To understand the impact in the United States of the photos of U.S. military personnel abusing Iraqi prisoners, it is necessary to recall what then-Secretary of State Elihu Root said in 1899, as the country first emerged as a global power in the Spanish-American War.
The American soldier, he said, is “different from all other soldiers of all other countries since the world began. He is the advance guard of liberty and justice, of law and order and of peace and happiness,” Root declared, capturing the spirit of historical inevitability and “national greatness,” as Theodore Roosevelt called it, that swept the country as it routed the forces of a decadent Spanish Empire from the Caribbean and the Pacific.
It was “Manifest Destiny II,” and just as, in its first incarnation, the original 13 states that hugged the Atlantic seaboard in the 18th century expanded to the shores of the Pacific, annexing large parts of Mexico and wiping out most of the native indigenous population in the process, so the expansion at the turn of the 20th century was seen as the necessary fulfillment of Providence to spread the blessings of American civilization, as described by Root and Roosevelt, from Puerto Rico to the Philippines.
The relative ease with which this was accomplished naturally contributed to the notion that the United States was an “exceptional” country, one singled out by divine Providence for a higher purpose, a moral mission that dates back to the 17th century Puritans who colonized Massachusetts and whose “Calvinist cast of mind saw America as the redeemer nation” that would build “a city on a hill” for all the world to follow, according to Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger.
This notion is a constant throughout US history. “I believe that God planted in us the vision of liberty,” declared President Woodrow Wilson as Washington entered World War I. “I cannot be deprived of the hope that we are chosen, and prominently chosen, to show the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty,” he added.
The continuing growth of US global power, particularly its defeat of Nazi Germany, confirmed the country’s moral exceptionalism, as did the collapse of Soviet communism just 15 years ago. It is in this context that Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History thesis that after 8,000 years of social development, humankind had discovered that liberal, democratic capitalism, preferably of the US variety, was the answer could become a best seller.
It was likewise in this context that other neo-conservative thinkers, notably William Kristol and Robert Kagan, revived Roosevelt’s idea of “national greatness” with an explicitly moral underpinning.
On the eve of founding the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) whose charter would be signed by many top officials of the future Bush administration they alluded explicitly both to Roosevelt and US exceptionalism by arguing for a “neo-Reaganite foreign policy (that) would be good for conservatives, good for America and good for the world.”
It was time, they wrote in 1997, for Washington to turn its back on the 170-year-old admonition of an earlier president, John Quincy Adams, that America should not go “abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”
The unacceptable alternative, they argued, “is to leave monsters on the loose, ravaging and pillaging to their hearts’ content, as Americans stand by and watch.” Given the enormous power of the US and “the understanding that its moral goals and its fundamental national interests are almost always in harmony,” the two wrote, failure to slay the monsters “becomes in practice a policy of cowardice and dishonor.”
The notion that US “moral goals and fundamental national interests” are virtually identical is often dismissed by people outside the United States who believe that US elites are motivated primarily by greed and power in the case of Iraq perhaps, by oil just like the colonial powers of Europe.
To some extent, of course, this is true, but, as noted by Owen Harries, an astute Australian observer who edited the US journal National Interest for many years, European pretensions of a moral or civilizing mission were “episodic and not deeply rooted usually limited to when their power was at its zenith and usually clearly recognizable as a rationalization for what they were doing for other reasons. In the case of the United States, it has been constant and central.”
Thus, moral exceptionalism can be traced all the way back to the very first settlers who established a “city upon a hill” to serve as a beacon for the rest of the world, to President Thomas Jefferson’s description of the US as an “empire of liberty” as opposed to European empires of territory, straight through Manifest Destinies I and II, World Wars I and II and the Cold War.
“Since America’s emergence as a world power roughly a century ago, we have made many errors,” wrote Elliott Abrams, a PNAC Charter signatory and currently the top Middle East aide to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, back in 2000.
“But we have been the greatest force for good among the nations of the earth. A diminution of American power or influence bodes ill for our country, our friends and our principles,” he added.
This indeed is why it is so important, in the view of US “exceptionalists,” that Washington retain its freedom of action and not be accountable to multilateral organizations, like the United Nations, or even to international law.
Moral exceptionalism dictates unilateralism. If the United States, after all, is morally superior to other nations, such as China or France, then tying it to the decisions of the U.N. Security Council, for example, would in itself be immoral, as pointed out by Charles Krauthammer, a neo-conservative columnist for the Washington Post.
“By what moral calculus,” he asked on the eve of last year’s Iraq invasion, “does an American intervention to liberate 25 million people forfeit legitimacy because it lacks the blessing of the butchers of Tienanmen Square or the cynics of the Quai d’Orsay”?
As the vanguard of that moral superiority, the US soldier, “different from all other soldiers from all other countries since the world began,” has always been expected to embody the country’s extraordinary goodness.
That is what makes the photos from Abu Ghraib so shocking. They put into question the whole notion of US exceptionalism, just as similar photos of the victims of the My Lai massacre, of US troops setting fire to peasants’ huts with their Zippo lighters, and of a terrified young girl burned by napalm running naked down a highway helped turn the nation against the Vietnam War and military intervention 35 years ago.
That is why those who defend the war are insisting, contrary to mounting evidence, that the abuses depicted there are an aberration committed by just a handful of rogue elements.
“America is a force for good,” sputtered Representative Duncan Hunter, the chairman of the political body that oversees the military, the House Armed Services Committee, as the photo scandal swirled around Washington this week.
Or, as Krauthammer himself wrote Friday, the perpetrators of the abuses “do not reflect the ethos of the US military, which has performed with remarkable grace and courage in Iraq, or of US society.”
“Our troops are changing the world and building a future for the people of Iraq sacrificing more than most of us can know for the survival and success of liberty,” House Majority Leader Tom DeLay insisted this week.
“Operation Iraqi Freedom, whatever flaws it may have, has been an absolute good.”