Last year a Newsweek article made public President Obama’s reading list. Its message was promising: A third of the books focused on former presidencies. Yet according to “The Emergency State,” David C. Unger’s ambitious and valuable overview of 20th-century presidents and national security, Obama has unfortunately picked up the bad habits of his predecessors. They have created what Unger calls emergency state government — policies by which America’s security interests are defined with an ever-increasing expansiveness. Over the past century, Unger argues, America’s presidents have incrementally institutionalized the emergency state and in so doing have weakened the country morally, constitutionally, financially and most of all in terms of security itself.
According to Unger, a longtime foreign affairs editorial writer for the New York Times, the rationale for the emergency state emerged in the early 1900s with Woodrow Wilson’s evangelical promise to make the world safe for democracy. But it took the personality and genius of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the godfather of the emergency state, to put into place its more unsavory elements. In the name of national security, FDR enhanced executive power, crafted foreign policy in secret and devious ways, authorized far-reaching and possibly illegal policies against Japanese Americans, and misled the public about his intentions and behind-the-scenes directives.
After FDR, both Republican and Democratic presidents set the pattern of the emergency state. Harry Truman “locked in [its] policies and politics” by waging an all-encompassing cold war rather than pursuing a more nuanced relationship with Soviet Russia, and overseeing the passage of the 1947 National Security Act, which created the architecture of emergency state government: the Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Security Council. Eisenhower authorized the CIA’s policy of toppling governments around the globe. And, in a move that Unger finds unforgiveable, John F. Kennedy made the executive unaccountable for its decisions by creating the position of national security adviser, a post subject to neither congressional confirmation nor oversight.
For Unger, all this undermines the Constitution and violates the intent of the country’s founders and 19th-century presidents to steer clear of foreign entanglements. By the time Lyndon Johnson entered the White House, all the elements of the emergency state were in place, and each successive president chose entanglements and evasion over transparency, legality and independence. Following “his political mentor and presidential model,” FDR, Johnson lied to the public about his intentions to escalate the American presence in Vietnam, bypassing Congress and relying on covert operations — and ultimately deciding not to seek reelection in 1968 as a result. Richard Nixon and, to a lesser extent, Gerald Ford aimed to strengthen the emergency state but, with Watergate and its aftermath, accomplished the opposite, “discredit[ing] three crucial pillars of the emergency state — the White House, the CIA and the FBI.” Then came Jimmy Carter, singular in eschewing the deceitful and destructive ways of the emergency state but politically naive and ultimately unwilling to give up presidential powers. He tried his best to pull the country out of the dark hole into which it had fallen but was too ineffectual to do so.
It was up to Ronald Reagan to find a way to restore the glory days. Under his command, the emergency state reasserted itself with renewed strength, along with the telltale signs of secrecy, deceit and disregard for the law. With Iran-contra, Reagan’s NSC bypassed Congress and the secretaries of state and defense and reclaimed the confrontational stance taken by Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy. Once the Soviet empire — America’s premier rationale for military expansion worldwide — crumbled, it was left to George H.W. Bush to face the challenges of a new kind of foreign policy: one that focused on a new enemy, the “rogue state.”
But no one seems to disappoint Unger as much as Bill Clinton, “the first American president born under the emergency state.” Armed with the leadership qualities of FDR, the global vision of Eisenhower and Nixon, and a Carter-like suspicion of the emergency state, Clinton nonetheless preferred “enlargement” to downsizing. He encouraged Americans who, “by 1993 . . . were politically addicted to the role of leader of the free world,” to intervene around the globe in places peripheral to U.S. interests, such as Africa, Haiti and Bosnia.
Unger’s disappointment overlooks the fact that, in his narrative, Clinton, while committed to expanding America’s global dominance, does not invoke the more nefarious mechanisms of the national security state, such as implementing unconstitutional measures or encasing foreign policy in a never-ending web of secrecy. To maintain his position that all recent presidents have furthered excesses in the name of national security, Unger holds Clinton accountable not for constitutional violations or corruption, but largely for damaging America’s economy by ignoring foreign-policy-related economic challenges, refusing to curtail the military budget and failing to protect the domestic economy, which essentially “hollowed out the remaining competitive strengths of American industry.”
Unger gives disappointingly brief treatment to the two most recent presidencies and, in so doing, unfairly conflates them. One might criticize Obama for failing to make good on his promise to close Guantanamo or to restore rights generally in the war on terror. But to link his tactics to those of the Bush administration when it comes to foreign policy decisions obfuscates rather than enlightens. To give the most glaring example, Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney, met repeatedly and secretly with intelligence officials to craft a deceitful story of WMDs in order to lead the country into war with Iraq. This seems a far cry from sanctions and diplomacy that the Obama administration is using in Iran. Here as elsewhere, one can only wonder whether Unger sluffs over distinctions that might make all the difference.
In contrast to Unger’s relentless pessimism, Kip Hawley and Nathan Means’s “Permanent Emergency” provides a more upbeat story by focusing on one piece of the national security apparatus. In memoir fashion, Hawley’s narrative traces the story of the the Transportation Security Administration, created in the immediate wake of Sept. 11, 2001, and charged with improving airport security. In matters of transportation, Hawley demonstrates, the trade-off is not security vs. American values and constitutional protections, but security vs. efficiency, effectiveness and public approval.
By 2004, TSA employees, routinely demoralized by passenger resistance, were overcome by “hopelessness.” Meanwhile, the public was fed up, tired of delays and seemingly indiscriminate searches. In 2005, Hawley inherited an agency whose workers were disgruntled and whose work was thankless.
Hawley’s solution was to professionalize the work by making intelligence a central part of the agency’s mission. After his promotion to administrator, the TSA was newly included in the Department of Homeland Security’s morning intelligence telephone call. Armed with insights into the updated plans of al-Qaeda, Hawley used this information in part to update the agency’s policies and practices.
Hawley’s defensive account of the importance of the TSA extols, among other things, the passions of patriotism as a useful counterterrorism tool. Throughout his narrative he brings to life details of incipient threats around the globe in an effort to justify his agency and to motivate its workers. He brings to the fore the way in which the emergency state that Unger describes trickles down to the average man: Security is a rallying cry for patriotism, however much it undermines the country’s legal and moral foundations.
Whether observed from the heights of the executive branch or the grittiness of the airport security line, the security agenda that defines 21st-century America continues to challenge the sense of safety and trust in its institutions that its citizens deserve.
THE EMERGENCY STATE
America’s Pursuit of Absolute Security at All Costs
By David C. Unger
Penguin Press. 359 pp.. $27.95
Inside the TSA and the Fight for the Future of American Security
By Kip Hawley and Nathan Means
Palgrave McMillan. 260 pp. $27