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On U.S. political decay and Hillary Clinton’s embrace of American exceptionalism

On Election Day retired Col. Andrew Bacevich will choose Hillary Clinton as the lesser of evils, he writes. His fundamental objection to her is that Clinton is an unreconstructed hawk.

Hillary Clinton holding a T-shirt while visiting a Des Moines clothing store on Wednesday.
REUTERS/Chris Keane

In a piece titled “The Decay of American Politics: An Ode to Ike and Adlai,” Andrew Bacevich, who is now 69 and not generally much of a sentimentalist, reminisced about the presidential elections of his youth, like the two elections in 1952 and 1956 when the Republicans nominated Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Democrats nominated Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson.

“Of the seamy underside of politics I knew nothing, of course” Bacevich wrote.  “On the surface, all seemed reassuring. As if by divine mandate, two parties vied for power. The views they represented defined the allowable range of opinion. The outcome of any election expressed the collective will of the people and was to be accepted as such. That I was growing up in the best democracy the world had ever known — its very existence a daily rebuke to the enemies of freedom — was beyond question.

“Naïve? Embarrassingly so. Yet how I wish that Election Day in November 2016 might present Americans with something even loosely approximating the alternatives available to them in November 1956. Oh, to choose once more between an Ike and an Adlai.”

The choice now is between Donald and Hillary. Bacevich clearly knows which one he can’t support. But he is far from excited about giving his precious vote to the one, Hillary Clinton, about whom he wishes he felt better. Here’s a taste of that in Bacevich’s own words:

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To contrast the virtues and shortcomings of Stevenson and Eisenhower with those of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald Trump is both instructive and profoundly depressing. Comparing the adversaries of 1956 with their 2016 counterparts reveals with startling clarity what the decades-long decay of American politics has wrought.

In 1956, each of the major political parties nominated a grown-up for the highest office in the land. In 2016, only one has. In 1956, both parties nominated likeable individuals who conveyed a basic sense of trustworthiness. In 2016, neither party has done so.

In 1956, Americans could count on the election to render a definitive verdict, the vote count affirming the legitimacy of the system itself and allowing the business of governance to resume. In 2016, that is unlikely to be the case. Whether Trump or Clinton ultimately prevails, large numbers of Americans will view the result as further proof of ‘rigged’ and irredeemably corrupt political arrangements. Rather than inducing some semblance of reconciliation, the outcome is likely to deepen divisions.

Regular readers of this space know that my own primary substantive objection to Clinton is her hawkishness, starting with her vote to authorize the war in Iraq. And regulars will recognize my admiration for Bacevich, a retired U.S. Army colonel who served in the Vietnam War, and whose son, also Andrew, died in the Iraq war.

Bacevich has been a full-time academic and author or editor of nine books since 2002 — mostly on the subject of international relations and especially war, and mostly arguing that America gets into too many wars for reasons of what might be called imperial arrogance, and suggesting dark motives for those wars, far different from the motives various presidents have used to sell those wars to the public.

It follows that, although Bacevich will choose Clinton as the lesser of evils, his fundamental objection is that Clinton is an unreconstructed hawk. He has other objections, but given his worldview, the key one goes like this:

She shrugs off her misguided vote in support of invading Iraq back in 2003, while serving as senator from New York.  She neither explains nor apologizes for pressing to depose Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, her most notable “accomplishment” as secretary of state. “We came, we saw, he died,” she bragged back then, somewhat prematurely given that Libya has since fallen into anarchy and become a haven for ISIS. …

The carefully scripted Clinton commits few missteps, as she recites with practiced ease the pablum that passes for right thinking in establishment circles. But fluency does not necessarily connote soundness. Clinton, after all, adheres resolutely to the highly militarized “Washington playbook” that President Obama himself has disparaged — a faith-based belief in American global primacy to be pursued regardless of how the world may be changing and heedless of costs.

On the latter point, note that Clinton’s acceptance speech in Philadelphia included not a single mention of Afghanistan. By Election Day, the war there will have passed its 15th anniversary. One might think that a prospective commander-in-chief would have something to say about the longest conflict in American history, one that continues with no end in sight. Yet, with the Washington playbook offering few answers, Mrs. Clinton chooses to remain silent on the subject.

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So while a Trump presidency holds the prospect of the United States driving off a cliff, a Clinton presidency promises to be the equivalent of banging one’s head against a brick wall without evident effect, wondering all the while why it hurts so much. 

The whole Bacevich piece was great, and here’s a link to it. (The first few paragraph are introductory remarks by the editor of TomDispatch. Bacevich takes over soon enough.)

But I was especially grateful to Bacevich for a link he provided in this piece to a short video clip of Clinton being interviewed by Jane Pauley — in 2014, as she prepared to announce her candidacy — on the subject of “American Exceptionalism.”

To me at my current level of senescence, this meaningless two-word phrase has become a very dangerous bit of gibberish. It means essentially little more than that we love ourselves and think we’re objectively great or, “exceptional.” It means we expect other lesser nations to follow both our lead and our example, and it protects us against any dangerous tendency to think we might benefit from the examples of any other nations, you know, the unexceptional ones.

But in the area that generally consumes Bacevich, foreign and military policy, the key is that “exceptional” starts with “exception,” as in the “exception to a rule.” For example, one of the fundamental principles of international law is that you can’t just attack another country that hasn’t attacked you. Likewise, you can’t use other means, like CIA stuff, to interfere in another country’s internal affairs and, you know, overthrow their government and replace it with a government friendlier to yourself.

If anyone tried any of that invading or overthrowing against us, we would know what to do about it and have the means to do it. Those are pretty important rules, for the peace of the world. And we take a dim view of those who disregard them.

But there’s one “exception.” The United States has — pretty clearly and openly without liking to be too clear about it — arrogated to itself the right go anywhere, bomb or invade anyone, remove by overt or covert means any government that offends us. No country has militarily attacked the United States since Japan in 1941, which got us into World War II. And no country ever even tried to overthrow a government of the United States (unless you want to make a weird twisted claim that the southern states did in 1861.) But how many countries have we attacked and/or overthrown or tried to overthrow in our exceptional history? Some lefties may run up the score and I’m not saying it’s in triple digits, but it’s well up in double digits.

But because we’re exceptional, you see, other countries generally benefit from it.

OK, if I disgorge any more of this pent-up belief, I might get investigated by the UnAmerican Mental Activities Committee. But, in the 2014 interview I mentioned above, Jane Pauley asked Hillary Clinton whether she still believes in “American Excptionalism.” Came the reply:

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Clinton: I do. I believe even more than I did when I became secretary of state.

Jane Pauley: Why? What fundamentally makes us exceptional?

Clinton: We are, number one, the longest surviving democracy. But not just in the way we were created, but in the way we’ve evolved. When we were started, you and I would certainly not have been included. And in fact we saw that we had to fight a civil war. We had to amend the Constitution. We had to pass laws. And we’re still making changes to try to move us toward that more perfect union.

I don’t know of any other nation that is as self-correcting, self-aware, as willing to make change in order to live up to our founding principles as we are. So we get down on ourselves, but that’s part of our self-correcting psychology. We know we’re not perfect. We don’t claim to be perfect. But we are exceptional. And I think we have to both understand that and we have to safeguard it.

Unless Clinton is claiming that we are unusual among the nations in that we allow women to vote, or that we no longer have legalized slavery, or that we sometimes amend our system of government, or even that we “pass laws” as we try to live up to a set of ideals for what we think our nation can be, what exactly, other than that we really like ourselves a lot, makes us so very, very “exceptional” that it deserves to be an “ism?”

Well, there’s the “oldest democracy,” bit, which Clinton mentioned first, which is a shaky, arguable but non-terrible claim. But it’s hardly the stuff on which a grand, general “exceptionalism” case can be built.

I guess I’ve made this clear, but I believe that American Exceptionalism is dangerous rubbish that mostly creates arrogance about our domestic situation, thus preventing us from knowing or caring whether other countries have any ideas or programs we might want to adopt, and, most dangerously, engenders the ludicrous self-serving view that we can go anywhere, bomb or invade or overthrow anyone for their own good or at least the greater good of the world, and that if they weren’t all such ingrates, they would thank us for it.

The Pauley-Clinton interview is viewable here.