TAC contributing editor Andrew Bacevich, whose article on Afghanistan in the latest issue of Commonweal has generated a fair amount of discussion (some of which I plan to address soon), has an appreciation of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American in the Summer 2009 issue of World Affairs Journal:

“Innocence,” [Green] writes, “is a kind of insanity.” When it comes to the exercise of power, the idealist intent on doing God’s work is likely to wreak as much havoc as the cynic who rejects God’s very existence. Those who credit themselves with acting at the behest of the purest motives are hardly less likely to perpetrate evil than those who dismiss ideals as sheer poppycock.

Only those who recognize the omnipresence of sin—recognizing first of all that they themselves number among the sinful—can possibly anticipate the moral snares inherent in the exercise of power. Righteousness induces blindness. The acknowledgment of guilt enables the blind to see. To press the point further, the statesman who assumes that “we” are good while “they” are evil—think George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11—will almost necessarily misinterpret the problem at hand and underestimate the complexity and costs entailed in trying to solve it. In this sense, an awareness of one’s own failings and foibles not only contributes to moral clarity but can help guard against strategic folly.

Whether feigned or real, therefore, innocence poses a problem. Good intentions informed by the simplistic belief that the world can be fixed and things set right only succeed in killing people.

Back in Washington, those who dream up such policies somehow manage to evade accountability. Discredited policymakers depart with clear consciences, en route to a visiting chair at Georgetown or a cushy billet in some think tank. There is no blood on their hands, the dirty work having been contracted out to soldiers, whose compensation, writes Greene, “includes the guilt of murder in the pay-envelope” and who upon returning home from battle may find their sense of personal culpability more difficult to shake. […]

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.