With Osama bin Laden dead, American troops leaving Iraq, the economy still sputtering and Congress locked in yet another budget showdown, one thing that seems clear is that Washington will very likely cut military spending sometime soon. This will come as welcome news to David C. Unger, author of “The Emergency State” and an editorial writer for The New York Times. In this angry new book, Unger deplores what he sees as Washington’s obsession with security and overreliance on military and intelligence capabilities, arguing that they are dangerous perversions of the country’s Jeffersonian traditions.
Presidents since Franklin Roosevelt, in Unger’s view, have inflated external threats in order to build up a vast and unaccountable national security machine that runs roughshod over the framers’ design for a modest government with plenty of internal checks and few international obligations. This emergency state, as Unger calls it, not only expands presidential powers, wastes money and tramples the rights of Americans and foreigners, but it also fails to guard the country from today’s real dangers.
In a narrative familiar to anyone who’s leafed through the growing library of books on Imperial America, Unger takes up his tale in 1941, when Roosevelt — whom Unger calls “the godfather” of the emergency state — maneuvered an isolationist Congress and an indifferent American public into siding with Britain in its fight against Germany. Setting a disturbingly familiar precedent, Roosevelt also relied on extralegal means to track domestic “subversives” — who were sometimes just political opponents.
From there, in Unger’s opinion, things just got worse. Truman borrowed Roosevelt’s tactics and made a terrible blunder by initiating a strategy of containment against a Soviet Union that need not have become America’s enemy in a globalized cold war. Running this worldwide campaign required a large and permanent defense establishment and the creation of a whole new set of executive branch institutions like the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council.
Unger draws a line from the policies of Roosevelt and Truman straight to the worst abuses of the George W. Bush administration — think of Iraq, enemy combatants, torture and illegal wiretaps — with only a few zigzags in the 1970s and ’80s, when Congress temporarily pushed back against presidential overreach. Even Barack Obama gets lumped into this dark company. He came into office with a powerful mandate to roll back abuses, Unger argues, but reneged on some of his promises, like shutting down Guantánamo, while extending such questionable Bush policies as targeted killings of suspected terrorists (including American citizens). But then not one president in the last 70 years escapes Unger’s scourge.
All of this may prove persuasive to many of those already opposed to the nation’s high level of military spending or prone to see sinister motives behind the secretive conduct of its diplomacy and intelligence. But “The Emergency State” is unlikely to win new converts. For one thing, Unger never really explains how he thinks the presidents he looks at should have dealt with the enormous international challenges of the past 70 years, from the Nazi and Soviet threats to global jihad. For another, Unger’s proposed solutions range from those that are correct but vague (less secrecy; a foreign policy that concentrates more on long-term problems) to those that are implausible. He concludes his book with 10 specific recommendations that amount to leaving more of international affairs to Congress: the same Congress that can’t agree on a budget today and has blocked Obama’s attempts to shut down Guantánamo.
Worse, Unger overlooks the fact that the costs of America’s postwar strategy, while real, have been relatively minor compared with its successes, which have created a generally open, peaceful, rule-bound international order allowing the United States, its allies and developing states like China, India and Brazil to thrive as never before.
That order is looking pretty creaky right now, and budget constraints may nudge Washington in the direction Unger wants. We can only hope the results of a less forceful America are as benign as he expects them to be.
THE EMERGENCY STATE
America’s Pursuit of Absolute Security at All Costs
By David C. Unger
359 pp. The Penguin Press. $27.95.