The Making of the Imperial Presidency, the National Security State, and the Transition to Authoritarianism, Part 2

“America did not change on September 11. It only became more itself.”
— Robert Kagan, neoconservative.

In Part 1 of this series we looked at the ways in which the thinking and the tools used in foreign imperial engagements have been imported back into the U.S. itself. In addition we witness the ways in which “external threats” have been used to alter the American political landscape leading to the fortification of an imperial presidency and the curtailment of the legal bases and protections of civil rights and personal liberties. The imperial presidency therefore is both the medium and outcome of the national security state — George W. Bush had previous mechanisms of national security that he could utilize, and he took matters many steps further. The “global war on terror” has been costly not only in many parts in the world, but also in the U.S., beyond the impact of a financial drain on an economically weakened and indebted U.S.

In Part 2 the reader is invited to spend some time with Andrew Bacevich, a scholar in international relations at Boston University, a retired army colonel, a member of the American Empire Project, and a contributor to a range of publications including The Nation and He is also the author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. The focus here is squarely on the imperial presidency.


The key sources for this post are:

One of Bacevich’s central points is that the U.S. Congress has either given the President too much power, or has allowed the President to wield power largely unchecked. As a result, the presidency has become the central institution of power, with consequences for American democracy:

Because of this … fascination with the presidency, the President has become what we have instead of genuine politics, instead of genuine democracy… We look to the next President to fix things and, of course, that lifts all responsibility from me to fix things. So one of the real problems with the imperial presidency is that it has hollowed out our politics and, in many respects, has made our democracy a false one. We’re going through the motions of a democratic political system, but the fabric of democracy really has worn very thin.

The larger argument in which this point is situated is that Americans are making the mistake of thinking that the biggest problems and threats they face are largely external in origin, when instead they are home made and reside within. Part of the reason that America’s current cultural, economic, and political problems stem from within the U.S. itself is that Americans have participated in an illusion of being chosen by history to lead the world:

As prophet, [Reinhold] Niebuhr warned that what he called “our dreams of managing history” – dreams borne out of a peculiar combination of arrogance, hypocrisy, and self-delusion – posed a large and potentially mortal threat to the United States. Today we ignore that warning at our peril.

Since the end of the Cold War the management of history has emerged as the all but explicitly stated purpose of American statecraft. In Washington, politicians speak knowingly about history’s clearly discerned purpose and about the responsibility of the United States, at the zenith of its power, to guide history to its intended destination….

especially among neoconservatives and neoliberals, the conviction persists that Americans are called up on to serve, in Niebuhr’s most memorable phrase, “as tutors of mankind in its pilgrimage to perfection.”

It is not that Bacevich is arguing that presidents are the main determinants of imperial expansion abroad and national security restrictions at home, nor does he absolve them of any culpability either. His argument is more of a cultural and historical one, one in which moral responsibility also plays a role:

Certainly, the president and his advisers, along with neocons always looking for opportunities to flex American military muscle, bear considerable culpability for our current predicament. Yet to charge them with primary responsibility is to credit them with undeserved historical significance. It’s the equivalent of blaming Herbert Hoover for the Great Depression or of attributing McCarthyism entirely to the antics of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

The impulses that have landed us in a war of no exits and no deadlines come from within. Foreign policy has, for decades, provided an outward manifestation of American domestic ambitions, urges, and fears. In our own time, it has increasingly become an expression of domestic dysfunction – an attempt to manage or defer coming to terms with contradictions besetting the American way of life. Those contradictions have found their ultimate expression in the perpetual state of war afflicting the United States today.

The solution, Bacevich argues in line with Niebuhr, lies in learning modesty and humility, in “ratcheting down expectations,” in giving up Messianic dreams of America as world leader.

The enemy of humility is sanctimony, which gives rise to the conviction that American values and beliefs are universal and that the nation itself serves providentially assigned purposes. This conviction finds expression in a determination to remake the world in what we imagine to be America’s image.

Bacevich ends the first chapter of his book, The Limits of Power, with some sharply prescient admonitions:

…ironically Iraq may yet prove to be the source of our salvation. For the United States, the ongoing war makes plain the imperative of putting America’s house in order. Iraq has revealed the futility of counting on military power to sustain our habits of profligacy. The day of reckoning approaches. Expending the lives of more American soldiers in hopes of deferring that day is profoundly wrong. History will not judge kindly a people who find nothing amiss in the prospect of endless armed conflict so long as they themselves are spared the effects. Nor will it view with favor an electorate that delivers political power into the hands of leaders unable to envision any alternative to perpetual war.

Rather than insisting that the world accommodate the United States, Americans need to reassert control over their own destiny, ending their condition of dependency and abandoning their imperial delusions. Of perhaps even greater difficulty, the combination of economic, political, and military crisis summons Americans to reexamine exactly what freedom entails. Soldiers cannot accomplish these tasks, nor should we expect politicians to do so. The onus of responsibility falls squarely on citizens.

For more, please see the two videos linked to above, and the readings that follow.

Online articles by Andrew J. Bacevich

“Russia’s Payback”
Andrew J. Bacevich, THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE August 15, 2008. “NATO disrespected Russia for too long. Now the Alliance must regroup.” Bacevich weigns in on the situation in Georgia.

“Illusions of Victory”
Andrew J. Bacevich, THE NATION, August 12, 2008. An article based on THE LIMITS OF POWER.

“Sycophant Savior”
Andrew J. Bacevich, THE AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE October 8, 2007. Prof. Bacevich critiques General Petraeus approach to Iraq and Washington, D.C.

“I lost my son to a war I oppose. We were both doing our duty.”
Andrew J. Bacevich, THE WASHINGTON POST, May 27 2007. Prof. Bacevich’s OpEd about losing his son in Iraq.

“The American Tradition”
Andrew J. Bacevich, THE NATION, July 10, 2006. Prof. Bacevich critiques Peter Beinart’s THE GOOD FIGHT and the idea of a non-empirical, “usable” history favored by pundits on the right and left.

“Why read Clausewitz when Shock and Awe can make a clean sweep of things?,”
Andrew J. Bacevich, THE LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS, June 8, 2006. Review of COBRA II, by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor about the Iraq War.

“Prophets and Poseurs: Niebuhr and Our Times,”
Andrew J. Bacevich, WORLD AFFAIRS JOURNAL, Winter 2008. The continuing relevance of Reinhold Niebuhr.

“Present at the Re-Creation,”
Andrew J. Bacevich, FOREIGN AFFAIRS, July/August 2008.Prof. A critique of Robert Kagan’s article in the NEW REPUBLIC, in which Kagan, an influential neo-conservative, claims to be turning to realism.

“The Semiwarriors,” Andrew J. Bacevich, THE NATION, April 5, 2007.
How James Forrestal’s concept of “semiwar” has changed US foreign policy and help create an imperial presidency.

“What Isolationism?,” Andrew J. Bacevich, LA TIMES, February 2, 2006.
Bacevich argues there are no isolationists in the US.

Andrew Bacevich on Charles Maier (pdf)
In his interview with Bill Moyers, Bacevich references Maier’s term “Empire of Consumption”. Here, Bacevich is on a roundtable discussing the book in which Maier outlines the term.

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