The collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1989–1991 closed an important chapter not only in Russian history, but in our own as well.
For 50 years after Pearl Harbor, the United States, a nation enjoined to isolation by its founders, had labored to save Western civilization, and indeed the world, from Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism. It had won through against both enemies, though at considerable cost to itself.
The war of 1941–1945 against Nazi Germany and militarist Japan cost the lives of 400,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. We must, of course, never forget the sacrifice those men made for victory. Lost lives aside, however, the war actually benefited America tremendously. We emerged from it as the greatest military power on earth, with unchallengeable air and sea power and a monopoly on the atomic bomb. Our economy in 1945 accounted for almost 50% of the world’s total output; we possessed a wealth of modern plant and equipment, and we were far ahead of the rest of the world in most if not all cutting-edge technologies. Our infrastructure was the most modern and efficient in the world, and there was more (such as the national highway system) to come. Our debt was high, but we owed most of it to ourselves, and were quite capable of paying it off. The terrible days of the Great Depression were over, seemingly for good; the soup kitchens and shantytowns of the 1930s were gone, while an expanding middle class that for the first time included blue-collar workers was enjoying a prosperity greater than any other nation had known.
If culturally the America of 1945 was in no way comparable to Periclean Athens or Augustan Rome, there was nevertheless a certain vitality evident in American arts and letters. Modernism was in its heyday, and its capital was no longer Paris but New York. The undifferentiated mass barbarism of the postmodernist present was, in the period 1945–1965, almost inconceivable.
We emerged from World War II as the greatest military power on earth, with unchallengeable air and sea power and a monopoly on the atomic bomb.
The costs of the Cold War against Soviet Communism were both more subtle and more profound than those incurred in World War II, although it was not until the 1960s that these costs began to be felt. Dallas and its legacies — the presidency of Lyndon Johnson and his war in Vietnam — initiated a period of decline in American power, prestige, and prosperity. The fall of Saigon in 1975 and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 (the latter, as it turned out, the last in a series of Communist takeovers in what was then known as the Third World) seemed to mark a turn in the historical tide. Not that communism, as a doctrine and system of government, could stand comparison to Western values; it most assuredly could not. But the West, and particularly the United States, appeared to be in terminal decline. By the late 1970s a failure of will, of morale, was palpably in the air. Vietnam looked increasingly like an American version of the expedition to Syracuse — that unnecessary and, ultimately, disastrous campaign undertaken by ancient Athens, and memorably recorded in the pages of Thucydides.
Yet Athens, despite its defeat at Syracuse, and despite waging war simultaneously against Sparta and the vast Persian Empire, rallied and regained the upper hand in the Peloponnesian War. It was only later that war à outrance and treason within brought about Athens’ final defeat and the end of its primacy in the ancient world.
America in the 1980s rallied in a similar fashion, emerging from the nadir of defeat in Vietnam to challenge Soviet imperialism once more, and then, by a policy of peace through strength, giving the sclerotic Soviet system a final push that sent it to its well-deserved place on the trash heap of history. With this the 50-year struggle against totalitarianism was over, and freedom had triumphed. Or had it? At just this moment, in 1990, Jeane Kirkpatrick, formerly Ronald Reagan’s UN Ambassador and a prominent neoconservative, published an article in the National Interest. It was titled “A Normal Country in a Normal Time,” and it put forth a vision utterly different from that held by most of her fellow neocons, who in the aftermath of victory were advocating that the United States seek to achieve “full-spectrum dominance,” i.e., world domination.
Kirkpatrick, a card-carrying member of the foreign policy establishment, began her essay by stating that a good society is not defined by its foreign policy but rather by the “existence of democracy, opportunity, fairness; by the relations among its citizens, the kind of character nurtured, and the quality of life lived.”
Kirkpatrick put forth a vision utterly different from that held by most of her fellow neocons, who in the aftermath of victory were advocating that the United States seek to achieve world domination.
She went on to write that “Foreign policy becomes a major aspect of a society only [emphasis added] if its government is expansionist, imperial, aggressive, or when it is threatened by aggression.” The end of the Cold War, she averred, “frees time, attention, and resources for American needs.”
Kirkpatrick’s vision was right for America in 1990, and it remains so now. But that vision, alas, has never been fulfilled.
In her essay Kirkpatrick warned that foreign policy elites — the denizens of government bureaucracies, universities, and thinktanks — had become altogether too influential and powerful during the 50 years’ emergency, and that their interests were by no means aligned with those of the citizenry as a whole. She made two other very important points: that restraint on the international stage is not the same thing as isolationism, and that popular control of foreign policy is vitally necessary to prevent elite, minority opinion from determining the perceived national interest. With respect to the latter point Kirkpatrick neither said nor implied that the American people should make policy directly. She acknowledged — correctly — that professional diplomats and other experts are required for the proper execution of national policy. But policy in the broad sense must reflect the views of the people and must be circumscribed by the amount of blood and treasure the people are willing to sacrifice for any particular foreign policy objective.
Her concept of a polity in which the citizenry sets or at least endorses the goals of foreign policy admittedly has its troubling aspects. For one thing, it is far from certain that the citizenry as a whole — the masses, to be blunt — will choose to adopt wise policies. In Athens the expedition against Syracuse was enthusiastically endorsed by the Assembly, and history is replete with further examples of the popular will leading to disaster. Flowing from this is a second problem: the ability of clever demagogues or cabals to sway or bypass popular opinion in favor of policies that are inimical to the general interest, and that often turn out to be disastrous. Post-World War II American history provides numerous examples of this: the CIA’s 1953 overthrow of a democratic government in Iran at the behest of British and American oil interests, with consequences that we are still trying to deal with today; the Bay of Pigs (1961), which set in motion a chain of events that nearly led to nuclear annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis; the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, both of which received initial popular support as a result of outright deception perpetrated by a few powerful men with an agenda. (The phony Tonkin Gulf incident opened the way to escalation in Vietnam, while the falsehoods about WMD, anthrax, and Saddam Hussein’s connection to 9/11 made possible George W. Bush’s war in Iraq.)
Even the 1940s had their dark side, for those years were marked by the beginning of the modern “Deep State.”
Nevertheless, the alternative to popular control over foreign policy is the placing of the nation’s destiny in the hands of an elite that, by its very nature, typically has little understanding of the needs and desires of the people as a whole. Such elites are, unfortunately, quite prone to committing disastrous errors of judgment — witness the events mentioned above. Plato’s guardians are rarely found in the flesh. Gibbon pointed to the Five Good Emperors who reigned over Rome in the period 96–180 CE, which the historian characterized as the happiest and most prosperous time in human history. But these men were almost the exceptions that prove the rule. British policy in the 19th century was guided by statesmen such as Palmerston and Salisbury — men who understood both Britain’s interests and the limits of its power. For a brief period of ten years, between the fall of France in 1940 and the decision to march to the Yalu in Korea in 1950, American foreign policy received, in general, wise elite guidance. These were critical years, and we should be thankful that men such as George Marshall and Dean Acheson were in power at that time. But except for that brief span, elite leadership of American foreign policy has entailed economic and blood costs far in excess of those we actually needed to pay. Even the 1940s had their dark side, for those years were marked by the beginning of the modern “Deep State.”
The Deep State, quite real though unacknowledged by most academic historians and the mainstream media, amounts to a partnership between nonstate actors and various groups inside government, working together to shape and carry out policies that are generally contrary to the popular will, and often to the national interest as well. The Deep State is not a second, shadow government or conspiracy central, with permanent members who manipulate puppets in the White House and the halls of Congress. Rather, it consists of shifting or ad hoc alliances between government insiders and groups of powerful people or institutions outside of government. The former are sometimes elected officials, sometimes holders of key posts in the bureaucracy or the military. Such alliances are typically formed in the name of “national security” but often benefit only the ideological, institutional, or pecuniary interests of Deep State actors.
Some of the nonstate actors are “respectable” (the big New York banks, the oil majors, defense contractors), while others are by no means so (the Mafia, international drug traffickers). But whether they can be mentioned in polite company or not, their influence has often been felt in the councils of government, and particularly with respect to American foreign policy. For example, the swift transformation of the CIA, originally conceived as an intelligence-gathering agency, into a covert operations juggernaut was the work of men drawn mainly from Wall Street law firms and investment banks. These men went on to cooperate with the Mafia in places such as Cuba, extending an overworld-underworld partnership that went back to World War II.
Malign influences of this sort had been present since at least the end of the Civil War, but in earlier times had been limited to buying votes in Congress or persuading the executive to dispatch the Marines to establish order and collect debts in Latin American banana republics. The great expansion of government in World War II, and especially during the Cold War, allowed the Deep State to metastasize. The collapse of the European colonial empires and the simultaneous ascension of America to superpower status meant that after 1945 the American Deep State could extend its tentacles globally.
The turning point was probably the National Security Act of 1947, which created the CIA, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the National Security Council. These institutions, and particularly the first two, were (and to an extent still are) beyond the effective control of either the Congress or the president of the moment. And they are not alone. The various intelligence services and the military, or parts thereof, often pursue agendas that are at variance with official policy as set out by the president. They sometimes partner with each other, or with powerful institutions and people outside of government, to achieve mutually desired objectives. President Eisenhower, with his immense personal popularity and prestige, was able to hold the line to the extent of keeping us out of another shooting war, though he nevertheless felt compelled to warn the people, in his farewell address, of the growing power and influence of the Deep State, which he termed the Military-Industrial Complex.
The “deep events” of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s — Dallas, Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra — cannot be understood without reference to the Deep State. The role of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) in Iran-Contra is a good example of the Deep State in action. I mention BCCI specifically because its peculiar history has been revealed in several well-researched books and in investigations by the Congress. But the role of BCCI in Iran-Contra (and much else besides) is just one of the many strange manifestations of the Deep State in our history. The Deep State’s activities sometimes remain forever dark, are sometimes only partially revealed, or if revealed are explained away as aberrations.
The loss of liberty that resulted from the emergence and growth of the Deep State was real and perhaps irreversible. By the 1960s, the machinery of domestic surveillance, created in embryo by J. Edgar Hoover even before World War II, included spying on the populace by the FBI, CIA, NSA, and the military. Domestic spying was reined in somewhat during the 1970s, only to be ramped up again under Reagan in the 1980s. These abuses were part of the price paid for victory in the Cold War. Whether such abuses were inevitable under Cold War conditions is debatable; I personally would characterize them as the effluvia typical of a bloated imperium.
The Deep State’s activities sometimes remain forever dark, are sometimes only partially revealed, or if revealed are explained away as aberrations.
Be that as it may, the Cold War did end in a real victory, and with victory came the hope that the worrisome trends (“worrisome” is doubtless too mild a word) that the struggle against totalitarianism had initiated or exacerbated could be reversed.
It was therefore highly encouraging when in 1990 Kirkpatrick published her article calling on America to become once again a normal country. That the call was sounded by a leading representative of the neoconservative movement, rather than someone from the Left, was quite promising. If a hardliner such as Kirkpatrick could see the light, perhaps other important leaders of the American polity would, too.
In the 1990s there were some indications that we were heading in the right direction. Under Bush the First and Clinton, defense spending decreased by about 30% from Cold War highs. Internally, signs of health began to emerge — for example, the decline in crime to early 1960s levels, and the return to a balanced federal budget (the latter, admittedly, achieved with some accounting legerdemain). A slow but steady healing process appeared to be underway.
In retrospect, one can see that these were mere surface phenomena. America’s role in the world did not undergo a fundamental reappraisal, as Kirkpatrick’s thesis demanded. The almost bloodless Gulf War of 1991 (paid for by our allies) seemed to indicate that empire could now be done on the cheap. Meddling elsewhere — in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo — reinforced this view, even though Somalia turned out badly (and of course Bosnia eventually became a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism and jihadism, which is the state of affairs there today). In the 1990s pundits and average citizens alike began to speak openly of an American empire, while of course stressing its liberal and benign aspects. “We run the world” was the view espoused across a broad spectrum of public opinion, with dissent from this view confined to a few libertarians and traditional conservatives on the right, and some principled thinkers on the left.
At the same time, Deep State actors were attempting, both openly and covertly, to prevent any return to normalcy (if I may use that term), while promoting their agenda of American supremacy. Certain academics and intellectuals, lobbyists, defense contractors, and government officials with their eyes on the revolving door were all working assiduously to convince the Congress and the people that a return to something like a normal country in a normal time was a dangerous proposition. In fact, of course, there was no longer any need for America to maintain a huge military establishment and a worldwide network of bases — for there was no longer any existential threat. Russia was at that time virtually prostrate (nor did it ever have to become an enemy again), China as a danger was at least 25 years away, and Islamic terrorism was in its infancy — and could moreover have been sidestepped if the US had simply withdrawn from the Middle East, or at least evacuated Saudi Arabia and ended its one-sided support for Israel. But in the end these facts were either ignored or obscured by influential people with foreign policy axes to grind, assisted by others who had a financial stake in the maintenance of a global American empire.
The almost bloodless Gulf War of 1991 (paid for by our allies) seemed to indicate that empire could now be done on the cheap.
One group, The Project for the New American Century, stands out for its persistence and drive in seeking to advance a particularist agenda. It is no exaggeration to say that the members of this group — which included not only such faux intellectuals as Bill Kristol, but men with real power inside and outside of government, such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld — prepared the way for the Iraq War and the Patriot Act. The blueprints for both the war and the Act were prepared by these men even before 9/11. September 11, 2001 was of course a turning point, just as 1947 had been. The neocons, the Deep State, had won. When the towers came down it meant that “full-spectrum dominance” had triumphed over “a normal country in a normal time.”
The Project for the New American Century closed its doors in 2006, but the neocons live on, and persist in calling for more defense spending, more interventionism, and more government restrictions on civil liberties. And they are joined by other voices. The liberal interventionists who surround Hillary Clinton are best characterized by the term neocon-lite. They, like the neocons, see Obama as far too passive a commander-in-chief, even as he wages war by proxy and drone in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and continues the state of national emergency first declared by George W. Bush on September 14, 2001. The state of emergency gives extraordinary wartime powers to the executive, even in the absence of a declared war. Some of the powers that the commander-in-chief possesses under the declaration are actually secret. Obama, who has the authority to end the state of emergency, has instead renewed it annually since taking office. The Congress, which is required by law to meet every six months to determine whether the state of emergency should be continued, has never considered the matter in formal session. (The Roman Republic, in case of a dire emergency, appointed a dictator whose power automatically expired after six months’ time. Only under the empire was a permanent autocracy instituted.)
At the same time, the systematic domestic surveillance authorized under the Patriot Act, far more extensive than anything J. Edgar Hoover or James Jesus Angleton (CIA Chief of Counterintelligence, 1954–1975) ever dreamed of, has been left virtually intact by the Obama administration and the Congress.
Obama’s successor, whether Republican or Democrat, is almost certain to be more interventionist abroad, and equally or more unfriendly to civil liberties at home (Trump seems mainly concerned with getting our allies to pay more for the protection we give them, as opposed to cutting back on our worldwide commitments, while his apparent views on civil liberties are not encouraging). America, it appears, is incapable of dialing back on imperial overstretch. Yet what vital American interest is served by meddling in places like Yemen or Ukraine? What ideals are fulfilled by supporting the suppression of democracy in, for example, Bahrain? It seems clear that American elites, both inside and outside government, simply cannot bring themselves to let the world be, cannot abandon the concept of a global order organized and run by the United States.
With distance comes perspective. As time passes it becomes ever clearer that George W. Bush’s war in Iraq represented a second American Syracuse, a defeat with catastrophic consequences. It is quite true that, as in Vietnam, our forces were not beaten in the field. But the greater truth is that the political objectives in Iraq, as in Vietnam, were not achievable, and that this could and should have been recognized from the start. Today most of Iraq is divided between a corrupt and incompetent Shia-led government under the influence of Iran, and an ISIS-dominated territory in which obscurantism and bloodthirsty brutality hold sway. Such are the fruits of the successful march on Baghdad in 2003. Trillions of American dollars — every penny of it borrowed — were thrown down the Iraqi rathole, as the Bush administration abandoned the principle of balanced budgets and the prospect of paying off the national debt, something that appeared eminently possible at the beginning of its term in office. The dead and the maimed, Americans and Iraqis, suffered to no purpose.
The liberal interventionists who surround Hillary Clinton are best characterized by the term neocon-lite.
Americans are a resilient people. America’s institutions, despite obvious flaws, are superior to those of its enemies and rivals. America recovered from the Syracuse of Vietnam and not only salved the wounds of that war but went on to defeat its main competitor in the arena of world politics. But can America recover from a second Syracuse?
Compare the state of the nation today with that of 1945, or even 1965. Admittedly, not everything has gone to rot. The advances achieved by women and minorities — racial and sexual — have given us a better, freer society, at least on the social plane, compared to 50 years ago. Advances in technology have in some respects brightened our lives. But the heavy hand of government and the machinations of the Deep State have brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy, enmeshed us in foreign lands where we ought never to have trespassed, and put limits on basic freedoms of speech and privacy. Broad-based prosperity and the economic optimism of the past are gone, perhaps forever, because of adventurism abroad and elite mismanagement of the economy at home.
The current ruptures in the governing duopoly, Republican-Democrat, are clear evidence of dysfunction at the highest level, and of the citizens’ discontent. Yet the election of 2016 will be fought out between a bloviating, ignorant real estate tycoon and a tired, corrupt ex-First Lady. The former knows little of the Washington machine or the intricacies of the Deep State; I predict that, if elected, he will be reduced to a virtual puppet, and the fact will never dawn on him. Hillary, on the other hand, is very comfortable with the status quo, no matter what she may say to placate the supporters of her rival Bernie Sanders. Neither Trump nor Clinton — or anyone else with power, either — appears to have a clue about the real nature of the crisis we are in, much less how to bring us out of it.
A normal country in a normal time? Never again, I think. The future appears quite dark to me.
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Author’s Note: Some readers of Liberty may be unfamiliar with the concept of the Deep State, or may reject it as mere conspiracy-mongering. In fact, the Deep State (or parts thereof) has been discussed in several well-researched books. A newcomer to the idea might begin by reading Philip Giraldi’s article, “Deep State America,”which appeared on the website of the American Conservative on July 30, 2015. Read it. I take issue with Giraldi in one respect: his total focus on the New York-Washington axis of power. The Sun Belt also plays a huge role in the Deep State. Jeane Kirkpatrick’s 1990 article, by the way, cannot be read free online, but is available through JSTOR.