It doesn't surprise me that Spencer Ackerman has produced some of his best prose in a piece discussing his own weaknesses. I think admissions of guilt or acts of self-criticism often result in the best writing; confessions have a way of resisting unnecessary flourishes or pretense. I hope that the experience he describes pushes him not only to maintain greater critical distance from generals and politicians but also to consider the subtle but ever present reality of social capture. I also hope it makes him and others consider the root cause of Petraeus worship, which is the basic tension within mainstream views on foreign policy.
The blame for our failure to apply proper skepticism to Petraeus and his record does lie in large part with the media. But the deeper reasons for this lack of critical distance lie with our relationship to war itself. American foreign policy is built on contradictions. As a people, we have internalized a belief in the value of the lives of non-Americans, but we doggedly pursue an aggressive, activist foreign policy, for reasons of ideology, self-interest, structural dependence, and pure habit.
This leads to debates on foreign policy that border on the schizophrenic, driven to extremes like the turn from Iraq to Libya, where those who bitterly complained about America dictating the future of the Muslim world pushed enthusiastically for America to dictate the future of the Muslim world. Those who rejected a "we broke it, we bought it" logic on Iraq embraced a "let's just break it and see what happens" logic on Libya. Our foreign policy incoherence leads us to claim that we act in the name of democracy, while we relentlessly deny self-determination and agency to foreign people. It leads us to denounce the violence of terrorism while embracing the violence of drone strikes. We extol the virtues of democracy while we depose rulers and undermine the results of elections. And we have a seemingly limitless appetite for stories that proclaim that technology has erased the horrors of war, and left us with the ability to kill only the bad men unerringly, despite the piles of bodies that disprove this notion. Even our concept of war has become confused by the profoundly American notion that we can have everything both ways. We want violence without violence, war without war, hegemony with a human face.
In some ways, the humanistic turn in American power projection represents progress. But it has proven remarkably ineffective at actually restraining our penchant for violently enacting our will around the globe. And it makes people endlessly manipulable by slick figures like Petraeus. Petraeus knew that the media is susceptible to flattery, and particularly to moral flattery. By presenting the image of the soldier intellectual, the warrior for peace, and the establishment-supporting iconoclast, Petraeus made himself as irresistible to our media as he presumably made himself to Paula Broadwell. No one can understand American foreign policy without understanding our media's fierce commitment to the limitless application of American military power. But it's equally important to understand our media's need for aesthetic cover, for the appropriate optics to accompany our projection of that power. The media's distaste for Bush's foreign policy was largely aesthetic; he and many of his chief advisors came across as yokels, zealots, or warmongers. A man like Petraeus gave them the cover they needed, the cover of intellectualization, of "a new manner of warfare," of the buzzwords they find irresistible. A handsome, brilliant man, coming up from the hierarchy of the Army but with a plausible stance as an outsider, admitting the failures of Iraq but promising American victory, speaking in jargony terms about counterinsurgency and winning hearts and minds, supportive of military action but without all the creepy biblical undertones.... They never stood a chance.
Spencer Ackerman is nobody's idea of a neocon. But like a lot of American liberals, he seems to struggle to reconcile a belief in the equal dignity of foreign people and their right to self-determination with the assumed superiority of the foreign policy of unrestrained American power. I don't blame him too much for that assumption; after all, that anything resembling a non-interventionist foreign policy is inherently unserious is one of the few universal truisms of contemporary media. The result, though, is a craving for like men like Petraeus, messianic figures who can resolve the inherent contradictions within the liberal interventionist philosophy.
I admire Ackerman for the willingness to revisit his past work and expose himself to public scrutiny. But as long as he imagines that the problem lies within his individual failures to maintain appropriate skepticism-- as long as anyone in the media does-- these problems will manifest themselves. We are ready to believe in hegemony with a lighter footprint, the benevolence of drones, the capacity to wage war without getting our hands dirty, the ability to occupy a country without violating its rights, and the magic morality of Barack Obama, from whose fingertips springs righteousness-- ready to believe, that is, in any fantasy, as long as it ends with American victory and American blamelessness. Petraeus is only a symbol.
The only true resolution is recognizing that our convictions and our actions are simply incompatible, that there is no such thing as humane hegemony. We can believe in the equal dignity of all human life and the right of all people to rule themselves, or we can exercise our power across the globe, but we cannot do both at the same time. We have to recognize that democracy and humanitarianism and non-interventionism are one and the same. And someday, long after I'm gone, we will.