Hogan's Alley

Friday, December 08, 2006

The Real Lesson Of Iraq

The always intelligent and stimulating Shelby Steele has a piece in the Wall Street Journal on our failure in Iraq. Steele continues to advocate a full victory in Iraq by the application of many more troops. In the end, I fear that although that was the outcome we should have sought, it is now beyond our grasp. The truth is that we now cannot produce several hundred thousand additional troops there, or anywhere else.

Nonetheless, Steele provides an excellent analysis of America's post-Cold War status as a conflicted superpower, the world's only one.

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.

And this fear of responsibility is what makes us ambivalent toward the idea of victory. Because victory is hegemonic, it mimics colonialism. A complete American victory in Iraq would put that nation--at least for a time--entirely under American power and sovereignty. We would in fact "own" the society as a colony. In today's international moral climate this would both undermine the legitimacy of our war effort and make an ongoing demand on our blood and treasure. If we are already a good ways down this road, complete victory would only take us further.

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.

This may be the central truth about ourselves that will emerge from the Iraq fiasco. We as a nation are unwilling to go to all out war aimed at winning and imposing peace and democracy on third world countries.

Take, for example the mess in Darfur. Imagine us completely out of Iraq and the drumbeat about the awful genocide in Darfur still going on. Let us further assume that the best diplomatic efforts, realpolitik meister Jim Baker for example, proves unable to obtain a unified world view that firm military intervention is appropriate. Would and should the United States unilaterally intervene to stop the genocide? Could we do it in the face of the inevitable comparisons with previous colonial regimes in Africa? Could we successfully stop the slaughter in the long term if we are unable or unwilling to take total control of Sudan for the time it would take (a decade or more?) to transform that state into a peaceful democracy in which ethnic and religious differences are expressed in the political process, not via armed conflict? I seriously doubt it.

Like it or not, this is who we are in America in the 21st Century. Americans were fine with the effort in Afghanistan. We had been struck and were justified in striking back. But interventions that are not the result of direct provocation or attack will be another matter. Beyond all the arguments against the war in Iraq, Americans disliked most the notion of the United States as the bully with the big stick, poking our noses into matters that had not yet directly affected us. We want to be left alone and to intervene abroad only via our intelligence services and economic agents. Not via means that appear on the nightly news.

Future Presidents had better recognize this before decrying any foreign injustices. For most Americans, they will, sadly, be none of our business. It will take genuine leadership, of a kind we have not seen in decades, to make us a nation capable of reaching for the role for good we could be capable of assuming.

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