Stephen M. Walt

Imperial secrecy

Glenn Greenwald has a couple of must-read posts over at Salon, and I want to highlight the connection between them. The first post deals with the familiar issue of anti-Americanism, and Glenn makes the obvious but often-forgotten point that foreign animosity to the United States is largely a reaction to things that the United States ...

Glenn Greenwald has a couple of must-read posts over at Salon, and I want to highlight the connection between them. The first post deals with the familiar issue of anti-Americanism, and Glenn makes the obvious but often-forgotten point that foreign animosity to the United States is largely a reaction to things that the United States does. In other words, they don’t hate us for our freedoms, or for our values, or even our supposedly decadent TV shows. Rather, people who are angry at the United States — and this includes most anti-American terrorists — are opposed to different aspects of U.S. policy. Whether those U.S. policies are the right ones can be debated, of course, but the key point is that anti-Americanism doesn’t come out of nowhere.

His second post draws on a just-published New Yorker article by Jane Mayer, detailing the Obama administration’s unprecedented campaign to preserve official secrets and to prosecute leakers and whistleblowers. We’ve already seen the outlines of this campaign in the administration’s overheated response to Wikileaks and its harsh treatment of alleged Wiki-leaker Bradley Manning, but Mayer offers a typically thorough account of just how widespread the administration’s campaign is and I recommend you read it for yourself. The irony, of course is that candidate Obama used to be a loud advocate of greater transparency in government. But now that he’s president, not so much.

The point I want to highlight, however, is that these two phenemona are tightly linked. America’s global military presence, and its penchant for intervening in other countries for various reasons, inevitably generates a hostile backlash in lots of places. We tend to see our actions as wholly benevolent, in part because we take our leaders’ rhetoric at face value and assume that if our stated purpose is noble, then the people whose countries we are meddling in will see it that way too. But no matter how noble our aims may be, military intervention and occupation inevitably creates winners and losers, and some of the losers aren’t very happy about it. And because force is a crude instrument, even well-intentioned actions often have unfortunate unintended consequences (like civilian deaths). And so some people plant IEDs, or organize suicide attacks on our troops or our clients, and the most extreme of them even fly airplanes into buildings.

When things like this happen, Americans begin to see the world as increasingly hostile and dangerous, and so they naturally demand that the government do more to protect them. And as both Joseph McCarthy and Dick Cheney understood, the easiest way to convince people to give up their civil liberties is to magnify foreign threats. Once people are sufficiently scared, they will be more than happy to compromise civil liberties, especially if they think this is necessary for their protection (see under: Patriot Act).

The second dimension to this problem lies in the characteristic bureaucratic preference for secrecy and autonomy. You can’t run a highly interventionist foreign policy without a large, permanent and well-funded national security bureaucracy, spending hundreds of billions of dollars each year. Even if it was originally created for a good purpose — such as waging the Cold War — government agencies soon take on a life of their own and will go to great lengths to justify their continued existence and budget share. And just as corporations don’t like government regulation, government agencies don’t really like transparency, accountability, and full disclosure.

Not surprisingly, the national security bureaucracy prefers to keep us in the dark about what it is doing. Some level of secrecy is justifiable, because there are obviously some things we don’t want potential enemies to know. But government agencies also like to keep things secret in order to cover up policy failures, or to make it easier to do things that might be stopped if people knew more about them (e.g., torture, targeted killings, or other forms of covert action). Or public officials may just want to avoid having to answer a lot of pesky questions. The more things you can classify and keep secret, therefore, the easier it is to get things done, even if the things you are doing aren’t optimal. Hence the enormous furor over Wikileaks.  

As my buddy John Mearsheimer shows in his new book When Leaders Lie: The Truth about Lying in International Politics, governments rarely tell out-and-out lies to each other (it happens sometimes, but not that often), but governments of all stripes routinely lie to their own people. And keeping a lot of things secret is essential to this practice: if government officials can control the flow of information, they can make it difficult-to-impossible for the rest of us to know what is really going on. (Having a compliant media helps too, as well as one that can’t afford to do a lot of costly investigative reporting anymore). And if we don’t know about all the things our government is doing, then we will be even more mystified when people in some far-flung corner of the world are upset and we’ll be even more terrified when some of them try to hit us back.

My point is that when you have decided that you have "vital" interests in every corner of the world, and when you choose to defend those vital interests primarily with military force (or the threat of force), then you are inevitably going to generate resistance around the world and you are inevitably going to have to start compromising traditional liberties. Ever since Rome, imperial powers have discovered that it is hard to retain republican freedoms and limited government while conquering or dominating others, and the United States is no exception.

To be sure, a number of scholars have pointed out that the United States had suspended various liberties during periods of national emergency, only to restore them again once the time of danger had passed. The difference, however, is that this previous periods occurred before the United States had created its present national security establishment, and before it had taken on the mantle of what we like to regard as "global leadership." What I am suggesting, in short, is that there is a direct connection between our present strategy of global intervention — a strategy supported by the foreign policy elites in both parties — and the current campaign against anyone who tries to pull back the curtain on a lot of these activities. And as long as we have the same global strategy, I wouldn’t expect any those restrictive tendencies to change.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola