. Patronage, negotiation, a negative upon laws, and a paper system, render some of those talents which Caesar possessed, unnecessary to enable a president to perform what Caesar effected." America's liberal empire and executive monarchism were nurtured together in the womb of the Republic.

Wills, however, prefers a tale of diabolical "bomb power" and thus a Christian allegory of the Fall, in which America, after tasting the fruit of the Tree of Atomic Knowledge, is surprised by sin and stumbles into hegemony. The dismaying subtext of Wills's book becomes fully manifest only in his afterword: he seems to have written his book, as if in parody of Milton, to justify the ways of Obama to men.

The awesome seductiveness of bomb power, Wills suggests, is something with which mere mortals cannot contend. A new president, ambushed by his sudden potency, has no choice but to give in. "Bomb power", as Wills conjures it, is both more sinister and more palliative than the comparatively tame thesis, submitted by generations of critical historians, that the United States of America never did follow a path of republican virtue, and that the presidency has steadily devolved into an office of elected emperor. But such knowledge offers little in the way of consolation when applied to the shortcomings of a beloved leader. "Perhaps it should come as no surprise", Wills writes, reflecting on Obama's record, "that turning around the huge secret empire built by the National Security State is a hard, perhaps impossible task ... A president is greatly pressured to keep all the empire's secrets ... He becomes a prisoner of his own power. As President Truman could not not use the Bomb, a modern President cannot not use his huge power base. It has all been given him as the legacy of Bomb Power, the thing that makes him not only Commander in Chief but Leader of the Free World. He is a self-entangling giant." Thus a president's shabby compromises and betrayals assume the high pathos of tragedy.

Indeed, Wills writes in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, were Obama to end the war in Afghanistan - as reason, morality, history, and all canons of prudence most urgently recommend - he would pay the ultimate sacrifice: he would forfeit his reelection. "It is unlikely that we will soon have another president with the moral and rhetorical force to talk us out of a foolish commitment that cannot be sustained without shame and defeat. If it costs him his presidency, what other achievement can match it? During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama said he would rather be a one-term president than give up on his goals. Here is a goal no other president we can imagine would have a possibility of reaching." Wills, like many of Obama's supporters, apparently did not believe his candidate when during the campaign he repeatedly vowed to escalate the Afghan war - nor did he seem to notice when the president deployed 21,000 new troops there upon taking office. As it happens, Obama's Nixonian performance at West Point caused the scales to fall from Wills's eyes (he promised in a short, strange essay never to give Obama "another penny"), but other thoughtful liberals, such as Hendrik Hertzberg ("a sombre appeal to reason") and Frank Rich ("the sincere product of serious deliberations, an earnest attempt to apply his formidable intelligence to one of the most daunting Rubik's Cubes of foreign policy America has ever known"), have not wavered in their adjectival devotion.

Let us grant that Barack Obama is as intelligent as his admirers insist. What evidence do we possess that he is also a moral virtuoso? What evidence do we possess that he is a good, wise, or even a decent man? Yes, he can be eloquent, yet eloquence is no guarantee of wisdom or of virtue. Yes, he has a nice family, but that evinces a private morality. Public morality requires public action, and all available public evidence points to a man with the character of a common politician, whose singular ambition in life was to attain power; nothing in Barack Obama's political career suggests that he would ever willingly commit to a course of action that would cost him an election. His preposterously two-faced approach to Afghanistan, wherein he simultaneously escalates the war while promising to begin "the transition to Afghan responsibility" just a year later, is a perfect illustration of his compulsion to split the difference on any given political question. (One could also point to the health-care boondoggle, or to his utter capitulation to Wall Street in economic matters.) He dilly-dallies, draws out both friends and opponents, dangles promises in front of everyone, gives a dramatic speech, and then pulls back to gauge the reaction. Since the policy itself is incoherent - and, as usual with Obama, salted with stipulations and provisos - he can always trim and readjust as necessary. Deadlines and definitions of "combat forces" are infinitely malleable. Since Obama is an intelligent man, surely he understands the meaning of the word mendacity.

Having embraced and professionalized the powers of force and fraud previously associated with the likes of John Yoo and Dick Cheney, Obama has embarked on a course of war that will certainly invite further abuses of power. His political survival now depends on martial success in a land that has defeated some of history's most brutal strategies of conquest. Obama has set a trap for himself, but because he is such a clever politician, the spring is just as likely to fall on us instead. Such insidious governance demands serious, sustained opposition, not respectful disagreement or fanciful historical apologies or mournful lamentations about the tragedy of his presidency. Principles can be sacrificed to hopes as well as to fears.


Roger D Hodge is the editor of Harper's Magazine.

Bill Totten


  • Mendacity of Hope is fine analysis. Countering the relentless encirclement of decency and settled laws with the criminal beastiality of U.S. Corporate Empire has already taken the lives of millions.

    The levels of true mendacity most news go nowhere near, neither the the amount nor the particulars. The third Reich's Hitler was a piker by comparison. Think one thousand Bhopals, quintupled. Suzanne

    By Blogger suzannedk, at 12:25 AM, March 17, 2010  

  • Mendacity of Hope is fine analysis. Countering the relentless encirclement of decency and settled laws with the criminal beastiality of U.S. Corporate Empire has already taken the lives of millions.

    The levels of true mendacity most news go nowhere near, neither the the amount nor the particulars. The third Reich's Hitler was a piker by comparison. Think one thousand Bhopals, quintupled. Suzanne

    By Blogger suzannedk, at 12:26 AM, March 17, 2010  

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