"Abuses of Reality."
American Exceptionalism And The Obama Doctrine
By Noam Chomsky
Clearing House -
The recent Obama-Putin tiff over American exceptionalism
reignited an ongoing debate over the Obama Doctrine: Is the
president veering toward isolationism? Or will he proudly carry
the banner of exceptionalism?
The debate is narrower than it may seem. There is considerable
common ground between the two positions, as was expressed
clearly by Hans Morgenthau, the founder of the now dominant
no-sentimentality "realist" school of international relations.
Throughout his work, Morgenthau describes America as unique
among all powers past and present in that it has a "transcendent
purpose" that it "must defend and promote" throughout the world:
"the establishment of equality in freedom."
The competing concepts "exceptionalism" and "isolationism" both
accept this doctrine and its various elaborations but differ
with regard to its application.
One extreme was vigorously defended by President Obama in his
Sept. 10 address to the nation: "What makes America different,"
he declared, "what makes us exceptional," is that we are
dedicated to act, "with humility, but with resolve," when we
detect violations somewhere.
"For nearly seven decades the United States has been the anchor
of global security," a role that "has meant more than forging
international agreements; it has meant enforcing them."
The competing doctrine, isolationism, holds that we can no
longer afford to carry out the noble mission of racing to put
out the fires lit by others. It takes seriously a cautionary
note sounded 20 years ago by the New York Times columnist Thomas
Friedman that "granting idealism a near exclusive hold on our
foreign policy" may lead us to neglect our own interests in our
devotion to the needs of others.
Between these extremes, the debate over foreign policy rages.
At the fringes, some observers reject the shared assumptions,
bringing up the historical record: for example, the fact that
"for nearly seven decades" the United States has led the world
in aggression and subversion - overthrowing elected governments
and imposing vicious dictatorships, supporting horrendous
crimes, undermining international agreements and leaving trails
of blood, destruction and misery.
To these misguided creatures, Morgenthau provided an answer. A
serious scholar, he recognized that America has consistently
violated its "transcendent purpose."
But to bring up this objection, he explains, is to commit "the
error of atheism, which denies the validity of religion on
similar grounds." It is the transcendent purpose of America that
is "reality"; the actual historical record is merely "the abuse
In short, "American exceptionalism" and "isolationism" are
generally understood to be tactical variants of a secular
religion, with a grip that is quite extraordinary, going beyond
normal religious orthodoxy in that it can barely even be
perceived. Since no alternative is thinkable, this faith is
Others express the doctrine more crudely. One of President
Reagan's U.N. ambassadors, Jeane Kirkpatrick, devised a new
method to deflect criticism of state crimes. Those unwilling to
dismiss them as mere "blunders" or "innocent naivete" can be
charged with "moral equivalence" - of claiming that the U.S. is
no different from Nazi Germany, or whoever the current demon may
be. The device has since been widely used to protect power from
Even serious scholarship conforms. Thus in the current issue of
the journal Diplomatic History, scholar Jeffrey A. Engel
reflects on the significance of history for policy makers.
Engel cites Vietnam, where, "depending on one's political
persuasion," the lesson is either "avoidance of the quicksand of
escalating intervention [isolationism] or the need to provide
military commanders free rein to operate devoid of political
pressure" - as we carried out our mission to bring stability,
equality and freedom by destroying three countries and leaving
millions of corpses.
The Vietnam death toll continues to mount into the present
because of the chemical warfare that President Kennedy initiated
there - even as he escalated American support for a murderous
dictatorship to all-out attack, the worst case of aggression
during Obama's "seven decades."
Another "political persuasion" is imaginable: the outrage
Americans adopt when Russia invades Afghanistan or Saddam
Hussein invades Kuwait. But the secular religion bars us from
seeing ourselves through a similar lens.
One mechanism of self-protection is to lament the consequences
of our failure to act. Thus New York Times columnist David
Brooks, ruminating on the drift of Syria to "Rwanda-like"
horror, concludes that the deeper issue is the Sunni-Shiite
violence tearing the region asunder.
That violence is a testimony to the failure "of the recent
American strategy of light-footprint withdrawal" and the loss of
what former foreign service officer Gary Grappo calls the
"moderating influence of American forces."
Those still deluded by "abuse of reality" - that is, fact -
might recall that the Sunni-Shiite violence resulted from the
worst crime of aggression of the new millennium, the U.S.
invasion of Iraq. And those burdened with richer memories might
recall that the Nuremberg Trials sentenced Nazi criminals to
hanging because, according to the Tribunal's judgment,
aggression is "the supreme international crime differing only
from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the
accumulated evil of the whole."
The same lament is the topic of a celebrated study by Samantha
Power, the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. In "A
Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide," Power writes
about the crimes of others and our inadequate response.
She devotes a sentence to one of the few cases during the seven
decades that might truly rank as genocide: the Indonesian
invasion of East Timor in 1975. Tragically, the United States
"looked away," Power reports.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, her predecessor as U.N. ambassador at
the time of the invasion, saw the matter differently. In his
book "A Dangerous Place," he described with great pride how he
rendered the U.N. "utterly ineffective in whatever measures it
undertook" to end the aggression, because "the United States
wished things to turn out as they did."
And indeed, far from looking away, Washington gave a green light
to the Indonesian invaders and immediately provided them with
lethal military equipment. The U.S. prevented the U.N. Security
Council from acting and continued to lend firm support to the
aggressors and their genocidal actions, including the atrocities
of 1999, until President Clinton called a halt - as could have
happened anytime during the previous 25 years.
But that is mere abuse of reality.
It is all too easy to continue, but also pointless. Brooks is
right to insist that we should go beyond the terrible events
before our eyes and reflect about the deeper processes and their
Among these, no task is more urgent than to free ourselves from
the religious doctrines that consign the actual events of
history to oblivion and thereby reinforce our basis for further
"abuses of reality."
Noam Chomsky is emeritus professor of linguistics and philosophy
at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.
Copyright Noam Chomsky
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