The New Normal?

Obama and the Perpetuation of the Bush Doctrine








“We consider, we have stated publicly, that the attack on America [9/11] is an attack on our values and on civilization itself. We find such an attack unconscionable. We are determined to win the worldwide war against terrorism—against terrorism and all those who give them shelter and support (italics in original). We are determined to show that, despite this attack, we are and remain the greatest country in the world. In order to prove this, we are not being adjured by our president to make individual sacrifices, not even the small sacrifice of paying more taxes, but rather to carry on our lives as normal. We are, however, expected to applaud without reservation whatever our government and our armed forces will do, even if this is not normal.” –Immanuel Wallerstein (202)

It so happened that I read this quote just as I was sitting down to write a commentary on the ACLU’s latest report, Establishing a New Normal: National Security, Civil Liberties, and Human Rights Under the Obama Administration. The premise of the report is that, for the most part, the Obama Administration is continuing the trend of abusive executive power instituted by the Bush Administration. So I found it an intriguing coincidence that I should read an excerpt written at the very genesis of this abuse that identifies the nature of the Bush Doctrine as “not normal.”

Of course, it is not normal. The extravagancies of the Bush power concentrations were conducted under a time of crisis and fear. After watching the Twin Towers collapse Americans became acutely aware of our vulnerability in the face of an enemy with enough guile to use our own symbols of dominance and technological supremacy against us. By 2003, the year in which the above quote was penned, American fear and uncertainty was being whipped into a lather over the certainty that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Everywhere Bushite handlers spoke we were reminded of 9/11 and the certainty that America would see a mushroom cloud rise from one or more of our major cities should we not bring Saddam Hussein under heal.

The Bush Doctrine, which included pre-emptive warfare, expanded domestic surveillance, selective suspension of habeas corpus and due process, torture and secrecy, was conceived in the minds of the power hungry and birthed into a nursery of fear and uncertainty that was the post 9/11 America. Using the most archetypal images of postmodern horror, the mushroom cloud, the apocalyptic virus, the evil conspirator, the Bush Administration effectively convinced Americans that it was necessary to abandon our values in order to preserve our values.

In the American social memory the righteous do not instigate violence. The cowboy in the white hat does not draw his gun first…he draws it faster and fires with deadly accuracy, but he is never first. Pre-emptive warfare was the tactic of the sinister, Hitler’s blitzkrieg. Domestic surveillance was an Orwellian invasion of privacy and of the right to be secure in our persons. People were locked away indefinitely without charge or trial in the old Soviet gulags, not in American military bases. Torture was the device of villainy, not of the quintessential American hero.

Until 9/11.

That’s not to say that the American power apparatus never stooped to such diseased policy before September 2001. But whenever such abuses were uncovered in the past, from Mai Lai to Operation Phoenix, McCarthy to COINTELPRO, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and Secret Enemies Lists, the American public was appalled when made aware of these storied abuses of power. Even when the American public was part of the process, such as the very open House Un-American Activities Committee and the McCarthy Hearings, ultimately Americans came to the realization that they were complicit in allowing our democracy to be abused, and were contrite.

But after 9/11 we were lead to believe that all of the above was necessary. We were lead to believe that unless we turned our backs on our most fundamental values, our very way of life would end. Our children would never know security; they would be targeted for their freedoms and their wealth. This was all nonsense from the start, but we bought it. And for many years we accepted that these essential values, that Americans do not strike first, that Americans do not torture, that Americans are just, was no longer applicable in a world in which extremists could use our own planes as missiles against us. We were lead to believe that we had to sacrifice certain liberties, like privacy, assembly, even speech, in the interests of security against an implacable villain like Osama and his ilk. We accepted that “everything changed after 9/11.” This is a position Wallenstein correctly defined as “silly hyperbole.” (199)

Power arrangements remained the same. The American political economy didn’t change. None of the variables most significant to the lives of real Americans changed. For thirty years we’ve been experiencing economic instability; that hasn’t changed. Family arrangements, crime, our environmental footprint—none of these variables have changed in fifteen years. Those elite groups who were calling the shots before 9/11 were the same people calling the shots after. Those who have been struggling continued to struggle. Those walking the tightrope between stability and catastrophe were still walking the same tightrope. There was no substantive change in American culture after 9/11.

With a couple of exceptions.

First, we found ourselves with a trumped up pseudo-purpose, framed in many ways as a clash between good and evil. We had been missing this sense of purpose since the fall of the Soviet Union. Secondly, we allowed ourselves to be cowed by a combination of fear and the prescribed needs of this false purpose. We were clearly willing to surrender our rights to the powerful with nary a fuss.

At least for the time being. These distractions worked for a few years, until Americans realized, ‘hey! Wait a minute! There were no weapons of mass destruction. This was a lie. The Taliban and Al Qaeda were not defeated in Afghanistan. This was an omission.’ Americans started to question Big Brother, his ends and the means he constructed to achieve these false goals.

This allowed Senator Obama to run as the candidate who would restore America’s fundamental values. It’s impossible to know how many votes this gained him, but certainly there were many American voters who could no longer stomach their sacrifice of liberty in exchange for security at the feet of such a dastardly crew as the Bush Administration.

My favorite quote from Frederick Douglass is, “power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will.” It’s interesting that Douglass would choose to talk about “power” as a thing in itself rather than just powerful people. Power is an organic thing imbued in the individual…at least according to Michel Foucault. Institutions are the means of channeling that power. An institution’s capacity to influence populations is the means by which it accesses power. The institution accesses power for one reason and one reason only. To perpetuate itself. I call this the Law of Institutions.

It takes an exceptional individual to attain the highest echelons of any institution and then dis-empower that institution. The Iron Cage of Institutions predicts that those who advance the most within an hierarchy are the least inclined to reform that institution. Why should an individual change the very structures through which he or she successfully attains status, power and prestige?

It appears that Obama is not that exceptional individual. As President of the United States he is an agent of the institution we refer to as “the State,” or “the government.” As such, his attainment to the presidency, the institution’s highest office, at such a young age is demonstrative of his skill and aptitude in navigating the institutional hierarchy. He also inherited the power structures put into place by other agents of the institution and the process of rationalization that has defined the social evolution of the modern and post-modern world.

What he did not inherit was the fear, the sense of uncertainty, and the willingness to accept the abandonment of our national identity as a free and just people. Instead he came into power when people were disgusted with the direction of the nation, but also most concerned about the dismal economic condition of the nation. Understandably the war on terror became a back burner issue as the very immediate war on our jobs and homes and futures became most pressing. Without that fear and uncertainty, however, Obama was in a position in which he could not lather up the electorate to accept the compromise of their cultural values. So instead he had to normalize the dynamics of power that he inherited from very abnormal circumstances. He began his presidency with some symbolic reforms, closing Guantanamo, for instance. For the most part, however, he has preserved the status quo as implemented by the Bush Administration. Yet, without the reactionary fear compelling American citizens to agree, there is complacency about our foreign policy and a legitimate concern for our immediate wellbeing that distracts us from values based debate.

Consequently, as time progresses and the Bush/Obama power structures are further entrenched and rationalized within the institution, these abominations against human dignity become “normalized.” Once normalized, any suggestion that these new norms are actually bad becomes radicalism. In the twenty-first century it should not be radical to suggest that human beings should have due process rights, that we should be secure in our personal affairs, but here it is. The New Normal.

As the report points out, the new president did make some concessions. He ordered the closure of Guantanamo, condemned the use of torture and increased the transparency of government in national security issues. These concessions, however, did not compromise the powers accumulated under the Bush Administration to openly flout the most fundamental understanding of basic human rights. Instead of Guantanamo, there was Bagram; transparency became a sort of cloudy translucency. The right to torture was condemned, but the power to kill was instated. Due process remains collateral damage to the war on terrorism. And this is becoming perfectly normal.

As for domestic surveillance…Foucault understood the power of the gaze as the ultimate mechanism of power. Access to information about the individual, and aggregates of individuals, is power/knowledge. It is the means by which populations can be manipulated, controlled or even silenced or eliminated by those in power. At the same time, those at the bottom of the power pyramid are not able to see the mechanisms of that power from the bottom. What was, at one time, an Orwellian nightmare…is now perfectly normal.

So that leaves the objective end of Douglass’ statement, “demand.” When Obama was elected most people really believed that he would cleanse the taint of Bush politics from the halls of American government. We sat and waited, mostly satisfied with the few, relatively meaningless, changes that he made in his opening days. Perhaps he was sincere when he made these promises. He has demonstrated, however, that he is not, on his own, greater than the demands of the institution. Perhaps he can’t be blamed for this, but he certainly shouldn’t be lauded.

No. If the people want the integrity of our higher offices to be restored, we cannot wait patiently and passively for a “great man” to come along and do it. There are no saviors. There are no King Arthurs. There is no Camelot that is not constructed by the hands of common men. If the people want the integrity of our higher offices to be restored, we have to demand restoration. If integrity is to be restored to our higher offices, we must do it ourselves.



Wallerstein, Immanuel. Decline of American Power, The. The New Press, New York. 2003


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