It is commonplace in world politics for domineering powers to justify themselves by proclaiming their own essential goodness. The American empire is exceptional, however, for declaring that its goodness consists in its implacable adherence to the norms of morality and the rule of law. Given the facts, the irony inherent in this contention is staggering, as any reasonably informed and fair-minded person would attest. However, it has been so for so long that it hardly bears notice. Lately, though, the extent of “bipartisan” acquiescence in this self-representation has taken an unsually appalling turn.
The (so far failed) efforts of the United States and NATO to kill Muammar Gaddafi and his family are arguably par for the course, as is the assassination of Osama Bin Laden by Navy Seals, Barack Obama’s Murder Incorporated. But the level of “bipartisan” support for these and other “targeted killings” and, in the case of Bin Laden, the triumphalist adulation that temporarily united “liberals” and “conservatives” marks a new low. This is why it is particularly apt now to reflect on what really is “exceptional” about the American empire.
From time immemorial, ethical codes and legal systems have evaluated actions and situations in ways that depend on the identities of the actors involved. It is only with the rise of distinct but related conceptions of equality — equality of personhood and equality of citizenship –that an impartial or agent-neutral conception of right conduct and of equal justice under law has taken hold. In ordinary speech, “morality” has many ill-defined and sometimes contradictory meanings. In philosophical contexts however, the “moral point of view” designates a standpoint of impartiality or agent-neutrality from which agents deliberate about what they ought to do. This purchase on what morality is advances understanding and helps make sense of vague and conflicting claims.
In a world order comprised of vastly unequal constituent parts, it is almost impossible to sustain the moral point of view. The American experience bears out this expectation. Yet it is the norm in our political culture to identify our purported goodness with our morality and lawfulness, and to promote obliviousness to this plain fact.
As with many other tenets of modern, secular thought, the moral point of view was first broached in a theological framework. Thus the Golden Rule, the injunction to do unto others as you would have others do unto you, a deliberative standpoint attributed to Jesus Christ himself, suggests that the differences between oneself and others should not matter in cases where right conduct is the issue — that only commonalities should be taken into account. Presumably, the relevant commonality in the minds of thoughtful people two millennia ago (and of those who hold similar views today) was the equality of souls, their equal importance to God. But there is no need to invoke dubious metaphysical or theological entities to grasp what the moral point of view involves. The core idea, the “rational kernel” inherent in the idea of Golden Rule deliberation is the moral equality of persons ? the principle that, as agents (doers), everyone should count the same.
It took almost two millennia for that thought to take on social and political content. Thus, in the eyes of the medieval Church, everyone, regardless of social status, was of equal concern to the Deity, but no one in the sway of that belief thought this implied equality of treatment by society’s basic institutions. That notion, equality of citizenship, is not much older than the French Revolution. The idea that laws apply equally to all (who fall within their scope), regardless of differences in status or power, is a modern innovation, notwithstanding its archaic roots.
Thanks to slavery and its aftermath, and to class inequalities, the United States has hardly lived up to the ideal of equal justice under law, even within its borders. But the reality does sometimes approximate the ideal. And there have been moments in our history when we seemed to be on course for advancing that notion in the international arena. The immediate post-World War II period was such a moment. Through the United Nations Charter, the Nuremburg War Crimes trials, and in other ways, the US helped to advance notions of universal human rights and international law. By any pertinent economic or military standard, American power was supreme. But the United States declared itself subject to the same laws as other states.
In practice, though not in theory, that moment passed almost immediately as America assumed an imperial role on a global scale. Again, for a brief period in the mid 1970s, after Vietnam and Watergate, something like the post-War spirit reasserted itself, at least to the extent that assassination was officially proscribed as a tool of foreign policy. That moment passed even more quickly. Now, with our national security state led by a Nobel laureate who is comfortable using unmanned killer drones and who calls upon practitioners of the dark arts of “special ops” to execute the empire’s business, assassination has become an instrument of American foreign policy to an extent that not even John Kennedy would have imagined.
Thus we do unto others what we would never countenance others doing unto ourselves.
How has it come to this? And how can such paradigmatic violations of morality coexist with the idea that we are exceptional among nations for championing morality and law? Denial and hypocrisy play a role of course, but the main thing is that we have managed to convince ourselves that we, the “good guys,” are at war with incarnations of evil itself; that our enemies fall outside the moral universe to such an extent that, against them, anything goes. More than Muammar Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein, and certainly more than Slobodan Milosevic, Osama Bin Laden was a perfect candidate for this project of self-deception, a villain straight out of central casting. For those in charge of the predations of empire, he was a godsend. No wonder that our rulers were content that he remain at large for almost a decade after the deed for which he is charged.
Charged, but not convicted. It has never been entirely clear just what Bin Laden’s (very likely considerable) role in the events of 9/11 was. Had he been brought to justice, as genuinely moral leaders would have demanded, that would probably have become clear. But now that Murder Incorporated has dumped his body into the sea, we may never know. No matter: Bin Laden’s well-constructed transcendent villainy was ? and still is ? a serviceable pretext for the longest war in our country’s history. There are doves who now believe that with Bin Laden “sleeping with the fishes,” Obama will soon bring the Afghanistan War to an end. But these are the people who believe in the essential goodness of the regime and its leader, and so they are capable of believing anything.
Outside the perfervid imaginations of our most gullible compatriots, the Afghanistan war was never about expunging evil from the world. It wasn’t even about revenge, though that primitive motive did play a role in winning popular support for Bush’s machinations. The neo-cons saw Afghanistan as a dry run for their project of making the Middle East safe for American corporations and Israel. But even when they were calling the shots, the main thing was always the need to maintain “credibility. The United States went to war in Afghanistan to demonstrate that it must be feared; that if it is struck, it will strike back a hundred-fold. This is how gangsters think, and it is telling that, on this point, there has always been a bipartisan consensus. Our most prominent “doves” ? Obama, when he was running for president and Howard Dean four years earlier– were entirely on board.
Obama deserves condemnation for presiding over a Clintonite restoration, for enhancing noxious Bush era policies on privacy and civil liberties, and above all for earning the confidence his Wall Street patrons bestowed upon him. But his Original Sin was to let Dick Cheney and George Bush off scot-free, and to hold no one accountable for the war crimes, crimes against the peace and crimes against humanity perpetrated under their reign. Like Adam and Eve’s mythical transgression in the Garden of Eden, this was a Sin whose stain cannot be expunged. This is why, to this day, none of the Wall Street criminals who brought the world financial system to ruin have seen the inside of a prison cell. If Bush and Cheney can go free, there is impunity for anyone “too big” to be brought to justice without shaking the system to its foundations. In Obama’s America, the rule of law is just for the little people; and, despite Nuremburg and the UN Charter, their counterparts in the international arena.
Obama’s assassins are just the latest in a long line, and the applause he has garnered for wielding them “boldly” is distressingly familiar. But as the endless wars Cheney and Bush initiated grind on under Obama’s willing stewardship, it is becoming increasingly evident what is at stake: nothing less than the rule of law and the demands of morality itself. It has come to this because the “good guys” are at war with transcendent evil.
As I said, the irony is staggering.
Andrew Levine is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. ?