Looking at Who We Are

Definitive assessments based on arbitrary standards, or no standards at all, set in stone on an artificial date – we love that sort of thing. It’s American Idol – and your annual performance appraisal at work or your kid’s grades – although the last two claim to be definitive assessments based on careful observation and hard data. And sometimes that is true – and sometimes not. You are told your kid is an underachiever and seems bored – he should be doing better. He says he’s doing the best he can. You doubt that, but you can’t prove that one way or the other, so you eye each other with suspicion for a few weeks. And as for your boss, he just said you’re getting a raise because he likes your can-do attitude, or he doesn’t like your attitude and you’re not getting anything. What would he do with a smart-ass employee with a rotten attitude and a big mouth – who gets results and makes the company a ton of money every day? Fire him?

 

But we make our assessments – pronouncing our whimsical judgments on cue, at the designated time. You too can be Simon Cowell or Paula Abdul – nasty and blunt or loopy and wholly unable to explain yourself. That seemed to be the general idea on Wednesday, April 29, 2009 – President Obama’s one hundredth day in office. He held another primetime press conference to mark that milestone, even though his staff had been kidding everyone that it was a bit of a Hallmark Holiday – like Secretary’s Day or Grandparents’ Day – something designed to sell a new line of greeting cards or whatever. It was just another day, but they wryly played along. It was kitsch, and kitsch is sometimes good, even if it is an imitation of human feeling wrapped in a thick layer of cuteness. The only major network that refused to preempt its shows for the hour was Fox – which is either their bold statement that they are the network who hates this guy and everything he stands for and will do what they can to ruin him, or a realistic rejection of arbitrary silliness. They ran their cop show, Lie to Me – about the amazing guy who can tell which awful person is lying about something important just by looking at him or her. Yes, counterprogramming can be ironic.

 

If you dropped by CNN after the press conference you found yourself in the real world everyone knows. Those folks were really into the event, such as it was – the whole evening built around their elaborate National Report Card. Yes, you could find out how this or that politician had graded Obama on this or that issue, or overall. And you could jump online and vote yourself – you know, get in touch with your inner Paula Abdul. You could grade Obama on his first hundred days performance. All the letter-grades flashing back and forth across the screen were dizzying – and arbitrary. You got a sense of what selected politicians and pundits thought of Obama’s start – all what you expected from the left, middle and right – and you got a sense of what those who bothered to participate, as civilians, so to speak, were thinking. Of course only those who hated Obama or thought he was wonderful bothered to participate – so everything fell in in middle – C+ or so. It was all pleasantly absurd. As they say, it was not scientific. It was impressionistic – CNN was documenting the national zeitgeist. Think of the Ghostbusters – they say those ghosts are not there, but they are, and Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd find them. CNN was after the Ghost of the These Times – what the German word means.

 

So not only was the sampling methodology useless, no one was saying why they assigned this or that letter-grade to one thing or the other. The few presented the arbitrary, and CNN dutifully reported that. Cool – even if it was an imitation of actual data wrapped in a thick layer of cuteness.

 

As for what was said by Obama, there wasn’t much news, save for this:

 

President Barack Obama said Wednesday night that waterboarding authorized by former President George W. Bush was torture and that the information it gained from terror suspects could have been obtained by other means. “In some cases, it may be harder,” he conceded at a White House news conference capping a whirlwind first 100 days in office. …

 

The president also said he was “absolutely convinced” he had acted correctly in banning tough interrogation techniques including waterboarding, which simulates drowning, and in making public the Bush administration memos detailing their use on terrorist suspects. “Not because there might not have been information that was yielded by these various detainees … but because we could have gotten this information in other ways, in ways that were consistent with our values, in ways that were consistent with who we are.”

 

Obama had come under heavy criticism from Dick Cheney and most of the Republicans, who were all saying Obama should release memos they say will show what was done was amazingly successful in obtaining wonderful information. Obama said he’s read those memos – they’re still classified and he declined to discuss their details. But earlier he had told House Republican leader John Boehner that “the record was equivocal” – it seems they don’t prove much. We’ll see.

 

That was about it for anything new – Obama said that it’s obvious the previous administration committed war crimes, but he wasn’t saying anything about who would do what about that. There was a bit of sharper framing, of course. Cheney and the rest were saying what they had done worked wonderfully. Obama was saying nope – there had been other ways to get what we needed, ways that wouldn’t have made us less safe, with half the world against us now. It was but-it-worked against there-were-other-ways.

 

The rest was nothing new, but for an odd question about nuclear-armed Pakistan – as the Taliban moved in on the capital and the government was rather hopeless, someone asked what the plan was to keep the Taliban from getting their hands on the nukes. The answer was startling – we’re dealing with the Pakistani Army to keep the nukes safe, and not with the Pakistani government. Now we know who is running things there. This was news. And was comforting, in an odd way. The notion that Bush had – that we could deal with that government because he liked them – was always a bit strange. You deal with who is in power, of course, but also with those who have the actual power.

 

But something else was going on, and Alex Koppelman explains in his note on how Obama reframed the torture debate – moving the argument away from whether torture works to whether it’s un-American.

 

That went something like this:

 

What I’ve said – and I will repeat – is that waterboarding violates our ideals and our values. I do believe that it is torture. I don’t think that’s just my opinion; that’s the opinion of many who’ve examined the topic. And that’s why I put an end to these practices.

 

I am absolutely convinced it was the right thing to do, not because there might not have been information that was yielded by these various detainees who were subjected to this treatment, but because we could have gotten this information in other ways, in ways that were consistent with our values, in ways that were consistent with who we are.

 

I was struck by an article that I was reading the other day talking about the fact that the British during World War II, when London was being bombed to smithereens, had 200 or so detainees. And Churchill said, “We don’t torture,” when the entire British — all of the British people were being subjected to unimaginable risk and threat.

 

And the reason was that Churchill understood – you start taking short-cuts, over time that corrodes what’s best in a people. It corrodes the character of a country. And so I strongly believed that the steps that we’ve taken to prevent these kinds of enhanced interrogation techniques will make us stronger over the long term and make us safer over the long term because it will put us in a – in a position where we can still get information.

 

In some cases, it may be harder, but part of what makes us, I think, still a beacon to the world is that we are willing to hold true to our ideals even when it’s hard, not just when it’s easy.

 

Koppelman:

 

The polls on the issue are inconsistent, and it’s hard to tell whether most Americans think torture works. But clearly, people like former Vice President Dick Cheney think that if the debate is focused on torture’s effectiveness, they have the advantage. And they’re probably right, if only because of the instinctive pull of these sorts of things: If you don’t know much about torture and its effects and uses, the natural first assumption is that it must work, especially in a “ticking time-bomb” situation. (Of course, that’s not true, but that’s not the point here.)

 

By taking the debate away from that, by depriving those who defend the previous administration’s methods of the ability to appeal to the instinctual belief that torture must work and the short sound bite to that effect, Obama may have just given himself a leg up on the issue.

 

There is a benefit to logically and forcefully appealing to Americans’ patriotism and their sense of right and wrong. That backs the other guy into a corner – all you can say is that it was wrong, and a reprehensible thing for an American to do, but it worked, some of the time. That position is much harder to defend. You have to say who we really are, really – deep down. Obama says we’re good folks, who do what’s right. Cheney then must say, no, we’re not, really – we’re angry and frightened and should do nasty stuff just to make those two things go away.

 

All this hinges on just who we think we are, of course. For that we might turn to someone who is quite normal, or at least from Normal, Illinois. No, not McLean Stevenson, the actor, but Andrew J. Bacevich, the professor of international relations at Boston University, former director of its Center for International Relations (from 1998 to 2005), and the author of all the books on American Empire and American Exceptionalism. He is also a West Point graduate who served as an Army officer for more than twenty years, retiring as a full-bird colonel with a reputation as one of the intellectuals in our armed services. And he’s a Catholic and self-described conservative – PhD from Princeton and he taught at both West Point and Johns Hopkins before joining the Boston University faculty in 1998 to teach history and international relations. And on May 13, 2007, his son was killed in action in Iraq by an IED – his son was a First Lieutenant assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 8th US Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. Given all that it’s clear Bacevich is no left-wing flake.

 

And his most recent book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, is pretty startling, as we’ve made a mess of things. All of us have:

 

Arguing that the tendency to blame solely the military or the Bush administration is as illogical as blaming Herbert Hoover for the Great Depression, Bacevich demonstrates how the civilian population is ultimately culpable; in citizens’ appetite for unfettered access to resources, they have tacitly condoned the change of military service from a civic function into an economic enterprise.

 

Also at the link from the Robert Kaiser review of the book in the Washington Post:

 

In this book Bacevich treats the writings of theologian and philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr as a kind of scripture. He calls Niebuhr, who died in 1971 at age 78, a “towering presence in American intellectual life from the 1930s through the 1960s” who “warned that what he called ‘our dreams of managing history’ – born of a peculiar combination of arrogance and narcissism – posed a potentially mortal threat to the United States.” Repeatedly, Bacevich uses quotations from Niebuhr to remind us of the dangers of American hubris.

 

Yeah, Obama quotes Reinhold Niebuhr too – Obama’s favorite philosopher, actually (Bush chose Jesus). But Kaiser notes Bacevich is onto something different:

 

Bacevich describes an America beset by three crises: a crisis of profligacy, a crisis in politics and a crisis in the military. The profligacy is easily described: What was, even in the author’s youth several decades ago, a thrifty society whose exports far outdistanced its imports has become a nation of debtors by every measure. Consumption has become the great American preoccupation – and consumption of imported oil the great chink in our national armor. When on Sept. 11, 2001, the United States suffered the most serious attack on its soil since 1812, our government responded by cutting taxes and urging citizens onward to more consumption. Bacevich quotes President Bush: “I encourage you all to go shopping more.”

 

After 9/11, Bacevich writes, “most Americans subscribed to a limited-liability version of patriotism, one that emphasized the display of bumper stickers in preference to shouldering a rucksack.”

 

Well, we are a shallow people. But it’s more than that. Bacevich argues that the government the Founders envisaged no longer exists; all we’re left with is an imperial presidency and a passive, incompetent Congress – and a government dominated by an “ideology of national security.” Neither has much to do with the Constitution and common sense – all of it is based on presumptions about the universal appeal of democracy and our role as democracy’s great defender and promoter. He suspects, given historical fact, that this is nonsense. Bush was stupid about this, Tommy Franks, the original commander of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a fool, and when Obama says such things he cringes.

 

The book of course came before Obama used such talk to explain that we just don’t torture. When Obama says yes, we are wonderful, he’s really saying that if that is so, then we cannot do really stupid and reprehensible things. Holding the moral high ground involves actually acting morally, not loudly talking about your moral superiority. People find it tiresome, then they laugh, then they get angry. What did you expect? There are other ways to get what you need.

 

In the Washington Post, Richard Cohen had written that we really ought to get over our moral posturing. He said that what Henry Luce called “the American Century” is over – Obama is saying things like we should talk to some of the Taliban, and much more:

 

In recent days alone, the Obama administration has indicated that it is willing – for the moment – to hold its tongue regarding China’s voluminous human rights abuses and has hit the “reset button” on relations with Moscow, Vladimir Putin’s neo-Stalinist fits notwithstanding. As for Israel’s insistence on expanding West Bank settlements, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounced it as “unhelpful” – a whisper of a rebuke that, in the transcript, should have been rendered in italics.

 

The Obama administration is talking to the Syrians. It is willing to talk to the Iranians. It will parley with the North Koreans. It has kicked the wheels off the “Axis of Evil” and has, in general, shied from the lofty language of the Bush years, especially all that stuff about wars on terrorism and spreading democracy….

 

For the most part, this is good. Even George Bush was starting to realize that he had overreached, overdreamed, underthought and underanalyzed.

 

The left won’t mind – they’ve decided to leave the moral posturing to Cheney, Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. It’s time to do what can be done, even if Cohen worries:

 

The Taliban are bad. They kill their opposition. They are hideous to women, and when they were in control of Afghanistan, they sheltered al-Qaeda. In Vietnam, it was always possible to insist that the communists were really agrarian reformers – or some such mindless formulation – and so when the United States capitulated, the resulting horror came as a surprise to some. No one, though, can be surprised by what the Taliban will do. In the very recent past, they have already done it.

 

He doesn’t much like this a “realistic” foreign policy as it “lacks theme” – that old overarching desire to do good in the world:

 

America’s enemies are never merely our opponents; they are evil. We are good. This is the way we see ourselves. The abandonment of Vietnam was sickening to observe. The disfigurement of schoolgirls by Taliban zealots will be no different.

 

Sure moralistic bombastic rhetoric is expensive, but Cohen seems to miss it. Still he takes some comfort:

 

This is a tricky, auspicious moment for a young president. He is ending one century, beginning another. Concisely, he essentially laid out his approach to foreign policy in a blurb for a recently reissued book by the late theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. He wrote that he took away from Niebuhr’s works “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain.” He added that “we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.”

 

This, then, is the Obama Doctrine: wisely, to have none at all.

 

But this takes a rethinking of how we think about ourselves, which Andrew Bacevich covers in Farewell to the American Century:

 

Cohen is right. All that remains is to drive a stake through the heart of Luce’s pernicious creation, lest it come back to life. This promises to take some doing.

 

When the Time-Life publisher coined his famous phrase, his intent was to prod his fellow citizens into action. Appearing in the Feb. 7, 1941, issue of Life, his essay, “The American Century,” hit the newsstands at a moment when the world was in the throes of a vast crisis. A war in Europe had gone disastrously awry. A second almost equally dangerous conflict was unfolding in the Far East. Aggressors were on the march.

 

With the fate of democracy hanging in the balance, Americans diddled. Luce urged them to get off the dime. More than that, he summoned them to “accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world … to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.”

 

But times have changed:

 

Read today, Luce’s essay, with its strange mix of chauvinism, religiosity and bombast (“We must now undertake to be the Good Samaritan to the entire world …”), does not stand up well. Yet the phrase “American Century” stuck and has enjoyed a remarkable run. It stands in relation to the contemporary era much as “Victorian Age” does to the 19th century. In one pithy phrase, it captures (or at least seems to capture) the essence of some defining truth: America as alpha and omega, source of salvation and sustenance, vanguard of history, guiding spirit and inspiration for all humankind.

 

In its classic formulation, the central theme of the American Century has been one of righteousness overcoming evil. The United States (above all the U.S. military) made that triumph possible. When, having been given a final nudge on Dec. 7, 1941, Americans finally accepted their duty to lead, they saved the world from successive diabolical totalitarianisms. In doing so, the U.S. not only preserved the possibility of human freedom but modeled what freedom ought to look like.

 

So goes the preferred narrative of the American Century, as recounted by its celebrants.

 

The problems with this account are twofold. First, it claims for the United States excessive credit. Second, it excludes, ignores or trivializes matters at odds with the triumphal story line.

 

So we have an array of illusions that are now nonsense:

 

In short, the persistence of this self-congratulatory account deprives Americans of self-awareness, hindering our efforts to navigate the treacherous waters in which the country finds itself at present. Bluntly, we are perpetuating a mythic version of the past that never even approximated reality and today has become downright malignant. Although Richard Cohen may be right in declaring the American Century over, the American people – and especially the American political class – still remain in its thrall.

 

He just wants to put back in what’s always left out.

 

What flag-wavers tend to leave out of their account of the American Century is not only the contributions of others, but the various missteps perpetrated by the United States – missteps, it should be noted, that spawned many of the problems bedeviling us today.

 

The instances of folly and criminality bearing the label “made in Washington” may not rank up there with the Armenian genocide, the Bolshevik Revolution, the appeasement of Adolf Hitler, or the Holocaust, but they sure don’t qualify as small change. To give them their due is necessarily to render the standard account of the American Century untenable.

 

He has a long list, but this stands out:

 

Cuba. In 1898, the United States went to war with Spain for the proclaimed purpose of liberating the so-called Pearl of the Antilles. When that brief war ended, Washington reneged on its promise. If there actually has been an American Century, it begins here, with the U.S. government breaking a solemn commitment, while baldly insisting otherwise. By converting Cuba into a protectorate, the United States set in motion a long train of events leading eventually to the rise of Fidel Castro, the Bay of Pigs, Operation Mongoose, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and even today’s Guantánamo Bay prison camp. The line connecting these various developments may not be a straight one, given the many twists and turns along the way, but the dots do connect.

 

As does this:

 

Iran. Extending his hand to Tehran, President Obama has invited those who govern the Islamic republic to “unclench their fists.” Yet to a considerable degree, those clenched fists are of our own making. For most Americans, the discovery of Iran dates from the time of the notorious hostage crisis of 1979-1981 when Iranian students occupied the U.S. embassy in Tehran, detained several dozen U.S. diplomats and military officers and subjected the administration of Jimmy Carter to a 444-day-long lesson in abject humiliation.

 

For most Iranians, the story of U.S.-Iranian relations begins somewhat earlier. It starts in 1953, when CIA agents collaborated with their British counterparts to overthrow the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh and return the Shah of Iran to his throne. The plot succeeded. The Shah regained power. The Americans got oil, along with a lucrative market for exporting arms. The people of Iran pretty much got screwed. Freedom and democracy did not prosper. The antagonism that expressed itself in November 1979 with the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran was not entirely without cause.

 

There’s much more, and he suggests something odd about all his examples:

 

Indeed, we ought to apologize. When it comes to avoiding the repetition of sin, nothing works like abject contrition. We should, therefore, tell the people of Cuba that we are sorry for having made such a hash of U.S.-Cuban relations for so long. President Obama should speak on our behalf in asking the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for forgiveness. He should express our deep collective regret to Iranians and Afghans for what past U.S. interventionism has wrought.

 

The United States should do these things without any expectations of reciprocity. Regardless of what U.S. officials may say or do, Castro won’t fess up to having made his own share of mistakes. The Japanese won’t liken Hiroshima to Pearl Harbor and call it a wash. Iran’s mullahs and Afghanistan’s jihadists won’t be offering to a chastened Washington to let bygones be bygones.

 

No, we apologize to them, but for our own good – to free ourselves from the accumulated conceits of the American Century and to acknowledge that the United States participated fully in the barbarism, folly and tragedy that define our time. For those sins, we must hold ourselves accountable.

 

To solve our problems requires that we see ourselves as we really are. And that requires shedding, once and for all, the illusions embodied in the American Century.

 

Well, Obama isn’t apologizing – that would be political suicide – but he is moving is toward definitive assessments of just who we think we are, given what we have done, much good and some not so good. But CNN wasn’t measuring that at the one hundred day mark. And it was just another day, after all.

 

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in American Exceptionalism, Andrew J. Bacevich, CNN National Report Card, Obama and Hope for the Future, Obama and Torture, Obama the Pragmatist, Obama Win Changes How We Think, One Hundred Days of Obama, Torture, War Crimes. Bookmark the permalink.

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