Driving home from church on Sunday, I like to listen to a bit of Fareed Zakaria on the radio. This last week, he was interviewing Defense Secretary Gates. Fareed asked if the US is falling into an "imperial trap" -- spending too much time and energy putting out all of the fires of the world, while countries like China concentrate on building a great prosperous industrial machine." I found Gates' answer to be instructive. He denied that the U.S. was an imperial power, but utilized the now-familiar bromide that America was an indispensable power (This, of course, from President Clinton's Second Inaugural Address. Thanks, Bill.) Gates concluded that "If you look around the world, nothing ever gets done without American leadership at the end of the day."
This is as self-serving a myth as there is. But this view of American exceptionalism--our "indispensability," if you will, is not confined to the upper echelons of power. This self-perception, coupled with an exalted view of individualism and our unique take on liberty forms the very foundation of American society. This is the creed of our public religion. At a recent prayer breakfast in my city, a Methodist minister offered the following (as a prayer, mind you):
"Wherever there is injustice and wherever there is an abuse of civil rights, American military personnel is there. We get bad mouthed by other nations for sticking our nose where it doesn't belong, but our nose belongs where we go because God has commissioned us to be the caretakers, the protectors of the world."
This is a jingoistic perspective, with little thought to its implications, to be sure--but hardly unique in my part of the nation. For this reason, it is all the more important that the viewpoints expressed in Andrew Bacevich's The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism receive wider circulation. I have been reading about the book for months now, but put off actually reading it until after Great Lent. In my estimation, this is an essential book that should take its place on the shelf with Huntington, Lukacs and Kennan.
A few quotes from Bacevich (a retired military man who lost his son in Iraq):
Seeing themselves as a peaceful people, Americans remain wedded to the conviction that the conflicts in which they find themselves embroiled are not of their own making. The global war on terror is no exception. Certain of our own benign intentions, we reflexively assign responsibility for war to others, typically malignant Hitler-like figures inexplicable bent on denying us the peace that is our fondest wish.
Freedom is the altar at which Americans worship, whatever their nominal religious persuasion. "No one sings odes to liberty as the final end of life with greater fervor than Americans," the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once observed. Yet even as they celebrate freedom, Americans exempt the object of their veneration from critical examination.
Niebuhr once wrote disapprovingly of Americans, their "culture soft and vulgar, equating joy with happiness and happiness with comfort."
Centered on consumption and individual autonomy...as individuals, American never cease to expect more.
Crediting the United States with a "great liberating tradition" distorts the past and obscures the actual motive force behind American politics and U. S. foreign policy. It transforms history into a morality tale, thereby providing a rationale for dodging serious moral analysis.
Accept the proposition that America is freedom's tribune, and it becomes a small step to believing that the "peace process" aims to achieve peace, that Iraq qualifies as a sovereign state, and that Providence has summoned the United States to wage an all-out war against "terrorism."
The Big Lies are the truths that remain unspoken: that freedom has an underside; that nations, like households, must ultimately live within their means; that history's purpose, the subject of so many confident pronouncements, remains inscrutable."
By extension, Americans ought to give up the presumptuous notion that they are called upon to tutor Muslims in matters relating to freedom and the proper relationship between politics and religion. The principle informing policy should be this: let Islam be Islam. In the end, Muslims will have to discover for themselves the shortcomings of political Islam, much as Russians discovered the defect of Marxist-Leninism and the Chinese came to appreciate the flaws of Maoism--perhaps even as we ourselves will one day begin to recognize the snares embedded in American exceptionalism."
As is the case on most topics, Daniel Larison has some cogent comments on the pernicious influence of American exceptionalism (this from a post deconstructing a particularly sophomoric article by Dallas Morning News columnist Mark Davis in defense of the concept.)
There are good reasons to push back against the idea of American exceptionalism, if only because it does seem to encourage tired jingoism far too often, but we should do this mainly to show that there is the possibility of an admiring respect that need not devolve into arrogant triumphalism that American exceptionalism tends to encourage....Confidence in America and respect for our actual, genuinely considerable accomplishments as a people are natural and worthy attitudes to have. Understanding the full scope of our history, neither airbrushing out the crimes nor dishonoring and forgetting our heroes, is the proper tribute we owe to our country and our ancestors. Exaggeration and bluster betray a lack of confidence in America, and strangely this lack of confidence seems concentrated among those most certain that mostly imaginary “declinists” are ruining everything. More humble confidence and less horror that our President is not engaged in stupid demonstrations of machismo might be the appropriate response to present realities.
He also links a recent excellent article by Bacevich, here.
There was a time in my life (in the not so very distant past) when I accepted such views unquestioningly, as I suppose most people do. Obviously, my conversion to Orthodoxy signaled a marked change in attitude. My self-perception and my relationship to others as fellow-citizens of a particular nation have undergone a thorough-going and much-need overhaul. I would be curious how other Orthodox see this evolution of thought in their own lives.