America Unhinged

January 2, 2014 Topic: Grand StrategySecurity Regions: United States

America Unhinged

Mini Teaser: The "most secure great power in world history" continues to engage in costly interventions to defend merely peripheral interests.

by Author(s): John J. Mearsheimer

LET US CONSIDER in more detail how the national-security state threatens America’s liberal political order. Three stories are in order, the first of which involves the right to privacy as it relates to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirements. Generally speaking, the government cannot gather information on American citizens without a warrant or other judicial authorization. Normally, there must be probable cause to think an individual is engaging in illegal activity before obtaining a search warrant. Thus, even in cases where the government thinks someone is dangerous or behaving unlawfully, it typically cannot act without judicial approval.

There is no question the Bush administration was engaged in warrantless surveillance of American citizens from shortly after September 11 until January 2007. But that is not the end of the story. We now know, thanks to Edward Snowden, that the government—mainly the NSA—also searches and stores vast amounts of emails and text-based messages. While limited by law to international communications for foreign intelligence purposes, the NSA nevertheless collected the communications of American citizens that were entirely domestic. The government also regularly collects telephone records of millions of Americans, and keeps track of “telephony metadata” that includes the phone numbers of parties to a call, its duration, location and time. It is hard to disagree with Senator Ron Wyden’s comment that “the government’s authority to collect information on law-abiding American citizens is essentially limitless.”

The government oftentimes gets a warrant from a secret court known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, or the FISA court. But there are significant transparency and credibility problems with this process. First, this court is a virtual rubber stamp for the government and its intelligence agencies. Since 1979, the FISA court has received about thirty-four thousand requests to conduct electronic surveillance within the United States. It has denied the government’s request in only eleven of those cases. Second, it is virtually impossible to challenge FISA court rulings, not only because they are secret, but also because there is no party to the proceedings besides the government. Third, as the recent declassification of certain FISA court opinions reveals, the government often pays little heed to the court’s warnings unless forced to do so.

The Obama administration, not surprisingly, initially claimed that the NSA’s spying played a key role in thwarting fifty-four terrorist plots against the United States, implying it violated the Fourth Amendment for good reason. This was a lie, however. General Keith Alexander, the NSA director, eventually admitted to Congress that he could claim only one success, and that involved catching a Somali immigrant and three cohorts living in San Diego who had sent $8,500 to a terrorist group in Somalia.

The second story concerns due process, which lies at the very core of America’s constitutional protections and is the backbone of what is considered the rule of law. It is no exaggeration to say the traditional notion of due process has become laughable as it applies to so-called enemy combatants in the war on terror. When the United States began sweeping up suspected terrorists in Afghanistan and elsewhere after September 11, the Bush administration created a legal black hole at Guantánamo Bay, and strongly resisted the detainees’ efforts to obtain due process.

Notwithstanding President Obama’s efforts to close Guantánamo, it remains open and continues to be a due-process quagmire. For example, of the 164 individuals still imprisoned at Guantánamo, eighty-four were cleared for release in 2009 but remain imprisoned. There are another forty-six prisoners the government cannot prosecute because of insufficient evidence, but it refuses to release them because they are considered to be security threats to the United States. This arbitrary and unprecedented policy of indefinite detention is a blatant violation of traditional American notions of due process.

Worse yet, the Bush administration devised the infamous policy of extraordinary rendition, where high-value prisoners were sent to countries with terrible human-rights records to be tortured and interrogated. And it appears that the CIA itself tortured prisoners at its so-called black sites in Europe, as well as at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and Abu Ghraib in Iraq. This behavior clearly violates American and international law, which both forbid torture.

This disgraceful situation brings us to the third story. Because it has been impossible for the Obama administration either to prosecute or release the detainees, it appears to have little interest in capturing new prisoners and bringing them to Guantánamo, where they would be subjected to indefinite detention. So instead, Obama apparently decided to assassinate suspected enemy combatants, virtually anywhere they are found. While it may be easier to kill them rather than hold them forever and be criticized for adding to the mess at Guantánamo, the ramifications of this new policy may be even more poisonous.

Drones, of course, play a central role in this assassination strategy. Obama has a kill list known as the “disposition matrix,” and there is a meeting every Tuesday in the White House—it is called “Terror Tuesday”—where the next round of victims is selected. The extent to which the Obama administration has bought into this strategy is reflected in the increased frequency of drone strikes since November 2002, when they first began. Micah Zenko wrote in the Financial Times in May 2013 that there have been “approximately 425 non-battlefield targeted killings (more than 95 per cent by drones). Roughly 50 took place during Mr. Bush’s tenure, and 375 (and counting) under Mr. Obama’s.”

This assassination strategy leaves hardly any room for due process. Indeed, the CIA is authorized to kill young males who are not known to be terrorists, but are merely exhibiting suspicious behavior, whatever that might be. It is also difficult to identify targets clearly from a platform thousands of feet above the ground. Not surprisingly, there are numerous cases where drones have hit innocent civilians. It is difficult to get firm numbers, but it seems clear that at least 10–15 percent of the victims have been civilians. Finally, Obama has used drones to purposely kill an American citizen in Yemen when there was no evidence he was an imminent threat to the United States. This unprecedented act raises fundamental questions about due process, and shows how dangerous an interventionist foreign policy is for core civil liberties.

A comment by former CIA director Michael Hayden in 2012 captures just how misguided Obama’s assassination strategy is: “Right now, there isn’t a government on the planet that agrees with our legal rationale for these operations, except for Afghanistan and maybe Israel.”

What makes these policies even more alarming is that the national-security elites who execute and support them fervently believe in “American exceptionalism.” They are convinced that the United States is morally superior to every other country on earth. It is, so the story goes, the “light of the world,” a shining city on a hill. Americans stand tall and see further than other peoples, as Madeleine Albright put it. These elites obviously do not look in the mirror. But, if they did, they would understand why people all around the world think hypocrites of the first order run American foreign policy.

THE U.S. COMMITMENT to global domination since the Cold War ended has had huge costs and brought few benefits. That is especially true in the years since September 11. Nevertheless, there has been remarkably little change in how the foreign-policy establishment thinks about America’s role in the world. From neoconservatives on the right to liberal imperialists on the left, there has been no meaningful diminishment in their commitment to intervening in countries all across the globe.

The American public, however, has become less enthusiastic about acting as the world’s policeman, especially when it means using military force and possibly getting involved in more wars. But this disconnect between the foreign-policy elites and the citizenry had not hindered the pursuit of global domination in any meaningful way until this past summer, when President Obama threatened to bomb Syria. It quickly became apparent that a large majority of Americans were strongly opposed to using military force there. Indeed, the opposition was so apparent that Obama seemed unlikely to get congressional backing for an attack, even though he promised it would be limited and the United States would not be drawn into another war. It was, as columnist Peggy Noonan put it, “a fight between the country and Washington, between the broad American public and Washington’s central governing assumptions.”

In effect, the public is saying it is fed up with America’s interventionist policies and it is time to focus greater attention on fixing problems at home. According to a poll done for the Wall Street Journal and NBC News in September 2013, 74 percent of Americans believe their country is “doing too much in other countries, and it is time to do less around the world and focus more on problems here at home.” Hopefully, the backlash over Syria is a harbinger of things to come, and the public will increasingly put limits on the elites’ penchant for pursuing imperial missions.

Another encouraging sign is that there was hardly any enthusiasm in the U.S. military for attacking Syria. Hopefully, the senior leadership and the rank and file finally recognize they have been asked to fight losing wars that matter little for the security of the United States and that most of their fellow citizens consider not worth fighting. There are sound reasons to limit how much criticism military commanders can direct at civilian leaders and their policies. At the present moment, however, the generals should push their outspokenness to the limit.

Image: Pullquote: The United States, which is the most secure great power in world history, has been safer over the past twenty-five years than at any other time in its history.Essay Types: Essay