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Is There An American ‘Deep State’?

23 Jan

Is There An American ‘Deep State’?

When a society is deeply troubled, and governed in ways that seem under the influenceof dark forces and disinformation becomes part of everyday life, it seems natural that all sorts of explanations will flourish. Few of us can handle uncertainty, and so many affirm falsehoods for thesake of achieving a specious clarity about the unknowable, or at least convert uncertainty into congenial forms of certainty, a dynamic that explains the rise of cultic thinking in our time and the spread of extremist versions of religious teachings. One variant of this phenomenon that has gained salience during the Trump presidency was supposedly pernicious role of the American ‘deep state.’ Trumpists complaining that unelected bureaucrats were subverting the great leader’s agenda while anti-Trumpists were disappointed that this source of influence didn’t find ways to remove such a political imposter given the damage he was doing national self-confidence and to the international rendering of the previously high end American brand. Some asked in exasperated tones ‘why is the deep state asleep?’  

The sharp divisions of race, class, and ethnicity in American society explain much of the confusion surrounding this dangerously imprecise terminology of ‘deep state.’ It is crudely used by polarized adversaries to identify hidden forces that are regarded as the marionettes manipulating the puppets, we the people. And these marionettes in their turn, when they don’t like what they hear from deep staters, insult their accusers by dismissing their allegations as the work of ‘conspiracy theorists,’ which is a way of discrediting explanations they do not like, and in the process dispensing with any need for a well-reasoned and serious response. Those who challenged the official version of the 9/11 attacks were quick to be defamed by the mainstream media, derided as ‘truthers,’ without even a glance at the evidence that led many responsible political observers to harbor many suspicions from day one.

More sophisticated academic commentators on U.S. foreign policy, especially progressive critics on the left, have recourse to a deep state hypothesis to account for the absence of significant debate on core national and global security issues throughout the more than four decades of Cold War. A typical definition of the deep state—‘a hidden government within the legitimate government’—creates a convenient shorthand, but seems too concrete to capture the reality. The word ‘government,’ an abstraction never easy to tie down with specific attributes, and unlike the open state is amorphous without even buildings, documents, briefings, and visible leaders. The terminology seems derived from some special features of the Turkish experience during the 1990s. The Turkish deep state refers to undisclosed anonymous high-level permanent bureaucrats in the intelligence and military sectors of government who act in concert to uphold their views of legitimate government, and step in when red lines are crossed. Such a process made no attempt vaguer to portray itself as ‘a hidden government.’ I believe the spread of the deep state rhetoric can be explained as an instructive way to take note of elites acting together in private to achieve informal agreements on crucial aspects of national security policy. The consensus reached is then loosely formulated to exert influence on the elected government to keep policies and practices within its boundaries. This dynamic gives rise to a certain atmosphere of ‘group think’ that discourages policy divergencies and proceeds without much relationship to partisan and overt party differences. [See Irving L. Janis, Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascos, Boston, Wadsworth Learning, 1982]

The more emotive political uses of ‘deep state’ are associated with conspiratorial beliefs of individuals or groups in society that attribute official behavior to the sinister power and influences, attributions with little or no credibleevidence, e.g.QAnon! Such deep states are usually connected by sensation-seeking or culturally paranoid observers. Often such explanations of public behavior is blamed on the opinions of entrenched elite that are vehicles for a range of dark forces, including CIA, Council on Foreign Relations, the Rockefeller family, Goldman Sachs, Silicon Valley, Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, or even such secretive foreign entities as Mossad, the Bilderberg Group, World Economic Forum working either independently or collaboratively. The basic idea behind such assertions is that the will of the people or citizenry is being secretly and effectively perverted and exploited by anti-democratic elements that do not operate openly.  

Conjectures about the deep state have been more responsibly used to explain the behavior of many governments around the world, including Turkey, Colombia, Italy, Egypt, and others, and in each national situation particular characteristics of the phenomenon have been stressed. In recent times, a left version of such an outlook were given prominence in the U.S. by the constant drumbeat of Bernie Sanders’ denunciations of the tyranny of the 1%. The main reference here is a Wall Street financial and corporate elite that has manipulated the U.S. government into becoming a vehicle for perpetuating and extending the grossest forms of wealth inequality. It also propagates a public policy biased toward the rich, swayed by money in disregard of the collective will or overall wellbeing of the citizenry, and makes a shambles of Main Street.

A second left variant, which assumed prominence during the Cold War, blames the national security state for working behind the scenes to keep American global militarism and worldwide alliance networks as the apolitical centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy no matter what the real security needs of the nation or the case for allocating more resources to social protection goals. This kind of deep state elite seems guilty of grossly exaggerating and militaryzing international security threats to the U.S. homeland and global economic and diplomatic interests. The underlying materialist motivations for a critique of such policies is the allegation that these bureaucratic operatives are dedicated to maintaining support for a very high peacetime military budget and a robust private sector flourishing arms industry that captures resources from other uses and securitizes the federal bureaucracy. [For effective documentation and analysis see Christian Sorensen, Understanding the Arms Industry (Clarity Press, 2020)]

During the Cold War there emerged agreement among the leadership of both political parties that the Soviet Union was a dangerous ideological and geopolitical rival that threatened American global leadership, its economic and diplomatic interests around the world, as well as its ideological leadership. Such an agreement within the country became widely known as a ‘bipartisan consensus,’ which mysteriously survived even the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had been its animating rationale in the late 1940s. There was an immediate search for new enemies that posed threats, allowing new prospects of warfare to emerge that reflected clashes of interests, ideas, and values. After the Cold War, Japan was posited as outperforming the U.S. economically in ways that supposedly threatened its primacy in the Pacific. Then the Iranian Revolution turned attention to Islam notoriously depicted by Samuel Huntington as generating a formidable challenge as ‘the clash of civilizations,’ given its time in the sun after the 9/11 attacks, the provocation that launched the notorious worldwide ‘war on terror’ that also posed unprecedented threats to homeland security. Now there is reemerging hostility toward Russia based on its reabsorbing of the Crimea and interference in the Ukraine, and it is being superseded by magnifying a series of grievances involving China. The purveyors of such militarized views of security are coming to the rescue of would be warriors occupying the many Washington office buildings and Beltway think tanks where its mostly anonymous occupants spend their working days validating the need to maintain American military dominance in all regions of the world or otherwise Americans will have to learn to live with the misfortunes of systemic decline. Leading academic experts on foreign policy and world politics, to varying degrees, endorse this continuing bipartisanship as the only game worth playing in international arenas, thereby situating views favoring a peacetime budget and domestic priorities as falling outside the boundaries of responsible debate in mainstream venues. When you find conservative and liberal voices raised on behalf of the plight of the Uighors, while being silent about the Palestinians it should be obvious that something is fishy. 

Among the most intelligent non-governmental participants in these circles of geopolitical consensus formation, Stephen Walt denies the fact that such bipartisanship is the work of a ‘secret conspiracy.’ In Walt’s words, “ the extent that there is a bipartisan foreign policy elite, it is hiding in plain sight.” In other words, the bipartisan consensus, endorsed by both Democrats and Republicans, does not reflect the nefarious priorities of the deep state, but is the considered judgment of objective specialists, politicians, media, and the most informed and influential segments of the citizenry in and out of government. Such a view does not dispose of the deep state role in shaping and sustaining the bipartisan consensus for several reasons that can be summarized. The absence of a downward shift in military expenditures after the Cold War; the continued refusal to learn lessons of military frustration in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya; the exaggeration of international terrorist threats as acts of war; and the refusal of mainstream media venues to include anti-militarist commentary that suggest alternatives to or weaknesses of the bipartisan consensus. Incidentally, if some peace minded Democratic Party candidate were to emerge who advocated deep cuts in the military budget, geopolitical reconciliation with Russia and China, nuclear disarmament, and the closing of foreign military bases, there is little doubt in my mind that an equivalent group of former national security officials who had been lifelong Democrats would quickly form to explain in a public forum why they could never vote for such a candidate. It is this likely symmetry of outlook, reinforced by mainstream media, that makes the bipartisan consensus more than the figment of a disenchanted imagination, but what Noam Chomsky christened long ago as ‘indoctrination in a liberal society.’

And then came Trump. During the 2016 presidential campaign, he was initially perceived as an opportunistic and comedic business billionaire and TV reality show personality (‘The Apprentice”), but as he began putting himself forward as an outsider with the intention and talent to become a populist leader. When Trump began pledging his raucous rallies that he would ‘to drain the swamp,’ he began to be seen as what he was, a potent ideological threat to the bipartisan consensus. Such a perception led many visible members of the national security component of the Republican elite to break ranks during the 2016 campaign to publicize their worries about Trump and explain to the citizenry their decision not to vote for Trump although it meant breaking ranks with their lifelong Republican allegiance. They did the unthinkable, indirectly throwing support to that nemesis of most Republicans, Hillary Clinton. This unusual rejection of the Republican candidate from within was given great attention by the mainstream media when expressed through the release of an Open Letter to the American People in 2016. Trump’s strategic consultants were seen as dangerous adversaries of the deep state of unelected bureaucrats who had held government positions that exerted influence in government and had enjoyed widespread outside support from mainstream media, Washington think tanks, and the academic establishment. What worried these Republican former bureaucrats who made a point of highlighting their past consistent support of Republican candidates were the hints that Trump would seek some sort of geopolitical realignment bypassing the Atlanticist alliance that had been the centerpiece of American foreign policy ever since the end of World War II. Trump was also critical of regime-changing interventions of the sort that led to ‘forever wars’ with no discernable benefit to U.S. interests, but helpful in inflating military expenditures. Trump was also unfavorably seen by this group as an opponent of global cooperation and neoliberal globalization, which they regarded as a key element in America’s worldwide success after 1945. Trump’s formula for making America great again involved a transactional and ultra-nationalist approach to trade, investment, and immigration, with a decidedly pointed withdrawal from foreign entanglements, cooperative frameworks, and global leadership. Although it was this challenge to the Cold War enactment of global militarism and alliance diplomacy, the Open Letter rested its disapproval mainly on Trump’s lack of experience and impulsive temperament than on the more arcane issues of global policy. As his years in the White House have demonstrated, these fears of former Republican officials were not misplaced. If anything, Trump’s repudiation of guidance from the intelligence services and controversial connections with Putin’s Russia went beyond these 2016 fears, and led to a second Open Letter by discontented former Republican national security officials during the 2020 campaign, including cabinet level figures such as Colin Powell and former directors of the CIA and FBI. [For texts see [“Open Letter to Donald Trump from GOP National Security Leaders,” Texas National Security Review, March 2, 2016; “More than 70 former GOP National Security Officials wrote an Open Letter backing Biden, calling Trump corrupt and unfit to lead,” Business Insider, August 21, 2020.]  

Despite these concerns about Trump wandering off the reservation, many deep state priorities were actually upheld: the military budget was sustained, geopolitical confrontation with China was endorsed, special relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia were pushed further than ever, relations with Iran were stressed in ways that reverted to the pre-Obama Bush years of hostility and sanctions. Even U.S. military disengagements from overseas arenas such as Iraq and Afghanistan were slowed, and Trump momentarily pleased the old consensus when he retaliated with a military strike against the Syrian government after what appears to be a fabricated claim that Damascus was responsible for a chemical weapons attack on Douma in April 2018. Yet his Lone Ranger style of diplomacy continued to worry the overseers of a governing process that became deeply troubled by Trump’s highly erratic one man’s show, which did collateral damage by depriving the ‘permanent government’ of its policy roles. In addition to these matters of style and procedure, the Open Letter signatories were opposed to the implications of downgrading NATO, Atlanticism, and Europe generally, especially the seeming soft, even deferential, approach taken toward Putin’s Russia, and the unseemly withdrawal by such breakthrough global agreements in 2015 as the Paris Climate Change Agreement and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that addressed the Iranian nuclear programs, enjoying the blessings of all five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany. 

Trump was unintimidated, mounting a populist pushback against these deep state outbursts. The Trump worldview was initially most coherently articulated by Steve Bannon, and transmitted to the grassroots by Trump’s rally rants and nighttime tweets. The pro-Trump counterattack alleged that within the government itself are a Euro-centric gang of unelected bureaucratic operatives that had been calling the shots, especially on foreign policy, ever since 1945. This cabal was also held responsible by Trumpists for embracing ‘forever wars,’ not charging allies for military protection in the form of military bases, deployed troops and weapons, and a total securitization of foreign policy, subverting the true interests of the American people, and abetted by the Wall Street crowd that sent millions of manufacturing jobs abroad and in the process alienating much of the American working class. This rightest version of populism subscribes to the litany of anti-liberal scapegoats ranging from alarmist environmentalist to asylum seekers from South of the border, a variety of hidden forces within the government that are conspiring with the cancel culture to destroy the once virtuous white America.

As suggested at the outset allegations of a deep state can serve contradictory ideological perspectives. Some versions are highly speculative, even paranoid, others seem grounded in reality and substantiated by convincing evidence, backed up by open avowal and careful analysis. The core idea of the deep state as a hidden government is far too concrete in its imagery. I prefer to think of a preferred delineation of the deep state in America as a metaphor that encompasses both the internal agreements prevailing among career and appointed national security officials who exert great influence with public opinion due to their media credibility. This type of deep state is a confluence of influential persons who owe allegiance to shared ideas about the role of military and diplomatic capabilities that emerged out of World War II, persisted throughout the Cold War, and managed to dominate the formation of foreign policy despite repeated performance failures that badly tarnished the U.S. reputation and imposed heavy costs without achieving any of its proclaimed goals. In effect, Trump’s foreign policy was indeed disastrous, but it did somewhat illuminate the anachronistic character of the zombie like ‘bipartisan consensus’ that yet be revived in the course of reaffirming the old Cold War/neoliberal globalization orthodoxy of pre-Trump America.