Saturday, December 09, 2006

Our Unceasing Ambivalence

Shelby Steele wrote a very insightful article for The Wall Journal's op-ed page yesterday about the war in Iraq and our inability to define victory:

"Why don't we know the meaning of this war and our reasons for fighting it? I think the answer begins in the awkward fact that America is now the world's uncontested superpower. If this fate has its advantages, it also brings an unasked-for degree of dominion in the world. This is essentially a passive dominion that has settled on a rather isolationist nation, yet it makes America into something of a sheriff. Whether the problem is Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq, Iran, North Korea or Darfur, America gets the call. Thus our youth are often asked to go to war more out of international responsibility than national necessity. This is a hard fate for a free and prosperous citizenry to accept--the loss of sons and daughters to a kind of magnanimity. Today our antiwar movement is essentially an argument with this fate, a rejection of superpower responsibility.

" Is it any wonder, then, that we have failed to completely win this war? Since World War II, American leaders--left and right--have worked out of an impossible double bind: They cannot afford to win the wars they fight. Thus the postmodern American war in which the world's greatest power deconstructs its own motives for fighting until losing becomes a better option than winning. And yet the end of the Cold War has made these wars between the West and the Third World inevitable. When the world was clearly divided between the free West and the communist East, Third World countries could play the ingénue by offering their alignment to the most generous suitor. At the center of a market in alignment, they could extract financial support and enjoy a sense of importance.

"But after the Cold War, these countries suddenly became crones without appeal or leverage in the West. And it was out of this sense of invisibility, this feeling of having fallen out of history, that certain Middle Eastern countries found a way to play the ingénue once again. They would not compete with or seduce the West; they would menace it.

"For every reason, from the humanitarian to the geopolitical to the military, Iraq is a war that America must win in the hegemonic, even colonial, sense. It is a test of our civilization's commitment to the good against the alluring notion of menace-as-power that has gripped so much of the Muslim world. Today America is a danger to the world in its own right, not because we are a powerful bully but because we don't fully accept who we are. We rush to war as a superpower protecting the world from menace, then leave the battle before winning as a show of what, humility? We confuse our enemies, discouraging them one minute and encouraging them the next.

"Could it be that our enemies are really paper tigers made formidable by our unceasing ambivalence? And could it be that the greater good is in both the idea and the reality of American victory? "

We need to embrace our heritage as well as our destiny; we are a great nation founded on ideals which represent the highest aspirations of mankind. America is the greater good and we must proclaim this to the world with our deeds. Our failure to do so will have enormous implications not only for us but for all of Western civilization.


marlipern said...

You're right, it was a very inciteful article. As to "Why don't we know the meaning of this war and our reasons for fighting it?", two reasons:

Number one, if what Steele suggests IS the reason we started this war, it certainly wasn't the way it was framed to the American people: They have WMDs!! Oops, strike that. They were involved in 9/11!! Oops, strike that. We're "liberating" them!! Yeah, that's it, that's the ticket!

Number two, Americans have a problem with the idea of having "dominion" over the rest of the world. Many of us recall that this was what we were preventing the Soviets from having during the cold war... global domination. As the sole remaining superpower, we certainly should be taking a leadership role in the world. Leadership, not dominion. And I do think there is a difference.

But yes, you are right, we should embrace our heritage and our destiny. And if we want to be the "greater good" in the world, we need to act like it, and lead by example.

Country Squire said...


When I read this article the line that jumped off the page at me was “Today our antiwar movement is essentially an argument with this fate, a rejection of superpower responsibility.” and your comments reflect the truthfulness of that observation. “And if we want to be the "greater good" in the world, we need to act like it, and lead by example.” Where you and I differ is that I believe we ARE the greater good; in your view we are still aspiring to it.

Oh, and I have to ask, was your spelling of “insightful” as “inciteful” Freudian, intentional or merely an occupational hazard?