Little Shock, No Awe

Brilliant analysis by Shelby Steele of America’s reluctance to win the fight against Islamic “menace.”

He concludes:

So, 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.

And 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 empire.

Only 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.

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? We confuse our enemies, discouraging them one minute and encouraging them the next.

Could 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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