“It is an undeniable privilege of every man to prove himself right in the thesis that the world is his enemy; for if he reiterates it frequently enough and makes it the background of his conduct he is bound eventually to be right.” –George Kennan.
George Kennan wrote the above with reference to Josef Stalin in his Long Telegram of 1946. We can apply it today to George W. Bush and the Islamic world. We can see how this works by quoting a little more Kennan (and remember that this telegram formed the basis for Dean Acheson’s Cold War policies of aggressive containment of the Soviet Union).
Now it lies in the nature of the mental world of the Soviet leaders, as well as in the character of their ideology, that no opposition to them can be officially recognized as having any merit or justification whatsoever. Such opposition can flow, in theory, only from the hostile and incorrigible forces of dying capitalism. As long as remnants of capitalism were officially recognized as existing in Russia, it was possible to place on them, as an internal element, part of the blame for the maintenance of a dictatorial form of society. But as these remnants were liquidated, little by little, this justification fell away, and when it was indicated officially that they had been finally destroyed, it disappeared altogether. And this fact created one of the most basic of the compulsions which came to act upon the Soviet regime: since capitalism no longer existed in Russia and since it could not be admitted that there could be serious or widespread opposition to the Kremlin springing spontaneously from the liberated masses under its authority, it became necessary to justify the retention of the dictatorship by stressing the menace of capitalism abroad.
This began at an early date. In 1924 Stalin specifically defended the retention of the “organs of suppression,” meaning, among others, the army and the secret police, on the ground that “as long as there is a capitalistic encirclement there will be danger of intervention with all the consequences that flow from that danger.” In accordance with that theory, and from that time on, all internal opposition forces in Russia have consistently been portrayed as the agents of foreign forces of reaction antagonistic to Soviet power.
All governments are different, but there is a sense in which all governments are the same. All governments face many similar tasks, and how they go about accomplishing them is what distinguishes them from each other. Stalin’s tasks were enormous when compared to George Bush’s. Transforming Russia into the Soviet Union, transforming a semi-industrial nation into a military power using non-capitalistic principles, even retaining power, were huge projects. Stalin pursued them with an iron fist.
We can see parallels, though, with how Stalin proceeded and how Bush is proceeding…particularly in Iraq. To demonstrate this I will just change some words in Kennan’s telegram.
As long as remnants of Ba’athism were officially recognized as existing in Iraq, it was possible to place on them, as an internal element, part of the blame for the instabilty and violence in that society. But as these remnants were liquidated, little by little, this justification fell away, and when it was indicated officially that they had been finally destroyed, it disappeared altogether. And this fact created one of the most basic of the compulsions which came to act upon the the American occupation: since Ba’athism no longer existed in Iraq and since it could not be admitted that there could be serious or widespread opposition to the new Iraqi government springing spontaneously from the liberated masses under its authority, it became necessary to justify the retention of the occupation by stressing the menace of terrorism abroad.
Enter Zarqawi and al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Now, we are at an early stage in this process. American democracy is still intact, people are generally satisfied that our government is functioning and that our rights are being protected. I don’t mean that they are pleased with how the government is functioning, nor do I suggest that there isn’t a significant minority that feels their rights are being trampled on. I just mean that their is very little internal dissent. There is little sense that our form of government is at risk. But we need to consider how the Soviet Union developed into the totalitarian state it became. More Kennan.
Now the maintenance of this pattern of Soviet power, namely, the pursuit of unlimited authority domestically, accompanied by the cultivation of the semi-myth of implacable foreign hostility, has gone far to shape the actual machinery of Soviet power as we know it today. Internal organs of administration which did not serve this purpose withered on the vine. Organs which did serve this purpose became vastly swollen. The security of Soviet power came to rest on the iron discipline of the Party, on the severity and ubiquity of the secret police, and on the uncompromising economic monopolism of the state. The “organs of suppression,” in which the Soviet leaders had sought security from rival forces, became in large measures the masters of those whom they were designed to serve. Today the major part of the structure of Soviet power is committed to the perfection of the dictatorship and to the maintenance of the concept of Russia as in a state of siege, with the enemy lowering beyond the walls. And the millions of human beings who form that part of the structure of power must defend at all costs this concept of Russia’s position, for without it they are themselves superfluous.
As things stand today, the rulers can no longer dream of parting with these organs of suppression. The quest for absolute power, pursued now for nearly three decades with a ruthlessness unparalleled (in scope at least) in modern times, has again produced internally, as it did externally, its own reaction. The excesses of the police apparatus have fanned the potential opposition to the regime into something far greater and more dangerous than it could have been before those excesses began.
But least of all can the rulers dispense with the fiction by which the maintenance of dictatorial power has been defended. For this fiction has been canonized in Soviet philosophy by the excesses already committed in its name; and it is now anchored in the Soviet structure of thought by bonds far greater than those of mere ideology.
We can see how our government is becoming obsessed with the threat of terrorism just by looking at the growth of Congressional subcommittees dedicated to the topic. In addition to the Intelligence and Armed Services committees, we have the brand new Department of Homeland Security, with committees in both houses dedicated to the subject. We also have subcommittees cropping up in odd places. For example, in the Senate we have:
Commerce: Disaster Prevention and Prediction
Health, Education, Labor and Pensions: Bioterrorism and Public Health
Judiciary: Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security Committee.
In the House, we have:
Judiciary: Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Committee
Foreign Relations: International Terrorism and Nonproliferation Committee
Government Reform: National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations Committee
It’s as if every agency of government has been mobilized to take on the threat of terrorism. The CIA is empowered to torture people, to hold them indefinitely. The military courts can withhold evidence. The NSA can spy without warrants or oversight. The Pentagon can infiltrate peace advocacy groups. All of this is in the name of keeping us safe from the “semi-myth of implacable foreign hostility.”
And there is a definite pattern here. As long as this nation could justify its huge military and intelligence budgets by reference to the menace of communism, the citizenry was content to let these sectors grow.
As long as remnants of communism were officially recognized as existing, it was possible to place on them the blame for the maintenance of a vast military/industrial complex. But as communism was liquidated this justification fell away, and when it was indicated officially that it had been effectively destroyed, it disappeared altogether. And this fact created one of the most basic of the compulsions which came to act upon the American government: since communism no longer existed it became necessary to justify the retention of the military/industrial complex by stressing the menace of terrorism abroad.
Now, this is all a little too neat. We do face a real threat of terrorism, as blasts in Madrid and London have demonstrated. It’s also true that the Soviet Union faced real threats, as Hitler’s invasion demonstrated. I do not suggest that there was no justification for the way that Stalin behaved, nor do I dispute the risks that America faces and our government’s absolute responsibility to deal with them. What I am suggesting is that our country, as we have known it and loved it, is in grave danger.
We are beginning to display some of the faults and internal contradictions that have led to the downfall of other empires and other nations. Our rights are at stake. And our policies are gelling into a self-perpetuating loop, where “The “organs of suppression,” in which the [our] leaders had sought security…become in large measure the masters of those whom they were designed to serve.”