There’s an important anniversary coming up, but don’t look for it on CNN or, God forbid, Fox News. December will see the seventieth (“70th”) anniversary of “emergency” war powers in the United States. I put emergency in quotes because the nature of the emergency has shifted over the years. World War II to the Cold War, and then to the War on Terror. The operative words are “war” and “emergency,” and don’t look for relief any time soon. From now on, it’ll be one thing or another, you can be sure of that.
Through this permanent emergency our vaunted democracy has been subverted by the unitary executive, the new imperial theory of the presidency. Presidential power has grown exponentially since 1941. A real war to win, and then a new godless enemy to oppose. Then a huge stockpile of nuclear weapons to develop and maintain. Along with the weapons came a great diversity of delivery systems and a vast worldwide network of bases to serve the effort. Secret intelligence agencies, we can’t even be sure of how many of these agencies exist. How much they spend is a complete mystery. It’s become a national security state, a permanent shadow government, unelected and barely supervised, jealously guarding its secrets and withholding evidence and information.
And always the fear, fear, fear. Be very afraid, people! And do what we say, and give us what we want. No more Soviets? Be afraid of Muslims! They hate our freedom! Red alert!
It’s part of the Executive Branch of the Federal Government, theoretically under the president, but in fact it predates and survives any individual president. Who’s really in charge now is, I think, a valid question.
Barack Obama showed every indication of being a different kind of president. On matters of national security, however, the difference is between what he has done and what he spoke of before he was sworn in. That first couple of days must be murder for a new president, being informed of all of the ongoing programs that must not be disturbed. President Obama has largely hewn to the line that he inherited, and, once more, we see wars ending or winding down with no corresponding diminution of military spending, troop levels, or foreign deployments.
So, Happy Anniversary! Next year we’ll be voting again for president, but whoever wins the job, don’t expect too many changes. I have a hunch that anybody who didn’t take the message in those first few days of briefings would very quickly suffer an unfortunate household accident, you know, break their neck falling down in the shower or something, have an unanticipated heart attack. After all, it’s an emergency!
(Pace, Garry Wills, “Entangled Giant,” 2009, from which some ideas were freely borrowed.)