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The potent notion of US national security.

By Diana Buttu, Special to Gulf News,Thinker

The logic of national security is so pervasive in US political discourse that it is evoked in discussions on a very wide range of issues - some of which have no clear relation to the larger protection of the national polity, or whatever "national security" actually means. What is clear from the over-reliance on this term is that it is ill-defined and difficult to use as a standard, yet it is dangerously potent because it induces fear and gives false promises of solutions.

National security is such a ubiquitous concept that public goods and basic rights are being framed in terms of their impact on this abstract notion.

Government support for education, for example, has been sold as necessary for empowering future generations to be able to defend national security. Some argue that American shortcomings in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) education create a liability for the country's security. Who is going to make all the homicidal gadgetry used in wars and assassination programmes?

The mirror image of this anxious appeal to improve the sorry state of primary schooling is the xenophobic warning that educating foreign students in STEM is a threat to society. It is a sign of a militarised society that an indisputable right, such as education, has to be discussed as an asset for societal weaponisation.

There are bountiful examples of other public goods in which a national security reasoning has been insinuated.

Headlines like the claim that the US should take in Syrian refugees because it is "good for national security". Some go further and contend that failing to grant displaced Syrians refuge is harmful to the larger country's safety and stability. As Max Fisher's well-meaning line of reasoning goes , blocking them is "bad for national security because it directly aids Daesh [the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant], both ideologically and materially, by giving the group evidence that the West is hostile toward Muslims and Syrians."

Such arguments may be intended to reach across the aisle, but they come at the cost of larger principles of humanitarianism and other moral obligations that demand refugee absorption.

Similarly, one would think that improving public health was an inherent good. But, US President Barack Obama, according to Ezekiel Emanuel, American oncologist and bioethicist, "recognises that funding global health is good for national security, domestic health and global diplomacy". In other words, the Obama's Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, which saved a million lives , still had to be couched, in part, in a security discourse.

One could add a long list of positions that are valid on their own yet have been cast with national security justifications: allowing LGBT individuals to join the military, opposing the xenophobic hatred of minorities, and visa waiver programmes that facilitate the movement of people between nations.

Even Obama felt compelled to justify the constitutionally enshrined freedom of religion as being positive for national security. In a similar vein, some have argued for environmentally responsible policies in this language. Congressman John Garamendi argued that the use of "clean energy is good for the environment," but also "good for national security". This has the odd consequence of prioritising the nation's survival over humanity's.

Even the right to secure communication technologies, which is at the centre of the Apple-FBI encryption issue, has been discussed in national security terms. Apple's CEO Tim Cook said there is "too much evidence" that limiting encryption would be "bad for national security". There is clearly an inherent good in preventing third parties from intercepting personal messages, from perspectives of privacy, the freedom of speech and individual safety. The FBI and the national security state have tried to diminish encrypted communications because they see it enabling national security threats.

This tortured (pun intended) phrase has spilled over into more trivial and seemingly unrelated matters. A letter to a help advice column in a local Ohio newspaper sought guidance about frequent napping on the job , which the writer said was "not great for national security" - he was employed in the military and worked at a missile installation. It is an exaggeration to say that that particular silo was somehow essential to the nation's preservation and well-being. There was some sense that he had to be on constant alert. National security is premised on the general presence of constant threat.

Polygamy - or polygyny - when a man marries multiple women, has been condemned on multiple grounds, including how much it damages women's rights and independence. In one published essay, the headline highlights that it is bad for national security .

The problem with relying on appeals to national security is that it only heightens the standing of this term. Since many more programmes of questionable benefit and even grave harm to the self and others are perched in national security, it is unwise for the well-meaning to legitimise it as a basis for policymaking.

The most obvious examples of the abuse of "national security" entail regrettable, illegal wars as well as intelligence agencies' covert actions that toppled governments and led to blowback. These cases are well-known. But it has also been deployed to smother debate on questionable policies.

Advocates of free trade argue to justify international agreements that cost jobs as being beneficial to national security. The signatories on a letter urging Congress to push through the authority for Obama to seal the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) included former top officials such as Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell. They argued it was essential to American leadership in the world. Such negotiations are of course secret, so these establishment veterans demanded that the public blindly trust officials.

National security is conceptually flawed on many levels. It is so amorphous, it is essentially meaningless. Does it refer to the government, that is the state, the nation or the individual citizens? Is security just physical, or material, or psychological? The whom and what questions are unclear.

Some propose succinct and straightforward definitions. A Heritage Foundation piece simply states that "National security is the safekeeping of the nation as a whole" .

The larger problem is that it is not a science, so that evaluations of what is good or bad for this artificial body - "the nation" - is itself debatable. There are entire institutions devoted to the practices of maintaining national security, of course. Yet, what is claimed as good or bad for national security is ultimately non-falsifiable. Appeals to "national security" cannot be proven true or false, but they are rampant and can drive governmental actions.

While national security seems to be too pragmatic to be thought of as ideology, it has come to hold a position that better approximates what the philosopher Karl Popper called the "pseudo-science" of ideology. Writing about psychoanalysis and Communism, he argued there were not scientific or theoretical, because any evidence of their shortcomings could be explained away.

Perhaps that is the ultimate reason why state claims about its conduct and programmes are steeped deeply in secrecy. Transparency - which itself has been cast as a threat to national security - would only reveal the arbitrary and vacuous nature of this over-used justification.

Will Youmans is an assistant professor at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.

- Diana Buttu - Joseph A. Kechichian - Gordon Robison

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Date:Apr 18, 2016
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