Monday, September 16, 2013

The high costs of "American exceptionalism"

If I have a lifelong pet peeve, it concerns the belief held by the VAST majority of USA's citizens that "We're #1 (in anything remotely important and so long as no one else cheats) and the rest of the world is just trying to copy our greatness."

At first, I harbored an active dislike for the "We're #1" crowd—mostly because it was based upon such lovely facts as "we have more nukes than you and can turn your shitty little country into a cinder at the push of a button."  But over time, my disgust has morphed into a sort of pity as in "do you folks have any idea what you're missing when blinded by the "We're #1" belief?"  I could bore you with about 50 pages of the sort of disadvantages one is burdened with when assuming we are the best all the time, but they tend to fall into three main categories:

1) If we refuse to learn from others, we waste a LOT of time re-inventing the wheel.  Just because someone else solves problems differently from us does not mean they are wrong, stupid, or ineffective.  This penalty is especially noticeable when addressing problems like energy consumption.

2) When we refuse to take others seriously, we massively degrade our ability to understand the wider world.  Hard to have a complex and nuanced worldview if you consider other cultures not worth knowing (because they are inferior, after all.)

3) It is a very short trip from telling people they are inferior to our own unique greatness to thinking they are subhuman and it is our duty to commit atrocities against them.  Whether atomic bombs against the Japanese, to napalm in Vietnam, to white phosphorus and depleted uranium in Iraq, "We're #1" has some nasty, NASTY outcomes.

Anyway, President Putin of Russia set off a massive shitstorm the other day when he suggested that maybe we should back off a little on our beliefs that we are exceptional people.  (I have boldfaced the "offending" paragraph below.)  I could have warned Mr. Putin that it doesn't matter a lot how diplomatic one tries to be, when you question the "We're #1" belief, you are calling into question the only statement many, MANY people believe to be true.  For them, it is the only belief they need because if you believe we are the best and everyone else is just trying to catch up, why know anything about the world's peoples because they are merely an under-developed us.

A Plea for Caution From Russia

What Putin Has to Say to Americans About Syria
Published: September 11, 2013

MOSCOW — RECENT events surrounding Syria have prompted me to speak directly to the American people and their political leaders. It is important to do so at a time of insufficient communication between our societies.

Relations between us have passed through different stages. We stood against each other during the cold war. But we were also allies once, and defeated the Nazis together. The universal international organization — the United Nations — was then established to prevent such devastation from ever happening again.

The United Nations’ founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus, and with America’s consent the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter. The profound wisdom of this has underpinned the stability of international relations for decades.

No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage. This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization.

The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders. A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.

Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country. There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government. The United States State Department has designated Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations. This internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world.

Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria? After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali. This threatens us all.

From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future. We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law. We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.

No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists. Reports that militants are preparing another attack — this time against Israel — cannot be ignored.

It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.”

But force has proved ineffective and pointless. Afghanistan is reeling, and no one can say what will happen after international forces withdraw. Libya is divided into tribes and clans. In Iraq the civil war continues, with dozens killed each day. In the United States, many draw an analogy between Iraq and Syria, and ask why their government would want to repeat recent mistakes.

No matter how targeted the strikes or how sophisticated the weapons, civilian casualties are inevitable, including the elderly and children, whom the strikes are meant to protect.

The world reacts by asking: if you cannot count on international law, then you must find other ways to ensure your security. Thus a growing number of countries seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction. This is logical: if you have the bomb, no one will touch you. We are left with talk of the need to strengthen nonproliferation, when in reality this is being eroded.

We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.

A new opportunity to avoid military action has emerged in the past few days. The United States, Russia and all members of the international community must take advantage of the Syrian government’s willingness to place its chemical arsenal under international control for subsequent destruction. Judging by the statements of President Obama, the United States sees this as an alternative to military action.

I welcome the president’s interest in continuing the dialogue with Russia on Syria. We must work together to keep this hope alive, as we agreed to at the Group of 8 meeting in Lough Erne in Northern Ireland in June, and steer the discussion back toward negotiations.

If we can avoid force against Syria, this will improve the atmosphere in international affairs and strengthen mutual trust. It will be our shared success and open the door to cooperation on other critical issues.

My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal. more
An interesting take on how the leader of a "non-exceptional" country kept the USA from doing something extremely stupid—at least for now.  Not surprisingly, nothing suffers more from American Exceptionalism than diplomacy.
The Deus ex Machina that Saved Obama and the World

From Russia Without Love


In the dramas of Greek and Roman antiquity, playwrights who found that they had backed their characters into hopeless situations would sometimes deploy a plot device called a Deus ex Machina. From out of nowhere, a god would be lowered onto the stage in a crane-like machine; the god would then set matters right.

Neither Vladimir Putin nor Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, look much like Greek gods (Putin’s vanity notwithstanding), but Barack Obama, having painted himself into a corner as hopeless as any of Euripides’ tragic figures, would be well advised, at this point, to offer them both a sacrifice or two – not out of gratitude (since they did make him look a fool), but because, as well as any god could, they got him out of an otherwise hopeless situation, saving the day for the world.

The Putin-Lavrov fix could still fall through, of course; we must never “misunderestimate,” as George Bush would say, the ineptitude of American diplomacy in the Clinton-Kerry era. But maybe, just maybe, Obama now won’t throw a flame into the combustible cauldron that the Syrian civil war has become.

Maybe that serial violator of international law now won’t take it upon himself to punish the Syrian government — “the Assad regime,” as our politicians and their media flacks call it — for (probably) using chemical weapons against rebellious Syrians (and Islamists from other countries).

The use of chemical nerve-agents in combat is banned under international law, as well it should be. The many horrific weapons that have come on line since the First World War – among others, bombers, cruise missiles, chemicals that burn human skin, depleted uranium shells and, of course, weaponized drones should be banned as well.

And then there are nuclear weapons, genuine “weapons of mass destruction” – more horrifying by far than all the others combined.

Fetishizing a prohibition enacted nearly a century ago, and then stopping moral progress at that point, is, to put it mildly, strange. But never mind; unlike feigned moral indignation, logical and moral consistency is not our President’s forte.

There is, it seems, good, but inconclusive, evidence that the Syrian government did indeed violate the chemical warfare ban. There is also evidence that some of the rebel groups fighting the government did too. It bears notice that they have much to gain if the world, or at least Americans and Europeans, think that their hands are clean, and that Assad is guilty as sin.

In any case, Obama’s plan was to launch an unprovoked and unsanctioned war against Syria, a sovereign state.

According to the 1945 Nuremburg Charter, initiating a war of aggression is “the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

In other words, Obama wanted to punish a possible war crime by committing a far graver one.

* * *

Russian diplomacy, these days, is plainly better than ours by orders of magnitude. Over there, they know how to seize opportunities, and make things happen; they rely on their wits. Our leaders only know how to botch things up. If they get by at all, it is on dumb luck.

They are way ahead of us too in respecting internationally recognized rights and duties. Indeed, it was because Russia granted Snowden humanitarian asylum, as they had ample reason to do under international law, that a very pissed-off Obama conspicuously rebuffed earlier Russian efforts at finding a diplomatic solution to the situation he created when he mouthed off about a “red line” Bashar Al-Assad dare not cross.

The information Snowden provided revealed the extent to which the surveillance state has metastasized in the Age of Obama, but that is not all Snowden did to incur Obama’s ire. He embarrassed the Obamaregime – or rather “administration,” as our ideologists and media flunkies call it.

In Obama’s view, this was unforgiveable. Therefore, any state that wouldn’t turn Snowden over to American “justice” was to be bullied into submission — or shunned, if that was impossible, as it plainly was with Russia as the state that rose to the occasion.

But Obama’s petulant, self-righteous attitude turned out to be yet another example of his ineptitude; yet again, he painted himself into a corner.

In coming to his, and the world’s, rescue, the Russians have so far shown impressive tact. Along with other facets of the art of diplomacy, that is a virtue unknown in the Clinton-Kerry Department of State.

Obama’s spinmeisters and media cheerleaders are now hard at work depicting John Kerry’s thoughtless gaffe — an offhand sarcastic comment — as the opening towards a “solution.”

They are claiming, as Obama himself did Tuesday night, that it is his willingness to use force – in plain English, his warmongering – that is bringing “the Assad regime” to its knees. They even hint that this was the plan all along. Does their preposterousness know no limits?

The Kremlin has so far let them get away with this nonsense, even suggesting that the idea that Syria’s chemical weapons be placed under international control and then destroyed had come up in discussions between Obama and Putin at the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg and in Kerry-Lavrov encounters before and since.

It probably did; it has probably come up many times. But it was never seriously considered – certainly not by our drone-wielding President, a man who plainly cares not a whit about saving children or maintaining international norms. For Obama, it is about maintaining credibility; end of story. The rest is public relations blather.

Since the Russians understand full well that if Obama doesn’t save face, all is lost, why wouldn’t they let him claim undeserved bragging rights? If that is what is needed to forestall the disasters that would follow from the “limited” military strike on Syria that he was about to launch, then so be it. Let him have his Mission Accomplished moment; no one will believe it anyway.

Putin won this round and no matter how Obama apologists try to spin it, their man lost — big time.

Maybe the next time Washington gets an urge to reshape the Middle East, this will cause the instigators – the neocons and humanitarian interventionists and the militaristic, imperialist politicians in their thrall — to have second thoughts. If it does, then something good will have come out of this whole sorry episode. more


  1. "We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement."

    ...and speaking truth to power is still a man's greatest gift to mankind.

    Thanks for posting this Jonathan. Until I read this, I had imposed upon myself a shell of isolation, similar to the one I'd employed since 1980 to protect me from the insanities of our American 'regimes' who lead the world into harm's way.

    But I must stop existing in this shell and speak up. Life without doing so is a faux existence merely prolonging my faux sanity in these insane times.

    It is good to hear my voice, even if I'm only echoing Putin and your words. Again, many thanks and best wishes!

    1. Thank you Mike. I must admit I have had been burned MANY times by insisting that we have much to learn from the rest of the world. Unfortunately, it's a message many of my fellow countrymen do NOT want to hear. So about halfway through writing this post last night, I came real close to throwing it out. So I really appreciate your comment.

  2. You are welcome Jonathan. And I have a message for the labelmakers of the world, meaning those people who try so hard to put a label on a person as being a leftie or a liberal or a conservative or socialist or (this could go on for a long time) is the new definition of a 'political activist' =

    Anyone who is willing to do anything political.

    We are tired of gridlock and of the moneyed elites throwing their weight around. One day I'll call out the conservatives and the next I'll call out the liberals and the next the no small measure because these are false labels put on people who hold within themselves stances that might fall into any box or even transcend them.

    We just want to see society problems addressed. To try stuff and tweak it to make it better when the ever-present unintended consequences appear AND when the corrupting forces start their process of extracting their pound of our flesh.