President Barack Obama addresses the UN General Assembly, Tuesday, September 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
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“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. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.”
— Barack Obama, address to the nation on Syria, September 10, 2013
Let’s be Americans, which means being exceptional, which also means being honest in ways inconceivable to the rest of humanity. So here’s the truth of it: the American exceptionalism sweepstakes really do matter. Here. A lot.
Barack Obama is only the latest in a jostling crowd of presidential candidates, presidential wannabes, major politicians and minor figures of every sort, not to speak of a raging horde of neocons and pundits galore, who have felt compelled in recent years to tell us and the world just how exceptional the last superpower really is. They tend to emphasize our ability to use this country’s overwhelming power, especially the military variety, for the global good—to save children and other deserving innocents. This particularly American aptitude for doing good forcibly, by killing others, is considered an incontestable fact of earthly life needing no proof. It is well known, especially among our leading politicians, that Washington has the ability to wield its military strength in ways that are unimaginably superior to any other power on the planet.
The well-deserved bragging rights to American exceptionalism are no small matter in this country. It should hardly be surprising, then, how visceral is the distaste when any foreigner—say, Russian President Vladimir Putin—decides to appropriate the term and use it to criticize us. How visceral? Well, the sort of visceral that, as Democratic Senator Bob Menendez put it recently, leaves us barely repressing the urge to “vomit.”
Now, it’s not that we can’t take a little self-criticism. If you imagine an over-muscled, over-armed guy walking into a room and promptly telling you and anyone else in earshot how exceptionally good he is when it comes to targeting his weapons, and you notice a certain threatening quality about him, and maybe a hectoring, lecturing tone in his voice, it’s just possible that you might be intimidated or irritated by him. You might think: narcissist, braggart or blowhard. If you were the president of Russia, you might say, “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”
Yes, if you’re a foreigner, this country is easy enough to misunderstand, make fun of, or belittle. Still, that didn’t stop the president from proudly bringing up our exceptionalism two weeks ago in his address on the Syrian crisis. In that speech, he plugged the need for a US military response to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian military. He recommended launching a “limited strike,” assumedly Tomahawk missiles heading Damascus-wards, to save Syria’s children, and he made sure the world knew that such an attack would be no passing thing. (“Let me make something clear: the United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.”)
Then, in mid-speech, in a fashion that was nothing short of exceptional (if you were considering the internal logic of the address), he suddenly cast that option aside for another approach entirely. But just because of that, don’t let first impressions or foreign criticism blind you to the power of the president’s imagery. In this century, as he suggested then and in an address to the UN two weeks later, American exceptionalism has always had to do with Washington’s ability to use its power for the greater planetary good. Since, in the last decade-plus, power and military power have come to be essentially synonymous in Washington, the pure goodness of firing missiles or dropping bombs has been deified.
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? What other great power would have launched its invasion with plans to garrison that country for decades and with the larger goal of subduing neighboring Iran (“Everyone wants to go to Baghdad; real men want to go to Tehran”), only to slink away eight years later leaving behind a Shiite government in Baghdad that was a firm ally of Iran? And in what other country, could leaders, viewing these events, and knowing our part in them, have been so imbued with goodness as to draw further “red lines” and contemplate sending in the missiles and bombers again, this time on Syria and possibly Iran? Who in the world would dare claim that this isn’t an unmatchable record?
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? And that’s not even counting the funds sunk into the “Global War on Terror” and sideshows in places like Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, or the staggering sums that, since 9/11, have been poured directly into the national security state. How many countries, possessing “the finest fighting force in the history of the world,” could have engaged in endless armed conflicts and interventions from the 1960s on and, except in unresisting Panama and tiny Grenada, never managed to definitively win anything?
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)? Similarly, in an Afghanistan where the US military is now drawing down its forces and has already destroyed “more than 170 million pounds worth of vehicles and other military equipment,” what other force would have decided ahead of time to shred, dismantle, or simply discard $7 billion worth of equipment (about 20 percent of what it had brought into the country)? The general in charge proudly calls this “the largest retrograde mission in history.” To put that in context: What other military would be capable of carrying a total consumer society right down to PXs, massage parlors, boardwalks, Internet cafes and food courts to war? Let’s give credit where it’s due: we’re not just talking retrograde here, we’re talking exceptionally retrograde!
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? And what other military, in the same time period thousands of miles away in Afghanistan, could have built more than 450 bases, sometimes even hauling in the building materials and now be dismantling them in the same fashion? If those aren’t exceptional feats, what are?
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 percent 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 fifty-four countries to lend a hand in its “rendition” operations? We’re talking about more than a quarter of the nations on Planet Earth! And that isn’t all. Oh, no, that isn’t all. Can you imagine another country capable of setting up a genuinely global network of “black sites” and borrowed prisons (with local torturers on hand), places to stash and abuse those kidnappees (and other prisoners) in locations ranging from Poland to Thailand, Romania to Afghanistan, Egypt and Uzbekistan to US Navy ships on the high seas, not to speak of that jewel in the crown of offshore prisons, Guantánamo? Such illegality on such a global scale simply can’t be matched! And don’t even get me started on torture. (It’s fine for us to take pride in our exceptionalist tradition, but you don’t want to pour it on, do you?)
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 twenty-seven 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. But what an exceptional elephant! Think of it as a modern American pyramid, a tomb in which lie buried the dreams of establishing a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East. Honestly, what other country could hope to match that sort of memorial thousands of miles from home?
8. Or what about this? Between 2002 and 2011, the United States 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-re-enlistment 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). The United States and its NATO allies are committed to spending $4.1 billion annually on the same project after the withdrawal of their combat forces in 2014. Tell me that isn’t exceptional!
No one, of course, loves a braggart; so, easy as it might be to multiply these eight examples by others, the winner of the American exceptionalism sweepstakes is already obvious. In other words, this is a moment for exceptional modesty, which means that only one caveat needs to be added to the above record.
I’m talking about actual property rights to “American exceptionalism.” It’s a phrase often credited to a friendly nineteenth-century foreigner, the French traveler Alexis de Tocqueville. As it happens, however, the man who seems to have first used the full phrase was Russian dictator Joseph Stalin. In 1929, when the United States was showing few signs of a proletarian uprising or fulfilling Karl Marx’s predictions and American communists were claiming that the country had unique characteristics that left it unready for revolution, Stalin began denouncing “the heresy of American exceptionalism.” Outside the US Communist Party, the phrase gained popular traction here only in the Reagan years. Now it has become as American as sea-salt potato chips. If, for instance, the phrase had never before been used in a presidential debate, in 2012 the candidates couldn’t stop wielding it.
Still, history does give Vladimir Putin a claim to use of the phrase, however stomach-turning that may be for various members of Congress. But maybe, in its own way, its origins only attest to… well, American exceptionalism. Somehow, through pureness of motive and the shining radiance of the way we exercise power, Washington’s politicians have taken words wielded negatively by one of the great monsters of history and made them the signature phrase of American greatness. How exceptional!
Lewis Lapham on the death of American exceptionalism.