Master and Slave Morality in Iraq

The title of this post is slightly misleading. But follow the yellow brick road here and we’ll see how much.

Over the years I have successfully avoided a certain major trope enjoyed by critics of the Iraq War. Enjoyable or not, it’s always struck me as beside the point, and it’s what you would call the How Would You Like It Gambit. How Would You Like It if a squadron of hyped-up foreigners barking out commands and brandishing huge guns habitually searched your house just around midnight? Or How Would You Like It if an invasion force composed entirely of Others crashed the beaches and took up residence right here at home? Usually, the HWYLIG is deployed to greatest rhetorical effect with the use of pointedly America-specific detail: HWYLI if an invading army of MUSLIMS took Manhattan? What would YOU do? Collaborate? Or RESIST!

Obviously whether or not you like this approach to Iraq War criticism, or even the criticism of war generally, is not going to be swayed by this summary. The main point is that Matt Yglesias’ recent, far more interesting variation on the HWYLIG has inspired some reflections that the more pedestrian versions of the HWYLIG have not.

Thru Spencer Ackerman and Michael Kamber, Matt relays the news of our latest technique for imposing local order:

“They give us a chunk of land and say, ‘Fix it,’ ” said Capt. Rich Thompson, 36, who controls an area east of Baghdad.

The Iraqis have learned that these captains, many still in their 20s, can call down devastating American firepower one day and approve multimillion-dollar projects the next. Some have become celebrities in their sectors, men whose names are known even to children.

Matt then expresses some prima facie reasonable skepticism about this kind of approach, beginning indeed with the claim that skepticism about this kind of approach is prima facie reasonable:

One is never to speak ill of The Troops, but I don’t think you need to be a hard-bitten anti-American to have some doubts about the soundness of this kind of set-up.

Then, the HWYLIG appears.

Suppose we replaced the mayor of your town with a twentysomething foreigner who didn’t speak English but did have a ton of firepower at his disposal and no real checks on his power. You’d probably feel that was a step in the wrong direction.

Were this the end of the conversation, Matt would be in for the same kind of arch posturing and phony pseudo-aristocratic condescension that someone who takes my kind of position on the HWYLIG is attacked for by his or her own adversaries.

But Matt uses the HWYLIG, smartly, as an inadequately abstract mental exercise that can be made increasingly useful and accurate by testing whether or not it really holds up under more rigorous particulars.

And conversely, it’s not genuinely reasonable to expect relatively junior Army officers to do this sort of job well. I find there’s often an element of fantastical thinking in counterinsurgency doctrine, where if we establish that it would be desirable for things to work in such and such a way, then it also becomes possible for them to work like that.

But it’s not an army of mutant superheros we’ve got, it’s an army of soldiers. How’s it supposed to suddenly be filled with people well-suited to the task of governing foreign towns? The British had a whole separate civilian agency set up to train and recruit their colonial administrators and make sure they had the right skills. If we’re going to want to run foreign countries effectively, we’re going to need to do something similar.

Of course, he closes with the following observation:

An alternative, and superior, option would be to back away from running foreign countries.

But it works because it doesn’t turn on the claim that insurgent resistance against well-run imperial governments is as justified or explicable as insurgent resistance against poorly-run imperial governments. I want to insist here that contrary to appearances I am not making a partisan move here. Among certain left-leaning international relations theorists, the feeling is strong that, in theory, at least, a less-advanced group should always surrender to a more-advanced group, provided the latter really does mean no harm to their planet. From one angle, that looks like proof that the ‘liberal’ fetish for friendliness has been taken to the ultimate level, but from another, it looks like the doctrine of master morality taken to the ultimate level.

It also suggests exactly why neoconservatives creep out so badly their paleocon opposite numbers. The key to Matt’s post is its recognition that a culture of Troop Infallibility becomes more legitimate the better our troops are at what they are doing, and that the key metric in determining whether or not turning over large sectors of Iraq to twentysomething Army captains is not their Otherness but their approximation to the Ubermensch, or at least to a moderately successful Roman frontier prefect. Indeed, the more radically ‘other’ the overlord, the better his or her rule would seem to be taken — assuming that radical competence was part of the otherness involved.

That said, I will now extricate myself from charges of evil postmodern conservative Foucauldian-Straussian buffoonery by pointing out how right Matt is that the better alternative for the US is to ensure that rule by prefecture and viceroyalty departs as swiftly and permanently as possible from the policy menu. As I have recently claimed, the slam-dunk reason for this is that Empire is Bad for America, not that Empire is Bad Per Se. It may be, but that’s the weaker argument because it’s more abstract.

So maybe then I have entered Foucauldian-Straussian territory by the back door: only ruling out the possibility that America and Americans will ever have to deal with situations in which what we commonly think of as ‘imperial’ arrangements might be necessary to the health or even survival of their civilization, culture, regime, what have you. This is a great stroke of good fortune for the US, and no better sign of Providence if you look for that sort of thing, but just as surely there are other important parts of the world that did not luck out or receive grace in similar fashion. That means that the US, especially as a superpower, and uber-especially as a lone superpower, has to contend with a world in which effectively every other part of it must always consider at least the possibility that a level of violent and coercive interaction that’s utterly foreign, contrary, and unnecessary to American life is in fact noncontrary and necessary.

I think I would argue that this gets at some of the real, macro-level explanations for the Iraq War. And it throws into pretty sharp relief what’s going on when Bushies repeat the mantra about Democrats and antiwar Republicans not “understanding the nature of the threat.” The nature of the threat, in the prowar estimation, is that the US now has enemies the seriousness of which makes formerly un-American habits of power now essential to the health and survival of America. Obviously if that’s so then shelling out the trillions in Iraq is well worth the cost. But if it’s not — even if it’s just kinda not — then the math becomes much more complicated, because the equation suddenly has all these different and new and quite possibly even incommensurable variables.

And that’s where we are today. Good luck hashing this out in public argument, much less in present-day American politics. Which is why most people gravitate toward staying in Iraq when it’s working and getting out of Iraq when it’s not. Unbeholden to abstract principle, pragmatic, and 100% American.