Thursday, October 10, 2013

American Exceptionalism....Not

(Great Seal of the U.S./Wikimedia Commons)
A few weeks ago President Obama in his speech about Syria - does anyone remember Syria or Egypt for that matter ? - made his case for intervention in large part based on America's exceptional role in the world.  

"But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act.  That’s what makes America different.  That’s what makes us exceptional."

So what about this term "exceptionalism"? It has been used since a long time: the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville used it in 1835 in his book Democracy in America. He based this term on the unique position of the U.S. as founded by Europeans but different in its approach to democracy, religion, practical matters,  and its geography. In the 1920s, the American Communist Party used this term, again because they believed the  U.S. was different, for example, due to its lack of class distinctions.  Politicians like John F. Kennedy in 1961 and especially Ronald Reagan, in his Farewell Address to the Nation on January 11, 1989,  referred to the related phrase 'this city upon a hill":

"I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it, and see it still."

Since the Reagan's references, many conservatives have taken on the "city on the hill" and "American exceptionalism" to mean not only that the U.S.  has

a unique role in the world, but also implying the U.S. as being superior to other countries. A presidential candidate, let alone a President should not ignore this as Barack Obama noticed during his 2008 presidential campaign against John McCain, when Republicans tried to undermine his candidacy by accusing him of not truly believing in Amerca's exceptionalism. Moving fast forward, President Obama is now in his second term and invoking "American exceptionalism" in order to go to war.

Frankly, as someone who didn't grow up in Great Barrington, Massachussets; Taos, New Mexico;  Red Bank, New Jersey; Mill Valley, California or Gig Harbor, Washington -  the top 5 among the best small towns in America, according to the Smithsonian - it's easier for me than for a born-and-bred American, to acknowledge that exceptionalism is not an unique feature to the U.S.: North Korea is exceptional for its continued living in an ossified cold war era; Brazil is exceptional for its culture of samba and soccer; South Africa is exceptional that it is the world's biggest producer of gold, platinum, chromium, and other metals; China is exceptional for its rich culture of thousands of years; and the Netherlands is exceptional for thriving while surviving the surrounding sea even though large parts of its coastal lands are below sea level; and I could go on.  My point is not that the U.S. is not exceptional: it is in its geographical richness, in its diversity of its people, in its technological achievements, and never ending optimism.  It's also true that the U.S. due to its economic and military might and democratic nature has a larger responsibility than many smaller, poorer countries to play its role in the world.  But to keep invoking its exceptionalism as the rationale for embarking on, again, questionable military operations, seems too much.

This latter view is echoed in a scathing article by Tom Englehardt, writer and editor of the website, titled: "Bragging Rights: Eight Exceptional(ly Dumb) American Achievements of the Twenty-First Century" It's an interesting and quite devastating read, of which I'll highlight the following:

"On that basis, it’s indisputable that the bragging rights to American exceptionalism are Washington’s. For those who need proof, what follows are just eight ways (among so many more) that you can proudly make the case for our exceptional status, should you happen to stumble across, say, President Putin, still blathering on about how unexceptional we are.

1) What other country could have invaded Iraq, hardly knowing the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite, and still managed to successfully set off a brutal sectarian civil war and ethnic cleansing campaigns between the two sects that would subsequently go regional, whose casualty counts have tipped into the hundreds of thousands, and which is now bouncing back on Iraq?............

2) What other country could magnanimously spend $4-6 trillion on two good wars in Afghanistan and Iraq against lightly armed minority insurgencies without winning or accomplishing a thing?.............

3) And talking about exceptional records, what other military could have brought an estimated 3.1 million pieces of equipment -- ranging from tanks and Humvees to porta-potties, coffee makers, and computers -- with it into Iraq, and then transported most of them out again (while destroying the rest or turning them over to the Iraqis)?.............

4) What other military could, in a bare few years in Iraq, have built a staggering 505 bases, ranging from combat outposts to ones the size of small American towns with their own electricity generators, water purifiers, fire departments, fast-food restaurants, and even miniature golf courses at a cost of unknown billions of dollars and then, only a few years later, abandoned all of them, dismantling some, turning others over to the Iraqi military or into ghost towns, and leaving yet others to be looted and stripped? ...................

5) In a world where it’s hard to get anyone to agree on anything, the covert campaign of drone strikes that George W. Bush launched and Barack Obama escalated in Pakistan’s tribal areas stands out.  Those hundreds of strikes not only caused significant numbers of civilian casualties (including children), while helping to destabilize a sometime ally, but almost miraculously created public opinion unanimity.  Opinion polls there indicate that a Ripley’s-Believe-It-or-Not-style 97% of Pakistanis consider such strikes “a bad thing.”  Is there another country on the planet capable of mobilizing such loathing?  Stand proud, America!

 6) And what other power could have secretly and illegally kidnapped at least 136 suspected terrorists -- some, in fact, innocent of any such acts or associations -- off the streets of global cities as well as from the backlands of the planet?  What other nation could have mustered a coalition-of-the-willing of 54 countries to lend a hand in its “rendition” operations?..............

7) Or how about the way the State Department, to the tune of $750 million, constructed in Baghdad the largest, most expensive embassy compound on the planet -- a 104-acre, Vatican-sized citadel with 27 blast-resistant buildings, an indoor pool, basketball courts, and a fire station, which was to operate as a command-and-control center for our ongoing garrisoning of the country and the region?  Now, the garrisons are gone, and the embassy, its staff cut, is a global white elephant. ......

8) Or what about this?  Between 2002 and 2011, the U.S. poured at least $51 billion into building up a vast Afghan military.  Another $11 billion was dedicated to the task in 2012, with almost $6 billion more planned for 2013.  Washington has also sent in a legion of trainers tasked with turning that force into an American-style fighting outfit.  At the time Washington began building it up, the Afghan army was reportedly a heavily illiterate, drug-taking, corrupt, and ineffective force that lost one-third to one-half of its personnel to casualties, non-reenlistment, and desertion in any year.  In 2012, the latest date for which we have figures, the Afghan security forces were still a heavily illiterate, drug-taking, corrupt, and inefficient outfit that was losing about one-third of its personnel annually (a figure that may even be on the rise)............"

I suggest you read the full article. My take on it is that it's quite disappointing that of all people, President Obama, has succumbed to using the phrase, especially in the context of a threat of another military operation. It shows how entrenched the beliefs are in Washington, whether you're Republican or Democrat. I guess we'll have to wait for an American Gorbachev, before we can see both modesty and courage in American politics.  

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