The Emergency State: America’s Pursuit of Absolute Security at All Costs by David C. Unger (New York: Penguin Press, 2012), 368 pages.
During a meeting on the Bosnian crisis in the early 1990s, Madeleine Albright, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, furiously asked Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” In his memoir, Powell described his shock at Albright’s callousness. “I thought I would have an aneurysm. American GIs were not toy soldiers to be moved around on some sort of global game board.” While Powell’s reaction to Albright’s question seems divorced from reality and history — American servicemen have been the means to an imperial end for America’s foreign-policy establishment since at least the Spanish-American War — the assumptions operating behind her question reflect the American foreign policy establishment’s deep faith in its own righteousness to risk its own warriors’ lives and its citizens’ wealth in pursuit of that horrifyingly elastic concept, national security.
It’s that reflexive militaristic mind-set within the executive branch and how it was constructed since World War II that David C. Unger, an editorial writer on foreign affairs for the New York Times, dissects in The Emergency State: America’s Pursuit of Absolute Security at All Costs. Over the course of the book, Unger details how each successive administration paid fealty to the national-security state, regardless of the threat or risk to America’s anti-colonial heritage, however imperfect in practice.
What makes The Emergency State so valuable and timely is that it’s written by a principled modern “liberal” who faces the ugly truth: The national-security state was constructed, expanded, and sustained by Democratic administrations, although subservience and nourishment has always been bipartisan. Nearly two-thirds of Unger’s book is dedicated to examining how Democratic administrations propelled the United States toward global empire and the perpetual overt and covert wars it spawns. (The administration of George W. Bush, for all its pure lawlessness, receives a scant 15 pages.) Four administrations come in for the closest scrutiny: Franklin Roosevelt’s and Harry Truman’s for constructing the national-security state and normalizing its perpetual war footing, and Jimmy Carter’s and Bill Clinton’s for their failures to begin dismantling it when they had the opportunity.
Indeed it was the Progressives’ most beloved president who Unger argues abused his oath of office and rapidly expanded and legitimized the notion of an omnipotent executive acting with- out constraint on national-security matters. “[Franklin] Roosevelt built the foundations of today’s emergency state,” writes Unger, naming him the godfather of America’s global protection racket. While Roosevelt understood the gathering Nazi cataclysm earlier than most, he engaged in deceitful conduct to violate Congress’s Neutrality Acts by providing Britain with military aid, which predictably led Germany to target American shipping. Even without Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States would have soon been pulled into the war because of Roosevelt’s anti-Nazi policies in the North Atlantic.
“In a constitutional democracy, the ends do not justify the means, especially when those means turn out to have long-lasting consequences,” Unger argues. “The Constitution-bending shortcuts Roosevelt pioneered in these months have been expanded upon by peacetime successors from both parties, with very costly results for America’s constitutional democracy and national security.”
During his presidency Roosevelt also empowered FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to monitor the president’s political opponents and, to Roosevelt’s perpetual shame, to round up more than 100,000 Japanese-American citizens and Japanese immigrants and place them in concentration camps after Pearl Harbor. Unger observes it was Roosevelt who labeled anyone who opposed his foreign policy as “isolationist,” a smear tactic that is still practiced today. “From the vantage point of 2012,” writes Unger, “Franklin Roosevelt can be seen as a founding father of modern extraconstitutional presidential war making, the military-industrial complex, and covert federal surveillance of lawful domestic political activity.”
After Roosevelt’s death and the Allied victory in World War II, Truman extended his predecessor’s national-security state into peacetime, creating a dangerous precedent that Americans still pay for today. “Unlike the wartime emergency state, the peacetime variety has no logical termination, no moment when the emergency clearly ends and normal constitutional procedures come back into force,” Unger writes. “A new, security-based set of justifications for expanded presidential powers in peacetime was born.”
Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947, institutionalizing the emergency state by reorganizing the military into the Department of Defense and creating the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency. The U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization arose to protect Europe from communism and ensure the demise of German militarism, a radical departure from the American tradition of avoiding peacetime entangling alliances. The threat from a devastated Soviet Russia was exaggerated, ending with Truman’s agreeing to the costly (both morally and financially) containment strategy that would send American boys to needlessly die for flawed strategic decisions and deter democracy by supporting brutal dictators across the globe in the name of anti-communism. In 1950 Truman’s National Security Council proposed a new global strategy outlined in a secret document called NSC-68, emphasizing military containment of the Red Menace, made possible by high levels of defense spending during peacetime. Signed by Truman that December after the Korean War began, the policies of NSC-68 gave birth to the permanent national-security state that has disfigured American democracy and its constitutional government ever since. It was “the (un)constitutional charter of the emerging security state,” Unger writes. “It declared, as a matter of national policy, that the ends of thwarting the Communist threat justified any American means, peaceful or violent, overt or covert, and thus, by implication, constitutional or unconstitutional.”
The subsequent administrations of Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford created a foreign policy dedicated to overthrowing unfriendly regimes, sometimes democratically elected; invading sovereign nations; and routinely violating human rights abroad and civil liberties domestically. In response to the abuses uncovered in the aftermath of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, and by congressional committees, such as the Church Committee, the American people elected Jimmy Carter president. Carter promised Americans “a foreign policy that the American people both support, and, for a change, know about and understand.” He failed. For Unger, Carter was a principled man who genuinely believed in promoting democracy and human rights abroad, but who was also a hopelessly naive politician with no clear experience in how politics worked in the nation’s capital. “Repairing American constitutional democracy after three decades of the emergency state required an experienced veteran of national politics, a Mr. Madison, not a Mr. Smith,” writes Unger. Instead of harnessing the emergency state, Carter acquiesced to it while stagflation, the Iranian hostage crisis, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan would leave him a one-term president.
After successive Republican administrations and the end of the Cold War, Americans elected Bill Clinton president. The threat of mutually assured destruction largely gone with the Soviet’s demise, Clinton, Unger argues, had a historic opportunity to seize the peace dividend and redirect America’s massive expenditures on national security back to the home front. Instead, the Clinton administration simply found new things for it to do, embracing armed humanitarian intervention, even after the disastrous Black Hawk Down episode in Somalia. As Unger puts it, “Maintaining such large standing forces with no clear mission created political pressures to justify the expense by using them, even when, as in Haiti or the Balkans, no vital national interests were at stake.”
During Clinton’s two terms, approximately 50 percent of all discretionary spending went to defense, even though no true threats to national security existed to justify such expenditure. To justify the continued expense to the American people, Clinton’s national-security adviser, Anthony Lake, articulated a policy of “enlargement,” which Unger describes as a “repackaged version of universal containment and Wilsonian millenarianism.” Instead of expanding democracy and free markets worldwide, Lake’s foreign policy ensured the survival of the emergency state at the budgets its apparatchiks had grown accustomed to, according to Unger. “Lake’s biggest anxiety was not about some new external threat but about the possibility that America might democratically decide to turn its attention inward toward domestic concerns.”
Barack Obama — with his scorched-earth litigation at Gitmo, assassination of American citizens abroad, kill lists, and undeclared wars in various Arab countries, most flagrantly in Libya — has become a dangerous student of Roosevelt’s and, ironically, a legitimizing force for the Bush administration’s foreign-policy lawlessness that he was ostensibly elected to roll back in 2008. Republicans found it difficult to criticize Obama’s foreign policy and executive unaccountability because he largely embraced the lack of constraints in national-security matters pushed by the neoconservative cabal of the Bush administration.
Unger concludes his book with ten proposals to help shutter the emergency state and once again place the American state on its constitutional foundations. While only one proposal out of ten would make libertarians retch — mandating universal military training to augment the all-volunteer military during congressionally declared wars — the exercise seems futile because it hinges on the American people’s decision to organize a grassroots protest movement against the emergency state.
Call me cynical, but three-quarters of a century of an increasingly powerful national-security state leads me to believe that the American people won’t rise to that occasion. Imperial overreach and the indebtedness that accompanies it might end the emergency state, but that will have nothing to do with American morality or a philosophical disgust at imperialism.
This article was originally published in the July 2013 edition of Future of Freedom.