this, while appealing to the American people for support for his option to attack Syria, Obama tried to explain what it meant for America to be called "exceptional" (This occurs at around the 16:50 mark of the video on the right. This video comes from the PBS Newshour). And at around the 14:38 mark, President Obama tells of how America has maintained global security for the last seven decades. However, the New York Times printed an opposing viewpoint to this claim in the form of an op-ed. The op-ed was written by Vladimir Putin, the leader of Russia. Putin not only disagreed with Obama about America being exceptional, he said that it was "dangerous" for any people to see themselves as being "exceptional." Who is right?
What is wrong with claiming to be exceptional when one can back it up? What if one is the special case compared to all others? What if one's mission in the world is to civilize it? What if all other nations are barbarians and one is above them? Can one claim to be exceptional then? According to Benjamin Barber's Fear's Empire, America has made many of these claims about itself, but so have the Swiss, the French, Athens, the Chinese, and the Germans. In other words, claiming to be special is normal. And according to Barber, America is exceptional at claiming to be special.
See, America is saying more than just it is unique, it is claiming to be better, superior. And in claiming this, it is declaring itself to be more virtuous in terms of its character and history--which was explicitly stated in Obama's claims about America's role in maintaining global security. So either America can back up this claim or it is living in denial. According to Noam Chomsky (see the video that is with this paragraph), the latter is the case. The latter is the case because of our past actions in Iran in '53, Guatemala in '54, Vietnam during the '60s and '70s, Chile in '73, Central America in the '80s, and Iraq in 2003. We should note that these cases are the ones that Chomsky listed in this interview. There are other instances of similar American interventions that could have been mentioned as well.
Chomsky also points out that there are even legal problems with Obama's previous threat to respond to Syria's use of chemical weapons with force. That is because threatening to use force is against the UN Charter. Finally, Chomsky notes that Syria must give up its chemical weapons. But he adds that Israel, which has never ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, should also eliminate its chemical weapons. America, however, is not making the same requirements of Israel as it is of Syria. And this denial-based sense of virtue seems impervious to inconsistencies from both the past and the present.
However, there is an assumption, in addition to being innocent and virtuous, that comes with the claim of being exceptional. That assumption deals with accountability in that by being so exceptional, the world is accountable to America but not vice-versa. America's leaders are accountable to no one. And considering how America's voting public is kept in the dark about American foreign policies and interventions, America's leaders are not even accountable to their own voters. Rather, the public is sold a bill of goods based on a very selective list of ingredients.
So is it dangerous for any country that has moral delusions of grandeur to not recognize any accountability to others while possessing the world's greatest military? It would seem that even Putin, who conducts brutal wars against the people in Chechnya, whose country sees a high number of deaths of journalists, whose country suppress gay rights, and whose government suppresses the free speech of those who criticize it could make this case against Obama's claim of American Exceptionalism. And that is what is so tragically ironic. For as Putin is to his own country, Obama and the Presidents who preceded him are, at least to some degree, to the world.
Are the moral concerns about the use of Sarin gas legitimate? Yes! But who used the gas? And should we feel nothing toward the other victims of the other atrocities committed by both sides? And should we not look at the double standards we are applying to others in the region? And should we not look at who is benefitting from this carnage? Is it not the two major outside players in the conflict? Russia benefits from Syria's actions just as America benefits from Egypt's and Bahrain's. In the meantime, America and Israel gain other benefits from Syria's self-destruction (see Chomsky's comments on Syria in this article).
While voters to military leaders to even G20 leaders express concerns about an airstrike, the President wants to keep the military option on the table. In addition, the people from Syria suffer because of those outside players who could help stop the carnage are benefitting to much from the brutality to stop the fighting. All of this comes from a lack of human compassion as well as the well-established precedence of ignoring international law by those with power so long as there is a financial or strategic gain. So while America might be exceptional in terms of its military strength, the rest of its character is the same old, same old.
None of the posturing that is currently being done either by America or Russia is really helping the Syrian people. For almost 100,000 people have been killed the old-fashioned way: with bullets and bombs. Atrocities have been committed by both the rebels and Syria's government forces. And rebels are a mixed group including foreign fighters some of whom are from Al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, Russia is protecting its first concern: arms sales. At the same time, America is protecting its first concern: strategic control. And as usual, the people are caught in the middle. Though I can't agree with Obama's view of America being exceptional, I very much wish an exceptional party would show up. And what would make that party exceptional would be if that party worked for peace without exercising any self-interest.