As he gave vague outlines of developing US military strategy while speaking at the West Point commencement last week, President Obama affirmed that he believes “in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.” The previous day, he had announced that instead of all U.S. troops leaving in 2014, as had been the mantra, 9,800 would stay at least until 2016. We don’t know what they will be doing, but securing the bases they’ve built from where secret operations — drones? missions into Pakistan? — are launched from is one likely explanation.
“American exceptionalism” is the doctrine on which horrors have been carried out for generations. “Our” case is more just; “our” people understand the value of life, while “they” don’t. Obama went on, with a straight face, to proclaim that “what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions.” In the next breath, he said the word “Guantanamo” as if that’s not the definitive example of the U.S. government’s flouting of both.
The next line should have provoked laughter: “That’s why we’re putting in place new restrictions on how America collects and uses intelligence — because we will have fewer partners and be less effective if a perception takes hold that we’re conducting surveillance against ordinary citizens.” There he goes again: the problem for Obama and the government is not that they are surveilling whole and vast populations, but that there’s a “perception” that has taken hold among ordinary citizens across the globe that the U.S. views us as the enemy.
Two young men, both of whom were deployed by Obama as part of the exceptionally American occupation of Afghanistan, and the vast global NSA surveillance, have been in the news this week. Their words speak more truth about American exceptionalism than Obama ever will.
Edward Snowden memorably told Brian Williams of NBC last week: “So many of the things we’re told by the government simply aren’t true.” In addition to explaining the scale of the NSA surveillance of billions of people, and showing Williams how is cell phone is a tracking and recording device, Snowden drew out the distinction between what is legal, and what is moral.
John Kerry served as the administration’s attack dog; during a Wednesday morning interview on CBS News, he got macho and challenged Snowden to “man-up and come back to the United States” to face trial.
Snowden, who has been charged with three felonies, including two under the Espionage Act of 1917, explained to Williams that he will not be allowed a public and fair trial — because all the evidence the government uses, by definition, will be secret and classified.
Cheers to Dan Ellsberg! Appearing after Snowden’s interview on MSNBC, he refuted Kerry’s claims, saying, “He’s a fugitive, not as Secretary Kerry says from justice — he’s a fugitive from injustice. He has no chance of a fair, just trial in this country.”
Bowe Bergdahl, the other young man in the news this week, went into the U.S. military in 2008, and was in a unit sent to Afghanistan as part of Obama’s “surge” in 2009. He was captured and held for 5 years by Taliban forces. His life was held in the balance between the illegitimate American occupiers, and the illegitimate Taliban forces. Over the weekend, Bowe Behdahl was released in exchange for five men held in Guantanamo under no charge for more than a decade. They are reported by the U.S. to have been Afghan Taliban leaders, and their release adds to the trickle of prisoners leaving GTMO.
Berhdahl’s story is potentially very interesting. The late Michael Hastings did a profile of him in 2012, revealing how disillusioned he was by the U.S. role in Afghanistan:
“I am sorry for everything here,” Bowe told his parents. “These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid…
“We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks…. We make fun of them in front of their faces, and laugh at them for not understanding we are insulting them.”
So much for American exceptionalism.
Debra Sweet is the Director of World Can’t Wait.