Sunday, 20 October 2013

Why the Department of Homeland Security is Preparing for a Civil War

Various American bloggers have written, in terms ranging from concern to outrage, about the increasing militarisation of the DHS, especially its recent order for around 3,000 mineproof armoured personnel carriers. Most of them explain this in terms of President Obama's alleged intention to impose communism on the American people by force, though a few years ago, many of them were as wary of President Bush and a "fascist" agenda. Seeing the nation's shiny new secret police force tooling up for war, rather than policing, understandably tends to feed any unease that people happen to have.

But what the DHS is doing, and what the bureaucracy was doing by getting the politicians to create the DHS in the first place, is indeed to prepare for civil war, because civil war is what happens when a political system fails. The bureaucracy has probably been able to sense impending failure in the American political system for a couple of decades, even if the possibility has only dawned on some political pundits and journalists (Max Hastings, for example) in the past fortnight or so.

The DHS and its civil war-fighting capacity is the bureaucracy protecting itself, but anything which needs funds and legislation, has to be sold to the government of the day before they in turn sell it to the public, and that requires the policy to be framed in terms of the incumbent's dogma and ambitions, leavened by the concerns of the constituency that elects him. To take an example from the UK: both John Major and Tony Blair separately attempted to sell exactly the same ID card policy to Parliament and the public, but with completely different sets of arguments. (Both of which were utterly spurious through and through.) Mr Major clutched at straws quite noticeably trying to find a justification for ID cards that would appeal to Conservative voters, so he largely went for the prevention of benefit fraud and a bizarre line of reasoning that ID cards would somehow reduce the incidence of teenage pregnancy. Medawar never understood how that was supposed to work, but he understands well enough that Mr Major needed to retain the support of John Selwyn Gummer (Party Chairman at one point) with his influence over the party's grassroots supporters. (Gummer was never widely loved elsewhere.) Had Mr Major needed the support of the sports journalist Jimmy Hill, ID cards would have been the key to improving the state of English football. It was Gummer's support he needed, though, so ID cards can help prevent teenage pregnancies. 

Blair's support of ID cards was, characteristically, much more bullying in nature and took the form of a relentless tax-payer funded multi-million-pound smear campaign against anyone who expressed a reason for not wanting national ID cards. If you had done nothing wrong, you had nothing to hide (why, then, are Mr Blair's present day business finances so opaque?) and anyone who opposed ID cards was helping terrorism. This argument collapsed when it became apparent that none of the 7/7 bombers would have had the slightest trouble getting an ID card and using it to facilitate their crime. One of them was already under MI5 surveillance, but not on the basis that they expected him to commit any crime himself. A police state doesn't create security when its officers can't see what's under their noses.

Coming back to the militarized DHS, the DHS is ostensibly a creation of George W. Bush and the main reason why the militarization has happened under Obama, is that the whole (huge) organization was being raised from nothing and it simply wasn't ready for the heavy weapons under Bush. But the Bush administration put in the organizational network, the communications, the intelligence gathering and started to build the data centres needed to store details of just about every communication made in the USA and other developed countries. It also ensured that the new Denver airport would be the centre of the mother of all logistics bases. Denver is only a strategic location for a civil war in the United States. It doesn't help anyone win a foreign war.

Obama just happens to be president when this infrastructure approaches readiness and now needs to be stocked with weapons and munition stocks. Because he's supposed to be in charge and has to make the announcements and speeches, all the material justifying the stocking up phase of preparing for a civil war has been drafted to appeal to him and presented by a team of speechwriters and policy wonks indoctrinated with his beliefs. So it's naturally terrifying to conservatives. But it's all to arm the infrastructure put in place by George Bush's conservative Republican government, which the liberals constantly proclaimed to be a threat to civil liberties and everything else. The militarized DHS is not there for any particular ideological side in the expected civil war: it isn't there to make sure a particular side wins. It is there to make sure that someone wins and one day returns the United States to some kind of effective government.

The political system is failing partly because liberals and conservatives are equally unable to muster majority support in the country and therefore in Congress, and this means that even if they resort to armed conflict rather than filibustering while Washington burns (again), the results of fighting between two roughly equal forces would be just as inconclusive as the deal to end the government shutdown. Inconclusive civil wars do not stop and the numbers killed in the fighting are dwarfed by those who starve, freeze or otherwise die from the lack of working civil infrastructure over several years. The DHS may flip a coin to decide which side they support, or (more probably) they will grab some independent politician or other public figure to be a figurehead for a war of institutional survival.

The result of this may be decisive, but it will lead only to government: not necessarily good government and not, for generations, democratic government. The fighting will be briefer than it might otherwise be, but it will also be ruthless and heavy-handed for the sake of swift results. Thirty to sixty million dead wouldn't be an unreasonable expectation.

The alternative to all that, would be to rediscover politics. Not in the sense of tricks and tactics to outflank and frustrate opponents until they resort to unlawful and undemocratic means, but in the sense of finding the deal that can be done, talking to the reasonable people on both sides and leaving the wildmen out in the cold, as Sinn Fein and the DUP were able to do, but Democrats and Republicans have not. This can be done without compromising principle and belief, and it should be done without compromising principle and belief, but if politics in the Senate and the House are conducted in a spirit of a civil war in stalemate, a real civil war will be the inevitable result.

In which case, getting the DHS ready to fight a civil war is realistic, albeit morally quite the wrong thing to be doing. The bureaucracy can produce a black-suited army to fight a civil war, but the one thing it cannot do, is change the way professional politicians choose to conduct their trade. That is the fundamental problem, and if the bureaucracy's solution to that is unacceptable, then America has a very limited time left in which to make its politicians do the other thing.

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