A Major Flaw of the U.S. National Security State

My copy has this cover

W.J. Astore

I’m a fan of books and book sales.  A few weeks ago, I came across a vintage copy of Hugh Prather’s “Notes to Myself.”  Published in 1970, it caught the Zeitgeist of the “Age of Aquarius” and became a surprise best seller.  Its considerable influence is shown by the fact it was lampooned on “Saturday Night Live” as part of the “Deep Thoughts” series.

Some of Prather’s “notes” are solipsistic and more than a little pretentious, a fact he himself recognized, but some of them also have considerable depth of meaning.

Consider this one:

When I see I am doing it wrong there is

a part of me that wants to keep on doing

it the same way anyway and even starts

looking for reasons to justify the continuation.

When I read this, I instantly thought of U.S. strategy when it comes to the Middle East.  I recently read Colonel (ret.) Andrew Bacevich’s new book, “America’s War for the Greater Middle East,” and Prather’s note could serve as an epigraph to the book, and an epitaph to U.S. wars and policy in the Middle East.

Despite a painfully expensive and tragically wasteful record of militarized interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iran, Somalia, Libya, and many other countries throughout the greater Middle East, the U.S. military and foreign policy establishment persists in staying its presence course.  Sure, the tactics have changed slightly over the years.  Obama is less enamored of committing big battalions of ground troops than Bush/Cheney were, yet his administration is nevertheless committed to constant military interventions, misguided and one-sided relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia, and unwavering optimism that this time, maybe this time, we’ll finally build effective Iraqi (or Afghan) security forces while simultaneously encouraging liberty in the region by sending more U.S. troops and selling more weaponry (together with bombing and killing, of course).

As Bacevich notes in his book (you should beg, borrow, or otherwise acquire a copy), experience has not taught the U.S. national security state much of anything.  Whether that state is led by a Clinton or a Bush or an Obama matters little.  The U.S. can’t help but meddle, using its powerful military as a more or less blunt instrument, at incredible expense to our country, and at a staggering cost in foreign lives lost or damaged by incessant warfare.  And no matter how catastrophic the results, that national security state can’t help but find reasons, no matter how discredited by events, to “stay the course.”

Consistent with what Prather says, it looks “for reasons to justify the continuation” of present policy, even when it knows things are going wrong in a very bad way.

Perhaps the U.S. national security state needs to make some “notes to itself.”  Consider it a personal audit of sorts, since the Pentagon can’t pass a financial one.  If it ever does, Prather’s “note” above would be a good place to start.

10 thoughts on “A Major Flaw of the U.S. National Security State

  1. I would like to begin commenting on this article by quoting something Patrick L. Smith wrote at Salon.com recently:

    “You have to distinguish between a strong nation and one that is merely powerful. We are the latter, not the former. And our foreign policy is perfectly coherent: It is only that its purposes cannot be articulated to a democratically minded people whose ignorance of our conduct abroad is essential to sustaining it.

    … [And three more points]: One, there is nothing random and all too much purpose in the policy framework that has prevailed since global domination passed from an implicit to an explicit objective in the early years of this century. Two, ideology and strategy do not self-cancel: The former underwrites the latter. But then three, something else: … the cliques now making policy find chaos more useful than peace in any number of contexts. … The tradition of fomenting disorder, indeed, runs back as long as the American Century, a thread in the weave from the first.”

    In light of the above, then, let us dismiss from the outset any consideration — born of an inexcusable childish innocence — that those formulating American policy do not fully intend chaos, death, and destruction as anything but a defining feature, hardly a “flaw,” in their assiduous creation of a fully privatized national insecurity state — one stupified by Reactionary Panic, Mystic Dread, Abstract Angst, or just plain Fear Itself — that generates enormous corporate profits, guaranteed political and military careers for the overseer class, and a hapless citizenry too stunne, distracted, and deceived to do anything about their own helplessness and impoverishment.

    I suggest as an illustration of this consistent but unmentionable American policy an old cartoon I once saw of two vultures sitting up in a tree. One says to the other: “Patience, my ass! I’m going down there and kill something!” Or, just imagine a thief in a three-piece suit hitting someone in the head with a lead pipe — or hiring an Army general like David Petraeus to do it for him — and then robbing them blind before they can recover consciousness and defend themselves or their possessions.

    In other words, American policy cliques – or rather, the super-national global corporate oligarchy — have not failed in their fomenting of numerous, perpetual wars. Quite to the contrary, they have succeeded “beyond the dreams of avarice.” The world has never witnessed a global looting and pillaging on this vast a scale. The human mind can scarcely comprehend something so enormous. And this does not go on and on because the oligarchical collective, as George Orwell would call it, cannot see what they have done but precisely because they can see the success of their policy all too well. Only those who naively accept at face value the worthless, self-serving proclamations of the oligarchy as to its purposes can suppose that they have failed at anything. If it did not pay handsomely, they wouldn’t do it. Naomi Klein has written an entire book on this subject called The Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism, which she defines as “orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities.”

    I’ll stop now and postpone dealing with the quoted passage from Notes to Myself for another comment. Just to summarize, then, I would change the headline of this article to read:

    “A Major Feature of the U.S. National Insecurity State”

    That covers the “what?” As to the “how?” the psychology underlying the propaganda techniques involved will have to wait for another time.


  2. Mike: As always, I appreciate the vigorous critique. Your view is far more grim than mine. Where you see agency, I tend to see accident. Where you see design, I tend to see flaw.

    As you know from reading my stuff, I know about the military-industrial complex and its desire to grow ever larger and fatter. I know of Naomi Klein’s shock doctrine. There are many people and entities profiting from the chaos driven by U.S. military interventionism. There’s no doubt of that.

    But is it all by design? A conspiracy of powerful entities that is pillaging and plundering for profit? I don’t know … Chaos does not always produce profit. Indeed, the oligarchical collective, it seems to me, would prefer stability and predictability as conducive to profit. Put differently, I can see where they’d favor controlled chaos — as long as they are at the controls.

    When I listen to U.S. leaders (Is that my mistake?), when I watch what they do, I see people who often have decent intentions. (Much like Peter Van Buren’s book, “We Meant Well.”) I see them making the same (or similar) mistakes over and over again, mistakes that don’t always profit them, and certainly don’t profit the country, or for that matter the peoples they say they’re trying to help. So I ask, why does such folly persist?

    One reason is what I wrote about in this article: leaders who refuse to admit mistakes; who will persist with folly even as they find reasons to justify it. Your point, I think, is that there is no folly. It’s all by design. And I don’t think that’s the case, though the points you make cannot and should not be dismissed.

    Am I childish and naive? These are pejoratives that I think are unworthy of your critique. But perhaps they are part of your own “shock doctrine”: an attempt to awaken gullible or somnolent Americans to the danger in their midst.

    Again, there’s truth in what you say. I’ve read John Perkins’ “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.” Pillage and plunder is part of the story, but I don’t think it’s all the story.


    1. The design of our foreign policy has become a flaw. Protecting commercial interests throughout the world from U.S. financed and led coups to foreign aid linked to benefiting private companies and allowing permission for military bases on foreign land is a hallmark of foreign policy. These “designs” have become major flaws from unintended consequences of revolution, social unrest and outright animosity of foreign interventions and meddling. The bottom line is that preserving our super status has become paramount at huge domestic cost and international stability. The magnitude of U.S. policy failures has still yet to reported in our mainstream media, especially TV network news, which have become a bastion of agendas and propaganda masked as news because most “news” avoid reporting failure, bungling and missteps or cover them tangentially. Vigorous freedom of the press is an anomaly, not the norm, especially on foreign policy. Vested interests prevail over accurate reporting of multi-faceted issues.


    2. As promised — or, threatened — I have something to write about the quoted passage you supplied from Notes to Myself, so I’ll do that first before commenting more on your response to my posting above. For now, however, let me just say that your use of the term “Shock Doctrine” as applied to what I wrote reveals that you do not understand what the term means. It does not refer to “shocking” someone awake so that they may see more clearly, but to bludgening someone into confusion and paralysis so that the “pillage and plunder of history” — as currently practiced by the United States and its multinational global corporations — can go on unmolested. I suggest that you read Naomi Klein’s book again before attempting to apply its thesis to what other people write.

      But thanks, anyway, for the response. And, yes, I do indeed find the nefarious activities of the U.S. government at home and abroad both venal and grim. Why shouldn’t I? How else should I describe them?


      1. Mike: Please note what I wrote: your own “shock doctrine,” as in awakening people with harsh or grim interpretations. I was NOT using the term as Naomi Klein uses it. I thought the context was quite clear, but obviously not to you. Sorry.


  3. I wish to comment upon the selected quote from Notes to Myself. Please pardon me if I develop my thoughts at some length. I don’t know how to do this any other way. The quote:

    When I see I am doing it wrong there is
    a part of me that wants to keep on doing
    it the same way anyway and even starts
    looking for reasons to justify the continuation.

    I agree that the passage constitutes an exercise in solipsism, or uncritical self-absorption, but I’ll leave an analysis of that subject for another time. Taken as a whole and generally, the quote refers to egoism and rationalization, or the human reluctance to admit error. Fair enough. But whose reluctance? And whose error? For my part, when I first read the quoted passage above, I immediately thought of President George “Deputy Dubya” Bush butchering a well-known aphorism that my parents’ generation taught us as a defense mechanism against known liars:

    “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice … You can’t get fooled again.”

    The actual, ungarbled, aphorism reads as follows:

    Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

    This aphorism, properly understood, means: “I’ll give you one chance to tell me the truth, but if you abuse my trust and lie to me, then I will never believe another thing you say. And if I do go on believing your obvious lies — after recognizing them as lies — then I deserve whatever happens to me as a result.

    The original aphorism assumes, however, that the decieved person would not wish to feel shame at letting another person deceive them and so would take the defensive — and quite rational — measure of not ever believing the liar again. But does a sense of shame at one’s own gullibility motivate Americans toward disbelief in the liar the way it motivated Americans of former times? Or, does it fail to motivate Americans at all, who today haplessly accept their shameful gullibility without even the slightest urge to hold the shameless liar accountable? In my opinion, the passage quoted above would answer the second of these questions in the affirmative, but requires rephrasing. Something like:

    When I refuse to see my government shamelessly lying to me,
    this indicates that I want to keep on believing the lies
    to the extent that I even start looking for reasons
    to excuse the liars for deceiving me.”

    Psychologists call this solipsisitic victimism, “enabling denial,” or, in more extreme cases, “Stockholm Syndrome.”


    1. Interesting comment, Mike. I relate this to the either/or mentality that plagues discourse. For example: either you should love America, or leave it. As if these are the only two options. And with “love” meaning that you never apologize for U.S. actions, no matter how ill-judged or catastrophic.

      Love America, leave it, OR CHANGE IT. And to change it, we need to see its crimes and flaws, we need to organize, we need to get involved, work to elect better leaders and to hold them accountable, and so on.

      In foreign policy, we need a major retrenchment. Close many of the overseas bases. Call the troops home. Make the DoD into a true DEFENSE department, not an offensive War department. And so on.

      America needs to fix its problems at home first — indeed, we have a rigged economy and a staggering national debt. Let’s start with these. We need an economy that favors workers’ rights and a government devoted to internal improvements, not foreign adventurism.

      True “defense” should focus on education and health, not wars and weapons.


  4. Well… the pillaging and plundering is done out in the open and it’s legal cause we say so, therefore U.S. foreign policy isn’t a conspiracy. But a case can be made that a general policy framework exists that is basically unchanging; and powerful interests can and do predominate terms of debate, and in so doing, direct decision-making.

    So the foreign policy infrastructure has been well-rooted and developed. The players know the rules and what they can get away with. They also know how to spin tales of Evils We Prevent with The Good We Do, which is later tempered with the We Meant Well. Public relations still matters somewhat. And there are lots of people in government who do mean well…but they ain’t pulling the big strings.

    My view is that a “major feature” of foreign policy is death, destruction, and insecurity. We can talk about intentions & purposes all day, but I probably won’t be coming around to any We Meant Well scenario with its attendant institutional inertia or “mistake-prone” explanations. Michael Murray looks this squarely in the face and calls it “venal and grim.” Vocabulary matches meaning matches truth.

    What happened in Indonesia? Who fanned what flames, knowing quite well what would happen? LBJ sure did.
    Chile? Vietnam? Iran? Guatemala? And so on, and on? Dulles, Kissinger, Nixon.

    Present day. Iraq? Libya? Syria?

    There are plans and planners. Directives and operatives. And plenty of deception.
    I think Henry Pelifian has it right in suggesting that the “flaw” is in the design itself. We won’t fix the design until we can see it for what it is.


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