Friday, September 18, 2009

"Entangled Giant"

The latest bits of news in a seemingly endless flood: Obama, who I considered voting for when I thought he was the peace candidate, is sending 3,000 more troops to Afghanistan and Iraq; furthermore, he now supports extending key provisions in the Patriot Act. Verily, we are in the ninth year of the Bush administration.

In a brilliant essay in the forthcoming NYRB, Gary Wills asks a question that few on the left seem to be asking:
Some were dismayed to see how quickly the Obama people grabbed at the powers, the secrecy, the unaccountability that had led Bush into such opprobrium. ... A White House official told Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, [referring to Leon Panetta's transformation] “It’s like Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
The question of course is What the Hell happened? Wills' answer, a mere 1,388 words, shifted my view of what sort of country America has become, and how it got that way. Maybe it will do so with yours as well. The core of his answer:
The momentum of accumulating powers in the executive is not easily reversed, checked, or even slowed. It was not created by the Bush administration. The whole history of America since World War II caused an inertial transfer of power toward the executive branch. The monopoly on use of nuclear weaponry, the cult of the commander in chief, the worldwide network of military bases to maintain nuclear alert and supremacy, the secret intelligence agencies, the entire national security state, the classification and clearance systems, the expansion of state secrets, the withholding of evidence and information, the permanent emergency that has melded World War II with the cold war and the cold war with the “war on terror”—all these make a vast and intricate structure that may not yield to effort at dismantling it. Sixty-eight straight years of war emergency powers (1941–2009) have made the abnormal normal, and constitutional diminishment the settled order.
When the book is finally written on the legacy of the New Deal and how it transformed America, a good half of it will have to deal with the beginnings of this vast National Security State. It has grown into a Death Star so vast it cannot be steered by any human agency on Earth -- certainly not the people, and not even the executive who nominally heads it (the "entangled giant" of Wills' title).

Obviously, the big question is: Is there any hope whatsoever of dismantling the Death Star? Wills merely vows to carry on the struggle without hope. I can think of one reason for hope, and I think it is a realistic one.

Eventually, the system will have to collapse under its own weight. The ever-escalating public debt, rising taxes, and inflation (soon to make a return appearance at a mall near you) that finance the national security state will eventually run out of resources to expropriate.

Of course, this is hardly a reason for hope by itself. If something this huge implodes, it takes plenty of other things with it. But I can imagine an intermediary position, between what we have now and complete collapse: a fiscal crisis in which it becomes obvious, even to the system's ever-increasing number of dependents, that it will collapse unless we cut costs drastically.

Then we may take a good look at the fact that our military establishment burns more wealth than those of all the rest of the world combined, and then take a look at whatever real military threats we face, and realize that the former is not a smart, focused response to the latter at all. Then congress may grow some huevos and begin a series of deep cuts in the military budget. That is probably the only way to begin to control it: just slowly starve the thing.

At that point, the only alternative to doing so will be a sort of collective suicide. It's not too much to hope that they will do the right thing, for once.
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