As most of you know, I'm an old guy who still reads the paper New York Times (though who knows how long it will continue to be delivered under present coronaviral circumstances). When I picked up last Friday's issue -- and this is increasingly typical -- there wasn't a piece on the front page unrelated to the pandemic situation in this country and globally: "Doctors Sound Alarm as a Nation Struggles," "Warning of a Pandemic Last Year Was Unheeded," "A Global Race to Figure Out a Silver Bullet," "Claims Surge as Employees Are Cut Loose," "Is Anyone Actually Sick? Yes, She Told Her Friends, My Husband." Then you had to leaf through 19 straight pages of coronavirus news before, on page 20, the "International" section arrived, followed by the "National" section on page 22, before, on page 28, you got to the usual two "Opinion" pages on which all four op-eds and one of two editorials were -- I'm sure you won't be surprised -- about... you already know perfectly well.
In other words, think of us as experiencing something like a news pandemic when it comes to the nightmare of the global disease now sweeping the world and my own city, New York. At present, it's considered the "epicenter" of the staggeringly badly dealt with explosion of coronavirus cases in this country. Still, in such circumstances, and with the media itself in pandemic mode, it's hard to get the slightest perspective on what we're going through or what in the world (and that's not just a figure of speech anymore) to make of it all. Fortunately, TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, author of the just-published book The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory, takes a few steps back today -- think of it as a kind of online social distancing -- to consider what in this world of ours may be ending: possibly the always-misplaced belief in the ability of the national security state to protect us from the real dangers of this planet. And that, in truth, represents genuine news. Tom
Judgment Day for the National Security State
The Coronavirus and the Real Threats to American Safety and Freedom
By Andrew Bacevich
Americans are facing "A Spring Unlike Any Before." So warned a front-page headline in the March 13th New York Times.
That headline, however hyperbolic, was all too apt. The coming of spring has always promised relief from the discomforts of winter. Yet, far too often, it also brings its own calamities and afflictions.
According to the poet T.S. Eliot, "April is the cruelest month." Yet while April has certainly delivered its share of cataclysms, March and May haven't lagged far behind. In fact, cruelty has seldom been a respecter of seasons. The infamous influenza epidemic of 1918, frequently cited as a possible analogue to our current crisis, began in the spring of that year, but lasted well into 1919.
That said, something about the coronavirus pandemic does seem to set this particular spring apart. At one level, that something is the collective panic now sweeping virtually the entire country. President Trump's grotesque ineptitude and tone-deafness have only fed that panic. And in their eagerness to hold Trump himself responsible for the pandemic, as if he were the bat that first transmitted the disease to a human being, his critics magnify further a growing sense of events spinning out of control.
Yet to heap the blame for this crisis on Trump alone (though he certainly deserves plenty of blame) is to miss its deeper significance. Deferred for far too long, Judgment Day may at long last have arrived for the national security state.
Origins of a Colossus
That state within a state's origins date from the early days of the Cold War. Its ostensible purpose has been to keep Americans safe and so, by extension, to guarantee our freedoms. From the 1950s through the 1980s, keeping us safe provided a seemingly adequate justification for maintaining a sprawling military establishment along with a panoply of "intelligence" agencies -- the CIA, the DIA, the NRO, the NSA -- all engaged in secret activities hidden from public view. From time to time, the scope, prerogatives, and actions of that conglomeration of agencies attracted brief critical attention -- the Cuban Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, the Vietnam War of the 1960s and early 1970s, and the Iran-Contra affair during the presidency of Ronald Reagan being prime examples. Yet at no time did such failures come anywhere close to jeopardizing its existence.
Indeed, even when the implosion of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War removed the original justification for its creation, the entire apparatus persisted. With the Soviet Empire gone, Russia in a state of disarray, and communism having lost its appeal as an alternative to democratic capitalism, the managers of the national security state wasted no time in identifying new threats and new missions.
The new threats included autocrats like Panama's Manuel Noriega and Iraq's Saddam Hussein, once deemed valuable American assets, but now, their usefulness gone, classified as dangers to be eliminated. Prominent among the new missions was a sudden urge to repair broken places like the Balkans, Haiti, and Somalia, with American power deployed under the aegis of "humanitarian intervention" and pursuant to a "responsibility to protect." In this way, in the first decade of the post-Cold War era, the national security state kept itself busy. While the results achieved, to put it politely, were mixed at best, the costs incurred appeared tolerable. In sum, the entire apparatus remained impervious to serious scrutiny.
During that decade, however, both the organs of national security and the American public began taking increased notice of what was called "anti-American terrorism" -- and not without reason. In 1993, Islamic fundamentalists detonated a bomb in a parking garage of New York's World Trade Center. In 1996, terrorists obliterated an apartment building used to house U.S. military personnel in Saudi Arabia. Two years later, the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were blown up and, in 2000, suicide bombers nearly sank the USS Cole, a Navy destroyer making a port call in Aden at the tip of the Arabian peninsula. To each of these increasingly brazen attacks, all occurring during the administration of President Bill Clinton, the national security state responded ineffectually.
Then, of course, came September 11, 2001. Orchestrated by Osama bin Laden and carried out by 19 suicidal al-Qaeda operatives, this act of mass murder inflicted incalculable harm on the United States. In its wake, it became common to say that "9/11 changed everything."
In fact, however, remarkably little changed. Despite its 17 intelligence agencies, the national security state failed utterly to anticipate and thwart that devastating attack on the nation's political and financial capitals. Yet apart from minor adjustments -- primarily expanding surveillance efforts at home and abroad -- those outfits mostly kept doing what they had been doing, even as their leaders evaded accountability. After Pearl Harbor, at least, one admiral and one general were fired. After 9/11, no one lost his or her job. At the upper echelons of the national security state, the wagons were circled and a consensus quickly formed: no one had screwed up.
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