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COMMENTARY & ANALYSIS: Obama still embraces myth of American exceptionalism

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On Dec. 3, on his Empire Burlesque web site, Chris Floyd identified American exceptionalism as the doctrine underlying Barack Obama's national security policy — the same doctrine that has been embraced by two centuries of U.S. foreign policy and that was effectively turned long ago to hegemonic uses by the American corporatocracy.[1]  --  This doctrine was recently critiqued by Vietnam-veteran-turned-anti-imperialist international relations prof Andrew J. Bacevich in The Limits of Power, a précis of which is posted below.[2] ...

1.

CONTINUITY ERROR
By Chris Floyd

** Guts, Goo, and Obama's Imperial Dream **

Empire Burlesque
December 3, 2008

http://www.chris-floyd.com/component/content/article/3/1654-continuity-error-guts-goo-and-obamas-imperial-dream-.html

Barack Obama's new "national security team" is a grim conglomeration of war criminals, warmongers, and apologists for torture and empire who have been praised justly by some rightwingers as a continuation and validation of the Bush Regime's foreign policy. But despite the growing unease these choices have induced in some "progressive" quarters, they in no way constitute a "betrayal" on Obama's part. He has always made it abudantly clear that he stands squarely on the side of a militarist empire -- expansive, dominating, brooking no challenge or hindrance to its actions or its preeminence. An empire conceived in bloodshed and dedicated to the proposition that no nation is created equal to the divine American state, whose "interests" -- as self-servingly defined by whatever faction of the ruling élite holds temporary sway in Washington -- must be pursued at any and every cost. A cost to be paid, of course, by the lesser breeds beyond the Homeland's borders, and, increasingly, by the American people themselves.

Obama's forthright stand on the issue of empire was evident throughout the campaign, in speeches, on his website, in his Senate votes, and in his publicly announced positions -- such as his always conditional, circumscribed promise to "end" the war in Iraq, on essentially the same terms by which George W. Bush claims to be ending it now. At no point in his much-ballyhooed "opposition" to the nation-gutting in Iraq did Obama ever once call it what it is: a crime. An abomination. An act of mass murder that has left more than a million innocent people dead.

Who then can be surprised that he has chosen as his own war chief a man who has presided over this pointless slaughter for two of the five years that it has been going on? And who can be surprised that he has chosen as his secretary of state a woman whose chief contributions to foreign policy have been: urging her husband to bomb civilians in an illegal, undeclared war against Serbia; promising to "obliterate" an entire nation of 65 million people from the face of the earth; and voting for one of the worst war crimes in the last half-century -- then damning the victims as lousy ingrates for not appreciating America's benevolent destruction of their country and murder of their children?

Really now, what did anyone expect from a man who walks into a room where a dozen children have had their head bashed in by a thug in a silk suit still holding the blood-dripping bat in his hand, and says, "My word! I think a mistake has been made here. By gum, I think beating these children into a steaming pulp of guts and goo might have been a 'stupid policy.' If you give me that bat, I promise to stop beating these children into a steaming pulp of guts and goo within the next 16 months -- depending, of course, on the conditions in the room at the time, and the advice of my new top adviser, an experienced, pragmatic, safe pair of hands who has just spent the last two years helping this thug -- who should not be prosecuted, by the way, because that would just criminalize political differences -- beat these children into a steaming pulp of guts and goo." This, in a nutshell, is Obama's Iraq policy, and always has been. Where then is the betrayal?

II.

Here we must turn, once again, to Arthur Silber, who has long understood the true nature of the Obama candidacy and what its triumph will mean for the future. No talk of "betrayal" from Silber, who knows that Obama's recent appointments are only the inevitable fruit of the imperial, exceptionalist philosophy that has always guided his votes and positions on foreign policy. Silber's new post, "Clinging to the Wreckage I: Murder Inc. -- The Continuing Obscenity of U.S. Foreign Policy," is a masterpiece of bitter clarity about the reality of the American empire -- even in the rosy glow of the false dawn of the era of "hope and change." You should read the whole, devastating piece -- and follow the links in the original -- but below are a few excerpts:

***

"Our troops did the job they were asked to do. They got rid of Saddam Hussein. They conducted the search for weapons of mass destruction. They gave the Iraqi people a chance for elections and to have a government. It is the Iraqis who have failed to take advantage of that opportunity." —Hillary Clinton

"It's not change when [McCain] promises to continue a policy in Iraq that asks everything of our brave men and women in uniform and nothing of Iraqi politicians . . ." —Barack Obama

If you have ever wondered how a serial murderer -- a murderer who is sane and fully aware of the acts he has committed -- can remain steadfastly convinced of his own moral superiority and show not even the slightest glimmer of remorse, you should not wonder any longer.

The United States government is such a murderer. It conducts its murders in full view of the entire world. It even boasts of them. Our government, and all our leading commentators, still maintain that the end justifies the means -- and that even the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocents is of no moral consequence, provided a sufficient number of people can delude themselves into believing the final result is a "success."

We are a nation that has voluntarily renounced all its most crucial values, and all its founding principles. We can appeal all we want to "American exceptionalism," but any "exceptionalism" that remains ours is that of a mass murderer without a soul, and without a conscience. . . .

As a nation, we are resolute in our refusal to identify the true nature of our actions, and in our refusal to acknowledge the consequences of what we do. This may well be true of most nations throughout history. Yet there is a direct correlation between a nation's power and influence, and its reliance on myth and other public relations ploys. As the world's sole superpower, the United States via its ruling class saturates its subjects at home and abroad with propaganda on a scale and with an intensity that have rarely been surpassed. As is true of all propaganda, permissible viewpoints are confined within suffocatingly constricted boundaries of thought; variation of any moment from the prescribed guidelines is prohibited.

Consider how far into fantasy we have traveled, consider the scope of our determination to banish facts from our awareness. It should not be controversial or noteworthy in the least to observe that conquest of foreign peoples by force of arms necessarily involves bloodletting, dismemberment, and mutilation, that subjugation shatters the mind and the body, not just of the subjugated, but of those who would rule in this manner. History tells this tale repeatedly. Indeed, when our leaders wish to condemn other nations which utilize identical practices, they will examine these evils in endless detail. Our leaders will explain to us with enthusiastic commitment that such practices are deeply immoral and can only lead to disaster. But suddenly, when the United States sets out to conquer entire regions of the world, all these evils are not only transformed into a force for good: the evils miraculously cease to exist. The United States is good -- it is "the culmination of human development" -- and all its works are good. In "respectable" conversation in "respectable" places, you may not say otherwise. . . .

In the context of what the United States has done and continues to do, the statements from Clinton and Obama about the "failure" of the Iraqis to act in a manner they find "acceptable" are loathsome in the extreme. Their views, which I emphasize again are shared by every national politician who actually wields power (by which formulation, I exclude the very few exceptions such as Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul), represent the murderous triumph of "American exceptionalism" -- the doctrine that lauds the United States as uniquely "good" and Americans as "the good guys" in a manner that no other peoples can ever hope to equal, and that, with its always implicit and frequently explicit racism, condemns all other peoples on Earth to sub- or even inhuman status. That final element, of course, makes it considerably easier to slaughter them in large numbers, even when they could never possibly threaten us.

***

This is the philosophy that has guided American foreign policy for decades; it is the philosophy that has guided it during the Bush Administration; it is the philosophy that will guide it in the Obama Administration. Obama has made this clear, once more, with his "national security" appointments. But he has not betrayed us. He has indeed brought the promised change -- a change in the faces that will mouth the required pieties when the next small child is beaten into a steaming pulp of guts and goo.

2.

[Synopsis by Mark Jensen]

Andrew J. Bacevich, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company, 2008).

Dedication. “To the memory of my beloved son / ANDREW JOHN BACEVICH / First Lieutenant, U.S. Army / July 8, 1979-May 13, 2007” [vii].

INTRODUCTION: War without Exits. At the end of the Cold War, the U.S. undertook responsibility for a grand project it called “globalization,” a “euphemism for soft, or informal empire” (2; 1-3). In military terms, force projection had power over perimeter defense (3). After 9/11, “war became a seemingly permanent condition” -- the “Long War” (3-4). This book places responsibility for this war and three attendant crises (economic-cultural, political, and military) not outside the U.S. but within, a consequence of the “heedless worship of freedom” in America (4-5). Reinhold Niebuhr [the presiding spirit of this book, whom Bacevich cites twenty times and calls “our prophet” in the last paragraph] warned that this amounts to self-idolatry instead of wise “realism and humility” (6-8). Americans’ preoccupation with consumption and self-indulgence has grown and is undermining national power by eviscerating citizenship, fostering a cavalier attitude to debt and a lack of concern about resources (9-11). “A grand bazaar provides an inadequate basis upon which to erect a vast empire” (11). “[I]t is the soldier who bears the burden of such folly” (12). But Iraq, by revealing this folly, holds out the prospect of being “the source of our salvation” (12; the conclusion of the book is much more pessimistic, however). American citizens “need to reassert control over their own destiny” (13).

Ch. 1: The Crisis of Profligacy. The Jeffersonian ethic has degenerated into an “ethic of self-gratification” (15-17). Power and Abundance. Tocqueville shows such a tendency has deep roots in American history (17-18). A historical myth of American exceptionalism has sanitized American history, which has in fact been chiefly a bold and unplanned drive toward expansion, not liberation (18-22). Expansion fueled prosperity and heightened Americans’ sense of abundance and entitlement (22-25). Freedom did advance in the 1960s, thanks to the Left, but even this was grounded in the American drive for expansion (26-27). Not Less, But More. In the period 1965-1973, America’s “empire of production” yielded to something else (26-30). The years 1979-1983 were “the true pivot of contemporary American history” (30-31). Carter’s July 15, 1979, speech accurately diagnosed the situation (31-35). But it failed to rally the nation (35-36). Instead, the U.S. turned to Reagan, who fostered profligacy while spouting conservative bromides (37-39). Blame lies not with Reagan, however, but with the American people, who got “what they wanted” (40; 39-41). Americans embraced hypocrisy, extending it also into the strategic realm with the Star Wars project (41-43). Taking the Plunge. The U.S. became a debtor nation (43-44). In foreign policy, the U.S. extended the “tradition of reflexive expansionism” in Afghanistan and Central Asia, in the Persian Gulf (47; 44-57). American Freedom, Iraqi Freedom. The Greater Middle East democratization project was a neoconservative extension of these efforts (58-59). Americans were encouraged to consume more (60-63). But Iraq turned into a disaster, and found the U.S. short of troops and money (63-65). The historical link of expansionism and prosperity has broken: now, “Expansionism squanders American wealth and power, while putting freedom at risk” (66).

Ch. 2: The Political Crisis. U.S. mobilization for WWII and the Cold War ended the U.S. as a republic; it is now governed by an “imperial presidency” and is “a de facto one-party state” in which a Congress marked by pervasive “corruption” is ruled by “an Incumbents’ Party” and politics is theater (67-71). And the present system “doesn’t work” (71-72). The Ideology of National Security. The “national security state” is marked by failures: 1) to avert 9/11; 2) to bring to justice its architects; 3) to respond appropriately to Islamic extremism; 4) in the Iraq and Afghan wars (72). Bush has not broken with past tradition, he has affirmed a long-standing ideology of national security informed by four convictions with deep roots in American history: 1) History has a purpose; 2) The U.S. embodies freedom; 3) American success is guaranteed by Providence; 4) Freedom must prevail everywhere for the American way of life to endure (73-76). This highly elastic ideology, now “hardwired into the American psyche,” serves chiefly to legitimate action of the American executive, as speeches by Clinton and Obama suggest (77-81). The ideology serves the “self-selecting, self-perpetuating camarilla” [i.e. cabal] -- a power élite of “hawks” in control of national security policy since WWII (81-84). State of Insecurity. The gargantuan national security state shrouds itself in secrecy and lies (84-89). It has done “more harm than good” (89). The Bay of Pigs fiasco led Kennedy to realize that the system was out of control and he changed leadership, revamped institutions (McNamara, Bundy) and worked around the apparatus (e.g. did not use the NSC in the Cuban missile crisis, instead devising a small extra-constitutional group, an approach often replicated since) (90-94). The actual institutions of the national security state undergo perpetual reform while those who hold power regard them as “not partners but competitors” and “the American people remain in the dark,” the apparatus remaining in place because it provides legitimacy for “political arrangements that are a source of status, influence, and considerable wealth” (95; 94-96). The Bush administration distrusted all national security state institutions (96-101). Wise Men without Wisdom. The cult of “Wise Men,” supposedly wiser than the people and republican institutions, has characterized the era of “permanent national security crisis” (102; 101-03). Earlier Wise Men embodied the social elite and its values; this changed on Sept. 21, 1945, when Henry L. Stimson went home and James Forrestal stayed in Washington, D.C. (103-07). Paul Nitze succeeded him, drafting NSC 68, a 1950 classified report of fundamental importance that set political patterns that molded post-WWII American life (107-14). Paul Wolfowitz is the contemporary heir of Nitze (114-19). War without End. The Bush Doctrine, by embracing preventive war, is the most momentous national security initiative since the Manhattan Project, but its first application produced disaster (119-21). We should learn 1) “[T]he ideology of national security, American exceptionalism in its most baleful form, poses an insurmountable obstacle to sound policy” (121); 2) “Americans can no longer afford to underwrite a government that does not work” (122); 3) “To attend any longer to this elite would be madness . . . today’s Wise Men . . . have forfeited any further claim to trust” (123).

Ch. 3: The Military Crisis. The power of the U.S. armed forces was “wildly overstated,” with the army failing to accomplish assigned mission -- the elimination of the leadership of al-Qaeda and the subjugation of Iraq (124-26). The reason is threefold: 1) the illusion of full spectrum dominance; 2) the illusion of strategic principles (the Weinberger-Powell docrine); 3) the illusion of a new civilian-military compact (127-31). These “puerile expectations” have now been exposed (131-33). Learning the Wrong Lessons. Three lessons of the current wars: 1) they define future challenges; 2) civilian interference in military planning is counterproductive; 3) the civilian-military divide must be healed (139; 133-41). “Small Wars” for Empire. Current trends would endorse “imperial policing” as the U.S. military’s primary mission (141-43). Does Knowing Douglas Feith Is Stupid Make Tommy Franks Smart? The civilian meddling represented by Feith was a problem (143-44). But the mediocrity of U.S. military leadership was “consistently disappointing” (147; 145-52). Why the Draft Is Not a Good Idea and Won’t Happen. Practical and political obstacles make this option implausible (152-56). The Enduring Nature of War. “War’s essential nature is fixed, permanent, intractable, and irrepressible” (156). The IED shows war’s unpredictability (157-60). The Limited Utility of Force. Whatever its aim, reliance on the use of force is proving counterproductive (160-63). The Folly of Preventive War. The doctrine of preventive war is both morally wrong and irrational (citing Niebuhr again) (163-65). The Lost Art of Strategy. American military leaders, with Tommy Franks a case in point, confuse operations with strategy, ignoring the fact that the subordination of war to politics “lies at the very heart of strategy” (168; 165-69). “America doesn’t need a bigger army. It needs a smaller -- that is, more modest -- foreign policy” (169).

CONCLUSION: The Limits of Power. The presidential campaign doesn’t matter as much as finding an approach to American politics that does not exacerbate the tendency to demand delivery of goods, oil, and credit, and instead comes to a “realistic appreciation of limits” (174; 170-74). In foreign policy, citing Niebuhr again, the U.S. should return to “enlightened realism,” with “containment” instead of aggression as the response to Islamism (174-78). Abolishing nuclear weapons and preserving the earth should take priority as aims (178-81). Americans are living in denial (181). “Thus does the tragedy of our age move inexorably toward its conclusion . . . Americans appear determined to affirm Niebuhr’s axiom of willful self-destruction” (182).

Notes. 12 pp.

Acknowledgments.

Index. 10 pp.

[On the Author. Andrew J. Bacevich was born in 1947 in Normal, Illinois. He graduated from West Point in 1969 and served for a year in Vietnam (1970-1971). He retired from the U.S. Army in the early 1990s with the rank of colonel. He holds a Ph.D. in U.S. diplomatic history from Princeton. He has taught at West Point and Johns Hopkins, and is now professor of international relations and history at Boston University, where he teaches courses on “The American Military Experience,” “American Foreign Policy,” “Wars of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries,” “Ideas and American Foreign Policy,” and “U.S. Foreign Policy since the End of the Cold War.” His Fall 2008 office hours are 11:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon and 2:00 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays; his office telephone number is 508-358-0194. He is the author of American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy (2002) and The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (2005), and the editor of The Imperial Tense: Problems and Prospects of American Empire (2003) and The Long War: A New History of U.S. National Security Policy since World War II (2007). Bacevich is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. In addition to the son they lost in Iraq, he and his wife Nancy have three daughters. Bacevich, who once described himself as a “Catholic conservative,” has emerged as perhaps the leading mainstream critic of American militarism (though he avoids the word in The Limits of Power). Politically non-partisan, he has called Barack Obama the best choice for conservatives in an article in The American Conservative (Mar. 24, 2008).]

 


Last Updated on Thursday, 18 December 2008 16:26