Saturday, December 19, 2009

The End of American Exceptionalism -- Mark Levine

At a closed door meeting I just returned from in Istanbul, Palestinian and Israeli scholars and activists, including those deeply involved in the settlement movement, are beginning the hard but necessary work of envisioning a new architecture of identity that would allow Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs to share sovereignty and territory throughout the whole of Israel/Palestine.

These and other uncoordinated attempts to change the basic structure of the system Obama is trying to reinforce represent the first stirrings of a new vocabulary, even language of change.
More of this article below.
While most of the US sat transfixed by the ever-widening saga of Tiger Woods' infidelities, Barack Obama, the US president, gave what might well be remembered as one of the most significant speeches by a US leader in the post-World War Two era.

It is no coincidence that the one should happen in the midst of the other. They may seem utterly disconnected, but both reflect the end of an idea of American exceptionalism that for too long has excused and even enabled the violation of the very ideals it was meant to reflect.

Woods became the richest athlete in history by creating a persona defined by unprecedented talent coupled with steely invincibility and a sense of "fair play" supposedly peculiar to golf - and to the US as well.

Sponsors paid him hundreds of millions of dollars and Americans of all classes and colours flocked to his "brand" in order to identify with such a consummate winner, the epitome of the American dream and its sense of uniqueness and historic mission.

No one cared to explore the realities beneath the dream until it could be spoon fed to them in depoliticised, sensationalised tabloid format.

Brand Tiger

'Brand Tiger' became the epitome of the American dream [GALLO/GETTY]

Few fans, never mind the mainstream media, will look beyond the sex to scrutinise the engine that has powered brand Tiger. Serial infidelity can be safely condemned and ultimately forgiven.

It would be a lot harder to ignore the implications of the relationships with unsavoury corporations that have made Tiger fabulously wealthy when he inevitably returns to professional golf.

But who wants to be reminded of exploited third world labour or toxic oil spills while watching Tiger sink another miracle put?

Like the trans-fats or preservatives in fast foods, thinking about them will only detract from the consumer experience.

And so while Woods has admitted personal mistakes in order to preserve his brand, the underlying rationale and costs of the system that sustains it (and all those who feed off it, from television networks to tabloids) will not be challenged, or even mentioned.

And this is where the Tiger Woods saga intersects with the situation Obama now faces.

Brand America

Like Woods, America's brand is under threat. Unlike Woods, however, Obama cannot be blamed for the problems that so tarnished the country's image in the last decade.

Indeed, as Thorbjorn Jagland, the chairman of the Nobel committee, all but admitted, he was awarded the Peace Prize in good measure because of his attempts to re-brand the US as a less bellicose, more cooperative global leader.

Read through the "Obama Doctrine" outlined in his Nobel speech, however, and the similarities to the strategy behind the rehabilitation of 'Brand Tiger' are clear.

"We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend," the president eloquently intoned.

The reality is that Obama is willing to admit to "mistakes" made by predecessors, but he will not question, or even mention, the larger system that has produced them.

He cannot do so because that would call into question the myth of American exceptionalism that for so long has been used to justify them.

As long as the US is a unique, divinely appointed and essentially just power, its mistakes, however costly, do not threaten the core values that have made it exceptional.

System of global dominance

Obama cannot acknowledge what the rest of the world well understands: that the wars he has inherited, and have now made his own, are the direct result of decades of policies aimed at supporting a system that enabled the global dominance of the US, but at the cost of large-scale violence, oppression and exploitation across the developing world.

Rather than challenge or even scrap the system that produced this violence and the periodic blowback it generates, the Obama doctrine will reinforce it.

Thus the bewildering continuities between Obama's policies and those of George Bush, his predecessor, emerge: the continued presence in Iraq - which is not close to "winding down" as the president described it, the deepening footprint in Afghanistan, the refusal to support treaties banning land mines and biological weapons, the continued use of private mercenaries, the ongoing detainee abuse at Guantanamo and Bagram prisons, and defence spending higher even than his Republican predecessor's.

These are not mistakes; they are inevitable policy choices in a system built on imperial dominance. And like empires past, they are justified by the use of rhetoric and arguments that exalt one's own ideals while misrepresenting and denigrating those against whom the mistakes are committed.

But where Bush administration officials readily admitted America's imperial status, Obama has banished the idea from polite conversation even as he shores up the system.

And so Obama declared in Oslo that when the US fights it does so as the "standard bearer" of morally justifiable violence, engaging only in "just wars" to pacify otherwise unresolvable conflicts.

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