Bragging Rights: Eight Exceptional(ly Dumb) American “Achievements” of the 21st Century

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This post first appeared on TomDispatch.


But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.”

– Barack Obama, address to the nation on Syria, September 10, 2013

Let’s be Americans, which means being exceptional, which also means being honest in ways inconceivable to the rest of humanity. So here’s the truth of it: the American exceptionalism sweepstakes really do matter. Here. A lot.

Barack Obama is only the latest in a jostling crowd of presidential candidatespresidential wannabesmajor politicians and minor figures of every sort, not to speak of a raging horde of neocons and pundits galore, who have felt compelled in recent years to tell us and the world just how exceptional the last superpower really is. They tend to emphasize our ability to use this country’s overwhelming power, especially the military variety, for the global good — to save children and other deserving innocents. This particularly American aptitude for doing good forcibly, by killing others, is considered an incontestable fact of earthly life needing no proof.  It is well known, especially among our leading politicians, that Washington has the ability to wield its military strength in ways that are unimaginably superior to any other power on the planet.

The well-deserved bragging rights to American exceptionalism are no small matter in this country. It should hardly be surprising, then, how visceral is the distaste when any foreigner — say, Russian President Vladimir Putin — decides to appropriate the term and use it to criticize us. How visceral? Well, the sort of visceral that, as Democratic Senator Bob Menendez put it recently, leaves us barely repressing the urge to “vomit.”

Now, it’s not that we can’t take a little self-criticism. If you imagine an over-muscled, over-armed guy walking into a room and promptly telling you and anyone else in earshot how exceptionally good he is when it comes to targeting his weapons, and you notice a certain threatening quality about him, and maybe a hectoring, lecturing tone in his voice, it’s just possible that you might be intimidated or irritated by him. You might think: narcissist, braggart, or blowhard. If you were the president of Russia, you might say, “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”

Yes, if you’re a foreigner, this country is easy enough to misunderstand, make fun of, or belittle. Still, that didn’t stop the president from proudly bringing up our exceptionalism two weeks ago in his address on the Syrian crisis. In that speech, he plugged the need for a US military response to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian military. He recommended launching a “limited strike,” assumedly Tomahawk missiles heading Damascus-wards, to save Syria’s children, and he made sure the world knew that such an attack would be no passing thing. (“Let me make something clear: the United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.”)

Then, in mid-speech, in a fashion that was nothing short of exceptional (if you were considering the internal logic of the address), he suddenly cast that option aside for another approach entirely. But just because of that, don’t let first impressions or foreign criticism blind you to the power of the president’s imagery. In this century, as he suggested then and in an address to the UN two weeks later, American exceptionalism has always had to do with Washington’s ability to use its power for the greater planetary good. Since, in the last decade-plus, power and military power have come to be essentially synonymous in Washington, the pure goodness of firing missiles or dropping bombs has been deified.

On that basis, it’s indisputable that the bragging rights to American exceptionalism are Washington’s. For those who need proof, what follows are just eight ways (among so many more) that you can proudly make the case for our exceptional status, should you happen to stumble across, say, President Putin, still blathering on about how unexceptional we are.

1. What other country could have invaded Iraq, hardly knowing the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite, and still managed to successfully set off a brutal sectarian civil war and ethnic cleansing campaigns between the two sects that would subsequently go regional, whose casualty counts have tipped into the hundreds of thousands, and which is now bouncing back on Iraq? What other great power would have launched its invasion with plans to garrison that country for decades and with the larger goal of subduing neighboring Iran (“Everyone wants to go to Baghdad; real men want to go to Tehran”), only to slink away eight years later leaving behind a Shiite government in Baghdad that was a firm ally of Iran? And in what other country, could leaders, viewing these events, and knowing our part in them, have been so imbued with goodness as to draw further “red lines” and contemplate sending in the missiles and bombers again, this time on Syria and possibly Iran? Who in the world would dare claim that this isn’t an unmatchable record?

2. What other country could magnanimously spend $4-6 trillion on two good wars in Afghanistan and Iraq against lightly armed minority insurgencies without winning or accomplishing a thing? And that’s not even counting the funds sunk into the Global War on Terror and sideshows in places like Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, or the staggering sums that, since 9/11, have been poured directly into the national security state. How many countries, possessing “the finest fighting force in the history of the world,” could have engaged in endless armed conflicts and interventions from the 1960s on and, except in unresisting Panama and tiny Grenada, never managed to definitively win anything?

3.  And talking about exceptional records, what other military could have brought an estimated 3.1 million pieces of equipment — ranging from tanks and Humvees to porta-potties, coffee makers and computers — with it into Iraq, and then transported most of them out again (while destroying the rest or turning them over to the Iraqis)? Similarly, in an Afghanistan where the US military is now drawing down its forces and has already destroyed “more than 170 million pounds worth of vehicles and other military equipment,” what other force would have decided ahead of time to shred, dismantle, or simply discard $7 billion worth of equipment (about 20 percent of what it had brought into the country)? The general in charge proudly calls this “the largest retrograde mission in history.” To put that in context: What other military would be capable of carrying a total consumer society right down to PXs, massage parlorsboardwalksInternet cafes and food courts to war? Let’s give credit where it’s due: we’re not just talking retrograde here, we’re talking exceptionally retrograde!

4. What other military could, in a bare few years in Iraq, have built a staggering 505 bases, ranging from combat outposts to ones the size of small American towns with their own electricity generators, water purifiers, fire departments, fast-food restaurants and even miniature golf courses at a cost of unknown billions of dollars and then, only a few years later, abandoned all of them, dismantling some, turning others over to the Iraqi military or into ghost towns, and leaving yet others to be looted and stripped? And what other military, in the same time period thousands of miles away in Afghanistan, could have built more than 450 bases, sometimes even hauling in the building materials, and now be dismantling them in the same fashion? If those aren’t exceptional feats, what are?

5. In a world where it’s hard to get anyone to agree on anything, the covert campaign of drone strikes that George W. Bush launched and Barack Obama escalated in Pakistan’s tribal areas stands out. Those hundreds of strikes not only caused significant numbers of civilian casualties (including children), while helping to destabilize a sometime ally, but almost miraculously created public opinion unanimity. Opinion polls there indicate that a Ripley’s-Believe-It-or-Not-style 97 percent of Pakistanis consider such strikes “a bad thing.” Is there another country on the planet capable of mobilizing such loathing? Stand proud, America!

6. And what other power could have secretly and illegally kidnapped at least 136 suspected terrorists – some, in fact, innocent of any such acts or associations — off the streets of global cities as well as from the backlands of the planet? What other nation could have mustered a coalition-of-the-willing of 54 countries to lend a hand in its “rendition” operations? We’re talking about more than a quarter of the nations on Planet Earth! And that isn’t all. Oh, no, that isn’t all. Can you imagine another country capable of setting up a genuinely global network of “black sites” and borrowed prisons (with local torturers on hand), places to stash and abuse those kidnappees (and other prisoners) in locations ranging from Poland to Thailand, Romania to AfghanistanEgypt and Uzbekistan to US Navy ships on the high seas, not to speak of that jewel in the crown of offshore prisons, Guantanamo? Such illegality on such a global scale simply can’t be matched! And don’t even get me started on torture. (It’s fine for us to take pride in our exceptionalist tradition, but you don’t want to pour it on, do you?)

7. Or how about the way the State Department, to the tune of $750 millionconstructed in Baghdad the largest, most expensive embassy compound on the planet — a 104-acre, Vatican-sized citadel with 27 blast-resistant buildings, an indoor pool, basketball courts and a fire station, which was to operate as a command-and-control center for our ongoing garrisoning of the country and the region? Now, the garrisons are gone, and the embassy, its staff cut, is a global white elephant. But what an exceptional elephant! Think of it as a modern American pyramid, a tomb in which lie buried the dreams of establishing a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East. Honestly, what other country could hope to match that sort of memorial thousands of miles from home?

8. Or what about this? Between 2002 and 2011, the US poured at least $51 billion into building up a vast Afghan military. Another $11 billion was dedicated to the task in 2012, with almost $6 billion more planned for 2013. Washington has also sent in a legion of trainers tasked with turning that force into an American-style fighting outfit. At the time Washington began building it up, the Afghan army was reportedly a heavily illiterate, drug-taking, corrupt and ineffective force that lost one-third to one-half of its personnel to casualties, non-reenlistment and desertion in any year. In 2012, the latest date for which we have figures, the Afghan security forces were still a heavily illiterate, drug-taking, corrupt and inefficient outfit that was losing about one-third of its personnel annually (a figure that may even be on the rise). The US and its NATO allies are committed to spending $4.1 billion annually on the same project after the withdrawal of their combat forces in 2014. Tell me that isn’t exceptional!

No one, of course, loves a braggart; so, easy as it might be to multiply these eight examples by others, the winner of the American exceptionalism sweepstakes is already obvious. In other words, this is a moment for exceptional modesty, which means that only one caveat needs to be added to the above record.

I’m talking about actual property rights to “American exceptionalism.” It’s a phrase often credited to a friendly nineteenth century foreigner, the French traveler Alexis de Tocqueville. As it happens, however, the man who seems to have first used the full phrase was Russian dictator Joseph Stalin. In 1929, when the US was showing few signs of a proletarian uprising or fulfilling Karl Marx’s predictions and American Communists were claiming that the country had unique characteristics that left it unready for revolution, Stalin began denouncing “the heresy of American exceptionalism.”  Outside the US Communist Party, the phrase only gained popular traction here in the Reagan years. Now, it has become as American as sea salt potato chips. If, for instance, the phrase had never before been used in a presidential debate, in 2012 the candidates couldn’t stop wielding it.

Still, history does give Vladimir Putin a claim to use of the phrase, however stomach-turning that may be for various members of Congress. But maybe, in its own way, its origins only attest to… well, American exceptionalism. Somehow, through pureness of motive and the shining radiance of the way we exercise power, Washington’s politicians have taken words wielded negatively by one of the great monsters of history and made them the signature phrase of American greatness. How exceptional!

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as The End of Victory Culture, his history of the Cold War, runs The Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.
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  • Joris Heise

    Athens was. Rome was. The others (Genghis Khan, Alexander, etc –were personal and cultural, not countries).

  • Joan Fahlgren

    And to cap it off they ruined the economy and are threatening to cut even the meager amount of SNAP benefits that its impoverished citizens get. Not only exceptionally stupid, but exceptionally mean.

  • Mark Wallin

    What other country where the President cause the debt , killing , destruction and gets the next President blamed for it all . You say only The USA? well I don’t think any other would do.

  • Anonymous

    Rather makes me feel more than a little ill. Perhaps we should work on being exceptional in other ways. Obviously we do not shine in wars and invasions.

  • Anonymous

    Our last two president have allowed the power of corporate money to take over the world and this article states very well what has been going on while Americans each junk food, watch endless mind numbing TV. Our universities are failing our road crumbling and our people in poverty. Oh yes, Thx to Bush and Cheney wars that are collapsing us and Obama who from the beginning accelerated Bush’s bad policies. And to thank Obama could even fool the Swedes into giving him a NOBEL PEACE PRIZE. And with the Peace Prize he has battered the American people. I am afraid it is too late to turn it around again. It is all like a night mare that does not end.

  • Anonymous

    Well the President is talking to the president of Iran now, let us hope it is the start of a new positive view of the Middle East and peaceful relations with all countries.

  • Arm of Keaau

    Oh but I beg to differ. We shine by making the rich richer by allowing them the freedom to buy congress into new “threating security situations” to create those wars (and thus more money for the war-mongers). (_: FBI

  • KHUCKSTER

    OH THIS IS RICH!

    How UNEXCEPTIONABLY UNEXCEPTABLE!

  • http://www.facebook.com/marcia.monteiro.969 Marcia Monteiro

    I don’t think that Pres. Obama was ‘bragging’ when he says that we are exceptional and he was certainly not talking about dealing with groups that make a living out of trying to promote “death to America”. He was probably only saying that we don’t kill out citizens the way Syria seems to be doing, and yes, America is exceptional (though not perfect) and we know it living here. This article seems to be written by an intelligent foreigner that does not like the US.

  • jasmidm

    alas, you’re missing the point – every one of these “dumb” achievements except #6 involved putting zillions of taxpayer $$$ into private, American, hands – this seems to be the prinipal goal of the right & they are doing a bang-up job.

  • Joshua

    America is only exceptional to those small-minded Americans that have never taken the time to visit places outside the borders of their own country.

    From a fellow American

  • Joshua

    What a narrow bigoted view of history. If it isn’t western or “classical” history, it has no meaning? How about China, first to invent many things we still use today? Or Japan, the first non-western country to win major land and sea battles against the largest country in the world, Russia? Or the Arab countries that gave us our numbering system and many other scientific advances? Or, or, or

  • Anonymous

    Indeed. “We’re Number 1!” only in the imagination of those who have a limited world-view.

  • sydcom

    actually he is the true American, it’s the war profiteers who are going to bring this country down for their own enrichment and the sooner everyone realizes that the better. Franklin Roosevelt said he would go into WWII but not if it was just to make more war millionaires. Of course, we did and it did but he saw the danger and you should too.

  • HANK

    The ONLY thing the USA is EXCEPTIONAL in is ARROGANCE and STUPIDITY!!!

  • Marty Arford

    Well, when you define “exceptional” THAT way…! I’m speechless. Imagine what good and exceptional things could have been accomplished with those huge sums of military-industrial-complex money, and all that time and energy.

  • Kathleen Milby

    Exactly in what way are we exceptional. Remember we have removed many of our freedoms with the Patriot act, and the Supreme court (owned by corporations)
    is making it possible to remove more.

  • Waymajor

    Great essay! Exceptionalism is pure hubris and stands in stark contrast to the transcendent principles of wisdom of the most prevalent USA cultural teachings about humility. One example, from the fifth chapter of The Book of Matthew, that begs the question of whether one should consider one’s self (or one’s nation) to be exceptional (and expect praise) for doing what is right (and rejects that thought as arrogantly immature) is stated here (from the Amplified Bible):
    43 You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy;
    44 But I tell you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
    45 [aj]To show that you are the children of your Father Who is in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the wicked and on the good, and makes the rain fall upon the upright and the wrongdoers [alike].
    46 For if you love those who love you, what reward can you have? Do not even the tax collectors do that?
    47 And if you greet only your brethren, what more than others are you doing? Do not even the Gentiles (the heathen) do that? 48 You, therefore, must be perfect [growing into complete [ak]maturity of godliness in mind and character, [al]having reached the proper height of virtue and integrity], as your heavenly Father is perfect.

  • Debbie Street

    A must read and share. We Americans are exceptional alright–exceptionally arrogant, warmongering, naive, and just plain dumb!

  • http://www.mendeley.com/profiles/brian-p-hanley/ Brian Hanley

    Tom, you forgot Kosovo, America’s last “good war”. We fought for Osama bin Laden’s lieutenants on the side of the force, the KLA, that had established ethnically cleansed Muslim only zones free of Serbs (because they were Christians). We bombed things to smithereens, and managed to fob the mess off. At this point, Kosovo is largely free of Serbs.

    The problem is Dilbert-style decision makers who rise to power because of their lack of qualifications and disconnection from the rest of the world reflects our own collective disconnection and lack of qualifications. This is equally present in liberals and conservatives. Both sides are ridiculously disconnected from anything except narratives produced largely without any input from reality.

    That is why we have this zombie policy in the middle-east. 60 years ago we backed the Saudis, and that, by default, made us back the Sunni side of the Sunni-Shia mutual heretic endless war. We happened to back the one Sunni family that was part of the most revenant sect, Wahabbism. The Saudis have used their money to spread radicalism for 60 years – it’s their religious duty. We happened to decide way back to overthrow the elected government of Iran to keep out Communism. That probably saved Iran, but it ended with the Iranian people throwing out our stupid stooge. They hated us, and the religious nut who took over hated us too. But, they have matured, and, they have developed a method of warfare that defeats us, every time. It’s called proxy war and insurgent war.

    We, the American people, don’t have the stomach for what that form of warfare entails. We also require one-liner narratives now, as if a Tweet could contain enough information to figure things out. It’s astonishingly stupid. So, in Syria, the story is just, “Assad senior was a brutal dictator who slaughtered a village and bulldozed it into the desert.” Yes, he did that. But for 9 years before that, Assad senior made concession after concession. In fact, the last concession he made was after 83 army officers were killed by a bomb at military base. If that happened in the USA, would we release prisoners from the group that did it? Would we fire officials they didn’t like in order to try to make peace? That is what Assad senior did. What did the Muslim Brotherhood do then? They tried to kill Assad senior. It was only then, after 9 years of bending over backwards with diplomacy that even Obama wouldn’t consider, that Assad decided there was no reasoning with the Muslim Brotherhood.

    You see, Tom, our virtually fact-free idiocy is why we are so easily played. Why do you think Osama was in Abbotabad? To make sure he was protected from the USA. Why did Pakistan’s government protect him? Because as long as Osama was alive, $10 billion or more per year would roll into Pakistan. That is 4.1% of Pakistan’s GDP going into a system legendary for its corruption. Imagine what USA politicians would to do keep $650 billion a year flowing to themselves. (Read Ken Ballen’s book, Terrorists in Love. It has a crucial bit in an interview about that aspect.) Come now. You know exactly what would happen here if there was a country rich enough to do that!

    We, the American people, and our leaders, are quite simply dolts. Everyone is part of the “Amusing ourselves to death” generations. Everyone. There are no old people left who know what tough reality is like. Rumsfeld, Obama, Bush, Clinton – everybody is a dolt, spinning baloney in a virtually fact-free universe. So we act like spoiled rich kids from the Hamptons who hear about gang wars in Queens or Watts. We just don’t have a clue WTF we are doing. And we don’t really care very much what the result is, because we can always go back. We mostly don’t ever leave our figurative suite in the Hamptons.

    Even our prized generals are the same. Dolts, spinning baloney in order to take credit for things that happened in spite of everything they did. I am referring here to Petraeus, who pretended that his surge and community policing style of occupation helped. It was all horsemanure.

    That is what is going on in Washington. The train is off the tracks. But it isn’t conservative or liberal that is off the tracks. It is everyone. It is almost all journalists. It is almost all media. It is us, the people. All of us.

  • Barbara Blough

    Thank you for this article. Americans do not have a corner on exceptionalism. If Americans want to be exceptional, they would need to think creatively and positively, outside the box and work cooperatively for peace and renewable resources in a transparent manner with anyone willing to do the same. Well, the minute you agree to work cooperatively, you have joined a GROUP and need to understand the concept of sharing ideas and responsibility – which is actually reality. We are all in this together..really.

  • UpstateJohn

    Well, this is one for the filibuster, if our universe allowed such information to be said in the Senate. Now if we could only “follow the money” to see who made the big bucks…and by “we” I mean an investigative reporter. If only out universe allowed such information to be printed.

  • Anonymous

    Yes. We create (and become) what we fear. While we are on the subject of stupid, self-destructive American policies – how about the war on drugs that is making us a prison nation, and prohibiting hemp because it is a strain of marijuana, even though it is not psychoactive. Tragic.
    It is a pity that the government, news organizations, and the public at large ignores the only fast, renewable option for decreasing our dependence on fossil fuels and slowing global warming. Industrial hemp – a hardy annual can grow in all 50 states with few or no pesticides and fertilizers, can provide us with: a predictable supply oil and bio-fuel; a high protein & high EFA food (reduces CO2, methane and other pollution from factory farmed meat animals); fiber for clothing and building materials (Hemp farming sequesters from the atmosphere on average 2500 pounds of CO2 per acre. Cotton farming uses and produces 800 pounds of CO2 per acre releasing into the atmosphere.), paper (4x production of cellulose per acre as trees)…. USA is industrial hemp’s major importer, yet it is illegal to grow or even research it in the US, although in pre-marijuana prohibition days it was a staple crop.

    Trying to save our environment without hemp is like climbing a cliff using finger and toe holds when there is an elevator right beside you.

    Everyone, please educate yourselves, then urge your congresspeople to pass H.R.525 – Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2013. Thank you.

  • http://www.mendeley.com/profiles/brian-p-hanley/ Brian Hanley

    We could have colonized Mars by now. No kidding permanent settlements. That would have done far more good for us, for the world, and strengthened this country militarily as well.

  • Robert Borneman

    A fine but incomplete list of our exceptionalism. Let’s not forget our highest-in-human history per-capita production of toxins and greenhouse gas emissions… and our equally spectacular highest per-capita incarceration rates!

  • Anonymous

    Yes, “amusing our selves to death” is what Postman argued and it seems so clairvoyant…. great post.