On Monday, the New York Times published a fascinating article entitled “Putin’s Forever War” by Masha Gessen. The article provides a deep insight into the type of mindset that converted the U.S. government into a national-security state and that has led our nation to the dark side.
Gessen’s article revolves around a critique of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who, he says, favors endless war for its own sake. Poo-pooing Putin’s concern about counteracting U.S. world domination, Gessen says that the “strategic purpose of his wars is war itself.”
This is true in Ukraine, where territory was a mere pretext, and this is true of Syria, where protecting Assad and fighting ISIS are pretexts too. Both conflicts are wars with no end because, in Mr. Putin’s view, only at war can Russia feel at peace.
Gessen points out that a “totalitarian society needs to be mobilized, and in this sense Mr. Putin’s statement is verifiably true. The more Russia reverts to its totalitarian habits, the more comfort it will derive from a constant state of war.”
And then here’s the kicker: What does Gessen propose that the United States do about all this? He writes: “It is useless, in the face of single-minded determination, to caution against the return of the Cold War, as though Americans could save it off simply by not wanting to be involved. The war is on, and Mr. Putin has been sparing no effort to get that message across.”
So, there you have it! We have now come full circle, with the need to gear up for the continuation of the Cold War, the war that started at the end of World War II against America’s World War II partner and ally and that was used to justify the conversion of the U.S. government into a national-security state.
That would now mean two endless wars for the U.S. government to be waging simultaneously (just like Putin): the war on terrorism and the Cold War against Russia (or godless communism).
What’s fascinating about Gessen’s article is that as he describes Russia’s behavior under Putin, he fails to recognize the same type of behavior engaged in by the U.S. government. In fact, I found it particularly amusing when he ridiculed Putin’s use of an unsafe world and the threat of U.S. aggression to justify Russia’s militarist stance, even while he maintained, with a straight face of gravitas, that the U.S. government needs to gear up to confront an unsafe world and the threat of Russian aggression.
Gessen is right in one important respect: The types of things that he criticizes Putin for are indeed inherent to totalitarian or authoritarian regimes. Nobody should be surprised when totalitarian regimes come up with a series of never-ending crises and wars. That’s what enables them to get people all riled up and afraid and eager to relinquish their liberties to the government in order to be kept safe. It’s really one of the oldest tricks in the book for a government to attain extraordinary powers over its own people. There is nothing like “temporary emergencies” to assume tyrannical powers, “temporarily” of course.
James Madison himself pointed this out when he said, “The means of defence agst, foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.” And when he said, “Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.… No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
That’s, in fact, why the Framers and our American ancestors rejected standing armies, CIAs, and NSAs (and KGBs, Gestapos, Stasis, and Savaks). They knew that they were antithetical to the principles of a free society. That’s why Americans lived without such governmental apparatuses for more than 150 years, until everything changed after World War II.
Where Gessen goes wrong is with respect to the U.S. government’s response to this sort of totalitarian conduct. By suggesting that the United States must now continue the Cold War against Russia, he is essentially saying what statists said after World War II, when they were advocating that the U.S. government abandon its limited-government, republic structure and become instead a national-security state. They were essentially saying: “We need to become like the Soviets in order to stop the Soviets.”
That’s how we ended up with a governmental system that is now based on a national-security state apparatus — i.e., a massive standing army, the CIA, and the NSA—i.e., the same type of governmental structure that Russia, China, and North Korea are based on.
The big problem with incorporating a totalitarian apparatus into a limited-government, constitutional republic is that the government will inevitably start behaving like a totalitarian regime. That explains how it is that the U.S. government immediately began bringing Nazi officials into the U.S. government at the end of World War II; how it engaged in horrific drug experiments on unsuspecting Americans as part of the CIA’s top-secret program MKULTRA; how the U.S. government engaged in biological experimentation that it later employed in the Korean War; how the U.S. government went to war in Korea and Vietnam without the constitutionally required congressional declaration of war; how the FBI began secretly monitoring the lives of peaceful Americans, keeping files on them, and destroying their lives as part of the anti-communist crusade; how the NSA ended up employing a massive secret system of surveillance against the American people; how the U.S. government came to operate the world’s biggest assassination program; how the U.S. government came to lead the world in torture and rendition; how the U.S. government partnered with the Mafia and with brutal dictatorial regimes around the world; how the U.S. government came to have a foreign empire of military bases, and much more.
If the Russians were doing those things, there is no doubt that Gessen and others who think like him would immediately recognize and denounce them as evil and immoral. The problem is that when the U.S. government does them, all too many Americans have a blind spot. Either they are unable to recognize the evil and immorality or they have come to think that it’s just necessary — as a way to “keep us safe.”
What should America have done after World War II? It should have demobilized, just as it had after all other wars. It should have come home once Germany surrendered. After all, let’s not forget that that was the point of getting involved in the war — to secure the defeat of Germany and Japan, not to set the basis for an endless war against America’s wartime partner and ally.
The biggest mistake America ever made was with the conversion of the federal government to a national-security state. In the name of “keeping us safe” from the Soviet Union’s national-security state, it turned us into them. And in the process, it cost us our freedom, for no matter how much self-deception Americans would like to engage in, there is no possibility of reconciling the principles of a free society with a government that wields the authority to secretly spy on its citizens, assassinate them, torture them, or incarcerate them without trial.
One leads the world to freedom not by becoming a tyrannical state but by preserving a free society here at home. The adoption of the national-security state, in the name of opposing another national-security state, violated that precept. For the U.S. government to continue on the same road, either in the name of fighting the Cold War or the “war on terrorism,” will only make things worse for the American people. It’s time to return to founding principles.
Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.
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