State of emergency

US liberals are trying to out-bid Republicans in the security stakes.

Alex Gourevitch

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Topics Politics

As the fracas about Democrat nominee John Kerry’s Vietnam record plods on, the American presidential campaign revolves around smaller and smaller orbits of meaningless recrimination and schoolyard posturing.

President George W Bush has rejected the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads ‘smearing’ Kerry’s war record, but charges Kerry with lacking the resolve to keep America safe. Kerry accuses Bush of stooping to new lows of character assassination, and of avoiding ‘the real issues’. Meanwhile, Bush announces a restructuring of the intelligence services, as the debate over the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations continues. The FBI continues to investigate reports of possible terrorism and ‘anarchist violence’ during the Republican National Convention in New York, and thousands of police descend on mid-town Manhattan to defend Madison Square Garden.

Since 9/11 many have drawn comparisons between the USA and Israel, but few have pointed out the most obvious similarity: a total obsession with security that transcends party lines. While most observers of American politics have suggested that this is due to the authoritarian impulses of the Republicans, they miss the key point: that it is the Democrats and liberals who have embraced security as the organising principle of national politics.

Safety normally has no place as a cornerstone liberal principle or progressive impulse, since it implies a conservative approach to politics – order takes primacy over change. In a climate of fear and surveillance, where some new national crisis is always looming on the horizon, the ideals of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ are stripped of any relation to everyday life. Now security has become the idée fix of all sides of the aisle.

The elevation of security to a ‘left-wing’ principle predated 9/11. Human security was a watchword of Bill Clinton’s foreign policy, and in the mid-1990s he championed a number of draconian domestic security-related laws on crime, immigration, and terrorism. Many of these laws, such as the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, have become the basis for this administration’s anti-immigrant and anti-libertarian policies. However, it was after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that the emphasis on security came into clear focus.

During the Democratic primary, it was clear that the most viable Democratic presidential nominees would be ones with military experience or national security credentials, like Vietnam veteran John Kerry. Other candidates like John Edwards played up the homeland security spending issue to demonstrate their commitment to safety, while Joseph Lieberman included in his conservative repertoire outright hawkishness on Iraq. Kerry was eventually chosen because he was considered the ‘most electable’, which translated as the best-known candidate with the fewest vulnerabilities when it came to national defence. Just as the Israeli Labour Party can never win the prime ministership with a candidate who was not also a general, so too has the Democratic leadership become increasingly militarised since 9/11.

The political tactics of the Democratic Party more broadly have become like Israel’s Labour Party – constantly defending themselves against charges that they are soft and weak, before putting forward their own position. The eternally dismal scandal over what Kerry did or did not do in that Swift Boat 30 years ago is only the most recent example.

Democrats have in fact attempted to challenge Republicans by inflating fears of terrorism, rather than by arguing that such fears are overblown. They have accused the Republicans of not spending enough on homeland security, and a few have even called for a national draft. Democratic pundits and politicians accuse the Bush administration of single-mindedly focusing on air security, rather than also securing other forms of transportation, like buses and trains, and of leaving other potential threats or targets unattended, like shipping containers, bridges, and nuclear facilities.

Democrats objected to the Iraq war on the grounds that it either distracted from the war on terror or increased terrorism, or both. And even then, many Democrats were cowed into authorising Bush’s use of force in Iraq, and were later too timid to call for a formal declaration of war when the bombing started. They have sought to extend the logic of security, rather than call it into question.

The liberal press has reflected a similar rightward shift. Magazines like the Nation, the American Prospect, the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and even Mother Jones have all to varying degrees objected that the Republicans don’t do security right, not that fears of terrorism are exaggerated. Just as Israel’s leading liberal daily Ha’aretz waxed poetic about Labour candidate General Mitzna, some liberal media outlets have descended into general worship.

During the primaries liberal publications ran features on former General Wesley Clark (who bombed Serbia into a pre-industrial economy), national security expert Gary Hart, Purple Heart war hero John Kerry, and others, all with the thrust that these individuals bring ‘real security’. They now vociferously defend Kerry from those who impugn his war record, and take great pleasure in pointing out that Kerry served where Bush and vice president Dick Cheney did not. The profoundly authoritarian undertones of this yearning for a military strongman – particularly when talking about outsiders like Clark and Hart, whose only virtues stem from their security expertise – speaks volumes about the fear-mongering populism infecting American progressives.

Even the anti-war protesters have attempted to challenge Bush’s war on the grounds that it will increase terror, raising the spectre of hordes of Arab and Muslim men signing up for al-Qaeda suicide missions. No doubt the war on Iraq has increased regional instability. But the resort to blowback scenarios means that the anti-war movement draws its moral force from the same motivations that drive the war itself: fear of foreigners and an overweening desire for absolute security. Indeed, although protesters claim to target American militarism, many were never opposed to a ‘peaceful’ invasion of Iraq under the auspices of the UN Security Council. And nearly all accept the war on terror as a legitimate objective. Here too American lefties echo their Israeli counterparts, who often argue against Sharon and the Likud Party on the grounds that they increase, rather than decrease, terror.

The Israeli state’s security obsessions have at least some basis in fact: it is surrounded by hostile neighbours, and has a keen awareness of its reliance on American power. American liberals and radicals, panicking in their secure superpower confines, are in effect aping the Middle-Eastern statelet. Their defensive posture allows conservatives to define the terms of political engagement, destroying any potential for mounting true opposition.

The US public for the most part did not want the Iraq war. But a militarised Democratic Party, politically compromised presidential candidate, timid liberal press, and conservative anti-war movement, were incapable of decisively challenging the premises of the war. Nor have they been capable of making this election about anything more visionary than safety.

Fear cannot counteract fear. No effective opposition, nor progressive politics, will arise out of the apolitical clamour for more security.

Alex Gourevitch is a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University, New York.

Read on:

spiked-issue: US election 2004

Conventional protests, by Alan Daniels

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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