Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Valentine, the CIA, and Political Life


Valentine, the CIA, and Political Life

Peter Schultz


            Douglas Valentine, in his book The CIA as Organized Crime, argues that “America has been in an ideological state of siege since 9/11…[after which] all moral and psychological prohibitions…were lifted forever. All the anger and frustration…nurtured during the Vietnam War and the Carter and Clinton administrations was unleashed in a torrent of war mongering.” [293]


            Valentine’s argument, which is quite common, was that US war mongering was (1) reactionary and (2) not the default position of the United States. But what if he is wrong? What if the anger and frustration felt stemmed not from alleged “moral and psychological prohibitions,” but rather from political life generally? That is, anger and frustration are parts of political life as normally lived and, hence, aren’t reactionary at all. Political life is in its normal state not characterized by moral and psychological prohibitions, but tends toward conflict, violence, war. And if that is the case, then the political task is or should be leashing and not unleashing governments to minimize such conflicts, violence, and war mongering.


            Valentine’s view is more conventional: “ideological states of siege” aren’t normally part of political life, at least not in the United States. They are created by acts such as the attacks of 9/11. By this view, the US wasn’t acting ideologically prior to 9/11, which is an interesting argument given that the US did wage war in Vietnam, while both the Carter and the Clinton administrations also waged war, Carter in Afghanistan and Clinton in Iraq. Given these wars and other US actions, is it plausible to think that the US was not acting ideologically prior to 9/11, as Valentine suggests? But because Valentine assumes that US politics isn’t, normally, ideologically oriented, the CIA appears to him as “organized crime,” as a criminal enterprise. Viewed ideologically, of course, the CIA is just another bureaucratic institution dedicated to ensuring national security.


            Two views of political life have become evident. By one, political life is ordinarily ideological, and for that reason is inherently tending toward conflict, violence, and war. By this view, the political task should be minimizing or offsetting these tendencies, pacifying political life as much as possible. Maybe, ala’ Socrates, this could be done by showing up the authorities, or by dissent based on critiques of political life that reveal the limitations of all ideologies and the ignorance of their proponents. Laughing at the ideologically oriented would be useful.


            By the other view of political life, while human life does tend toward conflict, violence, and war, these attributes are the result of the anarchical tendencies of human beings. Thus, the political task is to offset these anarchical tendencies by means of well-developed political programs and powerful governments. Such policies and institutions will necessarily rely on ideological appeals if they are to be successful. While problematic, ideological politics holds great promise for ameliorating the human condition.


            So, in one view, it is the ideological character of political life that is problematic, to say the least. By the other view, it is the ideological character of political life that holds the promise of redeeming or ameliorating the human condition. It is difficult to see how these differing and conflicting views can be reconciled.


            Valentine is, so to speak, caught between these views. He sees, even feels, the problematic character of powerful political organizations like the CIA. For that, he should be praised. And yet he does not see the need to condemn the CIA, except insofar as it is a criminal enterprise. In brief, he doesn’t see that the most basic problem with the CIA isn’t that it resembles or is “organized crime,” but that it is an institution that is driven by ideology, and not by expertise as it claims. A former CIA agent told Valentine that many of the people attracted to CIA were looking for “socially acceptable ways to express their criminal tendencies.” But this is inaccurate. Many of those attracted to the CIA, like most of those attracted to “public service,” are seeking socially acceptable ways to express their ideological convictions, while impressing them on others with or without their consent, both at home and abroad.



            Machiavelli summed this up succinctly: It is safer to be feared than loved because fear, unlike love, can be instilled in human beings, thereby pacifying them and ameliorating their conditions. And as Machiavelli pointed out, instilling fear and not being hated go together very well, as is evident in these days of the widespread embrace and popularity of the CIA and other agencies that seek to instill fear in people by engaging  in both covert and overt violence, including torture, avowedly on behalf of national security. Our national security state isn’t then a criminal enterprise; it’s an ideological enterprise. And, thus, its abuses, its violence, even its savagery seem necessary, even praiseworthy as evidence of ideological or principled politics.


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