themcglynn.com

20 Jan

The Mendacity of Hope

 

By Roger D. HodgeA year and more has passed, yet

we have not been delivered. Somebelieved that Barack Obama had

come to restore the Republic, to return

our nation to the righteous

path. A new, glorious era in American

politics was at hand.

If only that were true. We all can

taste the bitterness now.

Obama promised to end the war

in Iraq, end torture, close Guantánamo,

restore the constitution, heal our

wounds, wash our feet. None of these

things has come to pass. As president,

with few exceptions, Obama either

has embraced the unconstitutional

war powers claimed by his

predecessor or has left the door open

for their quiet adoption at some later

date. Leon Panetta, director of the

Central Intelligence Agency, has declared

that the kidnapping and rendition

of foreigners will continue,

and the Bush Administration’s expansive

doctrine of state secrets continues

to be used in court against

those wrongfully detained and tortured

by our security forces and allies.

 

Obama has adopted military

commissions, once an unpardonableoffense against our best traditions, to

prosecute terrorism cases in which

legitimate convictions cannot be obtained;

when even such mock trials

provide too much justice, he will

make do with indefinite detention.

If, by some slim chance, a defendant

were to be found not guilty, we have

been assured that the president’s

“post-acquittal” detention powers

would then come into play.

The principle of habeas corpus, sacred

to candidate Obama as “the essence

of who we are,” no longer seems

so essential, and reports continue to

surface of secret prisons hidden from

due process and the Red Cross. Waterboarding

has been banned, but

other “soft” forms of torture, such as

sleep deprivation and force-feeding,

continue—as do the practices, which

once seemed so terribly important to

opponents of the Bush regime, of

presidential signing statements and

warrantless surveillance. In at least

one respect, the Obama Justice Department

has produced an innovation:

a claim of “sovereign immunity” in

response to a lawsuit seeking damages

for illegal spying. Not even the minions

of George W. Bush, with their

fanciful notions of the unitary executive,

made use of this constitutionally

suspect doctrine, derived from the

ancient common-law assumption that

“the King can do no wrong,” to defend

their clear violations of the federal

surveillance statute.

As the attorney Glenn Greenwald

has argued, in his writings for Salon

and elsewhere, the rule of law has not

been restored but perverted; what had

been outlawed but committed, the law

now simply permits. Obama’s lawyers,

benefiting from Bush-era litigation,

can claim conformity with law, but the

disgraceful policies continue largely

unchanged. Better, smarter legal arguments

obtain for policies that should

give any decent man nightmares. Our

torturers and war criminals and illegal

spies and usurpers remain at liberty,

unpunished. The wars of choice continue

and threaten to spread; 30,000

additional soldiers prepare to “finish

the job” in Afghanistan’s graveyard of

empires while our flying robots bomb

villagers in the mountains of Waziristan.

This, we are told, is progress.

Admirers of the president now embrace

actions they once denounced as

criminal, or rationalize and evade such

questions, or attempt to explain away

what cannot be excused. That Obama

is in most respects better than George

W. Bush, John McCain, Sarah Palin,

or Joseph Stalin is beyond dispute and

completely beside the point. Obama is

judged not as a man but as a fable, a

tale of moral uplift that redeems the

sins of America’s shameful past. Even

as many casual supporters begin to

show their inevitable displeasure with

his “job performance,” and his poll

numbers decline, the character and

motivations of the president remain

above question. He is a good man. I

trust him to do the right thing.

It is not surprising that unsophisticated

children, naive Europeans,

and Democratic partisans continue

to revere the heroic former candidate,

despite everything he has done

and left undone. Nor is it surprising

that the broken remnants of the old

White Supremacy coalition hate and

fear the man and will oppose him

without quarter (excepting, of course,

his war policies). Puzzling, however,

is the fact that Obama, until fairly

recently an obscure striver in the

Chicago Democratic machine, continues

to inspire perfervid devotion

among intellectual liberals who

know their history. Even they say: Be

patient. Give him time. It’s hard to

change the government. Or, more cynically:

He’s the best we can do. Thus,

his most sophisticated admirers as-

sume the burden of Obama’s sins,

bite their tongues, and indulge the

temptation to frame his shortcomings

as our own. Obama is not to

blame; we are to blame. Obama has

not failed us; America has

failed him. Perhaps I am wrong to expect a

fl ood of thoughtful apologetics on or

around the first anniversary of

Obama’s rule. It may be that the bizarre

spectacle of a putatively antiwar

president standing in imperial glory

before an audience of young West

Point cadets, declaring that War is

Peace even as he promises to send

many of them to the grave, will jar

the liberal intelligentsia from its affectionate

slumber. But, as I write,

the rationalizations and hagiographies

have already begun to pour in,

although they are not always packaged

as such.

Seeking fresh historical perspective

on yet another president with an obscure

plan to somehow win an unwinnable

war he did not start, I picked up

a new book by Garry Wills with a

provocative title: Bomb Power: The

Modern Presidency and the National

Security State. The walls of my library

are lined with books advertising similar

themes, the works of trenchant

historians who seek to explain what

went wrong with America, how the

noble republic of Jefferson and Madison

devolved into a globe-gobbling

empire. I came to Bomb Power with

high expectations and was surprised

by what I found.

Wills traces the roots of the American

empire to the invention and deployment

of nuclear weaponry by the

Manhattan Project, the vast and secret

apparatus authorized by Franklin

Roosevelt and created by General

Leslie Richard “Dick” Groves. An

enormous covert bureaucracy, hidden

from congressional oversight and beholden

to one man, created the most

fearsomely destructive weapon in

history, and thus set the paradigm for

the national security state that arose

immediately after World War II.

Wills tracks its development, sketching

the scientific and political intrigues

at Los Alamos, and briefly

outlines the development of America’s

Cold War posture and its culmination

in the National Security Act

of 1947, the epochal raft of legislation

that reorganized the armed services

and created the Central Intelligence

Agency and the National

Security Council. Anti-communism

and the perceived Soviet threat provided

a ready justifi cation for paranoia,

secrecy, and the consolidation

of presidential power, but nothing

contributed more to that process, according

to Wills, than the sheer fact

of the atomic bomb. That “bomb

power,” as Wills calls it, was so enormous,

so seductive and awe-inspiring,

that it swamped the Constitution.

Lodging “the fate of the world” in

one man, with no constitutional

check on his actions, caused a violent

break in our whole governmental system.

. . . The nature of the presidency

was irrevocably altered by this grant

of a unique power. The President’s

permanent alert meant our permanent

submission. He became, mainly, the

Commander in Chief, since he could

loose the whole military force of the

nation at any moment. Elections became

fateful because we were choosing

a Commander in Chief, a custodian

of the football, a person whose

hand was on the button.

When the North Korean army

crossed the 38th Parallel, Wills writes,

the new bomb power was put to the

test. President Truman, devoted to the

idea of his “great office” and determined

to avoid costly congressional

entanglements, successfully fought off

constitutional pedants such as Senator

Robert Taft and launched what Wills

considers the fi rst presidential war. This

was followed, as we know, by a long

succession of interventions, coups

d’état, and police actions, culminating

in the catastrophe of Vietnam and now

the “Long War” that comprises our

misadventures in Afghanistan and

Iraq. Bomb Power, a vigorous, lawyerly

indictment of the imperial presidency,

provides a useful summary of America’s

shameful and violent Cold War history,

and demonstrates that the crimes of

the Bush regime differed from those of

previous administrations largely in degree

rather than in kind.

Oddly, however, Wills’s emphasis on

the peculiar aura of presidential bomb

power, so compellingly expressed in

his opening chapters, begins to lose its

persuasive force as the narrative unfolds,

as the wars drag on and the list

of interventions and coups grows longer.

What historian William Appleman

Williams called the impotence of

nuclear supremacy begins to make itself

felt, and it is this impotence that

lurks behind the belligerence of a

monster like Dick Cheney, whose

statement of the “bomb power” theory

of presidential power is unrivaled in

its clarity: “The president of the United

States,” he told a television audience,

“could launch the kind of devastating

attack the world has never

seen. He doesn’t have to check with

anybody, he doesn’t have to call the

Congress, he doesn’t have to check

with the courts.”

It’s easy to see why the president’s

bomb power appeals to Cheney, and

although Wills is surely right to observe

that the president’s arrogation of

nuclear command represented an important

victory for the executive in its

long struggle with the other two

branches of government, one suspects

that the total mobilization required by

World War II would have had much

the same effect even without the

atomic bomb. The threat of the Soviet

Union, together with the horrifi c

realities of air power and conventional

bombing—which claimed far more

victims than did Little Boy and Fat

Man—would have remained. Presidents

have rarely been frustrated when

contemplating violence, and Caesar

required only the power of

the sword. Like many who revere the idea

of the lost American Republic, Wills

wishes to isolate a singular efficient

cause for our imperial declension,

when the more likely, and more complex,

explanation is an inherent tendency

or immanent manifestation,

which is why the term “manifest destiny”

is so perfectly apt. Continental

expansion, the Indian Wars, decades

of Open Door diplomacy and economic

imperialism, not to mention a

150-year tradition of extra constitutional

military intervention, executive

misbehavior, and secrecy, all culminated

in the Cold War ideology of

national security, which provided the

template for our present-day terror

dreams. The American empire was

10 HARPER’S MAGAZINE / FEBRUARY 2010

always present, in both idea and reality,

along with the more noble republican

rhetoric, as in the following bit

of prophetic doggerel, printed by the

Virginia Gazette in 1774:

Some fi tter day shall crown us the

Masters of the Main,

In giving laws and freedom to subject

France and Spain,

And all the isles o’er Ocean shall

tremble and obey

The Lords, the Lords, the Lords of

North America.

Wills, a learned historian and the

author of more than one presidential

biography, can see the problem, and

he spends a few paragraphs on Abraham

Lincoln, whose wartime assumption

of dictatorial powers troubles

his thesis, and Woodrow

Wilson, that accomplished theorist

of executive power, according to

whom “the President is at liberty,

both in law and conscience, to be as

big a man as he can.” Yet he does

not ponder Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase,

which doubled the size of the

country by executive fi at, or Madison’s

failed dream of conquering

Canada, or Polk’s successful conquest

of northern Mexico. It was

Madison, principal author of the

Constitution, who did more than

anyone to refute Montesquieu’s maxim

that republican liberty requires a

small state, the political consensus

of the day. “Extend the sphere,” he

argued, and displace internal confl

icts outward. Hamilton agreed, urging

his countrymen to “dictate the

terms of the connection between

the old and the new world!” Americans

did precisely that, and in the

long years of American expansion,

both territorial and economic, military

power was the decisive wedge

that permitted executive usurpation.

The dangers inherent in our constitutional

design were recognized from

the beginning. Here is John Taylor of

Caroline taking stock in 1814:

Both the English king and our president

are the exclusive managers of negotiation;

and secrecy is their common

maxim. By negotiation, foreign governments

may be provoked; by secrecy,

a government may delude and knead a

people into a rage for war; and war is a

powerful instrument for expelling the

element of self-government, and introducing

that of force. . . . By negotiation,

secrecy and war, traitors convert

a national detestation of tyranny into

a tool for making tyrants.

“Dazzled by the prospect of permanent

union,” Taylor continues,

“the sponsors for liberty, were forgotten

in the general joy; and a president

of the United States was invested

with far greater powers than

suffi ced to Caesar for enslaving his

country. Patronage, negotiation, a

negative upon laws, and a paper system,

render some of those talents

which Caesar possessed, unnecessary

to enable a president to perform

what Caesar effected.” America’s liberal

empire and executive monarchism

were nurtured together in the

womb of the Republic.

Wills, however, prefers a tale of diabolical

“bomb power” and thus a

Christian allegory of the Fall, in which

America, after tasting the fruit of the

Tree of Atomic Knowledge, is surprised

by sin and stumbles into hegemony.

The dismaying subtext of Wills’s

book becomes fully manifest only in

his afterword: he seems to have written

his book, as if in parody of Milton,

to justify the ways of Obama

to men. The awesome seductiveness of

bomb power, Wills suggests, is something

with which mere mortals cannot

contend. A new president, ambushed

by his sudden potency, has

no choice but to give in. “Bomb power,”

as Wills conjures it, is both more

sinister and more palliative than the

comparatively tame thesis, submitted

by generations of critical historians,

that the United States of America

never did follow a path of republican

virtue, and that the presidency has

steadily devolved into an office of

elected emperor. But such knowledge

offers little in the way of consolation

when applied to the shortcomings of

a beloved leader. “Perhaps it should

come as no surprise,” Wills writes,

refl ecting on Obama’s record, “that

turning around the huge secret empire

built by the National Security

State is a hard, perhaps impossible

task. . . . A president is greatly pressured

to keep all the empire’s secrets.

. . . He becomes a prisoner of his own

power. As President Truman could

not not use the Bomb, a modern

President cannot not use his huge

power base. It has all been given him

as the legacy of Bomb Power, the

thing that makes him not only Commander

in Chief but Leader of the

Free World. He is a self-entangling

giant.” Thus a president’s shabby

compromises and betrayals assume

the high pathos of tragedy.

Indeed, Wills writes in a recent issue

of The New York Review of Books,

were Obama to end the war in Afghanistan—

as reason, morality, history,

and all canons of prudence most

urgently recommend—he would pay

the ultimate sacrifi ce: he would forfeit

his reelection. “It is unlikely that we

will soon have another president with

the moral and rhetorical force to talk

us out of a foolish commitment that

cannot be sustained without shame

and defeat. If it costs him his presidency,

what other achievement can

match it? During his presidential campaign,

Barack Obama said he would

rather be a one-term president than

give up on his goals. Here is a goal no

other president we can imagine would

have a possibility of reaching.” Wills,

like many of Obama’s supporters, apparently

did not believe his candidate

when during the campaign he repeatedly

vowed to escalate the Afghan

war—nor did he seem to notice when

the president deployed 21,000 new

troops there upon taking offi ce. As it

happens, Obama’s Nixonian performance

at West Point caused the scales

to fall from Wills’s eyes (he promised

in a short, strange essay never to give

Obama “another penny”), but other

thoughtful liberals, such as Hendrik

Hertzberg (“a sombre appeal to reason”)

and Frank Rich (“the sincere

product of serious deliberations, an

earnest attempt to apply his formidable

intelligence to one of the most

daunting Rubik’s Cubes of foreign

policy America has ever known”),

have not wavered in their

adjectival devotion. Let us grant that Barack

Obama is as intelligent as his admirers

insist. What evidence do we possess

that he is also a moral virtuoso?

What evidence do we possess that

he is a good, wise, or even a decent

man? Yes, he can be eloquent, yet

eloquence is no guarantee of wisdom

or of virtue. Yes, he has a nice

family, but that evinces a private

morality. Public morality requires

public action, and all available public

evidence points to a man with

the character of a common politician,

whose singular ambition in life

was to attain power; nothing in

Barack Obama’s political career suggests

that he would ever willingly

commit to a course of action that

would cost him an election. His preposterously

two-faced approach to

Afghanistan, wherein he simultaneously

escalates the war while promising

to begin “the transition to Afghan

responsibility” just a year later,

is a perfect illustration of his compulsion

to split the difference on

any given political question. (One

could also point to the health-care

boondoggle, or to his utter capitulation

to Wall Street in economic

matters.) He dilly-dallies, draws out

both friends and opponents, dangles

promises in front of everyone, gives

a dramatic speech, and then pulls

back to gauge the reaction. Since

the policy itself is incoherent—and,

as usual with Obama, salted with

stipulations and provisos—he can

always trim and readjust as necessary.

Deadlines and definitions of

“combat forces” are infinitely malleable.

Since Obama is an intelligent

man, surely he understands the

meaning of the word mendacity.

Having embraced and professionalized

the powers of force and fraud

previously associated with the likes

of John Yoo and Dick Cheney,

Obama has embarked on a course of

war that will certainly invite further

abuses of power. His political survival

now depends on martial success in a

land that has defeated some of history’s

most brutal strategies of conquest.

Obama has set a trap for himself,

but because he is such a clever

politician, the spring is just as likely

to fall on us instead. Such insidious

governance demands serious, sustained

opposition, not respectful disagreement

or fanciful historical apologies

or mournful lamentations

about the tragedy of his presidency.

Principles can be sacrificed to hopes

as well as to fears.


 

 

 

2 Comments
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Kevin Smith

The Mendacity of Hope. I like that. Nicely done. A touch of the Greek tragedy, a hint of Euripedes’ Medea.

“Manifold are thy shapings, Providence!
Many a hopeless matter gods arrange.”

Keep the faith baby. Don’t knuckle under to all this post-post modernist crap that is passing for new thinking these days. The marriage of cold feet and mendacity.

Kev

bahmi

Obama is NOT the fool that Hodge writes about. Hodge is self flagellating here in his book for being so wrong about his hero. Yes, Hodge loves this “great president, a good man”. Hodge is shilling for Obama and so preferentially attracted to Obama it’s really pitiful. It’s a good read, but having read it, I find that Hodge alternately praises then buries Caesar. Overall, the book is highly flawed, if only by it’s whiplash side to side movement. When liberals like Hodge write books about Obama, it is always predictable to see the author vacillating uncontrollably. Too bad, the book had potential.

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