When, in the midst of the American foreign-policy debacle over Syria, Vladimir Putin wrote an article in The New York Times, American politicians balked in unison. Republicans and Democrats denounced Putin in no uncertain terms. They declared that his bold impudence made them nauseous. Some divulged that upon reading the article, they had to vomit. The airways were filled with their fulminations. How dare this former KGB agent lecture, even hector, the American people? How dare he question the fundamental principle of American greatness? What nerve—poking America in the eye in the pages of its most hallowed newspaper!
Was he not the guy who weaseled his way into becoming president for yet another term, contrary to the constitution of his own country? Was he not the guy who approved that antigay legislation just recently? Was he not the guy who harbored Edward J. Snowden, wanted by the United States for revealing sensitive government secrets? Was he not the backer of the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad? These ad hominem attacks fail to refute or even address the argument. The fact is that sometimes, even the Devil tells the truth.
Did Putin say anything outrageous? Not in the least. What he said was almost platitudinous. He reminded Americans that it was the cooperation of America and Russia that made the defeat of the Nazis and the creation of the United Nations possible. The latter was established after World War II to provide a more stable international order. The charter of the United Nations made it illegal to use force except in self-defense or by the consensus of the permanent members of the Security Council. As a result, Putin was dismayed that “military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States” (New York Times, September 11, 2013). If powerful countries such as the United States are bent on bypassing the Security Council and launching military strikes contrary to international law, they will threaten the precarious international order. This is already happening; many countries no longer feel safe and are therefore seeking nuclear weapons, which they see as the only means to deter an attack. The United Nations is poised to become as toothless as the League of Nations, which was created after World War I and was unable to prevent World War II. It is obvious that Putin’s conclusion follows logically from true premises. So what’s the fuss?
Putin ended his article by taking issue with President Barack Obama’s claim that America is “exceptional.” “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional,” wrote Putin. In this way, he made a link between American lawlessness and belligerence and faith in American exceptionalism. That’s what got Americans fuming. Putin thinks American exceptionalism is dangerous. Americans think that it is God’s gift to the world. Who is right?
There was once a time when exceptionalism meant that America was a special land of freedom that welcomed the tired, hungry, downtrodden, and persecuted of the world. But in the nineteenth century, this early doctrine gave way to the more muscular doctrine of Manifest Destiny. The latter was used to justify the annexation of Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Oregon, and California. After its involvement in World War I and World War II, America turned its attention to the world at large, but the temptation to remake the world in its image was checked by the power of the Soviet Union within the United Nations. At that time, political realists such as Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger prevailed. But once the Cold War was over, the doctrine of Manifest Destiny revived: this time, it was Manifest Destiny on steroids. America was the anointed of God, strutting across the globe in search of monsters to destroy. It was bent on remaking the world in its image. But the project of world transformation was no easy task. Regime change was full of nasty surprises. By the end of the second Bush administration, nothing had been accomplished. The Taliban in Afghanistan was still undefeated; al-Qaeda was stronger than ever; and the puppet regime installed in Iraq at such a high cost in blood and treasure was no puppet—instead, it became allied with Iran, America’s nemesis in the region. Meanwhile, America’s image had been tarnished; Sleeping Beauty had morphed into Frankenstein’s monster.
Many Americans believed that in electing Barack Obama they were closing a dark chapter in their history. They were therefore appalled to see Obama, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, continue the War on Terror: escalating and expanding drone warfare and taking the imperial presidency for granted, killing “suspected terrorists,” foreign or domestic, along with the usual “collateral damage” of innocent children. What happened? Is he a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Not at all.
Obama’s ability to respond to world events in a constructive manner is hampered by his understanding of American exceptionalism. The fact is that the American myth of exceptionalism in its moralistic (Democratic) or muscular (Republican) form is a dreadful guide to foreign policy. It is both unpractical and immoral. It is unpractical because it makes American leaders ill-equipped to act in a world where there is evil on both sides. It forces them to see the world in black-and-white terms—good and evil, friends and foes. But the world is not that simple, as the recent case of Syria attests.
With a civil war raging in Syria, Republicans such as John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Eric Cantor urged Obama to arm the rebels and strike the regime of Bashar al-Assad without the approval of the United Nations, NATO, the Arab League, or even Congress. They refused to countenance the fact that al-Qaeda, foreign jihadists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other unsavory religious extremists were fighting on the side of the rebels in Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood vowed to exterminate the Alawites (the Shia sect to which Assad belongs) as soon as they were victorious. But American leaders on both sides of the aisle insist on seeing the world in black and white. Democrats are more moderate only because they like their conduct to appear legitimate in the eyes of the world. In contrast, the Republican attitude is as muscular as it is moralistic: America is right, period; the world be damned.
Obama was paralyzed by the reality of evil on both sides. But after the use of sarin gas, allegedly by the Assad regime (August 21, 2013), Obama could no longer resist the weight of his country’s divine mission. He declared that he was unwilling to live in a world where dictators can use sarin gas with impunity. Assad had to be punished for crossing a “red line.” The only justification offered for the strike is to “punish Assad.” As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry explained, it will be a “surgical strike,” which will not oust Assad from power (lest those other guys take over).
In truth, there is no such thing as a “surgical strike.” The deaths of more innocent children would be inevitable. And you can be sure that images of Syrian women and children dying as a result of American strikes would be displayed by Al Jazeera throughout the Arab world. They would be just as sickening as the images of the children succumbing to sarin gas. So, what could the strike accomplish? It could only satisfy America’s self-righteous moralism.
Just when a strike on Syria was imminent, a journalist asked Kerry at a press conference what Syria could do to avert such a strike. He said it would have to give up its chemical weapons and added quickly that this was highly unlikely. The Russians seized this opportunity to provide a diplomatic solution.
They would make Syria give up her chemical weapons to avert a strike. In this way, Obama and Kerry stumbled into a diplomatic solution—something that had not occurred to them as long as they donned the posture of the avenging angel of God.
Naturally, the war party was disappointed. They prefer their enemies to be as mad as they are evil. That way they can use force without trying diplomacy. William Kristol and Daniel Pipes were giddy with the prospect of a war on Syria that would lead to a war on Iran. Now they are panic-stricken because Iran elected a reasonable president who is bent on restoring diplomatic relations with the United States. Horrors. Where are we ever going to find enemies?
As a driver of American foreign policy, exceptionalism is not only impractical; it is immoral. One of the classic tests of morality is a willingness to universalize one’s conduct. But exceptionalism allows America to regard itself as an exception to the rules that apply to other nations. It has huge stockpiles of nuclear and chemical weapons but has threatened Iran with destruction if it makes any progress toward acquiring even a single bomb. When Obama declared that the alleged use of sarin gas by the Assad regime constitutes the crossing of a “red line” that cannot go unpunished, the world wondered why sarin gas was so unacceptable but the use of depleted uranium by the Americans in Iraq was not; nor was the white phosphorous used by Israel in Gaza. Besides, all these chemical weapons put together cannot accomplish the mass murder of civilian populations that was inflicted by the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Insofar as the United States exempts itself from the law of nations, it undermines the international order. Insofar as its acts in the world as prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner, this rogue superpower creates a more lawless global environment.
It is time for Americans to reflect on their exceptionalism. It is time for them to wonder if their national mythology has been the source of their grief. Has it not contributed to the perpetual wars that have bankrupted the country? Have American soldiers not died needlessly for what can only be described as gargantuan political blunders? What about all the innocent children killed by American drones in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere? Are they not the “collateral damage” of American exceptionalism? It is time for Americans to rediscover a more benign version of their exceptionalism.