May 20, 2004

Preparing a Place in the Museum of Failure

Norman Geras argues strongly that as a supporter of the war in Iraq, he bears no responsibility at all for Abu Ghraib.

I agree that those who supported the war with a rigorously reasoned case do not have to feel personally responsible for Abu Ghraib. I think it is appropriate to hold war supporters directly responsible for Abu Ghraib if (and only if) they fail to regard systemic abuse there and other American military prisons as being a grave concern by the very same criteria that we held Hussein's misrule a concern.

Abu Ghraib does have serious consequences for at least some of the arguments in favor of the war, and I don't think one can dodge those consequences. It's possible but highly unlikely that this is merely seven bad apples doing bad things--even if that were so, this is where the basic point about oversight comes in. A failure to have effective oversight is a guarantee of "bad apples" having impunity to do what they do. The furtive, paranoid unilateralism of the current Administration, its stonewalling of entities like the Red Cross, its apparent disinterest in due diligence practices within its own institutional frameworks, made Abu Ghraib inevitable.

Beyond that, however, the evidence is considerable that this abuse was not merely an accident of mismanagement, but a deliberate policy, deeply integrated into the Administration’s entire approach to the ‘war on terror’. Supporters of the war do need to regard that as a serious issue for their case, because the war cannot be supported as an abstraction. It can only be supported as a concretized, real-world project, and if it is done badly in the real world, it eventually will (and I think already has) do as much damage as the things it set out to fight. If you support the war as part of a battle against illiberalism, then illiberal conduct by your own "side" in the war has to mean something to you, have inescapable implications for your struggle. You can't just shrug off the creation of a gulag in Guantanamo where people have no rights, or evidence of a consistent policy of humiliation and abuse.

To understand this as a conflict that is resolvable strictly through military means or through the imposition of formalist structures is my mind to absolutely and completely misunderstand the nature of the larger conflict against terrorism. To extend the military trope, it’s the equivalent of fighting the wrong battle with the wrong weapons in the wrong place—and in military history, that’s how you lose a war even when you may have superior resources and force at your disposal.

Those who do misunderstand it this way almost all share two things. One, a belief in the universal and inescapable obligations of modern liberalism. It’s no accident that some Marxists, some liberals and many neoconservatives have found the war attractive, because they all derive tremendous intellectual strength from unversalist frameworks. This I find laudable and important and I recognize many supporters of the war who take this approach as intellectual cousins. (Those who do not share this commonality, like those parochalists and chauvinists on the American right who have endorsed brutality at Abu Ghraib, I recognize no connection with.)

But these supporters on both left and right share another attribute which I do not share: a belief that liberalism comes from above, that it can be imposed by power, that it emanates from the structure of the state and is guaranteed by securing a working monopoly on the means of violence. Equally, these thinkers share a belief that illiberalism and oppression emanate from the top, have their source in malformed states and ruling elites who have illegitimately seized control of the state in spite of the natural and rational desire of most people for liberal democratic norms. In essence, many of them--some from the left, some from the right--are statists. This is what the shorthand of "Wilsonian" is all about: a grab-bag aggregate that usefully links ideologically diverse arguments through their common understanding of the nature of political change and the sources of illiberalism in the world.

Fundamentally, this is a clash between different models of change-by-design in the world, of how one does praxis. Even when I was more strongly influenced by Marxism, I was always drawn to the Gramscian vision of politics, to the notion of a “war of position”, because that seemed much closer to me to how meaningful, productive, generative change in the world actually comes about, in the messiness of everyday life, in the small and incremental transformation of consciousness. I do not believe, and have never believed, in revolutionary change, in the proposition that a sudden, sharp disjuncture between the flawed present and the shining future can be produced by a seismic transformation of social structure directed by the state, by political vanguards or other major social institutions that possess strong governmentality.

Real revolutions happen in history, and they are genuinely disjunctive, deeply and abruptly transformative. The ones that are productive largely happen by accident. They happen because smaller social transformations have been building towards a point of criticality, towards a sudden phase change. They do not happen by design or intention. Real revolutions can be guaranteed by changes at the top, by the creation of laws and rights and constitutions, but they don't come from those things.

False revolutions happen in history, and they are much less disjunctive than their supporters pretend. These are the classic political revolutions, the ones that try to force history into a new mold by totalizing design, from above. They can do almost nothing generatively useful at the level of real social change: they can only destroy and terrorize. They cannot create. The only good example we have in modernity is the American revolution, and it is notable that its most fundamentally radical achievement was to specify constraints on its own transformative capacities. Its moderation was the essence of its radicalism, and the source of its long-term fecundity.

Power has a thermodynamic character: good things can happen when more energy is added to an existing system, but only if those bringing power to bear have modest ambitions and tremendous respect for serendipity and unintended consequences, for the organic evolution of events. The more ambitious the design, the more totalistic the ambitions, the more fatal and destructive the consequences are likely to be. A human world fully embued with the humanistic values of the Enlightenment is a world we all should desire, and we should harshly regard the world where it falls short of that. But this is where we have to have faith in the desirability of those values, and play the game steadily towards victory.

It is the “velvet revolutions” of the 1990s that we should cast our covetous eyes at. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the defeat of apartheid are the real triumphs of our age. No invasions or interventions have a share in those victories, but the resolute moral and political will of many states, civil institutions and individuals—backed where necessary by military power—can claim a great share of the credit. I don't deny that on occasion, positive revolutionary-style change does come from above, but this is a rare circumstance, and all the historical stars have to be in alignment for it to happen. That was not the case with the war in Iraq.

The Iraq War’s structural failure is that it is closely allied to the false revolutionary project, to statism, to the belief that social practice usually can be highly responsive to and conforming to the will of strong power, if only that power articulates its will clearly. This is the failed conceit at the bottom of the well, and where Iraq differs from Afghanistan. Afghanistan I support because its primary logic was self-defense, and its secondary logic put forward a sensible, consistently reasoned proposition that failed states represent a clear and imminent danger to the security of liberal democratic nations. The national security logic of Iraq, in contrast, was weak before the war and has gotten dramatically weaker since.

Alongside this deep philosophical shortcoming, the failure at Abu Ghraib is indeed a sideshow. It is the deeper failure that the reasoned supporters of the war need to hold themselves accountable for. The Iraq War will take its place eventually as an exhibit in a museum alongside Cabrini-Green, state-run collective farming, Brasilia, the Great Leap Forward, Italian fascism, and other attempts to totalistically remake the substance of social practice from above.