The Emergency State: America's Pursuit of Absolute National Security at All Costs

Mar 2, 2012

David Unger argues that because of national security fears, the U.S. has bypassed its Constitution, creating an "emergency state." The result is excessive military spending, a series of unconstitutional wars, and skewed global trade policies. He also tackles Europe's economic crisis.


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council it is my pleasure to welcome you all to our Public Affairs Program and to thank you all for coming out on this rainy day.

Our speaker is David Unger, whose name may be familiar to many of you, especially if you are a reader of The New York Times. As a veteran reporter and an editorial writer for The Times and a member of its editorial board, David has been thinking and writing about foreign policy, international economics, and military issues for some time now—all of which makes his book, The Emergency State: America's Pursuit of Absolute Security at All Costs, all the more poignant.

Since the founding of our country, it has been understood that certain values and requirements will remain constant to protect the lives, personal safety, and liberty of Americans both at home and abroad. Yet, in establishing an impenetrable society safe from both interior and exterior threats, the issue is whether these efforts have led to substantial overreach, resulting in missed opportunities, unnecessary expenditures, and damage to our democratic institutions, while failing to promote our security.

Our speaker would respond in the affirmative, and argues his case convincingly, often challenging conventional wisdom. In The Emergency State, David documents with precision how America's defense strategy has been nurtured and sustained by presidents from both parties. He believes that Democrats and Republicans alike have missed opportunities, especially when they could have rethought our defense strategy but chose not to.

This state of affairs began during World War II, under President Roosevelt, and was later normalized in the National Security Act of 1947, which created the CIA, Department of Defense, and National Security Council. Ever since, successive administrations have continued to assemble an increasingly complicated and ineffective network of security services which has diverted trillions of dollars from our essential domestic needs, and has not fundamentally made us any safer.

Our speaker characterizes this strategy as secretive and unaccountable, and argues that it is defined by an overreaching doctrine of global containment that is perpetuated in a permanent global war on terror. He goes on to posit that it is not only unconstitutional but also obsolete and counterproductive.

Now, you may reject this argument, believing that, in our post-9/11 world, increasing our military spending, compromising on our civil liberties, and increasing our network of security services not only has been but continues to be necessary. But to present his case and offer alternative ways for us to engage in the world, please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our speaker today, David Unger.

Thank you for joining us.


DAVID UNGER: Thank you very much, and thanks to all of you for getting up so early and coming out on a rainy morning.

I'm looking forward to dealing with your questions, whatever they may be. And yes, I am putting out an argument, I am trying to start a discussion. I don't think I have the last word on anything. But since the book is just out this week, I want to give you an idea of what is in there so the discussion can be more informed.

When I'm in Europe, which is where I live, "the emergency state" translates as "state of emergency." But it's not really the same thing.

This is not a Costa-Gavras film. This is not, "We woke up one night to drumbeats and martial music and tanks in the street." This is not anybody's plan to impose an emergency state on America.

As the British allegedly bumbled into their empire, we bumbled into the emergency state by making a series of ad hoc decisions over the years, not thinking about where we were going and responding to particular emergencies that particular administrations faced—and took, rather than the constitutional route, the constitutional shortcut.

And it built up. Thirteen presidents, seven Democrat, six Republican, since 1940 managed, without planning it, without an architect, to fully articulate a parallel state, parallel to our Constitution.

For example, we don't declare war anymore. The Constitution is fairly clear that Congress is supposed to declare war. That's not just a technicality; that's to get the whole country behind a war. A presidential war, as we have seen, is politically very vulnerable to ebbing support, which is not fair to the troops.

We have presidents—I won't name any names—who like to say, "I'm a war president." Well, you're not a war president in America unless you have a declared war. You don't get the war powers, which are considerable, that a president has in the Constitution without a declared war. So it's more than a technicality. But that's just one example.

The motives for creating the emergency state were always national security. There was always a national security argument. But the consequences reach beyond national security. The consequences reach to the international economic policy that we wage in part for national security reasons.

But the way we wage it—the way trade agreements are fast-tracked through Congress, the way we don't debate things which are highly consequential—although there is debate around the margins of the size of the military budget, there is no real serious debate, when we're in the current red-ink crunch, about what a large percentage of our spending and our deficit is for military.

Look at last year. Last year the government spent $3.2 trillion. It raised $2.1 trillion in taxes. Already there's a problem. I haven't mentioned the military. But last year military spending, when you count the contingency funds for Iraq and Afghanistan, were $700 million. The federal government raised $2.1 trillion in taxes and spent one-third of that on military-related expenses. That's a big chunk of the problem. And, if you are a taxpayer, you say, "Where did my taxes go? What am I getting in return for my taxes?"

A large part of it disappears before it turns into interstate highway bridges that don't fall down, before it turns into a first-class health care system. So people say, and rightly say, "The government is squandering my tax dollars; I could spend it better for the things I need," because there's such a black hole that it disappears into.

We talk about a trillion dollars in cuts, two trillion dollars in cuts, in ten years. Nobody will stand up politically and say, "Well, what about the 50 cents of every dollar of discretionary spending that's the military?" It all lands on the other 50 percent. It distorts our debate. It poisons our politics, as we can see in this year's campaign.

It distorts the way we recruit and configure our military forces. We had a Selective Service System that divided the country in Vietnam. We have a volunteer army, which solved that problem but creates another problem. It creates almost a separate military caste. It creates a country that can go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the number of families impacted are very small, and most people go about their business as before.

It changes and distorts the politics. This is not the way the founding fathers thought a democracy should go to war. The Second Amendment, the right to bear arms, is a big issue. Why is the Second Amendment in the Constitution? Because the founding fathers thought back to ancient Rome, the republic of Rome, a people in arms, which was a check on imperial war-making tendencies. You couldn't have a war unless the arms-bearing citizenry was ready to go out, leave their farms, fight in that war.

Then you got to a more ambitious Roman empire, with mercenary armies recruited by generals like Caesar, and the whole political system collapsed. That's what Jefferson, Madison, and the others were thinking about. They wanted a citizen militia. You read the Second Amendment—"a well-regulated militia," et cetera—that's the purpose of it.

Harry Truman is not a hero of my book particularly, because he systematized the emergency-state institutions and he took the wartime measures of Roosevelt into peacetime. When you have a peacetime emergency state, when does it end? Wartime ends when there is peace.

The first peacetime draft in America wasn't before World War II, it was before we were in World War II—and the question was, should it continue after 1945? We had 12 million men—mostly men, some women—in arms in 1945. They were signed up for the duration plus six months. People wanted to go home. We demobilized 78-80 percent of that army. But it wasn't the safest of worlds. The Cold War was beginning. The question was, how would we maintain an army?

Truman didn't want Selective Service. He wanted something called universal military training. That's very interesting—training, not conscription. Sort of the German model: everybody is trained, because one reason we drafted people in the peacetime years of the 1950s and 1960s was to be ready to fight. Well, if everybody is trained, then if you have a declared war you can call on those people.

Having had an experiment with Selective Service, which wasn't happy, with the all-volunteer army which, isn't particularly happy, I think that's one of the things we might look at again if we're willing to get ourselves out of this emergency-state frame.

If I did it, it would be universal, it would be male/female, straight/gay. It would provide conscientious objectors alternate service, like the Germans and the Turks do. With that many people recruited, you don't have to be strict about it. People could declare whether they are objectors or not without hurting the military capacity, and they could do Peace Corps-like things or military things or NGO [non-governmental organization] things, Millennium Development Goals things.

I think we have to look at changes in the way that Congress looks at the military budget. There's a lot of talk about earmarks. There's not a lot of talk about the way military contractors spread contracts around the country.

The F-22, which three defense secretaries tried to cancel and Gates finally succeeded in capping it—282 unnecessary planes at about $200 million a pop, which is real money—had at the end contracts in 46 states. That's 92 senators plus a majority of congressional districts.

I think that the only way you can do this is by the houses passing their own rules. You ought to make people with a contract for a particular weapon system in their district have to recuse themselves from votes on that contract if they're on the House Armed Services. Rather than House Armed Services and Senate Armed Services being packed with people there for contracts, it ought to be a negative—you choose one or the other. Again, this would have to be done, the House and Senate make their own rules. They won't make that rule—obviously, there are a lot of contributors there—unless there is popular pressure.

Can there be popular pressure? Yes, there can. We've seen it. We've seen it in two of our more unhappy decades, the 1960s and the 1970s—not happy decades in American politics because the emergency state was in crisis, the presidency was in crisis, the Vietnam War, Watergate—all of those things.

Somehow, in those years voters got the sense that they couldn't afford to just flip on the television and let the status quo continue. They put some pressure on their elected representatives, and we had some pretty good laws and pretty good hearings and pretty good reforms. It can be done in most of our lifetimes.

If people read my book and like my reform, they can start to ask their members of Congress, "Well, why don't we do it that way?" Wouldn't it be nice if the start of the budget debate was, "Okay, there goes 50 cents on every discretionary dollar, there goes $600 billion"? The numbers this year are $525 billion on the regular plus $88 billion on the contingency. That's a big chunk of money.

Though I write every year about the defense budget and how to get it down, I can't honestly say to you—I can honestly say to you that we can spend $300 billion and be perfectly well defended. I cannot honestly say to you it's good public policy to cut it to $300 billion next year. Why? Because contracts have been signed, there are penalty fees to canceling them. It's easy to build up. It's hard to wear down. But you have to start somewhere. You have to start now.

If you have a system that isn't poisoned by it being pork for the people in their district, but where representatives do their duty in a representative democracy, look at the national interest, weigh this spending against other kinds of spending or taxes, we're going to be in better shape.

The way we do the budget puts a bias in for the kinds of weapons that have been irrelevant to our 21st century wars.

I was very disturbed when President Obama rolled out the new national security statement on January 6. What disturbed me was not the winding down of Iraq and Afghanistan, not saying, "We're not going to do that again," but saying that we're going to shift two-thirds of the liberated resources to build up against a potential fight with China in East Asia.

Now, China's behavior is disturbing in the South China Sea. It has disturbed its neighbors. Its anti-ship weapons are disturbing. There are a lot of reasons to think about China. There are a lot of reasons to think hard as to whether military competition is the wisest way to meet that.

What bothers me is that, as a journalist, as a citizen, I can't proceed in that debate. I don't know what our government knows about Chinese capacities and intentions toward Taiwan, about its anti-satellite program. We can't have an informed democratic debate. We are just told, suspiciously, by the president, the secretary of defense, the joint chiefs, "Oh, that money we saved? Peace dividend? No, not peace dividend—China dividend; we're putting it over there."

I know, from writing about defense budgets for 20 years, that the high-profit-margin stuff are stealth fighters, strategic weapons, blue-ocean-navy stuff—not very useful against any terrorist foe we've ever met. Most of them do not have two ocean navies. Most of them do not have—we don't fight dog fights in the air. We haven't fought one yet against al-Qaeda. I don't rule it out, but it was only unarmed civilian passenger planes. You do that in other ways.

But these are the big-ticket items. Since the Cold War ended, there was no plausible rationale for buying them. We kept buying them. If you want to get some political rationale for buying them, there is only potential enemy in the world who is building that kind of stuff—China, with its one retrofitted aircraft carrier, its experiments in anti-ship missiles, and stealth.

The logic is too neat. I'm not saying it's wrong. I'm saying we ought to be able to debate it. We ought to debate it with more information available to the public, more information available to the Congress, and a Congress voting on these weapon systems, which isn't tied to the contracting system.

Trade agreements are another thing. You go to meetings up and down "think tank row" here. It almost goes without saying that the purpose of American foreign policy—sure, it's to protect the homeland. But that isn't what most of the effort is.

Most of the philosophy behind containment after World War II and what Tony Lake called enlargement after the Cold War was about expanding the sphere of markets and trade and globalization. American foreign policy is to make the world safe for capitalism by making it safe for democracy, or whatever the phrase de jour is on that.

But how do we do that? I've got nothing against that. We're a trading nation. It has always been in our interest to have freedom of the seas—Barbary pirates. We've always been interested in what happens on both shores of the Atlantic and the Pacific. That's how we got into the wars we went to. That's legitimate.

We have not always been interested in micromanaging the political economy of all 193 member nations of the UN and indiscriminately, as the secretary of state calls out, giving report cards and making it an issue of vital national interest or vital national security who is the next president of Tajikistan, to choose one example. If somebody becomes president of Tajikistan who is committing aggression against their neighbors, who is committing aggression against our allies, that's different. Micromanaging the world, micromanaging the political economy of the world, is not.

Globalization is the salient fact of our times. Therefore, the most pressing international economic problem is to manage globalization. But we've managed it in very peculiar ways without saying so. We've adopted particular styles—Washington Consensus, neoliberal, deregulated styles of globalization, which the economic crisis we've gone through in the last three or four years has called for us to reexamine, which competent economists speaking here, Joe Stiglitz among others, call on us to reexamine.

Neoliberal globalization—I don't want to use the jargon term—but Washington Consensus, globalization, whatever you want to call it, is not the only form of globalization available.

Let's look back at Bretton Woods I. Let's look at the Bretton Woods conference in 1944, which pioneered our globalized economy.It worked pretty well and it led to three decades in what used to be called the trilateral world of rising real income, rising productivity, rising trade, more equal income distribution. Its flaw was that it was just the trilateral world. But in fact that was an unfortunate feature of it. It didn't necessarily have to be that to succeed.

The trick is to organize a Bretton Woods II or III kind of globalization which can embrace the whole world, which can embrace the BRICs [Brazil, Russia, India, China] and the emerging countries as well.

What I see as the salient feature of Bretton Woods I was the way it married capitalism and democracy, where it recognized the relationship between the two. It did it in a very clever way. Remember who produced the Bretton Woods agreement. On the British side, Lord Keynes himself of the British Treasury; on the American side, Harry Dexter White of the New Deal and the American Treasury.

Keynes, as you may guess, was a Keynesian. His experience had taught him from the economic consequences of the peace, the economic consequences of Mr. Churchill, the general theory of money and everything else, that in order to mitigate the effects of recession it was necessary for governments to be able to intervene against the cycle with stimulus. So in designing an international monetary system, an International Monetary Fund, World Bank, proto WTO [World Trade Organization], he understood—and it was also in Britain's national interest at the point—that he had to leave scope for countries to be able to temporarily impose capital controls in times of economic crisis.

Why? Because if a country tries to do fiscal stimulus and there aren't capital controls—if the world is flat, as my colleague Tom Friedman has told us—you can create demand, but the demand you create won't call into being production within your borders, which was the whole point of the exercise for you. In other words, to put it rather bluntly, President Obama can create demand with stimulus, but the production it calls into being may well be in Germany and China, which can run balanced budgets and scold us for our red ink. Not a very sensible world.

The device by which Keynes protected against that, quite knowingly, in 1944 and 1945 was the ability to temporarily invoke capital controls. Perfectly orthodox, Nobel Prize-winning economists today say you can do that without going into a mercantilist system. I think they are probably right. I'm not wedded to capital controls.

But what we have to do is recognize that it's the marriage of capitalism and democracy we want. Where there's capitalism and no democracy, we want more democracy. Where there is democracy and no capitalism, we want more capitalism.

But they are related. I live in Europe. The health of our democracies in Europe is suffering from the model of globalization that we are living in. People are abandoning their traditional political parties, which are not able to respond to their immediate concerns. We need to reintegrate capitalism and democracy in some ways. There are proposals in the book for doing that.

How would we do that in the United States?

Well, let's take free trade agreements. I'm with the Bhagwati school, who doesn't like bilateral free trade agreements, who prefers multilateral agreements, who sees a bilateral agreement as actually protectionist in the sense that it is privileging trade with one partner, a privilege that other partners don't have.

But we don't have multilateral free trade, so we proceed through bilateral agreements, and we call them free trade agreements. We call them the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, the U.S.-Peru, U.S.-Colombia free trade agreements. But of course they are not, and we know that they are not, because a free trade agreement—these are 600-page documents, I believe, which are sprung on the Congress for fast-track action without enough time to really read them through.

A free trade agreement, as I understand it, is a half a page. It says: "There shall be no tariff barriers of any kind. Both countries agree on that, no exceptions." You don't need 600 pages for that. You need the other 599 pages to protect K Street and the campaign bundlers and the other few— the "1 percent," to use the jargon of today—in on the process from the consequences of free trade. Protect—I use the word advisedly, "protectionism." A one-page free trade agreement, headlines, title, 599 pages of protectionism. Debated? No, fast-tracked. Congress not allowed to debate it.

Would the present Congress debate it intelligently? No. How do we get from here to there? Daylight, transparency, sunlight. Let the people hear about it. Let it debate it.

You know, it says in the Constitution, Article 2 Section 8, "The Congress shall have exclusive power to regulate international commerce of the United States," just like it says, "Congress shall have exclusive power to declare war." It's our Constitution. Why can't we follow it? I think we would have healthier trade agreements.

Now, that's why my concept of the emergency state is a little different from some of the books that have been written before. It's not just the imperial presidency, it's not just the national security state, it's not—just to choose titles of the past—invisible government, permanent warfare economy.

It's all of those things, but it recognizes that driven by the unassailable argument of national security, because nothing sells in politics like fear—"next time the mushroom cloud," right? How do we know? Got to be safe. "Trust us, the missile is coming in 20 minutes." It will sell almost everything. It sold a lot of bad things.

At this moment, when we live in a very dangerous world, but not the kind of dangerous world where we have to step away from the Constitution because the ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] are coming in 20 minutes. I mean look at our undeclared wars. Look at all of them. Look at Korea, look at Vietnam, look at Persian Gulf I and II, look at Afghanistan. Was there a single one of them where there wasn't time to debate it? No. There were weeks and months of debates in the newspapers. There were the sort of phony congressional resolutions that didn't meet the congressional test of a war declaration. And then we had presidential wars.

Why can't we look at the world and honestly say, "Yes, we are the richest country in human history. No, we don't want to pay 100 percent of our income in taxes. Yes, we're the strongest military power in human history with global reach. No, we can't do everything."

In fact, as Andrew Bacevich says, we don't do very well at the wars we've been fighting, these undeclared wars, in the strictly military sense. You wouldn't think that half the military spending in the world is going to produce this U.S. military, which is coming up with stalemates or worse in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, perhaps because we are spending that money to fight tank battles, aerial dogfights. We're spending a lot of money not on the weapons needed in the war. Gates was good on that, but we wasn't good on zeroing out the other weapons.

Let's think about it. Let's think about how one of the world's oldest democracies, with one of the best democratic constitutions, with 170 years of good practice in being a constitutional democracy, with wealth and military power that is the envy of other countries, can look at the world honestly and, instead of boastfully—as in the Republican campaign debates and, sadly, as we will see in the November election from both parties—boasting about "we never apologize for anything, except burning Korans at Bagram"—that's okay, that's allowed.

Instead of this braggadocio and not exposing anything to a sound bite, let 's ask the fundamental question a democratic society should ask: How do we use our power and wealth to make ourselves safer; to make the world a better place; to do something about the inequalities that the Millennium Development Goals point to, which could be addressed effectively for one-tenth the price of what we spend on over-arming ourselves; to do something about climate change; but, most of all, the starting point of it all, to revitalize our constitutional democracy, because a functioning democracy can do a lot of things in the world and not have to be frustrated about its foreign policy and disillusioned with its politics.

We are not a direct democracy. We are not the Athenian Assembly. We can't all come out here for breakfast everyday and have those who are not Occupy Wall Street people. We're a representative democracy. We've got 300 million people. We've got a lot of territory. We can't be anything else.

A representative democracy has to work by those representatives feeling their voters. If there's one thing that every member of the House and Senate has in common, of whatever party, it's that their prime goal is to be reelected. There are two tests to being reelected, your voters and your donors. If the voters are disgusted, disillusioned, not present, or uniformed, there is just the donors. And that's what we have seen.

If, as in the 1960s and 1970s and in other interesting periods of our history, the voters wake up, turn down the TV, flip the remote to mute, read my book, then they can make their representatives be democratic representatives and make this system function.

The system—it sounds a little fuddy-duddy, 18th century, archaic, blah, blah, blah—it works. It has worked. It can work today. What doesn't work is the emergency state. After 70 years, we should see that it doesn't work and do something about it.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Richard Valcourt, International Journal of Intelligence.

Much of what you advocate resembles Ron Paul's libertarian agenda. But it seems to minimize the role into which the United States has been cast. Now, Singapore's former UN ambassador Mahbubani has faulted the United States for having made a choice under the first President Bush to cast itself as just another nation in the world, and he said that the United States must assume its role as the world's most stabilizing force.

How do you reconcile that suggestion by Mahbubani with the way that you are saying we should reduce our military and security presence?

DAVID UNGER: I'm actually not saying we should reduce our military and security presence. I'm saying we should make it more effective, that we should subject it to reality testing and retrofitting, midcourse corrections all the time. We may reduce the budget, but that's a different matter.

Start with Ron Paul. I'm not running away from Ron Paul. I want this debate to take place, and he, more than any other candidate in the race, has made this debate take place, and he has excited young people. I see it in my students. Ron Paul has the virtue of being a consistent constitutionalist, maybe a very "original intent" construction of the Constitution. Nevertheless, the Constitution is a good standard and I welcome it.

Ron Paul, unfortunately, has not been a consistent libertarian, in that he wants to bring the state into the bedroom and into a lot of places where it shouldn't go, and we part company on that. So much for Ron Paul.

Kishore Mahbubani is a person I know and enormously respect. I think some of the stuff he has been writing recently I mostly agree with.

One thing that he stresses is, looking to the East Asian model of capitalist development, he faults that the state not recognizing that it has an interest in economic policy—not that we need planning or dictation or the rest of it; but that connection I was talking about at Bretton Woods I. Kishore is very comfortable with that, he's advocating that.

I think—and you will hear echoes of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton in this, who all said that we fix our place in the world by fixing our democracy and our economy first. I think if you go along with the program I am proposing, you will also be a more robust and respected presence in the world.

I think that our inconclusive, costly, mismanaged, red-ink wars that we've fought is one reason that the JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff] was told to scale down its strategic ambitions, because it had become unaffordable.

But let's not miss the reputational damage that has been done to the United States by its go-it-alone policy in Iraq; by its turning away from the force multipliers available in the UN; for making the coherent case, which I think is very necessary, for acting outside the UN when the UN is blocked, as it is now on Syria by big-power vetoes.

But building a legitimacy outside the UN, which is not just an amoral coalition of the willing but is based on principles in the Charter, regional organizations, as the Arab League mandates for action in Libya and Syria, that's the way we ought to be going. That makes us able to act more effectively and energize allies in the world.

I think one thing I'd ask us to recognize is sort of the unstated international military division of labor. It was stated in the Bush/Rumsfeld years—"we do the war fighting and you do the nation building, the policing, the cleaning up the mess we made."

It doesn't work. No country wants the junior seat at the table. They may not have our income, but they are paying taxes and they want their taxes—if they are going to be part of the casualties, as we are seeing in Afghanistan, they want to be part of the decision making. That seems only reasonable. And, if we have common interests, they can be. If they don't, we should think about why they don't.

QUESTION: Don Simmons.

Just as a quick follow-on, do you feel that what's happening—or, rather, not happening—in Syria now reflects an absence of American leadership, and are you comfortable with that?

DAVID UNGER: Well, I'm not comfortable with what's happening in Syria. I'm very concerned with what's happening in Syria—not to journalists only, but to Syrians.

This was a long time coming, a long time building. Lots of bad policy by lots of countries, Russia prominent among them, over the years toward the Assad dictatorship. Even the ambivalent Israeli attitude of, "Oh it's good to have the Assads; they keep their promises, et cetera." The whole Iran/Hezbollah conduit that goes on up there. It took a long time to get here. It's going to take a long time to fix, as we are seeing in Egypt and Libya now.

The United States, for whatever reason, is not asserting the leadership role it could in the Middle East. It's ambivalent. It was ambivalent about the Arab Spring.

It's got three national interests. How could it not be? It needs soft landings from authoritarian regimes. It needs stability in a volatile area. It needs oil flows. It's concerned about its alliance with Israel. Sometimes you put those together and you get paralysis. It takes intelligence.

At the end of the day there's no technocratic answer to those questions. There are political choices that have to be made among multiple real and legitimate interests. The way democracy makes political choices is to talk about them. We don't talk about these choices. That's the habit of the emergency state, we don't talk about these choices. I think if we start talking about it, we'll do better.

I think that Obama's lead from behind, which he was so proud of in Libya, was comic—I mean comic. I think that what was right about it, coming off the experience of Afghanistan, was if our European partners —and I always stress in editorials that we say "European partners" not NATO partners, because Canada was doing its share—if our European partners in NATO are going to free-ride, the American people are not going to stand for NATO and spending our defense resources there.

We need to restructure an incentive situation so that Europe will do more. At the same time, Europe cannot call into being the equipment it would have from the defense budgets it didn't pass over the last five years.

We had the unique capacity to knock out Libyan air defenses. We used it. We were comfortable about using that. We also had the virtually unique capacity to have accurate tank-buster planes, A10 Warthogs. We had them. The others didn't have them. For not having them, they were shooting from 40,000 feet and it was often friendly fire. They were often hitting the insurgents. Friendly fire is inevitable in a war. That's why war should be a last resort—it's messy and everything else.

The Americans had capacity. The mandate of the UN was to reduce civilian casualties. The Americans had the capacity to carry that out better, which, for whatever reason, we were shy about using, for either inducing more from NATO or for the general squirreliness of the situation, where we fought for a resolution which didn't say what it meant, which was to defeat Gaddafi, which was the only way to produce civilians. So I think it was inexperience.

What I loved about Libya is that it waited for the Arab League vote. It crossed all the bridges that we failed to cross in Iraq in 2003. In that way it's a good template.

But Libya is going to be geopolitically easier than Syria at any time. You can't do Syria like you do Libya. But the better you do the Libyas, the more practice you have at the kind of debate and decision-making that you need for the Syrias.

QUESTION: Jim Robbins.

Thank you so much. I'm with you all the way on almost everything. I'm very concerned about how we get from here to there. Let's assume that we can find agreement to reduce our military expenditures. A lot of people are going to lose their jobs, a lot of people's oxen are going to be gored. How do we persuade those whose oxen will be gored that they can find other work, that the economy can absorb them?

DAVID UNGER: First of all, it can. The multipliers exist better in internationally competitive jobs than they do in the protected military-industrial sector. Doing the research for this book, you could see this one coming.

The New Dealers, who only sold high doses of Keynesian when lend-lease and the war came, figured they'd only sell high doses of Keynesianism postwar, which they thought they needed to avoid another recession, through military Keynesianism. It was the one form of deficit spending that the public would accept—not deficit under Eisenhower so much, but under Truman and then again under Kennedy and Johnson. So it became a myth, and it was a useful myth.

The other not-so-mythological thing is what we call the defense industrial base, which is to say, "You may not need Aegis destroyers for this war but you may need it for the next one, and if you close the only places that produce them you're going to have to go buy them from some country that may not be on your side in the quarrel." So there's an argument for retaining a small military industrial base.

But the job multipliers—the resources we free from military spending, whether we free them by having less red ink in general and a healthier, more competitive economy; or, as I would actually prefer, redirect them into other forms of job-creating stimulus—rebuilding infrastructure, schools, public services, public amenities; we still have those in Europe—either way can produce more jobs.

But how do you expect voters, who have been told duplicitously—I didn't want to say dishonestly—for the past 20 years by both parties, "Don't worry about free trade agreements. Those jobs are going away; better jobs are coming," and it didn't happen—how do you make that argument again when it happens to be right? It's going to be hard.

All the here-to-theres are going to be hard and easily assailable in sound bites and easily assailable by opportunists. The public is going to have to be vigilant and the public is going to have to make mistakes. But you know what? It gets harder the longer we wait to start the process. So let's start it now.

QUESTION: Thank you for being so sensible.

As I've been sitting here, I wanted to touch on what you just spoke about, so please expand it, in the sense that this country is so disillusioned, and so many people have forgotten how fortunate we are to be Americans. Who is most conscious of it? It's the new immigrants. And yet we are pushing them away.


QUESTIONER: Perhaps there's hope in the new secretary of defense, Leon Panetta, because he's a very wise manipulator and Washington hand and so forth. And there is a real attempt to control the military budgets, which isn't so easy.

But always, when you want people to change, you have to give them more to hope for. That's where infrastructure, and Silicon Valley—but now New York too—is going to have its high-tech centers and so forth. So how can you turn this around with The New York Times and other attention-getters and intelligent thinkers so that we stress what really will help us and not just go back to the arguments of, "Oh we need the military" and so forth?

DAVID UNGER: I'm very privileged to have my little piece of real estate in The New York Times, but I can't control the larger project. But what you say is very resonant.

Speaking of The New York Times, we ran three interesting, long articles about Apple's production in China over the past two weeks. They told you many things. They told you about the tradeoffs between new model changes and bad conditions. But the most important message I got there was that we're not talking about pajamas anymore, we're not talking about labor-intensive industry where you can't beat the price advantage.

We're talking about iPads and iPhones, where labor cost is not the largest component and where wages in China are rising anyway. What Steve Jobs felt was unassailable about production hubs in China was what we used to have: the clustering of factories, all the infrastructure near each other.

President Obama can talk about incentives for manufacturing. But there are tremendous disincentives. The corporate tax level was one of them. But the fact that you can't get the supply chains because they have been let go is the biggest one. We can do that, but we've got to do it systematically and through time.

We've got to get our politics to the point. First thing, people have to understand that politics is not about who can produce the cleanest birth certificate or sign the most pledges circulated not to do things while president; that the point of having a democratic politics is to have a government that does what the preamble of the Constitution says, provide for the common defense and the general welfare; that through our democratic system, habits, Constitution, we have the capacity to make life better for us individually and collectively. We should use government to that end.

If we are using 50 cents of every federal dollar to build phantom arsenals for phantom wars, we can't deliver on that promise. But if the voters are going to flock to Santorum or Romney because he promises he is going to turn around the Panetta defense cuts, then we can't even have that conversation.

The arguments in this book—I'm patient. It's out there. It's a long slog to turn around what we discuss by bringing more people into the discussion, by giving more people hope that the government can be about making things better instead of just about making things worse.

QUESTION: Robert Shaw.

I would be interested in your perspective, given that you live in Europe, on the themes of representative democracy, and also what you said about Keynesian stimulus, in the context of what has been happening with the Troika imposing on Greece remedies that certainly don't seem to involve great democratic participation and certainly seem to be a prescription just for further diminution of the economy and which, in my view, are a real dangerous platform for extremist politicians to emerge and for a situation to really career into a destruction of a democracy.

DAVID UNGER: All true. I think Europe has allowed democracy to default before Greece defaulted.

The European project, which was a project of postwar elites to climb out of the wreckage, was never a particularly democratic project. I guess they didn't dare let the enemies of World War II vote on closer union in some areas because they were afraid of how it would come out, and that original sin is incorporated in it. Then, at de Gaulle's insistence, the fact that Europe was always a federal counsel of nation-states rather than a real union.

I remember at Bologna, where I teach, last year someone from the University of Europe in Florence coming and presenting what used to be called the European Constitution and then got taken down when it was rejected as a constitution. The argument he was making is: "There are all kinds of constitutions. There's Britain's unwritten constitution; there's America's constitution. Just because it doesn't look like America's constitution doesn't mean it isn't a constitution."

I agree with that. I said, "From an American perspective, what I'm looking at here is the Articles of Confederation, which failed us."

That's sort of where Europe is at. It's disheartening that those countries in Europe that still think they are solvent decided that the solution was to systematically suspend democracy, starting in the cradle of democracy, Greece, but soon afterwards in Italy, the country I am in.

Fortunately, President Napolitano was able to engineer the Monti government in such a way that democracy's prospects may even be better in the next election than they were in the Berlusconi era. That's an accident. That wasn't the European intent.

I think that—I write about this once or twice and week, and have for the past two years—I'm very pessimistic. Each day we read what Merkel and Schäuble and Sarkozy have said, and we can't believe it. We can't believe they are driving this very valuable Mercedes over the cliff—valuable not just for being the end of European wars, the pride of Europe, expansion of democracy, the reserve currency, all of those things. The Suebian housewife has all the votes and the Greek citizen whose electricity was just turned off's vote doesn't count. That's not my idea of democracy.

They have a much bigger political challenge than we do. How do you repair this disaster machine in this atmosphere of crisis where everybody is scapegoating? Though I'm no fan of François Hollande and I'm no fan of the German Social Democrats or the Italian Democratic Party or New Democracy in Greece, I think there is a crisis of democracy and our only hope is at the polls. There are still elections.

In Greece right now there is an interesting underreported realignment going on, which is to say that PASOK [Panhellenic Socialist Movement] and New Democracy are so discredited that the majority actually consists of small parties who are rejecting the austerity medicine—and some are called far left and some are called far right, and they can't get together. But that's the majority, and that's where the popular will is. How that will sort out we have to see. The election is in April. So I really don't know.

In Italy, through some very undemocratic maneuvers, we bought time and the election is not going to be until 2013. Monti is using that time pretty well. It feels good on the ground.

On policy, for all of the talk and for all of his brave talk to Berlin, what we've only seen is austerity and fiscal contraction and talk about growth.

It seems to me, without being a Keynesian or not a Keynesian, that if a country has piled up debts which it needs to pay off, the last thing you want to do is close down its factories and cut paychecks. If you're not going to write off those debts—and we saw the sort of mess that led to—you are going to have to work off those debts, and to work off those debts you need more economic activity, not less.

Ideally, you want exports, not domestic consumption. But, as we talked about with the American economy, you can't make that happen if you have built an economic structure that goes the other way. You can't make that happen instantly.

Just look at the numbers. Just look at Italy's debt of 120 percent of GDP. That was an honestly acquired debt through a monetary austerity regime to qualify for entry in the euro to defeat inflation ten years ago. It hasn't grown since then. Italy has had a primary balance or a primary surplus for the last four, five, six years.

But what has been a deficit obviously has been debt service, and when debt service was at the common European rate, which is to say the German rate plus a small premium, 3.0-3.5 percent, that was perfectly sustainable. When it went to 7 percent, that was perfectly unsustainable.

Every political discussion in Italy starts with "low spread," the spread of Italian rates over German rates. What people over here don't get, and what people over there don't get, is that the acuteness of the problems faced by Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Greece, and Italy right now, is primarily about the interest rate premium they are paying over the credit of Europe as a whole.

That's why we've had this obscure discussion about why can't the ECB [European Central Bank] issue Eurobonds, because if Europe assumed the existing debt in exchange for going-forward reforms, that debt is a payable burden. Nobody has to get haircuts, nobody has to write down, nobody has to burden share.

But if Merkel and Schäuble—I don't want to say "the Germans" because the Greens and the Social Democrats have been making a different argument—are going to peddle this moralistic line "The Greeks have sinned, the Greeks have partied, the Greeks have been in the sun and at the beach while we here in dark Germany get up early and go to worthy breakfasts and have book talks," we're not going to get anywhere.

I'm not saying anybody is blameless. I'm saying there is no solution through blame. We'll have the morality play later. Let's get the economy fixed.

QUESTION: Jeff Epstein.

You haven't talked at all in your emergency state about the role of the Supreme Court, the third branch, Citizens United, the argument yesterday on the wonderful statute we passed about locking up this poor guy who talked about the Medal of Honor thing, et cetera, the Bush decision, the right to bear arms decision, et cetera. How does that play into your overall thesis?

DAVID UNGER: If the answer is the Constitution, the Supreme Court can't be ignored, right? The founders created the Supreme Court as a third branch, but as a third political branch. John Marshall himself had been an elected member of Congress. That was the understanding. Judicial review came later and the rest of it.

Our system works and can work fine, like the British system, where people come out of politics and are chosen to play a different role and have life tenure and have independence. But that means that the Constitution is Dred Scott, the Constitution is Plessy v. Ferguson, the Constitution is Curtiss-Wright, the Constitution is Bush v. Gore at any given moment.

We tried out an argument on The Times' editorial page last week. I claimed some paternity to the argument—I don't know if anybody believed it. We were arguing for cameras in the Court. Someone in the Congress had introduced legislation mandating cameras in the Court, which we thought was an intrusion on the separation of powers. So how do you square that circle?

What I suggested, and we wrote, was that the Court derives its power ultimately from its legitimacy and public opinion. There is a history there—you go to the Roosevelt court packing, you go to Bush v. Gore, you go to switch in time and all the rest of it—that the Court should make its own rules but it can't come out with some interpretation of the Constitution which consistently doesn't pass popular muster. After all, the elected branches renew the membership of the Court as time goes on.

So again, as with all remedies in the emergency state, it starts with the people, it starts with the informed voters. If people start saying, "This deference you've been granting to the executive branch since Korematsu, since the Japanese internment case; since Curtiss-Wright, when fraud allowed innocent civilians to die and you've invoked the state secrets clause, that they didn't have to bring forth the evidence; some of the decisions you mentioned—this is not the Constitution as we understand it."

It has to come from an educated electorate who has to know what's going on. Fortunately, when it comes to Supreme Court decisions, they are more available to you and I today than they ever were before through the Internet. We can all download majority opinions, dissenting opinions, old opinions. It's great. It's not like national security, where things are classified.

But that's not what we're spending our time doing. We're watching celebrity channels and cartoons. Celebrity channels and cartoons have their place. But so does our democracy, particularly when it's in trouble.

JOANNE MYERS: We need a reality show about democracy, right?

DAVID UNGER: There you go.

JOANNE MYERS: With that, I want to thank you really for a most informative, provocative, and stimulating discussion, which I hope sparks the debate and will carry forward.

DAVID UNGER: And thank you for your questions.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you all for coming. That was terrific. It really was.

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