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Privilege the Subjective


Matt writes:

It’s striking how much of conservative thinking about national security these days centers around subjective factors — determination, emboldening, “claiming victory” — rather than on objective assessments. Objectively speaking, withdrawing from Iraq would cut off a major line of recruiting for al-Qaeda while simultaneously freeing up vast quantities of American manpower and other resources. How “bold” that makes al-Qaeda leaders feel (and you’ve got to figure these fuckers were pretty “emboldened’ already when they blew up the twin towers, right?) has nothing to do with anything.

Two and a half thoughts on this…

First, I think there is a thread in American culture that privileges subjective factors like “determination”, “reputation”, “boldness”, etc. over objective material factors. Moreover, I think that evocations of reputation, toughness, etc. are more commonly made in the South than in other regions; as such, the increasing dominance of the South in Republican Party politics makes these evocations more key to the conservative understanding of the world. You could say that conservative elites manipulate these attitudes in a cynical way, but I don’t think that’s the entire story; elites, after all, are subject to the same cultural norms that everyone else is subject to. Consequently, we see plenty of evocations of our toughness and credibility (such that we see ourselves as “tough” and “determined” for pulverizing a country with less than a tenth of our population and less than a hundredth of our economic might) even when objective factors favor us; it’s unsurprising that such arguments are pushed to the fore when material reality proves disappointing.

Second, subjective factors are being forced to do the work that material factors should be doing. The Iraq War was, as much as anything else, motivated by the Ledeen Doctrine, the need to pound some little country to dust just to show that we could. The “light footprint” invasion was designed to indicate to potential enemies that we had the capability to do this over and over again; we could invade whomever we wished whenever we wished with whatever forces we had available, and still be essentially guaranteed of victory. This capability, even in the absence of a strong will (and conservatives haven’t actually believed that the American people have a strong will since at least Vietnam; most of them still, essentially, blame the public for being too weak) would put the fear of God in our enemies and force them to do what we wanted. That Iraq wasn’t actually responsible for 9/11 was hardly the point; when someone spills a drink on you in a bar it is incumbent upon you to kick someones ass, doesn’t matter who, just to demonstrate that you’re not to be trifled with.

But (and we’re to thought 2.5 now) the capabilities bit didn’t work out. No one believes that we have the capacity (broadly defined) to depose the Iranian regime and replace it with folks of our choosing. Iraq has served to gut the capabilities argument. What remains is determination; if we can prove to everyone that we’re really, really determined, really, really resolute, and really, really credible, then they may be as frightened of us as if the Iraq War had actually worked. If we demonstrate the willingness to pay infinite costs in Iraq, then the Iranians will think twice before messing with us, as will the North Koreans, the Russians, etc. This argument is founded on about thirty mutually supporting yet equally absurd elements, but it nevertheless has a certain rhetorical power.

And so the last refuge of the scoundrel is “determination”. Conservatives curl up with tendentious readings of the life of Churchill, and convince themselves that as long as we’re determined, tough, resolute, and credible everything will be okay.

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