Security and State Policy

Noam Chomsky

Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, 13th Annual Frank K. Kelly Lecture on Humanity’s Future,
Santa Barbara, CA, February 28, 2014

A leading principle of international relations theory is that the highest priority of states is to ensure security. As George Kennan formulates the standard view, government is created “to assure order and justice internally and to provide for the common defense,” often termed defense of the national interest. To move to the present, in the current issue of the journal National Interest a leading realist scholar formulates the doctrine as holding that “the structure of the international system forces countries concerned about their security to compete with each other for power,” the core feature of raison d’etat.

The proposition seems plausible, almost self-evident, until we look more closely, and ask: “Security for whom?” For the general population? For state power itself? For dominant domestic constituencies? Depending on what we mean, the credibility of the proposition ranges from negligible to very high.

Security for state power is indeed ranked very high. That is illustrated by the efforts that states exert to protect themselves from their own populations, even their scrutiny. In an interview on German TV, Edward Snowden said that his “breaking point” was “seeing Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, directly lie under oath to Congress” denying the existence of a domestic spying programs. Snowden elaborated that “The public had a right to know about these programs. The public had a right to know that which the government is doing in its name, and that which the government is doing against the public.” The same could be justly said by Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning, and other courageous figures who acted on the same democratic principle.

The government stance is quite different: the public does not have the right to know because security is undermined, severely so it is asserted. There are several good reasons to be skeptical about such a response. The first is that it is almost completely predictable: when an act of a government is exposed, it reflexively pleads security. The predictable response therefore carries little information. A second reason for skepticism is the nature of the evidence presented. International relations scholar John Mearsheimer writes that “The Obama administration, not surprisingly, initially claimed that the NSA’s spying played a key role in thwarting fifty-four terrorist plots against the United States, implying it violated the Fourth Amendment for good reason. This was a lie, however. General Keith Alexander, the NSA director, eventually admitted to Congress that he could claim only one success, and that involved catching a Somali immigrant and three cohorts living in San Diego who had sent $8,500 to a terrorist group in Somalia.” This was the conclusion of the Privacy Board established by the government to investigate the NSA programs, which had extensive access to classified materials and security officials.

There is, of course, a sense in which security is threatened by public awareness: namely, security of state power from exposure. The basic insight was expressed well by the Professor of the Science of Government at Harvard, Samuel Huntington: “The architects of power in the United States must create a force that can be felt but not seen… Power remains strong when it remains in the dark; exposed to the sunlight it begins to evaporate.” In the US as elsewhere, the architects of power understand that very well. Those who have worked through the huge mass of declassified documents can hardly fail to notice how frequently it is security of state power from the domestic public that is a prime concern, not national security in any meaningful sense.

Often secrecy is motivated by the need to guarantee the security of powerful domestic sectors. One persistent example is the mislabeled “free trade agreements” — mislabeled, because they radically violate free trade principles and are substantially not about trade at all, but rather about investor rights; and they are certainly not agreements, if people are part of their countries. These instruments are regularly negotiated in secret, like the current Trans-Pacific Partnership. Not entirely in secret of course. They are not secret from the hundreds of corporate lobbyists and lawyers who are writing the detailed provisions, with an impact that is not hard to guess, and in fact is revealed by the few parts that have reached the public through Wikileaks. As Joseph Stiglitz reasonably concludes, with the US Trade Representative’s office “representing corporate interests,” not those of the public, “The likelihood that what emerges from the coming talks will serve ordinary Americans’ interests is low; the outlook for ordinary citizens in other countries is even bleaker.”

Security of dominant domestic constituencies, primarily the corporate sector, is a regular concern of government policies — which is hardly surprising, given their role in formulating the policies in the first place. Examples are too numerous to review. Not infrequently the priority accorded to security of private power over that of the general public is quite stark. To take just one example of considerable current significance, in 1959 the government initiated a 14-year program to deplete domestic petroleum reserves for the benefit of Texas producers (and some government officials, who joined in). John Blair, who directed the later government inquiry into state-energy corporation malfeasance concluded that the deal had the “long-range effect of seriously depleting the nation’s [petroleum] reserves [and imposing a] substantial burden on consumers, estimated by [MIT oil expert M.A.] Adelman to amount in the early sixties to $4 billion a year.” In effect, leaving holes in the ground to be filled later by imported oil as a strategic reserve. Adelman, who was thoroughly familiar with the congressional hearings on these matters, described them to a Senate committee as “frivolous,” with no concern for national security, the alleged motive of the legislation. Security for the rich and powerful easily overwhelms national security — security for the nation.

Something similar is happening right now, to which I will return.

There have been interesting cases of conflict between these two prime concerns of government: security of state power and security of the interests of the state’s primary domestic constituency. Cuba is an illustration. For 50 years the US has been carrying out harsh economic warfare against Cuba, and for much of this time a murderous and destructive terrorist war as well. Since polls have been taken 40 years ago, the public has favored normalization of relations with Cuba, but ignoring the public is routine practice. More interestingly, the same is true of powerful domestic sectors: agribusiness, pharmaceuticals, energy. It is rare for their concerns to be dismissed. In this case, however, a state interest prevails. Internal documents from the early ‘60s reveal that the primary threat of Cuba was its “successful defiance” of US policies going back to the Monroe Doctrine — not a trivial matter since, as was explicitly recognized, such insubordination might encourage others to do the same, unravelling the system of power envisioned by the Doctrine, later implemented. One should perhaps not overlook the fury aroused by Cuba’s defeat of the US-run invasion force at the Bay of Pigs.

Another example is Iran. It is likely that US energy corporations and others would be pleased to have access to Iranian resources and markets, but state interest dictates otherwise — not for the first time. In 1953, after the US-run military coup overthrew Iranian democracy and installed the Shah, Eisenhower demanded that US corporations take over 40% of the British oil concessions. For reasons of short-term profit, the energy giants were reluctant, but government threats compelled them to do so.

To be sure, in cases like these one might argue that the state is concerned with the long-term interests of the corporate sector, unlike the more parochial concerns of its leaders. Nevertheless, the occasional cases of conflict between concern for security of the state and of the corporate sector are of some interest.

In contrast, there is substantial evidence that security of the domestic population — “national security” as the term is supposed to be understood — is not a high priority for state policy. Among current illustrations is the global terror campaign that Obama is carrying out with such enthusiasm, and the “war on terror” generally since it was declared by Reagan in 1981, re-declared by Bush 20 years later. More strikingly, it’s also true of strategic planning, nuclear policy in particular, to an extent often not recognized.

Let’s have a look at a few cases. Take for example the assassination of Osama bin Laden. President Obama brought it up with pride in an important speech on national security last May, widely covered, but one crucial paragraph was ignored.

Obama hailed the operation but added that it cannot be the norm. The reason, he said, is that the risks “were immense.” The Seals might have been “embroiled in an extended firefight,” but even though, by luck, that didn’t happen “the cost to our relationship with Pakistan and the backlash among the Pakistani public over encroachment on their territory was…severe.”

Let’s now add a few details. The Seals were ordered to fight their way out if apprehended. They would not have been left to their fate if “embroiled in an extended firefight.” The full force of the US military would have been used to extricate them. Pakistan has a powerful military, well-trained and highly protective of state sovereignty. It also of course has nuclear weapons, and Pakistani specialists are concerned about penetration of the security system by jihadi elements. It is also no secret that the population has been embittered and radicalized by the drone terror campaign and other US policies.

While the Seals were still in the Bin Laden compound, Pakistani chief of staff Kayani was informed of the invasion and ordered his staff “to confront any unidentified aircraft,” which he assumed would be from India. Meanwhile in Kabul, General Petraeus ordered “US warplanes to respond” if Pakistanis “scrambled their fighter jets.” As Obama said, by luck the worst didn’t happen, and it could have been quite ugly. But the risks were faced without noticeable concern. Or subsequent comment.

There is much more to say about this operation, and its immense cost to Pakistan, but instead let’s look more closely at the concern for security more generally, beginning with security from terror, then turning to the more important question of security from instant destruction by nuclear weapons.

Obama’s global assassination program, by far the world’s greatest terrorist campaign, is also a terror-generating campaign. It is a common understanding, at the highest level, that “for every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies,” quoting General McChrystal. The concept of “innocent person,” now standard in US discourse, tells us how far we have progressed in the last 800 years, since Magna Carta, which established the principle of presumption of innocence that was once thought to be the foundation of Anglo-American law. That is ancient history. By today, the word “guilty” means “targeted for assassination by President Obama,” and “innocent” means “not yet accorded that status.”

A few days after the Boston Marathon bombing, Obama ordered an assassination in a remote Yemeni village. We rarely learn about such crimes, but a young man from the village happened to be in the United States and testified about the operation before a Senate Committee. He reported that for years jihadis had been trying to turn the villagers against the US, but had failed. All they knew was what he had told them, and he liked what he found here. But one drone murder in the village, of a person who he said could easily have been apprehended, vindicated jihadi propaganda, perhaps once again helping to swell the ranks of the terrorist networks that have proliferated under the “war on terror.”

If so, it would hardly break new ground. The Brookings Institution just published a highly-praised anthropological study of tribal societies by Akbar Ahmed, subtitled “How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam.” This global war pressures repressive central governments to undertake murderous and destructive assaults against Washington’s tribal enemies. The war, Ahmed warns, may drive a form of traditional society, that of tribes, “to extinction” — with severe costs to the perpetrators too, as we see now in Pakistan and Yemen and elsewhere. And to Americans as well. Tribal cultures, Ahmed points out, are based on honor and revenge: “Every act of violence in these tribal societies provokes a counterattack: the harder the attacks on the tribesmen, the more vicious and bloody the counterattacks.”

Meanwhile, we are developing the technology to facilitate terror targeting ourselves. In Britain’s leading journal of international affairs, David Hastings Dunn outlines how the increasingly sophisticated drones we are developing are a perfect weapon for terrorist groups, who recognize them to be “the ultimate expression of a paradoxically symmetrical asymmetric warfare.” They are cheap, easily acquired, and in general “possess many qualities which, when combined, make them potentially the ideal means for terrorist attack in the twenty-first century,” as Dunn explains in some detail, and as we may well discover in the years to come.

Senator Adlai Stevenson III, referring to his many years of service on the Senate Intelligence Committee, writes that “Cyber surveillance and meta data collection are part of the continuing reaction to 9/11, with few if any terrorists to show for it and near universal condemnation. The U.S. is widely perceived as waging war against Islam, against Shias as well as Sunnis, on the ground, with drones, and by proxy in Palestine, from the Persian Gulf to Central Asia. Germany and Brazil resent our intrusions, and what have they wrought?”

The answer is that they have wrought a growing threat of terror as well as international isolation. Stevenson is quite correct about “near universal condemnation.” Former CIA chief Michael Hayden recently conceded that “Right now, there isn’t a government on the planet that agrees with our legal rationale for these operations, except for Afghanistan and maybe Israel.” And he’s arguably wrong about Afghanistan.

Hayden’s conclusions are reflected in a WIN/Gallup International poll released in December on the question: “Which country do you think is the greatest threat to peace in the world today?” The US was far in the lead, with three times the votes of second-place Pakistan, inflated by the Indian vote. World opinion sharply rejects the domestic obsession that Iran poses the gravest threat to world peace. And it is an obsession, shared almost nowhere else.

The poll was not reported in the United States mainstream. What Americans are supposed to believe is that “For generations, the United States of America has played a unique role as an anchor of global security and as an advocate of human freedom,” as President Obama declared while his bombs were raining on Libya in violation of UN Security Resolution 1973, which called for an “immediate ceasefire” and actions to protect civilians — including those in areas reduced to the level of Grozny by NATO bombs, according to the western press. If most of the world sharply disagrees with the preferred self-image, we can cheerfully ignore it or condemn them for their backwardness.

There is also virtually no acknowledgment of the extensive western polling that shows that in the Arab world, although Iran is disliked, it is scarcely regarded as a threat by the populations, who overwhelmingly rank the US and Israel as the greatest threats they face. In this case, what Americans are supposed to believe is that the Arabs support the US stand on Iran — which is true, if we follow standard practice of restricting attention to friendly dictators, ignoring populations, an interesting illustration of elite attitudes towards democracy.

The drone assassination campaigns are one device by which state policy knowingly endangers security. The same is true of murderous special forces operations and other policies of the kind Stevenson mentioned. And of the invasion of Iraq, which sharply increased terror in the West, confirming the predictions of British and American intelligence. These were, again, a matter of little concern to planners, who are guided by different concepts of security.

Even instant destruction by nuclear weapons has never ranked high among the concerns of state authorities, so the record reveals. Let’s again consider a few examples, starting in the early days of the atomic age. At the time the US was overwhelmingly powerful and enjoyed remarkable security: it controlled the hemisphere, both oceans, and the opposite sides of both oceans. There was however a potential threat: ICBMs with nuclear warheads. In his comprehensive review of nuclear policies, with access to high-level sources, McGeorge Bundy writes that “the timely development of ballistic missiles during the Eisenhower administration is one of the best achievements of those eight years. Yet it is well to begin with a recognition that both the United States and the Soviet Union might be in much less nuclear danger today if these missiles had never been developed.” He then adds an instructive comment: “I am aware of no serious contemporary proposal, in or out of either government, that ballistic missiles should somehow be banned by agreement.” In short, there was apparently no thought of trying to prevent the sole serious threat to the US, the threat of utter destruction.

Could it have been prevented? We cannot of course be sure. There might have been opportunities, but in the extraordinary hysteria of the day they could hardly have even been perceived. And it was extraordinary. The rhetoric of such central documents as NSC 68 is quite shocking, even discounting Acheson’s injunction that it is necessary to be “clearer than truth.” One suggestive indication of possible opportunities is a remarkable proposal by Stalin in 1952, offering to allow Germany to be unified with free elections on condition that it not join a hostile military alliance — hardly an extreme condition in the light of the history of the past half century.

Stalin’s proposal was taken seriously by the respected political commentator James Warburg, but apart from him it was mostly ignored or ridiculed. Recent scholarship has begun to take a different view. The bitterly anti-Communist Soviet scholar Adam Ulam takes the status of Stalin’s proposal to be an “unresolved mystery.” Washington “wasted little effort in flatly rejecting Moscow’s initiative,” he writes, on grounds that “were embarrassingly unconvincing,” leaving open “the basic question”: “Was Stalin genuinely ready to sacrifice the newly created German Democratic Republic (GDR) on the altar of real democracy,” with consequences for world peace and for American security that could have been enormous? The prominent Cold War scholar Melvyn Leffler, reviewing recent research in Soviet archives, observes that many scholars were surprised to discover that “[Lavrenti] Beria — the sinister, brutal head of the secret police — propos[ed] that the Kremlin offer the West a deal on the unification and neutralization of Germany,” agreeing “to sacrifice the East German communist regime to reduce East-West tensions” and improve internal political and economic conditions in Russia — opportunities that were squandered in favor of securing German participation in NATO. Under the circumstances, it is not impossible that agreements might have been reached that would have protected the security of the population from the gravest threat on the horizon. But the possibility apparently was not even considered, another indication of how slight a role authentic security plays in state policy.

That was revealed again in the years that followed. When Nikita Khrushchev took office, he recognized that Russia could not compete militarily with the US, the richest and most powerful country in history, with incomparable advantages. If Russia hoped to escape its economic backwardness and the devastating effect of the war, it would therefore be necessary to reverse the arms race. Accordingly, Khrushchev proposed sharp mutual reductions in offensive weapons. The incoming Kennedy administration considered the offer, and rejected it, instead turning to rapid military expansion. The late Kenneth Waltz, supported by other strategic analysts with close connections to US intelligence, wrote that the Kennedy administration “undertook the largest strategic and conventional peace-time military build-up the world has yet seen…even as Khrushchev was trying at once to carry through a major reduction in the conventional forces and to follow a strategy of minimum deterrence, and we did so even though the balance of strategic weapons greatly favored the United States.” Again, harming national security while enhancing state power.

The Soviet reaction was to place missiles in Cuba in October 1962, a move motivated as well by Kennedy’s terrorist campaign against Cuba, which was scheduled to lead to invasion that month, as Russia and Cuba may have known. That brought the world to “the most dangerous moment in history,” in Arthur Schlesinger’s words. As the crisis peaked in late October, Kennedy received a secret letter from Khrushchev offering to end it by simultaneous public withdrawal of Russian missiles from Cuba and US Jupiter missiles from Turkey — the latter obsolete missiles, for which a withdrawal order had already been given because they were being replaced by far more lethal Polaris submarines. Kennedy’s subjective estimate was that if he refused, the probability of nuclear war was 1/3 to ½ — a war that would have destroyed the northern hemisphere, Eisenhower had warned. Kennedy refused. It is hard to think of a more horrendous decision in history. And worse, he is greatly praised for his cool courage and statesmanship.

Ten years later, Henry Kissinger called a nuclear alert in the last days of the 1973 Israel-Arab war. The purpose was to warn the Russians not to interfere with his delicate diplomatic maneuvers, designed to ensure an Israeli victory, but limited, so that the US would still be in control of the region unilaterally. And the maneuvers were delicate. The US and Russia had jointly imposed a cease-fire, but Kissinger secretly informed Israel that they could ignore it. Hence the need for the nuclear alert to frighten the Russians away. Security of the population had its usual status.

Ten years later the Reagan administration launched operations to probe Russian air defenses, simulating air and naval attacks and a Defcon 1 nuclear alert. These were undertaken at a very tense moment. Pershing II strategic missiles were being deployed in Europe. Reagan announced the SDI program, which the Russians understood to be effectively a first-strike weapon, a standard interpretation of missile defense on all sides. And other tensions were rising. Naturally these actions caused great alarm in Russia, which unlike the US was quite vulnerable and had repeatedly been invaded and virtually destroyed. That led to a major war scare in 1983. Newly released archives reveal that the danger was even more severe than historians had previously assumed. A recent CIA study is entitled “The War Scare Was for Real,” concluding that US intelligence may have underestimated Russian concerns and the threat of a Russian preventative nuclear strike. The exercises “almost became a prelude to a preventative nuclear strike,” according to an account in a recent issue of the Journal of Strategic Studies.

It was even more dangerous than that, so we learned last September, when the BBC reported that right in the midst of these world-threatening developments, Russia’s early-warning systems detected an incoming missile strike from the United States, sending the highest-level alert. The protocol for the Soviet military was to retaliate with a nuclear attack of its own. The officer on duty, Stanislav Petrov, decided to disobey orders and not to report the warnings to his superiors. He received an official reprimand. And thanks to his dereliction of duty, we’re alive to talk about it.

Security of the population was no more a high priority for Reagan planners than for their predecessors. So it continues to the present, even putting aside the numerous near catastrophic accidents, reviewed in a chilling new book by Eric Schlosser. It is hard to contest the conclusion of the last commander of the Strategic Air Command, General Lee Butler, that we have so far survived the nuclear age “by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion.”

General Butler describes the US strategic plan of 1960 calling for automated all-out strike as “the single most absurd and irresponsible document I have every reviewed in my life,” with the possible exception of its probable Soviet counterpart — though there are competitors: the regular easy acceptance of threats to survival that that is almost too extraordinary to capture in words.

The words are there to read, however, if we choose, from the near-hysterical ravings of NSC-68 — and those who think this is an exaggeration might want to read this critically important document — right to the present. The words are also there in high-level documents that outline US strategic doctrine, for example, an important study by Clinton’s Strategic Command, STRATCOM, which is in charge of nuclear weapons, called Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence. This was issued several years after the Soviet Union had collapsed and while the US was expanding NATO to the East in violation of promises to Gorbachev when he agreed to unification of Germany within NATO.

The study is concerned with “the role of nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War era.” One central conclusion is that the US must maintain the right of first-strike, even against non-nuclear states. Furthermore, nuclear weapons must always be available, at the ready, because they “cast a shadow over any crisis or conflict.” They are constantly used, just as you’re using a gun if you aim it but don’t fire when robbing a store, a point that Dan Ellsberg has repeatedly stressed. STRATCOM goes on to advise that “planners should not be too rational about determining…what the opponent values the most,” all of which must be targeted. “[I]t hurts to portray ourselves as too fully rational and cool-headed…That the US may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be a part of the national persona we project.” It is “beneficial [for our strategic posture] if some elements may appear to be potentially ‘out of control’,” and thus posing a constant threat of nuclear attack — a severe violation of the UN Charter, if anyone cares.

Not much here about Kennan’s order, justice or the common defense. Or for that matter about the obligation under the NPT to make “good faith” efforts to eliminate this scourge of the earth. What resounds, rather, is an adaptation of Hilaire Belloc’s famous couplet about the gatling gun: “Whatever happens we have got, The Atom Bomb and they have not” — to quote the great African historian Chinweizu.

Plans for the future are hardly promising. The Congressional Budget Office reported in December that the US nuclear arsenal will cost $350 billion over the next decade, with costs of modernization quadrupling from 2024 to 2030. A study of the Center for Nonproliferation of the Monterey Institute of International Studies estimated that the US would spend $1 trillion on the nuclear arsenal in the next 30 years, a percentage of the military budget “comparable to spending for procurement of new strategic systems in the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan.” And of course the US is not alone. As General Butler observed, it is a near miracle that we have escaped destruction so far, and the longer we tempt fate, the less likely it is that we can hope for divine intervention to perpetuate the miracle.

In the case of nuclear weapons, at least we know in principle how to overcome the threatening catastrophe. But there is another dire peril that casts its shadow over any contemplation of the future, environmental disaster, and here it is not so clear that there even is an escape, though the longer we delay, the more severe the threat becomes — and not in the distant future. The commitment of governments to security of their populations is therefore clearly exhibited by how they address this issue.

There is now much exuberance in the United States about “100 years of energy independence” as we become “the Saudi Arabia of the next century” — very possibly the final century of human civilization if current policies persist. One might even take a speech of President Obama’s two years ago to be an eloquent death-knell for the species. He proclaimed with pride, to ample applause, that “Now, under my administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years. That’s important to know. Over the last three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’re opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some.”

The applause also tells us something about government commitment to security. The President was speaking in Cushing Oklahoma, an “oil town” as he announced in greeting his appreciative audience — in fact the oil town, described as “the most significant trading hub for crude oil in North America. And industry profits are sure to be secured as “producing more oil and gas here at home” will continue to be “a critical part” of energy strategy, as the President promised.

What is happening is reminiscent of the programs I described earlier to exhaust domestic oil for the benefit of Texas producers, instead of using cheaper Saudi oil, at the expense of national security. The same is true today. National security would dictate leaving the oil in the ground, to be accessed, if necessary, if currently available foreign sources are somehow blocked. But in this case the threats to authentic security are far more grave.

To summarize, there is a sense in which security is indeed a high priority for government planners: security for state power and its primary constituency, concentrated private power — all of which entails that policy must be protected from public scrutiny. In these terms everything falls in place as quite rational, even the rationality of collective suicide.

If the general public permits all of this to continue. Always the fundamental question.