A life of fear
WE ARE CAUGHT UP IN A COURSE OF EVENTS THAT ARE NEARLY AS opaque in motivation as they are dramatic and often tragic in their effects. The United States answered jihad by carrying the war on terror to Afghanistan, but then seemed to veer by invading and occupying Iraq. We cannot say now how the sequence will develop. The situation must change; it may change rapidly or seem to, and then change again. Hunches about the future may be possible, but not predictions. Though predictions are not possible, analysis is necessary, even if it can only be strained and provisional. When motives are opaque, analysis becomes more difficult than usual, barely possible. In the present situation, motives are often opaque and become more opaque when principal actors take pains to hide them and also try to obscure the obvious (helped by the establishment press) and to distract attention (helped by the mass media). Nonetheless, we have to try to understand our situation, despite the obstacles.
Serge Schmemann says that contemporary history is the hardest to write and the easiest to criticize (2004). We are thus cautioned that those who analyze the present are prone to make serious mistakes. There will always be some opacity in human affairs; our understanding can go only so far. Principal actors themselves often cannot give a full account of their motives, even to themselves, even if they want to. Whenever several policy motives are in play, their ranking in importance will differ from one principal to another; even in the mind of one principal, the ranking may shift from time to time. It is often impossible to find a stable deepest level in many of the principals. Outside observers are reduced to piecing things together faultily. To appropriate Emerson’s words about human beings in “Circles”: “there is a residuum unknown, unanalyzable” (1983 : 406).
We are told that there is much to fear, but the warnings, though frequent, are often vague. Of course the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, by Muslim terrorists or jihadists is an event so clear and direct that it seems to need no analysis. When effects are truly dramatic, the concern on the part of the attacked party to comprehend the causes tends to evaporate or is thought frivolous or absurd, perhaps indecent. Only effects occupy the full attention, as if there were no significant prior events linked to the dramatic deeds. Officials set out to combat the effects–above all, to inflict retaliation for the sake of retaliation but also to neutralize the attackers. However, we must not let the drama and the tragedy of September 11 disable analysis.
For a start, we can entertain the thought that the destruction of the World Trade Center was intended by some of its participants and understood by many of its sympathizers as an act of revenge–a vengeful strike–against what is perceived by many Arabs and Muslims as a constellation of Western imperialism, Israeli colonialism, and Arab and Muslim subservience. All the elements preceded Bush’s presidency, but he has made them a good deal worse. From the perspective of Arabs and Muslims, the Bush administration’s almost total acquiescence in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s policies (starting in spring 2001) was a definitive decision that served to steel the resolve to produce a dramatic act of vengeance. The constellation of elements arouses in the already inflamed religious or ethnic imagination of the Arab and Muslim world a dread of the West’s tyrannical intentions and a hatred of its tyrannical deeds–dread and hatred just like those felt by Western peoples throughout their history.
The recently revealed American policy of torture of combatants captured in Afghanistan and Iraq is simply the most dreadful expression of tyranny–not in scale but in planned intensity of degradation. The pursuit of usable intelligence was not the source of the policy. How could it be? The specific deeds of those tortured were rarely known; those who were tortured were available to be tortured. The most important tactical result is that the friends and allies of the United States can henceforth treat their captives as they please in the knowledge that what they do will not be worse than what the United States has already done. But even before American torture took place, it was as if the United States had made a policy of daring Arabs and Muslims to resist and taunting them for their weakness. Then, too, the inflammation of Arab and Muslim indignation is made yet worse by an outraged sense of superior religious piety.
The political response of the weaker side in many kinds of conflict may take the form of a gesture. So obviously gestural was the attack on September 11 that it inspired the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen to say that the destruction of the twin towers was “the greatest work of art ever,” the manifestation of Lucifer (the demon of light) in New York. His words were shocking only because they disclosed the obvious. He was pointing as much to the unrestrained imagination of the planners and attackers as to the awe-struck perception of observers (Stokchausen, 2001: 76-77). His remarks after all are not far from what the 9/11 Commission says of the ambitions of an Al Qaeda principal, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed: “This is theater, a spectacle of destruction with KSM as the self-cast start–the superterrorist” (2004: 154). If KSM’s desire to “make a media statement” was not bin Laden’s, it was certainly congruent (2004: 154-155). The dramatic effects of September 11 dwarf those of any subsequent properly military encounter between combatants, no matter how destructive. We may therefore choose unwisely to concentrate exclusively on those effects and see the attack as an uncaused and hence inexplicable act–perhaps as pure evil. But gestures–even those that appear Luciferian–are not uncaused, not unmotivated.
The interpretation of September 11 as, in appreciable part, a gestural act of revenge is largely unthought in the United States and rarely surfaces. If it is a caricature, it is not just a lie. The American public remains incurious about the possible background causes of September 11, as if that tragedy could have no sources in grievance or the sense of being wronged and despised. In fact, the musicologist Richard Taruskin voiced a widespread sentiment when he said shortly after September 11 that the “only way” to defeat terrorism “is to focus resolutely on the acts rather than their claimed (or conjectured) motivations, and to characterize all such acts, whatever their motivation, as crimes” (2001: 36). How bizarre for a scholar, of all people, to disown an interest in causes, even the causes of crime. A refusal to try to understand the adversary sustains the brutal simplicity (should we call it Schmittian?) of Vice President Dick Cheney’s more recent remark: “Such an enemy [‘the terror network’] cannot be deterred, cannot be contained, cannot be appeased, or negotiated with, it can only be destroyed.” Unfortunately, the 9/11 Commission report provides a variation on Cheney’s theme: “It [bin Laden’s program] is not a position with which American can bargain or negotiate. With it there is no common ground–not even respect for life–on which to begin a dialogue. It can only be destroyed or utterly isolated” (2004: 362).
We have a great deal to fear, but there is something to fear in the very war on terrorism. The government’s response to fear may itself cause fear in those it is meant to protect, not only in those against whom it is waged militarily, and in those third-parties who observe and may grow alarmed by the display of American retaliatory power. For the time being, American citizens fear only the terrorists, not their own government as it fights the terrorists. What I call for (and I am hardly alone in doing so) is not to direct fear away from terrorists, but to expand the scope of fear to include the American government and its close collaborator, Israel. More accurately, I believe that we should extend suspicion or vigilance (to use a Jeffersonian word) toward the Bush and Sharon administrations. Muslim terrorism is an enemy, but it is an enemy that these two administrations find it immensely useful to have. This realization should affect the way in which Western analysts conceive of the enemy.
Let us begin with the Bush administration. Two matters should arouse vigilant suspicion, and have doen so ever more insistently. The first is the conduct of those who prosecute terrorists or alleged terrorists by means of legal or administrative procedures. The second is the war against Iraq. Prosecution is marked by what looks like a gratuitous disregard of due process of law. The war, on the other hand, was waged against a regime that had no demonstrated alliance with jihad and that in its secularism was even a bulwark against it. The common element in these two policies is that they appear to have little or no connection to an effective war against terrorism. Then, too, both policies are not only off their purported mark, they are also voluptuously excessive in the tyrannical impulses they act out. Analysis should be guided by the thought that the motives of the Bush administration are not primarily the stated ones. The motives are indeed opaque, intentionally opaque, but may acquire more clarity when many analysts put their minds to work. This paper is meant to contribute to this effort.
In his book, Bush at War, Bob Woodward quotes President Bush on the evening of September 11: “‘This is a great opportunity,’ Bush said, somewhat locating the pony in the pile of manure. It was a chance to improve relations with big powers such as Russia and China. ‘We have to think of this as an opportunity'” (2002: 32). Woodward seems to think that Bush was desperate to find a small good thing amid such terrible loss; better relations with Russia and China would supply a little consolation for the tragedy of September 11. But the value of Woodward’s quotation is not its quality of analysis, but Bush’s twice-repeated assertion that New York’s tragedy was an “opportunity.” (In his subsequent book, Woodward appears to have caught up with himself.)
What is the terrorist attack of September 11 an opportunity for? I propose a suggestion with the hope of dispelling some of the opacity in the motivation. Behind all particular motives, which I will discuss shortly, there lies an overarching aim that is barely avowed and that, when avowed, is expressed in an anodyne and patriotic rhetoric. That aim is to guarantee the existence of a long-term project that will serve to justify the national security state (an ensemble of bureaucratic structures) and the economy that serves it and is served by it. Only an ideologically definable enemy can justify this system. My suggestion is not a revelation. Rather it is a statement of the obvious; it may be thought too obvious to need to be said. But it should be said because it is convenient to ignore it. The demise of the Soviet Union was the loss of the enemy that organized American life. That loss made American global hegemony possible, but the establishment demands that the national security system survive the loss. To do so, the system must have a clearly defined main enemy. A worldwide mass-cultural hegemony without a menacing enemy would not be adequate for the exercise of domination.
Without an enemy how else could the national security state and its economy thrive? The quest for political-military hegemony must be constantly challenged; what appears to impede it enhances it, even if perfect hegemony is constantly delayed or permanently deferred by impediments. The hegemonic power needs enemies, but not ones that are too seriously competitive, and it needs victories, but not a complete and final victory. The quest for political-military hegemony is, as a number of its supporters happily proclaim in their writings, imperialism, but an imperialism that is selective and interventionist rather than colonizing (except culturally). The ideal enemy is bellicose, perhaps inflamed, but manageably so. Terrorism meets that description very well, for the time being. It meets that description far better than, say, cold war with China, which would be an awfully large and unprofitable enemy to have. How would enmity with it really be managed? Bush’s reference to China (and Russia) really means that the United States would not for now have to agitate the China issue in order to have a sufficiently grave antagonism to keep the national security state and economy going.
The complication is that terrorism is a metonymy for a much larger enemy, which is made up of Arabs and Muslims everywhere. By itself terrorism would seem to be a large enough enemy, but if officials thought it were, Iraq would never have been invaded. For terrorism to be adequate to the project of imperialism, for imperialism to be sustainable publicly and rhetorically, terrorism must be falsely associated with Arabs and Muslims everywhere. For this idea to take hold, ordinary people have to refuse to make distinctions among Arabs and Muslims, all of whom are assumed to be actually or potentially guilty of terrorism, just by their ascribed identity. An underlying popular racism, carefully nurtured by the establishment media and the mass media, thus helps to further the overarching aim. And with enough acts and policies of hostility toward them, Arabs and Muslims will grow more fully into the role assigned them. Intrinsic to all politics are descriptive and rhetorical simplifications that mobilize subjects and citizens, but such simplifications are coarsened further by mass politics wedded to mass media, and become more abstract, more remote from reality, whether mass politics is democratic or dictatorial, normal or insurgent.
If American imperialist ambition has existed from the start, the novelty in the Bush administration’s promotion of it lies in the nature of the designated enemy, which is now solely ethnic-racial-religious. I do not say that American imperialism has been historically free of such components–far from it. Just think of the wars against the Indian nations and the war against Mexico. (Has there ever been any imperialism, any systematic career of militarily backed aggrandizement, which is free of racial or ethnocentric delusional passion? As a racial group, whites, too, have sometimes been despised by nonwhites, and whites have warred on one another with ethnocentric frenzy.) The fact remains that now these components occupy a much more salient position than they did in the period of world wars (in Europe, if not in Asia) and the cold war. In the past when racism (on which I concentrate, and by which I mainly mean aversion to the color and/or the facial features of others) has figured in American imperialism, the United States had above all in mind large economic and strategic gains that racism helped not only to define but to advance. In contrast, the present war on Arabs and Muslims holds out the prospect of no gains for American security. The national security system jeopardizes national security. What conflicts between objective American national interests and Arab and Muslim interests are there? Rather, racism allows the United States to have imperialist policies that conveniently appeal to an underlying race-based paranoia by mimicking it: a jealous fear for the country’s power that grows with every victory over the enemy. The racism now seems both decisive and gratuitous–at least it seemed gratuitous until September 11. There are reasons for this development, to which we will eventually turn.
This racism shows itself not only in the invasion of Iraq, but also in the prosecution of terrorists and alleged terrorists. The abrogation of fundamental rights in the prosecution is carried so far as to seem tyrannical–that is, to employ such methods of surveillance, arrest, questioning, indictment, and confinement as to introduce a tyrannical element in American legal life. At the same time, the United States subsidizes the Israeli military despotism over Palestine, occupies the soil of Iraq, and threatens Syria, Lebanon, and Iran with violence. It is perfectly natural for Arabs and Muslims everywhere–not just in the Middle East–to fear America’s tyrannical impulses. The logic of imperialism is tyranny, as both Pericles and Cleon knew and explicitly said in public.
What explains the central fact, the imperialist ambition? How far back would we have to go to hope to find a clue, if not an answer? These are not questions that we can even begin to take up here. But with an official statement like the Bush administration’s National Security Strategy (2002), and the earlier private but influential and convergent statement of the “Project for a New American Century” (1997), we have for our time an explicit announcement–annunciation–of the high adventurous ambition that has existed almost from the start of the history of the United States. These statements have unusual candor, if only in one respect: they exult in the fact there is now only one superpower. Yet there is a persistent opacity. Neither statement goes beyond the standard invocations of national security and the will to spread democracy by using American power and influence. Why do the authors think that the United States becomes safer when it stretches itself all over the world? They take it for granted that the more active a country is the better off it will be. But that is an article of faith, and held despite the woeful experience of empires in the past.
I think that a glance at Thucydides’ account of the imperialism of democratic Athens–more perhaps than a study of the imperialism of republican Rome–prepares us for apprehending the conduct of the United States. I would place the spirit of American ambition somewhere in the vicinity of three formulations in Thucydides’ narrative. First, in 432 BC, the delegation of Corinth, enemy to Athens, says of the Athenians that, “they were born into the world to take no rest themselves and to give none to others” (I: 70: 41). This description suits the United States as well as it suits Athens because both democracies are wild with a wildness that is akin to anarchism. Second, at the same conference at which the Corinthians speak, the Athenians reply by saying among other things, that “it has always been the law that the weaker should be subject to the stronger” (I: 76: 44). The will to such power is not peculiarly democratic, of course. But from the start, the United States has possessed a strong sense of its own path-breaking legitimacy, and has combined it with unusual resourceful energy, immense practical skills, and perfectly normal moral blindness. Such a combination of traits has driven it to feats of expansion and conquest that are truly remarkable. Third, in 416 BC, there are the sentiments expressed by Alcibiades when he urges Athens to invade Sicily. He proposes a tremendously adventurous undertaking against a large, distant, politically diverse, and partly hostile island. In defending his plan, he appeals to a number of motives, but he also says that without a constantly activist foreign policy, “the city, like everything else, will wear itself out, and its skill in everything decay, while each fresh struggle will give it fresh experience, and make it more used to defend itself not in word but in deed” (VI: 18: 371). He is intoxicated by greatness and he therefore understands greatness as limitlessness. These three moments from Thucydides can guide or haunt our discussion.
In brief, American imperialism, though continuous in its history, is moody and light-blooded like that of Athens, but capable of shocking destructiveness. The United States knows and does not know its own strength, but feels it purely and deeply and therefore acts with an inextinguishable passion. However, Americans sometimes appear unable to believe that their country does what it does, and hence are unable to look at what it does in the face and recognize it. American imperialism is not (yet) imperialism with a good conscience (even to the extent that Athenian imperialism was). A few scholars and publicists have made the effort to portray imperialism as right and healthy or at least as superior to moderation, existentially if not morally; but these efforts are narrowly limited in their appeal. There must always be moral missions to hide the nature of American ambition. Exploitation comes in many styles. Despite its sympathy with the predator code, American public sentiment does not adopt the somewhat different warrior code as its own. The absence of an aristocratic tradition, even in the slave states, prevents imperialist good conscience. But it does not prevent imperialism.
The overarching imperialist aim gives shelter and encouragement to an indefinitely large number of particular motives and purposes–that is, policies, foreign and domestic, that contribute to the aim directly as well as indirectly. For those in charge, any given policy may simply be a tactic, even though what is to them merely a tactic may be an end in itself for others associated with them. In our situation, some policies may provoke the enemy to more terrorism, which also has its uses, as long as the damage is tolerable to those in charge, even if not to the victims.
Now, it may be thought that in what I have just said (and in what I am going to say) I am embarked on an attempt to produce a conspiracy theory of past and present American conduct in the world. I would never rule out a priori the existence of conspiracy in political life. What is conspiracy? It is concerted action for a publicly unavowed purpose (or briefly or barely or misleadingly avowed). The purpose is concealed, though imperfectly and not always successfully, by invoking standard values that everyone accepts. The unavowed motives must remain unavowed, but the stated motives must be stated, and accepted by the people, as the real motives. Conspiracy is luridly called “plotting”; but plotting is only planning by another name. There need be no illegality in a political conspiracy, yet there will surely be criminality of some sort (Bobbio and Viroli, 2003: 82-9). In any case, politics is often legal criminality. To call an analysis “conspiratorial” may simply mask impatience with those who reject prevailing interpretations, or unhappiness with their ideas.
A conspiracy is what the principals do not admit to. They are afraid of the word. When their plans come under critical scrutiny or adverse publicity, they may not only deliberately lie but lapse into self-deception and deny their motives, even to themselves. It is common enough that people hide from themselves when they are startled by a startled response to their motives. They may eventually not even recognize their own motives when the motives, in the beginning, are so radical as to be unavowable. They may find it as hard to believe that they conspired as their complacent or too narrowly cynical audience does. They may also come to believe their own defensive lies: their constructed world is far more respectable than the truth. They lose sight of the distinction between sincerity and insincerity. What holds for all of us in everyday life surely holds for those in power. (I do not wish to deny that some of the principals may be so proud of what they have done that they remain honest to themselves.) Although all this possible self-deception would make analysis of the Bush administration even harder, it would not erase the original clarity, the original calculations and concert of motives and plans. (Then, too, the motives could be avowed after the deeds are done and citizens not notice or care very much. What could be worse? Or is that question naive?)
Thus, to emphasize Bush’s description of the terrorist attacks of September 11 as an opportunity is not to claim that he and his administration conspired to arrange those attacks. It may never even be possible to say that he and his administration deliberately allowed them to happen, knowing or feeling close to certain that they were about to happen in the form they took. It is to indicate instead that though the administration was not happy at the start, it was relieved; and eventually it did become happy because the right kind of enemy had made it so much easier to gain popular support or tolerance for the already desired imperialist policies. If some of the principals were initially afraid that terrorism would be a distraction from other policies, they soon realized that terrorism could be made into an ample cover for those policies. The administration could persist, on the basis of a much less troubled popular conscience and with guaranteed media support and more academic support, in the overarching and longstanding (but unavowed) aim of justifying the existence of the national security state and its attendant economy. This aim preexisted the terrorist attack; the administration was therefore poised to convert any destructive event into an opportunity. And then there were particular purposes that the war on terrorism would serve and that would, in turn, help to energize and sustain it. Almost all of these subordinate purposes are also conspiracies because their motives also cannot be publicly avowed. Yes, I offer a conspiracy theory; it would be culpably innocent to disallow it a priori. Of course, there are better analyses than the one I offer. But they, too, speculate conspiratorially, and must.
The long and short of it is that there is enough conscious awareness of the system’s interest throughout the ranks of the system, abetted by tacit or habitual inclination, to permit, guide, or belatedly take advantage of many particular interests and normal moral blindness, within and outside the system, to the end of the system’s preservation and expansion. A pervasive common awareness is not needed; indeed, it would make the system far more fragile: more prone to defection and guilt.
One use of an enemy is to inspire fear in the people. The Soviet Union never attacked American soil and never engaged directly with American troops in a third country, as China’s did. Most people scarcely felt directly threatened by the Soviet nuclear threat, except during the Cuban missile crisis. The gift of terrorism to American imperialism, to the overarching aim of maintaining the national security state and economy, is that the terrorists killed American civilians on American soil. Hence, the fear is not so apocalyptic or remote as to feel largely unreal, as for most people the nuclear threat did and does much of the time. After all, only the United States defended the doctrine of first-use of nuclear weapons, and spoke of massive retaliation for non-nuclear military and political deeds it was not ready to tolerate. These days, there is renewed interest in the Bush administration in “small” nuclear weapons for one use or another. The upshot is that the opinion seeps down to the people that the United States is boss of nuclear weapons. (I will shortly discuss the claim that Iraq possessed a nuclear capability before it was conquered.) In contrast, terrorism creates a more palpable fear, if not entirely real except to New Yorkers. Where there is fear, there is demand for greater security. What is the national security state but a state intended to provide security against any kind of threat?
BEFORE TURNING TO THE INVASION OF IRAQ, I WISH TO DISCUSS, AS integral to the war on terrorism, the nominally legal prosecution of terrorists and alleged terrorists once they are captured or arrested. This prosecution is closely linked to the needs of imperialism, but is also partly autonomous. Just like the war on Iraq, the methods of prosecution are not conducive to defeating terrorism, but could strengthen it. Just as the war against Iraq was driven by unavowed or barely avowed motives, so, too, was and is the prosecution of terrorists. Just as the war against Iraq reaches to the redefinition of American imperialism, so the techniques and tactics of Attorney General John Ashcroft’s Department of Justice reach to the redefinition of constitutional protections. Just as a steady career of imperialism provides the background for an analysis of the Bush administration’s response to September 11 as a seized and exploited opportunity, so the regular occurrence of past episodes of constitutional infringement provides the expectation that any crisis, real or (partly) imagined, will provoke attempts to limit or even cancel constitutional protections. Just as racism (or ethnocentrism) has figured in the past in American feats of conquest as well as in the war against Iraq, so it now figures in the prosecution of individual terrorists and alleged terrorists.
In discussing Ashcroft’s policies in the criminal law on behalf of the Bush administration, I would like to make some general points about fear of enemies, foreign or domestic, which, after all, the prosecution of terrorism is meant to allay. I posit two main and connected notions. First, until reflection and afterthoughts set in, people will have a limitless desire for security, for feeling safe. Second, in convenient disregard of constitutional limits, state bureaucracies that are entrusted with the duty to maintain security have an inherent appetite for using any methods to deter and punish crime and thus extend their control as far as they can until they are stopped. In the eyes of police and intelligence bureaucracies, constitutional protections for persons are obstacles to be removed or circumvented to the fullest allowable extent. The need for security is insatiable, and so is the inveterate bureaucratic passion for control. The two converge and for a while satisfy each other. The irony is that the fear felt by citizens can inhibit or paralyze them; but citizens’ fear energizes leaders and officials and produces restless and indefatigable activity, as if the people’s safety is a field on which to play spirited games or conduct interesting experiments.
The fear that is felt by citizens often has an abstract quality to it. I mean that there may not be visceral fear or keen psychological dread but rather a vague sense or (contrastingly) a fervent conviction that there is something big to be afraid of. One may not have had any recent experience of fright; one may not even think that one is likely to have such an experience in the near future. Nonetheless, one is supposed to be afraid; one complies, as if one has an obligation to be afraid; one accepts the pattern of conduct initiated by leaders and officials as perfectly proper. And if the policies are clever enough, one is afraid, though without feeling much of anything. One’s imagination has been caught and one lives in its world as if it were the world. Direct experience does not circumscribe the play of imagination or the flow of media representations. Only when fear is mostly abstract can it then become limitless, unappeasable–until it is seen through, if ever. Even when under the daily threat of aerial bombardment in England in 1940, and seeing considerable evidence of it, Virginia Woolf could write with passionate honesty in her Diary that” I don’t like any of the feelings war breeds: patriotism; communal &c, all sentimental & emotional parodies of our real feelings” (12 July 1940; 1984: 302). Abstract feelings are parodies of feeling.
To be sure, New Yorkers were right to be afraid in the most elementary visceral sense in the immediate aftermath of September 11, and to remain anxious thereafter. Their city is the supreme target for terrorists of every kind. The supreme concentrated city is the supreme target. In its matchless physical reality, it is by far the most important American symbol, the irresistible metonymy. Yet the desire for controlling the people in the name of fighting the causes of their abstract (not their visceral) fear is itself limitless not so much because this desire itself is abstract (though it is) as that it is possessed by an institutional logic. Aren’t ordinary officials given to wanting to do their jobs as effectively as possible and focusing on their jobs to the exclusion of every other consideration, for good or evil? The banality of evil is close to the banality of working in an organization for a good result or a neutral one because all three banalities are intrinsic to bureaucracy. Only observers can discriminate morally among the kinds of banality. Ordinarily, officials just do their work with a single mind, losing sight of the larger meaning of their activity.
I do not deny that the preservation of life and bodily integrity is the highest right–because it is the precondition of exercising all other rights and may therefore force them to yield in cases of conflict. But the circumstances in which the conflicts occur must be extreme and also infrequent; a long-term state of emergency will wound a free state. The tendency of security to eat up all other values must be resisted because the fear can be largely abstract and therefore easily manipulable; and because whether the fear is abstract or not, people must tolerate some uncertainty about their safety if there is to be a constitutional democracy at all, if there are to be fundamental rights other than the right of life. In his invaluable analysis of the fate of civil liberties in a time of terror, Ronald Dworkin says, “Rights would be worthless–and the idea of a right incomprehensible–unless respecting rights meant taking some risk” (2003: 41). Complete safety is nonexistent, in any case; to try to assure it would be an indefinite and ever-expanding process. The protection of other rights is not the same sort of process. We know much more exactly when freedom of speech, press, and religion, and the rights of criminal procedure, are protected, despite innumerable cases at the edges that require adjudication. But after a certain point, security becomes obsessive because elusive.
If the fear of terrorism is still largely an abstract fear among most American citizens, fear of their protector is so far minimal, though not nonexistent. Their government may include individuals who fear terrorism or have empathy for citizens who feel genuine fear. But the principals of the Bush administration, though they take extraordinary safety precautions for themselves, show that they are eager to follow policies that give the appearance of fighting terrorism efficaciously but actually do little to combat it or even may intensify the will to engage in it. They are eager because their unavowed aim is to diminish constitutional protections for everyone in the long run, as the so-called USA PATRIOT Act (2001) and subsequent proposals for PATRIOT Act II (2003) demonstrate, while concentrating, in the name of fighting terrorism, on Arabs and Muslims at home and on Arab and Muslim prisoners captured abroad. (The Bush administration needs one more terrorist act on American soil for PATRIOT II and worse to become law.) The principals encourage the relevant bureaucrats who serve them to pursue the institutional logic of police and intelligence bureaucracies everywhere.
All the time, we read stories of overreaching on the part of police and intelligence agencies, apart from terrorism. But terrorism provides a marvelous cover for aggravated overreaching. We thus have a situation in which expanded control, in the first instance over Arabs and Muslims, is desired for its own sake, for the intrinsic (institutional and psychological) value of control. This desire cannot be avowed because in a democracy tyranny can never be avowed, nor can the reasons for it be avowed. On the other hand, it serves the purposes of political leaders, for whom the bureaucrats’ intrinsic value of control is thus in part only an instrumental value. These political and executive purposes include the wish to be given credit for doing something dramatic in the war on terrorism; to establish precedents for treating other sectors of the population and, if need be, the whole population, in ways now reserved for Arabs and Muslims; and warning Arabs and Muslims everywhere that the United States will punish, even with tyranny, those who do not comply with American demands. These purposes cannot be publicly avowed; only the last of the three can be hinted at. And all these purposes, together with others, help to constitute the strategy that serves the overarching aim of insuring the vigor of the national security state and economy, which is an unavowable aim. The unavowable aim is served by unavowable subordinate purposes, which in turn are served by methods and tactics that are either unavowed or scarcely avowed or misrepresented.
Montesquieu says, “On the pretext of avenging the republic, one would establish the tyranny of the avengers” (XII: 18, 1989 : 203). I have used the word “tyranny” to describe the treatment of Arabs and Muslims. I refer to the prosecution of certain individuals in the United States, and also to such policies as: confinement in Guantanamo; the creation of a worldwide “network of detention centers with its own unique hierarchy” out of the sight of journalists, and where intimidation and perhaps torture is carried out (when it is not delegated to other countries) (Risen and Shanker, 2003: A1, 28); ethnic profiling in some contexts; new ethnically based immigration restrictions; treatment of resident aliens; easy deportations for trivial offenses; freezing assets of some organizations; the effort to choke off charitable donations to certain causes; and the use in Iraq of “tough new tactics” of occupation such as barriers, dragnets, omnipresent checkpoints, and collective punishments in the form of destroying homes and buildings, all consciously modeled on Israeli techniques (Filkins, 2003: A1, 18). In all these policies, the government has treated Arabs and Muslims at home and abroad as tyrants and despots have historically treated their subjects.
To adapt a formulation of Dworkin’s, the government has acted toward Arabs and Muslims as if it estimated “those lives and freedom as worthless” (2003: 39). That is what tyranny amounts to. What else but tyranny is shown specifically in the treatment of, among others, the Guantanamo prisoners, along with John Walker Lindh, Zacarias Moussaoui, Yaser Esam Hamdi, and Jose Padilla, just to mention some of the most famous examples. The numbers of those treated tyrannically by prosecutorial methods may not be large, but constitutional violations that resemble tyranny do not have to be numerous to be symptomatic of a larger disposition. Such a disposition has already realized itself, beyond the treatment of political prisoners, in the treatment of many aliens. In any case, constitutionalism lives in the details of treatment of even a few individuals, and when the few are members of ascribed identity groups of tens of millions, then the treatment resonates.
Tyranny combines arbitrariness and repression. Both aspects are intended to spread fear among people and thus render them docile or prepare them for destruction. The methods of spreading fear that tyranny employs are punishments, threatened punishments, intimidations, and humiliations. They include executions and exterminations, torture, imprisonment for mercilessly long terms, exile, confiscation, imposed loss of earning a livelihood, unremitting surveillance, and a general isolation and dehumanization. Arbitrariness shows itself in the following ways: singling out one or more groups defined ascriptively and hence irrespective of any overt behavior, and condemning them to any or all the methods just mentioned. Tyranny may also demonstrate arbitrariness by sudden changes in the rules, whether retrospectively or prospectively; or in such vagueness in the rules that people do not know what activities put them in danger; or in having the caprice of officials replace all rules. Arbitrariness reduces people to such radical amazement in being categorized ascriptively or such radical uncertainty about what is expected of them that their lives are filled with constant awareness of possible punishment or humiliation joined to a realization that others in their group have already been punished or humiliated. Thus life is dominated by sharp apprehension.
On the other hand, repression shows itself in too many rules, leaving little scope to free activity; in rules that prohibit the most natural or irrepressible practices and expressiveness; and in rules that suddenly introduce radical and systematic changes in the lawful and unlawful or in what people are expected and not expected to do. Repression, like arbitrariness, makes it either impossible or abnormally difficult to obey and thus shrouds all the relations and transactions of life in fear of punishment or humiliation or what is sometimes worse, continuous anxiety. Tyranny requires bravery just to engage in the very activities that require no thought for one’s immunity in constitutional democracies; resistance requires heroism. As Judith Shklar has memorably written in “The Liberalism of Fear” (1989) and elsewhere, a life of fear is the antithesis of a constitutionally protected life; therefore, constitutionalism exists to prevent government from spreading fear throughout society. Citizens must work together to protect themselves from their protector, which is always prone to become a source of fear to the innocent–sometimes a source of more fear than one’s fellows or outsiders. There is enough to fear in anyone’s normal life without adding government to the sources of fear–much less allowing government to become its principal source.
When a government induces fear of itself in the people or in some of them while claiming to act to make them secure, we have a tyrannical or incipiently tyrannical or (oddly) a locally tyrannical situation. I repeat that I go on the assumption that the American government has expressed a tyrannical disposition toward all or many Arabs and Muslims, and acted tyrannically–arbitrarily and repressively–in the prosecution of terrorists and alleged terrorists. (Such treatment has been extended to a few sympathizers of the Taliban or Al Qaeda who may be neither Arab nor Muslim.) Other citizens and aliens should worry because precedents are being set that could, in their generality, eventually affect everyone, unless courts, but especially the Supreme Court, restrain the executive agencies. At the start, judicial conduct was largely unpromising, with a few splendid exceptions. The courts gave the Bush administration most of what it claimed. Early in 2004, in the case Center for National Security Studies v. United States Department of Justice (No. 03-472), the Supreme Court refused to review a lower court ruling that permitted “the secrecy surrounding the arrest and detention of hundreds of people [aliens], nearly all Muslim men, in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.” The names of nearly a thousand people–all of them innocent of terrorism and subsequently released from detention, though many of them deported for infringing immigration rules not respected by immigrants of other nationalities and religions–will remain secret; so will the “circumstances of arrest” (Greenhouse, 2004: 1). Then at the end of its term, in its decisions of June 28, 2004, the Supreme Court undid–or at least appeared to undo–some (only some) of the constitutional damage inflicted by the government in the Guantanamo, Padilla, and Hamdi cases. The damage done to the persons of the captives remains. So far, then, the Supreme Court has avoided the most dangerous far-reaching result: the full jurisprudential validation of many of the experiments in anticonstitutionalism.
For that is what Ashcroft’s Department of Justice is doing: performing experiments in anticonstitutionalism. I do not agree with Dworkin that Ashcroft or his bureaucracy is driven by the strategy of “putting American safety absolutely first” (2003: 38). Rather, the strategy is to pretend that absolute safety matters most and get people to share that judgment, while actually following through on the wish to weaken constitutional protections first for a despised minority and then for everyone. The treatment of Arabs and Muslims is a sustained assault on the writ of habeas corpus, on the right to counsel, the right to confront witnesses against oneself, and to compel witnesses in one’s favor to appear. The key is the assault on habeas corpus. Prisoners have been held for a long time in atrocious conditions, and without notification of specific charges and the chance to rebut them with the assistance of counsel.
In its effort to punish those associated with terrorist groups, whether or not they have committed any terrorist acts, the Bush administration has invented categories like “unlawful combatants” for foreigners and “enemy combatants” fox” citizens. Some guerrillas captured in Afghanistan are denied standing as prisoners of war, while American citizens suspected of terrorism are denied the protections of either the criminal law process or regular military courts. “Military tribunals,” though not yet used, lack most of the basic features of due process of law; they are lawless legal formations. The reverse move has already been made: ordinary civilians are accused of such crimes as “theft and swindling” (Dworkin, 2003: 38) on the basis of intelligence gathered under provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act, which erodes fundamental protections against surveillance and searches and seizures. As both Ronald Dworkin (2003) and David Luban (2002: 9) have suggested, the Bush administration is using, in Luban’s term, a “hybrid” model in which fighting a war is fused with detecting and punishing crime in order to deny as many protections as possible to suspects and defendants, whether they are military combatants or alleged civilian criminals. The Bush administration thus criminalizes its political and military enemies and turns domestic criminals and suspected criminals into combatants. Yet, as Montesquieu says, “One must be just to the Caesars: they were not the first to imagine the sad laws they made” (XII: 16, 1989 : 201).
I think that the Bush administration, even in the absence of its war on terrorism, would have tried to weaken fundamental constitutional protections, especially in the criminal law. This administration is marked by a strong punitive streak, which is the central part of a general lack of magnanimity that is astonishing. Terrorism has supplied it with a golden opportunity to act on a prior inclination. The tyrannical treatment of Arabs and Muslims, however, serves the overarching aim of pursuing the imperial project and thus giving a mission to the national security state and economy by sharpening the identity of the enemy and deepening conflict with it. Perhaps, too, by establishing precedents for constitutional erosion now, the way is made easier for preserving imperialist policies in an ever darkening world and subduing any serious resistance to it by those segments of the American people disposed to resist.
WHAT OF THE WAR AGAINST IRAQ? IN THE EVENTS THAT FOLLOWED September 11, I think that this war is the most salient policy (so far) that shows opacity in motivation. Terrorism has made it much easier to act on unavowed motives in the Middle East. Indeed, motives for the war against Iraq are either unavowed or avowed only indirectly, and are meant to remain as concealed as possible. In place of what appear to be the dominant actual motives, the stated motives are expressed in ways that try to make the war against Iraq part of the war against terrorism. On the basis of what is known the stated motives were never the real motives. The two stated strategic motives were, first, to destroy the capacity of Iraq to launch weapons of massive destruction that it already possessed in amounts sufficient to threaten or harm its neighbors, and, second, to punish Iraq for cooperating with Al Qaeda in its terrorism against the United States and its friends and allies. I go on the assumption that the principals in the Bush administration knew when they made war that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and had no links to Al Qaeda. It is complacent wishful thinking to assume instead that the principals were misled by faulty intelligence or judgment.
Nevertheless, just assume for the moment the sincere belief among the American principals that before the war, Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, and that sooner or later the American occupation force would discover them. The premise of the war would therefore have to be that the United States could not deter Saddam Hussein. Stalin and Mao could be deterred from using these weapons, but not Saddam Hussein. This is ridiculous. But it would be worse than ridiculous if the American principals sincerely believed that Saddam Hussein was as criminally insane as they said he was, and, that once attacked, he would therefore have used these weapons against a power that could annihilate his society in a retaliatory blow. The Bush administration itself would have been criminally insane to attack him and risk having such weapons used against its forces. No gain could justify such risks. We cannot impute criminal insanity to either side in this situation. To his interrogators in prison, Saddam Hussein said simply, “Do you think we are mad?” when asked why he did not use weapons of mass destruction when he had them, in the 1991 Gulf war (Johnston, 2004: A28). The proof (or near proof) that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction (or at the least would be deterred from using them if it had them) is that the United States chose to invade it. Yet even here I cannot be certain about the extent of American recklessness. An account in The New York Times asserts that the United States received reports from “foreign services and other sources [it] regarded as credible that Mr. Hussein had decided to use chemical weapons against American troops in the event of war (Jehl, 2004: A12).
The real aim is that the United States (and its friends and allies) themselves should not have to endure to be deterred, should not have to think twice before acting as they please in the Middle East (and elsewhere). The National Security Strategy (2002) says that weapons of mass destruction in the hands of “rogue states” can be used to “blackmail the United States and our allies to prevent us from deterring or repelling the aggressive behavior of rogue states” (section V). The ostensible meaning is that Arab and Muslim states are enemies that cannot be deterred because they are unlike any enemies the United States has ever had to face. The true meaning, however, is that the United States will not tolerate submitting to the deterrence imposed by other states, if it can help it. The United States will act “preemptively” so as never to be deterred; to the fullest extent possible, it will secure, with its friends and allies, a monopoly of weapons of mass destruction–a hope that must one day come to grief, irrespective of American policy. In any case, we are compelled to believe that the Bush administration knew Iraq had no such weapons and that invading it could proceed undeterred and for unavowed motives.
Now assume that Iraq had substantial conspiratorial or merely cooperative links to Al Qaeda. I do not deny that that would be a different matter altogether. The policy of combating terrorism would have required that some punitive action–I do not speak of invasion–be taken against Iraq. The trouble is that there was and is no evidence of such a link; and well after the war ended, President Bush himself withdrew the accusation. But the constant and mendacious reiteration that there was a connection succeeded in persuading a majority of the American people of its truth, not only before but even after the belated presidential retraction. Racism made successful deception possible.
The long and short of it is that Iraq was invaded not because it was strong but because it was weak. Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. Defeating Iraq would provide a dramatic but easy victory. It would be a victory over Arabs and Muslims everywhere. In the short term, the lines drawn would be sharper; the enemy would be defined less ambiguously; and it would be humiliated. But in the longer term–what?
Just as the prosecution of terrorists and alleged terrorists by legal and administrative action seems like a misdirected response to the danger of terrorism, so, too, does the war against Iraq. The stated motives do not seem to be–could not be–the actual motives. There is deliberate opacity. What then are the actual motives? In our analysis, we must revert to what I have called the overarching aim of American policy: the preservation of the national security state and economy by means of an imperialist career. On this aim, the National Security Strategy, which purports to give an “Overview of America’s International Strategy,” instead presents an idealistic picture of a besieged America faced with threats greater but harder to fight than those that existed in the cold war. Almost the whole statement deals with terrorism and especially the acquisition by terrorists of weapons of mass destruction. In its fifth section, it speaks of the right of the United States “to act preemptively” in order “to forestall or prevent” hostile acts. Iraq is an enemy, supposedly because of its growing strength. I believe, however, that this statement does not give us guidance. It does show full awareness of the unique power of the United States, but hides its activist agenda under the cover of the war on terrorism, as if to say that in the absence of terrorism, the United States would be content to go about its business and let the world alone. The statement lacks candor about the overarching and longstanding aim; it will not discuss American imperialism by its right name and in its true nature.
We approach closer to the truth when we consult such interest-group documents as the statement of principles of the “Project for the New American Century” (1997) and “Rebuilding America’s Defense” (2000). Join to these two a memorandum by Richard Perle and others to Benjamin Netanyahu (then Israeli prime minister) in July 1996, called “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm.” Even when he is not the author, Richard Perle, a former Defense Department official and leading neoconservative ideologue, is influential in articulating a new strategy for American policy in the Middle East above all, and everywhere else that may be somehow related to the Middle East. All these documents were written before September 11, 2001. It is eerie that in “Rebuilding America’s Defense,” the authors say that in the absence of “some catastrophic and catalyzing event–like a new Pearl Harbor,” American military build-up would be too slow and its actions too timid (51). (Perhaps the Republican impeachment of President Bill Clinton was meant to help prepare the ground.) The high American ambition must be to discourage any attempt by one power or group of powers to surpass it in strength or even to equal it.
It is not an exaggeration to say that for some who took part in writing these statements or who signed them, the strategy is Israel-centered. But when the motives are Israel-centered, the strategy is not always put forth in Israel’s name. Above all the strategy is offered as a guide to the United States as the only power in the world capable of world leadership and unchallenged “preeminence.” As such, the United States is Israel’s shelter. I emphasize that the strategy is Israel-centered only for some of the people involved. There are other major considerations that may converge with concern for Israel and that such concern may nicely cover. Mutual use tending toward mutual exploitation dominates the calculations.
Perle’s memo of 1996 advises Israel to be skeptically cautious about the 1993 Oslo accords and hold to a steady hard-line against Palestinian aspirations; and furthermore a new strategy must aim at “weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria.” In the name of undermining Syria’s “regional ambitions,” a concentrated effort at “removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq–an important Israeli objective in its own right” must be made (3). Iraq’s strength is not at issue; the country is too weak. Yet Saddam stands in the way of a new “strategic balance” in the Middle East that would enfeeble Syria and “redefine Iraq” (4). (The recent book by Richard Perle and former Bush administration speechwriter David Frum, written after the conquest of Iraq, proposes a radical and global American imperialist strategy, but familiarity with Perle’s past work should help us to see what is not obvious in the book because of its length and generality–namely, that his eye is always on the success of Israeli ambitions as defined by Sharon. The book is the memo to Netanyahu in a bloated, post-September 11 form, with ambitions also bloated by the defeat of Iraq.)
If Perle is in some documents the main writer, we can find in all of them endorsement by men who came to occupy prominent positions in the United States government as a result of the tainted presidential election of 2000 and then immediately urged war against Iraq, or by men who urged the war from the sidelines. The war against Iraq was the result of a long campaign that began quite some time before September 11 (Lieven, 2002). The war was neither a preemptive war nor a preventive war: there was no danger to preempt or prevent, as its instigators knew. It was a deadly combination of fraternity prank and secret-society prank. Thus, from the moral point of view, it was an unnecessary war and hence an immoral one; it produced the evil of war unnecessarily–evil in itself and as a contagious example. It was yet another war thrown by the United States into the world in an unwearying succession of many American wars and military actions, as this country incessantly adds more violence to an always-violent world. The war’s immorality was compounded by the impact of American (nominally UN) sanctions on Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War. The sanctions impoverished a whole society and caused tens of thousands civilian deaths. The war against Iraq was an imperialist war, useful for the overarching and unavowable or guardedly avowed aim of preserving and fortifying the national security state and economy. But what were the more specific unavowed motives–all of them useful to the overarching aim or at least compatible with it–that in combination produced this particular war?
I begin by discounting, except for propagandist uses, the stated motive of rescuing Iraq from its suffering under Saddam Hussein’s tyranny. I believe that this motive had no force among the principals involved in advocating and launching the war. They have not hitherto shown much fervor in relieving human suffering; indeed, some of them, like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, even supported Saddam Hussein against Iran in the 1980s, while believing he had used chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds. Furthermore, when the sanctions inflicted so much suffering, the quickest way of ending some of it was to lift the sanctions, which were kept in place for political reasons. No doubt, many Iraqis were relieved by the American conquest of Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein (as doubtless were leaders of Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia). But media attention, after the conquest, to Iraqi suffering under Saddam Hussein’s oppression while he ruled, is suspect; it looks like a part of the search for post facto justification of the war. When charitable attention is selective because self-interested, it is cruelty to the un-noticed. Charity itself must be selective, but the charitable attention of the media can afford not to be.
On the stated motive of promoting democracy in Iraq, I do not believe that the principals want the people of Iraq to enjoy the blessings of democracy for their own sake. However, some people in the Bush administration or close to it–examples are Cheney, Perle, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz–say they favor the project of spreading democracy in the Middle East. Iraq would be the beachhead. We must look on this project of Mideast “overhaul” (MacFarquhar, 2004: A9) first, as a distraction from settling the Palestinian issue in any way that Sharon and his allies reject; and second, as a method of sowing strife in the Arab and Muslim countries of the region. Cheney says that “democratic reform ‘is … essential to a peaceful resolution of the longstanding Arab-Israeli dispute'” (quoted in Brzezinski, 2004: A19). Supposedly, when all countries are democratic they will refrain from war against one another and settle their disputes peacefully. This is a pipedream. It is hard to imagine that Arab democracies would decide through democratic processes to let Sharon’s plans go uncontested. If anything, police states may act coldly and hence sometimes more prudently. Then, too, the religious and ethnic turmoil that a commitment to modern democracy would unleash in most countries in the region would prevent any of them from contemplating interference in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. They would be too busy handling their own troubles. If a leader were to try to unite a given country by a foreign adventure, the tactic might work for a while, but not in the longer run. In any case, despite all of Wolfowitz’s talk about “regime change” soon after Bush’s certification as president, and despite Perle’s geopolitical grandiosity, I find it hard to believe that the real motives of these two for a democratic “overhaul” had very much power in sending the Bush administration to war against Iraq. The project is too fantastical, even for hardheaded realists. Then again, I cannot be sure.
I detect five operative motives in my effort to reduce opacity. (I omit, without wanting to discredit, such speculative considerations as the wish to distract attention from corporate scandals that may touch members of the administration, and huge wartime profits for firms with close ties to these members or to the Republican Party. “Vulgar” Marxism is sometimes good analysis; better than philosophical Marxism.) None of the five considerations, when acted on, contributes to the war against terrorism and all contribute to sowing the seeds of future terrorism. Two are minor ones: first, the desire, not confined to the military bureaucracies, to have a comparatively smooth battlefield where new tactics and new weapons systems can be tried out. War, on good terms, is the best school and laboratory. Second, there is the Bush family drama. Though there may be some truth to the assertion that Bush the son wanted to avenge the attempt on his father’s life by Saddam Hussein’s government more completely than Clinton chose to do (while Saddam was trying to avenge attempts on his life by the American government), the larger point is that Bush the son was intent on outdoing his father. Whereas the father had left Saddam in power after defeat in the Gulf War, the son would score a tremendous media victory by deposing or killing Saddam. (Deposing is politically much better than killing: save the killing for the judges after a protracted political trial that would be a much finer media event than a sudden death.) Then, Bush’s reelection would put the final nail in his father’s coffin by saving dynastic honor. The two minor considerations, singly or together, did not have enough weight to send even so cynical a group as the Bush administration into war, though they helped to confirm the resolve to wage it.
As my analysis proceeds, do I take into account all possible motives? I could not possibly make such a claim. There may be relevant considerations that I have overlooked or that I have no awareness of. There may be knowledge that I could have consulted but failed to, or secrets not yet disclosed. Let me repeat that my analysis is strained and provisional.
As I am so far able to infer, the three major and interconnected considerations are partisan politics, unreserved concern for Israel, and oil. All are either unavowable or only guardedly avowable. Each consideration penetrates deeply into the other two. In combination, these three were sufficient to send the United States to war against Iraq, but only after “a cataclysmic and catalyzing event.” For Bush and some of his political advisers, partisan politics and Israel were and are closely bound together, while for other Americans, concern for Israel was and is sufficient. What of oil? I think the heart of the issue is American control of Iraq’s huge oil reserves; this would rid the United States, in the future, of too much dependence on Saudi oil or oil from other unpredictable countries that may have to be treated as if they, too, had interests that deserved some consideration. (New York Times columnist David Brooks once said on the “Lehrer News Hour,” sometime after September 11, that the real enemy in the Middle East was not Iraq but unstable and all-too-religious Saudi Arabia.) I will spend time only on the connected issues of partisan politics and Israel.
I assume the convergence of independent interests, of the separable interests of the Bush and Sharon administrations. Is that a mistake? Thomas Friedman says that “Dick Cheney … is ready to do whatever Mr. Sharon dictates.” Indeed the Bush administration is “in his [Sharon’s] pocket” (2004: A31).
Unable to decipher Friedman’s words, here is what I propose. Look first at the decision to invade Iraq from the partisan perspective of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Bush’s political advisers, before turning to Sharon’s perspective. From the partisan perspective, war against Iraq would be a tremendous gift to the Sharon administration and to many American supporters of Sharon and many undiscriminating supporters of Israel. Immediately after Sharon was elected Israel’s prime minister in March 2001, Bush gave him permission to act in exact accordance with Perle’s memo to Netanyahu. This is not to say that Sharon needed instruction; he just needed permission to do what he had always wanted. He would not suffer any American penalty. Bush’s motives for giving Sharon a free hand are not of course Perle’s. But Sharon wanted not only a free hand in Palestine, but also the strongest Arab regional power to be conquered, after a war as destructive to it as possible.
What are the gains to Bush himself and to the Republican Party? The first gain is independent of the Israel connection; it is obvious and historically hallowed: help in winning elections. A not-too-difficult victory over a country ethnically indistinguishable (supposedly) from the terrorists of September 11 would gratify patriotic, retaliatory, and racist sentiment in the United States. The fact that Iraq had no significant connection to Al Qaeda simply could not penetrate the public mind, and, to repeat, the myth persists despite Bush’s retraction. The advantage of a short and successful war to a political party is an open secret. Everybody knows it and says it, until political argument reaches the point where the secret has to be denied–by all sides.
The second partisan gain must be unavowed. This gain is inextricably joined to Israel. It consists in the attempt gradually to detach, as much as possible, Jewish American sentiment from the Democratic Party. The stake is not so much the Jewish American vote. Republican Congressman Tom DeLay, friend of the so-called Christian Zionists, has already conceded that Jewish American voters are likely to stay mostly in the Democratic Party. (Undeniably, a shift in Jewish American votes in, say, Florida, could be expected to make a difference.) Rather, the hope is to detach, to an appreciable degree, Jewish American sentiment in the media and academy from its dislike of the Republican Party, and also to detach it as much as possible from the spirit of critique of American imperfections–specifically and for the time being, from critique of both anticonstitutional experiments and the career of imperialism. More positively, the hope is to enlist Jewish American sentiment in support of these two projects, and of course to find preponderant favor with pro-Israeli lobbies and donors of political funds.
Even before Bush’s administration, a fair amount of progress had been made in these desired directions. What other meaning have such phenomena as the “Project for a New American Century” and Perle’s assorted enterprises in association with Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, Yale professor Donald Kagan, and many others? What other meaning has the defense by legal scholars of such practices as torture (Alan Dershowitz and Sanford Levinson; the writings of both of them preceded the disclosure of American torture in Afghanistan and Iraq), ethnic profiling (Fred Schauer), show trials (Lawrence Douglas), and punishing groups, including children, for individual insurgent acts of violence (Daryl J. Levinson and Saul Levmore; for the last named, see Liptak, 2004: 5)? These scholars of the law, none of them in the government, defend measures that in their extremism are necessary only to tyranny and are historically associated mostly with it. A tyrannical cause has a tyrannical hold on their minds. For the sake of their cause, they are prepared to wound the spirit of the Constitution. At least the lawyers in the departments of Justice and Defense who prepared memorandums between 2002 and 2003 that made a case for torture were sophistical servants of executive power rather than ideological scholars who initiated rationalizations on their own. The government lawyers’ sins show the banality of evil, not fanatical commitment to evil. The banal ones made it easier for evil to be done, while the fanatics make it easier to ratify the evil.
The additional gain for the Bush administration is to weaken the ability of the Democratic Party, tied in so many ways to Jewish Americans, to criticize the war against Iraq, a war many Democrats, including Jewish Americans, viscerally detest. (I certainly do not mean to suggest that the Democratic Party has ever allowed itself to be an anti-imperialist party, from Woodrow Wilson’s time to the present, despite some episodic moderation on the part of Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton. Johnson was at least as bad an imperialist as Nixon, Reagan, and Bush father and son; he was probably worse than all of them.) Then, too, the core commitment of the Republican Party to the defense of privilege is enhanced by American Jewish disaffection with the Democrats because the Democrats, thanks in part to Jewish intellectuals and scholars, have worked as the party of the weaker to save capitalism from a few of its Calvinist or Social Darwinian excesses.
What is praiseworthy, but not surprising, is that Jewish Americans have been in the forefront of critique of both the war against Iraq and the several anticonstitutional experiments.
In sum, the partisan calculation was that unless blind luck–some “X factor”–interceded, the climax of Bush’s partisan gains could be reelection and perhaps increases in Republican seats in both houses of Congress, and that the war against Iraq would help far more than it would hinder. The elections of 2004 have justified the Republican calculation. The capture of Saddam Hussein turned the events in Iraq into a story with at least a temporary narrative closure. That the situation after conquest has been bloody and messy has done little so far to ruin the aesthetic shape of the achievement. Indeed, in a certain quantity, American casualties incurred in overcoming resistance to the occupation of Iraq could solidify popular adhesion to Bush’s policies and provide a perverse retroactive justification for invading Iraq, in the first place. But the occupation of a foreign country and the resistance it engenders produce an inherently unstable situation. The greater the effort required to defeat the resistance, the more hollow the claim that the United States invaded Iraq to clear the way for popular choice, for democracy. But so far the war against Iraq has been a net partisan gain for the Republicans. It is not a gain and may be a loss, however, for the safety of the American people.
Let us look now at the war against Iraq from Sharon’s perspective. The gain of a wasted and (if Leslie Gelb gets his wish) a partitioned Iraq (2003: A27) is to remove Iraq from the list of countries that can obstruct Israel’s way. The conquest of Iraq is also a stern warning to other Arab and Muslim neighbors of Israel. Israel seems now to have in Sharon’s eyes something close to invulnerability. A large part of the unfinished business is with the Palestinians. Sharon’s intention is to block a genuine Palestinian state and replace it with, in the words of Henry Siegman, “bantustans surrounded by Israel’s armed forces and cut off from the rest of the world by a so-called security fence.” The result would be to “place 15 per-cent of West Bank land, home to 274,000 Palestinians, on Israel’s side of the fence. It will, according to the UN, disrupt the lives of 680,000 Palestinians. If the wall follows the route approved by Sharon … it will effectively create at least three noncontiguous and isolated Palestinian enclaves” (2003: 16).
These purposes are aided by Palestinian terrorism, which Sharon provokes by targeted assassinations and destructive responses and a generally barbarous tyranny. The terrorism is wicked and stupid, but it is nonetheless (in Siegman’s words) “not an enemy but an indispensable ally” because it supplies the pretext for Sharon to disregard Palestinian interests and advance the policy, which he had much to do with launching, of building new or augmenting old Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine (Siegman, 2003: 16). Terrorism is Sharon’s golden opportunity. Only Palestinian nonviolent politics, massive civil disobedience, and other peaceful, coercive, persuasive tactics, stand a chance of having an effect, as Pete Hamill (2003), David K. Shipler (2002), and some others, including a number of Palestinians, have maintained. About the recent past, Shipler said, “A hundred Palestinian children pledging peace and lying in front of bulldozers would have been more effective than a thousand Palestinian children chanting hatred and throwing lethal stones” (2002). How would Israel respond now? Perhaps not in as shame-ridden a manner as Shipler supposed in 2002, but Israel’s media advantage, even in the United States, would come under stress. However, Sharon wants, like Hamas (which Israel once subsidized in order to weaken Arafat), a condition of mutual irreconcilability between Israelis and Palestinians. Palestinian moderates and secularists are neutralized and denounced to weaken their legitimacy in the eyes of the world, and to render them impotent in the eyes of their own people. The political mind of the Palestinians is killed day by day. (Of a piece with Sharon’s tactic is Rumsfeld’s insouciance toward the looting of Iraq’s museums and libraries during the US invasion of Iraq.) Only the bearers of Palestinian rage are left to act, and with every act strengthen Sharon’s oppression and American acquiescence in it.
American acquiescence increases because the administration and some of the media yoke Palestinian terrorism to the terrorism of September 11. There is no actual link, but Sharon’s policies help to spread a pervasive anger among Arabs and Muslims throughout the world and hence deepen their reservoir of sympathy for any terrorism directed at either the United States or Israel. The two countries are entwined, much to the delight of the Bush and Sharon administrations. Their common interest is to characterize terrorism as (in Coleridge’s phrase) motiveless malignity–that is, not a passion to inflict pain solely for the cruel pleasure of doing so, but rather a passion to inflict death and pain for no human or humanly recognizable motive. The political arts of compromise and conciliation, deriving from some empathy with adversaries (who in their weakness may not yet reciprocate it), are thereby dismissed as cowardly and immoral in the face of terrorism, the unfathomable evil. In the Israeli case, as Amos Elon has pointed out, “memory of the Holocaust has been used in Israel not only to equate Palestinians with Nazis … but also to provide the rationale for nuclear weapons systems” and to justify the expropriation of land and the building of settlements in occupied Palestinian territories (2004: 16). If the Palestinian resistance to occupation is seen exclusively as a historically familiar murderous anti-Semitism, what hope can there be for compromise and conciliation?
We should remember that the United States and Israel have killed many more civilians than the jihadist terrorists. When people are killed, it does not morally matter that they have been killed deliberately as a matter of policy (the military strategy of irregular forces) rather than being killed incidentally as a result of policy (the military strategy of state forces), which, it is known in advance, will inflict deaths, but is pursued anyway, because the success of the strategy is more important than the lives of those killed. The dead are dead in either case, and in neither case are they dead by accident; the larger the number of deaths, the more censurable the policy. The Scholastic idea of “double effect,” parent of the phrase “collateral damage,” is merely disingenuous. What is more cold-blooded: terrorist attacks or the use of advanced technology, often from a safe distance, against primitively equipped adversaries and the surrounding civilian population? (Kahn, 2002) Terrorism is not motiveless malignity; nor is it pure sadism; it is irrational politics, gestural politics at its most terrible. The attack on the World Trade Center was simply the most awful terrorist gesture so far.
Shortly after September 11, on October 4, Sharon warned the Bush administration that Israel would not be a sacrificial victim in any effort to appease the anger of Arabs and Muslims. He said, “Do not repeat the dreadful mistakes of 1938…. Israel will not be Czechoslovakia. Israel will fight terrorism” (Klein, 2001). These remarks were hurriedly withdrawn, but a moment of public exposure had occurred. I do not know what American idea Sharon was referring to. I can only imagine that someone in the Bush administration said aloud to colleagues that if only progress could be made toward establishing a Palestinian state (and East Jerusalem as its capital) with full guarantees for the security of Israel within sensible boundaries, the impulse to commit terrorist acts, whether at the expense of the United States or Israel, would be weakened. The reservoir of sympathy for terrorism would be at least partly drained. We know, however, that Sharon did not have to repeat his warning. For their own personal and partisan interests, and for the interests of the national security state and economy, the Bush administration has consistently acted to sustain Sharon’s interests.
If I point in the right direction when I say that the three main actual and unavowed motives of the Bush administration in waging war against Iraq are the interconnected considerations of oil, party politics, and Israel, we must conclude that at one level shabby motives lie behind the awful consequences. The war against Iraq was morally indefensible. Though a partisan himself, Senator Edward Kennedy is right when he says that the war was driven by political considerations. “There was no immediate threat. This was made up in Texas…. This whole thing was a fraud.” Yes, a fraud, because of unavowable motives, but not merely a fraud, because not all the unavowable motives were arbitrarily partisan. The root really is the party politics of a democratic (or popular) and radically inegalitarian imperialist state: the usual entanglement of shabby motives with systemic ones. In other words, the root of both imperialism and party politics is the constant struggle between the parties to deepen privilege or to modify it somewhat, rein it in. Even those who aspire to modify the structure of privilege nonetheless subscribe to the principle of privilege.
The Republicans have shown since the trauma of the New Deal and FDR’s four successive election victories that they will do anything to win. In a representative democracy, the party of entrenched privilege is usually more ruthless than its opposition, unless its opposition is invigorated by despair and the prospect of relief. Privilege by its very nature fears for itself with a tireless and (as it were) neurotically active fear, as if it were genuinely afraid but not entirely unhappy to be so. Even apart from substantive commitments, of course, the pure agon of party politics is fierce on both sides; but the ferocity is indissociable from those commitments. The national security state and economy and the attendant imperialism are the property of both parties. The party of opposition is surely not inhospitable to the claims of privilege. But because the party of privilege must struggle hard to maintain privilege as unmoderated as possible–or thinks it must struggle hard–it will be especially ruthless in its choice of expedients. It will manipulate racism, religion, and patriotism (among other things) in order to distract attention from the system of privilege. These expedients are usually more than a match for the countercurrent of demotic resentment. That many Republican voters and some officials are sincere in their racism, religion, and patriotism helps the party greatly. But wise partisan heads know where their advantage lies. What is more, these expedients, including religion, tend to increase the hold of imperialism on the people’s imagination.
THE FAIR QUESTION IS WHETHER THE UNITED STATES IS MORE SECURE as the result of the policies of the Bush administration. The United States had to destroy Al Qaeda bases, whatever the anger felt by Arabs and Muslims before and after the war in Afghanistan. Any American political leader would have had to retaliate. But what policies should have come after? More air-flight security features have been put in place with, I suppose, a deterrent effect. Other policies, however, have moved from the question of greater security to purposes that are not motivated by concern for American security. Though not discontinuous with the behavior of earlier administrations, the behavior of this administration seems more intent on initiating measures that are at a much greater distance from their stated purposes than any before and, even worse, that also seem to impede those stated purposes. The word “conspiracy” is therefore more readily apt.
I have tried to indicate two things. First, the prosecution of terrorists and alleged terrorists has done nothing to increase safety while assaulting constitutional protections. Second, the war against Iraq has also done nothing to increase safety. It was launched for noncredible and discreditable reasons that cannot be avowed, and has only intensified the anger of Arabs and Muslims, while sustaining the career of an imperialism that is not only against the spirit of the Constitution but threatens it with the ruinous fate that imperialism has always tended to inflict on constitutional government. We can only dream of a saving moderation.
I drafted this paper in December 2003, and made some revisions and a few additions thereafter. No change was made, however, in the basic argument about the motives behind the criminal prosecution of terrorists and alleged terrorists and the war against Iraq. My argument was prepared before such accounts as those given by Paul O’Neill (Susskind, 2004) and Richard Clarke (2004); the staff reports of the 9/11 Commission, chaired by Thomas Kean; and the Senate Select Intelligence Committee report. In any case, these analyses mention motives without analyzing them. A careful reading of The New York Times goes a long way, even though the newspaper gives a prominent place to its distortions, and when it speaks the truth, often does so in whispers–and then later atones for its candor with a spurious even-handedness.
The reelection of Bush shows how much the majority will let a president get away with.
This essay is a continuation of “Undermining the Constitution,” which appeared in Social Research 70 (Summer 2003): 579-604. I want to thank David Bromwich, Ilene Cohen, Robert G. Gilpin, Bonnie Honig, Leo Marx, Kim Townsend, Jack Turner, and James P. Young for their extensive comments.
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