"But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth."
—Barack Obama, address to the nation on Syria, September 10, 2013
Let's be Americans, which means being exceptional, which also means being honest in ways inconceivable to the rest of humanity. So here's the truth of it: the American exceptionalism sweepstakes really do matter. Here. A lot.
Barack Obama is only the latest in a jostling crowd of presidential candidates, presidential wannabes, major politicians, and minor figures of every sort, not to speak of a raging horde of neocons and pundits galore, who have felt compelled in recent years to tell us and the world just how exceptional the last superpower really is. They tend to emphasize our ability to use this country's overwhelming power, especially the military variety, for the global good—to save children and other deserving innocents. This particularly American aptitude for doing good forcibly, by killing others, is considered an incontestable fact of earthly life needing no proof. It is well known, especially among our leading politicians, that Washington has the ability to wield its military strength in ways that are unimaginably superior to any other power on the planet.
The well-deserved bragging rights to American exceptionalism are no small matter in this country. It should hardly be surprising, then, how visceral is the distaste when any foreigner—say, Russian President Vladimir Putin—decides to appropriate the term and use it to criticize us. How visceral? Well, the sort of visceral that, as Democratic Senator Bob Menendez put it recently, leaves us barely repressing the urge to "vomit."
Now, it's not that we can't take a little self-criticism. If you imagine an over-muscled, over-armed guy walking into a room and promptly telling you and anyone else in earshot how exceptionally good he is when it comes to targeting his weapons, and you notice a certain threatening quality about him, and maybe a hectoring, lecturing tone in his voice, it's just possible that you might be intimidated or irritated by him. You might think: narcissist, braggart, or blowhard. If you were the president of Russia, you might say, "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation."
Yes, if you're a foreigner, this country is easy enough to misunderstand, make fun of, or belittle. Still, that didn't stop the president from proudly bringing up our exceptionalism two weeks ago in his address on the Syrian crisis. In that speech, he plugged the need for a US military response to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian military. He recommended launching a "limited strike," assumedly Tomahawk missiles heading Damascus-wards, to save Syria's children, and he made sure the world knew that such an attack would be no passing thing. ("Let me make something clear: the United States military doesn't do pinpricks.")
Then, in mid-speech, in a fashion that was nothing short of exceptional (if you were considering the internal logic of the address), he suddenly cast that option aside for another approach entirely. But just because of that, don't let first impressions or foreign criticism blind you to the power of the president's imagery. In this century, as he suggested then and in an address to the U.N. two weeks later, American exceptionalism has always had to do with Washington's ability to use its power for the greater planetary good. Since, in the last decade-plus, power and military power have come to be essentially synonymous in Washington, the pure goodness of firing missiles or dropping bombs has been deified.
On that basis, it's indisputable that the bragging rights to American exceptionalism are Washington's. For those who need proof, what follows are just eight ways (among so many more) that you can proudly make the case for our exceptional status, should you happen to stumble across, say, President Putin, still blathering on about how unexceptional we are.
1. What other country could have invaded Iraq, hardly knowing the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite, and still managed to successfully set off a brutal sectarian civil war and ethnic cleansing campaigns between the two sects that would subsequently go regional, whose casualty counts have tipped into the hundreds of thousands, and which is now bouncing back on Iraq? What other great power would have launched its invasion with plans to garrison that country for decades and with the larger goal of subduing neighboring Iran ("Everyone wants to go to Baghdad; real men want to go to Tehran"), only to slink away eight years later leaving behind a Shiite government in Baghdad that was a firm ally of Iran? And in what other country, could leaders, viewing these events, and knowing our part in them, have been so imbued with goodness as to draw further "red lines" and contemplate sending in the missiles and bombers again, this time on Syria and possibly Iran? Who in the world would dare claim that this isn't an unmatchable record?
2. What other country could magnanimously spend $4-6 trillion on two "good wars" in Afghanistan and Iraq against lightly armed minority insurgencies without winning or accomplishing a thing? And that's not even counting the funds sunk into the Global War on Terror and sideshows in places like Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, or the staggering sums that, since 9/11, have been poured directly into the national security state. How many countries, possessing "the finest fighting force in the history of the world," could have engaged in endless armed conflicts and interventions from the 1960s on and, except in unresisting Panama and tiny Grenada, never managed to definitively win anything?
3. And talking about exceptional records, what other military could have brought an estimated 3.1 million pieces of equipment—ranging from tanks and Humvees to porta-potties, coffee makers, and computers—with it into Iraq, and then transported most of them out again (while destroying the rest or turning them over to the Iraqis)? Similarly, in an Afghanistan where the US military is now drawing down its forces and has already destroyed "more than 170 million pounds worth of vehicles and other military equipment," what other force would have decided ahead of time to shred, dismantle, or simply discard $7 billion worth of equipment (about 20% of what it had brought into the country)? The general in charge proudly calls this "the largest retrograde mission in history." To put that in context: What other military would be capable of carrying a total consumer society right down to PXs, massage parlors, boardwalks, Internet cafes, and food courts to war? Let's give credit where it's due: we're not just talking retrograde here, we're talking exceptionally retrograde!
4. What other military could, in a bare few years in Iraq, have built a staggering 505 bases, ranging from combat outposts to ones the size of small American towns with their own electricity generators, water purifiers, fire departments, fast-food restaurants, and even miniature golf courses at a cost of unknown billions of dollars and then, only a few years later, abandoned all of them, dismantling some, turning others over to the Iraqi military or into ghost towns, and leaving yet others to be looted and stripped? And what other military, in the same time period thousands of miles away in Afghanistan, could have built more than 450 bases, sometimes even hauling in the building materials, and now be dismantling them in the same fashion? If those aren't exceptional feats, what are?