A look at how the country has evolved since the ’80s
In 1980s, America entered the third century of her existence. This coincided with the Republican presidency of the conservative Ronald Reagan. Since then, the American society, economy and politics have gone through unprecedented transformations. Historically, the Americans have been liberal in their outlook, however, after Reagan, for the first time, more and more of them have begun to identify themselves as conservatives.
This trend towards growing conservatism became quite visible in 2000, when the readership of anti-liberal publications outnumbered that of the liberal ones. A contemporary historian John Lukacs in his classical work on the twentieth century America has highlighted at least four major transformations since Reagan that have had profound effects on the way power is being exercised within and outside by the American establishment
The first transformation has been in the over-sizing of the civil bureaucracy, particularly the Foreign Service. Though Reagan kept propagating about the evils of the ‘Big Government’, the bureaucracy in foreign affairs, the presidency and the Defense Department kept inflating. For example, the number of personnel attached with the State and War departments was much smaller before World War II, when compared with the other great powers of the time but over the years the staff employed in the US embassies multiplied tenfold.
The second transformation has been in the domain of diplomacy. Traditionally, diplomacy has been the forte of the career diplomats manning the State Department. For quite a while, it has been intruded on by the spooks from intelligence. Now, it is the CIA that administers the foreign relations. As its head is appointed by the president, therefore, it seldom dares to differ from what the presidency wants to hear from it.
The US attack on Iraq is a typical example when the CIA ‘manufactured evidence’ about Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction just because President Bush had already made up his mind to bring down Saddam, come what may. So, the Agency meekly furnished him the required ruse. While the presidency has begun to rely more and more on the CIA, its performance has been less than impressive as it failed to foresee several earth-shaking happenings such as the demolition of the Berlin Wall, the break-up of the Russian Empire in the Eastern Europe and even the 9/11.
The third transformation has been the dominance of the Defense Department over the State Department, which was initially the blue-eyed boy of the American state. Again, this shift took place in the Reagan years but assumed wider proportions under President George W Bush, whose bellicose Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wielded much greater power over the sometimes hapless Secretary of State Colin Powell.
The fourth transformation has been the most dramatic of all. It has been the militarisation of the American presidency, and by its extension, the militarisation of the foreign policy. Even those US presidents, who had had a military background preferred to employ civilian manners in words, voices and gestures during the discharge of their functions; certainly not Ronald Reagan, who, despite having no military service and having spent the World War II in the Hollywood, showed “all the marks of someone enjoying playing at soldier.” It was he, who started the practice of returning the military salute by raising his right hand up to his bare head – a gesture that was unnecessarily adopted by his successor presidents.
Notwithstanding the warning sounded by President Eisenhower about the strangulating hold of the military industrial complex over America, Reagan went head-long on a vast armament program envisaging a six hundred ship-navy. As a result, the US defense budget more than doubled from $134 billion in 1980 to $ 299.3 billion in 1990.
Intoxicated by the military might, it was Reagan, who, first, started the branding of US opponents as ‘evil’ with the inherent belief that America was the epitome of ‘good’. No wonder, controversial expressions such as ‘the axis of evil’ became common jargon for subsequent presidents. Holding high the ‘flag of goodness’, America could, now, go after the real or imaginary ‘demons’ and ‘monsters’ in every nook and cranny of the globe to uphold and spread the cause of ‘goodness’. In plain words, America had become the dictatress of the world. This was the danger against whom had forewarned the greatest of America’s Secretaries of State, John Quincy Adams, in his July 4 speech in 1821: “America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy…[if so] she might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”
The spirit of America as reflected in its revolution, the war of independence and the constitution was rooted in the beautiful traditions of Enlightenment. Thus, it remained a great role model for the whole world, for almost two centuries. Not so any more. About a century ago, a great historian Jacob Burckhard had prophetically observed: “The sudden change from democracy will no longer result in the rule of an individual – but in the rule of a military corporation. And by it, methods will perhaps be used for which even the most terrible despot would not have the heart.”
His fear has turned true in today’s America. Now, the military corporations with Pentagon as their chief patron rule the roost. That is why, the American spirit has coarsened, as is evident from unsavoury names of warplanes such as ‘Predators’, ‘Raptors’, ‘Black hawks’ and ‘Warthogs’. Moreover, due to the militarisation of the presidency, the American presidents, now, prefer to don the garb of Commander-in-Chief than to be the usual civilian presidents. Don’t be mistaken! Just recall Bush’s statement on the eve of his inauguration: “It’s great to be the Commander-in-Chief of this nation.” This remark was in sharp contrast to other presidents such as Washington, Lincoln, Wilson and Roosevelt, who governed America during its great wars yet never called themselves the Commanders-in-Chief.
The writer is an academic and a journalist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org