Exceptionalism and universalism are the third rails in the U.S.: Any public figure who questions either will suffer a kind of political electrocution.
By Patrick Lawrence
Special to Consortium News
“’It is time to end the forever war.’” That is The New York Times quoting Joe Biden in a banner headline across six columns last Wednesday, when our president announced his plans to withdraw all remaining U.S. “combat” troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11.
Foreign Policy put it this way the following day: “Biden Just Made a Historic Break With the Logic of Forever War.”
Now we know what we are supposed to think about the regime’s plans. We are supposed to think Biden has just decisively pointed our late-phase empire in a new direction. We shall “lead with diplomacy,” as the already tiresome phrase has it. We shall “demilitarize foreign policy” — another new fav among the policy cliques. An era of peace lies before us, all thanks due to the man from Scranton.
And now we must set about understanding the regime’s plans for what they truly are and are not. As we do, let us not forget that Biden has traveled with a considerable inventory of snake oil in his satchel the whole of his political career.
It is a fine thing to pull the lingering contingent of American soldiers out of Afghanistan after 20 years of pointless violence, destruction, social disruption, and the rest of the havoc wreaked by war. This holds whatever their number, and the record in these matters offers little reason to assume the official count of 2,500 is true to reality. But we had better keep our feet on the ground as we look for the larger significance of this act.
On the face of it, we do not yet know what the Biden regime means by “soldiers.” Will special forces units remain (as is likely), and in what number? What about CIA operatives of various kinds? How many of them? How many drone operators? And how do these numbers, whatever they are, stack up against the 2,500 now scheduled to leave?
We have, as well, the extensively publicized phenom of the “camo economy,” as the Cost of War Project at Brown University usefully puts it. This refers to the wholesale commercialization of our imperial exploits, as James McCartney and Molly Sinclair McCartney first explained in America’s War Machine: Vested Interests, Endless Conflicts (St. Martin’s Press).
Here are the Cost of War’s numbers: By 2019, the most recent year they were toted up, there were 35,000 troops in the Middle East and 53,000 “contractors,” our weaselly, self-deluding term for mercenaries. As Heidi Peltier and her colleagues at Brown tell us, roughly 7,000 U.S. soldiers have died in our Greater Middle East wars since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, as against 8,000 mercenaries.
The first empire in history to hide itself from its own people.
— Joe Lauria (@unjoe) April 18, 2021
My conclusion on this point: Bearing in mind that our president is a serial liar — demonstrably, it is in the record — we had better be ready to learn over the next four or five months that the U.S. is at last pulling out of Afghanistan, except that it is not. Remember the checks that went from $2,000 to $1,400 without so much as a by-your-leave? In my read we are about to get another one in the latter amount.
“But will he really end the United States’ other open-ended conflicts?” This was the question Foreign Policy posed just under its headline touting Biden’s “historic break.” I credit FP for its honesty on this occasion. It is the essential question.
We now come to the matter of what Biden did not address or have anything to say about last week.
Those applauding the Biden plan do so because the Pentagon failed in its shape-shifting, multiply, defined “mission” in Afghanistan. The military proved unable to get done what America wanted to get done, whether this was wipe out a domestic insurgency or build a nation or make Afghanistan a democracy just like ours. It has not worked and has not been worth it — this is the prevailing sentiment among those approving of the withdrawal, and I have heard of no exception.
The critics have been many, of course, as have their arguments. Afghanistan will disgrace us as Vietnam did, neocon columnist Max Boot asserted in a piece much remarked for its stupidity. We’re in South Korea more or less permanently. What’s the matter with another such presence, and so what if this one is 7,000 miles from our shores? Making the rounds last week was the thought that U.S. soldiers must remain in Afghanistan to protect the gains Afghan women have made by way of civil and social rights.
All of these arguments, the pro and the con, fall well short of what is fundamentally at issue in Afghanistan and in American foreign policy altogether. This is the question of method as against purpose, or as Aristotelian Greeks would say, techne (means) as against telos (ends, one’s goal).
America and its people have been preoccupied with method, the “how” of things, since their beginnings as a nation. This is because our telos, the purpose of all we do, is taken as a given: Who we are and what we do is ordained by Providence, fixed in the firmament and need not be questioned.
From this derive our exceptionalism and (its still more pernicious sibling) our universalism. The former licenses us to act beyond the laws of humankind, and the latter confers upon us the task of imparting our great, good fortune to the rest of the world.
It was Woodrow Wilson who ushered American exceptionalism and universalism into the 20th century and our political elites have been Wilsonian, neo–Wilsonsian, or closet Wilsonian without variance ever since. At this point, very unfortunately, these two ideological pillars are the third rails in American politics: Any public figure who questions either will suffer a kind of political electrocution.
This was Obama’s failing on the foreign policy side. Purportedly eager to renovate U.S. conduct abroad, he tinkered with America’s means — fewer troops, more drones, and so on — but never dared challenge prevailing assumptions as to what America was doing in the world, its providential responsibility.
And here we are.
Consider briefly the argument that we must remain in Afghanistan to protect women’s rights. This is supposed to be a progressive, enlightened position, but it is in fact profoundly reactionary. Those making this case are saying in so many words, “This is our American idea of women’s rights, and so must it be yours.” Reactionary, universalist, cynical, imperial: This argument is all of these.
At the horizon it is oblivious to the fact that achieving rights of any kind involves assertions of autonomy and agency that give value to the rights gained and dignity to those who have fought for them. Bitter the fights will be for women and other constituencies in Afghanistan, there is no question of this. But they must be Afghans’ fights if we take Afghanistan for Afghans as the true telos.
Now we can answer that vital question Foreign Policy posed. No, there is no way under the sun Biden will “really end the United States’ other open-ended conflicts” because, by design, he has not equipped himself to do any such thing. He did not question America’s purpose to make the world in our image when he spoke last week; he called into question the means by which we conduct our modern-day version of the old mission civilisatrice. On we will go in our imperial adventures.
It is remarkable to put Donald Trump next to Joe Biden as we reflect on these matters. A storm of fecal matter greeted Trump when he proposed to bring all U.S. troops home — not just from Afghanistan but from Iraq and Syria, too, in the course of his time in the White House. Now Biden, his frivolous critics aside, is valorized for doing what appears the same thing. Now the Pentagon that undermined Trump’s policies acquiesces in Biden’s.
But appearances deceive. Biden is not doing the same thing if we consider events carefully. Trump was explicitly a critic of American exceptionalism and universalism. He rejected both, and this was his sin. One need carry no standard for Trump to recognize that he was correct to shake loose these two pillars of our empire. Seat-of-the-pants Trump could have made a significant difference, a mark on American history, had those few good ideas he had not been subverted.
Biden will make no such difference, banner headlines in The Times notwithstanding.
Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a columnist, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. Follow him on Twitter @thefloutist. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon site.
The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.
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In the last paragraph you write that Trump was a critic of American exceptionalism . . . Can that really be true?
No, it is not true, and reading that here from Patrick Lawrence has been one of the low points of this week. It is true that Trump got electrocuted on the third rail as Patrick says, but that does not make the preceding statements true. And it does not matter if Biden coerces a few in the MIC to back him on an “end” no matter how deceptive it actually is, he will be electrocuted also. It is happening as you read this, if my msm newsfeed is any indication.
I think withdrawal of regular armed forces is significant in that the American people might not feel that beholden to the mecernaries/Special forces/CIA, etc., should they suffer reverses including outright defeat at the hands of their Afghan enemies. If that turn out to be the case, then this particular forever war might really end.
Patrick pretty much nailed it. Firstly, the troop withdrawal is largely for show. The U.S. will continue to kill and maim in Afghanistan at a very significant rate, but it will be hidden behind an even darker curtain than before. Secondly, America’s sense of exceptionalism and universalism will continue to be used to justify it’s illegal and shameful actions. One of the prime motives for this will remain what it has been for at least sixty years. There’s a lot of money to be made in war. If there weren’t, we wouldn’t have do so damn much of it.
Ohh yes – ‘cos, hey, those corporate-capitalist-slaughtering $$$$$ have to be made by the likes of Raytheon, Northrop Grumman et al..and Congressional/WH pockets depend on those, too…But empires do collapse – bring on the day, say I.
One does not have to scratch much to find greed and avidity behind the words: exceptionalism and universalism.
Both Chris Hedges and Patrick Lawrence on the same day, back to back.
Both always very much appreciated.
However, there is a wiff of something that often accompanies the comment sections generated by these stellar observers of our common plight.
Bluntly, it is expressed in this fashion.
“Gee whiz, you just told us everything that is wrong with the U$A. Now, tell us what to do about it. You have delineated the problem, now give us the solution.”
Essentially, what is sought is a ready-made solution that requires NO effort or risk on the part of those expecting simple, easy, guaranteed results.
Frankly, if one person or a small group come up with the “solution”, you probably are not going to like it.
That is the stuff of demagogues, of “strong men” and of “men with guns”. It begets further, more pervasive tyranny, it invites “final” solutions and is especially brutal in its “application”.
Such “solution” as we may find had best be an informed collective effort. A most patient educational “outreach” and a willingness to seek out common ground, upon which a genuinely principled foundation may be built.
Most human beings around the world are decent beings.
“Human nature” is not nasty and brutish.
If it were so, then we should not be here.
If it turns out that the human species is obliterated by nuclear Armageddon, it will not be the many who seek or embrace such a “solution”.
If our species dies because the environment around us collapses owing to greed and hubris, it will not be the many who have grown obscenely wealthy and powerful in the “process”.
Is it not time to put our minds and hearts together and envision a sane, humane, and sustainable relationship to the planet and to each other?
That will require sacrifice and risk for each and everyone of us.
And … success is not guaranteed.
Neither will it be easy.
Each of us has the same burden of conscience and work.
It is past time to work together.
Do not expect others to do all the hard lifting, that is pusillanimous nonsense.
Else, vapulation will continue until morale improves.
I thank all who took the trouble to comment here, D.W., but your remarks seem especially insightful. Good old Ray McG once said, “It’s not enough to keep saying, ‘It’s raining.’ the task is to build arks.” Maybe te time will return when we know enough and are moved enough to get up off our sofas and act. Blessings upon you. P.L.
Fine sentiments, but the American language has long been dead.
Human kind has no option but to remember it in order to avoid it.
Amazing how most all excellent articles about the Truth in all matters taper off at the end to leave one with the impression “That’s just the way it is. Some things will never, ever change…”
The explanation of the modus operandi of the N° 1 Nation on the Planet – Hell, make that ” The Universe” – does not provide the answers necessary to at least stem the fundamentally reactionary tide. Hell, make that a tsunami of policies coming from the Christian equivalent of the Taliban.
Ironically, it is the same forces that promote overpopulation (no abortion), and “women’s liberation” Übernazi Bernays’ style.
These are also the same forces that are convinced that the only place a woman should be – is at home, in the kitchen, with the children, or doing the laundry. Women need not to study, or work or whatever – they have a husband that will provide.
Right. Ultra Right. Ultra-reactionary fascism that never had a shred of a doubt, that Dinosaur riding Baby Jesus was American. To question this “knowledge”, is blasphemy. In the minds of way too many people, this is Planet America and how it deals with those who have different opinion about Planet America.
Oh, and yes, by all means: take a look at all the military bases Planet America has all over itself. And all the bio-labs on Planet America. And there is only one approved religion on Planet Earth: “the old testament”.
You know the story.
The Big Bad Trumpenstein, despite all his genuine faults, did attempt to withdraw American soldiers from Afghanistan. The neo-con/Zio-con establishment warmongering sociopaths quickly came up with the Russian bounty b.s. story to brainwash the U.S. public to sour on Trump’s proposed troop withdrawal.
The Russian & Chinese Project to remove the USD from being the Worlds Reserve Currency needs to be accelerated, its the only way to stop America’s endless, Warmongering? The entire World has acted as a ENABLER to American Hegemonic ambitions because it has empowered & provided Funding for the USA to live beyond its Financial means due to its exorbitant privilege of being the Worlds Reserve Currency! This undeserved advantage enables the US to print & recycle unlimited USD money printing without causing Hyperinflation & avoiding it from going bankrupt! This has fuelled & paid for the rise of a out of control, Military Industrial Complex that Eisenhower warned about, to the tune of a Trillion dollars a year, more than the entire Military budgets of the Top 10 major Nations combined! But just like its poor Healthcare Systems & its poor results, the massive expenditure doesn’t equate to having a better Military outcome per cost benefit? End the Dollar dominance & you end America’s ability to wage Wars! And that dollar dominance is fast approaching its endgame with many Nations now detaching from the US dollar based system due to America’s criminal use of Economic sanction Warfare & also the debasement of this Currency due to unprecedented QE! Time’s up for the US Dollar & with it America’s Financial ability to wage endless, everywhere Wars!
Biden’s duplicitous move is only going to leave corporate contractors (e.g., DynCorp, etc.) in Afghanistan in perpetuity, feeding endlessly at the Pentagon and State Dept trough stocked full by U.S. taxpayers.
The U.S. heartland bleeds as careerist Pentagon flacks and connected private executives become millionaires off the blood and misery both there and here!
Sure it does, as median and low income rural Christian Americans send their offspring to join the military in an effort to obtain that all important college education. Which means in many cases they come home go to college and then into law enforcement.
Great idea first they get brainwashed in church, then the military, and finally by higher educators, only to become violent cops.
IMHO one bad decision after another. But the church needs crusaders regardless.
On contractors – There are indicators that repetitive tours of duty damage the individual. The same is true for contractors who eventually become of no use to their employers, then come home damaged where upon far too many have very serious problems re-entering society.
EXAMPLE: See those Boogie boys and their violent actions.
“Oh, nobody sees the trouble I see . . . .”
Many of the hard-pressed young folks in the heartland have very little options but to join the military for a steady income and health insurance coverage.
It’s a funny way to define “decisions” when genuine agency is pretty much bereft from the equation.
Rapacious capitalism has devastated vast swaths of the country – it’s trouble more privileged people should see and understand.
And then those lads and lasses return (mainly lads) and are so imbued, via their egregious, inhumane training, to consider, view every person a danger, “worthy” of killing….And we wonder why mass shootings are beyond comprehension numerically???
Mine is an opinion based on the damage done world wide by the American military #1. The damage
done at home by militarized law enforcement force nation wide #2. The damage done facilitated
by many young folks who fell for the recruitment sales pitch. Actions that are praised hearteningly
by paper ads from all “Your local religious groups” , like I said gotta staff the crusades. #4.
Bad employment conditions rapidly deteriorating adds to the drug problem. People I never envisioned
as being drug addicted suddenly became that way.
In the area where I live close to the states capital the number of poor youth, meaning indigent, homeless
in many cases, the offspring of many parents who could raise there children, many of who never finish
high school and this is a predominately white area. You might be surprised to know this.
The meth problem has gotten so bad among the working poor is it epidemic. People who after busting
their collective asses for the last 15 or 20 years and going broke in the process and turning to meth.
Full jails, problem solving courts to keep jails from overflowing are tremendous problems. None of
these people have went to the military they started off being successful working for contractors then the
economy went south.
Of those who joined the military many have returned only to join the meth crowd.
Do you know where rehab starts for many? Receiving the counsel to learn to make better decisions.
What is truly troubling is that the more privileged should see and understand.
Understand that things are bad and getting worse and no amount of war making will improve the
situation. Begging for young volunteers to learn the trade, who in turn must leave the military and
become contractors in order to make the big bucks is a solution to nothing. Making 200K annually tax
free keeps them coming and so the cycle goes. Things are not good in the heartland.
The ship of state may be touted as being way ahead of who ever in second place, but the crew have surely lost their way.
I submitted this under the pressure of having to make a third doctors appointment of the day, one that came up unexpectedly, scheduled for 15:20 for my wife’s health issues – thank the stars I have insurance..
April 20,2021. #4 should be # 3. #4 should follow, three line down, after “People I never envisioned as becoming drug addicted suddenly became that way.
Six line down from #4, is a mis-statement , I intended to write ” . . . in many cases the offspring of poor parents, many of whom have been addicted to meth since the 1990’s who were incapable of raising children who could finish school. Young kids victims of their own parents failure and the massive failure of the educational system that even in a very small rural school favors the “more privileged”. This from a predominately white area.
The enlightened know what many of the more privileged may never know, War is a monster peace is a blessing and the arrogance of exceptionalism is a deadly failing.
My apologies to all for this transgression.
Once again thanks, much thanks to CN