Protocols of Machismo

Corey Robin

  • Arguing about War by Michael Walzer
    Yale, 208 pp pp, £16.99, July 2004, ISBN 0 300 10365 4
  • Chain of Command by Seymour Hersh
    Penguin, 394 pp, £17.99, September 2004, ISBN 0 7139 9845 8
  • Torture: A Collection edited by Sanford Levinson
    Oxford, 319 pp, £18.50, November 2004, ISBN 0 19 517289 2

The 20th century, it’s said, taught us a simple lesson about politics: of all the motivations for political action, none is as lethal as ideology. The lust for money may be distasteful, the desire for power ignoble, but neither will drive its devotees to the criminal excess of an idea on the march. Whether the idea is the triumph of the working class or of a master race, ideology leads to the graveyard.

Although liberal-minded intellectuals have repeatedly mobilised some version of this argument against the isms of right and left, they have seldom mustered a comparable scepticism about that other idée fixe of the 20th century: national security. Some liberals will criticise this war, others that one, but no one has ever written a book entitled ‘The End of National Security’. This despite the millions killed in the name of security, and even though Stalin and Hitler claimed to be protecting their populations from mortal threats.

There are fewer than six degrees of separation between the idea of national security and the lurid crimes of Abu Ghraib. First, each of the reasons the Bush administration gave for going to war against Iraq – the threat of WMD, Saddam’s alleged links to al-Qaida, even the promotion of democracy in the Middle East – referred in some way to protecting America. Second, everyone agrees that getting good intelligence from Iraqi informers is a critical element in defeating the insurgency. Third, US military intelligence believes that sexual humiliation is an especially forceful instrument for extracting information from recalcitrant Muslim prisoners.

Many critics have protested against Abu Ghraib, but none has traced it back to the idea of national security. Perhaps they believe such an investigation is unnecessary. After all, many of them opposed the war on the grounds that US security was not threatened by Iraq. And some of national security’s most accomplished practitioners, such as Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, as well as theoreticians like Steven Walt and John Mearsheimer, even claimed that a genuine consideration of US interests militated against the war. The mere fact that some politicians misused or abused the principle of national security need not call that principle into question. But when an idea routinely accompanies, if not induces, atrocities – Abu Ghraib was certainly not the first instance of the United States committing or sponsoring torture in the name of security – second thoughts would seem to be in order. Unless, of course, defenders of the idea wish to join that company of ideologues they so roundly condemn, affirming their commitment to an ideal version of national security while disowning its ‘actually existing’ variant.

In its ideal version, national security requires a clear-eyed understanding of a nation’s interests and a sober assessment of the threats to them. Force, a counsellor might say to his prince, is a tool a leader may use in response to those threats, but he should use it prudently and without emotion. Just as he should not trouble himself with questions of human rights or international law – though analysts might add these to a leader’s toolkit, they are quick to point out, as Joseph Nye does in The Paradox of American Power (2002), that international norms may have to give way to ‘vital survival interests’, that ‘at times we will have to go it alone’ – he should not be excited by his use of violence. National security demands a monkish self-denial, where officials forego the comforts of conscience and the pleasures of impulse in order to inflict when necessary the most brutal force and abstain from or abandon that force whenever it becomes counter-productive. It’s an ethos that bears all the marks of a creed, requiring a mortification of self no less demanding than that expected of the truest Christian.

The first article of this creed, the national interest, gives leaders great wiggle room in determining what constitutes a threat. What, after all, is the national interest? According to Nye, ‘the national interest is simply what citizens, after proper deliberation, say it is.’ Even if we assume that citizens are routinely given the opportunity to ponder the national interest, the fact is that they seldom, if ever, reach a conclusion about it. As Nye points out, Peter Trubowitz’s exhaustive study of the way Americans defined the national interest throughout the 20th century concluded that ‘there is no single national interest. Analysts who assume that America has a discernible national interest whose defence should determine its relations with other nations are unable to explain the failure to achieve domestic consensus on international objectives.’ And this makes a good deal of sense: if an individual finds it difficult to determine her own interest, why should we expect a mass of individuals to do any better?

But if a people cannot decide on its collective interest, how can it know when that interest is threatened? Faced with such confusion, leaders often fall back on what seems the most obvious definition of a threat: imminent, violent assault from an enemy, promising to end the independent life of the nation. Leaders focus on cataclysmic futures, if for no other reason than that these are a convenient measure of what is or is not a threat, what is or is not security. But that ultimate threat often turns out to be no less illusory than the errant definition inspiring the invocation of the threat in the first place.

Hovering about every discussion of war and peace are questions of life and death. Not the death of some or even many people, but as Michael Walzer proposes in Arguing about War, the ‘moral as well as physical extinction’ of an entire people. True, it is only rarely that a nation will find its ‘ongoingness’ – its ability ‘to carry on, and also to improve on, a way of life handed down’ from its ancestors – threatened. But at moments of what Walzer, following Winston Churchill, calls ‘supreme emergency’, a leader may have to commit the most obscene crimes in order to avert catastrophe. The deliberate murder of innocents, the use of torture: the measures taken will be as many and almost as terrible as the evils a nation hopes to thwart.

For obvious reasons, Walzer insists that leaders should be wary of invoking the supreme emergency, that they must have real evidence before they start speaking Churchillese. But a casual reading of the history of national security suggests not only that in practice the rules of evidence will be ignored or flouted, but that the notion of catastrophe encourages, even insists on, the flouting.

‘In normal affairs,’ Richelieu declared at the dawn of the modern state system, ‘the administration of justice requires authentic proofs; but it is not the same in affairs of state . . . There, urgent conjecture must sometimes take the place of proof; the loss of the particular is not comparable with the salvation of the state.’ As we ascend the ladder of threats from petty crime to the destruction of the state, we require less and less proof that those threats are real. The consequences of underestimating serious threats are so great we may have no choice but to overestimate them. Three centuries later, the American jurist Learned Hand invoked a version of this rule, claiming that ‘the gravity of the “evil”’ should be ‘discounted by its improbability’. The graver the evil, the higher the degree of improbability we demand in order not to worry about it. The graver the evil, the lower the degree of probability that authorises – or permits – us to take pre-emptive action against it.

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