Perhaps Not So Exceptional After All
understand the impact in the United States of the photos of U.S.
military personnel abusing Iraqi prisoners, it is necessary to recall
what then-Secretary of State Elihu Root said in 1899, as the country
first emerged as a global power in the Spanish-American War.
American soldier, he said, is "different from all other soldiers
of all other countries since the world began. He is the advance
guard of liberty and justice, of law and order and of peace and
happiness," Root declared, capturing the spirit of historical
inevitability and "national greatness," as Theodore Roosevelt
called it, that swept the country as it routed the forces of a decadent
Spanish Empire from the Caribbean and the Pacific.
was "Manifest Destiny II," and just as, in its first incarnation,
the original 13 states that hugged the Atlantic seaboard in the
18th century expanded to the shores of the Pacific, annexing large
parts of Mexico and wiping out most of the native indigenous population
in the process, so the expansion at the turn of the 20th century
was seen as the necessary fulfillment of Providence to spread
the blessings of American civilization, as described by Root and
Roosevelt, from Puerto Rico to the Philippines.
relative ease with which this was accomplished naturally contributed
to the notion that the United States was an "exceptional"
country, one singled out by divine Providence for a higher purpose,
a moral mission that dates back to the 17th century Puritans who
colonized Massachusetts and whose "Calvinist cast of mind saw
America as the redeemer nation" that would build "a city
on a hill" for all the world to follow, according to Harvard
historian Arthur Schlesinger.
notion is a constant throughout US history. "I believe that
God planted in us the vision of liberty," declared President
Woodrow Wilson as Washington entered World War I. "I cannot
be deprived of the hope that we are chosen, and prominently chosen,
to show the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths
of liberty," he added.
continuing growth of US global power, particularly its defeat of
Nazi Germany, confirmed the country's moral exceptionalism, as did
the collapse of Soviet communism just 15 years ago. It is in this
context that Francis Fukuyama's The
End of History thesis that after 8,000 years of social
development, humankind had discovered that liberal, democratic capitalism,
preferably of the US variety, was the answer could become
a best seller.
was likewise in this context that other neo-conservative thinkers,
notably William Kristol and Robert Kagan, revived Roosevelt's idea
of "national greatness" with an explicitly moral underpinning.
the eve of founding the Project for the New American Century (PNAC)
whose charter would be signed by many top officials of the
future Bush administration they alluded explicitly both to
Roosevelt and US exceptionalism by arguing for a "neo-Reaganite
foreign policy (that) would be good for conservatives, good for
America and good for the world."
was time, they wrote in 1997, for Washington to turn its back on
the 170-year-old admonition of an earlier president, John Quincy
Adams, that America should not go "abroad in search of monsters
unacceptable alternative, they argued, "is to leave monsters
on the loose, ravaging and pillaging to their hearts' content, as
Americans stand by and watch." Given the enormous power of
the US and "the understanding that its moral goals and its
fundamental national interests are almost always in harmony,"
the two wrote, failure to slay the monsters "becomes in practice
a policy of cowardice and dishonor."
notion that US "moral goals and fundamental national interests"
are virtually identical is often dismissed by people outside the
United States who believe that US elites are motivated primarily
by greed and power in the case of Iraq perhaps, by oil
just like the colonial powers of Europe.
some extent, of course, this is true, but, as noted by Owen Harries,
an astute Australian observer who edited the US journal National
Interest for many years, European pretensions of a moral or
civilizing mission were "episodic and not deeply rooted
usually limited to when their power was at its zenith and usually
clearly recognizable as a rationalization for what they were doing
for other reasons. In the case of the United States, it has been
constant and central."
moral exceptionalism can be traced all the way back to the very
first settlers who established a "city upon a hill" to
serve as a beacon for the rest of the world, to President Thomas
Jefferson's description of the US as an "empire of liberty"
as opposed to European empires of territory, straight through Manifest
Destinies I and II, World Wars I and II and the Cold War.
America's emergence as a world power roughly a century ago, we have
made many errors," wrote Elliott Abrams, a PNAC Charter signatory
and currently the top Middle East aide to National Security Adviser
Condoleezza Rice, back in 2000.
we have been the greatest force for good among the nations of the
earth. A diminution of American power or influence bodes ill for
our country, our friends and our principles," he added.
indeed is why it is so important, in the view of US "exceptionalists,"
that Washington retain its freedom of action and not be accountable
to multilateral organizations, like the United Nations, or even
to international law.
exceptionalism dictates unilateralism. If the United States, after
all, is morally superior to other nations, such as China or France,
then tying it to the decisions of the U.N. Security Council, for
example, would in itself be immoral, as pointed out by Charles Krauthammer,
a neo-conservative columnist for the Washington Post.
what moral calculus," he asked on the eve of last year's Iraq
invasion, "does an American intervention to liberate 25 million
people forfeit legitimacy because it lacks the blessing of the butchers
of Tienanmen Square or the cynics of the Quai d'Orsay"?
the vanguard of that moral superiority, the US soldier, "different
from all other soldiers from all other countries since the world
began," has always been expected to embody the country's extraordinary
is what makes the photos from Abu Ghraib so shocking. They put into
question the whole notion of US exceptionalism, just as similar
photos of the victims of the My Lai massacre, of US troops setting
fire to peasants' huts with their Zippo lighters, and of a terrified
young girl burned by napalm running naked down a highway helped
turn the nation against the Vietnam War and military intervention
35 years ago.
is why those who defend the war are insisting, contrary to mounting
evidence, that the abuses depicted there are an aberration committed
by just a handful of rogue elements.
is a force for good," sputtered Representative Duncan Hunter,
the chairman of the political body that oversees the military, the
House Armed Services Committee, as the photo scandal swirled around
Washington this week.
as Krauthammer himself wrote Friday, the perpetrators of the abuses
"do not reflect the ethos of the US military, which has performed
with remarkable grace and courage in Iraq, or of US society."
troops are changing the world and building a future for the people
of Iraq sacrificing more than most of us can know for the
survival and success of liberty," House Majority Leader Tom
DeLay insisted this week.
Iraqi Freedom, whatever flaws it may have, has been an absolute
Lobe is Inter Press Service's correspondent in Washington, DC.
© 2004 Inter Press Service