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The Fetish of National Security: How America's Worst Crimes Are Perpetrated and Excused

The creed of national security lets governments justify all sorts of crimes against humanity.

The following is Part 1of an excerpt from Corey Robin's book "The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin." Part 2 will run tomorrow. 

The twentieth century, it’s often 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 cause is the working class or a master race, ideology leads to the graveyard.

Although moderate-minded intellectuals have repeatedly mobilized some version of this argument against the “isms” of right and left, they have seldom mustered a comparable skepticism about that other idée fixe of the twentieth century: national security. Some writers criticize this war, others that one, but has anyone ever penned,  in the spirit of Daniel Bell, a book titled “The End of  National Security”? Millions have been killed in the name of security;  Stalin and Hitler claimed to be protecting their populations  from mortal threats. Yet no such book exists.

Consider the less than six degrees of separation between the idea of national security and the lurid crimes of Abu Ghraib. Each of the reasons the Bush administration gave for going to war against Iraq—the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), Saddam’s alleged links to Al Qaeda, even the promotion of democracy in the Middle East—referred in some way to protecting the United States. Getting good intelligence from informers is a critical element in defeating any insurgency. U.S. military intelligence believed (perhaps still does believe) that sexual humiliation is an especially useful instrument for extracting information from recalcitrant Muslim and Arab prisoners.

Many critics have protested Abu Ghraib, but few have traced its outrages back to the idea of national security. Perhaps they believe such an investigation is unnecessary. After all, many of these individuals opposed the war on the grounds that U.S. security was not threatened by Iraq. Some of national security’s most accomplished practitioners, such as  Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, as well as theoreticians like  Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, claimed that a genuine consideration of U.S. security interests militated against the war. The mere fact, these critics could argue, 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 a country committing 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 counselor 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, he should not be excited by his use of violence. Analysts may add international norms to a leader’s toolkit, but they are quick to point out, as  Joseph Nye does in The Paradox of American Power, that these rules may have to give way to “vital survival interests,” that “at times we will have to go it alone.” National security demands a monkish self-denial, where officials forego the comforts of conscience and pleasures of impulse in order to inflict when necessary the most brutal force and abstain from or abandon that force whenever it becomes counterproductive. 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.

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