Obama’s crackpot realism and the real crime of Edward Snowden

C Wright Mill’s concept of ‘crackpot realism’ helps explain and define Obama’s continuity with George Bush’s policies.

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The NSA was targeted by an Anonymous 'trolling' operation in the days after Snowden's revelations [Reuters]

On June 8, Juan Cole, one of the few true Middle East experts in the US, posted a short entry on his Informed Comment blog. The title said it all: “We misunderstood Barack: He only wanted the domestic surveillance to be made legal, not to end it”.

But domestic surveillance was far from the only Bush policy that Obama has wanted to continue, despite giving supporters the opposite impression. The continued – if reduced – use of indefinite detention is one example, the continued – vastly expanded – use of drones is another, and underlying them all is the continued self-defeating policy of fighting a global “war on terrorism” – but debranding it, because the term “war on terror” has become toxic, and renaming it makes it harder to oppose. 

Foreign policy is not the only area in which Obama has turned out to be far more conservative than his 2008 campaign supporters had reason to believe, and there’s surely a variety of different factors involved. But in the overlapping realms of foreign policy and national security highlighted by the revelations of Edward Snowden, one factor in particular deserves our attention: what the radical sociologist C. Wright Mills described over half a century ago as “crackpot realism”. 

In his 1956 book, The Power Elite, Mills wrote: “For the first time in American history, men in authority are talking about an ’emergency’ without a foreseeable end… such men as these are crackpot realists: in the name of realism they have constructed a paranoid reality all their own.”  

Taking for granted that paranoid reality then, of course the calculus shifts entirely to preventing any successful attack, however small, because of where it might lead – and doing so, effectively, forever.  Such is the framework within which the liberal John F Kennedy said we would “bear any burden, pay any price” – but certainly not ask about the burden and the price of the crackpot realist mindset itself.  And that is the unaskable question that anti-war activists posed in the 1960s, that Daniel Ellsberg posed when he released the Pentagon Papers, and that Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden pose for us today.

Mills was writing about Cold War America. But given how much actual military power the Soviet Union possessed, compared with how little al-Qaeda has, the crackpot realism Mills wrote about pales in comparison with that of today.  Although it was madness to believe that the Soviet Union would actually launch a nuclear war, thus ensuring its own destruction, there was at least a real military capability involved. Al-Qaeda, in contrast, wasn’t even a military force when it pulled off the 9/11 attacks, touching off America’s “war on terror” response – which was exactly what al Qaeda wanted, since going to war was the only way they could possibly become the “holy warriors” they imagined themselves to be. It was, quite frankly, America’s military response to 9/11 that created al Qaeda as a military force and legitmised its bogus claim to the mantle of being called “holy warriors”.

Edward Snowden’s crime is not that he revealed too much, but too little.

Thus, the decision to respond to 9/11 as an act of war rather than a crime was arguably Washington’s greatest foreign policy blunder ever. The straight-forward equivalent of trying to fight a fire with gasoline. And it need not have been.

The whole world was horrified by the 9/11 attacks. Even Afghanistan’s Taliban ruler, Mullah Omar, was unwilling to defend them, and was willing to turn bin Laden over to an Islamic court if presented with evidence of al-Qaeda’s responsibility. Of course that was an “unthinkable” course of action for America’s military-industrial elite at the time. But, as I’ve discussed here before, the people of the United States – even in the face of tremendous one-sided propaganda (one study found that op-eds in the New York Times and the Washington Post ran 44-2 in favour of war during the first three weeks after September 11) – were remarkably more open-minded. A week after 9/11, a Gallup poll found that, while 54 percent of US respondents favoured a military response, 30 percent favoured a criminal justice response and 16 percent were undecided.

Gallup international asked the same question of people in 34 other countries, with landslide majorities 2-, 3- even 4-1 in favour of a criminal justice response in almost every one of them.  But the exceptions, favouring a military reaction, proved just as instructive as the worldwide supermajorities for a criminal justice response. There were just two exceptions: India and Israel. Both have decades of history trying in vain to use military force to crush “Muslim extremists,” who are almost entirely of their own making. Anyone with a lick of sense would ask India and Israel what to do about 9/11, and then pull a George Costanza, and do precisely the opposite. But the US did not have a lick of sense. Not in 2001, and not under George W Bush. 

As a result, and as one of Juan Cole’s guest bloggers, Chase Madar, recently pointed out: “The government endangered us with foreign quagmires; it’s the Bradley Mannings that might keep us safe,” US casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan are now double the number killed in 9/11, the number of seriously wounded US military personnel is at least 50,000. “And if you dare to add in as well the number of Iraqis, Afghans, and foreign coalition personnel killed in both wars, the death toll reaches at least a hundred 9/11s and probably more.”

False promises

By 2008, things had changed. In fact, there was hope and change… or at least so people hoped. But as Juan Cole pointed out, Obama’s supporters were mostly mistaken about the largely cosmetic nature of the change he was offering.  More broadly than just on the matter of domestic spying, Obama took the position of opposing “dumb wars” – a stance that enabled him to win the Democratic nomination, since he hadn’t been in DC in 2002, when all the other Democratic hopefuls were giving Bush a blank cheque to invade Iraq. But when you really think about it, who isn’t opposed to dumb wars? The question really is: how, in general, do you go about telling dumb wars from wise ones… if, indeed there are any wise ones.

Opposing dumb wars should be the starting point of an intelligent debate, not the end point. But that’s what it was in Obama’s election campaign, which is, according to Mills, just another symptom of a system infected with crackpot realism.

 US to prosecute NSA leaker Snowden

Bush’s war making had been so spectacularly dumb that no-one really forced the issue and made Obama explain what he meant in terms of guiding principles which could let us understand what he intended to do in future situations. He did contrast Afghanistan with Iraq, and say that he would shift forces to fight there. But many observers felt that was simply electioneering, posturing to be safe. Once he got into office, and heard how hopeless the Afghanistan situation was, they assumed, he’d quietly change his tune and not expand the war there – as, indeed, Vice President Biden apparently advised him to do.

After all, they don’t call Afghanistan the “graveyard of empires” for nothing. Perhaps if Obama had been pressed to explain himself beforehand, to explain the difference between dumb wars and smart ones, then people might have known what to expect. Perhaps, Obama might even have been forced to take a genuinely sane position, instead of a crackpot realist one.

Let us recall the historical background for Obama’s argument, the historical background of America’s two prototypical “good wars”: the Civil War and World War II. Both were fought for good moral reasons – even, one could argue, out of profound moral necessity. And yet both were fought because the seeds of that moral necessity were sown long in advance, when more just policies could have prevented them both. And both resulted in such horrors that even the victors were shamed.  How “good” could such wars be, even if the evils they were fought against were as monstrous as anything in human history? 

This is the sort of question that Americans have never, as a nation, grappled with in the post 9/11 era. And yet, it’s a question that defines us as a nation, not by the answer we give, but by the refusal to answer it, the refusal to even attempt an answer, the refusal to engage and struggle with it. And crackpot realism is our agreed-upon means of evasion, the foundation of our national consensus in the one area where conservatives are actually willing to let Obama have his consensus.

That alone should tell us how rotten the consensus is. And that is the unquestioned foundation, the backdrop for everything that is being argued over in the realms of secret surveillance and secret war fighting today. As long as we do not confront the foundations of crackpot realism in our national thinking, all our discussions will veer off course, hitting the wrong targets, spreading the very chaos and confusion that we vainly hope to contain.

I’d like to offer one more quote from C Wright Mills, which also seems completely contemporary almost 60 years later:

“America – a conservative country without any conservative ideology – appears now before the world a naked and arbitrary power, as, in the name of realism, its men of decision enforce their often crackpot definitions upon world reality. The second-rate mind is in command of the ponderously spoken platitude. In the liberal rhetoric, vagueness, and in the conservative mood, irrationality, are raised to principle. Public relations and the official secret, the trivialising campaign and the terrible fact clumsily accomplished, are replacing the reasoned debate of political ideas in the privately incorporated economy, the military ascendancy, and the political vacuum of modern America.”

Against this backdrop, Edward Snowden’s crime is not that he revealed too much, but too little. The rest is up to all of us.

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer, senior editor for Random Lengths News, where he’s worked since 2002. He’s also written for Publishers Weekly, Christian Science Monitor, LA Times, LA Weekly and Denver Post. In 2000/2001, he was a principal editor/writer at Indymedia LA. He was a front-page blogger at Open Left from 2007 to 2011.

Follow him on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg