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How the World's New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, Peace and the Free Market

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Richard Clark     Permalink
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Governments and administrations come and go, but not so a new breed of power brokers, who always seem to pop up just where the action is. Wearing different hats, they press their agendas in venue after venue. According to award-winning public policy scholar and anthropologist Janine Wedel, these are the "shadow elite," the prime movers in a vexing new system of power and influence.

Wedel charts how these players make public decisions without public input--in realms from domestic to foreign and financial policy. Maneuvering through their many spheres of influence, they challenge both governments' rules of accountability and businesses' codes of competition, ultimately answering only to each other. From the Harvard economists who helped privatize post-Soviet Russia, and the neoconservatives who helped privatize American foreign policy for thirty years (culminating with the debacle that is Iraq), to many lesser-known global operators, these players ignore once-sacrosanct boundaries between state and private, bureaucracy and market. This new breed, unseen by most, is steadily gaining power.

We need to recognize these players and understand the new system--which we ignore at our peril.

One pointer to the new system is provided by a challenge to it that came in the form of a recent ruling by a federal court in California. The ruling was that the warrantless wiretapping from the post 9-11 era is illegal. This was not just a stinging rebuke to the Bush administration. It also slammed Obama and the current administration.

The judge harshly criticized the Obama Justice Department for invoking the so-called state-secrets privilege, saying it would allow "unfettered executive-branch discretion," with "obvious potential for governmental abuse and overreaching."

The Obama defense strategy came to light last year, and for many, it was a disturbing deja vu of the brass knuckles tactics of the Bush years. The Huffington Post's Dan Froomkin quoted this from Louis Fisher, a constitutional law specialist at the Library of Congress.

If an administration is at liberty to invoke the state secrets privilege to prevent litigation from moving forward, thus eliminating independent judicial review, could not the administration use the privilege to conceal violations of statutes, treaties, and the Constitution? What check would then exist for illegal actions by the executive branch?

President Obama's willingness to flex executive power in the wiretap case, and beyond, has come as an unwelcome surprise to supporters who hoped that he might reverse what they saw as a wholesale grab of unauthorized authority by the Bush White House. But the trend towards greater executive power did not begin with George W. Bush, and it would be naive to assume that it would end with him.

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In the new book Shadow Elite, a redesign of governing, aided by the rise of executive authority, is seen to be one of the key developments of the late 20th and early 21st centuries that has helped usher forth a new system of power and influence. It's a system in which a small number of ultra-nimble players moving seamlessly among roles in government, business, think tanks, and media, pursue their own agendas, at the expense of democracy, transparency, peace and accountability.

Historical background

A vision of a streamlined state burst onto the public stage in the United States and the United Kingdom in the early 1980s, with Ronald Reagan and his ideological soul mate, Margaret Thatcher, leading the rhetorical charge. Reagan campaigned against "big government" and presided over an age of deregulation, relaxing constraints on industry, while Thatcher pressed to privatize the economy by selling government-owned enterprises. The redesign of governing had its origins in these policy reforms (especially those dealing with government itself), as well as in expanded executive power, which often was necessary to implement this particular kind of reform.

The "Reagan revolution" sanctified the practice of contracting out government services, ostensibly to control costs, while letting governing entities concentrate on their central mission. And the trend is now so entrenched that it transcends party, with even President Clinton and Vice President Gore declaring they would "Reinvent Government." The result was that a host of non-governmental players were increasingly doing the government's work, often overshadowing government bureaucracy, which began to look like Swiss cheese: full of holes -- a condition ideal for a new kind of power broker wanting to plug into those holes.

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And, as already indicated, this new power broker would take good advantage of expanding executive power.

Enter George W. Bush and the defining event of his presidency: 9/11. Vice President Cheney was convinced that the power of the executive had eroded in the post-Vietnam era, (though the scholarship suggests that those powers have actually been intensifying throughout the 20th century). And 9/11 gave him and his allies fertile ground to re-amass what they believe they had lost. The warrantless wiretapping, recently declared illegal, was part and parcel of one of the most controversial expansions of executive power during the Bush Presidency, advocated (ostensibly) to more effectively fight the so called "war on terror." (This expansion of executive power was by no means confined to the U.S. globally it has grown, largely as a result of the post-9/11 adaptation of international security law.)

Another means of expanding executive power (which facilitates and augments the vexing new system of power and influence of which author Janine Wedel speaks) was the use of presidential "signing statements." A signing statement is a pronouncement about a provision of a law passed by Congress and signed by the president, in which he signifies that he will not be bound by the new law. While Presidents Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Clinton all signaled their objections, from time to time, through constitutional challenges contained in signing statements, George W. Bush increased the number of such challenges more than tenfold compared with Clinton. Bush employed the signing statement more than 1,100 times during his eight years in office.

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Several years after receiving my M.A. in social science (interdisciplinary studies) I was an instructor at S.F. State University for a year, but then went back to designing automated machinery, and then tech writing, in Silicon Valley. I've (more...)

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