Friday, 3 October 2014

American Exceptionalism

In response to the growing number of conflicts around the world, there is a feedback loop occurring between some people the North American media and many Republican politicians in the US.  It concerns the current US response (rhetoric with limited military actions) to the various crises and what the media people and politicians feel it should be (full-scale intervention).  Some of these conflicts have been festering for years or even decades.  Some of them are directly related to previous US foreign policy actions more than others.  Still others have just flared up in their latest incarnations in 2014.  But if there's one thing Ukraine, Gaza, Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Egypt all have in common, according to pundits and opportunistic politicians, it is that they have been miserably and utterly failed by President Obama and his refusal to intervene, militarily or otherwise, to save these nations from the dictators, militia, terrorists, and misery which have afflicted them all at various times.

Is there even a place to begin to explain what America's military resources could possible accomplish in six (6) different hornets' nests like these or what astronomical sums it would cost to bankroll? No, but if you are like any number of North American columnists (Charles Krauthammer is the most glaring example), you make a living mocking the President's "weakness", "indecisiveness", "lack of resolve", "naivete", and "complacency".  Apparently not planting the big fat index finger of the US military into the maps of any of the six conflict areas above is considered the reckless and dangerous way to proceed.  As bad as the bad guys are, there seems to be no acknowledgement of the limits of the power that can be projected or clear statement of what would be accomplished.  Just that enemy aggression is “unacceptable” and “cannot be tolerated”.

A US President once said "Walk Softly and carry a big stick", or at least this quote is attributed to one.  Meanwhile in the mid-2000s I do recall the term "Big Swingin' Dick" being used to describe the US President of the time's actions with respect to military and foreign policy.  And this incredibly crude and sexualized metaphor, so sadly typical of our era, nonetheless describes the expectation which seems to now permeate the logic of the Krauthammers et al of this world: that the President wields a sort of deathly phallus with which it his presidential duty to f&*( the world back into order.

We don't need to spill gobs of ink to question boots on the ground or drones in the sky in Libya, Egypt, or Syria.  3 trillion dollars and ten years of full blown US military occupation in Iraq gave the world ISIS.  Next door ISIS is fighting Bachar Al-Assad, and letting him deal with them actually seems like an efficient way to deal with him for all those he's massacred the last three years.  Ukraine (the Western half of it) desperately wants to escape from Russia's yoke, but the US and Europe are better off diversifying their gas activities and trade and maintaining their high standards of living than getting embroiled in a military dispute with a corrupt kleptocracy like Russia which seems to be getting crazy enough to pursue it.  It’s best to let Putin the chessmaster play by himself.

Every world power that has ever tried to engage Russia on its turf has ended up sorely regretting that error.  Russia, on the other hand, has never made it further west than Berlin and Prague, and never will.  Everyone on earth enamoured with Putin's own BSD posture (as an aside, has an anti-gay politician anywhere else polluted cyberspace with so many homoerotic images of themselves?) seems to forget that he controls a population one-tenth the size of China's or India's, and not even double Iran's. A population crippled with rampant alcoholism and other health problems beset by chronic out-migration and an abysmal birth rate.  This guy's pretension of world domination paid for by his country’s gas company are pure delusion and fantasy, and just because the amount of money he has siphoned out of Russia probably makes him the richest man in the world, we don't need to keep taking his increasingly bizarre course of action in which he behaves as if he was the most powerful man in the world seriously.

But why have these conflicts given rise to what seems to me to be such an abnornally high level of geopolitical discussion amongst everyday people? Why does everyone suddenly have an opinion about Ukraine, about Gaza, about ISIS.  I've even heard this past summer over beer and barbeque talk of ramping up to a third world war, and more passionate than usual ruminations about how f----- up everything is.  Is technological advancement to thank for our advanced geopolitical awareness?  Is it CBC and CTV's decision to talk about the stuff 24-7 rather than the usual mind-numbing summer politician barbeque crap?  One thing is certain, as we talk of these conflicts and their victims, the conversation inevitably turns to solutions, and as the conversation turns to solutions, it inevitably involves the US, the only entity anyone can think of that could ever conceivably have any resources or willingness to intervene.  How short our memories are.

Because you only need to recall the Iraqs, the Vietnams, the countless clumsy botched CIA hatchet jobs in South America of the last few decades to realize the United States deploying its military is usually followed by the words "quagmire" "imbroglio" "disaster" and "trillions".  It doesn't make you a pacifist to observe that none of these adventures, for all the time and money and lives lost, accomplished their stated objectives.  But the reasons we as a society leave room in the discourse to persist in this chimeric military posturing are twofold: #1) We have simultaneously projected the sentiments of guilt (Rwanda/Balkans - "We will never idly stand by and let this happen again.") and bravado ("WWII - If it wasn't for our ancestors we'd all be speaking German) onto our collective past, and so feel the need to expect military solutions to the world's problems, and,#2, we still believe in American Exceptionalism, that is to say that America has interests all over the world and has a duty to itself to project military might and intervene when necessary, because it is exceptional.  While it is true that America's military is indeed exceptional, this fundamentally self-absorbed, ego-driven mentality is repugnant to more than a few inside and outside America

It instead boils down to the hazy language of “interests”, which means we do not report conflict, strife, and death themselves but rather report them where America’s interests are at stake, in countries where it is convinced for one reason or another that it has skin in the game.  Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Iraq all are in the vicinity of Israel, which America subsidizes and considers it has a duty to protect, as well as Iraq, where $3 trillion plus has been just sunk trying to bring freedom and democracy to turn a formerly hostile dictatorship into a friendly oil-producer.  Because of the unintended consequence of sectarian bloodshed this has set off, that doesn’t look to be in the cards.  Ukraine, meanwhile, wants to join the loose military cooperation network known as NATO formed by the US, Canada, and most of Europe but has been thwarted by Russian speaking militias in its East who prefer ties to Moscow. Ideally for North America Moscow is the most isolated possible so it can stop its rooster behaviour and join the fold of Western democracy.  That’s a pipe dream at this point.

But returning to the idea of exceptionalism, if America is indeed exceptional and has a duty to project its military wherever threats are found, then there are two countries about whom we hear almost nothing, where internal conflicts have claimed thousands of lives, and who have no institutions or mechanisms to help them cast off the burdens of ethnic and religious hatred and warfare.  The countries I am referring to are South Sudan and the Central African Republic, two dirt poor countries which never make the CNN headlines and whose citizens are as much in danger as in any of the other places I’ve mentioned in this column.

South Sudan has been beset by internal strife since it became the world’s newest country in 2011, with tribal leaders vying for authority and internecine warfare displacing thousands, plus the usual resource related disputes.  In that type of environment you can be sure none of the riches from the oil are flowing to ordinary citizens who continue to experience abysmally low standards of living in addition to chronic insecurity.

The Central African Republic, meanwhile, or Centrafrique, is probably the most obscure country on Earth, a tiny, landlocked, undeveloped nation that was under the yoke of France for a long time, and here a genocide of the most toxic kind, Christian on Muslim violence, rages, yet there is no debate in the Canadian or any other parliament on how to address the situation.  The article by Neil MacDonald on cbc.cayesterday amply demonstrates this double standard, but he uses the Congo as an example, another lost and torn up place in Africa.

Since I started this article the debate on how to deal with ISIS has ramped up and several nations have committed troops and resources.  While the size of the territory controlled by ISIS is alarming and their shocking radicalism leads one to wish for their imminent destruction, they are surrounded by duplicitous countries (Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia) which can easily serve as conduits for their money, oil, and ideology, in both directions.

But it is not the traditional “American Exceptionalism” that will aim to bring down ISIS.  It is an American and the broader west’s “exception” that is made for all the places where real suffering and hell is going on, but for some reason is not acknowledged.

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