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The Executive Marches: War and Internal Security in the US

"The Bush ultra-security state" contradicts constitutional foundations...Conservatives sought to strengthen the executive after the Vietnam war and the Watergate affair... The country could become "a nation of informers where only white Mormons feel secure" (Chalmers Johnson).
The Executive Marches

War and Inner Security in the US

By Philip S. Golub

[This article originally published in: Le Monde diplomatique, January 11, 2002 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://monde-diplomatique.de/mtpl/2002/01/11.text?Tname=a0027&id. Philip Golub is a journalist and lecturer at the University of Paris.]

[Unilateralism outwards and authoritarianism inwards is the mid-term review of the war of the US against terrorism. Different than the European Union hoped, the Bush administration refuses all multilateral cooperation with the bio-weapon convention and establishment of the International Criminal Court. The popular mood is used to develop the power of the executive. That the constitutional state is damaged cannot irritate President Bush. As representative of the good on earth, he has an infallible argument: "However our military trials turn out, our system is fairer than the system of Bin Laden and the Taliban.]

Since the end of the Vietnam war, the American rightwing dreamt of a restoration of the imperial greatness of their country. The "conservative (counter-) revolution" of the 80s sought more than a neoliberal economic and social policy. It also desired to reactivate shaken patriotism, restore the military honor of the US and return autonomy of action to the executive largely ceded to the legislature and the judiciary after the fall of Saigon and the "Watergate affair". Paradoxically the sharpest defenders of federalism in the land of the "weak state" who are in the government are inclined again and again to use federal resources in the military area.

One of the heralds of the formula "Less State" was Ronald Reagan (1980-1988). The most drastic expansion of the US military apparatus in peacetime began in his presidency although military expenditures rose under the democrat Jimmy Carter. Reagan's successor George Bush (1988-1992), politically a small light but geopolitically a skillful strategist, continued the remobilization of the national security structure after the end of the Cold War. However none of them managed to finish the project.

Now the revival of a strong executive supported by the national security apparatus is apparently becoming reality under a president first seen as a politically mediocre and powerless figure. Thanks to the incredible crimes of September 11 and the subsequent war against Afghanistan (the third victory of the US in a high-tech conflict within ten years), the former governor has been elevated into an American emperor - a trick neither Reagan nor Bush accomplished. The Washington Post described this as follows: "The attacks of September 11 and the Afghanistan war strengthened the presidential powers sought by the Bush administration. President Bush enjoys a position of power like no president after Watergate and even approaches Franklin D. Roosevelt in this regard."

From time immemorial, war has had two faces, a domestic and a foreign policy face. Aristotle already warned that tyrants wage war now and then to rob their subjects of leisure and permanently inoculate them with the desire for a strong leader. Bush is certainly no tyrant, only the happy winner of a contestable and contested election. He also did not start the hostilities. The war that he described as "infinite" or "eternal" gave him the necessary resources to build a US position of power and fortify his personal political strength. In foreign policy, war gave him the possibility of demonstrating again the military-technological superiority of the United States, show the advantages of military methods even after the end of the Cold War --as his father and Bill Clinton did in Iraq - and thoroughly rearrange the strategic landscape. In domestic policy, the war gives him the possibility of reviving the "national security state", strengthening his authority and reducing the legislature and judiciary. The ex-governor with authoritarian tendencies is building a strong self-contained executive intent on intervention that acts autonomously.

Bush could give special powers to the executive since both houses of Congress - the democrats have the majority in the Senate - voluntarily abdicated part of their power in passing the "USA Patriot Act" at the end of September 2001. Thus foreigners without a valid residence permit can be secretly imprisoned for an unlimited time. Military tribunals were established by presidential order on November 13, 2001. Over 1200 persons arrested shortly after September 11 were still in custody in the middle of December without any information known about them or charges brought against them.

Neither the prisoners nor their relatives can review the evidence. The military tribunals instituted without consultation of the Supreme Court are authorized to issue arrest orders on the basis of secret witness testimony and evidence against "terrorists" and "war criminals" and condemn them (out of hand). The executive alone defines who is a terrorist or war criminal.

As the New York Times emphasized, this contempt of constitutional principles theoretically valid for all persons subject to the authority of American courts amounts to the "establishment of a parallel administration of justice". While normal justice is competent for US citizens and terrorists like the Oklahoma suicide assassin Timothy McVeigh, foreigners in the future will appear before a military tribunal whether they dwell in the US or not. The executive creates a law-free institution within the constitutional state with the power to start worldwide investigations and intervene. In a word, the Pentagon can wage war, identify the guilty or culpable and administer justice.

The executive has expanded its domestic intervention possibilities. President Bush puts the principle of separation of powers in question on which American society rests by taking his office as the supreme arbitration authority away from the Supreme Court and condemning the Congress to powerlessness.

This slide into the authoritarian state is actually an unparalleled event in the recent history of the US. The US executive did not go that far even at the height of the Cold War. At that time it arranged a regular witch hunt, exercised censorship, drew up black lists, repressed the civil rights movement, worked with state secrecy and open lies, vested the FBI with exorbitant powers and authorized illegal actions in the US and abroad. However neither Korea nor the Vietnam war - both limited wars - were a pretext for a parallel administration of justice controlled by the president and the national security structure. A rightwing editorialist, usually an enthusiastic party liner of the republicans, denounced the most recent resolutions as a "dictatorial seizure of power"" The critical essayist and scholar Chalmers Johnson (author of "Blowback") reached a similar diagnosis. He speaks of a "hidden military coup d' etat that could prove irreversible and transform the whole country according to the east German model into a nation of informers where only white Mormons can still feel secure."

Rhetoric of Permanent Mobilization

This judgment may sound exaggerated. Still Bush's ultra-security state deeply contradicts America's political tradition and can only be institutionalized under the condition of a continuous war. This is the hidden meaning of the war rhetoric of an imperially attuned presidency. That September 11 marks the beginning of a new world war and represents the "Pearl Harbor" of the 21st century can only mean that the worldwide struggle against terrorism will be spatially and temporally unlimited.

The struggle will be spatially unlimited because a "second phase" is to begin after the end of the Afghanistan campaign. Since the end of September, the emphasis was on military actions against countries in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America which allegedly offer shelter to secret terrorist cells. US specialists are already at work in the Phillipines applying their expert knowledge at controlling rebellions. Soon the US will be in Somalia using the harbor of Berbera after signing an agreement. Afterwards in the third phase, more dangerous adversaries like Iraq will be confronted.

The war should also be unlimited temporally. The Bush administration constantly hints that the war will drag on for a long time, perhaps even endlessly. After the elimination of Ussama Bin Laden, the worldwide Al-Qaida network will be tackled. Then the successor organizations must be challenged since combating the symptom has never cured the evil. Some even have the nightmarish vision of a war lasting fifty years, "longer than we will live" as Vice-president Richard Cheney declared hiding in a secret bunker near Washington since September 11. "All the resources of state power" should be deployed according to the model of the so-called Cold War that continued forty years.

This coordinated rhetoric is directed at the general public of the US and the whole world. It aims at obligating the population to a state of permanent mobilization and to an incontestable leader. It could succeed soon after the end of the current conflict - the Afghanistan war - with a voting public increasingly dissatisfied over the precarious economic situation.

For example, the state interventions in the economy - in which na´ve minds wanted to see the "return of the political", political action free at last from world economic pressures - only benefit mammoth corporations and the military-industrial complex who naturally are counted as the supporting pillars of the republican presidency. Thus the government released billions upon billions of dollars in the form of direct and indirect economic assistance including $15 billion in direct payments to the airlines, $25 billion in indirect subsidies in subsequent tax gifts to all corporations and $20 billion in direct transfer payments to the Pentagon (whose budget climbs to $329 billion).

On the other hand, the working population and the growing number of unemployed have come away empty-handed for some time. As Dick Armey , the majority leader of the republicans in the House of Representatives, announced very bluntly, unemployment benefits are incompatible with the "American spirit". Now it is clear unemployment will rise again through the lasting recession up to the congressional elections in 2002 and the presidential election in 2004.

Without permanent political mobilization, Bush will have difficulty carrying out his program. Perhaps he won the Afghanistan war too quickly. Americans could soon become tired of the new imperial presidency.

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