Point of View Columns

Playing with Fire (Part II)

It appears that, for the moment, the Obama Administration has avoided the potential twin disasters of involving this country in yet another war-not-war in the Arab-Muslim world while simultaneously being repudiated by a majority of the people who voted for President Obama in 2012. In a scene straight out of “The Perils of Pauline”, none other than Vladimir Putin stepped in and put forward a proposal to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. Fortunately, the Obama Administration put a leash on its military dog and agreed to stand down.

We will now witness a series of diplomatic and political maneuverings that may or may not result in the destruction of Syria’s weapons of mass destruction. In the meantime we cautiously hope that President Obama will not come to the conclusion that he has to declare another “red line” as justification for this country committing unilateral acts of war.

While we can slowly exhale as this country grudgingly retreats from the brink of yet another war without end, we should take a moment to determine how this dilemma came about. We have been told that somehow, after the death of over 100,000 Syrians, the use of chemical weapons finally made this multi-year massacre too horrible. The fact that the United Nations had not as yet come to this conclusion was brushed aside with talk of the “moral imperative” that makes this country “exceptional”.

It is always dangerous to believe in any person or any country being infallible. It is also dangerous for the President of the United States to seriously believe that the unilateral use of military force is justifiable even when the security of this country is not directly (or indirectly threatened). And it is definitely dangerous for us to believe that we won’t find this country slip sliding to another blood soaked precipice under this president or a future president, unless and until the people of this country start to rethink this whole business of “exceptionalism”.

Historically speaking there are certainly “exceptional” aspects pertaining to the establishment of representative government, however flawed that government was at the outset, even to this day. But there is nothing particularly exceptional about countenancing the slavery of black Americans.

And there is nothing noteworthy about a governmental policy of genocide committed against Native Americans or denying suffrage and basic rights to women for over a century or a legalized apartheid system that succeeded slavery and whose vestiges remain to this day. And there is certainly nothing “exceptional” about a country that acknowledges incredible economic and quality of life disparities as the “American Way”.

This country is made up of many good people who desire a just and fair society – however that may be defined. But the people of this country have an “exceptional” capacity for believing that unilateral American military action makes sense to the rest of the world. And Americans have the further “exceptional” capacity for believing that any retaliation is unjust, unwarranted and deserving of further retaliation. Of course, this is exactly how wars have been started since the beginning of time.

The United States of America should not be branded as either the Policeman of the Planet or the Global Bully. There is no reason for this country to undertake the Sisyphean task of ridding this world of cruelty and injustice by itself. Aside from the fact that it is virtually impossible to tell the “good guys” from the “bad guys” in Syria or elsewhere, there are also legions of lobbyists and professional persuaders who will advance one cause or another based solely upon fees that are paid for their services.

Engaging in a bit of alternative history one wonders on whose side these United States would intervene in a war between its ally England and the colonist terrorists of America? And who would these United States support in a protracted civil war between the Confederacy that was committed to self-determination and the economically and militarily superior Union? Perhaps a negotiated settlement would have been preferable?

The point is, of course, that the world is complicated. Its problems are vexing. And solutions rarely come out of the barrel of a gun or at the tip of a Tomahawk missile.

We can hope that President Obama, and future presidents, have learned a lesson as this country has for now averted another potentially bloody disaster.


2 thoughts on “Playing with Fire (Part II)

  1. I must take great ‘exception’ to your views on American Exceptionalism as proffered in your very fine article of September 16, 2013, “Playing with Fire (Part II)” . Your description of it, in no way relates to how it was taught to me. In fact, what I learned bears no resemblance to the cynical lightning rod that many have mangled it to become.

    I include among those employing this revisionist definition, or purposeful obfuscation, our current commander in chief. President. Obama, like Putin, and almost any college professor today, will flavor the phrase American Exceptionalism as a value judgment. It is ill applied as an encapsulation of a “we are better than anybody else” proposition. This unfortunate, snobbish characterization is very convenient for those espousing a variety of gripes, claims and insults against the Untied States.

    That is not what I learned, not what I understand to be America’s exceptional element. Namely, it isn’t a braggadocios statement. Even the U.S. communist party, that coined the phrase back in the ‘20s, admitted that it was America’s ‘founding principles’ that would prolong, but not avoid, the ultimate collapse of a capitalistic society. “Prolong but not avoid”, because they were, after all, communists and that was a close to contrition as they dared.

    My understanding is that prior to America’s emergence on the world stage, the vast majority, with very few exceptions, of the humans who ever inhabited the earth, lived under some sort of tyranny, feudalism, theocracy or slavery. Their hopes, dreams and ambitions were squashed under the thumb of royalty, dismissed by the whims of a potentate or drowned by the desires of an Emperor.

    Then America stated to the world the self-evident truth that ‘all men are created equal’. And here’s the really good part, ‘endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights, among which are Life, Liberty and The Pursuit of Happiness.’ And hence the first firewall was born. One that stated, no man or group of men can take away the rights you were born with, without due process and the consent of a jury of your peers.

    As I learned, that was the first time in human existence that the superiority of ‘certain men’ was challenged and countered in favor of the individual. The America that followed based its core principles on the preservation of individual. The rights of the individual were then codified into the Constitution and clarified in the Bill of Rights. It is the holding sacred and above all else, the rights of the Individual that is the exceptional idea. The exception to all the other human experiences on the globe. It was true then and sadly, for the most part, true today.

    The opposite of the individual is the collective. The erosion of the individual only comes with the expansion of government – when that government becomes the tool of the collective. Which each incursion into an individual’s liberty, with each nibble at the inalienable rights, the government expands as the individual contracts. For the individual stands on the only real estate on which the powers of government can expand.

    So far from bragging or being a statement of national pride, American exceptionalism is based in the plain fact that a government FOUNDED to protect the individual was, and still remains, the exception in the human experience.

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