Charles P. Pierce has a nice piece in Esquire about Obama’s secret wars, waged entirely inside the Executive and almost totally independent of Congress, in explicit contravention of the Constitution and what every notable American revolutionary in the late 18th century believed. Pierce reflects upon the Reagan administration’s deep plunge into covert imperial warfare and the 31st anniversary of the beating, rape, and murder of four Catholic missionaries in El Salvador by U.S. -supported death squads (I wrote about some associated Reagan-era U.S.-supported atrocities in El Salvador here).
The death squad carried out this mission at the direct order of the Salvadoran government, a right-wing horror show of which President Ronald Reagan and his incoming administration were quite proud. When Republicans boast of Reagan’s foreign policy triumphs, murder and rape is part of what they’re talking about. The four women — American citizens and clergy, mind you — were brutalized on December 2.
Pierce says that U.S. interventions into Central America in that time were “a rat’s nest of blood and corruption, conducted largely in secret, often in direct contravention of both the Congress and the will of the American people.” He cites this piece in the National Journal about the Obama administration’s relentless clandestine warfare, which illustrates how comfortable and nonchalant not just the political elite, but the media, are with this inherently authoritarian feature of routine American governance.
Secret wars are still wars. There will be atrocities. And, because this is the nature of all governments in all wars, these atrocities will be covered up and lied about. But the problem with secret wars is not that they are secret from the people on whom they are waged, or the people who simply live in the country where they are waged. As Doonesbury once memorably pointed out, the “secret bombing” of Cambodia wasn’t any secret to the Cambodians. But secret wars, waged by the Executive branch beyond the reach of congressional oversight, inevitably lead to a deep and abiding corruption in the government of this country. It is unavoidable now. It was unavoidable in the 1980’s, when Reagan and his band of geopolitical fantasts were running amok in Central America.
…Secret war is anathema to free government. Period…you cannot make the argument that secret wars conducted by the Executive are consonant with constitutional government, because they are not, and they never will be…
The fact that governments have an interest in keeping their wars secret should be an indication of why they’re so unacceptable. But the political culture in America has shifted so radically away from the principles of a government that is limited in its powers and transparent in its enterprise, that prescient warnings that we all learn in elementary school would sound like they were from Mars if uttered in the White House press room or asked of the Republican presidential candidates. Irrelevant is Madison’s 1793 warning that “war is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement” and that “in no part of the constitution is more wisdom to be found than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department.”
Secret war leads to forever war. And “as anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of world events knows,” writes John Mearsheimer, “countries that continuously fight wars invariably build powerful national-security bureaucracies that undermine civil liberties and make it difficult to hold leaders accountable for their behavior; and they invariably end up adopting ruthless policies normally associated with brutal dictators.” The extremist power grabs of the current administration and the previous are evidence enough.