The “Bush Doctrine” is about Lynching
Sarah Palin is a monumental tool; that’s a given, we all understand that, and the fact that a candidate for vice-president would have the particular kinds of ignorances she has is, as has been widely noted, a gigantic shit-storm.
But lost in all the hullabaloo about her woeful ignorance is the issue of what’s actually at stake in the question of the “Bush doctrine.” What is the difference between preemption and prevention? Without getting into the ins and outs of the actual legal debate, such as it is (and such as I might be able to), I want to just point out one major sticking point here: this is not about law, but about race.
A conventional understanding of when it’s okay to launch a military intervention, the “pre-Bush doctrine” standard, was the imminent threat: it’s okay to launch the missiles, send the helicopters, and drop the bombs when an actual threat is actually in place. In such a scenario, US military force is justified when someone is actually about to get us first, and only then. It’s a cowboy scenario: you can only shoot the other guy if he goes for his gun first. The difference between an outlaw and a legal gunslinger (a huge part of conventional American understandings of American power) is that the former kills indiscriminately while the latter uses his dramatically greater power to overwhelm outlaw uses of power, once that bad intent has been demonstrated. You wait for him to draw, but you use your speed to shoot him first.
The Bush doctrine has another and profoundly different logic: if someone is trying to get the ability to shoot you, you can shoot them. This is, obviously, a huge fucking difference, since the point is that only some people even have the right to have guns. And since a large percentage of the world already has the ability to shoot us, there’s a certain cognitive dissonance between the American claim to monopolize the means of violence on a global scale and the fact that a whole bunch of countries have WMD’s. If we are willing to invade a country to prevent them from getting WMD’s, why haven’t we invaded all the countries that have them? What squares this circle?
Race. It’s about Race. Race, race, race.
Here’s the thing: liberals are pretty satisfied with applying the frontier mentality to global politics, because the “go for your gun” standard allows us to justify any use of military force by the fact that the other guy asked for it. We didn’t shoot him because he was an Arab, we shot him because he had a gun and was pointing it at me. We aren’t outlaws, we’re the sheriff.
George Bush doesn’t want to be that sheriff; he wants to be a different kind of sheriff, the kind who lynches black people in 1930’s Mississippi because they own a rifle or tried to vote. We don’t launch preemptive war against the Soviet Union or India or England or Israel or France or Pakistan because, while they already have WMD’s, the “uppity” standard does not apply to them for that very reason. Having joined the concert of civilized nations (and by this standard, one becomes “civilized” when you have the ability to blow people up), these nations are allowed to carry guns. Carrying a gun justifies itself. But a country like Iran or Iraq, on the other hand, is racialized by the very fact that they don’t have WMD’s: not only does the fact that they don’t have WMD’s mean they can never be allowed to have WMD’s, but the very act of trying to get them becomes the equivalent of threatening to use them on us.
In other words, to understand why getting a gun can be imagined to be the same thing as pointing it at us, you have to take yourself out of the liberal mythology of a post-civil rights society and put yourself in the mindset of a society where lynching is normal, where the use of force against people whose only crime is trying to rise above their station is normal. You have to undo Martin Luther King and Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. You have to put yourself in the head space of a person who understands–in a way that liberals do not–that race is not about color or ability, but about subjugation, that if you let a black person legitimately possess books, ballots, and bullets, he will cease to be, in concrete terms, a non-citizen with no rights anyone need respect. This is who George Bush is; this is what the Bush doctrine is; and this is what John McCain became when he accepted it.
Countries that have “the bomb” have achieved that status; they have rights and have to be treated as equals, or at least to the extent that their power forces you to do so. In other words, “Race” is not about skin color or ethnicity: it’s about power. You can racialize those that you have the power to kill, and the threat that they pose is not one of violence but of breaking out of that political cage.
I’m writing my dissertation about the birth of this kind of thinking in the early twentieth century, and part of that story is about how the RAF and the “civilized” nations of the world racialized aerial bombardment by making only the savage race of the world subject to it. You could bomb people who were uncivilized, and it was easy to tell who that was, since the ability to drop bombs from the air was itself the mark of civilization. An elegant equation, an incredibly useful tautology. And it worked out nicely until WWI messed everything up: “civilized” countries started bombing each other (and calling the Germans “huns” was hard to swallow, given that everyone based their education systems on the German model). It was getting hard to tell who was savage and who wasn’t. When the brand new US air force dropped bombs on coal miners trying to unionize in the twenties, things got even more confusing (Weren’t they white? What gives?). And it only got worse with WWII: Hitler and other nativists started saying the things that American nativists had been saying for decades, and we were confused because he was the bad guy. What the heck gives? But after WWII, we figured out a brilliant new way to adjudicate this problem: we found a new bomb, and with it, a new global color line. Which we’ve still got.
So I take a certain kind of heart, actually, from the fact that in wrongly describing her agreement with the Bush doctrine while describing something other than the Bush doctrine, Sarah Palin showed herself actually to not believe in killing uppity darkies–the way George Bush does–for the crime of being uppity. She’s not a well-informed woman, nor is she versed in the intricacies of government foreign policy. But like most Americans–and unlike George Bush and John McCain–she doesn’t seem to find sympathetic the idea that having the means of violence entitles one to use it, or that attempting to acquire the means of violence is, ipso facto, a crime punishable by shock and awe. Maybe she does, of course, and she just hasn’t realized it. She doesn’t exactly have well thought though positions on the issues, nor does anything I know predispose me to expect anything but the worst from her. But it’s worth taking small comfort from the fact that lynching is not exactly, yet, a reflexive assumption in our society, as it once was.