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Monday, April 10, 2006

the double face of illegitimacy

In the run up to the invasion of Iraq, LI quoted a phrase of Benjamin Constant’s that seems to haunt the whole misadventure: “When villains violate the forms against honest men, one knows that this is just one more crime. One is attached to the forms exactly insofar as they are violated; one learns, in silence, and by misfortune, to regard them as sacred things, the protectors and preservers of the social order. But when the honest men violate the forms against the villains, the people no longer know where they are; the forms and the laws present themselves now as obstacles to justice.”

Constant was active in the French revolution, and he saw the price paid by violating the “forms.” Unlike Burke, he was on the side of the revolution. Young as he was, he saw, as Burke did not, that the French monarchical system had decayed past the point of salvage. But he also appreciated, as Ste Just never did, that the republic is built on forms. As Paine once put it, while monarchy is based on will, the Republic is based on justice. Not on the guillotine, and not on God.

LI has persistently pointed out that the scandal at the heart of this war, and the reason the conversation about it in this country compulsively returns to its origin is that its origin was a brutal violation of the forms by the “honest men” against the villains. The French phrase “hommes honnêtes” is not an assessment of private moral character, but of social position – and in this case, the Bush administration plays the role of honest men. The more modern term for the forms, stemming from Weber, is legitimacy. The illegitimacy of this war has been, from the start, the thing within it which has worked against it, silently unraveling every plan and every defense of this war.

The crime against legitimacy has a double face:

On the one hand, the illegitimacy of the tactics used to promote the war, from cherrypicked intelligence reports to slander to half truths to the contemplation of open frauds, such as Bush’s suggestion that a U.N. plane be shot down over Iraq by the U.S. military disguised as Iraqis. The followers of the Bush administration in the press, the whole tribe of belligeranti, carried into the argument a foul atmosphere of libel, of derision, and of disguise. The latter was particularly important. The war’s very dimensions were disguised. From the disgracing of Shinseki to Wolfowitz’ painful testimony about the cost of the war to the refusal to even discuss the occupation, the war’s press followers existed largely to block any inquiry into what the war would entail.

On the other hand, there was the ragged band of adventurers, half Garibaldi, half Lucky Luciano, that the American government evidently intended to put in place as the native Iraqi government. The most prominent of this band, Ahmed Chalabi, is a notorious thief. And indeed, from the reports of the massive defrauding of the Iraqi people, both directly, in terms of the funds seized from Saddam’s government after Baghdad collapsed, and indirectly, from the use of American reconstruction money, it is apparent that the spirit of Chalabi like thievery has presided over every move the American’s made in “reconstructing” Iraq, right down to the military’s publication of false and unchecked numbers about schools repaired (in which the money for the repairing vanished, and the school’s employees are using the same, unreconstructed structures) to the libraries and monument restored. As importantly, the cohort of exiles, save for some of the SCIRI and DAWA politicians, had no roots in Iraq and quickly became unpopular there. A country that had seen Saddam Hussein was in no mood to support another set of thieves.

Interestingly, Constant’s dictum is so correct that support for the war, collapsing in tandem with the supposed American plan for “victory” in the war, is simply a response to the initial violation of forms. For that initial violation requires infinite covering work, thus perpetuating the violence. And this, in itself, points to a constitutional neglect which we have inherited from the Cold War. Among other things, the Cold War suspended the constitutional duty of the legislature to validate American military action. This duty wasn’t an arbitrary whim of the founding fathers. They knew too well that an executive can use a nation’s resources, its taxes and fighting men, to wage wars to its own personal advantage – in effect, making the military the mercenary force of the executive. George III’s use of Hessian soldiers was a vivid instance. The pretence that an elected executive would have more legitimacy doing the same thing was scotched by the Constitutional Convention’s skeptics. They were right. There’s been an argument – well propounded by Paul Craddick – that the U.S. was already at war with Iraq in March of 2003. That war was the result of legislative resolutions passed in 1998, as well as resolutions passed at the U.N. in 1991. In a sense, this is true – but this simply shows, in a bold way, how the forms for war have fallen into disrepair. Your average American citizen was so unaware that he lived in a nation at war in 2000 that the issue never even surfaced in the election. In fact, it was not a war so much as a sporadic hampering action. The Bush administration knew that it did not have political carte blanche to invade Iraq because of some obscure legislation passed in 1998. It is interesting to speculate what would have happened if they did – surely the rotten fabric of post-constitutional warmongering would have been brought down with a resounding crash. This would have been, all things considered, a good thing. That the U.S. Congress couldn’t even formally declare war on the government of Afghanistan after 9/11 shows how fearful both the executive and legislative branch are of resurrecting the old Constitutional curb on military action. Its use would call into question future military actions, not so legitimized.

One consequence, of course, of the failure to declare war on the Taliban and the failure to officially enact a policy that called explicitly for the capture or death of Osama bin Laden is that the outrageously negligent military campaign against OBL, culminating with Tora Bora (which, given a competent administration, would certainly have resulted in Rumsfeld’s resignation, since OBL’s escape was the direct result of Rumsfeldian policies in Afghanistan), was allowed to go forward with no ending, and to turn into a campaign in Iraq, as though all wars desired by the President are connected.

It is puzzling that supposedly sharp political reporters and commentators – the tribe of the belligeranti –were so blind to the consequences of violating, repeatedly, the forms – of advocating actions that were, on the surface, illegitimate. The puzzle is that no long war can be fought in this way. The conviction that a war is legitimate is a necessary condition for pursuing a long war. There is no way of whistling around this. As the invasion was being mounted, the belligeranti mouthpieces were still mouthing the credo that the war would be short, and were still covering up questions about the occupation with fantasies about flower strewing natives. From their own point of view, this was really suicidal behavior. A long war or a long occupation would inevitably be compared to their rhetoric, and found wanting. As the means were rotten, so would the reaction be violent.

And so it has come to pass that the crisis in Iraq is a double crisis. The group of American proxies in Iraq has been on a continuous retreat, mitigated, perhaps, by the untold wealth that said proxies have deposited in banks in England and America and Switzerland. American strength in the country now depends, oddly enough, on an alliance with an increasingly theocratic Shi’ite majority. And though American papers and politicians look hopefully at “free market” theocrats, like the NYT favorite, Mahdi, it is hard to imagine that the looting of Iraq’s oilfields by opening them up to foreign ownership could really be contrived by any party. The Americans can fall back on the warlords in Kurdistan, but this, too, looks infinitely riskier than it did in 2003. Meanwhile, of course, the Bush administration and its press followers are sinking deeper and deeper into a morass of evasions that materially weaken support for continuing this war – already a minority position, according to most polls, for more than six months now.

Yet also peculiar to this war is the passivity and foolishness of the organized anti-war faction. In LI's opinion, this is also an interesting sign. Much of the opposition to the war seems to come not from liberals, but from leftists. This is problematic. How can leftists complain about the neglect of the forms and at the same time blast all forms as manifestations of bourgeois ideology? It makes the opposition seem either childish or Machiavellian.

This should, then, be the hour of liberalism. Liberals do not blast all forms as manifestations of bourgeouis self interest. At the same time, liberals do not believe that the orienting points of legitimacy are absolute and unchanging. In fact, the illegitimacy of this war results from lies that were acceptable means of promoting wars at other times. The war of 1898 was promoted exactly the way the war in Iraq was promoted. But 1898 is not 2003. The difference in civil rights, in the ower of the state, in our expectations about justice and equity, is considerable. It is the liberal idea that one can push those expectations, and thus reorient what is and what is not "good form." This seems to be a good time for pushing -- alas, just as there seems to be an absense of prominent liberals, save for the mayor of New York City.

Which simply means, to LI -- grassroots work. As Paine said, We have it in our power to make the world anew.


metropolitan airhead said...

Stupendous! One of the best pieces I've read by you, easily.

I think inherent in what 'grass roots work' must be done toward re-orienting form is the sense of unconscious self-destructiveness that has been inside this from the beginning--and that will now serve as an accomplice to such work. It has to have been unconscious because they thought they were having a good time, we all remember when Rumsfeld was the oldest sex symbol in history. And 'staying the course' was rendered meaningless, but it seems that, once chosen, this had to pervade all actions, because there would have been no way to keep up the facade even this long otherwise (or at least it's the only way they could have kept operating without too much internecine warfare even if they knew the gamble was pretty big.) Ideas of intense temporary gratification seem to have been felt worth it and yet it also does seem possible that there really could have been some putting on of brakes. Condi has really very little power, doesn't she, within that group? (I know it sounds like I've just thrown that out, but I don't believe if she had any real independence she would have been capable of the fuckups she made with the 9/11 intelligence and everything since.) Excellent detail about the unreal 'non-capturing' of OBL: Nobody has been able to convince me that this could be anything but failure, because even if they didn't aggressively continue to pursue on purpose, it was also a failure. Massive distractions of all kinds have still not really convinced anybody that not capturing OBL and only occasionally giving very minor updates (it was only in that one WaPo story as a major feature specifically about continuing efforts, as far as I know, among mainstream papers--and it has to be in those if it's to have results of any large kind) was anything but a failure or something fishy (just another kind of failure, because it has not been possible to convince anyone the 9/11 somehow became minor just because of the Government's opportunistic use of it.)

metropolitan airhead said...

There's surely no need to repeat it, but the spectacle of the leaders of the 3 main Iraqi tribes upset that Mubarak said the 'CW' word is almost more telling than Bushleakgate. How dare a Middle Eastern potentate say Iraq is in the throes of a CW just because it is!

Well, I am just standin' amazed at the presence, myself...and not even of Jesus the Nazarene, exxxpecially...

metropolitan airhead said...

roger--also good delineation of difference between liberals and leftists. You've identified yourself previously as a liberal, and sometimes that seems to be the case. Admittedly, it's a hard row to hoe, almost like being bisexual in a society which prefers homos at very least over the confusion of bisexuality (so says it doesn't exist, but this is because it's considered too dangerous: Hilary's obviously a bisexual, even though her dykedom is now harped on more than when she was the 'First...Lady.' Hard to remember when she didn't 'dress corporate,' isn't it?) You may be doing as good a job at it as I am, God knows things are less clear on the internet and as unsublimely impersonal as possible, that real communication is not usually the point, although the illusion that it is there is the most annoying, incensing and stupid aspect about it, because the dimension (unless there are 2) is flat and empty until there is some writing which is as good as writing was before it became essentially chat that seems engaging but has few physical effects. Obviously, you already write for journals, so your blogging is sometimes on that much higher level--therefore, I sent you an email about something, maybe you'll write something for them, even though I don't think it's money.

roger said...

Mr. Airhead (oh, I'd rather call you mister NYP!), thanks for the compliments! I actually cheated a bit in my post -- liberals that I respect, like the people at the TPM thing, keep retreating to the question of "is it good for the democrats" -- I hate that question. "I have a cure for cancer." "oh, but is it good for the democrats?" So let me admit, I'm a ghost liberal -- the line of uncaught thinkers, going back to Thomas Paine and up through Saul Alinski is sorta what I am thinking of. I don't dream of overthrowing capitalism -- I dream of the passing of a planet to my niece's generation that doesn't look alarmingly like Mars. I also once dreamed that the increased level of wealth would lead to an increased level of generosity in the commonwealth, that a country that, for instance, held the cure to AIDS would nationalize it and use it to save 3 to 10 million African lives, etc., instead of either retreating into entropy or skewed lives of economic autism, (advocated in all the business self help books). Sometimes I get depressed about the latter dream -- my four hours waiting for a late bus in the Houston bus stop this weekend was one of those times.

New York Pervert said...

roger--I thought William Arkin was pretty good just now on Iran. I've realized that part of what you're talking about that's happened with people's minds turning strongly against Iraq is making us grope very lamely to grasp what may be right around the corner with Iran. Arkin gives the names of the specific war plans that have already been developed, even the possibility that Cheney wants something 'this spring.' He seems to push some things in in his criticism of the Post's article and the Hersh article that finally made me break open my head enough to wonder if the administration thinks that only Iran can 'save them,' these ruiners of the better form. I guess that it seems to me logical that it actually could give them yet another diversion, obscene as that sounds, although obscenity beyond what almost anyone can preconceive is what this administration is so brilliant at--but I'd like to know if this is the right interpretation. With Bush announcing that an attack on Iran is rubbish, we already have reason to believe that it is anything but. Somebody else in WaPo said something today about how the national security team is 'still intact' and nothing will really have happened despite all the talk unless Rumsfeld is gotten rid of. I haven't heard anything specific along those lines, rather it's about censure and/or impeachment of GWB, and that begins to sound like a diversion too, because it would be so much harder (that's my guess.)

Anonymous said...

Agreed, a great post. For me though, your weakness is the categorical insistence on liberalism vs. leftism.

You correctly observe there's little liberal repudiation of this war. But there is opposition from 'leftists.' Which must be 'childish' or 'Machiavellian' (I admit to having no idea what you mean by this latter), since, for you, a left opposition must be grounded in a desire to 'blast all forms.' This is exceptionally unilluminating.

Rather than a 'blasting of all forms' there is (as you know) a liberal critique of this war on the basis that it violates what I assume you would take as a form, though you don't mention it -- the UN charter proscription against war, except in immediate self-defense.

What's most noteworthy about this liberal critique is that there are no liberals espousing it. They have disappeared into the warm embrace of prevention and preemption.

But there is something (a left?) espousing the liberal critique.

Chomsky of course naturally comes to mind. What in Chomsky's refusal to 'blast all forms' troubles you as childish, or Machiavellian? Maybe I missed something. Perhaps you do see the likes of Chomsky as indeed devoted to the 'blasting of all forms' and therefore it's his 'complaint about the neglect' of those forms that troubles you. Or maybe, for you, Chosmky doesn't have to 'blast all forms' to offer his critique without being childish or Machiavellian, because, for you, he's a liberal not a leftist.

Why do 'leftists' have to 'blast all forms' to avoid childishness and Machiavellianism?

Can you propose a non-childish, non-Machiavellain 'leftist' critique of this war?

roger said...

Anonymous, I take it you didn't like my phrase about childish and Machiavellian?

I was thinking of the organization of anti-war demonstrations by ... oh, what is the acronym? A.N.S.W.E.R or something as the Machievellian. And the childish is, well, the inability of any lefty antiwar organization not to try to freeload its particular concerns into anti-war venues -- which is as irritating for me as pop up advertising. The old Communist idea of the popular front seems to have dissolved into a morass of hobbyhorses. The popular front is what I'd like to see.

That said, I do admire the anti-recruitment stuff going on, and I shouldn't sound churlish about it. Surely, though, anonymous, it must strike you that the anti-war movement has failed to capture the incredible popular discontent with this war. Why do you think that is? Approaching this war from the standpoint of illegitimacy does, I think, open up ways of criticizing its specific operation -- the occupation itself, the day to day in Iraq -- rather than going back perpetually to the leadup to the war.

Brian Miller said...

re: your last comment about not focusing on the ladup to the war

roger, don't you think that perhaps justifies the rightist Democrats' support for the war with the good ol' "we would do it better" argument? As I believe that the war was a strategic debacle on the level of the Athenians' attack on Syracuse, I dislike this argument seriously. The critical problem was indeed the leadup to the war, not the day-to-day operation?

roger said...

Brian, my notion is simple: the leadup to the war, the invasion, and the occupation are all separate segments of one thing. Seeing the illegitimacy of the leadup to the war helps us understand the phenomenon of the occupation, from the looting at the beginning to the razing of Fallujah in the middle to the likelihood of theocracy and mini-civil wars at the moment.

But that we make more of a deal about Bush leaking the NIE than of, say, the military's wildly fraudulent numbers on reconstruction projects -- Ed Harriman has been doing excellent pieces on this in the London Review of Books, (see here: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n02/harr04_.html) going through the Special Inspector General's report on Iraqi reconstruction, show that the "good news" Potemkin projects conceal a terrible abyss- and that abyss was, basically, as much a theft from the Iraqi population as from the American. Yet who raises questions about these things, or the culture that lead to them? A culture that I symbolize with Chalabi, but which goes beyond him to almost all of the peculating U.S. allies in Iraq. Comparatively, Al-Sadr looks like a saint -- and then we wonder how he made his comeback?

Indeed, who, in the last three years, has asked Bush what he was thinking when he had a convicted felon from Jordan flown to Iraq with a militia group clothed in black shirts? Was the thinking that the Iraqis just wouldn't care? These are basic questions, and I think they aren't asked because the Iraqi viewpoint is swallowed up in the American blindspot. In that blindspot, all peoples want to be American -- but the things we impose upon those peoples, things no American would ever accept, they are supposed to swallow without a whimper.

These aren't even anti-war questions, which is why I say they are fundamental. If you really mean to occupy a country and bring about democracy -- and I'm resisting the urge to scarequote -- you simply don't go about it this way. I think it is totally sad that the cheap Churchills of the pro-war set, instead of talking about blood, sweat and tears, were talking about getting their college aged, connected GOP kids summer jobs running Iraq. Sad for the Iraqis. You couldn't really do worse if you were trying -- and yet, the supposedly pro-war group never uttered a peep, or thought for a second that such idiocy leads inevitably, and justly, to a terrible recoil.

Yet the pro-war people always throw out the lure of, so you are supporting Saddam Hussein, and the consequent splashing around about who knew what about uranium distracts from the reality of the occupation. It isn't that we don't see the good news -- it is that the good news isn't good. And this needs to become part of the anti-war vernacular.

Brian Miller said...

Ah. Perhaps it is a matter of emphasis, then?

I honestly do believe, though, that the average American is HAPPY about the looting and pillageing. They are somehow proud of it. Go Team, Go! is the attitude. I'm not sure how much it's really changing, either. There is no consternation back in the Building Inspectors' room in my office about nuclear bombing Iran-they are happy about it.

I fall back upon my still favorite Kunstlerism-"We are a wicked people who deserve to be punished." Sure, we are not the most evil empire, but we may be the most corpulently ignorant. Our ruling class steals and steals and steals and steals, destroying our future national security, and they don't care. Not a whit.

New York Pervert said...


This is excellent even if you already know all about Daily Kos. Sounds to me like that's where the new Democratic energy is going to start showing from. I didn't know much of it, and also didn't know about Kerry and others doing the ads destructive to Dean with his photo next to Osama's. I've never understood why his 'barbaric yawp' or whatever it was, was so offensive. Did it make him seem like Minnie Pearl or something? After all, Bob Dole always cried whenever he felt like it, and Clinton did heavy preaching on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, that was a bit much considering he didn't use that voice any of the time he was meeting with NATO or APEC, etc.

roger said...

NYP, you should have suggested the Minnie Pearl comparison to Dean's manager. At last: howard dean's Southern Strategy! The yodeling can't be far behind.

Really, it would be hard for me not to vote for a yodeler.