America on Memorial Day: Heavily armed, dangerous, unstable

America is powerful. We are not strong. Now is the time to understand the difference -- and to put away the myths

Published May 25, 2015 9:59AM (EDT)

The world never stops turning, of course, but when it is your turn to walk upon it the revolutions can be difficult to see. Even so, the speed of them now is hard to miss.

I am thinking of the changing place of our great country among 190-odd others. It is not the same as it was even a matter of months ago. Things I thought would come to pass in 10 years, maybe fewer by a couple, are now before us. Good things, believe it or not, at least on balance. We write in black ink, not red.

We come to another Memorial Day. We should look back a little, naturally, and then forward. Mostly we should look around.

Where to begin?

Two events in the past couple of weeks make an excellent place. One, there was the Seymour Hersh piece in the London Review of Books, wherein the curtain draws back on just how Navy SEALs came to kill Osama bin Laden. Two, there was John Kerry’s journey to Sochi, wherein our beloved secretary of state—well, as beloved as any other—asked Vladimir Putin for help getting things done that America is powerless to accomplish alone.

Together these make the perfect snapshot of a nation profoundly uncertain of itself. Or maybe “mug shot” is better: Turn it one way and you get the full frontal, turn it another and it is profile. If mug shot it is, the caption would have to read, “Heavily armed, dangerous, unstable, possibly schizophrenic.”

One at a time, then.

I was asked the other day on television whether the Obama administration had successfully countered Sy Hersh’s counter-narrative of the bin Laden assassination. (Follow the bouncing ball: We have official narrative, counter-narrative and now counter-counter-narrative, the third not quite matching the first.) No, I said, they swept it under the carpet quickly enough, but now the carpet is very lumpy.

Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, had two points he was especially insistent on throwing at the wall hard enough to make them stick. One was that, no, the Pakistani generals and intelligence officials named in Hersh’s piece never knew of the assassination plot. Total surprise when the raid was staged. (Staged being just the word.) Two, closely related, the SEALs got the job done alone. No help from nobody no time.

Think about these things. We Americans were to be assured, above all, that 1) we still have no respect for anyone else’s sovereignty and 2) we still act as unilaterally as the cop in a Clint Eastwood film. Is there any other way to interpret the White House’s post-Hersh preoccupations?

Now the Sochi encounter.

On the Black Sea’s shores Kerry spent a long day with Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, and President Putin. A long day with a long list, one point binding all its items: We were going to take care of Syria alone, deep-sixing Assad as we have so many others, but find we cannot; we were going to corner the Iranians and force an iniquitous nuclear deal upon them but find we cannot; we were going to neoliberalize Ukraine and deposit NATO like a milk bottle on your back steps, but the game theorists got it wrong: You were supposed to sit still in a great-power variant of shock and awe but did not.

I used the term “schizophrenic” just now. It is not too strong as a description of the American consciousness in the year 2015.

We have, between these two events, two versions of who we are. Related to this, we have two ideas of the place military superiority takes in the 21st century. I will get to the latter thought further on.

Cast in its largest terms, terms explored in the book noted at the end of these columns, we Americans are suspended awkwardly between myth and history. A mythical idea of America contends with an historical idea. This contention is very old, woven through the American story. Overestimating one’s moment is always a danger, but in my read the battle between these two parts of the American consciousness is somewhere near its denouement.

The White House narrative and counter-narrative of bin Laden’s murder are rooted in the mythical America that extends back to Winthrop’s City on a Hill bit in 1630. We are the world’s exception. Whatever we do is providentially right and by definition not subject to lowly human law. This is why the White House found it important to dwell upon the illegal aspect of the bin Laden operation once Hersh published his revelations: Somewhere above, it was righteous.

Look at it this way. The SEALs as deployed in Abbotabad take a minor place in the mythical American story alongside Daniel Boone, T.R. at San Juan Hill, Tom Dooley and countless others. The varied realties or unrealities are as nothing next to their shared status as inviolate bearers forward of the myth. Sy Hersh’s sin, simply but adequately put, was to insist on an historical version of events.

To Sochi once again.

To stay briefly with the terms just explained, Kerry visit with the Russians, and all we know of what was said, occurred in historical time, as against sacred time, mythical time. Human agency in every question raised did not matter most of all: It is all that mattered. “Let’s deal” is not a phrase with many echoes in the American past. In whatever words, Kerry used it.

Events are determined among us, here on earth: This was one of the great European discoveries of the 19th century. To draw swiftly to a conclusion, this is what made Sochi important in a purely American context. The 21st century is forcing Americans to act in history, not outside it, along with everyone else. This is a messy, painful, altogether good thing.

There is another set of terms worth considering this Memorial Day, and I have favored them ever since learning them from Herbert Croly, the noted social critic of the Progressive era. No coincidence that Croly published “The Promise of American Life” in 1909, just when Washington was settling into a century of adventures abroad and when inequality at home was roughly as we have it now.

Croly distinguished between destiny and purpose. Destiny lands nations in semi-scared missions, slightly mystical such that no one can ever quite explain them.  There is nothing new to do and no new thoughts to think. It is always simply more of the same, for the course is set, destiny being as it is. If you detect a little Calvinist predetermination in this, you are on the right track.

A nation with purpose, on the other hand, is one with things to do. It “thinks with history,” to borrow the phrase of Carl Schorske, the emeritus historian at Princeton. It understands the defining importance of causality. It can say, Here is the problem, here is how it got this way, let us do what needs doing to address it.

This is our task as simply put as possible, it seems to me. To transform ourselves from a nation with a destiny to a nation with a purpose, from a mythical accounting of ourselves to an accounting grounded in history that holds us responsible for our fate: The world shouts at us to get this done. The only question is whether we will get it done or it will get done to us, for the 21st century does not hold out any other alternative.

Maybe it is now clear: I do not see that a diagnosis of schizophrenia is all that bad. It is an advance on psychosis, a complete loss of touch with reality, which was the Bush administration’s more or less acknowledged malady: Recall Karl Rove’s mot, “Reality is for other people; we create ours.”

This column has been consistently critical of the Obama administration’s conduct abroad, and I have no regret to express. But I think the president and Secretary Kerry—I leave Hillary Clinton out of this, as I do not think it applies—have at least glimpsed the 21st century’s minimal requirements roughly as I have outlined them. They remain exceptionalists but evince an encouraging anxiety that the end of the game is near. Encouraging because it is so, one way or another.

One way: We cannot say Kerry in Sochi embraced a future different from the past, but at least he sat at the table with multipolarity, with people who insist on inhabiting a world that recognizes the principle of equality among nations. Maybe he did the math and it dawned on him: If we isolate the Russians, and the Chinese, and the Iranians, and the Venezuelans and whomever else we do not alike, pretty soon we are going to be… isolated. Into the middle distance, we will have the British Conservative Party to mix the drinks, and that is about it.

Or another: I speak only for myself, but I was astonished to read last week—in the Guardian, a non-American paper—that a fulsome crowd of European heavy-hitters sent Federica Mogherini, the E.U.’s foreign minister-equivalent, a letter urging Europe to push the Americans aside on the Israel-Palestine question and act independently against the Israeli occupation.

The Eminent Persons Group includes three former prime ministers, two former foreign ministers and a former secretary-general at NATO. They were prompted by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reelection in March and a formal report to Mogherini last month, in which 16 on-duty foreign ministers called for the E.U. to mark out products made by Israeli companies on the West Bank.

“We are convinced in our own minds that he has little intention of negotiating seriously for a two-state solution within the term of this incoming Israeli government,” the group wrote of Netanyahu. “We also have low confidence that the U.S. government will be in a position to take a lead on fresh negotiations with the vigor and the impartiality that a two-state outcome demands.”

Wow, in my nuanced view.

“Hiding behind American leadership on the politics of the dispute is unedifying and unproductive,” the group added.

Wow again.

Two things to note when putting these cases side by side.

One, in Sochi we saw an inchoate acknowledgement that American conduct abroad will have to change—actively change—if anything is to be achieved, while in the second we find passivity, complacency, paralysis. It is weird enough that American media see no story in Europe’s ever more pronounced drift toward a rigorous stance on the Mideast based on a strict interpretation of law. It is weird and not weird all at once that Washington has found nothing to remark upon in these developments.

Two, in both cases we witness the slipping away of the traditional advantage accruing to military power alone. If you have not yet identified this as an essential feature of the new century, well, look more closely, do more reading and stop listening to Republicans on Capitol Hill would be my advice. They are the voices of yesterday shouting the last of the past forward.

Let us not overstate the case. We all know the statistics delineating America’s overwhelming military power. And we can count the consequences in casualties any day we like. But at the risk of repetition, it is time to distinguish between strong nations and the merely powerful. America falls into the latter category, and it is going to prove not the better one.

If America were strong as well as powerful, to put the point another way, there would be many fewer casualties and the power would eventually prove secondary.

What would a strong nation be? A short answer to a large question will do, as it suggests the larger thought.

Some weeks ago in this space I outlined Germany’s plan to renovate its foreign policy as well as the processes by which it is developed and then implemented. This is the vision of Hans-Walter Steinmeier, the Social-Democratic foreign minister in Chancellor Merkel’s strange, across-the-aisle coalition. If Steinmeier makes the vision flesh—and who can say?—this could be a 21st century gem.

Think about these things for their implications. German policy is to rest on international law more or less as it is, no need to add much other than a stricter insistence on observance. It is to derive from a holistic community of thinkers: political experts, economists, urban planners, sociologists, historians, educators, aid people, policy people, military people, foreign advisers and so on will all gather to shape the strategy. Military force is to be re-rated a last resort.

Most interesting to me are Steinmeier’s provisions for public participation in policy planning such that it reflects the nation’s aspirations when implemented. This is a very new idea and a very good one.

“Foreign policy is about more than just two extremes: either just talking or shooting, either futile diplomacy or Bundeswehr deployments abroad,” Steinmeier said when he introduced the new thinking in the Bundestag last March. “The world has changed, and the Federal Foreign Office must change with it.”

That is a little of what strong nations sound like. And I will leave it there.

* * *

It is two years ago this Memorial Day that Salon picked up a slice of a book I had just published, “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century.” Salon and I agreed shortly thereafter to launch this column.

Anniversaries of this kind are of little interest to readers, naturally. But there are a few things to say on this occasion that have nothing to do with small vanities.

This column began with a specific purpose. I had seen and heard in a hundred ways over some years that Americans were eager—eager on the way to desperate—for a new story, for a narrative that told them about the world as it was out their windows and beyond their shores. This was the genesis. Neither I nor my editor invented the column. The time we live in did that work. Readers invented it, I would even say.

Something new would be required. The typically tired leavings of the typically tired pundit would not do. “Most newspapers,” the late, great Robert Stone wrote in “Prime Green,” his memoir of the 1960s, “are into telling readers what they are used to hearing and think they already know.” This is precisely the problem. It contributes to the ignorance any column worth writing would have to counter.

I have told friends the following and see no reason not to share it here. Since form and content are never truly separate, the project was to stretch the genre, to remake it. The argument in every column Salon has published is that we Americans must think things we have not thought before. This means putting ideas not customarily the stuff of columns before readers. It means that difficult reading is sometimes necessary. Parenthetically, I am absolutely opposed to those who write down to readers. It is another part of the problem and, follow out the logic, a sign of disrespect.)

A couple of weeks ago the Wilson Center in Washington held a forum at which several questions were asked. Joseph Nye, the policy analyst who survived the Defense Department and the National Intelligence Council and now professes at Harvard, asked, “Is ‘the American Century’ over?”

That is not an interesting question. The era so named by some is plainly and thank goodness behind us by more than a decade.

Another question was, “Is America ‘the indispensable nation?’” Not at all interesting.

What is America’s contribution now other than weaponry and political subterfuge? Name it, please, and iWhatevers do not count. New thinking? Imaginative, disinterested solutions to humanity’s intractable problems? A guiding desire to draw the community of nations together while respecting different histories, cultures, traditions, beliefs, systems? No, no and no.

A third question, the centerpiece of the gathering, was, “Is America in Decline?” It is more interesting than the others but still not very.

Look around. The democratic process is now officially collapsed, according to the Federal Election Commission, whose chairwoman advised the other week—were you as astonished as I?—that it has lost all ability to enforce the laws governing illegal money in politics. Like some perverse objective co-relative, the infrastructure is collapsed such that we cannot keep trains on tracks. There is misery everywhere one looks, even if most of us refuse to.

Abroad, we are so indispensable that some large if unmeasured proportion of humanity would love to dispense with us. “The necessary evil” is the better phrase.

This is decline, too obvious to debate. Here is the interesting part of the question: Do we have to be in decline? This is worth a book. (I know. I wrote one.)

My answer, straight off the top, no nuance, is no. Decline is a choice. And if our choice is not to recognize this choice—as we seem to prefer—we have chosen decline whether or not we think we have. Ignorance is not bliss this time.

Failure to recognize this choice is a symptom of exceptionalism’s tragic tenacity—tragic because it is running us into the ground and sending Americans and many more others pointlessly to graves. It is a question of consciousness. Among us, an old one and a new one are at war, this war one absolutely necessary to fight.

Here is the thing. The first to call themselves Americans did something truly exceptional. Their documents remain the greatest gift this nation has ever given humanity. Ho, most famously but one among others, wrote a lot of the Declaration of Independence into the Vietnamese constitution. But the 1770s and 1780s were an exceptional time rich with exceptional people. All that got done was humanly made and occurred in history. There was nothing providentially ordained about it and nothing—look around again—destined to remain eternally ours.

An exceptional history, yes. It is mostly a blessing but somewhat a burden. Exceptionalism as another “ism,” a belief system full of idolatry, ideology and myth? If we do not overcome this it will overcome us.

This is my argument for the urgency of new thinking. It is why this column is the way it is. It is why—interesting sidelight—a recent survey of five Western nations found that 60 percent of those polled want more news from alternative media because they no longer rely on traditional sources to describe the world as it is. (The proportion of Americans: 57 percent. Think about this.)

As with our media, we get little to no imagination or awareness from our leadership. The 2016 election, with the exception of Bernie Sanders’ recent entry, consists of “the sweet talk of hypocrites,” to take Bob Marley’s handy phrase. I hear little more. The column you read is a modest contribution to the task before all of us: to think anew and think for ourselves.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is

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