By lex, Posted on December 8, 2006
Shelby Steele is one of the principle author-gods in my pantheon of philosophical greatness, a man whose writings on race fundamentally informed my own development. He writes today in the WSJ on a somewhat different topic: The war in Iraq.
Steele argues that we now struggle in Iraq partly because we have not defined “victory” sufficiently. This is a point of view I don’t entirely share – regardless of whether you believe the Bush administration’s war aims to be realistic and achievable, they have countless times outlined their victory/exit conditions: A democratic Iraqi government, representative of its peoples’ aspirations, and able to defend itself against both internal and external enemies while posing no assymetric threat to its neighbors and regional stability.
I think Steele begs the question a bit by defining victory in his own terms, as a kind of neo-colonialist “ownership” of a foreign state until the internal institutions of democracy are able to take root:
Historically 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.
Be that as it may, Steele correctly characterizes the forces we fight against:
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.
Islamic 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.
Having crafted his own definition of victory and defined the foe, Steele finishes strong on the consequences of failure – consequences everyone understands but from which some soft souls avert their gazes from since they wish it weren’t so, and which others, more criminally, wave away as inconsequential because the blame for them will adhere to someone else:
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.
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?
One final point and then I’ll let it go: A defeat in Iraq will be first and foremost a defeat for American power and influence in the world, which is a shared goal of Islamic extremists in the middle east and visceral anti-Americans pretty much everywhere. Much may it profit them if it comes, we are still an island nation.
A victory on the other hand would redound not merely or even mostly to American force of arms – far less to our diplomacy – but to civilization in general and to the Iraqi people in particular.