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There is something rather odd in the way America has come to fight its wars since World War II.
For one thing, it is now unimaginable that we would use anything approaching the full measure of our military power (the nuclear option aside) in the wars we fight. And this seems only reasonable given the relative weakness of our Third World enemies in Vietnam and in the Middle East. But the fact is that we lost in Vietnam, and today, despite our vast power, we are only slogging along — if admirably — in Iraq against a hit-and-run insurgency that cannot stop us even as we seem unable to stop it. Yet no one — including, very likely, the insurgents themselves — believes that America lacks the raw power to defeat this insurgency if it wants to. So clearly it is America that determines the scale of this war. It is America, in fact, that fights so as to make a little room for an insurgency.
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. This idea had organized the entire world, divided up its resources, imposed the nation-state system across the globe, and delivered the majority of the world’s population into servitude and oppression. After World War II, revolutions across the globe, from India to Algeria and from Indonesia to the American civil rights revolution, defeated the authority inherent in white supremacy, if not the idea itself. And this defeat exacted a price: the West was left stigmatized by its sins. Today, the white West — like Germany after the Nazi defeat — lives in a kind of secular penitence in which the slightest echo of past sins brings down withering condemnation. There is now a cloud over white skin where there once was unquestioned authority.
I call this white guilt not because it is a guilt of conscience but because people stigmatized with moral crimes — here racism and imperialism — lack moral authority and so act guiltily whether they feel guilt or not.
They struggle, above all else, to dissociate themselves from the past sins they are stigmatized with. When they behave in ways that invoke the memory of those sins, they must labor to prove that they have not relapsed into their group’s former sinfulness. So when America — the greatest embodiment of Western power — goes to war in Third World Iraq, it must also labor to dissociate that action from the great Western sin of imperialism. Thus, in Iraq we are in two wars, one against an insurgency and another against the past — two fronts, two victories to win, one military, the other a victory of dissociation.
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.
Anti-Americanism, whether in Europe or on the American left, works by the mechanism of white guilt. It stigmatizes America with all the imperialistic and racist ugliness of the white Western past so that America becomes a kind of straw man, a construct of Western sin. (The Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo prisons were the focus of such stigmatization campaigns.) Once the stigma is in place, one need only be anti-American in order to be “good,” in order to have an automatic moral legitimacy and power in relation to America. (People as seemingly disparate as President Jacques Chirac and the Rev. Al Sharpton are devoted pursuers of the moral high ground to be had in anti-Americanism.) This formula is the most dependable source of power for today’s international left. Virtue and power by mere anti-Americanism. And it is all the more appealing since, unlike real virtues, it requires no sacrifice or effort — only outrage at every slight echo of the imperialist past.
Possibly white guilt’s worst effect is that it does not permit whites — and nonwhites — to appreciate something extraordinary: the fact that whites in America, and even elsewhere in the West, have achieved a truly remarkable moral transformation. One is forbidden to speak thus, but it is simply true. There are no serious advocates of white supremacy in America today, because whites see this idea as morally repugnant. If there is still the odd white bigot out there surviving past his time, there are millions of whites who only feel goodwill toward minorities.
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.
Mr. Steele, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, is author, most recently, of “White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era,” published this week by HarperCollins.
(Posted on May 3, 2006)