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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.

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Probably no one in or around the administration better understood the way national security blurs the line between the possible and the actual than  Richard Perle. “How far Saddam’s gone on the nuclear weapons side I don’t think we really know,”  Perle said on one occasion. “My guess is it’s further than we think. It’s always further than we think, because we limit ourselves, as we think about this, to what we’re able to prove and demonstrate . . . . And, unless you believe that we have uncovered everything, you have to assume there is more than we’re able to report.”

Like Bush, Perle neither lies nor exaggerates. Instead, he imagines and projects, and in the process reverses the normal rules of forensic responsibility. When someone recommends a difficult course of action on behalf of a better future, he invariably must defend himself against the skeptic, who insists that he prove his recommendation will produce the outcome he anticipates. But if someone recommends an equally difficult course of action to avert a hypothetical disaster, the burden of proof shifts to the skeptic. Suddenly she must defend her doubt against his belief, her preference for politics as usual against his politics of emergency. And that, I suspect, is why the Bush administration’s prewar mantra, “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”—laughable in the context of an argument for, say, world peace—could seem surprisingly cogent in an argument for war. “Better to be despised for too anxious apprehensions,”  Burke noted, “than ruined by too confident a security.”

As Walzer suggests, an entire people can face annihilation. But the victims of genocide tend to be stateless or powerless, and the world has difficulty seeing or acknowledging their destruction, even when the evidence is undeniable. The citizens and subjects of great powers, on the other hand, rarely face the prospect of “moral as well as physical extinction.” (Walzer cites only two cases.) Yet their leaders seem to imagine that destruction with the greatest of ease.

We get a taste of this indulgence of the state and its concerns—and a corresponding skepticism about non-state actors and their concerns—in Walzer’s own ruminations on war and peace. Throughout  Arguing about War, Walzer wrestles with terrorists who claim that they are using violence as a last resort and antiwar activists who claim than governments should go to war only as a last resort. Walzer is dubious about both claims. But far from revealing a dogged consistency, his skepticism about the “last resort” suggests a double standard. It sets the bar for using force much higher for non-state actors than it does for state actors—not because terrorists target civilians while the state does not, but because Walzer refuses to accept the terrorist’s “last resort” while he is ready to lend credence to the government’s, or at least is ready to challenge critics of the government who insist that war truly be a last resort.

For Walzer, the last resort argument of antiwar activists is often a ruse designed to make a government’s going to war impossible—and a muddy ruse at that. For “lastness,” he says, “is a metaphysical condition, which is never actually reached in real life; it is always possible to do something else, or to do it again, before doing whatever it is that comes last.” We can always ask for “another diplomatic note, another United Nations resolution, another meeting,” we can always dither and delay. Though Walzer acknowledges the moral power of the last resort argument—“political leaders must cross this threshold [going to war] only with great reluctance and trepidation”—he suspects that it is often “merely an excuse for postponing the use of force indefinitely.” As a result, he says, “I have always resisted the argument that force is a last resort.”

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