The Fetish of National Security: How America's Worst Crimes Are Perpetrated and Excused
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Neither statement was meant to justify great crimes of state, but both suggest an inverse relationship between the magnitude of a danger and the requirements of facticity. Once a leader starts pondering the nation’s moral and physical extinction, he enters a world where the fantastic need not give way to the factual, where present benignity can seem like the merest prelude to future malignancy. So intertwined at this point are fear and reason of state that early modern theorists, less shy than we about such matters, happily admitted the first as a proxy for the second: a nation’s fear, they argued, could serve as a legitimate rationale for war, even a preventive one. “ As long as reason is reason,” Francis Bacon wrote, “a just fear will be a just cause of a preventive war.” That’s a fairly good description of the logic animating the Cold War: fight them there—in Vietnam, Nicaragua, Angola—lest we must stop them here, at the Rio Grande, the Canadian border, on Main Street. It’s also a fairly good description of the logic animating the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union:
These are by no means ancient or academic formulations. While liberal critics claim that the Bush administration lied about or deliberately exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq in order to justify going to war, the fact is that the administration and its allies were often disarmingly honest in their assessment of the threat, or at least honest about how they were going about assessing it. Trafficking in the future, they conjured the worst—“ we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”—and left it to their audience to draw the most frightful conclusions.
In his 2003 state of the union address, one of his most important statements in the run-up to the war, Bush declared: “Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent. Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike? If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions, all words and all recriminations would come too late.” Bush does not affirm the imminence of the threat; he implicitly disavows it, ducking behind the past, darting to the hypothetical, and arriving at a nightmarish, though entirely conjectured, future. He does not speak of “is” but of “if” and “could be.” These words are conditional (which is why Bush’s critics, insisting that he take his stand in the realm of fact or fiction, never could get a fix on him). He speaks in the tense of fear, where evidence and intuition, reason and speculation, combine to make the worst-case scenario seem as real as fact.
After the war had begun, the television journalist Diane Sawyer pressed Bush on the difference between the assumption, “stated as a hard fact, that there were weapons of mass destruction,” and the hypothetical possibility that Saddam “could move to acquire those weapons.” Bush replied: “So what’s the difference?” No offhand comment, this was Bush’s most articulate statement of the entire war, an artful parsing of a distinction that has little meaning in the context of national security.