The Benign Face of the Moral Abyss

Written in 2014:

The most insidious evil is that which believes itself to be fundamentally good, wrapping itself in the trappings of authority and benign intentions: the person who will tell you with a straight face why it is a good idea to pre-emptively drop a bomb on someone.

“I’m afraid a couple of you probably are evil,” Mindy Kaling told graduates of Harvard Law School earlier this month. “That’s just the odds.”

On Wednesday night, I met such a person in Seattle.

I went to see Matt Kroenig, the young author of “A Time to Attack: The Looming Iranian Nuclear Threat” give a speech at Town Hall. He previously worked under Secretaries of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, during the Bush administration, and Robert Gates, during the Obama era. Now, he’s the International Relations Field Chair at Georgetown University. He has a long resume full of respected institutions and endorsements from power players.

The problem with Kroenig is that he is not Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck. That would make him too easy to lampoon and dismiss. For an hour, he spoke in brisk and clear tones about how he believes in fighting the proliferation of nuclear weapons, how Iran could supply its nuclear warheads to Al Qaeda, why diplomacy is likely to fail, and why the least worst option is to drop bunker-busting bombs—he gestured with his hands to explain how they work—on Iran’s nuclear facilities. He did not sound like a blowhard. The audience of a few dozen politely clapped for him at the end.

During the Q&A, I asked him why the Iranian government would ever arm Al Qaeda—the former is a Shia government, the latter are Sunni fundamentalists. This paralleled the allegation, made in order to justify the Iraq war, that Saddam Hussein (also Sunni) was arming Al Qaeda. The allegation was a false one from the start.

Kroenig did not get short or defensive with me. He acknowledged that such a relationship was improbable. More likely, he asserted, Iran would supply weapons to Hamas or Hezbollah. When I asked him how the United States has any credibility to police Iran’s nuclear weapons, after it launched a disastrous invasion of a neighboring country and backed dozens of coup d’etats (including in Iran) around the world, and when it has done so little to reduce its own staggeringly large nuclear arsenal, he responded that he is a “realist.” He recommended “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics,” by John Mearshimer, which argues the United States must continue its legacy of expansion and hegemony as it battles for dominance with rival states.

Beyond a core belief in their own goodness, neither moral consistency nor a track record of success in foreign interventionism are necessary for “realists.”

After his talk, we chatted one-on-one. Kroenig said he plans to go back to work for the government. He likes setting his own schedule as an academic—he smiled at the thought—but working with top defense officials, well, that was “pretty cool.” He talked proudly about showing them presentations that made the same case as his book. He says he realizes now the Iraq war was a mistake. But when the country was debating the invasion, he was for it, “because everyone else was.” (Actual quote.) At that time, he was a graduate student at Berkeley. Isn’t Berkeley a pretty anti-war place, though? There were lots of anti-war protests happening, he explained, but the political science department is its own thing. It’s pretty insulated from all that. He’d gone from graduate school to interning at the CIA, back to academia, and then back into government. But he doesn’t speak Farsi, has never been to Iran, and never fought in a war. All of his “experience”—degrees, studies, government meetings—is based on knowledge gleaned from books and theories and reports, written by other realists. Somehow, all of that adds up to the belief that he is qualified enough to advocate for war, and if in government, help carry it out.

Kroenig is the kind of guy in the government who was writing those State Department cables that WikiLeaks released a few years ago: the ones that talk about bugging diplomats at the United Nations, or how to undermine Haiti’s attempts to raise the minimum wage for garment workers, for example—the cables with wholly self-contained hubris discussing in ordinary, technocratic terms how the American empire should respond to this or that development in countries that are less consequential, but where the United States nonetheless has “interests.”

We also know from the cables, by the way, that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates—Kroenig’s old boss—adopted a less hawkish posture. He believed “a conventional strike by any nation would only delay Iranian [nuclear] plans by one to three years, while unifying the Iranian people to be forever embittered against the attacker.”

As I turned to leave, I said, “When you work for the government again, try not to make some terrible decision and kill a bunch of people, okay?” Kroenig quipped back, “I’ll be sure to check with you first.”


Kroenig reminded me of David Albers, who I spoke to over the phone last fall. Albers is a local real estate agent who bought Phyllis Walsh’s home in South Seattle after a bank foreclosed on her last year. Walsh, a gentle, aging widow beloved by her neighbors and friends, thought she was in the middle of refinancing her mortgage, according to her suicide note. She shot herself on her front lawn two days before she was to be evicted.

“This case affected me quite a bit,” Albers told me.

Days before the eviction, he had stopped by her house. “She invited me inside. I can’t remember what we talked about, but it was like she just wanted to talk.” She hadn’t packed. Albers asked her how she was going to move out all her stuff in time.

Walsh said something about moving in with her sister. Albers asked, “Ok, well is there anything you need from me? Do you want to hire a mover?”

“I remember it very clearly,” Albers recalled. “She just looks at me in the eyes. And she says, ‘You’ve got enough…. Come here in two days, and the key will be in the mailbox.'”

When Albers showed up after her suicide, “The neighbors looked like they wanted to kill me. I was in shock.” Her suicide note had talked of “foreclosure vultures” coming for her home.

I pressed my cell phone to my ear, sitting on a couch in my apartment. Albers stopped talking for a moment. “I felt bad about it,” he said, finally. “And I was wondering, is it something I did?”

After another pause, he said, “I personally don’t think there’s anything I did…I don’t feel guilty about anything, I just feel sad…Her face popped into my head for a long time after that.”

Later, Albers encountered another woman going through foreclosure down the street. She made a joke about killing herself, he said. He told her the story of Phyllis Walsh. She started crying.

“In my business we’re pretty hardened,” Albers concluded. “Although we’re not the bank, we’re the people that come take the houses once the bank has taken it… In the daily shuffle, you sometimes forget that it’s people lives… you know?” He trailed off.

It’s a dog-eat-dog world, you know? Walsh was behind on her mortgage, after all. This is the way the system works.

As for Kroenig: One hopes that one day, he will be faced with the human beings on the other side of the long, brutal arm of American foreign policy. Maybe he will find himself saying the same kinds of things Albers said to me, wondering, “Is it something I did?”

2 thoughts on “The Benign Face of the Moral Abyss”

  1. This is the first piece of yours that I’ve ever read, and I want to tell you how much I appreciate it. The election not only broke my heart but made me realize how easily people can be duped into selling out not only their fellow citizens, but also – although they may not realize it yet – themselves.
    I think it’s important for all of us to educate ourselves, and prepare for the ways we’ll have to stand up, and work together. For me, reading a post like this one is a healthy and inspiring part of that process. I look forward to catching up on your writing. Thanks!

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