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What I wish Hillary Clinton had said about American exceptionalism

Hillary Clinton’s riff on exceptionalism set me off in part because in my mind the subject went straight to her worst blunder: the 2002 vote to authorize the use of military force in Iraq.

Hillary Clinton speaking at Futuramic Tool & Engineering in Warren, Michigan, on Thursday.
REUTERS/Chris Keane

I went a little crazy the other day ripping Hillary Clinton for her embrace of “American exceptionalism.” In the discussion thread and in discussions I had with friends, a common reaction was something like this:

She’s a politician preparing to run for president. She was asked if she believes in American exceptionalism. Of course, she had to say yes. To say no would be political suicide. Give her a break.

I get that, sorta. Clinton’s riff on exceptionalism set me off in part because in my mind the subject went straight to her worst blunder: the 2002 vote to authorize the use of military force in Iraq. And that sent me to my least favorite aspect of the conceit we call American exceptionalism, which is the belief that the United States is an “exception” to the international norms, rules and laws that seek to prevent wars except in the most necessary cases. I’m pretty tired of my country being in a perpetual state of war, especially since most of the wars turn out to be unnecessary, often sold to the public on premises that turn out to be false and most of them bringing higher costs and lower benefits than we are generally promised.

And, of course, there’s the killing.

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So, for the heck of it, I decided to imagine what I wish Clinton had said in 2014 to Jane Pauley, when asked whether she believes in American exceptionalism. To clarify, the following is a made-up quote of what Clinton might have said to that question:

Of course I believe America is an exceptional country. By exceptional, I mean that it is a great country and I thank the fates that caused me to be born here and grow up here and have the great life that I’ve been able to have. Some Americans face more challenges than others in getting to a great life, and reducing those disparities must remain on our to-do list. But sometimes, lately, it seems that everyone is so focused on their grievances that they overlook the basic good fortune we share just to be Americans, considering some of the possible alternatives and considering that most of us did nothing to become Americans other than being born here.

One thing I very much appreciate about America, although we are not the only nation in the world that has done this, is that we are always striving to be better, and to overcome the dark stains and strains of the past, like racism and sexism and, of course, the original sin of what the first Europeans did to the real natives.

We have made strides, but still have challenges in those areas.

It’s amazing, when you look back at our history, that we are currently benefiting from the excellent, outstanding presidency of my friend Barack Obama, the first African-American president. And if the people of America give me the honor, I hope next year to demonstrate something that would have amazed our Founding Fathers, that a mother can also be a very good president. But, notwithstanding the symbolic importance of the race or gender of the president, we still have a lot of work to do to equalize opportunities across race and gender and class lines, and I am committed to doing what I can, to keep pushing toward full equality of rights and opportunities for all.

Of course, countries all over the world are striving to make themselves better and to make life better for the people who live there. Some countries are doing a better job than we are in some areas, like extending health care to all, providing higher educational opportunities to all, distributing the basic necessities of life more evenly from the top to the bottom of the scale of wealth and income. It’s important that we not get so involved in our pride in America that we overlook opportunities to learn from experiments in other countries, and adopt and adapt some of their ideas and programs that have proven successful. If American exceptionalism means we think we’re so exceptional that we can’t learn from successful experiments in other countries, then it starts to become a bad thing.

And then there’s the area of foreign and military affairs. The United States is, and has been since at least 1945, the most militarily powerful nation in the world. That’s one way we are “exceptional.” And with that power, I think, comes a moral obligation to play a leadership role in the world to work for peace and justice. If I am president, I will seek to help my country play that role, as it has often done, or tried to do.

But if, when people say they believe in American exceptionalism, they mean that we are an exception to the rule of international law, and an exception to the fundamental law, embedded in the U.N. Charter, that no member nation can use military force or the threat of military force to resolve their differences, then I have a problem with our country, or any country, declaring itself to be an exception to that rule. We can’t expect others to observe that rule if we violate it whenever we feel like it.

The United States will always defend itself, and we will fulfill our treaty obligation to, for example, defend any of our fellow NATO members that come under attack. But the big problem is that too often too many people expand American exceptionalism into a free pass to start wars or foment covert coups to overthrow governments we don’t like but that have not attacked the United States or any of its allies. Many of those actions turn out badly. And all of them send a signal to the world that we are not willing to abide by rules and laws that we expect them to follow.

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A recent and very relevant case is the U.S. decision to bomb, then invade Iraq in 2003 in order to overthrow the government of Saddam Hussein. Saddam was, surely, a vile, evil dictator whom I hope is now rotting in hell. But for the foreseeable future, there will continue to be dictatorships, including some led by vile, evil men. And I hope that the United States will always seek to promote the spread of democracy in a way that will reduce the number of such dictators.

But as long as we subscribe to the U.N. Charter and the rule of law, we must not use military force to decide who is fit to rule in other countries, unless a particular dictator has committed such evil that the U.N. authorizes a collective action to remove him.

Even if not for our respect for the rule of law, recent history teaches us that these kinds of operations do not make the world or the United States safer. And the Iraq case demonstrates powerfully – through the ongoing horrors of most of the Mideast 13 years after the death of Saddam Hussein – that such operations can and often do have unintended consequences.

Yes, as a senator, I voted to authorize the use of military force. It’s a vote I regret. Yes, I disapproved of the way President Bush used that authorization, but my vote helped make it happen, and I will have live with that mistake forever. And I will try to learn the right lesson from that experience.

But for now, on the subject of the vague and beloved notion of “American exceptionalism,” I would like to reassure the nation and the world that I do not consider the United States to be an exception to the rules and laws that govern the rest of the world in the area of respecting the sovereignty of other nations and rules for the use of force between nations.

Please don’t mistake this for any kind of “isolationism.” Without getting involved in constant wars, the United States can remain very involved as a force for good in the world. There may be cases when the United States, because of its leadership role and its capabilities, sees an opportunity to get involved on the edge of a conflict, perhaps to create a safe haven for refugees from the conflict. The current horrible civil war in Syria might be an example where there’s an opportunity, without being drawn into the middle of another country’s civil war, to play a humanitarian role like that. Because we do occupy what one might call an exceptional role as a world leader, I would be open to missions like that.

As president, I would hope to strengthen the role of the U.N., especially as an organization that can prevent wars or, when necessary, authorize a coalition of nations, to restore peace.

Thank you. I’m Hillary Clinton and I approve this message, even though it was written for me my some clown in Minnesota.

End of imaginary Clinton statement.

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Here, by the way, is Chapter 1, Articles 1 and 2 of the U.N., which lay out the laws of war and peace.

As evolved, the power of any one of the five permanent members of the U.N. to veto any resolution often makes it impossible for the U.N. to authorize collective military action. Perhaps the U.N. system cannot work as it was designed to work. Personally, I would be open to reform of that system, in a way that makes a U.N. resolution to take action a truer reflection of the opinion of the civilized world. But that is unlikely to happen, which makes the dilemma worse.