The American Exceptionalism Sweepstakes

“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 nationon
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 Obamais
only the latest in a jostling crowd of
presidential candidates,presidential wannabes,major politicians, andminor figuresof
every sort, not to speak of a raging horde of neocons and
punditsgalore, 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.
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 criticizeus. How visceral?
Well, the sort of visceral that, as Democratic Senator Bob Menendez
put itrecently, 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 anaddress to the UNtwo 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 andethnic cleansing
between the
two sects that would subsequently go regional, whosecasualty countshave
tipped into thehundreds of thousands, and which is nowbouncing backon
Iraq? What other great power would have launched its invasion with plans
to garrison that countryfor decadesand
with the larger goal of subduing neighboring Iran (“Everyone wants to go to
Baghdad; real menwant to goto
Tehran”), only toslink awayeight
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 trillionon
two“good wars”in Afghanistan and Iraq against
lightly armed minority insurgencieswithout winningor
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 thestaggering sumsthat,
since 9/11, have been poured directly into the national security state.
How many countries, possessing “thefinest fighting
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?
talking about exceptional records, what other military could have brought an
3.1 million
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% 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, andfood courtsto war? Let’s give credit where
it’s due: we’re not just talking retrograde here, we’re talking exceptionally
4.What other military could, in a bare few
years in Iraq, have built a staggering505 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 evenminiature golf coursesat
a cost ofunknown billionsof
dollars and then, only a few years later, abandoned all of them, dismantling
some, turning othersover tothe
Iraqi military or intoghost towns, and leaving yet others to belootedand
stripped? And what other military, in the same time period thousands of
miles away in Afghanistan, could have built more than450 bases, sometimes even hauling in the building materials,
and now bedismantling themin
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 Obamaescalatedin Pakistan’s tribal areas stands
out. Those hundreds of strikes not only caused significant numbers of
civilian casualties (includingchildren), 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 illegallykidnappedat
least136 suspected terrorists--
some, in fact,innocentof 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 acoalition-of-the-willingof
54 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 fromPolandtoThailand,RomaniatoAfghanistan,EgyptandUzbekistantoUS Navy shipson the high seas, not to speak of that
jewel in the crown of offshore prisons,Guantanamo? Such illegality on such a global scale
simply can’t be matched! And don’t even get me started ontorture. (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,constructedin
Baghdad the largest, most expensive embassy compound on the planet -- a 104-acre,
Vatican-sized citadel with27blast-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 lieburiedthe
dreams of establishing aPax
Americanain 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 USpouredat 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 ina legion of trainerstasked
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 toone-halfof its
personnel to casualties, non-reenlistment, anddesertionin any year. In2012, 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 beon the rise). The US and its NATO allies are committed
to spending$4.1 billion annuallyon
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
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 US 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 only gained popular traction here 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 wordswielded
negatively by one of the great monsters of history and made them the signature
phrase of American greatness. How exceptional!
Engelhardt, co-founder of the
American Empire
author ofThe United States of Fearas
well as a history of the Cold War,The End of Victory Culture(recently
published in aKindle edition), runs the Nation Institute'
His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, isTerminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.
TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on
FacebookorTumblr. Check out the
newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s
The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret
Bases, and Cyberwarfare
Copyright 2013
Tom Engelhardt