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The Naiveté of American Exceptionalism

There is probably no more certain way to make myself unpopular than to join the ranks of liberals who criticize the assassination of Osama bin Laden. But it is only in the act of criticism, not in the substance or motivation of the criticism, that I am sympathetic to the extreme left. I merely want to criticize the fact that criticism is considered anti-American, particularly by Christians who should have thinking that transcends raw patriotism.

First, however, note the irony someone else has pointed out between President Bush, who liberals loved to castigate as a rogue cowboy, and President Obama, the “moral beacon” of international civility:

George W. Bush, the cowboy, hunted down and sent Saddam Hussein off for trial, to meet vengeance following the rule of law, followed by a sanctioned hanging.

Barack H. Obama, the moral beacon, ordered a hit on Osama bin Laden, hunted and killed him, no trial, no rule of law, to meet pure raw vengeance, with a bullet to the head. (source)

The President of our country may not know or care about the culture of the Middle East, but one thing is certain: he knows enough about the culture of the country that put him in power (and will do so again in two years) to know that this assassination was a masterful public relations stroke that will serve him well for the next two years.

It’s win-win for him. While he tries to convince Americans that he’s centrist, hawkish evangelicals on the right that have normally criticized him the loudest will conjure up all kinds of Old Testament analogies that justify the unilateral and international law-defying assassination of a criminal in his pajamas while extreme leftists like Michael Moore rant their sore disappointment in their Nobel Peace Prize President. The President of the United States of America needs the extreme leftists to castigate him. Nothing gives him the much needed political boost more than to have the whackos to his left angry at him. And he can depend on the right to be so naively and doggedly committed to American exceptionalism that this assassination may prove to be one of the smartest things he’s ever done.

The upside, of course, is that a very bad man is dead. The downside is that this is touted as justice by every flag-waving citizen in the land.

Justice? Even Al Mohler shied away from calling it justice. He stated the obvious: this wasn’t justice in the truest sense of the word. Mohler reminds euphoric evangelical patriots that true justice can only come from God. But he also aptly pointed out that there is kind of a hollowness that comes with the fact that a mass murderer simply gets shot. How does one death compensate for thousands?

I would take it a step further. How can you punish people who have already chosen to die with death?  Bin Laden had already died in the sense that he had already given his life to his cause. Reports say that he was living in one room for the last five years of his life. He had long ago decided to give his life on the altar of terrorism and when he met his fate on May 1, 2011 it was only the timing of it that surprised him. He lived every day knowing that one day a bullet would find him.

But what’s been happening this past week in America has been fascinating. CNN sounds like Fox News. Beyonce goes patriotic and CNN airs the song several times over. Flags. Presidential booyahs to the military. Militaristic unilateralism. Liberals are crooning about American exceptionalism. In the meantime anyone who dares to question the wisdom or the method of the assassination is sure to be disdainfully castigated as a weak-kneed anti-american who is playing hyper-spiritual. Score one for the President. Score one for the demise of sane thinking in this country.

And score for the terrorists.

Now, I am not a conspiracy theorist. I do not think that there is a massive cover-up going on, a sinister gotcha plan in play. There is no need to go secret with a naive populace comprised of cities in which, according to recent data, up to 47% of the population in one city is illiterate. I think the White House is human. Anyone in any kind of political leadership knows you have to toss a bone to the yapping dogs that are getting too bothersome. A juicy bone keeps them distracted and has the added benefit of passing leadership off as a benefactor. The White House was suffering in the polls, the economy stinks, and a diplomatically sensitive approach to bagging Bin Laden would have taken too long and probably failed to get what every political leader needs most: the home base.

Time to cash in on American exceptionalism.

President Obama has proved to the world he not only understands, but exemplifies the pure definition of American exceptionalism.(source)

And — it’s almost weird — this is from a liberal in a liberal paper. But, let’s think about it: The pure definition?

There are two basic genres of exceptionalism that are too often confused.

  1. There is an exceptionalism that issues from principle.
  2. There is an exceptionalism that issues from power.

What America did last week was a demonstration of American exceptionalism that issues from power, not from principle. Now, before my readers dismiss me, please note that at this point I am not saying that flexing our muscle and demonstrating exceptionalism that issues from power is wrong. I am not even saying that sending in the best soldiers in the world to kill a terrorist and capture his cache of information was wrong. I am saying, simply, that it was a demonstration of American exceptionalism that issues from power and not from principle.

President Obama, the Huffington Post, mainstream media, and most Americans no longer believe in American exceptionalism that issues from principle. But they can bank on gun-toting evangelicals to be dazzled by muscle flexing. And by one cowboy excursion into another sovereign state to kill a man they have essentially gutted the hawkish neo-cons (who are really their only viable challenge in a centrist America) of any meaningful challenge to President Obama’s hawk credentials. Can any of his challengers say as he has, “We have cut off the head of Al Quaida?”

I don’t think so.

But my point, believe it or not, is not political. My point is that American evangelicals are going to be burned by their unthinking adulation of American exceptionalism.

American Exceptionalism fails to imagine a world in which America is not a super power. Yet this is precisely the world that every other country in the world fantasizes about. The irony is that the very people who co-opted to act unilaterally are putting this nation on the fast track to turn the dream of embittered nations into a reality: a weak America. What will patriotic evangelicals in the weak America think when another country more powerful unilaterally decides to penetrate our borders and do police action against their villain du jour?

This, of course, is exactly the kind of scenario that N.T. Wright suggested in his criticism of America’s action. It is because of power that America could do what it did, but that power is fast declining. In a weak America, American patriots will not respond so enthusiastically for the disregard of international sensibilities by a superior power who penetrates our borders to execute its will. And we are getting weaker.

Paul Kennedy’s fascinated study The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 proposed the common sense conclusion that America, like any other great power before it, would decline for the same reasons previous powers had declined. I read it a long time ago, but basically the idea is that Great Powers get into a vicious cycle of militaristic over-extension and the erosion of domestic economy, finding that to survive they need to extend and to extend they die. It’s the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t scenario for Great Powers that has been the impossible riddle for hundreds of years.

No general rule will provide the decision-makers of the time with a universally applicable course of action.  If they neglect to provide adequate military defenses, they may be unable to respond if a rival Power takes advantage of them; if they spend too much on armaments — or, more usually, upon maintaining at growing cost the military obligations they had assumed in a previous period — they are likely to overstrain themselves, like an old man attempting to work beyond his natural strength (p. 540).

Exceptionalism is always the philosophy of the most powerful. The Habsburg Empire, the Mongol Empire, and the Roman Empire (representing all parts of the world and different eras) all were ultimately suffused with a sense of exceptionalism. American exceptionalism is different, argue the defenders, because it is American. It issues from principle, not from power. America’s principles of freedom, separation of church and state, and the rights of man make it exceptional.

I agree.

But with power comes another kind of exceptionalism. It’s the natural self-appointed exceptionalism that is enjoyed by anyone who is the most powerful. Superpowers pick and choose which international laws they want to comply with. And, I think, this is the way it should be. (I feel the need to preemptively defend myself from being charged by some conservative as a one-worlder). Please understand that I actually believe in the ideal of sovereign states. I do not think that the United States of America have any more obligation to obey the U.N than does, for example, Libya. But if you’re going to choose to act unilaterally you better have muscle. And, this we have. In 2011.

But you also need astuteness.

The USA will not always be a superpower. President Obama bows already to other dignitaries. And he will make amends quickly. Rest assured. In the meantime a naive and gullible home base is galvanized by a made-for-tv strike that does little more than gratify cowboy Americans that we tracked down our villain and brought him down with good old-fashioned Smith & Wesson justice. Short-sighted evangelicals exult in the rare display of guts from a dove-ish administration and shrill epitaphs of un-americanism at any critic for questioning the legality, rationality, methodology, or timing of the action because, after all, it’s about American exceptionalism. Unfortunately, this American exceptionalism has been sanctified with the Christian rhetoric of our historic civic religion and pedestalized by evangelical historiographers so much that it is practically inconceivable that a thoughtful Christian would question, much less object.

But I question.

Americans are silly to think that this is a just revenge. They know nothing of a patient vengeance that will wait painstakingly to strike. If Osama Bin Laden is half as smart as he’s been made out to be by a country that couldn’t catch him for ten years then he knew his days were numbered. People who live every day knowing that their enemy might catch them also live every day thinking about how they will get the last laugh — even if it is with the 72 virgins. We’ve been suckered into a quid pro quo. Ten years ago they danced in the streets because we had been humiliated. Today we dance in the streets and they smart with humiliation.

And, Mr. President, we have not cut of their head. This is a hydra-headed monster. We’ve fired up their base.

The only difference is that we have a small contingency of the best warriors in the world who live by the rules and strike only when every conceivable political and cross-checking obstacle has been cleared. They have countless suicide bombers with no rules.

I’m proud of America. I’m proud that we have the best soldiers in the world. I’m proud that we have the most power in the world. I’m glad Osama Bin Laden is dead.

What grieves me is that American Christians have so hitched their emotions, security, dreams, and happiness to the fading reality of American exceptionalism. They fail to realize that millions of people around this world are asking the same thing that N.T. Wright asked:

“America is allowed to do it, but the rest of us are not,” said Wright, who is now the research professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “By what right? Who says?” (source)

Mr. Wright, the answer is simple: we have the power to do it. But, fear not, we are losing our power. The current administration is seeing to it, and this aberrant display of muscle will pay off in the long run for you and the billions that dream of a world with a weaker America. Ironically, it will be hastened by the millions of flag-waving conservatives who have lost the will to ask hard questions and naively celebrate without thinking anytime American flouts its power on the international scene. Power erodes clear thinking. The power we have is because of an undeniable American exceptionalism that issued from principle. We have been the greatest country in the world, the most benevolent, and a blessing to the whole world. You’re a rich man, Mr. Wright, in large part because Americans buy your heresy. You profit from our power. But our power was God-given and was clearly the fruit of an exceptionalism issued from principle, principles few Americans really believe anymore. The principles are dismissed. The power will likewise diminish.

“What will we do when new superpowers arise and try the same trick on us?” he asks.

Most Americans don’t think that way because we’ve always been exceptional, exceptionally strong.

Thus, the exceptionalism we practice is only that which issues from residual power. No other president in the world has the power to turn hearts in his favor with a mere nod at the most elite troops in the world to assassinate an enemy without regard to any other country. One day soon (if liberals have their way) we’ll be like the jealous outsiders, but unlike what they dream of, there will always be somebody more powerful than the rest. So, while we may like the effect of the raid on Osama’s lair, it is prideful and naive of thoughtful American Christians to refuse to do some hard thinking over the criticism. Even if it comes from a pouting Englishman.

God bless the USA.


4 Responses

  1. The Hapsburgs were exceptional if only in the sheer quantity of inbreeding that perpetuated their lineage

  2. While I agree that we as a nation are on a path to decline, I don’t think that this justifiable action will have much bearing one way or another. We were over-extended militarily before September 11, 2001, and the problem has become much worse. Combine that overstretch with a declining structural economy and bad demographics, and my generation (under-35s) certainly will have a full plate.

    And, I don’t think this kind of operation will in the long run enrage more people than already object to existing policies (drone strikes, etc.).

    I understand the objections to the term “justice” in this case. This was no trial – as the admittedly guilty Bin Laden continued to plot and provide at least symbolic leadership, this was a pure act of national self-defense. This was not the FBI executing a search warrant – this was the finest warriors we have removing a national security threat with extreme prejudice. As a state of war is and has been in existence

    Obama made the right call in this case, political effects notwithstanding. In my book, he’s earned the benefit of the doubt on terrorism by his expanded use of drones in Pakistan – he really believes in an aggressive policy against terrorism (if not against looming insolvency at home).

    I would rather his killing have not been greeted with flag-waving celebrations. But would you have objected to such celebrations had his capture alive been greeted the same way? Americans didn’t have the opportunity to celebrate the audacity of the operation and then quietly contemplate his execution after trial. Everything happened at once, so I can forgive the reaction.

    Lastly, the President might believe in American military exceptionalism, but he cannot be blind to the fact that his values and policies would make us unexceptional. I believe he’s willing to pay that price over the long run for what he believes will be social “justice” (i.e. Western European welfare state).

  3. Did you see this article?

    The Myth of American Exceptionalism, By Richard Cohen

    Excerpt: “What a Brookings Institution report termed “the happiness factor” occurs pretty much across the board. Brookings should have called the phenomenon the “ignorance-is-bliss” factor, which now may be the true meaning of American exceptionalism. Its current iteration comes in the form of self-esteem, which holds, as best as I can figure out, that how you feel is more important than how you perform. A consequence of this is that students in Singapore or Shanghai have almost no self-esteem. But they do, however, know their math.”

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