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Against Good Intentions

Andrew Bacevich has an interesting reflection in World Affairs Journal on Graham Greene and American foreign policy. It really unpacks the way in which innocence (i.e. having only the best and truest intentions) is horribly dangerous in the world of violence and power. As Greene puts it, “Innocence is a kind of insanity.” The conscience that is clear, on the basis of good intentions needs not pay attention to the havoc that has been wrought by the actual actions taken.

Bacevich points out the kind of moral malaise this creates among Americans, who have enshrined this notion of innocence into our national moral sensibility:

America means well: on this point the vast majority of Americans will permit no dissent. We differ from all other great powers in history. Our leaders differ as well. To those who formulate U.S. policy, ideals really do matter. As President Obama insisted in his Cairo speech, anyone depicting the United States as a “self-interested empire” is way off base.

When U.S. policy goes awry, therefore, the culprit might be bad luck, bad planning, or bad tactics, but American motives lie beyond reproach. Thus, the reassuring take on the Iraq War, now emerging as the conventional wisdom, is that—however mismanaged the war may have been early on—the “surge” engineered by General David Petraeus has redeemed the enterprise: a conclusion doubly welcome in that it obviates any need to revisit questions about the war’s purpose and justification, while meshing nicely with the Obama administration’s inclination simply to have done with Iraq and move on.

The implications of trivializing Iraq are already evident in the debate regarding “Af–Pak”: the overriding concern becomes one of finding the general best able to apply to Obama’s war the “lessons” taken from Bush’s war. That such an approach should find favor in Washington would not have surprised Graham Greene. Those who conceived the Iraq War, the cheerleaders who promoted it from the sidelines, and critics of that war who have now succeeded to positions of power share a common interest in wiping the slate clean, refurbishing the claim that the United States meant well because the United States always means well. No doubt mistakes were made. Yet America’s benign intentions expiate sins committed along the way—or allow those in authority to assign responsibility for any sins to soldiers who in doing Washington’s bidding became sources of embarrassment.

Vietnam once laid waste to Washington’s claim of innocence, until Ronald Reagan helped restore that claim. Every indication suggests that American innocence will survive Iraq as well, this time with Barack Obama as chief enabler helping to sanitize or erase all that we do not wish to remember. A people famous for their self-professed religiosity won’t even bother to look for someone to whom they can express contrition.


  1. Hill wrote:

    Graham Greene is so freaking awesome.

    Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 11:42 am | Permalink
  2. Shit. I have a page of notes in my Moleskin for an article very similar to this (reading “The Quiet American” as a kind of parable of Augustine’s _City of God_). Scooped!

    Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 1:22 pm | Permalink
  3. On a quick read of the Bacevich piece: it’s pretty easy to read Pyle as a sort of cautionary exemplar of “earnest” American foreign policy. But I’m not sure Bacevich does justice to Fowler’s ambivalence–his resistance to becoming “engagé”. I’ve wondered if something like such a dis-engagé distance isn’t “faithful,” in a certain way (I can hear the charges of “sectarianism” already…). Indeed, I wondered if what some have decried as the Pope’s “mushiness” in “Caritas in Veritate” isn’t a Fowler-like distance. Not at all sure about this, but musing…

    Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

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