American Liberalism and the national security state

From Wikileaks to the NSA exposé, the national security state unravels, despite liberal apologists.

NSA Director Alexander testifies at the U.S. Capitol in Washington
The Obama administration's expansion of the "national security state" is a constituent activity of the "liberal imperialism" that has defined the president's tenure, according to Deepa Kumar [Reuters]

Cornell West, on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, reiterated his criticism that President Obama is a “war criminal” for killing innocent people through drone strikes. He went on to make a simple, but rarely heard observation, that, if you “have an empire, you’re going to have war crimes”.

Critical voices like his are an exception in the mainstream. For the most part, establishment liberals have either been silent or have cheered on as Obama has expanded the national security state. West chastises liberals as “morally bankrupt” for giving Obama a pass for the same things that Bush was criticized for.

The machinery of liberal imperialism and the rhetorical shift orchestrated by the Obama administration is beginning to decay

The reception of the NSA leaks is only the most recent illustration of this trend. Rather than criticise the gross abuse of power by government, a smear campaign was orchestrated first against Snowden and then journalist Glenn Greenwald.

From Mika Brezeznski on MSNBC using, as Greenwald states “White House talking points” to downplay the significance of the leaks, to David Gregory of NBC asking why Greenwald shouldn’t be charged as a criminal, the liberal establishment media and their “experts” faithfully defended the White House. Instead of acting as the “watchdog of the government”, the corporate media acted as attack dogs for the government.

The public, however, has responded differently to the on-going revelations. 55 percent of Americans believe that Snowden is a whistle-blower, as opposed to a “traitor”, and in a dramatic reversal, far greater numbers believe that the government has gone too far in violating civil liberties.

The machinery of liberal imperialism and the rhetorical shift orchestrated by the Obama administration is beginning to decay.

Liberal imperialism

Towards the end of Bush’s second term, the credibility of the US had been badly damaged on the world stage. Sections of the political elite had begun to strategise about how to rehabilitate empire’s image.

In 2007, a leadership group headed by Madeleine Albright produced a document titled “Changing Course: A New Direction for US Relations with the Muslim World”. The document states that to defeat “violent extremists”, military force was necessary but not sufficient, and that the US needed to forge “diplomatic, political, economic, and cultural initiatives”. In short, both “hard” and “soft” power was needed.

It rejected the Bush-era “clash of civilisations” framework and advised the next president to talk about improving relations with Muslim-majority countries in his or her inaugural speech and reaffirm the US’s “commitment to prohibit all forms of torture“.

Obama did exactly that. From his inaugural speech to the speech in Cairo he echoed these themes emphasising the positive contributions of Muslims to human history. His administration dropped the term “Global War on Terror” and replaced it with the innocuous “Overseas Contingency Operations”, all the while critiquing torture and upholding liberal human rights principles.

Yet, liberal rhetoric by itself was not enough. The retreat from Iraq, and the Afghan quagmire, prompted a shift in imperial thinking from conventional warfare to largely invisible mechanisms of coercion.

Analysing the 2012 Defense Planning Guidance document in my book Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, I argued that the era of large scale warfare was over, and instead “the new phase of Obama’s imperial posture involves re-establishing US hegemony…through multilateral alliances and the use of air strikes, drone attacks, and counterterrorism and special operations forces as well as cyber warfare”.

The Empire’s Old/New Clothes

Obama launched what has been called a “smarter” war on terror, using the tools developed by the Bush administration. Yet, this shift has been kept from the public. However, from Wikileaks on we have entered a period where whistleblowers and investigative journalists are rendering the emperor’s clothes visible.

The prison at Guantanamo bay became a symbol of Bush’s excesses, and yet despite promises to the contrary it remains open. Obama issued an executive order to close down the notorious CIA “black sites”, where torture was rampant. Journalist Anand Gopal, however, revealed that the US continues to maintain several secret prisons in Afghanistan where torture continues. Jeremy Scahill in his book Dirty Wars unearthed another such prison in Somalia.

Drone attacks in Yemen kill mostly children

It is hard to say how many more there are in other countries. But these revelations shed light on why the Obama administration has not prosecuted a single Bush administration official for torture. In fact, it has granted immunity to these officials.

When Bush indefinitely detained prisoners stripping them of their habeas corpus rights, he was rightly denounced by liberals. Yet, when Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorisation Act (NDAA) that not only institutionalises this process but also expands its use to US citizens there was little criticism.

Rumsfeld and Cheney created a top secret killing machine out of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) which travelled around the world assassinating people at will without Congressional oversight or public discussion. Obama embraced and systematised this.

As Scahill observes, the Obama administration inherited from Bush a set of covert and clandestine programs marked by infighting between various agencies, particularly the CIA and JSOC. Obama would bring in Bush-era officials to create a seamless, integrated, and expanded global assassination program.

Obama has dramatically escalated drone strikes around the world; heinously, he also ordered the assassination of US citizens. Without due process, the US-born radical cleric Anwar al Awlaki was executed in Yemen; a few weeks later his teenage son was killed in a “signature” strike.

The IT war has also been relentless. When the Bush administration announced the Total Information Awareness (TIA) program of intrusive data gathering and mining, it was rightly denounced as the first coming of Big Brother. As the ongoing NSA leaks show, under Obama a program of even greater width and depth is now a reality.

The Obama administration has also escalated cyberwarfare using militarised computer viruses to attack computers in Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities.  Journalist Nick Turse notes in his book, The Changing Face of Empire, that while these efforts were begun under Bush, “President Obama…became the first American commander-in-chief to order sustained cyberattacks designed to cripple another country’s infrastructure”.

This reconfiguration of empire has been largely kept under wraps in order to maintain Obama’s liberal posture. It is therefore not surprising that he has prosecuted whistle blowers at a rate higher than all previous US presidents combined.

Additionally, as McClatchy newspapers revealed, federal employees will be asked to spy on each other and tattle when they identify a potential leaker. Known as the “Insider Threat” program, this will apply not only to security establishment workers but also those in the Department of Agriculture, EPA, etc.

For Obama secrecy is vital since his entire presidency has rested on saying one thing and doing another; on liberal rhetoric and imperial actions. At root, his foreign policy still relies on “keeping Americans safe” from the menacing Islamic terrorist threat.

The way forward

At the end of the day, as the great historian Richard Hofstradter teaches us in The American Political Tradition there are very few substantive differences between the main political parties. While they “differ, sometimes bitterly, over current issues…they also share a general framework of ideas”. This “range of ideas…is limited by the climate of opinion that sustains their culture”.

Creating this “climate of opinion” is the responsibility of brave citizens and legislators. Frank Church, who headed a committee to study government excesses, warned of the dangers of NSA surveillance stating that it could “make tyranny total in America”. On the FBI’s COINTELPRO used to spy on 1960s activists, including the pacifist Martin Luther King, the Church report stated that the “techniques used [are] intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity”.The result was a curtailment of government spying.

Today, it is our responsibility to shift the culture in the US to bring an end not only to surveillance but also empire and the national security state.


 Deepa Kumar is an associate professor of Media Studies and Middle East studies at Rutgers University.