“You are wise and powerful. Will you not take the Ring?”
“No!” cried Gandalf, springing to his feet. “With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly.” His eyes flashed and his face was lit as by a fire within. “Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused. The wish to wield it would be too great for my strength. I shall have such need of it. Great perils lie before me.”
-- J.R.R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings
-- Lord Acton
Upon seeing so much (understandable) condemnation of Russia and Vladimir Putin for invading Ukraine, I asked the following question:
Serious, non-rhetorical questions: How can one condemn Putin's invasion of Ukraine without simultaneously calling for Bush/Cheney to be prosecuted for invading Iraq and killing 1M people? How can we be for one and not the other? How are the invasions morally distinguishable?
— Christopher Liss (@Chris_Liss) March 7, 2022
I got a variety of answers, but a common one was the sentiment that whatever we did in Iraq, and admittedly it was bad, we are not Russia, and we can never be equated with a country ruled by an autocrat. Here's an example of this sentiment from an Atlantic columnist:
I wrote an essay in @TheAtlantic on 'anti-imperialism' and American power. Our generation grew up ambivalent about that power, and rightfully so. Iraq was our formative experience. Thanks to Putin, it's now time for a reassessment. A thread 🧵https://t.co/TOlf6vj704
— Shadi Hamid (@shadihamid) March 6, 2022
People seem to be arguing a version of American exceptionalism -- or at least Western-democracy exceptionalism, i.e., the idea that because we have a better, more fair and more just society generally what we do abroad can't be properly compared to what an autocratic society does, even if there are apparent similarities in the tactics (bombing and invading) and results (destruction of a sovereign country, civilian deaths.) Put in legal terms, people who espouse this view would be declining to hear this case on the merits for lack of standing, i.e., autocratic societies like Russia lack standing even to compare their actions with democratic ones.
But to defend this view, you need to articulate the basis on which Western democracies derive their moral superiority over autocratic ones. If I were making the case, I would point out Western democracies value civil liberties and human rights, while autocratic ones do not. Putin has -- for now -- more power over the average Russian, and Xi more power over the average Chinese than our government has over us. We have a Bill of Rights, separation of powers and individual states that can add even more robust protections if they so choose. In short, it's better to be an American citizen than a Russian or Chinese one because America rests on better axioms for constructing a society. It holds everyone is created equal and explicitly bans the government from infringing on freedom of expression or seizure of person or property without due process. With better axioms come better lives, and with better lives, people who create, innovate and prosper.
But consider how America, the paragon of good axioms and historic prosperity, has treated those who were not protected by its constitution, for example, the citizens of Syria, Libya, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Central and South America and Iraq. How did we treat Native Americans or black people forcibly abducted into slavery? The people over whom we had virtually unchecked power were treated as horrifically as those under the reign of autocratic regimes because unchecked power, not form of government, is the determining factor. So it's not that we are better because our ruling class is kinder, gentler and more respectful than the oligarchs, military brass and politicians in autocratic countries. Hillary Clinton and Dick Cheney are not nicer people than Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin -- the former just have less power to harm you than the latter their citizens, due to our axioms.
Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Understanding human nature, our founding fathers wisely limited the power of the government over its citizens (even if it shamefully it took nearly 200 years for us to extend those rights to certain portions of the population.) So do not excuse Iraq because the US is "better than" Russia. We don't get absolution for evil acts by coasting on the brand. It is only these axioms that make America better than autocratic countries, and to the extent we stand by and reinforce them, it will remain that way.
But if we let them erode out of concerns for safety, expedience, or social pressure, we squander any moral authority we might once have had. If you're willing to force your neighbor to take medicine he doesn't want because authorities said so, or stay in his home because politicians told him to, you are undermining the very protections from power that make us different. If the authorities can condition your ability to move freely, decide what goes into your body or what information you are allowed to access or express publicly, their powers over you are virtually unlimited, the axioms that protect you dead. To grant politicians such power is to ensure its inevitable abuse.
That's why Gandalf, a powerful wizard who, it would seem, stood a far better chance than Frodo to destroy the ring, refused it.
"Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself," he pleads. Gandalf knew that in wielding great power over others, he would no longer remain good. America is exceptional because of its ruling class' limitations, and when it exceeds them, no matter the justification, it becomes like any other autocracy.