A leading principle of international relations theory is that the state’s highest priority is to ensure security. As Cold War strategist George F. Kennan formulated the standard view, government is created “to assure order and justice internally and to provide for the common defense.”

The proposition seems plausible, almost self-evident, until we look more closely and ask: Security for whom? For the general population? For state power itself? For dominant domestic constituencies?

Depending on what we mean, the credibility of the proposition ranges from negligible to very high.

Security for state power is at the high extreme, as illustrated by the efforts that states exert to protect themselves from the scrutiny of their own populations.

In an interview on German TV, Edward J. Snowden said that his “breaking point” was “seeing Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, directly lie under oath to Congress” by denying the existence of a domestic spying program conducted by the National Security Agency.

Snowden elaborated that “The public had a right to know about these programs. The public had a right to know that which the government is doing in its name, and that which the government is doing against the public.”

The same could be justly said by Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning and other courageous figures who acted on the same democratic principle.

The government stance is quite different: The public doesn’t have the right to know because security thus is undermined — severely so, as officials assert.

There are several good reasons to be skeptical about such a response. The first is that it’s almost completely predictable: When a government’s act is exposed, the government reflexively pleads security. The predictable response therefore carries little information.

A second reason for skepticism is the nature of the evidence presented. International relations scholar John Mearsheimer writes that “The Obama administration, not surprisingly, initially claimed that the NSA’s spying played a key role in thwarting 54 terrorist plots against the United States, implying it violated the Fourth Amendment for good reason.

“This was a lie, however. Gen. 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.”

A similar conclusion was reached by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, established by the government to investigate the NSA programs and therefore granted extensive access to classified materials and to security officials.

There is, of course, a sense in which security is threatened by public awareness — namely, security of state power from exposure.

The basic insight was expressed well by the Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington: “The architects of power in the United States must create a force that can be felt but not seen. Power remains strong when it remains in the dark; exposed to the sunlight it begins to evaporate.”

In the United States as elsewhere, the architects of power understand that very well. Those who have worked through the huge mass of declassified documents in, for example, the official State Department history “Foreign Relations of the United States,” can hardly fail to notice how frequently it is security of state power from the domestic public that is a prime concern, not national security in any meaningful sense.

Often the attempt to maintain secrecy is motivated by the need to guarantee the security of powerful domestic sectors. One persistent example is the mislabeled “free trade agreements” — mislabeled because they radically violate free trade principles and are substantially not about trade at all, but rather about investor rights.

These instruments are regularly negotiated in secret, like the current Trans-Pacific Partnership — not entirely in secret, of course. They aren’t secret from the hundreds of corporate lobbyists and lawyers who are writing the detailed provisions, with an impact revealed by the few parts that have reached the public through WikiLeaks.

As the economist Joseph E. Stiglitz reasonably concludes, with the U.S. Trade Representative’s office “representing corporate interests,” not those of the public, “The likelihood that what emerges from the coming talks will serve ordinary Americans’ interests is low; the outlook for ordinary citizens in other countries is even bleaker.”

Corporate-sector security is a regular concern of government policies — which is hardly surprising, given their role in formulating the policies in the first place.

In contrast, there is substantial evidence that the security of the domestic population — “national security” as the term is supposed to be understood — is not a high priority for state policy.

For example, President Obama’s drone-driven global assassination program, by far the world’s greatest terrorist campaign, is also a terror-generating campaign. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan until he was relieved of duty, spoke of “insurgent math”: For every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies.

This concept of “innocent person” tells us how far we’ve progressed in the last 800 years, since the Magna Carta, which established the principle of presumption of innocence that was once thought to be the foundation of Anglo-American law.

Today, the word “guilty” means “targeted for assassination by Obama,” and “innocent” means “not yet accorded that status.”

The Brookings Institution just published “The Thistle and the Drone,” a highly praised anthropological study of tribal societies by Akbar Ahmed, subtitled “How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam.”

This global war pressures repressive central governments to undertake assaults against Washington’s tribal enemies. The war, Ahmed warns, may drive some tribes “to extinction” — with severe costs to the societies themselves, as seen now in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. And ultimately to Americans.

Tribal cultures, Ahmed points out, are based on honor and revenge: “Every act of violence in these tribal societies provokes a counterattack: the harder the attacks on the tribesmen, the more vicious and bloody the counterattacks.”

The terror targeting may hit home. In the British journal International Affairs, David Hastings Dunn outlines how increasingly sophisticated drones are a perfect weapon for terrorist groups. Drones are cheap, easily acquired and “possess many qualities which, when combined, make them potentially the ideal means for terrorist attack in the 21st century,” Dunn explains.

Sen. Adlai Stevenson III, referring to his many years of service on the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, writes that “Cyber surveillance and meta data collection are part of the continuing reaction to 9/11, with few if any terrorists to show for it and near universal condemnation. The U.S. is widely perceived as waging war against Islam, against Shiites as well as Sunnis, on the ground, with drones, and by proxy in Palestine, from the Persian Gulf to Central Asia. Germany and Brazil resent our intrusions, and what have they wrought?”

The answer is that they have wrought a growing terror threat as well as international isolation.

The drone assassination campaigns are one device by which state policy knowingly endangers security. The same is true of murderous special-forces operations. And of the invasion of Iraq, which sharply increased terror in the West, confirming the predictions of British and American intelligence.

These acts of aggression were, again, a matter of little concern to planners, who are guided by altogether different concepts of security. Even instant destruction by nuclear weapons has never ranked high for state authorities — a topic for discussion in the next column.

*

The previous article explored how security is a high priority for government planners: security, that is, for state power and its primary constituency, concentrated private power — all of which entails that official policy must be protected from public scrutiny.

In these terms, government actions fall in place as quite rational, including the rationality of collective suicide. Even instant destruction by nuclear weapons has never ranked high among the concerns of state authorities.

To cite an example from the late Cold War: In November 1983 the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization launched a military exercise designed to probe Russian air defenses, simulating air and naval attacks and even a nuclear alert.

These actions were undertaken at a very tense moment. Pershing II strategic missiles were being deployed in Europe. President Reagan, fresh from the “Evil Empire” speech, had announced the Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed “Star Wars,” which the Russians understood to be effectively a first-strike weapon — a standard interpretation of missile defense on all sides.

Naturally these actions caused great alarm in Russia, which, unlike the U.S., was quite vulnerable and had repeatedly been invaded.

Newly released archives reveal that the danger was even more severe than historians had previously assumed. The NATO exercise “almost became a prelude to a preventative (Russian) nuclear strike,” according to an account last year by Dmitry Adamsky in the Journal of Strategic Studies .

Nor was this the only close call. In September 1983, Russia’s early-warning systems registered an incoming missile strike from the United States and sent the highest-level alert. The Soviet military protocol was to retaliate with a nuclear attack of its own.

The Soviet officer on duty, Stanislav Petrov, intuiting a false alarm, decided not to report the warnings to his superiors. Thanks to his dereliction of duty, we’re alive to talk about the incident.

Security of the population was no more a high priority for Reagan planners than for their predecessors. Such heedlessness continues to the present, even putting aside the numerous near-catastrophic accidents, reviewed in a chilling new book, “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety,” by Eric Schlosser.

It’s hard to contest the conclusion of the last commander of the Strategic Air Command, Gen . Lee Butler, that humanity has so far survived the nuclear age “by some combination of skill, luck and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion.”

The government’s regular, easy acceptance of threats to survival is almost too extraordinary to capture in words.

In 1995, well after the Soviet Union had collapsed, the U.S. Strategic Command, or Stratcom, which is in charge of nuclear weapons, published a study, “Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence.”

A central conclusion is that the U.S. must maintain the right of a nuclear first strike, even against non-nuclear states. Furthermore, nuclear weapons must always be available, because they “cast a shadow over any crisis or conflict.”

Thus nuclear weapons are always used, just as you use a gun if you aim it but don’t fire when robbing a store — a point that Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, has repeatedly stressed.

Stratcom goes on to advise that “planners should not be too rational about determining … what an adversary values,” all of which must be targeted. “[I]t hurts to portray ourselves as too fully rational and cool-headed. . That the U.S. may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be a part of the national persona we project to all adversaries.”

It is “beneficial [for …our strategic posture] that some elements may appear to be potentially ‘out of control’” — and thus posing a constant threat of nuclear attack.

Not much in this document pertains to the obligation under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to make “good faith” efforts to eliminate the nuclear-weapon scourge from the earth. What resounds, rather, is an adaptation of Hilaire Belloc’s famous 1898 couplet about the Maxim gun:

Whatever happens we have got,
The Atom Bomb and they have not.

Plans for the future are hardly promising. In December the Congressional Budget Office reported that the U.S. nuclear arsenal will cost $355 billion over the next decade. In January the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies estimated that the U.S. would spend $1 trillion on the nuclear arsenal in the next 30 years.

And of course the United States is not alone in the arms race. As Butler observed, it is a near miracle that we have escaped destruction so far. The longer we tempt fate, the less likely it is that we can hope for divine intervention to perpetuate the miracle.

In the case of nuclear weapons, at least we know in principle how to overcome the threat of apocalypse: Eliminate them.

But another dire peril casts its shadow over any contemplation of the future — environmental disaster. It’s not clear that there even is an escape, though the longer we delay, the more severe the threat becomes — and not in the distant future. The commitment of governments to the security of their populations is therefore clearly exhibited by how they address this issue.

Today the United States is crowing about “100 years of energy independence” as the country becomes “the Saudi Arabia of the next century” — very likely the final century of human civilization if current policies persist.

One might even take a speech of President Obama’s two years ago in the oil town of Cushing, Okla., to be an eloquent death-knell for the species.

He proclaimed with pride, to ample applause, that “Now, under my administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years. That’s important to know. Over the last three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’re opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some.”

The applause also reveals something about government commitment to security. Industry profits are sure to be secured as “producing more oil and gas here at home” will continue to be “a critical part” of energy strategy, as the president promised.

The corporate sector is carrying out major propaganda campaigns to convince the public that climate change, if happening at all, does not result from human activity. These efforts are aimed at overcoming the excessive rationality of the public, which continues to be concerned about the threats that scientists overwhelmingly regard as near-certain and ominous.

To put it bluntly, in the moral calculus of today’s capitalism, a bigger bonus tomorrow outweighs the fate of one’s grandchildren.

What are the prospects for survival then? They are not bright. But the achievements of those who have struggled for centuries for greater freedom and justice leave a legacy that can be taken up and carried forward — and must be, and soon, if hopes for decent survival are to be sustained. And nothing can tell us more eloquently what kind of creatures we are.

Noam Chomsky

Truthout, Part IPart II, March 3, 2014
(adapted from a lecture by Noam Chomsky on February 28, 2014
in Santa Barbara, CA, sponsored by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation)
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