An Exceptional Decline for the Exceptional Country? The Empire as Basket Case By Tom Engelhardt
For America's national security state, this is the age of impunity. Nothing it does -- torture, kidnapping, assassination, illegal surveillance, you name it -- will ever be brought to court. For none of its beyond-the-boundaries acts will anyone be held accountable. The only crimes that can now be committed in official Washington are by those foolish enough to believe that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from this earth. I'm speaking of the various whistleblowers and leakers who have had an urge to let Americans know what deeds and misdeeds their government is committing in their name but without their knowledge. They continue to pay a price in accountability for their acts that should, by comparison, stun us all.
As June ended, the New York Times front-paged an account of an act of corporate impunity that may, however, be unique in the post-9/11 era (though potentially a harbinger of things to come). In 2007, as journalist James Risen tells it, Daniel Carroll, the top manager in Iraq for the rent-a-gun company Blackwater, one of the warrior corporations that accompanied the U.S. military to war in the twenty-first century, threatened Jean Richter, a government investigator sent to Baghdad to look into accounts of corporate wrongdoing.
Here, according to Risen, is Richter's version of what happened when he, another government investigator, and Carroll met to discuss Blackwater's potential misdeeds in that war zone:
"Mr. Carroll said 'that he could kill me at that very moment and no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq,' Mr. Richter wrote in a memo to senior State Department officials in Washington. He noted that Mr. Carroll had formerly served with Navy SEAL Team 6, an elite unit. 'Mr. Carroll's statement was made in a low, even tone of voice, his head was slightly lowered; his eyes were fixed on mine,' Mr. Richter stated in his memo. 'I took Mr. Carroll's threat seriously. We were in a combat zone where things can happen quite unexpectedly, especially when issues involve potentially negative impacts on a lucrative security contract.'"
When officials at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the largest in the world, heard what had happened, they acted promptly. They sided with the Blackwater manager, ordering Richter and the investigator who witnessed the scene out of the country (with their inquiry incomplete). And though a death threat against an American official might, under other circumstances, have led a CIA team or a set of special ops guys to snatch the culprit off the streets of Baghdad, deposit him on a Navy ship for interrogation, and then leave him idling in Guantanamo or in jail in the United States awaiting trial, in this case no further action was taken.
Power Centers But No Power to Act
Think of the response of those embassy officials as a get-out-of-jail-free pass in honor of a new age. For the various rent-a-gun companies, construction and supply outfits, and weapons makers that have been the beneficiaries of the wholesale privatization of American war since 9/11, impunity has become the new reality. Pull back the lens further and the same might be said more generally about America's corporate sector and its financial outfits. There was, after all, no accountability for the economic meltdown of 2007-2008. Not a single significant figure went to jail for bringing the American economy to its knees. (And many such figures made out like proverbial bandits in the government bailout and revival of their businesses that followed.)
Meanwhile, in these years, the corporation itself was let loose to run riot. Long a "person" in the legal world, it became ever more person-like, benefitting from a series of Supreme Court decisions that hobbled unions and ordinary Americans even as it gave the corporation ever more of the rights and attributes of a citizen on the loose. Post-9/11, the corporate world gained freedom of expression, the freedom of the purse, as well as the various freedoms that staggering inequality and hoards of money offer. Corporate entities gained, among other things, the right to flood the political system with money, and most recently, at least in a modest way, freedom of religion.
In other words, two great power centers have been engorging themselves in twenty-first-century America: there was an ever-expanding national security state, ever less accountable to anyone, ever less overseen by anyone, ever more deeply enveloped in secrecy, ever more able to see others and less transparent itself, ever more empowered by a secret court system and a body of secret law whose judgments no one else could be privy to; and there was an increasingly militarized corporate state, ever less accountable to anyone, ever less overseen by outside forces, ever more sure that the law was its possession. These two power centers are now triumphant in our world. They command the landscape against what may be less effective opposition than at any moment in our history.
In both cases, no matter how you tote it up, it's been an era of triumphalism. Measure it any way you want: by the rising Dow Jones Industrial Average or the expanding low-wage economy, by the power of "dark money" to determine American politics in 1% elections or the rising wages of CEOs and the stagnating wages of their workers, by the power of billionaires and the growth of poverty, by the penumbra of secrecy and classification spreading across government operations and the lessening ability of the citizen to know what's going on, or by the growing power of both the national security state and the corporation to turn your life into an open book. Look anywhere and some version of the same story presents itself -- of ascendant power in the boardrooms and the backrooms, and of a sense of impunity that accompanies it.
Whether you're considering the power of the national security state or the corporate sector, their moment is now. And what a moment it is -- for them. Their success seems almost complete. And yet that only begins to tell the strange tale of our American times, because if that power is ascendant, it seems incapable of being translated into classic American power. The more successful those two sectors become, the less the U.S. seems capable of wielding its power effectively in any traditional sense, domestically or abroad.
Anyone can feel it, hence the recent Pew Research Center poll indicating a striking diminution in recent years of Americans who think the U.S. is exceptional, the greatest of all nations. By 2011, only 38% of Americans thought that; today, the figure has dropped to 28%, and -- a harbinger of future American attitudes -- just 15% among 18-to-29-year-olds. And no wonder. By many measures the U.S. may remain the wealthiest, most powerful nation on the planet, but in recent years its ability to accomplish anything, no less achieve national or imperial success, has shrunk drastically.
The power centers remain, but in some still-hard-to-grasp way, the power to accomplish anything seems to be draining from a country that was once the great can-do nation on the planet. On this, the record is both dismal and clear. To say that the American political system is in a kind of gridlock or paralysis from which -- given electoral prospects in 2014 and 2016 -- there can be no escape is to say the obvious. It's a commonplace of news reports to suggest, for example, that in this midterm election year Congress and the president will be capable of accomplishing nothing together (except perhaps avoiding another actual government shutdown). Nada, zip, zero.
The president acts in relatively minimalist ways by executive order, Congress threatens to sue over his use of those orders, and (as novelist Kurt Vonnegut would once have said) so it goes. In the meantime, Congress has proven itself unable to act even when it comes to what once would have been the no-brainers of American life. It has, for instance, been struggling simply to fund a highway bill that would allow for ordinary repair work on the nation's system of roads, even though the fund for such work is running dry and jobs will be lost.