|Did getting ahead get us into Iraq?
How upward mobility and careerism inside and outside government may
have silenced naysayers before the U.S. invaded Iraq.
By Corey Robin
COREY ROBIN, author of "Fear: The History of a Political Idea,"
teaches political science at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center
of the City University of New York. A longer version of this artic
January 14, 2007
WHEN philosopher Hannah Arendt died in 1975, she was primarily known
as an argumentative woman who coined the phrase "the banality of
evil." Since then, her star has risen (literally: In 1990, two
scientists named an asteroid after her).
Last year, as professors, journalists and intellectuals celebrated the
centenary of her birth, she completed the journey of all great
philosophers, from controversy to canon. Every week, it seemed, some
new pundit would trot out her theory of totalitarianism, dutifully
extending it, as her followers did during the Cold War, to the
nation's enemies: Al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, Iran.
In what is now thought to be her masterpiece, "The Origins of
Totalitarianism," Arendt argued that men and women in the first half
of the 20th century were lonely and anxious. Stumbling through the
rubble of war-torn Europe, they searched in vain for the touchstones
that once had made their lives meaningful and secure: religion, social
hierarchy and national identity.
They found them in totalitarianism, sort of. Fitting men and women
with a "band of iron," Nazism and Stalinism gave desperate individuals
a sense of connection and structure.
Most historians who are truly familiar with the period have rejected
this analysis. Supporters of Hitler and Stalin, they point out, were
already integrated into society; the Nazis and Soviets, in fact, often
worked through established institutions such as the military, the
schools or the church. Mass violence spoke less to the psychic needs
of the masses than it did to the political needs of the regime.
Nevertheless, a number of writers and journalists have recently taken
it up as an explanation of radical Islam, turning Arendt into the
philosopher-queen of the war on terror.
The way they see it, globalization threatens the traditional customs
and institutions of the Middle East. Unable to adapt to secular trends
and the creative destruction of modern capitalism, Muslims and Arabs
now seek meaning in a meaningless world. Enter radical Islam.
Fundamentalist piety rehabilitates medieval truths; rigid gender roles
re-create feudal hierarchies; senseless violence against Westerners
and Israelis happily divides the world into us and them.
The main problem with this thesis is that, like Arendt's treatment of
Nazism and Stalinism, it gives short shrift to politics. As we've seen
again and again, radical Islamists are not driven so much by a feeling
of being out of place as by their anger at long-standing U.S. support
for Israel and repressive Arab regimes, the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan and, in Europe, discrimination against Muslims and Arabs.
Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, head of Britain's counterintelligence
and security agency, says that British suicide bombers "are motivated
by perceived worldwide and long-standing injustices against Muslims"
and by the perception that British foreign policy is "anti-Muslim."
Intellectuals and journalists aren't wrong to turn to Arendt for
insight into today's events; they're just looking for it in the wrong
places. If they worried less about the Muslim world and more about
their own, they might find a clarifying mirror in Arendt's other
masterpiece, "Eichmann in Jerusalem."
Great crimes such as the Holocaust, Arendt argued in "Eichmann," often
arise from small vices. Eichmann's was careerism. "What for Eichmann
was a job, with its daily routine, its ups and downs, was for the Jews
quite literally the end of the world."
Eichmann had "no motives at all," she insisted, "except for an
extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement."
He joined the Nazis because he saw in them an opportunity to "start
from scratch and still make a career" and "what he fervently believed
in up to the end was success."
Like war, genocide is work. If it is to be done, people must be hired
and paid. If it is to be done well, they must be supervised and
promoted. Careerism, that pinched desire for self-advancement, makes
the trains run on time — not just in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia
but in the United States.
When commentators try to explain how and why the nation went to war
against Iraq, they generally focus on the neoconservatives who gave
the project its philosophical underpinnings, or on the bad
intelligence that persuaded so many others to back it. Few mention the
rampant careerism that enabled the Bush administration to launch the
war and to bungle the occupation. After a CIA station chief in Baghdad
saw his career ruined because he wrote a negative assessment of the
war, claims New York Times reporter James Risen in his book "State of
War," others in the agency concluded that "there was a steep price to
be paid for writing unvarnished intelligence reports about Iraq." As
one colleague put it, "I thought he was committing career suicide."
Virtually no one wished to follow suit.
And why did so few journalists stand in the way of the march to war?
Because they genuinely believed in it? Because they were misled by the
administration? Both factors surely played a role, but there was also
a tendency to stick close to the conventional wisdom, to accept the
leaks from the administration — and the flashy Page 1 headlines they
provided — at face value rather than take the risky career move of
challenging the prevailing narrative and braving the raised eyebrows
of their peers and bosses. As longtime ABC News correspondent and
anchor Sam Donaldson has admitted: "If you're a reporter at the White
House, and you're thinking about further successes in the business,
and you're nervous about your boss getting a call, maybe you pull your
punches because of the career track."
No one reading Arendt today should conclude that the war in Iraq is
the same as the Holocaust, or that newsroom staffers are little
Eichmanns. They're not. What readers of Arendt might question is that
quintessentially American wisdom, handed down by everyone from Ben
Franklin to Ronald Reagan, that ambition is the stuff that dreams are
Sometimes it is, but as Arendt reminds us, it's just as often the
stuff of nightmares.