The tangled web of empire

Thanks to some intrepid work by Glenn Greenwald and others, we now know a lot more about the secret surveillance that the U.S. government has been doing in recent years. If you're an American, bear in mind that all this has been paid for by your tax dollars. You should also remember that the issue isn't how these capabilities might be used by politicians you happen to like; it's how they might be abused by politicians you despise or might have reason to fear.

I don't have any stunning new insights to offer on this matter, except to reiterate my earlier point -- which you can read at greater length here -- that these developments are directly connected to the broader course of U.S. foreign policy.

Schematic version: One of the main purposes of government is to provide security. Ergo, when people are scared, they are more willing to let public officials take extreme actions in the name of "national security," including: 1) excessive secrecy laws, 2) prosecution of (some) whistle-blowers or leakers (except when authorized by those at the top), 3) preventive or preemptive wars, 4) targeted assassinations of suspected enemies, and 5) extraordinary rendition and/or torture. A population that is really scared will also turn a blind eye to all sorts of other dubious policies, including support for unsavory allies and the creation/maintenance of disproportionately large defense capabilities. Both dictators and democrats have been aware of these realities for centuries and have used public fears to justify any number of questionable actions.

This situation gives those in power an obvious incentive to inflate threats. When no significant dangers are apparent, they will conjure them up; when real dangers do emerge, they will blow them out of all proportion. And having assembled a vast clandestine intelligence apparatus to go trolling for threats in every conceivable location, they can quell skeptics with that familiar trump card: "Ah, but if you knew what I know, you'd agree with me."

And so the circle continues: An exaggerated sense of threat leads to energetic efforts to shape events abroad, even in places of little strategic value. These efforts inevitably provoke backlashes of various kinds, some of which (e.g., 9/11) do genuinely harm Americans. Because it is deemed unpatriotic or worse to even ask what might have led others to want to attack us, officials merely declare that they "hate our freedoms" and launch new efforts to root out enemies. The result is more surveillance, more secrecy, and even more global intervention (e.g., Iraq, Afghanistan, drone wars, etc.) in an endless attempt to root out all sources of "evil." If this gets expensive, then cheaper ways to do it must be found, but what doesn't stop is the open-ended effort to meddle in other countries. This in turn requires even more energetic efforts to conceal what government officials are up to, both to prevent foreign populations from being fully aware of what the United States is doing and to prevent Americans from connecting the dots or questioning the wisdom of the effort.

As James Madison famously warned:

"Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."

Madison was a very smart guy.


Stephen M. Walt

Sullivan, the NSA, and the terrorism threat

Andrew Sullivan has offered a measured response to the Guardian's revelations about a massive effort by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) to collect metadata about ordinary Americans' phone calls. You can read his whole comment here, but the sentences that caught my eye were these:

"This kind of technology is one of the US' only competitive advantages against Jihadists. Yes, its abuses could be terrible. But so could the consequences of its absence."

There are two obvious counters. First, the United States (and its allies) are hardly lacking in "competitive advantages" against jihadists. On the contrary, they have an enormous number of advantages: They're vastly richer, better-armed, better-educated, and more popular, and their agenda is not advanced primarily by using violence against innocent people. (When the United States does employ violence indiscriminately, it undermines its position.) And for all the flaws in American society and all the mistakes that U.S. and other leaders have made over the past decade or two, they still have a far more appealing political message than the ones offered up by Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the various leaders of the Taliban. The United States is still going to be a major world power long after the contemporary jihadi movement is a discredited episode in modern history, even if the country repealed the Patriot Act and stopped all this secret domestic surveillance tomorrow.

Second, after acknowledging the potential for abuse in this government surveillance program, Sullivan warns that the "consequences of its absence" could be "terrible." This claim depends on the belief that jihadism really does pose some sort of horrific threat to American society. This belief is unwarranted, however, provided that dedicated and suicidal jihadists never gain access to nuclear weapons. Conventional terrorism -- even of the sort suffered on 9/11 -- is not a serious threat to the U.S. economy, the American way of life, or even the personal security of the overwhelming majority of Americans, because al Qaeda and its cousins are neither powerful nor skillful enough to do as much damage as they might like. And this would be the case even if the NSA weren't secretly collecting a lot of data about domestic phone traffic. Indeed, as political scientist John Mueller and civil engineer Mark Stewart have shown, post-9/11 terrorist plots have been mostly lame and inept, and Americans are at far greater risk from car accidents, bathtub mishaps, and a host of other undramatic dangers than they are from "jihadi terrorism." The Boston bombing in April merely underscores this point: It was a tragedy for the victims but less lethal than the factory explosion that occurred that same week down in Texas. But Americans don't have a secret NSA program to protect them from slipping in the bathtub, and Texans don't seem to be crying out for a "Patriot Act" to impose better industrial safety. Life is back to normal here in Boston (Go Sox!), except for the relatively small number of people whose lives were forever touched by an evil act.

Terrorism often succeeds when its targets overreact, thereby confirming the extremists' narrative and helping tilt opinion toward their cause. Thus, a key lesson in dealing with these (modest) dangers is not to exaggerate them or attribute to enemies advantages that they do not possess. I suspect Sullivan knows this, even if he briefly forgot it when writing his otherwise thoughtful post.