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The end of American exceptionalism

The end of American exceptionalism
By Eric Black

Prof. Andrew Bacevich of Boston University gave a great interview to “Midmorning” host Kerri Miller yesterday about his book, “The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.”

I’ve believed for years that a self-justifying “exceptionalism” was a major barrier to Americans thinking clearly about our role in the world. But Bacevich, who has been writing about the problem for years, took my understanding to a new level.

For starters, Bacevich, who describes himself as a believing Catholic, clarified the quasi-religious nature of exceptionalism. For me, the term referred to a self-serving belief that the rules that apply to other nations don’t apply to ours. If any other nation, let’s say a nation that the U.S. views as untrustworthy, declared a doctrine authorizing itself to start “pre-emptive” wars on the say-so of its own leader, Americans would know what to call it. Terms like agression, imperialism, bullying, rogue nation come to mind. And pretty soon, the leader involved would be compared to Hitler. But when the U.S. does it, Americans are so convinced of the basic good motives (spreading democracy, punishing evildoers, protecting the weak from the strong, making war to keep the peace, etc.) that the rules for international conduct simply don’t apply to a country so moral, unselfish, peace-loving, well-intentioned and so clearly on the right side of history.

But here’s how Bacevich defined “American exceptionalism”:

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“American exceptionalism is the conviction, widely shared among many Americans going back to the Anglo-American colonies, well before the founding of the republic, that we are the new chosen people.

For believers, that means we are God’s chosen people. For non-believers we are a chosen people in that we are assigned by providence or destiny or history to accomplish some special purpose in bringing history to its intended end.

And of course the intended end is that the rest of the world should embrace American values, which we tend to believe are universal values.”

Bacevich is a West Point grad, a retired U.S. Army colonel. His own son recently died fighting in Iraq and “The Limits of Power” is dedicated to him, although he assured Miller that his own loss had nothing to do with his analysis.

Bacevich has ripped the Bush Administration foreign and national security policies, especially the Iraq war. He assumes that Bush was sincere during the 2000 campaign, when he talked about the need for a “humble foreign policy.” Such a policy would seem to be the opposite of American exceptionalism. But, in the first 24 hours after the 9/11 attacks, Bacevich says, Bush underwent “a very powerful conversion.”

Bacevich was impressed with a press conference in the days after 9/11, in which Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said (Bacevich was paraphrasing from memory) “We either have to change the way we live, or change the way they live. We choose the latter.”

The way they live meant changing the Islamic world, Bacevich said. Bush and his minions came to embrace “this providential American mission which [Bush] sees as calling upon us to bring about a fundamental change in the Middle East and by golly, we’re heading down the road toward Baghdad.”

Since he believes American exceptionalism is a constant in U.S. history, the Bush Doctrine was only its most recent outbreak. He argues that for most of U.S. history, exceptionalism was tied to the impulse to constantly expand U.S. wealth and influence, first at the expense of the native peoples, then within the hemisphere, then the world. Setting aside the arrogance of it and the immoral policies carried out in furtherance of this project, Bacevich says that from colonial days through the end of the World War II, this expansionist impulse, justified by exceptionalism, benefited America. But:

“Since roughly the 1960s, the persistence of this effort to expand has actually had very pernicious results. We’re no longer enhancing American power, we’re undercutting it. We’re no longer increasing American material abundance, we’re actually forfeiting our prosperity.”

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Bacevich served in Vietnam in the 60s, which may be the turning point to which he is referring. Since the 60s, he said:

“There has been a tendency for people in Washington to decide to do things that are not doable. And I think that the Global War on Terror really is a great example of that. [It was] undertaken with the expectation that we could change the Islamic world. And that has cost us significantly. It’s a misguided misadventure.

A more realistic appreciation both of the limits of our power and the limits of our wisdom would cause us perhaps or allow us perhaps to take an approach to the problems of the world that was not quite so reckless.”

The MPR interview took an interesting turn when Miller asked Bacevich whether Obama understood these lessons. The answer was basically no.

Obama may simply be shifting focus from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Bacevich doubts that the U.S. has the means to bring fundamental change to those societies but it appears that Obama is “betting his presidency on Afghanistan in the same way that Bush bet his presidency on Iraq, and might have the same result.”

Miller read an Obama quote, from his speech in Chicago’s Grant Park on the night he was elected president, in which he said that what Americans have always done is “put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.”

Bacevich found the quote troubling:

“First of all, there’s an assumption that history has an arc, that there’s a narrative, that history is going somewhere. Secondly that we Americans somehow are uniquely qualified or called upon to shape that trajectory…. I’ve come to believe that it’s utterly preposterous. It’s preposterous to assert that history has a trajectory.

I happen to be a believer. I believe that God knows where history is goinhg to end up. But I also believe that God hasn’t told us. And it’s not in our capacity either to know where history is headed, or to shape events to get there.

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Mostly what we can do is cope as best as we can with the circumstances that exist in our time.”

Bacevich spoke highly of Obama’s skills and intelligence, but doesn’t believe U.S. political culture provides much opportunity for a real choice or a real change:

“One of the things that’s very frustrating to someone like myself is to see how narrow is the foreign policy debate as it’s conducted in Washington D.C. …. The Republicans and the Democrats want us to believe that the Republican and Democratic parties differ dramatically. That it’s ‘ying and yang.’ The truth is, and it’s especially the case when it comes to matters of national security policy, that they don’t really differ very much at all….

The centerpiece of U.S. national security policy going back basically to the late 1940s is what I call the sacred trinity. Three big principles.

Principle number one: That the United States configures its forces not to defend the United States, but for global power projection.

Second principle, the United States, uniquely, unlike any other country in the world, maintains those forces and establishes a global military presence — not simply the huge network of bases but overflight agreements and access to ports and that kind of thing — to facilitate the projection of power.

And then the third principle is this principle of global interventionism.

I see nothing in the Obama administration that is going to question those three principles. In that sense, the continuities vastly overwhelm the discontinuities between Obama and Bush.”

The full hour-long interview is available here. Bacevich also spoke last night at St. Joan of Arc Church in Minneapolis, but I was not able to attend.