After thousands of years of bloody wars among contending tribes, regions, and nations, is it finally possible to dispense with the chauvinist ideas of the past?
To judge by President Barack Obama’s televised address on the evening of September 10, it is not. Discussing his plan to “take out” ISIS, the extremist group that has seized control of portions of Syria and Iraq, the president slathered on the high-flying, nationalist rhetoric. “America is better positioned today to seize the future than any other nation on Earth,” he proclaimed. “Our technology companies and universities are unmatched; our manufacturing and auto industries are thriving. Energy independence is closer than it's been in decades. . . . Our businesses are in the longest uninterrupted stretch of job creation in our history. . . . I see the grit and determination and common goodness of the American people every single day -- and that makes me more confident than ever about our country's future.”
This rhetoric, of course, is the lead-in to yet another American-led war in the Middle East. “American leadership is the one constant in an uncertain world,” he stated. “It is America that has the capacity and the will to mobilize the world against terrorists. It is America that has rallied the world against Russian aggression. . . . It is America that helped remove and destroy Syria's declared chemical weapons so they cannot pose a threat to the Syrian people -- or the world -- again. And it is America that is helping Muslim communities around the world not just in the fight against terrorism, but in the fight for opportunity, tolerance, and a more hopeful future.”
America’s greatness, he added, carries “an enduring burden. But as Americans, we welcome our responsibility to lead. From Europe to Asia -- from the far reaches of Africa to war-torn capitals of the Middle East -- we stand for freedom, for justice, for dignity. These are values that have guided our nation since its founding. Tonight, I ask for your support in carrying that leadership forward. I do so as a Commander-in-Chief who could not be prouder of our men and women in uniform.”
Can anyone acquainted with American history really take this nationalist drivel seriously? When contemplating the “freedom,” “justice,” and “dignity” that “have guided our nation since its founding,” is there no recollection of slavery, the seizure of a continent from its native people, lynching, child labor, the flouting of civil liberties, the exploitation of workers, legalized racial discrimination, and the war crimes committed by U.S. troops, most recently in Iraq?
Furthermore, all of this forgotten history is topped off with the ritualized “May God bless our troops, and may God bless the United States of America.” God, apparently, is supposed to ride shotgun for the U.S. military. Or is it really that the U.S. military and the nation are the emissaries of God?
In fairness to the president, it could be argued that he doesn’t actually believe this claptrap, but -- like so many of his predecessors -- simply dons a star-spangled uniform to sell his foreign policy to the American public.
But, in fact, the policy outlined in Obama’s speech is almost as nationalist as the rhetoric. Although the president promised that the United States would participate in a “broad coalition to roll back” ISIS, this would be a coalition that “America will lead.” Yes, there would be “partners” in American efforts “to address broader challenges to international order,” but not all the time -- only “wherever possible.” In short, Americans should get ready for another Coalition of the Willing, led by the United States and, sometimes, limited to it alone.
Ironically, American “leadership” of military operations in the Islamic world has not only done much to spark the creation of ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other extremist groups, but has destabilized and inflamed the entire region. American-led wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya -- coupled with U.S. military meddling in Syria, confrontations with Iran, arming of Israel, and drone strikes in many nations -- have left the region awash with anti-Americanism, religious strife, and weapons (many now directed against the United States).
Against this backdrop, the U.S. government would be well-advised to adopt a very low profile in the Middle East -- and certainly not “lead” yet another war, particularly one against Muslims. This restraint would mesh nicely with the U.S. government’s signature on the UN charter, which prohibits the use of force by any nation except in self-defense.
The current situation provides a particularly appropriate time for the U.S. government to back off from yet another military crusade in the region. After all, ISIS is heartily disliked by a large number of nations. At the moment, it seems likely that the governments of Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Russia, and other lands would welcome the demise of ISIS and support UN action against it. Furthermore, this action need not be military. The United Nations could play an important role in halting the flow of financing and weapons to this terrorist group. The United Nations could restrict the movement of militias and foreign fighters across borders. The United Nations could resume negotiations to end the civil war in Syria. And, particularly in light of the hostility toward the United States that has developed in recent years among many Muslims, the United Nations could demand the disarmament and dismantling of ISIS with far greater effect that would similar action by the U.S. government.
But can a nation shed its belief that it is uniquely qualified to “lead” the world? It can, if its citizens are ready to cast aside their nationalist illusions and recognize their interdependence with the people of other nations.
Lawrence Wittner (http://lawrenceswittner.com) is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is a satirical novel about university corporatization and rebellion, What’s Going On at UAardvark?