Home/Daniel Larison/Ideology Of National Security

Ideology Of National Security

This Daily Show item pointing out a few lines from the Inaugural that seem similar to Bush’s rhetoric is making the rounds (via John Schwenkler). In fact, there aren’t that many similar phrases in this particular speech, and those that Stewart was able to identify seem like so much standard boilerplate. However, the statements seem to be nothing more than this, because they reflect the bipartisan ideological and policy consensus. Obviously, I think there are much better examples that show clear affinities between the ambitious hegemonist views of the two, but the examples taken from the Inaugural are useful to illustrate a more important point. That point is not merely that “Obama is more like Bush than you want to believe,” or that his election represents no fundamental change in the way the government will make policy. While true, these are no longer in any way remarkable, and they have all been covered many times before. If the transition didn’t made these things clear already, I’m not sure what will.

What is interesting is what these statements show about the minimal differences between the parties and the political class’ embrace of shared assumptions about U.S. power and their acceptance of myths relating to American history. When Obama says that “we” will not apologize for our way of life and Bush said that “the American way of life is non-negotiable,” they are expressing in a simple form the key convictions of what Prof. Bacevich has identified as the ideology of national security. Let’s review those convictions.

Prof. Bacevich writes in The Limits of Power:

Four core convictions inform this ideology of national security. In his second inaugural address, President Bush testified eloquently to each of them.

Here are the four convictions at their most basic:

According to the first of these convictions, history has an identifiable and indisputable purpose….History’s abiding theme is freedom, to which all humanity aspires…..

According to the second conviction, the United States has always embodied, and continues to embody, freedom….

According to the third conviction, Providence summons America to ensure freedom’s ultimate triumph….Unique among the great powers, this nation pursues interests larger than itself. When it acts, it does so on freedom’s behalf and at the behest of higher authority….Only cynics or those disposed toward evil could possibly dissent from this self-evident truth. [bold mine-DL]

According to the final conviction, for the American way of life to endure, freedom must prevail everywhere.

What does this have to do with Obama? Well, of course, Obama accepts the ideology of national security completely, and it has been clear that this is the case for years. Even if you could not locate all four convictions in his Inaugural Address (and I think you might be able to do this), you can certainly find them in his public speeches and written statements over the years. It is doubtful that he could have been elected President had he not accepted this ideology, and it is important to understand that this is an ideology shared by essentially the entire political class. In that respect, it is “mainstream,” regardless of how crazy it seems to some of us. The similarities with Bush are no accident–Bush’s tenure represented an expansion, an exaggerated expression, of past habits, but as has become more and more depressingly evident his administration has not represented a radical break from past practice so much as a redoubling of the same practices.

To say that Obama has accepted this ideology is not a statement about Obama’s flexibility or lack of it, except to say that he is constrained by the assumptions that govern how the political class understands the world and America’s place in it. The belated recognition by neoconservatives that Obama accepts this ideology was inevitable. They feign surprise mainly because it is useful to maintain the fiction that there are meaningful, large differences between the parties on major policies and they have an incentive to perpetuate the idea that they are better adherents of this ideology than those farther to the left. Likewise, there is a strong incentive on the left to emphasize small differences with neoconservatives over means and tactics.

Here is Bacevich on Obama from The Limits of Power:

Like Clinton, Obama was intent on identifying himself [in his Foreign Affairs essay] with the cause that “we stood for and fought for.” Like Clinton, in recounting the heroic narrative in which Roosevelt, Truman, and their successors had figured so prominently he was testifying to that narrative’s essential truth and continuing validity.

Yet almost inescapably he also subscribed to George W. Bush’s own interpretation of that narrative. As Obama went on to explain, “The security and well-being of each and every American depend on the security and well-being of those who live beyond our borders.” Like Bush–like those who had preceded Bush–Obama defined America’s purposes in cosmic terms. “The mission of the United States,” he proclaimed ,”is to provide global leadership grounded in the understanding that the world shares a common security and a common humanity.”

As Bacevich made clear in American Empire, leadership is the not very subtle euphemism that our politicians use to describe U.S. hegemony or the American empire. There is, of course, no meaningful difference between the words hegemony and leadership–the latter sounds more appealing–and there are obvious similarities between a word derived from the word for command and one that refers to direction and leading. There is another passage from Bacevich’s American Empire that could very easily be mistaken for a summary of Obama’s foreign policy statements. This is most revealing, as American Empire came out in 2002 long before most people had ever heard of Obama and before Obama had said much of anything about foreign policy. To the extent that Obama’s statements echo the passage below, it shows how much of the conventional wisdom regarding U.S. foreign policy he has imbibed and accepted. In describing Clinton’s articulation of U.S. strategy, Bacevich identified five ideas that could just as easily be found and have been found in the statements of Obama and Bush:

the identification of interdependence as the dominant reality of international politics; a commitment to advancing the cause of global openness; an emphasis on free trade and investment as central to that strategy and a prerequisite for prosperity at home; a belief in the necessity of American hegemony–while avoiding any actual use of that term; and frequent reference to the bugbear of “isolationism” as a means of disciplining public opinion and maintaining deference to the executive branch in all matters pertaining to foreign relations.

So while there may be hope in some quarters that Obama doesn’t mean what he said in the Inaugural, there is little reason to believe that. It is not only likely that he genuinely means it, but it is politically necessary that the public perceives that he means it.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

leave a comment

Latest Articles