Below is Shelby Steele's May 2, 2006 article titled "White Guilt and the American Way of War" (published by the Hoover Institution), in which Steele explores the reasons underlying America's self-imposed restraint in fighting the war on terror.
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 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-twentieth-century event that transformed the world more profoundly than the collapse of communism: the worldwide 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 their so-called past sins. When their behavior invokes 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 powerful 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.
Because dissociation from the racist and imperialist stigma is so tied to legitimacy in this age of white guilt, America’s act of going to war can have legitimacy only if it seems to be an act of social work—something that uplifts and transforms the poor brown nation (thus dissociating us from the white exploitations of old). So our war effort in Iraq is shrouded in a new language of social work in which democracy is cast as an instrument of social transformation, bringing new institutions, new relations between men and women, new ideas of individual autonomy, new and more open forms of education, new ways of overcoming poverty: war as the Great Society.
This does not mean that President Bush is insincere in his desire to bring democracy to Iraq, nor is it to say that democracy won’t ultimately be socially transformative in Iraq. It’s just that today the United States cannot go to war in the Third World simply to defeat a dangerous enemy.
White guilt makes our Third World enemies into colored victims, people whose problems—even the tyrannies they live under—were created by the historical disruptions and injustices of the white West. We must “understand” and pity our enemy even as we fight him. And, though Islamic extremism is one of the most pernicious forms of evil opportunism that has ever existed, we have felt compelled to fight it with an almost managerial minimalism that shows us to be beyond the passions of war—and thus well dissociated from the avariciousness of the white supremacist past.
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 French president Jacques Chirac and the Reverend 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 because, unlike real virtues, it requires no sacrifice or effort—only outrage at every slight echo of the imperialist past.
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 an American victory in Iraq can defeat the idea of Islamic extremism. But in today’s atmosphere of Western contrition, it is impolitic to say so.
America and the broader West are now going through a rather tender era, a time when Western societies have very little defense against the moral accusations that come from their own left wings and from those vast stretches of nonwhite humanity that were once disregarded.
Europeans are utterly confounded by the swelling Muslim populations in their midst. America has run from its own mounting immigration problem for decades, and even today, after finally taking up the issue, our government seems entirely flummoxed. White guilt is a vacuum of moral authority visited on the present by the shames of the past. In the abstract it seems a slight thing, almost irrelevant, an unconvincing proposition. Yet a society as enormously powerful as America lacks the authority to ask its most brilliant, wealthy, and superbly educated minority students to compete freely for college admission with poor whites who lack all these things. Just can’t do it.
Whether the problem is race relations, education, immigration, or war, white guilt imposes so much minimalism and restraint that our worst problems tend to linger and deepen. Our leaders work within a double bind. If they do what is truly necessary to solve a problem—win a war, fix immigration—they lose legitimacy.
To maintain their legitimacy, they practice the minimalism that makes problems linger. What but minimalism is left when you are running from stigmatization as a “unilateralist cowboy”? And where is the will to truly regulate the southern border when those who ask for this are slimed as bigots? This is how white guilt defines what is possible in America. You go at a problem until you meet stigmatization, then you retreat into minimalism.
Possibly white guilt’s worst effect is that it does not permit whites—or 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 feel only 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.