American Conservatives, Fearing National Decline, Want A President With Swagger Again. What Could Go Wrong?

American conservatives only react so furiously when President Obama shows a little diplomatic humility and self-deprecation while abroad because it touches a raw nerve – they are consumed by worry about American decline, and project their anger onto minor, intangible issues like bowing protocol, Air Force One tarmac snubs and presidential behaviour which falls short of obnoxious boorishness on the world stage

Many American conservatives have reacted with outrage to this video of President Obama addressing an audience during a recent trip to Laos, holding it up as yet more evidence that the president they so love to hate actually hates America himself.

Addressing a townhall-style meeting while in Laos, Obama is heard to say:

I believe that the United States is and can be a great force for good in the world. But because we are such a big country, we haven’t always had to know about other parts of the world. If you are in Laos, you need to know about Thailand and China and Cambodia because you’re a small country and they’re right next door, and you need to know who they are.

If you’re the United States sometimes you can feel lazy and think, you know, we’re so big we don’t have to really know anything about other people, and that’s part of what I’m trying to change, because this is actually the region that’s going to grow faster than any place else in the world. It has the youngest population and the economy is growing faster any place, and if we aren’t here interacting and learning from you and understanding the culture of the region, then we’ll be left behind, we’ll miss an opportunity, and I don’t want that to happen.

Cue lots of conservatives running around in a tizzy as though Obama had been propping up the bar at some Laotian tavern, regaling the regulars with an endless reel of hilarious anecdotes about how backward and stupid Americans are, while TV cameras recorded every shameful moment.

Here’s Ace of Spades, getting unnecessarily worked up:

It’s almost as if this pampered, do-nothing, unqualified malcontent actively hates America or something.

Someone out there there’s a Yourself in desperate need of a f*cking.

You gotta listen to this. It’s the International Version of his famous Bitter Clingers Song.

Look, this is silly. I know it is inexplicably popular in American conservative circles to rant and rage about how the Evil Muslim Marxist in the White House secretly – or not so secretly – hates America. And to be fair, President Obama hasn’t always done himself many favours in this regard, particularly with that unbearably condescending “bitter clingers” speech which genuinely made it seem that he holds a significant proportion of the country in something between pity and contempt.

But do these pro salt-of-the-earth conservatives think that the likes of Donald Trump or the Republican Party establishment “love America” so much that they are ever going to sit down and break bread with ordinary folk on a regular basis (apart from when seeking their vote)? Do they really think the man who eats his pizza with a knife and fork has any great love for the Common Man? Or that Newt Gingrich or Paul Ryan or Ben Carson spend their time away from Washington D.C. slumming it, eating at Waffle House and watching Nascar?

Besides, what point is Ace trying to make here – that when on foreign soil, the American president must always be belligerently boastful about the United States, even (or especially) to the point where it enrages his hosts? This is like that American exceptionalism argument all over again. It’s perfectly fine to consider America a truly exceptional nation – heck, I certainly do, and I’m not even a citizen yet – but in what possible way does it make good diplomatic sense to stomp around the world lecturing other nations about how inferior they are?

What do conservatives think that Obama should have said in Laos? That the United States of America, to the very last trailer park dweller, is full of the wisest and most sagacious citizens on the face of the earth? That every American, from the richest penthouse-dweller in New York to the poorest cabin owner in Appalachia, is a natural foreign policy expert? That the people of a nation where 54 per cent of citizens do not own a valid passport are nonetheless deeply knowledgeable about the world beyond their own borders?

Is there not some truth to the perfectly benign and logical statement that as a large and powerful country, there is much less incentive for average American citizens to concern themselves with world affairs until they threaten an imminent impact on the homeland? Might it not possibly be the case that the country whose top-rated cable news channel (Fox News) has a segment entitled “Around The World in 80 Seconds” – that’s seconds, not minutes, and typically seconds filled with lightweight fluff about bull-running festivals or cheese-rolling competitions – is more domestically focused than other, smaller and more interconnected countries?

Worrying that the president of the United States is not swaggering around boorishly enough on the world stage is actually evidence of a deeper malaise, a suggestion that those who criticise Obama so hysterically actually realise that America is in some ways a troubled country, and desperately want their leader to kick ass at every diplomatic summit as a way of papering over the cracks.

And that’s what this hissy fit from the American Right is really all about: the gnawing fear of American decline. In some ways this is a legitimate fear – no, America is not going anywhere just yet, despite the best efforts of enemies without and “reformers” within to undo all that is good about the United States. But we are certainly entering an indisputable period of relative American decline, as other countries develop and become wealthier, and new regional powers assert themselves. This is understandably concerning to many people, particularly those of the baby boomer who came of age at a time of unparalleled American power and prosperity, as well as those younger Americans who came of age (as I did) between the shadow of the Cold War receding and the incredible national shock that was 9/11.

It will be harder now for America to pursue her global interests unchallenged. American influence will be questioned and undermined by assertive regional powers and two-bit mischief-makers alike. America will have to become accustomed to harmless but superficially humiliating slights from jumped-up, distasteful regimes looking to impress their domestic audience by standing up to the United States, much as Britain had to endure a reduced standing on the world stage after the Second World War and loss of empire.

But America is not Britain, and her decline will be neither as swift nor as steep. America’s fundamentals remain broadly sound. The economy remains large and dynamic, while America’s military power and reach eclipses that of all other nations several times over. Financial and social problems, though pressing, are surmountable – or at least the damage can be contained for now. America will remain the sole superpower for the foreseeable future, and all those countries who American conservatives see posing a threat in their fevered dreams face internal and external challenges of their own.

And yet the gnawing fear persists, and leads otherwise sensible conservatives to say and demand very silly things in a desperate and unnecessary attempt to prove continued American national virility. But now is the time for smarter American diplomacy, not for the unsubtle sledgehammer approach. Of course America should take pride in the exceptionalism of her founding and history, but this should not translate into a boorish tendency to lecture other countries when leading by example can be far more effective.

That doesn’t mean the United States should stop calling out human rights abuses or democratic infringements in other countries – far from it. But conservatives should stop demanding that the US president, while standing at a lectern at a joint press conference next to a foreign head of state, opens his remarks by detailing all the many ways in which the United States is a far superior country. Is that really too much to ask?

After all, it is less than eight years since we last enjoyed the service of an American president brimming with natural swagger, and the foreign policy consequences were…mixed.

Do we really want to go down that road again?

 

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Happy Flag Day

 

In her own good land here she’s been abused
She’s been burned, dishonored, denied, and refused
And the government for which she stands
Is scandalized throughout the land

And she’s getting threadbare and she’s wearing thin
But she’s in good shape for the shape she’s in
‘Cause she’s been through the fire before
And I believe she can take a whole lot more

So we raise her up every morning, we take her down every night
We don’t let her touch the ground and we fold her up right
On second thought, I do like to brag
‘Cause I’m mighty proud of that Ragged Old Flag.

 

Happy Flag Day to my American readers.

On American Exceptionalism

A word of advice for all of the American pundits and commentators who puffed up their chests in wounded outrage when the president of Russia dared to suggest in a New York Times op-ed that it was dangerous for a country or a people to consider themselves exceptional: look at the image below.

Not very encouraging.
Not very encouraging.

There are really only two possible ways to explain the fact that the US cover of Time Magazine diverged from all of the global editions on this occasion. The first is that the publishers of Time believe their American readership to be so shallow, insular or dumb that a story about important geopolitical developments would deter them from reading the magazine, and that featuring a story about college sports would be less intimidating and off-putting. And the second possibility is that the Bad Man, Vladimir Putin, said some nasty things about America a few days ago and hurt our feelings, so now we have to pretend that he doesn’t exist so that we can get back to our happy place as quickly as possible.

Neither scenario is really screaming “exceptional” at me.

This isn’t a post to denigrate America – clearly, any regular reader of this blog will soon sense my deep admiration of the United States and the belief that it remains, in some very important ways, exceptional in the world. And neither do I think it necessary to list (again) the many flaws of Russia, as they are manifold and frequently in the news, as a counterweight to what I have written here. Most people, given the choice of where to live, would choose the United States over Russia; it doesn’t need to be shouted from the mountaintops.

But I will say this to those “patriotic” Americans who feel slighted when every visiting foreign head of state doesn’t issue a statement declaring America to be superior to their own country, and who get upset when President Obama doesn’t take time out to lecture other nations about how the United States is the role model to be emulated in all matters (because we all know that would be such a successful diplomatic stance):

You sound like a spoiled, coddled toddler, always needing reassurance that you are special and perfect. Frankly, it must be quite embarrassing for your less insecure compatriots to be associated with you. Instead of stomping around the world, hammering out angry op-eds about how the USA is A-OK and super, super exceptional, how about you go out and actually do something exceptional to contribute to that exceptionalism? And if you can’t do that, how about just sitting at home and enjoying the exceptionalism in silence without bothering anyone else? Actions speak louder than words.

Ronald Reagan used the term “a shining city on a hill” to describe his aspiration for America, a really quite moving and wonderful phrase. It evokes a beacon of light, guiding people to America’s example through her very existence and perseverance; her deeds and not just her words.

By contrast, today’s neo-conservatives and others who wrap themselves in the cloak of exaggerated “patriotism” resemble not so much a shining light in the distance, leading others to prosperity, but rather a shrill, incessant car alarm, parked outside the house of every foreign nation, its loud, unceasing warble continually scolding them for not living up to America’s own ideals.

I will let comedian Lewis Black have the last word on this subject:

 

Are we clear, neo-cons? Good.

The World’s Greatest (Un)deliberative Body

This innocuous looking Politico article (http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0212/73417.html) about the planned resignation of Senator Olympia (R-Maine) at the end of her current term began with the following statement:

“In one fell swoop Tuesday afternoon, Olympia Snowe may have not only crushed Mitch McConnell’s dreams of taking over the Senate, she also wrote the epitaph for political moderates in the world’s greatest deliberative body.” [my emphasis in bold]

The world’s greatest deliberative body. This is a phrase used frequently by American political pundits when describing the upper chamber of their legislature, and like many tropes it spews from their mouths and pens without much thought. Which is a shame, because its continued use is starting to make them look ridiculous. The greatest deliberative body in the world? To which any sane person, once successfully divested of the notion that everything in America is automatically the best example of its kind in the world, would surely have to say:

Really?

The writers at Politico are a smart bunch though, so I am sure before making such a bold and boastful proclamation, even as an aside, they carefully studied the British Houses of Parliament, the Israeli Knesset, the German Bundesrat and the legislatures of all the other major democracies, in addition to the histories of those from the ancient empires of Greece and Rome. But let’s just assume for a moment that they didn’t.

Deliberation can be defined as “long and careful consideration or discussion”. This, in turn, would suggest that some form of debate has to take place between opposing viewpoints to either conclusively disprove one and approve the other, or to forge a working compromise between the competing ideals. None of this has happened in the US Senate for a long time now. There are no “debates”. Members from the two political parties (and the few independent members) take turns standing at a lectern and reading pre-prepared speeches full of leadership-approved talking points that no one else in the chamber listens to, before sitting down and making way for someone from the other side of the aisle to do the same thing. Sure, legislation has to pass through the Senate before it can become law, but to suggest that it is deliberated is a woeful overstatement of what happens. No, the deliberation as it still exists now happens in polls and focus-groups before the parties even draw up legislation, and by the cable news and talk radio pundits who drive public opinion before legislation even reaches the house floor. Now, some of this is good (the public engagement part) and some is undoubtedly bad, but one would certainly need rose-tinted spectacles of a very strong prescription indeed to look at the US Senate today and call it a deliberative body at all, let alone the world’s greatest. There are high school debating clubs more worthy of the title.

Add to this failure to properly debate issues the fact that individual Senators can block key governmental appointments on a whim without giving a valid reason (though personal grudges and a desire for lucrative earmarks for their states usually feature quite highly on the list), and the existence of arcane Senate rules requiring a “super-majority” of 60 votes in order to pass anything remotely contentious (surely just as the founding fathers intended), and the greatest deliberative body in the world appears to be on even shakier ground. Let us also not forget that this hallowed institution currently enjoys a 13% approval rating with the American public (http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/01/congress-hits-a-new-low-in-approval-obama-opens-election-year-under-50/).

The larger theme that I want to touch on is the idea of American exceptionalism. I am a firm believer in this idea, but not in the blind, unthinking way that many – especially in today’s Republican party – seem to do. I was born in 1982 and history was taught exceptionally badly in British schools when I was younger, so my knowledge of the mid century is not all that it should be – though I am striving to correct this. But it is my belief that Americans of previous generations made their country great, yes, because they believed in the exceptional nature of their country’s founding and its unique mission in the world, but also because they didn’t just talk about being great all the time. They just quietly got on and did it, with much less boasting and chest-thumping than is often now the case.

A country that can betray its Constitution by passing such laws as the Patriot Act, allow torture to take place under its jurisdiction, or whose presidential candidates receive warm applause by accusing the sitting incumbent of either subverting or “apologising for America” is fundamentally more insecure about itself than has been the case for many years. And, in some ways, so is a country whose political class willingly overlooks the mounting pile of contrary evidence to declare their dysfunctional, hyper-partisan upper house the “greatest deliberative body in the world”.