Thursday, July 27, 2023

The Myths of American Restraint


The Myths of American Restraint

Peter Schultz


            There’s a story that’s told by nearly everyone that after the US defeat in Vietnam, moral prohibitions controlled US policy, despite the objections of the neo-cons and others. For example, Valentine, who is as clear-sighted as anyone else, wrote: “The same thing [that had happened in Germany after its defeat in WW I] happened in America after the…. attacks of 9/11. Symbolically, 9/11 wiped the slate clean. All moral prohibitions on the rabid right were lifted, and all the rage they had cultivated during the degenerate Clinton years was unleashed, under the aegis of counterterrorism….” [285] And again: “…. when the Twin Towers came crashing down…. all the moral and psychological prohibitions on the Ultra conservatives were lifted forever….” [293]


            One aspect of this story which is problematic is the assumption that morality consists only of prohibitions, of “don’ts” and not of “do’s.” But morality or moral virtue motivates, legitimates, and facilitates actions, at least as much as it restrains, or prohibits actions. When you read about the people who sought out careers in, say, the CIA, it is obvious that it was their conceptions of the demands of moral virtue, on themselves as well as on the nation, that led them to embrace those careers. So, while most think as Valentine does in the quotes above, it is possible and even necessary to ask how did America’s generally accepted ideas of moral virtue contribute to the responses to the attacks of 9/11. As Valentine puts so well: “Bush embarked on his Holy Crusade against Islam, but directed it at Afghanistan and Iraq, not at Saudi Arabia, where his family’s business partners…. come from.” [293] Bush’s moral virtue, heavily influenced by his Christianity and his capitalism, was clearly evident in his responses to the 9/11 attacks.


            In fact, it is also necessary to ask: How did those generally accepted ideas of moral virtue contribute to attacks themselves? It is all-too-commonly assumed that it was US restraint or “the degenerate Clinton” that led to those attacks. If only Clinton had been more aggressive, more morally virtuous, those attacks would not have happened. But if in fact it was precisely American aggressiveness – for example, in contributing to the defeat of the USSR in Afghanistan or the arming of Saddam Hussein in Iraq against Iran – that led to the attacks, then this is, as is often said, “a horse of a different color.” And insofar as American aggressiveness facilitated those attacks, made them more likely than they would have otherwise been, then the fact that the US “double-downed” on aggressiveness after the attacks seems, well, delusional. Having responded aggressively to events prior to the 9/11 attacks, thereby contributing to those attacks, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to double-down on aggressiveness after the attacks. But then as Bush’s “Holy Crusade” illustrated, aggressiveness is part and parcel of America’s conception of moral virtue, having its roots in Christianity and capitalism. America’s problem isn’t moral restraint; its problem is its conception of moral virtue.



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