…and, Ultimately, to Destroy (3): Acceptance

In seeking to move beyond the limitations of the limitation strategy, we can begin by observing the telltale quotation marks that Elkus and Prime put around the word “acceptable” in their description of the American strategic posture. With the same mixture of moral indictment and psychological denial that characterizes the policy itself, what the marks mark is a disjunction between revulsion and practical will or ability. The punctuation tells us that the authors themselves are hesitant about declaring acceptable what America or we have been accepting and under their framework will continue to accept. They know that what is acceptable for us will not be acceptable for others, may not have been acceptable for us in the past, may be declared unacceptable again in the future. The authors personally may not want to accept this acceptance, and may be setting aside their qualms in order to examine and finally adopt it. They seem to mean “acceptable in a narrow sense,” or “as we actually will accept rightly or wrongly,” or, to put the matter more precisely, “as in the end what will have proven tolerable.” In short, Elkus and Prime point to actually operative control thresholds without defining them except as embarrassingly unmentionable, and the same goes for “containment” and “management,” where in their post the quotation marks are absent but in effect implied.

What seems in fact to define successful levels of containment and tolerable if not fully acceptable levels of violence is primarily an inability to demonstrate a direct and sufficient effect on American lives or American prospects, or even on American sympathetic emotions. The presumption seems to be that Americans and American policymakers do not, and perhaps cannot and should not, care or care too much what happens to those in the “controlled” region. This presumption both conceals and re-constructs an additional difficult to acknowledge, possibly un-acceptable and yet accepted division between “them” and “us” in which “their” problems are to be contained and managed by being kept sustainably separate from our concerns. In this sense we have already annihilated the victims morally (or symbolically, yet for all intents and purposes really), or have recognized them as self-annihilated and therefore finally unrecognizable for us, before Assad’s forces or IS or perhaps one day we ourselves get to them physically. For us or at least for this policy, the gradual, intermittently atrocious physical destruction and immiseration of large numbers of people will be redundant. It has already been discounted.

The bases for this necessarily suppressed or unspeakable acceptance of the unacceptable are not difficult to locate, since they lie largely in the same or adjacent terrain and the quite recent past. If we can absorb the responsibility or guilt for vast destruction and suffering, for deaths beyond number, to no recognized end – the effective consensus on Operation Iraqi Freedom – then we cannot be easily moved by more of it, only indirectly at our hands. Indeed, it serves the requisite moral logic, or eases the process of administering the excesses, disappointments, and atrocities of the ’00s, if we can now point to Syria and say to ourselves and the world, “With us or without us, the same.” In sum, we – Americans, the West – have grown used to treating Iraq and its neighborhood as unsalvageable at least insofar as our powers are concerned. Some take pride in having learned this conclusion as a lesson. They scorn all those who have not done so, and police our public discourse for telltale signs of oldthink. ((This sensibility is subject to change, and commentary like this commentary will be occasioned and conditioned by, in the end must be understood a part of, the same control-chaos dynamic.)) The perspective is the precise opposite of a “responsible” one, and intended to be, but as a higher responsibility: We assert the responsibility of irresponsibility in the same motion that we accept the unacceptable. We perhaps would not have felt secure in this position previously to the last decade, or not have been willing to let this experiment in disdain run its course, but, at least up until the day before yesterday, we have come to believe that our best efforts on behalf of the people of the Middle East and in particular its “Iraqi and Levantine” portions will be poorly received, wasteful, likely abortive, and altogether counterproductive to the point of mass tragedy. We may at one time have been prepared to identify beyond body counts and cost-effect calculations with a notional Iraqi people, or with Arab Muslim peoples, or even for a moment with particular tribes and their sheiks as during the Anbar “Awakening.” We may, in short, have been ready to consider them a part of “us,” as people whose concerns would be our concerns, and we may someday reach that point again ((…for instance, if we become convinced against current expectations of a durable will to succeed in terms comprehensible to us, such as those of a coherent state-national project under popular sovereignty – as identified by Michael O’Hanlon: “Iraq Is Still Worth Saving.”)), but we seem to have concluded for now that there is far too little mutual understanding and there is far too much bad history on both sides. It sometimes seems that this conclusion may be the one thing we and they have in common other than our minimally shared membership in the human species.

Because for good and terrible reasons these perceptions also correspond to ethnic and religious divisions, so in a manner also quite unacceptable for mainstream multicultural and pluralistic discourse, they can hardly be addressed cogently at all, but that a concern cannot be politely articulated does not mean that it no longer functions or that it is not in fact of overriding importance, especially in matters of war. In this regard, it is telling, if all but un-tellable outside the flourishes of angry polemics and the despondent fury of tweets in broken English, that the moment of our return to the greater Iraqi battlespace came when Kurds, Yazidis, and Christians were placed under immediate threat, and a Shia-dominated and -allied government called for help: What the three former groups and our indispensable sovereign partner have in common is that they are not Sunni and Arab. Our history with the Kurds in particular gives a palpably different meaning to the word “acceptable” in relation to them. As for the Sunni Arabs of Iraq and Syria especially, but for the region generally even including all of those others as well as cooperative Sunnis and increasingly even the Israelis, our collective attitude has been the attitude of a relative or friend of a drug addict or other highly self-destructive individual: to seek and maintain emotional and physical distance. We have trained ourselves to accept leaving the destructive-victims to their self-mutilations on the way to self-immolation, unless whatever they do specifically requires our active and instructively overreactive self-protection. Collectively as individually, we may also like to think that at the limits we will know the truly unacceptable loss of control when we see it, or are compelled to view it, but we may surprise ourselves with our ability to look away from or to grow used to what formerly we found unbearable in harm to others: just the latest cadaverized child in a Twitpic, with the most popular shows on television and most popular games in our consoles helping to toughen the emotional callus. Before East Ghouta, after all, it was not only the President who imagined a “red line,” and who might have reasonably surmised that the mass murder of civilians with chemical weapons, assembled corpses lain out to prove it, would be treated as a crime against humanity requiring direct action – a step beyond the merely horrible to the intolerable or truly unacceptable.

If not use of WMD against civilians, maybe genocide, unilateral alteration of national borders, de-stabilization of friendly nation-states, and political violence directly against our fellow citizens are still intolerable for us. Returning to the abstract formulation – control as incomplete repression summoning the return of chaos in new forms – it may even turn out that our committed indifference overturns itself, or virtually necessitates the act to which we cannot any longer remain indifferent. The thought may make us re-visit our past inaction, re-joining those who have all along held out for intervention as stubbornly as hopelessly. The other alternative is to numb ourselves further, raising the threshold of the acceptable again, but every such adaptation also involves an alteration in our own self-concept pointing in the direction of self-dissolution, as it is very different to think of ourselves as God’s benevolent messengers spreading happiness and prosperity all across the globe than to think of ourselves as making the best of a bad situation and otherwise getting on with our lives; or than to think of ourselves as getting what we can just like all the others; or than simply not to think of ourselves collectively, but instead, separately, to assert some lesser self if any as alone sanctifiable, and therefore defensible to the death.

11 comments on “…and, Ultimately, to Destroy (3): Acceptance

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  1. How is it diminishing them to consider them the best arbiters of their own interests? I oppose empire precisely because I see them as equal human beings with their own goal, views & interests, that no one has the right to decide for them.

    The explanation you give here rings more of paternalism than humanism — others as children and only children.

    • We don’t and can’t “diminish” them. We declare what happens to them as not meaningfully “interesting” to us – incapable of actually engaging our “interests” – whether we trace the causes to their own “arbitration” of their own interests or, more realistically, to the combined results of their own actions or decisions and the past, present, and future direct and indirect involvement of many others including ourselves. “Diminish” is your word, though I do describe a diminution of ourselves in our own eyes as no longer or not possibly including them, which would indirectly imply a subjective self-diminution on their part if they choose to abide by it reciprocally.

      Not all of them take our continued effective indifference to what happens to them as clear evidence of our respect for their independence and maturity.

      • It’s not so much “our” interests that are the issue, to extent it can ever be said that any of us common folk can possibly have a meaningful interest in places we know nothing about. It’s the interests of the Western ruling class that have been trying to cancel out the interests of people in the rest of the world, by manipulation and force. The rest of the world has no reason to trust the empire and its allies even if it claims to have good intentions, and neither do I.

        Indifference implies non involvement. For it to apply we’d have to actually get to try standing down.

        • I don’t know what “cancel out the interests of people in the rest of the world” is supposed to mean, or how it relates specifically to the question of a response, or lack of one, to events in Iraq and Syria. If something can be done, and you’re not in favor of doing it – or having it done – then you either have some other priority, or you don’t care, or both. A focus on the won’t or can’t will lead to the shouldn’t by the usual psychological processes: Because I can’t do anything, I must persuade myself I don’t care – best of all if I can further persuade myself that I am not persuading myself at all, but am in fact merely discovering a way that I felt all along. As for the rest, it would be helpful to speak precisely, since small polemical distortions have a way of compounding into gross moral and intellectual error: We think we know something about those places. If we knew nothing about those places, as you say, then we’d have nothing to talk about, and your view would be as meaningless as anyone else’s views, including mine. However, you give the appearance at least of thinking you know some very important facts about those places, for instance that they are subject to the will of a “Western ruling class” in such a way that there is nothing for anyone else to do for them, whatever they or some of them say.

          You can explain your achieved indifference with a theory, but it doesn’t change into solidarity as a result. Precisely because you and I as “common folk” have so little direct influence over policy, the refusal of solidarity says more about who we are, even or especially in the domestic spheres we might imagine ourselves protecting or prioritizing.

          • There’s a difference between knowing *of* people via articles & media, and knowing them as we know ourselves & our close friends. We observe, we aren’t immersed in their cultures and meeting with them every day. Their goals, fears, and desires are a blurred, incomplete picture to us as a result.

            Our interpretation as common people is flawed inherently. The interpretation of the ones that actually wield power here, though, has a different problem: it is deeply selfish, constructed with “what’s in it for us?” as its key consideration & treats people as means to that end even if it means escalating the doom they already face. The portrayal of concern on the part of the stewards of the US foreign policy status quo is like a firefighter who themself fuels & starts the blaze they claim credit for trying to put out. We keep being told to follow the fires and feel like they’re being dealt with, but what does it mean while the arsonist is still loose?

            • As I’m a complete mystery to myself and have no friends, I wouldn’t be able to conduct the comparison ;)

              Seriously, in making judgments and decisions about myself, in relation to family, friends, acquaintances, and all the way up the socio-political to foreign policy, I am always working on “mediated” and imperfect information. I also am not convinced that in the final analysis the “ones that actually wield power” are any more or less “deeply selfish” than anyone else, although I also differ with you on your theory of power and how it’s “wielded.”

              I think your use of the firefighter metaphor is just how the anarchist, further-left, and further-right (non-)responses appear to others: There’s a fire, and people are trapped in it, but, since we have suspicions, or claims, about how it was started or how about fires in general are often started, let’s let the house, neighborhood, and world burn down. What you theorize as some kind of perfect rule in the absence of perfect information might conceivably be true in 1,000 out of 1,001 cases, but irrelevant to this one case.

  2. Actually no, Halabja was an example of how that doesn’t really happen, even in ’91, there wasn’t a sufficient response, the Sunni tribesman of Anbar and other provinces are willing to join AQ not once but twice, so this is their ‘liberated state’ much like the Golden Square and the Baath,

  3. CK:

    Why do you think IS exists?

    Result of the US invading Iraq & further stirring up sectarian conflict, this time in the form of the Shia regime deciding it was Payback time for what Sunni rule had done. In response, Sunni have to an extent thrown in with the militant Islamist elements that emerged post invasion. Similar elements in Syria that were present in the fight against Assad (a fight the US was partially backing) came to link up and decided to try erasing the border between them.

    There are some on the Left that debate whether the empire is uniquely calculating in its actions vs being uniquely unobservant or even dumb. Personally, I think both give the elite too much credit, by each defining them apart by more than money and power. For the most part, I think those in control of the empire simply pursue their self interest and try to make the most of things however they can — it’s the scale, their means, & their goals that’s the distinguishing factor. Maximizing utility just looks different when your tools are billions of dollars & state of the art weaponry as opposed to what you and I have at our disposal.

    • I guess that qualifies as one version of a “why,” and probably qualifies as conventional wisdom or conventional anti-interventionist wisdom. Leaves out a number of things, of course, that critics of the withdrawal and non-intervention policy will be quick to point out, including especially the reduction of AQ in Iraq by the time Obama took office, the non-existence of IS in Syria even after the rebellion there started, and the explicit warnings from former supporters of OIF and others that a failure to support the rebellion would lead to radicalization and spillover. There was one typical article along those lines we discussed over a year and a half ago, in which neocon fellow traveler Jackson Diehl predicted, as results of non-intervention, a far worse humanitarian disaster in Syria, growth of a radicalized Islamist influence in Syria, resurgence/spillover in Iraq re-kindling sectarian civil war, and decline of American ability to influence events. He was not alone in making such predictions. The predictions were foreshadowed in warnings made when the Iraqi Surge was being debated vs. Democrat calls for immediate withdrawal in 2007-8.

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