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BOOK REVIEW: National Insecurity: American Leadership In An Age Of Fear

By Thomas S. Neuberger
January 26, 2015

“None of us that day in Georgetown could possibly have imagined the degree to which the al-Qaeda attacks could achieve their goals of shaking America to its very foundations. Indeed, it hardly seems possible that bin Laden himself could have imagined that the superpower against which he had struck would so consume itself with a desire for revenge and to restore a sense of security that it would spend trillions of dollars it could ill afford, deplete to the point of near inoperability its armed forces, violate the most fundamental principles for which it had long stood, alienate its allies, and ultimately turn inward.” (7)

On 9/11, while the nation was under attack, the author lunched with a former CIA Deputy Director, and one former and another future White House National Security Advisor. He believes that for the first time in American history we went to war that day not through reason but through our emotions caused by a universally shared image of the attack. This moment which “electrified us . . . spoke without translation or dilution to our animal selves” and lead to “an era in which emotions . . . more than reason” govern our actions as a nation. (3-4) Thus dread has caused innumerable mistakes which have cost us our freedoms as American citizens as we entered an Age of Fear due to “a terror threat that was and is grotesquely overstated.” (11)

To understand how this state of affairs came about, since he is somewhat of a national security insider himself, the author interviewed over 100 members of the Bush and Obama administrations to give us a glimpse of what it was like in the “innermost circles of American power” in this crisis which transformed the process of making national security policy and enhanced an already imperial American presidency. (2) By means of his interviews, quotations from books written by these government actors and other public statements of officials at the highest and middle levels of government, the author reconstructs for the reader in great detail the entire history of American foreign policy since 9/11, and the most often times failed process whereby policy was adopted and implemented. And so, for example, we learn in this overly minute history that the national security apparatus in the White House after 9/11 now has ten times the staff it had under President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, but with much poorer results for the welfare of our nation, in this reviewer’s opinion.

If you are a political junkie, this book is for you. If you want to know how many policy reviews and studies were done and by whom before President Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan, this history is for you. If your desire is to understand the politics and personalities behind the imperial presidency at this time, this is the place. But if you are looking for a nuanced analysis of America’s misplaced role in the world since World War I, or even since 9/11, you should read instead The Emergency State - America’s Pursuit Of Absolute Security At All Costs,” by David C. Unger, which I reviewed here 14 months ago.

The ever evolving “mismanaged and misconceived wars in Iraq and Afghanistan” (22) are analyzed scrupulously and are described as this generations equivalent to the Vietnam debacle which haunted Presidents Johnson and Nixon. In the author’s words –

“America’s intervention in Iraq was roughly akin to dancing atop an earthquake: we were there, we were active. But bigger forces were at work over which we had effectively no control – a rift that dated back some 1400 years to a succession dispute in the year 632 after the death of the Prophet Mohammed. In retrospect, the notion that the brief intervention of the United States would be able to manage, sidestep, or resolve that tension is one of the most colossal examples of foreign-policy hubris in modern memory.” (58)

President Bush, and politicians in general during the Bush years, also are called to task for playing “on the country’s collective post-traumatic stress disorder to achieve a wide array of non-terror related goals.” This litany includes more money for local police departments who became “first responders,” port and infrastructure upgrades to “harden assets,” etc. (110-111) However, the author does spend some time also trying to rehabilitate the image of President Bush during his second term, when he is said to have matured, and in other areas, such as AIDS relief in Africa, resetting our relationship with India, and surviving the world wide financial meltdown. History will await the final say in that regard.

For this author, President Obama, his advisors and the national security process fare no better in mismanaging Afghanistan or our relations with Putin’s Russia, which sees the U.S. as a wounded hypocritical bullying country debilitated by two financially draining wars. Interestingly, the author points out that during the financial crisis Russia sought to have China pile on with it to take down the financial system, but the Chinese would have no part in that great power game, apparently due to their stake in the world economic system and the players President Bush had working to satisfy them. Interestingly, the author observes that the danger with the Russians after the fall of the Soviet Empire in 1990 is the same one encountered in Weimar Germany after World War I. A defeated enemy needs to be rehabilitated, as was done successfully after World War II with Nazi Germany and Japan. Otherwise, its leaders and people will wish for former glory, as appears to be the case with Putin.

The Middle East, the Cairo speech, Israel, Iran, the Arab Spring, Syria and the policy process or lack of process in each area are addressed fully in like minutia. Predator drone policy, the NSA surveillance of American citizens, PRISM spying, and cyber-warfare are addressed also before the writer concludes with the gossamer hope that the next occupant of the White House will learn from the mistakes of the past and avoid repeating them.

William Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar that the "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” In the end, Mr. Rothkopf also appears to place the fault for the misplaced role we play in the world at the feet of our individual citizenry which has let its fears and PTSD substitute for reason. He powerfully observes that it was the sage 28 year old Abraham Lincoln in 1838 who noted that we could only lose our freedoms from within, which is our current state of affairs. (12)

“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freeman, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Perhaps it was the intent of the attackers on 9/11 to so sow fear in us that we would eventually destroy ourselves and the institutions which safeguard our freedom and liberty. As Rod Serling prophetically warned in his 1960 Twilight Zone episode entitled “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street,” if someone creates an irrational sense of insecurity and fear in us we then will destroy each other out of that anxiety.