Monday, July 06, 2009


American Exceptionalism

One of the latest forms of condemnation that the conservatives have found against Mr. Obama is that he doesn't believe in or assert the concept of American Exceptionalism. According to this concept America (i.e., the United States of America) has only good, benevolent intentions toward the rest of the world. We do not desire to acquire territory. We do not desire to impose our way of life on others, but we believe fervently in free speech, free and open elections, and government of, by, and for the people. We are unique and exceptional in that respect. No other country expresses and follows these high, altruistic ideals.

At least that's what American Exceptionalists believe and want the President to express. Mr. Obama, however, has publicly stated that each country has its own exceptional properties and values and they must be respected. That statement gets the conservatives really excited and up in arms. How dare our President admit that other nations are exceptional, also. How dare he say that our values are no better than the values of the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Chinese, the Italians, etc. These other countries are greedy, venal, and intolerant. They're bad and we're good. Why can't our President say so?

This notion of American moral and ethical superiority led the Bush Administration to make some serious blunders in our treatment of other countries. Not only did the Bushies believe in our moral rectitude, they believed in our military invincibility. There was no sense of humility or caution in the early days of the Bush administration. I think toward the end there was a realization that they had been over-confident and a bit arrogant. Mr. Obama now has to go to great efforts to change that perception of this country. After eight years of Bush, it is time for a little humility.

If I could have a conversation with a conservative who believes in asserting American Exceptionalism, I would ask him about some rather famous foreign policy blunders that seemed to show that the United States was not interested in spreading the ideals of democracy around the world but rather in soliciting allies in a contest with other great powers, particularly the Soviet Union and China. We overthrew democratically elected leaders in Iran (1953), in Guatemala (1953 or 54), and in Chile (about 1974). In each case the deposed leader was replaced by a dictator: the Shah of Iran, the generals in Nicaragua and Chile. These are notorious examples of showing the world that we have no interest in democracy if it's a matter of denying the Russians an ally.

Another famous conservative, President Calvin Coolidge, once said that "the business of America is business." He was correct, honest, and truthful. These examples I have just cited all related to business. In Iran, the democratic leader, Mohammad Mossadegh, was thought to be inclined to enter into a trade agreement with the Soviet Union that would give the Russians control over the oil wealth of Iran. That would be bad for American businesses and Mossadegh had to be gotten rid of. In Guatemala the socialist president, Jacobo Arbenz, was about to nationalilze the agriculture, particularly the banana business. Our Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, was rather heavily invested in United Fruit Corporation. Arbenz was about to do something that would depress the value of his stock. It was easy for Dulles to persuade President Eisenhower that Arbenz was a Communist and as such he had to be taken out.

The case of Chile is a little more difficult for me to fathom. This may have been a case of Kissinger's view of Realpolitik and his determination to deny the Russians another ally in the western hemisphere. They already had Cuba, a thorn in America's side, and Chile was one too many. We do not have any oil interest in Chile. Neither Kissinger nor Nixon held stocks in Chilean companies that export nitrate fertilizer, and vegetables and fruits that come into season at a time to complement the agriculture of California.

In spite of my critical rant, I agree that we are an exceptional country. We have an exceptional range of climates. We have an exceptional range of religious beliefs with almost everyone living in harmony with others. I believe this in spite of the murder of Dr. Tiller in Kansas a few weeks ago by some religious fanatics. Our fanatics are not as well organized or as numerous as the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. One thing I do not agree with is the assertion that we are a democratic country or that we have a truly representative form of government. Our government is constructed such that it is possible for 41 senators representing twenty-one of the least populous states to prevent the majority from taking action. These senators may represent as few as ten percent of the total population of the country. Our country was designed to be governed not by majority rule but by consensus. But, that's another subject.

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