IN THE NEWS
He who fights against monsters should see to it that he does not become a monster in the process. And when you stare persistently into an abyss, the abyss also stares into you.
Familiar quotations, like Nietzsche's comment about the abyss, often get tired from overuse. That's an unfortunate fact of life, since the more apt the maxim, the faster it can turn into a cliche. However, all cliches were once fresh and meaningful, and perhaps Nietzsche's observation deserves a revival.
The Foreign Affairs article, "Saddam's Delusions," I discussed in the previous post is a great case in point. The JFCOM study on which the article is based describes Hussein as someone who seduces himself into an orgy of lies about his phantom WMD programs:
When it came to weapons of mass destruction (WMD), Saddam attempted to convince one audience that they were gone while simultaneously convincing another that Iraq still had them. Coming clean about WMD and using full compliance with inspections to escape from sanctions would have been his best course of action for the long run. Saddam, however, found it impossible to abandon the illusion of having WMD, especially since it played so well in the Arab world.
The Iraqi government was already fertile ground for lying, since the Ba'athist regime was based on careful omissions, exaggerations, and deceit. Frightened subordinates told the dictator what he wanted to hear, no matter how little their fables of Iraqi strength resembled the tattered, decaying reality:
Within the Iraqi military and the Iraqi regime more generally, rumors circulated that summary execution awaited anyone who dared contradict the dictator. Officers remembered the story of the brigadier general who once spent over a year in prison for daring to suggest that U.S. tanks might be superior to those of the Iraqi army. One senior minister noted, "Directly disagreeing with Saddam Hussein's ideas was unforgivable. It would be suicide."
Hussein ensured that his subordinates existed solely to execute his will. No one need play the role of "advisor," since Hussein believed himself to be the only necessary and reliable source of wisdom:
A close associate once described Saddam as a deep thinker who lay awake
at night pondering problems at length before inspiration came to him in
dreams. These dreams became dictates the next morning, and invariably
all those around Saddam would praise his great intuition. Questioning
his dictates brought great personal risk. Often, the dictator would
make a show of consulting small groups of family members and longtime
advisers, although his record even here is erratic. All of the evidence
demonstrates that he made his most fateful decisions in isolation. He
decided to invade Iran, for example, without any consultation with his
advisers and while he was visiting a vacation resort. He made the
equally fateful decision to invade Kuwait after discussing it with only
His unshakeable belief in himself, combined with a prickly distrust of anyone who might threaten his power, made Hussein eager to appoint sycophants, relatives, and other "safe" subordinates over people with genuine skill and leadership:
Saddam truly trusted only one person: himself. As a result, he concentrated more and more power in his own hands. No single man could do everything, however; forced to enlist the help of others to handle operational details, Saddam used a remarkable set of hiring criteria. As one senior Iraqi leader noted, Saddam selected the "uneducated, untalented, and those who posed no threat to his leadership for key roles."
The political culture of the Ba'athist regime corroded military effectiveness, leading to bad decisions and dangerous gambles:
Such a lack of trust had a direct effect not only on the ability of commanders to lead their units, but also on the ability of units to take advantage of their knowledge of the ground to prepare optimal defenses. In many cases, staff officers in Baghdad who had never visited particular areas still were the ones who gave precise deployment directions for even the smallest units.
Sound familiar? Like, say, any leaders closer to home?
Before you jump all over that last statement, let me get the obvious qualifications out of the way. No, I am not saying that George W. Bush is the moral equivalent of Saddam Hussein. No, I don't think that Bush has reproduced in Washington the sort of regime that Hussein built in Baghdad. I am saying that however faint or strong the echos are, they exist for a reason.
Back in the good old days of the Cold War, when national security was merely a question of figuring out how to keep a global thermonuclear war from erupting, some pundits who had stared into the abyss of the Soviet Union found themselves questioning the foundations of Western democracy. Case in point: Arnaud de Borchgrave, the conservative author of, among other things, a few lamentable essays in the 1980s about the "ungovernability" of Western democracies. Books like The Crisis of Democracy became faddish in circles where a certain breed of conservative worried that Soviet totalitarianism was proving to be a more organized, efficient, and competitive form of goverment than the sloppy, disputatious liberal democracies. I'm sure that everyone who contributed to this intellectual fad is now embarassed, having seen the "competitive" totalitarian model crumble under the weight of corruption, disaffection, and illegitimacy.
Perhaps we have to be a bit forgiving of Arnaud de Borchgrave and his fellow travelers. After all, until the very end, the USSR put on a very brave face. If you watched the May Day parades of military might, you might conclude that the Soviets remained a determined threat, even while it slowly transformed itself from the tyranny that built Potemkin villages, to the ethnically distinct villages that grew tired of the Potemkin regime.
So, too, people looking at pre-invasion Iraq might conclude that the Ba'athist regime was far more menacing than it was. However, it's not necessary to be all that forgiving, since the signs of Soviet and Iraqi weakness were there. Instead, you might conclude that a certain kind of pundit or politician wanted to believe in a greater threat than the real USSR or Iraq. The neo-conservatives who peddled their anxious fantasies to anyone who would listen never seemed to have paused to ask themselves, "Is Saddam Hussein as dangerous as we think?"
The willingness to believe in the Iraqi threat, bordering on an eagerness to believe, is what made the abyss fascinating to the point of distraction. It generated fears about our own lack of "competitiveness" that led to excessive secrecy, crackpot theories about the "unitary executive," and a willingness to gamble on an extremely risky venture. Fearing that it might fall into the abyss involuntarily, the Bush Administration and its supporters felt that jumping into the abyss of our own volition was somehow preferable.