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March 31, 2007

The Security Frame Temptation
Posted by David Shorr

A few weeks ago Heather told us about the public's sour mood, and how their cynicism makes them resistant towards many political arguments. According to recent polls and focus groups, voters are so suspicious of all officials, politicians, and parties, that they will discount most anything they're told. Among the wells that have been poisoned is the very idea of national security. To any of us who might try to make policy arguments on the basis of national security, Heather warns that this approach,

...hurts at least as much as it helps with voters who are over-security-ed.

Using the rubric of security might be tempting, she says, but it's a temptation to be resisted. I guess I'm skeptical about how we're supposed to deal with this skepticism, though I accept the caution about inch-deep rhetoric.

The American people may be in a foul humor (I'm not in such a good mood myself). Lord knows that politicians have tried to spook the bejesus out of them, and they got wise to it -- with another poll showing two-thirds saying that Washington has played too much on their fears.

So maybe we need to handle "national security" with a little more care, but I just can't see how the current national funk erases from the lexicon the two words that have stood for decades as the political shorthand for this entire set of concerns. I would agree that we have to do more than just say that everything is a security issue. If everything is security, nothing is security -- point taken.

For me, the challenge is to enlarge the popular understanding of the term. The choice is between a dated, narrow, fearful approach that focuses only on protecting us from bad guys -- important as that is -- and a larger, comprehensive approach that defends nation and allies but also seeks to build a more peaceful, free, and prosperous world. I think this is part of the answer of what progressives are for. (See Princeton Project on National Security, esp. pp. 14-16).


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The choice is between a dated, narrow, fearful approach that focuses only on protecting us from bad guys -- important as that is -- and a larger, comprehensive approach that defends nation and allies but also seeks to build a more peaceful, free, and prosperous world. I think this is part of the answer of what progressives are for. (See Princeton Project on National Security, esp. pp. 14-16).

I think the linked Princeton Study is the "dated, narrow, fearful approach" and not the "larger, comprehensive approach" you seem to seek. But since you want to "build a world" then you don't differ much.

The Princeton Study self-admittedly is a Kennanesque approach to security--U.S. military and economic world hegemony. The first clue is in the title: "Forging a World of Liberty Under Law" Forgers and buiders, builders and forgers.

I wonder if any of these deep thinkers have ever lived in or even visited other countries in the world, approximately 190 of them. These people, I can tell you, don't want to be forged or built by the United States. They are, generally speaking, rather proud of their own homelands and, not incidentally, not so proud of ours given our performance. What performance? Oh, that's not mentioned in the Study. Economic aggression by the US-dominated World Bank (now under Wolfowitz) and military aggression by the Pentagon somehow evaded the study's worldview, but others notice.

While claiming to be progressive, the Study includes the mandatory buzzwords: the "war on terror"; Iraq, that sovereign country liberated by the U.S., must meet "benchmarks"; there must be a "two-state solution" in Israel and Palestine (Palestine? Where's that? We won't allow it.); and "take considerable risks to ensure that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapons capacity", i.e. bomb Iran as AIPAC dictates even though Iran has broken no treaties or laws.

The Study correctly notes the formation of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in the 1940's, and NSC-68, the policy of containment, in 1950 however it fails to recognize that the World Bank has ravaged other countries with unconscionable, unpayable debt burdens in the name of "development" which profited--guess who--the U.S. It also failed to note that NSC-68 led to a military-dominated society with the U.S. spending as much on the military/industrial complex, euphemistically called "defense", as the rest of the world combined, with diplomacy taking a back seat. Of course what good is the world's finest military if you don't use it so the U.S, uses it. Right now it's losing a couple more wars, and about to start a third, but what the hey, it's good for the corporate bottom line. Corporations? They're not in the study either. Corporate welfare? Never heard of it. Must be out there by K street somewhere.

The constant drive for American world hegemony has to have a contrived historical basis, and it's in the Study too. "In 1941 Americans learned that the security of their homeland and the viability of life as a free society depended upon the developments in the rest of the world, thus settling an argument that had raged for two generations and had its roots in the nation's founding. Simply put, we learned that aggressors in faraway lands, if left unchecked would someday threaten the United States." This is pure horsepucky. Americans learned no such thing. What do they mean? They don't say. Perhaps they're referring to the attack on Pearl Harbor, which was at the time an American colony stolen from the Hawaiians, with a "surprise" attack under highly questionable circumstances. Or perhaps they mean the German invasion of Russia, I don't know. In any case "the viability of [U.S.] life as a free society" was never at stake as half a million Americans died in foreign wars, and the United States was never threatened.

The United States has not been invaded since 1812 and is not being threatened by any other country today. This is a very similar situation enjoyed by most of the countries in the world today where the people are busy enjoying their all-to-brief sojourn on earth and are not paranoid about their "security" as Americans are supposed to be. But it's all meant to increase corporate welfare and use public money to subsidize corporations--why don't they just come out and say it?

I advocate the National Security strategy of Costa Rica--disband the military. We don't need it.

I'm not terribly fond of the Princeton Project report. Certainly it is not as frighteningly obtuse, belligerant and dangerous as the PNAC manifesto from the late nineties. Nevertheless, it seems to me to miss the boat on the most crucial challenge to global security - and by extension US security - facing us today. And in the end it is the manifesto of a privileged class, looking about for ways of maintaining their threatened prerogatives.

The defining character of the present era is the intensifying geostrategic competition among the world's major powers for control of energy resources, markets and production. That competition is increasingly more multilateral, multisided, destabilizing and complex than before. The clash between racing demand and strained supplies is more pronounced. And the states involved in this competition are heavily armed - much more heavily armed than "al Qaeda" and the other supposed rogue terrors of the world that trouble the sleep of neoliberal elites.

There is something so very charmingly "90s" about the vision held out by the Princeton Project. That vision is of an interdependent, interconnected, intermingled, transnational network of globalized neoliberal wonderfulness, disturbed only by a few islands of reactionary backwardness ruled by restless rogues and uncivilized natives who have not yet joined the End of History utopia. In this vision, the threat of violent conflict among the spectacularly heavily armed major powers is minimal or non-existent, because all these powers are so "interdependent" that war no longer serves their interests. The magic of private property and liberal capitalism has erased national borders and conquered irrationality, fear, avarice, brutality and stupidity among the worlds "better sort" of civilized peoples. The only challenge now is to mop up the problem of the few remaining rogues and the illiberal holdouts, by intervening to replace their godforsaken and barbarous political cultures with civilized client regimes of the intervening powers.

It all sounds so similar to the turn of the 20th century and the "belle epoque" that preceded the great power cataclysm that dragged on for half a century and decimated the globe's population. The enlightened liberals of that earlier generation also thought they had tamed war into a civilized economic competition among rational agents in an economically interconnected world, and that the chief threat to their well-being came from dangerous radical anarchist and socialist terrorists. Woodrow Wilson, for example, was quite obsessed with chasing down these miscreants in Latin America and Russia. The great powers failed, though, to arrest the dark forces in their own homes and hearts, forces that were driving them toward mutual slaughter.

Liberal elites seem to see the problems of failed or rogue states as cultural problems caused by deficiencies in the societies of the barbarous peoples of the world. They tend to ignore the fact that the places where states and government have failed also tend to be the battlegrounds on which their own great power competitive struggles were carried out. That is still the case today. The Princeton Project shows little cognizance of the fact that the stabilization and state-building they seek in the world's troubled places - Africa, Central Asia, the Middle East e.g. - will never occur so long as these places remain prizes in the resource wars of the new century, and thus inevitably remain pawns in geostrategic competition among the world's major players. Yet there is nary a word about any serious initiative to arrest these roiling competitive struggles, manage global energy supplies and defuse the geostrategic rivalries which will increasingly take on the character of gangland warfare among rival mob families.

Much of the Princeton Project prescription for security is centered around the call for a "Concert of Democracies", in conjunction with UN Security Council "reform". The thrust of these proposals is to shift power away from the "broken" international institutions, where the rabble have too much of a say, and consolidate it the hands of the US-friendly states forming the concert. The Security Council is to be packed with these allies, while at the same time selectively eliminating the veto so as to permit Concert-driven interventions wherever they might be desired.

While the Princeton Project engages in a certain amount of sweet talk about the "legitimate aspirations" of the Chinese, the plan seems clearly designed to roll back Russian and Chinese influence by revivifying NATO, reducing Chinese and Russian power in international forums, and exploiting regional rivals of those two powers - Japan, India and the European Union - to keep them well-contained. Ultimately, the report calls for a new Cold War, yet issues the call with genteel language, prefering refined Wilsonian usages like "concert" to the more blunt language of "alliance."

The Concert itself seems designed to emerge as the chief forum for organizing international cooperation among a self-selected elite, and confering extra-national legitimacy on those endeavors. The report's authors threaten (in very polite terms, of course) that if the Security Council cannot be reformed - that is, if the UN fails to turn the Security Council into an extra legitimizing, rubber-stamping arm of the Concert - the Concert will simply drop the pretenses, act alone and deal the final death blow to the illusion of UN importance.

There is hardly anything of significance in the report about global poverty. Withing a few decades, the majority of the world's people will be living in cities - including sa number of monstrously sprawling and impoverished mega-citions of tens of millions. Many of these people are in effect internal refugees from the economic displacement and dispossession created the neoliberal privatization racket that is transfering the remaining possessions of the many into the property of a few, local landlords and "stake-holders" who are themselves indebted to the chief note-holders in great power capitals. In a sense it is like the industrial revolution in Europe, but in this case there isn't even oppressive factory work for the displaced hordes. We are building a world in which something approaching half the population lives on the outskirts of the glitteringly globalized neoliberal economy.

The report touches very lightly on the problems of global climate change and environmental degradation - which is not suprising since this is a global evil for which we "haves" are mostly reponsible -w hile obsessing frequently about the dangers of foul pestilences incubating among the filthy global underclass and developing into pandemics that might infect the comfortable. Even when the topic of reforming our health care system comes up, the first reason that pops into the authors' minds is the need to confront these anticipated pandemics.

And throughout the report, the control-freakish language of "order" and and "ordering" comes up over and over. This language is, I know, very much favored by John Ikenberry, who I imagine is the report's chief author. Ikenberry is fixated on a Kantian vision of "liberal order".

The obsession with diseases, the fanaticism for order, the concern about the "criminal element" and the confident faith in the enlightened rationality and civilizing mission of the First Citizens - all of these are the standard themes of a fearful and aristocratic ruling class threatened by a changing world - a class both unable to come to grips with those changes, and also unwilling to notice the impact of their own brutal stamp on others. The stamp is impressed on the world by proxies, servants and henchmen working in the shadows, who enable the rulers to maintain their genteel illusions of superior morality.

While I certainly do not endorse american actions on the soil of other countries, I certainly think that disbanding the military of any country is sheer folly, unless you plan to subsume the country into your own and use your iwn army to defend it.

Any country has enemies, or if not enemies, non friends wh would not hesitate to invade quickly and garner some land at low cost.

The US by its actions, has certainly many enemies.

Armies work, not just by physically defending it during attack, but by acting as a deterrant to invasion.

No country can seriously expect another to defend it at all costs. This was proven during world warII.

When the japanese invaded singapore in 1942, the british who had colonised us surrendered after three days. They cut and run leving us to suffer under the japanese for 2 1/2 years.

We learnt from this that we cannot let anyone do the defending for us. We have to defend ourselves. Similarly, america has to defend itself too. Just because some of its enemies may have been imaginary in the past doe not mean all of them now are imaginary. Some could still be, but it does not require one to throw out the baby with the bath water. What it should do is be consistant.

America can either be the global policeman or it can be a normal "civilian" state like the rest of us. It cannot have it both ways, it cannot have the cake and eat it too.

What do I mean, let me elaborate:

If america is a policeman, it can (at times unilaterally) intervene for humanitarian reasons like i think it did in kosovo (i may be wrong, my world history is really shoddy) It cannot do something just because it will benefit itself like it did when it got rid of the democratically elected but anti american leader of iran and replace him with a dictator. It cannot invade iraq just to get its oil. If it is to be a policeman, then it must be to some degree selfless. Why did the rest of the world not object to america's superpower status? partially because we couldn't really do anything else. But more importantly because america was a benign superpower. We were sure that as long as we did not commit genocide or harbour terrorists, america would respect the rule of international law and leave us alone. We also appreciated that a strong american presence would be good for security. America was to be like dahl's Big Friendly Giant.

If america wants to claim that it has a right to look after its own interests in preference to others, then, it cannot be a superpower. It most definitely cannot violate international law just because it does not promote american interests the most. If any other state has tried to do what america has done, then the UN and probably even america would be sanctioning that country to bankruptcy by now. (except for Israel which is 'above blame'. Hence, if america continues do do as it has been doing for the past six to seven years and more (bill clinton's administration, while nicer than george2, was not that nice to us; think micheal fay" Invading other contries to serve american interests is not much different from Hitler invading other countries for German interests.

re: the "broken" United Nations

The UN at its founding in San Francisco, its establishment in New York and for years thereafter was a U.S.-dominated institution. The US was able to veto every motion, and there have been many, against Israel, for example (so the US would never give up its veto power). But now we have China on the Security Council as well as Russia, and India rightfully knocking on the door. While the U.S. has wooed India with internationally-illegal nuclear gifts India is attracted by a geographically logical Russia/China/India alliance. So things could get sticky in the UN and hamper US imperialism. The US was able to get 1441 belatedly to cover Operation Iraqi Fiasco but basically the UN was an obstacle. Outside the UN there is the Non-aligned Movement (NAM) composed of smaller states who have sided with Iran against US/Britain on their nuclear issue, and an Islamic Conference where the US is not real popular.

So the U.S. has turned to NATO as its military lackey and that's why NATO--NATO!!--is now in Afghanistan.

The Princeton Study's "Concert of Democracies" as the proposed new instrument of US imperialism because having NATO, a North Atlantic organization, in Asia is a little weird and, as they continue to lose in Afghanistan, as all foreign occupiers have, NATO will lose mucho face. Therefore the new "Concert" is needed. What countries would be in this Concert? Given its crooked elections and entrenched representatives does the US qualify? How about Russia, Brazil, Venezuela and France? I guess China's out. Who chooses this elite group? I'd say the Concert is DOA. I guess the US will have to bear any burden and pay any price by itself. On to Iran!

I think you mistake my meaning a bit. I'm not saying we should somehow pretend there's no such thing as national security. The point is, as you and I agree, Americans understand that the fear card has been played a few times too many. Trying to subsume every worthwhile thing we could do in the world under a national security umbrella -- AIDS is national security, clean water is national security, global warming is national security, intellectual property is national security, ICC is national security -- is not going to work against such reflexive skepticism. Yes, all of those things have links to our national security, and people will understand that. But the primary reasons for doing them are economic, or health-related, or moral -- all valid and important impetuses for action in and of themselves. All should factor into a post-Bush, post-Iraq vision for what the US does and is in the world.

Previous commentators on your post have gotten into a debate about how to ensure national security which makes my point exactly: the chances for meanginful action on AIDS or global warming or trade reform or what have you are hindered, not helped, by being excessively caught up in the debate over what US security policy can in fact achieve.

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