I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Time to stop feeling guilty and start really bombing

(updated below)

The Wall St. Journal's Opinion Journal today published an Op-Ed by Shelby Steele that advances one of the most truly incoherent and just plain inane arguments I have read in a long time. And in response, many pro-war Bush defenders are drooling with reverence and praise, and for some reason, are viewing Steele's piece as some sort of license to unleash some of the truly ugly impulses which they usually have the decency, or at least political sense, to hide.

The crux of Steele's argument is that ever since World War II, the United States just doesn't fight wars the way we used to, and ought to. We don't use enough force because we suffer from excess restraint. And the reason we are too restrained is because we are laboring under an unwarranted sense of "white guilt," whereby we are too eager and desperate to escape from our distant racist past and prove that we aren't trying to subjugate the "brown people" anymore. As a result, when we fight wars against countries predominantly composed of other races, we are too nice and don't use enough military force, and as a result, we don't win anymore. If you think I'm unfairly summarizing Steele's argument, just marvel at these excerpts:

Certainly since Vietnam, America has increasingly practiced a policy of minimalism and restraint in war. And now this unacknowledged policy, which always makes a space for the enemy, has us in another long and rather passionless war against a weak enemy.

Why this new minimalism in war?

It began, I believe, in a late-20th-century event that transformed the world more profoundly than the collapse of communism: the world-wide collapse of white supremacy as a source of moral authority, political legitimacy and even sovereignty. . . .

The collapse of white supremacy--and the resulting white guilt--introduced a new mechanism of power into the world: stigmatization with the evil of the Western past. And this stigmatization is power because it affects the terms of legitimacy for Western nations and for their actions in the world. In Iraq, America is fighting as much for the legitimacy of its war effort as for victory in war. In fact, legitimacy may be the more important goal.

If a military victory makes us look like an imperialist nation bent on occupying and raping the resources of a poor brown nation, then victory would mean less because it would have no legitimacy. Europe would scorn. Conversely, if America suffered a military loss in Iraq but in so doing dispelled the imperialist stigma, the loss would be seen as a necessary sacrifice made to restore our nation's legitimacy. Europe's halls of internationalism would suddenly open to us.

As always, Steele is quick to remind us how very courageous he is for making such a taboo argument:

Today words like "power" and "victory" are so stigmatized with Western sin that, in many quarters, it is politically incorrect even to utter them. For the West, "might" can never be right. And victory, when won by the West against a Third World enemy, is always oppression. But, in reality, military victory is also the victory of one idea and the defeat of another. Only American victory in Iraq defeats the idea of Islamic extremism. But in today's atmosphere of Western contrition, it is impolitic to say so. . .

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.

In other words, the reason we failed to win in Korea, lost in Vietnam, and are bogged down in Iraq is because we are too afraid to do the right thing -- use all-out military force against our Enemies. We are too timid in our wars because we are afraid of people accusing of us of being racist, of inflaming our white guilt, of provoking criticism from Europeans. So instead, we leave the kid gloves on and don't use our full military might the way we should.

Now, from what I can tell, the only military force we are refraining from using in Iraq is full-scale carpet bombings where we eradicate a few cities, or using tactical nuclear weapons. Calls for fewer restraints on how we are fighting in Iraq would almost certainly have to include one or both of those tactics. And the war mongers among the Bush supporters, those who are prostrating themselves before the brilliance of Steele's "thesis," are calling for exactly that. The courageous warrior Jeff Goldstein knows what needs to be done -- and like Steele, he's not afraid to say it:

But compassionate conservatism, whatever you think of the concept domestically, clearly shouldn’t extend to war—and there are times when the international equivalent of Sherman’s march through the South would, in the long run, save American soldier’s lives and foreshorten the conflict.

Which is why there are times when we really should turn off the “smart” bombs and show our seriousness by putting the world on notice that, when we believe the situation calls for it, we are willing to ignore the inevitable bad press and the howls of protest from human rights groups, and exhibit a show of strength and military professionalism that is politically disinterested and tactically thorough and lethal.

Of course, no one wishes to see innocent civilians die (only the unserious make the claim that those who support what they consider to be a necessary war somehow luxuriate in collateral deaths). But at the same time, from a practical standpoint, there is nothing wrong with fighting a war as if it is a war—and sometimes the only way to disabuse the enemy of the notion that we are constrained by a moral calculus that makes little sense in urban combat situations is to refuse to show the kind of restraint they have come to anticipate and count on.

Matt Noonan of Blogs for Bush shares his beliefs with us that the White Supremacy of the 19th Century "had its good and bad points," but one thing that was lost when White Supremacy became discredited which Noonan wishes we had again is the certainty that Our Civilization is Superior. Due to the fact that we don't sufficiently recognize our superiority (due to our white guilt), we stupidly "pretend that we've something fundamental to learn from other civilizations whom we once oppressed." This myth - that we might have something to learn from other cultures -- causes us, in turn, to be too restrained when we should be engaging in some hard-core destruction of other countries.

But Noonan himself suffers from no such delusions. He knows that we are the best, and -- in one of my favorite sentences ever -- tells us that "it is this belief of (his) which sustains (him) through the difficult day to day of the War on Terrorism." Noonan is able to stand tall and resolute in his bunker even with the grave risks which confront him as he wages this war because he knows his society is superior. But there are too many of us who - in our white guilt - have forgotten this, and that is why we aren't strong enough to really get serious in this war. Also using the Steele article as some sort of protective shield, Daily Pundit similarly bemoans the "failure of will to destroy the enemy regimes that threaten us" and rails against "our delicacy in approaching Islamic fundamentalism."

Looking at the bright side of this deranged rhetoric, it is, in a sense, refreshing to see that many of these war supporters, in their great frustration, are finally relinquishing their solemn concern for the Iraqi people and the tearful inspiration caused by the Purple Fingers. Instead, they are now just calling for some good old-fashioned carpet bombings and mass killings. As Jeff tells us: "there are times when we really should turn off the “smart” bombs." After all: "no one wishes to see innocent civilians die . . . But at the same time, from a practical standpoint, there is nothing wrong with fighting a war as if it is a war."

Does it really have to be said that the reason we can't carpet bomb Iraq and "win the war" is because we are supposedly there to build Iraq, not to destroy it? Let's review a few basic, undisputed facts about our current occupation of Iraq -- undisputed because the administration itself acknowledges them. Once our original, predominant justification for our invasion disappeared -- that would be the whole bit about WMDs -- the only one we had left, the one we have since trumpeted over and over, is that we are there in order to improve that country, to enhance our reputation in the region, and to win "hearts and minds." As the President himself put it:

The terrorists know that democracy is their enemy, and they will continue fighting freedom's progress with all the hateful determination they can muster. Yet the Iraqi people are stepping forward to claim their liberty, and they will have it. When the new Iraqi government takes office next year, Iraqis will have the only constitutional democracy in the Arab world, and Americans will have a partner for peace and moderation in the Middle East.

People across the broader Middle East are drawing, and will continue to draw inspiration from Iraq's progress, and the terrorists' powerful myth is being destroyed. In a 1998 fatwa, Osama bin Laden argued that the suffering of the Iraqi people was justification for his declaration of war on America. Now bin Laden and al Qaeda are the direct cause of the Iraqi people's suffering. As more Muslims across the world see this, they're turning against the terrorists. As the hope of liberty spreads in the Middle East, the terrorists will lose their sponsors, lose their recruits, and lose the sanctuaries they need to plan new attacks.

According to the President, we're going to win because the terrorists bring suffering and destruction to Iraq and we don't. So they will like us and hate the terrorists and will soon be our "partner for peace." Advocating that we act more the way the President says Al Qaeda is acting -- by bombing more and killing more civilians -- doesn't seem all that compatible with those goals.

We are not there to conquer territory or drive the Iraqi government into forced surrender and submission. The Iraqi government isn't our enemy. Although it may be helpful to achieve one's objectives in a traditional war, large-scale destruction would achieve the very opposite effect of what we are supposedly trying to accomplish. The only choice we have is highly precise and targeted warfare against actual terrorists and insurgents. Any attacks that are more sweeping, destructive and indiscriminate will kill large numbers of innocent Iraqis -- the very people we claim we are there to help -- and will breed even more intense and widespread hatred towards the U.S. in the region, which would be the precise opposite of the goal we say we are trying to accomplish.

Escalating the use of military force in Iraq by indiscriminately killing civilians and eradicating whole cities would contradict every single statement we have made about why we are there, what we want to achieve, and what our plan is in that region. We're not refraining from those acts because of white guilt or a fear of what European diplomats will say about us. We're refraining from them because the wholesale indiscriminate slaughter of thousands or tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis -- all because we have grown impatient and annoyed with our pet little democracy-building project and just want to bomb the whole place into submission -- would be both morally reprehensible and, from the perspective of our own interests, an indescribably stupid thing to do.

To sit and listen to people who have spent the last three years piously lecturing us on the need to stand with "the Iraqi people," who justified our invasion of that country on the ground that we want to give them a better system of government because we must make Muslims like us more, now insist that what we need to do is bomb them with greater force and less precision is really rather vile -- but highly instructive. The masks are coming off. No more poetic tributes to democracy or all that sentimental whining about "hearts and minds." It's time to shed our unwarranted white guilt, really stretch our legs and let our hair down, and just keep bombing and bombing until we kill enough of them and win. Shelby Steele deserves some sort of award for triggering that refreshingly honest outburst.

UPDATE: Reporter Charlie Savage of The Boston Globe, who wrote what might be the most important article of the year thus far regarding the President's enthusiastic use of his sweeping theories of lawbreaking, is going to be on Air America's Majority Report tonight at 8:34 p.m. EST. You can check your local station or listen to the live feed here.


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