Several kausfiles readers, from right and left, recommended that I read Mark Danner’s recent New York Times op-ed piece, ”The Battlefield in the American Mind.” I did. It’s awful!
Danner’s argument–something “the country has not begun to grasp, let alone confront,” he says–seems to be this: a) The terrorists are aiming for our point of vulnerability, which is our political “commitment to the country’s role in the world,” especially the Persian Gulf; and b) We’re vulnerable on the “commitment” front because of American leaders’ “longstanding refusal to speak honestly about the country’s interests”–which, in the Gulf, are stability and the “flow of oil.” Instead, these short-sighted leaders whip up public support with “stock ideology” about America representing “freedom” and the “fight between good and evil.” But support “thus purchased tends to be brittle and weak, having been built on emotion.” In the coming days “Americans may well ask themselves … what exactly it is they are risking their lives for” and once again exhibit their well-known “inconstancy and capriciousness.”
Because Danner (no amateur) doesn’t fully reveal this argument until his last two paragraphs, he conveniently doesn’t have time to mention–let alone confront!--its obvious, glaring flaws. They are:
1. Danner invokes America’s political inability to endure casualties: “With 18 deaths, the world’s only superpower was chased from Somalia; why should 5,000 not chase it from the Persian Gulf?” An obvious answer is, we’ve had 5,000 deaths and we’re still there! Another obvious answer is that the number 5,000, by its very magnitude, shifted Americans’ frame of reference. Rather than triggering our problem of casualty-aversion, the 9/11 attack arguably solved our problem of casualty-aversion. Would a mere 18 casualties deter us now? It might barely make the evening news.
2. Danner assumes the American “interest” in defeating Gulf terrorism is oil. Huh? May I suggest another, equally pragmatic, interest: the terrorists killed 5,000 of us. What national interest is more concrete and legitimate than seeing to it that your citizens aren’t slaughtered? I think it’s fair to say that virtually all Americans except Danner have “begun to grasp” this–maybe even actually grasped it!
It’s not just that the killing of 5,000 people demands some sort of disincentivizing response. It’s that the practical consequence of withdrawing from the Gulf will probably be the loss of more Americans. (It is less likely to be the loss of oil, since whoever controls the oil will presumably want to sell it.) Here’s the obvious scenario: We withdraw. A radical Islamist wave sweeps the Gulf region, capturing several states. These states fail, as repressive states are wont to do, in that they are unable to give their ordinary citizens a more prosperous life. But they, or radical groups within them, are able to develop a few weapons of mass destruction. They continue to blame the West and especially the Great Satan for their economic failure; maybe they even hate us because (sorry!) we stand for “freedom,” or what they regard as a blasphemous freedom. Eventually–sooner rather than later, and even though we’ve retreated from their neighborhood–they decide to righteously dispatch a few thousand or million more of us with nuclear or bio or chemical attacks.
This is hardly far-fetched. (It’s hard to doubt that if Bin Laden had possessed such weapons on 9/11 he’d have used them.) Haven’t our leaders spoken “quite honestly” about this national interest, which is really the most primitive interest around–self-defense? Haven’t those same leaders been tediously clear in warning that the vindication of this interest will take a long time? The promise of a “lengthy campaign unlike any other we have seen” is practically the only bit of rhetoric President Bush employs more often than his “stock ideology” about “freedom.”
3. About that “ideology.” In championing an “honest defense of our interests,” Danner sneers at moralistic rhetoric about “good and evil.” But early in the piece he also condemns “the American refusal to act to halt the Rwandan genocide” in 1994. What, exactly, was our pragmatic national “interest” in Rwanda? Do they have oil? Surely the only justification for the anti-genocidal intervention Danner wants is the same sort of gooey, moralistic rationale his entire piece is supposed to be denigrating. Meanwhile, the obvious, elephant-in-room refutation of American “inconstancy”–the Cold War, dismissed by Danner in an aside–was sustained for 50 years with “stock” ideological good-v.-evil rhetoric.
What’s consistent in Danner’s piece isn’t his argument, but–as the Rwanda example suggests–a sort of preening oppositionalism. I’m not talking about crude anti-American or anti-capitalist posturing; Danner seems to want us to win the fight against Bin Laden. But his paragraphs are grounded in a sullen, reflexive invocation of invariable American failure and stupidity. We’re uncomprehending, like Joseph Conrad’s imperialists. We’re a “violent blundering superpower” that despite all of our “cruise missiles and laser guided bombs” can’t find a target in Afghanistan worth hitting. We don’t “speak honestly” and haven’t “begun to grasp” vital things. There’s the “American inconstancy” of Beirut, Somalia and Rwanda. We “disregard” foreign policy. In short, we don’t understand and can’t do anything right. The terrorists, in contrast, have with their “true genius” found our vulnerability.
The disturbing, damaging thing isn’t even the lack of perspective in Danner’s approach (i.e., sometimes we do get it more or less right). It’s the way he seems to feel that this grandiose, sour antagonism to all actual existing forms of American leadership lends authority to his argument. Maybe at the New York Times op-ed page (where Danner’s piece rose to the top of a presumably-gigantic submission heap) it does.