Roger Cohen: The Doctrine of Silence

By Gary Sick

Roger Cohen, my favorite columnist at the New York Times, combines the uncommon qualities of courage and analytical astuteness. He sees beyond the horizon and does not flinch from describing what he sees — even when that is disturbing or contrary to the conventional wisdom.

A classic example is his description of the U.S. “Doctrine of Silence.” All of us are aware of crypto-military campaigns by stealth drones, targeted assassinations, cyber sabotage, and massive intelligence surveillance. But Cohen goes a step further and identifies this post-modern warfare as a new approach to international conflict and a conscious alternative to George Bush’s War on Terror.

I find his argument entirely persuasive, and I also share his unease. When we appoint ourselves judge, jury and executioner, and when we go to war without public acknowledgement or authorization — and a near-total absence of accountability — we risk sliding into an illusion of impunity.

Cohen suggests that this is the “Likudization” of U.S. strategy, comparing it to the targeted assassinations conducted by Israel against its enemies. But it could also be seen as rule by impunity in any political system.

In Egypt, the corrupt Mubarak regime ruled by means of “emergency laws” that essentially lifted all legal and constitutional restraints in the name of national security. Is the United States — under whatever president or party — evading all meaningful public discourse and constitutional oversight by operating in the shadows?

Are we still a democratic society when the most important strategic decisions of life and death are made in secret, visible only to those initiated into the mysteries of the covert inner sanctum?

In the case of President Obama, this represents a less costly and less dangerous alternative to the Bush Doctrine of perpetual war. But what happens when the Bush wars are over — as they probably will be soon — and we still have both the culture and the instruments to disabuse ourselves of anyone or anything that disagrees with us, or perhaps simply annoys us?

The new tools at the command of the commander in chief make it possible to imagine international conflict as a video game — just zap anything that gets in your way. These tools may have been invented as a side product of the war against Al-Qaeda, but they will survive the annihilation of Al-Qaeda. They will be temptingly available to deal with any and all future challenges to U.S. power — real or imagined.

This Terminator Toolbox will be available to any future American leadership, for use in any conceivable set of circumstances. Already we find it being used against American citizens without benefit of due process. What would Richard Nixon have done with this stealth weaponry when confronted with popular opposition to his Vietnam policies, or out of paranoid fear of his political opponents?

Having created this extraordinarily powerful weapon, is it reasonable to expect that it will not be used? The attempt to impose restraints on the Executive Branch in the initiation and conduct of war has proved to be largely illusory. What is the prospect of public regulation of instruments that do not yet even have a name?

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