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New Hope for Defending Democracy

Congress, judiciary and the mass media no longer provide constitutionally mandated checks and balances; they are largely extensions of Executive power.

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The man who embodied patriotism itself warned us that our liberties were threatened at home by the "military-industrial complex" which we call here the U.S. Executive Branch, meaning the powerful Executive agencies and private corporations which lobby for and benefit from Executive funding, and have today morphed into one entity of mutual self-interest operating behind a wall of secrecy.

The U.S. Executive Branch derives much of its legitimacy from the public's belief that it is under the control of a democratically elected "Commander-in-Chief," the president. But in reality, Executive agencies are far more powerful than any president. The rarely quoted but most important passage of Eisenhower's speech was that: "this need is so sharp and apparent I confess that I lay down my official responsibilities in this field with a definite sense of disappointment."

Even Eisenhower, who knew firsthand the dangers the Executive Branch posed to democracy, could not control it. He presided over a period of tremendous growth in Executive Branch power, and only warned of its threat to freedom as he was leaving office. And if even Ike could not control it then, how can a far weaker Obama control far more powerful, sophisticated and insidious Executive Branch power today?

Yes, citizens get to vote for president every four years. But the candidates of both major parties support the same basic Executive Branch military policies. Voters in the 2012 presidential election had no one to vote for if they opposed drone strikes, threats to attack Iran, continued senseless war in Afghanistan, or the global deployment of U.S. assassins. And even when they vote for a candidate like Obama who promised greater Executive transparency in 2008, such promises are broken post-election.

But the myth of presidential control over the Executive Branch goes far deeper. Because Americans expect their president to function as Commander-in-Chief, presidents are forced to pretend to be in charge of what they are not. Barack Obama did not admit that he felt "trapped" by the military into escalating in Afghanistan, as Bob Woodward has reported. Neither a president nor Secretary of State Clinton admitted publicly what they acknowledge privately: that because of military opposition they were forced to betray their own values by  failing even to fight for ratification of such basic humanitarian measures as banning landmines and cluster bombs, let alone even beginning to bring the military-industrial complex to heel.

As giant Executive agencies relentlessly act out their bureaucratic imperatives of seeking to justify bigger budgets by manufacturing new missions—whether spying on millions of Americans, establishing a network of police operations around the country, conducting signature drone strikes against unnamed suspects, and expanding assassination around the globe—the notion that even a president who wants to can significantly reduce these activities is not only naive but dangerous to preserving democracy itself.

A Threat to Rationality

Executive claims that its immense spying on countless Americans at home is needed to protect them from terrorists abroad threatens rationality itself.

Imagine an old fashioned scale with U.S. Executive power on the left side, and the threat it claims to be protecting us against on the right. On the left we have the 1.4 million employees of the Pentagon, CIA, NSA, Department of Homeland Security and FBI, etc., 1,000 other government entities and 2,000 private companies located in 17,000 buildings collecting data on hundreds of millions of Americans' phone calls and Internet communications a year, and the world's largest arsenal of weaponry.

On the right we have the handful of Al-Qaeda members whom Mr. Obama on May 23 downgraded to a minor threat, and a few thousand Pakistani, Yemeni and North African tribesmen who would focus entirely on their domestic concerns if our leaders would stop bombing and assassinating them. Can anyone in the right mind claim we need to fund the giant apparatus at the left to protect us from the minuscule group of folks on the right?

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