The Oracle of American Exceptionalism: Obama Enumerates Our Core Principles

Listening to our statesmen wax idyllic about America’s role in the world, you may find yourself conceding that these people actually believe what they’re saying. They believe in American exceptionalism, in the noble purpose of the “indispensible” nation. But just what does exceptionalism means to leaders like President Barack Obama and his ilk? During the president’s recent flight of rhetoric in the United Nations General Assembly, he struck all the keynotes of the American ideology. This was important for two reasons. First, because it came in the wake of Pope Francis’ majestic drubbing of imperial capitalism in select cities around the hemisphere. The president had to reestablish the illusion of American moral power. Second, the U.S. population appears increasingly clued into the ruse of our war against the Islamic State (ISIS). And as Russia signaled its entry into the fray, Obama needed to restate American purposefulness in ever-bolder terms.

Atomic Lies

The President began his soaring ode to American superiority with a fitting reference to the Second World War, without which the ideology of the exceptional would hardly survive. He noted the “unthinkable power of the atomic age,” and how, ever since obliterating two cities in Japan with atom bombs (a minor omission from the speech), “…the United States has worked with many nations in this Assembly to prevent a third world war.”

This is all fine and well. Except for instances in which we have done nearly everything conceivable to incite warfare. Just to confine ourselves to this century and leaving aside godlike Jack Kennedy’s memorable brush with annihilation over some missiles in Cuba, the record to which Obama refers is rife with exceptions. But what of it, say the neoconservatives, still caught in the feverish embrace of war criminal Donald Rumsfeld’s plan to run roughshod over the Middle East, wrecking seven countries in five years. Rumsfeld’s fingerprints dot the map of the Middle East in the form of flashpoints and failed states. So do the fingerprints of Dick Cheney, Hillary Clinton, and our ‘history incarnate’ president himself.

Critical to this manic blueprint for the region is the need to ensure that no plan to rid the region of nuclear weapons ever sees the light of day. President Obama has voted against or blocked such resolutions at Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) conferences, first in 2010 and again this year, as well as at various U.N. General Assembly meetings. This despite overwhelming support from U.N. members, the Arab League and even Egypt. To support such an initiative would permanently destabilize Israel’s presidential pit-bull Benjamin Netanyahu, for it is Netanyahu who presides over Tel Aviv’s charmingly discrete policy of “deliberate ambiguity” about its nuclear program, which by most accounts includes hundreds of nuclear warheads. Note that the slightest “ambiguity” emerging from Tehran is cause for a four-alarm fire drill. Imagine such a phrase emanating from the Grand Ayatollah’s den of Iranian iniquity. How quickly would Samantha Power rush some ‘unequivocal’ resolution into the Security Council? How fast would Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter—who last week made strangely cryptic statements about Russian casualties—appear in the General Assembly, brandishing supposed evidence of Iranian sins? But no, Israel—along with other non-signatories of the NPT such as Pakistan and India—must share in America’s exceptionalism, having itself invented the ideological template with its own “chosen race” fairy tale.

Reigniting Old Rivalries

Aside from claiming to have reduced threats of world war, the president claimed to have demonstrated our dedication to global peace by, “forging alliances with old adversaries.” Except, of course, when we forge new conflicts with old adversaries. Not least among these is the hostility the Obama administration has projected toward perhaps the only nuclear power capable of demolishing much of the United States—the Russian Federation. Despite objections from venerable warmongers like Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Obama cut loose his favorite neoconservatives to pour five billion dollars into destabilizing Ukraine, despite knowing that Moscow has always said that Western action on its borders would be considered an existential threat, to use the latest catchphrase.

At the same time he had unleashed the CIA to perform its handiwork at the heart of the Middle East, wrecking the tapestry of Syria’s multi-confessional state. Thanks to this effort to rid ourselves of a despised rival, we now sit beneath the same airspace as the Russians, an incredibly parlous state of affairs. Mixed signals from Washington indicated two possible responses: the first a potential climb down from its hostile demand that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad leave power. But later in the week our irrepressible belligerence surfaced. Escalation, as anticipated.

But to be fair, when holding forth from the world pulpit about forming alliances with adversaries, Obama was surely thinking of Iran, with which the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany cut a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear industry. Of course, this was no alliance. The deal dismantles much of Iran’s nuclear power infrastructure, in effect weakening a rival’s posture of deterrence. The agreement moves Iran further away from the possibility of being able to create a nuclear weapon, an important detail for the West since—though Iran was not pursuing nukes—Washington has long had designs on Tehran, particularly the overthrow of the Iranian political system, and its replacement with a new Shah—friendly to Western interests and able to check Islamic independence. This will prove far easier to achieve without the potential deterrent of an Iranian WMD.

It is also likely that the deal was a temporizing tactic by an administration already preoccupied by another imperial project in Syria. It shifted the action item of Iranian regime change onto the agenda of a future president. But this was not a peace deal in the implied sense—that of preventing an imminent military confrontation between Iran and the West. Iran was fully within its nuclear rights as an IAEA member state. It had expressed no hostile intent toward any of the negotiating nations. It was doing nothing illegal with its nuclear program, which means the agreement is a deep infringement on Iranian sovereignty by pinioning the country beneath a network of IAEA inspectors, unexampled in the size and scope of their remit. No Western state would ever grant that degree of access. As such, the agreement may have simply sidelined Western aggression, notably by Israel, in the near term. For that it is laudable, though it is not a demonstrable example of the West’s commitment to the principle of peace. It is rather a strategic victory in dismantling the potential defensive capacities of a targeted rival forced into complicity with the vice of illegal sanctions—a less costly alternative than winning through war.

Destroying Democracy

The president also spoke of “…supporting the steady emergence of strong democracies accountable to their people instead of any foreign power.” Except when we support the opposite, such as working to overthrow democracies and make them accountable to a foreign power. Namely Syria. Bashar al-Assad was elected by a preponderance of the Syrian population in an election legitimized by the presence of dozens of foreign observers. No matter. Washington has poured tens of millions of dollars into training, arming, and funding foreign mercenaries to overthrow his government. All part of White House and Pentagon plans to shatter the Shia Crescent and likely transform the region into a string of pathetic statelets overseen by Saudi Arabia and Israel. None less than Pope Francis declared the Syrian conflict to have produced the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War. Our efforts to destroy democracy have led directly to half the Syrian population being exiled from their homes and some 220,000 deaths.

This time, instead of hurling the buzzword “WMDs” around the General Assembly, the president dropped “barrel bombs” in his speech, the latest catchphrase deployed to demonize Assad. He didn’t bother to explain the precise difference between barrel bombs and the iron fragmentation and cluster bombs, white phosphorous bombs, and depleted uranium bombs we have so cavalierly distributed onto Arab populations in recent years. As though there were some stark moral abyss between our behavior and that of the Syrian government. If anything, it might be said that Syria is trying to fight off Western-backed terrorism, if criminally indiscriminate, while American and NATO wars have all been either illegal or legitimized by the laughable logic of exceptionalism.

The president said that our support for democracies were part of a larger effort to build, “…an international system that imposes a cost on those who choose conflict over cooperation, an order that recognizes the dignity and equal worth of all people.” Except that we shirk the international system in order to impose our own costs on those we dislike. Nor do we acknowledge the equal worth, let alone the dignity, of all people. Since 2001, it estimated that we are directly implicated in the deaths of some 1.3 million people across Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. (Two million is the top of the potential spectrum, with around a million the bottom.) This figure is not even to mention the drone assassination program—what Noam Chomsky calls the world’s largest practice of terrorism—that stretches from Pakistan to Yemen and appears to have killed more than 5,000 people, none of them afforded a fair trial. These numbers hardly suggest deep-seated convictions about the worth of human life. 

Might Makes Right

Finally, in a breathtakingly obtuse passage, Obama claimed that the United States has vigorously battled against those that “…argue for a return to the rules that applied for most of human history and that pre-date this institution: the belief that power is a zero-sum game; that might makes right; that strong states must impose their will on weaker ones; [and that pursue]…a politics and solidarity that depend on demonizing others, that draws on religious sectarianism or narrow tribalism or jingoism may at times look like strength in the moment, but over time its weakness will be exposed.”

Except that we do impose our will on smaller nations. We do demonize others. We do draw on sectarianism and jingoism to destroy solidarities. We do proliferate nuclear technologies. We do contravene international law. We do act as though might makes right. Ask Libya. Ask Iraq. Ask Iran. Then ask the world which nation it considers to be the planet’s biggest threat to world peace.

Lastly, Obama sounded a note of false solidarity by claiming that, “Together, we showed that laws and agreements mean something.” Except when they don’t, which happens to be the case whenever the empire’s strategic interests are at stake. The Syrian bombing missions are direct violations of the U.N. Charter and Syrian sovereignty. Except that the principle of universality does not apply to empire. We have no need to apply to ourselves the same standard of justice we apply to our lessers. So save the law for weak and piddling nations of indigent farmers and destitute nomads. Preserve the law as a tool of dominion, and little else.

A Shifting Balance of Power?

Fortunately, Russia has stepped into the breach of lawlessness and announced that it isn’t going to permit another notorious instance of Western-backed regime change—at least not without serious resistance. Putin was fooled on Libya. He seems determined not to let the same scenario play out in Damascus (though it largely already has, save for Assad’s murder). China, too, has recently issued strong statements of its intention to defend its perceived interests in the South China Sea. These two signals suggest that last week may have formally ended the post-Soviet phase of global unilateralism by the United States, during which it ran roughshod across the planet.

Another way of putting it is to say that Obama may have just lost the Middle East, which would represent one of Washington’s largest foreign policy failures in decades. The question now is whether Washington will let the Middle East slip into a balance of Sunni and Shiite interests, and work with Russia to uproot ISIS. Or will it recharge its jihadist supply chain and attempt to either outlast Russian involvement or attempt to become a major resource drain on Moscow? As noted above, recent news suggests the latter.

And yet, the potential for a multi-polar geopolitics appears to represent a better alternative to unchecked American imperialism. It would be a welcome respite from Washington’s ceaseless interventionism. It is high time to pause the theatrics. The world is already convinced: we are exceptional indeed. Exceptionally obtuse; exceptionally arrogant; exceptionally hypocritical; exceptionally faithless; and exceptionally violent. How different reality seems to the thumping orations of the inveterate sophist who represents us to the world.

Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry and author of The Sins of Empire and Imperial Fictions, essay collections from between 2012-2017. He lives in New York City and can be reached at