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  • The Novelty of the Iraq War
  • George Kateb (bio)

The issue is what judgment to make of the US war in Iraq. I deliberately use the word "judgment" with Hannah Arendt's concept in mind. Perhaps the main work that she looked for in making a political judgment of some political phenomenon—an act, policy, situation, or condition, past or in process—is to determine whether it was or is novel and therefore not to be subsumed reflexively under a prevalent category or thoughtlessly assimilated to other political phenomena. Is the US war in Iraq a novel event in American history; or is it, rather, in its energies and ambitions, largely continuous with earlier American wars, just one more occurrence that takes its place in a pattern that began well before the Bush administration and that will outlast it indefinitely?

Our judgment that in truth there is novelty would depend on answers to certain questions. The most important one is, what were the instigating motives of those who launched the war against Iraq? Were any of these motives new in American history? The question of motives is entangled with another: was there novelty in the rhetoric used by administration officials to justify the war to the American public and the rest of the world? In short, were the actual motives behind the war novel, and was the relationship between the actual motives and the rhetoric employed to justify the war also novel? We can ask another question: did the rhetoric work as it was supposed to?

Some features of the conduct of the war also call for judgment. I have especially in mind the methods used in the capture and interrogation of combatants and others swept up in the capture, procedures for determining their status, and procedures for determining their guilt or innocence on charges of war crimes. Were any of these features at least partly novel? Then there is the treatment of aliens and immigrants, with 9/11 as a pretext for cruel and arbitrary measures. It seems to me that the Bush administration, with the help of the other branches of government, has combined some of the worst violations of rights committed by earlier presidents, but with the difference that there was almost no credible or even plausible reason. The scale may be dwarfed by the internment of Japanese people in World War II, but there is the greater danger that the needless precedents set by the Bush administration will prove so seductive to any incumbent president that they will be irreversible. The establishment can be counted on to go along.

If an eye for novelty is crucial for political judgment, as Arendt says, it must be the case that one could err in ascribing novelty when there is not much novelty but only recurrence of the same. That is, there could be basic similarity between the motives that instigated the war against Iraq and the motives of other policies in the historical record (and the treatment of those apprehended and imprisoned), even though similar motives issue in different strategies of realization, from one context to another. There could also be basic similarity in the structure of the rhetoric used. We therefore run the risk of condemning as unprecedented what actually fits into a steady pattern. Those who judge should see novelty where it exists, but not think that the responsibility of judgment ends there. It must also include a willingness to subsume where subsuming is called for. Not all bloody and shocking political events contain the element of radical newness, nor do all surprising political initiatives.

Here I will pay most attention to the question of the motives behind the war and the relationship between them and the public rhetoric used to justify the war, and only a little to the Bush administration's systematic violation of constitutional and human rights. Thinking about motives and rhetoric will help us to decide whether the war against Iraq was at least to some extent something new in American history. Of considerable interest is also the relationship between the rhetoric and the public response to the war—a war that is of course uncompleted.

The best judgment about the war...


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pp. 25-31
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