We’ve now begun some very limited military action in Iraq, with airstrikes hitting artillery positions of the Islamic State (IS), combined with airdrops of food and water to the group of Yazidis stranded on a mountaintop where they fled from IS. Naturally, the Obama administration’s opponents are saying it isn’t enough.
In a certain sense, they’re right. Unless we significantly scale up our military involvement there, what we do is unlikely to have a dramatic, lasting effect on IS. The point seems to be to find some way to help without putting American personnel at risk or sucking us back into Iraq in a major way (like Michael Corleone, every time Obama thinks he’s out of that benighted place, they pull him back in). This is Obama’s military doctrine in action. It won’t bring us glorious military victories, but it also won’t bring us military disasters.
When he ran for president, Obama promised a new approach to military involvement overseas, one defined by limited actions with clear objectives and exit strategies. It was to be a clean break with the Bush doctrine that had given us the debacle of the Iraq War: no grand military ambitions, no open-ended conflicts, no naïve dreams of remaking countries half a world away.
Of necessity, that means American military action is reactive. Instead of looking around for someone to invade, this administration has tried to help tamp down conflicts when they occur, and use force only when there seems no other option — and when it looks like it might actually accomplish something, and not create more problems than it solves.
But even though it’s designed to avoid huge disasters, this approach carries its own risks, particularly when we confront situations like the one in Iraq where there are few good options. We can take some action to keep IS out of the Kurdish north, but that might leave them just as strong, with their maniacal fundamentalism still threatening the entire region. IS is a truly ghastly bunch, with ambitions that seem unlimited. Obama said he was acting “to prevent a potential act of genocide.” What if it happens anyway, and we could have done more?
On the other hand, we could get sucked bit by bit into a larger military involvement to help the fragile Iraqi government deal with this very real threat, and find ourselves back with a significant presence in Iraq — precisely the situation few Americans, not least the President, want. And for all we know that could produce new problems, both the kind we can anticipate and the kind we can’t.
So a cautious approach contains no guarantees, and no one is likely to find it particularly satisfying. And this may ultimately be the point: When your doctrine is built in part on the idea that some problems have no good solutions, and you have to pick the least base one, there will inevitably be situations where even the best outcome doesn’t look anything like success.
Whether or not the public will accept this remains to be seen. But we do know that Republicans are not prepared to accept it. Many of them plainly hunger for glorious military crusades, where we sweep in with all those fancy toys we spend hundreds of billions on every year, and save the day to the cheers of the oppressed populace. This was the spirit that animated the Bush years, when the same people now criticizing Obama were convinced that we’d be “greeted as liberators” in Iraq, then quickly set up a thriving and peaceful state that would spread the light of democracy throughout the region.
The fact that they were so spectacularly wrong about that, and the result was so much death and chaos, doesn’t seem to have diminished their desire for that glory, nor their faith in the ability of American military power to solve problems anywhere and everywhere. Whatever course Obama chooses, in this and every conflict, their position is always the same: we need more. More force, more bombing, more toughness is always the answer. Part of this is just reflexive opposition to this president; if Obama announced tomorrow that he was going to nuke the moon, they’d call him weak for not attacking the sun. But it also reflects a desire that was there during the last Republican presidency and will be there in the next one.
It’s related to the “American exceptionalism” conservatives talk about so rapturously, not only that we’re the strongest and the richest but the best, the world’s most noble people whom God himself has granted dominion over the earth (I exaggerate only slightly). Within this belief lies the conviction that there is almost nothing we can’t do, and nothing our military can’t do.
Barack Obama doesn’t believe that. He knows there are actually many things we can’t do, and the Iraq War is all the proof you need. By shaping his foreign policy around that reality, he has removed from it the potential for glory. “We did what we could, and stopped things from getting worse” isn’t the kind of result you hold a parade to celebrate. But if in the end we can say that, it might be enough.
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect; Published at The Plum Line, The Washington Post, August 8, 2014
Last year, radio host Rush Limbaugh published a children’s book called Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims. For those unfamiliar with it, msnbc’s Traci G. Lee reported a while back that the book “tells the story of a fictional history teacher named Rush Revere, who travels back in time to experience the pilgrims’ journey to America and their first Thanksgiving in the New World.”
A year later, Conor Friedersdorf reports that at least one third-grade teacher has embraced the book to teach children about, of all things, the Civil War.
A woman named Ivy, an elementary-school teacher from Summerville, South Carolina, is using material from a Rush Limbaugh book as part of the history curriculum for her third graders. Her husband alerted her to the children’s title, Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims: Time Travel Adventures With Brave Americans. She read it immediately. “And I said, ‘Okay, how am I gonna incorporate this book into the classroom?’ because the kids need to hear it,” she explained during a Wednesday call to Rush Limbaugh’s program. “They need to read this book.”
She recognized just one problem. “The dilemma is that we don’t teach the Pilgrims in the third grade,” she said. But a popular talk-radio host had written a book! The mere fact that it covered a period of history her students weren’t learning about wasn’t going to dissuade her from getting Limbaugh into the classroom.
The teacher, who called into Limbaugh’s show today, apparently explained, “So what I decided to do was to use your author’s note that explains the principles of the founders in our country as a way to introduce the Civil War. And from there, I decided, well, I’m gonna go ahead and read a little bit of this book ‘cause I need these kids to get excited about it. Even if I can’t finish it, I’ll give a book talk and then they can go out to the library and get it, and so forth.”
I guess the teacher deserves credit for creativity, if nothing else. “Ivy” is taking a Rush Limbaugh book about a talking horse on the deck of the Mayflower to teach kids about the Civil War, which took place more than two centuries later.
How? Because of American exceptionalism, of course.
As Friedersdorf’s piece went on to explain, the teacher told Rush, “[B]ecause of what you said in the book and the way that you explained the Founders’ passion for our country, it was because of that that slavery inevitably was abolished.”
Seriously? A school teacher responsible for instructions on history actually thinks this way? Does she not know what the Founders did on the issue of slavery?
After his chat with “Ivy” and before a commercial break, Limbaugh told listeners, “For people like Obama and Eric Holder, I believe – and there will never be any way to prove this because they would never admit this – but I believe that there is a genuine, long held, deeply felt contempt for the Constitution. And it’s all about slavery…. That’s the chip on their shoulder.”
Coming soon to an elementary school near you?
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, August 6, 2014
As sincerely as I wish everyone involved with the George W. Bush administration would just go away — or at least agree to only appear in the public eye in brief, tweet-size increments — I must admit that I think the recent kerfuffle over former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Rutgers University has been valuable, if only for the way it’s laid bare some of American society’s ugliest hypocrisies and quirks. I’m thinking of two in particular: the contradictory demands we make of our college students, and the intellectual ravages of our toxic cult of American exceptionalism.
For those who don’t know, here’s a quick recap of the incident: After a vocal student outcry at her selection, Rice decided she would not accept the university’s offer to speak at this year’s commencement, walking away from $35,000 and an honorary doctorate. “Commencement should be a time of joyous celebration for the graduates and their families,” Rice wrote in a Facebook note explaining her decision. Describing her invitation as “a distraction for the university community at this very special time,” Rice took the high road and swiftly put the controversy to rest by bowing out.
Because hers was just one of a recent handful of commencement reversals — the International Monetary Fund’s Christine Lagarde withdrew from a Smith College engagement, as did Robert Birgeneau from one at Haverford College — some pundits have since argued that Rice’s concession is proof that “liberal intolerance” is ascendant, threatening academic freedom and free speech all across our nation’s campuses. (To her credit, Rice disagreed, writing in her Facebook note that while she has “defended America’s belief in free speech and the exchange of ideas” these values are “not what is at issue here.”) Other, smarter pundits have instead claimed that her story is an example of college kids being intellectual hothouse flowers, incapable of gracefully listening to opinions they don’t like without throwing a fit.
Olivia Nuzzi of the Daily Beast, for example, wrote with obvious frustration that the class of 2014 needs to “calm the hell down” and recognize that “oftentimes you find great wisdom in shitty people.” Before declaring that young people “are the worst” (which, considering Nuzzi’s own young age, was almost certainly written with tongue slightly in cheek) Nuzzi writes that the “entire point of college is to be exposed to different things,” a truism that 2014 graduates of Rutgers and Smith shamefully forgot. “[M]aybe some of those people will hail from organizations that negatively impacted poor countries, or maybe they were partly responsible for a war that ate up the country’s resources and resulted in human rights abuses and lots of needless death,” Nuzzi grants. But still.
At the Week, meanwhile, Damon Linker took Nuzzi’s attack one step further, arguing that not only did these students fail to understand the point of college but that they were perpetuating “the tyranny of right-thinking moralism” that is ruining America’s institutions of higher learning. Noting that he, too, opposed the war of choice that will forever be Rice’s chief legacy, Linker writes that “[t]he world is an imperfect and morally complicated place, filled with people who regularly do things I consider wrong, stupid, misguided, foolish, and unethical” but that such people should still not be “excommunicated, ignored, or banished from public life.” Besides, Linker writes, what good does protesting Rice serve “beyond convincing the protesters of their own moral superiority?”
Two thoughts. First (and less important) is that bashing college kids — especially ones who are defined by their idealism and hunger for change — remains one of our most widely accepted and least logically defensible pastimes. Despite telling ourselves that we in America value youth, education and self-expression, there are few cultural archetypes more universally loathed than the campus activist. We say we want our kids to be independent, informed, fearless and disruptive, but then we attack, patronize and demean them as soon as they decide they’d like to be more than seen and not heard. (This dynamic is especially unfortunate when played out among the press. As my friend Ned Resnikoff snarked on Twitter, “What made you guys all want to be journalists? For me it was the thrill and fulfillment that comes with mocking college activists.”)
Moreover, there’s something particularly nonsensical about thwacking a bunch of students for supposedly ignoring the right to free speech when all they’ve done is exercise that right for themselves by peacefully organizing and expressing their disapproval.
The other (and more important) thing that comes to mind when surveying the backlash to the Rice backlash is the corrosive effect American exceptionalism can have on even the smartest and most skeptical among us. In both Nuzzi and Linker’s pieces — as well as a similar one from GOP pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson — opposition to Rice is framed in partisan or ideological terms. Students don’t like Rice, we’re led to assume, because she’s a Republican, full stop. But while I’m sure that’s the case for at least some of the kids at Rutgers — who must be disappointed to hear that Rice’s replacement will be Tom Kean, another GOPer — it’s also a real misrepresentation of the fundamental problem with Rice and other top-tier members of the second Bush presidency. The implication is that the mistakes made by the last GOP president are more or less within the normal bounds of American politics, as if initiating an arguably illegal war and systematically flouting the Geneva Conventions is the same thing as cutting the estate tax or privatizing Social Security.
It shouldn’t be necessary to say this, but: They’re not. And it’s only in a political world where the lives of non-Americans are unconsciously considered less valuable that such thinking could survive. To be clear, I’m not accusing Nuzzi or Linker of knowingly devaluing human life — Nuzzi describes the Iraq War in strongly negative terms, and Linker so hated Bush’s decision to invade Iraq that he left the Republican Party. Instead, what I’m arguing is that our mainstream political debate is so saturated with unstated assumptions about our inherent goodness, our natural righteousness, and our basic decency that serious war crimes, when committed by American politicians, are sanitized as matters of differing opinion. (And in Rice’s case, it’s not as if we can pretend that she was somehow only tangentially related to the administration’s worst crimes — here she is, back in 2009, defending torture with the Nixonian logic that nothing a president commands in service of national security can possibly be illegal.)
As if to make my point for me, the New York Times recently ran an Op-Ed from Timothy Egan in which Rice’s failures and mistakes — which, remember, cost perhaps as many as 500,000 human lives while wrecking millions more — are dismissed with a chilling breeziness. “Near as I can tell, the forces of intolerance objected to her role in the Iraq war,” Egan writes (apparently unaware that the magic of Google allows him to find the protesters explaining their objections in their own words). “The foreign policy that Rice guided for George W. Bush,” Egan continues, “was clearly a debacle … But if every speaker has to pass a test for benign mediocrity and politically correct sensitivity, commencement stages will be home to nothing but milquetoasts.” Taking the already grotesque line that non-American life is less important than entertainment to an even more hideous extreme, Egan continues, “You want torture? Try listening to the Stanford speech of 2009, when Justice Anthony M. Kennedy gave an interminable address on the intricacies of international law, under a broiling sun, with almost no mention of the graduates.”
So there you have it: Torture, when sanctioned by Americans, is basically a joking matter, an experience that’s comparable to being bored while sitting in the sun. And it’s the students at Rutgers who are the problem?
By: Elias Isquith, Salon, May 17, 2014
Dear President Putin,
Thank you so much for your letter to the American people! I am an American person, and when I learned on Thursday from the official Russian news agency, the New York Times, that you wanted “to speak directly to the American people,” I thought: How sweet!
I know I speak for many American people when I congratulate you on your English. It was flawless, with none of those dropped articles that plague so many of your countrymen. Please don’t be offended, but I have to ask: Did Edward Snowden help you with your letter?
It’s not just your English that impressed me. Your geopolitical points were smart — da bomb, as we American people like to say. (This is not the kind that would be used in Syria.) You were so thoughtful to bring up those memories of our days long ago as allies, and your references to “mutual trust” and “shared success” make me think that maybe we could be friends again. Your favorable mentions of Israel and the Pope remind me that we have so much in common.
Although some of us think it’s a good idea to have the U.S. military strike Syria, most of the American people agree with you that it would be a bad idea. (President Obama, you may have heard, is on both sides of the issue.) Your arguments against attack were creative, which is why it’s such a shame that, at the very end, you kind of stepped in it. When you told us that Americans are not “exceptional” — well, that hurts all of us American people.
I was surprised by this lapse because I think you really “get” Americans. When we saw photos of you shirtless in Siberia, you brought to mind one of our most celebrated American lawmakers, Anthony Weiner. When we watched you navigate around Russian laws to stay in power, you brought to mind another quintessentially American figure, Rod Blagojevich. The Harley-Davidson, the black clothing, the mistress half your age — you are practically American yourself.
This makes your crack about “American exceptionalism” all the more perplexing. “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional,” you wrote. “We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.” (Thank you for the considerate mention of God, by the way; American people respond well to that.) But I’m guessing what went wrong here is your translators let you down when they defined exceptional for you as luchshyy (better) rather than razlichnyy (different).
Americans do not believe they are better than other peoples. If you doubt this, you need only look at Congress. If we really thought we were superior, is there any chance we would choose them to represent us? There are exceptions — we think we are better than Canadians, for example, but please don’t tell them, because they’re awfully nice — but generally we accept that all countries have their strengths. We know, for example, that Russians are better than us at producing delicacies such as caviar and dioxin. (Kidding!)
When we say we are exceptional, what we really are saying is we are different. With few exceptions, we are all strangers to our land; our families came from all corners of the world and brought all of its colors, religions and languages. We believe this mixing, together with our free society, has produced generations of creative energy and ingenuity, from the Declaration of Independence to Facebook, from Thomas Jefferson to Miley Cyrus. There is no other country quite like that.
Americans aren’t better than others, but our American experience is unique — exceptional — and it has created the world’s most powerful economy and military, which, more often than not, has been used for good in the world. When you question American exceptionalism, you will find little support from any of us, liberals or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans, doves or hawks.
I hope you won’t take this criticism badly, because I offer it in friendship. I was in Slovenia that day in 2001 when President George W. Bush looked into your soul and liked what he saw. And had your ancestors not chased my ancestors out of Eastern Europe, I would not be here today, participating in the American experiment.
Anyway, it was such a pleasure to get your letter. Please write again soon. I think this is the beginning of an exceptional friendship.
By: Dana Milbank, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 12, 2013
“Yes, Vladimir, America Is Exceptional”: It’s Much, Much Better Than That Pink Negligee Russian Kind
As I read Vladimir Putin’s sanctimonious op-edabout U.S. policy in Syria, I imagined the Russian president sitting at the keyboard in a lovely pink negligee.
You will recall that when a satirical painting of Putin in lingerie went on display last month in St. Petersburg, police seized the offending artwork and shut down the exhibit. The artist, Konstantin Altunin, fled the country and is seeking asylum in France. No doubt he wanted to avoid the fate of the punk rock group Pussy Riot, three of whose members were arrested and sentenced to years in prison for an anti-Putin performance in a Moscow cathedral.
So when Putin tries to lecture “the American people and their political leaders” from a position of moral superiority, no one on earth can take him seriously. As for Syria, the sinister and barbarous government of dictator Bashar al-Assad would not last one week without the military hardware that Russia generously provides. Putin thus has the blood of tens of thousands of civilians on his hands.
Putin’s piece in the New York Times does raise an interesting question, however: Has President Obama, the patient seeker of multilateral solutions, now embraced the idea of American exceptionalism?
“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation,” Putin wrote. (Once again, I couldn’t avoid that truly exceptional image with the negligee.)
I, too, was struck by this passage at the end of Obama’s speech:
“America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. 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.”
If this sounds like a big change in Obama’s worldview, you’ve been paying too much attention to the right-wing echo chamber — and not enough to what Obama actually says and does.
It is an article of faith among Obama’s critics that he believes the United States is just a regular country, no better or worse than others, and that, accordingly, he seeks to abdicate any leadership role in the world. Where do these critics get such an idea? From their own fevered imaginations, mostly.
What is supposed to be the smoking-gun quote came in 2009, when Obama, responding to a question during an overseas trip, said the following: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Aha, said the critics. He believes we’re just like post-empire Britain and bankrupt Greece.
But if you read the rest of the quote, the president was clearly saying that most people around the world have national pride — but the United States, in his view, is indeed unique.
He spoke of unmatched U.S. economic and military power. He said he was “enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world.” And he added that “we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.”
Ronald Reagan said it more poetically with “shining city on a hill,” but the idea is the same. Obama has told audiences many times that his life story would not have been possible in any other country. If anyone doubts his willingness to throw American weight around, with or without support from other nations, go ask for opinions in the places where missile-firing U.S. drones circle ominously overhead.
To me, the concept of exceptionalism underpins Obama’s strongest argument for taking military action in Syria. When we see more than 1,400 men, women and children killed with poison gas, it is not our nature to look away. We ask ourselves whether there is anything we should do. We weigh the costs and benefits, the risks and rewards, and we do what we can. The moral case for a strike against the Assad regime is predicated on the fact that if the United States doesn’t do something, nobody will.
Yes, Mr. Putin, you can call that American exceptionalism. I like it a lot better than the Russian kind.
By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 12, 2013