Tuesday, May 02, 2006

King of the Rubble Hill

Spencer Ackerman dissects the latest expression of irrational exuberance regarding Iraq, this time from conservative commentator Shelby Steele. Our problems in Iraq, Steele argues, stem from the fact that we are too restrained, a byproduct of "white guilt" toward our imperialist and racist past that makes us curiously unable to unleash the full brunt of American force and power against our enemies.

I too, am concerned about the concept of "White guilt" (albeit for wholly separate reasons than Steele), but this is ridiculous. Yes, we restrain ourselves from unleashing our full might--and it's a good thing too. Imagine the alternative! Ackerman writes:
Steele, in a meme that seems to be taking root on the right lately, suggests that we should apply "the full measure" of our non-nuclear military muscle to the insurgency. If this means anything, it means destroying cities like Falluja, Ramadi, Samarra, Baquba, Tal Afar, Mosul, and let's not forget Baghdad--in other words, anywhere insurgent-supporting Sunnis live. One can also imagine this means flattening anywhere Shia militias operate. Basically, in this telling, victory in Iraq means that anywhere south of Kurdistan ought to be a smoldering wasteland.

Aside from the fact that this awful tactics (what exactly are we "winning" if this is the upshot?), I can't really figure out how this wouldn't be a return to an imperialist and racist past. Invade a country, topple its government, occupy its territory, and then burn its towns to the ground? This is morally repugnant to civilized sensibilities. Thankfully, this isn't our policy or position right now. But heaven forbid it ever becomes it.

The point is that American power is not justified by its own exercise. It is justified when it falls within particular moral confines, both deontological and teleological. It has to create good consequences (which defeating Islamic radicalism surely qualifies as), but it also has to be constrained, yes constrained, by certain moral limitations. Among them: No targeted killings of civilians. No torture. No indefinite detention without showing of cause. No burning villages to the ground. No limitless occupations. No rampant human rights violations. We've mostly (though not entirely) managed to avoid these sins thus far. But there is no reason to assume that they are entirely beyond our capabilities--especially if we "take the gloves off."

Steele concludes his piece with the following statement:
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.

He just doesn't get it, does he. The "goodwill" Whites have managed to find for minorities (I'd prefer an actual respect for their dignity as human beings, rather than just vague positive wishes, but whatever) stems directly from the fact that we no longer are willing to treat them ferociously in service of our external ends--moral or not. Break down that moral barrier, and the whole edifice will come crashing down.

No comments: