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America: the Indispensable Nation…Not!

Hillary Clinton affirmed “American exceptionalism” in a speech to the American Legion in Cincinnati on August 31.

If there’s one core belief that has guided and inspired me every step of the way, it is this. The United States is an exceptional nation…And part of what makes America an exceptional nation, is that we are also an indispensable nation.

In fact, we are the indispensable nation. People all over the world look to us and follow our lead.

Her speech was another episode in the chronicle of Clintonian triangulation: the continual search for positions that co-opt and neutralize critics of Clinton and Clintonian policies.  And by declaring the “indispensable nation” doctrine, Hillary Clinton convincingly shed the pro-peace/anti-military incubus that had bedeviled the Democratic Party and her family over the last three decades and seized the “strength and security” a.k.a. “warmonger” mantle from the GOP.

Her husband, Bill Clinton, had encountered unique difficulties as the first US president not to have served in the military in some capacity in World War II.  In fact, he had taken advantage of a student deferment to avoid induction into the military during the Vietnam War.  His first visit as president to a military installation as president subjected him to excruciating mockery and virtual insubordination.  Joke: “A protester threw a beer at the president.  Don’t worry, he dodged it.  It was a draft.”

Barack Obama, another Democratic president without  military credentials, was flayed in his first and second presidential campaigns for his perceived indifference to “American exceptionalism,” an unscientific exercise in patriotic superstition and Hegelian projection which, in that context, was seen as the assertion that the unlimited exercise of US power was, perhaps through the moral superiority of our nation and its system, perhaps because of some divine mandate, inherently virtuous.

As a black man aware of America’s heritage of slavery and the disaster of the Iraq War, President Obama attempted to separate American exceptionalism from its jingoistic roots and, instead of discarding it, redefined it as an indefatigable national impulse to overcome obstacles, errors, and injustice to progress as a nation.  Call it “Practical” or “Scientific” Exceptionalism.

President Obama laid out his vision at a speech at the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 2015.  The hagiographic Washington Post coverage declared:

Its essence amounted to a rebuttal of Ronald Reagan’s famous “City on a Hill” speech [which] sketched a vision of an America that was nearly without flaw.

Well, guess what.  “City on a Hill” is back.  Per Clinton’s Cincinnati speech:

The United States is an exceptional nation. I believe we are still Lincoln’s last, best hope of Earth. We’re still Reagan’s shining city on a hill. We’re still Robert Kennedy’s great, unselfish, compassionate country.

In Clinton’s vision we are not, I might say, the country that screws up big time… like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did in Libya, for instance.

The determined efforts of the Clinton campaign to scuttle away from its flagbearer’s dismal Libyan legacy is one of the many moments of low comedy in this presidential campaign.

When Clinton was Secretary of State, a Libyan triumph was expected to serve as the tentpole foreign policy achievement for her presidential run.  Instead, Libya descended into anarchy, became a crucial origination point and waystation for transnational Islamic militants, and emerged as a nexus of destabilization for North Africa.

Which makes this statement by Clinton rather ironic:

When America fails to lead, we leave a vacuum that either causes chaos or other countries or networks rush in to fill the void. So no matter how hard it gets, no matter how great the challenge, America must lead.

With the Libyan fiasco unexploitable, Clinton was reduced to touting her purported agency in giving President Obama the backbone to kill bin Laden as her signature FP moment.

President Obama generously gave her the credit.  Equally generously, he declined to blame her misjudgment for the Libya intervention she so vociferously advocated and, in fact, seems to be engaged in a hurried military exercise to suppress the ISIS franchise in Libya and prevent further Libya-related attention and embarrassment for the Clinton campaign.

In her politics, I believe Clinton is an instinctive and indefatigable frontrunner, determined to push her way to the front of the biggest parade and claim to be leading it, consequences be damned.  In the US, that parade organized by the Pentagon and it marches overseas in pursuit of power and profit.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, America in Clinton’s view is not only “exceptional” it is “indispensable,” despite the rather compelling evidence that MENA in general could have “dispensed” with America’s attentions, as Libya found Hillary Clinton “indispensable” in its dismal quest to devolve from a prosperous, well-functioning oil satrapy to an anarchic and immiserated boot camp for militants presided over by three competing regimes.

Even as the United States tried to “lead” and shape the destinies of states with populations in the tens of millions, it has become the strategic plaything of Israel, Saudi Arabia…and Turkey.

Turkey!  Which went ahead and invaded Syria to put the hurt on America’s Kurdish allies/assets even though…well, maybe because…it’s a US ally.  Which is now playing footsie with Russia, the power it’s supposed to be containing as a key NATO force.

“Indispensability,”  however, is not just a feel-good soundbite; it has the savor of one of those over-ruminated and underdigested think tank efforts that mark the path of the Clinton campaign like so many expensive road apples.

The interesting and rather ignored subtext of the “indispensable” formula is that it is actually a step back from “dominant” or “hegemonic.” Remember “full spectrum dominance”?  Maybe not, but that was the Rumsfeld formula declaring the United States military could do it all and we shouldn’t be afraid to wield US power unilaterally.  That came a cropper in Iraq, so we don’t do that anymore.

“Indispensable,” while projecting a reassuring aura of chesty invincibility to the masses, is supposed to signal to the cognoscenti we are aware of the limits of unilateral power and instead do what we can to structure the battlespace favorably to allocate power between competing and supporting actors so we can inject decisive force when we want to/need to.

This formulation is clearly applicable to dealing with the rise of China in particular and Asia in general, a region, very unlike MENA, of relatively high-functioning states with populations numbering in the hundreds of millions and billions.  As US relative strength declines and China muscles up, there’s a clear understanding that the US cannot stay on top by itself.  It needs allies—like India and Japan.

The United States may have bid adieu to dominance in Asia; but it will find it hard to uphold even the illusion of US indispensability as its relative strength continues to decline vis a vis Japan and India as well as China; these countries set up their own security regimes that, as needed, complement or exclude the US; and the economic and security costs of creating a “leading” and “indispensable” role for the United States in Asia continue to escalate.

“Indispensability” is the secret sauce for burgeoning Pentagon budgets and ambitious politicians.  And of course the more unworkable the objective, the more money has to be spent to try and attain it.  Ka-ching!

But it’s not a recipe for regional stability and prosperity.  Fact is, the US already has to degrade the regional security order to secure a decisive American role.  If you don’t believe me, look at the US policy, actually non-policy, on North Korea.

And look at the US pouring conventional (and in the future, probably tactical nuclear) military capabilities into the Asian theater to deter our allies from going nuclear themselves and eliminating the true foundation of US “indispensability”: its nuclear monopoly a.k.a. the “nuclear umbrella” over the China-containment regime.

The dark side of sustaining “indispensability” is that the United States, as its relative power declines, has to try to reshape and restrain the capabilities and ambitions of its allies, as well as China, in order to preserve the “indispensable” role for American power.  That’s a losing battle with India and Japan.

I understand Hillary Clinton wanted to get her national security ticket punched with voters and with the military/industrial/security complex.   But trying to keep the United States “indispensable” will probably cost us trillions in the decades to come, guarantees polarization and tensions in Asia, and will probably start a war or two.  And it will end in failure, albeit probably after Hillary Clinton has left office and a generation of officers and analysts have paid off their summer homes and their kids’ mortgages.

“Indispensability,” despite its pretensions to realism and practicality, comes with a big price tag, maybe even the end of the American empire it is designed to prolong.

More articles by:

Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

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