America’s "exceptionalism" is alive and well. It’s resurfaced wearing a wig in current presidential politics.
Clinton speaks about America the "indispensable" nation. It’s high sounding fluff. What does it mean? Shall we take a stab? A crutch might be "indispensable" for a crippled man. Does Hillary Clinton have a cripple in mind? Who’s crippled?
A random guess says its the rest of the world. It needs to be straightened out. No other nation can do it. America is the crutch. "Look at them, down in the mud without a crutch. I’m Hillary. Here’s my message: I’ll keep you out of the mud."
A confession: I offer a lament. It’s a lament about the confusions of politicians, especially Hillary Clinton’s. It’s a lament for an exceptional America, for a nation whose core of strength is fading but has yet to vanish. Clinton’s confusion, widely shared, is that a "muscular" application of America’s considerable powers, economic, military and political, is in America’s interests in that it will perpetuate its world leadership. Muscle for Russia, muscle for Syria, Iran, China. So much muscle.
Hillary is confused. Many pine for a great American nation. It simply isn’t the America Hillary would lead. She is as confused about what the nation’s great powers have accomplished as she is about what those powers can accomplish. She’s confused about what lies at the basis of America’s claim to greatness. Hillary is a greatness-through-power advocate.
Two things are obvious. Power advocates think America is losing its grip. Hence, for example, Dan Twining’s "A blueprint for restoring American exceptionalism" (FP, March 7, 2013) an abject précis of the extravagantly entitled "Setting Priorities for American Leadership – A New National Security Strategy for the United States" (PUSA, March 2013). Of course, restoration isn’t necessary unless American greatness is going, going, gone. Hillary has the answer: “Just watch. We’re going to be indispensable again.”
The confusion of power advocates is this: America’s greatness isn’t eroding because its great powers are diminishing. It’s great powers are diminishing because its greatness is ignored and is being lost.
Illusions of Military Power, Past and Present
America was held in check by peasants and foot soldiers in Korea and defeated in Vietnam and Afghanistan. It was saved from similar defeat in Iraq only by the intervention of Iran, which counseled the Iraqis to deny at the last moment a SOFA to America’s military. In each country America’s politicians and military leaders confused the national resistance of a people for something else.
Today air superiority over China and Russia is doubtful. Russian defensive and offensive missile technology as well as its electronic warfare capacities are superior. Insofar as the US banks on drones, robots, Boeing’s phantom eye "game changer," the weaponized carrier based X47B, the RQ-180, unmanned subs and tanks, they are matched and possibly surpassed by counterpart Russian and Chinese advances. To suppose America’s potential foes cannot or will not match US military powers amounts either to an estimate fueled by hallucinogenic vegetables or results from simple lame brained racism. Add to this that defense production in both major potential adversaries is guaranteed to be more cost effective than that of the US. US military power, effective against Grenada and Panama, evidently doesn’t cow China, Russia, North Korea or Iran.
Illusions, Economic and Political
The progressive dilution of US currency has paved the way for abandoning its hegemony. Major economies increasingly trade using bundles of national currencies or currency alternatives. Turkey and India swap gold for Iranian oil. On paper the US claims the world’s largest gold reserves but cannot in timely fashion meet a request to repatriate deposited German gold.
Power advocates sometimes slide stealthily into ethical chatter: America’s powers are indispensable in the world because they promote democracy, human rights, the rule of law. Unfortunately America has spied on, assassinated, overthrown, tortured, bullied imprisoned and/or murdered citizens and elected leaders in Indonesia, the Middle East, Australia, South Korea, Africa, South East Asia and Central and South America in the interests of defeating democracy and maintaining commercial dominance. The stealthy slide reveals itself as a transparent fib.
It received Europeans disenfranchised, alienated from opportunity through religion, poverty or ethnicity, sometimes all three. Puritans and Jews, the Protestants of Holland, France and the Palatine, the desperate of Scotland, the hungry of Ireland, England and Wales, all sought relief. Full relief demanded freedom of association, religion and economic opportunity. The nation formed as a remedy to invidious divisions of human spirit and aspiration. America would heal, defend and give hope.
Over half the 17th century’s newly arrived immigrants were indentured. Once unencumbered by indenture their collective aspiration for liberty, illuminated by servitude, conspired with a vision of economic advancement through labor. Servants aspired throughout their indenture to freedom, a home, family and food to feed them. Freed these goals could be and were achieved. What they aspired to became their right. Freedom took work. But a free man’s labor produced goods, livelihood and gain. Progress was possible. Laws protected progress.
The world begs for progress, for laws to protect citizens whatever their political views, religion or race. Citizens of foreign nations are not different from colonial Americans in their hopes and ideals. They esteem those of an early America. How could they not.
The Seed of Destruction
Colonial America offered optimism through opportunity and progress. It didn’t outlaw greed, venality and ignorance. Slaves provided cheaper labor than indentures. Laws protected free men but didn’t guarantee rights for "others". Majority whites perverted laws to enshrine superiority over a dehumanized underclass, "others", at first natives, "savages", then from 1619, black Africans, also "savages" conveniently distinguished by skin color. Racism and the techniques of diminishing and vilifying "others" in the interests of gain were born in the American experience and its laws.
Racism laced America’s 19th century attempts to eradicate Indian "savages" and was borne with doughboys into the Spanish American war. A million Filipinos, including hundreds of thousands of women and children, were slaughtered by American soldiers. Black American "Buffalo" soldiers regularly defected. Troops referred to Filipinos as "little brown people", "gooks" and "niggers." Mark Twain wrote:
“Against our traditions we are [making] … war against a helpless people, and for a base object – robbery.” (Papers of the Adam Family)
America’s fear of communism supported by virulent racism permitted it to extinguish the lives of a quarter million helpless civilian Japanese to illustrate to the Soviets the atomic bomb’s remarkable power and America’s ruthlessness in using it. (Incendiary bomb raids deliberately targeting civilians had already roasted a few million Japanese.) The US knew Japan was beaten and seeking peace. Stories about the A bomb sparing lives were concocted post facto.
On June 18th, 1950 John Foster Dulles together with two military officials visited Synghman Rhee in Seoul. According to a former South Korean diplomat, Dulles explained that if Rhee was ready to attack the communist North, the U.S. would lend help through the UN provided Rhee could claim the ROK was attacked first. Rhee should plan his actions accordingly. ROK forces were ordered to bombard North Korean forces and move across the 38th parallel. A punishing counterattack drove them back across the parallel. Two million Koreans died, mostly civilians, some massacred by US and South Korean ground troops or the US Air Force. Hundreds of thousands of the dead were either members of the Communist party or deemed, without evidence, to be sympathizers.
The CIA’s Vietnam operation Phoenix "neutralized", that is, tortured, raped, maimed and assassinated some eighty thousand men, women and children in US "interests". Senior US military officers issued instructions to "kill anything that moves" in the Vietnamese countryside. Three million Vietnamese died, "gooks". Laos and Cambodia were bombed relentlessly on the chance some of their population might be sympathetic to the Vietnamese nationalists struggling against the US across the border. Hmong allies of America were abandoned to their fate at the hands of encircling North Vietnamese. Millions, including the Hmong, died. They too were "gooks".
Narrative Conversion: The Fiction of "Others"
"Racism" is a specific variety of "otherism." America alienated itself from its worthy roots by defining as "others" those whose culture and values differed from America’s: they were "gooks" in the Philippines and Vietnam, while Iraqi Baathists and Shiites, and Afghan Taliban, all of whom fought in defense of nation and culture, became "terrorists". Now the "others" are Syrians. The US has trained, equipped and supported predominantly foreign nationals in slaughtering some 400,000 of these "others". Syria is first on Hillary’s "muscular" agenda.
America has worked hard to create "others". The dead at Afghan weddings became "enemy combatants" whether civilian bride and groom or attendant children. Pashtuns warring against Russians as "freedom fighters" became "terrorists" defending their homes against ISAF. US armed, trained and directed takfiri mercenaries fond of slitting the throats of Syrian civilians (whether Sunni, Christian, Druze, Alawite or Shia) are "freedom fighters" or "rebels."
Current leaders of the "others" of choice, Putin and Assad, are "thugs", "aggressors", "torturers". Putin "invades" the Crimea and "bombs Syrian medical clinics". Assad routinely commits "war crimes" "gassing his own citizens", dropping "barrel bombs" on them. Astonishingly neither leader has yet been accused of boiling babies and mashing them up to serve on morning toast with his coffee.
America might seek to realize its exceptional ideals for all of humanity. The use of narrative conversion to disguise what America in fact does and what in fact it is admits failure. "Otherizing" to provide pretext for war and destruction is inconsistent with enduring political, economic and military powers, inconsistent in that it implicitly acknowledges a lack of faith in founding ideals enduring in its modern patriots. "Otherizing" is a recognition that America lacks integrity.
Abroad, but also within the nation itself, America’s self-authorized wars, assassinations and torture are recognized as illegal under international law. America’s military therefore act under criminal direction. It is no accident that 82% of recently surveyed Syrians believe ISIS/Daesh is created and directed by the United States and its allies. The US and its allies behave as criminals do.
Patriotism and Ideals
Political power is measured by the willingness of foreign nations to cooperate. The circle of nations willing to do US bidding is narrowing. It’s power is waning with its dollar: traditionally America buys allies. But it takes more dollars to buy foreign leaders who, once bought, know to spend quickly against the chances of devaluation or coup. It’s weakening because US military power is recognized as more bluster than buster. It’s waning because its pivot to Asia offers nothing to Eastern allies. It’s diminishing because China offers economic advantage without military threat. It’s fading because America is seen as arrogant and corrupt, capable of supporting and using "others", Sukarno, Mossadegh, Erdogan, Hussein, Musharaff, Mubarak, Assad, and the taliban at one moment, and throwing them to hyenas at the next. Its word isn’t trusted amongst "others" including former close allies. It promises free trade under a NAFTA and opportunistically challenges clauses of the treaty; it lies to Russia after the Berlin wall falls that NATO’s weaponry won’t threaten Russian borders; it fibs to Iran that sanctions will end with a nuclear treaty, that Iran’s blockaded foreign assets will be returned; it lies to Kurds that it will support them against Hussein, that it will support them in Syria. The Kurds, like Canadians, Iranians, Mexicans and Russians, are "others"; it lies to the world, including its friends, about weapons of mass destruction.
America’s powers are waning because America more terrorizes the world than inspires it. Without a moral integrity which recognizes citizens of the world as equals US foreign policy is inconstant, vicious, quixotic and unreliable. Without moral integrity its rivals band together militarily because they do not trust America; they cooperate economically fearing the ability of America to corrupt their own economies; they avoid involvement politically because America threatens, bullies and does not keep its word.
America cannot be exceptional or indispensable without discarding confused notions about its "interests". Mass produced die-stamped "intelligence experts", like Hillary Clinton all power advocates, describe those interests as (a) preventing any other nation ( read "China") from attaining power in the Eastern Hemisphere comparable to that the US has attained in the Western; (b) protecting sea lanes enabling world trade; (c) protecting treaty and de facto allies, in particular protecting their access to hydrocarbons.
As for (a), holding China back, good luck with that and with holding back the sea. As for (b), sea lanes, the world’s navies protect them. The US has no self-appointed rights. In any case no one claims with a straight face that the US navy’s worldwide presence has anything to do with protecting sea lanes. As to (c), access to hydrocarbons, as to other goods, is gained by paying for them. In any case continental hydrocarbon reserves will supply US current usage for eighty to one hundred years even without the Orinoco Tar Sands and Grismont bitumen. In sum the "US interests" cited are rubbish, high-sounding pretexts for hegemonic economic delusions.
Hillary Clinton, like all power advocates, misunderstands the nation’s interests and the constraints imposed by those interests on the employment of its power. Its powers have diminished directly because America has lost integrity. Each recent US foreign intervention, from promoting terrorism in Syria, Iran and Libya to droning Af-Pak, Africa and Yemen diminishes its sway.
The US acts on a world stage. The audience is having its say. The act is failing. It needn’t have and it’s a pity.
David Raeburn Finn is a philosopher and co-author of Confronting Qur’anic Patriarchy (forthcoming, University of Texas Press, Spring 2017). His interest in American politics and foreign policy stems from an uncle who served with, and left ashamed of what he saw in the CIA.