Shelby Steele on Our Ambivalence

Writing in today’s Wall Street Journal , Shelby Steele addresses the state of the Iraq War and our unwillingness as a country to strive for victory. Here is his article, in its entirety:

the most confounding feature of the Iraq war, from the very opening of
hostilities to the present day, has been the American government’s
utter failure to define what victory would be in this war. "Victory"
has been a conjure word for the Bush administration, a Churchillian
allusion meant to evoke the heroic perseverance shown in the great wars
of the past. But no one in the administration has ever said what
victory would actually look like. And, lacking this description, even
those of us who have supported the war have seen trouble coming for
some time. Without a description of victory, a war has no goal.

victory in foreign war has always meant hegemony: You win, you take
over. We not only occupied Germany and Japan militarily after World War
II, we also–and without a whit of self doubt–imposed our democratic
way of life on them. We took our victory as a moral mandate as well as
a military achievement, and felt commanded to morally transform these
defeated societies by the terms of our democracy. In this effort we
brooked no resistance whatsoever and we achieved great success.

today, as Nancy Pelosi recently put it, "You can define victory any way
you want." And war, she said, was only "a situation to be resolved." If
this sort of glibness makes the current war seem a directionless
postmodern adventure, it is only because those who call us to war have
themselves left the definition of victory wide open. And now, as if to
confirm that this is a "relativistic" war meaning everything and
nothing, there are at least three national commissions–the White
House, the Pentagon and the Baker committee–tasked to create the
meaning that will give us a dignified exit. Of course America is now
quite beyond any possibility of dignity in this situation save the one
option all these commissions have or will likely dismiss: complete
military victory.



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.

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.

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

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.

extremism is an ideology of menace. It empowers those who, but for
menace, would languish in the world’s disregard. The dark achievement
of bin Laden, Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad, names we know only because of
their association to menace, is that they have used menace to make
their people visible in the world, to bring them back into the scheme
of history. And they are greatly loved for this. If their achievements
follow from evil rather than from good, this is a small thing. Worse
than evil is invisibility.

in the Middle East, America has gone to war not against Islam but
against menace as a formula for power–menace as the force that brings
the First World in toe to the Third, and that makes bargaining between
the two inevitable. Whether the issue is an obsession with nuclear
weapons or terrorism in London or assaults against Israel, menace is
the power that draws the West backwards into engagement with otherwise
forgotten parts of the world. Iran cannot produce a digital camera or a
Ferrari but, through menace, it can affect the balance of power in the
world. We in the West, and especially America, then, are at war with
menace–the indulgence of evil for strategic advantage–because today
it is the power that most compromises us.

yet Americans are also at war in the Middle East with our own fate as
the world’s singular superpower. Our sacrifice is more in proportion to
our responsibility as a superpower than to our survival as a nation. We
fight menace in Iraq and yet we know that complete victory there will
only make us into colonialists, and thus expand our level of
responsibility even further. So we fight a little against victory even
as we fight for it. At the beginning of this war we delivered the
"shock" but not the "awe," and then as the insurgency developed, we
made a kind of space for it, almost as if we believed it had a right to
fight us. Victory threatens us with the obligations and moral stigma of



reluctant superpowers go to war with a commitment to fight until they
can escape. So today the talk is of "draw-downs," "redeployments," etc.
But all these options are undermined by the fact that we simply have
not won the war. We have not achieved hegemony in Iraq, so there is no
umbrella of American power under which a new nation might find its own
democratic personality, or learn to defend itself. We have failed to
give "peace in the streets" to the people we are asking to embrace the
moderations of democracy. Without American hegemony, these "draw-downs"
and "redeployments" are acts of outrageous moral irresponsibility,
because they cede hegemony to the forces of menace–the Sunni
insurgency, the Shiite militia, the Islamic extremists, the wolfish
ambitions of Iran. It was America’s weak application of power that made
space for these forces to begin with. To now shrink the American
footprint further would likely offer the country up as a killing field
and embolden Islamic radicals everywhere.

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.

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?"



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