Via Glenn Greenwald, an absolutely surreal op-ed by Shelby Steele, in which he argues that "since Vietnam, America has increasingly practiced a policy of minimalism and restraint in war", that this restraint is why we can't seem to defeat the insurgency in Iraq, and that the reason we practice it is ... white guilt!
"Today, the white West--like Germany after the Nazi defeat--lives in a kind of secular penitence in which the slightest echo of past sins brings down withering condemnation. There is now a cloud over white skin where there once was unquestioned authority.
I call this white guilt not because it is a guilt of conscience but because people stigmatized with moral crimes--here racism and imperialism--lack moral authority and so act guiltily whether they feel guilt or not.
They struggle, above all else, to dissociate themselves from the past sins they are stigmatized with. When they behave in ways that invoke the memory of those sins, they must labor to prove that they have not relapsed into their group's former sinfulness. So when America--the greatest embodiment of Western power--goes to war in Third World Iraq, it must also labor to dissociate that action from the great Western sin of imperialism. Thus, in Iraq we are in two wars, one against an insurgency and another against the past--two fronts, two victories to win, one military, the other a victory of dissociation. (...)
White guilt makes our Third World enemies into colored victims, people whose problems--even the tyrannies they live under--were created by the historical disruptions and injustices of the white West. We must "understand" and pity our enemy even as we fight him. And, though Islamic extremism is one of the most pernicious forms of evil opportunism that has ever existed, we have felt compelled to fight it with an almost managerial minimalism that shows us to be beyond the passions of war--and thus well dissociated from the avariciousness of the white supremacist past. (...)
Possibly white guilt's worst effect is that it does not permit whites--and nonwhites--to appreciate something extraordinary: the fact that whites in America, and even elsewhere in the West, have achieved a truly remarkable moral transformation. One is forbidden to speak thus, but it is simply true. There are no serious advocates of white supremacy in America today, because whites see this idea as morally repugnant. If there is still the odd white bigot out there surviving past his time, there are millions of whites who only feel goodwill toward minorities.
This is a fact that must be integrated into our public life--absorbed as new history--so that America can once again feel the moral authority to seriously tackle its most profound problems. Then, if we decide to go to war, it can be with enough ferocity to win."
Gosh: where to begin?
First: in fighting the war in Iraq, we fought a war that virtually the entire international community opposed. We tossed aside large chunks of international law, including the Convention Against Torture and our own military field manual's interrogation rules. We sent Gen. Miller over with orders to 'Gitmo-ize' Abu Ghraib. If this is what counts as guilt-ridden restraint, I'm not sure I want to know what we'd do if we really took the gloves off.
Second: Shelby Steele writes: "Our leaders work within a double bind. If they do what is truly necessary to solve a problem--win a war, fix immigration--they lose legitimacy. To maintain their legitimacy, they practice the minimalism that makes problems linger. What but minimalism is left when you are running from stigmatization as a 'unilateralist cowboy'?"
Recall that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld have led us in Iraq. They, and especially Rumsfeld, shaped our plans and our strategy. Try to apply these words to them. Dick Cheney: hamstrung by white guilt! George W. Bush: overcome by tender solicitude for third world victims of Western oppression! Donald Rumsfeld: running from stigmatization as a unilateralist cowboy! The idea that they, of all people, are supposed to be paralyzed by political correctness will keep me in stitches for days.
It's not "restraint" that has crippled us in Iraq; it's Donald Rumsfeld's insistence on treating the war as a testing ground for his theory that we could fight with half as many troops as the military recommended. That's why we didn't prevent the looting after the fall of Baghdad, or secure the Iraqi borders, or even guard the WMD sites that were our pretext for invading. Only in an alternate universe does this have anything to do with white guilt.
Third: We are fighting an insurgency. When you fight an insurgency, you have to care what the people around you think. If they are on your side, the insurgency will not be able to function. If they are against you, those who do not actually join the insurgency will give it safe harbor, and you will lose. In these circumstances, caring about what Iraqis think of us is not "white guilt", it's common sense.
I can imagine a commander who is so concerned about giving the least offense to anyone that he holds back when he ought to attack. I can also imagine a commander who is so eager to seem macho, unsentimental, or ruthless that he needlessly alienates the surrounding population and transforms people who could have been on his side into his deadly enemies. Both undue restraint and undue ruthlessness are serious mistakes in war. And when I ask myself which of these mistakes Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld are more likely to make, undue restraint is not the one that leaps to mind.
Fourth: Glenn Greenwald points out some of the reaction from the right. Jeff Goldstein predictably finds Steele eloquent and forceful, and tells us that "there are times when the international equivalent of Sherman’s march through the South would, in the long run, save American soldier’s lives and foreshorten the conflict." Mark Noonan, at Blogs for Bush, informs us that White Supremacy "had its good and bad points" (the bad point: "the disgraceful way it treated non-white people". Um, yeah.) A few others:
Dr. Sanity finds Steele's piece 'brilliant'. Wizbang recommends it highly. Marc Schulman at American Future adds to my suspicion that some right wing bloggers really do inhabit an alternate universe by saying that "It's been more than 60 years since the United States defeated an enemy in a hot war involving a major commitment of American troops." (The first Gulf War? It "did nothing more than evict Saddam from Kuwait". I always thought that we won the first Gulf War for that very reason: evicting Saddam was our aim, and we achieved it. Silly me.) Thomas Krannawitter at the Claremont Institute: "I think his broad analysis is largely right: The self-loathing and guilt caused by past sins of racism and imperialism have defanged the West, especially America." The Tail Gunner: "American [sic] is so oppressed by White Guilt that we are at great risk of failing in our war against the Islamic Fascists bent on killing us all." And so on and so forth.
Glenn makes one crucial point about this:
"Looking at the bright side of this deranged rhetoric, it is, in a sense, refreshing to see that many of these war supporters, in their great frustration, are finally relinquishing their solemn concern for the Iraqi people and the tearful inspiration caused by the Purple Fingers. Instead, they are now just calling for some good old-fashioned carpet bombings and mass killings. (...)
To sit and listen to people who have spent the last three years piously lecturing us on the need to stand with "the Iraqi people," who justified our invasion of that country on the ground that we want to give them a better system of government because we must make Muslims like us more, now insist that what we need to do is bomb them with greater force and less precision is really rather vile -- but highly instructive. The masks are coming off. No more poetic tributes to democracy or all that sentimental whining about "hearts and minds." It's time to shed our unwarranted white guilt, really stretch our legs and let our hair down, and just keep bombing and bombing until we kill enough of them and win. Shelby Steele deserves some sort of award for triggering that refreshingly honest outburst."
Glenn is right. Being lectured by the likes of Jeff Goldstein on liberals' insufficient concern for the people of Iraq is like, well, being lectured by Jeff Goldstein (and other defenders of Bush's assault on the separation of powers and the Bill of Rights) on liberals' insufficient love of our country and its freedoms.
But what strikes me even more than the rush to shake off our alleged restraint and bomb them into the Stone Age is just how delusional this all is. As I said above, we have not been particularly restrained in Iraq, and the idea of Bush, Cheney, or Rumsfeld being hobbled by white guilt is just risible. If you think about it for more than a nanosecond, and you are even remotely inclined to wonder whether the central argument of Steele's piece is true, the only possible answer is: not in this universe.
My best guess is that the reason so many bloggers on the right have applauded this tissue of fantasy is as follows. They know that things are not going well in Iraq. They are not prepared to blame the administration that has, you know, actually run the war. Luckily, here comes Shelby Steele with an alternative explanation that happens to invoke a narrative to which many of them are already wedded: the idea that America has been emasculated, its vigor sapped, and its "superior strength" tied down with a million Lilliputian ropes. Effete liberals rush about, cooing: "Oh no, America, you can't possibly do something so brash and bold!". We claim to be motivated by lofty principles, but in reality it's something much darker: a love of death, uncontrollable envy, the will to power.
If things are going badly in Iraq, it can't possibly be because our Secretary of Defense convinced himself that we didn't need to plan for the occupation of Iraq, and our President was too credulous or incurious to question him. It has to be the fault of the liberals who, despite having no power whatsoever over the conduct of the war, have nonetheless managed to sap our national will. I mean, who else could possibly have screwed things up this badly? As Moonbattery puts it:
"Our enemy in Iraq is not so much al Qaeda or the remnants of Saddam's ghoulish regime, as our own carping media and our fear that if we take off the kid gloves and play to win, effete Euroweenies might denounce us as cowboys. It doesn't occur to us that we ought to be proud to be cowboys. (...)
In the end, we only have one enemy that genuinely threatens us. The rest are just opportunistic infections. The true enemy is the liberal elite intelligentsia that has poisoned our most crucial resource: our belief in what we are."
Note to these bloggers and those who accept their arguments: there is a difference between being hamstrung by guilt and being restrained by principle. The former is a sign of weakness; the latter is a sign of strength. Our principles are our own. We do not follow them because we are afraid of what someone else will say, but because we believe that they are right. The day we come to confuse our adherence to morality with timidity and fear will be the day we lose whatever virtue and strength we have, and forfeit our claim to anyone's respect.
Because I love my country, I want it to be the best country it can possibly be. But I don't think it's enough to keep saying that it is a great country. Saying doesn't make it so; work does. And I think that to be citizens who are worthy of our country, we have to we have to work hard, every day, to make it the country we know it can be. The founding ideals of this country are glorious. We owe them our allegiance, and we owe it to our country to try to be worthy of them.
Abu Ghraib is not worthy of them. Neither are the Salt Pit, Guantanamo, or any of the other places where we have violated our laws, our consciences, and our humanity. And neither is it worthy of our ideals to pretend that the problem with a war that includes these things is that white guilt has made us unwilling to take the gloves off and really knock some heads.