NORFOLK, Conn., April 9—The evening of March 19, 2003, a Wednesday, was cold, winter-dark, and snowy where I live in the Litchfield Hills. How well I recall it. I was at the home of close friends, Sara and the late Alec Vagliano. We sat in the kitchen of their 1758 farmhouse. For reasons that belong to another conversation, I was a very frequent visitor at Sunset Ridge Farm during this time. Being designated barkeep, I would drive across the village at cocktail hour, and our evenings would commence over marts. They stretched through sup and on for many hours afterward. I will write about this quite special time someday. I have already taken many notes.
We had the television on that March evening fourteen years ago, as so often. And I recall the astonished foreboding we all felt as we watched the American invasion of Iraq. My friend Tom Harrington, who professes at Trinity College in Hartford, reminded me just this weekend how those moments are etched into many minds—well, some—not unlike the way we recall where we were when Kennedy was shot. Tom was driving somewhere. “I knew as the news came over the radio that some part of me had just broken,” he said just last evening. How well put. My parting thought for the evening is one of those insights that stays with one always. “Our institutions cannot self-correct,” I said to Sara and Alec as I got ready to re-enter the grand dark for the drive back across the village. “We can’t count on that any longer. The implications are immense, but that doesn’t make this any less true.”
I have deployed the phrase numerous times since that night. I mention it now because I used it in a column posted just last week. I always think about the moment that first prompted the thought, and so I did once again. President Trump’s decision—or, it is perfectly plain, his acquiescence in the Pentagon’s decision—to bomb a Syrian airfield brought me straight back to the cold March evening just described.
My native optimism is severely taxed these days. My last two columns in The Nation make this clear—explicitly in the second of the pair.
NOW TO MY POINT.
Some weeks ago I came in for some shrill criticism, no need to say from whom, for a column I wrote having to do with what we are now calling “the deep state.” The “Russiagate” nonsense was at fever pitch, having just claimed its second victim in the administration. After Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign as Trump’s national security adviser after 24 days in his chair, a concocted scandal was raining down on Attorney General Sessions. Who was next? Were we watching some sort of silent coup as conducted to what amounts to a deep state? This had to remain a question, but it was one that needed to be asked, and I asked it.
To give the question context, I noted a book David Talbot published a couple of summers ago. In The Devil’s Chess, Talbot lays out a case that Allen Dulles, whom Kennedy had fired as C.I.A. director in November 1961, had retreated to Georgetown, gathered his retinue of loyalists, and architected JFK’s assassination. Talbot’s is not a conclusive case, but I was willing to call it persuasive. The intent was to remind readers of the unseen power of the national security apparatus—power that had begun to accumulate during the Dulles era. Its relevance to what we were watching (and continue to watch) seemed (and seems) plain to me.
For this I was labeled in some quarters. Labels are all in many minds these days: Label it and one need not respond substantively to anything. In this case there were objections to my unwillingness to accept the orthodoxy, unanchored in anything I would count as evidence, as to Trump’s “Russia connection.” For this I was—standard stuff now, depressingly, boringly—“a Putin apologist.” I was also “a conspiracy theorist” with all this stuff about Dulles and its suggestion of a “deep state.” I do not know where along the line this phrase “conspiracy theorist” turned into an argument-ending accusation, but, of course, that is how it has come to be deployed—a perfect example of the label-it-and-forget-it phenom.
Neither do I know what people thought they witnessed this past week, as Trump more or less openly surrendered foreign policy to his uniformed national security adviser (Flynn’s replacement) and the Pentagon. So far as I can make out, and putting it very simply, it appears to me that what we call “foreign policy” is now directed by the military; as I have argued in columns, we have a military policy now, not a foreign policy, and events last week pretty plainly confirmed this. Also so far as I can make out, Lieutenant-General H.R. McMaster, the new head of the N.S.C., is something like the conduit through which policy is transmitted from the Pentagon into the White House. Ever more openly, no obscuring curtain, the former issues orders to the latter. This may be to put the point too mechanically, but something like it may indeed be so.
Maybe the term “deep state” carries connotations that are too sinister for many people. Maybe the thought of a peculiar kind of coup—invisible but right before our eyes—seems de trop. Fine. These people—the same people who are wild-eyed with Russiagate conspiracy theories, all of them impeccably free of evidence—can take their time getting used to such nomenclature. In the meantime, they can consider other terms for what has been unfolding for many weeks in Washington and was confirmed, in my view, with the U.S.A.F.’s attack on a Syrian airfield last Tuesday. What we call things is exceedingly important. In this case, one can call these events something less provocative and therefore bear less burden to think clearly about them. This is one example of the power of language. But however one settles upon on calling these events—how they are labeled—does not change what they are. They are grave.
The gravity, indeed, of events these past weeks takes me straight back to March 2003. We cannot apprehend and grasp these events with certainty, of course, as we are permitted to see ever less of our government’s operation. But the questions I asked a few weeks ago are, if anything, more validly posed now, and in the same language, than they were when I published the column to which I refer.
That, I ought to note, in available in the website’s archives.