Shelby Steele is insightful about national self-confidence and about how the lack of such confidence seriously weakens a society like ours that is fighting a confident and determined enemy. (See also this post.) However, he paints with a broad brush and I think that his analysis may be improved if we pay more attention to the political dynamics of the various groups within our society.
For example, I’m not sure that “white guilt” is the best way to frame the issue. There are plenty of Jacksonians, white and nonwhite, who have no guilt at all about using overwhelming force to crush our enemies. There are also many Americans who are ambivalent about America and ambivalent or hostile towards the war. Between these two extremes there are many people who are on the fence.
My guess is that Americans are about evenly distributed between these groups. This means that our official policy, which is planned and implemented by realistic people who would like to use overwhelming force against our enemies — so that we can win as quickly as possible and get out — is constrained by the political difficulty, perhaps even impossibility, of doing so at the moment. It also means that the main impediment to our giving Iran and other enemies the same treatment as we gave Japan towards the end of WW2 is the opinions of the uncommitted third of our population.
Lately the war news has been uninspiring if not discouraging, the uncommitteds have become more negative about our involvement and, consequently, the Bush administration has become more hesitant in its prosecution of the war. However, the entire political dynamic of this country would flip in a strongly pro-war direction if something happened to shift uncommitted opinion in the direction of favoring greater aggressiveness towards our enemies. I assume that another major terror attack here could have that effect, but so I think could other events, including events that we can’t easily foresee.
The problem, then, is not ultimately guilt so much as it is the significant political divisions in our society, which for the moment exist in a weak equilibrium. It’s the same political dynamic that has made the last two presidential elections so close. I think that this equilibrium will eventually shift as the country moves decisively in one political direction or the other, but I don’t think we are there yet.
I hope that this shift, when it does happen, will be the result of thoughtful reflection on the part of many citizens rather than of some terrible event like another big attack.
UPDATE: Rethinking this topic in light of what commenters have written, I agree that guilt is an issue. Or perhaps “guilt” is a flavor of lack of self-confidence. But white guilt is a red herring. Americans who lack enough confidence in their country to defend it rhetorically or militarily are members of a distinct class, heirs to an intellectual tradition having nothing to do with race and whose adherents come from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Some of the members of the guilty class believe themselves guilty by virtue of being white; others believe that their guilt comes from being westerners, Christians or people of wealth. It is ultimately leftist ideology that underlies the lack of confidence and that uses race consciousness as but one of a number of tools of mass-manipulation.
UPDATE2: David Foster offers an alternative explanation.